In May, I had the opportunity to participate as a judge at a hackathon event that Nationwide held at the Plug & Play Tech Center in Sunnyvale, Calif. The event convened nearly 30 teams who were given one night to come up with a demonstration of a digital product that met one of three challenges:

  • Connected business: Create a solution that integrated IoT and the corresponding data that can help small and mid-sized business owners be more efficient.
  • Buying your first home: Create a product that will help millennials prepare for buying their first home.
  • A Community on Your Side: A solution that brings Nationwide members in the same community together during a catastrophe to help each other out.

Each challenge had an individual winner awarded $5,000, then an overall best-in-show champion got $10,000. All four winners also get the change to pitch their idea to Nationwide's executive team.

I was intrigued by the chance to see how external digital workers view the insurance industry. Some particularly interesting insight came as I sat in the audience while Nationwide representatives presented the challenges. When you're in the industry, it's easy to take for granted your knowledge of how insurance actually works. Many of the follow up questions posted by participants showed how much of a black box the sector really is to most people -- and while all were eager to get to work, it is challenging to truly set people up for success in a short time given the complexities of insurance.

But, Nationwide was looking for some out-of-the-box ideas. "We are looking for innovation to create value for our members in ways they haven’t even imagined," says Seth Flory, VP of technology innovation and strategy for Nationwide and a member of the judging panel. (In addition to Seth and myself, the other judges were: Diane Schrader, founder and CEO of ThirdACT; Erik Ross, head of Nationwide Ventures; and Jack Hemion, solutions architect, Amazon Web Services).

The best-in-show team, for example, "created a digital platform business, enabled by technology, that helped someone begin the process of growing home equity that might make a lot of sense to these potential homeowners," Flory adds. "The vision for a non-traditional approach that addressed the realities of a customer’s current situation, designed and partially built in a day definitely surprised the Nationwide team."

I can attest to the strength of their solution. As a recent Millennial homebuyer myself, my experience was very different from my parents' -- but much of the advice I received on the way up was anchored in older realities. The team's choices did a lot to speak to the new reality homebuyers are dealing with -- especially in hotter markets like Silicon Valley.

Ultimately, I came away from the event with three key takeaways:

1. The environment actually does matter when trying to encourage innovation. As I considered the challenges, I found myself coming up with some ideas of my own, even more than I do when reporting on new companies. Coming into the room with a mindset that something big and new could be brewing under our noses helped broaden my perspective.

2. Good ideas can always find a home. One of my favorite solutions that didn't place was a gamified approach to helping young people understand homeownership. While the prompt was more geared toward functional and potentially revenue-generating opportunities, I thought the the game had a lot of potential to fit in marketing strategies.

3. Thinking big pays off -- if you understand your own product. One of the most remarkable wrinkles to the event was how closely another team got to the best-in-show idea. Both teams understood that sticker-shock was discouraging younger buyers. But only one was able to explain how their solution would take one of those discouraged potential buyers and walk them along a path to homeownership. It shows the importance of anticipating questions that potential investors or partners will have about a solution.

Overall, Nationwide considered the program a success -- Ross says the company will continue to run both internal and external hackathon events with a variety of partners.

And I got a little look into a kernel of the insurtech movement. It shows just how much more innovation potential is out there to transform the industry.