China’s first online-only insurance agency Zhong An, draws spotlight on ‘insurtech’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2017, 6:07pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2017, 10:59pm

Hong Kong’s potential US$1.5 billion initial public offer by Zhong An Online Property & Casualty Insurance, China’s first online-only insurer, shows that the buzz is finally, belatedly forming in Asia around the technology of insurance sector, or “insurtech”.

The growing field is rapidly becoming the new focus of venture capital funds, according to Qiming Venture Partners’ Wu Jing.

“Since 2016 ... investments made into insurtech companies has surpassed traditional fintech [companies],” Wu said on Tuesday during the 2017 Rise conference in Hong Kong.

She added that the trend was just getting underway in Asia-Pacific.

“Insurtech is still starting. Lending tech still takes the larger share of the money.”

Wayne Xu, chief operating officer of Zhong An, also speaking at the Rise conference on Tuesday, said

China was cultivating the right conditions for “insurtech to grow up”.

He said the Shanghai-based company is targeting a Hong Kong listing as early as the end of 2017. The company launched in 2013 with financial backing from Alibaba and Tencent.

Xu said the company will seek to leverage artificial intelligence technology and big data to bolster services.

He noted that ZhongAn ranks as the largest insurer in China in terms of customers and policies sold.

Since its inception in October 2013 through the end of 2016, ZhongAn sold 7.2 billion insurance products and served more than 492 million customers.

Among its policy coverage are scenarios involving things like the loss of a smartphone and losses arising from flight delays.

“In China, there still isn’t a back office connection between insurance companies and hospitals. So we still have to process a lot of hard copies,” he said. “We have been using machine learning to do fraud detection, to process hard copies and digitise information.”

He noted there were unique challenges to prevent fraud for an insurance company that never meets its clients face to face.

“We have everything online. So we know our customers based on image recognition for better fraud testing and for better user control,” he said.

Frank Desvignes, founder of the AXA Lab Asia at AXA, said artificial intelligence is enabling insurers to tap into opportunities presented by the sharing economy.

He added that artificial intelligence also would enable insurers to better prepare for the costs related to underwriting in situations with limited historical data.

“If you don’t own your car or your car is autonomous, [artificial intelligence can help us to understand] what are the risks that we need to cover and how we can help you,” he said.

Meanwhile, Wu said insurtech start-ups face a stringent regulatory environment as online insurance licenses are difficult to obtain.

“For insurtech, there are stricter regulations from the beginning,” Wu said, referring to regulations that have tightened on the financial industry start-ups in recent years.

If ZhongAn’s IPO application goes through, it will become the first financial technology company to be listed in Hong Kong.