In 2018, we started working with American Family Insurance (AmFam). Their innovation team was taking a true portfolio approach to growing beyond their core (and still is!) They had built and launched internal startups (and were building new ones.) They were investing in startups very successfully through their venture fund (and continue to do so.) And when we connected with them they were doing a deep dive into the startup studio model to understand how they could support the building and scaling of ventures outside of their company. This is what we call startup co-creation or spinning out startups. Music to our ears.
We fundamentally believe that big companies need to do “a little bit of everything” in order to find the winning opportunities that can help them uncover their next billion dollar business.
Big companies need to build ventures in-house that behave more like startups. They need to partner with startups and focus on pilots and commercialization. They need to invest. They need to acquire companies and get really good at integrating them in. And they need to support startup creation on the outside as well. Getting the balance right between all of these options isn’t easy, but at Highline Beta we absolutely believe it’s possible. We’ve seen it in action.
Our initial work with AmFam was a true collaboration.
Our teams came together to explore a wide variety of opportunities in the insurance space, with a fairly open-ended starting point around the use of blockchain in insurance and trends emerging in that market. We explored all kinds of things from parametric weather insurance, to CAT bonds (catastrophe bonds), to small business insurance and more. Eventually we landed in reinsurance.
A lot of our work starts in this open-ended, divergent place.
There’s usually a prompt of some kind, but ideally a willingness to first go broad, before we find the thing that really matters. Going broad allows everyone to check their biases at the door, and break away from the curse of knowledge (people within an industry that know so much they can’t see opportunities in a different light.) Sometimes you find the “aha!” opportunity in a couple months, sometimes it takes longer. You can’t perfectly predict or time these things. The goal isn’t to “just build something and ship it” for the sake of it. The goal is to find the truth, uncover real user/customer pain and make sure the market is interesting and strategic enough. This isn’t a project with a fixed start and end date and super clearly defined deliverables that you can guarantee come out the other side.
We’re building companies. And that can be a messy, winding road.
AmFam understood this. They had built a number of internal ventures and were building more. Several of the key stakeholders had startup experience. And we knew in this case that our goal was to find something that we could spin out and build externally.
There are a ton of valuable assets locked up within large companies.
It took some time, with a few “dead ends” along the way, but when we landed in reinsurance, through experts at AmFam and their network, we knew we had something. This is why we believe so strongly in our approach. There are a ton of valuable assets locked up within large companies. It can take time to find them, but once you do, you can build something truly significant. In our case, we found the right experts inside AmFam that were working in reinsurance. Of course they also had incredible networks outside AmFam (that would have been almost impossible for us to reach otherwise) and suddenly we had potential customers on board. If you’ve ever tried to sell an enterprise customer — that first one — you know how hard it is. We had that basically from the get-go.
You can’t build a startup without a great team.
So as we were uncovering real opportunity within the reinsurance space, we recruited Greg Boutin as Co-Founder & CEO. With his enterprise and consulting background, he was a perfect fit to take on a difficult-to-navigate market. We surrounded Greg with a small team of Highline Beta people, and provided him the resources to start to build out his own founding team. And in fact, one of our employees, Harry Mills, spun out with Greg. He’s now the Head of Technology and Infrastructure at Relay. This speaks to the entrepreneurial nature of the Highline Beta team, and our vision of supporting startups that we co-create with corporates in the best ways possible. Ultimately, Greg hit the ground running, building a relationship with the key AmFam stakeholders and shaping the future of the business.
And without walking you through the entire journey, let’s cut to the chase — a startup emerges from all of this work, Relay, with a great team, solid industry backing, customers and now funding. Recently the company announced that it had raised $3M from NFP Ventures, American Family, Highline Beta, Plug & Play, and key angel investors.
It’s a great way to put an end to one part of the journey (“the making of a startup co-creation!”) and kicking off the next part (“the scaling of a startup!”) Of course there’s a ton of work ahead for Relay and the team. They’re in the first couple of chapters of a story that started when AmFam and Highline Beta got together and said, “Let’s make a startup.”
We’re excited to see where Greg and the Relay team take it from here.
For more Relay, here is the link to our Case Study: How American Family Insurance partnered with Highline Beta to build Relay Platform