Insurance Battle

Allianz, Axa in battle for digital supremacy

Germany, Bavaria, Diessen am Ammersee, Young doctor using digital tablet
Allianz and Axa want in on that tablet. Source: Picture Alliance

Germans love to sound hip by using English swearwords. So it’s hardly surprising that the new online bank N26 has recently been using the hashtag #nobullshit as its advertising slogan. What is more surprising is that the bank, one of Germany’s few successful financial-technology startups, has a major new backer in the insurance giant Allianz.

Allianz invested €160 million ($197 million) in a recent financing round for N26, hoping that online bank accounts will also lead to new demands for insurance. The investment marked the biggest slice yet from a €430 million pot handed to Allianz X, its venture capital arm. Nazim Cetin, who runs Allianz X, has already spent half of the money on five technology startups and says he’s in talks to get the pot refilled. Company sources say hundreds of millions more are in the works.

One reason for the spending spree: Allianz’s chief European rival Axa is considered a pioneer in the field.  The French insurance giant, run by German national Thomas Buberl, has its own €450-million venture capital fund and has set a separate goal of spending about €200 million per year on smaller acquisitions. Axa spent €125 million in January to acquire Maestro Health, a US consulting firm and broker for health insurance. “We’re interested above all in the talent that we acquire through this,” said Guillaume Borie, Axa’s chief innovation officer.

But for Europe’s two largest insurance companies, there’s a broader goal than just bringing in fresh talent. Like the carmakers’ battles with Tesla and Uber, or banks adjusting to Apple Pay and PayPal, the aim of these VC funds is to stop the insurance market from being taken over by new, technology-savvy players. “The established players are sending a clear message: By investing big, they want to keep control over technological developments,” said Carsten Hoffmann, a digital expert at Willis Towers Watson.

Axa is targeting “early stage startups,” whereas Allianz focuses on startups with a proven business model.

Critics would say it’s about time. Last year, about $2.3 billion was invested worldwide in digital insurance companies known as “insurtechs.” That’s up 36 percent from the year before, according to the consultants Willis Towers Watson. Allianz’s expected new spending spree should mean the total will increase again this year.

Health insurance is one of the biggest battlefields between these two European giants. Allianz CEO Oliver Bäte has mulled a form of online certification for doctors as well as a navigation helper for customers to find their way through health systems and shine a light on costs. Axa, meanwhile, is developing telemedicine programs that allow consultations via laptop, tablet or cell phone.

Such in-house projects can be easier than integrating a new startup. Axa, for instance, is now merging the US health insurance broker Maestro Health, with some 300 employees, with Axa’s rather arcane structure of 165,000 employees. It’s a tricky balance, Mr. Borie says, between keeping Maestro Health’s own culture (and advanced tech) without permanently setting up a “collection of different projects” within Axa.

The other big challenge – just when do you jump in? Mr. Borie says Axa’s VC fund is targeting “early stage startups” that can offer a “disruptive model” for Axa’s own businesses. By contrast, Mr. Cetin at Munich-based Allianz has shifted the focus towards mature startups since becoming the sole head of its VC division in November. He’s looking for startups that already have a proven business model, one that is of strategic interest for Allianz’s core operations. In other words: The German insurer means business, no bull shit.

Thomas Hanke is Handelsblatt’s chief correspondent in Paris. Christian Schnell is a Handelsblatt correspondent based in Munich. To contact the authors: hanke@handelsblatt.com and schnell@handelsblatt.com

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