AXA Engineering Lab’s mission is to invent non-stop, every day. In the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s high-tech campus, a versatile team of engineers constantly tests today’s and tomorrow’s innovations to guide AXA toward a successful digital transformation. Straight from this crossroads of global technological breakthroughs, AXA Tech’s Engineering Lab director Alexandre Delidais shares his recipe for innovating on a daily basis.
If our offices are cluttered with drones, sensors, augmented reality headsets and all sorts of other innovative objects, it’s not (only) because we love them. It’s because we work on both software and hardware to develop our applications. Hardware is physical equipment, the various devices that we use more and more in all our projects. It is becoming omnipresent for making measurements, taking pictures and reacting to events. These connected objects and the information they provide are gaining prominence as tools that are not only essential to our day-to-day work but also an integral part of our customers’ habits and that help us best meet their everyday needs. We also take many other technologies into consideration, such as artificial intelligence, imaging and blockchains. We need to be proficient in all these tools, which we use in our projects.
By definition, insurance touches on every aspect of life and we have to be constantly aware of all innovations, everywhere. We need to know how they work, understand how they can help us, assess their maturity, and identify the limits of their use at AXA. Technology watch is therefore an essential part of our job.
We then order the devices and technologies we want, so we can test them, tweak them to meet our customers’ needs, and re-test and re-tweak until we have a worthwhile and reliable tool to present to the Group. All of that is only 20% of what we do. The rest of our time is devoted to the business. AXA regularly informs us of specific needs and uses our services to come up with appropriate solutions. When this happens, we leverage our existing research and expertise to design applications from A to Z that meet the customer’s every requirement, while bearing in mind the following four criteria: innovate, be realistic, create value and make an impact.
Let’s take a simple example. You may have heard of Amazon Dash Button, a little device that you can install anywhere in your home and that is connected to an Amazon account via Wi-Fi. When you press the button, you instantly place an order for a product or basket of products. Put one next to the fridge to keep it well-stocked with food staples, another on the washing machine to replenish your detergent and a third one in your office to manage essential supplies.
It would be pointless to reinvent this simple, ingenious product, but we can adapt it to our customers’ needs. Just imagine how simple it would be if, when one of your appliances breaks down, all you had to do was press this type of button to inform your insurer’s customer assistance department, which would then identify and contact the appropriate repair person and help you schedule an appointment? You would no longer need to search for a phone number or policy number. Our team developed such a solution, which is currently being tested in-house at AXA. Adapting a product like this to our customers’ requirements in terms of price, reliability, appearance and implementation is no small task. You must test, compare, and try and also search, sometimes fail, and start over if necessary. That’s what we do, every day.
This “test and learn” method is actually another one of our secrets. Basically, it means letting the team make mistakes. Fear of failure can paralyze certain people, especially in a corporate setting. But if you don’t want to fail, then you won’t take risks, and if you don't take risks, then of course you can’t innovate.
To make progress, it's best to learn through experience. To build and improve tomorrow’s solutions, best to explore all the possibilities with no preconceived ideas. To always bounce back. Plus, it brings the added bonus of creating a climate of mutual trust, which allows us to optimize our different skills sets and complementarity.
Yet another considerable advantage is our location – an ideal place for the world's most curious minds. From the Lausanne train station in Switzerland, head west. After a brief ten-minute drive, on the right you’ll see several buildings: snake-like shapes, sleek cubes, a canopy. Welcome to École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) with its 10,000 students, 28 different institutes, more than 350 laboratories and 112 nationalities (named the world’s most international university in 2015). This school, which consistently ranks among Europe’s top five technological universities, earned first place in the Times Higher Education Under 50 Ranking. The school’s Innovation Park is home to 160 businesses, including 120 startups and the R&D units of some twenty international corporations. Close to 2,000 people work there. A mix of so many backgrounds, needs and individuals who are passionate about innovation and R&D creates an ecosystem that necessarily fosters interactions, dialogue and sharing. Every person you meet here is dedicated to a fascinating field, has something to teach us or show us and is interested in others, in what we do and in the challenges we face. This is the DNA of the school and of the people who come here to work, learn or teach. And this amazing setting is where our job is to invent, discover and test the innovations that will change the lives of AXA customers and teams.
You can’t obtain innovation through sheer willpower. But you can cultivate an innovation-oriented mindset. When you have a team, like I do, of a dozen young people from all over, most with engineering degrees, you might think that the hardest part is done, because these people have an innate sense of adventure and initiative. But that’s not enough. Here at AXA Engineering Lab, it is important to encourage these qualities, but also to identify our personal obstacles or obsessive habits and to keep a cool head amid all the buzz. I advise our team to resist the temptation to invent just for the sake of inventing and the excitement it brings. That’s why I had the entire lab adopt one of my personal mottoes: “Let’s not reinvent the wheel.”
What does that mean? Paradoxically, it means that to innovate in a large company you must fight the desire to start anew or choose a path with a less obvious impact. It is much more worthwhile – in the senses of efficient and interesting – to watch what is already being invented here and there and then to improve it, building on the existing foundation. This is how we can keep our eyes focused on cutting-edge technologies and, with a little perseverance, find the magic formula that will improve a given system, service, product or tool. Ultimately, we are not a research lab. We’re here to resolve problems in a pragmatic way, and thereby contribute to AXA's transformation and ongoing leadership. Through a relatively bottom-up approach, we help enhance our collective knowledge of new technologies and new uses.
For decades, everything here has been organized so that the minds and energies concentrated there can meet, understand and help one another. A chance meeting at the cafeteria, for instance, can lift you out of a rut you thought you’d be stuck in forever. One day when we were wandering around campus, getting a breath of fresh air, we met Pix4D, a startup that develops software capable of automatically generating digital 3D maps using pictures taken by drones. They were performing outdoor tests, and for us it was a quick and friendly way to learn about their solution. We discovered that they are pioneers in their field (incidentally, AXA had asked our team to think about how to use drones, in particular for claims assessments).
Sometimes, future team members or partners just knock right on our door, like Alexander Petric, a young cryptography whiz from the German-speaking region of Switzerland and a former EPFL student. He had just joined a startup called Inpher.io founded by one of his professors. They design technology that can be used to search encrypted data in real time without decrypting it first. That might not seem like a very big deal, but an innovation like that could be a major breakthrough for a company like AXA, which must guarantee confidentiality at all times when using the data it collects. It’s a win-win situation. We get instant hands-on experience, and they get the chance to deliver their product to a potential customer with international reach and test their ideas on practical examples and actual industry requirements.
To do our job, we must be constantly on the alert and willing to meet new people, share ideas, experiment and discover – how lucky is that? And believe me, if you have an inquisitive mind and are passionate about the future and technology, then come to Lausanne and enjoy the beautiful EPFL campus with us. I don’t really like to make promises, but I think this is one I can keep: for the child inside you, jaw-dropping wonder definitely awaits around every bend of this modern temple where tomorrow’s world is being developed today through private, public, regional and international cooperation.
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