The AXA.COM team editor

Start-in: how to innovate with 161,000 employees in 59 countries

A global program aimed at accelerating internal innovation and fostering intrapreneurship, Start-in, now in its second edition, invites employees to create and imagine new solutions for strategic business priorities. A New Way To Work
Nov 9, 2015

Sitting in the middle of a large, brightly-lit open space, a twenty-something developer opens up her laptop to write a bit of code. Next to her, a designer finishes sketching out an interface on a tablet. Sun streams in from the windows, the atmosphere is focused but relaxed. Nearby, a couple of programmers tinker with a small, friendly-looking white and blue robot, next to a door where, just outside, an engineer and her teammates are flying a small drone around the courtyard.

A typical day at a Silicon Valley startup, right?

Except we’re in central Paris, at a hackathon held by AXA, part of Start-in, a larger in-house “participative innovation” program. Here, hundreds of innovative ideas on how to serve customers better (815 just this year) come in from thousands of AXA employees around the world. These are then examined by top management and digital business experts. Several are then selected for development for this four-day hackathon.

The ultimate goal? Champion these ideas, implement them, and get them to market, and to customers, simply and quickly, across the globe. And, thanks to Start-in, the creators of these tools, the “inside” disruptors, or intrapreneurs, have the chance to take their project from idea to implementation ideally within a year of conception.

One of these unique intrapreneurs is Lorenz Hänggi. Months before the hackathon, while at AXA Winterthur in Switzerland, he had an idea for an innovative, simple tool for customers to determine whether specific personal items are covered by their insurance policy or not.

For most people, finding out if something is covered isn’t exactly an easy, or intuitive, task. Usually it means checking the fine print of a policy and/or sifting through detailed clauses, exclusions and other necessary legally-binding information.

Lorenz’s idea essentially short-circuited all that. One day he imagined an easier way for customers to check their coverage: they would simply snap a picture of any item with a dedicated app on their smartphone and, thanks to some crafty image recognition, immediately find out whether it would be covered by their policy or not in the case of a claim.

Unbeknownst to Lorenz, just a few hundred kilometers away across the border in France, a similar idea was being hatched by another AXA employee, Grégoire Doré. Grégoire’s idea was more about creating the insurance policy itself, rather than addressing coverage, but the two ideas were remarkably similar.

Grégoire imagined a feature whereby customers would take a snapshot of an asset (i.e.. a car, a bicycle, etc.) they would like insured. Then, via a unique blend of image recognition software and regular actuarial activity a customized policy would be created for them to cover that exact asset.

Needless to say, both ideas seemed pretty great to the AXA executives tasked with choosing the right one. But which idea should be selected for development?

It was a difficult decision to make.

So they didn’t make it.

They chose both ideas, bringing Lorenz and Grégoire together to work on a single Start-in project that would allow them to take their ideas and build concrete, workable tech that benefits customers’ lives.

In the months after the initial pitch, Lorenz and Grégoire hammered out a concrete plan for implementing their combined product idea, despite not being even in the same country. They worked together tirelessly by phone, email and via online tools, even deciding on the name for their project, AXA Glass, via chat, while one of them was on vacation.

This fluid approach helped them get the project ready in time for the final phase: the development of a prototype alongside AXA’s Digital Agency, an internal organization that uses the “Lean Startup” approach, UX design, minimum product development, growth hacking and other innovative tools to create products that bring value to customers and help solve their “pain points”.

And solve they did, as AXA Glass went on to be one of the four projects selected and awarded at the end of the inaugural Start-in edition.

With buy-in from top execs (Lorenz received his award directly from AXA CEO Henri de Castries), Start-in is set to innovate for today and tomorrow. And by inviting employees from any of AXA’s offices in 59 countries around the world to “pitch” their ideas, it fosters a climate of creativity and innovation, regardless of employee level, seniority or location.

This has resulted in 10,800 people in 40 countries participating in the 2014 inaugural edition, with a total of 354 ideas.

And the 2015 edition saw a huge jump in participation, with 22,136 employees from 45 countries contributing a whopping total of 815 ideas, more than double the initial response.

But what’s even more important than the numbers is the sharing effect of the initiative, as employees from around the world become accustomed to letting their voices be heard, taking charge of their creativity and encouraging others to offer up their own innovative ideas. All in an environment that is more collaborative than competitive, and is geared to getting things done.

For example, AXA Glass has currently entered the development phase, including an iOS prototype that has been through two user tests - one in France and one in Switzerland (with 80% of interviewees stating they would use the app immediately) - and a 2016 launch is currently in the works (check this space for an update early next year).

In summarizing the first-ever hackathon, Lorenz reminisced about the prototyping session, “it was great… four groups all working together, very close, we got to know each other, including the group from Japan”. He went on to have dinner with his Japanese colleagues at an impromptu barbecue set up by one of the French team members at their Paris home.

And, thanks to Start-in, that same Japanese team went on to create an innovative app called "Are You Ok?", a tool that takes care of and reassures seniors and their family on a daily basis.

It’s just been launched on the Japanese market and will also be the subject of another Start-in article.