LumenLab CEO and MetLife Asia’s chief innovation officer Zia Zaman tells Ronan McCaughey how LumenLab, which launched in July 2015, is the first-of-its-kind disruptive innovation centre for MetLife and the global life insurance industry as a whole. By leveraging tried-and-tested innovation processes, LumenLab aims to build businesses that help Asian consumers achieve richer and more fulfilling lives.

Life Insurance International (LII): Can you please explain the rationale for establishing LumenLab and its objectives?

Zia Zaman (ZZ): This whole effort is the brainchild of Chris Townsend who is the President of MetLife in Asia. Chris is leading the efforts to differentiate MetLife’s business in Asia through four pillars: data and analytics, health, digital and innovation.

Chris recognized that life insurance companies need to undergo business and cultural transformation to maintain a long-term competitive edge. He posits that the Asian markets are ripe for disruption due to a combination of technological, societal, and customer-led factors. Therefore, investing in disruption innovation to come up with a completely different set of business models might be timely.

He did his homework and thought about what it is going to take to build a world-class innovation centre and practice within a Fortune 40 life and health insurance company.

Many industries are just thinking how do we extend yesterday’s business models to solve tomorrow’s business problems. This kind of linear thinking doesn’t suffice; true business model innovation will rewrite our industry.

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The evidence is right in front of our eyes. There exists a gap between our consumers’ expectations and what we [the industry] are providing; and that gap is just getting wider and wider every year.

The reason is that consumers’ expectations are rising as "gold standard" brands enter into rich meaningful dialogues with consumers that are just getting more and more sophisticated every day. For example, if we look at the experience with Amazon or Netflix, their ability to create unique personalized experiences is fantastic.

Let’s compare that with a typical financial services player, which says ‘here are our products. Contact us’.

As we look at that expectation scale, [our industry] might end up being vulnerable to other companies and other brands that understand and engage with our customers more frequently about the things that really matter to them.

Disruptive innovation refers to actual business model change. 70% of the innovations that happen in our industry are incremental, low hanging fruit; and things we ought to be doing.

Research shows you don’t actually generate a lot of value from doing what everyone else is doing. You just simply keep up.
A disruptive business model serves the unserved or underserved in a way that is just good enough and displaces incumbents through value, convenience, cost or simplicity.

LII: Has LumenLab already developed any new insights that have changed products or services already at MetLife?

ZZ: We allow people to be immersed in the problems that we identify. And some of these are proprietary insights so we cannot share them. But as you get deeper into an environment, it ceases to be about the problem and becomes about the intransigent problems those customers are facing.

For example, what are the pains they are feeling? And perhaps most importantly, what is their willingness to pay for a solution that decimates that problem?

The one example I do cite is that we kept looking at the aging population in Japan and assumed a priori that the problem is ‘what should they do with their money at 65?’ When we really got down to the core insight, we realised those people don’t want to be a burden to their family. This is the real job to be done.

It seems so simple when you get to it. So, some of the products we are working on around dementia zero in on that issue. If you can figure out a way of making someone not feel a burden on their family, it is monetisable. Not by the insurance company, but as its own business, which is our raison d’être.

LII: Does your approach to innovation allow for failure?

ZZ: We are believers in a portfolio approach and are prepared for lots of failures, each of which teaches us something new.

LII: Was Asia chosen for a particular region for the launch of LumenLab? Also, what do you and LumenLab aim in achieve over the next five years?

ZZ: Asia was chosen for a specific reason. The "Asiafication of demand" is occurring across every industry. Also, Singapore offers a strong public-private partnership model and is a magnet for global innovation talent

I also want to talk about the space. The space for [a project like LumenLabs] also has to be sequestered and dedicated. For example, not only do we have people who are dedicated from Lumen Lab, we take people from MetLife Japan, whom we call astronauts, and we bring them to Singapore for 13 weeks to work on their project.

My purpose is to introduce these people to heretic thinking and then either let them launch or return to their business-as-usual.

LII: Do you expect to see new entrants in the life insurance industry in the coming years?

ZZ: Yes. It will take a few years before these new entrants make their mark. What worries me is our industry has a blind spot.


Fact file on LumenLab

LumenLab launched in July 2015. The 7,800 square feet facility at The Metropolis, Buona Vista, in Singapore houses a working space and business incubator staffed with dedicated innovation experts, many of whom have a background in startups or come from outside the insurance industry.

Speaking at its launch, Christopher Townsend, president, Asia of MetLife, said Singapore was selected ahead of other countries in the Asia region as the location for LumenLab, chiefly because of its flourishing business ecosystem, strong public-private partnership framework, progressive financial regulatory environment, and its ability to attract creative and innovative talent in the country.


Zia Zaman’s biography

Zia Zaman heads up the innovation efforts for MetLife in Asia. In his role as CEO of LumenLab, MetLife’s first disruptive innovation centre, Zia is tasked with leading his team to test and build disruptive new businesses and business models, and implement cultural change within MetLife. He is a member of the Asia Leadership Group.

Previously, Zia served in two roles at Singtel. Most recently he was the chief strategy officer and VP of Emerging Businesses for Singtel’s Group Enterprise. He also co-led the acquisition of US-based Amobee, jumpstarting Singtel’s entry into the mobile advertising market.

Prior to arriving in Singapore, Zia was the chief strategy officer for LG Electronics North America. At FAST, as CMO, Zia was instrumental in positioning FAST as a leader in the enterprise search space and redefining its market strategy, vision, and go-to-market activities, culminating in a successful exit via a US$1.2bn acquisition by Microsoft.

At Gartner, a research and advisory firm known for its "crystal ball", Zia ran the North American strategy consulting practice. Early in his career, Zia was part of the M&A team at Sun Microsystems, and led or co-led eight acquisitions and six venture investments. Zia has occupied board positions in a handful of tech start-ups and previously sat on the board of Viking.

Zia holds a MBA from Stanford’s GSB. He also has an undergraduate bachelor’s of science degree from MIT in electrical engineering and a master’s of science degree in operations research, also from MIT.