Hackathon winners laud diversity, ingenuity for Alexa-driven customer service technology

BY Joe Cooper
Special to the Hartford Business Journal

Photos | Contributed
Photos | Contributed
Members of the InsurGuru team recently won $5,000 after being named the top startup at the Digital Health Hackathon in Hartford. The team includes (from left): Craig Mitchell, Jacques Caspi, Rajasekar Narayanan and Corey Harris Jr.
Startup innovators Corey Harris Jr. and Rajasekar Narayanan are crediting diversity and authenticity for their team's recent victory at a digital health hackathon in Hartford.

Harris, 26, and Narayanan, 27, presented their startup idea at the Digital Health Hackathon Weekend on Feb. 11 and received top honors and a $5,000 prize over seven teams in the competition sponsored by Cigna.

Known as InsurGuru, Harris and Narayanan alongside teammates Jacques Caspi and Craig Mitchell unveiled a prototype of their product, which uses Amazon's Alexa-driven technology to answer questions through a web portal about what is covered under individual health insurance policies.

"We are a very diverse team," Narayanan said. "We brought in different skill sets and I think that was our biggest strength."

Harris and Narayanan met only recently at Travelers Cos. in Hartford, when they were assigned to the same project.

Narayanan, a senior business analyst for Accenture, is contracted by Travelers and works in the same building as Harris, an information technology specialist at the property and casualty insurer.

The pair discovered they shared similar interests and thought processes, and brought their amity to happy hour to further discuss work, diversity and politics.

"We are trying to build morale outside of work and knew we would work well together," Harris said. "We found a lot of common interests and synergy outside of work."

Harris, a Baltimore native, moved to Hartford in Jan. 2015 after graduating from the University of Maryland. Narayanan is an immigrant from India who moved to Hartford in March 2016.

They enrolled as a team in February's 48-hour hackathon competition hosted by Upward Hartford and InsurTech Hartford — a startup competition featuring entrepreneurs, regional developers, designers, mentors and four judges.

The competition challenged participants to design and present their digital health business ideas over a few days. Participants came from universities, hospitals, and the insurance sector.

Narayanan says he always wanted to participate in a hackathon and considered a competition in his new hometown an ideal opportunity.

He pitched the idea for InsurGuru on the hackathon's opening night. Narayanan and Harris said the concept stemmed from the founders' troubles predicting their own health insurance costs.

Narayanan in November underwent surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, and Harris recently had two ruptured patella tendon surgeries. Both said it has been difficult estimating insurance costs with health providers charging different amounts for surgeries, prescription refills and physical therapy.

"I still keep receiving bills that I owe," Narayanan said. "Being a business analyst in insurance, I still find it hard to understand the charges that I owe the hospital and the other services that occurred during my surgery."

An aspiring teacher, he said he named the product InsurGuru because it serves as a mentor or expert for handling insurance-related questions.

Coming together

While Harris and Rajasekar generated the idea for InsurGuru, event organizers assigned Caspi and Mitchell to their team as the hackathon required four-member groups.

Caspi, an immigrant from Mexico studying business analytics at the University of Connecticut, offered his digital expertise while Mitchell, an IBM employee, helped with revenue strategies and evaluated the market competition.

"They helped us complete the entire puzzle," Rajasekar said of the new members. "It was just magical how we slowly built it up."

Narayanan suggested exploring ways to improve transparency in the health insurance industry, and customer service operations surfaced as their focus.

Health insurance companies, Harris said, spend millions annually on customer service operations.

The team found that Colorado's state insurance exchange adopted a $21.1 million budget for customer service calls in fiscal year 2016-17. On average, it costs the exchange $2 for every minute a customer service rep is on the phone handling questions regarding individual insurance policies.

After identifying the market inefficiency, the InsurGuru team developed a customer service web portal for insurance companies allowing users to ask questions about which X-rays, appointments, or surgeries are covered under their plans.

The prototype uses Amazon's Alexa-controlled technology — similar to Siri and Google Home — to answer questions about insurance coverage. Harris said the technology provides an opportunity for businesses to reduce call center overhead costs.

Market value

Subha Ramiah, Cigna's senior director of innovation research and development, served on a panel of judges at the hackathon who determined InsurGuru had the competition's top product.

Ramiah said health insurance plans are "very complicated" and difficult for customers to understand when projecting costs. He said the InsurGuru team was exceptional in proving the product's market value during live demonstrations.

Health insurance companies also see the value in emerging natural language tools, he said, adding that businesses have started exploring technology comparable to InsurGuru.

"Our customers are demanding retail-like customer service like Best Buy, Target and others," Ramiah said. "We see the validity of the InsurGuru idea."

Harris and Rajasekar are moving forward with InsurGuru and are considering roles for Caspi and Mitchell as they continue learning about the insurance market and the need for this technology.

A timeline for launching InsurGuru is premature, Harris said. For now, the owners are still excited about their first place selection at the hackathon, and the accomplishments made by the diverse group over a short period.

"I think a lot of companies overlook the power of diversity," Harris said. "You would be surprised with how much productivity that you get with the most diverse groups."