Bob Hilborn, Head of North American Operations at Flamingo Ai, spoke with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manger Nan Price about positioning the global artificial intelligence (AI) InsurTech startup in Hartford.
Flamingo Ai, provider of machine learning-based virtual assistants for financial services companies, was launched five years ago in Sydney, Australia, with a mission to improve customer experience using AI and machine learning. The company recently moved its U.S. headquarters to the Upward Hartford building in downtown Hartford.
NAN PRICE: Why did Flamingo Ai decide to have a presence in Hartford? Is it because Hartford is The Insurance Capital of The World?
BOB HILBORN: Well, it certainly has a lot of insurance companies! But, yes, the first years of the company’s sales efforts were mostly focused in and around the Asia-Pacific region. We had success down there, but we knew we needed to have a U.S. presence.
Flamingo Ai initially established our U.S. headquarters in New York City in late 2016. But we eventually realized that, as a young InsurTech company, we should be where our target customers are.
I happen to have been born and raised in West Hartford, but that’s not why we’re in Hartford. We’re in Hartford because of what you said: Hartford is a very influential financial hub. Everybody we need to talk with is right here. And many of them are right here in this building.
We’ve had a lot of success in the insurance arena, working with such companies as Nationwide, MetLife, Liberty Mutual, and Chubb. We just won a great contract with HSBC to use our Virtual Knowledge Retrieval technology, so we are now also getting traction in banking.
But, actually, the technology is “vertical agnostic.” Our product has been evolving and what we do today is a little different from what we did a year ago. We also see that we can target other industries besides financial services and insurance, such as manufacturing—another important industry to the Hartford area—and even higher education, utilities, and healthcare. That being said, our deep experience is in the FinTech vertical. So, where better to be than Hartford?
As a side note, we didn’t come to Hartford through a competition or because we received specific funding to create a presence here. We came because it was the right place for us to be—and it is the right time to come. That was one of the things we thought was really important. We feel strongly about what the Governor, the Mayor, and the Upward Hartford community are saying—and doing—about establishing Hartford as a high-tech hub. We’re here for all the right reasons, and we think there’s a tremendous upside to being in Hartford and in this space.
NAN: How did you connect with Upward Hartford?
BOB: I became aware of Upward Hartford because of my interest in startup pitch events, especially from many Israeli HealthTech startups. That’s what first got me interested in what was going on at Upward Hartford.
Flamingo Ai is my third pure startup. So, I’ve got that serial entrepreneur drive. I knew it was important to be near other companies in the same place in their evolution. Because that’s where we are. We’ve defined and developed our product. Now we’re working on how to sell the product and start to scale.
As I saw more HealthTech companies coming into Connecticut and sharing some of the things they were doing, I was intrigued by their technology. It got my entrepreneurial juices flowing again. I think that’s the concept of a serial entrepreneur—even when I was working in large organizations or somewhere that wasn’t a pure startup, to me it’s always been about maturing and emerging technologies and figuring out how to use technology to solve business problems.
NAN: Speaking of emerging technology, how do advances with Industry 4.0 impact AI?
BOB: A few years ago, there were dozens of players in this space, now there are 4,000 who say that, in one way or another, they “do” AI. I see a couple of different patterns emerging. On the one hand, I think we’re going to see a bell-shaped curve of participants in this space where, eventually, only those with the best and the brightest ideas are going to survive. But we also see movement toward the creation of AI “ecosystems,” where specialized AI solutions coexist in a friendly alliance to solve broad business problems.
The evolution of the technology is fascinating. I sometimes say, “AI is the new UI.” You’ll start to see more of that. So, it’s more around understanding the needs, finding the elements that solve the question, and then providing answers—and that’s not just providing a URL or a piece of data.
We are very much hoping to be a part of the evolution—that shift, that dynamic. We’re learning more about how to do that. I’m excited to be in this space and be exposed to that kind of thinking. Others in this building are also hoping to make these kinds of changes in the industry—and in the science and technology.
Connecticut in general has so many capabilities. Personally, moving Flamingo Ai to the Hartford area will enable me to reestablish connections with important entities like Connecticut Innovations, the Connecticut Technology Council, and the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology. These are people I’ve grown up with.
If you look around the Hartford skyline, I’ve worked in many of those tall buildings—as have many of the people who are now helping to lead this industrial revolution. It’s been really cool to reconnect with some old friends. We’ve all grown up. We have big, impactful jobs now and we can tap into that Hartford network, which is really well-positioned to continue to drive innovation.