Insurtech startups: JackHabbit CEO Darren Steeves

Darren Steeves, CEO and founder of JackHabbit - a technology and insurtech startup, tells us about the pitfalls and peaks of a pandemic launch

Launching a startup in the middle of a global pandemic is more than a little challenging on a number of fronts. But Darren Steeves, the founder of JackHabbit - a risk and resilience analytics technology company - believes the time has never been better.

Currently in the process of its Seed round, the technology and research company has just signed a partnership with a large insurance company to support their million or so post secondary students and then into their employee clients. JackHabbit uses machine learning and behavioural design to create an individualised experience for mental health in a B2B2C model. The company plans to continue to grow in the insurance space and may look at partnering with more Insurtechs as part of its scale strategy.

Q: Tell us what inspired you to launch JackHabbit - is there a story of personal challenge and inspiration there?

If you're lucky in the health field you end up having some success and helping people. I was fortunate to have success as a resilience coach, life coach, sports performance coach, and everything in between. I was good at figuring out the needs of people at the moment, how to apply behaviour science, how to motivate, and how to normalize failure and bring people back. At the same time, I came to realise my purpose was to help people. It really gives my battery a boost. There was an itch I wanted to scratch, I felt I could take the knowledge I built and help more people.

You also end up meeting lots of people on your career journey and I was extremely lucky here. Psychologists, IT exerts specializing in Behaviour design, persuasive technology, psychiatrists, machine learning experts, human performance experts, and people just great at mentoring. I figured out early as well my top value is collaboration. So I started to talk to people about some of my ideas and it landed with some I trust and wanted to work with.

I am also a lived experience person. I have had feelings of anxiety my whole life and a few bouts of depression. I benefited from cognitive therapy, acceptance commitment therapy, sustaining my physical activity, improved nutrition, meditation, self-compassion, and more. I loved learning and it truly was keeping me flourishing. I felt for people who maybe didn’t have the knowledge, support network, skills, and motivation I had. I felt with my background and network we could do something big, at a low cost, to help a lot of people. This is how JackHabbit was born.

Q: How does it directly help people?

People are overwhelmed, it is now a massive problem leading to a major mental health problem. Search anxiety, or stressed out and you now get a billion articles, apps, and information. Not great for an overwhelmed person. This leads to hopelessness, procrastination and they end up doing nothing.

Insurance companies are similar. Each person with health insurance has a portal to endless material to help with their health, but no guidance. This is what people were paying me hundreds of dollars an hour to do as a coach/counsellor. We asked ourselves couldn’t we apply machine learning and use behaviour science to help people get the information they need when they need it. It wasn’t about more content, it was procuring it in a meaningful way and have it evolve with them. This is what JackHabbit does.

Q: What kinds of initiatives is Health Forming Habits supporting and why - give us some examples?

We are currently supporting the research of 5 professors and 5 graduate students in Psychology, resilience, health human interaction computing, and more. We are a true evidence-based group. We want to make sure our solution in valid and reliable. Especially in mental health. The market is pretty much demanding it. We also believe in giving back, thus we love watching the students learn and getting out a peer-reviewed paper for the world to see and learn from our work

Q: How has the market response been so far? 

Terrific. We signed a partnership with an insurance company that represents 1.5 million post-secondary students. They will go to employees in late 2023, they have four million on health plans.

We have had discussions with other providers who “get it” and we feel there is a possibility to partner with insurtech companies as well in the future.

Other large e-mental health companies are realizing they need to work collaboratively and bracket on to JackHabbit or they will be left behind. The insurance company has SaaS agreements with 5 top tools to use in their step care model approach.

Q: What do you find inspiring about insurtech - and is it opening up more to mental health and wellness initiatives?

I believe so. They have to. Customers expect not only a great rate that is individualized (they all use machine learning and real-time data) to them but a well-being solution that has that SAME algorithm concept. People want an all-in-one solution. This is why we are not doing B2B. Many companies have said this is cool but our insurance company has something. I love making it simple for people and this is a way we can work together to keep it simple for people, help with the health of society and make a lot more money through claims reductions which 70% of insurance claims are now (mental health).

Insurtech is doing it which is cool, they get it. This is what excites me.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your investors, and the challenges of finding funding in this current climate? 

We ended up doing a friends and family round because people who believed in us kept saying how can I help? They asked if we needed funding. That was awesome. The government loves what we are doing. We have received nearly $2mn there.

Now we are in the world of investing. We are starting a Seed round. I wouldn’t say challenging however we want to find groups that share our values. This does not mean we are not looking to build a unicorn company but we have values that guide us. We want to continue to be innovative, strive for excellence, sustain our integrity and keep diversity and sustained growth at the forefront.

Q: What advice would you give someone thinking of pursuing a similar venture to you?

Learn the skills of resilience use them. We just wrote a new paper on the site of our model. Check it out. It is 10 years of work. They are skills that keep me flourishing and the thousands of people we have worked with.

I am helping out with a group called mindframe that is developed a resilience program for entrepreneurs. Its lead by a really cool guy Brice ScheschukI would also recommend finding some good mentors. People you can lean into who lift you up. That doesn’t mean not give you constructive feedback you need to hear but also lets you know when you hit the mark. I wrote a book on that.

Q: What are the very best and worst things about launching a startup in a pandemic? 

I don’t know if I would call it the worst but people are stressed out. It is hard to get full attention of people. I get it. Focus usually means things moving at a good pace, creativity and more enjoyable experience. The pandemic has affected this.

The best part is biased for us, we get to help in the fastest growing problem, thus market. We feel we have a solution that can address the “worst” part of the pandemic I mentioned above.

Lastly I did HR consulting for nearly 10 years and have advocated for letting people work from home since starting. Reduces stress, increased productivity, more family time and much more. It took an unfortunate social experiment caused by the pandemic to validate it

 Q: What's next on the horizon?

We have three papers coming out. One that identifies 10 protective factors related to resilience for post-secondary students and the factors that take away from resilience that we will bake into our platform. I love learning so this excites me.

We are launching in Jan 2022 with our partner so we have feverishly worked to have as many sprints done as possible and give the students the best experience. We know we will learn and pivot, that is part of being agile. I know our research team is stoked to get this treasure trove of data.

We are out raising money and it has its up and downs but I love meeting highly motivated people who ask great questions and make me and my team think. I once had a mentor say “don’t get married to your own stuff”, she didn’t use the word stuff but you get the idea. We like to be challenged on our assumptions and strategy, it makes us better. I am hopeful though by early 2022 we close it out and really escalate what we are doing!



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