Editor’s note: This interview is part of a Q&A series with winners of the ORIGIN Innovation Awards 2020. Val Yap is a winner in the category Movers & Shakers Awards – Promising Female Founder.

The idea for PolicyPal Group Founder and Chief Executive Officer Val Yap to set up the Singapore-based InsurTech startup unluckily came after a series of unfortunate events. Rather than just whining and complaining, she looked into these matters seriously and sought solutions to make a difference. The painful and tiresome journey for her to deal with insurance-related matters inspired her to design a digital platform that consolidates insurance policies and makes these accessible to everyone.

PolicyPal simplifies the daunting process of insurance policy management into a single platform. Users can also plan and reach their financial goals with personalized portfolio comparisons and manage their insurance digitally. AMTD Digital, the digital finance arm of Hong Kong-based investment banking firm and asset manager AMTD, has acquired PolicyPal in “an eight-figure sum deal” in June 2020.

It has not always been a smooth journey for Yap to build PolicyPal. In a TechNode Global Q&A, besides sharing the story of why she started PolicyPal, Yap also shared the challenges she met while building the company with her team and how the group overcame some of these challenges.

As a female founder, Yap did face glass ceilings when she was raising funds for her company in the early days. Many had also doubted her ability to lead a team. She managed to prove them wrong and she now hopes to establish a female support group to provide women with support mechanisms to share their experiences, discuss issues and challenges faced.

Val Yap, Founder & CEO, PolicyPal
Val Yap, Founder & CEO, PolicyPal

Tell us about your team and the journey of building PolicyPal Group.

The idea behind PolicyPal Group first came about when my family faced a series of adversaries. My mother was diagnosed with cancer, and the insurance company rejected our application for a claim, as the policy has lapsed for a short while. In that same year, my father had a sudden heart attack and unfortunately passed away. We were unaware of how much insurance he had. As a result, I had to personally visit all the various insurers to find out through a painstakingly tiresome process. This experience made me realize the importance of having a well-organized folder of all my insurance policies.

Hence, I had the idea of designing a digital platform to consolidate insurance policies, making it simple and accessible for everyone. With this in mind, I joined the Startup Bootcamp FinTech accelerator program.

While I had the business and finance side down-pat, I struggled to find the right tech team. After enduring multiple rejections during the hiring process, I founded a small team of engineers, one of whom is KC, my current Chief Technology Officer.

Our breakthrough came in 2016 when PolicyPal Group was accepted into the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s (MAS) Sandbox, a government-sponsored incubator for high-potential fintech startups. It was a big win for us as it gave us the credibility necessary to work with insurance companies. We were also the first to graduate from the MAS Sandbox in 2017.

In that same year, we acquired a digital brokerage license and became the first digitized direct insurance broker. The company has since grown to a lean team of around 20, and we have over 100,000 organic downloads. This is in large part due to my team, where tireless cross-department efforts happen on a daily basis. My team works on updating the current platform and service and in developing the business, allowing us to soar to greater heights.

Most recently, we have been acquired by Hong Kong’s AMTD Digital. With this acquisition and partnership, the goal is to tap into AMTD’s SpiderNet ecosystem and capabilities to enhance our offerings and increase our user base exponentially. Besides market expansion, we are working on expanding our product capabilities, providing end-to-end insurance support for consumers.

You wanted to address the pain points in the insurance industry when you first started PolicyPal Group. How far have you managed to address these pain points? What are the challenges?

PolicyPal Group was created to directly counter such pain points. Traditionally, policyholders must go through the manual process of buying, managing, and submitting claims. This makes the process tedious, messy, and difficult, especially when policyholders hold multiple policies from different companies.

PolicyPal Group combines technology and insurance to improve financial and insurance inclusion for the public via a one-stop solution for users to buy, manage and claim policies across various insurance providers. I believe that we have been relatively successful in addressing these pain points, seeing that our product directly resolves all three pain points and our efforts have been rewarded.

We have had over 10,000 organic downloads, and the value of our product can be seen in how we saw a 40 times year-on-year growth in premiums being placed in short-term insurance savings plans from 2019 on Baoxianbaobao, also known as PolicyPal FA, a subsidiary of PolicyPal Group.

Being the first mover in the industry, we faced many challenges in the process. These include, firstly, forming working relationships with industry partners with our previously unknown app and technology back when we first started, getting users onboard, and then improving on our current processes to stay ahead of our competitors.

What is PolicyPal’s edge or unique proposition?

For the first challenge, of developing working relations with industry partners, our breakthrough came in 2016, when PolicyPal Group was accepted into MAS’s Sandbox, a government-sponsored incubator for high-potential FinTech startups. It gave us the credibility necessary to work with insurance companies.

Trust is the cornerstone of the insurance industry, and when we started out as an independent app without a sales agenda, we utilized Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology, taxonomy, and rule-based algorithms to digitalize the policies and automates the coverage gap analysis to offer users an objective overview of all their policies and point out what’s missing and where. This allowed us to be transparent with our users and gave them the guarantee that we were only providing unbiased information.

Over time, as we gained users’ confidence and our user base grew, our users provided feedback that they were keen to buy insurance policies on our platform.

We then consolidated our expertise and capabilities and ventured into selling insurance policies as well, after obtaining our broker license.

We have also started delving into market expansion and supporting traditional agents in their digital transformation. This would ensure healthy competition as we help raise industry standards and knowledge of InsurTech simultaneously.

Our unique proposition is clear: We combine technology and insurance to improve financial and insurance inclusion for the public via a one-stop solution for users to buy, manage and claim policies across various insurance providers. As the first few firms to build a presence in the scene, we have also built multiple partnerships and this would only continue to grow. Our expertise will then also serve to aid and improve the insurance scene.

With AMTD Digital’s acquisition of the company, can you share more about your expansion plans?

I am always looking for ways to continuously improve PolicyPal Group and for us to remain at the forefront of innovation. What I hope to achieve over the next few years would be expanding PolicyPal Group and launching it on the Asia stage with AMTD Group, before going global.

This is in line with our vision, to increase protection coverage for all by increasing their awareness of wealth and health management. Doing so would definitely require intensive prep work and immense amounts of research and consulting but I believe that with the right mindset, my team will be able to achieve it.

We would be looking to analyze and synthesize our current capabilities with the various localized contexts we are looking to expand into, and learn from the successes and failures of our predecessors.

Another area of expansion we are working on would be supporting traditional agents in their digital transformation. Our IT and product management teams are working closely to advise these traditional agents on how they can streamline their operations and marketing. This is an extension of our vision, we believe that by sharing our expertise and equipping more in the industry with technological means, protection coverage will be increased for all.

Tell us more about your funding status and company valuation.

Since PolicyPal Group’s inception, we have secured multiple rounds of funding and currently, we are valued at a double-digit valuation in millions. The first seed funding was from 500 Startups and angel investor Koh Boon Hwee in 2017. Most recently in 2020, Hong Kong’s AMTD Digital has acquired PolicyPal in an eight-figure sum deal.

How did you decide to start and run your own company? Where do you see yourself in 5 years? How about the long-term?

I believe that at some point in our lives, one is bound to dream of being an entrepreneur. It sounds glamorous — being your own boss and setting your own working hours! While I did dream of being an entrepreneur and starting my own company, I never expected to truly embark on this journey. The pivotal moment and main reason was really due to the personal adversities I faced.

These adversities then made me cognizant of the issues facing the insurance industry and then kickstarted my story as a founder. However, being an entrepreneur is not as glamorous as it sounds and the road ahead was extremely treacherous when I first started PolicyPal Group.

I had the business and finance side down-pat but I struggled to find the right technical team. It was only after enduring multiple rejections during the hiring process, did I manage to build a small team of engineers.

Next came funding and forming partnerships. As a young female founder in my early days of fundraising, many investors asked me personal questions about my relationship status and whether I am planning to start a family. Male founders will not have to answer such questions, but as a female, many tend to doubt my ability to lead a team. I’ve shared this struggle with other female tech founders and they’ve encouraged me to think in their perspective – that they may be worried that after investing in our company, I will get married and start a family, and eventually lose focus on the company. I always answer such questions honestly to give them assurance.

Now, I can confidently say that all these obstacles have molded me into who I am today, allowing me to grow and learn from others in my journey as founder and now CEO. I hope the next five years and what’s to come in the long term will see me continue to make a difference in the lives of people with PolicyPal Group and my personal experiences.

As PolicyPal Group’s founder and CEO, I hope that I can continue to improve and enhance our current services to better meet consumer needs and tap on emerging markets.

On industry and even cross-industry level, I hope to establish a female support group to provide women with support mechanisms to share their experiences, discuss issues and challenges faced by their industries and support one another in every possible way. What counts is not what we leave for others, but what we leave in them. As such, I hope to leave a lasting legacy where no women henceforth will face discrimination in such industries.

How would you encourage more women to become entrepreneurs or innovators? What advice would you give to female founders?

I’m sure many women entrepreneurs will relate to some of my personal experiences with the social stereotypes towards women in the tech industry. Two years ago, I wrote my first book, Balls Inc., where I shared the struggles and successes I’ve faced in my journey as a solo female founder in the tech industry.

The purpose of this book is to encourage other females who are considering entering the tech startup ecosystem and hopefully, they can pick up a thing or two from my experience.

Despite the struggles, I am thankful to have wonderful mentors who always offer me invaluable advice to scale up my company and place trust in my abilities as a female leader. The greatest advice that I always give is to find a support group of women in similar situations. It is incredibly helpful to have a group of people with whom you can share your experiences and hear “oh yeah, me too,” or “I went through the same thing.”

One important thing to note is that people will treat you based on how you teach them to treat you. You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. Results have no gender, go get what you want!

ORIGIN 2020 | Reimagine insurance in the digital age