Manulife Financial seeks startup-style innovation with hackathon, new lab

Manulife Financial is launching a new innovation lab in the heart of a startup hub with a hackathon event this week involving its own employees and external participants alike.

Kicking off Tuesday morning at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, where Manulife’s Lab of Forward Thinking (LOFT) is based, it’s the second hackathon event hosted by the financial services company and the first one that allowed participants outside of the company. The first event was hosted in Boston in July, where the company operates as John Hancock. It also launched a LOFT Lab there, and resulted in seven ideas that received executive sponsorship, according to Sebastian Blandizzi, CIO of the investment division at Manulife.

LOFT Labs are a space where Manulife will embrace the “fast fail” concept that’s celebrated in the startup community, he says. Before you get one good idea like Uber, you have to test a lot of ideas that will ultimately fail. So it’s important to have a culture that creates that opportunity.

“We’re actually evolving our cultural paradigm,” towards the next generation of employees, Blandizzi says. “If you don’t key in on that, you’ll be rooted in cultural paradigms that don’t resonate.”

The hackathon follows a “scramble methodology” developed by Scramble Systems. Stephen Douglas, founder of Scramble, led the event in Boston and is now leading the Toronto event. The company creates programs that help businesses discover hidden opportunities from their own employee base.

The stakes for the Toronto event being held today and tomorrow will not only decide on the first employees to work out of the new space, but include a $10,000 prize. Out of 140 participants, Blandizzi says there are 110 internal participants and 30 external participants.

Manulife reached beyond its Toronto office for the event – all the way to Asia.

“We did a little competition internally where we crowdsourced ideas from Asia,” Blandizzi says. “The ideas that got the most votes, we funded the trips for those participants to join us in Toronto.”

A hackathon at the MaRS Discovery District is opening up a new lab space held by Manulife Financial.
A hackathon at the MaRS Discovery District is opening up a new lab space held by Manulife Financial.

The Loft Lab follows a partnership that Manulife made with MaRS earlier this year – alongside other financial services firms including Interac, CIBC, TMX, PayPal, Moneris, and Ugo – to created a dedicated fintech cluster. The point of the cluster is to connect startups with larger enterprises, finding them possible clients or even investors.

In addition to finding some startup mojo for his own company, Blandizzi says that being connected with the emerging fintech startup sector is also appealing and he wants to partner with startups.

But is that outreach being driven by fear of being disrupted by a fintech startup?

“I wouldn’t say we’re afraid of being disrupted,” he says. “We want to be an organization that disrupts itself.”

There’s also the reinvigorated team spirit that an event like this inspires among employees who take place. A member of one of the winning teams in Boston is a 31-year veteran at Manulife, and he said it was one of his most rewarding experiences in his career.

“You can’t quantify the value of that to your organization,” Blandizzi says.

Manulife isn’t stopping with its hackathons in Toronto. The next one will open up another LOFT space in Singapore.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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