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State Farm Labs Spins Off Sundial Tool Targeting Older Adults

Couple with their smart speaker
State Farm
The Sundial skill for Alexa and the mobile app work together to connect older adults (the Center) to their loved ones (Care Circle).

A new smart speaker tool aimed at older adults has become the latest example of State Farm’s growing investment in innovation—even in businesses not directly connected to insurance.

The new tool is called Sundial. For $15 per month, an aging adult (called the “Center”) can use their voice-activated, Alexa-enabled device to check in with their “Care Circle,” such as their children. They can access shared calendars, shopping lists, even photos. The goal, of course, is to age at home for as long as you can.

Also notable is what it doesn’t do: try to sell you insurance.

“This is a segment that’s growing,” said Sundial Labs vice president Mike Fields, adding that 20 million Americans will be 80-plus by 2030, some with a distant support network.

“We looked at this segment, and it really resonates with what we’re trying to help, with middle America, to bring value, and to help them with everyday things going on,” Fields said. “There’s great synergy, but there’s a lot of different ways to develop different understandings of what the market needs. So we just took a different route here.”

Sundial is one of the most high profile exports from State Farm’s innovation arm, called Labs @ State Farm. The company brought all its innovation capabilities together under one umbrella about two years ago, Fields said. State Farm refocused its investment around more strategic objectives, he said, calling it "doubling down.”

“We have a mission to look for disruptive and transformative innovation, to bring things to our customers while our other products are focused on different things,” Fields said on WGLT’s Sound Ideas. “We also brought in a method with more testing, with market testing, where we’re going to have things that fail, and we’ll iterate, and we’ll have some things that we spin, like (Sundial) is, that’s a bigger play.”

Some of this is out of competitive necessity. Legacy insurers like State Farm—accustomed to competition from other big insurers—now also face disruption from smaller insurtech startups. A credit rating agency recently said that “while not all insurers have to be ‘tech trailblazers,’ many still need to learn to use innovation ‘offensively, not just defensively to stay in the game and stand in place. Most are just trying to keep up, rather than get ahead,’” according to a 2019 innovation report from the Deloitte Center for Financial Services.

Labs @ State Farm has around six to 12 new products it’s looking to bring to market and test, Fields said. Some are big, some are small.

“If every idea we feel is going to be a home run, we’re not really stretching ourselves enough,” he said.

Sundial was homegrown within State Farm Labs. Work began in August 2019. The new mobile app and Alexa skill launched June 22.

“Sundial Labs was an entity we formed out of that to have complete focus on this segment, to be really dedicated to that, while the State Farm innovation engine still keeps looking for the next thing,” Fields said.

Other notable projects from within Labs @ State Farm include the drones used by claims employees. They’ve also worked on blockchain technology with another insurance company, USAA, to cut costs and speed up auto claims subrogation—something that’s historically been a relatively manual, time-consuming process.

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Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.