Expanding My Investment Thesis to Run the MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars

Today, I start my next adventure in startup investing – I’m the new Managing Director of the MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars. The program will run this summer on MetLife’s Global Technology Campus outside of Raleigh-Durham, NC.

My objective is to give the startups I invest in tremendous support in acquiring customers and fundraising from investors. If you’re a founder that wants to work with me and gain inside access to the leaders at MetLife, then this is the program for you. Read on to learn more about my investment thesis or skip to the bottom to watch the AMA to learn more.

My Mental Model for Investing in Startups

I’m excited to expand my network to the emerging startup market of Raleigh-Durham while keeping my roots in my hometown of Detroit. I’ve learned a lot over the past 10 years operating in San Francisco and Detroit, and I’m excited to bring these learnings to North Carolina with me — and see what new things I can learn, too.

I’ve been a Managing Director at Techstars for over 5 years. During this time, I’ve talked to over 1000 startups around the globe. These conversations have led me to make 54 investments in founders from 11 different countries. I’ve witnessed founders’ perception of doing business in an emerging market, like Detroit, change from negative to positive. I’m excited to bring this mentality with me to Raleigh-Durham.

Early-stage startup investing is my 生き甲斐 (Ikigai), a Japanese concept for the reason for being. I have 5 guiding principles that shape my mental framework for startup investing. Ultimately, for me, this all comes down to my 1:1 relationship with each founder.

      1. Transparency builds trust
      2. Empathy creates authentic human connections
      3. Synergy leads to better results when the sum is greater than the parts
      4. Networks grow exponentially exposing hidden opportunities
      5. Curiosity leads to improvement and breakthroughs

 Here’s how I’m using these 5 guiding principles in my next chapter of startup investing with the team at MetLife.

01: Transparency—Expanding My Investment Thesis

I’m obsessed with venture funds that have a clear investment focus. They show conviction, clarity of thought, and don’t waste founders’ time when there isn’t a fit.

Throughout my tenure as a Managing Director at Techstars I’ve been investing in technologies that impact how people and goods move around, across industries. Historically, I was all about “make and move” — but something was missing for me. Over a recent conversation with one of my personal mentors, I found the clarity I was seeking. The missing piece was centered around the impact those technologies have in our lives. So, I’ve updated my thesis to “make, move, and manifest” — technologies that make life better. It’s about  how things are made, how they move and move humans, and how they manifest in our daily lives.

What we’re looking to invest in for the 2020 Class of the MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars

For this program, I’ll be focusing on the “manifest” component of my thesis. For me, “manifest” is any startup building solutions that improve quality of life, with a holistic view on how everything is interconnected. Working closely with MetLife, a few of the sub-themes of this thesis include (but are certainly not limited to):

    • Employee Engagement: Solutions to create on-going and personalized touchpoints, content, and interactions with employees through employee benefits and financial wellness
    • Expertise On-demand: Flexible and scalable solutions that provide on-demand, localized or virtual human expertise/guidance/aid to consumers
    • Financial Personalization: Solutions that capture significant information about an employee to understand financial behavior and/or provide personalized education and recommendations related to financial decisions, management, and benefits
    • Life Stage Product Packages: Solutions for different life stages delivered through the employer/worksite around benefits, financial planning and management (i.e. student loan repayment, early wage access, retirement products, new parent solutions)
    • Behavioral Health: Workplace solutions to aid the employer in managing employee behavioral health (i.e. prevention, education, support, retention, claims management, return-to-work) with an emphasis on mental health

02: Empathy—I’m Relocating Too

The MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars runs in Cary, North Carolina from July 13 to October 8. As a founder, committing to take part in a 90-day program can be grueling. There’s a clear start and end date, and everything in the middle seems like a race to the end. Compounding this fact, many founders often relocate from around the world to participate. It’s a lot to ask a founding team to commit to a relocation for 90 days to work on their business. This can be very hard on founders, especially ones that are parents (I’m a dad with 4 kids under the age of 5, I can relate 😃)

Putting the human first, above their startup, and above the program, is my approach. For this program, I’m taking it one step further. I too, like many founders, will be relocating for the duration of the program. I’m taking my family and 4 kids with me to a place I’ve never lived. While I’m still passionate about my hometown of Detroit, I’m excited to explore the emerging startup market of Raleigh-Durham, immerse myself in a new area and build deep bonds and new relationships with founders and members of this thriving community. New environments unhinge old habits and thought patterns as our brain neurons rush to build new connections. I look forward to the mental upgrade.

03: Synergy—MetLife Supporting Startups to Succeed

This is my favorite principle. It ties into my personal strengths of “strategy” and “futurism” according to my ‘StrengthFinders’ test. I invest in founders building synergistic relationships that drive 1+1=3 results. With the MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars, there is an entirely new level to this.

10 startups from around the world will have deep access across MetLife. MetLife’s goal is to establish relationships with startups that leads to real results. John Geyer, MetLife’s Chief Innovation Officer, describes this process for startups as akin to a “Pilot E-ZPass” to start pilots and POCs with MetLife. Internal access to corporate knowledge + an optimized process to have MetLife as a customer = a path to success. This type of relationship can transform a startup’s trajectory. While not guaranteed for any startup in the program, the intent is to create as much synergy as possible. And that synergy gives the startups in the MetLife Digital Accelerator opportunities to enhance their fundraising and succeed in the market against competitors.

04: Networks—Connecting the Dots to Uncover Opportunities

Metcalfe’s law states the value of a network exponentially grows with each addition.

For me, this applies in two areas:

      1. People—Expanding my personal network of startups, investors, industry execs, and mentors
      2. Ideas—Expanding my investment focus into an entirely new area

I previously had a successful exit as CTO and cofounder of a startup. During this time, I built up my network in San Francisco. When I moved to Detroit, I saw my network grow exponentially. Driving this growth was the combination of my networks: San Francisco + Detroit. Important regional networks that attracted people from all around the world. This combination turned into a differentiator: uniqueness. I was embedded in an emerging market with a defined thesis aligned with corporate industry insight. This led to global exposure that drove (and continues to drive) a range of opportunities.

This uniqueness led to me to uncover my own personal mission: to change entrepreneurs’ perspective of doing business in emerging and underserved markets. As we go out to source startups for the 2020 year of the accelerator, we are leveraging networks as an advantage. To support this effort, I’ve brought on two amazing individuals to bring diversity and their networks to help us find the best startups in the world.

    • John Emery (Founder-in-Residence) has been working with founders to untangle the byzantine world of insurance since 2013 when he started AAA’s venture capital group (now Avanta Ventures). He invests in relationships vs. companies and his superpower is bridging the startup-corporate gap, helping founders uncover opportunities to build differentiated and durable businesses. John is based in San Francisco.
    • Tapan “Tops” Kataria (Associate/EIR) has been working with founders across 3 Techstars programs. He has served as Director of Backstage Capital investing in 24 diverse founding teams across 4 cities (Los Angeles, London, Philadelphia, and Detroit). He runs an angel investment group and is a Venture Partner at Venture Catalysts, a non-profit focused on building inclusive startup ecosystems in emerging markets. He splits his time between New York City and Detroit and you can learn more at iamtops.com.

05: Curiosity—Time to Breakthrough

If you’re a startup that has read this far—or maybe an investor or mentor—then keep following your curiosity. It’s time to find that breakthrough and this program might be exactly what you’re looking for. To learn more and apply to be in the 2020 MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars:

I love talking to founders and learning about them and their businesses. I let my curiosity lead me and I’m always surprised at what I find. Perhaps your startup will be next!


Massive thanks to Gretchen Knoell, Jake Sigal, Brad Johnson, and Ali Donnermeyer for providing valuable feedback to this blog post. Feedback make life better!

Announcing the 2019 Class of the MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars

We are excited to announce the nine companies that are joining the 2019 class of the MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars that kicks off today, July 15, in Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina.

We looked at thousands of companies across the globe and interviewed hundreds to select our 2019 class. This year’s companies are joining from around the world, including London, Barcelona, NYC, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, and Durham. Our entrepreneurs are innovating in a wide range of insurtech areas, including mental health, smoking cessation, cancer detection, dental, claims processing, and more. 

The companies will be based in Raleigh-Durham for the 13-week accelerator, which will be held in a new space on MetLife’s Global Technology Campus. Over the course of the program, the companies will work closely with Techstars, MetLife, and their mentors to gain traction and reach their specific company goals. Our program will cap off with Demo Day on Thursday, October 10th, 2019.

Here are the companies in the 2019 MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars:

BlockClaim (London, UK)

BlockClaim empowers insurers to settle claims in as little as 24 hours by providing data driven insights.


Bonbouton (New York, NY)

Bonbouton is a smart insole that detects foot ulcers, a common cause of diabetes-related amputations.


The Difference (New York, NY)

The Difference provides on-demand therapy via phone or smart speaker.


Lazarus (Cambridge, MA)

Lazarus uses historical patient data and deep learning to help predict the early onset of cancer


Kover.ai (San Francisco, CA)

Kover.ai uses smart contracts to create autonomous insurances that run with near-zero overhead.


Slighter (Dover, DE)

Slighter is a smart cigarette lighter that tracks smoking habits and trains users to reduce gradually until they quit.


Slope Software (Atlanta, GA)

SLOPE helps actuaries build and analyze complex financial models in a fraction of the time using only a web browser.


Smiletronix (Barcelona, Spain)

Smiletronix completes a dental health scan anytime, anywhere in under a minute with their personal handheld device and app.


Zogo Finance (Durham, NC)

Zogo pays kids to learn personal finance by partnering with financial institutions.



Interview with John Geyer, CEO of MetLife Digital Ventures

This interview originally appeared in a report from Innovation Leader, sponsored by Techstars, “Startup Engagement: Best Practices for Large Organizations.” Read the complete report here

In January 2018, John Geyer took on an expanded role at MetLife, the Manhattan-based insurer: CEO of MetLife Digital Ventures, overseeing direct investments into startups as well as a new startup accelerator run in North Carolina, where the company has a technology campus. Geyer is also MetLife’s Chief Innovation Officer. We spoke with him about how he works with colleagues to understand new capabilities they need; how the company works with venture capital firms; and a new program modeled after E-ZPass, intended to enable MetLife to launch pilot tests and proof-of-concepts more quickly.

Making the Case

One of the four pillars of our enterprise strategy is operational excellence, and under that is a sub-pillar called external orientation. Leadership takes that seriously. It could be a customer orientation, and really understanding and having empathy for the customer. It could be orientation around competitors and the industry. And it could also be around what the next generation of capabilities will be…

The drumbeat of external orientation has been going on for a number of years, and it is now an embedded expectation in our leadership team that when you think through opportunities and challenges, you’re doing it with an external orientation.

Bringing the Business In

We interview 100-plus leaders across MetLife each year and ask them, “What capabilities would give you strategic advantage?” We do it with claims people, salespeople, underwriting people, and product people. We collect their requirements, and we share them with the VC firms and say, “Here are the things that our businesspeople are looking for. Whaddaya got?” They’ll make intros [to startups they have invested in], and my team will work with an internal group to drive proof-of-concepts to see if those emerging capabilities [can help our business].

We’ve driven more than 100 proof of concepts over the last four years, and about 30 of those have turned into commercial agreements.

In our vernacular, a pilot is when you put [something] in front of customers. A POC is proving it out within the company. Some things might be internal tools for us, like a cyber tool that can strengthen our environment. For that, we’ll do a POC to validate it.

Our Venture Capital Strategy

When it comes to startups, we made a decision as an enterprise over ten years ago that we were going to invest in the venture capital firms themselves as part of our overall investment portfolio. We invest hundreds of billions of our customers’ money so that we can pay them back when we need to. Most is invested very conservatively, but we have taken a small portion and put it into alternative investments like hedge funds, private equity, and venture capital. Today we have north of $1 billion invested in 17 of the leading venture capital firms…so that gives us a unique vantage point [about] where the markets are going, and where innovation is going.

A next evolutionary step [that] we’ve taken is that very often, one or more of these 17 venture capital firms will come to us and say, “We’ve come across this company, and we think it’s particularly strategically relevant to you.” In the past, we’d say, “We really don’t do that type of direct investing.” We didn’t spin up an internal corporate VC group [to source] deals or lead deals. But we have freed up $100 million so that when those opportunities come our way, we can participate alongside of our VC partners. The only circumstance where we’d make a co-investment is if we believe that the capability that the company has is strategically relevant to MetLife, and can create new forms of customer value. An example of that last year was Enigma, [a startup focused on extracting intelligence from data].

Launching a New Accelerator

Last year, we announced that we had entered into an agreement with Techstars to create the MetLife Digital Accelerator, powered by Techstars. They’ve been around for years, and have had a track record of success…

The term accelerator has taken on lots of different definitions and meanings. When we really looked beneath the covers of Y Combinator, and 500 Startups, and the regional ones, many of them are just about, “Hey, startups, join our network and we’ll provide you some informal coaching, plus a little seed capital.” What we liked about Techstars is it is…a defined, 13-week intensive program, where the founders have to co-locate on your campus. That’s unique and powerful, and it explains a lot of the success they’ve had. … We dedicate MetLife people from all over the company to be mentors—people that range from product to channel to operations, claims, strategy, technology…

We ran our first program with them in Cary, N.C. last fall, and graduated 10 companies. We’re recruiting 10 companies for this year’s accelerator. [Techstars] believes that each one gets better. It’s not the kind of thing you do once, declare victory, and go home.

… In the most recent accelerator, we had a range of companies [at various stages of product maturity]. A couple were really concepts that just needed to be fleshed out. Some had a very primitive minimum viable product, but three or four had a product you could put in front of customers. All of that is interesting to us. The earlier we can get in, and help shape it and direct it towards the needs of our customers, the better.

From the accelerator, we are looking to pilot in some way…with six of the ten companies that participated.

Innovation Starts in Labs and Universities

Innovation is a chain, and it starts very early with invention in labs and universities, where you have students creating new capabilities, but not necessarily thinking about commercialization. We have a very strategic partnership with the MIT Media Lab…

Some Startup Engagement Examples

We have worked with a company called Captricity [now known as Vidado], which does optical character recognition on steroids. Their technology ingests documents, even handwritten documents, with an accuracy rate that in many ways exceeds human capabilities. And in our business, there are a fair amount of paper documents still, when you’re dealing with doctors and dental records. We’re implementing it all over the company now very successfully.

Enroll Hero is a startup from our accelerator. Our mission is to help people navigate life, particularly during difficult times. When people are getting ready to retire and choosing a Medicare plan, it can be complicated and overwhelming. Enroll Hero allows you to enter profile information about yourself. It has all of the details of the different plans and options, and it presents the plan best-suited for your needs, [taking into account] your age and health and state. We piloted it with some MetLife customers, and we were very surprised at the take-up rate…

Measuring Value

From the very beginning, we looked at measuring success through two lenses. One is activity, and one is results. Often, people say, “My company only cares about results; activity is bad.” But in the world of innovation, if you don’t drive the right activities, you don’t get the right results.

For us, an activity would be saying, “We’re going to interview 120 people this year, and identify 25 POCs or pilots, and enter into 8 or 10 contracts this year. We also run internal innovation programs, like brainstorming sessions and facilitated sessions. So we keep track of how many associates we engaged, and how many managers we trained. Those are all activities.

[Results include things like] how much growth we generated, or how much efficiency. Did we improve associate engagement or enhance the customer experience. Those four measures are the four categories we measure to judge the success of the program.

Moving Faster

One of the things that has frustrated the startups and the VC world for decades is how slow large companies move when it comes to pilots and POCs. It is really the Achille’s heel…

We wanted to create an effort called Pilot E-ZPass—it became known as Pilot Onboard Process. We met with the people across MetLife in procurement, legal, regulatory, architecture—all of the different constituencies who have a say when a vendor comes in. We said, “We want an E-ZPass system for these small vendors that isn’t weighted down by bureaucracy. Everyone bought in. We rolled it out last year. [It covers both pilots and proof-of-concepts.]

From the beginning, we said we wanted it to be less than a month [to get a pilot or proof-of-concept approved]. If it’s less than a month, it’s good. It took quite a while to bring everyone along, because you want to protect the corporation. We had to really educate them about what were trying to accomplish—that we were not trying to do end-runs around important provisions of contracts. I would say it took probably a year from when we conceived of doing it to when it was fully implemented. But the first half of it was introductory meetings and selling. The last half was creating documents and getting decision rights clear.

What we’re looking for in the 2019 Class of the MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars

Applications have just opened for the 2019 program of the MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars. I feel incredibly proud of our 2018 companies and the amazing Techstars and MetLife teams for a successful first year—and I’m looking forward to selecting ten new companies for this year’s class. A lot of entrepreneurs ask me what we look for when evaluating companies. I can understand that the selection process can sometimes feel like a black box for founders. Hopefully this post will help unpack that box for you!


For the 2019 class, we will continue to define insurtech broadly and search for companies globally. In particular, we are interested in insurtech entrepreneurs focused on:

  • Customers: For example, solutions to support freelancers and those who participate in the gig or sharing economies.
  • Products: For example, new approaches to deliver employee benefits or experiences that will support the financial, emotional, or physical health of customers.
  • Process: For example, new ways to underwrite/manage risk or technologies to accelerate integration across industry partners.  

Don’t feel confined by these subthemes. If you’re working on something interesting in the insurtech space, you should apply.


We are stage agnostic, which means companies join Techstars at all different stages. For example, PillPack and SendGrid both joined Techstars as pre-product companies. Other companies have raised over $15 million prior to joining Techstars. Don’t think you are too early or too late.  

Team, Team, Team

At Techstars, we have six criteria for selection, and the first three are 1) Team, 2) Team, 3) Team. That’s right—we literally list ‘team’ thrice. I won’t even touch on the other criteria in this post. So, what do we look for in teams? Here are the top three things I look for in founders:

  1. Can you execute? We look for signs that you can execute fast. Do you just talk about doing things or do you actually get them done? Sometimes we can gauge this by projects or companies you have built in the past. Another way I gauge this is by hearing updates from you throughout the application period on the progress you make building your company. If you send update emails to your network or investors already, add me to them. I won’t respond to them, but I will track your progress. When it comes to your application, you’ll have a leg up over the other applicants if you’ve demonstrated your ability to execute. To get my email address, fill out this office hour request form.
  2. Are you resourceful? The best entrepreneurs know how to best utilize the resources that are available to them. After joining Techstars, your network will literally explode with mentors from our program and the broader Techstars and MetLife worldwide community. You’ll learn from subject matter experts, serial entrepreneurs, MetLife executives, and investors. We want founders who will maximize these resources to accelerate their growth. You can throw all the best resources at a startup, but if the team isn’t resourceful, all of that support will go to waste.
  3. Are you open to feedback? One of the biggest benefits of joining Techstars is learning from incredible mentors and peers who sincerely want you to succeed. You will be receiving a ton of brutally honest feedback from our mentors, the other founders, and me throughout the three months. Some A lot of this feedback will be hard to hear. We give you the feedback, because we want you to succeed. Are you open to receiving feedback? Are you intellectually honest? Do you get defensive? At the end of the day, you ultimately make the final decisions for your company, and we’ll respect your decision and support you no matter what. However, if you aren’t even open to hearing feedback, then you’ll limit your growth and acceleration.

I look forward to reading your application for the MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars!

  • See more info and apply for our program here.
  • Request office hours with me here.
  • Register for our live Ask Me Anything (AMA) virtual session on Feb 5th here.
  • Send me those update emails!


Announcing the 2018 Class of the MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars

We are excited to announce Techstars Class 140, the 10 companies that are joining the 2018 MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars in Cary, North Carolina. We spent the past six months searching the globe to look for the best Insurtech entrepreneurs to invite into our inaugural class. Our 10 companies are joining us from all corners of the United States and the globe including Boulder, London, Los Angeles, Richmond, San Jose and Singapore. Our entrepreneurs have diverse backgrounds as game developers, data scientists, insurance veterans, and more.

All 10 companies have relocated to Raleigh-Durham for the program. We kicked things off on July 16th, 2018 and will be working closely with these teams to help them accelerate their businesses during the next three months. Our program will cap off with Demo Day on Thursday, October 18th, 2018. We love Raleigh-Durham and know that 2018 is going to be an amazing year for Techstars, our companies, and the Triangle! Techstars is the worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed, and strong partners and mentors help make this happen. We’re grateful for your generosity in giving your time and expertise to help our companies. We couldn’t do it without you.

Without further ado, here are the companies for the 2018 MetLife Digital Accelerator powered by Techstars:

Aligned Business (Singapore)

An end-to-end digital platform that enables carriers to rapidly create, define, underwrite and distribute any category of insurance product to any market.

AnswersNOW (Richmond, VA)

Platform that supports parents of children on the autism spectrum by pairing them with their own personal certified expert and providing clinical interventions.

Buddy (Richmond, VA)

On-demand accident insurance to enable people to explore the world and have adventures.

Enroll Hero (Santa Monica, CA)

Personalized recommendation tool that helps seniors pick the perfect Medicare plan in seconds. 

FitBliss (San Jose, CA)

Digital wellbeing platform to optimize health and productivity for the global workforce.

FIX: Fitness Interactive Experience (Atlanta, GA)

Pioneer in Health Entertainment, delivering a unique blend of gameplay and health behavior change.

Halos Insurance (Washington, D.C.)

World’s first consumer insurance platform exclusively designed for nearly accident-free, low-risk consumers.

MamaMend (Boulder, CO)

Digital health platform and postpartum guide that informs, empowers and improves health outcomes for new moms.

Portabl (London, UK)

A comprehensive subscription service that protects freelancers and gig workers with personalized insurance and savings products and other benefits.

Safely (Atlanta, GA)

Through data analytics, background checks, and a contributory database, Safely provides $1M of commercial insurance for property managers and homeowners who rent on Airbnb and HomeAway.

MetLife Digital Accelerator Office Hours in Tel Aviv

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MetLife Digital Accelerator Info Session in Tel Aviv


MetLife Digital Accelerator Info Session in Chicago


MetLife Digital Accelerator Office Hours in Chicago

Click here to request office hours! 

AMA: MetLife Digital Accelerator

Save your spot: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/metlife_mar26