Manulife’s Labs of Forward Thinking are doubling down on emerging technologies—such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and augmented reality—in search of “Uber ideas” for the financial services industry.

The LOFTs, based in Boston, Toronto and Singapore, work as a collective network and are duplicates of each other, serving three business purposes, according to the insurer. Each takes on the “fast-fail” strategy, to help startups identify the best ideas quickly through expedited three-month development sprints.

Manulife headquarters in Toronto
Manulife headquarters in Toronto

Manulife opened its first LOFT in Boston, under subsidiary John Hancock, in 2015 with intentions of driving innovation for its portfolio managers. The business unit is now aligned with group functions that serve the entire organization; helping Manulife forge stronger relationships with startup communities across North America and Asia, while recruiting external talent for in-house teams.

According to Ace Moghimi, LOFT’s global head of innovation strategy and delivery, viable products can be delivered in as little as two months, assuming teams the right level of expertise on the matter. As an example, Toronto’s LOFT retirement team recently presented a new product to executives after just three weeks. Other times, a deep level of research is required before taking a project head on.

“You really have to dig in and understand the domain,” said Moghimi. “Our guys dig into the data science, they dig into the technology tools, and they try to understand how the stuff works, and that takes some time. Especially with new things, it’s not like its standard out of the box.”

Finding the Right Talent Mix

Approximately 35 people work at LOFT; ten in Singapore and Toronto and 15 in Boston. The company is currently looking to hire three developers in Canada and the U.S., according to Moghimi. Early on, Manulife relied heavily on its social media channels to market the LOFT brand. The company also leveraged co-op communities built with local universities Waterloo and Ryerson in Toronto, and Northeastern in Boston, to hire from internship programs.

Yet mobilizing its own 30,000-plus workforce to innovate was not lost on Manulife in LOFT’s early stages. The Toronto-based carrier organized hackathons in the second half of 2015 to fill LOFT with a balance balance of internal and external staff that would delve into new initiatives. The hackathons were held in Boston and Toronto.

In addition to ongoing projects the company would not disclose, Manulife is open to using robotics as a way to smooth out back-office operations, such as call center. The suggested platform would resemble Amazon’s Alexa. LOFT recently also partnered with startups indico data solutions and Nervana Systems last summer. Both companies specialize in deep learning and artificial intelligence technologies.

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