Two of the defining institutions in Columbus, Ohio – Nationwide Insurance and The Ohio State University (OSU) – are collaborating to get the best data scientists into the insurance industry.

The Nationwide Center for Advanced Customer Insights (NCACI) gives OSU students in advanced degree programs the ability to work with real-world data to solve some of the biggest insurance business problems. Faculty and students from the marketing, statistics, psychology, economics and computer science departments work with Nationwide to develop predictive models and data mining techniques aimed at improving marketing and distribution, identifying consumer behavior patterns, and increasing customer satisfaction and lifetime value.

The NCACI opened in 2008 and employs eight to 12 students at a time for about 20 hours a week, says Chris Nicholas, VP of customer analytics for Nationwide. Applicants interview as though they would be taking on a job at the company. The prospect of working on actual business-critical data is a huge draw, Nicholas says.

“The feedback we get constantly is that students can’t believe the diversity and complexity of the problems we get to work on,” he says. And students quickly learn that as they develop solutions, “if we come up with a robust answer, it will be put into practice.”

An increasing percentage of Nationwide’s data science team comes from the NCACI every year – including the executive-in-residence who manages it, Mike McCaslin. He was a social psychology major in college.

“Most graduates of my degree go into academic research, and my inclination was to work in the business school” after graduating from it, McCaslin says.

“What I liked about Nationwide was that it had an academic approach to the analytics work, so even if people we try to bring in on the team aren’t initially interested in insurance, this is a chance to work on really difficult problems” and learn that the insurance industry has robust opportunities, he adds.

Initially, the NCACI was seen as a pure research facility, says Mike Kozub, SVP of customer insights & analytics. Nationwide treated it like a “think tank” – students worked exclusively on campus, on problems brought to them by corporate representatives, and occasionally came up with solutions.

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But about three years ago, NCACI students began working part time on Nationwide’s actual campus with other members of the team, which has made it easier for the insurer to retain the best talent after their coursework ends.

“Now they’re a fully integrated extension of my team,” Kozub says. “And once they’ve already gotten over the first hurdle [the interview], we get a mutual tryout to understand how good they actually are. We can even coach them where we want them to be.”

And for a company betting big on customer acquisition – Nationwide spent the sixth-most money on marketing in P&C insurance last year according to SNL Financial, $352 million – getting and retaining the best scientists is crucial.

“Folks have gotten the support of the customer analytics team and success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” McCaslin says.

This article originally published by Insurance Networking News.

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