Jeff Mason is standing in front of a long table of dozens of computer work stations in a big industrial-style room in the Ann Arbor, Michigan, headquarters of Groundspeed Analytics, the startup he founded in 2016 aimed at digitizing paper-heavy communications in the commercial-insurance business.
Before Covid, the chairs at the table would have been full with millennial and GenZ whizzes helping Groundspeed flourish into the near-unicorn it already was becoming, as one of the fastest-growing tech companies in Michigan and the American heartland.
But nowadays, Mason’s only companion in the building some days is Jessie, his Wheatondoodle, who’s got the whole place to cavort. The pandemic whacked the company’s tight-knit culture as it did the workplaces of most companies, and now the space fills up only on days when special collaborative meetings are held. Otherwise, employees are dispersed and working remotely.
Along the way, Mason has realized that while the pandemic had robbed his startups of the very real benefits of tangible interaction among employees physically co-located in a workspace, he could pounce on benefits for Groundspeed Analytics that were on the flip side of that trend.
“We’ve completely changed our work culture, and now we are remote first,” Mason told Chief Executive. “We’ve got team members in 30 different states. Many people are working from home now, and we’re able to tap into more of a national labor pool.”
At the same time, Mason lavishes praise on the Ann Arbor ecosystem that helped him launch Groundspeed analytics, including the deep bench in engineering and software developed at the University of Michigan. Mason leveraged these resources, advanced machine-learning and image-analysis techniques, and his own background in alternative financing and casualty insurance to establish Groundspeed in 2016.
Investors included New York-based VCs as well as local outfits including the Michigan Angel Fund and Tappan Hill Ventures. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation and Ann Arbor Spark, a 15-year-old economic-development organization for the region, helped as well.
The big idea was to help brokers and customers communicate better in the middle market and large-placement sectors of the commercial-insurance business, which has been “entirely conducted through e-mail, manual and grueling processes on both sides,” he said. Mason compared what Groundspeed Analytics accomplished to “what Plaid did to finance, which is to connect an entire ecosystem and enable the much more efficient exchange of information across businesses and brokers.”
The mid-market and large sectors of commercial insurance are “transacted entirely through brokers,” he explained. “Brokers will gather information on a business, and submit that business’s information to dozens of different insurance companies to get quotes back for coverage. The broker may attach thousands of pages of information to those e-mails to send to underwriters. We use AI to read insurance documents like humans, but more efficiently, and expanding the breadth of data and analysis.”
Yet, Mason said, such technology “wasn’t available” as recently as five years ago. “We’re based on pretty advanced machine-learning and image-analysis techniques, and we benefit from having very large and substantial partnerships with large brokers and carriers. There’s a lot of training data, and we’re able to automate a process that generally has been like a holy grail of processes to automate.”
Groundspeed Analytics’ target market is commercial insurance carriers that must process all of this information. So far, Mason has validated the bets of investors, with customers including insurance giants such as Aon, Willis Towers Watson, Travelers and Liberty Mutual.
Groundspeed tripled revenues in 2021, Mason said, and is “solidly on the way” to unicorn status by 2023.