With Nexus, Karp is trying to revive mutual insurance, a model that dates back to the 17th century and, many argue, aligned the interests of participants better than today’s profit-maximizing insurance firms. Nexus is one of a handful of blockchain startups, at various stages of development, aiming to use the technology for this purpose.
But the first insurance product Nexus plans to offer will cover an ultra-modern type of risk: security failures of smart contracts on the ethereum blockchain. Think of the DAO hack of 2016, in which some 3.6 million ether (valued at around $50 million at the time) was drained from the smart contract by an attacker. Or last year’s Parity Multisig Wallet attack, in which just over 150,000 ether was stolen (then worth around $30 million).
Starting early next year, Nexus will offer to insure customers against financial losses from such “unintended code usage.” Yet Nexus itself will run as a smart contract on top of ethereum. That’s what Karp means when he talks about trusting the code. For him, blockchain is a way to overcome one of the limitations of the old mutuals while retaining their benefits.
His thesis is that users will trust the rules of a smart contract underpinned by the immutable ethereum public blockchain. This way, members who don’t know each other can trust each other, allowing the mutual to scale. Eventually, consulting with members, the plan is to explore other areas of catastrophe cover beyond crypto.
Karp stands out in the insurtech space because of his deep understanding of both the sector and the technology. He began his career as an actuary and rose to become the chief financial officer at Munich Re, one of the world’s leading reinsurers. He became fascinated by bitcoin and then ethereum relatively early, in 2014.
Stephen D. Palley, a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of the law firm Anderson Kill with extensive experience in the insurance sector, is something of a blockchain skeptic, yet was uncharacteristically bullish about Karp and Nexus.
“People who really understand both the technology and the insurance vertical are lacking,” said Palley. “I also like the Nexus idea of mutualization; it’s almost like back to the future for insurance.”
He added that Nexus “proposes something like an old-fashioned view of insurance, a community-based model, as opposed to an adversarial one.”