LEADERSHIP SPOTLIGHT: Zurich’s ‘Rocket Man’ Dr Christian Westermann on why Insurance Trumps NASA when it comes to Job Satisfaction
LEADERSHIP SPOTLIGHT: Zurich’s ‘Rocket Man’ Dr Christian Westermann on why Insurance Trumps NASA when it comes to Job Satisfaction
Physicist and former rocket scientist, Dr Christian Westermann, is taking Zurich’s AI transformation stratospheric. Insurtech Insights finds out more.

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The Group Head of AI for Zurich Insurance – Dr Christian Westermann, is a long way from his roots in space science. In his early career he contributed as technology specialist to space missions from ESA (European Space Agency) and NASA. 

Not only that, but currently, somewhere above us in the stratosphere, those satellite-based instruments have collected massive amounts of data from our solar system, which will keep data scientists and physicists busy for the next few years, in better understanding the origin of life. 

It sounds incredibly exciting and dynamic – and a career anyone interested in the ‘how things actually work’ side of science, could only dream of. Despite this, Westermann left the space race – and is now far more embedded in the world of AI and insurance – a move he celebrates and thoroughly enjoys. 

Participating in the Point Zero Forum, 2022

Looking back on those early ‘moon-mission’ days, he confirms: “In my years as a space scientist, I learned that innovation means to follow a path that no one has taken before, where you are confronted with many questions, doubts and disbelief. Endurance is what you need to succeed, combined with an unflinching attitude to work towards the goal of the space mission.”

Exploring software engineering

Westermann soon found himself exploring other forms of technology – and developing a taste for the burgeoning software arena as it unfolded in the late 90’s. The excitement of projects that yielded results in a short space of time, attracted him the most. 

He explains: “While I had opportunities to stay within the space science industry, I eventually chose a different path. Working in rocket science isn’t always about money; it’s about chasing a dream – and seeing the results of your labour can take a very long time. From my first involvement in the mid-nineties, to the launch of the spacecraft in 2004, to the start of the experiment at the comet in 2014, to its termination in 2016, roughly 20 years passed by from first ideas of the instrument design to the evidence that was collected at the target”.

Dr Christian Westermann speaking at Zurich’s Leadership Team Summit.

Today, Westermann’s more ‘down to earth’ role, sees him report directly to Zurich’s Ericson Chan, who sits on the executive board as the Group Chief Information & Digital Officer, overseeing the entire technology and operations for the organisation. His primary focus lies in advancing AI initiatives within Zurich that benefit the customer experience.

Essentially, Westermann leads a team responsible for delivering AI solutions for various use cases within Zurich. Additionally, he oversees the development and deployment of AI platforms and gateways, including generative AI, to support initiatives at global and at local level. This entails providing guidance and assistance to teams worldwide, ensuring consistency and sharing best practices.

He says: “The role is broad in AI. I am a go-to person for anything related to AI. Sometimes, my team support the business to implement AI-driven use cases in their core topics. In other areas, we advise local AI teams in different countries on how to create or scale their own use cases. This way, everyone can benefit from shared knowledge and ideas. And we can promote the reuse of available AI solutions throughout the business.”

Scalability in record time

Unsurprisingly, when you employ the best people, you get extraordinary results. Despite only joining Zurich as its AI lead two years ago, Westermann and his team, composed of talented data scientists, machine learning, platform and cloud engineers, have ensured that the insurance giant is well ahead of the curve when it comes to managing the latest developments in Generative AI.

In just 10 months, they built a cutting-edge gateway and platform that enables all Zurich entities around the world, and their business affiliates to have convenient access to GenAI models, GenAI accelerators and specific GenAI services – all delivered in a secure and protected environment. 

…a multinational insurance company such as Zurich, that is active in different markets and businesses, is a treasure trove for people like me who are passionate about AI!” 

Dr Christian Westermann – Head of AI – Zurich Insurance

“By centralising access through the gateway, we empower Zurich to develop use cases rapidly while maintaining control and governance. We enforce strict rules, ensuring that all AI initiatives adhere to our responsible AI principles. This also includes collaborations with external technology providers. The approach aligns with our commitment to integrating AI responsibly across our operations, in line with our AI assurance framework.”

In addition to the group-wide Gen AI gateway and platforms, Westermann and his team have been exploring the capabilities of the newest Gen AI models with various business units: “Gen AI is with no doubts a true game-changer in the insurance industry. Take as example the policies that we sign with our customers: each word plays a crucial role, whether it is in the policy, or whether it is missing. Or in claims processing, where our customers describe their losses in a real-world scenario, with their own words and images. Throughout these customer interactions and operations, Generative AI opens up new possibilities for us to enhance the customer experience”.

Building teams that in turn, build excellence

Westermann attributes this success to knowing how to gather the right talent – a skill gained from the years he spent in consulting, where he built and led a large team of AI and analytics specialists that was delivering several leading AI-driven projects in different industries.

“Today, I have a team of roughly 60 experts at Zurich, who operate with a startup mindset within a large company. This requires a pragmatic approach to many of the things we do.” He says that understanding people and their work processes is crucial for success. “My background in physics, software engineering and consulting helps me day by day in bridging the gap between the tech experts in my team and Zurich’s business community”.

Dr Christian Westermann (left)

Besides the team, Westermann believes that having the foresight and bravery to move swiftly on new innovations, is the key to success down the line. He also attributes this success to Zurich’s sound technology leadership, who has strategically positioned Zurich for speed in adopting emerging technologies. Besides AI he sees two other factors which have transitioned Zurich’s business operations: the move to the cloud and the implementation of a global API platform, through which services can be consumed from everywhere.

“Zurich’s proactive approach to cloud readiness has streamlined our AI adoption process,” Westermann says. “We can swiftly explore Gen AI models as offered in our secure cloud environments, and provide global access through the API gateway. Our robust cybersecurity measures further reinforce confidence in our AI initiatives.”

AI adoption will be an industry tipping point

Ultimately, Westermann sees transformational technologies as revolutionary solutions that will change the insurance industry at an incredible pace. He believes that the mainstream usage tipping point could happen as quickly as 2026.  

“The insurance industry is particularly open to Gen AI because it addresses fundamental challenges. Different from other industries, the insurance industry is heavily driven by so-called unstructured data: natural language, images or videos, describing real-world scenarios such as an environment, an accident, or fire mitigating installations in a large building, just to name a few examples. Gen AI models have the capability to better extract information from those sources, at the time of underwriting or when a loss occurred.”

He continues: “In 2023, Zurich and other insurance companies began exploring Gen AI, with some progressing faster than others. This year marked the exploration phase, with 2024 focusing on implementing Gen AI solutions into production. The impact of these implementations, such as faster claims processing and improved risk assessment, will gradually become evident along the value chain.”

He firmly believes that customers may start noticing the differences between companies using AI and those that aren’t, as soon as 2025, as live use cases begin to show tangible benefits. By 2026, Westermann says the distinction between modern and traditional companies, based on their AI adoption and customer interactions, will likely become more apparent. “This could serve as a tipping point for customer perceptions of companies’ modernity and efficiency.”


Insurance – the most exciting industry for AI R&D

Ultimately, Westermann has no regrets in swapping his lab coat for the corporate uniform. In fact, he relishes the challenges he faces every day, breaking ground in the world’s most talked-about new technology.

“The insurance industry might seem dull from a customer’s standpoint. After all, most people simply want protection and hope never to deal with claims,” he says. “Customers want to understand the type of insurance without being experts, and they want to get insurance at any place, everywhere, and the moment they need protection for what they own. And in the event of a claim, they prefer quick resolution without much interaction with the insurance company. However, from an inside-out perspective, AI is one of the most powerful technologies to achieve these expectations. As such, a multinational insurance company such as Zurich, who is active in different markets and businesses, is a treasure trove for people like me who are passionate about AI!” 

He concludes: “I’m really grateful that two years ago I found a new home at Zurich Insurance, where I can follow my passion. It’s a great brand which makes me, as a Swiss citizen, very proud to work for. Moreover our senior management understands that AI is becoming an integral part of our business. And in Ericson Chan, I have found a leader who is not only convinced that through tech transformation we will achieve a superior customer experience, but who has proven it already in his past.”

Interview by Joanna England

Joanna England is an award-winning journalist and the Editor-in-Chief for Insurtech Insights. She has worked for 25 years in both the consumer and business space, and also spent 15 years in the Middle East, on national newspapers as well as leading events and lifestyle publications. Prior to Insurtech Insights, Joanna was the Editor-in-Chief for Fintech Magazine and Insurtech Digital. She was also listed by MPVR as one of the Top 30 journalist in Fintech and Insurtech in 2023.

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