The Columbus startup is revitalizing an industry that had become an afterthought
Imagine going on vacation to relax, only to be caught up in a nightmare scenario where an accident, natural disaster or COVID-19 infection not only derails your plans, but creates a costly and stressful day, week or month. Now, imagine if you could take that same trip knowing that any of those scenarios would be covered by someone who knows exactly how to handle that challenge? That’s the service offered by Columbus startup Battleface, who wants to change the decades-old paradigm of travel insurance.
“When we travel, we’re heavily reliant on the company we travel with, and that’s the essence of Battleface,” said CEO Sasha Gainullin. “We worked with one customer who traveled to Argentina and had COVID-19 and couldn’t board their flight. Our team helped them find a hotel that was comfortable with someone who had COVID-19 who could isolate them. Then, they found a way to deliver meals to them four times a day, change all of their flights and take care of all the expenses before taking them back home. That’s the purpose of this company.”
Aside from getting a hotel room you can cancel or paying a few extra dollars for a refundable ticket, travel insurance doesn’t even cross most people’s minds when they’re planning a trip. Gainullin believes that’s not because travel insurance isn’t worth it, but because most people assume it’s unnecessary or ineffective due to the way it’s operated at traditional insurance companies or travel agencies for years.
“Travel insurance in general is something that many people aren’t aware of, but is quite relevant right now,” he said. “We consider ourselves a tech company that unbundles travel insurance, trying to make it a better product by using innovative technology, underwriting and services. Let’s say you go to Costa Rica, have an accident and break your arm. Battleface’s policy could pay for the medical expenses and bring you back home. In the past, it didn’t matter if you were flying to Paris or New York; it was the same travel insurance policy filled with lots of coverages that you may or may not need. Now, we want to allow travelers to custom build a product for themselves based on their actual needs. If you don’t need baggage insurance, you don’t need that coverage. That’s how the price of the policy becomes more fair.”
Traditional travel insurance covered the basics: bags, tickets, slight inconveniences. But issues ranging from accidents to terror attacks weren’t covered because of exceptions written into every policy. If a traveler was injured while SCUBA diving, it wasn’t covered because of an exception. If a terror attack halted travel, customers were out of luck due to an exception. So when the pandemic hit, it showcased exactly why a rethinking of travel insurance was so necessary.
“The problems that we’re solving became global problems,” he said. “All of the sudden, every single travel insurance policy out there became invalid because of pandemic exclusions, which is the number two or three exclusion on most policies. Because we’ve built this software that dynamically prices based on world events and what you’re doing, we did not have that exclusion. Our underwriters were comfortable with those risks because we’re pricing for them. So we began growing really fast.”
Battleface found its home in Columbus largely thanks to Drive Capital’s investment. The VC firm asked if the company would consider a Columbus headquarters, and Gainullin knew he liked the culture he found when he moved to Wisconsin in a foreign exchange program from his native Russia. There, he attended the University of Wisconsin and came to love the atmosphere of the Midwest. He agreed to start Battleface in Columbus, and has been thrilled with the support and friendliness of his first year in Ohio.
“The Department of Insurance in Ohio could be used as an example to all the other departments in the country,” he said. “They are so efficient in helping us, as a startup, and guiding us in the right direction. Insurance is a complicated industry to work within, but in the first week we were here, I was meeting with the entire Department of Insurance. Their message was, ‘How can we help you be successful?’ That level of attention has to be experienced to be explained. As a fast-growing company, it’s been important to be in a place like Columbus.”
As a microcosm of their forward-thinking nature, the company made a splash by announcing that they would begin offering space travel insurance. The idea might seem outlandish, but to Gainullin and Batleface, it’s just another representation of their guiding principle: all travel can be insured.
“Our entire mission is to deliver products that are relevant to today’s travelers, and space travel is an extension of that,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re going bungee jumping in New Zealand or shooting yourself into space — you’re still traveling. We always say, ‘To get to the space station, you have to travel.’ So this is just another travel experience to us, and a way to be at the forefront of providing products that are relevant to our customers.”