When disaster strikes, costs pile up quickly. Flood waters can wipe out the foundation of a home or building, just as much as wildfires can burn down the walls or the entire structure. For residents and business owners, rebuilding and rebuilding quickly is crucial: They ultimately need some place to live and offer services, and they often can’t afford to be shut out for extended periods of time.
Of course, the need for speed among consumers hits the brick wall that is the insurance industry and government’s timeline for dispersing post-disaster insurance claims and aid. It’s not uncommon for federal aid to take months or even years to arrive, and insurance companies can often take months as well to process claims, particularly after large disasters like hurricanes where thousands of claims arrive simultaneously.
Dorothy is a startup that is aiming to bridge the gap by offering, well, gap loans to users who already have existing private insurance or federal flood insurance policies. The idea is to extend cash as quickly as possible after qualification, and then Dorothy gets paid back when a claim is later processed. Much like other advance cash startups in other sectors, Dorothy takes a fee based on the size of the loan.
The company’s underwriting model assesses the likelihood that a claim will be approved given the details of a particular disaster and the user’s insurance policy.
Arianna Armelli and Claudio Angrigiani founded the company last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, naming it for the character from the “Wizard of Oz” who repeatedly said “there’s no place like home.” They met each other in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and explored different ways to solve the challenges of disaster finance.
Armelli, for her part, had experienced these challenges firsthand in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. She was an architect, and her office in Manhattan had to be evacuated. She returned a few days later, but over time, realized that many of her friends still couldn’t return to their homes even weeks after the hurricane had passed. She volunteered with recovery efforts, and “went house to house in the Rockaways to remove drywall from their basements,” she said.
She continued her career, spending nearly six years as an architect and urban planner, and that training drove some of her early ideas about how to improve post-disaster recovery. “I thought the answer to these problems was designing better infrastructure and long-term sustainable solutions with planning,” she said. “After six years in planning, [I] realized these were 40-year projects.”
After meeting Angrigiani, the two explored ways to make the insurance system better for end users. They began by investigating how better flood data could help insurance companies underwrite better policies and process claims faster. They realized over time though that the insurance industry was quite sclerotic, and that a third-party provider of better flood predictive data wasn’t going to have a large impact on outcomes.
As COVID bared down on the world, they then explored business interruption insurance. Using their technology for disaster prediction, they saw an opportunity to offer “a financial supplementary product for businesses,” essentially a “credit line product that is offered to commercial business owners similar to a credit card,” Armelli said. That idea eventually morphed into the company’s current product offering targeting property owners, both businesses and individuals, with the same sort of gap loan to solve immediate cash-flow problems.
Dorothy participated in the latest cohort of Urban-X and closed a pre-seed round this past February. The company has raised a $250,000 debt facility to further test out its gap loan product, and it has 25 qualified customers in its pipeline. It’s early days, but it’s an interesting new bet on how to make insurance actually useful when people face some of the toughest moments of their lives.
It’s just one of a new crop of startups that are building new offerings in a world increasingly filled with massive disasters.