LOOP, a insurtech company that is launching a new concept of AI-driven auto insurance polices, was able to land $21M in Series A funding last week. The group of investors varied from venture capital groups to media companies to celebrities like hip-hop star Nas. The company claims to do auto insurance differently by changing the way they design premiums and qualify discounts.
“We get rid of all the stuff that doesn’t matter in pricing [customers],” said John Henry, Co-CEO and Co-founder of LOOP, when explaining how the ways traditional insurance companies price their customer’s rates. This is where LOOP separates themselves from the pack. Things like credit scores, education, and income are not considered when pricing out their customer’s rates according to Henry, rather it’s how and where they are driving that determines the cost of insurance.
As an [Managing General Agent] MGA, LOOP underwrites its own risk and chooses the services they partner with to operate their claims. “This is not some digital brokerage or a quoting engine,” said Henry. “When you are insured by LOOP, it’s our actual product you’re insured by. We don’t sell any other products, we don’t sell leads, we are in the business of insuring people.”
LOOP will provide information to its customers that enables them to improve their driving and decrease their future rates. They will send customers tips on where and when to drive, and how to drive if they are driving erratically via a phone-based app. Their initial rate is based on population-level statistics from the respective area, and their personalized rate is a standard 6-month premium, meaning that the monthly rate won’t change month-to-month based upon how customers drive at certain times.
“We have millennials encumbered with student loan debt, we have immigrant populations with consumer loans, baby boomers selling their homes and losing their home and auto bundles, and the realities of the post-pandemic era means that we need more flexible and contemporary insurance solutions, and we are proud to be emerging as that,” Henry said.
“We are the third step of insurtech,” he said, when asked how LOOP compares to others in the AI-based insurance sphere. “We’ve fundamentally built a novel insurance product from the ground up. Rather than sprinkle a digital layer on top of a legacy product, we completely rearchitected it.”
Henry boasted about how his company is the only one writing policies without traditional demographics in mind. “Today, I’m really proud to say that LOOP is the only insurance product that is a standard auto product that doesn’t have any of those demographic factors, it’s completely technology driven,” Henry said.
According to Henry, LOOP’s status as a public-benefit corporation, or B-Corp, will give his company the moral obligation it needs to fulfill its mission of being a fair, non-biased, and non-discriminatory auto insurance provider. The B-Corp status creates a “double bottom line” as Henry put it, creating a legal obligation for the company to hold the values in its mission statement for its customers, as well as the traditional corporate obligation to what’s best for its shareholders.
“From a business perspective, it’s kind of a risky thing,” Henry stressed when talking about the obligation to their customers as part of the public-benefit agreement. “The public can sue us if they ever feel like we are straying away from our mission.”
Customers are saving an average of 35% on their auto insurance premiums when quoted by LOOP, according to Henry. The company name directly correlates with the envisioned series of events that a LOOP customer will experience while holding a policy. A LOOP customer signs up, gets a good rate, utilizes the information given by LOOP, their driving is tracked and the data is analyzed, and the rate drops upon renewal after the policy expires. By repeating this, the customer “loops” around a cycle of better information leading to better rates.
“This is a mass market product. There is mass consumer demand. Our waitlist has grown to over 30,000 people across all fifty states, with different age groups and backgrounds,” Henry said. “I think people are excited to have an insurance company they can love again.”
Elliot J Dabah, CEO of NYC-based Merchants Cash Partners, LLC, recently passed away. Known throughout the merchant financing industry, friends and colleagues began collecting kind words to reflect on his life to be able to share them here.
Elliot Ashkenazie, his business partner and best friend, said “Elliot Dabah would step up and help anyone in need whether that be his own employee, another ISO, or a complete stranger on the street. He didn’t keep any secrets so he would have an advantage over others, he simply paid it forward and helped the community as a whole benefit from it. Merchants Cash Partners will work tirelessly to carry on his legacy and his values.”
“Elliot Dabah was the heartbeat of the Financial District and he was an integrated part of my life, both professional and personal,” said Gigi Russo. “Not only did Elliot and I live three blocks from each other, but I first had the privilege and pleasure of meeting him while I was working for deBanked, at CONNECT San Diego. We quickly became close friends. He truly never took advantage of our tight knit friendship. His professional support was a reflection of his character— a respectable person that respected his family, friends and business associates. Elliot wanted everyone to succeed. He believed that friends and business colleagues should support one another to build a viable network.”
Tom Dool of Power Funding, said “Of all of the offices I’ve ever visited, I can honestly say that no other partner of mine compares to Merchants Cash Partners. From the moment I met both Elliots, they were inviting. I could tell right away that they had a special bond of shared enthusiasm, honesty, generosity, thoughtful, caring people.” He adds, “Elliot [Dabah] lived life with such a genuine love for people and getting to know people, discussing higher level ideas, sharing feelings. He was one of the best and I’ll never forget him.”
“Elliot was one of the most welcoming people I had the pleasure of knowing,” says Colt Kucker of Libertas Funding, “and always tried helping out whether it be a customer, myself, or anybody in need. He was a hard worker and will truly be missed by all he came across.”
Justin Friedman of Enova SMB, described Dabah, “Smart, strategic, urgent, generous and wise are a few words to describe Elliot. He was universally popular and a known professional in our industry, which isn’t common to come by. He cared about his customers and business relationships. Elliot’s presence in alternative lending was a positive one and he will be remembered for exactly that.”
Ben Lugassy of SOS Capital states that he was “Always smiling and enthusiastic, Elliot was the embodiment of joyful. A friend with tremendous respect and gratitude, he will always be remembered and in our prayers.”
Paul Boxer of Velocity Capital Group added, “Every-time I met Elliot he had the largest smile, always happy to talk shop and discuss the industry. He was very knowledgeable and had a wealth of information, he will surely be missed.”
Ken Peng of Elevate Funding recounts that Elliot, “was always great to work with. He was always very friendly and understanding when we did review any of his files. He will be missed.”
Gigi Russo, who was instrumental in putting this tribute together, further added that Elliot “treated everyone he came into contact with as a friend.” He has “a sincere, dignified, and affable reputation that will follow him after his passing. He will surely be remembered for supporting his colleagues, clients, business acquaintances, and network. The legacy Elliot has left behind is simple: Respect one another. Support one another. Honesty and hard work are necessities of success.”
Part of Elliot’s legacy is the company he built. Merchants Cash Partners, despite the pandemic, was so successful this year that it outgrew its office space.
“Elliot had a revolutionary style of making this industry a community,” says his partner Ashkenazie. “He referred clients and prospects alike to small firms and national firms, expecting nothing in return.”
Coincidence would have it that a photo of Elliot at a deBanked event was often used in event marketing promotions. As to how that picture came to be used so prominently, deBanked President Sean Murray said that “Elliot embodied the community we were trying to portray. A nice young business professional who radiated positive energy. Who is part of this industry? It’s guys like Elliot. That’s what we wanted everyone to know.
“Elliot totally noticed how often we were sharing his photo,” Murray said. “He told me that he thought that was pretty cool.”
Some alternative funders are anxious for “open banking” to become the gold standard in the U.S., but achieving widespread implementation is a weighty proposition.
Open banking refers to the use of open APIs (application program interfaces) that enable third-party developers to build applications and services around a financial institution. It’s a movement that’s been gaining ground globally in recent years. Regulations in the U.K., a forerunner in open banking, went into effect in January, while several other countries including Australia and Canada are at varying stages of implementation or exploration.
For the U.S., however, the time frame for comprehensive adoption of open banking is murkier. Industry participants say the prospects are good, but the sheer number of banks and the fragmented regulatory regime makes wholesale implementation immensely more complicated. Nonetheless, industry watchers see promise in the budding grass-roots initiative among banks and technology companies to develop data-sharing solutions. Regulators, too, have started to weigh in on the topic, showing a willingness to further explore how open banking could be applied in U.S. markets.
Open banking “is a global phenomenon that has great traction,” says Richard Prior, who leads open banking policy at Kabbage, an alternative lender that has been active in encouraging the industry to develop open banking standards in the U.S. “It’s incumbent upon the U.S. to be a driver of this trend,” he says.
The stakes are particularly high for alternative lenders since they rely so heavily on data to make informed underwriting decisions. Open banking has the potential to open up scores of customer data and significantly improve the underwriting process, according to industry participants.
“Open banking massively enables alternative lending,” says Mark Atherton, group vice president for Oracle’s financial services global business unit. What’s missing at the moment is the regulatory stick to ensure uniformity. Certainly, data sharing is gradually becoming more commonplace in the U.S. as banks and fintech companies increasingly explore ways to collaborate. But even so, banks in the U.S. are currently all over the map when it comes to their approach to open banking, posing a challenge for many alternative lenders. Many alternative lenders would like to see regulators step in with prescriptive requirements so that open banking becomes an obligation for all banks, as opposed to these decisions being made on a bank-by-bank basis. Especially since many consumers want to be able to more readily share their financial information, they say.
“It will create huge value to everyone if that data is more accessible,” says Eden Amirav, co-founder and chief executive of Lending Express, an AI-powered marketplace for business loans.
Some global-minded banks like Citibank have been on the forefront of open banking initiatives. Spanish banking giant BBVA is also taking a proactive approach. In October, the bank went live in the U.S. with its Banking-as-a-Service platform, after a multi-month beta period. Also in October, JPMorgan Chase announced a data sharing agreement with financial technology company Plaid that will allow customers to more easily push banking data to outside financial apps like Robinhood, Venmo and Acorns.
There are several other examples of open banking in action. Kabbage customers, for instance, authorize read-only access to their banking information to expedite the lending process through the company’s aggregator partners, says Sam Taussig, head of global policy at Kabbage.
Also, companies such as Xero and Mint routinely interface with banks to put customers in control of their financial planning. And companies like Plaid and Yodlee connect lenders and banks to help with processes such as asset and income verification.
Some banks, however, are more reticent than others when it comes to data sharing. And with no regulatory requirements in place, it’s up to individual banks how to proceed. This can be nettlesome for alternative lenders trying to get access to data, since there’s no guarantee they will be able to access the breadth of customer data that’s available. “As an underwriter, you want the whole financial picture, and if data points are missing, it’s hard to make appropriate lending decisions,” Taussig says.
The problem can be particularly acute among smaller banks, industry participants say. While the quality of data you can get from one of the money-center banks is quite good, “as you go down the line, it becomes a little less consistent,” says James Mendelsohn, chief operating officer of Breakout Capital Finance. For these smaller banks, the issue is sometimes one of control. There’s a feeling among some community banks, that “if I make it easier for my small business customers to get loans elsewhere, I’m done,” says Atherton of Oracle.
Absent regulatory requirements, alternative lenders are hoping that this initial hesitation among some banks changes over time as they continue to gain a better understanding of the market opportunity and as more of their counterparts become open to data sharing through APIs.
Open banking could be a boon for banks in that it would enable them to service customers they probably couldn’t before, says Jeffrey Bumbales, marketing director at Credibly, which helps small and mid-size businesses obtain financing. Open banking makes for a “better customer experience,” he says.
One challenge for the U.S. market is the hodgepodge of federal and state regulators that makes reaching a consensus a more arduous task. It’s not as simple here as it may be in other markets that are less fragmented, observers say.
Major rule-making would be involved, and there are many issues that would need attention. One pressing area of regulatory uncertainty today is who bears the liability in the event of a breach—the bank or the fintech, says Steve Boms, executive director of the Northern American chapter of the Financial Data and Technology Association. Existing regulations simply don’t speak to data connectivity issues, he says.
To be sure, policymakers have started to give these matters more serious attention, with various regulators weighing in, though no regulator has issued definitive requirements. Still, some industry participants are encouraged to see regulators and policymakers taking more of an interest in open banking.
A recent Treasury Report, for example, notes that as open banking matures in the United Kingdom, “U.S. financial regulators should observe developments and learn from the British experience.” And, The Senate Banking Committee recently touched on the issue at a Sept. 18 hearing. Industry watchers say these developments are a step in the right direction, though there’s significant work needed, they say, in order to make open banking a pervasive reality.
“We’re seeing the pace and interest around these things picking up pretty significantly,” Boms says. Even so, it can take several years to implement a formal process. “The hope is obviously as soon as possible, but the financial services sector is a very fragmented market in terms of regulation. There’s going to have to be a lot of coordination,” Boms says.
Another challenge to overcome is customers’ willingness to use open banking. Many small business owners are more comfortable sending a PDF bank statement versus granting complete access to their online banking credentials, says Mendelsohn of Breakout Capital Finance. “There’s a lot more comfort on the consumer side than there is on the small business side. Some of that is just time,” he adds.
Certainly sharing financial data is a concern—even in the U.K. where open banking efforts are well underway. More than three quarters of U.K. respondents expressed concern about sharing financial data with organizations other than their bank, according to a recent poll by market research body, YouGov. This suggests that more needs to be done to ease consumers into an open banking ecosystem.
The topic of data security came up repeatedly at this year’s Money20/20 USA conference in Las Vegas. How to make people feel comfortable that their data is safe is a pressing concern, says Tim Donovan, a spokesman for Fundbox, which provides revolving lines of credit for small businesses. Clearly, it’s something the industry will have to address before open banking can really become a reality in the U.S., he says.
Despite these challenges, many market watchers feel open banking in the U.S. is inevitable, given the momentum that’s driving adoption worldwide. Several countries have taken on open banking initiatives and are at varying states of implementation—some driven by industry, others by regulation. Here is a sampling of what’s happening in other regions of the world:
In the U.K., for example, the implementation process is ongoing and is expected to continually enhance and add functionality through September 2019, according to The Open Banking Implementation Entity, the designated entity for creating standards and overseeing the U.K’s open banking initiative.
At the moment, only the U.K.’s nine largest banks and building societies must make customer data available through open banking though other institutions have and continue to opt in to take part in open banking. As of September, there were 77 regulated providers, consisting of third parties and account providers and six of those providers were live with customers, according to the U.K. open banking entity.
In Europe, the second Payment Services Directive (PSD2) requires banks to open up their data to third parties. But implementation is taking longer than expected—given the large number of banks involved. By some opinions, open banking won’t really be in force in Europe until September 2019, when the Regulatory Technical Standards for open and secure electronic payments under the PSD2 are supposed to be in place.
In Australia, meanwhile, the country has adopted a phase-in process to take place over a period of several years through 2021. Starting in July 2019, all major banks will be required to make available data on credit and debit card, deposit and transaction accounts. Data requirements for mortgage accounts at major banks will follow by February 1, 2020. Then, by July 1 of 2020, all major banks will need to make available data on all applicable products; the remaining banks will have another 12 months to make all the applicable data available.
For its part, Hong Kong is also pushing ahead with plans for open banking. In July, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority published its open API framework for the local banking sector. There’s a multi-prong implementation strategy with the final phase expected to be complete by mid-2019.
Singapore, by contrast, is taking a different approach than some other countries by not enforcing rules for banks to open access to data. The Monetary Authority of Singapore has endorsed guidelines for Open Banking, but has expressed its preference to pursue an industry-driven approach as opposed to regulatory mandates.
Other countries, meanwhile, are more in the exploratory phases. In Canada, the government announced in September a new advisory committee for Open Banking, a first step in a review of its potential merits. And in Mexico, the county’s new Fintech Law requires providers to provide fair access to data, and regulators there are reportedly gung-ho to get appropriate regulations into place. Still other countries are also exploring how to bring open banking to their markets.
The U.S. meanwhile, is on a slower course—at least for now. More banks are using APIs internally and have been exploring how they can work with third-party technology companies. Meanwhile, companies like IBM have been coming to market with solutions to help banks open up their legacy systems and tap into APIs. Other industry players are also actively pursuing ways to bring open banking to the market.
As for when and if open banking will become pervasive in the U.S., it’s anyone’s guess, but industry participants have high hopes that it’s an achievable target in the not-too-distant future.
Thus far, there has been little pressure for banks to adopt open banking policies, says Taussig of Kabbage. But this is changing, and things will continue to evolve as other countries adopt open banking and as pressure builds from small businesses and consumers in an effort to ensure the U.S. market stays competitive, he says. Open banking “is going to happen in the near future,” Taussig predicts.
Ron Suber wears many hats. His official LinkedIn profile lists him as President Emeritus and Senior Advisor at Prosper Marketplace. Now you can add a new title to his repertoire – the Magic Johnson on fintech. That’s because when it comes to Suber’s legacy, he’s all about the passing game.
“I really enjoy the assist in basketball more than the score or the dunk and so I’m trying to be that leader of assists in our industry, Magic Johnson, if you’ll let me use that analogy … I want to be him for our industry and help everybody win and help the whole thing be bigger, but you have to give the ball to the people in the position where they can score and that’s what I’m trying to do,” said Suber in a podcast discussion with Lend Academy’s Peter Renton, who is also a co-founder of LendIt.
Since Suber stepped down as president of Prosper, his presence in marketplace lending and fintech only seems to have blossomed, which in hindsight may have been the plan all along. The godfather of fintech, as he’s also known, is in the midst of what he’s dubbed a professional rewiring, one that didn’t prevent him from participating in a podcast with Renton.
During the discussion, Suber didn’t shy away from any topic, fielding questions on everything from his investment portfolio, to Prosper, to travel and his views on marketplace lending and fintech. His travels have taken Suber to Patagonia and the straits of Magellan to his favorite Aussie city of Melbourne. Next up Suber plans to explore Africa, including Rwanda and Tanzania.
Suber on Aussie IPO Credible
San Francisco-based Credible, a consumer finance marketplace for millennials, just raised $50 million in an Australian IPO. Suber, who serves as chairman of the fintech, got to know Credible CEO Stephen Dash a few years ago. When Dash needed to raise money, Suber was the first to work with other fintech influencers including a group in Asia to invest $10 million in the company at a $40 million valuation.
Credible followed up with another equity round before deciding to IPO in Australia, where the market is different versus the United States or Hong Kong.
“We were able to meet with the asset managers, the family offices, and the superannuation funds and some of the pension funds in Asia, Hong Kong in particular, and throughout Australia who were very supportive of Stephen Dash, who is from Australia,” said Suber, adding that Credible was the biggest tech/fintech IPO in Australia last year.
Incidentally, Suber has also met with Australia Treasurer Scott Morrison, who sparked a meeting with Suber, Dash, US cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase and other members of the payments market to discuss how Australia can engage with young US entrepreneurs.
We asked Suber what to expect with crypto and lending, in response to which he told deBanked: “Like the very early days of the internet, there were lots of dot-com companies with high valuations in the hype cycle, little revenue and unclear long-game solutions…think Amazon. Big winners emerged, and the majority lost money on the early bets. The same is true for cryptocurrencies. Enormous winners will emerge. In my opinion, the winners include CoinBase, Ripple and Ethereum.”
Suber on Prosper
While Suber has moved on from an executive role at Prosper, he remains engaged with the company and is close with the leadership team, including CEO David Kimball and CFO Usama Ashraf. Suber’s involved across the board, from customer acquisition, to business development and on the capital markets side of things as well.
“It’s again doing close to $300 million a month in originations, it has $100 million in cash it generates cash each quarter, it has its own securitization channel at this time in addition to the consortium … There’s a lot going on there including some product expansion, so there’s no shortage of things to do with Prosper, which I care a lot about,” said Suber.
Suber on Hindsight Being 20/20
Marketplace lending has had peaks and valleys along the way as it has matured from a nascent segment to essentially a transformational influence on the lending space, with its technology touching everything from the business model, to the borrower to the banks.
But if hindsight were 20/20, there are some things he’d do differently the second time around.
He pointed to Prosper’s acquisition of American HealthCare Lending, which he characterized as a “great decision,” giving the marketplace lender an opportunity to tap the healthcare borrower market. But as in any relationship, you can’t change each other.
“We changed American Healthcare Lending too much and tried to make it into something that it just couldn’t be with the point of sale financing. I think the lesson there is it’s great to do an acquisition, but you have to make sure you execute and keep it fresh and focused and successful once you get it,” said Suber, pointing to the acquisition of Tel Aviv’s BillGuard as yet another example of this.
Prosper also took on too much office space around the country.
“Perhaps we could have outsourced a little more instead of all the hiring. Clearly diversifying committed capital and maybe back then even using some of the capital we raised to do these own CLUB deal securitizations, which Prosper does now very successfully with its balance sheet,” he noted.
Suber also urged the marketplace lending market to showcase its technology and unique abilities as “tech-enabled finance companies” more. As the innovator that he is, Suber suggested there should be greater collaboration among marketplace lenders, comparing it to the airline industry. He explained:
“So, the airline industry is competitive, they’re competing for dollars and seats and people and talented pilots and the best planes, but the reality is they have to work together, they have to make sure that planes don’t crash and that the industry is on time and does lots of good things together… And that’s really what I think we can do better, a better job of as an industry is really working together, competing, but communicating and making sure everybody lands safely.”
Suber on Marketplace Lending
As the godfather of fintech, Suber is often looked to as a guiding voice on the status of the market. That’s why when he says the industry has advanced in innings, it’s revelatory.
“I think we’re in the home stretch, I think we’ve done the seventh inning stretch,” he said. Suber pointed to Asia, where the market has gone from 3,000 platforms to 50 and in the United States where it’s consolidated from 300 to fewer than 100.
“The mature are maturing,” he said,” pointing to a race in which some platforms are pulling away from others in terms of valuation, volume and the ability to engage the industry.
“The separation will continue,” he said. “The industry will look very different one year from now.”
Suber on His Investment Portfolio
If you’ve ever wondered which investment areas Suber believes represent the next opportunity, look no further. He’s “struck” by financial inclusion, in particularly a telecom play Juvo for which he’s an advisor and in which invested a few rounds. Juvo is looking to serve the unbanked in the developing world where they lack financial identities, internet access and smartphones. The company has partnered with the likes of Samsung.
“We talk a lot in the online lending industry about top down, super-prime and prime and near prime; this is my way of coming from the bottom up with technology and data and finance to be involved in financial inclusion. I’m really quite excited about that one,” said Suber.
He also likes startup Unison and the emerging fractionalization of the home equity market, which he characterizes as “the next big thing.” In addition to Suber, this market has attracted the likes of Marc Andreessen.
Suber has nearly 20 investments in private companies, including payment companies, financial inclusion and lending. He’s also become a debt investor to some online lenders, invoice finance plays among others. “I’ve really enjoyed the debt side of investing as much as the equity side,” he proclaimed.
Suber on Broader Fintech
In addition to marketplace lending, Suber is also a believer in the point-of-sale (PoS) solution and invoice finance companies, which he says are “fixing the way invoicing is financed and making it better, cheaper and quicker.” And in taking an overarching view of the market, he also likes the cleantech, pointing to solar fintech play Mosaic and a company called CleanCapital.
Suber on Rewiring
Suber is a big believer in rewirement, both in his personal life and in business. He defines it as “redesigning one’s life personally and professionally.” Before he applied it to his career, Suber and his wife Caryn pursued a rewirement in their personal lives, one that included selling their home and material possessions, buying a new home and traveling.
In 2017, he decided to do the same thing professionally to strike a better balance in his life. Since then, he’s developed a color-coded regiment by which to live, separating the hours of the week across categories including exercise = blue, personal = green, work = purple and teaching and managing his family office = red.
“There’s a lot of green on my calendar,” he said.
For those interested in rewirement, Suber has launched a blog on the topic, with the maiden couple of entries documenting the first 360 days and counting.
Many of Suber’s quotes here originated from his interview with Peter Renton. Renton is the co-founder of the LendIt Conference.
Data is the lifeblood of financial technology and more established companies frequently supply data to fintech startups for free as part of their growth model.
A Boston business incubator is basing its operations on that dynamic.
FinTech Sandbox, a non-profit group, launched two years ago and now claims more than 30 data sources that it calls partners for the startups going through its six-month program that benefits both data providers and users.
Testing new technology under a load of data is an important factor facing fintech startups so there’s a tradeoff: established financial services companies are providing data in exchange for a glimpse of the latest tech tools being developed.
FinTech Sandbox participants get to test drive their technology with large amounts of free financial data, which can be crucial step before taking on customers real time, Executive Director Jean Donnelly told deBanked.
“In order to be taken seriously, you have to test. That’s why we came about,” she said. “It’s for beta testing, to get feedback.”
Without partnerships, startups would need to buy data or scrape it from the Internet. However, providers generally don’t want to deal with the small amounts startups need versus larger paying customers. As a result, programs such as FinTech Sandbox’s can play an important role in the fintech ecosystem.
To date, four FinTech Sandbox portfolio companies have been acquired by larger companies. Most recently, machine learning company DataRobot Inc. bought software maker Nutonian in May.
Data sources for FinTech Sandbox’s startups include Fidelity Investments, F-Prime Capital, Thomson Reuters and Silicon Valley Bank.
Several banking and financial services companies operate accelerator programs and gain access to the latest technology by doing so. They include Deutsche Bank Innovation Labs, Barclays Accelerator and the Wells Fargo Startup Accelerator.
Earlier this year, Pricewaterhouse Coopers reported that the demand for data analytics is fueling the trend of traditional financial institutions folding fintech startups—and the tools they develop—into their companies.
“FinTech companies create an ecosystem that fosters the collection of vast amounts of data and builds trusted relationships with clientele. Financial institutions have realized the importance of these ecosystems and are attempting to engage with and bring innovation inside their companies. Partnering with FinTech companies is up from 32 percent in 2016 to 45 percent this year on average, but large discrepancies by country do exist.”
Ninety-eight startups have participated in FinTech Sandbox’s six-month program. They’ve raised a combined $380 million in funding, Donnelly said.
Artificial intelligence may be the hottest trend in the technology industry. But tech tools related to environmental, social and governance, also called ESG or socially conscious business models, are fueling the strongest growth trend with fintech entrepreneurs, she said.
One such startup, California-based Data Simply Inc., went through the FinTech Sandbox program in fall 2015 and now provides data to sustainability-focused companies.
The financial technology sector has changed over time to become one in which legacy and startups regularly team up, Data Simply CEO Michelle Bonat told deBanked.
“It used to be more of a competitive environment, but it’s now more collaborative,” she said. “Each realizes they can gain more from the other.”
FinTech Sandbox also collaborates with 11 accelerator programs such as Techstars, Startup Bootcamp and FinTex Chicago. Partnering with larger fintech companies turbo charges the growth of a business, Bonat said.
“It started so many useful discussions and it happened so much faster than it would have happened otherwise,” she said. “It’s all about an ecosystem and accelerating that in different ways.”
In July, Boston-based investment analytics startup FinMason Inc. disclosed that it was making its enterprise software available to FinTechSandbox participants.
The software is a suite of investment analytics with access to more than 700 analytical data types, including risk and performance metrics, aggregate factor exposures, scenario analyses and stress testing.
CEO Kendrick Wakeman told deBanked FinMason is partnering with the accelerator’s portfolio companies with a plan that such startups are prospective customers in the future.
Startup partnerships are more common in the financial services industry because an aversion to risk has slowed the adoption of innovation. Now, the industry is playing catch up and working with startups and young entrepreneurs is one way to close the innovation gap faster than developing products in house, Wakeman said.
“Institutions know they have to innovate. Consumers demand it and regulators demand it,” he said. “They have a long ways to go.”
On Halloween, 2014, a largely unknown, Boston-based financial institution, First Trade Union Bank, embraced high-technology, went paperless, and officially adopted a new name: Radius Bank.
In reinventing itself, Radius did more than dump its dowdy moniker. It shuttered five of its six branches, re-staffed its operations with a tech-savvy team, instituted “anytime/anywhere” banking services, and offered customers free access to cash via a nationwide ATM network. And it teamed up with a fistful of financial technology companies to offer an impressive array of online lending and investment products.
Today, the bank’s management boasts that, using their personal mobile phones, some 2,700 people per week are opening up checking accounts, funneling $3 million in consumer deposits into the bank’s virtual vault. That’s a stark contrast from a decade ago when the financial institution was being rocked by the financial crisis and “we couldn’t get anybody to walk into our branches,” says Radius’s chief executive, Mike Butler.
“We tried to leave that old bank behind,” he says. “We’re a virtual retail bank now, an efficiently run organization that offers high levels of customer service and Amazon-like solutions.”
Radius Bank is not alone. At a moment when there is much discussion — and hand-wringing — over the future of seemingly outmoded, highly regulated community banks, a coterie of small but nimble banks is exploiting technology and punching above its weight. Almost overnight, this cohort is combining the skill and hard-won experience of veteran bankers with the lightning-fast, extraordinary power afforded by the Internet and technological advances. As a result, these small and modest-sized institutions are redefining how banking is done.
In addition to Radius Bank, independent banks winning recognition for their bold, innovative – and profitable — exploitation of technology, include: Live Oak Bank in Wilmington, N.C., which adroitly parlays technology to become the No. 2 lender to business and agricultural borrowers backed by the U.S. Small Business Administration; Darien Rowayton Bank in Darien, Conn., which is making a name for itself with coast-to-coast, online refinancing of student loans; and Cross River Bank in Fort Lee, N.J., which does back-end work for a passel of fintech marketplace lenders.
Interestingly, there’s not much overlap. Each of the banks goes its own way. But what all the banks have in common is that each has struck out on its own, each hitting upon a technological formula for success, each experiencing superior growth.
“These are companies that understand the value of a bank charter,” says Charles Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting in Miami. “They have to work under the watchful eyes of state and federal regulators. But their cost of funds is low and they can offer more attractive rates. Because they’re less likely (than nonbank fintechs) to disappear, run out of money, or get sold,” the bank expert adds, “they also have the image of stability with customers.”
These modest-sized banks are emerging as not only pacesetters for the banking industry. Along with making common cause with the fintechs — which had promised to disrupt the banking industry – they’re even beating the fintechs at their own game.
“Classically, community banks have looked to technology partners to provide technological innovation,” says Cary Whaley, first vice-president for payment and technology policy at the Independent Community Bankers of America, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing a broad swath of the country’s 5,800 Main Street banks. “They still do. You’re seeing more partnerships. But now you also see community banks building innovative products and services outside of that relationship. You see forward-thinking banks developing their own technology to support big ideas like marketplace lending, distributed ledger technology, and emerging payments technology.”
With its extraordinary skill at exploiting technology, Live Oak Bank – which trades on the Nasdaq and is the only public company encountered in the cohort — has become a Wall Street darling. “While several banks have adopted an online-only model, and nearly all banks are shifting more and more delivery through online channels, Live Oak was built from the ground up as a technology-based bank,” Aaron Deer, a San Francisco-based research analyst at Sandler O’Neill Partners, wrote in a recent investment note.
Driving the success of Live Oak, which operates out of a single branch in the North Carolina seacoast town and has only been in business for a decade, is the explosive growth in its SBA lending, the bank’s “core strategy,” Deer notes. Last year, Live Oak lent out $709.5 million in SBA loans in increments of up to $5 million, the federal agency reports, making it the country’s No. 2 SBA lender. It trailed only megabank Wells Fargo Bank, the third largest bank in the U.S. with $1.5 trillion in assets, which made $838.93 million in SBA-backed loans last year.
As its SBA lending has taken off, Live Oak, which qualifies as a “preferred lender” with the federal agency, boasts assets that have nearly tripled to $1.4 billion in 2016, up from $567 million two years earlier. Those are flabbergastingly fantastic growth numbers. But just as incongruously — by nipping at the heels of Wells Fargo — Live Oak has been challenging a bank more than a thousand times its asset size for dominance in SBA lending.
And, interestingly, the bank is able to book those outsized amounts of SBA loans while lending to only 15 industries out of 1,100 approved by the government agency, slightly more than 1% of the universe. That’s up from 13 industries in 2015, and Live Oak is adding two to four additional industries yearly for its SBA loan portfolio, Deer reports. Included among the industries to which the bank made an average SBA loan of $1.29 million last year: Agriculture and poultry, family entertainment, funeral services, medical and dental, self-storage, veterinary, and wine and craft-beverage.
The bank has a team of financing specialists dedicated to each of the designated industries. Among Live Oak’s current SBA borrowers are Martin Self Storage in Summerville, S.C.; Utah Turkey Farms in Circleville, Utah; Pinballz Arcade, Austin, Tex.; and Council Brewery Company in San Diego. Steve Smits, chief credit officer at the bank, told NerdWallet: “When you specialize in something, you become efficient. Because we do it every day and we have professionals and specialists, we tend to be more responsive and quicker.”
The heady combination of technological sophistication and banking expertise has allowed the lender to slash its loan-origination time to 45 days, about half the three-month industry average for SBA loans. To speed up loan sourcing and generation, the bank developed its own in-house technology, which led to the formation of the Wilmington-based technology company nCino, which was spun off to shareholders in 2014.
Live Oak did not return calls to discuss its lending strategies, but in SEC filings bank management declared: “The technology-based platform that is pivotal to our success is dependent on the use of the nCino bank operating system” which relies on Force.com’s cloud-computing infrastructure platform, a product of Salesforce.com.
Natalia Moose, a public relations manager at nCino told deBanked in an e-mail interview: “We work with Live Oak Bank, in addition to more than 150 other financial institutions in multiple countries with assets ranging from $200 million to $2 trillion, including nine of the top 30 U.S. banks. nCino was started by bankers at Live Oak Bank who found the logistics of shuffling paperwork among loan stakeholders to be unwieldy, inefficient and time-consuming.
“nCino’s bank operating system,” Moose adds, “leverages the power and security of the Salesforce platform to deliver an end-to-end banking solution. The bank operating system empowers bank employees and leaders with true insight into the bank, combining CRM (customer relationship management), deposit account opening, loan origination, workflow, enterprise content management, digital engagement portal, and instant, real-time reporting on a single secure, cloud-based platform.”
Live Oak, meanwhile, is not resting on its technological laurels. According to Deer’s report, the bank’s parent company, Live Oak Bancshares, has formed a subsidiary to inject venture capital into fintech companies. It’s already taken a small equity stake in Payrails and Finxact, “the latter of which is developing a completely new core processor to compete against the old legacy systems used by most banks,” the Sandler O’Neill analyst writes. “Quite simply,” he asserts elsewhere in his report, “the company is far beyond any other bank we cover in its technical capabilities and the growth outlook remains outstanding.”
Five hundred and thirty-three miles due north along the Atlantic coast in southeastern Connecticut, Darien Rowayton Bank is also experiencing tremendous success as a lender using a home-grown technology platform. State-chartered by the Connecticut Department of Banking and regulated as well by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the $600 million-asset bank is winning attention in banking circles for its online student-loan refinancing.
A few years ago, DRB, as it is known, was looking to go beyond mortgage and commercial lending — “the bread and butter for most community banks,” bank president Robert Kettenmann explained to deBanked in a telephone interview – and was somewhat at a loss. The bank considered but then rejected the credit card business. Finally, DRB struck paydirt refinancing student loans. “Our chairman really seized on the opportunity,” Kettenmann says, adding: “It’s a $35 billion market.”
Thanks to the National Bank Act, it’s able to operate in all 50 states. As a regulated commercial bank with a strong deposit base, DRB can also offer low rates well below any state’s usury prohibitions.
What is most striking about DRB’s program is its nationwide targeting of upwardly mobile, affluent young professionals. According to a PowerPoint presentation obtained by deBanked, all of the bank’s super-prime borrowers, who are mainly in the 28-34 age bracket, have a college degree and a whopping 93% have graduate degrees. Average income is $194,000.
Forty-eight percent of those refinancing student loans with DRB are doctors or dentists and another 22 percent are pharmacists, nurses or medical employees; only about 20% are paying off their law degrees or MBAs. The heavy concentration of refinancing in the medical field reduces economic risk in an economic downturn. Forty-three percent of the borrowers are home-owners, the rest are renters – and prime candidates for an online, DRB-financed mortgage.
(Once known as “yuppies” today this cohort is “known by the acronym ‘HENRY,’” remarks Cornelius Hurley, a Boston University banking professor and executive director of the Online Lending Institute, explaining the initials stand for “High Earners Not Rich Yet.”)
The Connecticut bank partnered with a third-party on-line vendor, Campus Door, when it commenced making student loans in 2013. In the fall of 2016, however, DRB built out its own, proprietary loan-origination system, Kettenmann reports, emphasizing that CampusDoor had been an excellent partner but that the bank wanted to exercise end-to-end control over the process. DRB employs a seven-pronged, “omni-channel” marketing approach that includes interactive marketing, affinity partnerships, digital/online advertising, direct mail, mass-media advertising, and public relations/brand awareness campaigns.
DRB’s online enrollment provides “pre-approved rates” in less than two minutes with final approval on rates in 24-48 hours. Refinancers can complete the online application at their own speed. Through May, 2017, DRB had made $2.48 billion in refinancing to 20,000 student-loan borrowers, with only ten defaults, five of which were attributed to deaths or “terminal illness.”
On Yelp! the bank has received a batch of reviews ranging from very favorable, five-star (“I had a truly wonderful experience”) to one-star (“awful” and “truly a nightmare”). Many fault the application process as laborious, describing it as “time-consuming.” But for those who have succeeded, like the reviewer who counseled “patience,” the result can be “the lowest rate with DRB…my loan payments went down $100 a month.”
Just about an hour’s drive south and taking its name from its proximity to New York city just over the George Washington Bridge is New Jersey-based, state-chartered Cross River Bank, which has a reputation as a partner-in-arms to fintech companies. “We’re both users and producers of technology,” declares Gilles Gade, the bank’s chief executive.
The bank provides “back-end” and infrastructure support to 17 marketplace lenders that offer a suite of lending products including personal loans, mortgages and home-equity loans. Following loan origination by a fintech company – Marlette Funding, Affirm, Upstart, loanDepot, SoFi, and Quicken Loan, among other partners — Cross River does the actual underwriting. Last year, Gade reports, the bank underwrote 1.9 million loans valued at $4-4.5 billion, about 10% of which Cross River kept on its books. The bulk of the loans are sold “back to the marketplace lenders” or to a third party. “We’ve created a high-velocity automated system,” he says.
Gade is manifestly unapologetic about the bank’s role in assisting fintechs in their competition with the banking establishment. “We’re a banking infrastructure services provider for those who want to disrupt the banking system,” he says. “Consumers expect a lot better than they’ve been getting from traditional banking services.”
Back in Boston, Radius Bank’s chief executive reports that forging partnerships with fintechs to provide the full panoply of online banking services was no easy proposition. In its mating ritual, Radius not only had to determine that a fintech company’s offerings were sound and that it had the right characteristics – most especially “a long-term, sustainable business model” – but that its corporate culture meshed comfortably with Radius’s.
After meeting with as many as 500 fintechs and after a fair amount of trial and error, Radius formed partnerships with LevelUp, which enables customers to make mobile payments; with online lender Prosper, for refinancing consumer debt and “credit rehabilitation”; with SmarterBucks, for refinancing student loans; and with online investment firm Aspiration Partners – which allows investors to name their own fees and markets itself to a predominately middle-class audience as the firm “with a conscience.”
Radius employs advertising on social media websites and employs “psychographics” to appeal to “anyone who is zealous about using technology, not necessarily millennials,” Butler says. The data show that 65% of adults in the U.S. would prefer to use a traditional bank and have face-to-face interactions with a teller, he notes, leaving the remaining 35% as Radius’s target audience.
Christopher Tremont, executive vice-president for virtual banking, told deBanked that a typical Radius customer is 42 years old, lives in Boston, New York, Chicago “or one of the bigger cities in the West,” is a “technophile,” earns $75,000 a year, and has $100,000 in personal assets.
Radius’s performance since it went paperless has been stellar. The bank has seen a rapid rise in deposits, spurting to $782 million through the first quarter of 2017, up from $565 million at year-end 2014. With little fee income but ample deposits and low-cost funds, Radius realizes the bulk of its revenues – and profits — on the interest-rate spread generated from its loan portfolio.
The bank booked $43.5 million in SBA loans last year, ranking it in the top 50 banks on the SBA’s league tables, while carrying another $105 million in its commercial leasing business at the end of the first quarter this year. Loan generation is driving asset growth, which are currently at $973 billion, up more a third from $726 million in 2014, and Butler expects the bank’s assets to top $1 billion sometime this year.
“Community banks love that part of the business—lending money,” Butler says.
The alternative small-business finance industry has exploded into a $10 billion business and may not stop growing until it reaches $50 billion or even $100 billion in annual financing, depending upon who’s making the projection. Along the way, it’s provided a vehicle for ambitious, hard-working and talented entrepreneurs to lift themselves to affluence.
Consider the saga of William Ramos, whose persistence as a cold caller helped him overcome homelessness and earn the cash to buy a Ferrari. Then there’s the journey of Jared Weitz, once a 20 something plumber and now CEO of a company with more than $100 million a year in deal flow.
Their careers are only the beginning of the success stories. Jared Feldman and Dan Smith, for example, were in their 20s when they started an alt finance company at the height of the financial crisis. They went on to sell part of their firm to Palladium Equity Partners after placing more than $400 million in lifetime deals.
The industry’s top salespeople can even breathe new life into seemingly dead leads. Take the case of Juan Monegro, who was in his 20s when he left his job in Verizon customer service and began pounding the phones to promote merchant cash advances. Working at first with stale leads, Monegro was soon placing $47 million in advances annually.
Alternative funding can provide a second chance, too. When Isaac Stern’s bakery went out of business, he took a job telemarketing merchant cash advances and went on to launch a firm that now places more than $1 billion in funding annually.
All of those industry players are leaving their marks on a business that got its start at the dawn of the new century. Long-time participants in the market credit Barbara Johnson with hatching the idea of the merchant cash advance in 1998 when she needed to raise capital for a daycare center. She and her husband, Gary Johnson, started the company that became CAN Capital. The firm also reportedly developed the first platform to split credit card receipts between merchants and funders.
BIRTH OF AN INDUSTRY
Competitors soon followed the trail those pioneers blazed, and the industry began growing prodigiously. “There was a ton of credit out there for people who wanted to get into the business,” recalled David Goldin, who’s CEO of Capify and serves as president of the Small Business Finance Association, one of the industry’s trade groups.
Many of the early entrants came from the world of finance or from the credit card processing business, said Stephen Sheinbaum, founder of Bizfi. Virtually all of the early business came from splitting card receipts, a practice that now accounts for just 10 percent of volume, he noted.
At first, brokers, funders and their channel partners spent a lot of time explaining advances to merchants who had never heard of them, Goldin said. Competition wasn’t that tough because of the uncrowded “greenfield” nature of the business, industry veterans agreed.
Some of the initial funding came from the funders’ own pockets or from the savings accounts of their elderly uncles. “I’ve met more than a few who had $2 million to $5 million worth of loans from friends and family in order to fund the advances to the merchants,” observed Joel Magerman, CEO of Bryant Park Capital, which places capital in the industry. “It was a small, entrepreneurial effort,” Andrea Petro, executive vice president and division manager of lender finance for Wells Fargo Capital Finance, said of the early days. “A number of these companies started with maybe $100,000 that they would experiment with. They would make 10 loans of $10,000 and collect them in 90 days.”
That business model was working, but merchant cash advances suffered from a bad reputation in the early days, Goldin said. Some players were charging hefty fees and pushing merchants into financial jeopardy by providing more funding than they could pay back comfortably. The public even took a dim view of reputable funders because most consumers didn’t understand that the risk of offering advances justified charging more for them than other types of financing, according to Goldin.
Then the dam broke. The economy crashed as the Great Recession pushed much of the world to the brink of financial disaster. “Everybody lost their credit line and default rates spiked,” noted Isaac Stern, CEO of Fundry, Yellowstone Capital and Green Capital. “There was almost nobody left in the business.”
RAVAGED BY RECESSION
Perhaps 80 percent of the nation’s alternative funding companies went out of business in the downturn, said Magerman. Those firms probably represented about 50 percent of the alternative funding industry’s dollar volume, he added. “There was a culling of the herd,” he said of the companies that failed.
Life became tough for the survivors, too. Among companies that stayed afloat, credit losses typically tripled, according to Petro. That’s severe but much better than companies that failed because their credit losses quintupled, she said.
Who kept the doors open? The firms that survived tended to share some characteristics, said Robert Cook, a partner at Hudson Cook LLP, a law office that specializes in alternative funding. “Some of the companies were self-funding at that time,” he said of those days. “Some had lines of credit that were established prior to the recession, and because their business stayed healthy they were able to retain those lines of credit.”
The survivors also understood risk and had strong, automated reporting systems to track daily repayment, Petro said. For the most part, those companies emerged stronger, wiser and more prosperous when the crisis wound down, she noted. “The legacy of the Great Recession was that survivors became even more knowledgeable through what I would call that ‘high-stress testing period of losses,’” she said.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
The survivors of the recession were ready to capitalize on the convergence of several factors favorable to the industry in about 2009. Taking advantages of those changes in the industry helped form a perfect storm of industry growth as the recession was ending.
They included making good use of the quick churn that characterizes the merchant cash advance business, Petro noted. The industry’s better operators had been able to amass voluminous data on the industry because of its short cycles. While a provider of auto loans might have to wait five years to study company results, she said, alternative funders could compile intelligence from four advances within the space of a year.
That data found a home in the industry around the time the recession was ending because funders were beginning to purchase or develop the algorithms that are continuing to increase the automation of the underwriting process, said Jared Weitz, CEO of United Capital Source LLC. As early as 2006, OnDeck became one of the first to rely on digital underwriting, and the practice became mainstream by 2009 or so, he said.
Just as the technology was becoming widespread, capital began returning to the market. Wealthy investors were pulling their funds out of real estate and needed somewhere to invest it, accounting for part of the influx of capital, Weitz said.
At the same time, Wall Street began to take notice of the industry as a place to position capital for growth, and companies that had been focused on consumer lending came to see alternative finance as a good investment, Cook said.
For a long while, banks had shied away from the market because the individual deals seem small to them. A merchant cash advance offers funders a hundredth of the size and profits of a bank’s typical small-business loan but requires a tenth of the underwriting effort, said David O’Connell, a senior analyst on Aite Group’s Wholesale Banking team.
The prospect of providing funds became even less attractive for banks. The recession had spawned the Dodd-Frank Financial Regulatory Reform Bill and Basel III, which had the unintended effect of keeping banks out of the market by barring them from endeavors where they’re inexperienced, Magerman said. With most banks more distant from the business than ever, brokers and funders can keep the industry to themselves, sources acknowledged.
At about the same time, the SBFA succeeded in burnishing the industry’s image by explaining the economic realities to the press, in Goldin’s view.The idea that higher risk requires bigger fees was beginning to sink in to the public’s psyche, he maintained.
Meanwhile, loans started to join merchant cash advances in the product mix. Many players began to offer loans after they received California finance lenders licenses, Cook recalled. They had obtained the licenses to ward off class-action lawsuits, he said and were switching from sharing card receipts to scheduled direct debits of merchants’ bank accounts.
As those advantages – including algorithms, ready cash, a better image and the option of offering loans – became apparent, responsible funders used them to help change the face of the industry. They began to make deals with more credit-worthy merchants by offering lower fees, more time to repay and improved customer service. “The recession wound up differentiating us in the best possible way,” Bizfi’s Sheinbaum said of the changes.
His company found more-upscale customers by concentrating on industries that weren’t hit too hard by the recession. “With real estate crashing, people were not refurbishing their homes or putting in new flooring,” he noted.
Today, the booming alternative finance industry is engendering success stories and attracting the nation’s attention. The increased awareness is prompting more companies to wade into the fray, and could bring some change.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
One variety of change that might lie ahead could come with the purchase of a major funding company by a big bank in the next couple of years, Bryant Park Capital’s Magerman predicted. A bank could sidestep regulation, he suggested, by maintaining that the credit card business and small business loans made through bank branches had provided the banks with the experience necessary to succeed.
Smaller players are paying attention to the industry, too, with varying degrees of success. Predictably, some of the new players are operating too aggressively and could find themselves headed for a fall. “Anybody can fund deals – the talent lies in collecting the money back at a profitable level,” said Capify’s Goldin. “There’s going to be a shakeout. I can feel it.”
Some of today’s alternative lenders don’t have the skill and technology to ward off bad deals and could thus find themselves in trouble if recession strikes, warned Aite Group’s O’Connell. “Let’s be careful of falling into the trap of ‘This time is different,’” he said. “I see a lot of sub-prime debt there.”
Don’t expect miracles, cautioned Petro. “I believe there will be another recession, and I believe that there will be a winnowing of (alternative finance) businesses,” she said. “There will be far fewer after the next recession than exist today.”
A recession would spell trouble, Magerman agreed, even though demand for loans and advances would increase in an atmosphere of financial hardship. Asked about industry optimists who view the business as nearly recession-proof, he didn’t hold back. “Don’t believe them,” he warned. “Just because somebody needs capital doesn’t mean they should get capital.”
Further complicating matters, increased regulatory scrutiny could be lurking just beyond the horizon, Petro predicted. She provided histories of what regulation has done to other industries as an indication of the differing outcomes of regulation – one good, one debatable and one bad.
Good: The timeshare business benefitted from regulation because the rules boosted the public’s trust.
Debatable: The cost of complying with regulations changed the rent-to-own business from an entrepreneurial endeavor to an environment where only big corporations could prosper.
Bad: Regulation appears likely to alter the payday lending business drastically and could even bring it to an end, she said.
Still, regulation’s good side seems likely to prevail in the alternative finance business, eliminating the players who charge high fees or collect bloated commissions, according to Weitz. “I think it could only benefit the industry,” he said. “It’ll knock out the bad guys.”