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Startups from Finovate: the good, bad & ugly

DigFin’s entirely subjective review of recent pitches by fintech startups.

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Finovate is a global conference organizer that provides a platform for fintech startups to pitch to an audience of VCs, incubators and accelerators. DigFin attended the latest Asia leg, in Singapore.

This is our take on a selection of pitches. To get the full exposure to fintechs, you have to attend the event! (Note: DigFin was a media partner to Finovate Asia but has no commercial relationship with the organizer or any fintechs involved.)

Unless stated otherwise, DigFin’s view is based solely on what was presented on stage. Here’s a roundup of what we liked, what we didn’t like, and what might be good but needs more information to judge.

Best in show

PearlPay – core banking systems for rural banks

This Philippines-based company is using technology to address real pain points among rural banks, helping these banks better serve their customers. Digital payments in the country is nascent. Of the 577 banks licensed in the country, 450 are rural, while 94% lack digital infrastructure and 99% of transactions remain based on cash or check. Rural banks are well placed to advance financial inclusion but lack the means to do so.

PearlPay’s business is to provide them with end-to-end core banking systems to enable them to reach the unbanked. What the company offers is basic, using Facebook-like interfaces to enable banks to set up new services. By digitizing basic services, these banks might be able to scale into branchless banking. One way PearlPay can help them scale (and generate fees) is by creating an online marketplace among participating banks to trade foreclosed assets, in a transparent venue.

The company’s software also acclimatizes customers to managing financial affairs via their mobile phone. The fintech founders note that Filipinos are digitally literate, as 75% of the population uses Facebook. PearlPay’s app is a Facebook feed to introduce people to the idea of an e-wallet.

The business model concept is relevant beyond the Philippines, so this fintech has the potential to scale.

DigFin’s view: This was the best pitch because it uses tech to address real problems, promotes financial inclusion, facilitate new markets, and can be applied to other countries. PearlPay’s success going forward is probably down to whether the team can execute.

Runner up

Emotics – compliance analytics

Every bank has to train its people ethics. Compliance training is now de riguer but few employees enjoy it or take it seriously – and many people cheat, by claiming to have sat in on boring videos when instead they’re doing something else.

Emotics’s software aims to change behavior to improve compliance training. This is often more carrot than stick, however, such as using webcams and facial recognition to make sure people are at their desks actually watching the required videos. It helps compliance managers make sure people are paying attention, not checking the phones. The data is aggregated to give compliance teams a view of both where entire departments are in breach, or other red flags.

Emotics’s biggest value-add is it uses all of this data around how people respond to training videos, including facial responses and other clues to attentiveness, to figure out what parts of the training material are effective, or not – and thereby create better content that, hopefully, will engage people. And maybe even instill awareness of proper conduct?

DigFin’s view: Banks waste tons of money and time on compliance training, trying to instill ethics, etc. Maybe Emotics’s solution will help, if it generates meaningful feedback on the content. Its Big Brother aspects could backfire, though. And it’s not clear whether this is the most effective way a bank might perceive how it could spend budget on risk, when it faces spending pressure on cyber security, for example. To succeed, Emotics needs a sufficiently large bank to test and deploy its solutions, pour encourager les autres.

Worth a look at?

Comarch – SME banking

Comarch provides digital banking services to SMEs and therefore makes these companies “bankable”, allowing banks to better track loans, invoices, payouts, and so on. SMEs can manage their affairs easily via a mobile app.

DigFin’s view: The idea is good. There’s a lot of competition in this space, however. These services have been unbundled already, with players from accounting software providers to invoice financing platforms repackaging them, sometimes with a bank partner. Not sure how Comarch stands out.

Exchange Connect – equity capital markets

This fintech aggregates capital-markets data from sources such as FactSet to make it machine readable and consolidated. Its target is listcos, buy sides, and stock exchanges, with the aim to make compatible and connected a stream of actions, from pre-transaction documentation, to roadshows, meetings, and analyst transcripts.

DigFin’s view: Digitizing workflows makes sense. To make it work, though, requires building a network. The value adds up if there’s either a lot of buy-side demand or if a stock exchange decides to base its activities on Exchange Connect’s platform. A big if!

Fcase and Compliy – cyber security

Two startups aimed at helping banks automate risk management and regulatory workflows. Fcase finds correlations in a bank’s various departments and siloes to flag potential fraud. Compliy offers a searchable library of regulations and uses NLP to identify the most relevant clauses.

DigFin’s view: Banks should want to take a look. But there’s a lot of RegTech and cyber-security solutions out there. Banks are usually bad at working with these companies and pinch the best ideas for themselves. DigFin lacks the knowledge to tell whether Fcase or Compliy is top of the class.

ChintaMoney, FinBit.io, NewWealth and PayOK – personal finance software

These companies are in similar fields but in different countries: ChintaMoney is in India and PayOK is in Indonesia, while NewWealth and FinBit.io are taking a B2B approach to building clients across Southeast Asia.

Chinta and PayOK seek to be the Mint or Plaid of their markets, aggregating customer information to create holistic views of savings and spending, with budget and investment goals and advice. In India, Chinta can connect to the government’s Unifed Payments Interface, and it has a partnership with Kotak Mahindra Bank. PayOK says it’s in PoCs with local banks.

NewWealth has a multi-market strategy aimed at banks, not users, which sets it apart. It services a B2C wealth-tech company in Indonesia called Savio, providing a chat-app like environment to build personal finance goals.

FinBit.io appears to have the most sophisticated technology, and says it has over 50 fintechs, P2P lenders, and banks in Southeast Asia and India using its software to generate credit scores.

DigFin’s view: There are a lot of personal-budget apps and probably one room for one, maybe two, to dominate a given market. They can’t scale beyond the home market unless they develop a tech good enough to actually sell to banks on a white-label basis. So there’s a cap on the valuation.

B2B2C players have more scope to operate, but they run into robo-advisors and other types of competitors. This might keep a company such as NewWealth stuck servicing lower-tier banks unless it piggybacks off a Go-Jek or the like. FinBit.io appears to have the broadest reach, using machine learning to add credit scores to its end users’ activity, which will help its bank, P2P lending and fintech clients develop better, more personalized products. Worth a look but more detail needed on its actual deployment and business segments.

Hodlnaut – crypto wallet

Hodlnaut encourages bitcoin investors to hold their positions by offering interest on bitcoin placed on deposit. It calculates interest daily and pays monthly in bitcoin. Assets are kept in cold storage or are put out for lending, so liquidity with withdrawals is limited.

DigFin’s view: This is a VC-backed company but any investor would need a crystal clear understanding of where its deposits are kept, how they’re managed, what’s on reserve, what happens when bitcoin suffers a steady loss of value, how that interest rate is guaranteed, how liquid is the bitcoin lending/repo market, who are the counterparties holding bitcoins on loan, what kind of spread Hodlnaut is making… If you believe that the innate scarcity of bitcoin means you’re gonna lambo, baby, then making an easy x% per month on your deposits is very attractive. But read the fine print.

Xen – private asset trading

DigFin is cheating on this one. Xen made a presentation about “democratizing access and liquidity in alternative investments” like private equity. Its founders didn’t mention blockchain or tokens once, but DigFin interviewed them last year and this is the underlying tech. There’s no problem with not wanting to talk crypto: in fact it’s probably a smart move to keep the pitch on the problem and the outcome rather than the underlying gears and levers.

This is a bet on whether tokenization is going to be “a thing” (unless Xen has completely changed its business model). Xen’s particular insight is to avoid lazy assumptions about Libra-like “financial inclusion” and develop something for rich people. If you like these two ideas, you’ll like Xen.

Back to the drawing board

Libertypool – crypto

It’s an app to enable people to invest in crypto and tokens issued by blockchain companies, using a QR scan to connect to a US dollar e-wallet. A crypto custodian of unknown provenance stores your assets.

DigFin’s view: These apps have existed in the market for years and offer far more sophisticated offerings, from VISA-branded credit cards to VIP offers to trading, execution, advice, the works. What’s different about Libertypool? Nothing, except it’s been barely developed, at least as far as the pitch suggested.

Upgrade Pack – wealth management

This app allows wealth managers to acquire and retain high-value customers with flight and hotel upgrades. It buys unbooked airline and hotel inventory at the last minute, and uses the customer’s bank-issued credit card to purchase them at a discount.

DigFin’s view: Rich people don’t need to wait until the last minute to see if they can upgrade their economy booking to business class. Private banks catering to HNW give away flights and hotels, they don’t sell them at a discount.

This might work at a more retail institution, but then how many people would then need such a service? And there are other venues to get the same kinds of deal. This merely integrates it with a credit card. We don’t see this as a meaningful edge when banks are looking to go full-in ecosystemy with airline carriers and travel agencies, so the fintech is back to second- or third-tier banks…which again begs the question of what kind of customer base they’d have.

Finally if this is such a great idea, then Revolut or Grab or Zhong An can replicate it even more easily. [See below for Upgrade Pack’s response.]

Pocket Money – e-wallet/lender

This Singapore-based company wants to extend credit to the unbanked in places like Uganda, where its owners are located. It seems to be a gig-economy platform that adds credit, payments and interbank forex rates on top to its roster of service providers. The revenue model is meant to be based on advertizing. The founders are looking for advertizers, investors and technology partners to enter new markets.

DigFin’s view: Get the advertizers and tech partners on board and prove the concept before you ask VCs or incubators for money. The focus on advertizing revenue begs the question of where the founders’ loyalties lie. This feels very undercooked.

Letter to the editor from Upgrade Pack

We believe your description provides an inaccurate portrayal of our app, the value we’re bringing to the market, and in particular who will be using, and funding, Upgrade Pack.

Our app is provided free of charge to users via our clients (banks and credit card issuers rather than wealth managers) who fund access to the app as a loyalty benefit aligned with their premium account and/or possession of a given credit card.

We do not use user’s credit cards to purchase anything. In fact we don’t purchase anything – we merely facilitate a transaction between our airline and hotel partners with a closed user group who want to purchase upgrades at discounts not available elesewhere.

We’re currently in advanced conversations with over 30 banks and card issuers around the world about adopting Upgrade Pack.

––Louise Naqvi, head of public relations, London

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Startups from Finovate: the good, bad & ugly