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Today — April 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

Forget the piggy bank, Till Financial’s kids’ spend management app gets Gates’ backing

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Today’s children and teens want more power and control over their spending.

And while there are a number of financial services and apps out there aimed at helping this demographic save and invest money (Greenlight being among the most popular and well-known), one startup is coming at the space from another angle: helping younger people also better manage their spend.

Till Financial describes itself as a collaborative family financial tool that aims to empower kids to become smarter spenders. The New York-based company’s banking platform is designed to encourage “open and honest” discussions between parents and their kids. And it has just raised $5 million to help it advance on that goal.

A slew of investors put money in the round, including Elysian Park Ventures, Melinda Gates’ venture fund Pivotal Ventures with Magnify Ventures, Afore Capital, Luge Capital, Alpine Meridian Ventures, The Gramercy Fund, SM Ventures (the family office of the founders/CEOs of Stadium Goods) and Lightspeed Venture Partners’ Scout Fund. Also participating were angel investors such as the founders of fintech Petal, the founders of alcohol marketplace Drizly, the president of Transactis, and the president of 1800Flowers.

Part of Till’s goal is to help kids “learn by doing” and gain confidence in spending decisions. It arms them with a bank account, digital and physical debit card and goal-based savings. For example, say a teen wants to buy an iPad, they can set up an account that they can save toward that iPad and give family members (such as grandparents, for example) the opportunity to pitch in the same amount, or more. They can also set up recurring payments for things like Netflix or Spotify subscriptions so they can get a taste of what it’s like to pay regular bills.

“Parents and the current banking options miss the point when they just focus on savings. We need to first prepare kids to be Smarter Spenders, supported by savings and investing,” said Taylor Burton, who founded the company with Tom Pincince. “On Till, kids learn to spend with intention and purpose, while parents gain confidence and trust based on transparency and accountability.”

To Pincince, the market is clearly underserved.

“The legacy banks really don’t care about this young person and the early digital players are really missing the mark,” he said. 

And despite the plethora of apps targeting the demographic, Pincince believes there’s plenty of room for the right players.

“The reality is you’re talking about a swath of kids under the age of 18 and over the age of eight that is the single largest unbanked population,” he said. “We’re not fighting to be the top of your son’s wallet. We’re fighting to be the first product into that wallet.”

Indeed, it’s a big market — the average middle-class family in the U.S. spends $284,570 per child by the time they turn 18.

The platform is free to all families and, early on, attracted the attention of Peggy Mangot, operating partner/COO of PayPal Ventures. She invested personally in Till in its pre-seed rounds. Prior to PayPal, Mangot ran development of Greenhouse, Well Fargo’s fee-free mobile banking app that aimed to help younger users build responsible spending habits.

Mangot has three kids and recalls that when they were shopping online, she’d give them her credit card. Or, if they were going to the corner store or meeting with friends, she’d give them cash.

“But that way, the money is meaningless to them. They didn’t really know how to understand what things cost and there was no sense of ownership,” she said. “It was just me handing over cash or a card.”

What attracted her the most about Till, Mangot said, was the team’s approach to treat younger people “with respect and agency.”

She also believes that by helping children and teens understand important financial lessons at a younger age, the world will ultimately be full of more responsible adults.

“By putting these tools in the hands of these young people early, they’ll have years and years of experience before they’re more independent and have to manage their paycheck and bills,” Mangot told TechCrunch. “Once you have mass adoption, it’s going to create a much more financially literate, confident and in control set of young adults than we’ve ever had.”

Besides making money on interchange fees, Till aims to earn revenue by partnering with merchants to offer rewards to users. It also plans to earn referral fees by referring the teens to other financial institutions when they get older and have different needs.

“It’s not our intention to be your son or daughter’s forever bank. It’s our intention to be the first bank,” Pincince said. “So, they hit the age of maturity, we’re actually giving them a high-five off of our platform and introducing them to maybe their first college loan or their first credit card.”

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Nigerian fintech Appzone raises $10M for expansion and proprietary technology

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Africa’s fintech space has gained proper attention over the past few years in investments but it is not news that startups still battle with offering high-quality products. However, they seem to be doing quite well compared with traditional banks that face challenges like legacy cost structures and a major lack of operational efficiency.

Appzone is a fintech software provider. It is one of the few companies that builds proprietary solutions for these financial institutions and their banking and payments services. Today, the company is announcing that it has closed $10 million in Series A investment.

Typically, African financial institutions rely on using foreign technology solutions to solve their problems. But issues around pricing, flexibility to innovate, and a lack of local tech support always come up. This is where Appzone has found its sweet spot. The company based in Lagos, Nigeria, was founded by Emeka Emetarom, Obi Emetarom, and Wale Onawunmi in 2008.

Appzone clearly plays a different game from other African fintechs. One clear differentiator is that the company functions as an enabler (at payment rails and the core infrastructure) within banking and payments.

It commenced as a services firm to provide commercial banks with custom software development services. In 2011, the company launched its first core banking product targeting microfinance institutions. The following year, Appzone launched its first product (branchless banking) for commercial banks. It went live with its mobile and internet banking service in 2016 and launched an instant card issuance product in 2017. In 2020, the company launched services catered to end-to-end automation of lending operations for banks and blockchain switching.

“We started Appzone with the intention to build out innovative local solutions for banking and payments on the continent,” CEO Obi Emetarom told TechCrunch. “The focus was to leverage our ability as an enabler to create proprietary technology for both segments.”

Appzone

Image Credits: Appzone

Appzone platforms are used by 18 commercial banks and over 450 microfinance banks in Africa. Together, they amass a yearly transaction value and yearly loan disbursement of $2 billion and $300million.

Since its inception, the Google for Startups Accelerator alumnus claims to have led Africa’s fintech sector in some global firsts from the continent. First, the company says it created the world’s first decentralised payment processing network. Second, the first core banking and omnichannel software on the cloud. Third, the first multi-bank direct debit service based on single global mandates.

Emetarom likes to describe Appzone as a fintech product ecosystem with an emphasis on proprietary technology. So far, we’ve touched on two layers of this ecosystem—the digital core banking service providing software that runs financial institutions’ entire operations and interbank processing, which integrates these institutions into a decentralized network powered by blockchain.

Coinciding with this investment is the introduction and scaling of a third layer that focuses on end-user applications. Appzone, having built both banking and fintech layers, wants to connect individuals and businesses to their services. This is where most new-age fintech startups operate, and although Appzone is coming late to the party, it has a bit of an edge, the CEO believes.

“Most of these companies operating in end-user applications have to depend on services from core banking and interbank processing to be able to get their own offerings out there. For us, I think we have an advantage in terms of costs and flexibility because we are already operating in both layers,” Emeratom said in relation to what he thinks of competition.

The company is coming out to blitz scale its products and services after working in stealth mode for more than a decade. One way it wants to carry this out will be to take its pan-African expansion sternly even though a large part of its 450 clients are based in Nigeria. Other countries with a presence include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Gambia, Guinea, Tanzania, and Senegal. Before now, Appzone lacked the resources to push into these markets aggressively even though they showed promise. But having closed its Series A, the plan is to drive growth in these countries and expand across more African countries.

Another means Appzone plans to achieve scale is by growing its engineering team — a department it takes pride in. These engineers make up half of Appzone’s 150 employees and there are plans to double down on this number. Like most Nigerian startups these days, Appzone is big on senior engineers. Still, while it might present a problem to other companies, Emetarom says the company has no issue training promising junior talent to grow in expertise.

“Our proprietary tech allows us to innovate at a fraction of a cost, and they are built by essentially the best local talent available. Because those systems are really complex and the level of innovation required is on another level, we literally seek out the to 1% of talent in Nigeria,” he remarked.We know that even though the expertise isn’t there, we can accelerate acquiring that expertise when we train the very best talents. The more we train our engineers, the faster they grow in terms of expertise, and they will be able to deliver at the same level of world-class quality we expect.

Appzone

Obi Emetarom (Co-founder and CEO, Appzone)

Back to the round, a noteworthy event is that most investors who took part are based in Nigeria despite its size. CardinalStone Capital Advisers, a Lagos-based investment firm, led the Series A investment. Other investors based in the country include V8 Capital, Constant Capital, and Itanna Capital Ventures. New York-based but Africa-focused firm Lateral Investment Partners also participated.

Before now, Appzone closed a $2 million from South African Business Connexion (BCX) in 2014. Four years later, it raised $2.5 million in convertible debt and bought back shares from BCX in the process. But overall, the company says it has raised $15 million in equity funding.

Speaking on the investment, Yomi Jemibewon, the co-founder and managing director of Cardinal Stone Capital Advisers, said the firm’s investment in Appzone is further proof of Africa’s potential as the future hub of world-class technology.

“Appzone is building a disruptive fintech ecosystem that will be the backbone of Africa’s finance industry with products across payments, infrastructure and software as a service. The impact of Appzone’s work is multifold — the company’s products deepen financial inclusion across the continent whilst providing best-fit and low-cost solutions to financial institutions. Its emphasis on premium talent also helps stem brain drain, rewarding Africa’s best brains with best in class employment opportunities,” he added.

Appzone’s funding continues the fast-paced investment activities witnessed by Africa’s fintech space after a slow January. In the last two months, more than eight fintech startups have secured million-dollar rounds. This includes very large rounds by South African digital bank TymeBank ($109 million) in February and African payments company, Flutterwave ($170 million) in March.

Egypt’s Paymob closes $18.5M Series A to expand payments services across MENA

By Tage Kene-Okafor

While Nigeria and Kenya have been at the forefront of African fintech innovation, activities in Egypt are beginning to shape up nicely. Right now, Egypt is home to a burgeoning fintech startup ecosystem, and today, one of its biggest players, Paymob announced that it has completed an $18.5 million Series A round.

In July 2020, Paymob raised $3.5 million as its first tranche of Series A investment. An additional $15 million was raised from the same investors led by Dubai-based VC firm Global Ventures. Other investors include Egyptian investment fund A15 and Dutch development bank FMO.

The total raise of $18.5 million is the largest Series A round in Egypt yet and one of the largest equity rounds in North Africa.

“We are delighted to lead this momentous fintech fundraise in the region. Paymob has a perfect combination of high-quality technology, product customers increasingly cannot do without, and an outstanding management team, “Basil Moftah, general partner at Global Ventures, said of the investment.Their market opportunity is also huge; Egypt’s transformation to a cashless society is being enabled by the unique products Paymob has built.” 

Paymob was founded in 2015 by Alain El Hajj, Islam Shawky, and Mostafa El Menessy. The platform helps online and offline merchants to accept payments from their customers via several products and solutions. It offers a payment gateway that merchants can plugin into their sites or mobile application using its APIs. For offline merchants, Paymob has a POS solution where they can receive in-store card payments.

The company also has a payment links feature where merchants share links with their customers to receive payments that are received using mobile wallets. And according to the company, 85% of mobile wallets transactions carried out in Egypt is processed by its infrastructure. It also claims to be the largest payment facilitator in the country.

Asides from Egypt, Paymob is also present in Kenya, Pakistan, and Palestine. CEO Shawky says the company has plans to expand into more Sub-Saharan African countries. However, that will come after focusing on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to gain a large market share.

Regional expansion (with an imminent entry into Saudi Arabia this year) is one of Paymob’s objectives following this raise. Per a statement released by the company, it will also use the investments to expand its merchant network, meet increasing demand, and improve product offerings.

The pandemic presented one of the best opportunities for fintechs all over the world to achieve massive growth. For Paymob, it claims to have grown its monthly revenue over 5x last year. The company also recorded a total payment volume of more than $5 billion from over 35,000 local and international merchants like Swvl, LG, Breadfast, and Tradeline

This growth allowed the fintech company to raise the second tranche of investment after closing just $3.5 million initially. Shawky told TechCrunch that the deal materialized after the company’s investors and management witnessed an “unprecedented growth” driven by the pandemic “in addition to the new initiatives launched by regulators, which encouraged them to increase their investment to meet our increasing demand

As earlier iterated, fintech is on the rise in Egypt with startups like Moneyfellows, NowPay, Raseedi, Flick providing lending, payments, wealth and personal finance management services, etc.

The Egyptian fintech ecosystem also got a major boost when incumbent fintech Fawry became a publicly-traded unicorn for the first time. Since launching in 2007, Fawry has been the largest online payment platform in the country and offers a variety of services ranging from mobile wallet to banking services. Will Fawry’s longstanding presence pose a challenge to Paymob’s quest to become a dominant fintech as well? Shawky doesn’t think so.

“Paymob’s major competitor is cash. With only a small percentage of the economy operating in digital forms, we believe the opportunity of truly transforming cash into digital is yet to be unlocked,” he said.

That said, the raise follows the launch of two funds — Algebra Ventures and Sawari Ventures in what can be described as an exciting week for startups and VCs in the country.

TrueLayer raises $70M for its open banking platform

By Steve O'Hear

TrueLayer, the London startup that offers a developer-friendly platform for companies, including other fintechs, to utilise open banking, is disclosing $70 million in new funding.

The Series D round is led by new investor Addition. Existing investors, including Anthemis Group, Connect Ventures, Mouro Capital, Northzone and Temasek, also participated. New investors include Visionaries Club, Zack Kanter (CEO Stedi), Daniel Graf (ex-Uber, Google, Twitter) and David Avgi (ex-CEO SafeCharge, CEO UniPaaS).

TrueLayer says the Series D brings the total investment to date to $142 million. The injection of capital will be used to continue scaling its open banking network, which brings together payments, financial data and identity to enable companies to build new products that improve “how we spend, save, and transact online”.

This will include further development of premium open banking-based services that go beyond simply accessing open banking APIs and will enable more innovation across financial services, including embedded finance and payments more generally.

To do this, and to support what it says is growing demand, TrueLayer is expanding its engineering, product and commercial teams. In the past 12 months, the fintech has expanded its services across 12 European markets.

Over the years, TrueLayer CEO and co-founder Francesco Simoneschi and I have often pontificated on what open banking’s killer use case or use cases may turn out to be. We may finally have our answer: payments.

That’s because one aspect of open banking is payment initiation, which lets an authorised third party initiate the transfer of money out of your bank account on your behalf as an alternative to card payments, which were never built with online payments in mind.

“We believe open banking payments will become the default way to pay online, replacing other payment methods in the next five years,” says Simoneschi. “Open banking is digitally native and mobile-first, moving money at a fraction of the cost, securely and conveniently, while also delivering a vastly better consumer experience”.

The past year has also exposed some of the problems with existing payments methods, as people have turned to digital channels to manage every aspect of their lives. “The problem is cards,” says the TrueLayer CEO, “which weren’t designed for online and have been retrofitted into current online payment flows. Newer digital approaches such as Google Pay or Apple Pay paper over those cracks but don’t change the fundamentals”.

Simoneschi says the company has seen the use of its payments API grow rapidly as more consumers embrace instant bank payments. Volumes grew by 600x over the last year, driven by more and more companies adopting open banking payments, including the likes of Revolut, Trading 212, Freetrade and Nutmeg.

“We typically see that 1 in 3 customers choose the open banking payment option after trying it once,” he notes, revealing that for some clients, closer to 70% of their customers are using open banking as the primary payment method.

“There are a number of reasons why it makes sense for customers. For one, they don’t need to remember card details. Instead, they authenticate with their face or fingerprint on their mobile device, instantly and securely. Plus, they’ll never need to update stored details if their card is lost, stolen or expires”.

Open banking payments as a checkout option benefits merchants too, argues Simoneschi. “These payments typically convert 20% better than cards (and up to 40% with our flows) and have success rates higher than 95%, equating to millions or hundreds of millions in recovered revenue at the end of the year,” adds the TrueLayer co-founder.

Avant doubles down on digital banking with Zero Financial acquisition

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Avant, an online lender that has raised over $600 million in equity, announced today that it has acquired Zero Financial and its neobank brand, Level, to further its mission of becoming a digital bank for the masses.

Founded in 2012, Chicago-based Avant started out primarily as an online lender targeting “underserved consumers,” but is evolving into digital banking with this acquisition. The company notched gross revenue of $265 million in 2020 and has raised capital over the years from backers such as General Atlantic and Tiger Global Management.

“Our path has always been to become the premier digital bank for the everyday American,” Avant CEO James Paris told TechCrunch. “The massive transition to digital over the last 12 months made the timing right to expand our offerings.” 

The acquisition of Zero Financial and its neobank, Level (plus its banking app assets), will give Avant the ability to offer “a full ecosystem of banking and credit product offerings” through one fully digital platform, according to Paris. Those offerings include deposits, personal loans, credit cards and auto loans.

Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed other than the fact that the acquisition was completed with a combination of cash and stock.

Founded in 2016, San Francisco-based Zero Financial has raised $147 million in debt and equity, according to Crunchbase. New Enterprise Associates (NEA) led its $20 million Series A in May of 2019.

Level was unveiled to the public in February of 2020, created by the same California-based team that founded the “debit-style” credit card offering Zero, according to this FintechFutures piece. The challenger bank was created to target millennials dissatisfied with the incumbent banking options.

Zero Financial co-founder and CEO Bryce Galen said that Avant shared his company’s mission “to challenge the status quo by bringing innovative financial services products to consumers who might otherwise be unable to access them.”

Avant, notes Paris, uses thousands of AI-driven data points to determine credit risk. With this acquisition, that lens will be expanded with data, such as a deposit customer’s cash flow, how they manage their finances and whether they pay their bills on time. 

“This will allow us to make credit decisions faster and deliver personalized options to help underbanked consumers gain financial freedom, at any and every stage of their financial journey,” Paris told TechCrunch. “It will also build long-term engagement and loyalty and help grow our reach beyond the 1.5 million customers we’ve served to date.”  

Like a growing number of fintechs, Avant operates under the premise that a person’s ability to get credit shouldn’t be dictated by a credit score alone.

“A significant amount of Americans have poor, bad or no credit at all. For these people, accessing credit isn’t exactly easy and often comes with extra fees,” Paris said. That’s why, he added, Avant has focused on providing options for such consumers with “transparent, rewards-driven products.”

Level’s branchless, all-digital platform offers things such as cashback rewards on debit card purchases, a “competitive APY” on deposits, early access to paychecks and no hidden fees, all of which are especially beneficial for consumers on the path to financial freedom, according to Paris.

Since its inception in 2012, Avant has connected more than 1.5 million consumers to $7.5 billion in loans and 400,000 credit cards. The company launched its credit card in 2017 and over the past two years alone, it has grown its number of credit card users by 170%.

Pipe, which aims to be the ‘Nasdaq for revenue,’ raises more money at a $2B valuation

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Fast-growing fintech Pipe has raised another round of funding at a $2 billion valuation, just weeks after raising $50M in growth funding, according to sources familiar with the deal.

Although the round is still ongoing, Pipe has reportedly raised $150 million in a “massively oversubscribed” round led by Baltimore, Md.-based Greenspring Associates. While the company has signed a term sheet, more money could still come in, according to the source. Both new and existing investors have participated in the fundraise.

The increase in valuation is “a significant step up” from the company’s last raise. Pipe has declined to comment on the deal.

A little over one year ago, Pipe raised a $6 million seed round led by Craft Ventures to help it pursue its mission of giving SaaS companies a funding alternative outside of equity or venture debt.

The buzzy startup’s goal with the money was to give SaaS companies a way to get their revenue upfront, by pairing them with investors on a marketplace that pays a discounted rate for the annual value of those contracts. (Pipe describes its buy-side participants as “a vetted group of financial institutions and banks.”)

Just a few weeks ago, Miami-based Pipe announced a new raise — $50 million in “strategic equity funding” from a slew of high-profile investors. Siemens’ Next47 and Jim Pallotta’s Raptor Group co-led the round, which also included participation from Shopify, Slack, HubSpot, Okta, Social Capital’s Chamath Palihapitiya, Marc Benioff, Michael Dell’s MSD Capital, Republic, Alexis Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six and Joe Lonsdale.

At that time, Pipe co-CEO and co-founder Harry Hurst said the company was also broadening the scope of its platform beyond strictly SaaS companies to “any company with a recurring revenue stream.” This could include D2C subscription companies, ISP, streaming services or a telecommunications companies. Even VC fund admin and management are being piped on its platform, for example, according to Hurst.

“When we first went to market, we were very focused on SaaS, our first vertical,” he told TC at the time. “Since then, over 3,000 companies have signed up to use our platform.” Those companies range from early-stage and bootstrapped with $200,000 in revenue, to publicly-traded companies.

Pipe’s platform assesses a customer’s key metrics by integrating with its accounting, payment processing and banking systems. It then instantly rates the performance of the business and qualifies them for a trading limit. Trading limits currently range from $50,000 for smaller early-stage and bootstrapped companies, to over $100 million for late-stage and publicly traded companies, although there is no cap on how large a trading limit can be.

In the first quarter of 2021, tens of millions of dollars were traded across the Pipe platform. Between its launch in late June 2020 through year’s end, the company also saw “tens of millions” in trades take place via its marketplace. Tradable ARR on the platform is currently in excess of $1 billion.

Big banks rush to back Greenwood, Killer Mike’s Atlanta-based digital bank for underrepresented customers

By Jonathan Shieber

Before even taking its first deposit, Greenwood, the digital banking service targeting Black and Latino individuals and business owners, has raised $40 million — only a few months after its launch.

Coming in to finance the new challenger bank are six of the seven largest U.S. Banks and the payment technology developers Mastercard and Visa.

That’s right, Bank of America, PNC, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Truist, are backing a bank co-founded by a man who declared, “I’m with the revolutionary. I’m with the radical policy,” when stumping for then Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Joining the financial services giants in the round are FIS, a behind-the-scenes financial services tech developer; along with the venture capital firms TTV Capital, SoftBank Group’s SB Opportunity Fund, and Lightspeed Venture Partners. Sports investors Quality Control and All-Pro NFL running back Alvin Kamara also came in to finance the latest round.

Atlanta-based Greenwood was launched last October by a group that included former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and Bounce TV founder, Ryan Glover.

“The net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family and eight times greater than that of a Latino family. This wealth gap is a curable injustice that requires collaboration,” said \ Glover, Chairman and Co-founder of Greenwood, in a statement. “The backing of six of the top seven banks and the two largest payment technology companies is a testament to the contemporary influence of the Black and Latino community. We now are even better positioned to deliver the world-class services our customers deserve.”

Named after the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Okla., which was known as the Black Wall Street before it was destroyed in a 1921 massacre, the digital bank promises to donate the equivalent of five free meals to an organization addressing food insecurity for every person who signs up to the bank. And every time a customer uses a Greenwood debit card, the bank will make a donation to either the United Negro College FundGoodr (an organization that addresses food insecurity) or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In addition, each month the bank will provide a $10,000 grant to a Black or Latinx small business owner that uses the company’s financial services.

“Truist Ventures is helping to inspire and build better lives and communities by leading the Series A funding round for Greenwood’s innovative approach to building greater trust in banking within Black and Latino communities,” said Truist Chief Digital and Client Experience Officer Dontá L. Wilson who oversees Truist Ventures, in a statement. “In addition to the opportunity to work with and learn from this distinguished group of founders, our investment in Greenwood is reflective of our purpose and commitment to advancing economic empowerment of minority and underserved communities.”

So far, 500,000 people have signed up for the wait list to bank with Greenwood.

Digital banking solutions provider Meniga closes additional €10M investment

By Steve O'Hear

Meniga, the London fintech that provides digital banking technology to leading banks, has closed €10 million in additional funding.

The round is led by Velocity Capital and Frumtak Ventures. Also participating are Industrifonden, the U.K. Government’s Future Fund and existing customers UniCredit, Swedbank, Groupe BPCE and Íslandsbanki.

Meniga says the funding will be used for continued investment in R&D, and in particular further development of green banking products — building on its carbon spending insights product. In addition, the fintech will bolster its sales and service teams.

Headquartered in London but with additional offices in Reykjavik, Stockholm, Warsaw, Singapore and Barcelona, Meniga’s digital banking solutions help banks (and other fintechs) use personal finance data to innovate in their online and mobile offerings.

Its various products include a software layer that bridges the gap between a bank’s legacy tech infrastructure and a modern API, making it easier to build consumer-friendly digital banking experiences. The product suite spans data aggregation technologies, personal and business finance management solutions, cash-back rewards and transaction-based carbon insights.

Meniga tells TechCrunch it has experienced a significant increase in the demand for its digital banking products and services over the past year. This has seen the fintech launch a total of 18 digital banking solutions across 17 countries.

Image Credits: Meniga

Helping fuel that demand is the need for banks to attract and retain a generation of customers that increasingly care about sustainability and the need to tackle climate change. Enter Meniga’s green banking solution: Dubbed “Carbon Insight,” it leverages personal finance data so that mobile banking customers can track and, in theory, reduce their carbon footprint.

Specifically, it lets users track their estimated carbon footprint for a given time period (which can be broken down into specific spending categories); track the estimated carbon footprint of individual transactions; and compare their overall carbon footprint and the carbon footprint of spending categories with that of other users.

Last month, Íslandsbanki became the first Nordic bank to implement Meniga’s Carbon Insight solution into its own digital banking offering.

Wise accuses former Brazil banking partner of smear campaign after ‘unfounded’ accusations of fraud

By Steve O'Hear

Wise, the London-headquartered company that made its name offering international money transfers and is reportedly planning an IPO, has accused its former banking partner in Brazil of a “smear campaign” after it was accused of fraud — claims that Wise says are “false and unfounded.”

The war of words between Brazil’s MS Bank and Wise appears to have followed Wise securing its own FX broker license from Brazil’s Central Bank in January, meaning that its partnership with MS Bank would soon come to an end. The following month, without prior notice, MS Bank terminated its contract with Wise and informed customers that it was launching its own transfer service called CloudBreak.

Without a banking partner and before it had time to begin testing transfers under its own FX broker licence, Wise was forced to temporarily suspend its Brazil corridor. On March 12, Wise was able to open its Brazilian real (BRL) to U.S. dollar (USD) corridor again, under its own license, and then things got hostile.

In an email sent to customers the same day — and shared with TechCrunch earlier this week — MS Bank alleges that Wise had been committing fraud via customer accounts. Those allegations were also repeated in a YouTube video and text published on MS Bank’s own website and focussed on a discrepancy in the way transactions are registered on a customer’s account and with the Brazilian Central Bank.

In a subsequent blog post, Wise gives a detailed and robust explanation of the discrepancy in the way transactions are recorded, categorically denying any wrongdoing, and calls out MS Bank for launching an alleged “defamation campaign.”

In a statement provided to TechCrunch, Wise says the accusations “have been timed to raise awareness of the launch of that ex-partner’s competing product. We are not aware of any investigation or accusations against Wise by any regulator or other authority, either in Brazil or anywhere else,” adds the fintech company. “We are certain that we are not responsible for any fraudulent or improper activity using customer data and/or funds. Wise is taking legal measures to address this matter.”

Wise’s statement in full:

In recent weeks Wise has been the subject of a smear campaign by a former business partner in Brazil. The accusations have been timed to raise awareness of the launch of that ex-partner’s competing product. We are not aware of any investigation or accusations against Wise by any regulator or other authority, either in Brazil or anywhere else.

Wise maintains its commitment to the transparency and security of our operations for our more than 10 million customers around the world. We are certain that we are not responsible for any fraudulent or improper activity using customer data and/or funds. Wise is taking legal measures to address this matter.

New challenger Ikigai combines digital banking and wealth management

By Steve O'Hear

Ikigai, a London fintech founded by former McKinsey partners, thinks there’s room in the crowded challenger market for a new premium offering that combines digital banking with wealth management.

Targeting future and present high-net-worth individuals, Ikigai is iOS-only for now and consists of a current account and savings account, with adjacent wealth management features, all combined in a single app and card. The thesis, says the founding team, is that currently there is very little on the market that provides a modern digital-first banking experience and the kind of premium banking services typically offered by legacy banks to their more affluent customers.

“Our typical client is young — usually in their late twenties or thirties,” explains Ikigai co-founder Edgar de Picciotto. “They’re entering their prime spending and earning years, and are looking to secure their financial future. Although they’re not high-net-worths yet, they have aspirations and goals — and they want to do more with their money”.

Rather than a freemium model, Ikigai charges a flat subscription fee from the get-go, and new users gain access to a relationship manager, which differentiates it from most digital-first banking. Features include an “everyday” spending account, and a saving section of the app, dubbed “nest”. The latter is separate from the spending account, including having its own account number, but can be easily topped up from the everyday account.

So far, quite me-too, you might conclude. However, where some more differentiation arguably comes into play is that Ikigai also offers “fully managed, globally diversified investment portfolios” under the wealth section of the app. Portfolios are built and managed by Ikigai in collaboration with asset manager BlackRock, and take into account both risk appetite and the nature of what users want to achieve.

“We say it a lot but Ikigai was very much born from personal frustration,” says de Picciotto. “Everything on the market seemed to be slow, impersonal, full of attempts to sell lending and debt products. It felt like either the tech was there or the humanity, never both. That was the first thing we knew we wanted to solve”.

“Banking can also be way too time-consuming, investing even more so,” adds Maurizio Kaiser, Ikigai’s other co-founder. “There is so much for people to do when they have to do it themselves. It can basically become a second job if you’re constantly looking at different stocks and shares working out if the value is under this or over that. No one really has time for that — I certainly didn’t”.

Once the pair dug deeper, as management consultants are wont to do, they say they also discovered “interesting behavioural trends,” particularly when it comes to young and affluent people.

“This group are entering their prime earning and spending years, and they expect so much more from their banks than previous generations,” says de Picciotto. “Not only do they expect faster, fairer and better experiences, they have specific expectations and demands that current financial providers just don’t meet. This includes things like approaching personal finance as an act of self-care, like lifestyle banking over lifestage banking, and aligning their money with their goals and sense of purpose”.

Notably, unlike many of the first wave of challenger banks that made a virtue out of claims to be building their own core banking technology, Ikigai is primarily partnering with technology providers, including Railsbank and WealthKernel.

“Going with banking-as-a-service providers actually makes it easier to execute on our vision,” claims de Picciotto. “It allows us to focus on what we are good at and really matters to our customers: the user experience”.

On banking competitors, Ikigai’s founders argue that existing incumbents and challengers both have “significant” failings.

Incumbents are too dependent on branches or telephone services, and are premised on cross-selling and up-selling services, particularly lending products, in order to make money on loss-making current accounts.

Challengers, on the other hand, are “faster and more accessible”. However, in a bid to keep their cost-base low, they are increasingly automating their chat support and, in some cases, hiding live chat features.

“Delivering a high-quality service is obviously at odds with their aim of offering banking for free,” concludes Kaiser.

SESO Labor is providing a way for migrant farmworkers to get legally protected work status in the US

By Jonathan Shieber

As the Biden administration works to bring legislation to Congress to address the endemic problem of immigration reform in America, on the other side of the nation a small California startup called SESO Labor has raised $4.5 million to ensure that farms can have access to legal migrant labor.

SESO’s founder Mike Guirguis raised the round over the summer from investors including Founders Fund and NFX. Pete Flint, a founder of Trulia joined the company’s board. The company has 12 farms it’s working with and negotiating contracts with another 46.

Working within the existing regulatory framework that has existed since 1986, SESO has created a service that streamlines and manages the process of getting H-2A visas, which allow migrant agricultural workers to reside temporarily in the U.S. with legal protections.

At this point, SESO is automating the visa process, getting the paperwork in place for workers and smoothing the application process. The company charges about $1,000 per application, but eventually as it begins offering more services to workers themselves, Guirguis envisions several robust lines of revenue. Eventually, the company would like to offer integrated services for both farm owners and farm workers, Guirguis said.

SESO is currently expecting to bring in 1,000 workers over the course of 2021 and the company is, as of now, pre-revenue. The largest industry player handling worker visas today currently brings in 6,000 workers per year, so the competition, for SESO, is market share, Guirguis said.

America’s complicated history of immigration and agricultural labor

The H-2A program was set up to allow agricultural employers who anticipate shortages of domestic workers to bring in non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to work on farms temporarily or seasonally. The workers are covered by U.S. wage laws, workers’ compensation and other standards, including access to healthcare under the Affordable Care Act.

Employers who use the the visa program to hire workers are required to pay inbound and outbound transportation, provide free or rental housing, and provide meals for workers (they’re allowed to deduct the costs from salaries).

H-2 visas were first created in 1952 as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which reinforced the national origins quota system that restricted immigration primarily to Northern Europe, but opened America’s borders to Asian immigrants for the first time since immigration laws were first codified in 1924. While immigration regulations were further opened in the sixties, the last major immigration reform package in 1986 served to restrict immigration and made it illegal for businesses to hire undocumented workers. It also created the H-2A visas as a way for farms to hire migrant workers without incurring the penalties associated with using illegal labor.

For some migrant workers, the H-2A visa represents a golden ticket, according to Guirguis, an honors graduate of Stanford who wrote his graduate thesis on labor policy.

“We are providing a staffing solution for farms and agribusiness and we want to be Gusto for agriculture and upsell farms on a comprehensive human resources solution,” says Guirguis of the company’s ultimate mission, referencing payroll provider Gusto.

As Guirguis notes, most workers in agriculture are undocumented. “These are people who have been taken advantage of [and] the H-2A is a visa to bring workers in legally. We’re able to help employers maintain workforce [and] we’re building software to help farmers maintain the farms.”

Opening borders even as they remain closed

Farms need the help, if the latest numbers on labor shortages are believable, but it’s not necessarily a lack of H-2A visas that’s to blame, according to an article in Reuters.

In fact, the number of H-2A visas granted for agriculture equipment operators rose to 10,798 from October through March, according to the Reuters report. That’s up 49% from a year ago, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor cited by Reuters.

Instead of an inability to acquire the H-2A visa, it was an inability to travel to the U.S. that’s been causing problems. Tighter border controls, the persistent global pandemic and travel restrictions that were imposed to combat it have all played a role in keeping migrant workers in their home countries.

Still, Guirguis believes that with the right tools, more farms would be willing to use the H-2A visa, cutting down on illegal immigration and boosting the available labor pool for the tough farm jobs that American workers don’t seem to want.

Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images.

David Misener, the owner of an Oklahoma-based harvesting company called Green Acres Enterprises, is one employer who has struggled to find suitable replacements for the migrant workers he typically hires.

“They could not fathom doing it and making it work,” Misener told Retuers, speaking about the American workers he’d tried to hire.

“With H-2A, migrant workers make 10 times more than they would get paid at home,” said Guirguis. “They’re taking home the equivalent of $40 an hour. The H-2A is coveted.”

Guirguis thinks that with the right incentives and an easier onramp for farmers to manage the application and approval process, the number of employers that use H-2A visas could grow to be 30% to 50% of the farm workforce in the country. That means growing the number of potential jobs from 300,000 to 1.5 million for migrants who would be under many of the same legal protections that citizens enjoy, while they’re working on the visa.

Protecting agricultural workers through better paperwork

Interest in the farm labor nexus and issues surrounding it came to the first-time founder through Guirguis’ experience helping his cousin start her own farm. Spending several weekends a month helping her grow the farm with her husband, Guirguis heard his stories about coming to the U.S. as an undocumented worker.

Employers using the program avoid the liability associated with being caught employing illegal labor, something that crackdowns under the Trump Administration made more common.

Still, it’s hard to deny the program’s roots in the darker past of America’s immigration policy. And some immigration advocates argue that the H-2A system suffers from the same kinds of structural problems that plague the corollary H-1B visas for tech workers.

“The H-2A visa is a short-term temporary visa program that employers use to import workers into the agricultural fields … It’s part of a very antiquated immigration system that needs to change. The 11.5 million people who are here need to be given citizenship,” said Saket Soni, the founder of an organization called Resilience Force, which advocates for immigrant labor. “And then workers who come from other countries, if we need them, they have to be able to stay … H-2A workers don’t have a pathway to citizenship. Workers come to us afraid of blowing the whistle on labor issues. As much as the H-2A is a welcome gift for a worker it can also be abused.” 

Soni said the precarity of a worker’s situation — and their dependence on a single employer for their ability to remain in the country legally — means they are less likely to speak up about problems at work, since there’s nowhere for them to go if they are fired.

“We are big proponents that if you need people’s labor you have to welcome them as human beings,” Soni said. “Where there’s a labor shortage as people come, they should be allowed to stay … H-2A is an example of an outdated immigration tool.”

Guirguis clearly disagrees and said a platform like SESO’s will ultimately create more conveniences and better services for the workers who come in on these visas.

“We’re trying to put more money in the hands of these workers at the end of the day,” he said. “We’re going to be setting up remittance and banking services. Everything we do should be mutually beneficial for the employer and the worker who is trying to get into this program and know that they’re not getting taken advantage of.”

Creating a prediction machine for the financial markets

By Walter Thompson
Fayze Bouaouid Contributor
Fayze Bouaouid is co-founder and CEO of financial intelligence application Springbox AI. He has a Master's of Science in Banking and Finance and nearly two decades of experience in banking and asset management.

Artificial intelligence and machine-learning technologies have evolved a lot over the past decade and have been useful to many people and businesses, especially in the realm of finance, banking, investment and trading.

In these industries, there are many activities that machines can perform better and faster than humans, such as calculations and financial reporting, as long as the machines are given the complete data.

The AI tools being built by humans today are becoming another level more robust in their ability to predict trends, provide complex analysis, and execute automations faster and cheaper than humans. However, there has not been an AI-powered machine built yet that can trade on its own.

There are many activities that machines can perform better and faster than humans, such as calculations and financial reporting, as long as the machines are given the complete data.

Even if it was possible to train such a system that could replace human judgment, there would still be a margin of error, as well as some things that are only understandable by human beings. Humans are still ultimately responsible for the design of AI-based prediction machines, and progress can only happen with their input.

Data is the backbone of any prediction machine

Building an AI-based prediction machine initially requires an understanding of the problem being solved and the requirements of the user. After that, it’s important to select the machine-learning technique that will be implemented, based on what the machine will do.

There are three techniques: supervised learning (learning from examples), unsupervised learning (learning to identify common patterns), and reinforcement learning (learning based on the concept of gamification).

After the technique is identified, it’s time to implement a machine-learning model. For “time series forecasting” — which involves making predictions about the future — long short-term memory (LSTM) with sequence to sequence (Seq2Seq) models can be used.

LSTM networks are especially suited to making predictions based on a series of data points indexed in time order. Even simple convolutional neural networks, applicable to image and video recognition, or recurrent neural networks, applicable to handwriting and speech recognition, can be used.

Eight Roads Ventures Europe appoints Lucile Cornet to Partner

By Mike Butcher

Lucile Cornet has been appointed Partner with Eight Roads Ventures Europe, a firm focusing on startups in Europe and Israel. Cornet is its first female Partner. Eight Roads is backed by Fidelity and has over $6 billion assets under management globally.

Cornet will be focusing on the software and fintech sectors and previously led a number of investments for the firm, having risen from Associate to Partner within five years. It’s an out of the ordinary career trajectory when VC is notorious for having a ‘no succession’ culture, unless partners effectively buy into funds.

Cornet commented: “I am hugely optimistic about what is to come for European technology entrepreneurs. We are seeing more and more amazing founders and innovative businesses across the whole European region with ambitions and abilities to become global champions, and I look forward to helping them scale up.”

Speaking with TechCrunch, Cornet added: “I feel so, so fortunate because I think we’ve been living during a once in a lifetime transformation in general in tech and also in Europe. To build some of those companies, and just be part of the ecosystem has been fantastic. I know how much more exciting things are going to be in the next couple of years.”

Cornet previously led investments into Spendesk, the Paris-based spend management platform; Thinksurance, the Frankfurt-based B2B insurtech; and Compte-Nickel, one of the first European neobanks which was successfully acquired by BNP Paribas in 2017. She also sits on the boards of VIU Eyewear, OTA Insight and Fuse Universal.

France-born Cornet’s previous career includes investment banking, Summit Partners, and she joined Eight Roads Ventures in 2015. She was a ‘rising star’ at the GP Bullhound Investor of the Year Awards 2020.

Commenting, Davor Hebel, managing partner at Eight Roads Ventures Europe, said: “We are delighted with Lucile’s success so far at Eight Roads. She has made a huge impact in Europe and globally since joining the firm. She has a tremendous work ethic and drive… identifying the best European companies and helping them scale into global winners. Her promotion also speaks to our desire to continue to develop our best investment talent and promote from within.”

Speaking to me in an interview Hebel added: “We always believed in a slightly different approach and we say when we hire people, even from the start, we want them to have judgment, and we want them to have that presence when they meet entrepreneurs. So it was always part of the model for us to say, we might not hire many people, but we really want them to have the potential to grow and stay with us and have the path and the potential to do so.”

In 2020, Eight Roads Ventures Europe invested in Cazoo, Otrium, Spendesk, Odaseva and most recently Tibber, completed eight follow-on investments and exited Rimilia. The firm also saw its portfolio company AppsFlyer reach a $2 billion valuation.

Monzo founder Tom Blomfield is departing the challenger bank and says he’s ‘struggled’ during the pandemic

By Steve O'Hear

Monzo founder Tom Blomfield is departing the U.K. challenger bank entirely at the end of the month, staff were informed earlier today.

Blomfield held the role of CEO until May last year when he assumed the newly created title of president and resigned from the Monzo board. However, having been given the time and space to consider his long-term future at the bank he helped create six years ago, and with a refreshed executive team now in place, he says it is time to “hand over the baton”.

In a brief but candid telephone interview, Blomfield also revealed that, as well as being unhappy during the last couple of years as CEO when the company scaled well beyond a “scrappy startup”, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns exacerbated pressures placed on his own mental well-being. “I’m very happy to talk about what’s gone on with me, because I don’t think people do it enough”, he says.

“I stopped enjoying my role probably about two years ago… as we grew from a scrappy startup that was iterating and building stuff people really love, into a really important U.K. bank. I’m not saying that one is better than the other, just that the things I enjoy in life is working with small groups of passionate people to start and grow stuff from scratch, and create something customers love. And I think that’s a really valuable skill but also taking on a bank that’s three, four, five million customers and turning it into a 10 or 20 million customer bank and getting to profitability and IPOing it, I think those are huge exciting challenges, just honestly not ones that I found that I was interested in or particularly good at”.

In early 2019 after realising he was “doing too much and not enjoying it,” Blomfield began talking to Monzo investor Eileen Burbidge of Passion Capital, and Monzo Chair Gary Hoffman, about changing roles and how he needed more help. Then, he says, “COVID just exasperated things,” a period when Monzo also had to cut staff, shutter its Las Vegas office and raise bridge funding in a highly publicised down round.

“I think [for] a lot of people in the world — and you and I have spoken about this — going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” says Blomfield. “I don’t think I was any different, so I was really struggling. I had a really, really supportive exec team around me and a really supportive set of investors on board and I was really grateful that when I put my hand up and said, ‘I need help,’ they were super receptive to that”.

Blomfield also comes clean about his role as president, a title that was intended as a way to provide the time and space for him to get well and figure out if he would return longer-term to Monzo or depart entirely. Contrary to rumours, Blomfield says he wasn’t pushed out by investors. Instead, the Monzo board actually put pressure on him to remain as CEO longer than he wanted or perhaps should have (a version of events corroborated by my own sources). “When I took that president role, it was not certain one way or another what would happen,” Blomfield says, apologising in case I felt I was misled when I reported the news.

(The truth is, within weeks of running that news piece, I knew it was far from certain Blomfield would ever return, with multiple sources, including people close to and worried about Blomfield, confiding in me how burned out the Monzo founder was. As weeks turned into months and following additional sourcing, I had enough information to write a follow-up story much earlier but chose to wait until a formal decision was taken.)

TechCrunch’s Steve O’Hear interviewing Monzo’s Tom Blomfield. Image Credits: Startup Grind

Meanwhile, Blomfield describes his resignation as a Monzo employee as “bitter-sweet,” and is keen to praise what the Monzo team has already achieved, including since his much-reduced involvement. “I think the team has done phenomenally well over the last year or so in really difficult circumstances,” he says. In particular, he cites Monzo’s new CEO TS Anil as doing a “phenomenal” job, while describing Sujata Bhatia, who joined as COO last year, as “an absolute machine, a real operator”.

To that end, Monzo now has almost 5 million customers, up from 1.3 million in 2019. Monzo’s total weekly revenue is now 30% higher than pre-pandemic, helped no doubt by over 100,000 paid subscribers across Monzo Plus and Premium in the last five months (sources tell me the company surpassed £2 million in weekly revenue in December for the first time in its history). Albeit at a lower valuation, the challenger bank also raised £125 million from new and existing investors during the pandemic.

Blomfield also says that Anil and Bhatia and other members of the Monzo executive team have specific skills — that he simply doesn’t have — related to scaling and managing a bank approaching 5 million customers. And even if he did, he has learned the hard way that there are aspects of running a large company that not everyone enjoys.

“Going from a CEO where you’re front and centre dealing with all of the different pressures every day to a much lighter role is a huge huge weight off my shoulders and has given me the time and space to recover”, he adds. “I’m now feeling pretty great. I’m enjoying life again”.

As for what’s next for Blomfield, he says he wants to “chill out” for a bit and perhaps take a holiday. He’s also finishing his vaccination training so that he can volunteer to help deliver the U.K.’s national COVID-19 vaccination rollout. A recent tweet by Blomfield about a side project also led to speculation that he has begun a new venture. Not true, says Blomfield, telling me it was a five-day project designed to get back into coding and play with a robotic 2D printer. And while he’s very much left Monzo, he says he’ll continue cheering on the company from the outside.

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