Nov
23
2020
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AvePoint to go public via SPAC valued at $2B

AvePoint, a company that gives enterprises using Microsoft Office 365, SharePoint and Teams a control layer on top of these tools, announced today that it would be going public via a SPAC merger with Apex Technology Acquisition Corporation in a deal that values AvePoint at around $2 billion.

The acquisition brings together some powerful technology executives, with Apex run by former Oracle CFO Jeff Epstein and former Goldman Sachs head of technology investment banking Brad Koenig, who will now be working closely with AvePoint’s CEO Tianyi Jiang. Apex filed for a $305 million SPAC in September 2019.

Under the terms of the transaction, Apex’s balance of $352 million plus a $140 million additional private investment will be handed over to AvePoint. Once transaction fees and other considerations are paid for, AvePoint is expected to have $252 million on its balance sheet. Existing AvePoint shareholders will own approximately 72% of the combined entity, with the balance held by the Apex SPAC and the private investment owners.

Jiang sees this as a way to keep growing the company. “Going public now gives us the ability to meet this demand and scale up faster across product innovation, channel marketing, international markets and customer success initiatives,” he said in a statement.

AvePoint was founded in 2001 as a company to help ease the complexity of SharePoint installations, which at the time were all on-premise. Today, it has adapted to the shift to the cloud as a SaaS tool and primarily acts as a policy layer enabling companies to make sure employees are using these tools in a compliant way.

The company raised $200 million in January this year led by Sixth Street Partners (formerly TPG Sixth Street Partners), with additional participation from prior investor Goldman Sachs, meaning that Koenig was probably familiar with the company based on his previous role.

The company has raised a total of $294 million in capital before today’s announcement. It expects to generate almost $150 million in revenue by the end of this year, with ARR growing at over 30%. It’s worth noting that the company’s ARR and revenue has been growing steadily since Q12019. The company is projecting significant growth for the next two years with revenue estimates of $257 million and ARR of $220 million by the end of 2022.

Graph of revenue and projected revenue

Image Credits: AvePoint

The deal is expected to close in the first quarter of next year. Upon close the company will continue to be known as AvePoint and be publicly traded on Nasdaq under the new ticker symbol AVPT.

Sep
08
2020
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Hasura raises $25 million Series B and adds MySQL support to its GraphQL service

Hasura, a service that provides developers with an open-source engine that provides them a GraphQL API to access their databases, today announced that it has raised a $25 million Series B round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners. Previous investors Vertex Ventures US, Nexus Venture Partners, Strive VC and SAP.iO Fund also participated in this round.

The new round, which the team raised after the COVID-19 pandemic had already started, comes only six months after the company announced its $9.9 million Series A round. In total, Hasura has now raised $36.5 million.

“We’ve been seeing rapid enterprise traction in 2020. We’ve wanted to accelerate our efforts investing in the Hasura community and our cloud product that we recently launched and to ensure the success of our enterprise customers. Given the VC inbound interest, a fundraise made sense to help us step on the gas pedal and give us room to grow comfortably,” Hasura co-founder and CEO Tanmai Gopal told me.

In addition to the new funding, Hasura also today announced that it has added support for MySQL databases. Until now, the company’s service only worked with PostgreSQL databases.

Rajoshi Ghosh, co-founder and COO (left) and Tanmai Gopal, co-founder and CEO (right).

Rajoshi Ghosh, co-founder and COO (left) and Tanmai Gopal, co-founder and CEO (right). Image Credits: Hasura

As the company’s CEO and co-founder Tanmai Gopal told me, MySQL support has long been at the top of the most requested features by the service’s users. Many of these users — who are often in the healthcare and financial services industry — are also working with legacy systems they are trying to connect to modern applications and MySQL plays an important role there, given how long it has been around.

In addition to adding MySQL support, Hasura is also adding support for SQL Server to its lineup, but for now, that’s in early access.

“For MySQL and SQL Server, we’ve seen a lot of demand from our healthcare and financial services / fin-tech users,” Gopal said. “They have a lot of existing online data, especially in these two databases, that they want to activate to build new capabilities and use while modernizing their applications.

Today’s announcement also comes only a few months after the company launched a fully managed cloud service for its service, which complements its existing paid Pro service for enterprises.

“We’re very impressed by how developers have taken to Hasura and embraced the GraphQL approach to building applications,” said Gaurav Gupta, partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners and Hasura board member. “Particularly for front-end developers using technologies like React, Hasura makes it easy to connect applications to existing databases where all the data is without compromising on security and performance. Hasura provides a lovely bridge for re-platforming applications to cloud-native approaches, so we see this approach being embraced by enterprise developers as well as front-end developers more and more.”

The company plans to use the new funding to add support for more databases and to tackle some of the harder technical challenges around cross-database joins and the company’s application-level data caching system. “We’re also investing deeply in company building so that we can grow our GTM and engineering in tandem and making some senior hires across these functions,” said Gopal.

May
29
2020
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How startups can leverage elastic services for cost optimization

Due to COVID-19, business continuity has been put to the test for many companies in the manufacturing, agriculture, transport, hospitality, energy and retail sectors. Cost reduction is the primary focus of companies in these sectors due to massive losses in revenue caused by this pandemic. The other side of the crisis is, however, significantly different.

Companies in industries such as medical, government and financial services, as well as cloud-native tech startups that are providing essential services, have experienced a considerable increase in their operational demands — leading to rising operational costs. Irrespective of the industry your company belongs to, and whether your company is experiencing reduced or increased operations, cost optimization is a reality for all companies to ensure a sustained existence.

One of the most reliable measures for cost optimization at this stage is to leverage elastic services designed to grow or shrink according to demand, such as cloud and managed services. A modern product with a cloud-native architecture can auto-scale cloud consumption to mitigate lost operational demand. What may not have been obvious to startup leaders is a strategy often employed by incumbent, mature enterprises — achieving cost optimization by leveraging managed services providers (MSPs). MSPs enable organizations to repurpose full-time staff members from impacted operations to more strategic product lines or initiatives.

Why companies need cost optimization in the long run

Mar
01
2020
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Thought Machine nabs $83M for a cloud-based platform that powers banking services

The world of consumer banking has seen a massive shift in the last ten years. Gone are the days where you could open an account, take out a loan, or discuss changing the terms of your banking only by visiting a physical branch. Now, you can do all this and more with a few quick taps on your phone screen — a shift that has accelerated with customers expecting and demanding even faster and more responsive banking services.

As one mark of that switch, today a startup called Thought Machine, which has built cloud-based technology that powers this new generation of services on behalf of both old and new banks, is announcing some significant funding — $83 million — a Series B that the company plans to use to continue investing in its platform and growing its customer base.

To date, Thought Machine’s customers are primarily in Europe and Asia — they include large, legacy outfits like Standard Chartered, Lloyds Banking Group, and Sweden’s SEB through to “challenger” (AKA neo-) banks like Atom Bank. Some of this financing will go towards boosting the startup’s activities in the US, including opening an office in the country later this year and moving ahead with commercial deals.

The funding is being led by Draper Esprit, with participation also from existing investors Lloyds Banking Group, IQ Capital, Backed and Playfair.

Thought Machine, which started in 2014 and now employs 300, is not disclosing its valuation but Paul Taylor, the CEO and founder, noted that the market cap is currently “increasing healthily.” In its last round, according to PitchBook estimates, the company was valued at around $143 million, which, at this stage of funding, puts this latest round potentially in the range of between $220 million and $320 million.

Thought Machine is not yet profitable, mainly because it is in growth mode, said Taylor. Of note, the startup has been through one major bankruptcy restructuring, although it appears that this was mainly for organisational purposes: all assets, employees and customers from one business controlled by Taylor were acquired by another.

Thought Machine’s primary product and technology is called Vault, a platform that contains a range of banking services: checking accounts, savings accounts, loans, credit cards and mortgages. Thought Machine does not sell directly to consumers, but sells by way of a B2B2C model.

The services are provisioned by way of smart contracts, which allows Thought Machine and its banking customers to personalise, vary and segment the terms for each bank — and potentially for each customer of the bank.

Food for Thought (Machine)

It’s a little odd to think that there is an active market for banking services that are not built and owned by the banks themselves. After all, aren’t these the core of what banks are supposed to do?

But one way to think about it is in the context of eating out. Restaurants’ kitchens will often make in-house what they sell and serve. But in some cases, when it makes sense, even the best places will buy in (and subsequently sell) food that was crafted elsewhere. For example, a restaurant will re-sell cheese or charcuterie, and the wine is likely to come from somewhere else, too.

The same is the case for banks, whose “Crown Jewels” are in fact not the mechanics of their banking services, but their customer service, their customer lists, and their deposits. Better banking services (which may not have been built “in-house”) are key to growing these other three.

“There are all sorts of banks, and they are all trying to find niches,” said Taylor. Indeed, the startup is not the only one chasing that business. Others include Mambu, Temenos and Italy’s Edera.

In the case of the legacy banks that work with the startup, the idea is that these behemoths can migrate into the next generation of consumer banking services and banking infrastructure by cherry-picking services from the VaultOS platform.

“Banks have not kept up and are marooned on their own tech, and as each year goes by, it comes more problematic,” noted Taylor.

In the case of neobanks, Thought Machine’s pitch is that it has already built the rails to run a banking service, so a startup — “new challengers like Monzo and Revolut that are creating quite a lot of disruption in the market” (and are growing very quickly as a result) — can integrate into these to get off the ground more quickly and handle scaling with less complexity (and lower costs).

Money talks

Taylor was new to fintech when he founded Thought Machine, but he has a notable track record in the world of tech that you could argue played a big role in his subsequent foray into banking.

Formerly an academic specialising in linguistics and engineering, his first startup, Rhetorical Systems, commercialised some of his early speech-to-text research and was later sold to Nuance in 2004.

His second entrepreneurial effort, Phonetic Arts, was another speech startup, aimed at tech that could be used in gaming interactions. In 2010, Google approached the startup to see if it wanted to work on a new speech-to-text service it was building. It ended up acquiring Phonetic Arts, and Taylor took on the role of building and launching Google Now, with that voice tech eventually making its way to Google Maps, accessibility services, the Google Assistant and other places where you speech-based interaction makes an appearance in Google products.

While he was working for years in the field, the step changes that really accelerated voice recognition and speech technology, Taylor said, were the rapid increases in computing power and data networks that “took us over the edge” in terms of what a machine could do, specifically in the cloud.

And those are the same forces, in fact, that led to consumers being able to run our banking services from smartphone apps, and for us to want and expect more personalised services overall. Taylor’s move into building and offering a platform-based service to address the need for multiple third-party banking services follows from that, and also is the natural heir to the platform model you could argue Google and other tech companies have perfected over the years.

Draper Esprit has to date built up a strong portfolio of fintech startups that includes Revolut, N26, TransferWise and Freetrade. Thought Machine’s platform approach is an obvious complement to that list. (Taylor did not disclose if any of those companies are already customers of Thought Machine’s, but if they are not, this investment could be a good way of building inroads.)

“We are delighted to be partnering with Thought Machine in this phase of their growth,” said Vinoth Jayakumar, Investment Director, Draper Esprit, in a statement. “Our investments in Revolut and N26 demonstrate how banking is undergoing a once in a generation transformation in the technology it uses and the benefit it confers to the customers of the bank. We continue to invest in our thesis of the technology layer that forms the backbone of banking. Thought Machine stands out by way of the strength of its engineering capability, and is unique in being the only company in the banking technology space that has developed a platform capable of hosting and migrating international Tier 1 banks. This allows innovative banks to expand beyond digital retail propositions to being able to run every function and type of financial transaction in the cloud.”

“We first backed Thought Machine at seed stage in 2016 and have seen it grow from a startup to a 300-person strong global scale-up with a global customer base and potential to become one of the most valuable European fintech companies,” said Max Bautin, Founding Partner of IQ Capital, in a statement. “I am delighted to continue to support Paul and the team on this journey, with an additional £15 million investment from our £100 million Growth Fund, aimed at our venture portfolio outperformers.”

Nov
14
2019
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Eigen nabs $37M to help banks and others parse huge documents using natural language and ‘small data’

One of the bigger trends in enterprise software has been the emergence of startups building tools to make the benefits of artificial intelligence technology more accessible to non-tech companies. Today, one that has built a platform to apply the power of machine learning and natural language processing to massive documents of unstructured data has closed a round of funding as it finds strong demand for its approach.

Eigen Technologies, a London-based startup whose machine learning engine helps banks and other businesses that need to extract information and insights from large and complex documents like contracts, is today announcing that it has raised $37 million in funding, a Series B that values the company at around $150 million – $180 million.

The round was led by Lakestar and Dawn Capital, with Temasek and Goldman Sachs Growth Equity (which co-led its Series A) also participating. Eigen has now raised $55 million in total.

Eigen today is working primarily in the financial sector — its offices are smack in the middle of The City, London’s financial center — but the plan is to use the funding to continue expanding the scope of the platform to cover other verticals such as insurance and healthcare, two other big areas that deal in large, wordy documentation that is often inconsistent in how its presented, full of essential fine print, and typically a strain on an organisation’s resources to be handled correctly — and is often a disaster if it is not.

The focus up to now on banks and other financial businesses has had a lot of traction. It says its customer base now includes 25% of the world’s G-SIB institutions (that is, the world’s biggest banks), along with others that work closely with them, like Allen & Overy and Deloitte. Since June 2018 (when it closed its Series A round), Eigen has seen recurring revenues grow sixfold with headcount — mostly data scientists and engineers — double. While Eigen doesn’t disclose specific financials, you can see the growth direction that contributed to the company’s valuation.

The basic idea behind Eigen is that it focuses what co-founder and CEO Lewis Liu describes as “small data.” The company has devised a way to “teach” an AI to read a specific kind of document — say, a loan contract — by looking at a couple of examples and training on these. The whole process is relatively easy to do for a non-technical person: you figure out what you want to look for and analyse, find the examples using basic search in two or three documents and create the template, which can then be used across hundreds or thousands of the same kind of documents (in this case, a loan contract).

Eigen’s work is notable for two reasons. First, typically machine learning and training and AI requires hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of examples to “teach” a system before it can make decisions that you hope will mimic those of a human. Eigen requires a couple of examples (hence the “small data” approach).

Second, an industry like finance has many pieces of sensitive data (either because it’s personal data, or because it’s proprietary to a company and its business), and so there is an ongoing issue of working with AI companies that want to “anonymise” and ingest that data. Companies simply don’t want to do that. Eigen’s system essentially only works on what a company provides, and that stays with the company.

Eigen was founded in 2014 by Dr. Lewis Z. Liu (CEO) and Jonathan Feuer (a managing partner at CVC Capital Partners, who is the company’s chairman), but its earliest origins go back 15 years earlier, when Liu — a first-generation immigrant who grew up in the U.S. — was working as a “data-entry monkey” (his words) at a tire manufacturing plant in New Jersey, where he lived, ahead of starting university at Harvard.

A natural computing whiz who found himself building his own games when his parents refused to buy him a games console, he figured out that the many pages of printouts he was reading and re-entering into a different computing system could be sped up with a computer program linking up the two. “I put myself out of a job,” he joked.

His educational life epitomises the kind of lateral thinking that often produces the most interesting ideas. Liu went on to Harvard to study not computer science, but physics and art. Doing a double major required working on a thesis that merged the two disciplines together, and Liu built “electrodynamic equations that composed graphical structures on the fly” — basically generating art using algorithms — which he then turned into a “Turing test” to see if people could detect pixelated actual work with that of his program. Distill this, and Liu was still thinking about patterns in analog material that could be re-created using math.

Then came years at McKinsey in London (how he arrived on these shores) during the financial crisis where the results of people either intentionally or mistakenly overlooking crucial text-based data produced stark and catastrophic results. “I would say the problem that we eventually started to solve for at Eigen became tangible,” Liu said.

Then came a physics PhD at Oxford where Liu worked on X-ray lasers that could be used to decrease the complexity and cost of making microchips, cancer treatments and other applications.

While Eigen doesn’t actually use lasers, some of the mathematical equations that Liu came up with for these have also become a part of Eigen’s approach.

“The whole idea [for my PhD] was, ‘how do we make this cheaper and more scalable?,’ ” he said. “We built a new class of X-ray laser apparatus, and we realised the same equations could be used in pattern matching algorithms, specifically around sequential patterns. And out of that, and my existing corporate relationships, that’s how Eigen started.”

Five years on, Eigen has added a lot more into the platform beyond what came from Liu’s original ideas. There are more data scientists and engineers building the engine around the basic idea, and customising it to work with more sectors beyond finance. 

There are a number of AI companies building tools for non-technical business end-users, and one of the areas that comes close to what Eigen is doing is robotic process automation, or RPA. Liu notes that while this is an important area, it’s more about reading forms more readily and providing insights to those. The focus of Eigen is more on unstructured data, and the ability to parse it quickly and securely using just a few samples.

Liu points to companies like IBM (with Watson) as general competitors, while startups like Luminance is another taking a similar approach to Eigen by addressing the issue of parsing unstructured data in a specific sector (in its case, currently, the legal profession).

Stephen Nundy, a partner and the CTO of Lakestar, said that he first came into contact with Eigen when he was at Goldman Sachs, where he was a managing director overseeing technology, and the bank engaged it for work.

“To see what these guys can deliver, it’s to be applauded,” he said. “They’re not just picking out names and addresses. We’re talking deep, semantic understanding. Other vendors are trying to be everything to everybody, but Eigen has found market fit in financial services use cases, and it stands up against the competition. You can see when a winner is breaking away from the pack and it’s a great signal for the future.”

Sep
17
2019
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IEX’s Katsuyama is no flash in the pan

When you watch a commercial for one of the major stock exchanges, you are welcomed into a world of fast-moving, slick images full of glistening buildings, lush crops and happy people. They are typically interspersed with shots of intrepid executives veering out over the horizon as if to say, “I’ve got a long-term vision, and the exchange where my stock is listed is a valuable partner in achieving my goals.” It’s all very reassuring and stylish. But there’s another side to the story.

I have been educated about the realities of today’s stock exchange universe through recent visits with Brad Katsuyama, co-founder and CEO of IEX (a.k.a. The Investors Exchange). If Katsuyama’s name rings a bell, and you don’t work on Wall Street, it’s likely because you remember him as the protagonist of Michael Lewis’s 2014 best-seller, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, which explored high-frequency trading (HFT) and made the case that the stock market was rigged, really badly.

Five years later, some of the worst practices Lewis highlighted are things of the past, and there are several attributes of the American equity markets that are widely admired around the world. In many ways, though, the realities of stock trading have gotten more unseemly, thanks to sophisticated trading technologies (e.g., microwave radio transmissions that can carry information at almost the speed of light), and pitched battles among the exchanges, investors and regulators over issues including the rebates stock exchanges pay to attract investors’ orders and the price of market data charged by the exchanges.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the inner workings of the stock market, but I do know this: Likening the life cycle of a trade to sausage-making is an insult to kielbasa. More than ever, trading is an arcane, highly technical and bewildering part of our broader economic infrastructure, which is just the way many industry participants like it: Nothing to see here, folks.

Meanwhile, Katsuyama, company president Ronan Ryan and the IEX team have turned IEX into the eighth largest stock exchange company, globally, by notional value traded, and have transformed the concept of a “speed bump” into a mainstream exchange feature.

Brad Aug 12

Brad Katsuyama. Image by Joshua Blackburn via IEX Trading

Despite these and other accomplishments, IEX finds itself in the middle of a vicious battle with powerful incumbents that seem increasingly emboldened to use their muscle in Washington, D.C. What’s more, new entrants, such as The Long-Term Stock Exchange and Members Exchange, are gearing up to enter the fray in US equities, while global exchanges such as the Hong Kong Stock Exchange seek to bulk up by making audacious moves like attempting to acquire the venerable London Stock Exchange.

But when you sell such distinct advantages to one group that really can only benefit from that, it leads to the question of why anyone would want to trade on that market. It’s like walking into a playing field where you know that the deck is stacked against you.

As my discussion with Katsuyama reveals, IEX may have taken some punches in carving out a position for itself in this high-stakes war characterized by cutting-edge technology and size. However, the IEX team remains girded for battle and confident that it can continue to make headway in offering a fair and transparent option for market participants over the long term.

Gregg Schoenberg: Given Flash Boys and the attention it generated for you on Main Street, I’d like to establish something upfront. Does IEX exist for the asset manager, the individual, or both?

Brad Katsuyama: We exist primarily for the asset manager, and helping them helps the individual. We’re one step removed from the individual, and part of that is due to regulation. Only brokers can connect to exchanges, and the asset manager connects to the broker.

Schoenberg: To put a finer point on it, you believe in fairness and being the good guy. But you are not Robinhood. You are a capitalist.

Katsuyama: Yes, but we want to make money fairly. Actually, we thought initially about starting the business as a nonprofit, But once we laid out all the people we would need to convince to work for us, we realized it would’ve been hard for us to attract the skill sets needed as a nonprofit.

Schoenberg: Do you believe that the US equity market today primarily serves investors or traders?

Jul
08
2019
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Grasshopper’s Judith Erwin leaps into innovation banking

In the years following the financial crisis, de novo bank activity in the US slowed to a trickle. But as memories fade, the economy expands and the potential of tech-powered financial services marches forward, entrepreneurs have once again been asking the question, “Should I start a bank?”

And by bank, I’m not referring to a neobank, which sits on top of a bank, or a fintech startup that offers an interesting banking-like service of one kind or another. I mean a bank bank.

One of those entrepreneurs is Judith Erwin, a well-known business banking executive who was part of the founding team at Square 1 Bank, which was bought in 2015. Fast forward a few years and Erwin is back, this time as CEO of the cleverly named Grasshopper Bank in New York.

With over $130 million in capital raised from investors including Patriot Financial and T. Rowe Price Associates, Grasshopper has a notable amount of heft for a banking newbie. But as Erwin and her team seek to build share in the innovation banking market, she knows that she’ll need the capital as she navigates a hotly contested niche that has benefited from a robust start-up and venture capital environment.

Gregg Schoenberg: Good to see you, Judith. To jump right in, in my opinion, you were a key part of one of the most successful de novo banks in quite some time. You were responsible for VC relationships there, right?

…My background is one where people give me broken things, I fix them and give them back.

Judith Erwin: The VC relationships and the products and services managing the balance sheet around deposits. Those were my two primary roles, but my background is one where people give me broken things, I fix them and give them back.

Schoenberg: Square 1 was purchased for about 22 times earnings and 260% of tangible book, correct?

Erwin: Sounds accurate.

Schoenberg: Plus, the bank had a phenomenal earnings trajectory. Meanwhile, PacWest, which acquired you, was a “perfectly nice bank.” Would that be a fair characterization?

Erwin: Yes.

Schoenberg: Is part of the motivation to start Grasshopper to continue on a journey that maybe ended a little bit prematurely last time?

Erwin: That’s a great insight, and I did feel like we had sold too soon. It was a great deal for the investors — which included me — and so I understood it. But absolutely, a lot of what we’re working to do here are things I had hoped to do at Square 1.

Image via Getty Images / Classen Rafael / EyeEm

Schoenberg: You’re obviously aware of the 800-pound gorilla in the room in the form of Silicon Valley Bank . You’ve also got the megabanks that play in the segment, as well as Signature Bank, First Republic, Bridge Bank and others.

Jul
08
2019
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The startups creating the future of RegTech and financial services

Technology has been used to manage regulatory risk since the advent of the ledger book (or the Bloomberg terminal, depending on your reference point). However, the cost-consciousness internalized by banks during the 2008 financial crisis combined with more robust methods of analyzing large datasets has spurred innovation and increased efficiency by automating tasks that previously required manual reviews and other labor-intensive efforts.

So even if RegTech wasn’t born during the financial crisis, it was probably old enough to drive a car by 2008. The intervening 11 years have seen RegTech’s scope and influence grow.

RegTech startups targeting financial services, or FinServ for short, require very different growth strategies — even compared to other enterprise software companies. From a practical perspective, everything from the security requirements influencing software architecture and development to the sales process are substantially different for FinServ RegTechs.

The most successful RegTechs are those that draw on expertise from security-minded engineers, FinServ-savvy sales staff as well as legal and compliance professionals from the industry. FinServ RegTechs have emerged in a number of areas due to the increasing directives emanating from financial regulators.

This new crop of startups performs sophisticated background checks and transaction monitoring for anti-money laundering purposes pursuant to the Bank Secrecy Act, the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) and FINRA rules; tracks supervision requirements and retention for electronic communications under FINRA, SEC, and CFTC regulations; as well as monitors information security and privacy laws from the EU, SEC, and several US state regulators such as the New York Department of Financial Services (“NYDFS”).

In this article, we’ll examine RegTech startups in these three fields to determine how solutions have been structured to meet regulatory demand as well as some of the operational and regulatory challenges they face.

Know Your Customer and Anti-Money Laundering

May
30
2019
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Fintech and clean tech? An odd couple or a perfect marriage?

The Valley’s rocky history with clean tech investing has been well-documented.

Startups focused on non-emitting generation resources were once lauded as the next big cash cow, but the sector’s hype quickly got away from reality.

Complex underlying science, severe capital intensity, slow-moving customers, and high-cost business models outside the comfort zones of typical venture capital, ultimately caused a swath of venture-backed companies and investors in the clean tech boom to fall flat.

Yet, decarbonization and sustainability are issues that only seem to grow more dire and more galvanizing for founders and investors by the day, and more company builders are searching for new ways to promote environmental resilience.

While funding for clean tech startups can be hard to find nowadays, over time we’ve seen clean tech startups shift down the stack away from hardware-focused generation plays towards vertical-focused downstream software.

A far cry from past waves of venture-backed energy startups, the downstream clean tech companies offered more familiar technology with more familiar business models, geared towards more recognizable verticals and end users. Now, investors from less traditional clean tech backgrounds are coming out of the woodworks to take a swing at the energy space.

An emerging group of non-traditional investors getting involved in the clean energy space are those traditionally focused on fintech, such as New York and Europe based venture firm Anthemis — a financial services-focused team that recently sat down with our fintech contributor Gregg Schoenberg and I (check out the full meat of the conversation on Extra Crunch).

The tie between clean tech startups and fintech investors may seem tenuous at first thought. However, financial services has long played a significant role in the energy sector and is now becoming a more common end customer for energy startups focused on operations, management and analytics platforms, thus creating real opportunity for fintech investors to offer differentiated value.

Finance powering the world?

Though the conversation around energy resources and decarbonization often focuses on politics, a significant portion of decisions made in the energy generation business is driven by pure economics — Is it cheaper to run X resource relative to resources Y and Z at a given point in time? Based on bid prices for Request for Proposals (RFPs) in a specific market and the cost-competitiveness of certain resources, will a developer be able to hit their targeted rate of return if they build, buy or operate a certain type of generation asset?

Alternative generation sources like wind, solid oxide fuel cells, or large-scale or even rooftop solar have reached more competitive cost levels – in many parts of the US, wind and solar are in fact often the cheapest form of generation for power providers to run.

Thus as renewable resources have grown more cost competitive, more, infrastructure developers, and other new entrants have been emptying their wallets to buy up or build renewable assets like large scale solar or wind farms, with the American Council on Renewable Energy even forecasting cumulative private investment in renewable energy possibly reaching up to $1 trillion in the US by 2030.

A major and swelling set of renewable energy sources are now led by financial types looking for tools and platforms to better understand the operating and financial performance of their assets, in order to better maximize their return profile in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Therefore, fintech-focused venture firms with financial service pedigrees, like Anthemis, now find themselves in pole position when it comes to understanding clean tech startup customers, how they make purchase decisions, and what they’re looking for in a product.

In certain cases, fintech firms can even offer significant insight into shaping the efficacy of a product offering. For example, Anthemis portfolio company kWh Analytics provides a risk management and analytics platform for solar investors and operators that helps break down production, financial analysis, and portfolio performance.

For platforms like kWh analytics, fintech-focused firms can better understand the value proposition offered and help platforms understand how their technology can mechanically influence rates of return or otherwise.

The financial service customers for clean energy-related platforms extends past just private equity firms. Platforms have been and are being built around energy trading, renewable energy financing (think financing for rooftop solar) or the surrounding insurance market for assets.

When speaking with several of Anthemis’ clean tech portfolio companies, founders emphasized the value of having a fintech investor on board that not only knows the customer in these cases, but that also has a deep understanding of the broader financial ecosystem that surrounds energy assets.

Founders and firms seem to be realizing that various arms of financial services are playing growing roles when it comes to the development and access to clean energy resources.

By offering platforms and surrounding infrastructure that can improve the ease of operations for the growing number of finance-driven operators or can improve the actual financial performance of energy resources, companies can influence the fight for environmental sustainability by accelerating the development and adoption of cleaner resources.

Ultimately, a massive number of energy decisions are made by financial services firms and fintech firms may often times know the customers and products of downstream clean-tech startups more than most.  And while the financial services sector has often been labeled as dirty by some, the vital role it can play in the future of sustainable energy offers the industry a real chance to clean up its image.

May
16
2019
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OpenFin raises $17 million for its OS for finance

OpenFin, the company looking to provide the operating system for the financial services industry, has raised $17 million in funding through a Series C round led by Wells Fargo, with participation from Barclays and existing investors including Bain Capital Ventures, J.P. Morgan and Pivot Investment Partners. Previous investors in OpenFin also include DRW Venture Capital, Euclid Opportunities and NYCA Partners.

Likening itself to “the OS of finance,” OpenFin seeks to be the operating layer on which applications used by financial services companies are built and launched, akin to iOS or Android for your smartphone.

OpenFin’s operating system provides three key solutions which, while present on your mobile phone, has previously been absent in the financial services industry: easier deployment of apps to end users, fast security assurances for applications and interoperability.

Traders, analysts and other financial service employees often find themselves using several separate platforms simultaneously, as they try to source information and quickly execute multiple transactions. Yet historically, the desktop applications used by financial services firms — like trading platforms, data solutions or risk analytics — haven’t communicated with one another, with functions performed in one application not recognized or reflected in external applications.

“On my phone, I can be in my calendar app and tap an address, which opens up Google Maps. From Google Maps, maybe I book an Uber . From Uber, I’ll share my real-time location on messages with my friends. That’s four different apps working together on my phone,” OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar explained to TechCrunch. That cross-functionality has long been missing in financial services.

As a result, employees can find themselves losing precious time — which in the world of financial services can often mean losing money — as they juggle multiple screens and perform repetitive processes across different applications.

Additionally, major banks, institutional investors and other financial firms have traditionally deployed natively installed applications in lengthy processes that can often take months, going through long vendor packaging and security reviews that ultimately don’t prevent the software from actually accessing the local system.

OpenFin CEO and co-founder Mazy Dar (Image via OpenFin)

As former analysts and traders at major financial institutions, Dar and his co-founder Chuck Doerr (now president & COO of OpenFin) recognized these major pain points and decided to build a common platform that would enable cross-functionality and instant deployment. And since apps on OpenFin are unable to access local file systems, banks can better ensure security and avoid prolonged yet ineffective security review processes.

And the value proposition offered by OpenFin seems to be quite compelling. OpenFin boasts an impressive roster of customers using its platform, including more than 1,500 major financial firms, almost 40 leading vendors and 15 of the world’s 20 largest banks.

More than 1,000 applications have been built on the OS, with OpenFin now deployed on more than 200,000 desktops — a noteworthy milestone given that the ever-popular Bloomberg Terminal, which is ubiquitously used across financial institutions and investment firms, is deployed on roughly 300,000 desktops.

Since raising their Series B in February 2017, OpenFin’s deployments have more than doubled. The company’s headcount has also doubled and its European presence has tripled. Earlier this year, OpenFin also launched it’s OpenFin Cloud Services platform, which allows financial firms to launch their own private local app stores for employees and customers without writing a single line of code.

To date, OpenFin has raised a total of $40 million in venture funding and plans to use the capital from its latest round for additional hiring and to expand its footprint onto more desktops around the world. In the long run, OpenFin hopes to become the vital operating infrastructure upon which all developers of financial applications are innovating.

Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems and app stores have enabled more than a million apps that have fundamentally changed how we live,” said Dar. “OpenFin OS and our new app store services enable the next generation of desktop apps that are transforming how we work in financial services.”

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