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.

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.

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