08

Jan

2019

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I hope everyone had a festive and relaxing holiday break.  Happy New Year!

In my previous post I announced the end of my collaboration with Santander InnoVentures and hinted at a new project that has been in the works for a while. I would like to tell you more about it as we near launch.

I am very excited to announce that I have been working on creating a new fintech investment firm, MiddleGame Ventures (MGV).  I am a chess aficionado and the “middle game” occurs after the opening gambit and before the end game, usually when things start to complexify, an apt metaphor for the intricacies of investing in startups and helping them grow successfully.

I am delighted to have co-founded MGV with Michael Meyer (twitter & linkedin). Michael and I founded one of early fintech funds while at Route 66 Ventures and built that team while investing in 20 fintech startups. We also co-founded the RegTech Lab which focuses on regtech innovation across the globe and recently completed a sandbox research project on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I have known Michael for over 25 years and consider him one of my closest friends. Michael is a seasoned investor, having managed equity funds with Wellington Management and a variety of funds – from PE to hedge to credit – with various financial institutions. Michael is also a seasoned entrepreneur and we have done hand-to-hand combat operating a variety of businesses together.

I am further delighted to have Patrick Pinschmidt as a partner with MGV. Patrick was Deputy Assistant Secretary at the US Treasury Department in the last administration where he served as the first Executive Director of the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC). Prior to that, Patrick was a well-recognized equities research analyst focused on FIG with Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch. Patrick brings deep insights in capital markets and other key sectors of the financial ecosystem as well as financial regulation, expertise which nicely complements Michael’s and my background.

The first fund will invest in fintech startups in both North America and Europe with an exclusive focus on post seed and series A/B rounds (as the initial investment). We intend to lead or co-lead most of our investments and to take a seat on the board where possible.  Our overarching goal is to help every portfolio company that will have chosen us as one of their investors to reach its highest potential. MGV will favor b2b and b2b2c models and will not shy away from complex solutions for complex workflows, including such areas as: core systems, payment infrastructure, asset issuance or financing, digital identities (within financial services for either retail individuals or corporations), multi-party computation in financial services, new business models driven by open banking/insurance, and cloud and edge computing.

We intend to build a fund that will do more than identify, invest, and serve on the board of promising startups. We will be deeply embedded in the fintech ecosystems in which we invest. To that effect, we are also working on select initiatives with local partners in the US and Europe that will strengthen collaboration between startups and incumbents. More on that later as these projects mature.

We are putting the finishing touches on our fundraising. As every entrepreneur knows, fundraising takes time and patience. Be that as it may, as we finalize our first close – a well known milestone in the vc fund industry – we stand ready to make a handful of small, select investments through a warehouse facility that we created last year.

I will update you on our fund as we approach our first close, as well as on the other initiatives we are working on when the time is right. In the meantime, I will be back to you shortly with some thoughts on why I am so excited to be an investor in this space.

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04

Nov

2018

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“cruisin’ on the interstate, just follow while i innovate

too many try and imitate, medallion like a dinner plate

front and get your dinner ate, chinchilla for the winter, wait

i’m tryin’ to bring the ‘sexy back’ with Timbaland and Timberlake”

Campfire – Wu-Tang Clan

Following up on my previous post announcing a new fintech venture capital chapter and thanking the excellent Santander InnoVentures team and Santander Group individuals I worked with, I wanted to share some of my key learnings around innovation – the past two years working with the Santander’s venture team and various parts of the banking group have been enriching, and then some.  I worked with InnoVentures under three different group innovation heads and therefore witnessed three different approaches to innovation. I was able to peak in and collaborate on many innovation projects at the group level and country level, some incremental, some moonshots, some purely technology driven, some business model driven. I was able to interact with individuals on the retail side of the bank, the corporate side, at group level, with the UK bank, the US bank, the Nordics operation, the Spanish bank, with technology & operations, with teams focused on lending, asset management, savings, blockchain or AI projects, bank as a service or platform and digital identities initiatives.   To boot, I worked on some of the venture team’s prospective investments as well as overall portfolio management.  Inadvertently, following my time as an investor at an independent VC, I got an education on cutting edge innovation from a leading incumbent’s perspective, and most importantly, what works and does not work.

I also encountered the severe regulatory limitations banks/incumbents operate under, be it from local regulators, legislators or global risk and compliance frameworks which cannot be violated one iota. Obviously, these limitations are one of the explanations why banks find it so difficult to innovate and re-think their businesses in a swift and nimble way. Some banks find these limitations more difficult to overcome than others, other venture down the road of direct investments, innovation partnerships or venture capital partnerships. Santander, with its various in-country innovation efforts and its venture arm, with an excellent portfolio of venture investments built in the past three years and the major innovation wins across various countries, is attempting to stay at the forefront of innovation in a rapidly changing landscape.  Its efforts are indeed laudable.

I took some time over the past week to reflect on my experiences in fintech beginning back in 2009 with Route 66 Ventures through my time with Santander InnoVentures, including my various interactions with consulting firms, accelerators, startups, academics, and other incumbents.  Through the sum of these experiences I have pieced together a set of theories on best practices in financial services innovation at the incumbent level, heavily centered around venture investing and venture building (e.g., internal innovation around new businesses).

Here, humbly submitted, is my attempt at a best practices framework:

  • Innovation is a partnership game. If you (as an incumbent) think you can innovate on your own without the outside world’s help, you are on the wrong track. Innovate with others, don’t innovate solely for and with yourself. It is always better to augment one’s internal efforts with partnerships bringing external expertise. For venture investing it means investing in an accelerator, or even an independent fund.  For venture building it means partnering with a consultancy firm specialized in innovation in financial services.
  • Absolute control is an impediment. Given that partnering is so important to achieve positive innovation results, it is crucial to realize that some level of control will be relinquished.  This is probably one of the most difficult learning points a bank has to digest and put in practice.
  • Innovation requires a portfolio management approach. There is no unique silver bullet. The trick is to build a multi-varied approach that best fits the organization and includes internal venture building, fintech accelerator initiatives, venture investing, iterative and small projects, a few moonshots, as many innovation centers across the organization as possible, and a central innovation nervous system to coordinate all activities. Centralized innovation often fails. So does uncoordinated decentralized innovation.
  • Innovation cannot be abstracted.  Innovation cannot be a completely separate function; it must balance an incumbent’s tactical and strategic goals. Overweighting either side of the spectrum leads to excessive behaviors that will not lead to optimal outputs.
  • Silo-ed thinking is the enemy of innovation. From the same token, the innovation team needs to be cognizant of banking, inside and out, while incorporating outside thinking. Again, the extremes are dangerous:  not being well versed in what it means to be a banker or not being able to bring new outside non-banking thinking are deathly risks and very difficult to overcome.
  • Modest early wins will enable bolder visions. Early successes will enablereasonable risk-taking over time.  Alternatively, an early loss can be very difficult to mitigate.
  • Culture is a crucial component of innovation success.Thus, education and evangelizing are necessary and required.  At the same time, education and evangelizing without substance lead to innovation theater and empty showmanship.  This is unfortunately all too common amongst incumbents today.
  • Best to abstract more than less for either venture building or venture investing initiatives. If given a choice, err on the side of more  Investing on balance sheet is a very difficult balancing act to pull off that is tied closely to bureaucratic decisioning and approvals, while creating a new venture team in a separate legal entity is an easier proposition.  The same applies to venture building. Abstracting means creating new and/or separate legal or operational entities.
  • Find the right mix between strategic and financial returns. Investing purely for strategic returns is extremely vulnerable to negative outcomes.  Investing entirely for financial returns will not address immediate corporate needs.  It is crucial that the venture investment function be built with the right mix in mind, and with a healthy portion of capital dedicated to purely financial returns untethered from the constraints of what the bank needs or wants, while at the same time dedicating capital to startups that overwhelmingly fit a strategic goal.  Strategic investments will be made in some Horizon 2 and many Horizon 3 startups that by definition may be less mature.  Financial investments will be made in some Horizon 2 and many Horizon 1 startups that by definition need to be more mature.
  • Substance over form for startup engagement. Interacting with startups or third parties for a specific project is of paramount importance. However, paper milestones  (such as a proof of concept) should not give false comfort that a prospective investment satisfies a strategic and/or financial hurdle. A PoC may be necessary but it is not a sufficient condition for investment.
  • An incumbent needs to bring something special to the table when interacting with a startup.Simply digesting the startup’s value proposition leads directly to a vendor/client relationship that should be avoided at all costs.  Vendors are fine but they are not strategic.  Too many incumbents chase vendor solutions instead of strategic engagements.  In other words, very few incumbents are investing in Horizon 3 startups.  Many are easily seduced into Horizon 1 startup investments that could just as easily be vendor relationships.  As such, careful examination of what the startup needs and how the startup’s platform or technology can be enhanced (e.g., with data or subject matter expertise) to produce something different or superior is the key to delivering real and sustainable returns.  Hence, my comments above on the meaninglessness of proof of concepts as a strategic relationship.  Strategic investments do not require a PoC, particularly Horizon 2 or 3.
  • Strategic and financial returns require a practical risk-taking ethos.In general, bank employees are in the business of managing risk while innovation is all about taking risks. These approaches are at odds with one another.  A healthy risk appetite in the context of a balanced organizational structure is of great importance.
  • Innovation inputs require a holistic approach and innovation outputs should be treated holistically. By that I mean that innovation is not only about adopting new technologies, or designing a new work-flow. It is about integrating customer needs and business models and employees in a systemic manner (see Horizon 3 ideas).  Further, much like with Amazon where innovation for the core business leads to new businesses that were not initially foreseen, applying new technologies to existing banking business groups or processes may lead to broader use cases – for example, a new risk management framework powered by AI for internal uses may be also useful for the bank’s corporate customers.

These are but a few thoughts and lessons I gathered along the way and built in a non-exhaustive way — my own roadmap of innovation and venture investing ideas so to speak.  These thoughts are clearly not exhaustive, and will clearly evolve and expand as my venture journey continues.  As referenced in my prior post, I will be back to you with some detailed news on my next project in the next several weeks.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

27

Oct

2018

“Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
(Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Oh, look out you rock ‘n rollers
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time”

Changes – David Bowie

 

There is nothing permanent except change said Heraclitus. This certainly applies to my entire professional life, from its beginning to now. My tenure as a Venture Partner with Santander InnoVentures for the last two years has come to an end. I have a new project that is about to move forward after a year of preparation that now requires 100 pct of my time.  I will be updating everyone in detail on this effort in a new post very shortly.

This transition would not be complete without a mention and warm thanks to the individuals that allowed me to work with Santander InnoVentures and interact with various parts of the bank. Throughout all these interactions at Santander, I met outstanding individuals at the top of their game and knowledge in one specific subject matter or another. I met creative people hard at work transforming the group as well as old school bankers struggling with what banking means in this new digital world we live in. I met executives whose understanding of core banking systems would put to shame any thought leader in the field and risk/compliance managers acutely aware of the limitations of fintech in its limited “go-alone” direct to consumer approach.  It was fascinating, exhilarating, and unique all at the same time.

Specifically, thank you to Mariano Belinky who took the risk of working with me in the first place and allowed me to help the team in every way I could. Without him InnoVentures would not be the success it currently is – he is a force of nature and a dear friend. Thank you to Manuel Silva, who took over from Mariano as the head of InnoVentures, for allowing me to interact with the entire team and share investment thoughts almost on a daily basis.  Manuel is one of the best fintech investors I know, with a sharp and subtle mind. He is also a great operator.

In no particular order, I also have to mention Victor Matarranz, a formidable head of strategy for Santander and now head of private banking and asset management, Sigga Sigurdardottir and Ed Metzger both from Santander UK,  John Whelan who came in to lead blockchain innovation and now leads digital investment banking initiatives in Madrid, Julio Faura who is one of the most impressive experts on core banking systems and all things bank tech, Cristina San Jose the Chief Data Strategist of the group who taught me so much about data science,Rafael Esteban and Jean Laurent Pelissier with whom I interacted at InnoVentures, as well as Peter Jackson the former group head of innovation for Santander, and Michael Hvidsten (and his entire executive team) the CEO of Santander Consumer Finance Nordics.  Finally, Stephanie Lee on the comms team in the UK and now in Madrid was an excellent help every time we interacted.

I know I am forgetting a ton of people from the entire Santander group, whether at headquarters or in country, and for that I apologize.

I wish Manuel and his team at InnoVentures the best of luck in the immediate future and with the new group innovation leadership and direction. It goes without saying I have extended my help going forward and that we will stay in close touch, share ideas and who knows, co-invest together in the future. I trust they will take me up on my offer.

As for the new project I am working on, I will update you in due time and in detail.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

15

Oct

2018

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This is my last post on the Money 20/20 2018 extravaganza in Las Vegas. The event is coming soon, plus I need enough vacation to be properly rested before the craziness kicks in. I just realized I had discussed the event, the sessions, how to navigate all four days, how to plan and organize oneself as well as the specific sessions I was hosting or moderating, yet had not mentioned the startups attending the conference.

A proper conference focused on financial technology without startups is like an emperor with no clothes? This post is thus dedicated to the M20/20 2018 cohort.

First, there are three distinct startup categories:

 

 

 

The Startup Academy is comprised of 100 startups that all have raised less than $3 million in equity funding, been incorporated for less than 3 years and are a first time attendee of Money 20/20 USA, thereby insuring optimal freshness – investors love freshness. The application process is closed for 2018 and I encourage all fintech startups to prepare themselves for next year’s event. I cannot emphasis enough how much coverage and positive scrutiny one gets by participating. I understand the application process is managed in partnership with Medici, thus guaranteeing a professional outcome.

Startup Academy participants not only get exposure via the M20/20 marketing machine, they also get to interact with the advisory board – some of which I have co-invested in the past and I guarantee these people know fintech inside out – with investors and corporate partners during the office hours program, pitch training sessions, and Academy drinks – presumably to heighten the Las Vegas sensory overload experience.

The top 24 startups from the Academy were selected to participate in the pitch challenge, the winner of which will go home with a fat $25,000 grand prize. If I were the winner I would insist on fiat currency payout this year. One can never be too prudent. In what promises to be further proof of the rise of entertainment in all things and the advent of cross-functional expertise, one of the judges for the final round will be Shaquille O’Neal.

Incidentally, I will be a judge on one of the first rounds, thereby validating one does not necessarily need not be a former NBA star to select fintech startups. I used to play rugby, but that has never helped me in any way business wise.

Finally, Startup City will feature 58 startups on the conference floor. I have always found the concept a most excellent networking opportunity and as with every year, will dedicate half a day to pay a visit to all startups on the conference floor.

As for the startups themselves, I pored over the list, completed my homework and preliminary due diligence. I am intrigued by more than a handful of them but will not divulge my preferences ahead of the conference, what with the pitch challenge and all. Suffice it to say that most fintech sectors are represented, from payments to crypto, to b2b to directo to consumer, stablecoins to asset management tools, risk management platforms. There is maybe less of an AI flavor to this year’s participants and the crypto space is well represented. Anyways, I can’t wait to meet all, spend a tad more time with the ones that hit the current investment themes I am currently focused on and of course congratulate the pitch challenge winner. I encourage you to do the same, and meet as many startups as you can.

Of course, don’t hesitate to say hello if you spot me out and about.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail