Happy Valentine’s Day and welcome to this week’s edition of Our Week in Digital. In this week’s round-up, Tony focuses on the world of digital banking to bring you the top stories. He looks to digital banking giants Curve and Starling Bank, as well as companies that are new to the digital banking game such as Toleram Group. 

Read on for our top digital banking stories…

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Top Digital Banking apps accused of editing their Wikipedia pages.

Our first digital banking story is that two of the UK’s most prominent fintech banking startups have been accused of editing their own Wikipedia pages.  

Curve and Starling Bank both have warnings claiming that they may have doctored their Wikipedia pages to remove criticism.

Curve

A Wikipedia user who has claimed to be a Curve employee, deleted the entire “Controversy” section of the firm’s Wikipedia page back in December last year. The entry stated that just 14% of the app’s users returned every month.

This less than favourable figure has been refuted by Curve Chief Executive, Shachar Bialick. In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, he has stated that a more accurate figure is 80%. He accused the media of publishing “lies” and “untruths”.

Another Curve spokesman has also denied the accusation that they have favourably edited their Wikipedia page;  

“Curve has always maintained transparency when updating items on Wikipedia and adheres to Wikipedia’s strict conflict of interest guidelines.”

Starling Bank

Starling Bank has also come under criticism. It too has been accused by Wikipedia users of editing its entry. The page for its chief executive, Anne Boden has also been called into question.

One Wikipedia user published a screenshot of a document which they believed showed Starling Bank employees planning to re-write the banks’ entry to make it more positive.

Concerning Ms Boden, her Wikipedia page was updated this week to include a banner which read “a major contributor to this article appears to have a close connection with its subject”.

A similar warning has been displayed on the page for Starling Bank since December. It states that parts of the page are “written like an advertisement”.

In response, a spokesman for the business confirmed that a document had been created to discuss Starling Bank articles being flagged as “too promotional” and “written like an advertisement”. However, it was claimed that the pages had not been written by anyone connected to Starling Bank.

Motivating these accusations is the fact that there has been one account that has been almost exclusively used to edit Starling Bank pages. This account has deleted a section of the bank’s article which acknowledged that it had failed to meet its deadline to launch in Ireland.

This section was deleted with the explanation that it held “too much detail”.

In rebuttal, a spokesperson from Starling Bank commented that the business did not have any connection with the account in question. It was confirmed that the employee had made edits to the page in 2018, to “correct inaccuracies”. Furthermore, it was added that the business had nothing to do with the more recent changes, and was unaware who was making the changes or why they were being made.  

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Singaporean Tolaram Group extends into digital banking.

Our second digital banking story comes from a well-established company looking to branch out. Before now, Singapore’s family-run Toleram group has made much of its $1.8 billion fortune from cereals, noodles and infrastructure in Africa.  

Now it is planning to use its vast reach and local relationships to make a move into digital banking across Africa.  

The group can draw from its experience to make this latest project a success. Toleram Group owns PT Bank Amar Indonesia which is largely a digital organisation. It mostly handles loans and deposits for consumers over mobile phones. It is a publically listed organisation. So far has loaned almost $300 million to approximately 300,000 customers. It expects advances to increase by more than 50% this year.

As a territory, Africa shares many of the same characteristics as Indonesia and lends itself well to mobile digital banking. Much of the population do not have the necessary pre-requisites to support traditional banking models. However, millions own a smartphone.

What lead them to this decision?

In a demonstration of the potential back in 2018, the World Bank estimated that as many as 95 million unbanked adults in Sub-Saharan Africa received cash payments for agricultural products. About 65 million saved money using semi-formal methods. Non-traditional banking players are stepping up and monopolising upon this opportunity.

Kunal Adnani who leads Toleram’s mergers and acquisitions team is an ex Barclays Plc executive and is coordinating the push. He comments that this offering will be more akin to traditional banking. It will offer interest rates more in line with regular credit cards and savings accounts.  

The African country targets have not been finalised, but Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt and South Africa are likely candidates.  

Toleram will not be without competition. Standard Chartered PLC is rolling out digital banking services across the continent.  Meanwhile ALAT is a fully digital bank and has been operating since 2017.

Offering lending to millions of inexperienced borrowers isn’t without its dangers. It has the potential to incur high default rates. Toleram is not a stranger to this level of risk, however. They see the opportunity in the prospect rather than the danger. 

Adnani says; “It’s a huge opportunity for us…” and that “We do see a significant need to bring people into the financial system, up the living standards, give them access to credit and improve efficiencies”.

Starling Bank scoops £60 million in new funding.

Starling Bank has announced it has raised another £60 million this week from existing backers, Merian Global Investors and JTC. This takes its total to £323 million. This follows its two former rounds which averaged £105 million each.

The UK challenger bank has said it will award its 800 employees with shares as it incentivises staff to meet a target for a first full year in profit by the end of 2021. In 2018, Starling posted a £26.8 million loss.

It has been revealed that the new funding will support the continued expansion of the challenger bank, including a European launch. The plans for doing so, however, have been put on pause due to Brexit uncertainties.

Founder and chief executive, Anne Boden has big ambitions for the bank. She plans to turn Starling into “a world-leading digital bank”. She recognises that this cannot be achieved without the support of its 800 strong workforce. Her plans to incentivise shares acknowledges this.

Within the space, there is another notable investment on the cards. Starling’s new round comes at a time when fellow challenger, Tandem is close to finalising a £50 million investment.

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BitGo establishes custody entities in Switzerland and Germany.

Leaders in digital asset finance services, BitGo have announced it is expanding its global presence after establishing new custodial entities in Germany and Switzerland.  

BitGo launched BitGo Trust Company in the US back in 2018. The first regulated custodian purpose-built for digital assets. Since then, it has seen a strong take-up. 

It provides institutional clients with a comprehensive set of security, custody, and liquidity services for digital assets. BitGo clients handle other parties’ assets often operating in a fiduciary capacity. This requires the highest levels of security and regulatory compliance.  

BitGo’s custody offerings are purpose-built for securing today’s digital assets. It is built on BitGo’s pioneering multi-signature security.

BitGo’s Swiss entity BitGo GmbH is a member of the Financial Services Standards Association (VQF). It is supervised by the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMA). It’s German arm, BitGo Deutschland GmbH, is currently providing custody services in Germany. It will apply for regulatory approval when the application window opens in November 2020.

What does this mean for BitGo?

These two new entities will open up the offering for BitGo clients across the globe. It will allow clients to select the jurisdiction that is the best fit for their business.

Mike Belshe, CEO of BitGo has said that the company has seen an increase in demand from across Europe over the last year. He goes on to say that European clients needed to be able to work with European based firms that were regulated within specific jurisdictions. Belshe goes on to say that the company has been impressed with the support and understanding of Swiss and German regulators. Perhaps this goes some way in explaining why Switzerland and Germany were chosen as locations for the new entities.

Indeed, speaking about the choice of region, he confirms that Switzerland and Germany were chosen as they have both become “important European centres for digital assets as well as for forward-thinking regulatory frameworks”. Regulatory compliance is a must for BitGo clients. BitGo is focused on regulatory compliance corporate governance and was the first firm to announce SOC 2 Type 2 certification from a leading audit firm. 

Banks and Fintechs clash over our data.

Legacy banks from across the US are locked in a battle with fintech startups over the control of customer financial data. 

Major lenders such as JPMorgan Chase and PNC are threatening to limit the number of middlemen that are hired by financial apps such as Venmo and Betterment to harness customers’ account information from the banks’ websites.

These lenders have warned that this financial information is less secure in the hands of these data aggregators. This is a concern that is shared by federal investigators. The main worry is that there are few controls over the sale of the information to third parties such as hedge funds.

In response, fintech believes that giving banks such a tight grip over the flow of the information will allow the big hitters to sniff out new competitors and make it harder for customers to be able to compare rates and prices for different services.

These ‘middlemen’ are known as “screen scrapers” because of how they collect the data. Many payment users do not even know they exist. They use a consumer’s username and password to access account information. A right that people sign over to the digital payments companies when they do business with them. In so doing, the aggregators can grab more data whenever they like.

The aggregators then have access to any data that the customer can see when they log on to their bank’s website. This includes account balances, transaction data and mortgage information for example. 

What do they want to do about it?

JPMorgan Chase wants it to become a requirement that companies negotiate a standardised set of data fields that they can request. Back in December, they reached a deal with Yodlee and have previously struck deals with others to that end.  

Paul LaRusso, managing director of digital platforms at JPMorgan Chase has said;

“We want to protect our customers’ financial data while giving them more visibility and control when using the financial apps”.

PNC meanwhile has already started working on restricting the information that aggregators can access using customer-provided login information.

Karen Larrimer, PNC’s head of retail banking has said; 

“PNC’s goal is to accommodate our customers’ choice to connect to the fintech apps they want to use while also ensuring that those connections are made safely and securely”.

What are the middlemen saying about this?

Having access to this data is so crucial, that the powerful middlemen who work on behalf of these financial apps are asking the government for more oversight and regulation.  

To increase their leverage in the battle with the banks, these aggregators are asking the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to step in. They hope that this invited supervision will endorse that they are using data appropriately. As it stands, the data held by these aggregators are subject to very few privacy-related restrictions. Previously, this has allowed them to sell the information on to third parties.  

In other regions, such as here in Europe, government policy around open banking is much more settled. In contrast, experts have commented that the United States is vigilante territory. A Wild West where it has been up to the companies themselves to determine how they should handle the data. 

To resolve the disagreements, a wide range of US financial industry participants have formed a group called Financial Data Exchange. It aims to negotiate “application programming interfaces”(APIs) that would no longer require apps to ask customers for their login information or aggregators to “scrape” the information from an account.

Although this is a solution, it may be some time before the entire financial industry reaches a point where APIs are so widespread that screen scraping is obsolete. 

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Bristol and Bath named as Fintech hub.

Our final digital banking story comes from much closer to home! According to a report published by strategy experts, Whitecap Consulting, Bristol and Bath has been named as one of the strongest fintech ecosystems in the UK.

Dubbed Silicon Gorge, Bristol and Bath are home to some of the most exciting and fast-growing startups and scaleups in the fintech sector. Proportionally, it has more active firms than any other region. Not only that, they are young, growing and successful. The research shows that these fintechs have an average age of three years old. This is lower than any other region Whitecap has researched to date.

The report identifies 107 firms in total. 28 of which are fintech startup or scaleups. Taking these numbers into account, Bristol and Bath have a larger number of early-stage fintechs than areas with populations more than three or four times its size.  

The UK’s fintech sector is spreading rapidly across the country to regions outside the capital. As such, its maturation has the potential to deliver huge economic benefit to several locations beyond London. The South West has already benefited from this. Established names within fintech such as Curve and ClearBank have seen the potential and have both built operations in Bristol.

Tim Bowles is West of England mayor. He is proud of the results of the study and has said that fintech has the potential to bind together the attributes of the region.  

He said;

“The West of England is a vibrant and dynamic hub for innovation in professional services.

“Fintech brings together our region’s talents to revolutionise the way that the sector operates and I’m very pleased to see this report setting out practical recommendations that can make the cluster here even more competitive”.

Why is the South West so good?

Indeed, the South West has massive potential and it’s not only the location that has steered its success. It also has a huge pool of talent. The report estimates that there are now more than 3,400 professionals working in fintech-related roles here in the South West. They estimate there are 61,000 employed overall in the financial services and technology sectors.   

Speaking as a voice of experience, CEO of Hargreaves Lansdown, Chris Hill has remarked that technology has irreversibly changed the financial services industry. He has said that it will be the willingness of businesses to embrace change and surge forward with the tech revolution that will determine success or failure. He confirms this belief is at the helm of Hargreaves Lansdown’s business plan;  

“Being part of the Bristol fintech scene enables us to build networks and work with exciting technology partners that help us to stay at the forefront of our industry.”

 

From our Bristol HQ, Ignite Digital are incredibly proud of our roots here in the South West. We are helping to source and provide talent solutions for some exciting fintechs across our region. Those who contribute to the diverse and innovative number highlighted by the research in this report. 

We build digital careers. Are you established in fintech already and looking for your next role? Maybe you are looking to move into this fast-moving and dynamic sector.  

Become number 3,401! Reach out to us today.  

About the author: As a founder of Ignite Digital Talent, I lead our brilliant team to ensure we deliver time and time again for our clients. I also stay closely networked with industry influencers to ensure we are well placed to understand the issues and challenges our clients face.

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