It's like the opposite of "Not Invented Here" Syndrome.
American Express has partnered with design and research lab Ideas42 to recruit academics and practitioners from nonprofit organizations to propose personal finance software feature ideas. Amex technologists will test the ideas with opted-in customers of Serve, its prepaid account software platform.
The new Amex Financial Innovation Lab is designed to cultivate fresh thinking that could influence future Amex product developments. The website's call for applications, which opened in September, asks individuals to pitch ideas to improve Serve that "make measurable, positive changes in consumers' financial behaviors."
In exchange for its patronage, Amex will receive a non-exclusive license to use and adapt the technology of those participating. The company stresses that participants will retain all the rights to their proposals and can pitch their ideas to rivals.
"Research should happen without strings attached," said Neal Sample, chief information officer for enterprise growth at Amex. "Investigators can license technology to our fiercest competitors."
American Express was long considered an elite consumer brand, but in recent years the company has been trying to expand its markets to include the underserved.
Amex is seeking help under flexible terms because "solving the financial inclusion problem is not possible to do on one's own," Sample said. The creator-friendly approach will also draw a wider pool of applicants, he said.
The project is part of a trend of financial companies sponsoring fintech innovation labs and contests to crowdsource ideas they may never have dreamed up internally.
"There are a lot of good ideas and we need to give them a runway," said Kosta Peric, a deputy director of financial services for the poor at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "Not a couple of days go by when I don't have a call or mail sometimes from people from the other side of the planet" pitching him.
To provide such a runway, the Gates foundation is organizing a worldwide challenge soliciting ideas to help provide financial services for the poor, for example.
Wells Fargo launched an accelerator program in August to groom young startups. First National Bank of Omaha hosted a hackathon to get closer to coders.
Such programs are meant to "transform the kind of potential energy into actual kinetic energy," said Peric, who used to run an innovation event for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. "It's a way to focus energy in a positive way."
In 2011, American Express launched Amex Ventures, which has since invested in 17 fintech startups. The group recently expanded its focus to include financial inclusion.
In June, Amex sponsored and aired "Spent: Looking for Change," a documentary that explores the needs and lifestyles of Americans who lack access to traditional financial services.
The latest effort aims to appeal to academics with the promise of data results from actual customers to inform their research efforts. Plus, all they need is a concept while Amex will take care of the heavy lifting in testing their ideas.
"The thing everyone wants is the data," said Jake Peters, president and co-founder of PayPerks, a fintech firm that tries works to change people's payments behavior. PayPerks was recently featured in an Amex video spotlighting fintech startups.
"Ideas are ideas. What's really important is to test ideas in physical world and see how they perform," Peters said "Changing behavior is hard."
Amex said the sample size will depend on the tests that are selected for the Lab and the number of Serve customers who opt in for the experiment. More information is expected to become available in December when participants are announced.
Those chosen will receive stipends in addition to technical, design and training support. Amex has worked with the research and academic community before but this will be the first time it pairs them with Amex technologists who will test their proposals.
Amex could collect ideas on topics like savings, budgeting and tax preparation to potentially refine Serve.
"Crowdsourcing innovation is a better and cheaper way to get your next product improvement," said Ben Rogers, a research director at the Filene Research Institute.
A downside to the process, however, is some ideas may lack a sense of the underlying technology or compliance challenges.
"Any good banker will tell you that risk shouldn't kill a good idea, but it can sure slow one down," said Rogers.
The Amex challenge could help shed light on an area that's been fairly murky.
"When it comes to the underserved, there is a deficit of information," said Ben Katz, chief executive and co-founder at Card.com, which supplies customized prepaid cards.
Better insights are needed to create relevant financial products.
"The underserved market is many different types of groups of people who have different needs," said PayPerks' Peters. "[You] can't tell them you should be doing something if they can't do it in life."