B of A Gives Startups a Wish List at Tech Innovation Summit

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Bank of America is serious about working with young companies: of the 200 startups that have participated in the bank's annual Technology Innovation Summit, more than 30 have joined its vendor roster.

The country's second largest bank would not identify those vendors but said it has hired startups that are skilled in data and analytics, information security, infrastructure, digital user experience and other areas.

"The 17% hit rate is one we are extremely proud of," said David Reilly, technology infrastructure executive at B of A, at its sixth summit, held in Silicon Valley last week.

The goals of the summit are to make accessing a corporation with 230,000 employees less daunting to entrepreneurs, and to outline B of A's tech challenges in hopes that attending startups adapt their services to its needs.

The event is part of a trend of major banks appealing to startups to improve financial services, in recognition that innovative ideas are likely to come from outside the industry. Wells Fargo launched an accelerator program earlier this year, while Citigroup is in the midst of a call for digital ideas.

The B of A summit was attended by bank employees, startups, venture capitalists and their portfolio companies and others, many wearing suits. At an upscale resort on a road that's home to many VC firms, the bank took a look at 42 startups, including application programming interface provider Plaid, open source payment network Ripple Labs, and online broker Motif Investing.

Which vendors will be selected from this batch to work with the bank remains to be seen. But over the years, Reilly said, the summit has served as an "invaluable" pipeline for B of A, uncovering technologies it might not have seen otherwise. A B of A team based in the Silicon Valley area scouts for startups and builds relationships with entrepreneurs throughout the year.

B of A also offered clues to the bank's IT wish list, including: deepening share of customers' wallets, raising awareness of existing digital features and improving data analytics to demonstrate to customers that the bank knows their needs. And all startups were encouraged to focus on risk – an area sometimes overlooked by entrepreneurs who have limited exposure to banking, a heavily regulated industry that's coping with a mounting array of cyber threats.

Reilly told the 700 attendees that vendors must meet certain standards to work for Bank of America, for compliance and customer service reasons.

"To regulators, you look like us," he said. "To customers, you look like us."

B of A said it has relationships with one of every two households in the U.S. It also counts 30 million online banking users and 16 million mobile banking customers. (The bank defines a user as someone who has logged into an app within 90 days.) So it's looking to deepen relationships with existing customers who may have only one product with the bank. But to do so, the bank said, it needs to simplify steps required of customers.

"It can be too difficult to do business with us," Reilly said, pointing out how the bank sometimes asks the customer for the same information, like a Social Security number, over and over again. This creates an opportunity for startups.

So does the trove of information B of A has — and the industrywide challenge of making better use of it.

"We don't lack for data," said Reilly. "What we lack is the ability to draw quick and insightful insights from that data."

Bridget O'Connor, Bank of America's chief information officer for consumer banking technology and operations, expanded on the theme by articulating how the bank also needs help translating digital interactions (for instance, customers researching financial products online) into the physical world (customers going into banking centers to purchase products). O'Connor wants to find ways to better demonstrate to customers that the bank knows their financial needs regardless of the channels they are using. Every week, about seven million people visit a banking center, while 95 million online and mobile customers log in.

The examples underscore the bank's enterprise-wide initiative, called "simplify and improve." The bank describes the campaign, which started earlier this year, as reducing complexity, simplifying workflow and investing in the company's operating platform.

"People don't wake up every day to bank," said Hari Gopalkrishnan, e-commerce technology executive at B of A, explaining why making banking easier for customers is a priority.

The bank said it is increasingly looking at ways to start with digital identity as an entry point into another channel. For example, on Thursday the bank activated a new feature for preferred card customers' mobile apps. The feature lets customers who are looking at a transaction tap a button labeled "Have a question about this transaction? Speak with a Preferred Specialist." Then, the customer will be connected to a bank agent, who, in theory, will know who the customer is and what he is looking at. The update is designed to remove the usual challenge of trying to get ahold of someone on a device that lets people call and search their bank data but often not simultaneously.

The feature idea emerged from the bank's innovation challenge (a separate event from the summit), which took place a few months ago in the consumer banking tech unit. The challenge builds on top of what the bank calls "momentum sessions," where business executives and technologists come together to code prototypes instead of review PowerPoint slides to nurture creativity.

Broadly, Gopalkrishnan is less concerned about what the bank can introduce into an app than with an industrywide challenge: how to raise awareness of existing features. Some success, said Gopalkrishnan, has been uncovered when call center agents educate customers on the digital capabilities available at their fingertips.

Bank of America is also one of the financial institutions that partners with the FinTech Innovation Lab, run by Accenture and Partnership Fund for New York City.

"We are humble enough to know we don't have all the answers," said Gopalkrishnan. "We know what the problems are."

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