By serving as an incubator for high-technology companies, Bankers Trust New York Corp. is pursuing a unique and - in the venture capital sense - risky strategy for a bank.
Other big and innovative U.S. banks - notably Citicorp and Wells Fargo & Co. - are nurturing significant technological breakthroughs. Some of these activities are known publicly, such as Wells' involvement with virtual malls and the Mondex smart cards. Others are more under wraps, such as Citicorp's partially unveiled Electronic Monetary System. But most are intended for the banks' own use or to serve their strategies.
Bankers Trust plants the technology seeds within, but wants to let the flowers bloom within full-fledged, independent commercial entities.
Citicorp learned the hard way, with its maligned Magic Middle card- encoding system in the 1970s, how difficult it is to get other banks to buy into a proprietary invention. It is trying valiantly to overcome those suspicions in taking its on-line payment technology into the public domain.
Bankers Trust started down this road in 1992, when a group of Tokyo- based executives in the capital markets group gained permission to form BT Ventures. This division has given birth to four companies, of which Certco is the newest.
"The idea was actually to create little companies whose products or services were of value to the bank, but each of the products or services was built for the world outside," said John Herron Jr., senior managing director of BT Ventures.
After 18 years in capital markets with Bankers Trust, Mr. Herron was eager for a fresh challenge. He and a partner, Kazuko Kawahara, persuaded senior management to set aside some money for the new venture arm - he won't say exactly how much - and began scouting for ideas and talent.
Within Bankers Trust, the eighth-largest U.S. banking company, the venture division is attracting more and more attention as its start-ups have spun off and as electronic commerce has come into vogue.
"I don't think a lot of people on the business lines realized the potency of the electronic revolution that was taking place," Mr. Herron said. "The people on the technology side did.
"A lot of people on the business side have done a 180-degree change. There's a lot more interest and conversance in what is going on."
One company BT Ventures has spawned is Interval Systems of Austin, Tex. Like Certco, it does micropayments as well as what Mr. Herron described as "digital content management," or the distribution of electronic content over networks. Tandem Computers is a partner in the venture.
Interval and Certco are "sort of second cousins," Mr. Herron said. "Part of the idea for all of these is that there is a thematic coherence, but there doesn't have to be. They are independent companies."
The idea of a quasi-rivalry between progeny is a bit jarring to some bankers, who are less accustomed to the partnering practices more common in the technology industry, Mr. Herron said.
Another company bred by BT Ventures is Astratek, a New York-based software firm that specializes in network administration. Its products diagnose traffic patterns on the server computers that play a critical role in network computing. Astratek offerings also can help computer systems managers deal with the "year 2000 problem" in their software.
The fourth BT company is Zoologic, also in New York, producing software teaching tools for financial professionals. The core product is a training program called Capital Markets 101.
A common thread among the spinoffs is Bankers Trust's effort to attract top professionals and offer them equity stakes. This is designed to build loyalty and commitment and offer something more than "the traditional bonus thing," Mr. Herron said.
Mr. Herron, who devotes part of his own time to Zoologic, said he is interested in technology because "the frontiers become the mainstream very quickly.
"Certainly there's a boring dimension to banks," he said. "But they touch so many parts of people's lives. We have to make that conversion into things that are popular and that add value and interest to people's lives."