Small banks try to move into fintech's fast lane

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Nbkc bank wanted a front-row seat to innovation.

To get that, the Kansas City, Mo., company took an unusual step for a community bank — creating its own fintech accelerator with help from a local partner. After months of work, the $619 million-asset company began accepting applications last week for the program called Fountain City Fintech.

Executives hope to bring five fintech companies to Kansas City in October for a 75-day program.

“If we could take a number of these companies and put them in a pressure cooker, then we could really create a lot of value for entrepreneurs, for Kansas City and for nbkc bank,” said Zach Pettet, managing director of Fountain City Fintech. “We saw that opportunity and figured, ‘Well we are not going to see if there is any value there unless we try it.’ ”

A number of larger institutions, including Silicon Valley Bank, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase, have launched their own accelerator programs to help foster fintech developments. This trend could pick up for smaller institutions, which are becoming more interested in partnering with upstart technology firms.

“I just think this is what banking is going to start looking like going forward,” said Kevin Tweddle, leader of innovation and financial technology with the Independent Community Bankers of America. Tweddle added that the trade group is considering co-designing an accelerator program for community banks.

Fountain City Fintech is not the first time nbkc has taken a page out of larger institutions' playbooks when it comes to fintech. Nbkc recently participated in a $16 million investment in Greenlight Financial Technology. Now management is hopeful a startup accelerator could enhance its brand as an innovative company, and provide an opportunity to access new products from an early stage.

"They are going to have first-mover advantage to some really great capabilities," said Christine Barry, senior analyst with Aite Group.

Other community banks experimenting with accelerator programs include First Federal Lakewood, a $1.7 billion-asset mutual in Ohio, which helped start an accelerator based in its home state last year with regional players, Fifth Third Bancorp, Huntington Bancshares and KeyCorp, and several other partners. Eastern Bank in Boston is also partnering with the MassChallenge FinTech, a new initiative for the accelerator program.

“Banks, regardless of size, have little choice but to start to look more at the fintech market,” Barry said. “A lot of smaller banks have been slower to do so, but any bank that wants to remain competitive either has to form these types of partnerships or put pressure on their core banking vendors to form some of these partnerships.”

While not all small banks have the resources or manpower to invest in new accelerator programs, many are learning from established accelerators.

Last week 17 community bankers visited the Venture Center’s FinTech Accelerator in Little Rock, Ark., which is sponsored by FIS. Wayne Miller, managing director of the FinTech Accelerator, said the community bankers spent part of the visit with fintech founders, discussing their products and the problems they are solving.

“Having a great partner like the Venture Center to demonstrate relevant solutions to them, and having an institution like FIS behind the [startups] that is going to infuse necessary resources, should they be successful in producing something relevant, can help them get to market faster,” Miller said.

Rather than formally working with an accelerator program, some institutions, such as Lead Bank in Garden City, Mo., and HarborOne in Brockton, Mass., have found other ways to foster young companies.

HarborOne Bank connected with Boston’s entrepreneurial community by hosting its third annual pitch contest for local entrepreneurs earlier this month. The program, which also helped the $2.7 billion-asset bank fulfill Community Reinvestment Act requirements, has grown in scope each year, receiving more applications and distributing more prize money, said Maureen Wilkinson, the bank’s vice president of community education. This year the winner received $5,000, double the amount awarded in 2016. Next year the bank has said the winner would receive $10,000.

“Over the years of doing this, the caliber of applications has strengthened, the reach has widened and it’s helped our brand and our business,” Wilkinson said.

On a similar note, Lead Bank and Citizens Bank of Edmond in Oklahoma provide office space to entrepreneurs.

“We are truly trying to put our money where our mouth is when we say we support small businesses and entrepreneurs in Kansas City by giving them a great location and office space,” Melissa Beltrame, Lead Bank’s director of marketing, said in a recent interview.

In Boston, the $11.1 billion-asset Eastern Bank plans to give MassChallenge FinTech participants a business challenge to work through that could potentially lead to new products and services for the mutual. The partnership gives Eastern access to startups that have been vetted by MassChallenge.

“We recognize the importance of small businesses to our local economy and this is a natural way to support them through a program that will also add new momentum to how we think about our customer experience,” Eastern chairman and CEO Bob Rivers said in a press release about the partnership.

Nbkc hopes its accelerator leads to meaningful partnerships and the potential for future revenue. The bank will invest $50,000 in each of the five participating startups, in exchange for an equity stake. The size of the equity stake would be determined on an individual basis, Pettet said.

The program will also include mentoring and educational resources from community and nonprofit partners. Eric Garretson, nbkc's chief financial officer, said the bank told its regulators about its plans early, since investing in startups is outside the typical realm of community bank activity.

“Collectively [regulators] know it’s a hot topic and they know banks are talking about doing it,” Garretson said. “I think they are in a fact-finding mode to understand how it fits into a bank’s strategy, as well as, how does it fit into regulations?”

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