Wells Fargo announced Wednesday the three latest participants in its accelerator program for technology startups: Context360, MotionSavvy and Bracket Computing.
The newest class, selected from about 300 applicants, offer products for combating digital challenges around fraud detection, customer experience and cloud computing.
The program, which the San Francisco bank began last August, involves direct investment in a select group of startups and six months of mentoring for their leaders.
Wells Fargo's newest recruits are part of a larger trend of banks buddying up with nonbank firms to better compete in a digital world. Indeed, the consulting firm Gartner published a paper in late March urging banks to consider acquiring customer-engagement expertise from outside financial services to help them stand out in an industry whose products are largely commoditized.
In recent weeks, Santander invested in mobile operating system Cyanogen. BBVA bought a user-experience and design firm. And Capital One, which grooms startups in its innovation lab, is testing an app that recommends deals to its customers.
For its latest batch of partners, Wells Fargo sought startup tech firms that were built for purposes other than banking but whose products had potential to help improve digital banking nonetheless.
"If we look at the vendors we already know, we are really limiting ourselves," said Braden More, head of enterprise payment strategy for Wells Fargo. "There are a lot of great ideas out there in the marketplace."
Context360, which uses machine-learning algorithms and sensor data to anticipate when and how to engage mobile users, is one such firm. The San Mateo, Calif., company's initial business was helping mobile-game developers improve their retention rates.
"We never considered the financial services industry," said Stephen Burke, chief operating officer of Context360.
But since its introduction to Wells Fargo, Context360 has tailored its software to mine mobile app data alongside other sets of enterprise data to help detect bank fraud.
Context360 sees its technology being used to help banks identify consumers who are traveling and avoid unnecessarily blocking what might appear as unusual spending transactions. Or it could be used to help identify when, say, someone in Los Angeles is using the stolen credit card number of a customer in San Francisco. (The bank's inaugural accelerator also included Zumigo, a firm that worked toward a similar mission, emphasizing just how important security is.)
The bank may be able to use Context360's technology for multiple purposes, according to Bipin Sahni, head of innovation and research and development for Wells Fargo's wholesale services. It could be applied toward Wells Fargo's internal-fraud mitigation or marketing efforts, and it could also be delivered to the bank's retail customers for the same uses.
MotionSavvy execs, meanwhile, were surprised last spring when Wells approached the Rochester, N.Y., firm about its two-way communication product designed for the deaf.
MotionSavvy software uses Leap Motion's 3D motion recognition, which detects when a person is using sign language and converts it to text or voice. The software also allows a hearing person to respond verbally to the person signing. It then converts that speech into text, which the hearing-impaired receiver can read.
But now the startup sees its technology being used, for example, to help a teller communicate with a deaf customer through a mobile device.
Bracket Computing in Sunnyvale, Calif., writes software designed to let large enterprises such as Wells Fargo take advantage of public cloud storage when needed a service more and more bankers are interested in. Bracket has more experience with financial services companies than the other two startups; Chief Executive Tom Gillis has known Wells executives for years.
Bracket's on-demand computing service is meant to be used for enterprise applications. For instance, when a bank has to run a stress test, it could use Bracket's technology to temporarily use a public cloud service rather than maintain a farm of servers for that purpose.
When Wells Fargo's accelerator first started, the bank said its purpose was to cultivate relationships with entrepreneurs and technologists rather than make a profit. The mindset continues, according to Sahni. But he also noted that a startup's product or service must be able to help more than a small subset of the bank's customers and work over many business lines. Wells Fargo has 90 lines of business.
The bank is looking for innovative startups that allow it to apply models to customers, employees and within business-to-business or business-to-consumer interactions, Sahni said. But the problem remains that banks must be selective when integrating new technology into their systems. Using too many similar technology plays can lead to fragmented operations, Sahni said.
There are many financial-technology accelerators and incubators, but Wells Fargo says there are an abundance of innovative companies out there and that it has made its program very appealing: participants do not have to work exclusively with the bank, and they are assigned sponsors from inside the bank to guide them through the daunting task of selling services to a large, highly regulated enterprise.
"We are not doing this for a purely [return-on-investment] model," Sahni said. Rather, in classic Wells' parlance, the initiative is seen as "stoking innovation" and finding ways to make the startups become vendors of the bank.
"They are so eager to work with us, and we are so eager to work with them," Sahni said.
Wells Fargo is seeking its next pool of applicants through June 20.