Equity crowdfunding comes to town

Earlier this month, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) announced it had approved the first seven crowdsourced funding platforms (CSFs). It seems that after much debate, equity crowdfunding is finally open for business.

Image: Aaron Pruzaniec, sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Although not named in the ASIC media release, the seven successful applicants are:

There are significant limitations to the CSF legislation – namely:

  • the type of eligible companies (only smaller, public unlisted companies);
  • the amounts individual investors can invest (up to $10,000 per company per 12 month period); and
  • how much companies can raise (no more than $5m in any 12 month period)

Also, there is no indication as to whether other CSF license applications are still pending, or which applications may have been rejected. It may also be difficult to assess the relative merits of each platform, since there only appears to be one class of license.

Meanwhile, legislation is already in the pipeline to extend the CSF regime to proprietary companies – which would significantly expand the potential number of issuers.

Compared to some of the largest initial coin offerings (ICOs) over the past 18 months, a $5m capital raise looks like small change. If anything, ICOs took the decade-old crowdfunding experience and supercharged it with Blockchain, cryptocurrency and decentralized issuance platforms. But then, regulators tend to lag markets and technology; plus, their primary focus is protecting the interests of less sophisticated retail investors (as well as market stability).

It’s also worth remembering that a limited crowdsourced funding model has been available in Australia for several years, almost as long as crowdfunding itself: Enable Funding (formerly ASSOB) was established in 2007, but with a much more restricted license than the latest CSF legislation. (And in other countries, early-stage companies have been able to more easily raise equity capital via market listings on secondary boards of the main exchanges – e.g., Mothers in Japan, GEM in Hong Kong, and AIM in London.)

The new CSF regime (and whatever else comes in its wake) does raise a few interesting points:

1. Although expressly confined to equity issuance in the form of common shares, by giving it a more generic name, does this mean CSF will be used for other types of securities (bonds, structured finance)?

2. What expectations has ASIC placed on the number of raises, and the total amounts to be raised, over the next 3-5 years – how will it measure or define the success of CSF?

3. More importantly, where is investor money expected to come from – will investors switch from property or other assets?

4. How will the increasing practice of issuing digital tokens as traditional securities (and potentially vice versa) add to the demand for CSF platforms and services?

It’s very early days, of course, and very small scale, but judging by the response so far to one of the first companies to take advantage of the CSF legislation, investors like what they are seeing.

Next week: Australia Post and navigating the last mile

 

 

 

 

 

 

FF18 pitch night – Melbourne semi-final

As part of the Intersekt FinTech festival, Next Money ran the Melbourne semi-final of their 2018 Future FinTech pitch competition.

Ten startups presented, in the following order, in front of a panel of judges representing different parts of the Melbourne startup ecosystem:

BASIQ

Describing itself as “the future of finance”, and quoting the trendy mantra of “Data is the new oil”, BASIQ is an API marketplace for financial data. Designed to counter-balance “the Faustian pact” of big data, social media and search, and to compensate for the information asymmetry of bank-owned data, BASIQ espouses open banking, even though it is backed by two bank-related VC funds (NAB Ventures & Reinventure – see last week’s blog). With a focus on the needs of app developers, the commercial model is based on a licensing fee per user per transaction. Leveraging the AWS security layer (presumably to maintain privacy and data integrity), the pitch also mentioned “screen scraping” – so it wasn’t clear to me whether the data is only coming from publicly available sources? Currently, the platform only connects to financial institutions in Australia and New Zealand.

Breezedocs

A participant in the FF17 Semi-Final earlier this year, Breezedocs is a robotic document processing solution. In short, it can read/scan, sort and extract relevant data from standard documents that need to be presented by customers in support of a loan application. Operating via an API, it can work with multiple document types and multiple formats: data can be structured, semi-structured, or even unstructured. The benefits for lenders and brokers are reduced loan approval times and increased conversion, with much
better CX for the loan applicant as well. The goal is to help the standard loan origination process to go paperless, and could be extended to life insurance, income protection insurance, and immigration and visa applications.

Doshii

Doshii ensures that apps and POS solutions can connect to one another, via a common POS API platform. Apparently, there are 130 different POS providers in Australia, and many merchants use multiple services. Now backed by Reinventure, Doshii has a focus on the hospitality sector. The biggest challenge is physically connecting a POS to the API, so Doshii has developed a SDK. However, so far, only five of the 130 providers have signed up.

egenda

I hope I got this right, but egenda appears to be the new product name for the WordFlow solution for board agendas and meetings. Offering an “affordable web-based solution for every meeting”, the product is currently being trialed by a number of universities. The platform can convert PDF/word files into HTML, transforming and enriching them into a single secure website.
The panel asked how egenda compares to say, Google productivity suite or IntelligenceBank. A key aspect seems to be that egenda is platform agnostic – so it doesn’t matter the source of the document (or where it needs to be published to?). A key challenge in managing board papers is that it’s like herding cats – so a single but highly functional repository would sound attractive?

HipPocket

This US-based app is looking to launch in Australia. A phone-based financial decision app linked to a user’s bank account, it is designed to help with personalised goal-setting, budgeting and financial engagement. Asked whether it can support long-term goals, the pitch referred to data that suggests an increasing number of people are effectively living from pay-day to pay-day, and have no capacity to meet even the smallest of unexpected  bills. Having attracted a grant from the Queensland government, they are currently experimenting with different customer acquisition models, but they hope to prove that with daily engagement, it is possible to build a long-term relationship.

ID Exchange

With a tag line of “privacy protection power”, ID Exchange addresses a key issue of the “consent economy” – how to control who has access to your personal data, and how much, and for what purpose. With the whole notion of “trust” being challenged by decentralised and trustless solutions such as Blockchain applications; the plethora of data connections with the growth of IoT; and the regulatory framework around KYC, AML, CTF, data protection and privacy, there is a need for harmonised solutions. Under an “OptOut/OptIn” solution (from the website, it looks like this is a partnership with digi.me?), the idea is that users take more responsibility for managing their own data. ID Exchange offers a $20 subscription service – but unfortunately, based on the pitch, it was not clear what does this actually meant or included.

Look Who’s Charging

This is a platform for analysing credit and charge card transactions, to identify anomalies and reduce disputed charges. Currently with about 7.5% market penetration (based on merchant volumes?), it can help with fraud checks and spend analysis, by combining AI, crowd-sourcing and data science. But from the pitch, it wasn’t clear where the data is coming from. Also, a key part of the problem might be the data mismatch between card acquirers (merchant services) and card issuers (banks and financial institutions). Given that the growth in credit card fraud is coming from online shopping and CNP (card not present) purchases, it would seem that a better solution is to tighten procedures around these transactions?

Plenty

Plenty describes itself as a “financial GPS”, and is designed to address the issue of poor financial awareness. Only 20% of people see a financial planner, but now with robo-advice tools, even personalised advice can be scalable. Essentially a self-directed financial planning tool, it is free for customers to create a basic financial plan and when searching for a mortgages. For a subscription fee, customers can begin to access other products and advisors, which generates commission-based fees to Plenty.

Proviso

Another of these FinTechs to have featured in this blog before, as well as competing at FF17, Proviso makes “financial data frictionless”, in particular the loan application process. With 250,000 users per month, and 150 financial institutions signed up, their success can be ascribed to the way they standardise the data and the UX. Plus, they can access more data, from more sources, quicker. And then there are the analytics they can offer their institutional clients. In the future, there will be open banking APIs, plus insights, such as the categorisation of transaction types, affordability analysis, and decision-metrics.

Trade Ledger

This is a new platform that supports SME lending based on receivables, that also reduces the effort for SMEs seeking this form of financing. Given that cashflow issues are inextricably linked to insolvency risk, Trade Ledger has developed a unique credit assessment method, and is product-type agnostic. It also aims to offer automated solutions, with an emphasis on the digital UX of products, and use machine learning to generate a predictive probability of default (PPD). Currently the biggest challenge is in the multiple variations of bank credit and lending processes and models that need to be integrated or streamlined.

Of the ten pitches on view, I have to say that none really had a “wow” factor (although if Trade Ledger can scale their PPD model, and if ID Exchange spent a bit more time on defining their key message, both could be huge products). They were mostly worthy ideas, but still defined by current banking and finance procedures. Maybe these platforms need to do more with the transactional and customer data they generate or process, to uncover more opportunities. Or think about what they could do to disrupt adjacent markets? Anyway, on the night, Proviso proved the favourite with the judges.

Next week: Conclusions from the Intersekt Festival

 

VCs battle it out in the reverse pitch night

As part of the Intersekt FinTech Festival, the organisers, FinTech Australia partnered with Startup VIC and NAB to host a “Reverse Pitch Night”.Turning the tables on the usual pitch night, four VCs were invited to pitch to a panel of startup founders.

Representatives from Rampersand, Reinventure, YBF Ventures and NAB Ventures battled it out on stage to demonstrate why founders should want to work with their firms. Since I have been involved in pitching or presenting to two of these funds, and I know people involved with all four firms, I will aggregate these reverse pitches, highlight the common themes and try and pick out some of the key points of differentiation and/or competitor advantage.

Following a similar startup pitch format (problem, solution, team, achievement and future growth), each VC stressed the importance of getting the “right money”, and identifying the ways in which VCs can help with growth and people as well as capital. So it’s as much about how VCs can add overall value, rather than just the size of the cheques they can write.

Despite the supposed differences, there were a lot of similarities. There was much talk about how the VC model is broken, yet I didn’t see much in the way of novel funding or structuring solutions. Also, with NAB and Westpac directly involved in two of the funds, and ANZ linked to a third, isn’t this compounding the problem – aren’t banks part of the problem?

While having access to a bank’s balance sheet may result in larger cheques, the average size of individual investments looks to fall within a similar range. And of the deals that were referenced, a number were co-invested by the same funds and/or the same international partners. So doesn’t that itself restrict or constrain the variety of deals that can be struck?

On the positive side, most of the VCs allocate a substantial proportion (50%) of their funds for follow-on rounds. Some funds actively help to incubate the companies they invest in, even though they may still only take a minority stake. So the focus is on building a portfolio, and helping to scale the right companies. In one case, the VC has only invested in five out of 1,000 opportunities, so clearly there is a challenge with the screening process, or we just aren’t seeing the right startups.

Or maybe the smart startups realise they don’t need/want VC money in the first place? Only one of the four VCs specifically mentioned working with a startup that has launched an ICO – surely the most disruptive development to hit traditional VC funding in a long while?

Finally, given this was a FinTech-related event, I didn’t see any evidence of how these firms are using better technology to manage VC funding.

Surprisingly, given the reaction from the audience, the panel judged Reinventure to be the winner.

Next week: FF18 pitch night – Melbourne semi-final

Token Issuance Programs – the new structured finance?

We’ve known for some time now that Blockchain and Bitcoin were designed to disrupt the financial services sector. But I suspect that not even the earliest proponents of distributed ledger technology nor the most avid supporters of crypto-currencies anticipated how far and how quickly that disruption would spread. In addition to P2P payments and lending, alternative stock exchanges, and self-executing smart contracts, recent events suggest that digital assets issued on Blockchain infrastructure are themselves the new source of venture capital, that they may even come to be seen as the new form of structured finance (albeit with less complexity and more transparency).

Image: Maria’s Cakes founder issues her own record…. (Source: Maria Lee website)

In the past few weeks, we have seen Token Issuance Programs (sometimes referred to as ICOs – “initial coin offerings” – or token sales) raise extraordinary amounts of capital – $53m for MobileGo, $150m for Bancor. Even allowing for the fact that VC funding rounds have been increasing in recent years, these results are quite staggering – given that the sellers of these tokens have not had to relinquish any equity, or incur any debt either. Because tokens do not represent shares in a company or units in a corporate bond. Nor are they securities in the usual sense, as they do not create any interest or obligation other than an entitlement to be granted a given number of tokens at a predetermined price.

Of course, these tokens may carry the right to use proprietary software or access marketplace platforms, and even acquire future products. In this way, they also resemble crowdfunding projects. But because of the potential returns generated by the increased value tokens may accrue (a combination of network effects, scarcity and market appreciation), there is buyer demand for new tokens backed by the right project.

These token sale results have also benefited from the increased price of Bitcoin, Ethereum and other leading digital currencies – or perhaps the other way round? – as investors get more comfortable with this new asset class. That’s not to say there isn’t talk of a market correction, or even a bubble. But despite the apparent risks, and the occasional exchange outage, new token issuance and crypto-currency trading are generating growing interest – not just from currency speculators, but also asset managers and traditional investors. No doubt helped by developments in markets like Japan, where crypto-currencies are now a legally recognized form of payment.

As for structured finance, some projects are looking to issue tokens that are linked to or represent an underlying asset, such as a pool of loans. In the case of securitization, for example, Blockchain technology can not only help to structure the token issuance (via smart contracts, for example), it can also provide better transparency on the underlying loan performance (using real-time repayment data from bank feeds, for example).

Of course, there have been some speed bumps along the way for Blockchain-derived assets, most notably the infamous DAO “hack” of last year.  Plus, the price of Bitcoin continues to display considerable volatility, which makes it harder for some investors to embrace. And if anyone is wondering why this week’s blog features an image of a Hong Kong cake shop owner, it relates to the Asian Currency Crisis of 1997-98. Maria’s Bakery was a famous chain of shops that sold coupons at a discount, that could be redeemed for cakes at any time in the future. It was a practice that spread to other retail sectors. But during the market jitters caused by failing currencies and a tightening of credit, there was a run on Maria’s coupons, which coincided with a 2% fall on the Hong Kong stock exchange. This may have been coincidental, but it also demonstrates that financial markets can be sidelined by the most unexpected events. Like, who would have made the connection between over-extended home owners in parts of the USA with the worst global financial crisis for 80 years…?

NOTE: The comments above are made in a purely personal capacity, and do not purport to represent the views of Brave New Coin or any other organisations I work with. These comments are intended as opinion only and should not construed be as financial advice.

Next week: Expert vs Generalist