ASIC updates – Sandbox and Crowdfunding (plus #FinTech Hub)

In recent weeks, ASIC Commissioner, John Price and his team have been making presentations to the FinTech community on two key topics: the ASIC Regulatory Sandbox, and the forthcoming Equity Crowdfunding legislation.

Image by TeeKay, sourced from Wikimedia

blogged about the sandbox when it was announced last year, and at the time, the proposed safe harbour provisions for FinTech startups were seen as being key to fostering innovation within the sector. However, at the time of the presentation I attended (June 13), there was only one confirmed participant in the sandbox scheme. According to the Commissioner, the low take-up was probably due to the timing of the regulations, being so close to summer holidays.

On the other hand, the sandbox has such a limited application, that the Government is proposing to expand its scope to include the provision of products (not just distribution), the provision of credit services, and to extend the current 12-month license waiver period to two years.

The Commissioner also mentioned the consultation process on RegTech combined with a hackathon event to be held later this year, as evidence of the direction the ASIC Innovation Hub is taking. Let’s just hope they can keep up with how fast the FinTech community (especially in blockchain and crypto-currency) is evolving, since regulation usually lags innovation.

At a separate series of FinTech and startup briefings, Mr Price discussed the new equity crowdfunding provisions, due to take effect on September 29. Currently undertaking a consultation process on the detailed regulations, the legislation applies only to ordinary shares issued by companies with a maximum of $25m in assets and annual turnover, and which become public companies once the legislation comes into force.

Eligible crowd-sourced funding companies (CSF’s) can raise a maximum of $5m per annum, and investors can invest a maximum of $10,000 per company each year. CSF’s cannot invest in other businesses or securities, and cannot have simultaneous multiple offers on participating crowdfunding platforms.

The Commissioner spoke about the temporary reporting and corporate governance concessions under the scheme: eligible public companies don’t need to have Annual Public Meetings or audited accounts for a period of 5 years; and the offer documents do not have to be as detailed as a full IPO prospectus. Whether these concessions will be enough to attract issuers, or whether the limitations prove more of a deterrent, it will be interesting to see if the new legislation meets the expectations of government, ASIC, issuers and investors.

Meanwhile, things are getting interesting for anyone following the FinTech hub story, and the perennial Melbourne-Sydney startup rivalry:

First, the Victorian government has issued an RFP for a Melbourne FinTech Hub (submissions close tomorrow…). The state government has also announced its partnership with Fintech Australia and others to host the intersekt festival, following last year’s Collab / Collide event.

Second, Melbourne’s York Butter Factory has recently announced plans to expand into Sydney. While not purely a FinTech hub, this new venture will feature the Commonwealth Bank as an anchor tenant. With former ANZ CEO Mike Smith as its Chair, YBF might also be expected to make a submission to the Victorian RFP.

Third, Sydney’s Stone & Chalk has just announced it will be opening a new FinTech hub in Melbourne. Given that a number of key Melbourne-based financial institutions (such as ANZ, NAB, AustralianSuper, Findex, Genworth and Liberty Financial) are backing this new venture, could it suggest they can’t wait for the Victorian RFP process to finish?

Next week: StartupVic’s Machine Learning / AI pitch night



Summing up the #FinTech summit

Coinciding with the launch of the inaugural EY FinTech Australia Census 2016*, FinTech Australia’s first industry summit Collab/Collide was a major beneficiary of the initial round of funding from the Victorian government’s LaunchVic program. The summit provided a useful opportunity to survey the global landscape, to compare notes and of course, to network. But did we learn anything new?

6278fd_bc2f12c8b40744a281f9afbb37ba1a3emv2The summit was programmed around key FinTech themes of payment services, alternative funding, robo-advice, Blockchain, data and regulation. Participation by some key industry figures from Asia, Europe and the USA (both founders and investors) also provided some international perspective.

While Australia appears to be maintaining a top 5 position in the global FinTech rankings, our focus on things like P2P lending, payments and robo-advice risks losing sight of bigger opportunities in Blockchain assets, enterprise solutions and institutional services.

And although it was good to see a team from the Treasury Corporation of Victoria in the audience, as well some of their colleagues from DEDJTR, it was surprising that there was hardly any representation from among institutional investors (superannuation funds, asset managers, insurance industry), major financial institutions, or the traditional financial markets (exchanges, intermediaries, brokers, vendors)**.

Some of the best sessions were the comparative panels on Blockchain, regulation and funding. In particular, there was an interesting discussion on whether Australia should be worried or concerned about UK opportunities post-Brexit, or focus more on Asian markets. But with the development of reciprocal financial licensing arrangements between Australia and the UK, and Australia and Singapore (and between the UK and Singapore), ASIC is clearly trying to engage with both markets.

The Federal Treasurer, Scott Morrison also took time out of his busy schedule to address the audience on the topic of Open Banking Standards, following on from the Productivity Commission’s Draft Report on Data Availability and Use. The overall goal is to have a system of FinTech data and operating standards that is “regulatory match fit”, that delivers frictionless inter-party transactions and enhanced industry participation and collaboration. For example: once the New Payment Platform launches in 2017, we should have more open access to transaction data; the ATO is implementing a “single-touch” payroll process; and ASIC is due to publish recommendations for the financial services Regulatory Sandbox by the end of 2016.

Unfortunately, given the changes in venue and content, the program struggled to stretch to a second full day, as audience numbers dwindled. Something for the organisers to think about next time? I would also advocate organising specific sessions, e.g., for B2B and B2C, or for vendors and institutions.

Finally, speaking to a member of the DEDJTR team, there is a clear desire on the part of the State government that the FinTech community will come together along with other market participants to figure out how to scale this emerging sector. In other words, how to turn the growing number of FinTech startups (often with directly competing products and services), hubs, incubators, accelerators and VC funds into a sustainable industry?

* For a handy summary of the EY survey, check out Lucinda de Jong’s blog for Timelio

** In the interests of full disclosure, a FinTech startup I work with, Brave New Coin (a market data vendor for Blockchain assets) was a Strategic Partner for the Summit

Next week: The Startup of Me v2.0

A Tale of Two #FinTech Cities – Part 2

It feels like the inter-city #FinTech and startup rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney is starting to get personal. The blow-up between Victorian Small Business Minister, Philip Dalidakis and Freelancer CEO, Matt Barrie over StartCon is perhaps the most strident example, but other discontent is bubbling underneath the service.

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-10-51-49-amLet’s take a look at what’s actually been happening around #FinTech in Melbourne, and try to understand what might be the cause of this apparent disquiet:

First, the recently announced LaunchVic grants have been met with a mix of gratitude, bewilderment and some sour grapes, based on the people I have talked to in the start-up community. There was a sense of “jobs for the boys”, “usual suspects”, “who?”, and “yeah, good on ya”. Nothing new there, then, when public money is being handed out. High-profile beneficiaries of the initial A$6.5m of grants include FinTech Australia (as part of a major FinTech Conference to be held in Melbourne), FinTech Melbourne (which is now the largest group of its kind outside the US and UK), inspire9, Startup Victoria and Collective Campus.

Second, Stripe‘s CEO, John Collison was in town to celebrate their 2nd birthday in Melbourne. (This is the 3rd time in 2 years Collison has been in Australia – he must love what we are doing here? Or maybe it’s the Victorian government incentives that attracted Stripe to set up in Melbourne: see below.) This time around, there were some major announcements among the celebrations, including:

  • 25% of Australians have paid for something online using Stripe
  • Stripe is launching “Connect” in Australia – making it easier for local businesses to roll out payment solutions in multiple markets overseas
  • Stripe continues to keep its APIs as simple and streamlined as possible – they even support Amazon’s Alexa voice recognition system

There was also a panel discussion with some of Stripe’s local clients, and a Q&A with Collison himself:

  • Andre Eikmeier from Vinomofo commented that payment solutions (like all technology) should be invisible, and just work in the background
  • Ben Styles from Xero explained that integration with Xero’s own APIs is critical, and that they have co-developed some products
  • Nicole Brolan from SEEK said that thanks to Stripe, her business is finally allowing clients to pay invoices on-line

Asked about innovation, Collison argued that mobile phone technology was the spur for services like Uber. However, he’s not especially engaged with Blockchain, as he does not see the use case. He thinks the next major innovation will be in medtech (telemetrics & wearables), and machine learning (speech and image recognition). As he said, “driverless cars are not just about the sensors but what the data is telling you. We know more about the health of your car than your own body.” He also had some words of advice to aspiring local entrepreneurs and startup founders:

  • Having a global or international perspective is determined by your markets, your competition, and access to specific talent pools.
  • It’s probably wrong to aspire to be like Atlassian – you need to understand WHY Atlassian has been successful, not WHAT it did or HOW it did it – which means getting back to core values and core purpose.

Third, as the Stripe celebrations started to kick off, across town FinTech Melbourne hosted an event starring Alex Scandurra, from Sydney’s Stone & Chalk FinTech hub. This was billed as a “pre-launch” for Stone & Chalk’s planned foray into Melbourne, and was part information session, part FinTech love fest, and part fan-boy hangout. Scandurra’s presentation was quick to point out that the “plan is not to bring Stone & Chalk to Melbourne, but to create Melbourne’s own Stone & Chalk”. (Spot the subtle difference?)

To its credit, Stone & Chalk is home to 300 people and 75 startups, has helped start 21 companies and create 150 jobs, and participants have collectively raised $100m in funding, although Stone & Chalk does not take equity. Scandurra also commented that FinTech is not an industry in itself – it is a horizontal that serves all industries.

There seems to be a lot of local clamouring for a FinTech hub in Melbourne. However, unlike the NSW government which has directly partnered with Stone & Chalk, I understand that the Victorian government is not prepared or able to “invest” in such a project – and certainly not before there is some private sector funding on the table.

Meanwhile, the founder of a rival payment system expressed his frustration that the Victorian government “sponsored” Stripe to come to Australia, but won’t offer similar support to local startups. Another FinTech CEO I spoke to was irked that Stone & Chalk would appear to be breaching its own mandate if it set up shop outside NSW.

In fact, could be argued that Stone & Chalk was established in Sydney to directly compete with Melbourne’s startup ecosystem. In large part, this is thanks to the huge success that the Victorian government continues to have in luring major tech companies and global startups to come to Melbourne. Names such as Zendesk, Eventbrite, Slack, Square, Stripe and now Cognizant.

If the debate over Stone & Chalk coming to Melbourne is about creating a local FinTech hub (whether or not the Victorian government tips in some money), we have to examine the need for such a hub. For example, is it simply a question of real estate, so that all the FinTech startups can be co-located in one place? If so, I would have thought that was easy to resolve: there’s a lot of empty office space, and Melbourne rents are cheaper than Sydney; also, a growing number of office landlords recognise the mutual benefits and knock-on effects of hosting co-working venues in their buildings.

We also have to consider if Melbourne’s existing FinTech startup eco-system/infrastructure is willing to come together to underpin such a hub. If so, what is the hub going to do? What is its purpose? What is the missing piece that the hub is designed to fill? And who/what/where is best placed to fill that need/gap?

Looking back, Melbourne has been the home of a number of FinTech businesses, that are now global public enterprises – IRESS, Computershare, Touchcorp, Novatti, for example – so there is obviously something in the local water (or coffee). For me, however, a key barrier for FinTech specifically, and startups more generally, is the inability to connect to institutional funds and investors (Clover being a notable exception?). Other obstacles include the stodgy procurement processes used by the public sector and many large corporations, which make it more difficult for startups to compete for work, and the reluctance by enterprise clients to try a local product or service unless it has been tested and proven elsewhere.

Finally, on a more positive note, it was very interesting to see that founders from Atlassian and Vinomofo are backing Spaceship, a new superannuation fund appealing to a younger, tech-savvy audience.

Next week: Bridging the Digital Divide

ASIC’s new regulatory sandbox for #FinTech #startups

Last week, ASIC published its eagerly awaited public consultation paper on the so-called FinTech regulatory sandbox. ASIC Commissioner, John Price and his colleague Mark Adams launched the paper at a special meeting of the FinTech Melbourne group, hosted by KPMG. There was also participation by FinTech Australia represented by its new CEO, Danielle Szetho, and by the Digital Finance Advisory Committee, represented by Deborah Ralston.

sandbox-295256The Commissioner was at pains to stress that, notwithstanding the developments within FinTech, and ASIC’s contribution via the Innovation Hub, the primary focus of the regulator is to “promote confident and informed consumers and investors, and to promote fair, transparent, orderly and efficient markets”.

To reiterate the point, Mr Price stressed that while the Innovation Hub is designed to help FinTech startups navigate the regulatory system, as well as reducing red tape, there should
be no compromise in ASIC’s fundamental regulatory and licensing regime.

ASIC will continue to adopt what it calls a modular approach to licensing and regulatory oversight, that includes: the ability to operate as a representative of an existing licensee; a focus on organisational competence; and the use of waivers and the “no-action” policy and decisions.

However, ASIC recognises the issues and barriers to entry that face some FinTech startups such as speed to market (a function of technology outpacing compliance?) and organisational competence (do firms need to hire in these skills and/or provide specific undertakings to that effect, or can they make use of third-party resources?). In ASIC’s view, by helping firms to reduce the time to market and to enhance their organisational competence, FinTech startups will be able to overcome the further barrier of access to capital. But there still needs to be acceptable consumer and investor outcomes, and efficient markets.

The proposals include additional guidance and discretion on organisational competence, and a limited license model that makes use of third parties as an alternative to establishing in-house organisational competence from day 1 (e.g., using an accounting firm as an external reviewer or sign-off), and limited exemptions during a defined test phase, yet still subject to some constraints to maintain a balance.

To clarify, ASIC currently exercises its discretion when assessing organisational competence based on the nature of the financial services and financial products to be offered, and the collective knowledge and skills of the people in the business. Under the proposals, the limited license will offer some additional flexibility to heavily automated business services and models, whereby the business can rely on professional third-party sign-off for compliance plans.

The sandbox exemptions will only be available to new Australian entities (to focus on startups) and only for a 6-month duration. It will be confined to certain financial services only – such as providing advice and arranging transactions. It will not include market making, and consumer protection will remain paramount. Once the limited license has expired, companies will either be instructed to cease operations, become an authorised representative of an existing licensee, or submit a full license application.

Other restrictions on the sandbox exemptions mean that applicants must be advising or dealing in liquid products (equities, managed funds and deposits), so not superannuation, insurance or derivatives. There will also be a cap on the number of investors (e.g., 100 retail clients), and on individual exposures (e.g., $10,000 per client), with an overall cap of $5m (but possibly unlimited in respect to wholesale clients?).

Participants must demonstrate they have adequate compensation arrangements, such as holding appropriate professional indemnity insurance and participating in an external dispute resolution process. They must also operate under core conduct and disclosure principles (e.g., disclosing trailing commissions).

There is some thought that sandbox participation could be “sponsored”, by third-party advisers, startup hubs or venture capital funds. This would operate on a “no liability” basis, and would primarily offer a preliminary health check of the FinTech applicant’s proposed business model. Above all, there will need to be adequate notification and reporting requirements, including a feedback process.

When comparing these proposals to what some international regulators are doing, ASIC believes they are more progressive than their counterparts. The UK is adopting a restricted licensing model, the US is using a “No action” process (more focused on credit providers?), and Singapore has recently announced a hybrid sandbox proposal.

During the Q&A session, the following issues were aired:

  • Is ASIC in favour of mandatory client recording? No, it will continue to rely on industry best practice
  • Is general insurance included in the sandbox? No, ASIC is not looking at risk-management products to be part of the exemptions.
  • If incubators and/or VC’s are able to be sandbox “sponsors”, how will ASIC deal with potential bias? ASIC says it is alert to practices such as unreasonable “fees”.
  • Would a new entity or product from an existing authorised representative be able to access the sandbox? It wasn’t clear whether this would be covered, but presumably not if it did not meet the “new business” requirement?
  • Would the sandbox be available to non-financial services co-creating products for existing AFSL holders? Again, it wasn’t clear – but if it was a new business applicant, presumably it would. (This also raised the issue of “mature” businesses using disruptive or outsourced services as a way to access the sandbox.)
  • ASIC will encourage companies to apply for a full license prior to end of the six month test, to ensure timely compliance
  • What will happen as a result of people playing in the sandbox? Clearly, ASIC has a vested self-interest in learning about and getting exposure to innovation, but it needs to demonstrate a pro-active and efficient approach.
  • What are the key criteria for the sandbox exemption? ASIC does not have a prescriptive approach (subject to the sandbox restrictions), so it will look at each application on its merits (e.g., short vs long-dated products, simple vs complex, retail clients vs wholesale), and focus on the financials, the organisational competence, and the business model. And obviously, experience counts.
  • Timing of the sandbox? ASIC hope to see it operating by the end of September (Responses to the CP260 are due in by July 22).

Subject to the consultation feedback, there seems to be general industry consensus that the sandbox proposals are to be welcomed. But there are still some grey areas, as evidenced by the Q&A, and nowhere did I here anything specifically relating to the new emerging class of programmable currencies and other digital assets, many of which are pushing the regulatory boundaries, as well as disrupting traditional markets. And with current equity crowdfunding proposals stuck in Parliament, nothing happening there either.

(For some other responses to Consultation Paper CP260, check the following articles:!Why-the-Fintech-Regulatory-Sandbox-is-a-Game-Changer/ll9ed/5757cd8f0cf245cf71a32089)

Next week: Customer service revisited