With banks slowly pushing more consumers out of the banking system due to low profitability, it might be surprising to hear that the smart money is betting on the exact opposite: that the 60 million underbanked in this nation are profitable to serve, when served properly. Core Innovation Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in companies that provide financial services to the underbanked, just raised $45 million in capital for a new private equity fund. Goldman Sachs, of all banks, was the lead investor. It is indeed rare that Goldman puts its image before its bottom line, suggesting that this investment is hardly a write-off.
“It’s a unique fund,” said Mike Harris, General Partner at Core Innovation Capital, in a phone interview. “We’re tying impact back to performance.”
Core Innovation Capital is a “double bottom line fund,” one that considers both its own bottom line and portfolio companies’ end-users’ bottom line as well, explained Harris. The fund is an offshoot of the Center for Financial Services Innovation, an organization that seeks to address the issues faced by the un- and underbanked. They are perhaps best known for their four Compass Principles, which call for banks to realign their business model to better serve poorer customers.
Core Innovation Capital’s private equity fund began as a prototype fund, led by Arjan Schutte, Harris’ partner. The fund’s portfolio consisted of companies like AccountNow, the prepaid card provider, RentBureau, a company that helps build credit through rent payments, and TIO Networks, a mobile wallet designed specifically for the underbanked.
It was successful, but it was “an order of magnitude smaller than what we have committed in our fund,” said Harris, referring to the new fund. In addition to Goldman Sachs, the fund counts a “top five bank” and several other large institutional funds as investors. Harris could not share the name of the bank that has invested millions in finding solutions to the problems faced by the underbanked, but one imagines that the irony weighs heavily on them.
By having a substantial amount more capital, and investing in smaller, privately held businesses, CIC can likely have a seat at the table at many of its portfolio companies.
So far the fund has made two investments: one in Plastyc, and one in SavvyMoney. Plastyc (pronounced “plastique” like the explosive) is a mobile-based prepaid service. Harris referred to it as “prepaid 2.0,” which seems fair. Its iBankUP service offers all the features of a checking account, but it’s completely mobile-enabled and requires no credit check or minimum deposit. Customers need not ever set foot in a bank branch.
SavvyMoney, in Harris’ words, is like “Weight Watchers for debt.” It’s an online PFM that helps manage debt, not unlike SpringCoin.
CIC plans on adding 10 more companies to its portfolio, according to Harris. They’re interested in companies with scalable business models with good returns that also help end-users save money.
Considering that a large bank invested in the fund, Regions Bank’s recent move to serve the underbanked, one has to wonder whether CIC will be selling these portfolio investments off to banks at some point in the future. That’s not the case, exactly. Harris said that while he imagines some of their portfolio holdings may have suitors that are banks, that is not the reason CIC sees value in the portfolio, nor is it their business model.
Between the growth in the number of underbanked Americans, the speed that technology brings to the marketplace, and the rapid adoption of smartphones in the United States, CIC simply sees value in the market. The need for these solutions is only going to grow.
“Whether it’s Western Union or anyone else,” said Harris, “companies are gonna have to ask themselves: are we ready for the future?”
It would appear that the smart money set is ready. The question remains: are the banks?