After a 12-week program, the Venture Center has closed the book on another accelerator, graduating the third cohort of the ICBA ThinkTECH Accelerator. The Little Rock-based entrepreneur hub held its Demo Day for the early stage fintechs on Wednesday, March 24, giving all of the companies’ leaders the opportunity to pitch their businesses and services to a virtual crowd of banking officials and executives, investors and influencers.
In the lead-up to Demo Day, the nine companies selected for the ICBA ThinkTECH accelerator participated in a rigorous program, conducted by Venture Center staff, in which the executives received feedback community banking leaders, regulatory officials and other industry figures and had one-on-one face time with banking leaders to help refine their products/service. While the Venture Center has established this format with previous accelerator, this year’s ICBA accelerator was significantly expanded with almost three times the number of banking professionals participating. According to Daniel Schutte, the managing director of accelerators for the Venture Center, there were 102 banks who contributed to the 2021 ICBA ThinkTECH accelerator, compared to 34 last year.
The results were impressive for Charles Potts, senior vice president and chief innovation officer for ICBA, who noted that 2020 was an “amazingly successful” for the accelerator. Coming into 2021, ICBA and its partners saw an opportunity to rethink the program and the types of fintech companies who would be invited to participate in the accelerator. By the end of the application period, a record number of companies applied. This number had to be whittled down to 10.
The participating companies included Agent.IQ of San Francisco, Calif.; Artis of Atlanta, Ga.; Beauceron Security of New Brunswick, Canada; Finosec of Alpharetta, Ga.; harness of Tampa, Fla.; Shastic of Berkley, Calif.; UPSWOT of Charlotte, N.C.; Zogo Finance of Durham, N.C.; and Z Suite Technologies of Burlington, Mass.
A virtual accelerator, Potts contended, spurred fintechs that might have been reluctant to participate in an in-person program to apply. The result was a “polished group of finechs,” he said, noting, “Right off the bat, we knew we had something special.”
In this accelerator, Potts said that there was a focus on providing a wide range of solutions, including security, cybersecurity, compliance and AI, emphasizing the “high tech with high touch” philosophy critical to community banking.
As the Venture Center has grown its profile in the fintech world (in particular, winning the Best Fintech Accelerator/Incubator Award at the 2020 Finovate Awards), it has recruited increasingly mature companies – something that Schutte sees as a benefit for the program, the companies and community banking partners.
“What we’ve seen this year is that as we continue to draft and bring in more mature companies, everything moves a little more smoothly. The initial hurdle in financial services is quite high – with federally protected data, it makes it a very difficult environment to operate in,” he said. “When we get companies who have compliance coming in and have raised some money and know how to speak the language of the industry, it benefits everyone in a different way that it has before.”
“We’ve seen people close deals in 20 days when the industry average is 12 to 18 months. Most of the companies who come through here have booked some revenue, which we’re always thrilled about.”
One of those companies is Beauceron Security, a cybersecurity training firm out of Canada. Incidentally, Beauceron Security is the company that finalized the 20-day deal, setting a new record for the Venture Center’s accelerators.
For Beauceron Security CEO David Shipley, the accelerator was a success with his company picking up three new customers because of the program, as well as establishing a pipeline roughly $100,000 in near-term deals.
“I would say that the virtual experience was everything I had expected and even more. I have to say how impressed I was by the people running the program – the Venture Center staff and the ICBA were absolutely phenomenal to work with. And to be honest, as a Canadian, it felt like working with people from back here – the kindness and generosity, the humbleness and the hard work…that they helped provide to us was amazing,” he said.
Through the accelerator and the help of the Venture Center and ICBA staff, Shipley said he has crafted the strongest pitch for what his company offers and the value it brings. The proof is in the deals.
Shipley, whose company provides personal cyber risk scores for financial service employees, was struck by passion of the community bankers who interacted with the cohort members. Participating in the program, he said, has opened up new revenue and growth possibilities with the visibility the ICBA ThinkTECH accelerator offers.
“We have a much different banking environment here in Canada, and I had no idea of the variety and the passion of community bankers. It was inspiring. It was awesome. They were sharp, and they were clear on what they wanted and how they wanted to help their banks…,” he said.
While this accelerator is in the can, the next one will soon be upon the ICBA and the Venture Center. As the COVID-19 pandemic is slowly brought into control, Schutte hopes to make a return to an in-person program. However, due to the tremendous success of this year, a virtual element will be present moving forward.
Having a strictly virtual program has been challenging, with Schutte saying that the he, program manager Hamza Qadir and other Venture Center officials would run three to four Zoom meetings every day to facilitate the program. But as he notes, this virtual element enabled more banks to participate and allowed banks to involve more staff, providing a broader and deeper experience for both the banks and the cohort members.
In one instance, a bank brought 67 individuals into a Zoom session, something that would likely not happen if that many plane tickets had to be purchased. This allowed for greater subject matter expertise to be brought to the table during the program.
“The virtual environment probably contributes to that, but now that we’ve got them in, we’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing and bring value,” he said.
“It’s challenging on that front because we love to facilitate these one-on-one in-person engagement whenever possible. That’s valuable for everybody, and that’s what drives you to fall in love with Arkansas as well,” Schutte said.
Looking forward, both Potts and Schutte see a bright future ahead for the ICBA accelerator with significant growth on the horizon. According to Potts, the ICBA will continue to grow the accelerator, having committed to the program for an additional three years in 2020, and nurture the alumni who pass through the accelerator. Potts calls his work “evangelism,” going to the marketplace and professing the strengths and benefits of fintech companies and the services they provide. For Potts, having more than 100 banks participate in the accelerator is “something to be reckoned with” and evidence that banks want to engage in innovation.
Growth is the name of the game for Schutte, while maintaining the excellence the program has become known for over the past three years.
“We’d like to continue to grow and double it,” he said. “We keep moving the bar here. It gets more difficult to do, and we’ve done it every time.”