Fintech Investment: Where Is It Going?

There’s always been intense competition to become the next Silicon Valley.

After all, the original is not much more than a collection of towns in northern California that just happen to be dedicated almost exclusively to the pursuit of information technology. The entire local infrastructure essentially supports this practice, and it draws the bulk of investment and other kind of resource. However, it’s not as if there’s some geographic underpinning to this hub of innovation. Many other industries, from energy to retail, require other natural assets; new technology doesn’t.

So if that’s the case, why can’t the model be replicated elsewhere? And with certain industries, aren’t other places eminently more suited to don this mantle? For example, should technology developed for financial services come more from the other side of the country, as in, the hometown of Wall Street?

This old question is gaining new traction thanks to a report from consulting giant Accenture and the Partnership for New York City, a powerful group of CEOs from 200 corporations headquartered in the Big Apple but with global reach. The organization exists specifically to invest in development projects throughout the city, and otherwise boost the area’s visibility.

The new report, which came out late in June, identifies significant opportunities in New York for the ‘fintech’ sector. In fact, deals in this market have been coming thick and fast—the venture sector focused on this area has been growing at twice the rate of Silicon Valley since 2008, and the trend continues to accelerate.

To be sure, Silicon Valley still draws more investment in fintech that its East Coast equivalent, but the gap is unquestionably shrinking.  The report notes that New York went from a third as many deals as Silicon Valley in 2011 to two-thirds as many in 2013 and almost the same in the first quarter of this year. The numbers matter in part because this is a big market: fintech investment tripled between 2008 and 2013 from $928 million to $2.97 billion, and should double again within the next four years.

Actually, the story behind the numbers is even more interesting. Think of what characterizes Silicon Valley as more than just a geographic entity. It’s a hub of global innovation. It displays small business entrepreneurship at its finest. Most new ventures exist independently of the government, not seeking nor receiving subsidies or other kinds of assistance. Indeed, the industry serves as a poster child for the free market in that, unlike most other verticals, the products regularly get better, faster and cheaper. But in reality, there’s even more to it.

First, the technology industry in Silicon Valley was the first to realize the game-changer that is Big Data. Jargon aside, this staggering wealth of information gives every entity the tools and opportunity to drill down into each demographic more than ever before. There are now hundreds of pieces of data available on each individual, and that feeds new kinds of marketing. On the flip side, the next generation—and every generation after it—will respond only to increasingly personalized appeals. That started with technology and now affects every industry.

Similarly, good technologies succeed not by anticipating needs and changes but by causing them. Some 10 or 15 years ago, no one was clamoring for mobile capabilities—whoever thought we could do more with the phone than just talk? Today, the millions of smartphone and tablet apps have drastically transformed consumer and professional habits.

That’s the kind of mindset that true competitors to Silicon Valley will have to emulate. Those areas that have successfully created technology hubs of their own—Research Triangle Park in North Carolina; wide swaths of Austin, Texas; Route 128 in Massachusetts; New York’s own Silicon Alley, among many others—have imported this kind of forward thinking more than a given set of best practices. And while they’ve grown, so has Silicon Valley.

So sure, there may be more fintech investment in New York, but that doesn’t mean it will be at the expense of Silicon Valley. It looks like the fintech market is set to keep growing, and as it does let’s hope New York gets more, Silicon Valley gets more, and other hubs emerge as well. This way everybody wins. . .especially the user.

Technology M&As: The Beats Go On

If it takes gangsta rap to spark fresh interest in the intersection of investment banking and technology, then so be it.

The ongoing fascination with Apple’s $3 billion purchase of Beats Electronics is entirely understandable, because it’s a cool story.  However, it also says a lot about what’s going on between finance and tech.

128px-Beats_by_Dr._Dre_-_logo.svg (2)On the one hand, there’s Apple, a company that’s become synonymous with innovation and raging success. It wasn’t always this way: the technology pioneer went through some serious lows, especially compared to archrival Microsoft, before reemerging as a consumer electronics giant that now has $160 billion cash on hand, nearly to be precise. And then there’s Beats, which makes audio products and offers a listening service. The company’s had some diverse owners: One is the Carlyle Group, the asset management powerhouse, whose executives have included the first President Bush, his Secretary of State James Baker, the former Prime Minister of Thailand, and a raft of financial services, business and media luminaries. But overshadowing them all is co-founder Dr. Dre, who earned early fame with gangsta rap, which of course drew the wrath of the Bush administration.

But putting aside the strange bedfellows, the high-profile deal offers a good reason to take a fresh look at the moribund investment market. To be sure, it turns the spotlight on many key elements in this market—the consumerization of IT, evolving drivers for content adoption, changing tastes expectations in key demographics and the premium placed on innovation and marketing (not always in that order).

However, as PC World points out, this is not the only silver lining in the cloud. In fact, to stretch the metaphor, cloud technology—along with software-as-a-service (SaaS) and mobile offerings—is fueling a strong drive in tech mergers and acquisitions.

The Global Technology M&A Update from EY (previously known as Ernst & Young) reveals that a curious blend of opportunity and disruption—two cornerstone elements of the tech market—came together to boost global technology M&A aggregate value by a staggering 65% in 2013. The number shot up to, $188.2 billion, which clearly hearkens back to the glory days of the dotcom bubble.

To be sure, global technology M&A volume actually declined for the year, but cloud and SaaS registered a spike—a hint as to where the future is headed. Big Data remained almost as big, with advertising and marketing technologies—packaging analytics and social networking—nudging deal volume. Security and health care IT (which often seem to go together) moved along as well. The folks in our line of work had good times too—financial services technology drove value to the tune of some 100 deals.

And while all this represents a look back, the look forward is nice too. The Apple-Beats combo aside, the first quarter of 2014 saw considerable activity in M&A circles, which is unusual for this period. The most recent report from PriceWaterhouseCoopers points to 57 deals closed in the first quarter, up by more than a third over same-period 2013. More specifically, many technology companies have not yet adapted their offerings to mobile, cloud and SaaS models, at least to the extent possible. As these pressures continue to mount, look for more wide-ranging deals to fuel technology M&As.

Any comparison to the raging market of 20 years ago—when dot-coms with no profits or even revenue received massive valuations from otherwise perceptive investment bankers—are not only premature but grossly unfair. But just as technology and finance have always boosted each other’s fortunes, it’s good to keep a wary eye on this market, even as it offers reason for optimism.


Image courtesy of Monster Cable Products, Inc., via Wikimedia Commons

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