Inside the fintech accelerator program in Little Rock
- Banking technology giant FIS is into the second year of its financial technology accelerator program in Little Rock, Arkansas.
- The curriculum includes a mix of business development training coupled with specialist technical advice.
Big city startup entrepreneurs are going to the heart of the country to immerse themselves in business development.
A recent addition to the pool of development programs for financial technology startups is the Venture Center Fintech Accelerator based in Little Rock, Arkansas, which just graduated its first class. It is backed by industry giant FIS, a banking technology company that operates in over 130 countries.
The program selects 10 entrepreneurs a year, and it covers a broad range of focus areas, including core banking services, wealth management, wearables, wallets, back office, compliance and payments. For the startups, it’s an opportunity to get honest feedback from counterparts in the banking sector. This year, organizers received 295 applications.
Participating companies receive a $50,000 initial investment, and companies are eligible to pitch for up to an additional $100,000 to 300,000 awarded to winners at the end of the program. The training is offered in collaboration with the Venture Center, an innovation hub based in Little Rock that hosts the workshops and connects the startups with contacts and additional investors.
Rather than being seen as competitors, startups are now being mentored by bigger institutions, as similar programs at big banks like JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America have cropped up.
“It’s about bridging the gap between these disparate types of organizations,” said Brian Bauer, program manager at the Venture Center. “On the one hand, you have risk-averse institutions that are very wary when it comes to technology, vendor risk and data they may give access to, and you have these technology companies that are attempting to build products that benefit the bank and enable the customers to do new things with their money.”
Whether the companies are developing products for business or consumers, collaboration with banks is crucial. Bauer said the program is important tool to help startup entrepreneurs get their products to market and “speak bank” — familiarize themselves with the banking world. While most of the mentored companies are developing products for other businesses, the program is also open to companies working on consumer-focused tools.
“What happens during the program is its pure exposure to financial institutions for the startups,” he said. “We bring the companies in here and put them through our process, curriculum and mentorship, and another part of the program is introducing them to the financial institutions — they can speak to the customer segment they’re going after and get candid feedback.”
Grant Easterbrook, co-founder of Dream Forward, a 401(k) startup and 2016 class graduate, said the program was mix of meetings and independent work organized around a series of themes relevant to growing the business.
“The sessions were either with FIS executives or with different mentors in the city, such as CEO of a local bank, or one of the biggest attorneys in town,” he said. “They try to mix it up with very specific industry knowledge and more generalist startup legal advice.”
Each week, every company had deliverables, and the work culminated in a demonstration day for investors, bankers and other stakeholders. Bauer said that while many accelerators focus on fundraising, the FIS program zeroes in on getting the products to market, which he said can be the biggest challenge for early-stage entrepreneurs. While FIS could not provide comments by deadline, Bauer added that big banks can benefit from the cross-fertilization of ideas that results from working with startups.
“I wouldn’t say its a challenge for banks to interact with startups, but it’s an opportunity for them to get exposed to early-stage innovation that’s occurring within the industry,” said Bauer. “What we’ve done here is cast a big net and vetted those down to the best ones we can find, so we’ve really created an opportunity for the bank to come in and meet well-vetted fintech companies that are really leading the industry.”