Montreal’s Fintech Ecosystem: A Year in Review Report

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Ecosystems are a complex mish-mash of different elements working together to produce results that benefit the very actors and elements that create these systems. Coral reefs, for instance need sunlight, clear water, warm water, clean water and saltwater; conditions that sound contradictory, but support each other.

 

Even if one element is out of place, survival of the entire ecosystem is threatened; as can be seen with coral reefs that are on the verge of extinction due to innumerable pollutants (which translate into lack of clear and clean water) and other negative extraneous factors.

 

Startup ecosystems are pretty much the same. Even if one element is out of place, the progress of the entire industry is slower than ideal. If there aren’t engaged individuals from the general population exploring the field of fintech, there won’t be enough people participating at competitions or teams building a startup on their own. Lack of engagement leads to fewer new ideas and startups. Fewer startups means less material for incubators and accelerators to work with. Not enough startups coming out of accelerators or making sales means less interest among investors. Fewer tangible innovative products translates into decreased interest among the general population.

 

Every stage feeds off and builds on the one preceding it, and then the journey starts all over again, with the strength and magnitude of each iteration depending on strength of the actions in the previous cycle.  

 

Montreal’s (In)complete Ecosystem

 

Montreal has some strong advantages when it comes to fintech. It has the 2nd largest student population in North America that serves as an endless supply of talent. Canada in general, and thus Quebec, has a robust financial system which translates into a safe testing ground for financial innovations. A friendly regulator in the form of the Autorité Marchés Financiers that has a dedicated sandbox for fintech startups and participates in many community initiatives.

 

Numerous grants and funding options are available through both federal and provincial governments. In fact, FormFintech was grateful to be the beneficiary of a grant worth $225,000 from the Ministère de l'Économie et de l'Innovation. We are lucky to have such strong supporters for our cause, and hope to work together for many years in the future.

 

But an impressive congregation of elements would work sluggishly unless there is proper system composed of numerous pieces working in the background. And until last year, Montreal was missing some of those pieces. What we call the -2 to +2 pipeline (or journey) was not complete.

 

To rectify that problem and fill gaps, FormFintech and other stakeholders such as the Holt Accelerator, Desjardins, AMF, Luge Capital, Bank National and Finance Montreal, among many others embarked on a number of successful initiatives. Our review of last year’s developments and fintech events come from this “pipeline” perspective.

 

By the end of this article, we hope that the reader will have a much better comprehension of how Montreal's Fintech pipeline has functioned in the past, and the potential it has for the future.

 

Minus 2: Common Dream And Awareness

 

Events and common spaces were actors pivotal to the creation of an ecosystem congregate to share ideas, connect and learn. At grassroots level, this includes talent looking to learn more about fintech and want to dip their toes before making a full commitment and getting involved in the community.

 

FormFintech, in collaboration with different stakeholders in the ecosystem, organized a number of events last year. Its “Future of Finance” panel discussions encompassed 8 universities, involving more than 250 students in the process and involved entrepreneurs and stakeholders from more than 15 startups and corporations in Quebec. Student clubs, in part or whole dedicated to fintech, at these universities, in addition to Front Row Ventures, were instrumental towards the success of these panel events. 
 

There was also the “Great Collaboration: Speed Learning Series”, where FormFintech worked with Leadweb and stakeholders from Montreal and Toronto. Discussions revolved around how and why it is important for financial institutions and startups to work together as we move further into this fintech revolution.

 

Canada's first fintech ecosystem map created by FormFintech in partnership with Holt Fintech Acclerator and in collaboration with LabZed  (click picture to access)

Canada's first fintech ecosystem map created by FormFintech in partnership with Holt Fintech Acclerator and in collaboration with LabZed
(click picture to access)

 Finfusion, an important community player in the fintech events space, kicked off this fintech events frenzy before the beginning of fall through its End of Summer event. This non-profit was also involved in two other networking events. One that preceded the opening of the Fintech Forum, and other that celebrated the inauguration of the Holt Fintech Accelerator. FinFusion, an important community player was also involved in the fintech ecosystem with the Fintech Forum and the inauguration of the Holt Fintech Accelerator.

 

To make education a perennial phenomenon, FormFintech in collaboration with the Holt Accelerator and LabZed, developed Canada’s first Fintech Ecosystem map and published more than a dozen 12 articles/reports on happenings and developments in the fintech space.

 

Celebrating the Wins

Symend's Hanif Joshaghani and Lendified's (now called Judi.ai) Monique Morden receiving prizes from Luge Capital partners, David Nault (extreme right) and Karim Gillani (extreme left)

Symend's Hanif Joshaghani and Lendified's (now called Judi.ai) Monique Morden receiving prizes from Luge Capital partners, David Nault (extreme right) and Karim Gillani (extreme left)

 Apart from acting as a common ground for exchange of information, events also provide opportunities to celebrate wins. Finance Montréal’s Fintech Pitch Competition (hosted during the Fintech Forum) and Insurtech North’s Pitch Contest (held at Gatineau) did exactly that by allowing relevant fintech startups to present their products and accomplishments in front of thousands of people. OWL.co and Symend each won a $25,000 jury prize, awarded by Finance Montréal and the public's choice prize of $15,000 from Mackenzie Investment was awarded to Nesto. Symend also received a $150,000 investment offer from Luge Capital. BDC Capital and Luge also made a surprise on the spot investment of $150,000 each (for a total of $300,000) to Lendified, and Edelman Montréal added $15,000 worth of communication services to the prize.

 

As a whole, the quality of startups at the event, topics discussed and participants present allow everyone to gauge progress made over previous years and understand where the ecosystem stands. On that note, below are some other wins that show Montreal’s progress and accomplishments in FinTech.

 

January 2019: Funding Round, Mylo

 

Mylo, a startup that rounds up purchases and invests the spare change, raised another $2 million through a funding round led by Desjardins Capital, Robert Raich, and founding investor Ferst Capital Partners. This additional funding helped Mylo to speed-up product development and move towards becoming a full-service personal finance management platform.

 

March 2018: Partnership, Corl Partners with Polymath

 

Polymath, a decentralized platform that makes it easy to create security tokens partnered with Corl, a Montreal-based startup that provides a conduit for startups to raise money through ICOs - something that won't dilute voting power or loss of equity.

 

March 2018: Acquisition, Thinking Capital and Purpose Financial

 

Thinking Capital was acquired by Purpose Financial for $200 million in cash and securities. Thinking Capital continues to operate in Montreal and retained its employee. Purpose made this move to create a large and sustainable balance sheet along with the ability to create an intelligent and diversified funding model for other institutions.

 

May 2018: Funding Round, Northone

 

Northone, originally called Ferst Digital named after Ferst Capital (its first investor) and housed CEO Eytan Bensoussan, received $2 million in seed funding to build its mobile banking platform targeting small businesses. This round was led by angel investor Peter Graham, BetterCompany founder Tom Williams, and returning investor Ferst Capital Partners.

 

June 2018: New Initiative, Finance Montreal

 

Finance Montreal, with support from the Government of Quebec, announced the creation of the Fintech Station to host conferences, workshops, and meetings. Additionally, it will act as a co-working space and accommodate between 20 to 30 startups.

 

June 2018: New Initiative, Holt Fintech Accelerator

 

Holt Fintech Accelerator (aimed towards AI-focused fintech startups) that launched in May 2018, with the backing of the Holdun family, announced its partnership with several venture capital funds and financial institutions. It aimed to invest $1,625,000 for its first cohort.

 

June 2018: New Initiative, Luge Capital

 

Luge Capital backed by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Desjardins Group, Sun Life Financial, Fonds de solidarité FTQ and La Capitale, and with offices in Toronto and Montreal, managed to raise $75 million to invest in financial technology companies, especially those associated with artificial intelligence.

 

July 2018: New Product Offering, National Bank and Moobewave

 

National Bank launched a mobile point-of-sale solution, powered through Moobewave's platform, for small and medium sized businesses. EasyPay will allow merchants to accept payments using their smartphone, simply by installing an app on their phone.

 

July 2018: Funding, Flinks

 

Montreal-based data aggregation fintech, Flinks, raised $1.75 million in seed round led by Luge Capital and National Bank, with participation from Innostart Capital, Panache Ventures, iNovia Capital and Conconi Growth Partners.

 

July and September 2018: Funding and Partnership, Hardbacon and Desjardins

 

Hardbacon's founder, Julien Brault, stayed busy in 2018. He managed to raise $150,000 through a crowdfunding platform enabled at Gotroo. On top of that, Julien’s tenacity allowed him to enter a partnership with Desjardins Online Brokerage in September 2018 that enabled hardbacon to offer its app coupled with services from the bank.

 

October 2018: New Initiative, Portag3 Ventures

 

Paul Desmarais III announced the launch of Portag3, a new fintech fund with $198 million to invest. During his speech at the Fintech Forum, he emphasized the importance of customer satisfaction to gauge how good of a service fintechs and financial institutions are providing.

 

November 2018: New product offering, Shakepay

 

Shakepay, one of Montreal's most famous crypto startup, launched an over-the-counter service through partnership with Schedule 1 bank to serve high net worth individuals and businesses looking to conduct transactions worth over $50,000 for Ethereum and Bitcoin.

 

December 2018: Partnership, National Bank and BreatheLife

 

National Bank and BreatheLife partnered to develop direct online life insurance distribution solutions, available through Breathe Life's single session quote creation and application process. The solution will be offered by dedicated licensed agents attached to National Bank Insurance.

 

December 2018: Financing, Element AI

 

The Quebec Economic Development Program administered $6.3 million to support businesses in Quebec. Of that, Element AI received $5 million which the organization will use to expand its international footprint and more towards the goal of creating 900 jobs.

 

Minus 1: Get Your Hands Dirty

FormFintech's Fintech Career Fair held at the Notman House (November 2018)

FormFintech's Fintech Career Fair held at the Notman House (November 2018)

 At this step, it’s about engagement and providing opportunities to get a hands-on learning experience or work with industry professionals on actual problems. To that end, FormFintech has events and programs such as the FormFintech Fintech Career Fair.  

 

The FormFintech Fintech Career Fair was held 3 times last year, with two events in Winter 2018 and one in Fall 2018. In total, these events garnered interest among 800+ students and professionals who had the opportunity to meet with approximately 50 startups offering 100s of jobs. MTL NewTech, one of FormFintech’s primary partners and a landmark in Montreal’s tech history, supported the event and made it possible. 

 

When it comes to opportunities for experiential learning, the 2nd Annual Blockchain Bootcamp and MTL Algo-Trading Workshop were also organized by FormFIntech, in collaboration with Catallaxy and Quantopian respectively. Close to 100 people participated at these workshops, comprising both experienced and novice. The extraordinary interest for these workshops prompted FormFintech to create Canada’s first Building Blocks Fintech Certificate, which is currently going through its first cohort comprising 40 students.

 

The hackathon at the StartupFest’s Hackerfest and Desjardins’ Data Cup also provided an excellent medium for learning-by-doing. FormFintech led the fintech track at the Hackerfest where more than 40 programmers came together to solve 3 problems presented by Desjardins’ Data Lab or the option to work with 5 early-stage startups created during FormFintech’s Formathon.

 

In September 2018, Desjardins held the first version of the Data Cup focused on solving real-life industry problems with already existing data sets. In the same context, a blockchain hackathon was also organized by a leading startup in Montreal, MLG Blockchain.

 

Zero: Start at the Deep End of the Pool

Participants, experts, mentors and animators at the second FormFintech Formathon (May 2018)

Participants, experts, mentors and animators at the second FormFintech Formathon (May 2018)

Hackathons and short competitions are great for innovations, but longer extended innovations programs allow ideas and projects to continue and reach the point where they can be converted into an actual startup.

 

FormFintech is well aware of this fact and thus, conducts its own innovations program each year, called the Formathon, which throws participants at the deep-end and cranks-up their pace towards becoming a full-fledged startup owner. It employs a backward induction approach: start with an already validated problem from the customer. If a team is able to create a solution, the customer is ready to purchase the product. This is crucial, as for most startups (especially in B2B), getting that first-customer is a incredibly agonizing, time-consuming and tedious task.

 

One of Formathon’s primary goals is to build startups, yes. But this program is also about developing talent. Because through this competition participants learn and develop a clearer understanding of the world of fintech. Our end goal is to build the fintech leaders of tomorrow.

 

The first Formathon, held in May 2017, was a great success and attracted close to 70 participants, 3 corporations (Desjardins, Valtech, The AMF) that presented a problem each, 50 fintech professionals/evangelists and numerous others in the forms of animators and coaches. The second edition took place in May 2018 and was an even bigger success with 5 problems, presented by Autorité des marchés financiers, BNP Paribas, Banque Nationale, Desjardins and Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton & Catallaxy.

 

FormFintech, however, is not the game in town when it comes to extended innovations programs. Desjardins Lab’s mega event, the Cooperathon, achieves the same goal; with a focus on fintech, in addition to 4 other startup themes.  In 2018, Cooperathon’s Fintech track was able to attract approximately 150 participants, the highest number so far among all previous editions.

 

Plus 1: Take It to The Next Level

 

Building a successful company is hard work. Even if a team is successful in making that first sale, there are infinite number of things that can go wrong. That gap between a startup’s first success and reaching a stage of sustainability is when a team is extremely fragile. During this period they need support and guidance to not only improve chances of success, but also provide a safe, comforting and structured environment.

 

FormFintech identified this and created the Ascension Pre-Incubation Program, aimed at very early stage fintech startups. Teams that participate in this program could be from anywhere, not just the Cooperathon or Formathon. In February last year 10 teams from all facets of fintech went through this Ascension program that followed a unique format and adapted to the needs of each individual startup. Spanning over 12 weeks, topics ranged from product development to pitch prep and raising seed money. The program culminated with a demo-day at Espace CDPQ, where close to 80 audience members witnessed the hard work done by these 10 startups. Many of these teams received prizes, sponsored by our incredible community members such as Desjardins, District 3, BDC, Valtech, Luge Capital, Finance Montreal,and Holt Accelerator.

 

Desjardins Lab’s Startup-in-Residence program serves a similar purpose, and is better suited for startups that would be considered “late-stage” for the Ascension program.  During their second cohort in 2018 that started at the beginning and ended October, 5 startups in the areas of blockchain, lending, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, went through multiple fast-paced product enhancement modules to reach that first sales deal. According to Patrick Roy, founder at Ophelia Technologies, one of the startups from the second cohort, "The startup-residence program challenged us and made us rethink our strategy. What we thought were detours or moving backwards turned out be pivotal moments that allowed us to develop a better product and make our first sale right at the beginning of 2019."

 

For this same purpose, FormFintech also conducted two “collision days” with Societe Generale and Autorité des marchés financiers. Both of these events, even through under the same genre, had a different purpose. For the AMF collision day, it was about creating that bridge of communication between early-stage startups and the regulator, which is why the event was conducted in a speed-dating format where various personnel interacted with 9 startups from different fintech sub-categories. Societe Generale, on the other hand, was searching for startups that it could sign deals with to work with it’s Montreal Office. FormFintech handled this collision data all the way from looking for appropriate startups to organizing a pitch and networking day.

 

Plus 2: Step on it and Scale

 

Fintechs have always had access to funds in Montreal through numerous venture capitalists and angel investors, but there weren’t too many solely focused on fintech. That started to change about 2 years ago, when Ferst Capital Partners and Diagram (supported by Power Corp) kick started the buzz around fintech and provided additional funding options through their foundry model. Even still, there was a vacuum: absence of fintech-focused VC funds and accelerators.

 

That changed when the Holt Fintech Accelerator entered the Montreal biosphere, with its emphasis on providing fintechs expertise related to artificial intelligence, along with access to a wide network of global partners, mentors and experts. The program opened its doors to applications in May this year, following which it received 400 applications from 49 countries and selected 13 to be part of the program. In as little at 5 months, the 13 participating teams collectively managed to raise more than $8 million, now totalling $16 million - an incredible feat to say the least.

 

The cohort culminated with an incredible demo-day, the fintech show, that took place in a cabaret-style theater with lights, lasers and smoke, along with food and drinks; the whole nine yards. Pitches were only 3 minutes long, each were preceded by visions of the future where that particular fintech product is in mainstream use. In between pitches, songs from the 80s (where lyrics were changed to add a fintech twist) were performed live. But there was a deeper meaning behind all this showmanship and entertainment.  Bank to the future show was really about the future of the financial services industry - a world where the fintech startups of today will be ubiquitous financial institutions of tomorrow.

Startups on stage at the Holt demo-day

Startups on stage at the Holt demo-day

 

 

Luge Capital took care of the another missing piece with its fintech-focused fund that currently has 75 million in its kitty. Flinks, one of the most prominent data-aggregation services provider in Canada, received Luge’s first investment, totalling $1.5 MN.

 

Last but not least, Finance Montreal, is working on the creation of a Fintech Station: a place for fintechs to share office space and act as a congregation area for already motivated champions to discuss and create a shared network effect.

 

It's Not Just About Montreal

 

As ecosystems evolve, they become centers of excellence and attract attention on an international level. Two systems, then, find ways to collaborate and feed of each other’s intelligence, knowledge and resources. Case in point are automobile sectors of Detroit and Germany that collaborate at many levels, surpassing limitations imposed by language and distance.

 

Seems that MTL ecosystem players are looking to establish these relationships right off the bat. A congregation of around dozen fintech teams, made possible by efforts through Holt Fintech Accelerator, Desjardins, Finance Montreal and FormFintech were present at the BDC Fintech Summit organized in Toronto in 2018. Finance Montreal also organized two international trips to Singapore and Paris in 2018, aimed at providing Quebec fintech startups more exposure and opportunities for deal making.

 

Holt’s efforts extended beyond the the above mission to form international connections. It went to 15 conferences all over the globe. Efforts that led to applications from 49 countries. Of the 13 teams selected for the first cohort, 7 were from countries other than Canada including US, UK, Cayman Islands and Colombia. As of today, 2 of these fintechs have incorporated in Quebec, with several others exploring to do the same.

 

Finance Professionals: Where Art Thou?

 

Fintech is a unique sector because it is revolutionizing an industry that hasn’t changed much over the past 3 decades. For the fintech community to thrive there is a need for two very different yet complementary worlds - finance and technology - to work together as a cohesive unit. Such an amalgamation would reduce the need for organized events because everyone just automatically understands this entire "startup thing", propelling the ecosystem towards further growth and development.

 

But, it is unfortunate that genuine “interest” from the corporate world still lacks in Montreal. Just to put things in perspective: there are close to 150K finance professionals in Montreal, but we saw participation from only 3000 throughout the fintech-related events in 2018. The number is much smaller if you take the Fintech Forum out of the equation which attracted close to 2500 finance professionals. This is not to say that banks aren’t collaborating with startups,  just that there is still a vacuum in terms of the enthusiasm and involvement that startup ecosystem thrives on.

 

The good news, however, is that the community is starting to recognize this problem. On top of that, FormFintech will continue to create events and situations that facilitate this involvement from the corporate world.

 

Conclusion

 

If you have been involved with Montreal’s fintech community for a long time, then it would be hard to miss the drastic change that the community went through in 2018. There was always this feeling of “it can be done”, but last year “it was done!”. The base is built and now its about stacking on the floors that would eventually lead to a skyscraper that can be seen from miles. We feel that there is a lot more to come in 2019: many more startups, funding rounds, job offers and programs! We hope that you are as excited as we are!