5 Companies that Made Fintech Noise in 2018

Bank Innovation’s five picks for companies that made noise in fintech this year may not include any banks, but it does include a company owned by a collection of them. Indeed, as far as innovation is concerned, 2018 was the year of the fintechs and nonbanks — some friendlier to the traditional players than others. Here are Bank Innovation editors’ choice, for the five noisiest companies in fintech this year:

Ripple

In a tough year for crypto, this San Francisco-based blockchain firm stayed busy, mostly thanks to RippleNet, its real-time payment settling and remittance system for banks and other payment networks. Transfers are made using Ripple’s native cryptocurrency called XRP, but Ripple, unlike other blockchain networks, concerns itself with enabling the transfer of traditional assets like gold and fiat currencies, rather than focusing on the value of its own currency. Ripple has drawn criticism from many in the industry for not behaving like other cryptocurrencies or like a decentralized entity. But it’s popular with financial institutions looking to deliver cross-border payments in real-time. In September, Ripple secured a deal to bring National Commercial Bank Saudi Arabia onboard to its network. The agreement with the Middle East’s second-largest bank solidified Ripple’s foothold in the Middle East and Asia, which is perhaps becoming the firm’s strongest market. The company currently works with at least 75 commercial bank and financial institution partners, including Santander, MUFG, and Standard Chartered.

Early Warning Services

This network operator owned by a collection of major banks has watched its P2P payments platform, Zelle, put some distance between itself and competitors this year. Third quarter earnings reports released in October indicate Zelle is winning the P2P money transfers race. Zelle had processed 375 million transactions worth a total of $106 billion over the previous year, representing an 83% increase in transactions and a 67% increase in total money moved. PayPal-owned Venmo’s total payment volume increased by 78% year over year to $16.7 billion in the third quarter, but the social P2P service processed just $54 billion since the third quarter of 2017, or half the amount Zelle had processed over the same period. Paul Finch, CEO of Early Warning, announced in May he would leave the company in 2019, citing a long career and a desire for rest. At the time, Finch suggested Early Warning plans to pursue some new products or services over the next few years, without elaborating and said it would be better to bring in someone new at the beginning of that process rather than in the middle. The company has yet to announce a replacement.

SoFi

Coming off a tumultuous 2017, in which the online lending and refinancing startup’s CEO and co-founder resigned from the firm and the company withdrew a bank license application, SoFi was on the mend in 2018. Current CEO Anthony Noto, formerly COO of Twitter, joined the San Francisco-based company in January of this year. Noto has said his goal is to prepare the company, with a valuation north of $4 billion, for an IPO. But SoFi, which specializes in student loans for millennials, lost money in two consecutive quarters and announced at the end of November it would cut 7% of its staff and revamp its mortgage unit. The fintech did, however, launch SoFi Money, a mobile-first, no-fee product that functions like a checking account but pays a higher interest rate on deposits like a savings account. It’s currently available to all SoFi members and offered on a first-come, first-served basis to the general public via a waitlist.

Square

Square’s Cash App is the most downloaded finance app on Apple’s App Store, beating out PayPal and Venmo, which are in the No. 2 and No. 3 slots, respectively. The Cash App also overtook PayPal earlier this month to become the most downloaded finance app on Google’s Play Store. The company added a string of new features for its Cash App in 2018, including a direct deposit option for paychecks and the ability to buy and sell bitcoin. While a Square Cash account may resemble a full checking account, it’s really a prepaid account and not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Still, its existence alone is likely enough to make banks take notice of what Square and other nonbank competitors are offering in comparison to their traditional checking accounts. On that note, in December, Square reapplied with the FDIC for a special industrial loan company license that allows less traditional firms to accept government-insured deposits. It had pulled its first application in July, saying it would work with regulators to amend and strengthen its application.

Amazon

Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa led the e-commerce giant’s charge into financial services this year, largely thanks to the growing popularity of voice banking. Juniper Research predicts that half of American households will contain a smart speaker by 2022, and virtual assistants are already ubiquitous on mobile devices. Capital One and other financial institutions are already up and running on Alexa. While voice banking has big potential going forward, it remained in its infancy this year. There are security concerns, too, particularly in regard to the inadvertent recording of conversations, surveillance fears, and data protection. Nonetheless, Amazon has laid the groundwork and Alexa is already a household name. And the momentum seems to be working in Amazon’s favor. Financial technology solutions provider Jack Henry & Associates earlier this month introduced a voice-driven consumer bill pay solution and also confirmed that more clients secured the company’s skill certification for voice-enabled banking through Alexa.

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