Tag Archives: fintech startups

neil-desena-fintech-senahill-marketsmuse

A Fond Fairwell to Fintech Pioneer Neil DeSena

Those of us who have worked in and/or around the world of electronic trading for more than 15 minutes readily know about REDI, the ubiquitous direct access execution platform for stocks and options that was introduced by Spear Leeds & Kellogg in 1987 to its professional clearing customers, a universe that grew to thousands of professional traders across the globe. For those not old enough to remember Spear Leeds aka SLK, it was one of the financial industry’s largest specialist firms with it biggest boots on the ground on the NYSE and Amex, and for decades, one of the largest clearing agents for stock and options exchange members and upstairs prop traders. SLK was also one of the industry’s most recognized upstairs market-makers until being acquired by Goldman Sachs in 2000 for a whopping $6.5bil. For those in the know, Goldman’s record-setting acquisition was attributed in part to a fellow by the name of Neil DeSena, “a boy from Bayonne” whose name was synonymous with REDI from the day it was first introduced in 1987, to the day the platform came under Goldman Sachs stewardship, to the day in 2016 when REDI was sold by GS for $1bil to Reuters Plc, and for every day in between, including now, when a trader somewhere in the world uses REDI to send a buy or sell order for stocks, options and/or futures into the now global OEMS platform.

History has already shown that the usually prescient Goldman Sachs wanted not only SLK’s prop-trading business and its clearing customers-which delivered hundreds of millions in high-profit revenue , GS also wanted to be at the forefront of electronic trading and SLK provided that. And, it was Neil DeSena who offered that entree. Until his untimely passing last week, barely three months after celebrating his 52nd birthday, Neil DeSena’s name and the brand name REDI remained forever intertwined, despite the fact that Neil had retired from his role as a Goldman Sachs MD several years ago. It was DeSena who was widely-credited for taking the REDI electronic platform from a closed stock and options order routing system for SLK clearing customers to a a billion-dollar, global OEMS platform synonymous for trading stocks and listed equity options. Upon Goldman’s acquisition, Neil became a GS managing director and under their banner, he built REDI into the industry leading global multi-asset trading system, expanding data centers and global networking through Europe and Asia with full interdependency/redundancy, creating a fully 24×7 global institutional trading platform. In 2015, Goldman sold REDI to Reuters for a cool $1bil.

Ironically, Neil DeSena was not an inventor, nor a prodigy software wonk, and not an MIT-educated computer geek or a Harvard MBA. Neil came to the financial industry as most did ‘back in the day’; he was a humble, but eager “boy from Bayonne” who came from a middle-class family and like so many others from the hamlets near the world’s trading centers, he aspired to work on Wall Street’s trading floors. As noted in his bio at SenaHill Partners, the fintech merchant bank Neil co-founded in 2013 with Justin Brownhill after retiring from Goldman, Neil’s first Wall Street job was typical to that of other 23 year olds; he scored an entry-level, back-office clerk (for retail broker Quick & Reilly). After rising through the ranks and learning how to leverage technology and lead people, Neil joined SLK in 1992, where he became the first employee of REDI. To the tens of hundreds that Neil since touched throughout his personal and professional life, ‘the rest is history’, but Neil’s history and the legacy he leaves behind cannot go without mention.

Neil DeSena was a classic innovator and entrepreneur who always maintained a prescient view when it came to the future of marrying technology and financial markets. He was less a student of technology than he was a student of human behavior and the inherent opportunities that technology-based solutions could provide to one of the world’s biggest industries. Better than most, including the legions of Wall Street technology and business development gurus, Neil had an innate and intimate understanding of the the mindset of those who navigated stock and options marts and what they would need to be more efficient and more effective, before those savvy-traders knew themselves. It was Neil’s thought-leadership, his uncanny ability to gain the trust and confidence of those around him, his foresight as to how/where/why technology could be leveraged, and perhaps most of his all, his endearing personality and sense of integrity that served as a benchmark for so many people he encountered.

Never one to rest on his laurels and certainly not like so many from the finance industry who aspire to build wealth for themselves and retire to a life of luxury, when Neil left Goldman Sachs, it took little time to decide “What’s Next?” Joining hands with Justin Brownill, one of the trading tech industry’s most successful entrepreneurs, the two formed SenaHill Partners in 2013 and framed the firm to be one of the very first fintech merchant banks focused on fostering upstart and industry disrupting financial technology firms. Since the firm’s creation barely four years later, more than two dozen finance industry tech pioneers have joined as network advisory board members; each contributing expertise, relationships and insight in their respective areas and helping to review nearly 2500 business plans submitted to SenaHill. The collective of professionals has gained the attention of finance industry and tech industry titans and has put wind behind the sails of dozens of disruptive startups focused on areas from bitcoin and distributed ledger to financial-flavored media platforms.

Irrespective of the degree of success enjoyed by enterprising start-ups that DeSena and Browhill have helped guide, Neil DeSena’s truest success is illustrated less by counting the literally hundreds of people who came to offer kindness and support this past weekend to Neil’s wife Carolyn and his three young children, Madeleine, Neil Anthony, and Jack, but more by the legacy he leaves; Neil always reminded those who were smart enough to listen that “material success is fleeting; honor and integrity are the most important virtues, as it those qualities that we should all be remembered for.” Continue reading

blythe masters

Babe of Investment Banking Now Babe of Blockchain?

Blythe Masters, once considered the “Babe of Investment Banking” in view of her long tenure and celebrity senior role at JPMorgan—which included her being credited for helping to create those snarkly financial derivative products known as credit default swaps (CDS), has since aspired to become known as either the “Blockchain Batgirl” or the “Babe of Blockchain” through her latest career role as CEO of the bitcoin-buttressed fintech startup Digital Asset Holdings. But, now that Blythe is no longer flying with the superpowers that came with her JPMorgan superhero costume, she is rapidly discovering that startup land has more sharp elbows than JPM’s bond trading floor.

blythe masters bitcoin doll
photo courtesy of Bloomberg Markets

Despite the fact Ms. Masters is undeniably a bona fide member of any Masters of the Universe Club (sic Tom Wolfe/Bonfire of the Vanities)—and however much “blockchain technology” has inspired a cadre of brokerdealers and banks to get on board a train that could evolutionize the financial industry at large, and even despite a potential “death-knell magazine cover”  courtesy of October’s Bloomberg Markets Magazine, Masters’ foray into the world of fintech startup funding is proving to be bumpy at best. The “blue ocean” this famously-fetching, blue-eyed blonde banker is now swimming in is populated not only with sharks, but with migrant bankers’ bodies floating ashore and otherwise left beside the yellow-brick road to billion dollar Unicorn valuations.

Notes NY Times business news journalist Nathaniel Popper—one of the 4th estate’s leading bitcoin industry experts (and a MarketsMuse in his own right), Digital Asset Holdings is running into the types of startup funding challenges that mostly all mortals encounter when pitching ideas scrapped from a whiteboard: questionable valuation, untested technology value proposition, a highly-fragmented and often dysfunctional target audience, and last but not least, an investment structure that is being increasingly challenged across the institutional investing world for giving preferential ownership treatment to a select group of early investors. In this case, Digital Asset Holdings is providing a very sweet deal and a very exclusive suite of follow-on round financing options to its anchor investor, which happens to be her former employer, JPMorgan.

Here’s an excerpt from Popper’s piece—“Cash Call For a New Technology” which appeared on the front page of the 29 December edition of the New York Times business section.

The newest venture from Blythe Masters, until recently a star banker at JPMorgan Chase, appeared to be an overnight success story in the making.

Her start-up, Digital Asset Holdings, is working in one of the hottest areas of growth on Wall Street today: the blockchain technology that underlies the virtual currency Bitcoin. And Ms. Masters has already received a promise from JPMorgan, her former employer, to be the lead investor on the new project, pitching in around $7.5 million.

But Ms. Masters’s company has been struggling for months to close the deal with other investors. Most recently, large banks including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup have balked at putting money into Digital Asset Holdings after learning that JPMorgan was being given better terms than other investors, according to several people briefed on the deal.

The banks and financial firms looking into investing, the people said, have also expressed doubts about the actual software solutions Ms. Masters’s start-up is working on, much of which has been put together through purchases of smaller start-ups.

“The deal would need to improve materially for us to get involved,” said one executive at a financial firm, who has been looking at putting money into Ms. Masters’s company, speaking on the condition of anonymity because negotiations were continuing. “It’s not supercompelling.”

Digital Asset Holdings’ chief marketing officer, Beth Shah, said assertions that the company was facing challenges in raising funds were inaccurate but she declined to provide further details. All of the potential investors declined to comment.

The challenges that Ms. Masters is facing reflect in part the increasingly difficult environment facing start-ups of all sorts as investors have begun to worry that the tech industry has been overhyped and overvalued, pushing down values for companies both public and private.

She is also contending with the difficulty of building a viable business around the virtual currency Bitcoin and the various technological concepts it has introduced to the financial industry, most of all the blockchain.

Digital Asset Holdings is proposing to build something similar to the blockchain database, in order to provide a cheaper and faster way to trade other sorts of financial assets, such as loans and foreign currencies.

The problem for Ms. Masters is that several other start-ups are trying to do something similar, and there is no guarantee that any of the start-ups will ultimately succeed. Many industry experts think that it could take years to get to the point where the blockchain technology can be used effectively by banks — if it works at all.

The New York-based start-up ItBit, which is building its own blockchain-like technology, had been out trying to raise $100 million based on the assumption that the company was worth $250 million. More recently, it has scaled that back and is now hoping to get $50 million from investors, with a valuation of $135 million.

Ms. Masters hopes to raise from $35 million to $45 million, valuing the company at $100 million.

In recent months, the software that Ms. Masters has shown to potential investors allows for the issuance and trading of so-called syndicated loans — large loans broken into pieces and sold to different investors. It can take weeks for trades in this market to go through, a time span that D.A. is trying to shorten.

Investors who have looked at the software, though, say they are not convinced that Ms. Masters’s technology will fix the problems in the loan market, which are attributed as much to human cooperation as to bad software.

There are also indications that Digital Asset Holdings has not had an easy time integrating all the outside technology start-ups it bought. For example, two of the three employees who worked at Blockstack, which the company acquired in October, have already negotiated to leave D.A., people briefed on the situation said.

“All employees who were offered permanent positions at the time of the acquisitions of Bits of Proof, Hyperledger and Blockstack are still with the company,” said Ms. Shah, D.A.’s chief marketing officer.

One of Ms. Masters’s competitors, known as R3, has approached the problem from a different angle and is trying to determine how the banks want to use the blockchain before building specific software. With that strategy, R3 has signed on over 40 banks as partners in recent months, including all of the big banks that Ms. Masters is trying to persuade to invest in her company.

None of this has scared off JPMorgan, which has agreed to lead the Series A investment round in Digital Asset Holdings, people briefed on the negotiations said. To reward JPMorgan, the people said, D.A. plans to grant it warrants to buy a bigger share of the start-up in the future at the same price it is getting now. JPMorgan is said to have committed to helping Ms. Masters’s company improve and secure adoption of its technology.

Some of the other banks looking into investing in D.A. raised concerns about the JPMorgan deal in a meeting this month at the Sandler O’Neill offices that included Citi, Goldman and Bank of America representatives. Smaller financial companies, like Nasdaq and Markit, have also remained on the fence, the people briefed on the negotiations said.

For the full story from the NY Times, please click here

 

 

Is London the New FinTech Capital? Cheers!

The FinTech aka financial technology revolution continues to advance across the financial industry landscape, as dozens of startups from block chain to bond trading initiatives work towards securing a presence within the institutional financial services ecosystem. And, as profiled in a brilliant column this week from Institutional Investor spotlighted by MarketsMuse tech talk curators, the City of London is quickly carving out a leading role for being Europe’s epicenter for incubating the next greatest applications. The question now is, “How soon will London’s Silicon Roundabout squeeze out Silicon Alley and Silicon Valley?”

The excerpt from II’s Charles Wallace latest report, “FinTech Startups Flock to London’s Silicon Roundabout” is below. A link to the entire article follows accordingly.

Raja-Palaniappan
Raja-Palaniappan

Raja Palaniappan worked at Credit Suisse in London as a bond trader for a number of years before deciding to go out on his own and launch an online marketplace called Origin Markets, which seeks to revolutionize private placement bond issuance by eliminating intermediaries like Goldman Sachs Group. Although American by nationality, Palaniappan decided to open his platform in London because he felt the city offered greater opportunity than New York or Silicon Valley for a new financial technology, or fintech, company (see “ Former Trader Raja Palaniappan Sees Fintech Opportunity in Bonds”).

“London does have a competitive advantage in fintech because you’ve got technology in Old Street and finance on Liverpool Street and they’re about three quarters of a mile apart,” Palaniappan says, referring to two areas of the City of London financial district. “In the U.S. technology lives on the Left Coast and finance on the Right Coast, and there’s little consolidation between the two.”

According to consulting firm Accenture, Europe is the world’s fastest-growing area for fintech funding, with spending rising 215 percent last year, to $1.48 billion. London had the largest share of that investment, some £342 million ($530 million), according to London & Partners, a government-funded agency supporting the London economy. Although the U.S. continues to lead overall fintech funding, with $2 billion in 2014, much of that was Silicon Valley–based investment in business-­to-consumer start-ups like Lending­Tree, an online exchange that connects consumers with lenders; in London much of the activity is targeted at institutional financial services such as banking, insurance, trading and asset management.

“Since the Industrial Revolution, London has been the center for international commerce, and the melting pot that you have in terms of people and talent is pretty unique in the world,” says Sean Park, a Canadian who runs Anthemis Group, a firm that advises and invests in fintech start-ups from offices near Oxford Circus in Soho.

London’s growth as a fintech hub is not exactly surprising. The city is the world’s leading center for international wholesale financial services. It boasts more banks than Hong Kong or New York, leads the world in foreign exchange trading, has vibrant asset management and insurance sectors, and is home to the Eurobond market. In addition, fintech enjoys strong support from the British government, which sees the financial services sector as essential to the health of U.K. Plc and technology as critical to maintaining London’s competitive edge. Financial services employ some 2 million people, or about 7 percent of the country’s workforce, and generate 10 percent of the U.K.’s gross domestic product. Continue reading

untouchables

FinTech Helps Power Bull Market For Unbundled Research

Disruptive Unbundlers, Securities Industry Untouchables, Fintech Aficionados and Innovative Altruists seek to level the investment research playing field, inspiring a bull market for independent research distribution channels, start-ups and disruptive schemes.

Investment research and expert ideas, whether within the context of equities analysis or global macro perspective, has long been the domain of sell-side investment banks, whose research insight is typically bundled as a ‘free product’ within the range of fee-based services provided, including trade execution. Those old enough to remember the ‘dot-com bubble’ days will recall that much of Wall Street’s so-called research was (and arguably still is) notorious for being heavily tilted towards “buy recommendations” in favor of the investment bank’s corporate issuer clients.

This clearly conflicted practice was perfected in the late ‘90s by the likes of poster-boy analyst Henry Blodget (since banned from the securities industry, and ironically, now Editor and CEO of financial media company Business Insider) and was lambasted by securities industry regulators when the “Internet bubble” burst. Those chasing-the-horse-after-the-barn-door-closed efforts since led to a regime of regulation and firewalls intended to distance in-house research analysts from their investment banker brethren so as to mitigate biased recommendations and conflicts of interest. Compliance officers across the industry found themselves facing a host of new rules, and that ‘compliance contagion’ served as the catalyst for a spurt in “independent research boutiques” offering “unbundled” and un-conflicted research sold as a stand-alone product with no ties to execution or trading commissions.

However compelling the notion, and despite the regulatory impetus to foster the growth of independent research boutiques, the business model for these firms has proven challenging during the past 10-15 years. Many boutique research firms floundered or failed for several crucial reasons, including but not limited to (i) the burdensome costs and means associated with creating a stand-alone brand, (ii) the challenge of delivering consistent and compelling content to institutional investment managers and sophisticated investors at a price point that could prove profitable and (iii) the non-trivial logistics required to deliver content in a compliant manner. In the interim, regulators stood by and observed, and digital delivery mechanisms for independent researchers only slowly evolved. Investment banks, never shy when it comes to creative workarounds, bolstered their research ranks and produced more content, even if mostly undifferentiated, but still promoted by the strength of the investment bank’s brand.

All of this is about to change again, causing some to conclude that regulatory market moves in cycles every decade or so, much like the stock market moves in cycles. The current bull market case for unbundled independent research is not a result of efforts by get-tough-on-Wall Street types such as New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman or Massachusetts’ kindred spirits Elizabeth Warren and William Galvin, and the bull case is certainly not because of any efforts made by the SEC. To a certain extent, the positive outlook for those in the unbundling space is based on Moore’s Law and the advancement of Fintech-friendly applications, but it is more directly attributed to a new European Union law inspired by MiFID II, that if passed as expected, will require investment managers to pay specifically for any analyst research or related services they receive. With that new rule (which includes more than a few line items), many large money managers are starting to follow the proposed rules globally; investment banks in the U.S. (and obviously those in Europe) are devising new business models for one of their oldest and highest-profile functions: offering ideas to customers that banks can monetize through commission-based services.

More than some across the major continents believe that however much top investment bank brands are a decidedly powerful selling tool for research product, the power of the internet has enabled the distribution of independent research and enables a Chinese menu of pricing schemes via a continuously-growing universe of independent portals that invite content publishers to sell their products using an assortment of social media-powered distribution channels and revenue-sharing schemes.

Bloomberg LP has created its own independent research module accessible by 300,000+ subscribers in direct competition with Markit, the financial information services provider. Earlier this year, Interactive Brokers (NASDAQ:IBKR), the web-powered global online brokerage platform that provides direct market access to multiple exchanges and trading venues across the entire asset class spectrum quietly began enhancing its offering of third-party professional and institutional-grade research. IB’s 300,000+ accounts comprising professional traders and institutional clients may subscribe to research made available in the trading platform, Trader Workstation (TWS). At the same time, IB began promoting these third-party research providers via IB Traders’ Insight, a blog embedded within the firm’s Education module that covers the full range of investment styles from more than two dozen content providers.

While bolstering objective research content is a natural business extension for those having captive brokerage clients and for terminal-farm behemoths, perhaps even more interesting is that start-ups in the unbundling space are starting to percolate.

On the European side of the pond, UK-based SubstantiveResearch, created earlier this year by former EuroMoney Magazine publisher Mike Carrodus, is positioned to be an institutional research thought- leader that curates and filters both independent and sell side global macro research, with a sleeve that hosts regulatory events for investment manager content consumers and sell-side content providers.  Start-ups in the US include among others, Airex Inc. , which dubs itself “the Amazon.com for financial digital content” and recently secured funding from fintech-focused merchant bank SenaHill Partners. TalkMarkets.com is another notable entrant to the space, and was created in late 2014 by Boaz Berkowitz, a former “Bloombergite” who was also the original brain behind Seeking Alpha. From the traditional financial media publishing world, industry stalwart Futures Magazine, recently re-branded as “Modern Trader” and the parent to hedge fund news outlet FinAlternatives is also embracing the research content unbundling movement as a means towards capturing more Alpha and better monetizing relationships with content providers. Each have their own business models, including the use of cloud-based technology and coupled with the muscle of creative online marketing, social media tactics and search-engine ranking techniques.

While the start-up space is often littered with short shelf-life stories, these new unbundled research distribution vehicles are being enabled by the fintech revolution and embraced by distributors of content, high-profile independent research providers, as well as by at least one major bank seeking to hedge its internal bets; earlier this year, Deutsche Bank inked a deal with upstart Airex, such that DB’s proprietary equity research is available on a delayed basis and can be purchased by any AIREX Market shopper. In the case of now 6-month old TalkMarkets, they are embracing an advertising-based business model, which is predicated on building an outsized audience of sophisticated retail investors for prospective advertisers. To date, they have enlisted more than 350 content providers and 10,000+ registered users. While there is no cost to access the platform, content providers are able to upsell subscription-based services and at the same time, earn ‘points’ that can be converted into the private company’s equity shares.

Neil Azous, Rareview Macro
Neil Azous, Rareview Macro

According to former sell-side global macro strategist Neil Azous, the Founder/Managing Member of think tank Rareview Macro LLC, and the publisher of subscription-based Sight Beyond Sight” which is now being distributed across several channels apart from the firm’s website (including via Interactive Brokers), “Truly superior, high-quality content, including actionable ideas remains relatively scarce, but the fact remains, content has become commoditized. The good news is that banks are not the sole source of carefully-conceived research and the better news is that conflict-free content publishers can now more easily distribute via a broad universe of narrow-casting, web-based channels.”

Added Azous, “For independent research providers and trade idea generators, it’s arguably a watershed moment. As new rules take shape, content publishers, including those who previously worked under investment bank banners, can now reach an exponentially larger universe of content buyers through these new distribution channels. It’s a numbers game; instead of working inside an investment bank and trying to ‘sell’ a traditionally high-priced product to a relatively narrow list of captive clients, the more progressive idea generators can re-tool their pricing and make their product available to exponentially more buyers, and in a way that conforms to and stays within goal posts of compliance-sensitive folks.”

However much it makes sense to foster the easy distribution of independent and un-conflicted research, Wall Street et. al. is not going to easily abrogate their role for providing ideas or forgo the trade execution commissions derived from those proprietary ideas. Banks are reported to be devising new pricing models for investment research in view of EU proposals that could prevent research from being paid for using dealing commissions. In an unbundled world, where payments are separated, competition for equity and credit research may increase as asset managers look beyond traditional sources, which may trigger fragmentation. They may also move research in-house. The U.K.’s FCA, which is driving the debate, has endorsed the EU proposals.

As noted within the most recent edition of Pensions & Investments Magazine, Barclays PLC, Citigroup Inc., Credit Suisse Group AG and Deutsche Bank AG are working with clients to come up with pricing for the analyst research customers receive, according to bank executives. Prices are expected to range from roughly $50,000 a year to receive standard research notes, up to millions of dollars for bespoke research and open-door access to analysts.

“We are working to change the mind-set so that fund managers understand that research should be treated as a scarce resource. There is a great opportunity to tap into experts in their fields at brokers, but we need to really think about the value of research and determine the right amount to pay for it,” said Nick Anderson, head of equities research at Henderson Global Investors.

The following [excerpted] analysis is by Bloomberg Intelligence analysts Sarah Jane Mahmud and Alison Williams and helps summarize the current outlook. It originally appeared on the Bloomberg Professional service. 
Continue reading