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Can Atlanta Continue To Dominate In Financial Technology?

Stackfolio is an online lending start-up at TechSquare Labs. It's one of more than 90 financial technology companies in Georgia, most of which are located in metro Atlanta.
Stackfolio is an online lending start-up at TechSquare Labs. It's one of more than 90 financial technology companies in Georgia, most of which are located in metro Atlanta.
Credit Tasnim Shamma / WABE

Saurin Patel swiftly swipes a credit card at the register of the midtown Atlanta Pita Pit he owns. The details are then likely sent to a computer somewhere in Atlanta.

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That’s because every time you swipe, tap, insert your card and even pay with your phone anywhere in the world, there’s a 70 percent chance the transaction is being processed in Georgia.

More than half of U.S. financial tech firms are based in the Atlanta area and it’s often referred to as the financial technology capital of the world. Several big names in the field already call Atlanta home, including Pindrop, First Data, Bitpay, Worldpay, NCR, InComm and Global Payments.

Sionic Mobile

Ron Herman is CEO of a financial technology company called Sionic Mobile, headquartered in midtown Atlanta.

“We really are the fin-tech capital of the world, whether people understand it or recognize it,” Herman said. “Being a small participant in the fin-tech arena, we really value what is built around us. Think about Worldpay, First Data. Literally you can hear the construction: NCR’s headquarters moving into midtown. The governor, Mayor Kasim Reed, Invest Atlanta have done a great job over the last four to eight years, making sure they placed us as a fin-tech leader.”

Ron Herman is CEO of Sionic Mobile, one of more than 90 financial technology companies in Georgia, most of which are located in metro Atlanta. (Tasnim Shamma/WABE)

 

The global payment processing company NCR announced in 2014 it would move its headquarters from Duluth to midtown, a block away from where Sionic Mobile is located.

Herman said the greater challenge Atlanta-based companies and the industry faces is rapidly changing regulatory changes and definitions of what qualifies as a bank. 

Fin-Tech Industry

Financial technology is a broad term that describes new technologies that make almost everything related to money more efficient. This includes payments and transactions. But also lending, insurance and risk management.

Pavleen Thukral is founder and CEO of a startup at TechSquare Labs called Stackfolio.

“We are not the fin-tech capital of the world,” Thukral said. “We are the payments capital of the world. That’s part of why if you’re a non-payments company in Atlanta, there’s not much of a legacy here for non-payments companies in fin-tech succeeding and we would love to change that.”

Stackfolio helps financial institutions like banks trade loans and assets with each other completely online, without going through human brokers. Thakrul said Atlanta hasn’t made it just yet.

“Part of the reason Atlanta hasn’t broken out is that unlike places like New York where folks are finding pretty niche applications in pretty much every industry that money touches, here it’s either strictly business-to-business style money transfer or business-to-consumer payments infrastructure,” Thukral said. “And that’s what Atlanta’s really good at, but we need more filling niche parts of the industry.”

Thukral said Atlanta is starting to see more resources in terms of funding for mature start-ups, but still lacks funding for early-stage start-ups and access to senior leadership more readily available in Silicon Valley.

“If you’re working at a startup, owning 10 percent equity is a really big deal,” Thukral said. “But if I go to a Fortune 500 company executive here and say I’m going to pay you a $100,000 salary and I know it’s a significant pay cut, but I’ll give you a 10 percent equity, they’re going to laugh me at out of the room.

“But if you go to senior talent in the valley, they understand what that 10 percent could mean and it’s not a significant portion of their life figuring out whether or not the 10 percent will be worth it and they’re used to taking on that risk for the immense gain. That’s how wealth-building happens. And we need to bring a little bit of that here.”

Mentorship

He said greater access to talented mentors would be helpful in getting rid of the many “zombie companies” in the Atlanta area.

“There’s so many pre-seed and seed stage companies in Atlanta that stick around for years and it’s because no one’s around to tell them that what they’re working on doesn’t work,” Thukral said. “They’re able to raise 100 to $200,000 and just stay alive for years at a time. Whereas if you were somewhere like Silicon Valley or New York, the idea would have been stricken down with a force by 20 different mentors, 20 different industry partners saying no, that doesn’t work, that will never work, it shouldn’t work. You do not have any sort of market fit.”

Omar Esposito, chief revenue officer of Stackfolio, is considered “senior talent” for the start-up. He’s a 35-year-old former banker and said Atlanta is slowly making progress in diversifying the industry with start-ups like GreenSky and Kabbage making technology innovations in lending.

Stackfolio founders Pavleen Thukral and Omar Esposito. Stackfolio is an online lending start-up at TechSquare Labs.  (Tasnim Shamma/WABE)

 

Technology Association of Georgia 

Technology Association of Georgia CEO Larry Williams said the state does have a diverse group of more than 90 financial technology companies, mostly in the metro Atlanta area.

According to the group, Georgia first began to attract financial technology companies in 1987, when state lawmakers lifted caps on credit card interest rates and annual fees of 18 percent and $12, respectively.

“We dominate because of the companies that we have, the amount of transactions that we have, so there’s really not any place like it, anywhere,” Williams said.

Williams said the city of Atlanta should stay business-friendly, improve quality of life measures like transportation options, and continue offering incentives — like tax breaks — to keep these financial technology companies in Atlanta and attract new ones.

Atlanta voters are preparing to elect a new mayor and replace nearly half the City Council. In this moment of transition, WABE is exploring “The Future of Atlanta.”