Entrepreneur First eyes further Asia growth to build its global network of founders

British startup venture builder Entrepreneur First is eyeing additional expansion in Asia, where its operation is now as large as it is in Europe, as it expands its reach in 2019. But despite serving a varied mixture of markets, the company said its founders are a fairly unified breed.

The Entrepreneur First (EF) program is billed as a “talent investor.” It matches prospective founders and, through an accelerator program, it encourages them to start and build companies that it backs with financing. The organization started in London in 2011, and today it is also present in Paris and Berlin in Europe and, in Asia, Singapore, Hong Kong and (soon) Bangalore. To date, it says it has graduated more than 1,200 founders who have created more than 200 companies, estimated at a cumulative $1.5 billion on paper.

Those six cities cover a spread of unique cultures — both in general life and startup ecosystems — but, despite that, co-founder Matthew Clifford believes there’s actually many commonalities among its global founder base.

“It’s really striking to me how little adjustment of the model has been necessary to make it work in each location,” Clifford — who started EF with Alice Bentinck — told TechCrunch in an interview. “The outliers in each country have more in common with each other and their fellow compatriots… we’re uncovering this global community of outliers.”

Despite the common traits, EF’s Asia expansion has added a new dimension to the program after it announced a tie-in with HAX, one of the world’s best-known hardware-focused accelerator programs, that will see the duo co-invest in hardware startups via a new joint program.

“We saw early that hardware was a much more viable part of the market in Asia than it is traditionally seen in Europe [and] needed a partner to accelerate the talent,” Clifford said.

Already, the first four beneficiaries of that partnership have been announced — AIMS, BIOPSIN, Neptune Robotics and SEPPURE — each of which graduated the first EF cohort in Hong Kong, its fourth in Asia so far. Going forward, Clifford expects that around three to five startups from each batch will move from EF into the joint initiative with HAX. The program covers Asia first but it is slated to expand to EF’s European sites “soon.”

Entrepreneur First held its first investor day in Hong Kong this month

Another impending expansion is EF’s first foray into India via Bangalore, which starts this month, and there could be other new launches in 2019.

“We’ll continue to grow by adding sites, but we are not in a rush,” Clifford said. “The most important thing is retraining quality of talent. It may be six months until we add another site in Asia, but there’s no shortage of places we think it will work.

“We operate a single global fund,” he added. “We’re a talent investor and we believe there are strong network effects in that. The people who back us are really betting on the model… [that it’s] an asset class with great returns.

While it appears that its global expansion drive is a little more gradual than what was previously envisaged — backer and board member Reid Hoffman told TechCrunch in 2016 that he could imagine it in 50 cities — Clifford said EF isn’t raising more capital presently. That previous investment coupled with management fees is enough fuel in the tank, he said. The organization also operates a follow-on fund, but it has one major exit to date, Pony Technology, the AI startup bought by Twitter for a reported $150 million.

Still, with hundreds of companies in the world with EF on the cap table, Clifford said he is bullish that his organization can target an international-minded breed of entrepreneur worldwide. The impact he sees is one that will work regardless of any local constraints placed on them.

“With our global network of capital, we always want capital, not talent, to be the limiting factor. Our goal is to make being ‘an EF company’ more relevant to your identity as a startup regardless of your location,” he told TechCrunch.

TrueLayer’s Payments API lets companies accept payments through Open Banking

Open Banking and PSD2 — groundbreaking regulation from the U.K. and European Union, respectively — set out to fix what politicians and civil servants perceived as a malfunctioning financial services market, evidenced most prominently by the banking crisis in 2008. It is also closely linked to the EU’s privacy directive GDPR, which aims to ensure citizens are given better access and use of their own personal data.

Central to Open Banking is a requirement that banks open up the data they hold and offer an API to let customers optionally share financial information with third-party providers. The idea, amongst other more innovate use cases, is to make it easier to shop around for financial services or to switch banks entirely.

In addition, a second aspect of Open Banking, which arguably targets the Visa-Mastercard duopoly, stipulates that banks offer an API to let customers authorise payments directly from their bank account as an alternative to other types of payments, such as card payments or manual bank transfers.

Enter TrueLayer, the London startup that’s built a developer platform to make it easy for fintech and other adjacent companies, such as retailers, to access bank APIs and in turn ride the Open Banking and PSD2 gravy train. Today, the young company is launching a beta of its own Open Banking-based Payments API to enable businesses to start accepting payments through Open Banking.

By using the payment initiation process created by PSD2, TrueLayer says its new API offers a number of benefits over other payments options.

First is immediate settlement, whereby cleared funds are received in just a few minutes, as with any bank-to-bank transfer that uses “Faster Payments.”

Second is security, as the API requires active bank authentication before any money can leave the account. “This means high security and extremely low fraud rates,” claims TrueLayer. That’s not pure hyperbole: The nature of the payment initiation process, as stipulated by Open Banking, means the customer is required to sanction any payment request within their own bank’s app or website. The user journey (shown in the video below) goes something like, “hey my bank, please make this one-off transfer on my behalf to X.” The person or business receiving the payment never sees your bank details (or card details, for that matter).

Third is that it is cheaper, as payments do not have the high fees of card transactions.

Lastly, the user experience is arguably more streamlined than some other payments options, including traditional bank transfers. For example, customers do not need to manually type in a business’ bank account number to transfer money to a business, as they would do for a manual bank transfer.

“Both businesses and consumers will benefit substantially, but I think the biggest winner will be merchants, application providers and SMBs,” TrueLayer co-founder Francesco Simoneschi tells me when I ask him who the biggest benefactors will be.

“Faster Payments cuts the time it takes for a payment to come through from days to few seconds. This is a crucial factor for a lot of businesses where instant settlement and transaction risk are big concerns. Add to that the minimal costs involved to process a payment and our API will make a big difference in a short period of time. We think that many businesses will end up sharing these savings with their customers.”

Simoneschi won’t be drawn into saying who the biggest loser will be under the new payments directive, arguing that it isn’t a “zero-sum game.” “However, we do believe that payment initiation is disrupting the four-party model of the existing card networks,” he adds.

That’s because payment initiation is serviced via a direct relationship between the merchant and the customer’s bank. And although Simoneschi doesn’t think it will happen overnight, he believes that as merchants start to incentivize Open Banking payments for their customers, it is likely to quickly gain traction. One way for credit card companies to remain competitive, he says, is to embrace and enhance Open Banking payment initiation by adding services such as dispute management.

“It’s also worth noting that banks generate a substantial amount of revenue from the fees involved in credit and debit card transactions,” says Simoneschi. “These fees are paid for by merchants, and indirectly, by consumers. Reducing these transactions could sting the bottom line of some of the major banks. Another factor is how a few banks make money as the ‘acquirer bank’ — a bank that merchants use to receive and clear funds. PSD2 and Open Banking removes both parts of this equation, essentially making that role obsolete.”

Meanwhile, asked what use cases are initially best-suited to this new payment method, Simoneschi says the most obvious is any scenario where payment is normally done via manual bank transfer. For example, services that require you to top up your account, such as international money transfer apps, cryptocurrency exchanges or even a pre-paid mobile phone account, are ideal candidates. He also thinks managing or facilitating B2B payments, such as payments requested by suppliers, is another extremely good fit.

Longer-term, however, that’s barely scratching the surface. It’s not hard to see large merchants, such as Amazon, embracing Open Banking in a big way so that they bypass Visa and Mastercard as much as possible. For those merchants with less deep pockets, services like TrueLayer over time will likely help them do the same. In other words, the payments space could be about to get interesting — again.