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BT EXCLUSIVE: DIGITAL BANKS

Russian-linked digibank challenger targets neglected higher-risk clients

Life.Sreda's Arival aims to serve tech startups including blockchain or crypto-related businesses, among others

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Known as Arival, an internal venture spun out of fintech-focused Life.Sreda, the digital bank contender wants to meet the needs of tech startups including blockchain or crypto-related businesses, online businesses and entrepreneurs from co-working spaces which they consider disconnected from the banking system.

Singapore

THE leadership team behind Singapore-based venture capital firm Life.Sreda has applied for a digital wholesale banking licence here with the aim of serving "abnormal" customers, or what they call higher-risk clients that traditional banks typically reject.

Known as Arival, an internal venture spun out of fintech-focused Life.Sreda, the digital bank contender wants to meet the needs of tech startups including blockchain or crypto-related businesses, online businesses and entrepreneurs from co-working spaces which they consider disconnected from the banking system.

Its entry to the digital banking scene follows a string of foreign - mostly Chinese - players such as Jack Ma's Ant Financial, TikTok-owner ByteDance, and Xiaomi Finance being in the race for a digital wholesale bank licence here.

The three digital wholesale bank licences up for grabs will allow successful applicants to serve small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and other non-retail segments. It requires capital of S$100 million and allows foreign entities to take a majority stake.

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Arival's three co-founders - Russians Vladislav Solodkiy and Igor Pesin, together with American Jeremy Berger - tell The Business Times that one of Arival's key differentiating factors is its razor-focus on "excluded" segments of customers, instead of trying to provide "everything for everybody".

Mr Berger explained: "The focus on 'abnormal' or underbanked SMEs gives us the opportunity to not compete with other digital or traditional banks, avoid spending money on advertising or customer acquisition, and allows us to focus on margins."

It does not intend to compete with the likes of big boys such as the incumbent lenders or even other non-bank players such as the Grab-Singtel consortium, he added.

Along the way, the digital bank challenger intends to bundle fintech products from third-party service providers on one banking platform powered by open application programming interfaces (APIs). As Arival is not tied to legacy systems and technologies often associated with traditional banks, it will be able to move more quickly and flexibly, according to Mr Berger.

It also plans to offer its own banking-as-a-service platform to help other fintechs launch instead of competing with them.

He said that their "secret sauce", or key differentiating factor, is its "compliance-as-a-service" product called A.ID that provides compliance solutions that allow plug and play integration and pay-per-use monetisation.

Singapore's status as a global startup hub is an added boost for Arival as it intends to serve international businesses.

"It's no secret that most of the companies and startups in Singapore are non-Singaporeans," he noted. "The nature of the startup world calls for geographic flexibility, working online, and banks need to meet these expectations to serve the new generation of businesses and entrepreneurs."

Arival has also applied for a US-based international banking licence in Puerto Rico, which is said to be in the final stages of getting "preliminary approval". If it goes well, the bank should start sometime in the spring.

This banking licence will be "complementary" to the Singapore licence, according to Mr Berger.

"It gives us a unique entry to the US banking market as well, and allows us to contribute to an ecosystem that is in need of a natural remedy for economic boost such as fintech," he said.

He added that Arival has also started the application process for a banking licence in Europe and hopes to receive it by the end of 2020.

If the Singapore digital banking licence is awarded by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), it will be run by all three co-founders, said Mr Berger.

The trio are currently focused on Arival full-time, while duties with Life.Sreda are limited only to the management of the existing portfolio, he added.

Based in Singapore since 2014, Life.Sreda has invested in over 20 fintechs globally with nine successful exits to date, including the sale of mobile bank Simple to multinational finance group BBVA Group for US$117 million.

Life.Sreda will help Arival to raise any necessary capital and open doors to various potential fintech partners through its own portfolio and global network of banks, fintechs and venture capital funds, said Mr Berger.

As a startup, Arival has raised over US$3 million in funding to date through an undisclosed EU-based institutional fund and crowd-funding platforms Seedinvest and Crowdcube. It has plans for a Series A round later this year.

MAS earlier said that it has received a total of 21 digital bank applications - 14 of them wholesale, and seven for the full-bank licence.

Results are likely to be released by mid-2020 and the new digital banks are expected to start operations by the middle of 2021.

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