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MoneyConf: Tech expo puts Belfast on innovation map globally

By John Mulgrew and Jamie Stinson

Published 16/06/2015

Some of Northern Ireland's top tech firms have joined dozens of others from across the globe and thousands of guests at MoneyConf
Some of Northern Ireland's top tech firms have joined dozens of others from across the globe and thousands of guests at MoneyConf
Some of Northern Ireland's top tech firms have joined dozens of others from across the globe and thousands of guests at MoneyConf
Kathryn Petralia of Kabbage
Brian Conlon of First Derivatives

Some of Northern Ireland's top tech firms have joined dozens of others from across the globe and thousands of guests at MoneyConf.

The two-day financial technology expo - dubbed 'Glastonbury for nerds' - took to the grand expanse of T13 in the Titanic Quarter.

More than 1,200 people from 47 countries packed into the metal-clad ex-shipbuilding warehouse, showcasing tech firms from across the world.

Top Northern Ireland companies were joined yesterday by some the globe's biggest banks and financial services firms, including Visa and Santander.

Unlike many other tech events, MoneyConf - a spin-off of Dublin's Web Summit - embodies a more sociable environment, doing away with the atypical formal surroundings and bringing in a relaxed feel with good local food.

And the main man, organiser Paddy Cosgrave, said the feedback so far had been "fantastic".

"People love it (the venue), it's great, the response is fantastic and the start-ups are happy," he said.

"(We're) meeting so many different entrepreneurs and executives from countries around the world who have made the trek from all over the US, Europe and Asia, all the way to Belfast."

Speakers included John Collison from Stripe, an internet payment company that has secured funding from big-name investors such as Peter Thiel, the man who founded PayPal.

Dozens took to two stages to debate a range of issues including the future of bank branches, funding and the rise of the so-called cryptocurrencies such as Bitnet.

Meanwhile, one of the province's leading technology entrepreneurs, Brian Conlon of First Derivatives, said it had been an impressive event.

"For Belfast, this is the first year of the event and these things take a while to gather momentum, but what I've seen so far has been very impressive," he said.

"It's very well-run, a good range of speakers, good mix of vendors and in general, quite an eclectic mix."

And Martin Neill of Belfast-based AirPOS said Northern Ireland tech firms punched well above their weight

"The history of the city is innovation - this is just the continuation. This is the new non-industrial revolution," he said.

Bitnet's Stephen McNamara said the firm was there to "network" as well as to "showcase Belfast".

But it wasn't just the new and upcoming business minds turning out.

Senior members of some of the world's biggest banks were also speaking, including those from Santander and RBS, parent company of Ulster Bank.

Stuart Haire, group chief executive of RBS Direct Bank, said one of the reasons he had attended the event was to make sure the company didn't miss key innovative developments.

"Number one is, unless you look out you're going to miss things," he said. "You're going to miss either the next wave of innovation or the next good idea, because I think the days where you think you can solve it all yourself are long gone."

MoneyConf continues today, while EnterConf takes place at T13 on Thursday and Friday

Ten entrepreneurs on why they’re delighted to be part of 'Glastonbury for nerds' conference

Name: Paul Zhang, chief technical officer, Avant

“We have a UK business, doing consumer loans online in the UK. Our customers are usually people just below the credit spectrum a high street bank will lend to. Traditionally, before we’ve entered the market, they have had very little choices online. Our operation is completely online and all our underwriting is automated.  Our APR term as a consumer is reflected by your personal circumstances, and they go from 9% up.”

Brian Conlon, CEO First Derivatives

“For Belfast this is the first year of the event and these things take a while to gather momentum, but what I’ve seen so far has been very impressive. It’s very well run, a good range of speakers, good mix of vendors, and quite an eclectic mix. It has brought people’s attention to the fact that Belfast is an alternative venue to Dublin for investment. It’s always good to come to this conference and see what the trends are and what’s exercising people’s minds.”

Martin Neill, chief executive of Belfast-based firm AirPOS

“We make point of sale software for small retailers. It helps them to sell and take payments. We are a supporting platform for a lot of the payments. They need a platform underneath for delivery. We enable them to do contactless payments. A lot of the stuff doesn’t stand alone and requires collaboration. We are a small economy, but in terms of innovation and ideas and the willingness to carry out those ideas is a very important thing.”

Jonathan Vaux, executive director of new digital payments and strategy, Visa Europe

“We’ve made a real effort to demonstrate that we want to work with start-ups and I think that events like this are a really good place for people to meet, share ideas, and also get a sense of the ideas that are going on out there.

“There is no question the start-ups bring good quality ideas and things that really fix problems, and that’s really interesting to us.”

Kathryn Petralia, co-founder of US and UK firm Kabbage

“Kabbage is an automated technology platform providing working capital to small businesses and loans to consumers. The process is very quick and it is 100% automated. We are already in the UK on our own. The partner we are working with here is in Northern Ireland. Small firms are in need all over the world. They have the same problem — access to capital. We are looking to work with banks to deliver working capital.”

James Varga, chief executive of Edinburgh-based miicard

“We focus on proving people are who they say. It’s a consumer product called miicard, which is a digital passport, where someone can come along and validate who they are — then they can take that with them on the internet, pulling all that into one digital passport. We leverage the trust you have with your bank. The world we live in means unless you have taken out credit, you can’t get credit. It’s completely counter-intuitive.”

Stephen McNamara, co-founder and chief technical officer of Bitnet

“It’s been great and it’s a fantastic event for the city. For us it’s about networking, the relationships. There’s a broad audience here of fintech players from the traditional payment providers, some of the banks, there’s some investment money here and a lot of new start-ups. Our customers are enterprise merchants primarily, and they are less represented here. We are here to network in the fintech space and to showcase Belfast.”

Mark Fletcher, managing director of Belfast-based Cardinal Analytics

“We are a Belfast company which can predict when a corporate bond will default. We predicted when Lehman Brothers would go bust. We give traders advanced warning. There’s no point in telling the patient they are having a heart attack when they are holding their chest. The firm gets live data in, and we run it through an algorithm. It churns out a result. The main customers are hedge funds and investment banks.”

Hardeep Walia, co-founder and chief executive, Motif Investing

“It is one of the marquee conferences in Europe, and we are expanding later this year, we are coming to the UK and it was a good form to show that we exist. There is a ton of innovation in Europe, I think we already have been trying to work through a ton of partnerships. So last night over drinks there was a lot of interesting deal potential going on, on how do you work with local partners or trying to take our US partners with us to Europe.”

Mariano Belinky,  managing partner, Santander Innoventures

“Fintech is the place to be to understand innovation and to be able to capture some of those opportunities. MoneyConf has the potential to be the place where fintech converges in Europe. Right now there is no offer which is as focused on start-ups as MoneyConf. (It is about) meeting other investors, meeting other market participants, getting to know some of the start-ups that we otherwise wouldn’t have the time or coverage to find.”

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