Luxembourg’s fintech scene is not quite like anything I’ve seen elsewhere. Startup contests—and I’ve been to loads—all share a common energy, an ambitious spirit, a love of the future and the futuristic. Fintech in Luxembourg has all that, of course, but it has something else too. It has a relaxed togetherness, forged by the smallness of the country and the immediacy of its scene. It’s as if the stage is smaller while the stakes are bigger.
Picture a 30-something CEO whose company is just six months old, mingling in a small room with Luxembourg’s finance minister, reps from major innovation hubs, senior people from global banks and fund houses, and expert consultants—that’s what I mean. Everything seems within reach.
Additionally, fintech types—separate from other tech startup orbiters—have a dusty charm to them. You don’t get the glitzy shine that you see in entrepreneurs in the video game, music, or social media industries. Fintech CEOs still wear suits (though not ties) and tend to have a nerdy understanding that not everyone will get (or care) what their product can do.
These observations are fresh in my mind from last night’s Fintech Awards Luxembourg (powered by the LHoFT and KPMG), where thirteen amazing young startups competed for the top prize of €50,000. In the pitching room, the jury and audience heard about a chatbot named Alf, a regulatory-as-a-service proposition, “fintech in a box”, unsupervised algorithms, and loads more.
It struck me that comparing these companies must really have been impossible for the jury, because many of them were utterly dissimilar to each other. “Fintech” is an insanely broad term, if you think about it. Among the finalists were a company whose product helps with change management; a pan-European savings investment platform; a finance document machine translator; a payment platform for African farmers—how can you compare these products, whose goals and scope and purpose are totally different?
Well, the jury found a way, because they ended up with winners. Taking home the grand prize was Hydrogen, a company from New York that offers a sort of front office for building your own fintech solution. Pitching on behalf of Hydrogen was Mike Kane, co-founder and CEO. Mike’s co-founder Matthew is also his twin brother, which marks the second time that founding twin brothers have won the Fintech Awards Luxembourg. I offer this information as purely anecdotal, but if another twin duo wins next year then I’m going to have a word with the jury.
Mike took the stage for his five-minute pitch with lots of energy and a slight flutter of nervousness in his voice. He wore a t-shirt with his company’s name on it, jeans, and a blazer. Although he later said he was not an engineer, he sort of reminded me of one—I suppose he spends lots of time with them at work. On stage, he outlined the problem: building applications is extremely complicated. Commonplace are 30-step workflows that barely fit on a single PowerPoint slide… but his company offers a platform to cut through all that. He described it as a “an entire front office for a fintech-in-a-box”, where companies could build what they need from tools like blockchain, machine learning, business intelligence, dashboards, and more, all deployable via an API anywhere in the world.
An analogy he made has also stuck with me: Hydrogen is to web 3.0 as Google and Amazon are to web 2.0. In other words, the evolution of the web has to do with new types of digital infrastructure and architecture. Hydrogen means to be at the centre of that. Ambitious, yes, a bit outrageous, of course, but that’s the startup culture for you: having the audacity to reach for new galaxies has to be something you can do even over breakfast.
The language crowd
Taking the first runner-up prize was Lingua Custodia, whose founder and CEO Olivier Debeugny delivered a charming pitch. He wore the uniform of the male fintech entrepreneur: suit, no tie, collar open. He spoke swiftly in his French accent but confidently, and if he was nervous then it didn’t show but for his extremely tight grip on the microphone. Lingua Custodia is a translation company specialised in financial documents, and you can bet that this went over well in Luxembourg, a country besieged by languages. The tool runs on artificial intelligence so can learn from mistakes and customise itself to user needs. So far it can handle eight languages but, according to Debeugny, it would take just three months to teach it a new one.
Regtech for the win
Second runner-up was Apiax, a regtech from Switzerland. Co-founder Philip Schoch explained the company’s product, a platform on which regulations are transformed into sets of digital rules. Regtech seems to be particularly dear to Luxembourg, given how much time and effort is being put into regulatory compliance all around the finance sector. In fact, 2018 is the first Fintech Awards Luxembourg in which it wasn’t a regtech that won (AIFMaps in 2017; Governance.io in 2016).
Additionally, during his closing speech, Luxembourg’s Minister of Finance Pierre Gramegna commented, “Our regulator, the CSSF, is one of the most innovative regulators in the world.” He explained how reactive the CSSF has been on cryptocurrencies and other technologies, and how it approaches industry actors like customers. “When you go and see a regulator and he considers you a customer then you know you’re in the right place,” he said. “And the right place to be is Luxembourg.”
An additional prize was given this year, the Financial Inclusion Award. Represented by cryptoeconomics specialist Maria Mateo, the Luxembourgish startup BitValley took home this award. BitValley works in agricultural micro-insurance, helping famers lower their risks.
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