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Venture exec: Program has global appeal

Sign-ups for FIS-sponsored service from all over, he says by David Smith | February 21, 2016 at 1:35 a.m. | Updated February 21, 2016 at 1:35 a.m.

A Little Rock-based mentoring program for financial technology startup companies is drawing interest from several U.S. and international firms, the host of the program says.

"We're seeing responses from all over the world," said Lee Watson, chief executive officer of The Venture Center in downtown Little Rock, where the 15-week FinTech Accelerator program will be conducted.

Watson declined to disclose the countries where the applicants are located.

About 10 firms applied within days of the opening for applications, said James Hendren, chairman of The Venture Center. Hendren is the former chief executive officer of 21 years for Little Rock-based Arkansas Systems, which wrote automated teller machine and bank transaction software for hundreds of small banks nationwide. Hendren sold the business in 1998.

FIS Global has agreed to fund the program and allow employees of the chosen companies access to some of FIS' top executives. The FinTech Accelerator is designed to speed the growth of early stage financial-technology companies.

"We're committing the funding; we're also committing the personnel to mentor these early stage companies," Gary Norcross, FIS' chief executive officer, said in December, when he announced the program at the annual meeting of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

FIS plans to fly executives from the chosen companies to Little Rock for the training program. Much of FIS' research and development is done in Little Rock, Hendren said.

FIS, based in Jacksonville, Fla., declined to say how much it is investing in the program.

Companies that have barely begun the stage of building and selling products are targets of the program, Watson said.

"They've built the business model, have revenue and have team members, probably no more than five," Watson said. "They are at that sweet spot to where we'll be able to help them. This is not generic mentorship but is highly targeted to the company."

There are thousands of accelerator programs, Watson said.

"It's like every town has one now," Watson said. "And there are a few programs that say they work with financial technology. But there hasn't been a program yet that partnered with such a large multinational company."

FIS has about 1,300 employees in Little Rock and 55,000 worldwide. It has about 20,000 clients, more than $6 billion in revenue and about 35 million users of its mobile banking product, Watson said.

"They are the Wal-Mart of their industry," Watson said. "They are the world's largest player [in financial technology] and they work with more than 50 percent of the world's banks."

The opportunity to partner with FIS and have access to the world's banks is unprecedented in any accelerator program in the world, Watson said.

The Venture Center pitched the idea of the accelerator program to FIS about a year ago, Hendren said.

"To me, this seems pretty novel [for FIS]," said Collins Andrews, a retired former executive with Systematics Inc. and Alltel Information Services, forerunners of FIS, or Fidelity National Information Services.

Little Rock-based Systematics was founded in 1968. Alltel Corp. bought Systematics in 1990 and later changed its name to Alltel Information Services. Alltel sold its subsidiary to Fidelity National in 2003.

Another way to look at it, Andrews said, is that the program is farming out research and development for FIS.

"What [FIS] will do is invest in some companies that have the freedom to do innovation that may be of value to FIS," said Andrews, who will assist with the accelerator program as a liaison between FIS and The Venture Center. "And they do that without hiring a bunch of employees and having to manage them. That's probably an economical way to do some exploration of different technologies and different products. I thought that was pretty creative."

Those involved with the program also said they hope that it is beneficial to Little Rock.

"This is not about just having an accelerator, but it's about building a globally differentiated program where we can bring into Little Rock some of the most interesting companies in the world," Watson said. "Hopefully, because of the stage these companies are in, we can keep some of these companies in Little Rock."

Andrews worked in recruitment for Systematics and Alltel Information Services.

"The quality of life and the affordability of a lifestyle in Little Rock were so much better than [the new employees] were used to," Andrews said. "This is an area that is an attractive place to live and raise a family."

Since the program was announced, The Venture Center has gotten calls and emails from large West Coast and East Coast venture capital firms, banks in London and innovators in New York and in Bangalore, India, Watson said.

In five years, Little Rock could be the world's innovation center for financial technology, Watson said. "This will be a game changer," he said. "We're really strong in several things, and [financial technology] is one of those things."

The accelerator program will be limited to 10 companies, Watson said. If some other companies don't fit the parameters of this program but stand out in other ways, they may be considered for the purpose of drawing those businesses to Little Rock, Watson said.

The deadline for applications is March 31. On April 2, FIS and The Venture Center representatives will begin narrowing the applications, Watson said. The program will begin in mid-May and run through mid-August, Watson said.

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