Mission to MaRS: Interac Comes to Toronto's Fintech Hub

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More financial services companies are landing on MaRS, a corner of Toronto where developers are building new uses for smartphones, wearables and alternative currencies all under the same roof.

The MaRS Discovery District is like a club for all things technology; it's registered as a charity in Canada and draws human, corporate and financial support from businesses, government, research and academia.

"There is an interesting mix there," said Avinash Chidambaram, assistant vice president of mobile products, platforms and services for Interac, Canada's national debit network, which recently joined MaRS. "You have startup companies and a lot of established companies that are working together. And they're right down the street from us, so we can easily access all of that expertise."

MaRS was established in 2005, and more recently has become a hotspot for payments companies that are hungry for not only new ways to meld mobile technology into transactions and shopping, but also to find the sources of technology creativity. In just the past few months, CIBC, PayPal, Moneris and UGO have partnered with MaRS. And MaRS is collaborating with Startupbootcamp FinTech, a U.K-based accelerator that focuses on financial services technology.

Interac's initial interest in MaRS is to spot ways to improve upon Flash, the debit network's contactless payments program which was part of an early mobile contactless payments deployment with McDonald's and RBC. Interac is now seeking partnerships with other technology companies and has recently begun working with Everlink to offer a payment-capable wristband. Everlink also offers an on/off switch for Interac cards. Interac has separately made moves into alternative currencies, partnering with Vogogo, a company that converts cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin to government-backed currencies.

This technology abounds at MaRS. It has a particular focus on cryptocurrencies, as well as marketplace lending. Its clients and tenants include Nymi, a company that offers a payments-capable biometric wristband to companies like MasterCard and RBC; and Arbnb, a mobile booking app that works with PayPal's Braintree.

MaRS also has tenants in sectors such as health care and alternative energy that, while not related directly to financial services, can provide a different perspective, Chidambaram said.

"That's an important part of the objective here," he said. "It's in sharing experiences. Not just purely in payments technology but in other areas and other organizations."

The recent technology wave has led traditional payment companies and financial institutions to bring on more talent and ideas from outside the industry.

Companies like Visa, MasterCard and PayPal are all working to nurture developer talent by hosting hackathons and building development centers in new regions.

However, even given this trend, a partnership between a national debit network and a technology incubator is unusual.

"I am not aware of other national debit networks doing something similar," said Zil Bareisis, a senior analyst at Celent. "Having said that, the established financial services players understand that they can't ignore the fintech world, and must think how best to engage with it."

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