Financial technology startups dot the landscape like grain silos mark the surrounding farmland. In Silicon Prairie, mobile payments, online banking and core banking services are the new cash crop.
The geographic triangle drawn around Omaha, Neb., Des Moines, Iowa, and Kansas City, Mo., (one of several regions to share the Silicon Prairie name) has been a technology powerhouse for decades. But in the past five years that trend has accelerated, with numerous new companies taking root there to help retail banks keep ahead of technology trends, even amid the recession.
Rather than act as competitors, these companies offer complementary services and feed off one another's expertise. The younger companies in this region attribute much of their success to the advice and mentorship they received from their more experienced predecessors.
"Over the years, as people have gotten their strength in the payments business, they went off and helped other companies grow," says Bill Fisher, the former chief executive of ACI Worldwide, a New York-based payments company that was originally in Omaha.
Fisher runs an angel investment firm, Treetop Ventures, that has placed $12 million with Silicon Prairie startups.
Other prominent Silicon Prairie fin-tech companies include Dwolla, a Des Moines e-commerce social payments provider founded in 2008; and SmartyPig, a Des Moines online savings and social networking company also founded in 2008.
Ben Milne, the founder and chief executive of Dwolla, says the mentorship of others kept him motivated when he was starting his company. Suku Radia, the CEO of Bankers Trust of Des Moines, convinced Milne to change his business model from one that originally resembled PayPal. Radia also put Milne in touch with a lawyer who was a former regulator. Milne didn't hire the lawyer, but the social connection helped Dwolla.
"This old guard was totally focused on how we do more with relationships so we don't have to spend more money and [to] create value," Milne says. Simply adhering to their advice "has worked out pretty well," he says. Dwolla's most recent mark of success is the support of the actor, Iowa native and tech investor Ashton Kutcher, who confirmed his investment in Dwolla this week.
Older companies trace their roots to the region or have offices there today. WebEquity, an Omaha commercial lending technology company, was founded in 1985. First Data Resources, which later became First Data Corp., a unit of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., and moved to Atlanta, was founded in Omaha in 1971. International Business Machines, TD Ameritrade and PayPal have offices in Omaha as well. First National Bank of Omaha is among the 10 largest payment processors in the U.S.
The underpinnings of Silicon Prairie go back to the 1950s when the U.S. Air Force relocated the Strategic Air Command south of Omaha. With it, the Air Force brought the infrastructure that eventually attracted technology specialists.
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