Silicon Valley Bank, which has found a niche working with payments and fintech startups on its home turf in California, is paying more attention to the innovation taking place outside the U.S.
SVB is now in the process of moving to a new office in London, where "Tech City" meets the more traditional financial mecca. SVB has been in the U.K. for about 11 years, primarily as a lender. In 2012, SVB was approved for a full commercial banking license in the U.K.
The bank is involved with many different categories of financial services disruptors, but particularly in London, there are several payments needs for startups to address right away.
"The U.K. is tiny and bordered by countries that all use different currencies; every U.K. company is having to, almost from the get go, work with many different currencies," said Gerald Brady, head of U.K. relationship banking at SVB. Plus there's a strong immigrant community in the U.K. that uses remittances to send money back home.
SVB was quite fortunate to have an established presence in the U.K. when it did, Brady said. Globally, the tech sector held up during the recession, and especially in the U.K. the government came out in support of the growing tech economy.
"A positive effect of the downturn was an element of forced entrepreneurship," Brady said. As young adults graduated from university they found no jobs open for them so they decided to either start their own business or jump on board with a startup, he said.
Plus the number of firms wanting to set up shop in the U.K. continues to grow, alongside a burgeoning angel investor community.
According to Brady, a quarter to a third of SVB's clients in the U.K. are subsidiaries of U.S.-based companies that the bank works with.
The bank competes with a lot of other institutions in London, especially on the payment infrastructure side, which is "still in a build mode there," said Bruce Wallace, chief operations officer at SVB. But the bank has an advantage of having a flexible platform and an excellent understanding of startup business models.
All employees at SVB, even sales staff or public relations liaisons, "understand how the innovation market works overall," Wallace said. "Our intimate knowledge working with these companies is an inherent advantage."
For example, executives at SVB know the crowdfunding space well, Wallace said. This will likely play out as a benefit in the U.K., where equity crowdfunding and P2P lending platforms are on the rise after the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) took a more open-minded stance regarding regulation of the industry.
Wallace said other banks also have a clear understanding of innovation, but SVB has a leg up because it's all the bank does. Mainstream banks usually have just a small tech practice or division. "It's within the DNA and fabric of the company; we work closely with this niche segment every single day," he said.
SVB doesn't provide consumer deposit accounts, although it does bank about 1,350 venture and private equity firms across the world. SVB also has a private bank in the U.S. that holds deposits and offers standard banking services for entrepreneurs and founders.
"We're always looking for where the next emerging tech clusters are for our own expansion and to offer a link for where our clients want to go as well," Brady said.
SVB has a presence in China, an increasingly attractive market for U.S.-based startups to enter. In October 2012, SVB set up a joint venture with Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, which allowed the bank to take deposits and lend in the country in U.S. dollars. SVB is now working on obtaining a full commercial banking license in China so that it can accept deposits and lend in renminbi. The bank expects to get the license by the end of the year.
SVB also has a presence in Israel as a lender, and has business development relationships with several companies in Brazil and Australia.
While India is an appealing market because of its dense population, earlier this year SVB sold it's specialty finance business focused on debit in India to Temasek.
In terms of its technology focus, SVB and most of the payments and financial services industry are looking to software development. In the first quarter of 2015, software companies received over $5.5 billion in investment, more than any other category received, according to the MoneyTree Report by the National Venture Capital Association and PricewaterhouseCoopers, based on data from Thomson Reuters.
Companies like Square, Stripe and Braintree "are trying to offer a far more simplistic solution that gets merchants to market faster," said Wallace. Braintree (a unit of PayPal) and Stripe are focused on building application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow merchants with limited technical coding know-how to enable payments.
Marketplaces are another sector gaining speed that SVB is keeping an eye on. The all-encompassing marketplace giants, such as Amazon.com and eBay, are being joined in the market by new marketplaces that focus a specific areas. SVB is also interested in startups that provide on-demand services or are part of the sharing economy.
SVB was working with startups in Silicon Valley well before other traditional banks acknowledged the new crop of fintech firms. For example, SVB set up a business account for the U.S.-based Bitcoin exchange Coinbase in June 2012, when most other banks were shutting down accounts associated with the digital currency. The bank had a relationship with CoinLab Inc., an incubator for companies that operated in Bitcoin, even before that.
But things are changing. SVB is now just one of many traditional financial institutions with an appetite for working with their smaller, riskier counterparts. Many of the bigger banks have set up accelerator programs and hosted hackathons to get closer to the startup scene. But observers wonder whether banks are using these initiatives as branding opportunities or if they actually care to change.
Last year, SVB in partnership with MasterCard established the Commerce.Innovated. accelerator, which takes on four to six companies twice a year. According to Wallace, SVB is still working with most of the companies that went through the accelerator program, and many of those startups have closed on a Series A funding round.