Leaders In Payments

Sarah Biller, Co-Founder of Fintech Sandbox | Episode 325

May 27, 2024 Greg Myers Season 5 Episode 325
Sarah Biller, Co-Founder of Fintech Sandbox | Episode 325
Leaders In Payments
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Leaders In Payments
Sarah Biller, Co-Founder of Fintech Sandbox | Episode 325
May 27, 2024 Season 5 Episode 325
Greg Myers

The financial industry has been undergoing a remarkable transformation, a topic comprehensively discussed in the latest podcast episode featuring Sarah Biller, Co-Founder of Fintech Sandbox. In a world increasingly driven by digital innovation, data has become the lifeblood of financial technology growth. This growth is not only reshaping the way we think about finance but also integrating tech into sectors as diverse as healthcare and the automotive industry.

Sarah's journey is as fascinating as it is insightful, starting from her roots in West Virginia and culminating in her significant contributions to the Boston entrepreneurial ecosystem. She has been instrumental in aiding fintech startups to flourish by providing invaluable data access—ranging from market tick data to eclectic weather patterns—free of cost. This initiative supports the startups' growth at a critical stage, without the hindrance of data procurement expenses.

Moreover, the episode touches upon the values of community and collaboration. These values are ingrained in Sarah's approach to fostering a supportive environment where entrepreneurs can connect and thrive. It's this belief in the collective that underpins the podcast discussion, as it reveals how financial services can seamlessly merge into various industries to optimize transaction experiences and enhance risk assessments.

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The financial industry has been undergoing a remarkable transformation, a topic comprehensively discussed in the latest podcast episode featuring Sarah Biller, Co-Founder of Fintech Sandbox. In a world increasingly driven by digital innovation, data has become the lifeblood of financial technology growth. This growth is not only reshaping the way we think about finance but also integrating tech into sectors as diverse as healthcare and the automotive industry.

Sarah's journey is as fascinating as it is insightful, starting from her roots in West Virginia and culminating in her significant contributions to the Boston entrepreneurial ecosystem. She has been instrumental in aiding fintech startups to flourish by providing invaluable data access—ranging from market tick data to eclectic weather patterns—free of cost. This initiative supports the startups' growth at a critical stage, without the hindrance of data procurement expenses.

Moreover, the episode touches upon the values of community and collaboration. These values are ingrained in Sarah's approach to fostering a supportive environment where entrepreneurs can connect and thrive. It's this belief in the collective that underpins the podcast discussion, as it reveals how financial services can seamlessly merge into various industries to optimize transaction experiences and enhance risk assessments.

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Leaders in Payments podcast, where we talk to C-level leaders from across the payments landscape. We'll be discussing the products and services that impact the payment space today, as well as trends and predictions for the future of payments. We will also hear stories from our guests about their journeys to the top.

Speaker 2:

We don't inform the business model, we don't push a direct customer interaction. We really want to see the maturation of the product and then provide a community platform in which those entrepreneurs can meet. Potentially customers can meet other entrepreneurs can meet investors, but it's not our primary focus. We think those efforts are well served by the tech stars of the world or YC or others.

Speaker 3:

That was Sarah Biller, the co-founder of FinTech Sandbox, and she is my special guest on this episode, episode 325 of the Leaders in Payments podcast, and I'm your host, Greg Myers. Fintech Sandbox is driving innovation by increasing data access to FinTech startups around the world. Sarah and I talk about how important it is for many startups to have access to data to help them build and scale their early stage products. We discussed the kind of data, how the data access residency program works and our mutual passion and backgrounds around the great state of West Virginia. We've got a great episode ahead, so let's get started. Hi, Sarah, Thank you for being here and welcome to the Leaders in Payments podcast.

Speaker 2:

Greg, what a delight to be with you today. Thank you.

Speaker 3:

Absolutely. So let's go ahead and dive right in, If you don't mind. Tell our audience a little bit about yourself.

Speaker 2:

Maybe, where you grew up, West Virginia, kind of worked my way through a career that transcended industries from telecom to life sciences and eventually found myself in financial services about a decade and a half ago, living in the Boston area in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, with one foot in industry, and it's become such a passion of mine that I would have never expected growing up in West Virginia and going to the university.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, and just for our audience to know, sarah and I met at FinTech Meetup in Vegas earlier this year and we both have a background with a history in West Virginia. That's where my parents and grandparents and all my history is, and I spent a lot of time there when I was very young. So Sarah and I ended up meeting in Vegas and talking a lot about our backgrounds in West Virginia and finally here we are, a few months later, finally doing the podcast. So I just wanted to mention that.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, greg, I love that we share that background. Many people have a misperception about West Virginia, but I think you and I would share that. It is a beautiful place, it's community driven and I think it underscores for both of us. What I took away from our conversation in Vegas is really a commitment to doing good for the community, if you will, and those are ingrained in our roots. So again, thanks for having me today and the chance to talk to you about it.

Speaker 3:

Those are ingrained in our roots. So again, thanks for having me today and the chance to talk to you about it. Absolutely, let's go ahead and start talking about FinTech Sandbox, so tell our audience what FinTech Sandbox does.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, thank you, FinTech Sandbox.

Speaker 2:

We're a decade old this year.

Speaker 2:

It's hard to believe we've been 10 years in working in the not-for-profit space.

Speaker 2:

It's also a strange business model to be supporting an industry that is all about, for thousands of years, transactions and making money that we approached the formation of this initiative, this organization FinTech Sandbox, to ensure that entrepreneurs that were building the next generation of technology and innovative products and services for the industry would not be stalled because of the lack of data, and I think we would all sort of come to the conclusion that data is critically important in financial services, whether you're in payments, lending, any form of investing. You know insurance, the whole broad spectrum but it's very difficult to get, it's very hard to procure, it's very costly and the cycles really aren't in line with what the innovators today need. I found that out in my own company building for institutional bond investors and, kind of stepping out of that problem set that I confronted and my co-founder, David Jagen, investing in these companies, we started FinTech Sandbox so no other entrepreneur would be stalled in their development of their idea because they couldn't get their hands on data.

Speaker 3:

Okay, and what kind of data is it?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, you know, greg, it really we began. Our origins were in the capital markets. Yeah, you know, greg, it really we began. Our origins were in the capital markets. So it's data sets. You might imagine, as a bond investor, I needed Q-SIPS as an example. Those are hard to come by and quite costly. But you know, it started as tick level data, measures of volatility, other types of data sets that would help with portfolio construction, if you will. That was our origin story. But some 10 years later, as you might imagine, as we broadened our footprint within the entrepreneurial community, we began to broaden the data sets we were ingesting. We worked with players like Refinitiv, the old Thomson Reuters and Dow Jones, as an example, to ingest real-time news cycles, corporate actions, or we have access to corporate actions for our startups all the way through to non-traditional data sets that are critically important in today's evolution of fintech. So you might think of those like access to weather.

Speaker 3:

Okay, and do you invest in these companies, or is it more like a community?

Speaker 2:

You know, greg, it is with intentionality. It's a community we really believe very powerfully for us to push forward innovation. We would not charge, nor would we take equity from the companies. We would work collaboratively with large data partners and also with industry to help build that bridge between access to data, underwriting our very lean operations and being able to serve what both of those organizations see as good partners, which are the entrepreneurs. So we don't take equity, nor do we charge for our services entrepreneurs. So we don't take equity, nor do we charge for our services. What we do is we provide access to data through what we call a data access residency program. We're also not very creative, by the way. I didn't hear that name, but we enable the entrepreneurs to partner with the data providers and get unlimited access to these data sets for free for six months and at the six-month window, ask them to lift up and directly work with the data partner if they're generating revenue, to then transition to some cost model directly with the data partner.

Speaker 3:

Okay, okay, that makes sense. And what stage companies are you typically working with?

Speaker 2:

We are typically very early in the stages of the company, or the companies are very early, rather, in their life cycle, that we support them. We just, by commitment to our partners, we don't want to work with entrepreneurs or we don't work with entrepreneurs, I should say, that are revenue generating by and large because they could afford the data, they could actually go out and do the procurement process. So we're really quite early in the life cycle. The entrepreneurs are past ideation stage. They have some form of analytics or data environment in which they can ingest the data, of course, but they're generally not at the point where they've actually got a product in the market where they're making lots of revenue.

Speaker 3:

Okay, that makes perfect sense. So what would you say, differentiates FinTech Sandbox from sort of your competitors or others out there that are doing something similar?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I think the first thing, of course, is that our True North really is the data itself. Other organizations that maybe look like us, that are enabling organizations for entrepreneurs, would generally fall in the category of an accelerator. They're very time-boxed, they're very focused on getting to market, and getting to market in a way with your company that you can scale, and getting to market in a way with your company that you can scale. We, on the other hand, really are supportive in the way that we don't inform the business model, we don't push a direct customer interaction. We really want to see the maturation of the product and then provide a community platform in which those entrepreneurs can meet. Potentially, customers can meet other entrepreneurs can meet investors, but it's not our primary focus. We think those efforts are well served by the tech stars of the world or YC or others.

Speaker 3:

Okay, and when you say that sort of community platform, do you have like meetings throughout the year that they attend, or how do you develop that sort of community that you're talking about?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, greg, that's such a good question. I hate to toot our horn a little bit here, but I guess, since you asked I can we do these amazing demo days? We do tend to now do them online because we have a global footprint FinTech Sandbox, though I mentioned, I'm in Boston and we started here in Boston. I mean, today, we serve entrepreneurs in Ghana and Kuwait, you know, in the Eastern European arena, certainly all across North America, and so we really the first thing we do to try to help our entrepreneurs get exposure are these demo days, and they're extremely well attended. We'll have 700, 800 registrants. So that's one aspect.

Speaker 2:

And then we also, because we're so we just really powerfully believe in connectivity. We also are the organization behind Boston FinTech Week, which is we started in 2017. This is our seventh year and we are because we're a not-for-profit. We get a chance to bring really spectacular speakers to the stage in Boston and again have 3,000 to 4,000 registrants for that particular programmatic event that we host. And then we'll do things through the year. We'll do meetups, we'll do engagements around sort of receptions and other places across the country where we can actually use our platform to again help entrepreneurs advance in their own company building.

Speaker 3:

Okay, and FinTech is a broad term that could include a lot of different sort of subcategories, lot of different sort of subcategories. Are there areas within FinTech that this is more like a natural fit for, because you mentioned lending and obviously payments, which we talk about a lot on this show, but obviously we talk about the broader FinTech a lot too, but are there subcategories within FinTech that you focus more on or that naturally happen or not?

Speaker 2:

It actually and you know this, greg, because you get a chance to talk to a lot of entrepreneurs Well, fintech, at least in this decade of innovation, started FinTech was really squarely in the industry category of financial services. And what we've seen over time, and the word we use all over and over again, is the embedding of financial services or the embedding of fintech in adjacent industry categories. So it's payments, but it's payments specifically in healthcare. Right, it's payments, but specifically payments as it relates to the optimization of power, when you're talking about electric vehicles or the electrification of some industry. So we most certainly are seeing the expansion.

Speaker 2:

Where the industry fintech used to be a vertical. Our entrepreneurs are looking horizontally, but always with that common thread that embedding of financial services in whatever industry category removes the friction in that transaction, improves the risk profile of that transaction. There's always that fundamental tenant of financial services that we know so well. It just happens that today we're able, because of the technology, to serve other industry categories. So, yes, it's growing and expanding and we're really excited when we see entrepreneurs doing new and differentiated things.

Speaker 3:

Okay. Well, where do you see sort of I typically ask this in the context of payments, but I think, given your kind of broad view of financial technology, where do you see that heading, say, in the next three to five years?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I think one important aspect of fintech that can't be underestimated is the evolution of Web3 and how we are entering into a period of where you have the immersive activity between digital and physical applications, and so you know, the metaverse right now is not the favorite word here, but I do think we're moving into an environment where the financial services and the digitization will blur those two dimensions, and we have to be ready for it. And I have a particular passion about identity and the role of identity, whether it's you and I as individuals. Identity as it relates to knowing the application that you might be dealing with on the other side or the device, and that is ever more critical for FinTech as it begins to more fully participate in these immersive digital and physical worlds.

Speaker 3:

And you know it's hard to have a discussion about fintech without bringing up AI and, obviously, data AI kind of all goes together. So what are your views on the use of AI? And in payments? We talk a lot about fraud and you know customer service and sort of very typical things. But are there other areas that you see AI playing a big part when it comes to fintech?

Speaker 2:

You definitely hit one of the earliest and one of the best use cases in fraud detection and, in making you know, helping smooth the payment cycle. You know, greg, I think it also has a role and I think we have to begin to be comfortable with it as individuals. But AI has a role in financial literacy. Most of us view our conversations about our financial situation through the lens of this one-on-one interaction with an individual. We've long codified in law how that happens, what someone is qualified to tell you, whether it's advice, whether it's guidance.

Speaker 2:

I see AI as being almost the great equalizer.

Speaker 2:

Not everyone has had the same access that you and I have had in our lives to financial advisors, but in many ways that advisory services, if done well and if monitored, can help bridge the gap when you're someone who's in an economic level of the economic situation where you can ask the question about how do you make decisions about your financial life.

Speaker 2:

So I think that's one place that generative AI and it's you know. The next iteration, which will be, in my opinion, iterative, generative today is I ask the computer a question and it synthesizes a very cogent response that saves us time and understanding. The next iteration for me of AI is that it iterates with you. It begins to understand your sentiment, it becomes a little bit more personalized in the call and response, which is what today a financial literacy program or advisor would do for you. So that's one aspect. I think the other place where AI plays a really critical role is, of course we're in an environment where volatility and shocks are coming in tighter, sort of closer proximity to one another. I think we really have an opportunity to look through the lens of AI at disparate data sets and to begin to predict risk at more levels of precision and explainability than we have had in the past.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, it's fascinating where it's heading and scary at the same time.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, but I think, to be honest, that's such an important point. We're seeing it today that fear manifests itself not to get too far on a tangent from what we're talking about but that fear is manifesting itself in regulatory action. That is again another perhaps challenging moment for this cycle of innovation because we don't understand completely, or maybe perhaps more correctly, not taking the time to understand, not building the data infrastructure that allows us to have a great deal of confidence that the data that are feeding these models is not going to set us back right in whatever financial services area you're analyzing, and I think we all owe it to ourselves every day to get a little smarter about the application of AI and how we can think critically about it, because it's here to stay. It's in every part of our life.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, yeah. I think that's very good advice. I think we all need to do that. Well, let's switch gears a little bit and talk about you. So tell us about your journey, how you got to the point where you co-found a company or the nonprofit, and maybe give us your background story.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, greg, it's not that exciting. You and I we bonded quite well about West Virginia. It's very funny when you meet another West Virginian, because it gives you in some ways when you're part of that world, because it gives you in some ways when you're part of that world. It gives you such optimism. You almost never learn what you can't do when you're growing up in that environment, and so my career path has enabled me to continue that kind of childlike wonder I learned growing up in the mountains of West Virginia. It's quite nonlinear.

Speaker 2:

I worked my way through the telecommunications space very early on when we were contemplating how do you actually do data packet switching over a hard line, not even over the mobile phones that we use today. But the precursor had a very intense and really I'm grateful for it experience in life sciences, one on the data and informatics side, where I was on the founding team of a company that really failed miserably at its efforts to improve the way that preclinical drug discovery works. But it taught me a lot of lessons about how data can be applied in another risky category, which is financial services. But I went from there to a team founded by a brilliant scientific officer out of Vertex where we work together and have a drug in the market. And then finally got to what has become my true love and was my major in college finance to really think about how to develop applications and technologies where capital, and particularly the capital markets, can be a force for good. And along the way, I taught at Brandeis in their graduate school, I co-founded an initiative with John Chambers in West Virginia about really rethinking how, with capital and with attention, we can diversify and expand the economy in the Appalachian region into next generation industry.

Speaker 2:

And then, of course, always fall back on my just super passion about FinTech and enabling other entrepreneurs and that just comes from the belief is I don't want another entrepreneur to ever have the challenges I had in my own company when I founded CMX, which was just a lack of access to data, was really going to, at the end of the day, it was going to kill the company.

Speaker 2:

And so that's our goal always with FinTech Sandbox today is to make sure that those entrepreneurs don't have those same challenges, because our basic premise is that financial services today can do so much good if we're able to support the entrepreneurs who are focused in the areas that lend themselves to lifting up community, helping add transparency to our capital markets and certainly secondary liquidity and debt. But just you know payments. I just think about the power of payments, greg. Imagine if we actually could get to a place where our payment process, our payment technology, met with this thesis around earned wage access and every day somebody worked in the United States, they got paid that day, which we could, right, just think about the people we could lift up out of poverty.

Speaker 2:

I mean, it's just, it's amazing. You could really mitigate that death spiral of having to go to payday lenders or making decisions between do I buy gas, do I pay my electric bill, do I buy food or medicine and that's a real problem in the United States today. And so FinTech can offer solutions to those important things, and that's how I got here today and so motivated to continue that work.

Speaker 3:

That's awesome. Well, thank you for sharing that. What are some things you're passionate about? So, maybe one work-related passion and one personal passion.

Speaker 2:

Yeah Gosh, I don't even know how I can separate them, Greg, I'm so boring.

Speaker 3:

You know what A lot of people say that, so you're not unique in that, for sure.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, okay, I'm so glad I felt like such a nerd when I just admitted that to you. I think my personal passion it reflects back in my professional life. But I like to grow things and you and I can't see each other today, but you would probably be a little. You would probably smile at the fact that behind me is little seedlings of tomato seeds that I'm growing, the plants for my garden this summer, that my grandmother gave me, that she collected from her grandmother and I'm deeply passionate about seeing things grow, whether it's seeds or it's startups, and I think those two probably define how I've gotten here.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, yeah. Well, one final question and I always ask this because I feel like everyone brings kind of their own unique kind of view to this question or answer to this question is to this question. Or answer to this question is say someone comes to you and they probably do and they say, sarah, I'm interested in the fintech space as a career. It's such a growing, you know, there's so much investment in it it's not going anywhere and fintech obviously is very broad. But if they come to you and say, sarah, I'm interested, I graduate from West Virginia this year and I want to go into fintech, what would your advice be to them to help them to be successful in the fintech space?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I actually just had a chance to answer this question, and so I'm a firm believer. Financial services has often been frightening for individuals just starting out or even midway through their career, because we have language choices that are not intuitive, and so it's a barrier to entry into traditional financial services. A good example in the fixed income space is a bond that's labeled rich is a bad thing. We might think it's a good thing, right, but it's really not. It's too expensive. So I like to remind people that today, financial services, you have to understand it. You have immense responsibility and regulatory requirements to build anything in FinTech for financial services and make sure you master it. You understand it.

Speaker 2:

But the other side of that coin, which is equally important, is the problems that FinTech is solving today are so broad.

Speaker 2:

Everybody has a place, no matter what your life experience or where you've come from. You have a role in the next generation of innovation in fintech. You are just fine how you are to dream and build with rigor a new solution that hasn't been in place, because it's your own learned experience, and so I love to see young students who literally see themselves in this period where they're like I want to alleviate poverty or I want to create equal access to education, or I want to have clean water in my community, and every one of those problem sets is an application of fintech. And so when I think about that advice and people are like but I'm not, I can't be in financial services, I don't know what you know, I don't know what the words mean. That is so not true, and so that's my. My working observation is yes, you can, and in fact you might be better for it if you've had other life experiences than just straight up industry experience.

Speaker 3:

At this point, yeah, I think that's so true. Very good advice. Well, Sarah, we've covered a lot of ground about Fintech Sandbox, about the future, about you and your background. Is there anything else you'd like to add before we wrap up the?

Speaker 2:

show, and I just have to tell you how much I appreciate the opportunity that you provide people to think about the role of payments specifically. But of course we've covered a lot more today and how it can make the world better. So I guess I just might add a big thanks for letting us kind of noodle with you on why this is that moment, the golden age of finance, to do something good every day.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, well, I appreciate that very much. Well, one final thing where can people go to learn more? I guess one about you and two about FinTech Sandbox.

Speaker 2:

Yes, we would be thrilled for anyone who needs data, who's contemplating building the next generation of financial services, to go to fintechsandboxorg. We have an amazing team and website that is directive on how to learn about our events, how to go through our data, access, residency program and other tools that we can use to support you, and I can be found there, too, so I hope that everyone will check it out.

Speaker 3:

Awesome. Well, Sarah, thank you so much for being on the show today. I know your time's very valuable, so I really appreciate you being here.

Speaker 2:

Oh great, the same, Thank you.

Speaker 3:

Absolutely, and to all you listeners out there, I thank you for your time as well, and until the next story.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for joining us this week on the Leaders in Payments podcast. Make sure you visit our website at leadersinpaymentscom, where you can subscribe to the show and where you'll find our show notes. If you enjoyed listening, please share on your social channels as well.

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