Collaboration on full display at NACUSO, VentureTech

Collaboration on full display at NACUSO, VentureTech

Speakers cite “natural synergy” in partnering with fintechs for new product development.

November 17, 2021

Collaboration was the keyword in Las Vegas last week as a pair of industry events coordinated their calendars to the benefit of all involved.

The NACUSO Network Conference drew nearly 500 attendees, evenly split between credit union service organizations (CUSO) and the credit unions they support.

VentureTech, a showcase for early stage CUSOs and other fintech startups seeking credit union traction, staged its event immediately after.

One clear sign of collaboration is the marked increase in engagement between credit unions and fintechs, a welcome shift in mindset from the often-adversarial stance of years past.

Laura Sievert, associate at CMFG Ventures, the funding arm of CUNA Mutual Group, spoke of the 26 investments totaling $210 million it has made in such companies over the past five years (one of which—Affirm—went public in January).

She also pointed out that because credit unions and banks spend three-quarters of their information technology budgets “keeping the lights on” supporting existing products, there’s a natural synergy in partnering with fintechs for new product development bandwidth—and if that includes an equity stake, better yet.

The Curql Collective, a recently launched investment vehicle itself structured as a CUSO, announced it has closed its strategic investment arm, Curql Fund I, with $252 million from credit unions and league service corporations, significantly exceeding expectations.

In a typical Wall Street setting one might expect a dog-eat-dog battle to ignite between these players. But the collaborative spirit is alive here as well.

Curql and CMFG each hold equity stakes in some companies, and Sievert speaks of ongoing collegial conversations with venture capital heavyweights such as Andreessen Horowitz that have invested in some of the same startups.

The Next Big Idea competition, an annual NACUSO conference highlight, affords seven minutes each to five entrepreneurs to pitch their credit union innovation, with an audience vote determining the winner. 

This year’s decisive victor was Renofi, a solution enabling credit unions to address members’ home renovation financing needs by accounting for the property’s post-upgrade market value.

VentureTech offers an expanded version of this idea exchange, with 14 companies given 15 minutes (including audience questions) to go into further depth on their models. 

One clear sign of collaboration is the marked increase in engagement between credit unions and fintechs.

Not all presenters are necessarily CUSOs, although several VentureTech participants have adopted the structure once they understood its benefits in securing credit union investment.

In an interesting twist, Silvur, an app designed to help Americans age 50 and over navigate the complex U.S. retirement landscape, won a closely contested competition for VentureTech’s top honors.

Silvur had been the runner-up to Renofi for the Next Big Idea title, but narrowly surpassed the financing solution in the semifinal vote this time. That’s an indication of not only the breadth of quality on display but the reality that different judges can identify different and equally valid value propositions.

NCUA Board Member and former Chairman Rodney Hood, a featured speaker at both NACUSO and VentureTech, drew accolades for his efforts in securing the recent passage of an NCUA rule expanding the list of permissible CUSO activities to include originating any type of loan a federal credit union is allowed to originate. 

Hood lauded the “symbiotic relationship” between credit unions and CUSOs, citing the latter as “important tools to reach millennials.”

Weighing in on other top-of-mind industry topics, Hood opined that authority for credit unions to engage in some aspects of cryptocurrency will be necessary to remain competitive but “will need guardrails,” pointing to the agency’s recent request for comment regarding digital assets as a catalyst on this front.

Striking a similar tone, he also expressed no qualms with credit unions acquiring bank assets “with appropriate approval. We’re not going to get in the way if it makes sense.”

In a fireside chat with fellow former NCUA Chairman Dennis Dollar, the two leaders reiterated their shared philosophy that “regulation should be effective but not excessive.”

Record crowds at both NACUSO and VentureTech are clear indicators of increased credit union interest in fintech as well as CUSO investments. With technology’s role in the future of the movement no longer in dispute, this trend is likely to continue for some time.

GLEN SARVADY is managing principal at 154 Advisors.