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Big-name backers join Canada’s nascent fintech industry

David Chilton, author of The Wealthy Barber, has recently joined online lender Borrowell as an adviser and personal investor.

Anne-Marie Jackson/The Globe and Mail

It didn't take a pitch on Dragons' Den for the world of fintech to catch David Chilton's eye.

The former panelist on the popular CBC TV show – where entrepreneurs pitch ideas to well-known financiers – and author of The Wealthy Barber has recently joined online lender Borrowell as an adviser and personal investor.

The fintech, or financial technology, sector is fairly new to Canada but it has been on Mr. Chilton's radar for the past five years, when he started following what was happening outside Canada, specifically in the United States.

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"I followed the space out of my own interest in the industry – almost a hobby, really," said Mr. Chilton, who last spring sat down with 28 fintech companies to hear what they wanted to do in the space. "I wanted to see if there were any waves coming down the pipelines in the personal-finance space that could help Canadians manage their money better."

The majority of startups don't get off the ground – but the financial services industry has seen a number of new entrants that hope to reverse that trend by offering services in wealth management, personal and business lending and mobile banking.

In Canada, the fintech sector has been slow to catch on – largely owing to slow-moving regulatory guidance and Canadian consumers' commitment to existing financial service providers – in particular, Canada's Big Five banks. But now, the space is being closely monitored by those same banks. Earlier this year, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, First West Credit Union, and Meridian Credit Union each partnered with fintech operations in the lending space.

Paul Desmarais Jr., chief executive officer of Power Financial Corp., was among the first to cast his eye on the fintech arena – with the company investing $30-million in robo-adviser Wealthsimple last year, and more recently joining Equitable Bank and Hedgewood in a $6.4-million investment in Borrowell.

At the same time, these startup companies – commonly referred to as industry disruptors – are attracting former Bay Street executives who are investing their own money into companies that may have once been seen as competitors.

Earlier this month, Anatol von Hahn, former group head of Canadian banking with Bank of Nova Scotia, joined the advisory board of robo-adviser Smart Money Capital Management Inc. Mr. von Hahn, who retired from his 31-year banking career last June, became a minority shareholder to the online portfolio manager after a number of discussions with founder and CEO Nauvzer Babul.

"When I retired, I knew I wanted to sit on several boards of larger organizations, but I also wanted to work with startups and entrepreneurs," Mr. von Hahn said. "Especially those technology companies who are re-engineering a product or service and want to partner with financial institutions to give consumers a better level of service."

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Mr. von Hahn's interest in fintech started before his departure from the bank, where he said the organization was always looking for the next opportunity.

"The real opportunity is for financial institutions – not just the banks – to partner with these startups and work with them," Mr. von Hahn said.

Making those industry connections is what Joe Canavan – former CEO of Assante Wealth Management – does best. After spending six years building one of Canada's largest independent networks of financial advisers, as well as helping to expand Synergy Asset Management (now a part of CI Financial), he has been instrumental in helping several startups get off the ground.

Wealthsimple was the first company he helped launch in 2014, when online portfolio managers were still in their infancy in the Canadian market. Since then, Mr. Canavan has added Borrowell and mobile-bank provider Koho to his list of fintech investments. And recently, he introduced Koho's CEO Daniel Eberhard to Victor Dodig, the head of CIBC. Mr. Canavan said he isn't looking to disrupt the big banks but rather looking at ways the traditional players can work with the startups to offer Canadians a better experience.

"I looked at which industries, in the future, were going to go through the most definite amount of transformative change and right away asset management, banking and consumer lending were the ones that stood out for me," Mr. Canavan said.

The next logical step, he said, is to move toward the insurance industry. He is currently in discussions with a number of parties already working on platforms that would include offerings in both property and casualty insurance and life insurance.

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"The insurance world is such a grey area for a large number of consumers," Mr. Canavan said.

Looking ahead, Mr. Canavan hopes to see all the companies in which he has invested align themselves on a single platform to provide Canadians with a multidisciplinary financial services offering.

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