MasterCard charges ahead with third Israel fintech contest

The Start-Up Nation is becoming known worldwide for financial technology ideas; one of them is worth $25,000

Garry Lyons (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Garry Lyons (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The annual MasterCard Innovation Award event is back for the third time, and the lucky winner of the competition sponsored by the worldwide credit card company receives a $25,000 prize and a spot in the Citi financial technology accelerator. If history is any precedent, the winner is on a fast track to an acquisition, as the 2012 award winner, KitLocate, a location-based marketing app, is now owned by Yandex, a Russian search giant, after an acquisition earlier this year.

Financial technology, or fintech, is quickly becoming one of Israel’s strongest technology suits, according to Garry Lyons, MasterCard’s chief innovation officer, who was in Israel last week to kick off the contest. Over 50 start-ups applied for the Innovation Award competition, and 11 were chosen to present their technology at the finals in the fall.

The winner not only gets the $25k and a spot in the Citi accelerator, the only fintech accelerator in Israel, but also gets an extra $10,000 to fund a trip to Dublin, where Citi’s and MasterCard’s innovation labs are based. Membership in the Citi accelerator and the trip to Ireland will offer the start-up exposure to the knowledge of Citi and MasterCard experts in the relevant fields and personal acquaintance with the group’s top executives from around the world, Lyons said.

For MasterCard, its third time running the contest in Israel is a charm. “We don’t have a research and development center in the country right now, but we come here all the time to look at start-ups,” said Lyons. “I continue to be impressed by the level of innovation in Israel and quality of its entrepreneurs. Israel is a fantastic place, especially for things like security technology and payment technology, both things that naturally interest a company like ours.”

Israeli fintech start-ups have been coming up with some novel ideas, said Lyons, such as the system devised by BioCatch, a competitor in the 2013 contest which uses biometrics to detect when someone fraudulently tries to log into your account. The system verifies a user’s identity by checking mouse movements against a learned pattern. If there is a mismatch, it locks the user out of sensitive data, even if the right username and password for an account were entered.

Pronto, another candidate for the 2013 award, has a system that uses ultrasonic sound (sound waves that are not audible to human beings) to connect devices. Using Pronto, a consumer could simply wave their phone at a point-of-sale installation, which could be anything from a cash register to another mobile device, to transfer payment information from a buyer to a seller. The system could work with any device, without the need for special equipment like NFC (near field communication) chips usually required in such scenarios.

The winner of the 2013 contest was CallVU, which developed a system through which a caller can see what tech support agent is talking about. Under the CallVU system, customers who call a help agent submit their names and wait for a help agent to answer. Instead of staying on the line, customers are offered the option of a callback. When the service call begins, the customer describes their problem and the service person can respond not only verbally, but also by sending pictures or instructions related to the solution directly to the customer’s smartphone screen. Designed for mobile phone users, CallVU integrates the direct contact of a phone conversation with the clarity of images on a web site.

The contest’s biggest success so far has been, without question, 2012 winner KitLocate. The start-up developed a unique context-based location system, which automatically switches sensors on and off depending on the situation, and collects data that merchants and apps can use to enhance the user experience. The part that won Kitlocate the prize and a deal with Yandex is the technology’s ability to reduce battery consumption by as much as 90 percent, even as users run a gamut of apps that employ Wi-Fi, GPS, the accelerometer and other hardware.

Startups can apply for the contest until September 20. Ten startups will be selected for the final stage of the contest, planned for November. The finalists and winners will be chosen by professionals from IATI (Israel Advanced Technology Industries, which is co-sponsoring the event), MasterCard, Citi and a panel of top figures in the Israeli technology industry. The criteria include technological feasibility, business model, team composition, target market and distinction from the competition, Lyons said.

“This is the third year in which MasterCard is holding its Innovation Contest, and we expect to be astonished by the Israeli innovations in various areas of financial technology,” according to Daniel Cohen, MasterCard Israel country manager. “The winners in previous years have proved that the choices were justified and bolstered our faith in the contest’s ability to spot trail-blazers. As the company leading innovation in electronic payments, it is natural to search for partners in Israel.”

Click below for a video about CallVU’s tech support enhancement technology:

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