BMO hopes fintech competition sparks new ideas in the capital

Ottawa isn’t a fintech hotbed yet, but BMO officials said Wednesday they hope a new national competition launched in conjunction with Ryerson University’s business incubator can help change that.

“It would be great to see something come out of Ottawa,” said Sandra Henderson, BMO’s recently appointed senior vice-president for eastern Ontario. “As I start to go out through the market, I would love to start to hear people’s ideas of what they are working on and perhaps there will be something that will come out of this.”

The bank’s group head for Canadian personal and commercial banking, Cameron Fowler, said the company doesn’t usually spend a lot of energy on press releases and announcements about everything it does.

“Today we think is special because it’s a competition that we think is good for Canada’s innovation, not just BMO,” he said.

The competition, dubbed BMO Presents: The Next Big Idea in Fintech, will provide up to six selected startups with a four-month placement at the DMZ at Ryerson, an opportunity to pilot their technology with BMO and introductions to venture capital groups.

At the end of the placement, the six companies will pitch their technology to a panel of judges. BMO will invest in the winning pitch, although Mr. Fowler said the bank would be interested in any company that proves it can solve a problem.

The partnership between fintech startups and BMO is a major key to the competition, Mr. Fowler said.

“It gives us a chance to shape the ideas being considered, because there’s value if we can link the minds, the innovation, the entrepreneurship of these folks to actual real custom things that need to be solved in financial services.”

He said it also gives BMO an opportunity to support “broader innovation” across Canada and show off the bank’s corporate culture.

“There are ways to work with, and for and as a part of these larger organizations and still maintain your unique culture,” he said.

The competition is another indication that Canada’s big banks are continuing to evolve their business models.

“It starts from the recognition that the combined effect of internet, mobile, cloud computing, basically free computing and changing consumer expectations means that we all need to find new and different ways to work specifically to meet expectations and to become more efficient,” Mr. Fowler said.

If big banks don’t adapt, “somebody will adapt for us,” said Mr. Fowler, who was in town to open a new branch on Elgin Street at Slater Street.

Still, technological advancement will not replace human contact, he said, even though branches will come in different shapes and sizes and there will be fewer staff in them.

“The other way of looking at that is a far higher percentage of our engagements are going to be what really matters, about advice. We are there with you for the major moments,” he said, referring to things such as home purchases, paying for university or preparing for retirement.

Mr. Fowler was in town the same week BMO released its jobs outlook for the capital, projecting 30,000 new jobs by 2018.

The country’s fourth-largest bank said a new federal government with new investment strategies means the city will likely see a surge in public service jobs, adding that sectors such as real estate, healthcare, manufacturing, technology and tourism are all expected to experience growth.

And while there may not be a large fintech presence in the capital, BMO is very bullish on the city’s tech sector as a whole, Mr. Fowler said.

“These are young companies,” he said. “The vast majority are below 50 employees. This is where we can be super helpful.”

With a strong relationship already established with Waterloo’s Communitech, BMO is open to forging a similar relationship with the Innovation Centre at Bayview Yards, said Ms. Henderson.

“We’ve had a couple of meetings with them. They are in a build mode and still just having the conversations of where they want to go,” she said.