The second Alternative Finance Forum was held with great success in Thessaloniki, at the KEDEA (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) conference room with more than 400 participants from all over Europe (simultaneously live and online / hybrid event). The conference was held last Wednesday October 13th 2021 and was organized by the Business and Cultural Development Centre (KEPA) and under the auspices of the European Investment Bank Group (EIB).
The conference hosted more than 35 speakers from the fintech and social capital sectors, who shared their ideas and innovative solutions they apply, leveraging new technologies and design principles to develop sustainable financial services through consumer/user experience-based design and innovative business models.
The conference was opened by the Dean of the European Investment Bank Institute (EIB Institute), Mr Francisco de Paula Coelho, who presented how the EIB Group, the bank whose main concern is EU development, supports technological innovations for sustainable social and economic growth, stressing that technology-based alternative financing solutions play an important role to this end.
Referring to the key message of the conference: “Money. Technology. Purpose.” in his opening speech, Mr. Yannis Tsakiris, Deputy Minister of Development and Investments, underlined the catalytic role of “Technology” in alternative financing, and confirmed the commitment of the Greek government to further support alternative forms of financial services in the country, with the recent example of the adoption of the Microcredit Law and the next step being the development of instruments – such as the guarantee fund and the equity fund – for Microfinance Institutions.
The importance of applying technology to finance was further reinforced by Mr. Uli Grabenwater, Deputy Director at the European Investment Fund, who drew the audience’s attention to the need to link technological applications to socially desirable goals and outcomes.
The discussions then took place in two different rooms where the two main subjects of the conference, “Financial Innovation” and “Social Capital”, were developed.
Under the section of Financial Innovations, a number of new solutions and business models related to Data and Identity, new ways of accessing capital for small businesses, payments and transactions and various non-lending solutions of new technologies supporting financial service providers and consumers were put on the agenda.
In the first discussion panel on “Data, Identity, and Access” – moderated by Mr. Goran Lazarevski, Executive Director of the Alliance of Microfinance Organizations – Mr. Marc Taverner, Executive Director of INATBA – International Association for Trusted Blockchain Applications, presented INATBA’s actions in terms of supporting legal entities promoting the cross-border use of digital identity solutions and in terms of personal data protection, making the use of new technologies and Blockchain applications in identity issues inevitable. The next speaker, Ms. Athalis Dimitra Kratouni, Founder and CEO of Tenbeo Biotechnologies, captivated the audience with a breakthrough innovation concerning “Identity”: the creation of a global identification protocol based on heartbeat. Tenbeo’s vision is an inclusive world, where every individual has a digital mailbox where all data and related documents of every citizen are permanently contained. Different types of safe deposit boxes were mentioned by Mr. Andrius Adamonis, Project Manager of the Bank of Lithuania, who presented the “regulatory sandbox” developed by the Bank of Lithuania in order to accelerate the development and implementation of blockchain-based solutions in the financial sector.
In the second discussion panel, moderated by Ms. Olena Gryniuk, CEE Regional Manager of SME Banking Club, among others, in the context of a discussion on the possibility of providing “Capital for Small Businesses“, innovative technological solutions were presented by Mr. Mattia Ozzello, Product Manager at SIA S.p.A, such as SIAChain, which is a centralized orchestrated business network allowing insurance companies, banking and non-banking institutions, as well as public administration bodies to digitally manage the lifecycle of digital guarantees, reducing fraud thanks to the use of Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), ensuring transparency, confidentiality, resilience and security in any transaction. This, of course, requires the participation and cooperation of several parties worldwide, such as banks, microcredit institutions, suppliers, buyers and regulators. Also, Mr. Christian Ruehmer, co-founder and CEO of Q-Lana Inc. focused on the “human face” of digital lending, as the assessment platform developed by his company is based on the combination of technology and human factor, through an extensive assessment of the transactions of individual and corporate clients, based on qualitative and quantitative criteria. It was noted that the implementation of a fully digital lending process is currently feasible for financial institutions, replacing traditional employee-led assessment processes, including a customer’s handwritten application to disbursement, and the loan monitoring and management process.
The issue issue of “Payments and Transactions” was the focus of the third discussion panel, chaired by Mr. Dimitris Litsikakis, CEO of deVere E-Money, with Mr. James Camilleri, co-founder and CEO of Fyorin, as the first speaker who answered the question “How can financial institutions compete with fintech companies?” presenting the technological solution his company has developed by creating a Business Banking Networking Scheme. Mr. Thomas Papapolyzos, founder and CEO of a-quant, focused on the issue of trading presenting an innovative mobile app that provides buy/sell signals on a range of financial products such as the foreign exchange market (Forex), money transfer from one country to another, Indices, Commodities, US stocks and Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs). The a-quant solution is based on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning methods and algorithms, and despite its technological complexity, its use is simple for the interested party/trader. The transition of the PaySpot payment institution from the traditional face-to-face payment method to the digital one of online transactions was presented by the last speaker, Ms. Aleksandra Šćepanović, Head of Business Development of PaySpot.
On the issue of “Non-lending fintech Solutions” resulting from the use of new technologies developed during the last panel discussion, chaired by Ms. Sofia Christoforidou, journalist with ERT3 and MAKEDONIA newspaper, Mr. Vassilis Zoupas, co-founder of Woli Fintech, who presented an app that serves the needs of the modern family and makes children financially autonomous, not only by using a prepaid credit card, but also by using the interactive learning tool included in the application and containing experiential exercises and games, with the ultimate goal of financial literacy of children from the age of ten. The same panel discussion was attended by Ms. Eleni Vlami, Head of Account Management at meniga, who presented another app mainly targeted at banks, Carbon Insight, which estimates the carbon footprint based on bank customers’ spending patterns, while providing users with unique carbon profile information and enabling them to structure a more sustainable consumption behavior. Finally, Mr. Theodoros Koukoutsas, CEO of GX Blocks Energy S.A. presented a new model of data center management, combined with renewable energy sources (RES) and blockchain technology, in order to create a new digital platform, where the user will be able to access services of this blockchain ecosystem for purchasing, managing digital assets as well as mining them through hybrid contracts and other technological mechanisms.
The Social Capital section highlighted new developments in the field of social finance, including impact investing, financial tools for social entrepreneurship, technological innovations for microfinance institutions, such as the use of blockchain technology, and collaborative finance solutions.
The second thematic session Social Capital was opened by the participants of the discussion panel “Impact Investing”, chaired by Mr. Cyril Gouiffes, Head of Social Impact Investments at the European Investment Fund – EIF. Her vision for a fairer society was shared with the audience Ms. Astrid Fockens, Partner of Impact Partners, the first platform in Europe created to bring positive social impact through its investments. Mr. Elemer Eszter, Founder of Impact Ventures Lt. then pointed out that their primary goal is to invest only in companies that themselves record the level of social impact resulting from their business activities, while providing all these companies with guidance and training on the use of methods and tools to measure the social impact generated. Finally, Mr. Jose Moncada, founder and CEO of La Bolsa Social, presented the collaborative financing platform created to support partnerships that promote economic growth, the creation of positive social impact such as, among others, improving living conditions for the elderly through new technologies, while giving priority to investments that ensure the creation of an environmental footprint.
The issue of “Financing Social Entrepreneurship” was the focus of the second panel discussion, chaired by Mr. George Alexopoulos, researcher and associate at the EU’s Employment and Social Innovation Programme (EaSI). Ms. Cristina Almeida, Head of the Portuguese platform MAZE, stressed the importance of supporting social startups, not only in terms of funding but also in terms of mentoring and accelerating the actions of these startups. Mr. Piet Callens, Head of Finance Department at the Social Enterprise Hefboom, which has been active in Belgium for 35 years providing social impact financing, and for the last 10 years they have used the tool of microcredit, and recently – especially in the midst of a pandemic – they have been financially supporting artists through small special purpose loans. The discussion was “rounded up” by Ms. Elena Avataggelou, co-founder of the social enterprise GivingStreets, who presented an app that allows vulnerable social groups to access funding through a QR code. GivingStreets has won awards in European social economy and financial technology competitions and in just two and a half years has managed to raise funds, complete the app and partner with Praksis, an Independent Humanitarian Organization, in order to enable funding (Money) through technology (Technology) and serve a social purpose (Purpose).
In the third panel discussion on “New Microfinance“, chaired by Mr. Neoklis Stamkos, Project Manager and CFO of KEPA, questions were raised about the next day of microfinance both in Greece and Europe as well. At the beginning of the discussion, Mr. Stamkos said that the percentage of businesses having access to bank financing in our country is very low, while only a quarter of the businesses applying for a loan manage to get approved. Therefore, the gap in our country is huge and needs to be exploited either internally or by foreign investors to create appropriate support structures and financial services for small and medium-sized Greek businesses. Ms. Evelyne Oprel, International Relations Manager at the Dutch company Qredits, gave simple examples of the new trends in microfinance on European level, presenting the services provided by the company with maximum microfinance limit amounting to 50,000 Euro – while in Greece this amount does not exceed 25,000 Euro – the digital process of evaluating a microloan request, which is based on extremely high quality technological infrastructure, as well as the company’s recent collaboration with Singlify – afintech solutions provider – through a cross-sectoral system for loan and customer relationship management. The transition from the traditional way of providing microloans to digital management of microloan requests was presented by Mr. Georgi Breskovski, Executive Director of Mikrofond, the primary microcredit provider created in Bulgaria. Despite all the issues faced by the Bulgarian market in terms of its citizens’ digital illiteracy, high costs of transition to the digital environment, delays in the implementation of technological applications on the part of suppliers, as well as security and privacy issues, the pandemic crisis has accelerated this transition. Finally, Mr. Artur Monteanu, investor and advisor to GCD, a holding company in Moldova, highlighted the advantages of another new financial instrument, micro-equity, with a focus on social impact, giving successful examples of business models, including in Spain Bizkaia Seed Capital created by municipalities, and in the Netherlands Anders Invest created by farmers’ associations and the ForestEffect Fund which is strongly oriented towards businesses with a positive ecological footprint.
Concluding the Social Capital session, the last panel discussion “Collaborative Finance” chaired by Mr. Oliver Gajda, Executive Director of the European Crowdfunding Network, introduced the concept of collaborative finance, an alternative form of financing that started to take place directly between individuals without the intermediation of a traditional financial institution. Discussion was opened by Ms. Chiara Rutolo, Project Manager of Goteo, a crowdfunding platform based in Spain, which aims to finance initiatives and projects (social, cultural, technological and educational) for the benefit of the State. In the framework of their cross-border cooperation, Goteo and the Region of Central Macedonia, implement the project “Blue Crowdfunding”, which was presented by Mr. Vassilis Tsanidis, Senior Policy Officer from the Directorate of Innovation and Entrepreneurship of the Region of Central Macedonia, supporting participatory financing actions in the field of blue economy and specifically, actions of the entities “Echedoros Physis” and “Action for Wildlife”. Last but not least, Ms. Christin Friedrich, co-founder and CEO of Innovestment, one of the first crowdfunding platforms in Germany, pointed out that they have come a long way towards achieving their goal, which was none other than to motivate other people to use their money, not only in the form of consumption, but also through targeted investments to build and sustain a functioning real economy.
Summarizing the two sections “Financial Innovations” and “Social Capital”, Mr. Christos Kotsakas, Senior Editor of epixeiro.gr and Dr. Barbara Scheck, Managing Director of the European Center for Social Finance, respectively, highlighted the key emerging issues and innovative ideas presented at this conference, while Ms. Sophia Karadima, Senior Editor of Investment Monitor captured thoughts and impressions from the diversity of alternative financial solutions that go beyond the traditional banking and finance sector, raising concerns for the next day.
The Alternative Finance Forum was concluded with two presentations highlighting recent developments in alternative finance on national and european level. Mr. Alexandros Kaliontzoglou from the Bank of Greece presented the Regulatory Sandbox Project which offers regulated financial institutions the opportunity to test and “pilot” new technological innovations in the context of a controlled regulatory environment. European initiatives related to alternative financing tools were highlighted by Ms. Eva Kaili, Member of the European Parliament, who focused on the potential of blockchain technology and the prospects of collaborative finance.
The proceedings of the Alternative Finance Forum were closed by the Dean of the EIB Institute, Mr Francisco de Paula Coelho, who stressed the importance of the existence and dissemination of such initiatives, which aim to exchange ideas and experiences, disseminate specialised technological knowledge through concrete examples and networking.
Photos of the event are available here.