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Fintech companies must balance the pursuit of profit against ethical data usage



Financial institutions are falling behind the tech curve in delivering on the convenience consumers demand, leaving the door wide open for Big Tech companies like Apple, Amazon and Google to become our bankers. In November, Google redesigned its contactless payments service Google Pay, merging the services of traditional banks with the seamless, convenient experience users expect from the likes of Big Tech.

But there’s a catch.

Despite the elaborate smoke and mirrors that Google has put up, one fact remains: Google is an advertising company with ads representing 71% of its revenue sources in 2019.

What happens when an advertising company now wants to be our bank?

One must ask: What happens when an advertising company — armed with the terabytes of data points it has harvested from our personal emails, location data, song preferences and shopping lists — now wants to be our bank? The answer is potentially unsettling, especially considering the extraordinary neglect Big Tech has shown for user privacy, as seen here. And here. And here.

As the marketplace is poked by yet another technocrat tentacle, this time in the heart of financial services, traditional banks that consumers and businesses once relied on find themselves at a crossroads. To retain market share, these institutions will need to continue investing in fintech so they can level up with convenience and personalization provided by new competitors while preserving trust and transparency.

Traditional banks miss the digital mark

Fintech holds the potential to fundamentally transform the financial services industry, enabling financial institutions (FIs) to operate more efficiently and deliver superb user experiences (UX).

But there’s a digital gap holding FIs back, especially small community banks and credit unions. Many have long struggled to compete with the deep pockets of national banks and the tech savvy of neo and challenger banks, like Varo and Monzo. After investing more than $1 trillion in new technology from 2016 through 2019, the majority of banks globally have yet to see any financial boost from digital transformation programs, according to Accenture.

Never before has this gap been more prevalent than amid the pandemic as customers migrated online en masse. In April 2020 alone, there was a 200% uptick in new mobile banking registrations and total mobile banking traffic jumped 85%, according to Fidelity National Information Services (FIS).

Data is the grand prize for Big Tech, not revenue from financial services

Naturally, Big Tech players have recognized the opportunity to foray into financial services and flex their innovation muscles, giving banks and credit unions a strenuous run for their money. Consumers looking to digitize their finances must heed caution before they break up with traditional banks and run into the arms of Big Tech.

It’s important to bear in mind that the venture into payments and financial services is multipronged for Big Tech players. For example, in-house payments capabilities would not just provide companies focused on retail and commerce an additional revenue stream; it promises them more power and control over the shopping process.

Regulations in the U.S. might restrain this invasion to an extent, or at least limit a company’s ability to directly profit. Because let’s face it: the Big Tech players certainly aren’t asking for the regulatory “baggage” that comes with a bank charter.

But tech companies don’t need to profit directly from offerings like payments and wealth management, so long as they can hoard data. Gleaning insights on users’ spending patterns offers companies significant ROI in the long term, informing them how a user spends their money, if they have a mortgage, what credit cards they have, who they bank with, who they transact with, etc.

Financial behavior also potentially includes highly personal purchases, such as medications, insurance policies and even engagement rings.

With this laser sharp view into consumers’ wallets, imagine how much more valuable and domineering Google’s advertising platform will become.

Banks must lead the charge in ethical data

When it comes to the digitization of financial services, the old adage “with great power comes great responsibility” rings true.

Customer data is an incredible tool, allowing banks to cater to all consumers wherever they fall on the financial spectrum. For example, by analyzing a customers’ spending habits, a bank can offer tailored solutions that help them save, invest or spend money more wisely.

However, what if being a customer of these services means you’re then inundated with ads that respond directly to your searches and purchases? Or, even more insidiously, what if your bank now knows you so well that they can create a persona for you and proactively predict your needs and desires before even you can? That’s what the future looks like if you’re a customer of the Bank of Google.

It’s not enough to use customer data to refine product offerings. It must be done in a way that ensures security and privacy. By using data to personalize services, rather than bolster revenue behind the scenes, banks can distinguish a deeper understanding of consumer needs and gain trust.

Trust could become the weapon that banks use to defend their throne, especially as consumers become more aware of how their data is being used and they rebel against it. A Ponemon study on privacy and security found that 86% of adults said they are “very concerned” about how Facebook and Google use their personal information.

In an environment where data collection is necessary but contentious, the main competitive advantage for banks lies in trust and transparency. A report from nCipher Security found that consumers still overwhelmingly trust banks with their personal information more than they do other industries. At the same time, trust is waning for technology, with 36% of consumers reportedly less comfortable sharing information now than a year ago, according to PwC.

Banks are in a prime position to lead the charge on ethical data strategy and the deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, while still delivering what consumers need. Doing so will give them a leg up on collecting data over Big Tech in the long term.

Looking toward a customer-centric, win-win future

The financial services industry has reached a pivotal crossroads, with consumers being given the choice to leave traditional banks and hand over their personal data to Big Tech conglomerates so they can enjoy digital experiences, greater convenience and personalization.

But banks can still win back consumers if they take a customer-centric approach to digitization.

While Big Tech collects consumer data to support their advertising revenue, banks can win the hearts of consumers by collecting data to drive personalization and superior UXs. This is especially true for local community banks and credit unions, as their high-touch approach to services has always been their core differentiator. By delivering personalized interactions while ensuring the data collection is secure and transparent, banks can regain market share and win the hearts of customers again.

Big Tech has written the playbook for what not to do with our data, while also laying the framework for how to build exceptional experiences. Even if a bank lacks the technology expertise or the deep-pocket funding of Facebook, Google or Apple, it can partner with responsible fintechs that understand the delicate balance between ethical data usage and superior UXs.

When done right, everybody wins.

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How Rani Therapeutics’ robotic pill could change subcutaneous injection treament



A new auto-injecting pill might soon become a replacement for subcutaneous injection treatments.

The idea for this so-called robotic pill came out of a research project around eight years ago from InCube Labs—a life sciences lab operated by Rani Therapeutics Chairman and CEO Mir Imran, who has degrees in electrical and biomedical engineering from Rutgers University. A prominent figure in life sciences innovation, Imran has founded over 20 medical device companies and helped develop the world’s first implantable cardiac defibrillator.

In working on the technology behind San Jose-based Rani Therapeutics, Imran and his team wanted to find a way to relieve some of the painful side effects of subcutaneous (or under-the-skin) injections, while also improving the treatment’s efficacy. “The technology itself started with a very simple thesis,” said Imran in an interview. “We thought, why can’t we create a pill that contains a biologic drug that you swallow, and once it gets to the intestine, it transforms itself and delivers a pain-free injection?”

Rani Therapeutics’ approach is based on inherent properties of the gastrointestinal tract. An injecting mechanism in their pill is surrounded by a pH-sensitive coating that dissolves as the capsule moves from a patient’s stomach to the small intestine. This helps ensure that the pill starts injecting the medicine in the right place at the right time. Once there, the reactants mix and produce carbon dioxide, which in turn inflates a small balloon that helps create a pressure difference to help inject the drug-loaded needles into the intestinal wall. “So it’s a really well-timed cascade of events that results in the delivery of this needle,” said Imran.

Despite its somewhat mechanical procedure, the pill itself contains no metal or springs, reducing the chance of an inflammatory response in the body. The needles and other components are instead made of injectable-grade polymers, that Imran said has been used in other medical devices as well. Delivering the injections to the upper part of the small intestine also carries little risk of infection, as the prevalence of stomach acid and bile from the liver prevent bacteria from readily growing there.

One of Imran’s priorities for the pill was to eliminate the painful side effects of subcutaneous injections. “It wouldn’t make sense to replace them with another painful injection,” he said. “But biology was on our side, because your intestines don’t have the kind of pain sensors your skin does.” What’s more, administering the injection into the highly vascularized wall of the small intestine actually allows the treatment to work more efficiently than when applied through subcutaneous injection, which typically deposits the treatment into fatty tissue.

Imran and his team have plans to use the pill for a variety of indications, including the growth hormone disorder acromegaly, diabetes, and osteoporosis. In January 2020, their acromegaly treatment, Octreotide, demonstrated both safety and sustained bioavailability in primary clinical trials. They hope to pursue future clinical trials for other indications, but chose to prioritize acromegaly initially because of its well-established treatment drug but “very painful injection,” Imran said.

At the end of last year, Rani Therapeutics raised $69 million in new funding to help further develop and test their platform. “This will finance us for the next several years,” said Imran. “Our approach to the business is to make the technology very robust and manufacturable.”

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Address cybersecurity challenges before rolling out robotic process automation



Robotic process automation (RPA) is making a major impact across every industry. But many don’t know how common the technology is and may not realize that they are interacting with it regularly. RPA is a growing megatrend — by 2022, Gartner predicts that 90% of organizations globally will have adopted RPA and its received over $1.8 billion in investments in the past two years alone.

Due to the shift to remote work, companies across every industry have implemented some form of RPA to simplify their operations to deal with an influx of requests. For example, when major airlines were bombarded with cancellation requests at the onset of the pandemic, RPA became essential to their customer service strategy.

Throughout 2021, security teams will begin to realize the unconsidered security challenges of robotic process automation.

According to Forrester, one major airline had over 120,000 cancellations during the first few weeks of the pandemic. By utilizing RPA to handle the influx of cancellations, the airline was able to simplify its refund process and assist customers in a timely matter.

Delivering this type of streamlined cancellation process with such high demand would have been extremely challenging, if not impossible, without RPA technology.

The multitude of other RPA use cases that have popped up since COVID-19 have made it evident that RPA isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, interest in the usage of RPA is at an unprecedented high. Gartner inquiries related to RPA increased over 1,000% during 2020 as companies continue to invest.

However, there’s one big issue that’s commonly overlooked when it comes to RPA — security. Like we’ve seen with other innovations, the security aspect of RPA isn’t implemented in the early stages of development — leaving organizations vulnerable to cybercriminals.

If the security vulnerabilities of RPA aren’t addressed quickly, there will be a string of significant RPA breaches in 2021. However, by realizing that these new “digital coworkers” have identities of their own, companies can secure RPA before they make the headlines as the latest major breach.

Understanding RPA’s digital identity

With RPA, digital workers are created to take over repetitive manual tasks that have been traditionally performed by humans. Their interaction directly with business applications mimics the way humans use credentials and privilege — ultimately giving the robot an identity of its own. An identity that is created and operates much faster than any human identity but doesn’t eat, sleep, take holidays, go on strike or even get paid.

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Eco raises $26M in a16z-led round to scale its digital cryptocurrency platform



‍Eco, which has built out a digital global cryptocurrency platform, announced Friday that it has raised $26 million in a funding round led by a16z Crypto.

Founded in 2018, the SF-based startup’s platform is designed to be used as a payment tool around the world for daily-use transactions. The company emphasizes that it’s “not a bank, checking account, or credit card.”

“We’re building something better than all of those combined,” it said in a blog post. The company’s mission has also been described as an effort to use cryptocurrency as a way “to marry savings and spending,” according to this CoinList article.

Eco users can earn up to 5% annually on their deposits and get 5% cashback on when transacting with merchants such as Amazon, Uber, and others. Next up: the company says it will give its users the ability to pay bills, pay friends and more “all from the same, single wallet.” That same wallet, it says, rewards people every time they spend or save.

After a “successful” alpha test with millions of dollars deposited, the company’s Eco App is now available to the public.

A slew of other VC firms participated in Eco’s latest financing, including Founders Fund, Activant Capital, Slow Ventures, Coinbase Ventures, Tribe Capital, Valor Capital Group, and more than one hundred other funds and angels.  Expa and Pantera Capital co-led the company’s $8.5 million funding round.

CoinList co-founder Andy Bromberg stepped down from his role last fall to head up Eco. The startup was originally called Beam before rebranding to Eco “thanks to involvement by founding advisor, Garrett Camp, who held the Eco brand,” according to Coindesk. Camp is an Uber co-founder and Expa is his venture fund.

For a16z Crypto, leading the round is in line with its mission.

In a blog post co-written by Katie Haun and Arianna Simpson, the firm outlined why it’s pumped about Eco and its plans.

“One of the challenges in any new industry — crypto being no exception — is building things that are not just cool for the sake of cool, but that manage to reach and delight a broad set of users,” they wrote. “Technology is at its best when it’s improving the lives of people in tangible, concrete ways…At a16z Crypto, we are constantly on the lookout for paths to get cryptocurrency into the hands of the next billion people. How do we think that will happen? By helping them achieve what they already want to do: spend, save, and make money — and by focusing users on tangible benefits, not on the underlying technology.”

Eco is not the only crypto platform offering rewards to users. Lolli gives users free bitcoin or cash when they shop at over 1,000 top stores.

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