Nick Evens Talks Curql, VentureTech and the Survival of CUs
By John San Filippo
At the recent Money20/20 fintech conference held in Las Vegas, Finopotamus had the opportunity to speak with Nick Evens, president and CEO of Des Moines, Iowa-based Curql Collective, a credit union-owned strategic investment fund that has provided backing for several fintechs that serve the credit union industry.
How It Started
The idea for a credit union-focused fintech investment fund was originally put forth by credit union service organization (CUSO) Members Development Company (MDC) a few years ago. At that time, Evens was working for Veridian Credit Union running its CUSO, The Veridian Group. MDC President and CEO Jeff Kline recruited Evens, along with Ben Maxim, Chief Digital Strategy & Innovation Officer at MSU Federal Credit Union, and Martin Walker, who at the time was Vice President, Digital Experience & Innovation at Sound Credit Union, to create what was to become Curql Collective and Curql Fund.
The first order of business was hiring a professional fund manager. “We quickly decided the credit union industry does not have the expertise around fintech and how sophisticated it's getting in today's world,” said Evens. After an extensive request for proposal (RFP) process, Curql hired Des Moines-based Next Level Ventures. “We got all the legal docs done and Q4 of 2020, we formally started raising money with credit unions.”
“Once we had $50 million raised, we could do our first investment,” noted Evens. “We did that in April of 2021 and invested in Eltropy. We were off to the races after that.” According to the Curql website, the fund has invested in 15 different fintechs to date. Curql currently has 68 investors – 56 credit unions, eight CUSOs as well as Co-op Solutions, National Cooperative Bank and the Illinois Credit Union League. Although the fund is not accepting additional investors, Evens said a subscription if available for both credit unions and fintechs that lets subscribers participate fully in the Curql ecosystem, minus the financial rewards of being an investor.
On a Mission
Asked about Curql’s mission, Evens responded, “We bring fintech to credit unions. That's it. It’s as simple as that. That's our mission.” He said he’s heard criticism that Curql is only interested in return on investment, but nothing could be further from the truth. “If you talk to most of our CEOs when we were developing this and raising money, the word survival is what we heard the most,” Evens stressed. “This is imperative for the future of the credit union industry.” He added that collaboration with fintechs, allowing them to develop with direct input from credit unions, is the most important aspect of Curql.
“Collaboration around the most transformative fintech or the most transformative technology is really the key for most of these credit unions,” said Evens. “They want access to the best technology in order to impact their members' lives, so that's what we're doing. We're bringing that impactful technology to the credit unions.”
Curql’s credit union focus means that its investment selection criteria differ from other investment funds. “We call it mission alignment,” explained Evens. “The missions have to be aligned. Obviously we're not going to invest in a company that says, ‘As soon as we have your money, we're going to pivot and not talk to you anymore.’ They have to be CUSOs.” He said educating fintechs about credit unions and CUSOs is a challenge at first, but most are willing to learn because they want to be in credit unions.
“They understand the strategic investment that comes with our money is around alignment with people helping people,” he added. “We've had fintechs tell us, ‘Well, I don't want to be in banks; I just want to be in credit unions.’ That's the right answer for what we're doing.”
From Nov. 7-9 Curql Collective and CUNA Strategic Services (CSS) will host the fifth annual VentureTech conference in Frisco, Texas. Evens described the event as a “fintech showcase for credit unions,” adding that participating fintechs are not necessarily Curql or CSS backed at this time.
What can a credit union that attends VentureTech expect?
“Let's say you're looking for ways to expand your loan portfolio, or you need cybersecurity, or you need a marketing platform that can help you reach more members,” said Evens.” There's all kinds of things from A to Z on the kind of fintechs that you're going to see, but you're going to see them pitch.” He added that participating fintechs will compete for a single cash prize.
“We have 16 fintechs that are pitching against each other,” Evens noted. “And new this year, we have another 10 fintechs that are just coming out of accelerators. We're calling that the Launch Party, because if a fintech comes to VentureTech, we're launching them into the credit union industry.”
Evens said there will also be an exhibit hall that features fintechs not necessarily participating in the pitch competition, giving attendees access to a total of 55 different solutions. He added that while some solutions overlap, most do not.
Finally, he said that the last day will feature two “bootcamps” – one for credit unions and one for fintechs. “In the fintech bootcamp,” explained Evens, “we're teaching them how to talk to credit unions, how to market to credit unions, how to integrate with credit unions, how to be compliant with credit unions.”
Additional information about VentureTech, including event registration, is available at the link above.