Survival of the fittest
By Bryan Demchinsky
If you want to know what’s going on in the financial services industry these days, imagine an ecosystem in which different species compete in a survival-of-the-fittest contest.
There are the ancient creatures — let’s call them banks — that have been around forever, surviving well enough for now, but aware they need to evolve if they are to thrive.
Then there are larger animals — the Apples and Googles. They are more agile, and because of size and muscle, might rightly be considered lords of the high-tech jungle. They are increasingly interested in adding financial services to their diets, for example, by letting you pay for stuff with your phone.
Finally, there are the nimble little critters in the undergrowth. They proliferate like rabbits and are constantly getting gobbled up — but if, as a service provider, you’re not careful, they’ll eat your lunch. That’s where you’ll find Marwan Forzley and Haseeb Awan.
Both are University of Ottawa computer engineering graduates, born abroad, who chose uOttawa to complete their education. Forzley, originally from Lebanon, grew up in Ottawa, while Awan, from Pakistan, came to the capital in 2010. He earned a master’s in engineering management, a joint degree offered by the Faculty of Engineering and the Telfer School of Management.
Inspired to find a fix
Their uOttawa experience has led them to a niche in the fintech sector. Fintech, through digital technology, aims to make financial transactions — everything from wealth management to payments — easier and cheaper. Forzley and Awan specialize in overseas money transfers.
Their experience as immigrants, the difficulty and expense they had in making cross-border remittances and payments, spurred them to find a better way. The solutions they developed not only make life easier for individuals and businesses, but also created companies and jobs in the process.
As Awan notes, when people from overseas come to Canada for their education, “we don’t come just to live, but to excel.”
Forzley, who won a 2007 Ottawa Business Journal Top Forty Under 40 award, is the CEO of Align Commerce, headquartered in San Francisco, but with an Ottawa office. He describes what he does like this:
“If you buy a cup of coffee, you reach into your pocket, pull out some change or a credit card and pay for it without much thought.” But if you want to transfer money overseas, “you have to think of a whole bunch of things: the machine you use, the receiver, fees to pay, forms to fill, transmission speed, cutoff times, etc. The mission of the company is to simplify how we move money around the world and to make it as simple as the way you pay for a coffee.”
The principle applies also to Awan’s business. His new company, Efani Inc. — so new it will only launch later this year — is based in Ottawa and will allow customers, mostly small and medium-size businesses, to insure the price they pay on foreign exchange transactions. As recent fluctuations in the Canadian dollar suggest, it would be a great boon for businesses and consumers operating in foreign markets to have a guaranteed rate of exchange for future sales or purchases.
Granted, our comparison of financial services players with animals is fanciful, but it does underline the Darwinian company-eat-company nature of fintech. Consider Forzley’s trajectory: before creating Align, he worked for Western Union Digital, after it bought his previous company, eBillme. And prior to that, he worked for Nokia in e-commerce infrastructure, Nokia having bought his earlier startup, Vienna Systems.
Does this activity suggest his current company is likely to be swallowed up? Not necessarily, says Forzley. He sees the relationship between his business and bigger players as being more symbiotic than competitive. Banks can outsource parts of their operations to companies like his, saving on having to invest in manpower and technical expertise.
As for Awan, before Efani, he was a co-founder of BitAccess — he remains a shareholder — which has become a leading global creator of bitcoin ATMs (or BTMs). He was also involved in a string of startups that helped him win an Ottawa Immigrant Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2014.
Bitcoins and the so-called blockchain technology that facilitates their use are critical to many fintech operations. Because they are a virtual currency with a universal value, bitcoins can be used to make cross-border transactions that are more “frictionless,” or less constrained by exchange rates and various bureaucratic impediments. Blockchain is a virtual public ledger of bitcoin transactions built up in chronologically assembled blocks of data that keep the transactions transparent and safe from tampering.
The Ottawa advantage
Leadership in this technology is what gives Forzley and Awan their competitive edge. And while they operate in many countries, both rate Ottawa — and their uOttawa educations — as contributing to their success.
They see the city as an important incubator of tech innovation. It is cheaper to live and do business here than in Silicon Valley. “The talent is almost the same, employees tend to be more loyal, and government programs and grants help a lot,” Awan says.
Forzley credits the Faculty of Engineering’s CO-OP system with giving budding entrepreneurs like him a taste of the real world. “During four different terms, I was at four different companies,” he says. “The experience you get with real companies is incredibly valuable.”
For his part, Awan cites the professors who helped build his skill set, and singles out businessman Bruce Firestone as a mentor at Telfer. “He helped me understand entrepreneurship in Canada. When you come as an immigrant, you need someone to help you in the early days.”
Haseeb Awan arrived from Pakistan in 2010 to do a master’s in engineering management at uOttawa, and hasn’t looked back. Photo: Kris Krüg