It is Lucie Haß’s first day back at work after a break; the two are returning from an appointment with a customer and it is already late afternoon. Still, they take the time to review the events of the last year. A discussion about challenges and initial successes, about the digital transformation and the people behind it – and about a job that is not an end in itself, but pursues a clear goal: to add genuine value with innovative solutions.
Philipp Kaiser: One year down the track for Helaba Digital – and our work has grown rapidly. Is that how you see it?
Lucie Haß: Absolutely, we’ve launched a lot of new projects and set quite a few wheels in motion. Helaba Digital was established as a dedicated investment company in the wake of the Digitalisation Strategic Project. Its purpose was to take stakes in start-ups whose solutions can add lasting value for the Bank and its customers. But we’ve already added a few new dimensions.
Kaiser: That’s why I now see us a gateway for innovative companies. We market their ideas within the Bank and assess what form a potential partnership could take.
Haß: Yep, that’s right. But it isn’t quite as simple as that, of course. We function as the link between start-ups, the Bank and its customers – cultural worlds that don’t always immediately understand how they can profit from each other. That’s the reason change management is much higher up on the agenda now than it was a year ago. Sure, in itself, Helaba Digital is a strategic module within the Bank’s overall change process. But it can function only if we actively advance that process. That is why face-to-face talks and on-site visits are decisive for our work. We aren’t financial investors, after all, and we aren’t an end in ourselves – we are pursuing clear strategic goals on behalf of Helaba. To do that, we need to know what the Bank, its divisions and, more importantly, its customers really need and want.
Kaiser: Exactly. We’ve just returned from that sort of meeting. It is close contact like this that helps us to ensure that a digital solution really dovetails with Helaba’s business models. Only then can we invest in a start-up or enter into a partnership with it. Partnerships are already just as important to us as equity investments. Even though there are sometimes reasons for not taking a stake in a start-up or digital company, a start-up could still prove interesting to us in terms of a partnership. vc trade is a prime example. The success of this digital platform for issuing Schuldschein instruments hinged on its remaining independent of all banks. But, as Helaba was a partner of vc trade even before the platform went live, it was its first customer and provided the instrument for its first issue. vc trade is now fully established.
Haß: It is generally crucial for platforms to be seen as industry-wide solutions. That was the case with our first success story: komuno, our joint venture with Lucht Probst Associates. komuno is a digital platform for municipal loans. After a pilot phase within Sparkassen-Finanzgruppe, it is now available to all licensed banking institutions. Why? Because, by replicating the entire market, we can add real value for customers: it is now possible to organise the whole loan tender process on the platform.
Kaiser: komuno is a special case. The idea for it arose even before we were set up as part of the Digitalisation Strategic Project. As there was no suitable solution for us in the marketplace, we looked for a technical partner and established a joint venture – though we still had to work hard to persuade the powers that be in house.
Ideally, a start-up will approach us and tell us what it does. We say, “Wow, great team, great idea – we’re interested.” Then we look for a sponsor, someone in the company to act as contact person, who understands the mechanics of the digital solution, thinks it’s super and wants to use it in their unit. Then we all pitch the idea to the Digitalisation Committee and the Board of Managing Directors. Only if this whole process is successful do we make an investment. Of course, that can take quite a while, but it means we have absolute certainty at the end of the financing round. Once we have made our investment, we tend to exercise a consulting function, while the sponsor becomes responsible for coordinating and advancing the actual project content with the start-up.
Haß: Let me make two points here: Firstly, it has often been the case recently that employees of a division have approached us off their own bat because they were facing a particular problem or already had an idea in their heads. It’s then up to us to find the right solution for them. I think that’s a very encouraging trend because it shows we’ve already changed a few things in house.
Secondly, the aspect of certainty you mentioned is good for the start-ups as well. I must say was rather surprised by that. When Helaba Digital entered the market, I was interested to see what the response would be. What we experienced was that Helaba’s image as a sound bank of long standing rubbed off on the star-ups themselves – along the lines of: “If Helaba is investing, the product must be sound and not just some flash in the pan.”
of Haß' and Kaiser's working time is spent in discussions – with start-ups, customers and partners of the Bank.
The number of FinTechs, PropTechs and RegTechs the two managing directors of Helaba Digital have already met with
“Helaba stands for partnerships between equals, and that’s what we’re projecting into the world of start-ups.”
Managing Director of Helaba Digital
Kaiser: That’s an important point. Helaba stands for partnerships between equals, and that’s what we’re projecting into the world of start-ups. Ultimately, it’s about making a certain digital solution or platform – and the company behind it – a success. If that happens, then all the partners involved can benefit from that success.
Haß: I believe in any case that partnerships between equals are crucial for the digital transformation. That’s why we’re heavily involved, for example, in the TechQuartier in Frankfurt. Helaba is a platinum sponsor and WIBank a co-founder of this FinTech centre. At TechQuartier, we can talk to young founders, but also to companies interested in providing capital or who are potential co-investors for us. We also share ideas with other Landesbanks and insurance companies. The majority of them have venture capital arms similar to Helaba Digital. All of them face similar challenges and we can learn a lot from each other by working together.
Kaiser: All in all, you could say we’ve had a good year, couldn’t you? With ups and downs, with patience and perseverance – but our successes prove we really can get things moving. Many of the successes we’ve spoken of are down to change. That also shows we are on the right track with Helaba Digital and the digitalisation of banking.
Haß: In the final analysis, that’s just part of our job. The latest customer survey revealed that, when it comes to efficiency and innovation, Helaba still has room for improvement. And Helaba Digital is working on both these aspects.
“The establishment of Helaba Digital was the next logical step on our digital agenda. We are convinced that, together with our customers, we can profit from the many innovations in the market.”
Vice-Chairman of Helaba’s Board of Managing Directors
The number of times Lucie Haß and Philipp Kaiser have donned business suits since their company was founded in order to blend in better with the digital ecosystem of their business partners.
Helaba Digital GmbH & Co. KG is an investment company focusing on start-ups. Its aim is to advance the digital transformation in the fields of financial services (FinTechs), regulation (RegTechs) and real estate (PropTechs).
In addition to its financing activities, Helaba Digital opens its doors to experts as well as the Bank’s customers, sharing with them its experience from relevant application areas. Though the focus is on investing in companies already on a growth path, that does not rule out early-phase investments.
komuno is a digital platform for brokering loans between municipalities and providers of capital, and is geared to the needs of the public sector in Germany.
Established in June 2018 as a joint venture between Helaba Digital and Lucht Probst Associates (LPA), the digital marketplace went live three months later. Following a pilot phase with Sparkassen-Finanzgruppe, during which the platform’s functionality was fully tested, it has been available to all licensed banking institutions since January 2019. Participating municipal authorities can now use komuno as their primary channel for loan tenders.