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Big ideas meet big money at Singapore fintech bootcamp

Investors and startup founders mingle at the Startupbootcamp FinTech Demo Day in Singapore.
Startupbootcamp FinTech
Investors and startup founders mingle at the Startupbootcamp FinTech Demo Day in Singapore.

One is a former surfer. Another, a former Goldman Sachs portfolio manager. But both are now in the same boat: they're entrepreneurs pitching their ideas in front of hundreds of potential investors.

Welcome to Demo Day in Singapore, the culmination of a rigorous 'bootcamp' for financial technology start-ups. Startupbootcamp FinTech ran over three months, during which 11 new companies honed their pitches, worked with mentors in the finance and digital sectors and even cut some deals, before finishing with the recent day of presentations to possible funding partners.

"We are a very important platform that connects the banking industry to entrepreneurs of fintech startups," says Markus Gnirck, co-founder of Startupbootcamp FinTech. "We are making the two industries speak to each other. It gives banks an outside view of innovation."

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Han Verstraete, 44, straddles the financial and technology worlds. A former portfolio manager at Goldman Sachs, he got onstage at Demo Day and held up a document with a wax seal: "This shows we are still sticking to medieval rituals when we set up companies."

He went on to explain how his new company, Otonomos, uses the blockchain - a public ledger of all verified encrypted transactions - to help private companies incorporate and transfer encrypted shares. His target clients are venture capital firms, hedge funds and private holding companies.

He is looking to raise $750,000 in the first round of funding.

"This is a zero-to-one space we're working in," he says. "It's not as easy to understand as a crowd funding or mobile payment thing ... We are working with technology - the blockchain - that people are just starting to use. The hard work starts now, as we talk to investors. We are now separating the 'early joiners' and 'wait and see investors'."

Another bootcamp participant, Aaron Siwoku , 32, ran a mobile content startup for six years, took a "mini-retirement" to surf in Bali for a year and is now back on the startup scene.

He has created Toast, an app that allows migrant workers to remit money using a near field communication (NFC)-enabled smartphone and their EZ-link metro card.

Siwoku saw an issue: Filipino maids in Singapore queuing up for hours at a money exchange in order to send money home, then had a lightbulb moment when he learned anyone with an EZ-Link card (the Singapore subway and bus card) can top up the card to a maximum $500 at any MRT station.

According to Siwoku, 100 percent of Filipinos in Singapore have an EZ-Link card and 95 percent have a smartphone. Why not marry the two technologies? Filipino migrant workers can add cash from their monthly salary to their EZ-Link card, tap the card against their NFC-enabled phone and transfer money into a digital wallet in Toast's app.

A relative in the Philippines who has downloaded the Toast app to their phone can then receive the information and withdraw the money at local cash pick-up centers.

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Toast is looking to raise $750,000 in an initial seed round. Siwoku says the hard part is convincing investors to buy into the idea.

"Investors don't see you as a dot, they see you as a line," says Siwoku. "The first time they see you, you might be a six on the impressive axis. The next time you might be a 7.5 and they may say 'Let's invest'."

So what gets an investor's attention?

Amit Anand is the co-founder of Singapore-based Jungle Ventures, which has invested in 30 startups through Southeast Asia. His firm typically invests from $3 million to $5 million in each company.

"The secret sauce is we work with the bootcamp early in the process to see how they (the startups) are tracking, what their challenges are and how much progress they've made."

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Here are his tips for early ventures that want to attract funding:

Sell your story .... realistically: "It's how you tell your story because you have to sell your story a thousand times; to the first employee, to the first investor. You need to have the ability to explain how you are going to get your first 10 customers. We don't want to know how you'll get to 600 million customers yet. Don't oversell the topdown model without demonstrating the bottom up model."

Build a great team: "In venture investing, teams are everything. If the teams are great, we're able to have incredible progress. We look for operational experiece. What we are looking for is 'building business ability'."

Maximize connections: "We look to see who's made the most destructive process (during the bootcamp). We look at the progress they made and the maturity they've gotten in those 90 days. We watch the deals they've cut, the partnerships they've made. The companies that do well show they've used their resources to accelerate growth."

Jungle Ventures has a rule of thumb to not invest in a company they haven't tracked for at least 12 months. But rules are meant to be broken.

Anand arrived at Demo Day intending only to listen to the pitches.

"I went there thinking these companies will still be too early for us. But guess what? We are in discussions with one startup for an investment. So never say never," he says.

He declined to identify the startup but does give away: "What I liked most about this company was the kind of people that approached them. They were from the financial community and were asking 'How can I use this product today?'."

— Tweet the author at @PaulineChiou