Nearshore Americas

LATAM’s Vast Potential in Mobile and Software Spurs Citi to Launch Unique Software Competition

Lacking the institutions and infrastructure in place in more developed nations, emerging markets represent a major opportunity in mobile finance and banking. Developing countries have a chance to include millions of people into their financial systems and offer consumers innovative ways to manage money for the first time.

Citi has grasped the potential of the mobile finance landscape, especially in Latin America. In turn, it has launched the Citi Mobile Challenge LatAm, a virtual competition designed to accelerate mobile banking innovation in the region.

“One of the main objectives of the challenge from the beginning was to bring together the best developers and ideas out there – regardless of where they came from,” explained Itziar Diez-Canedo, VP of Digital Strategy, Digital Banking and Business Development for Citi Latin America.

“By choosing to ‘democratize’ the process of innovation, we knew we would have many different types of competitors. We have engineering students, seasoned individual developers with a day-job, startups with a new product in mind, and established companies looking to adapt their solutions to LatAm markets. It’s really exciting to see such a diverse group on board. We’ve designed the challenge so that there’s something in it for every type of participant, and every finalist has the opportunity to showcase their solution and potentially engage in commercial conversations with Citi.”

The Citi Mobile Challenge is open to participants from all over the globe, and given its virtual nature, it has drawn submissions from developers worldwide. Competitors from 19 countries and 50 cities are in the mix. “In my mind, that’s the real spirit of crowdsourcing and innovation – it has to be able to come from anywhere and everywhere,” Diez-Canedo affirmed.

 Intellectual property rights for the solutions created will remain in the hands of participants – a major plus for competitors

In the weeks to come, finalists will be invited to compete at two demo events, the first to be held on May 30 and 31 in Buenos Aires, and the second on June 6 and 7 in Bogotá.

“Although this is a global, virtual competition, we think it is strategically important to have our feet on the ground in the markets where we operate, and where these solutions will potentially come to life,” the Diez-Canedo commented. “Both Bogotá and Buenos Aires have strong developer and startup communities, and Citi has longstanding franchises in both. This year will actually mark the 100th birthday of our Citi franchise in Argentina.”

Finalists will have the opportunity to work with mentors like Citi executives Jorge Ruiz, Bob Annibale and Montserrat Garrido as well as Camilo Tellez (World Bank), Lorena Suarez (Wayra) and Nate Gonzalez (Accion Venture Lab). The winning developers will share US$60,000 in prize money.

Mentoring Start-ups

Of course, cash isn’t all participants are after. For individual developers, the contest is an opportunity to validate concepts and get mentorship and feedback from industry references. For startups, the seed money is a boost, but the chance to be noticed by a major financial institution is perhaps more attractive. Large companies see the challenge as a way to commercialize their products in the Latin American market and as a path for potential partnerships and alliances with Citi.

“The main award is the exposure that finalists will get to different businesses within Citi and our partners globally, and the opportunity to engage in commercial conversations with Citi on how to make the solutions come to life for our LatAm clients,” Diez-Canedo commented. “We also have $60,000 in cash prizes, and for startup winners, fast-track access to the Wayra Accelerator program semifinals. This prestigious program offers investment, mentoring, and office space for startups in the digital field.”

It’s also worth noting that intellectual property rights for the solutions created will remain in the hands of participants – a major plus for competitors big and small.

While the finalists selected and solutions proposed remain to be seen, the outcome of the challenge is already starting to take shape.

“The developers who are most likely to succeed will be those that are able to think out of the box and collaborate to develop innovative solutions within a short time frame, and under some serious competition. That’s the nature of a hackathon – it’s sort of an innovation marathon where ideas are created and analyzed within a short time frame,” the executive explained.

“Developers also have to be able to leverage our mobile application toolkit to understand our current product offering in the market, identify gaps in that product offering, and show us technologically feasible, economically viable solutions that make business sense for LatAm users.”

Citi’s Expansion in LATAM

The significance of Citi’s shift in attention to mobile and software development in Latin America cannot be undervalued. It is an indicator of the growing appeal of the region’s finance market and development talent, as well as an intriguing move in terms of sources of innovation.

“It’s very interesting that Citi is pushing for a hackathon, and I think that it shows that big banks, like Citibank and others, are looking for new, creative ways to find value and value-added services for their applications,” commented Serge Elkiner, CEO of YellowPepper, one of the entities competing in the Citi Mobile Challenge.

“I think that for us, it keeps us on our toes to continue developing and creating new value-added functionalities. And in the specific case of Citi, they opened up the API to their mobile banking app, which is one of specialties. We thought it was the opportunity to showcase what we can do and participate, with the intention of winning or being noted by Citibank LatAm so that we can be helpful for their product development.”

YellowPepper is one of the larger operations taking part in the Citi Mobile Challenge Latam. Based out of Miami and with a focus on mobile payments in Latin America, the company has received a total $30 million in venture capital funding and is initially focused on Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador and Peru. For the challenge, it is working on a solution addressing mobile experience with relation to payments.

Not only could the challenge bring major benefits for YellowPepper through potential partnerships and deals with Citi later down the line, but it is also a way for the company’s development team to stretch its muscles – and perhaps detect new talent.

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“Sometimes, when you don’t have a client or a business plan to think about, you get more creative. You’d be surprised by small developers or even students trying to enter these hackathons with very creative ideas. For us, that’s actually a benefit, because we may find someone we want to hire or look after their development growth,” Elkiner said, touching on what is perhaps the most notable takeaway in all of this: innovation can come from anywhere.

Citi doesn’t have all the answers, nor does YellowPepper or anyone else. And initiatives such as this are an effort to bring together the development community in Latin America and all over to discover and build what’s next.

“It’s very refreshing to see somebody like Citibank, which is usually a very conservative bank with its image, to start understanding that the world is evolving, that it can be digital, that developers can come from anywhere in the world. And that they’re doing this in Latin America is great,” Elkiner reflected.

“The dynamics of the consumer banking industry are changing in very interesting ways,” Diez-Canedo concluded. “There is growing disruptive innovation, with non-bank technology companies entering the space and offering up some healthy competition. I think what is key is for banks to be forward-thinking and be open to collaboration and new ideas, and invest heavily in digital solutions. Citi is certainly in a privileged position to do so – and that is what we are looking to accomplish with initiatives like the Citi Mobile Challenge. It’s definitely and exciting time and place to be a part of.”

Emily Stewart

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