What it's really like inside Level 39, Europe's biggest Fintech accelerator

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It might be coincidence that Level 39, the self-proclaimed 'largest technology accelerator for finance, retail, cyber-security and future cities technology' in Europe, looks down on the London offices of banks like J.P. Morgan, Barclays, Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley, or it might not.  Either way, there are plenty of people inside who think they’ve got a perspective on the finance world of the future.

“Most of the people here have worked in finance,” says Asif Faruque, the “gatekeeper of content” at Level 39. “Around 70% of our businesses are fintech start-ups founded by people who’ve come out of the finance industry because they’ve seen opportunities in the market.”

Those opportunities include everything from cyber monitoring to payment systems and the blockchain. Level 39’s accelerator is expediting 176 companies in total and houses over 500 people. The name is actually a misnomer. It’s been levels 39, 24 and 42 ever since the company shifted into two more floors for ‘high growth’ companies in 2013 and January 2015 respectively. The best known among them is Digital Shadows, the cyber monitoring start-up which closed an $8m fundraising round earlier this year. "They're one of our real success stories," says Faruque.

In a sense, Level 39 has been too successful. Demand for a place among its black wood, shiny black plastic, blinking portrait, jars of smarties and iridescent-glass-heart-in-a-box, far exceeds supply. Faruque says 1,800 companies have tried for desk space there, a success rate of around 10%: “We get one or two applicants a day, but we only accept people with demonstrable products. We’re not interested in companies that are still at the ideas stage.”

Because of this, most of the Fintech founders who pitch their businesses to Level 39 have quit their finance jobs already: “They’ve saved up and have funded the development of the product from their own money, or have got venture funding.”

One of these is Erkin Adylov, the ex-Goldman Sachs equities analyst and GLG portfolio manager who quit finance in June 2014 to found Behavox, an automated compliance surveillance system. Another is Juan Colón, an ex-Oliver Wyman consultant and co-founder of Darwinex, a company that matches skilled FX traders with investors' capital. Ignacio Colón, head of customer experience at Darwinex, says Level 39 offers visibility, access to investors, mentors and free cookies.

“The value they provide here is far above any other accelerator,” agrees Eric Benz, fintech strategist at Credits, a company developing a blockchain technology for use in financial markets from scratch. “There’s access to some legendary people in the finance and technology industry and we’re in the ideal location to interact with banks.”

Benz came into Fintech via a circuitous route. In 2008 he was working in Mayfair for Duet Asset Management, buying and selling art for their collection. Then he “found” blockchain, and hasn’t looked back. “In future you’ll be given a blockchain from birth – everyone will have their own with their health information on it. You pass out in the street and they’ll take your thumb print to see your chain and everything about you,” he proselytizes.

Is Fintech really so much of a sure thing though? Jamie Dimon said last week that most banks are already looking at developing blockchain technologies of their own and added that it's not clear whether the encrypted distributed ledger technology will really be that much more secure than the systems on offer already.

Back at Level 39, Benz says he’s seen plenty of people come and go. “A lot of the people who come from banks get frustrated at not earning anything,” he says. “It's one thing being around the money here, but it's another actually getting it in your own bank account. - There are people who were working for J.P. Morgan as developers, earning £1.2k a day for not doing much. It’s a security blanket – and when they don’t make the money they expected, they just go back to it.”

From Level 39, at least, they don’t have far to go.

For more information on Level 39, click here. The accelerator offers a range of membership levels, starting from £1.5k a year.

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