“The Accelerator was a game-changer for us”
After seven years, the Barclays Accelerator, powered by Techstars, has reached a $4bn market cap valuation. We look back on the programme that has supported nearly 200 fintech startups and led to successes including unicorn status, an IPO launch and a “game-changing experience”.
When Barclays linked up with startup accelerator specialist Techstars in 2014 to launch a fintech accelerator, it was, according to Sonal Lakhani, because the team wanted to build on the bank’s culture of innovation, “learning even more about fintech – and working with startups in a constructive way”.
Lakhani, who is Global Head of Programmes and Strategic Initiatives at Barclays Innovation Office, remembers the formation of the 13-week accelerator programme as being “like a mini-MBA, shrinking down the process of going from an idea to actually founding a business and then getting it funded”.
After seven years and 19 programmes, split between London, New York, Tel Aviv and Cape Town, 191 companies have graduated from the initiative, officially known as the Barclays Accelerator, powered by Techstars. Between them, alumni companies have amassed a market cap valuation – the estimated value if all their shares were available on the open market – of over $4bn and contributed heavily to the changing face of financial services.
Over the years, she says, the model has changed to allow Barclays to work in partnership with the fintechs and support the companies coming up with new ideas, new business models and new technology. “We tried to create an environment that fosters the growth of companies when they come out of the programme. In doing this, we can also ensure that our own products and services stay relevant to our consumer base, as well as supporting job creation.”
We tried to create an environment that fosters the growth of companies when they come out of the programme.
Global Head of Programmes and Strategic Initiatives at Barclays Innovation Office
A star graduate of the 2015 New York Accelerator is Chainalysis, which recently became the network’s first unicorn company, exceeding a billion-dollar valuation. Describing his firm as “a data platform for blockchains, looking at and trying to understand all the data in crypto and finding risks and opportunities”, co-founder Michael Gronager says that Chainalysis has recently undergone three $100m funding rounds, growing in valuation from $1bn to $2.2bn to $4.2bn.
This exponential growth is not uncommon in fintech, and even without Chainalysis, the Accelerator portfolio – most of which entered Barclays’ buildings as pre-seed companies – has a market cap of more than $2bn, doubling since 2019.
Joff Hamilton-Dick is the co-founder of SparkChange, a provider of specialist carbon investment products and data, which was part of the 2019 London Accelerator. He remembers the experience as being “a game changer for us”.
Having really good mentors as part of the programme has been crucial over the years. That network will always be in our DNA as a company.
The speed of interactions with mentors and potential investors was a key asset, he says. “In week two of the programme, they had something called ‘mentor madness’ and lined up 90 meetings with senior business leaders and entrepreneurs. They'll come and sit at your desk – the rate at which you can forage around and make second-degree connections was simply unprecedented for us.
“There was one person in particular who has irrevocably changed the shape of our business: everything from the people we've hired to our investors, to the advisers we brought on board, to client traction we're getting – just from one person in ‘mentor madness’ in this well-oiled, well-organised accelerator.”
Barclays stayed involved with SparkChange, leading a $4.5m seed investment round, and supporting a company that Lakhani says “is a great example of where finance can play an important role in the sustainability agenda”.
The graduate class of 2015 has recently celebrated its first IPO, with the listing of cryptocurrency exchange and brokerage Safello in a heavily oversubscribed float on the Nasdaq First North Growth Market in Stockholm. CEO Frank Schuil remembers the Barclays Accelerator, powered by Techstars, as “a very energetic experience”. He says: “You're all in the same boat with great entrepreneurs who are trying to build amazing companies with amazing mentors.
“There were some unique connections that you get from being in such an intense environment for three months, and we had a very successful batch of companies. Another cool thing was the access to the Barclays network – it was a great opportunity to launch a proof of concept with a really big partner.”
Another cool thing was the access to the Barclays network – it was a great opportunity to launch a proof of concept with a really big partner.
SparkChange’s Hamilton-Dick also remembers the proximity to Barclays as being “a key way to learn about the market and how big banks are thinking about our product, and also what are the wrong rabbit holes to explore”.
Gronager looks back on the accelerator as a vital time in Chainalysis’ growth to unicorn status. “It was great to build friendships with other founders in the process,” he says, “and see how they’ve managed to grow their companies over time. Working with Barclays was also key for us to develop our sales strategy into financial institutions.”
Lakhani says that the pandemic has offered “an opportunity to pause and think about our strategy and what we’re trying to achieve” as the fintech ecosystem matures.
“We have listened to feedback from our fintech community, both within and outside Barclays,” she explains. “We want to be able to continue to support the early-stage creation of startups, but we also want to produce a new programme that's focusing on scaleups and how to best support those scaling companies.”
In the meantime, lessons learned in the mini-MBA, coupled with constant access to the alumni network, mentors and investors, continue to pay dividends even for multi-billion-dollar companies such as Chainalysis.
“Having really good mentors as part of the programme has been crucial over the years in being able to reach out for questions and guidance,” says Gronager. “That network will always be in our DNA as a company.”