Can Ottawa become a fintech force?

David Sali
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Fintech is “one of the most exciting categories in tech investing at the moment,” industry veteran Marwan Forzley says, and he believes his hometown could play a prominent role in its growth.

Marwan Forzley, co-founder, Align Commerce

“Some of the key ingredients are in place,” Mr. Forzley told OBJ after a recent speaking engagement at the Telfer School of Management. “It’s really cheap to develop companies here, engineering talent is available, it’s an area that’s relatively accessible to pockets of money in the U.S. where there are bigger pools of capital. We’ve seen a good success story like that with Shopify, so that’s a good example of what can happen.”

After building a couple of successful companies in his hometown of Ottawa, including online payments firm eBillme, Mr. Forzley moved to New York in 2009. When eBillme was acquired by Western Union, he moved to San Francisco to work for the parent company’s digital team before once again striking out on his own with Align Commerce in 2014.

Canadian entrepreneurs tend to be more risk-averse than their U.S. counterparts, Mr. Forzley said, and a recent Ernst & Young survey showed Canadians have been slower to adopt fintech services than consumers in the United States and Great Britain.

But the explosive growth of Shopify and other e-commerce startups proves the country can be a trailblazer in financial technology from a business standpoint, he said.

“I think that with more success stories, the market can change. The Canadian banking system has done some work to modernize itself, so they’re not necessarily laggards. But they’re not the most aggressive risk-takers. If there’s one area to spend time and money and effort to try to figure out, I’d say fintech is your best segment in technology. I think Canada overall needs to spend more in technology. Not only Ottawa, but Canada in general.”

Align has set up an office in Kanata and Mr. Forzley regularly returns to the city to visit family.  Although he’s not as plugged in to the local tech scene as he used to be, he likes what he sees of its latest generation of entrepreneurs.

“There’s definitely a sense of a new breed of startups in the area that I think are going to be a good seed for future buildups,” he said. “There was a period of time after the Nortel (collapse) where the industry kind of went through a phase of not much action. Now, it seems like there is activity going on.

“I think the tech scene here is becoming more and more interesting, and hopefully part of that revitalization of the area is that fintech becomes one of the key segments that the market rallies around.”

Organizations: Telfer School of Management, Western Union, Ernst Young Nortel

Geographic location: Ottawa, United States, New York San Francisco Canada Great Britain Kanata

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