When Silicon Valley veteran Eileen Burbidge moved to London in 2004, it was only meant to be temporary. With more than a decade of experience at tech stalwarts including Apple, Sun Microsystems and Verizon Wireless, the Chicago native felt a stint in Europe might help advance her career back in the U.S. With no language barrier and an emerging software-development market, London was an obvious choice. She took on a job as product director for a newly launched startup named Skype.
Nearly 20 years later, Burbidge is still there. Now co-founder and partner of early-stage venture-capital firm Passion Capital, she has established herself as an intrinsic part of London’s financial technology, or “fintech,” scene. Burbidge was the digital representative on former Prime Minister David Cameron’s business advisory panel and was honored by Queen Elizabeth II in 2015 as a member of the Order of the British Empire—or MBE—for services to U.K. business. She also served as tech ambassador for the office of the mayor of London, and is now a fintech envoy to the U.K. Treasury.
It’s little surprise then that Burbidge sees London firmly at the beating heart of the tech-forward financial world. “It’s got the unique combination of a financial-services heritage, with 300 of the world’s banking headquarters based here, plus progressive policy-makers who support fintech innovation,” she tells TIME over video call from her home office in North London.
The U.K. capital has for centuries been a center of global finance, with long-established trading exchanges and trusted banking and insurance institutions. In the digital era, it has become an emerging hub for fintech companies, which use technology to improve financial services. Not even the uncertainty presented by the U.K.’s departure from the European Union in early 2020, coupled with the disruption of the global pandemic, has stemmed growth. Venture-capital firms invested $4.57 billion in U.K.-based fintech companies last year, making the country second only to the U.S., where investment was $19.6 billion, according to growth platform Tech Nation’s annual report on the U.K. tech sector. And in the first half of 2021 alone, U.K. tech companies raised more than $18 billion worth of venture-capital funding, according to figures compiled for the U.K.’s Digital Economy Council. “Investors showing their confidence in London’s fintech offering reinforces our city’s position as a leading global hub for this important and growing industry,” Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, says in a statement. “Despite the impact of Brexit and the pandemic, we’ve seen record levels of funding for fintech businesses in the first six months of the year.”
The success story of this boom in fintech innovation has undoubtedly been so-called challenger banks— digital-only banking apps that use cloud-based infrastructure, embedded artificial intelligence, and agile frameworks to give consumers easier and faster access to banking services and financial products. Companies like Revolut, Starling Bank and Monzo have raised increasingly large sums of money and established themselves as household names among their tech-savvy, largely millennial and Gen Z consumer base, many of whom have eschewed traditional retail banking in favor of these more user-friendly banking apps.
How London evolved to become a challenger to established hubs for innovation in the U.S. has lessons for entrepreneurs and investors who find an increasingly difficult regulatory environment and a shrinking talent pool for development in California, New York or Texas. Burbidge, one of the key architects of the fintech boom, sees a changing of the guard. “Before long my colleagues [in the U.S.] stopped asking when I was coming back and by 2016 were instead coming across to join me,” she says.
When Burbidge set about building her team at Skype in 2004, the lack of qualified workers was one of the biggest challenges she faced. “Despite this burgeoning tech and digital sector in London, it was impossible for me to find a product manager, and the first few hires I made all came over from the States.” Now, she says there is a “wide concentration of developers, so much more than San Jose or New York.”
That change has been helped in part by shifts in London’s economic ecosystem in the past decade. As a bruised City of London emerged from the financial crisis, it had lost its shine for some workers, who had seen how antiquated technology and a lack of innovation were stagnating progress and career development. Public attitudes toward the City had cooled amid austerity measures that also exacerbated problems for those who were unbanked or underserved by traditional outlets.
It was this environment that led Starling Bank’s founder Anne Boden—who spent 30 years working for traditional banking heavyweights that had been battered by the crisis, like ABN Amro, Royal Bank of Scotland and Allied Irish Banks—to launch her own bank in 2014. “I noticed that banking hadn’t progressed technologically, and this frustrated me,” says Boden. “The big banks seemed to be stuck in the past … Their systems were slow and yet no one seemed to be improving them. I realized that if I wanted to see a real digital bank in action, I would have to launch one myself.”
Boden says she founded Starling as “a more human alternative to the banks of the past.” The digital bank, which counts Fidelity and the Qatar Investment Authority among its backers, was recently valued at $1.7 billion.
Many others in the financial industry had similar sentiments to Boden’s, and left the industry to join some of London’s burgeoning startups or create their own fintechs. As attitudes have shifted, the conveyor belt that once took the brightest young minds from the halls of Europe’s top universities to the trading floors and deal rooms of investment banks has slowed, and fintechs have been reaping the benefits. Nikolay Storonsky, the British-Russian CEO of Revolut, says it was London’s talent pool that was most compelling when he established the company in 2015. “We have a hugely diverse U.K. workforce—more than 80 nationalities—many of whom were Londoners already, and others who were enthusiastic to come here.”
Storonsky, a former derivatives trader at Lehman Brothers and Credit Suisse, was also able to tap two talent pipelines to fuel the company’s phenomenal growth. “London’s eminence as a world financial centre is a huge advantage. There’s deep experience and talent here, both from the financial sector and from the startup world,” he says in an email.
Burbidge found that what wasn’t as established in London was the early-stage venture-capital funding network that startups need to grow, and that creates unicorns. In the U.K., venture-capital firms have typically been later-stage investors, meaning startup founders have had to rely on angel investors, bank loans and even their own cash for early funding. Burbidge and her two business partners at the time, Robert Dighero and Stefan Glaenzer, who has since left the firm, decided to replicate the Silicon Valley model of first-round funding through Passion Capital when they founded it in 2009. They were determined to back exciting and dynamic startups, leading to standout investments in GoCardless in 2011 and Monzo in 2015. The latter neobank, known for its distinctive colorful debit cards that can be used abroad without fees, has since surpassed a $1 billion valuation and is piloting a beta version of its app in the U.S. in partnership with Sutton Bank.
A major reason challenger banks have been able to thrive in London is a supportive regulatory environment, says Storonsky, whose Revolut is now valued at $33 billion, making it the U.K.’s most valuable tech company in history. U.K. watchdog the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has taken an active role, engaging with banks and new fintech companies on consumer-focused solutions, and it has established a world-class sandbox, where approved new fintech firms can test products with real consumers.
Yet by 2016, just as the fintech industry was becoming established in London, storm clouds loomed on the horizon. That summer, the British public voted to leave the E.U.—although notably voters in London backed Remain by 60-40.
London’s financial industry grew into what it is today partly because its rules mirrored those of the E.U., allowing for seamless transactions. Many in the London-based fintech industry were concerned about how Brexit might change the legal framework that the City operates within. The U.K. ultimately left the bloc last January, but Burbidge says that there has been no doomsday scenario so far: “We certainly haven’t seen the big asset managers or banks clear out of London. Perhaps that’s because it’s been the home of traditional financial-services institutions for so long—there’s still a draw.”
The regulatory environment remains advantageous for fintech companies post-Brexit, she says. “If you’re going to be a fintech you do have to be regulated and domiciled, which means you’re subject to compliance. And the U.K. is one of the most progressive and forward-thinking homes for fintech.”
For the industry to continue growing, however, it will also require the pool of talent to be continually replenished, but restrictions on freedom of movement between the U.K. and the E.U. may make that harder. The U.K. fintech industry employed 76,500 people in 2017, and that was projected to reach 105,500 by 2030 if immigration rules remained as they were.
Simon Schmincke, a partner at venture-capital firm Creandum, which has invested in several U.K. fintech companies, says that bringing in talent from other countries is becoming a headache for many companies: “I am stunned that in two years, we still haven’t figured out how to bring smart people in quickly. And that is having both a negative impact on individual companies and on the country’s image.” It used to be that “everyone was welcome as long as you worked hard and smart,” Schmincke says. “Now, that image is fading.”
Last year, after the U.K. formally left the E.U., Britain’s Finance Minister Rishi Sunak commissioned businessman Ron Kalifa to chair an independent strategic review of how the U.K. government, regulators, and companies can support the growth and widespread adoption of fintech and maintain Britain’s global reputation in the sector. The government has committed to adopting a number of the report’s recommendations.
“We’ve set out a road map to sharpen the U.K.’s competitive advantage and deliver a more open, green and technologically advanced financial-services sector,” a spokesperson for the U.K. Treasury said. The government plans to support U.K. fintech companies by introducing new visa routes for foreign workers, enhancing its regulatory toolbox, reforming its market-listing rules and exploring a central-bank digital currency, the spokesperson said.
These kinds of reforms will be necessary for London to retain its competitive edge, according to Shampa Roy-Mukherjee, associate professor and director of impact and innovation at the Royal Docks School of Business and Law, University of East London. European countries such as Malta and Lithuania are taking advantage of the uncertainty caused by Brexit to offer new homes to London-based fintech companies, she says. “These countries are able to provide the fintech companies regulatory authorization to trade with the E.U., which the U.K. currently cannot provide.”
U.S. investors haven’t been scared off by Brexit—and in fact have helped to power the U.K.’s fintech industry to greater heights. John Doran, general partner at U.S. growth-capital firm TCV, an investor in Revolut, says in an email that the company’s fundamentals were the key consideration. “We look to invest behind exceptionally driven visionary founders, who are building category leaders in industries undergoing a massive structural shift, and Revolut has all of these things.”
It also has the size and clout to pursue growth in the U.S. market. Similarly to Monzo’s relationship with Sutton, Revolut currently partners with Metropolitan Commercial Bank, but it applied for an independent U.S. banking license in March and began offering services to small and medium-size businesses in the U.S.
Burbidge is skeptical that the success of London could be as easily replicated across the pond. “It’s definitely down to the culture and ecosystem,” she says. “Because the U.S. is so siloed in terms of regulation, the success of financial-services hubs would be difficult to replicate.”
She says entrepreneurs in London are more mindful of customer outcomes than their U.S. counterparts. Partly in an effort to avoid comparisons with payday-loan apps that have been criticized for predatory tactics in recent years, many U.K. founders have worked to ensure that “wellness and mental health are built in at the core of new startups,” Burbidge says. “Historically this hasn’t been part of the startup culture in the U.S.”
She adds that the FCA is more attuned to these issues and wields “a far greater influence” in the U.K. than regulators do in the U.S. “While attitudes toward financial inclusion and customer outcomes are shifting over there, I believe if they had started thinking earlier about it as a proposition, they would have attracted further investment and customers. It’s a missed opportunity for the U.S.”
America’s biggest bank has taken notice of the particular advantages the U.K. market offers too. On Sept. 21, JPMorgan Chase launched its digital bank, Chase, in the U.K., marking the commercial bank’s first foray outside the U.S. in its 222-year history. It is attempting to attract U.K. consumers in the competitive market with a range of cash-back and savings offers. The bank has indicated it is in it for the long haul, and is prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to become profitable in the U.K.
Burbidge isn’t planning on leaving London anytime soon either, and remains its biggest cheerleader. “It’s a city with a massive commercial center, but it’s also the policymaking hub of the U.K. and additionally so creative and diverse that it’s as if you combined all of San Francisco, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles all into one megacity,” she says. “It’s hard to beat.” —With reporting by Eloise Barry/London