When Mastercard launched the Start Path accelerator program in 2014, the goal – according to VP and senior business leader, Amy Neale – was to make it easier for emerging companies to enter “our world” through a combination of operational support, commercial access and some strategic funding.
“And when we talk about our world, we mean not just payments, but FinTech more broadly – and, even more broadly than that, commerce," she said.
In many ways, according to Neale, it was a traditional corporate accelerator model at launch. Over time, however, that view has strategically shifted in a series of small but critical ways, as Mastercard has learned more about the start-up world and the types of firms with which they are best suited to partner.
For example, over the last two years, Mastercard has moved its focus from start-ups that are still quite nascent, to those that have taken important steps to grow by raising funds, putting an actual product in market and beginning to scale.
“What we recognized was that for a company like Mastercard and our partners, it is the companies that have been able to demonstrate some traction, build out the product and validate it to the customer that we are really able to work with," noted Neale. "And our goal is to find the opportunities to work together with start-up companies.”
Those slightly later-stage companies proved to be the best fit for that goal. Plus, Neale noted, while they were meeting and reviewing companies, it quickly became apparent that later-stage early start-ups were experiencing something of a gap in the marketplace. These firms had a solid proof of concept, but needed an opportunity to scale their tech. As Neale pointed out, this particularly applied to international firms, which may be well-known in their home market but would like to expand globally. Mastercard, given its global nature, is well-positioned to help those expansions happen.
And so, as 2018 begins, so does the Start Path class of 2018, which is accepting applications until Jan. 15.
The Start Path Admissions Process
The process for startups is as straightforward as completing a very simple form online and, if the company wishes, submitting a reference.
“We ask a few basic but important questions,” Neale said. “We want to know a little about their business – what funding they’ve managed to pick up, what problem they are trying to solve, what types of products they’ve built.”
From there, applications are screened and a shortlist of applicants is invited to come and pitch directly to Mastercard. After meeting with senior personnel, Mastercard creates the class with an eye toward assembling a diverse cohort of businesses.
Over the last four years, Neale noted, Mastercard has evaluated over 5,000 firms through the Start Path program, and has chosen only 150 to participate.
Last year, Start Path evaluated roughly 1,500 companies and welcomed 22 to join the program in three separate waves. The class of 2017 included firms working on projects as varied as finding new ways to use blockchain, protect digital identity, digitize donations, manage health care data, create omnichannel retail solutions and develop artificial intelligence innovations to enhance consumer engagement.
Efforts to mentor and develop those programs have borne fruit.
In 2017 alone, Neale noted, Mastercard had roughly 30 separate collaborative projects they were able to “stand up” with startup companies, experiencing what she described as the “holy grail” of start-up collaborations: moving from the theoretical conversations to actual work that has an impact on people’s lives and businesses.
As a new year is getting up and running, Neale said that Mastercard is excited to get their next wave of start-ups, and to build the next generation of solutions.
“We are looking for solutions that create better experiences for consumers in all aspects of commerce interactions,” Neale emphasized. “Whether that is from an SMB’s point of view or a new experience for millennials getting their feet wet with financial services for the first time or emerging tech that is being deployed in a way to create new experiences, we are trying to be as broad as possible in our thinking.”
Applicants have until Jan. 15 to apply.