Update: News broke on Friday that Brazil’s central bank suspended Neon’s operations because of legal and regulatory issues with its partner banking institution Banco Neon SA. According to reports, the company is in the process of securing another partner and maintains the support of its investors.
San Francisco’s Propel Venture Partners has made its first investment outside of the U.S. since it closed a new global fund in August 2017.
Fintech-focused Propel joined Brazil’s Monashees and Washington, D.C.-based Quona Capital in the $22 million Series A financing of Neon, a Sao Paulo-based digital bank startup. Omidyar Network, Tera, and Yellow Ventures also participated in the funding round.
Neon launched its services in 2016 and has more than 600,000 users across Brazil. It was founded by 25-year-old Pedro Conrade with the goal of giving customers an alternative to traditional banks. Neon does not offer physical branches. To open an account, users need to download the Neon app, be over 18 years of age, and have a valid ID. Last month, Neon unveiled a new credit card offering and relocated to a larger headquarters space to give it more room to grow.
Propel said its investment in Neon is a testament to a “fintech revolution” taking place in Brazil, which is known for extremely high interest rates and limited banking choices for consumers.
In a press release, Conrade said the company will use the latest funding round to expand its products and develop its technology.
“We are excited to support Pedro and his team in their mission to build the bank of the future,” Reinemann said. “At Propel our focus is on supporting entrepreneurial innovators who are reimagining financial services, and we believe Neon has the right approach to lead Brazil’s fintech revolution.”
Propel was introduced to Neon by an old colleague at BBVA, who is Propel’s anchor LP.
“Neon is different from almost all other challenger banks since it has a full banking license,” Reinemann wrote via email. “With that license, it can take customer deposits with a very low cost of capital and use those deposits for loans.”
Traditional bank competitors have expensive cost structures with some of the densest population of branches in the world, he added.
“Neon is a digital native, not just building a beautiful product, but also giving customers much lower cost products than traditional banks,” Reinemann continued. “For example, Neon does not charge a basic maintenance fee for a consumer account just to hold the customer funds, whereas most traditional banks charge about R$30/month or about US$9 per month.”
Traditionally, Brazilian banks have benefited from an oligopoly that has enabled them to be “extremely profitable” at the expense of the consumers and businesses, according to Reinemann.
“Prime customers still will be charged 50 to 100 percent APRs on loans since the customer has almost no options,” he said.
Neon aims to reach one million customers by year’s end and plans to expand into business banking account services and investing options over the coming months.
Small Steps In Latin America
Last August, Crunchbase News reported that venture funding in Latin America had grown steadily over the past few years, but the amount of money raised by startups in the region in 2016 remained dramatically less than U.S. funding totals.
Overall, when it comes to the country’s startup scene, Reinemann believes Brazil is five to seven years behind the U.S. market.
“But the startup scene has been heating up in the last couple years,” he said. Brazilian startups have the advantage of a huge domestic market considering the country’s population exceeds 200 million people.
“Incumbents have not gone through their own digital transformations so the startups have a product innovation and technology advantage that enables new business models that the incumbents currently can’t afford,” Reinemann said.
But the country still faces the challenge of less access to early-stage capital with fewer local and foreign VCs. Brazil has recently seen some impressive exits, including XP Investimentos being partially acquired by Itau and PagSeguro’s recent $2.3 billion IPO—now valued at about $10.4 billion.
“Hopefully these signs will draw in more capital from investors,” Reinemann added.