Exclusive Interview: Jon Zanoff, Michelle Peng Greenberg, and Canadian FinTech

We had the pleasure of talking to Jon Zanoff from Empire Startups and Michelle Peng Greenberg from MaRS Discovery District in Toronto. If you’re in Toronto, near Toronto, or need an excuse to go to Toronto, mark your calendars for Empire Startups FinTech on June 27!

LTP: Jon and Michelle, thanks for joining us! Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do in FinTech.

Michelle Peng Greenberg: Located in the heart of Canada’s largest city, MaRS Discovery District is the world’s largest urban innovation hub, operating a 1.5 million-square-foot building, home to hundreds of startups, corporates, and investors including innovation leaders like Facebook, Autodesk, Airbnb and Johnson and Johnson’s JLabs. We currently work with 1,200+ startups in Canada across 4four key sectors – FinTech & Commerce, Energy & Environment, Health, and Work & Learning.

I lead partnership initiatives for the Finance & Commerce team, with a focus on building global partnerships to help MaRS venture companies scale and grow in new markets. Having worked a decade in the financial services industry, most recently as Vice President for a leading independent asset management firm, I’ve seen first-hand how extraordinary the opportunities are for innovation in this industry. It’s a very exciting time to be in FinTech!

Jon Zanoff: I founded Empire Startups over five years ago to support the FinTech ecosystem. In those five years, we've organized over 140 events for the startup communities in New York, San Francisco, and now Toronto. With over 13,000 members, we're proud to be the largest community of FinTech entrepreneurs in the world. We like to say that "FinTech Startups Start Here" because entrepreneurs turn to Empire first to keep up with trends, share ideas, and seek mentorship.

LTP: Why now for a Canadian FinTech conference? What do you hope to foster between US/Canadian FinTech worlds that isn't being addressed today?

JZ: We believe that innovation can be accelerated by collaboration. That notion has become a cliche, so we set out ourselves to build a bridge between Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley (NYC), and the startup community in Toronto.

MPG: There is a heightened global awareness and interest in Canada right now. We have experienced record highs in both FinTech VC deal activity and value. VC-backed investment in Canadian FinTech companies hit its highest level in almost two decades last year. Some of our recent Canadian transactions are rivaling some of the largest financings globally: the online wealth management advisory platform Wealthsimple recently raised $57M, invoice funding platform FundTthrough raised $24.6 million, and consumer financing platform Financeit raised $17M.

There are remarkable parallels between the neighboring US and Canadian markets, so for globally-minded companies, there’s a natural alignment among these neighboring markets. Canada is also one of the best markets in the world for FinTech innovation because our banking system has been ranked as the soundest in the world in the G7 for the past nine years. The incumbents are also dedicating more resources and budget to innovation spend than ever in the FinTech space, with more than half of their budgets dedicated to areas such as blockchain, AI, and cybersecurity.

Regulators in Canada are starting to recognize their role in helping to accelerate FinTech innovation. Last year, Ontario Securities Commission launched a regulatory sandbox and announced a regulatory collaboration with the UK and Australia. The US has a proposed regulatory sandbox initiative underway which means there’s an opportunity to work together in a regulatory capacity and foster greater cross-border collaboration for our startups.

LTP: Tell us a bit more about the Canadian FinTech ecosystem?

MPG: The Canadian FinTech ecosystem is a very collaborative and supportive community and is championed by public and private organizations. We are seeing financial institutions and FinTech enabling companies beginning to collaborate on a more regular basis. Canada also has some of the best and brightest in the areas that startup companies are looking for graduating out of university STEM programs.

The Vector Institute in Toronto – led by Geoffrey Hinton, the godfather of deep learning – will be a world-leading AI research facility with $150 million of funding committed to date from government and corporate partners. Notable global players such as Google, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Uber have already committed funds to the Institute. Artificial intelligence will transform FinTech research tremendously. The startup community in Toronto will benefit immensely from opportunities to collaborate with top machine learning researchers at the Vector Institute.

From a city perspective, Toronto is recognized as one of the largest and most stable financial centers in the world, and is known for its strong and diverse tech, and academic expertise – nearly 80% of Canadian FinTech activity occurs in Toronto and it is a perfect partner city to host Empire Startups’ inaugural Canadian FinTech conference here in the city.

JZ: Canada, and Toronto specifically, has been a home for FinTech for decades. In fact, 15 years ago, I spent a huge amount of time on Yonge Street working for E*Trade. That said, the startup ecosystem is lacking access to some of the capital and expertise that exists elsewhere. We believe that as long as you have the brightest engineers coming out of Waterloo and the banks all on one street in the same city, this is the place to discover the next great FinTech unicorn.

LTP: What’s something that might surprise our audience about Canadian FinTech?

MPG: Canada and Toronto, in particular, is recognized for its diversity – in fact, one in five Canadians speak a language other than English. Diverse startup teams are able to adopt a global mindset from the beginning. We’re also seeing that women are increasingly represented in founding and leadership teams among our tech companies. There is an inherent understanding from Canadian tech firms that diversity is key to innovation. The FinTech community has rallied together to take a bold stance on diversity and we’re proud of this here in Canada.

LTP: What’s makes this conference a must-attend event? Pitch! And where do we sign up?

JZ: This is the very first time we’ll see top entrepreneurs and VCs from the US and Canada on stage together. No one in FinTech should miss this! Reserve your seat ASAP here.

LTP: Thanks for joining us, Jon and Michelle. Get your tickets today and see you in Toronto!