Swiss bank UBS to start venture capital arm

Lender will look to make investments of $10m-$20m apiece in FinTech companies

A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks past the entrance to the UBS Group AG headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, on Friday, April 17, 2020. A UBS appeal of a record 4.5 billion-euro ($4.9 billion) French fine for helping clients stash undeclared funds in offshore accounts was postponed over concerns related to coronavirus pandemic, according to people familiar with the case. Photographer: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg

UBS Group is setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars of its own money to invest in fintech companies, joining peers in financing startups that are upending traditional banking.

The Swiss wealth manager is planning a corporate venture capital fund to make investments of between $10 million and $20m (Dh36.7m-Dh73.4m) in dozens of companies, according to a source. UBS plans to hold the stakes for at least five years.

A UBS spokeswoman confirmed the bank is starting such a fund, while declining to comment on specifics.

The venture fund comes just months after UBS named ING Group's Ralph Hamers, an outspoken champion of digital banking, to succeed Sergio Ermotti as chief executive from October. While wealth management – UBS’s biggest business – is traditionally a high-touch operation, with clients valuing personal contact, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated a shift toward digital services.

“UBS wants to further engage with and support FinTech firms,” said Mike Dargan, UBS’s global group technology head. “The new venture investment portfolio is a next step to accelerate our innovation and digitisation efforts.”

The new fund will look at three broad categories to invest in: client engagement, investing and financing platforms, and improving underlying operations of the bank. While it is already screening potential investments, the bank is still in the process of hiring a team dedicated to run the fund, the people said.

More digital tools are a key part of a revamp plan for UBS’s wealth unit unveiled earlier this year. The bank wants to use them to save time on administrative tasks and cut costs, as competition for rich clients and a flight to cheaper, passive investment products erode profitability.

Globally, US banks have been at the forefront of spending on FinTech, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. The firms are generally more profitable and can afford to plough large sums into such efforts. UBS’s Zurich rival Credit Suisse already invests in FinTech through its entrepreneur capital arm.

UBS is also looking to use technology to make inroads in the Chinese wealth market. The bank is in the process of acquiring a digital fund distribution license, which would provide a basic fund offering to rich Chinese customers. Over time, UBS plans to use such a digital licence to move into advisory and the onboarding of new wealth clients, according to Edmund Koh, UBS’s head for the Asia Pacific region.

A previous effort by UBS in this area flopped. A 2017 internal project in the UK called SmartWealth was shut down a year later.