In 2006 and 2007, mobile payment startups were a favorite among venture capitalists. The promise of dethroning the credit card companies by bypassing them had VCs and strategic investors throwing hundreds of millions of dollars after such startups. During this time, a few lucky vendors managed to secure lucrative exits. Among other deals, Firethorn, a company backed with just $14m, sold to Qualcomm for $210m and 3united Mobile Solutions was rolled up for $70m as part of VeriSign’s acquisition spree. Recent prices, however, haven’t been anywhere near as rich. Consider this: VeriSign unwound its 3united purchase last month, pocketing what we understand was about $5m. Similarly, Sybase picked up PayBox Solution for just $11.4m, while Kushcash and other promising mobile payment startups have quietly closed their doors.
Last week, Belgian phone company Belgacom took a 40% stake in mobile payment provider Tunz. Tunz has taken in a relatively small $4m in funding since launching in 2007, but with VCs sidelined, we believe this investment was a strategic cash infusion to keep alive the company behind Belgacom’s mobile payment strategy. It may well be a prelude to an outright acquisition. With valuations clearly deflated and venture capitalists nowhere to be seen, we believe mobile service providers are set to go shopping for payment companies. Who might be next?
Yodlee, mFoundry and Obopay are three companies that have made a name for themselves in the world of mobile banking and payments. Each has secured deals with the major banks and wireless companies, but still lacks scale. Further, all of them are facing increased competition from deep-pocketed and patient rivals such as Amazon, eBay’s PayPal and Google’s CheckOut. Still, we believe they are attractive targets for wireless carriers or mobile device makers, who are increasingly on the lookout for additional revenue streams.
In fact, Obopay received a large investment from Nokia last week as part of its $70m series E funding round. Nokia’s portion is unclear, but Obopay tells us the stake gives Nokia a seat on its board. (Additionally, we would note that this investment comes directly from Nokia, rather than its venture arm, Nokia Growth Partners, as has typically been the case). This latest round brings Obopay’s total funding to just shy of $150m. Although we wonder about the potential return for Obopay’s backers in a trade sale to Nokia, the mobile payment vendor would clearly be a great complement to Nokia’s growing Ovi suite of mobile services. (We would also note that Qualcomm put money into Obopay and considered acquiring the company, but instead went with Firethorn.) Likewise, Yodlee and mFoundry’s roster of strategic investors and customers reads like a short list of potential buyers: Motorola, PayPal, Alltel (now Verizon), along with other large banks and wireless providers. Yodlee says it has raised more than $100m throughout its 10-year history, and mFoundry has reportedly raised about $25m.