MasterCard courts startups

The brand hopes to start a retail revolution in its quest to be thought of as not only a credit card co but also a tech giant.
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MasterCard is having an identity crisis of sorts.

“The perception out there is that MasterCard is this credit card company – a really monolithic payment network,” says Nicolas Dinh, VP mobile payments at MasterCard Canada. “But in fact, we are a technology company.”

To combat this perception, the brand is kicking off a tech hackathon, inviting developers and the startup community to create a retail revolution. This is the second annual MasterCard N>XT hackathon, following a successful first run in 2013.

“One of the ways we can get the word out and shift the [credit-card perception] is to engage the right communities,” he adds. “This was a platform for us to evangelize payment innovation, as well as engage the developer/startup community.”

The hackathon, taking place on Oct. 5, gives participants 48 hours to build their ideas, and brings together companies like Rogers, CIBC, BMO and Samsung, not to mention startups like Bionym and the Fashion Zone at Ryerson University as sponsors (which, conceivably, could benefit from this output).

The goal of the hackathon is to create innovative retail solutions in store or online. While teams retain ownership of their ideas (with the winning team walking away with $10,000), MasterCard and the competitors will enter a commerce licensing agreement, giving the brand the chance to utilize the end results of the competition.

“Events like this do wonders for us to take our brand and advance it [as an innovative company,]” Dinh says. “For example, we ranked 34 in Forbes’ ‘Top Innovative Companies,’ [last year].”

Last year’s winner developed a payment system allowing for in-cinema, in-seat ordering. The team went on to form a company called Tulip, which blends mobile, online and in-store experiences. Tulip and MasterCard developed a touch-screen kiosk that works with the credit card co’s mobile card. Debuted at MasterCard’s ACC pavilion in Toronto, it allowed sports-goers a chance to order their own bobbleheads.

Though venturing down the “tech company” path may seem a bit odd for a company with its roots in credit payment systems, Dinh says it makes total sense for MasterCard’s future.

Payment, he says, is becoming an incredibly crowded space, and the payment methods have branched out immensely from the typical cash/debit/credit ecosystem that existed only years ago. Everything from online shopping to mobile to wearable technology is changing the way in which Canadians are willing to pay for goods and services. Cards, one day, may very well be extinct, as mobile begins to facilitate even more transactions.

“The brand is anchored in the fact that we’re a company that enables payment,” he says. “For us to compete – with not only our traditional competitors [but also with the new crop of payment systems] – we need to embrace the fact that we’re a technology company and we provide tech to have an exchange of value.”

The hackathon – a Canadian-specific venture – has already picked up recognition from MasterCard internationally, Dinh says, with other markets looking to adapt the program.

The announcement for this year’s event, which is currently accepting applications, also comes on the heels of the brand’s exclusive deal with tech startup One Inc., which developed a system that links all loyalty programs under a single card (in this case, MasterCard), essentially meaning that whenever someone pays for something with their credit card, they don’t have to worry about pulling out the corresponding loyalty program card.