From Motor City to Mortgage City: How Detroit became a Fintech Hub

DETROIT — While the West Coast still reigns as the epicenter of technology development, the Detroit area has quietly emerged as a proving ground for digital mortgage innovations.

The area has become a center for innovation largely due to the presence of Quicken Loans, a nonbank lender that's enjoyed massive growth by using technology-based strategies that many in the industry now emulate. Its Rocket Mortgage platform has been the catalyst for the wave of new point of sale system implementations in the industry.

"We compete on the delivery of the product to the marketplace and that's where technology comes in," Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert said at the Mortgage Bankers Association's Technology Conference, which is being held in Detroit this week.

But it's not just Quicken. Other major lenders in the region also are pioneering innovative technologies the larger industry is expected to eventually gravitate to as it moves toward a digital mortgage. United Wholesale Mortgage, headquartered in the Detroit suburb of Troy, Mich., employs 400 IT professionals, is using electronic notarization to conduct virtual e-closings through a mix of in-house and vendor technologies in almost 20 states, according to Justin Glass, the lender's chief digital officer. And Flagstar Bank, also headquartered in Troy, previously ran its own electronic document management platform, called DocVelocity, and its warehouse lending division recently began accepting electronic notes.

"All the mortgage companies are looking for great IT professionals right now," Glass said.

Several mortgage technology vendors also are based in the region: Compliance Systems Inc., Altisource subsidiary Mortgage Builder, and a broader family of companies connected to Quicken, including Amrock and Nexsys Technologies.

"It's fair to say it's becoming more of an innovation hub," said Craig Martin, a senior director at J.D.

Power that reviews customers' satisfaction with mortgage lenders in the Detroit area and elsewhere.

The efforts to bring fintech to the Motor City haven't yet made it a direct rival to the San Francisco Bay Area, but Detroit-based businesses have developed a Silicon Valley mindset. Detroit-dominated venture capital funding for technology companies and other startups in Michigan, totaling just over $79 million in the first quarter, compared to a California total of over $16 billion, according to a study by the National Venture Capital Association and PitchBook.

And while Detroit narrowly missed Amazon's shortlist for its new HQ2 headquarters, the digital retailer, along with other tech giants like Twitter and Microsoft, have established a presence here. There also are now 35 venture-capital-backed startups there. That's a 50% increase over the last three years, according to the Michigan Venture Capital Association.

What's more, the Detroit region's more considerable influence in the mortgage industry makes it more likely to give other markets a run for their money when it comes to technology used specifically by lenders. Nonbank mortgage jobs in the Detroit metropolitan statistical area have grown to the point where the latest Bureau of Labor analysis suggest the concentration of that industry in the region is well above the average for most MSAs.

When it comes to technology Detroit is clearly not the only place innovators in the mortgage business but it is growing in influence.

"There have always been a lot of lenders in the Midwest and now there is a lot more technology because the industry is having an awakening," said Bill Emerson, vice chairman of Quicken Loans. And as a mortgage company owned by a corporate parent that focuses on venture capital and startups, Quicken has benefited from this broader view of technology and innovation, he said.

Quicken partners with some of the startups its Rock Holding corporate parent works with as well as some with no ties to its parent company if there's a fit, said Emerson. For example, it is working on a pilot with a relatively young company aimed at helping consumers save for major life purchases called BoostUp.

How many of these startups Detroit will be able to attract and maintain the financial health of remains to be seen.

Those seeking employment and funding in the startup world may "get a bit jealous " when they see the larger amounts raised and larger salaries in a market like California compared to Michigan, but Detroit offers more opportunity to be a "bigger fish in a smaller pond," said BoostUp CEO Matt Roling.

It's also less of a cutthroat and expensive market compared to California, which is important given the high rate of failure for startups, he noted.

"They genuinely want to see you succeed," Roling said.

Quicken's investment in Detroit has value that goes beyond the amount of investment in the area, said Emerson.

Companies can learn from their missteps and value is not always quantifiable, Gilbert told attendees at the MBA conference.

"This concept, if you can't measure something [it doesn't matter] is the single biggest mistake," he said. "It's not just [about] money or capital invested."

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