“For many of us, managing our own money is something we start doing when we go off to study. And in a lot of cases, financial literacy isn’t exactly a strong suit yet at that point,” explains Konstantinos Kousouris, CEO at Blink app. What this leads to is what Kousouris calls “financial binging” – students failing to budget properly and spending their money impulsively for instant gratification. Illustrating an all too familiar scenario for many, he asks “How many of us have, as students, spent money on going out or buying something fun, and then had to compensate by eating plain pasta for a week?”
According to the BlinkApp team, consisting of Kousouris, CTO and University of Helsinki Doctoral Researcher in AI Carlos de la Torre, and self-styled Code Alchemist Dimitris Georgiou, the resulting stress and overall reductions of quality of life stemming from this financial illiteracy is directly contributing to the poor performance of countless students worldwide.
But when the trio – who met in 2018 as roommates at Cardiff University – decided that it was time to try and manage their money, they were frustrated by what was available to them. The tools they found were overly complicated and didn’t really address their reality as students. “Managing your money should be simple and feel personalised to you,” de la Torre explains. So, they took to pen and paper, eventually building a budgeting system that worked for them, before later digitalising it and adding AI and gamification elements to increase personalisation and encourage users to keep using it.
The start of BlinkApp's journey
By 2021, they were sure that they had a winner on their hands and were ready to start taking it to the market. With their solution, they envisaged helping other students avoid the financial problems they’d faced back in Cardiff.
At first, as the team thought about where the data for their system would come from, they thought about banks. “Banks have all the data to make automated and personalised budgeting happen,” Georgiou explains. Yet as far as the team could tell, banks simply didn’t offer these kinds of services.
Through happy coincidence, at the same time that the crew was pondering how to proceed, de la Torre met with the University of Helsinki’s Alfonso Gutierrez who at the time was part of the team building up the University’s Helsinki Incubators, and Andrés-Leonardo Martínez-Ortiz, Ph. D., a future NEXUS mentor and a Machine Learning SRE Technical Program Manager at Google, who gave the team some early words of advice and encouraged them to pursue their solution further.
Seeing an opportunity, the team first shortly floated the idea of using their solution to become a neo-bank themselves during their participation in early 2022 in the University of Helsinki’s first pre-incubator programme, Compass, thanks in part to Gutierrez's recommendation. However, after some research and useful feedback from mentors like Tuomas Oksanen, an experienced financial director and partner at the investment firm Grid.vc, the team pivoted to a B2B approach with which they decided to take part in the University’s NEXUS incubator.
There, according to Kousouris, they received “invaluable” help in further developing their system into a functioning startup from programme manager Andres Peña Archila and their NEXUS mentors, Lasse Huotari and Konsta Rönkkö of IBM and Saku Suuriniemi of IT Consultancy Reaktor. Working with these mentors, Kourouris adds, was a “match made in heaven”.
"Our mentors have been constantly insightful, eager to help, and resourceful. We can't imagine today's BlinkApp without their invaluable perspective and knowledge," he explains, before adding "We will never be able to thank them enough for both the evolution of BlinkApp and our development as entrepreneurs."
After working hard on their solution throughout NEXUS, BlinkApp's current strategy is to partner with one bank per EU country and offer them a white-label budgeting application that the bank can then offer to students and other young people as a way to enrol them as clients.
The app, which plugs in to the banks’ systems through API’s (with the option for manually entering cash purchases) would sift through data and give its users personalised financial advice. “Our technology reads your transactions with zero user involvement, sorts them into a few specific categories, and tells you how much you can afford to spend in each of them on a weekly level,” de la Torre explains, before adding that the real game-changer is their AI-based “secret sauce” which reacts to users’ behaviour and changes in expenses to adapt the weekly limits and goals.
"Offering this expense monitoring service for students – a phase of life with often strict financial constraints – makes sense. Making spending more visible helps users become financially literate with gamification," Suurinemi comments, highlighting that this approach has a far higher chance of succeeding than other methods which focus more on asceticism and belt-tightening.
A win-win for banks and users
At the same time, both Suuriniemi and the BlinkApp team believe that banks, which currently struggle to differentiate themselves in the eyes of potential young clients, would also benefit in a number of ways.
Banks with BlinkApp’s attractive budgeting tool in their service portfolio would have an easier job of acquiring and retaining these young customers, with a clear and useful selling point setting them apart from the competition. Kosouris also adds that the service would give its users the “superpower” to instantly know if they could afford something while still being able to build wealth at a far earlier stage than they would otherwise, thus increasing their lifetime value to the bank. At the same time, Suuriniemi notes, the banks would be building a relationship with their new clients and get to know them far better than they presently do, giving them the opportunity to "advertise their services at the right time in the medium term" to a newly loyal customer base.
With a service this useful, it's easy to share in the team's original bewilderment at nobody having already done this. Here, too, Suuriniemi has something to say: "Why haven't banks already made something like this themselves? Answer: banks' culture has always been more conservative than innovative, relying on outsourcing for much of the new technologies they offer their customers."
As the team gets ready to continue with their journey after having recently graduated from the NEXUS programme, they have much to already be proud of, as Huotari reminds them: "Team BlinkApp has done wonderful work with their business and solution development," says Huotari, noting the progress that the team has made during the NEXUS programme.
Indeed, their hard work is already paying off: just a few weeks ago, the team was selected as one of the 10 finalists for the National Bank of Greece's NBG Seeds programme. Yet a long road remains ahead of the ambitious team.
"It is important to have enough stamina in a project like this, because financial companies often take their time to make decisions on customer-facing services," Suurniemi reminds the team. However, both he and the other mentors are confident that the team can succeed.
"The team really has the right talent and passion in place to make their application a true world-class solution," Rönkkö explains, adding that the team of Kosouris, de la Torre, and Georgiou brings the right blend of business and technical talent needed to stay competitive in the market and committed to creating the right solution for the market.
BlinkApp's next steps are to continue product development and start looking for funding very soon to kickstart it further. "We're preparing to end students' financial stress and make our bank partners overshadow the competition," explains an enthusiastic Kousouris.
For those interested in finding out more about the team and their solution or wanting to work with them, the team invites them to reach out via LinkedIn through the company's page: Blink app
NEXUS is the University of Helsinki's Deep Tech, AI, and Sustainability 6-month incubator programme designed to help teams with crystallised solutions in those domains to turn those into scalable, fundable global start-ups. The next call for the programme opens in April 2023.
For additional information on the the 2023 NEXUS incubator, please contact
Andres Peña Archila, NEXUS programme manager
Potential mentors, corporates, CVC's and investors interested in partnering with NEXUS, please contact
Alfonso Gutierrez, Senior Manager, Innovation & Startup-Corporate Partnerships