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The World's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies of 2015 in Personal Finance

From an investment site for millenials to a service that sniffs out fees, the companies helping consumers make (and keep) their money.

[Photos: courtesy of LearnVest]

1. Motif Investing

For creating low-cost, themed-based investments that are easy to understand. In 2008, U.S. investors paid $376 billion in fees for the privilege of losing $8 trillion of their net worth, says Hardeep Walia. Like many other entrepreneurs, Walia was mad. His wife said, "Do something about it." And so he created the online brokerage Motif Investing. Its users can invest in theme-based baskets that contain up to 30 stocks; it costs just $9.95, which is one-thirtieth the cost of typical online brokers. Themes can be industry-specific or something more playful. Invest in a motif called Lots of Likes, for example, and your stocks will be weighted toward companies accumulating the most likes on Facebook, regardless of market cap. And its 120,000 users can create themes of their own; they’ve built more than 100,000 motifs so far, and earn royalties if others purchase them. Walia and his wife even maintain his-and-hers portfolios: She invested in women-led companies with a theme called No Glass Ceiling (one-year return, up 13.8%), while he invested in one called Shale Oil (one-year return, down 27.8%). JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs are among Motif’s A-list backers, and former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt and Wall Street honcho Sallie Krawcheck are board members.

2. Fidor Bank

For creating a social bank that leverages cutting-edge technology to respond to customer wishes. At first glance, Fidor seems crazy. It’s an online-only bank that would set the interest rates it paid on deposits according to the number of likes received on its Facebook page. Pretty meshuggener. But that’s not the only thing different about Fidor: It got its start as an online financial chat group. Frank Schwab, who runs technology for the bank, recalls the year was 2009 and financial institutions were crumbling one after another. The online chat group was fed up with all the banking choices, and so the company began evolving based on its users’ ideas. Today, Fidor is something of a lab for social banking: It says it is now the biggest aggregator of web 2.0 services, including P2P lending and social trading, as well as classic bank products. Active Fidor users get bonuses for participating on the website, like ranking products or offering advice on the Fidor community forum. "We have been updating our systems every two weeks for four years," says Schwab. Global banks can’t hope to compete with that techno-nimbleness, and so tiny Fidor is leaping over the legacy systems. Last spring, it became the first bank to join forces with Ripple, a back-end Internet service that enables bank customers to send and receive any kind of currency, including Bitcoin, anywhere on the planet within seconds—all without the help of pricey middlemen.

3. FeeX

For sussing out hidden fees in your brokerage accounts. FeeX reads the fine print on your retirement and brokerage accounts, and shows how much you could save by investing in lower-cost options—nearly $19,000 for the average user, it says. And the service is free (although it plans to charge in the future). The self-styled "Robin Hood of Fees" has grown rapidly since its 2012 launch. In less than a year, it has analyzed fees on more than $2 billion in assets for 100,000 users in the U.S. and Israel. In January, it launched a new "Investment Test Drive" feature that enables investors to check out hidden fees on funds before they actually buy—and get recommendations on cheaper alternatives. Part of the service’s magic comes from crowdsourcing, as small-print readers everywhere help sniff out hidden fees, but chief marketing officer Erik Laurence says the company also partners with Yodlee and Morningstar, as well as uses government public and proprietary sources to dig up and calculate fees. Next up for FeeX: Outing the nasty fees in the mortgage and credit card industry and a premium product to help pay for all this goodness. The company has both ambition and pedigree: Cofounder Uri Levine also helped to develop Waze, the crowdsourcing traffic app bought by Google in 2013 for $1.1 billion.

4. LikeFolio

For taking Facebook and Twitter feeds and turning them into an investment- discovery tool. Millennials are famously risk-averse investors, preferring to put their money in savings accounts to the stock market. It makes sense—their parents’ investments got creamed twice during their formative years, first in the dot-com bubble burst and then the Great Recession. Unfortunately, a savings account will not produce the returns needed for retirement. That’s why LikeFolio is trying gently to lure this next generation of adults (which is bigger than even baby boomers) into stocks with their secret whistle: Facebook and Twitter. LikeFolio analyzes user news feeds to see which popular brands everyone is yakking up, and then shows the trends versus stock price in simple graphics. Experience shows that when people start mentioning a brand more often—whether good or bad—the stock price on the company behind the product may be ready to move. For example: The stock of electric carmaker Tesla skyrocketed months after social media conversations surged. Sears stock sank weeks after negative rumblings. (Cofounder and CEO Andy Swan says that, based on social media chatter now, he suspects Apple Watch sales are likely to disappoint.) The service is free, including its Learn & Earn weekly emails. This quarter, keep an eye out for LikeFolio Pro, a premium-trading alert service.

5. Riskalyze

For helping both advisors and investors take only the risks they intend in their portfolios. This software, which is built for financial advisors, uses the work of Nobel Prize-winning behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman to measure investor risk tolerance levels. Before Riskalyze, retail advisors only had squishy tools for analyzing investor appetite for risk. Riskalyze has the capacity to analyze more than 200,000 investment products—including stocks and ETFs—and then quantify the risk embedded in a portfolio with a single number. Investors are often shocked to learn that their position in Apple or another household brand, say, can put them well above their risk threshold. Cofounder and CEO Aaron Klein says he has been adding hundreds of new advisors monthly to the platform, and his board includes high-profile advisors Barry Ritholtz and Josh Brown, aka The Reformed Broker. Last fall, Riskalyze launched Compliance Cloud, a big data platform that will help large wealth managers cull through millions of client holdings nightly, index the results, and deliver a report highlighting potential compliance problems.

6. Addepar

For creating a financial dashboard to give wealth managers a 360-degree view of investor portfolios. Billionaire Joe Lonsdale is at it again, assembling a stable of techies to manage millions of pieces of data in complex portfolio holdings for the high-net-worth crowd. (Lonsdale is the cofounder of Palantir Technologies, the hot big data company that is becoming an incubator for financial tech startups.) Addepar emerged from the ashes of the financial crisis with a special mission: to out financial risk. In the run-up to the financial meltdown, the firms that ran money for the 1% began investing in more and more types of products and in more parts of the world. But the internal systems to track positions didn’t keep pace with the increased complexity in the portfolios. Most managers were depending on Excel and Google Docs, but those tools weren’t up to the job. And that meant that no one had a clear picture of what the risk exposures might be. Addepar says it’s working with advisors who represent more than $100 billion in net worth. Early Addepar adapters include Iconiq Capital, which manages some of Mark Zuckerberg’s fortune, according to The New York Times. The high-tech honey snagged a $50 million round of financing last spring, led by David O. Sacks, a former PayPal executive and founder of Yammer.

7. Charles Schwab

For stepping into the robo-adviser world and slashing management fees to zero. Chuck is hungry. The likes of Wealthfront and Betterment have been trying to eat his lunch with their low-cost investing software. But can they beat Chuck’s brand-new 0% on asset-management fees? Beginning in the first quarter of 2015, the new Schwab Intelligent Portfolios charge only for the underlying operating expenses of the ETFs in its passive investing product. Schwab’s Naureen Hassan says the company is targeting the 80% of those who aren’t getting any formal investment advice and prefer a technology-driven approach. Schwab is a behemoth, with more than $2.46 trillion in client assets; it runs nearly $27 billion in proprietary ETFs—more than 10 times the assets in the most well-known upstarts. So far, it has received 20,000 queries since the product was announced in October, and branches report that new customers transferred accounts from competitors in anticipation of the launch, Hassan says. Critics of robo-advisers worry that investors will feel shortchanged when the markets go down—where will they get advice?—but Hassan says there’s always someone at Chuck for Intelligent Portfolios investors to speak with.

8. LendUp

For recasting the $49 billion payday loan business as an opportunity to turn high-risk clients into near-prime borrowers. LendUp cofounder Sasha Orloff says he can teach high-risk borrowers in the U.S. how to be more responsible, and takes his inspiration from Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Prize winner who pioneered microfinance for impoverished entrepreneurs in Bangladesh. The target audience here is huge: The U.S. government reports that 34.4 million people are "unbanked" or "underbanked." The LendUp app can process applications for short-term loans up to $1,000 in just minutes. Here’s what makes LendUp different: Borrowers can’t automatically roll over those loans. Doing so is the basis of a debt trap, which shady banks thrive on. For the riskiest borrowers, even LendUp offers rates that can reach 300% on an annualized basis—but LendUp gives these borrowers a way to reduce the rates to as low as 29%, and improve themselves at the same time, by taking online classes, repaying loans in a timely manner, and referring others. The company says it will help top performers establish a credit rating, a feat few others have managed, and it reaches customers in 16 states. It recently penned a deal with MoneyGram, enabling loan repayment in real time at the chain’s stores, and it has opened its loan-processing API to developers.

9. Blooom

For automating smart choices for 401(k) retirement investors at an affordable price. Smart people often make stupid choices, especially in their attempts at savings. Blooom aims to fix that by automating asset allocation for workplace retirement funds in the U.S., estimated to include 89 million accounts containing more than $4.5 trillion in assets. Cofounder Chris Costello says he was inspired to launch Blooom after seeing hundreds of 401(k)s misinvested over the years—Including that of his sister, who had been holding all her assets in money market funds, earning close to 0%. "She was confused by the complex choices in her 401(k) plan," he says. But Blooom is straightforward. Just sign up and link your retirement account. The system analyzes whether savers are on the path to financial heaven or hell, and delivers the news with a simple visual: a potted sunflower that stands tall and bright if you’re in good shape, or droops if you’re not. Blooom, which just launched last September, is priced to sell: Users pay $1 per month for accounts that contain less than $20,000, and $15 per month for larger ones.

10. LearnVest

For providing comprehensive personal financial planning at an affordable price. Do you have enough saved for a rainy day? Should you pay down your credit cards? These are the kinds of questions that everyone encounters at some point—but individuals with big questions and small bank accounts often have a hard time finding anyone to give them good advice. LearnVest fills this niche, estimated at 40 million U.S. households, with a blend of technology and human touch. For $299, one of LearnVest’s 50-plus planners will speak with a client on the phone, draw up a financial plan, and then walk the client through it. For $19 per month, users get continued support via email, plus access to premium educational tips. LearnVest also has a website and an app to help users track their progress; the company grew out of the initial website, which was launched in 2009 as an education resource by Financially Fearless author Alexa von Tobel, and now draws 1.5 million visits per month. LearnVest just forged a deal with Fidelity Institutional to make its services available to individuals with workplace retirement plans.

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