NORTH HAVEN, Conn. — A concept intended to serve as "a sustainably innovative solution" to the ever-expanding mobile banking landscape has been selected as one of this year's three finalists for the CO-OP THINK Prize.

The idea, known as "MobileOne: A Complete Financial Solution," is the brainchild of Christopher Whalen, marketing and e-services specialist at Connex CU here.

Whalen told Credit Union Journal that while many CUs offer mobile applications with basic services such as funds transfers, bill pay and remote check deposit, "I think there's an opportunity to do so much more than that."

Now in its fourth year, the CO-OP THINK Prize is part of the THINK Conference put on each year by CO-OP Financial Services. Entrants to the competition submit ideas for innovations suitable for the CU community, which are then whittled down to three finalists. Those three ideas are voted on, with the winner receiving a $10,000 prize furnished by MasterCard. The winner will be announced during this year's THINK Conference in New Orleans May 19-23.

Whalen's idea revolves around the creation of a company (Mobile One) specifically to develop and service an application that could be sold to credit unions and branded as their own.

"The idea is that the company would constantly innovate and change the platform based on whatever new innovations are out there," said Whalen. "The idea is that Mobile One the company would be ready and prepped at all times to jump onto whatever the latest and greatest innovation is."

Eye On Future Innovations
That means not only offering currently available services like account balances, transfers and remote check deposit, but being ready to quickly add mobile payments to the mix once that matures. He noted that with Skype and Apple's Face Time surging in popularity, the app could also allow CUs to do live, face-to-face member service if the participating credit union wanted to.

"Another idea... was the ability to have text chat within the mobile app so you're typing instead of talking," added Whalen. "I think if you're in a public setting then you would hopefully decide that texting was a better option than doing video chat, but I think if it's something that you're comfortable with, [video chat] is a really nice way to keep that personal connection that members have with their credit union."

More than just service functionalities, however, Whalen said he hoped Mobile One might be able to bring lending to the mobile space, which is "another thing I don't see from any mobile applications right now."

By adding a lending component to the mix, said Whalen, Mobile One could generate cross-sale opportunities for credit unions which can help them create revenue opportunities that don't currently exist in most mobile banking platforms.

While the THINK Prize winner receives $10,000, Whalen noted that MobileOne will likely cost significantly more to get off the ground.

"The way I have it defined in the [business] plan is that we would look to start three super-experienced programmers; obviously they would have a fairly high cost to them," he said. "And then we would start with one or two project managers and then an on-site technician as well, and then the way it is set up is that as we grow, our staff would grow as well, according to the constraints of the business."

He estimated total costs at "a little over $1 million to get everything started."

Pricing for the service, said Whalen, would be based on the number of "active users" a credit union has using the app, starting at $4 per month per active user for 250 active users and then scaling down from there. A credit union with 500 active users would pay $3.75 per user per month, all the way to down to 50 cents per month for credit unions with 50,000 active users or more.

"I think this is a way to let the smaller credit unions keep up with the big banks and keep up even with some of the larger credit unions," said Whalen. "If we find that our price structure is not working for that small of a credit union, there's always room for changing that."

The business plan Whalen submitted to CO-OP for the THINK Prize indicated that Mobile One would be free for members.

Odds Of Winning
Having made it through the initial entry phase of the contest to be among the three finalists, Whalen said he felt he has a one-in-three chance of winning.

But winning is no guarantee of success. Neither the winner nor CO-OP or MasterCard is under any obligation to move forward with developing these projects, and past winners of the THINK Prize have only had limited success with getting their projects off the ground. Despite that, Whalen remained positive.

"It's great that [the THINK Conference] gets the industry talking and thinking about innovative solutions," he said. "If something happens, obviously ten grand isn't going to help me get to $1 million overnight. But... by sharing ideas and getting them publicized it can spark ideas in people's minds that might have more influence over the industry to get the ball rolling."

Should he win the 2014 THINK Prize, Whalen said he would use the victory as a springboard to do a deeper dive into researching the feasibility of MobileOne, while also using some of the money to help his own credit union implement a more innovative mobile solution.

"This is meant to be sustainably innovative," he said. "There's a big movement in the general business world to have sustainably managed organizations, and I think this is primed for that; to have an organization that's solely focused on providing credit unions a sustainably innovative solution that credit unions of large and small sizes can have access to affordably."

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