David Adelman, the mega-landlord behind Campus Apartments, called on his rich and famous Philly friends for $18 million to market a new apps-rich, no-fee credit card called the Unicorn Visa to young spenders.

Adelman put up an initial $1.5 million to start the credit-card company, Cred.ai, on South Street three years ago. He’s raised the new money with help from Timothy Armstrong, a former boss at AOL and Google America; John Legend, the Penn-grad singer-songwriter; and 76er Ben Simmons and ex-Sixer Andre Iguodala.

Adelman is networked. He and Armstrong are directors of Wheels Up, the private flight company. Michael Rubin, owner of the Fanatics sports-gear giant, is a close friend. Adelman’s own firm, Darco Capital, put in fresh money, too.

They’re not the first rich investors to attempt to deploy smartphone apps to disrupt the banking business. Will they be among the first to score big?

The hometown celebrities are making an unusually large investment, by Philly (non-biotech) venture capital standards.

David Adelman, landlord to tens of thousands of U.S. students through his Philadelphia-based Campus Apartments, partner in Franklin Square (FS) Investments, is also a leading backer of Cred.ai and its digital Unicorn account
JOSHUA PESTKA
David Adelman, landlord to tens of thousands of U.S. students through his Philadelphia-based Campus Apartments, partner in Franklin Square (FS) Investments, is also a leading backer of Cred.ai and its digital Unicorn account

They are betting on Cred.ai’s management team, which includes the 50-employee company’s chairman and cofounder, Jim Kelly, who also helped found the former ING Direct Bank, an innovative online Wilmington lender that attracted more than $80 billion in deposits before it was sold to Capital One in 2011.

The team also includes brothers Ry and Dylan Brown, both Penn and Villanova Law graduates from South Jersey who spent much of the last three years building regulatory compliance arrangements they said give Cred.ai an edge. Ry is the firm’s chief executive, Dylan, president. Lauren Dussault, former WSFS and Beneficial Bank chief retail officer, is chief banking officer.

Chief operating officer is cofounder Todd Sandler, once ING Direct’s chief marketing officer, who like Kelly stayed on at Capital One before joining the startup. Joe Cary, now Cred.ai’s chief financial officer, has a ING connection, too: He was its chief investment officer.

ING Direct, with its promotional cafes in tony residential neighborhoods such as Rittenhouse Square, one-size-fits-all loans, penchant for hiring staff out of retail stores, and other unconventional features, “was the first (big) Internet bank — they upended banking,” said Adelman.

Unlike banks, which roll out such products as “Platinum” credit cards that last for years, Ry Brown said, “We are more of a technology company, like Adobe or Google, where new features get released weekly and monthly, based on consumer need, in an evolving marketplace.”

Brown said the company’s staff includes data-analysis specialists and animators to update apps tied to the card and make the product zing.

The Unicorn Visa app shows users how much they can spend from their own income before they would have to borrow and incur interest charges of about 18%.

Ry Browh, chief executive at Philadelphia-based Cred.ai
Cred.ai
Ry Browh, chief executive at Philadelphia-based Cred.ai

Ry Brown compares these self-imposed limits to “an overbearing parent,” albeit one people can turn off.

Other extras: a temporary “Stealth” online-payment option with throwaway passwords for risky (or embarrassing) transactions; a “Flux Capacitor” dashboard to show how a purchase might affect a user’s finances; a “Check Please” override to defeat card-security measures and force payments out of town; and a similar “Friend & Foe” system to dictate other approvals.

“The big-gorilla credit-card banks down in Delaware, most of them are using the same kind of platforms,” Adelman said. “We built this one from scratch. No millennial will prefer a Wells Fargo card over this.”

He calls the goal “to build the Tesla of banking, here in Philadelphia.”

And, he added, Unicorn would also appeal in “disenfranchised communities” where people “don’t trust the banks.”

Brown compared Cred.ai’s platform to popular payment apps Venmo and Plaid. “They generated their own market because they were so unique,” he said.

There is no annual fee for a Unicorn card. The company promises “a full-face true metal card, 24/7 phone support answered by a human and not a robot, instant deposits, mobile check capture” and other attractions.

The founders hope to sell their service package to smaller banks, so they can better compete with the giants. The cards will be issued through WSFS Bank. The bank’s chief executive, Roger Levenson, says he sees Cred.ai as a natural fit, given WSFS’s past tech partnerships.

How does it all look to payment-industry veterans?

Add it up, and Cred.ai is offering an update on card services already on the market, with “a metal card like AmEx Platinum, and a virtual card for the e-wallet,” said William Keenan, head of DeNovo Corp., a Delaware-based credit card consultant.

“There are successful models for this — like CashPlus in the U.K., Netspend Corp. based in Texas, and AccountNow,” of Silicon Valley.

Keenan said these products typically require lots of marketing, plus a healthy “float” (the use of customers’ cash over time, as with gift cards or E-ZPass) to turn a profit.

“It can be a nice business,” though not so profitable as large-scale credit card lending, Keenan added.

Jim Shanahan, managing director at PayGility Advisors, a New York payments consulting firm, says the product would need a lot of marketing.

“I’m a big fan of bells and whistles” on payment cards, ”and with the right amount of razzle-dazzle the things that they’re throwing out could grab some attention,” he said.

Even a small slice of the vast American credit card market “can make you a very rich person,” he added.

Noting that the credit card business is dominated by a few giant lenders (JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citi, Capital One) who “battle each other like Marvel superheroes,” Shanahan characterizes those big banks’ products as “boring,” “stale” and ripe for a challenge.

Still, he added, their vast marketing and deep pockets makes it tough for upstart competitors.

Smartphone-based banks such as Brazil’s Nubank and San Francisco-based Chime (which partners with Wilmington-based Bancorp Bank) have tens of millions of users. But the majority of such banks lose money, noted Sanjay Sakhrani, managing director at investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, in a report to clients Wednesday.

Adelman says his partners are undaunted by the entrenched competition. He expects Cred.ai cards and apps will spread organically.

“This,” he said, “is Philadelphia’s next great business.”