A group of venture capital firms led by Emerald Stage2 Ventures LP of Philadelphia and Innovation Ventures LP, Wilmington, have invested $1.5 million to expand the salesforce at Maverick Network Solutions, Wilmington, a firm run by a group of credit card industry veterans which is developing MasterCard-brand debit cards, among other products, for corporate users.

"The advanced-payment card space is an explosive growth market, even in this economy," said Saul Richter, managining partner at Emerald. Since last year, MasterCard debit-card users (who are spending their own cash) outnumber credit card users (who are borrowing money), especially among Americans in their 20s, said Richter.

Epark Systems uses Maverick cards in Miami Beach parking meters. Sean Healy, vice president at union concrete construction contractor Healy Long & Jevin Inc., Wilmington, says he uses a Maverick "reloadable" MasterCard as a safety incentive for 130 emlpoyees.

"Each month, if there are no OSHA-reportable injuries, we distribute a bonus in the form of a credit on their MasterCard" debit cards, Healy told me. The bonus depends on how many hours you work -- but it only gets paid i there's no injuries. "Works great. Our drivers, if they see a guy hanging off a ladder, they know he can affect their bonus. So they say something." The bonus -- averaging $50 a month -- has been paid five of the six months since Maverick rolled it out.

Maverick ceo Jim Shanahan, who helped develop similar programs for credit card users at the former MBNA Corp., said the debit cards' cost-savings potential is helping win business "in these difficult economic times."