Ex-Google CIO just raised $150 million to power a service launched three months ago

Douglas Merrill white boardZest FinanceZest Finance CEO Douglas Merrill

It was only about three months ago when ZestFinance, the online lending startup founded by ex-Google CIO Douglas Merrill, launched a new loan service called Basix.

Basix is a lending service aimed at the “near prime” market, or people with credit scores just below levels that would qualify them for regular bank loans. Merrill says millions of “near prime” Americans have been underserved by banks, especially following the 2008 financial crisis, and Basix makes it easier for them to find affordable loans.

In the three months since its launch, Basix seems to have grown pretty fast — so much so that it just sealed a $US150 million debt financing deal with Fortress Investment Group, one of the world’s largest investment firms with roughly $US70 billion in assets.

The new funding will be used for the consumer loans that Basix provides.

“It’s a public validation that Fortress believes in our team and approach,” Merrill told Business Insider. “It underscores their belief in our technology and that our technology will be a key element to transform this space going forward.”

Thousands of signals

Basix is the newest product from ZestFinance and it’s built on top of ZestFinance’s underwriting technology which looks at tens of thousands of “signals,” ranging from personal spending habits to social media reputation. Merrill claims it’s a much more effective underwriting tool than the traditional credit score method, which takes into account less than 20 variables. Based on the user score it gets, Basix offers loans ranging from $US3,000 to $US5,000 over 3 years at a fixed APR from 26% to 36%.

“The essence of underwriting is trying to find the ability to repay and the willingness to repay, and that’s really hard to do in the FICO-based traditional underwriting,” Merrill added. “Our approach is to be able to capture a really rich view of all the applicants. Can you pay us back and if you can, will you pay us back? And that’s what we’re really good at identifying.”

Merrill didn’t disclose any financials or growth numbers except that Basix has made made “thousands” of loans, worth “millions of dollars.” Instead, Merrill said the fact that people are coming back to his platform is proof of its effectiveness.

“If we offered a really bad credit deal, why would we have customers and why would they borrow from us?” he said. “We think we offer a fair price, and more importantly, we’re offering a transparent deal. There are no surprises, no weird fees.”

ZestFinance was founded in 2009 and has raised over $US250 million in funding so far. In addition to Basix, ZestFinance has an emergency loan service called ZestCash targeting subprime borrowers. Merrill says the underwriting technology, built by a group of former Google engineers, leveraging Google’s own machine-learning and data science technology, is essentially what the new investors are counting on.

“Fortress was impressed with Basix and our model even before we raised our first loan,” Merrill said. “We demonstrated it’s going to work quite well, and Fortress’ capital will allow us to serve this market more effectively and more quickly.”

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