Ann Arbor’s Stratos Launches “Industry First” Connected Payment Card
At long last, Ann Arbor-based Stratos, formerly known as Protean Payment, today launched its Bluetooth Connected Card, which it describes as an industry first in the realm of financial technology and mobile wallets.
“It’s exciting to finally be able to show people,” says Stratos CEO Thiago Olson. “Inside the Stratos card, we’ve packed an entire computer.”
The journey began in 2012, when the company first began publicizing plans for what it called the Echo Card. Though the company has undergone a few pivots like the name change, its mission has remained largely the same: A mobile payment card capable of mimicking all of the cards in your wallet—credit, debit, loyalty, membership; essentially anything with a magnetic stripe—and an accompanying app that allows you to store them all on your smartphone.
During the early days of researching the mobile payment sector, Olson realized that many potential users were confused about how and where to use a purely mobile wallet. People still seemed to want a physical card, but one that connected to account information stored in the cloud, so he set about creating one.
The Stratos card comes with a plug-in card reader. Once all your cards are loaded and synced on the mobile app, you tap the connected card on the nearest surface to activate it, select the card you want to use from your mobile wallet at the point of sale, and swipe the Stratos card as you normally would a credit or debit card anywhere those cards are accepted. You can also designate three “priority” cards and access them with or without your smartphone by pressing one of three tiny sensors on the Stratos card itself. (Watch the video below for a demonstration of how this process works.)
“There are unique benefits to having a card connected to a device,” Olson says. “Stratos excels at payments, access, and identity. Just like the iPod reinvented the music collection, we’re doing that with cards. We help empower our members to make smarter decisions.”
If you activate the smart suggestions feature, the Stratos card can compare GPS data to the cards you have stored and make suggestions; for instance, if you walk into Macy’s and have a Macy’s card loaded on the app, it will remind you through push notifications. If you haven’t used the Stratos card in a while, you tap it to wake it up, and then it defaults to the last card used. It also knows if its battery is dying, sending a message to Stratos to send a new one before the card conks out.
In addition, Olson says the Stratos card has layers of security built in: bank-level encryption; no account information displayed on the front of the card, meaning that information can’t be stolen by store clerks or restaurant servers handling the card; and an automated system that uses geo-fencing to lock the card if it becomes separated from its owner. (It’s up to users to choose the distance at which the lock system engages; it automatically unlocks once the card is back in proximity to its owner.)
The Stratos app is free to download in both iOS and Android versions, and the company will begin shipping cards in April. Members pay $95 per year (or $145 for two years) to access the Stratos platform, which comes with a new card annually. It has a scratch-proof coating and what Olson calls an “elegant” design that comes in five colors.
“We’re seeing extreme levels of interest—we’ve had beta testers out,” Olson says. “We realized how important a referral program is, so we’ve built that into the app. If you refer someone, we’ll send a link and both of you will get a discount.”
The 50-person Stratos team is already hard at work on new features like “wave and pay,” and fingerprint authentication. Eventually, Olson hopes users will be able to load their cards on the app without a card reader.
The Stratos card is not the world’s first mobile payment system, of course—there’s Apple Pay and Google Wallet, to name two of the best-known examples. Olson says his card can work in tandem with services like Apple Pay: “We don’t view Apple Pay or Google Wallet as competition, but as a complement. We also have smart suggestions, and they don’t. It comes back to what we’re trying to do, which is a membership as opposed to a one-off gadget, and a way to improve upon the security of the way we pay. You also have the empowerment and intelligence that a connected device brings.”
Olson says it was tempting to introduce the Stratos card through a crowdfunding campaign in order to drum up media interest and pre-orders. But the company ultimately decided it didn’t want to go that route with a complex, new fintech product. “We wanted to establish a trustworthy relationship with our members first,” he explains.
Olson estimates the value of the market for the Stratos card is big. “It’s in between fintech and wearables, and the numbers associated with those markets are both high,” he says. “This is really a wearable of sorts. We’re focused on creating a lifestyle brand, so we plan a lot of social content with, for instance, influential Instagrammers.”
A year from now, Olson hopes to have a nationwide base of members as the company begins rolling out product updates. Stratos is also working with banks and the financial ecosystem to reach the audience of potential members who might not be as tech-savvy as early adopters.
“We’re a B2C business, but we’re talking to potential partners in the financial community,” Olson adds. “Our card is a huge differentiator.”
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