When Jack Wells and Phil Shannon looked for venture capital, they didn't find much interest. So they went to the bank -- but not to ask for a loan. To supplement their own funds, they struck an unusual agreement with three banks that raised $300,000 for research and development and somewhat more in upfront cash for sales of a then-nonexistent product. In exchange, the two founders of Online Financial Communications Systems Inc., in Atlanta, gave up no equity and incurred no debt.

Wells and Shannon were already well known in the $100-million-a-year industry that supplies the terminals used by tellers and other bank employees. They planned to design software that would let banks use ordinary IBM Personal Computers as financial terminals instead, thereby saving several thousand dollars a machine. Their product, now complete, enables PCs to talk not only to the bank's main computer but also to otherwise incompatible machines at credit bureaus and other companies.

Online Financial found three regional banks, ranging from less than $1 billion to $9 billion in assets, that wanted its products enough to pay in advance -- and to stake the R&D budget $100,000 each in exchange for a small percentage of future sales. Although the banks saw the deal more as a way to make their software pay for itself than as an investment, they may wind up with a better return than they would have gotten for lending out the same amount of money.