Despite slowing VC investments in tech companies, CommonBond, an online lending firm that offers to refinance student loans (at a lower rate of interest), announced Tuesday it has secured another $300 million, including $30 million in equity. 

The startup, which launched in New York just two years ago, claims to save borrowers an average of $14,000, with an annual percentage rate starting at just under two percent.

"It's no doubt that 2016 has been a very different year for private investment than 2013, 2014, and 2015 were," says David Klein, co-founder and CEO of CommonBond. "I think [this funding] is a real testament to the team and their ability to deliver strong business metrics that has positioned us to raise equity capital."

To his point, U.S. venture investment fell to just $12.1 billion during the first quarter of 2016, down 30 percent from the second quarter of last year. Last September, CommonBond raised $35 million; Klein notes that this time around the company's (undisclosed) valuation is higher.

Neuberger Berman Private Equity led the $30 million Series C equity round, joining existing investors August Capital, Tribeca Venture Partners, Social Capital, Nyca Partners, and Victory Park Capital. Former Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit is also an investor in the startup. 

The company also announced its acquisition of Gradible, another student loan startup, as it shifts to help employers offer student loan refinancing as a benefit. So far, Klein says the company has signed on roughly 100 businesses.

Acquiring Gradible allows CommonBond to build out technology to serve less high-quality borrowers. (The average FICO score of a CommonBond client is a solid 770.) An algorithm created by Gradible allows clients to find alternative methods of paying off their student debt, such as income-based repayment.

"Up to this point, our core product has been refinancing, and that will continue to be a core product," Klein says. "Now we're able to complement that with a student loan assessment tool that allows anybody with debt to give information about themselves, and we'll run an algorithm [to find a solution]."

"All said, refinance is not right for everybody or not possible for everybody," he added. "We've always wanted to find an option that made sense for our business that could positively affect everyone in the country."

He's operating in a large market: Student loan debt in the U.S. currently weighs in at about $1.3 trillion. CommonBond is up against steep competition to serve these customers, though, including Social Finance Inc. (SoFi), a San Francisco-based startup that also works with employers to offer student loan refinancing as a benefit. SoFi has raised $1.38 billion in equity, compared to CommonBond's new total of $78.6 million.

Klein says the Series C funding will primarily go into building out the company's existing technology, and to hiring more product engineers.

The startup had reportedly cut 10 people -- including its head of capital markets -- earlier this year, and while Klein wouldn't speak to these cuts directly, he noted:  "We do let people go from time to time. That is something we've done historically. That's something that companies do and will do going forward."

A heavily regulated environment.

Klein is well aware that as an online lending firm, CommonBond is operating in a perilous and increasingly regulated market. LendingClub made waves in 2014 when it debuted on the public market, but the lending firm saw its founder and CEO resign earlier this year in May, after it was confirmed that senior managers had meddled with the terms of $22 million worth of loans.

What's more, a recent PwC report found that 86 percent of financial services CEOs are concerned about the impact of being too heavily regulated. A number of traditional regulators, including former FDIC chair Sheila Bair, have joined the boards of fintech ventures.

"We are very much in a regulated space, and we have been from the very beginning," Klein says, adding that his first hire was a lawyer. "We've always understood the space within which we play." He went on to suggest that, in some ways, the LendingClub scandal has helped his own business.

CommonBond also securitizes student loans, which sets its business model apart from traditional marketplace lenders.

"The truth is, from our perspective, we haven't missed a beat from consumer demand or investor demand," Klein said, calling the securitization branch a "naturally built in culture of control and compliance."

Published on: Jul 19, 2016