The Italian FinTech Sandbox (the "Sandbox") has been introduced by means of Ministerial Decree no. 100 of 2nd July 2021 (the "Decree")1, which entered into force on 17th July 2021. By means of the Decree, it was also established a FinTech Committee (the "Committee"), chaired by the Minister of Economy and Finance and composed of the national competent authorities (the "NCAs"), which is in charge of monitoring and fostering the development of FinTech in Italy, as well as of keeping contacts with operators and foreign and EU authorities.
The Sandbox comes at the end of a long process, which has seen the launch of several initiatives of the NCAs aimed at monitoring technological innovations in the relevant markets while fostering the digitalisation of Italy, such as the Bank of Italy's Canale FinTech (in 2017) and Milano Hub (in 2020), CONSOB's Quaderni uaderniQFinTech (from 2018 onwards), and several IVASS' workshops and roundtables2 aimed at promoting InsurTech.
Through the Sandbox, NCAs have a common tool that works as a chain of support programs for innovation that is integrated and consistent with the richness and variety of the FinTech's phenomena. The ultimate goal being to promote and support entrepreneurship, stimulate competition in the relevant markets and ensure an adequate protection of consumers, investors and the capital market.
So far, Sandbox has drawn the interest of various FinTech operators (the "Operators"), whether start-ups or existing market players, mainly active in the payment services, invoice trading, corporate finance, crowdfunding, money management, wealth and asset management and instant lending sectors. As far as start-ups are concerned, the Sandbox is seen as an opportunity for raising capital and entering the target market while saving time and costs. Conversely, existing market players may take advantage of the Sandbox for keeping up with the evolution of technologies, diversifying their activities and increasing industrial integration through collaborations or acquisitions3.
2. Sandbox's goals and functioning
Sandbox has been introduced for the purpose of promoting Italy's digitalisation, by establishing a controlled environment where Operators can test proposed technologically innovative activities in the banking, finance and insurance sectors.
In order to be admitted to the Sandbox, applicants' project(s) must satisfy the following eligibility criteria:
(i) be significantly innovative with respect to the use of information technology;
(ii) bring added value to end-users and the relevant markets;
(iii) be economically and financially sustainable; and
(iv) be "in a sufficiently advanced state for experimentation"4.
In addition, eligible projects may imply the filing by the applicant with the competent NCA(s) of a request for exemption from regulatory requirements and approvals.
The admission procedure is articulated as follows:
(i) a possible phase of informal contacts with NCA(s) through a dedicated web channel, which can be initiated by the applicant5 and are aimed at providing support to the latter for identifying the relevant NCA(s) to which submitting the admission request;
(ii) an initial admission phase, during which the applicant may consult with the NCA(s) in order to check whether it meets the requirements set forth by the Decree, study and comprehend the applicable regulatory framework;
(iii) a start-up phase, characterised by the definition of the testing's modalities; and
(iv) the actual testing phase, which has a maximum duration of 18 months, yet it may be extended if certain circumstances are met. During this phase, NCA(s) and Operators may share information among each-others in order to improve the regulatory framework, the former, and identify the most appropriate measures needed to launch a product/service of tested success, the latter.
At the end of the testing, if the product/service receives a positive outcome6, a summary report on the procedure at issue must be transmitted by the NCA(s) to the Committee. The latter and the interested NCA(s) will then discuss whether Operators whose proposed activities have been successfully tested may obtain the authorisation to operate in the relevant market, if necessary.
To sum up, through the Sandbox, Operators that intend to test innovative solutions and meet certain requirements may enjoy a temporary simplified regime, while liaising with the NCA(s) and having to comply with less stringent rules than those normally applying to the same activities. At the same time, NCA(s) can closely monitor the dynamics of the FinTech market, as well as identify the most appropriate regulatory interventions for fostering the development thereof, with the aim of enhancing consumers' protection. In turn, Operators can save money and attract foreign and domestic investments, whether institutional or not.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that, on 1st October 2021, Bank of Italy, CONSOB and IVASS, through a joint statement, launched the first two-month window envisaged under the Decree, running from 15th November 2021 to 15th January 2022. During this time, Operators may submit an admission application to the interested NCA(s) with regard to the activities they intend to test under the Sandbox's regime.
The Italian Sandbox seems to have the right credentials for becoming a success by boosting the FinTech national market. However, the risk remains that the testing may result in a duplication of time and costs, since Operators that intend to continue to carry out the same activities after the testing must initiate the procedure leading to the obtainment of the necessary authorisation before the relevant NCA(s).
Moreover, as ESAs' joint report on EU sandboxes and innovation centers of January 2019 seems to highlight, there is a need for a stronger coordination among EU NCAs. Indeed, at present, there is no mechanism promoting the spread of financial innovation throughout the Union, leaving room to the risk of a regulatory arbitrage, as well as of market fragmentation, for NCAs do not adopt the same testing's parameters and supervisory practices.
Furthermore, a potential competition issue may arise to the extent to which Operators may receive an advantage in terms of personalised regulatory guidance, in advance of launching their intended products or services on the market.
In conclusion, one can only wish that the afore-said potential issues and risks may lead to the introduction of an EU-wide testing procedure, which would allow an Operator that has successfully concluded a testing in one EU Member State may take advantage thereof and proceed to the next steps in the rest of the Union.
1 In implementation of Article 36, paragraphs 2-bis, et seq. of Law Decree no. 34 of 30th April 2019, converted with amendments by Law no. 58 of 28th June 2019.
2 Such as the roundtable entitled "Fintech and Insurtech: digital technologies, banks, insurance companies" held on 10th September 2018 within the ambit of the initiative "Meetings with the Bank of Italy".
3 In this context, must be read the data on M&A in the Italian FinTech sector, which shows an increase of the acquisitions of FinTech companies by financial institutions in the last decade, for a total amount of about 2 billion dollars (see Report on FinTech, Researches Department, Chamber of Deputies, 22nd January 2021).
4 See Article 6, paragraph 1 a), of the Decree.
5 It is worth noting that such informal contacts may be triggered also by operators that are not eligible for admission to the Sandbox, yet carry out activities with potential impact in relevant sectors.
6 CONSOB's LifTech Channel provides Operators who cannot access the Sandbox (because, for instance, their intended activities are not yet regulated or supervised) with the opportunity to enjoy the informal contacts' regime envisaged under the Decree.
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