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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Silicon Valley Luminaries Bet on Clinkle, a Payments Start-Up

Clinkle, a new mobile payments start-up, may or may not have succeeded where so many other efforts have fizzled by inventing a practical way to replace credit cards with smartphones. It’s hard to say, though, since Clinkle won’t say much about how its system works.

But a prominent group of Silicon Valley investors who do know what Clinkle is cooking up are acting as though it has achieved a breakthrough. On Thursday, Clinkle announced that it had raised $25 million in early financing from Accel Partners; Andreessen Horowitz; Intel; Intuit; Marc Benioff, the chief executive of Salesforce.com; Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal; and a long list of other investors with technology industry pedigrees.

Clinkle comes with a variation on the classic tech industry origin story. Its founder and chief executive, Lucas Duplan, created the company in 2011 while he was an undergraduate computer science student at Stanford University. Rather than drop out of schol as Bill Gates did to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams, Mr. Duplan jammed all his Stanford course work into three years.

Mr. Duplan, now 22 years old, is in the process of moving his stealthy, 50-person start-up to San Francisco from Mountain View, Calif.

In an interview, Mr. Duplan offered only the barest of details about how Clinkle would work. It involves a payment app that will work on smartphones and be tied to any existing credit card and bank account.

Clinkle will be relatively painless for merchants to adopt because they won’t have to buy new hardware, a shortcoming of many past approaches by tech companies, Mr. Duplan said. The company’s technology will not require a phone equipped with a near field communications, or N.F.C., chip, a wireless technology that has been adopted by some phone manufacturers for payments, but notably not by Apple.

Clinkle will initially focus on getting merchants around college campuses to adopt its system because they serve largely c! aptive audiences and students tend to be early adopters of mobile apps.

A lot of smart companies have tried and failed at what Clinkle is seeking to do. Google’s Google Wallet system, which only works with phones that have the N.F.C. chip, has been a disappointment. Some individual retailers, like Starbucks, seem to have had better success with retailer-specific payment systems.

But Mr. Duplan said no one yet has come up with a system that allows people to truly leave their wallets at home. “I don’t think anyone has been able to crack the nut in the sense of being able to build something that is a serious contender with cash and cards,” he said.

James Breyer, a partner at Accel who was one of the first investors in Facebook, said he first met Mr. Duplan a couple months ago after an ntroduction by Diane Greene, the co-founder of VMware and another investor in Clinkle. Mr. Breyer said he nosed around with Stanford professors and graduate students about Clinkle and received “resoundingly positive” reports about the technical prowess of Mr. Duplan and his associates.

Mr. Breyer, until recently a Wal-Mart board member, also has a window into how the world’s largest retailer is thinking about mobile payments, a category where he believes the retailer wants to innovate. He said the timing for such innovations is better now than in the past, when other big companies tried and failed with mobile payments.

“I think part of what’s happened is over the last 12 to 18 months, there’s been such an acceleration around mobile and social platforms,” Mr. Breyer said. “A truly transformative way of building next gen payments wasn’t crystallized a couple years ago.”