RIO DE JANEIRO — The billionaire and prominent Silicon Valley financier Peter Thiel has returned to investing in Brazil, even as the country remains mired in recession and faces almost weekly political upheavals.
Founders Fund, the San Francisco-based venture capital firm Mr. Thiel co-founded, has led a new $52 million financing round in Nubank, a financial technology start-up based in São Paulo, according to multiple individuals with knowledge of the transaction.
Two original investors, Sequoia Capital and Kaszek Ventures, which is based in Buenos Aires, also participated in the round, as did the New York investment firm Tiger Global Management, which first invested in Nubank last year. The round closed in December. All individuals spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A Nubank spokeswoman, Mariana Netto, responded to an email inquiry seeking information on the new financing and a request for an interview with a company executive by saying, “At the moment, we do not have any information.”
The new investment values Nubank at approximately $500 million, according to two individuals, significant for a company less than three years old.
The Founders Fund backing of Nubank appears to be its first investment in Brazil and South America, at least based on disclosed and known investments. The firm, just over 10 years old, raised its first fund back in 2005.
According to its website, out of 24 portfolio companies, none are in South America and most are in the United States. One, Research Gate Scientific Network, is based in Berlin. The firm is known for seeking out what it considers transformational technologies, backing companies such asSpaceX, for example, and has long been critical of the current venture capital model, specifically the kinds of start-ups Silicon Valley funds.
On the surface, backing Nubank may seem to be a counterintuitive move as many institutional investors have fled Latin America’s largest economy in recent years, and its gross domestic product has decreased for three straight quarters.
Mr. Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, has a reputation for going against the grain. But Founders Funds notes on its website that being contrarian “does not mean simply doing the opposite of what the majority does.” Rather, the company says, “The most contrarian thing to do is to think independently.” Taking on Brazil’s financial establishment is certainly that.
Nubank, which was founded by a former Sequoia Capital partner, David Velez, and provides a digital credit card for smartphones, is trying to take customers away from Brazil’s highly profitable banks, which have long seemed untouchable.
They have been neither vulnerable to the moribund economy the rest of the country has grappled with over the last several years nor the policies enacted by leftist governments that have led the country since 2003. That is partly because Brazil has long had extremely high interest rates. Its current benchmark Selic rate stands at 14.25 percent.
That also means higher credit card interest rates. Many Brazilians already pay annual rates as high as 415.3 percent as of the end of November, up from 327.8 percent one year earlier, according to Central Bank data. Average annual credit card interest rates in Brazil have risen in 10 of the last 11 months, reaching 99 percent in November, up significantly from 74.5 percent in the same month in 2014, according to that same Central Bank report.
In contrast, Nubank has not changed its 7.75 monthly interest rate in over a year. It also hopes that being digital both reduces overhead and results in better customer service. Banks, after telecommunications companies, usually generate the most customer complaints in Brazil. That has helped its popularity here grow.
More than one million Brazilians have applied for the card and approximately 300,000 are on a waiting list while their credit history is examined, Nubank said in the fourth quarter of last year.
Mr. Thiel has put money in the country before. He was a limited partner in the first institutional fund raised in 2010 by Felicis Ventures, a firm based in Palo Alto, Calif., that invested in some Brazilian start-ups. His first direct investment was through another fund he founded, Valar Ventures, which led a $10.47 million round in the online furniture company Oppa in 2012 and subsequently invested in a few other start-ups here. Efforts to reach Mr. Thiel were unsuccessful.