Fintech and Blockchain Conference

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Amazing things happen when people of different professional and academic backgrounds come together. We had the chance to see that in action with the Global Fintech & Blockchain Hackathon (on 23 and 24 February) hosted at Imperial College Business School’s Gandhi Centre for Inclusive Innovation, and at the conference at the Great Hall a week later, with over 600 people attending from various industry disciplines in finance and technology.  

The event was one of the world’s largest university-led fintech and blockchain technology gatherings of its kind. Co-sponsored by the Gandhi Centre, the hackathon and conference brought together some of the greatest leaders and most creative minds working in the financial technology and blockchain sectors today.  

The conference speakers included many influential founders and investors, including:   

  • Tim Draper, venture capitalist 
  • Christoper Reich, CEO of business finance startup iwoca 
  • Ryan Radloff, CEO of leading cryptocurrency exchange CoinShares 
  • Jason Bates, co-founder of challenger banks Monzo and Starling Bank 
  • David Rutter, founder and managing partner of enterprise blockchain software firm R3 
  • Ajit Tripathi, partner at ConsenSys and co-founder of PwC’s UK blockchain practice 

The event was an ideal forum for leading founders, developer, advisors, investors and policymakers to connect, network, share ideas and build lasting relationships. Francisco Veloso, Dean of Imperial College Business School, summed up the spirit of the event in his opening statement, when he described Imperial’s commitment to supporting initiatives that aim to “raise awareness about big issues and connect bright people with innovative companies that dare to solve them”. 

International cooperation 

At the Gandhi Centre, we are acutely aware of the immense power the blockchain and other financial technologies to provide philanthropy and the charity sector with greater efficiency and transparency. As we look into the future, our major concern is the social impact of business and the management of global commons – in other words, our planetary resources.   

This can only be achieved through greater cooperation at an international level and by collaboration between industry sectors. The purpose of the conference, then, was to cultivate interconnectivity between ecosystems that otherwise would not normally converge. It is through the exploration of blockchain technology that these conversations are taking place.  

I often tell students that we live at a privileged point in time, where technology has given us more power than ever to drive human advancement for the benefit of all. Today, despite the intentions of our greatest innovators, the human advancement we strive for is only available to the majority. In short: dreams are universal, but opportunity is not.  

 

We only need to look at the issue of financial inclusion. According to the latest data from the World Bank, 1.7 billion adults do not have a bank account, a crucial step in escaping poverty. At the same time, two thirds of them own a mobile phone that could help them access financial services.  

On this issue alone, there is an immense opportunity for digital technology to bring people into the financial system. For example, paying government wages, pensions, and social benefits directly into accounts could bring formal financial services to up to 100 million more adults globally, including 95 million in developing economies, according to World Bank estimates. With technologies such as blockchain and AI becoming more widely adopted and being refined over the next decade, we have a big opportunity to bring access to more people.  

The future of blockchain 

One of the biggest takeaways from panels was that, while the concept of blockchain technology may have been brought to the mainstream by Bitcoin, blockchain’s potential goes far, far beyond a single application. Large institutions and industry leaders like Accenture and IBM are seeing an ever-increasing interest from companies looking to use blockchain to solve problems in areas like energy, insurance, healthcare and supply chain traceability, among many others. 

There are many more investors looking to put capital to work. Other speakers at the event included:   

  • Ousmene Mandeng, senior advisor at Accenture 
  • Diana Biggs, Head of Innovation at HSBC 
  • Jorn Lambert, Global Head of Digital Solutions at Mastercard  

These organisations realise blockchain technology isn’t just a more efficient way to settle securities, it will fundamentally change market structures. The internet itself may also undergo dramatic change. With the right support, innovative blockchain can quickly make a big impact. Already we are seeing many amazing projects in this space coming to fruition.  

Three years ago, I used one of my lectures to introduce Nivaura (a blockchain startup focused on simplifying access to capital markets) to Imperial College Business School. Soon after, we submitted a proposal to a government programme that funds early-stage tech project. The funding got turned down, but the founders of Nivaura kept pursuing their vision: working with regulators, lawyers, replacing the complex web of depositors, investment banks, and other intermediaries and letting investors deal directly with each other and hold their own assets, using the blockchain.  

Last week, the company came closer to making that vision a reality by closing a $20 million funding round involving London Stock Exchange, Santander’s venture capital arm, InnoVentures, and investment firm Digital Currency Group.   

Working across sectors 

This is just one project, but it illustrates the role Imperial College Business School can play with the most innovative blockchain projects. Both vertical and horizontal collaboration will be required across public, private and non-governmental sectors, with involvement from technologists, researchers, financiers and other stakeholders, to thoroughly address issues such as gender equity, financial inclusion and sustainable energy.  

It is important to engage and educate governments and build a talent pool to support the future digital economy. This last part is important: while it might be anathema to some in the crypto-community echo chamber, blockchain deployment requires more governmental financing support, such as pooled finance facilities. This will help kickstart projects with sizable upfront costs in regions and sectors that have minimal access to traditional finance and banking services – particularly now alternative global self-financing mechanisms such as ICOs have found themselves in the regulatory doghouse. 

By sponsoring events like the Global Fintech & Blockchain Hackathon and bringing together these different aspects,  the Gandhi Centre is building a platform whereby innovators of all disciplines, across various geographies, can collaborate and coordinate to build technologies that not only benefit the financial industry but humanity as a whole. 

This post was written by Kieran Arasaratnam, Professor of Practice at Imperial College Business School 

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 Kieran Arasaratnam

About Kieran Arasaratnam

Teaching Fellow
Before joining academia, Kieran spent 15 years in the banking sector, working for Barclays Capital, Morgan Stanley and HSBC across the Europe, US and Asia. He has also been involved in a number of social enterprise and impact investment projects, including the Uinspire Digital Academy.

He is an Imperial PhD alumnus and was formerly a co-director of the School’s Gandhi Centre for Inclusive Innovation.