BNP Paribas Joins the Blockchain Lab Legion

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"Evolve or die" — it is a familiar refrain today among bank executives and technologists.

Evolution, for banks, requires innovation — their own or someone else's. BNP Paribas feels this as keenly as any institution today, and rather than merely partnering with fintechs it is betting on itself.

Last week it opened a 5,000-square-foot innovation lab at its North American headquarters in New York, the first use of which was a two-day hackathon focused on blockchain technology.

About 40 employees participated in the hackathon, which was preceded on Wednesday morning by a talk given by Yorke Rhodes III, the head of Microsoft's own blockchain team, and a panel discussion that included Todd McDonald, co-founder and chief operating officer of R3, and Dan O'Prey, the chief marketing officer of Digital Asset Holdings, in which BNP Paribas invested this year.

In light of that investment, the hackathon appears to be a reaffirmation of the French bank's interest in blockchain technology. Bruno d'Illiers, the COO of BNP Paribas North America, said he believes distributed shared ledgers will "shape the future of the banking industry."

Such rhetoric is common nowadays, with the technology originally developed for the digital currency bitcoin enjoying an extraordinary level of attention from financial institutions. But while blockchain may be at "the tip of the hype cycle" right now, Rhodes said there is substance beyond the flash. "We're beyond the point that we know the technology is good for something," he said.

Still, the innovation lab isn't putting all its eggs in one basket. Six "task forces" are now using it as a base of operations, each devoted to a particular area of research. One is tackling big data, another robotics. While none of these teams is able to work full-time on their projects — the employees have to devote part of their time to their regular jobs — they have already been working for six months, and some of their projects are at the proof-of-concept stage.

Innovation labs are becoming de rigeur for the banking industry. Everyone from Wells Fargo to Capital One to Umpqua to the GE spinoff Synchrony to the $9.9 billion-asset Eastern Bank in Boston has one. And the vendors of banks' legacy core systems such as FIS and Fiserv have opened labs so they can keep up with the demands of the digital age.

And, like the rhetoric of innovation, there is a sameness to the environments where innovative thinking is supposed to take place. BNP Paribas' new space partakes of the same aesthetic as startup offices and coworking spaces nationwide: exposed concrete and brick, minimalist furniture, high ceilings, big windows that let in plenty of natural light. The lab boasts a large dining area and even couches for lying down on the job when the creative process demands it.

"It doesn't look like a bank," d'Illiers said proudly. Last Wednesday morning, giving a tour of the space, dressed in a blue suit, open-collared white shirt and brown suede oxfords, he seemed at ease. He spoke of leveraging "a new design, a new environment" to foster collaboration and engender breakthroughs.

But it would be a mistake to overlook the seriousness of purpose that BNP Paribas' investment represents.

In addition to the initial projects being pursued, the $96 billion-asset bank launched a campaign in July to solicit further proposals from its employees on how to better meet client needs and improve the bank's operations. Employees have until the end of September to submit their ideas.

"Employees have zillions of ideas — small, large — that sometimes are discussed around the coffee room but go nowhere," said Suresh Subramanian, a managing director at BNP Paribas. The point of the campaign, and of the innovation lab, is to create a forum in which they can share their ideas more widely — and at the same time to enable talented employees to network within the firm.

In the U.S., BNP Paribas does corporate and institutional banking under its own brand and has a retail presence through its subsidiary, the $80 billion-asset Bank of the West, and a majority stake in the $19 billion-asset First Hawaiian.

At a time when banks are debating among themselves whether to partner or compete with fintech startups, and some bankers, such as BBVA Compass' chief executive, Manolo Sanchez, have openly questioned their own failure to innovate, BNP Paribas is taking no chances.

"We have to stay competitive," said Catherine Flax, the bank's head of commodities and foreign exchange for the Americas, "and in order to be competitive we should be adopting new technologies as quickly as possible."

One of these technologies is undoubtedly blockchain, which excites bankers in large part because of the "huge cost savings" potentially to be derived from it, Flax said. "Each time you have a third party involved" in current bank operations, said d'Illiers, "it can be a good candidate for a blockchain project."

With the hackathon over, a committee has selected one of the proposed projects for further development. Achieving the best results for the bank is a matter, said Subramanian, of figuring out "how to marry what the fintechs are doing with what the suppliers are doing, with what buyers are doing."

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