269: Pieter Franken – Safecast, Shinsei Bank, MIT & Monex Group

269: Pieter Franken – Safecast, Shinsei Bank, MIT & Monex Group

 

Podcast highlights:

  • [02:10] You came to Japan to work for Panasonic Corp in 1989. What was Japan like back then? -- This was just after the real estate bubble started to burst. Prior to that Japan always felt like an endless party. In 1989 the hangover was starting. It was a special time. You find Japanese companies all have their own stories. They are not all the same.
  • [28:00] You were actually involved in the aftermath of what was the largest corporate failure in Japanese history. Tell us a little bit about that. -- You're talking about The Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan, which went bankrupt in 1998. I joined the bank that emerged from this in 2000, Shinsei Bank. My interests were in rebuilding the bank from a technical / operational standpoint. At that time, Japanese banking technology in services was lagging. We really started to innovate to make Shinsei Bank a leader in banking tech.
  • [43:23] When you look at FinTech innovation in Japan today, there seems to be a lot going on. How has this happened? Who is driving it? -- First, it's important to consider that FinTech is a very broad term, which at it's core means bringing into the world of finance new digital technologies, new companies, and new innovative concepts. In Japan now there is a realization the central places for finance in Asia are in Singapore and Hong Kong, they are not in Tokyo. There's a growing realization banks need to innovate more.

Podcast notes:

  • [00:05] Welcome Pieter Franklin to Asia Tech Podcast Stories.
  • [02:10] You came to Japan to work for Panasonic Corp in 1989. What was Japan like back then? -- This was just after the real estate bubble started to burst. Prior to that Japan always felt like an endless party. In 1989 the hangover was starting. It was a special time. You find Japanese companies all have their own stories. They are not all the same.
  • [06:43] How did it feel being a Westerner there at that time? -- It was an eye-opening experience to see how things could be done differently. Companies could be organized in different ways. At that time, Japan was the cutting edge place for IT in the world.
  • [09:50] Let's talk about Safecast. You helped found Safecast quite soon after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami devastated parts of Japan in 2011. Tell us about that. -- You can look back at photos of that time and the work we did at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. It was from that experience we saw the need for more transparency in these types of events. We found, for example, the measurements of dispersed radiation issued by authorities were deceptive at best. Our idea was to give people the ability to measure radiation on their own.
  • [18:18] When you look back, that earthquake was the [4th most powerful ever recorded - ed.]. Was there really anything that could have been done to prepare for it? -- This is the fundamental question. My own view is that the consequences from a disaster like this are very very large, but the odds the disaster will happen are very very small. Those odds are not zero, however. The question for us is whether we should do something if the consequences when something goes wrong are very very big? What one observes is people are not good at understanding the dangers when the consequences could be this severe.
  • [22:50] Another area where this thinking seems relevant is in certain tech fields, like AI for example. When you look at these projects, do you worry about the implications of things going wrong? -- Of course. We should worry about what might happen when things go wrong. So Facebook, electric cars, reusable rockets, these things have clear potential benefits; but we have seen how the same technology can be used as a weapon. That's the dilemma of progress.
  • [28:00] You were actually involved in the aftermath of what was the largest corporate failure in Japanese history. Tell us a little bit about that. -- You're talking about The Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan, which went bankrupt in 1998. I joined the bank that emerged from this in 2000, Shinsei Bank. My interests were in rebuilding the bank from a technical / operational standpoint. At that time, Japanese banking technology in services was lagging. We really started to innovate to make Shinsei Bank a leader in banking tech.
  • [35:05] You talked about things you helped innovate, like 24-hour ATMs. To us here in 2018, these do not seem very significant; but back then they had a real impact. -- Right. In Japan, ATMs were only open when the bank was open. Imagine if this were the case today. There were certain challenges to innovating in the banking sphere. For example, when the bank closes, you have to take all the cash and put it in the vault. When you open the bank, you have to take the money out of the vault. So we really had to bring a process engineering mindset to these design challenges.
  • [43:23] When you look at FinTech innovation in Japan today, there seems to be a lot going on. How has this happened? Who is driving it? -- First, it's important to consider that FinTech is a very broad term, which at it's core means bringing into the world of finance new digital technologies, new companies, and new innovative concepts. In Japan now there is a realization the central places for finance in Asia are in Singapore and Hong Kong, they are not in Tokyo. There's a growing realization banks need to innovate more.
  • [49:00] What is the regulatory environment like in Japan? -- The government in Japan made the wise decision to put everyone with something to say about what happens in the financial world into one place. They call it the Financial Services Agency and this has helped bring clarity to the market. It has also allowed the government to be more nimble in regulation, especially as new technologies come online.
  • [52:45] Do you ever think about what drives you? -- You have to think about this. For me it's building things and the passion that comes from building new things. You have to find ways to build where you can take risks while not fundamentally endangering the company or markets if something goes wrong. This is the challenge.