Despite being small, the BT lab is alive with activity and noise as hoards of people cram together discussing ideas and putting plans together.
There is writing all over the walls depicting mind maps, spider diagrams and technological jargon, alongside complicated looking blue prints for testing the very latest financial technology.
Matthew Key and Will Pryke, both senior managers of BT’s innovation lab, meet me among the hustle and bustle to walk me through the lab and discuss the latest in technology and innovation in financial services.
“We’re very active at the moment. Five years ago banks used to talk about innovation; but now they are all involved and actually doing it,’ Matthew Key, head of innovation for financial services clients at the innovation for BT, explains upon my arrival.
BT innovation lab – BT Infinity Lab – officially opened its doors in October 2013 with the aim of driving co-innovation with entrepreneurs and digital small to medium enterprises.
A series of ‘Dragons Den’ style competitions and events are carried out inside the lab, usually supported by an executive sponsor and a core business theme. To date, the events have attracted over 600 applicants from around the world.
The winners of one of the competitions hosted at BT’s innovation lab gain six months of mentoring and support from BT in areas like technology, product development, legal and marketing.
“We have several teams inside the lab right now preparing for an ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) hackathon that begins next week,” Will Pryke, director of operations and breakthrough innovation at the lab, informs me.
“There are six teams competing against each other and a few are setting up right now. It’s the advance party,” he added.
At the back of one of the rooms was a large green box – the kind you would more commonly see at the end of a street. It creates a shorter length for internet connection, using proximity placing to gain higher speed broadband.
“We also put those in exchanges – they rely on BT for things like connectivity,” Key informs me.
Large white boards cover the walls at the lab, while desks are littered with laptops, PCs and tablets as the teams worked together to prepare for the competition.
BT keeps up with the latest technology through its global scouting model. It scans the globe for new ideas and technology from venture capitals, start-ups, partners and competitors, while identifying trends and threats in technology.
The networks created through the global scouting model span 10 years, with 450 start-ups scanned typically each year. Trends investigated by BT include mobility, IoT, Wi-Fi, security and cyber defence, Big Data, cloud services and new IT.
They are tracking investments in innovative technologies and services, identifying emerging business models, finding early adoption and monitoring best practice from peer organisations to build a ‘pipeline of innovation’.
“We are in the hype of a cycle right now and it isn’t going to slow down,” Key explains.Hothousing
As head of customer engagement for the financial services at the lab, Key says BT’s lab is essential for start-ups and FinTech firms in their early stages.
“Large financial services firms don’t want to enter into commercial agreements with smaller companies. It can take time and be quite complicated – but we work with those FinTech companies to validate the products with security assessments and evaluations before we sell them,” he explained.
“FinTech firms get the scale and reach by working with BT,” Key added.
BT Radianz’s innovation lab is not just about validating FinTech products or hosting hackathons. Key and Pryke inform me of a specific concept known as ‘hothousing’, which is when large financial services firms visit the lab to solve a technological problem.
It’s an interesting concept – a team from the company are co-located in one room at BT’s lab for three consecutive days. While there, the team are tasked with cracking the technological problem through coding.
“The teams collaborate to improve the solution with an early draft of the code,” Pryke explained. “It’s an intense event, but the teams produce results in just three days,” he added.
Large European banks have flown entire teams, including directors and senior management members, into London to carry out the hothousing process at BT’s lab.
I honestly didn’t expect to get through my visit at the innovation lab without hearing about blockchain…alas, it didn’t take too long.
Both Key and Pryke have spent - and continue to spend - a lot of their time on the research, development and applications of blockchain in various industries.
“I think it will be between five and 10 years before it is commercial, but it will definitely happen,” Key predicted.
Pryke added that the underlying technology of bitcoin is useful and the lab has learnt about the technology from all industries.
“This gives us a birds-eye view of blockchain, with different perspectives and we can then look at its possible applications,” he explained.
Before visiting BT’s innovation lab, I took a trip to BT’s offices to speak with its global banking and financial markets team - Barry Webster, head of strategy; Alexandra Foster, head of insurance and post-trade services; and Michael Cooper, chief technology officer.
The global banking and finance team at BT Radianz reiterated that cloud technology plays a major role at BT Radianz.
Michael Cooper, CTO at BT Radianz, explained the Financial Conduct Authority’s recent ‘approval’ of cloud technology use was a big step, although firms need to understand outsourcing via the cloud does not remove the responsibility.
The team highlighted that BT Radianz has been in the cloud business for years, now providing the world’s largest network for the financial community, aimed at addressing needs of market participants whilst providing access to over 400 providers.
“Cloud technology allows venues to be apart of this environment and markets to use the venues,” Foster – a former trader herself – explained.
“Our technology provides flexibility. Best execution requirements under MiFID II, for example, are met using our technology whether electronically or through voice,” she added.
The visit to the innovation lab and the demo room asserted BT’s role not just in the trading world but financial services as a whole.
From cloud technology to blockchain to producing touch-screen trading turrets, innovation is at the forefront of BT Radianz, or as its CTO, Michael Cooper, describes it: “Innovation really is on our DNA.”