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Chat with the Digital Innovators: Alex Manson Head of SC Ventures

It is indeed a rare opportunity to have a quick chat with the man in his new role at SC Ventures – a new business unit established in Mar 2018 to lead digital innovation across Standard Chartered Group. The new unit invests in fintechs, startups and promote the rapid testing and implementation of new business models.

Alex Manson who heads SC Ventures is tasked with the promotion of intrapreneurship by helping the rest of the Group in prolem-solving and spreading innovation best practices; running a professional investment unit to seek opportunities and manage the Group’s strategic investments in fintech companies; and thirdly managing the Venture unit which will sponsor and oversee new disruptive technology ventures that are wholly or partially owned by Standard Chartered.

TFAGeeksWe know you are flying around the globe with a hectic schedule, akin to the neck-breaking speed that technology is moving and influencing our daily and professional lives. Many of our readers have probably read and heard about this new venture by Standard Chartered, but most do not have a good understanding about the new setup. Will you be able to share more about SC Ventures? Why is it a separate entity and not one that is within the Standard Chartered Group itself? There are many Banks who have created innovation centres, digitalization arms or fintech departments?

Alex: It is a bit of both.  SC Ventures is actually an unit of the bank. We are responsible for intrapreneurship, individual ventures that are separate and distinct from the bank, as well as investing in Fintechs. 

We sometimes need to operate separately from the Bank in order to allow us to experiment in a contained environment. This gives us more flexibility to apply the processes that are more appropriate for each unique situation. For example, onboarding a Fintech in the eXellerator is not the same thing as onboarding a large tech vendor. It warrants a different type of response and different process to cater to the subtle differences.

At the same time, we still need to be connected to the bank so that we can get the sufficient level of ownership from the business units. As we have seen with many labs or corporate venture capital efforts, this connection is critical if we want the bank and its clients to have direct access and to be able to get the most out of our experiments.  

Therefore we have designed it to be under the same roof, bearing both an internal and an external lens, and we have the conviction that there will be self-reinforcing flows across our three pillars of intrapreneurship, investments and new ventures. 

TFAGeeksIntrapreneurship indeed! What are the goals of SC Ventures and what do you have in mind when it comes to collaboration with corporations or fintechs?

Alex: The goal of SC Ventures is to “rewire the DNA in Banking”.  “Banking” because it is not just about the bank, it is about the whole ecosystem, the whole Banking industry and all the different stakeholders in it – it is about creating new business models.

“DNA” because although technology is omnipresent, it is not about technology but rather about humans participating in business. The human touch is still relevant in an age of technology!

Transforming DNA does not happen by itself or within a top down line of command. Instead we believe in an open network of partners, including both our clients and Fintechs, co-creating solutions with human-centered design in mind, a lean start-up approach and technology enablement.

TFAGeeksIf possible, will you be able to share some of the interesting cases that SC Ventures have taken on? And what are the plans that you are planning?

Alex: We have announced our intention to apply for a digital banking license in HK.  We are also exploring options to build and collaborate with platforms to remain closer to clients. As to other ventures, I hate to do this but do stay tuned!

In the context of client co-creation we already have a pretty good track record actually.

For example, in Q1 2018, we launched a solution in India to help our corporate clients digitize their day to day hedging and operational activity on a single platform. This was a result of co-creating with our clients to solve the issue of  Financial Markets clients having to face onerous documentation and reporting requirements.

We also bring a business and client focus to the adoption of technology. For example, we’ve embarked on proof of concepts such as Trade Finance, Credit Risk, AML, Fraud Detection, Wealth Management, Retail credit, and are rapidly going into production where we have seen success.

TFAGeeksWhich is more important – disruption or collaboration?

Alex: Both! We have no issue disrupting ourselves as long as we achieve progress and serve clients better, add more value…and the way we do this is by collaborating with others. The two words are not mutually exclusive!

TFAGeeksTechnology is the buzzword of late, but do you think that corporations are embracing it at the speed and extent that it should be?

Alex: I think corporations, including banks, are doing what they can in the context of having an existing business to run, clients to serve every day, regulations to comply with and legacy systems and technology architecture. 

But this is actually almost a distraction at times; while it is critical to embrace technology and sometimes retool the corporation and people working in it, the real legacy is often not technology but the business model.  

That is the hard one because mindsets and organizational set-ups are geared to an existing model and rethinking it fundamentally is often very difficult – however this is even more critical at times and that is the part corporations never embrace fast enough (hence the need to experiment outside of the organization in some circumstances).

TFAGeeksWhy and what are holding decision makers and stakeholders from adopting technology?

Alex: Fear, inertia, ignorance, territoriality and instinct for control (also known as politics) – these are the bad ones. 

There are also some good reasons: security, scarce resources (both financial and people), limited user testing, unproven models and meeting regulatory guidelines.

The main hold back however is management thinking: applying a great technology to conventional thinking will typically yield…pretty conventional results with incremental improvements (at which point the same management may decide it’s not worth it and stop short of a genuine effort). 

What this means is that leadership has to be truly obsessed with clients and willing to apply unconventional method to serve them better, then technology is just nothing but a very natural enabler.

TFAGeeksCorporate Treasurers and Finance folks are savvy and shrewd, what is your persuasive edge that they will collaborate with SC Ventures than other fintechs or banks?

Alex: Empathy. We know how hard it is. We are highly cognizant of the fact that resources are scarce. And that nobody says thank you if you took a risk but you may well be blamed for the downside. 

Yet objectives are ever more daunting, and at the same time, technology looks capable of disrupting not just banks but also the entire treasury space. 

So we can work on this together: manage the downside but also invent the future because we will marry the right tools with an almost emotional understanding of what it feels like to be a corporate treasurer today – and together rewire the DNA in treasury as well! 

TFAGeeksIn three words, how would you describe your journey at SC Ventures?

Alex: Inspiring, challenging, hopeful.

I’ve had incredible highs from the many conversations, projects, ideas, human interactions with clients, Fintechs and other stakeholders – at the same time frustrations associated with setting-up something that doesn’t exist yet and defining a team, a governance within the bank, and the overall ability to deliver. 

The former gives me the inspiration to deal with the latter.  I was almost overwhelmed by the amount of energy on the back of SC Ventures, the fact is that we have created a lot of hope – with both our clients and within the bank – disappointment is just not an option.