Bringing FinTech innovation to Banks – A conversation with Ralph Chan


The banking industry is at the highest risk of disruption,[1] and FinTech startups are paving the way for this change. “There is growing recognition in the financial services industry that FinTechs are not necessarily bad for the industry, that they serve a purpose, and that partnering with FinTechs is a viable option forward for many incumbent financial services institutions.[2]

Banks must embrace FinTech startups and take measures to keep up with the rate of innovation. One bank that has been doing this is DBS.  In 2014, the bank made a commitment to investing SGD 200 million (nearly 1 Billion Yuan) over three years into innovation.[3] They also ran an FinTech accelerator programme in Hong Kong, and are currently accepting applications for the programme’s second iteration.  We caught up with Ralph Chan, Senior Vice President of Technology & Operations at DBS who runs the DBS Accelerator Program and drives the bank’s digital strategy.

Ralph (Centre) hanging out with startup founders at The Vault
Ralph (Centre) hanging out with startup founders at The Vault

Why do you think there is so much interest for FinTech startups in Asia, especially within China? 

In general, Asia is a less mature market and there is a lot of catch up to do as well as an incredibly large unbanked population. These factors allow for faster growth. An added benefit is that there are no existing legacies in place, so when players get moving they can move really fast. Take the mobile payment market as an example. In some developed markets, people are used to using physical checks for fund transfer and payment, therefore the migration to mobile payments has been slow. But in China, the lack of legacy using physical checks allowed users to quickly adopt WeChat Pay or AliPay instead.


What are the advantages of setting up a FinTech startup in HK?

Hong Kong is the place where you can test and validate your ideas quickly. This Is due to a number of reasons, including:

  • Banks of every tier have a presence here whether it is global, regional or local
  • Customer segments range from mass market, the emerging affluent to the affluent
  • The sound legal environment means anything developed here is well protected
  • Shenzhen is right across the border for any hardware needs
  • The talent pool is ripe for recruitment. There is a large cultural mix and Hong Kong people are well versed in Mathematics and Science

In fact, one of the DBS Accelerator Batch 1 Alumni, DollarSmart, was based in Thailand when they joined the accelerator. After the programme, they decided to open an office in Hong Kong and enter the HK market due to its high potential.

The Vault - DBS's 5000sq ft private co-working space in Wan Chai
The Vault – DBS’s 5000sq ft private co-working space in Wan Chai


What has DBS done to help spark innovation?

Of course we have the accelerator, however our work in innovation goes further than that. For the past two years, we’ve been running a 3-day hackathon with startups.

We also have an alliance with CityU, whom we co-run CAL Talk’s, a TedTalk style event where we invite market leaders to share their innovation journey.

To promote a culture of innovation for our employees we created the DigiBuzz, a weekly YouTube style update sharing DBS’s latest innovation initiatives. We also promote crowdsourcing of ideas through an online portal where any staff member can post their ideas and up vote the ideas of others to help make them a reality.

We also work closely with startups. One of the new initiatives we rolled out in India is Digibank. The platform features a 24/7 virtual assistant powered by AI technology called Kasisto.

DBS Omni, the latest credit card companion app we introduced in Hong Kong, uses a FinTech solution called Moneythoromithon, that provides a contextual marketing solution which can engage customers better.

So I would say a lot of things are happening, the key thing is how we can inject these digital innovations into our bank DNA.


Why is DBS running an accelerator program?

DBS truly believes digital will be the future of banking, therefore we have started many initiatives. The accelerator was started specifically because we wanted to be actively involved within the startup ecosystem. It’s not only about startups and banks, but also about how we can help support innovation within the entire community. Through the program, we are able to help startups build their solutions, these solutions can then be provided to our customers who will be happier as a result. Ultimately, we can also help attract talented people to Hong Kong and make the community better for everyone.


What piece of advice would you give to a budding FinTech startup?

You need to understand your customer. People often build solutions without first understanding the underlying problems. Think deeply about the customer journey, what problems are the customer facing that you are trying to solve. You need to immerse yourself into the customer, understand their pain points and what keeps them awake at night and build the solutions based on this.

The DBS accelerator batch 2.0 is now open for applications. If you are a FinTech startup interested in accelerating your business, please apply at:

The 8 FinTech startup teams from Batch 1.0 at Demo Day