Asia is increasingly on the radar of Irish fintechs looking to take advantage of opportunities in fast-growing markets overseas. Here, business leaders from Irish-based organisations share their personal insights from successfully establishing a presence in the region.
More than 600 Irish companies do business in Asia with exports more than doubling over the last four years, according to Enterprise Ireland – the Irish Government’s trade and innovation agency responsible for the development and growth of Irish enterprises in world markets.
Ireland is home to more than 250 of the world’s leading financial services firms and services over 40 per cent of all global hedge fund assets. It is also the fourth-largest exporter of financial services in the EU.
The number of Irish fintech companies in Asia is going from strength to strength, excelling in areas such as regtech and risk, payments, AI, insurtech, banking, CX and cyber – with exports in the Southeast Asia region increasing by more than 25 per cent in 2020.
Enterprise Ireland, which currently supports more than 200 Irish fintech companies, has led a delegation of Irish companies to Hong Kong Fintech week and Singapore Fintech week for the last three years.
This week, in partnership with the Irish Chamber of Commerce Singapore – the network of business leaders committed to creating opportunities in Singapore and the region – Enterprise Ireland hosted the ‘Irish Fintech in Asia – Stories from the Road’ webinar.
The panel discussion – hosted by Tiarnan McCaughan, fintech market advisor at Enterprise Ireland, delved into the developmental trends and future direction of the fintech industry in the Asian region, through the lens of leading Irish fintech companies across the spectrum.
Panelists sharing their personal insights of leading Irish-based businesses in Asia included Ruth Fletcher, COO and CFO at online peer-to-peer currency exchange marketplace CurrencyFair, Kelly-Ann McHugh, director of APAC, for compliance technology provider MyComplianceOffice, as well as Joanne Horgan, chief innovation officer at Vizor – the regulatory and supervisory technology specialist.
Headquartered in Ireland, CurrencyFair marked its first step into the Asian market in 2018 when it acquired Hong Kong’s Convoy Payments as part of a wider €20million investment plan. It now has offices in Singapore and Hong Kong.
Ruth Fletcher joined CurrencyFair in 2016 following 15 years of scaling two other Irish fintech companies – Fenergo and Norkom Technologies – to global successes.
Fletcher said: “Global payments in Asia are in excess of $1.2trillion, making it a natural fit for the CurrencyFair solution, which solves the complex problem of making international payments faster and cheaper than alternatives, with supporting capabilities on shipment, taxation, etc.
“CurrencyFair makes international commerce seamless for businesses and consumers and Asia is the fastest growing market for cross border e-commerce.”
Founded in 2005, Dublin-based MyComplianceOffice (MCO) provides compliance management software that enables companies to reduce their risk of misconduct. The company expanded its footprint in the APAC region with the opening of a new Singapore office in 2019.
Kelly-Ann McHugh joined MCO in order to launch the APAC office for its conflicts of interest software. She was previously head of regulatory intelligence and compliance learning for Thomson Reuters’ APAC business based in Hong Kong.
“Asia-Pacific’s wealth growth is significant, PwC has been quoted that by 2025, APAC assets under management is to outpace any other region globally and almost double from 2017, with regional regulatory regimes that are trying to play catch up,” said McHugh.
“This is a perfect opportunity for MyComplianceOffice to invest in the region, where the growth of these firms requires comprehensive solutions that reduce the risk of misconduct.”
Meanwhile, Vizor – the Irish software company that creates regulatory software for central banks, tax authorities, pension and insurance regulators – says it has seen growing support for fintech innovation. In 2019, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) became one of Vizor’s clients.
Joanne Horgan joined Vizor in 2003 and has delivered regulatory solutions for some of the world’s top financial regulators, working with more than 20 central banks and financial regulators worldwide.
She said: “Vizor works with over 30 regulators around the world and we noticed in Asia an increased level of activity from regulators supporting fintech, regtech and suptech innovation, such as through the licensing of digital banks or through increased ‘proof of concept’ projects.
“For example, the Digital Acceleration Grant from the MAS in Singapore scheme supports Singapore-based smaller financial institutions and fintech firms adopt digital solutions. We see many other regulators. such as the HKMA, BSP in the Philippines, also taking on more innovative projects and perhaps having an opportunity to ‘leapfrog’ other regulators by taking advantage of technology solutions that have already been proven elsewhere.”
Importance of networking and culture
According to Enterprise Ireland, Irish fintech companies are establishing a significant footprint in the region through local partnerships and an expanded presence in the region.
Ireland’s fintech advantage is particularly closely aligned with Singapore, it says, because both are anchored in friendly business environments that support innovation as well as advanced talent pools that enable those innovations to be realised and taken to market.
Vizor’s Horgan commented: “It is so important to connect with local companies and network – that has helped us in Asia. We were at the Singapore Fintech Festival and identified great opportunities. It’s also important to have a curiosity to question things and understand how you can do things better to solve the problems people have. Listen even if you don’t like the answer as innovation is not invention but finding solutions.”
While, Fletcher said: “At first an Irish person in Asia will discover a very different culture and you need to take the time to learn and get to know cultural differences – even the weather, too. You can’t just fly in and out, you need feet on the ground. In Asia, it is important when entering and working in a market that you can meet face to face several times with your partners to develop long term relationships.”
For McHugh, it was crucial for MCO to recognise new challenges.
“When we decided to invest and start locally in APAC, we identified challenges that could affect how we grow our core business, such as time zone challenges and different sales perspectives,” she said. “It is important to find the right contacts and meet people. However, that has not proved easy when face to face events all got cancelled due to Covid and many were not virtualised.”
“Growth in APAC across multiple geographical markets and stretched time zones requires local sales and customer support to ensure success. With that in mind, MCO was the first in our industry to move to 24×5 customer support and implementation resources in region after we opened our office in 2019, we believe this will be instrumental in our continued success in 2021.”
Challenges for 2021
The coronavirus is expected to continue to have an impact on how fintechs will network in the coming months.
Fletcher commented: “Covid will continue to challenge Irish fintechs seeking to expand in APAC due to the travel limitations currently in force. Unless already well established with a significant local presence, not having the freedom to travel will slow down the traction which Irish fintech companies will likely to be able to achieve.”
Horgan agrees and has identified three main challenges for Irish fintechs in APAC this year, including increasing competition:
“Firstly, the lack of travel and face time is continuing to hamper relationship building in the region, which makes the establishment of local partnerships and leveraging the Irish and local networks even more important,” she said. “Secondly, the growth of fintech/regtech in the APAC region means competition is heating up so Irish firms need to think about how they’ll stand out. Finally, while many Asian regulators are increasingly supportive of regtech/fintech innovation, they are always balancing that with risk. The last 12 months has seen a significant increase in cybersecurity and conduct risk incidents so Irish fintechs should expect to have to demonstrate compliance with more requirements in these areas.”
Ireland’s priorities for 2021 is to maximise the number of start-up companies, increase the number of high growth clients achieving scale and expand the number of exporting companies.
For many, that is ‘next stop, Asia’.