Finextra speaks to Matthieu Soule about life at L'Atelier, the technology and innovation tracking unit at BNP Paribas.
With offices in Paris, Silicon Valley and Shanghai, L'Atelier is perfectly positioned to tap the latest trends in information and communications technologies for the benefit of the bank and its clients. The 30-person unit achieves this through a number of channels, including a media unit with its own weekly radio show and website atelier.net, an events service for the exchange of dialogue around current innovation topics, a strategic advisory unit with a direct line into the business, and L'Atelier Lab, which operates as an accelerator for startups and entrepreneurs and as a technology development unit.
As strategic analyst at L'Atelier, Soule spent two years at the San Francisco Bay Area offices of the business in 2008 through 2010. "The biggest challenge for the financial services industry is to identify and envision the emerging technology trends and the threats and opportunities they pose," he says. "With an office in Silicon Valley we were able to gain a deeper understanding of how new technologies could be leveraged by the bank and at the same time advance the needs of BNP Paribas within the local startup ecosystem."
An example of this approach can be seen in the recent visit to California by Francois Hollande, the French president, accompanied by an entourage of ministers. Following a lunch with the top brass of Internet giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, the delegation retired to the offices of L'Atelier in San Francisco for a guided tour of the innovation ecosystem. The visit was promoted as a cultural exchange, to discuss the energy and vitality of the new technology sector and the uniquely French strengths that startups and large national groups can leverage on both sides of the Atlantic.
Like other forward-thinking banks, BNP Paribas via L'Atelier is doing its bit to encourage and embed itself in the new digital economy, partnering with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the MIT Technology Review awards ceremony for Innovators Under 35, and with the Hello Tomorrow Challenge, a competition that is open to all European startups. The bank also supports Le Camping, a startup accelerator that gives young entrepreneurs the opportunity to benefit from a mentoring programme, and the EduCare Startup project in Italy with the Luiss Guido Carli University, as part of its "EduCare Startup" project.
Internally, L'Atelier recently participated in a BNP Paribas programme dubbed the 'Hall of Next' in Paris, showcasing futuristic initiatives and innovations that have been implemented across the bank. New mobile payments applications figured prominently, including cardless cash withdrawals from ATMs at TEB in Turkey, the Sixdots digital wallet from BNP Paribas Fortis and the latest release of the bank's contactless mobile payments app Kix.
One of the more unusual products on show, this time from BNP Paribas' life insurance operation Cardif, was 'Nao', a humanoid robot less than 60 cm tall that is designed to provide personal assistance to people who are dependent on care.
Looking ahead, the bank is writing innovation into its Customer Preference 2016 programme. The ambition is to reinvent the client relationship in a bid to be more responsive and more in-step with public needs and the new ways in which customers use technology.
To succeed in such endeavours, Soule believes that the banking industry must be prepared to take more risks, adopting an iterative approach to product development and scheduling, and ditching the traditional command and control process that has slowed down the release of new products and opened up opportunities for more creative and nimble competitors.
"Obviously, banks are constrained by security and reputational issues," he says. "But, at the same time, we have to learn from new players on the market, from startups yes, and larger Internet companies also, where there is room for a more flexible and iterative approach to product launches."