By Emily McDaid
Rakuten, the Japanese e-commerce giant and one of the world’s leading internet service companies, recently acquired IP assets from blockchain specialists Bitnet, based in Belfast. The newly-formed Rakuten Blockchain Lab has an interesting proposition – to transform Rakuten’s many global business units with blockchain, wherever it can add value.
With huge brands including Ichiba (akin to the Amazon of Japan) and Viber, Rakuten owns everything from MVNOs to banks to golf websites, and has a new partnership deal with Barcelona FC. It’s enough to keep the Belfast team of blockchain experts busy.
VP of engineering, Fergal Downey, told me: “There’s a lot of hype about how blockchain will cause disruption. Given Rakuten’s diverse global business portfolio, there’s an opportunity to create blockchain-based solutions that will add real value to the ecosystem.”
I asked for a specific example of a blockchain app that the lab has worked on.
“We created a closed-loop currency system called RTC Coin, used at Rakuten Technical Conference, a large international event. You earn tokens using an app on your phone by attending sessions and completing challenges, and use them for coffee, food or tickets. Blockchain technology underpinned RTC Coin, eliminating cash throughout the conference and also enabling real-time views of how people were earning and spending,” Fergal said.
I wondered if RTC Coin could be sold externally – not just for events or concerts but for employees of large corporations, or a healthcare network – anything serving vast numbers of people. The tokens would have a greater commercial proposition if people used them over time, not just in a day.
Fergal said, “If you consider blockchain as a way to store and transact on data securely without the need for a central administrator or gatekeeper, then the potential is huge across many industries. There’s already a lot of investment in experiments across banking, insurance, healthcare and government.”
Fergal was proud to promote gender diversity within his team. I spoke to a senior software engineer, Emer McVeigh, about what her job entails.
“Prior to Rakuten Blockchain Lab I was at Visa working in payments. In this role I now have a varied, mixed kind of work,” she said.
“When we first engage with a new business, we help them to get a better understanding of blockchain and what kind of problems are solved with using distributed ledger technology. We have already delivered workshops in Japan, the US and mainland Europe, and here in Belfast as part of the Belfast Blockchain Meetup,” said Emer.
“Much like the early days of the internet, every day sees new development of blockchain frameworks and supporting products,” said Emer. “As such, continued evaluation of offerings from Multichain, Hyperledger and Ethereum is an important part of my role.”
On development, Emer said: “Our delivery approach is to develop APIs on top of the core blockchain building blocks, so Rakuten businesses can easily integrate with our services.”
Blockchain aligns with Rakuten’s innovation goals, Emer said. “Rakuten have a goal to be a leader in global innovation and encourage employees to experiment. I recently attended a Rakuten organised hackathon at our office in Paris, where I worked with engineers from other Rakuten teams to come up with proof of concepts that incorporated blockchain and Artifical Intelligence (AI) technologies.”
I was interested if she knew any other female blockchain experts.
“Diversity is not great within IT in general. I heard the female:male ratio is 1:5, but I think it’s even lower. I believe it comes down to schooling and education – getting over the confidence issue,” she said.
Back to engineering topics. I asked if she felt blockchain is inherently more secure.
She said, “There are different kinds of blockchains – not just the Bitcoin blockchain – each with a slightly different set of characteristics. But, they all share common traits such as the use of cryptography to secure the transactions and provide trust among the participants.”
I asked both Fergal and Emer how disruptive blockchain could be. Fergal said, “If a business that currently makes money from being a trusted intermediary does not have a blockchain strategy, then they need to get one. Blockchain is a technology choice and companies should build capability in it, just like they do for other technologies.”
Emer said, “First was the Bitcoin blockchain and there is still huge potential for these digital currencies in the world of online commerce. However, the application of blockchain in fintech, such as insurance, as well as non-fintech business such as healthcare or digital media is, in my opinion, much nearer.”