Beyond bitcoin: Rakuten brings blockchain innovation to Belfast

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  • Last August Rakuten, Inc. announced the opening of the Rakuten Blockchain Lab (RBL) in Belfast, helping to cement our capital city's position as an emerging and fast-growing fintech cluster.

    RBL is a dedicated research and development organisation within Rakuten, focused on blockchain technology and its potential applications in the fintech and ecommerce sectors.  Fergal Downey, VP Engineering at Rakuten Blockchain Lab, offers readers an inside view of the dramatic impact blockchain technologies could have in the years ahead, and why Belfast is the right place to foster this disruptive innovation.

    Blockchain technology is at the heart of the Bitcoin protocol, but its potential extends beyond virtual currency into all aspects of Fintech. It's difficult to overestimate the impact that the technology will have in the years ahead. Some have said it could do to Fintech what TCP/IP did for the internet. Others talk in more Utopian terms, with Richard Branson saying “Bitcoin has great potential to change the world in an incredibly positive way.

    So what is it? 

    Blockchain is a permanent distributed ledger of transactions that is hosted across a network of computers. Additions to a public ledger can be made by anyone, but only in a way that those additions are recorded and visible to all on the network. It is a secure and efficient way of recording transactions of just about any kind of asset, without intermediaries and without needing existing trust relationships. In addition to applications in Fintech, experiments are underway to apply it to everything from e-commerce and identity verification to land registry, voting, the diamond trade and second-hand luxury goods.

    The Lab

    The lab, which is based in Belfast city centre, was bootstrapped with the technical leadership team from Bitnet, where we previously built an enterprise-grade payment processing platform for digital currencies.  Since then we have added personnel in Belfast and Barcelona as well as at Rakuten's headquarters in Tokyo.  The team has many years of deep engineering experience in addition to knowledge of the banking, payments and insurance industries in both corporate and startup environments. We are currently focused on two main strategies; 

    1. We deliver common "Blockchain as-a Service" infrastructure to the other development groups within Rakuten so they can explore the capabilities of the technology on their own.
    2. We partner with the various vertical business units to bring new blockchain based products to market. In the few short months the lab has been open we've met with over a dozen internal companies and have 3 projects actively being developed. 

    We also provide core blockchain/bitcoin education and consulting services within the company to help others get up to speed. 

    Life in Rakuten Blockchain Lab

    Life inside the Rakuten Blockchain Lab varies from day to day, but is primarily focused on helping Rakuten businesses identify appropriate opportunities to realise value from the deployment of blockchain technologies.  On any given day some of the team could be involved in getting to know a new business area and explaining the concepts of blockchain, whilst others could be working on the delivery of new micro-services offering discrete functionality to one or more business units.  

    Experimentation is a key part of what the lab was set up to do, so the team gets involved in evaluation of new tools, frameworks and technologies associated with building blockchain solutions.  The lab has already built close ties to the local universities as well as other research organisations and is currently supporting a number of final year students on blockchain related projects.  The lab is growing, so identifying and meeting potential candidates for the various engineering roles is another regular activity. 

    Rakuten has over 2,500 engineers globally and organises a number of  events providing opportunities for those engineers to come together and share what they have been working on.  These include various hackathons and internal technology summits as well as the annual Rakuten Technology Conference held in Tokyo in November.

    Technology @ Rakuten

    The technology landscape at Rakuten is as diverse as the company itself. It's also an open organisation that embraces new tools and new technology. Given the two-part mission of the lab mentioned earlier we have many touch-points within the company; bear in mind the technology group we're a part of has over 2500 engineers around the globe!  

    Within the lab we take a modern, agile approach to the stack and tools we use. We're opinionated about the outcomes (happy customers, safe, performant systems, and engaged engineers) but flexible about the tools we use. We have extensive experience with micro-service architectures, modern API tooling and cloud deployments. Current projects are built with Node, Kong, RabbitMQ and deployed to the cloud via Kubernetes and Docker. All engineers at the lab are have the chance to participate in technology evaluation, prototyping and product development. 

    Rakuten History

    Rakuten was founded in Tokyo by Hiroshi Mikitani in February 1997.  Rakuten dominates the Japanese e-commerce market with its Ichiba platform. Rakuten has since expanded beyond internet services into many other business in Japan such as travel, banking, credit card, eReading, and professional sports.  In 2005, Rakuten began to expand globally through many acquisitions such as Buy.com, eBates, Kobo, Wuaki.tv, PriceMinister and more recently, Viber.  The latest high profile announcement was a four year deal with FC Barcelona as its Main Global Partner, and its first ever Global Innovation & Entertainment Partner.

    Whilst Rakuten may have expanded globally and now has over 14,000 employees throughout Asia, Europe, the Americas, and Oceania, it has kept much of its original culture.  This is evident on a daily basis for those working inside Rakuten.  When the company first began with 6 employees in 1997, they had a company meeting every week to exchange knowledge as no individual had all the information to be successful.  To this day, the weekly meeting (Asakai) still happens, all employees attend and the CEO along with other executives share information with the rest of the company.  Afterwards, all staff return to their offices and take a few minutes to clean their desks.  Why?, well the answer is that the Mikitani believes "A clean office is much more than a nicety". He says "A clean office is representative of who we are as a company. It says: We are all about the details, always, even when we think no one is looking."  Simple but effective activities like these encourage the grown of individuals as well as the success of the company.

    Bringing It All Together

    Take hundreds of millions of registered members, spread across the globe, using services as diverse as advertising, e-commerce, banking, digital content, travel, insurance and messaging; now add to that mix the most disruptive technology the tech world has seen in 20 years and it's a potent mix. The Japanese word rakuten means optimism, and it's infectious.

    At the lab here in Belfast we're working hard exploring and creating new applications of blockchain for Rakuten and our customers. If that sounds interesting and you are a real team player with strong technical skills we'd love to chat. Drop us a line at info-belfast@mail.rakuten.com.

     

     

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