Ant Financial, the Chinese online payment firm formerly known as Alipay, plans to open a fintech research centre in Singapore by the end of March.
It will be the first so-called “Damo” research centre in Asia outside of China, the US and Israel, Geoff Jiang, vice president and general manager of Technology and Business Innovation Group at Ant Financial, said in an interview with Yahoo Finance Singapore in Singapore.
Jiang was in town to launch the Alipay-NUS Enterprise Social Innovation Challenge, which took place in Singapore last Friday. Ant Financial, an affiliate company of e-commerce giant Alibaba, was rebranded from Alipay in 2014.
The Singapore research centre is part of Alibaba Group’s pledge in 2017 to invest $15 billion over the three years into research and development including the creation of “DAMO Academy”, which stands for the “Academy for Discovery, Adventure, Momentum and Outlook”. The research areas will cover data intelligence, the Internet of Things, fintech, quantum computing and human-machine interaction.
Jiang said the initiative is also in line with the programme by Ant Financial and International Financial Corporation announced last month by Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma to provide training to 1,000 tech experts in emerging markets from the public and private sectors over the next 10 years.
Ant Financial plans to increase its workforce in Singapore as part of its expansion plans to boost its presence in South-east Asia, Jiang said. There are over 100 people in the Singapore office currently, and about half are software engineers. The company is looking for new office space to accommodate the staff expansion and data centre, he said.
“We probably need 100-200 more engineers in Singapore to expand the business,” Jiang said. “Singapore and the neighbouring countries have some very good people but the issue is with the numbers, especially when we are building up the business,” he added.
Unlike China, there aren’t enough software engineers who can build financial-grade systems and applications in Singapore and elsewhere in Southeast Asia and there is strong competition for such talent in the tech industry, Jiang said.
Southeast Asia has the fastest growing internet economy in the world, valued at US$72 billion this year and may be worth US$240 billion by 2025, according to a report based on research conducted by Google and Temasek. The report estimated the number of jobs for skilled professionals in the internet economy would double to 200,000 by 2025.
Jiang said Ant Financial employs 10,000 people globally, of which 63 per cent are software engineers, data scientists and technology researchers.
Jiang lauded the annual Fintech Festival organised by the Monetary Authority of Singapore as a way to attract talent development and foster development of the fintech ecosystem in the region.
“We see ourselves very much as a technology company and we offer our partners our technology and are supporting them to integrate” into the eco-system, Jiang said. He declined to comment on how much Ant Financial has invested in the region so far. Brands under Ant Financial include Alipay, Ant Fortune, Zhima Credit, MYbank and Ant Financial Cloud.
The company works with over 250 overseas financial institutions and payment solution providers to enable cross-border payments for Chinese travelling overseas, and overseas customers who purchase products from Chinese e-commerce sites.
In September, the Hangzhou-based company announced it would open up a full suite of technology products and services under a new brand, Ant Financial Technology, to support the growth of financial institutions.
Ant Financial has been sharing its capabilities with global strategic partners to serve local users in those markets, Jiang said. The company works with e-wallet partners such as TrueMoney in Thailand, DANA in Indonesia, GCash in Philippines and Touch ‘n Go in Malaysia.
It has acquired stakes in several Asia-based financial institutions, such as Bangladesh’s fund-transfer service kBash, and Pakistan’s Telenor Microfinance Bank, and formed a mobile wallet joint venture with billionaire Li Ka-shing’s CK Hutchison Holding in Hong Kong.
In April 2017, it bought Singapore-based payment service helloPay Group, the payment affiliate of Lazada Group, which Alibaba Group acquired in 2016. Ant Financial and Alibaba together hold a majority stake in One97 Communication, parent of India’s Paytm.
Earlier this January, the company withdrew its bid to acquire US money transfer company MoneyGram for S$1.2 billion after the American authorities blocked the deal citing national security concerns.
In June, Singapore’s Temasek Holdings and GIC were among a group investors who injected about US$14 billion (S$ 19 billion) in Ant Financial, giving the Chinese company a valuation of over US$150 billion (S$207 billion) and making it the most valuable fintech company in the world. The other investors included Khazanah Nasional, Warburg Pincus and Silver Lake Partners.
Reuters earlier reported Ant Financial’s initial public offering in Hong Kong and China is expected as early as next year.
Ant Financial CEO Eric Jing told CNBC in a 13 November interview that the company doesn’t have a “timetable” for an IPO, adding that the planned listing is not an “ultimate goal”.