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Chatting with Joe Cunningham, Visa’s Global Head of Technology Strategy & Innovation, about VisaLabs and the Future of Payments

VisaLogo.jpgSince we’re in Singapore prepping for our inaugural FinovateAsia tomorrow (there are only 9 tickets remaining), we took a break for a quick chat with Joe Cunningham, Visa’s Global Head of Technology Strategy & Innovation, who recently relocated here.

Joe met up with us to talk about overall trends in the industry, how he sees payments in Asia evolving, and VisaLab’s role driving innovation with Visa. Cunningham has been with Visa since 2008 and is in charge of all future-focused aspects of Visa’s technology so he has a great perspective on where things are headed.

Here’s a transcript from the interview:

Finovate: What is your role at Visa? How did you end up in it? 

Cunningham: I’m globally responsible for technology strategy and innovation which means that I look after the future-focused aspects of Visa’s technology agenda. This includes defining the company’s technology strategy, leading VisaLabs (Visa’s R&D group) as well as leading all EMV-compliant development (chip, contactless and mobile).
Within VisaLabs, the role of my team is to look outside the company for interesting technologies on the landscape and identify potential opportunities for those technologies to add value to Visa’s business.
I’ve been at Visa nearly five years, prior to which, I worked with ANZ bank in Australia. 
Finovate: What is VisaLabs and how does it impact the technology road map of the company?

Cunningham: At Visa, there are essentially two aspects of innovation in which we’re interested. The first is innovation on the product side, which includes advancements in mobile, social, eCommerce and information products. 
The other aspect is the underlying technology; this is the area where VisaLabs focuses. Some of our technology research themes include security and encryption, ‘big data’, predictive analytics and large-scale virtualization. These themes guide our internal technology R&D priorities, and broadly inform the focus areas of our open innovation agenda.
At Visa, our technology research agenda is anchored by our open innovation philosophy, meaning we partner with third parties to help advance our agenda. For example, we have developed partnerships with a number of prestigious universities, government agencies and technology incubators around the world to leverage their expertise in areas that are relevant to our technology and business.
Finovate: Which emerging technologies do you see as potentially changing the face of the electronic payments sector?
Cunningham: The electronic payments sector is constantly evolving; as new technologies mature and enter the mainstream. For example, recently we’ve seen online, mobile, large scale data, and social networks open up new windows of opportunity. Visa continues to work at the leading edge of payments innovation to provide payment services that are relevant and compelling to consumers around the world.
Finovate: How do you see open source software being deployed in the electronic payments space?
Cunningham: Like many organizations, Visa’s core systems, and operational environments rely heavily on open source technology. Our Global Technology Strategy describes our long term position on open source solutions; we see it as critical, and we want to remain exposed to the high rate of innovation which is a characteristic of the open source space. Over time, we believe open source software will become even more important to Visa. 
One example of this is Apache Hadoop, which has become a critical part of Visa’s data architecture. In the past few years, with the help of a number of start-up organizations, we moved this technology from R&D to a full scale production deployment. We now use Hadoop to support data-intense innovative new products and services. We’re very happy with the results and we expect to continue to work closely with the open source community and derive further value from innovations in this field.  
Finovate: As newer, non-traditional companies move into the financial services market, what do you think they will be able to offer customers that traditional players have yet to deliver?
Cunningham: In our experience, a globally viable payments solution must have five fundamental characteristics – convenience and simplicity, standardization, interoperability, global accessibility and security, and we believe Visa embodies these characteristics fully. Visa has a track record of delivering highly secure and convenient electronic payment solutions to the point-of-sale environments. We are now extending our expertise to simplify commerce in new and emerging payment channels such as online and mobile. 
We’ve certainly seen an array of new competitors enter into this market. We welcome this healthy competition and we’re pleased to see how this has a positive impact on the industry as competition brings about new product development and innovation – ultimately benefiting the end consumer.
Finovate: How do you see the Asia-Pacific region evolving in terms of electronic payments innovation compared to more developed regions? 
Cunningham: Across all the markets we serve in Asia-Pacific, we see vastly different electronic payments innovations evolving, as you’d expect in such a diverse region. 
In some emerging markets around the world, consumers have historically been difficult to reach through traditional channels due to a lack of infrastructure and limited distribution. Innovators like Visa are using mobile technology to drive financial inclusion and meet the unique needs of unbanked and under-banked consumers. 
At the other end of the spectrum, there are very exciting examples in markets like South Korea and Hong Kong. In these cases, unique consumer demands, a technology-savvy population and local partnerships can help drive rapid adoption of new payments services.
Finovate: VisaLabs partners with a variety of third parties including startups to advance its innovation agenda. What qualities do you look for in the startups that you partner with? 
Cunningham: The start-ups we typically work with are solving legitimate business problems in fields that are relevant to our business. To be sustainable, all our R&D program activities must be pragmatic, accountable and aligned to our technology research themes. As you’d expect, these themes include security, encryption, ‘big data’, predictive analytics and large-scale virtualization.
Finovate: Can you give some examples of start-ups you’re working with?
Cunningham: We’ve had some great success over the past two years working with start-ups based in Silicon Valley, close to Visa’s global HQ. These start-ups have helped us quickly progress our research in the areas of ‘big data’ and have enhanced our visualization services. We hope to be able to replicate this success through our expansion into Singapore, and the wider Asia/P
acific region.

Finovate: If an Asian startup, research university or other potential partner is interested with working with VisaLabs, how can they reach you (other than coming to FinovateAsia tomorrow)?

Cunningham: They can email me at