Inside a Wall Street innovation lab set up to 'reshape the entire work experience'


BNP Paribas Innovation Zone

Tina Wadhwa

Can 5,000 square feet transform a bank?


BNP Paribas clearly hopes so. It opened what it's calling an "innovation zone" Wednesday on the 30th floor of its midtown Manhattan US headquarters.

Banking is changing fast, with startups encroaching on the big companies' turf, and new technologies like blockchain, which is decentralized, threatening to take some control away from big banks.

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That's why competitors are acquiring startups and launching accelerators. BNP Paribas is hoping this lab will help it stay relevant.

"The goal here is to foster all kinds of innovation and to reshape the entire work experience," said Bruno d'Illiers, COO of BNP Paribas North America. He sees it as a place where employees from different divisions can meet and brainstorm.


"The lab is open to everybody," he said.

BNP Paribas is a big player in international finance worldwide. However, its US presence is a growing, but relatively small part of its business. It has 188,000 employees worldwide, with 16,000 in North America.

Its better-known competitors are racing to acquire or partner with hot fintech startups. JPMorgan teamed up with On Deck Capital, an online lender. UBS' wealth-management arm teamed up with SigFig, a so-called robo-advisor. Another automated investment company, FutureAdvisor, was acquired by BlackRock.

And BNP has watched as other banks like Wells Fargo, Citi and UBS have established their own in-house fintech labs and innovation centers in recent years, complete with the kind of startup-style that's synonymous with Silicon Valley.

BNP Paribas Innovation Lab

Tina Wadhwa

BNP's is no different. Its kitchen has free drinks and snacks. Its desks and chairs are made of recycled materials. It looks more Brooklyn than big bank.


"I was inspired by how my own kids are working these days," said Cecile Vilaraseau-Remy, head of transformation and premises at BNP Paribas Americas.

There's a bright and airy feel. It's modern, if rather stark.

The employees that do come up to the lab are likely to spend a lot of time thinking about blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin. It's thought to be a more secure way to send and verify financial transactions, as it eliminates middlemen and ensures everyone involved has an indelible record of money coming and going.

BNP Paribas is an investor in Digital Asset Holdings (DAH), the blockchain startup run by former JPMorgan CFO Blythe Masters. BNP's head of commodities and FX, Catherine Flax, sits on the board and is involved with the startup's efforts to implement blockchain technology to business processes. BNP is also one of forty banks that signed on to R3, the industry wide body trying to bring blockchain technology to finance.

To show it's serious, the launch of the innovation lab was combined with what it's calling "America's Blockchain Bizhackathon," which brought together industry leaders in the blockchain community including the CMO of Digital Asset Holdings, the co-Founder of R3, fintech investors, and a blockchain strategist at Microsoft.


BNP Paribas kitchen

Tina Wadhwa

More than 200 employees attended the event and some will spend part of this week figuring out how BNP might benefit from implementing blockchain technology. Then the space will open up to all employees.

Others using the space may work on big data, robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence, areas that have only recently started to infiltrate the staid world of banking.

The company is also running what it calls an "Ideation Campaign," which asks employees to submit proposals to improve the bank's business processes.

Innovation labs have a mixed track record. It can be hard to transplant a freewheeling creative spirit into companies with strong hierarchies and an entrenched culture, and some companies end up pulling the plug on the experiments.

Its high ceilings and laptop-friendly wood tables may inspire BNP's employees come up with the ideas that help the company adapt and compete. Or it could just be a place for employees to get a free snack.


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