Boston: The Data Science Imperative
Running a financial institution in the Boston area comes with perks you can’t find anywhere else. One of those is access to the smartest and best tech grads in the world from more world-class universities than any other area in the world.
Mona Vernon, vice president of Thomson Reuters Labs, has a lot of experience in what it takes to funnel that raw talent into the field of fintech. Thomson Reuters Labs – Boston is one of only a handful worldwide to foster startups that are using rapid shifts in technologies like blockchain, the diminishing cost of storage and the adoption of the cloud to upend the financial field.
“What you’re seeing is an increase in capital flowing into this space and explosion of fintech startups” said Vernon. “Global investment in fintech ventures is estimated at $17B. The landscape is filled with about 20,000 startups.”
Innovating through partnerships: a key challenge for large firms and startups
The phenomenon is happening now, she says, because of “a confluence of factors,” such as the need to respond to complex regulatory requirements and the emergence of startups in the regulatory technology space.
One of the biggest challenges Vernon sees is how startups and financial services firms can work together in a way that benefits both. She sees a “mismatch of processes,” where the pace of adoption and the typical sales cycle at large institutions is much slower than at a tech startup. These mismatches prevent large institutions from benefitting from the innovation growing right in front of them.
“If you want to innovate with partners, you must give them access to the same resources and information,” she said.
Boston’s FinTech leadership: open data and API
Vernon — herself a graduate of MIT’s Sloan School — sees some of the biggest potential for Boston’s emerging fintech hub in solving problems around open data and application program interfaces (or API’s). Also, the growing interest in artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things could unlock a whole new level of real-time data that plays into the next generation of economic and risk indicators, and trading signals — intelligence that’s appealing to financial institutions.
Engaging talent through hackathons and bootcamps
In order to recruit talented software engineers and data scientists, Vernon has tried a whole new approach to compete with the likes of Google and Facebook. Hosting hackathons (a longtime tradition in the tech community) around topics like using big data to fight human trafficking and on applications of blockchain, she says, is “one way to engage them and get them to see the potential” of a global company like Thomson Reuters.
She’s also had to think about the very structure of the organization, steering away from the heavy bureaucracy at big corporations. She’s tried to accomplish this by thinking about how to offer better work-life balance solutions for those who want to have families. She has found promising talent through bootcamps like Insight Data Science, a seven-week program to train PhDs to “bridge the gap between academic research and a career in data science.”
Boston’s brand: solving hard problems
Vernon says she once overheard the term, “The Plaid Economy,” to describe Boston’s “brilliant, understated people.” That description has stuck with her, capturing the down-to-Earth yet brilliant nature of Boston’s data science pool. That “Yankee mentality,” however, can be “both a blessing and a curse,” she said. On the downside, Bostonians don’t typically brag about their accomplishments, so it’s harder to spread the word about the amazing potential here in fintech and other areas. But on the upside, she said, there’s no shortage to the amount of energy, enthusiasm and the know-how to tackle big issues that matter.
“The thing I find really exciting is this appetite to solve really hard problems,” she said. “There is something really special about the talent here.”