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​Commonwealth Bank to facilitate startups entering Hong Kong, greater China

​With a focus on technology and emerging innovation, the bank has partnered with Austrade to provide access for startups into the greater China region via its strong Hong Kong presence.

The Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) and the Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) have partnered to help Australian businesses access the Hong Kong and greater China market, as well as to support Hong Kong businesses that wish to enter Australia.

"Through Austrade already there is a vibrant connection between Australia and Asia, but what we're trying to do with this is really emphasise the focus on technology and emerging innovation and startups," said Maaike Steinebach, chief executive of CBA's Hong Kong branch and managing director of the institutional banking and markets business in Hong Kong.

"We really want to strengthen the ecosystem in Hong Kong because it has such a unique position vis-à-vis China, vis-à-vis the rest of the region. We think that actually combining the strengths of Hong Kong together with the strengths of Australia, we have a great opportunity for the future."

Steinebach told ZDNet the arrangement will also see the bank and Austrade facilitate trade missions with leaders from both regions; connect startups with a talent pool of experts in emerging technologies, including blockchain and robotics experts; and the provision of temporary space in Commonwealth Bank's Hong Kong Innovation Lab, in addition to mentorship.

CBA has a presence in 10 international offices, including Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, and Tokyo in Asia, with the branch in Hong Kong essentially acting as an extension of the Australian business, focusing predominantly on institutional banking and markets.

As such, Steinebach said the bank looks further than just fintech firms, helping companies active in natural resources, infrastructure, industrials and logistics, healthcare, agriculture, and real estate, as well.

"If you're based in Australia, it's very obvious to see the strengths that Australia has in natural resources, infrastructure, but what we're seeing from an Asian perspective is the strength that Australia also has in its education system, healthcare system, and in its wellbeing and all these sectors and industries," she added.

"Half of the world's population lives in Asia, so education is key -- all these sectors are fantastic export products of Australia and the fact that some of these companies that are active in these industries are also leading in the tech space is a fantastic opportunity for Australia going forward."

According to Steinebach, there are a few Australian companies based in Hong Kong that CBA already supports in some way, particularly in the startup and emerging technology space.

"We think there are more opportunities for Australian companies to come up into Asia," she told ZDNet. "We hope that by actually getting the support from Austrade, as well as the warm welcome from CBA in Hong Kong, we can further help them expand their business."

She said Hong Kong is often used as a stepping stone for companies to access the wider region, with many Chinese companies also using Hong Kong as a springboard into other neighbouring markets.

The agreement with Austrade follows the launch of the Fintech Association in Hong Kong, which is an industry-led not-for-profit organisation in place to unite the finance technology ecosystem in Hong Kong. With CBA one of the founding members, Steinebach has a place on the association's board.

CBA setup its Hong Kong Innovation Lab in January last year, with the bank offering up space for startups to get their foot on the ground before facilitating the introduction to relevant government regulators and the bank's partners.

"Through that, we can also help them find mentoring and coaching because if you start up in a new country it can be quite daunting finding your way, and in particular dealing with local cultures and local regulation," Steinebach explained. "We think we have that expertise together with Austrade to help set them up for success, basically."

The bank currently boasts similar labs in Sydney and London, after partnering with Barclays to allow connection with each other's apps to facilitate mobile payments between Australia and the UK.

For the first half of the 2017 financial year, CBA pumped AU$1.2 billion into IT services, upping its tech spend by almost double over the same period a year prior.

The bank has also toyed with a handful of emerging technologies, such as blockchain, where it claimed the first interbank trade transaction combining blockchain technology, smart contracts, and the Internet of Things in partnership with Wells Fargo and Brighann Cotton. It also announced earlier this year that the Queensland Treasury Corporation would be exploring a prototype of the bank's capital markets blockchain platform, to be executed via a virtual "cryptobond".

According to Steinebach, it's important for the bank to innovate to keep abreast of the rapid pace of change occurring around the world.

"We all have to deal with this change and we believe this is an opportunity for us to engage with our clients to understand and learn from them as much as we can share our innovation journey with them, but also with the wider community and understanding what the key changes are so that we can get insights into the kind of risks we are running as a business, as well as the risks our clients are running," she explained.

In a bid to strengthen ties with greater China, the bank also recently entered into a memorandum of understanding with Alipay, Alibaba's online payment platform, to deliver payment solutions to Australian and Chinese consumers and retailers.

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) has also recently focused on securing ties with markets in the greater region, announcing a framework for co-operation with the Japan Financial Services Agency last month aimed at promoting innovation in financial services in both countries. The arrangement followed a similar one ASIC signed with the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission to provide mutual support to fintech businesses from Australia and Hong Kong seeking to operate in each other's markets.

"We are seeing more cooperation for example between fintech associations, between support infrastructure around it, and I'm sure the regulators are also seeing this as an opportunity to collaborate more," Steinebach added.

Austrade recently facilitated a mission to New York that showcased Australia's blockchain capabilities in areas such as digital currency, payments, agricultural supply chains, smart contracts, and identity management to global players.

The blockchain-based mission followed a similar initiative facilitated by Austrade in February that saw 32 delegates showcase Australia's cybersecurity capabilities and researchers at the RSA Conference in San Francisco.