Driving innovation at Fidelity Investments

John Dix

Fidelity Investments is one of the world's largest providers of financial services, with assets under administration of $4.7 trillion, and it didn't get there by using yesterday's technology. In fact, the company has a standalone group, Fidelity Center for Applied Technology more commonly referred to as Fidelity Labs — whose job it is to take the long view, to examine technologies years before they become mainstream and help the firm get a leg up.  

Recent examples of the Labs' work includes the new Fidelity Watchapp for the Pebble smartwatch. Network World Editor in Chief John Dix recently caught up with Sean Belka, Senior Vice President and Director of the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, to learn how the financial giant drives innovation.

What role does the Fidelity Labs play in the organization?

If you look at the company's business and technology groups, they're very focused on today's products and customers and tend to have a one to three year roadmap. So Labs was created to have more of an external orientation and a different time horizon. We try to work on things that are three years out from mass adoption. 

We have offices in San Francisco, North Carolina, Europe and in China, and in each of those offices there are people looking for new ideas from startups, academia, venture capitalists and big company labs. On the academic side, for example, we have a relationship with Berkeley and Stanford in San Francisco, MIT in Boston, and Trinity in Dublin. And on the startup scene we're really looking for things that would be useful for Fidelity to bring in to research, pilot and potentially deploy. 

But we get internal requests as well. So we'll have a business unit come to us and say, "We're trying to figure out cloud computing or big data, can you do some research? Can you connect us to the thought leaders in the space?"

Do people work specifically for this group or do they wear multiple hats?

We have about 75 people globally. A lot of times we partner with a business unit on a project and they will bring in developers, QA people, etc., so any project might have a combination of people working on it. Fidelity has about 12,500 technology associates and we spend more than $2.5 a year on technology across the enterprise, so having an R&D group focused on what's new makes sense in our context.

What kinds of things do you examine?

Five years ago it was a lot of mobile and social, but now we're spending time on things like wearable computing, artificial intelligence, and gamification of content. So our job is to put together an R&D portfolio and do the research, and oftentimes build a 1.0 version and then transition that to the appropriate business unit. So our job is always to be pushing the envelope in terms of what's new and emerging, taking it to some level of tangibility. It's not just research. It's also development and then enabling the business units to do what they do best, which is get it into all the distribution channels and handle the integration with our businesses.

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