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Hossein Rahnama’s Flybits is no FinTech fly-by-night

Nov 23, 2016 / Technology

A customer passes a local branch—even with their smartphone off—and the bank’s staff can tell if their mortgage soon needs renewing, or whether they might like a new credit card or appreciate a line of credit.

Voila! A coveted, quick, real-time way to start personal and potentially profitable conversations.

This scenario, an example of “context aware computing” may seem magical or theoretical. But the enabling technology, created by a three-year-old company called Flybits, is already in use. It’s the creation of Hossein Rahnama and his team at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Its users include some 5 million customers of TD Bank Canada and senior vice president/chief digital officer Rizwan Khalfan explained the Flybits adoption in a 2015 interview: “We have the highest number of mobile active customers on our app in Canada and they’re very engaged … but it’s all very transactional in nature. Mobile is playing a more active and significant role in people’s lives, and TD wants their app to help them live their lives the way they want.”

To that end, Flybits currently powers mobile apps for Android and iOS smartphones, tablets and wearables (including Apple Watch and Android Wear). BAI spoke to Rahnama about his high-tech innovation and its potential for retail banking.

BAI: Tell us a bit about yourself

Hossein Rahnama: My mom is a retired academic. My dad is a retired computer engineer and an entrepreneur, who worked for Control Data Corporation, a U.S. mainframe company in the ‘70s, out of Minneapolis and Tehran; prior to the Iranian revolution CDC had major operations in Iran. I grew up with my dad’s computers. After the Iranian revolution, the government shut down his business after a while and we moved to Canada.

BAI: Do you see financial services as a stodgy industry or an innovative one?

Rahnama: The financial industry has the highest potential for innovation in our space and an industry prone to disruption as its foundational business model has not changed for decades. It is also an industry with all the ingredients to be innovative: not necessarily competing with startups and digital banks, but to partner with them.

We started to focus on banking companies as we realized they can actually become innovative very quickly compared to many other sectors. We have seen many times that when their executives decide to innovate they can do some amazing things, especially when it comes to data-driven banking.

BAI: How did Flybits make the leap into financial services?

Rahnama: Flybits started with big, global ambitions even during its early days: to be the context engine of the new Internet. That vision allowed us to partner with Vodafone and Bosch very early on and we did projects across different verticals to see how people use and adopt such services: the city of Ottawa, stadiums, public transit, even fashion shows and events—and finally the financial sector. We engaged with Barclays on an innovation project through Vodafone and realized that banking is one of the best verticals for our solutions because banks can leverage contextual computing best due to the rich nature of the data that banks own. Now we have a number of banks as customers. 

BAI: How does Flybits connect to the retail banking world?

Rahnama: Flybits enables financial institutions to determine the context of the user in order to deliver unique personalized experiences on a digital medium. This digital channel can be a mobile app, a web page or even an application built for a wearable device.

By “context,” we mean all data that can be used to determine the unique situation of the user at a given time—such as location; previous purchase patterns; frequency of visits at a branch; transaction preferences and hobbies; availability in someone’s calendar; and even specific device information such as inferring whether you are driving or walking.

BAI:  What about privacy concerns, especially in an era of hacking and cyberfraud?

Rahnama: Flybits is well aware of privacy concerns when it comes to inferring someone’s situation. Therefore it’s built on technologies that anonymize and tokenize such personal information. Personalization is being done without disclosing customers’ identity and re-identification is not possible.

Using an opt-in model, the Flybits-enabled application notifies the user if they’re willing to share some data with the bank in exchange for value-added services. The user can activate or deactivate the information sharing process based on their interest and willingness. They can always decide whether they like to share the data with the bank and can always revisit their decision. 

BAI:  What are some of the information areas consumers might share?

Rahnama: The information shared back and forth can be location data coming from sensors on your phone, weather information coming from services like the Weather Channel and proprietary banking data such as credit history, transaction history and interest in a particular product. This information can be aggregated through sensors and data stream on the Internet and from the bank’s network.  

BAI:  How did TD Bank become your client?

Rahnama: We were introduced through one of my mentors, the former CEO of Rogers Communications, Nadir Mohamed. Our team really resonated with their digital team and we quickly embarked on an innovation pilot, which proved to be very successful. They decided to work with us on large-scale projects.  We found them very open to innovation and their vision for the “bank of the future” resonated with us. Their Chief Digital Officer Rizwan Khalfan is a great thought leader on the future of commerce and banking. 

BAI: Where do you find inspiration?

Rahnama: I have an amazing team and I learn a lot of from them. I also get very inspired by working with young students and recent graduates. I like to see the products, the innovation ecosystem and the future of market demands from their perspective.

I’ve also been inspired by a former boss, the former president of Ryerson University, Sheldon Levy. I learned most of my leadership and innovation lessons from him: He ran a public university as an agile startup.  

BAI: Any outside interests?

Rahnama: I love walking the old medieval cities of Europe. Last summer, we visited Girona in Spain, where they shot the last episode of “Game of Thrones.”  It was amazing. I played clarinet growing up and I can improvise blues on piano. I like classical music, jazz and house compilations. Some of my favorite artists are Verdi and [fellow Canadian] Diana Krall. And I have not missed a Buddha Bar Compilation collection since 1998. 

Caitlin Kelly, winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award for humor, is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. A former reporter for the Toronto’s Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News, she blogs about retail for Forbes and on her own site, Broadside.