Thai Tycoon Bets Remittances Startup Will Thrive Post Covid

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Rather than follow in his family’s footsteps, Chatchaval Jiaravanon, a member of Thailand’s richest clan, likes to strike out on his own. After trying wind farms, credit cards and buying Fortune magazine, his latest venture marries blockchain with finance.

He invested about $10 million in 2018 to create Lightnet, a remittance service that uses a decentralized blockchain system to transfer money to a different country within a day, he said. With traditional banks, which still rely on the Swift network that’s been around for almost half a century, it takes two to three days.

Chatchaval, whose family controls one of Thailand’s biggest conglomerates, was inspired to create Lightnet thanks to his credit-card business partnership with Japan’s Aeon Financial Service Co. that started more than two decades ago. With it, he saw “huge” demand in Southeast Asia for sending money oversees.

Thai Tycoon Bets Remittances Startup Will Thrive Post Covid

“That was traditional finance and we saw fintech would soon to disrupt it,” the 58-year-old investor said. “Instead of waiting for people to disrupt us, why not disrupt ourselves?”

Headquartered in Singapore, the fintech firm raised $31 million last year and has opened offices in countries like Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea and China. It’s partnered with more than two dozen financial institutions including Singapore’s United Overseas Bank Ltd. and MoneyGram International Inc., and is working on ties with Visa Inc., Switzerland’s SEBA Bank AG and others. Lightnet’s transactions reached $1 billion in 2020, and the company is targeting $15 billion in the next three years, according to Chatchaval.

Chatchaval shared his views about the fintech landscape in Asia, where he sees future opportunities and his other ventures. Comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did Covid-19 reshape the fintech business in Southeast Asia?

The past year was very challenging for us and for everyone, but we witnessed a boom in fintech and digital adoption across Southeast Asia. Now individuals are also embracing global payments, e-wallets, video-conferencing and other digital tools.

Where do you see future growth for Lightnet?

China has quickly recovered and provides more opportunity for Lightnet. It’s one of the top countries for foreign-direct investment to Southeast Asia, and there is much economic activity related to labor and tourism, so we see a very bright future in China. We mainly provide B2B services there and are looking to build more partnerships with financial institutions, payments and remittance firms.

Thai Tycoon Bets Remittances Startup Will Thrive Post Covid

What about your other ventures?

I have a wind farm operating in the northern part of Thailand, and it requires expertise to analyze the wind flow and set the wind mills at the right place. It provides clean electricity to the government, and we are looking to expand it into other parts of Southeast Asia.

In addition to fintech and alternative energy, I think the biotech sector will keep seeing significant growth in the next few years and we’ll look for opportunity in it.

What are you looking for when considering investing in a startup?

I look at its market potential, the industry’s barriers to entry and the firm’s competitive advantage. Chatting with founders with great execution track record also adds confidence.

I am a partner at Indonesia-based Kejora Ventures, which empowers technology startups in Southeast Asia -- it has invested in a portfolio of companies sprawling e-commerce, gaming and cloud-computing.

We are now focusing on investing only in early-stage companies and hold the investments for the long term as we believe in the overall economic growth in Southeast Asia.

How has it been to venture out of your family’s main business?

This has been tough for me because what I am doing on the ventures is all in my personal capacity. People put a watermark on the success of the family, and it is not easy for the next generation to achieve the high watermark from the past. I will keep trying to reach that goal.

During Covid-19, did you work from home? What did you miss most?

Yes. I am practically doing conferencing calls with teams in Beijing, Singapore, the Philippines every day. Zoom is life-saving for us.

I have my investment in Fortune magazine, and I used to fly to the U.S. at least twice a year to meet the teams there. That’s the thing I miss the most.

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