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Darius Liu, Chief Operating Officer for iSTOX – Interview Series

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Darius Liu, Chief Operating Officer for iSTOX - Interview Series

What is iSTOX?

iSTOX is the first regulated capital markets platform in any major financial centre to support the one- stop issuance, custody and trading of digitized securities. Drawing on the power of advanced smart contract and distributed ledger technology to streamline the issuance and trading process, iSTOX seeks to redefine private capital markets by allowing investors and issuers to connect and transact directly. Compared with traditional trading venues, iSTOX is a more flexible, affordable and inclusive alternative, and offers investment options that were previously inaccessible.

iSTOX’s key shareholders include the Singapore Exchange (SGX), Asia’s leading international multi- asset exchange; Heliconia, a subsidiary of Temasek Holdings focused on investing in fast growing companies; and Phatra, a leading Thai investment and private bank and a member of Kiatnakin Phatra Financial Group. Other key shareholders include Japan-based Tokai Tokyo Financial Holdings (Tokai), a well-established Japanese financial services firm, and more recently Hanwha Asset Management, a leading asset management company in Korea.

 

Before iSTOX, you worked for GIC, which manages Singapore’s foreign reserves. How did this experience inspire you to launch iSTOX?

Actually, before I worked at GIC, I worked as a policymaker in the Singapore government, including a stint at the Ministry of Finance. Thus, my experience spans both policy making and asset management / investment within a commercial context. I can therefore relate to considerations from both sides of the fence (government and industry):

  • On one end, the government wishes to promote industry transformation and innovation, while maintaining stability and protections for users.
  • On the other hand, industry players see gaps in the market, and inefficiencies in current process In the case of capital markets, this takes the form of frictions arising from legacy processes involving multiple intermediaries. While technology exists to bridge the gap, the capital market space is a regulated arena – industry players often see regulation as an impediment to innovation.

Having experience in both spaces made me see that regulation is the friend – and not the enemy – of innovation. The innovation I’m talking about is innovation by serious, long-term players looking to add value to the economy as a whole. There is a gap in the market and working with regulation can add value. That led me to believe that iSTOX was an idea that was not only sound conceptually, but feasible from an execution standpoint.

 

iSTOX was the first market operator to enter the MAS (Money Authority of Singapore) Fintech Regulatory Sandbox. Could you share with us what this means for iSTOX, and for investors?

The concept of digitized securities, as well as the whole capital market end-to-end infrastructure layer built on a blockchain is a new concept, both in terms of technology and operating model. The sandbox has been useful for iSTOX to start operating in a “live” environment with real issuers and investors, while simultaneously co-creating the regulatory environment together with MAS. This gave assurance to us, MAS and market participants that the iSTOX platform is stable and secure.

We are confident of transitioning out of the sandbox to serve a larger number of users. We expect to graduate from the MAS Fintech Regulatory Sandbox into full operational status soon this year.

 

Singapore has many existing gaps in the private capital markets that results in accredited investors being underserved by the current financial market. Could you share with us what these gaps are and how iSTOX solves this problem?

Investors today face a challenge. Low rates of return within the public markets continue to drive strong global demand for high-growth pre-IPO start-ups, exclusive hedge funds and other private market opportunities. In 2018, for example USD $778 billion worth of new capital flowed into private markets. In the case of private equity alone, net asset value grew more than sevenfold since 2002, doubling market cap growth of equities in the public market.*

Despite all this, the private capital market system itself has remained highly fragmented, inefficient, complicated and costly. For investors, this has resulted in limited access to a closed group of well- connected and privileged investors. And even for those that do have access to private capital markets, the antiquated and fragmented nature of the current system means they must go through multiple intermediaries to gain the investments they seek.

Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon. The rise of distributed ledger technology (DLT) and smart contracts, combined innovative business models and forward-looking regulation now make it possible to bring new kinds of capital markets platforms to investors.

In the case of iSTOX, this has resulted in the first regulated capital markets platform in any major financial centre to support the one-stop issuance, custody and trading of digitized securities. iSTOX seeks to redefine private capital markets by allowing investors and issuers to connect and transact directly under a safe, MAS-regulated environment. By coupling this with an innovative and accessible business model, iSTOX opens private markets opportunity to a broad range of accredited investors.

*Source: Source: Bain Global Private Equity Report, McKinsey Global Private Markets Review, BlackRock Global Insights

 

iSTOX enables investors to access previously inaccessible investments which includes exclusive funds. What are some of these funds and why should investors take note?

Most of us are familiar with the mutual fund offerings from banks. Many are products with fairly high upfront and ongoing fees. There are some funds which have a track record of positive returns across different market conditions. For instance, the top global macro and private equity funds.

Such funds are generally only open to large institutional investors like the biggest asset managers or sovereign wealth funds. They do not market even to high net worth individuals and have relatively small fund sizes (compared to many mutual funds) which makes their offering even more scarce.

Also, they tend to have long lock-up periods like 3 years or more. If investors want the returns offered by these funds, or the return streams to add to their portfolios for return enhancement or diversification, there is currently no way. But with iSTOX, it will be possible.

 

Alternative investment products will also be available to investors. What are some of these products?

We have also shortlisted some very exciting opportunities for the new year. These include a discretionary fund that builds returns through mezzanine deals and private debt financing, as well as a range of debt, fund and equity-linked issuances across a range of sectors (including real estate, entertainment, and lifestyle).

 

Where are user funds held?

Funds which you transfer into your iSTOX account reside in a customer segregated account held with DBS, Southeast Asia’s biggest bank. Your funds are interest-bearing, and you will have access to your funds through your online iSTOX Wallet. Digitized securities are minted if you make an investment and after funds have been debited from your iSTOX Wallet. These securities are custodized with

ICHX Tech Pte. Ltd., the operator of the iSTOX platform.

 

Investors who open an account with iSTOX before February 1st, 2020, receive certain exclusive benefits. Could you share with us what those perks are?

Select investors enjoy a certain number of guaranteed allocations in primary market issuances and waiver of fees associated with primary market subscription and secondary market purchases for a limited period of time.

 

Is there anything else that you would like to share about iSTOX?

I would like to share a bit about the iSTOX philosophy as well. Where we are now, what we do, it comes down to the belief to provide investors with greater accessibility, freedom and flexibility, with a desire to bring about improvements to the world.

We believe that all investors can and should have the capacity to build and manage their portfolios with the same freedom and flexibility now available to the very wealthy. In addition to generating good returns, investors should be able to freely engage with industries, technologies and causes that fire their passions, provide them exposure to potentially transformative developments in technology and society, and allow them to improve the world around them.

We believe that access to opportunities like high-growth pre-IPO start-ups, exclusive hedge funds and Asian unicorns can and should be open to far, far more investors. While technological limitations and other barriers previously locked out all but the very wealthy and well-connected, the new advances that are starting to make themselves felt in financial markets will fundamentally change this equation. We believe the financial industry should embrace these changes.

We believe that DLT and smart contract technology will open new worlds of possibilities when it comes to how investing works. These possibilities will include but will certainly not be limited to assets that can be traded and owned in fractions for greater liquidity and access, including real assets like buildings, aircraft, wind farms and more. Investors deserve access to these innovations as well as others.

Click Here to visit iSTOX.

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Antoine Tardif is the founding partner of Securities.io, the CEO of BlockVentures.com, and has invested in over 50 blockchain & AI projects. He is the founder of Unite.AI a news website for AI and Robotics. He is also a member of the Forbes Technology Council.

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