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Interview: Droplet co-founder Steffan Aquarone talks mobile payments

ITProPortal first met Steffan Aquarone at the Open Innovations forum in Moscow this year, where he headed up a discussion on the future of mobile commerce. As a technology entrepreneur, Aquarone co-founded mobile money platform Droplet, an app that allows customers to load money onto their phone and send payments for free.

So he seemed like the perfect person to catch up with again as we draw closer to the final month of 2013, to talk about where the mobile payments industry is heading.

You often use crowd-sourcing to finance your projects, what is it about crowd sourcing that works better than other forms of funding?

Crowd funding is a high-risk strategy for raising funds because only a very small number of projects that seek crowd-sourced funding hit their targets - but that's the same for any fundraising method!

The benefits are often felt most strongly after the money's been spent, when you have a ready-made market to sell your products or services to. Sometimes the 'reward' for committing cash is being the first person to own the product itself - this can still help kick-start a grass roots marketing campaign.

The challenge is that it won't work for many businesses. Unless you're in a country that allows public share marketing (so people can get shares in your business), then you'll need a great product like a panoramic ball camera or a good cause. In the UK, marketing investment opportunities to the public is unlawful unless you're regulated.

Crowd-sourced funding was great for Tortoise in Love [a feature film Aquarone produced), even though we didn't know that was what we were doing at the time. News of the the film spread throughout networks like the Women's Institute and the rural farming community and lots of people came forward to support us. We didn't use an online platform for that - it was all word of mouth.

At the moment only 7.5% of all Oxford Street stores offer mobile payment solutions, how long do you think it will be before it’ll reach 100% and how will the industry make it happen?

It depends which industry you're talking about. Banks have attempted to keep the existing infrastructure relevant in a world that is going mobile, but what they're doing carries high investment and transactional costs for merchants, offers little benefit to users and presents frustratingly poor integration options for developers.

I think retailers are excited about the possibilities of mobile but so far merchants’ own payment apps require separate card entry for each one - there are only so many single-merchant apps like Starbucks that people will want to carry on their phones and top up with balance.

We think there's an opportunity for a technology platform to do the ‘heavy lifting’ over the web: securely storing, accessing and moving money in a way that's friendly to developers, merchants and users. That's what Droplet is doing: being the platform for payments.

Some people are saying that mobile commerce means soon we’ll be able to throw our wallets away entirely, but there are a lot of things in my purse including loyalty cards, vouchers, library cards etc. Can the technology expand to cover all this?

Absolutely. Once you solve the problem of payments you unlock all sorts of possibilities. There are big commercial opportunities but we certainly think they need a new business model and a broader base technology. People don't care about payments that much (apart from payment companies!) but merchants care about new channels to engage with consumers in order to build and maintain relevance. People are increasingly using their phones to achieve a direct, seamless expression of their consumer choices without the interruption of the typical payment process and developers can address these problems with access to game-changing, enabling innovation.

Where are the near field communication (NFC) and mobile payments headed?

It's not about payments. I don't want to make conclusive comments about NFC for payments - it's great for things like public transport access for example. But I don't personally think NFC will have a big role to play in the future of mobile payments - that's my hunch. The great thing about being a platform is that if it takes off and normal people start to prefer it as a way of choosing who to pay, we can add it in an instant.

You have a lot of strings to your bow, working across both the film and technology fields – what is it that makes you passionate about mobile payments?

When Will (Droplet's other founder and CTO) and I sat down to work out what to do next we took a look around at everything in the world that hadn't yet been uprooted by the web. We felt that banking and finance was ripe for disruption, and that payments were a logical place to start as it's something everybody does.