New blockchain lab in Belfast as Rakuten buys up Bitnet

22 Aug 2016

E-commerce company Rakuten has bought Bitnet, a start-up built by former Visa executives, to help in the creation of a new Belfast blockchain hub for the company.

Rakuten, a Japanese business operating on the mighty Amazon’s patch, is betting big on technologies that will soon change the online world, with blockchain a case in point.

Bitnet is a start-up that Rakuten had originally owned a stake in, with its bitcoin wallet business model ideal for what will be called the Rakuten Bitcoin Lab in Bitnet’s hometown of Belfast.


Bitnet – which once featured as a Start-up of the Week – raised $14m in 2014 in a funding round that signalled big things for the company, however, it failed to create a space in the market for itself, with Rakuten now buying up its IP and “assets”.

The lab’s function will be to explore applications for blockchain in e-commerce and fintech, pointing to a shift in how online sales will be orchestrated in future.

To be headed up by CTO Stephen McNamara and VP of engineering Fergal Downey, both of whom will join Rakuten from Bitnet, the new facility will be Rakuten’s “first step” on the road to an e-commerce revolution, according to the company.

“Given Rakuten’s reach into banking, payments and insurance, as well as a host of digital services, no one can doubt Rakuten’s position as a fintech leader,” said McNamara.

“We’re looking forward to exploring and creating many new interesting applications of blockchain technology for Rakuten and their customers,” he said.

“Drawing on the significant IP assets and deep engineering expertise of the Bitnet team and combining that with Rakuten’s leadership in fintech and support of innovative solutions, the new Rakuten Blockchain Lab will be our first step toward unlocking blockchain’s potential to revolutionise the way that financial and e-commerce transactions are conducted,” said Yasufumi Hirai, CIO of the company.

Rakuten is not the only online operator investigating blockchain, nor is it the only company basing its cryptocurrency expertise in Ireland, a country that is fast becoming a fintech hub.

Over the summer, Deloitte revealed Dublin as its central location for blockchain technology development, with the opening of a new centre that will house 50 developers and designers, who will move in over the next 18 months.

The lab’s team will be comprised of blockchain developers and designers and will serve as the company’s EMEA centre of excellence in blockchain and will work alongside specialist teams in other member firms.

Bitcoin image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic