Business Plus

Roy Looks To Bank A Second Fortune

Roy Zakka made his mark two decades ago with mobile phone software. Now he’s trying to repeat the trick with a neobanking platform in Africa, writes Gerry Byrne


Roy Zakka perpetuall­y refers to himself as “just a geek”, who queued for the first ever iPhone in California, but even that modest descriptio­n starts to run a little thin when he proves unable to admit a colleague to our conference phone call. “I’m a wizard at Zoom but I rarely use Google Meets,” he protests. Yet this is the guy who produced ground-breaking mobile phone software and engineered Ireland’s first mobile phone banking app for AIB over 20 years ago. “Yes, but that was ages ago,” he laughs. “You are making me feel old now.”

Today Roy Zakka (59) is running Layer Digital Solutions, which develops online banking software, and my opinion of his geekiness improves dramatical­ly when he offers to help me set up my own online bank in a month with just 99 clicks of a computer mouse. It is, he insists, that simple. “In the background we have people who have banking licences to operate for you, issue MasterCard, etcetera. We have packaged this as a one-stop shop and you’re very quickly up and running.”

The prime proof of Zakka’s concept is in United Bank for Africa (UBA), a Nigerian bank which is using Layer software to add 18 million new online customers spread across 25 African nations. It follows the earlier announceme­nt of a partnershi­p with credit supplier Railsbank to provide white label banking for global brands which can now embed finance capabiliti­es on their digital platforms.

A new Ireland and UK bank is expected shortly to announce a similar online digital banking offering. “We have been responsibl­e for all of their tech stuff,” Zakka explains. “Another customer is Zenith Bank, whose digital online solution is based on our platform, while a bank in Bahrain is also launching a digital bank based on our platform. And there are other African banks in the pipeline too.”

Layer’s pipeline is mostly composed of banks that want to expand digitally instead of opening new branches, says Zakka. “For example, Nigeria has a population of 200 million and is a huge country, so not only is building branches expensive, it also takes time.”

Zakka studied software developmen­t in California at Stanford University and worked at Stanford’s Linear Accelerato­r Centre, a forerunner of the Great Hadron Collider, before going to work for the Stanford Research Institute, also as a programmer. He earned spare cash from a student business making computers while studying in Stanford and later developed a consulting business, as well as founding several start-ups.

He formed Jinny Software in Dublin in 1999, which produced software for the mobile phone industry. Zakka and his wife reportedly earned c.$8m on selling a majority stake in the venture to an Italian company in 2001. That business is still going, although under a different name.

“I laughed all the way to the bank, as they say,” he recalls. “At the time my peers were all taking stock in dot. com companies in the US as payment

Roy Zakka’s Layer Digital Solutions has turned the corner

for their start-ups and they made fun of me for settling for cash. And then the bubble burst and they made nothing.”

Zakka’s connection with Ireland came about because of a consultanc­y role with Eircell, to which he had licensed software. With Jinny he also created a mobile banking app for AIB based on an early Nokia smartphone. He has lived here several times since and has applied for full residency in Ireland.

Subsequent­ly he says he tried retirement but found it overrated. “I was bored out of my mind so I got back into software consulting.”

Zakka adds that frustratio­n when trying to handle his bank finances via a mobile phone led to the creation of Layer in 2012. He called the venture Layer because it can sit on top of, and operate independen­tly of, banks’ legacy software, some of which, he explains, can span two centuries.

Is there a pattern to how Zakka approaches start-ups like Jinny and Layer? It seems that he specialise­s in creating software modules through which enterprise­s like banks and mobile phone operators can create new products and services without disrupting their existing digital platforms. Zakka call these modules “composable­s”, and compares them to Lego bricks. “I just like to solve

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