When Edison "Eddy" Ortiz isn't winning patents for Royal Bank of Canada, he's tinkering in his Orlando home.
"I have to code at least once a month," said Ortiz, whose latest project is a voice-activated helmet to open his garage door when he returns from riding his Ducati and BMW motorcycles. "I love this stuff. It brings me back to my first job -- hardware and deep low-level software design."
A native of Ecuador, Ortiz has driven digital innovation at Royal Bank for the past six years. He's named as inventor on a handful of U.S. patents tied to payments -- including a cloud-based digital wallet -- and his fingerprints are on many of the innovations hatched by North America's fifth-largest lender. Ortiz is one of the few employees with a direct phone line to the bank's chief executive officer, who calls him a "secret weapon" in its efforts to stay ahead in financial technology.
Royal Bank isn't alone in its pursuit of technology as the industry is challenged by start-ups threatening their business in everything from loans to money management to payment systems. Banks worldwide are working on a range of developments in areas including data processing, security, biometrics, and mobile apps. Canadian banks have been publicly touting partnerships with fintech firms and collaborations with universities and start-up labs while privately cooking up initiatives in their own facilities.
Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce rolled out an app this month that lets clients apply for mortgages through a smartphone and Toronto-Dominion Bank in April unveiled a real-time money management app for mobiles. Bank of Montreal became Canada's first bank to add a robo-advisory platform this year in response to several new firms offering this service. Bank of Nova Scotia's online lender Tangerine has been exploring facial recognition for banking.
"Canadian banks, like a few of the U.S. banks, have all been pretty adept at identifying and using new technologies," said Bob Vokes, who leads Accenture Plc's financial-services practice in Canada. "There's a tremendous amount of work and energy going on at every one of them that they're not publicly talking about."
Ortiz leads teams working with artificial intelligence to build a banking app you can talk to or text -- what he calls a "financial Siri" -- and security features that use heart rates, retina scans and fingerprints. They're also working to embed Royal Bank's payments technology into social networks, and pursuing as many as seven projects involving blockchain, including one for its in-house credit-card rewards program. Blockchain is a digital ledger that keeps a record of transactions and promises to dramatically speed up banking processes.
Ortiz, who graduated in 1988 with a degree in electronics engineering from DeVry Institute of Technology in Toronto, joined Royal Bank in 1997 as a technical system analyst. He spent a decade writing computer programs to help the corporate real estate and procurement departments manage spending. His skills caught management's attention, and he was moved to a senior role on Royal Bank's digital team in December 2009.
Ortiz and colleague Terry Lee were behind a secure cloud-based payments platform developed as a secretive skunkworks project inside the company. The 2012 invention was a radical departure from the industry standard of using chip-based technology to store banking information on mobile phones, and has become the backbone of Royal Bank's digital wallet and other initiatives.
"The fact that Eddy was the driver behind us filing one of the most creative patents in the world of payments -- when Apple and Google and others were working on the same things -- that speaks about Eddy," CEO David McKay, 52, said in an April interview, referring to the cloud-based system.
Sixty percent of Royal Bank's financial transactions, excluding cash withdrawals, are now coming through mobile devices and online, according to McKay.
When Ortiz wanted to move to Florida for family reasons two years ago, the firm opened an office for him in Orlando. Ortiz, who says he is in his early 50s, has since recruited in a state that's home to cybersecurity experts, software designers and computer engineers, thanks to the presence of NASA, Walt Disney Co. and financial technology firms including Fidelity National Information Services Inc. He's assembled a team there that includes six engineers, a business strategist and two PhD-level students as interns in a lab near the University of Central Florida, which has become a source of talent. They work in conjunction with Ortiz's larger crew in Toronto.
"It turned out to be probably the best move we ever did, not only from a personal side, but from the bank's perspective," said Ortiz, who's married with three kids. "What we found was an incredible potential."