The trend towards digitalisation in Asia helps fintech players access opportunities created by the RCEP agreement. The trend towards digitalisation in Asia helps fintech players access opportunities created by the RCEP agreement.

Interview with Nick Zhang, CEO of Helios

An important player in the e‑finance sector, Helios employs a software as a service (SaaS) model to digitalise travel expenses processing for businesses. With operations in China and Japan, the Shanghai‑based company is now looking towards ASEAN countries for new opportunities.

The trend towards digitalisation in Asia is helping fintech players such as Helios access opportunities created by the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. Helios can provide businesses with a digital platform to process business travel expenses, from spending to reimbursement, cost control and accounting.

“Our products and services are applicable to many businesses in RCEP countries, as companies always need spending management,” says Nick Zhang, CEO of Helios. “It’s just that we need to study the financial and tax policies of different countries to adjust our products and services.”

The RCEP agreement is expected to reduce tariffs on trade in goods, while strengthening data protection to encourage the development of the digital economy. Zhang expects Helios to benefit from these liberalisation measures, as businesses in the region are increasingly looking for third‑party professional service support to set up legal entities in new markets or to engage in cross‑border M&A deals and investments.

Companies in China, which is a tech giant in the region, can take advantage of the RCEP to export technology to their less tech‑savvy neighbours.

“China has the most advanced software technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI) applications, among the 15 RCEP countries,” Zhang says, adding that mainland Chinese tech start‑ups are developing new mobile applications that can challenge the status quo.

“Our technology leads give us the confidence to expand into RCEP countries, whose businesses are expected to show strong growth after the pandemic,” he says.

Localisation strategy for RCEP markets

Japan was the first overseas market that Helios set its sights on. Many of the country’s offices are still paper‑based and inefficient, which creates opportunities for fintech start‑ups like Helios.

“The enormous cultural difference made Japan the most difficult market for us,” Zhang says, referring to Helios’ entry there in 2019. “It was very difficult to build trust.”

To overcome cultural barriers, Helios adopted a localisation strategy that has proved successful so far. It found a local partner and recruited staff in Japan. This helped the company build trust among its clients, leverage the partner’s market influence and gain knowledge of the local market to improve products and enhance user experience. Helios also conducted a comprehensive research of the target market prior to its expansion.

Understanding the local regulatory landscape is crucial for fintech start‑ups that launch products and services in new markets. Data privacy and protection, for example, have become matters of national security. Many fintech start‑ups need professional services and consultation when navigating new markets.

“For accounting and auditing, we worked with EY, who advised us on data compliance for different countries,” Zhang says. “If you neglect compliance with data security, you cannot enter these markets.”

Helios has been consolidating its presence in mainland China for five years and in Japan for two years.

“We want to leverage our experience in these two markets to replicate our strategy in RCEP countries such as Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia,” Zhang says.

Hong Kong remains a hot IPO venue

As for Hong Kong’s role in Helios’ expansion plans, Zhang says the city’s active and mature capital market is particularly interesting. Hong Kong also serves as a connector for Helios to source overseas investors.

“We’ve been considering Hong Kong,” the CEO explains. “The Hong Kong stock market understands SaaS just as international investors in Hong Kong are familiar with SaaS, unlike mainland investors who regard SaaS players as traditional software developers.

“The Hong Kong listing regime is also very open, so the Hong Kong capital market has been one of the important targets for us.”

Hong Kong can also facilitate access to professional services for fintech start‑ups and this access makes it easier to expand overseas.

“Professional organisations such as ACCA and the HKTDC can link us with local accounting and auditing firms as well as other service providers,” Zhang says. “We still want to replicate our strategy for Japan to find local partners for in‑depth collaboration.”

This article forms part of a joint study conducted by HKTDC Research and ACCA : Tapping the RCEP Opportunities: Hong Kong to Maximise GBA’s Unique Edge as a Business Platform



  • Wing Chu, Business Advisory Manager, HKTDC Research
  • Yuki Qian, Regional Head of Policy, ACCA China