APAC Blockchain Conference

The 2nd APAC Blockchain Conference was held in Melbourne last week. According to the organisers, the previous event attracted about 150 people. This year, registrations were around three times as many. The Blockchain story is only just beginning, if the level of interest and the range of conference topics are anything to go by. Here are a few random observations from the two-day event.

A story is just what we got from Robert Kahn, speaking on the role he played in developing the TCP/IP protocol, and the evolution of “Digital Object Architecture” as a way to identify any type of data, regardless of the technology used to create, store or retrieve it.

From NEO founder Da Hongfei we heard about dBFT (Delegated Byzantine Fault Tolerance), and ANZ’s Nigel Dobson outlined the use of Blockchain and DLT (distributed ledger technology) to remove transaction inefficiencies in commercial property lease guarantees. Civic Ledger CEO Katrina Donaghy talked about her work on “Civic Commodities” (government-issued permits and licenses) and “Sustainable Commodities” (water trading, patent registrations).

Gingkoo CEO William Zuo and Novatti‘s Blockchain Head Peter Christo introduced their collaboration on a Blockchain-based cross-border payment platform. There was a presentation on Hcash by Andrew Wasleyewicz, which talked about the “7 H’s” of their solution. While the quirkiest (and possibly most engaging/authentic presentation of Day 1) came from ConsenSys‘s Blockchain expert Lucas Cullen, who told us “7 Reasons Why Not To Use Blockchain Technology” (compulsory listening for any hapless corporate CTO under board pressure to come up with a DLT strategy…).

In between was Data 61‘s Zhu Liming who talked about some of the wider implications and opportunities for Blockchain in his capacity as Chair of the Australian Blockchain and DLT Standardisation Committee. There were also some insights from Gilbert & Tobin‘s COO Sam Nickless on how lawyers must embrace the new technology to avoid becoming disintermediated.

A diverting interlude from economist Lord Desai suggested that “Bitcoins are not coins, and cryptocurrencies are not currencies”. Many might agree, but we already know they are a new asset class in their own right, and need to be treated as such.

Standards (both technical and regulatory) were the topic of a panel discussion comprising mainly lawyers and regulators. The remaining panels on Day 1 (representing commerce and industry) addressed key themes of Blockchain scaling, interoperability, privacy, security and commercial deployment.

Day 2 began with an interesting keynote from former ASIC Chair, Greg Medcraft, now at the OECD. Mr Medcraft is no stranger to the debate on cryptocurrencies and ICOs, but chose to focus his remarks on the benefits, risks and opportunities for Blockchain. On the plus side, Blockchain can reduce the number of intermediaries in a transaction, it provides traceability and transparency, it increases the speed of payments (and reduces the cost), it offers data security, and it provides greater access to markets (e.g., SME supply chains). He foresees fiat and asset-backed digital currencies, and government support for Blockchain solutions in areas such as identity, provenance, supply chain and AML. Plus, for consumers, there should be greater trust and security, better financial access and inclusion, lower costs and better products. Key risks remain, however, in data privacy, security (ID, authentication, cyber-attacks), and consumer and investor protection. Policy makers need to be pro-active and forward-looking, keep up to date on these rapid developments, and co-ordinate across industry, sectors and globally. Citing some of the issues associated with ICOs, Mr Medcraft then urged regulators to exchange information with their counterparts and identify best practice, avoid regulatory arbitrage, create greater legal certainty, and raise awareness of the risks and rewards.

Victor Wang from the China Wanxiang Group followed up with a presentation that re-cast Blockchain as a new economic model, drawing on his reading of “Das Kapital”, and introduced the concept of GBP (“Gross Blockchain Product”). According to this theory, Blockchain is a means to redistribute and reallocate resources and assets; it is transforming the cost of transactions and value exchange; it is creating new assets; and it is building new products and services, as well as the delivery mechanism itself.

We heard from Zuotian Luan of Fortuna Blockchain on the future of OTC derivatives, and how decentralized exchanges are addressing legacy problems of counter-party and credit risk, operational efficiency, and lack of liquidity. He sees a “decentralized margin system” as a long-term solution that will reduce the costs of posting and managing collateral on traditional OTC exchanges.

There was an interesting discussion on the future of capital markets themselves, reflecting the perspective of traditional exchanges, clearing houses and custody providers, plus tZero. (As an aside, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many representatives of the “back office” at the conference, including trust banks and share registries. However, there didn’t appear to be anyone from the brokerage or advisory side, and no-one from the ASX, even though their Blockchain project to replace/enhance CHESS has been widely lauded as being in the vanguard of this new technology.)

Finally, a quick plug for my colleague, Fran Strajnar, CEO and co-founder of Brave New Coin who moderated a panel on ICOs. I think he summarized the tone of the discussion really well, when he said this is probably the only financial services sector that is asking for regulation. “Tell us the rules and let us get on with the job.”

Next week: Tech Talk on Crypto

 

 

Talking Innovation with Dr Kate Cornick, CEO of LaunchVic

As a nice segue to last week’s blog on Techstars, I was fortunate to hear Dr Kate Cornick speak, just before the latest LaunchVic grants were announced. Organised by Innovation Bay, hosted by Deloitte, and facilitated by Ian Gardiner, the fireside chat plus Q&A was a useful insight on a key part of the Victorian Government’s innovation strategy.

launchviclogo innovationbay-feat-800x500At the outset, Dr Cornick stressed that LaunchVic is not an investment vehicle, and it doesn’t fund individual startups. Rather it seeks to support initiatives that help grow the local startup eco-system. (See also my blog on the consultation process that informed LaunchVic’s formation.)

Commenting on why Victoria (and Australia) has the potential to become a world-class centre for innovation, Dr Cornick pointed to a number of factors:

  • A collaborative culture
  • Positive economic conditions (comparatively speaking)
  • Governments (mostly) open to innovation
  • Strong research base

However, a few of the obstacles in our way include:

  • The notorious tall poppy syndrome, whereby Australians are suspicious, sceptical and even scathing of local success – except when it comes to sport and entertainment!
  • An inability to scale or capitalise on academic research
  • Insufficient entrepreneurial skills and experience to “get scrappy”
  • Lack of exposure for highly successful startups (c.$20m market cap) that can help attract more investment

From a startup perspective, Australia also has the wrong type of risk capital: institutional investors are more attuned to placing large bets on speculative mining assets, typically funded through public listings, and with very different financial profiles. (Or they prefer to invest in things they can see and touch – property, utilities, infrastructure, banks.)

So there is still a huge gap in investor education on startups and their requirements for early-stage funding. Part of LaunchVic’s remit is to market the local startup community, promote the success stories, and foster the right conditions to connect capital with ideas and innovation. After all, Australia does have one of the largest pool of pension fund assets in the world, and that money has to be put to work in creating economic growth opportunities.

As I have blogged before, we still see the “expensive boomerang”: Australian asset managers investing in Silicon Valley VCs, who then invest in Australian startups. Although when I raised a question about the investment preferences of our fund managers, Ian Gardiner did point out that a few enlightened institutions have invested in Australian VC funds such as SquarePeg Capital, H2 Ventures and Reinventure.

Dr Cornick also provided a reality check on startups, and added a note of caution to would-be founders:

First, it tends to be an over-glamourised sector. For one thing, founders under-estimate the relentless grind in making their business a success. And while eating pizza and pot noodles might sound like a lifestyle choice, it’s more of an economic necessity. Thus, it’s not for everyone (and not everyone should or needs to build a startup…), so aspiring entrepreneurs would be well-advised to do their homework.

Second, the success of any startup community will be reflected by industry demand. “Build it and they will come” is not a viable strategy. And I know from talking to those within the Victorian Government that unlike their inter-state counterparts, they are not willing (or able) to fund or invest in specific startups, nor in specific ventures such as a FinTech hub. Their position is that industry needs to put its money where its mouth is, and as and when that happens, the Government will look to see what support it can provide to foster and nurture such initiatives – particularly when it comes to facilitating between parties or filling in any gaps.

Third, don’t expect too many more unicorns, and don’t bank on coming up with simple but unique ideas that will conquer the world – meaning, new businesses like Facebook, Uber and Pinterest will be few and far between. Instead, drawing on her earlier comments about research, Dr Cornick predicts that it will be “back to the 90’s”, where innovation will come from “research-based, deep-tech solutions”.

If that’s the case, then the LaunchVic agenda (for the remaining 3 years of its current 4 year lifespan) will include:

  • Getting Victoria on the map, and positioning it as a global innovation hub
  • Raising the bar by educating startups and investors
  • Bringing more diversity to the startup sector, by providing greater access, striking better gender balance, and building a stronger entrepreneurial culture
  • Introducing a more transparent and interactive consultation process
  • Continuing to support the best accelerator programs that focus on startups
  • Making more frequent and smaller funding rounds, each with a specific focus

Asked what areas of innovation Victoria will be famous for, Dr Cornick’s number one pick was Healthcare, pointing to the strong research base coming out of both the Monash and Melbourne University medical precincts. Also in the running were Agriculture, and possibly Cyber-security. (Separately, there is a list of priority industries where the Government sees growth, employment and investment opportunities.)

If one of the biggest hurdles is commercializing research, Dr Cornick suggested that Universities have to re-think current IP practices, including ownership and licensing models, developing better career options in research, and doing more to re-calibrate the effort/reward equation in building research assets compared to building companies and commercial assets.

Finally, Dr Cornick offered an interesting metaphor to describe the current state of Victoria’s innovation potential:

“We have everything we need for baking a cake, but the missing ingredient is the baking powder to make it rise.”

Next week: Gigster is coming to town….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The arts for art’s sake…

Last week I wrote about the importance of learning coding skills. This prompted a response from one reader, advocating the teaching of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) in schools: “Coding and the STEM subjects are our gateway into the future.” I would agree. But, as other commentators have noted elsewhere, we also need to put the A (for art) into STEM to get STEAM to propel us forward….

Equivalent VIII (1966) Carl Andre (b.1935) Purchased 1972 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01534

Equivalent VIII (1966) Carl Andre (b.1935) Purchased by Tate Gallery in 1972 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01534

I recently attended a talk by renowned arts administrator Michael Lynch, as part of the FLAIR art event, where he expressed frustration at the state of the arts in Australia, the lack of a public arts policy, and the associated cuts to government funding. It can’t help that from John Howard onward, we have had a sequence of Prime Ministers who, while not total Philistines, have shown little enthusiasm, appetite or appreciation for the arts. And during Q&A, Mr Lynch referenced the conservative and “safe” nature of so much arts programming as evidenced by the lack of risk-taking and the stale and over-familiar choice of repertoire, although he did acknowledge some arts organisations were doing exciting work.

The debate then shifted to whether we need a new method to evaluate the benefits of a strong arts sector that is not purely dependent on economic terms or financial performance. It was not possible in the time available to come up with a suitable indicator, but I suggest we can derive a range of benefits from putting more emphasis on teaching, supporting and sponsoring the arts. This RoI might be measured in such terms as the following:

  • Enhancing creativity among students will benefit individual problem-solving skills and collective innovation;
  • A healthy arts scene is indicative of a balanced, self-assured and progressive society;
  • Participating in the arts can give people a sense of confidence and well-being;
  • Through art we can learn about culture, philosophy and history – especially of other societies;
  • Giving people the means to express themselves through art is an important outlet for their skills, talent and interests.

We agonize about the amount of investment in our Olympic athletes in pursuit of gold medals, and whether the money can be justified (goodness – Australia only just made the top 10!)  But no-one (yet) has suggested it’s not worth doing, even if we don’t win as many medals as is often predicted. And of course, together with the wider popular entertainment industry, professional sports attract more dollars, airtime and support through sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting rights, gambling revenue, club memberships and merchandise than the arts could ever hope to.

Part of the challenge lies in the popular notion that arts are either elitist, worthy, self-important, or simply frivolous – which makes it harder to build an economic case for the arts, but which can also lead to the worst kind of cultural cringe. Also, if the arts are really doing their job, they hold up a mirror to our society, and we may not like what we see. Populist politicians can’t afford to be associated or identified with such critiques – either as the targets or as de facto protagonists – so would they rather be seen shaking hands with gold medalists (or attending a Bruce Springsteen concert…) than maybe attending a cutting-edge performance by The Necks?

Next week: The latest installment of Startup Victoria pitch night

Technology vs The Human Factor

Several times over the past month I have been reminded that the pursuit of technology for its own sake can give rise to misguided innovation; so-called solutions that are divorced from real world problems cannot justify the effort or resources. It feels like we are entering a new phase of the post-industrial revolution era, where a lack of “the human touch” will render many new inventions as worthless, irrelevant or redundant.

Street scultpure, Nagoya. Photo © Rory Manchee (all rights reserved)

Street sculpture, Nagoya. Photo © Rory Manchee (all rights reserved)

In no particular order:

  • At the second Above All Human conference in Melbourne, there was a consistent theme: how do we make sure there is a real connection between human needs and bleeding edge technology?
  • A Slow School of Business excursion to an eco-friendly homestead in rural Victoria offered a practical lesson on how to create harmony between technology and nature, and still achieve a modern (but modest), highly personal and comfortable home.
  • The economic debate about whether technology is improving our standard of living (as reported in the latest CPA magazine), which also echoes a recent CEDA report on automation and the implications for job losses.
  • A Q&A with Shayne Elliott, the new CEO of ANZ Bank, which prompted the observation that big data analytics, process automation and digital disruption are all very well, but will prove meaningless unless they can improve the customer experience. (But Elliott also conceded that the likes of Uber and Airbnb have succeeded because of complacency among industry incumbents.)

Advances in technology don’t have to lead us to the dystopian worlds of “Modern Times” or “Metropolis” (or any of the other post-apocalyptic visions that cinema and literature like to give us). However, the understandable focus on innovation must take the “human factor” into greater account when making design decisions, undertaking cost-benefit analysis and opting for one technology format over another.

Conclusion? It’s not totally clear whether we are entering another dot.com market correction, but there is a case to be made for whether or not we are seeing enough of a “technology dividend” from the current digital disruption and economic displacement centred on the use of cloud, social and mobile platforms; and whether we need a new methodology to measure the impact of the Internet of Things, robotics, AI, nano-technology, AR/VR, cognitive apps, wearables, 3-D printing, etc.

Next week: It’s never too late to change….