Token Issuance Programs – the new structured finance?

We’ve known for some time now that Blockchain and Bitcoin were designed to disrupt the financial services sector. But I suspect that not even the earliest proponents of distributed ledger technology nor the most avid supporters of crypto-currencies anticipated how far and how quickly that disruption would spread. In addition to P2P payments and lending, alternative stock exchanges, and self-executing smart contracts, recent events suggest that digital assets issued on Blockchain infrastructure are themselves the new source of venture capital, that they may even come to be seen as the new form of structured finance (albeit with less complexity and more transparency).

Image: Maria’s Cakes founder issues her own record…. (Source: Maria Lee website)

In the past few weeks, we have seen Token Issuance Programs (sometimes referred to as ICOs – “initial coin offerings” – or token sales) raise extraordinary amounts of capital – $53m for MobileGo, $150m for Bancor. Even allowing for the fact that VC funding rounds have been increasing in recent years, these results are quite staggering – given that the sellers of these tokens have not had to relinquish any equity, or incur any debt either. Because tokens do not represent shares in a company or units in a corporate bond. Nor are they securities in the usual sense, as they do not create any interest or obligation other than an entitlement to be granted a given number of tokens at a predetermined price.

Of course, these tokens may carry the right to use proprietary software or access marketplace platforms, and even acquire future products. In this way, they also resemble crowdfunding projects. But because of the potential returns generated by the increased value tokens may accrue (a combination of network effects, scarcity and market appreciation), there is buyer demand for new tokens backed by the right project.

These token sale results have also benefited from the increased price of Bitcoin, Ethereum and other leading digital currencies – or perhaps the other way round? – as investors get more comfortable with this new asset class. That’s not to say there isn’t talk of a market correction, or even a bubble. But despite the apparent risks, and the occasional exchange outage, new token issuance and crypto-currency trading are generating growing interest – not just from currency speculators, but also asset managers and traditional investors. No doubt helped by developments in markets like Japan, where crypto-currencies are now a legally recognized form of payment.

As for structured finance, some projects are looking to issue tokens that are linked to or represent an underlying asset, such as a pool of loans. In the case of securitization, for example, Blockchain technology can not only help to structure the token issuance (via smart contracts, for example), it can also provide better transparency on the underlying loan performance (using real-time repayment data from bank feeds, for example).

Of course, there have been some speed bumps along the way for Blockchain-derived assets, most notably the infamous DAO “hack” of last year.  Plus, the price of Bitcoin continues to display considerable volatility, which makes it harder for some investors to embrace. And if anyone is wondering why this week’s blog features an image of a Hong Kong cake shop owner, it relates to the Asian Currency Crisis of 1997-98. Maria’s Bakery was a famous chain of shops that sold coupons at a discount, that could be redeemed for cakes at any time in the future. It was a practice that spread to other retail sectors. But during the market jitters caused by failing currencies and a tightening of credit, there was a run on Maria’s coupons, which coincided with a 2% fall on the Hong Kong stock exchange. This may have been coincidental, but it also demonstrates that financial markets can be sidelined by the most unexpected events. Like, who would have made the connection between over-extended home owners in parts of the USA with the worst global financial crisis for 80 years…?

NOTE: The comments above are made in a purely personal capacity, and do not purport to represent the views of Brave New Coin or any other organisations I work with. These comments are intended as opinion only and should not construed be as financial advice.

Next week: Expert vs Generalist

Digital currencies are the new portals

Once described as “The Internet of Money”, Bitcoin is much, much more: it’s software, it’s a store of value, and increasingly it’s being recognised as a legal form of payment. In its wake have come a multitude of other crypto-currencies, alt. coins, digital tokens and programmable assets. Each of them built on one or other blockchain protocol or using distributed ledger technology (DLT), and each of them seeking to serve a specific use case or to drive disruption in traditional markets and business models.

Based on my work with Brave New Coin (a market data vendor for these new asset classes)*, I was recently asked my opinion on all these “Initial Coin Offerings” (ICOs – although I prefer to call them Token Issuance Programs). My response was that digital currencies are becoming the new portals.

How?

First, they are building dedicated communities of interest. Many of them are designed for a specific audience or for a particular purpose. They are leveraging network effects to drive engagement and participation, such as MobileGo, for the online games community.

Second, they are becoming “destinations” in their own right, such as Steem for publishing, or CalcFlow, a market place for mathematical models. They are acting as repositories and resources for specialist content. They are also curating this content, and enabling users to contribute to the community, and get rewarded for doing so.

Third, they are building platforms that support e-commerce and other online transactions, such as SPHRE’s Air solution, and its XID token. In Air’s case, they are creating a paradigm shift in digital ID management: in contrast to most social media and old-school portals that monetize our personal data, our content and our search behaviour through the sale of advertising, Air is giving individuals more power over the use of their own data.

Finally, token issuance programs are creating new registries and alternative distribution networks for a range of tangible and intangible assets, such as MyBit for energy, and bitNatura, for natural capital.

So, as well as supporting P2P payments, facilitating cross-border remittances and enabling the purchase of electrical goods in Japan, Bitcoin and the like are becoming key tools in the new digital economy, just as AOL, CompuServe, Lycos, Yahoo!, Google and MSN were once the main public gateways to the internet.

*Note: the opinions expressed here are my own, and do not represent the views of Brave New Coin or their clients.

Next week: #Blockchain heralds a new railway age?

Investor #pitch night at the London Startup Leadership Program

For the most recent pitch night I attended, I had a welcome change of scenery: I was invited to join fellows from the London chapter of the Startup Leadership Program (and a few from Paris) as they pitched to an audience of investors, mentors and well-wishers at Deloitte’s HQ.

In no particular order, the pitches were as follows (the names link to the startup websites):

Selified

This FinTech business is making customer identity management as easy as taking a selfie and photos of relevant documents, combined with multifactor verification. They claim to be able to “verify people anywhere in the world in less than a minute”.

Selified certainly seems capable of streamlining and automating new account on-boarding, and reducing the time it takes banks and card companies to collect customer data for loan and credit applications. However, there are many similar solutions out there, and some, like Proviso, are already installed at major banks. So, the challenges for Selified include: demonstrating a valid USP (or maybe the combination of what it does?); working out a SasS plus transaction pricing model; and new client installations versus displacement sales.

Re-Imagi

Declaration of interest: I have been working with, and sometimes mentoring the team at Re-Imagi for the past year or so. (Hence my ticket to tonight’s event). So, I’ll try to be objective!

Re-Imagi describes itself as “enabling decision makers to unlock human capital inside their organisation through collaboration”. By harnessing in-house innovation, creativity and collaboration among employees (through the use of design thinking, employee engagement, and unique data capture and analysis) Re-Imagi was able to change the behaviour of 42% of participants at a global bank, within the course of a two-week programme.

From experience, one challenge for the team is describing the essence of the business – since it cuts across innovation, enterprise platforms, people analytics and design thinking. At its core, it acts as a prism through which to view a range of social movements that all companies are struggling with: e.g., the Future of Work, the Future of Ageing, the Future of Money etc. But key to success will be connecting with corporate champions who “get” what the benefits are, and are willing to embrace change and welcome some external input and perspective to their current processes.

0tentic8

A very topical subject, namely a blockchain-based solution enabling agricultural producers to access financial services, and provide more transparency on supply chains.

According to the founders, there are around 500 million farmers in the developing world who do not have bank accounts. The platform will verify each stage in the supply chain – from providing a digital ID for each farmer through to tracking end customer purchases.

Part of the goal is to give farmers a verifiable financial profile that can enable financial inclusion and access to bank services, as well as supporting “field to table” provenance.

Unfortunately, on the night, the presentation was a little unclear as to strategy and execution. It’s certainly a great idea, and one of a number of AgriTech startups looking to deploy blockchain technology along the food production, manufacturing and distribution supply chains.

Secret Sessions

Here’s a business that is aiming to turn the music industry on its head. In some ways, it’s an A&R agency for the digital age; in others, it’s a curated service linking artists, fans and consumer brands, that can potentially generate more revenue for bands (from sponsorship, content creation and licensing) than traditional record label deals or license fees from streaming services.

With backgrounds in video production, digital media and music distribution, the founders are well-placed to execute on their strategy. Secret Sessions is already working with some major consumer brands who want to connect with new artists who have established a core fan base via social media, a dedicated YouTube channel, and special live events.

As a part-time musician (and one-time recording artist myself), I recognise the changing economics of the music industry. The model has been totally disrupted by digital, and the days of multi-album deals with multi-million dollar advances are long behind us. However, I can’t help thinking that if the only way people can discover and connect with new music is via a branded advertising campaign, does it in any way compromise or impoverish the artistic merit of the content? In the 1980’s and 90’s, when household brands started sponsoring world tours by major artists, it generated a bit of a fan backlash – but maybe I’m just old-fashioned, and no doubt I’m not the target demographic.

Owlmaps

Owlmaps is targeting the enterprise SaaS market, offering their take on a knowledge management platform. Organisations need a way to identify and access “hidden” skills that lie within their existing workforce, and Owlmaps does this using a talent-mapping and skill-matrix tool.

It aims to provide a dashboard solution so that users can identify skills distribution, and skills in demand, as well maintain an audit of current staff. Owlmaps places itself at the intersection of enterprise content management, learning management and collaboration solutions, and has launched several pilots with startup accelerators, academic programmes and member-based organisations. The business model is based on tiered SaaS subscriptions.

There are a plethora of software solutions that address, in some way the problem of “in-sourcing” the right skills and experience, especially for new projects or ahead of planned restructures. These platforms are either part of “traditional” HR tools (what I sometimes refer to as “human accounting software”), project management tools, or ERP applications. No doubt, some organisations are also using their recruitment tools to maintain “current” (at the time of hiring) profiles of their employees. But they are often laborious to use and update, and the tools themselves become the process…

Owlmaps may need to demonstrate it can integrate with legacy tools, but it may also need to help end users (employees) understand what’s in it for them – maybe it can serve as a prompt to take some further professional development or skills training? I also wonder if Owlmaps needs to identify a specific industry sector, rather than trying to appeal too broadly?

imby.bio

I have to say that I really like the intent behind this startup – helping a new generation of urban gardeners connect with their back yards. It’s essentially a gardening app with some built-in smarts, that also acts as a channel to market for the retail horticultural sector, by enabling users to connect with and buy from suppliers direct.

A few of the app features seem so obvious when you think about them: take a photo of an unknown plant and get it identified; use your location data to get tips and recommendations on which plants to grow, and how to care for them; get reminders to water/weed/feed your plants. But why haven’t any of the existing gardening brands taken this market by storm? Apparently, this retail sector is very fragmented, with a large number of independent nurseries and garden centers, who rely on loyal, local customers. And many gardeners still like to use traditional printed seed catalogues from their regular suppliers.

The path to market is also slightly complex, since imby.bio is planning to work with local, offline communities to begin with, and offer the app for free (initially, at least). There are other market segments that could present opportunities (such as education, botanical gardens and parks, gardening clubs, even gardening magazines and TV shows), although the synergies between them are not entirely obvious. Plus there may be an opportunity to sell or license data captured via the app, although this is not a priority. But I applaud the vision, and an app that can help us to plant the right flowers to support our bee populations has to be encouraged.

Eligent

This is a solution born out of the founder’s personal need and experience – a multi platform task management tool for virtual collaboration within creative, digital and advertising agencies. The solution is designed to streamline the production process at each stage of a project, help co-ordinate better communication between teams (especially those working remotely), and track costs.

Also using a freemium and tiered pricing model, this cloud-based application already claims to have 100 active users across 20 teams. And with strong industry experience, the founders are pretty confident of their solution design. (There was also mention of a re-seller programme, although no details were provided.)

However, it does seem a crowded space, with the range of collaboration and project management tools seemingly growing by the month. And while I’m sure there are some unique aspects as to how the creative industries work, are they so really different? I myself have seen at least two other similar tools pitched before – Coin-Craft (architects), and Studio Ninja (photographers) – and in each case, the founders were adamant that their fields had specific needs that justified dedicated platforms just for their professions.

Capium

Capium is a suite of cloud-based productivity, client management and practice management tools for the tax and accounting profession. As part of the UK’s digital tax regime, everyone will need to have their own Personal Tax Account, and annual tax returns will be increasingly submitted online. So, Capium’s mantra is “making tax digital”.

In their two years of trading, Capium has secured 380 paid-for accounts with professional firms, representing 38,000 businesses profiles, plus around 4,000 freemium accounts (SMEs) being serviced direct.

So, rather like the successful Xero business model, Capium is recruiting accounting firms as their re-sellers and advocates. The founders also recognise that there are a range of new and existing competitors (with high, mid and low-tier solutions), but Capium is showing some impressive growth rates.

I’m not so familiar with the UK tax and accounting market, but my significant other is an Australian CPA and BAS agent, so I know what she likes (and dislikes) about each of the accounting platforms she has to use – meaning that no system is perfect, and each has one or more feature or function that is better than their competitors! Finally, even leading platforms like Xero, Quickbooks and MYOB have to build and maintain different versions for each market they serve, which can be an expensive operating model.

Taste Of Kenya

There was no doubting the founder’s passion and personal investment in this business – a project connecting coffee growers direct to retailers. Designed to offer growers a better deal and ensure they are paid in a more timely fashion, Taste Of Kenya is attempting to disrupt the existing supply chain by buying direct from Kenyan growers, and removing 5 levels of intermediaries to supply coffee retailers in the UK. Taste of Kenya pays at source at the time of purchase, and manages the processing, shipping and logistics.

Because of the competition, and due to their current limited capacity, Taste of Kenya has decided to target coffee retailers who want to source more ethically and more directly from growers. From four container shipments in the first year, volumes are designed to grow to 15 containers (240,000 kg) in year 3.

With around 30 farmers on their shortlist, and a target market of 200+ coffee retailers in London, I suspect that this may never be a business that can scale. But that’s OK (after all, weren’t we once told that “small is beautiful”?) as the business model and the social objectives are clear. Maybe the real opportunity will be in showing others how they can do the same?

Clikd

Clikd is a dating app with a couple of key features – first, it is photo-based; second, it allows users to set their own questions for prospective dates if they don’t want to use the built-in content. The founders describe it as “photo-social”. The pitch included a working demonstration, and it certainly looks like a lot of fun to use.

I’m somewhat wary of dating apps. I’m not the target audience, I’ve never used one, and I know that some investors dislike the business model – there’s the reputation risk, plus if the app is really good at its job, customers won’t be subscribers for very long, so there is considerable churn.

But, maybe it appeals to the social media generation, who are more comfortable using these tools, or who have different social attitudes. Certainly for people who have just moved to a new city where they don’t know anyone, such an app could help them meet new friends.

User adoption is key to success, and the founders have scoped an in-depth marketing and launch campaign. They have also formed a significant partnership with an outdoor media brand.

Adalys

This MedTech business is enabling smart medical data through patients’ profiles and unpublished clinical trial data, by structuring, analyzing and aggregating the growing volumes of medical data and delivering it to doctors, clinicians, pharmacies, hospitals, Big Pharma and health care groups.

Part of the goal is to make clinical trials more effective (by providing structure to the data, and making greater use of data analytics), and by allowing new data to build on existing and real-time data more easily, it should help take some of the data costs of current practices. The business model is based on SaaS subscription revenues.

With a number of trials and installations at hospitals, plus 700 individual patients on the platform, Adalys is connecting “clinical trials with real world data”. E-health solutions for managing patient records, resource planning and tracking prescription drug costs are high on most governments’ public health agendas. However, issues of patient privacy, low take-up among GPs and a lack of “incentives” makes traction challenging.

Or Du Monde

This was probably a first for me – a jewellery startup. Not only that, Or Du Monde claims to be the leading green jewellery business in France, by only using ethically sourced diamonds, recycling gold, and as far as possible using local craftspeople, to support its sustainable goals. Gold mining generates huge amounts of ore waste, and most people will be aware of the issues associated with “blood diamonds”.

The gems used by Or Du Monde are sourced direct from mines that have established appropriate working conditions, also enabling country of origin certification.

With a strong family presence in the industry, the founders probably knew their business better than anyone else in the room. But one thing that wasn’t quite explained was the B2C click and mortar retail model. From my limited knowledge, the diamond market is closely controlled by just a handful of companies, so I’m not sure how direct sourcing works. Also, on the retail side, there are obviously high-end luxury brands, and mass-market high street chains.

I’m guessing that Or Du Monde aims to sit in between, as a niche or boutique brand, appealing to a certain customer profile. The pitch made reference to the “branded jewellery” sector (representing 20% of the market, and growing), but I assume this involves intensive brand marketing and strong distribution networks – again, not much explanation, although the business plans to have 9 stores around the world by 2020.

Finally, because much of the business is made-to-order, they company does not have to hold large inventories, and more than half of the revenues come from online sales.

Checkit-Out

Quoting some research that 90% of buyers use online customer reviews, Checkit-Out is aiming to update this now well-established model. In fact, the founders believe that there has been “no evolution in 15 years”, and there is some suggestion that customer reviews are now a less trusted source. (I suppose search result rankings and paid-for SEO have distorted the market?)

Incorporating gamification and aiming for an “influent” audience base, Checkit-Out allows users to upload 1 minute videos of their restaurant visits, from the restaurants themselves. (This is the first market segment the founders are targeting.)

I wasn’t sure what the revenue model was – restaurants pay a commission on bookings or referrals made via the app? – and it wasn’t clear how or how often the video content gets updated. I’m also sure that some restaurants may not be too happy about diners filming their experiences and posting them online, while they are still dining – managers and waiters probably have enough to do coping with diners taking photos of every dish for their social media pages….

Finally, as with most user-defined and user-contributed content platforms, we tend to gravitate to the reviewers whose views and tastes appear to align with our own – understanding how that model works would be incredibly valuable.

 

Note: I’m extremely grateful to Steven Hess, Program Leader, and the team at Re-Imagi for inviting me to participate in the dress rehearsals, and to attend the pitch night itself. It was a very interesting and worthwhile experience, and noticeable that the program fellows had taken on board much of the feedback that myself and other mentors had provided at the rehearsals.

Next week: Tribute

 

 

 

 

 

 

Personal data and digital identity – whose ID is it anyway?

In an earlier blog on privacy in the era of Big Data and Social Media, I explored how our “analog identities” are increasingly embedded in our digital profiles. In particular, the boundaries between personal/private information and public/open data are becoming so blurred that we risk losing sight of what individual, legal and commercial rights we have to protect or exploit our own identity. No wonder that there is so much interest in what blockchain solutions, cyber-security tools and distributed ledger technology can do to establish, manage and protect our digital ID – and to re-balance the near-Faustian pact that the illusion of “free” social media has created.

Exchanging Keys in “Ghostbusters” (“I am Vinz Clortho the Keymaster of Gozer”)

It’s over 20 years since “The Net” was released, and more than 30 since the original “Ghostbusters” film came out. Why do I mention these movies? First, they both pre-date the ubiquity of the internet, so it’s interesting to look back on earlier, pre-social media times. Second, they both reference a “Gatekeeper” – the former in relation to some cyber-security software being hijacked by the mysterious Praetorian organisation; the latter in relation to the “Keymaster”, the physical embodiment or host of the key to unleash the wrath of Gozer upon the Earth. Finally, they both provide a glimpse of what a totally connected world might look like – welcome to the Internet of Things!

Cultural references aside, the use of private and public keys, digital wallets and payment gateways to transact with digital currencies underpins the use of Bitcoin and other alt coins. In addition, blockchain solutions and cyber-security technologies are being deployed to streamline and to secure the transfer of data across both peer-to-peer/decentralised networks, and public/private, permissioned/permissionless blockchain and distributed ledger platforms. Sectors such as banking and finance, government services, the health industry, insurance and supply chain management are all developing proofs of concept to remove friction but increase security throughout their operations.

One of the (false) expectations that social media has created is that by giving away our own personal data and by sharing our own content, we will get something in return – namely, a “free” Facebook account or “free” access to Google’s search engine etc. What happens, of course, is that these tech companies sell advertising and other services by leveraging our use of and engagement with their platforms. As mere users we have few if any rights to decide how our data is being used, or what third-party content we will be subjected to. That might seem OK, in return for “free” social media, but none of the huge advertising revenues are directly shared with us as ordinary end consumers.

But just as Google and Facebook are facing demands to pay for news content, some tech companies are now trying to democratise our relationships with social media, mobile content and financial services, by giving end users financial and other benefits in return for sharing their data and/or being willing to give selected advertisers and content owners access to their personal screens.

Before looking at some interesting examples of these new businesses, here’s an anecdote based on my recent experience:

I had to contact Facebook to ask them to take down my late father’s account. Despite sending Facebook a scanned copy of the order of service from my father’s funeral, and references to two newspaper articles, Facebook insisted on seeing a copy of my father’s death certificate.

Facebook assumes that only close relatives or authorised representatives would have access to the certificate, but in theory anyone can order a copy of a death certificate from the UK’s General Register Office. Further, the copy of the certificate clearly states that “WARNING: A CERTIFICATE IS NOT EVIDENCE OF IDENTITY”. Yet, it appears that Facebook was asking to see the certificate as a way of establishing my own identity.

(Side note: A few years ago, I was doing some work for the publishers of Who’s Who Australia, which is a leading source of biographical data on people prominent in public life – politics, business, the arts, academia, etc. In talking to prospective clients, especially those who have to maintain their own directories of members and alumni, it was clear that “deceased persons” data can be very valuable to keep their records up to date. It can also be helpful in preventing fraud and other deception. Perhaps Facebook needs to think about its role as a “document of record”?)

So, what are some of the new tech businesses that are helping consumers to take control of their own personal data, and to derive some direct benefit from sharing their personal profile and/or their screen time:

  1. Unlockd: this Australian software company enables customers to earn rewards by allowing advertisers and content owners “access” to their mobile device (such as streaming videos from MTV).
  2. SPHRE: this international blockchain company is building digital platforms (such as Air) that will empower consumers to create and manage their own digital ID, then be rewarded for using this ID for online and mobile transactions.
  3. Secco: this UK-based challenger bank is part of a trend for reputation-based solutions (e.g., personal credit scores based on your social media standing), that uses Aura tokens as a form of peer-to-peer or barter currency, within a “social-economic community”.

Linked to these initiatives are increased concerns about identity theft, cyber-security and safety, online trust, digital certification and verification, and user confidence. Anything that places more power and control in the hands of end users as to how, when and by whom their personal data can be used has to be welcome.

Declaration of interest: through my work at Brave New Coin, a FinTech startup active in blockchain and digital assets, I am part of the team working with SPHRE and the Air project. However, all comments here are my own.

Next week: Investor pitch night at the London Startup Leadership Program