My Four Years in Crypto

It’s four years since I began my career in Blockchain, crypto and digital assets. (I can’t claim to be an early adopter, although this blog first mentioned Bitcoin in 2013.) My knowledge on the topic was quite rudimentary at the time, and it was like jumping in at the deep end when I joined the small team at Brave New Coin. Apart from the 3 co-founders, there were 3 other core team members already on-board, so I was lucky 7.

My professional career has mainly been in law, publishing and financial services, plus a range of consulting, contract and freelance roles across various sectors. My point of entry into crypto was my experience with Standard & Poor’s and Thomson Reuters in market data, indices, analytics, content, research and portfolio tools – the basis of Brave New Coin’s business, and therefore an appropriate fit with my experience and skills set.

In the past four years, I have been privileged to witness at close hand the market exuberance of 2017 (fuelled by the ICO phenomenon and the incredible bull market), the regulatory backlash of 2018, the crypto winter of 2018-19, and the stop-start messages coming from regulators, markets, institutional investors, central banks and major corporations.

Getting to grips with some of the technical and other idiosyncrasies has been a steep learning curve – but I have tried to adopt a dual approach to expanding my own understanding. First, focus on the major components before getting to far into the weeds on any particular area of technical detail; second, create a personal framework of analogous concepts, and identify practical metaphors that you can also easily explain to others – self-education is critical to personal survival, but sharing knowledge is the path to wider adoption.

It’s also important to maintain an anchor based on your original point of entry – not only does that become a constant point of reference, it also enables you to build areas of personal expertise and domain knowledge. So, while many early proponents and adopters were drawn to crypto because of their underlying belief in Libertarianism, or their fascination with cryptography, or their distrust of centralised banking systems, my own points of reference continue to be around financial services (asset origination, tokenisation, digital wealth management), market data (indices, industry standards, benchmarks), regulations and analytics. While I am an advocate for Blockchain technology, I am not a hardcore technologist, but I realise that it will take time for issues such as scaling, interoperability and mass adoption to be fully resolved.

At the very least, a great deal of that market experience (especially driven by the decentralized, project-intensive and ICO-related activity of 2016-18) has demonstrated the following truths about Blockchain technolgy:

1. This is a new model of capital formation – just as companies no longer have a monopoly on human capital, banks and traditional intermediaries no longer have a monopoly on raising financial capital

2. This is a new means of asset creation, wealth distribution and market access – backed by Blockchain solutions, crypto is the first asset class that was retail first, in a distributed/decentralized bottom-up approach to issuance

3.This is a new platform for commerce – whether via tokenomics, network incentives, value transfer, smart contracts or programmed scarcity

4. This represents a paradigm shift in governance models – via the use of decentralized, autonomous, trustless, consensus and incentive-based operating structures and decision-making systems

5. This introduces new principles of distribution – assets are consumed closer to the source of value creation (fewer intermediaries and rent seekers)

6. But, it is not (and should never be) the solution for everything

Given what is happening at the moment around the COVID 19 pandemic, Blockchain, crypto and digital assets will prove to be perfect solutions to a number of problems such as: establishing the provenance of medicines; identity verification; managing supply chain logistics; enabling the distribution of assets; computing power for scientific modelling and testing; and providing alternatives to cash.

Next week: Social Distancing in Victorian Melbourne…

 

Sola.io – changing the way renewable energy is financed

Late last year, I had the privilege to be one of the judges for the PitchX competition for start-ups. The overall winner was Sola, a new investment platform to fund solar power using a virtual power plant structure to bring together investors and producers, who might not otherwise have access to the financial and production benefits of this renewable energy resource.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Alan Hunter, Founding Team member of Sola while he was in Melbourne earlier this month. He was busy in the middle of a series of investor meetings and finalising arrangements for their energy retailing licensing.

Prior to Sola, Alan had established a fleet company that leased cars to Uber drivers. Recognising that some immigrants lacked relevant qualifications for advertised jobs, but lacked the finance to buy a car, the business joined the dots and enabled many people with a driver’s license to secure employment. It told him a lot about about helping those less fortunate by building a business designed to remove inequalities and lower barriers to entry.

With that experience, an interest in renewable energy, and a desire to help consumers reduce their power bills Sola was launched. Starting out as CEC-approved Solar Retailer, Sola offers consumers a subscription service to electricity (at a cheaper rate than users pay today).

Sola is now planning to offer the same subscription service with a solar system, for a cheaper monthly payment. It is able to achieve this though the development of an innovative investment and infrastructure platform, that will serve three main types of clients:

1. Home-owners who want to install solar energy, reduce their own power bills, and even generate additional benefits as rebates or credits from feed-in tariffs

2. Retail investors, who may not have access to solar energy (renters, apartment residents, or those in dwellings ill-placed for panels)

3. Wholesale investors and self-managed superannuation funds looking for an alternative fixed income asset

In short, Sola underwrites the cost of panel installation on consumers’ homes. In return, Sola acquires 100% of the energy generated, and the customer subscribes to Sola for their monthly usage. Consumers become subscription members of Sola’s network, via the latter’s retailer license.

For retail investors, Sola will present them with an opportunity to access fractional ownership of a virtual power plant, for as little as $100. These investors then receive a dividend from the energy sales generated by the network.

For wholesale investors, and for a larger stake, they will be part of a closed end capped fund, which will generate a dividend from the energy sales. Sola has an energy off-take entitlement over the panels, and over time, panels which are replaced may still be sold into secondary markets, such as in developing countries, if they have a remaining useful life.

Some of the benefits of this structure include a more equitable arrangement for access to, ownership, and distribution of solar energy assets. It also removes the need for unsecured lending to finance panels and systems which may soon become obsolete. Plus, it enables people who might not have direct access to solar panels to benefit from this asset.

The complex issue of Federal and State rebates came up in our discussion. According to Alan, the former are useful in supporting the roll-out of Sola’s virtual power plant model, and in accessing the carbon credit marketplace via the Small-scale Technology Certificates (STC). Whereas, State rebates are better for end-users, who can engage Sola direct to install their panels, and then join the Sola retail network.

Then there is the issue of inverters, and batteries. It’s generally the former that are rendered obsolete before the panels, but the costs mean that customers tend to end up replacing the whole system. And the latter will not become economic until purchase costs reduce, and feed-in tariffs are phased out.

Finally, Alan wanted to make sure he got this point across – Sola will shortly be launching campaigns in seven locations, to sign-up 180-230 homes, in areas impacted by bush fires. The aim is to give participants a 35-40% saving on their energy bills, as well as establishing the first phase of the virtual power plant network.

Next week: Australia’s Blockchain Roadmap

 

 

 

 

 

The State of PropTech

Among the many strands of X-Tech that we have come to hear about, PropTech is currently emerging as something of a hot topic, judging by a recent Meetup in Melbourne organised by MessageMedia. With the ambitious goal of exploring the “Past, Present and Future of PropTech in Australia”, it was clear that the field can mean very different things to different audiences.

Facilitated by Bec Martin, the panel comprised Shelli Trung, APAC lead for the Reach PropTech Incubator; Mark Armstrong, CEO of RateMyAgent; Alan Tsen, seed round investor with a focus on disruptive FinTech startups; and Nigel Dalton – ex-REA Group, who also gave a key note address.

Given the format and nature of the discussion, I won’t attribute specific comments to particular individuals. Instead, here are some of the panel’s observations (in no particular order), including some pitfalls for the industry, and key points that all market participants will need to consider.

  • In light of recent events, it was perhaps unsurprising to hear the view expressed that WeWork is “not very prop, not very tech”, as its business model and funding challenges became apparent. Generally, the view was that the co-working space fad has had its day (although Melbourne still manages to support numerous co-working spaces and models, not all like WeWork, since the local demand is there?).
  • We face significant local economic challenges (low inflation leading to minimal GDP growth and negative interest rates; declining wages/purchasing power in real terms; falling retail spending; over-extended household debt; and underemployment in the wider job market).
  • On the other hand, Australia still hasn’t had a recession since 1991, and house prices have just seen the biggest monthly increase since 2003, yet banks are imposing more stringent lending criteria.
  • Depending on which economic theories you favour, this either means easier access for first time buyers thanks to lower interest rates; or more rent arrears, increased mortgage stress and greater homelessness because of a lack of affordability and/or deteriorating lower cost housing options.
  • PropTech is not just two-sided online residential market places (although data analytics and digital marketing capabilities are integral to that particular segment).
  • PropTech should also embrace sustainability in terms of environmental efficiency and affordability. Social impact will likely mean adjusting home owner expectations in terms of dwelling size and carbon footprint. Equally, smart cities and more mixed use development is also being increasingly factored into urban planning and infrastructure design.
  • The increase in higher rise and higher density housing has also led to cost cutting in the choice of materials (flammable cladding), and deregulation and other factors have exacerbated structural defects where there is inadequate insurance protection for home owners.
  • What is happening where PropTech and FinTech intersect, such as the notion of fractional ownership? While this is something that is increasingly more likely (especially with Blockchain technology and tokenisation) if first time buyers have no other way to access the property market, what should be the appropriate licensing regime for these new financial products? What should be the credit risk criteria, lending models, prospectus design, funding structure and tax & accounting treatment? What if such developments include social and inter-generational housing? Or achieve the highest environmental standards/lowest greenhouse emissions?
  • For Australian PropTech startups wanting to go global, there were some warnings about the lack of cross-border tech transfer, and an absence of cultural awareness and curiosity by founders.
  • Meanwhile, on some measure, Facebook is probably the largest residential rental marketplace in the USA. What does that signify for future markets and property transactions?
  • Despite the success of real estate market places in Australia, the model does not easily transfer or scale in other countries. Equally, models from overseas might not work here. There was some scepticism about the so-called “iBuyer” model, and also the agency aggregation approach by firms like Compass (“you can’t buy relationships”). Plus, even local brands can go sour (e.g., Run Property and its subsequent merger with Little Residential to form LITTLE Real Estate).
  • IoT-enabled solutions are a growing theme, especially in aged care, and where AI learning patterns are being applied to energy efficiency, for example, or to improve facilities management (another PropTech segment ripe for disruption). This also links to the use of and intersection between On-line/Off-line data, such as CAD and 3D modelling, and “digital twins” (real-time databases of building design files) for mapping and monitoring physical structures. While in the UK, the concept of, and need for, Digital Twins has led to a raft of industry-wide initiatives and collaboration.
  • Despite Australia’s impressive work in creating standard data structures for residential property, there is still a lack of transparency when it comes to the results of private auctions (but isn’t that the idea – they are “private”?). According to the panel, similar data overseas is considered to be quite “dirty” (unstructured and non-standard).
  • The panel anticipated new PropTech opportunities for those companies offering “high touch/high end” services, and those providing “low touch / high tech” solutions.
  • One common data and infrastructure management challenge is dealing with legacy information systems, and sluggish internet speeds (despite, or because of, the NBN), meaning there will inevitably be some bifurcation in service and quality, depending on building design, purpose, age, location, value etc.
  • Finally, there were concerns that as security data and facial recognition technology becomes increasingly algo-based, it raises questions of privacy and misuse of personal and confidential data.

Next week: Pitch X – Launch Into A New Decade

 

 

Demo Day #1 – Startupbootcamp

Energy and climate change are proving to be hot topics in Australia’s federal election campaign. Not surprising, given that proposed changes to current policy settings brought down the last Prime Minister. With that in mind, it was impressive and refreshing to hear what founders participating in the latest Startupbootcamp Energy Australia accelerator program had managed to come up with over the course of 12 weeks. The 10 projects presenting at this month’s Demo Day offered a range of solutions that our political leaders and their advisors might want to acquaint themselves with.

The pitches in alphabetical order were (websites links embedded in the names):

Builtspace

The challenge for many commercial building owners is that their facilities managers lack full visibility into the physical design and fabric of the infrastructure they are responsible for. And much of the in-house knowledge literally walks out the door when staff leave. Builtspace has developed a SaaS platform that creates a “digital twin” of each building, managing everything from the asset condition to real-time maintenance transactions, all connected in the cloud. Claiming to reduce ticket backlogs to deliver a 75% productivity gain, and a 5x ROI, including increased energy efficiency, the founders are currently looking for re-sellers in Australia, and are in the process of raising Series A funding.

Ecologic

A home energy audit app that offers tailored advice at scale, Ecologic uses cloud-based simulations to deliver proposed energy efficiency solutions and enables users to connect to appropriate suppliers. The team has identified that the combination of a lack of independent information, unknown costs (and limited finance) and inadequate service co-ordination creates a barrier to adoption for many consumers. In addition, consumers need simple and actionable insights. Currently generating referral fees and sales commissions, the founders are investigating a subscription model for Uber-style consultations, and a white label B2B solution. During the boot camp, Ecologic has obtained 1,500 customer profiles, identified a channel partnership model with a number of local councils, and secured a pilot integrated utility service with Energy Australia. To address the issue of consumers’ access to finance, the founders are exploring a project finance facility, to offer customers zero upfront installation costs, and using the energy savings to pay down the debt.

Elemize

Using a distributed energy model, Elemize claims to have found a solution to Australia’s comparatively high energy bills. Via its LiberPower application, the team are working with property developers and builders to help them install custom renewable energy solutions to deliver “free energy” to their residents and tenants. Part of the solution involves the system taking control of the batteries in each home, to obtain maximum efficiency.

Fohat

One of the problems with domestic-scale solar energy systems is that we can end up with too many solar units – which in turn can, with things like feed-in supply arrangements, cause network and transmission constraints. Fohat aims to solve this problem with a software solution to manage microgrids. With the owner’s permission, the operating system can have visibility over the whole network by taking control of each battery, by directing network capacity to where it is needed, and/or diverting excess supply into designated batteries. The platform also supports energy trading (but not at the level of individual consumers), and has recently secured a pilot with the City of Melbourne to install a microgrid and battery system at the Queen Victoria Market. The startup profile also mentions the use of blockchain technology, but this important aspect was not described during the pitch.

ivcbox

It was a little difficult to understand what this browser-based video chat service was doing at an energy accelerator. But the fact that it only takes a 1.5% sales commission compared to the 22.5% cost of a face-to-face sale, means it should appeal to energy retailers who have encountered greater customer churn due to price comparison sites and increased regulatory transparency on fees and charges. The service uses facial recognition and identity verification, which means the API platform can also be extended to banks and insurers.

Nostromo

Nostromo has developed a “world first” modular Ice Thermal Energy Storage system, using a glycerol heat conversion process. Typically, 60% of the peak energy usage by a commercial building is for cooling purposes, yet the peak demand amounts to only 400 hours a year. Designed to support demand side management and storage, Nostromo has secured $5.5m in seed funding, including $1.5m in grants to develop demo solutions.

Powerdiverter

Around 2 million homes and businesses in Australia are already using solar energy. Storing and managing that energy remains a challenge. Powerdiverter is a hardware device that uses electric hot water tanks as energy storage units. It doesn’t require any plumbing or additional electrical work. It plugs into the existing solar system to divert all the surplus energy into the tank. A typical lithium battery solution has a 12-year payback, versus 1.5 years with Powerdiverter. The business model includes device sales (7,000 have already been installed, mainly in the UK), a subscription service and licensing agreements with energy providers.

RedGrid

One of the problems with our current electricity network is that it is built on “imposed” grids, not coordinated intelligent devices. This means an overloaded grid, and high energy costs. RedGrid aims to solve this, with a Platform-as-a-Service model, where every smart device will have machine-to-machine communications, delivering energy on demand capability. This so-called “Internet of Energy” is constructed on a decentralised demand management solution that is private, scalable and secure. The team is currently focused on universities and facilities management, as well as consumer markets, and are planning a crowd funding equity raise.

Senno

In an era of growing concern about how social media platforms and other service providers harvest, trade (and compromise) our personal data, an increasing number of Blockchain-enabled solutions are using things like self-sovereign digital identity and attention economics to put consumers in control of their own data, and empower them to monetize these assets. Senno is using digital wallets to help owners secure their personal data and to determine who has access to it, in return for specified rewards. Where does this fit into the energy market? Well, Senno proposes to share (non-personal) data and consumer behaviour on energy usage with retailers, in return for a share of the revenue derived from the metadata, under a SaaS model.

UCapture

According to the founders, consumers want to reduce their carbon footprint, but they don’t want to pay to do so, they are reluctant to change their behaviours, so they need incentives to do so. Using a browser extension (Chrome and Firefox), UCapture enables consumers to shop online at participating retailers and “earn” carbon credits in return. Consumers can also receive coupon codes. UCapture receives a sales commission on each transaction, and allocates 2/3 of the commission to carbon offset projects. (While unexplained during the pitch, it seems that each purchase is calibrated to an equivalent amount of carbon offsets – whether that is based on the ticket price, or the actual carbon footprint of each item is not immediately clear.)  UCapture is enabling corporate clients to batch install the extension on their networks, allowing their employees to participate. On the positive side, UCapture is giving consumers indirect access to carbon credit schemes which are often only available to wholesale participants. On the negative side, it does seem incongruous to be encouraging consumers to spend more and to buy more stuff, in order to save the planet.

Next week: Demo Day #2 – Startmate