Notes from New York Blockchain Week

Courtesy of Techemy and Brave New Coin, I was fortunate to attend this month’s New York Blockchain Week. Here are some high-level observations from my personal notes (all views are my own):

First, depending on who you asked, attendance numbers for the headline event, Consensus (organised by Coindesk), were well down on last year. Certainly, compared to last year’s human zoo (based on feedback from people who were there), there was more breathing room in the conference venue, and less frantic activity in the crush to get to and from plenary sessions.

Second, the last time I attended a Consensus event, Consensus Invest in December 2017, Bitcoin hit a then record peak of US$10,000. And while we did not see new all-time highs this month, Bitcoin again obliged with a substantial rally – such that many delegates felt that the crypto winter had thawed. Certainly, it helped to buoy the mood of the whole week, and the organisers of the Magical Crypto Conference were confident enough to bring a live bull to their event. (And where my colleague, Josh Olszewicz moderated an excellent panel on Exchanges.)

Third, there were more corporate exhibitors at Consensus – a sign that the Blockchain and Digital Asset sector continues to mature. Some of the enterprise solutions on offer are still early stage (for example, one institutional custody provider I spoke to are only servicing their clients’ Bitcoin holdings), and we are yet to see some high-profile projects get beyond proof of concept stage. Meanwhile an important component in Smart Contract management, ChainLink, is about to launch on their main net, and there was a lot of discussion around scaling (such as the Lightning Network) and interoperability (such as Submarine Swaps).

Fourth, another recurring theme was Custody solutions. Pension funds and other institutional asset managers are demanding robust, industrial strength infrastructure before they will allocate any of their funds under management to the new crypto asset class, as they will not entrust assets to be stored on exchanges or in vulnerable wallets. Moreover, institutional players require segregated client accounts, full transaction records and holding reports, independent and fair-value pricing data for NAV calculations, in addition to clearing, settlement and custody services.

Fifth, and linked to the above, there were a number of projects talking about dark liquidity pools. Not for any nefarious reasons (and not to be confused with the dark net), but to replicate what happens in other asset classes. Parties may wish to trade with trusted counterparts, but they don’t necessarily want to know each other’s specific identity. When it comes to placing a particular buy or sell order they might not want to reveal a position.

Finally, while there were some frivolous and lunatic fringe elements to the week, in general it felt more “grown up”. There were fewer ICO’s being shilled, and a number of projects that I spoke to (exchanges, protocols, tokens) are going through a period of transition and restructure – across their management, organisation, finances, legal entity or business model. Another sign of growing up in public.

Next week: Postscript on the Federal Election

 

 

Melbourne Legal Hackers Meetup

Given my past legal training and experience, and my ongoing engagement with technology such as Blockchain, I try to keep up with what is going on in the legal profession, and its use and adoption of tech. But is it LawTech, LegalTech, or LegTech? Whatever, the recent Legal Hackers Meetup in Melbourne offered some definitions, as well as a few insights on current developments and trends.

The first speaker, Eric Chin from Alpha Creates, defined it as “tech arbitrage in the delivery of legal services”. He referred to Stanford Law School’s CodeX Techindex which has identified nine categories of legal technology services, and is maintaining a directory of companies active in each of those sectors.

According to Eric, recent research suggests that on average law firms have a low spend on legal technology and workflow tools. But typically, 9% of corporate legal services budgets are being allocated to “New Law” service providers. Separately, there are a growing number of LegalTech hubs and accelerators.

Meanwhile, the Big Four accounting firms are hiring more lawyers, and building our their legal operations, and investing in legal tech and New Law (which is defined as “using labour arbitrage in the delivery of legal services”).

Key areas of focus for most firms are Practice Management, Legal Document Automation,
Legal Operations and e-Discovery.

Joel Seignior, Legal Counsel on the West Gate Tunnel Project, made passing mention of Robert J Gordon’s economic thesis in “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”, which at its heart postulates that despite all appearances to the contrary, the many recent innovations we have seen in IT have not actually delivered on their promises. He also referred to
Michael Mullany’s 8 Lessons from 16 Years of the Gartner Hype Cycle, which the author considers to be past its use-by date. Which, when taken together, suggest that the promise of LegalTech is somewhat over-rated.

Nevertheless, businesses such as LawGeex are working in the legal AI landscape and other disciplines to deliver efficiency gains and value-added solutions for matter management, e-billing, and contract automation. Overall, UX/UI has finally caught up with technology like document automation and expert systems.

Finally, Caitlin Garner, Head of Innovation at Allens spoke about her firm’s experience in developing a Litigation Innovation Program, underpinned by a philosophy of “client first, not tech first”. One outcome is REDDA, a real estate due diligence app, that combines contract analytics, knowledge automation, reporting and collaboration. Using off-the shelf solutions such as Kira’s Machine Learning, Neota’s Expert System and HighQ, the Allens team have developed a transferable template model. Using a “Return & Earn” case study, the firm has enabled the on-boarding of multiple suppliers into a streamlined contract management, signature and execution solution.

Next week: Notes from New York Blockchain Week

 

Pre-election Musings

At the time of publication, Australia is four days out from a General Election. At the time of writing, I have submitted my postal vote, as I will be overseas on polling day (May 18). I am certainly not going to call the result or predict the outcome, except to say it will probably be far closer than most people would have expected, maybe even a hung Parliament, with an even more fractious Senate. But I have to say that this has probably been the most difficult ballot I have had to complete.

Image sourced from The Donkey Vote

For one thing, I can’t see why either of the major parties deserve my vote. Plus, in my own constituency for the lower house, the ALP candidate has been disendorsed, so as a result, I have been denied the option of voting for the official opposition. (More on this disendorsement later.) (Meanwhile the only Green Party MP who sits in the lower house and who represents my constituency, labelled himself an “independent voice”. Does that mean he no longer represents the views of the Green Party?)

Why do I feel this way about the two major parties?

First, neither party leader inspires me – they are purely products of their political organisations and their respective factions, and display very few leadership qualities other than they probably know how to stitch together half-baked policy deals in their party meeting back rooms. I doubt they have ever had an original idea, and certainly not since they became the leaders of their particular factions, let alone leaders of their parties.

Second, both parties have simply been sloshing around tax payers’ cash – funding here, pork barrels there, sleights of hand all over the place. I agree that most areas of public services and infrastructure demand a rethink on their current funding models, and some deserve more money. But from what I have been able to glean so far, most of these funding commitments and/or budget re-allocations are mostly about headline amounts, and not measurable outcomes, assuming they have been properly costed in the first place.

Third, despite all the money on offer, there have been few, if any, announcements on more fundamental issues of economic and structural reform such as competition policy, productivity measures, innovation, startups, etc. Yes, there have been some financial and tax incentives thrown out to small businesses who take on more staff, or who invest in new equipment, but these are just the usual tweaks. And there has been very little debate about the need to review the design, delivery, quality and accountability of public sector services.

Fourth, and the one main thing that the major parties have in common, is that the only policy levers they seem willing to push/pull are continued fiddling about with tax rates, superannuation and industrial relations. All of which is counterproductive, as it just means the focus is on winners and losers, and the resulting class-war based “politics of envy” and crass take-downs of the “big end of town”.

So let’s talk about jobs.

Much of the money ear-marked for particular industries or service sectors is intended to support job creation. Where are most people employed in Australia? By industry category, the top sectors are: Health Care; Retail; Construction; Professional, Scientific and Technical Services; and Education. Most of which are destined to be the recipients of tax payer-funded largesse after the election. And while I agree that Health, Education and Public Infrastructure need to be adequately and properly resourced, innovation and the high-tech jobs of the future will more likely come from the Professional, Scientific and Technical Services sector. (And $3m for a “Blockchain Academy” is woefully inadequate for long-term thinking and vision.)

But as should be obvious to anyone, industries don’t create jobs, companies do. And most people in Australia (70% of the working population) are employed by small to medium-sized businesses. Of the nearly 2.2m registered businesses, 60% have zero employees (mostly they are owner-operated sole traders, including self-employed tradespeople), more than a quarter of businesses employ fewer than 5 people, nearly 10% of businesses employ between 5 and 20 people, 2.4% employ between 20 and 200 people, and only 0.2% of businesses (c. 3,800 companies) employ more than 200 people. In addition, only 100,000 businesses have an annual turnover of $2m or more. Welcome to the long tail of the Australian economy.

As for the election outcome itself, it will largely be determined by swing voters in marginal seats. Five of the 10 most marginal seats are in Queensland. And with the Adani mine project being such a divisive topic, this one item could determine who takes government. And even if Labor wins a majority in the House of Representatives, the Senate will be even more split between minor parties, and whoever wins government will find it difficult to navigate the upper chamber. In my own state of Victoria, there are something like 30 party groupings and around 80 individual candidates standing for just 6 seats. Trying to research the minor parties and their candidates or their labyrinthine preference deals is virtually impossible, which cannot be healthy for the democratic process under the proportional representation system of the single transferable vote model.

The real issue, though, is that with 3-year Federal Parliaments, parties are in perpetual campaigning mode. There is very little long-term thinking or vision, while short-term compromises are the order of the day. All of which results in either total inertia when it comes to making any real structural change, or constant policy tweaking to keep ahead in the polls. All hot air and no momentum.

Finally, coming back to the disendorsed Labor candidate for the lower house in my constituency of Melbourne. The party was forced to act (albeit somewhat reluctantly and almost equivocally) when the candidate’s social media past caught up with him. At first, the party and its Leadership suggested that the 29-year old candidate should be forgiven his indiscretions because he was “only” 22 at the time said offensive remarks were posted. I think that argument is total hogwash. If you are not going to be held responsible or accountable for the consequences of your actions at the age of 22, then you should not have the right to vote, get married, have children, stand for election, serve on a jury, sign a contract or take out a mortgage because clearly you have not fully developed as a mature adult, and your capacity to think and make important decisions is obviously impaired, such that you cannot be relied upon to exercise reasonable judgement.

Next week: Trends in LegalTech

 

 

Startup Vic’s EdTech Pitch Night

As part of its ongoing series of pitch events jointly organised with LaunchVic, Startup Victoria last week hosted the latest edition of its EdTech Pitch Night. Facilitated by General Assembly, Weploy, Marketing Entourage and VUInnovations, a quick audience survey at the start of the evening revealed that for 50% of attendees, this was their first Startup Vic event.

The panel of expert judges was drawn from Impact Generation Partners, Xplor, MAP and Education Changemakers.

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

Studychatr

Tag line: “Improving student experience and graduate recruitment”

Many students report that they feel isolated, confused, and lack both a sense of community and a clear career direction. On the latter point, traditional recruitment firms and employers want to target emerging graduate talent, which can be expensive. Studychatr wants to make the hiring process easier for both employers and students.
Users gain access to a knowledge hub, through which students can earn Kudos points and StudyCoins for helping other students, and acquire micro-credentialing credits for their course work.

The service is free to students, whereas recruiters and employers need to pay via job ads, advertising, talent search, and student consultancy (essentially a Sideracket/Upwork/Freelancer/Airtasker-type service that enables companies to commission students to undertake research and other tasks).

With students wary of using existing college-provides LMS and campus portals, and placing less trust and reliance on “free” social media services, Studychatr has managed to strike partnerships with student societies as the key to on-boarding users, with 1,000 user sign-ups in the past 6 months.

Part of the employer/recruiter strategy is help them overcome the challenge of filtering candidates.

The judges were keen to know more about what the app measures – e.g., number of user posts, level of engagement, quality of study materials, depth of the collaboration – and how the AI model works in this context, and to what degree the platform moderates content, collaboration and communication. They also commented that the founding team and their advisors could probably benefit from some further diversity

InquiBox

Tag line: “Experiential learning through play”

How do parents access STEM tools? For InquiBox, the answer is a subscription service to curated educational activity boxes, plus a web platform. Costing A$29.95 per month, and launched in December 2018, the business is experiencing MoM active subscriber growth of 47%.

The judges wondered whether the content comprised unique materials or a compilation of preexisting components, what was in the online content, and what % of the items were Australian made? They also asked if there were any teachers on advisory board, and whether the STEM themes are integrated, given that the core subjects are taught as separate disciplines.

Based on subscriber feedback and the churn rate, some parents felt that the product was too early in their child’s education, or the boxes were too frequent, so there is an option to skip a month and to only select the topics of specific relevance. In future, there may be on option to track a child’s progress via the web application.

Sales have largely come from word of mouth referrals, but the team are planning to forge partnerships with schools, and link content to the curriculum, and develop engagement with the parent community.

RocketShoes

Tag line: “A next-generation education platform”

The founder pitched this as “an education platform where students own their own content”. Using a combination of Blockchain technologies (primarily IPFS for file storage, and NEM for assignment submission and time stamping) students can upload and manage their own content, and retain ownership of their data (unlike other open-source tools, some proprietary LMS and most social media platforms).

The judges asked who is responsible for moderating the content. While it can vary by jurisdiction, the obligation can largely lies with parents and education institutions, although in some cases it may be the students themselves.

The judges were also keen to understand the revenue model – in essence the schools pay, but if content proves to be more popular as measured by IPFS usage, the fees can be reduced. While something of a personal mission for the founder (hence the lack of detail on the commercials), a sensible decision has been made to adopt an API approach, whereby RocketShoes can plug into an existing LMS, and bridge different applications and platforms.

TALi

Tag line: “Happier kids start here”

This is a game-based cognitive training tool for children with learning difficulties, such as ADHD, ASD etc. It is designed to enable early detection and prevention. The tool has been patented, and uses touch-screen access and gamification to leverage the principles of brain plasticity muscle memory.

Key areas of focus are core cognitive functions of Selection, Inhibition, Focus and Control. The process is designed to be both repetitive and intensive. The game adapts to the child’s individual level. Claiming to be clinically proven via medical trials (of which TALi owns the research data), the TALi Train application has been classified as a Grade 2 medical device in the USA. Next up are TALi Detect (pre-school) and TALi Maintain (to extend the child’s development levels).

Distribution is via parents, healthcare and other service providers, and schools; it also has NDIS status in Australia. The tool is designed to be used 25 minutes per day for 5 weeks and can be implemented direct in schools, or in the home (under parents supervision). The key age group is 3-8 years old, before children with relevant learning difficulties are typically prescribed medication such as Methylphenidate (Ritalin).

After the votes were in, and once the judges had deliberated, the people’s choice was TALi, while the overall winner was InquiBox.

P.S. Startup Vic and Victoria University Innovations departments have joined forces on “Found”, a survey-based research project designed to “uncover hidden truths of the founder experience”, the results of which should influence the overall eco-system. Interested founders can apply to participate here: www.found-ed.com.

Next week: Pre-election Musings