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

 

 

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

 

Blipverts vs the Attention Economy

There’s a scene in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film, “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, where David Bowie’s character sits watching a bank of TV screens, each tuned to a different station. At the same time he is channel surfing – either because his alien powers allow him to absorb multiple, simultaneous inputs, or because his experience of ennui on Earth leads him to seek more and more stimulus. Obviously a metaphor for the attention economy, long before such a term existed.

Watching the alien watching us… Image sourced from Flicker

At the time in the UK, we only had three TV channels to choose from, so the notion of 12 or more seemed exotic, even other worldly. And of those three channels, only one carried advertising. Much the same situation existed in British radio, with only one or two commercial networks, alongside the dominant BBC. So we had relatively little exposure to adverts, brand sponsorship or paid content in our broadcast media. (Mind you, this was still the era when tobacco companies could plaster their logos all over sporting events…)

For all its limitations, there were several virtues to this model. First, advertising airtime was at a premium (thanks to the broadcast content ratios), and ad spend was concentrated – so adverts really had to grab your attention. (Is it any wonder that so many successful film directors cut their teeth on commercials?) Second, this built-in monopoly often meant bigger TV production budgets, more variety of content and better quality programming on free-to-air networks than we typically see today with the over-reliance on so-called reality TV. Third, with less viewing choice, there was a greater shared experience among audiences – and more communal connection because we could talk about similar things.

Then along came cable and satellite networks, bringing more choice (and more advertising), but not necessarily better quality content. In fact, with TV advertising budgets spread more thinly, it’s not surprising that programming suffered. Networks had to compete for our attention, and they funded this by bombarding us with more ads and more paid content. (And this is before we even get to the internet age and time-shift, streaming and multicast platforms…)

Despite the increased viewing choices, broadcasting became narrow-casting – smaller and more fractured viewership, with programming appealing to niche audiences. Meanwhile, in the mid-80s (and soon after the launch of MTV), “Max Headroom” is credited with coining the term “blipvert”, meaning a very, very short (almost subliminal) television commercial. Although designed as a narrative device in the Max Headroom story, the blipvert can be seen as either a test of creativity (how to get your message across in minimal time); or a subversive propaganda technique (nefarious elements trying to sabotage your thinking through subtle suggestion and infiltration).

Which is essentially where we are in the attention economy. Audiences are increasingly disparate, and the battle for eyeballs (and minds) is being fought out across multiple devices, multiple screens, and multiple formats. In our search for more stimulation, and unless we are willing to pay for premium services and/or an ad-free experience, we are having to endure more ads that pop-up during our YouTube viewing, Spotify streaming or internet browsing. As a result, brands are trying to grab our attention, at increasing frequency, and for shorter, yet more rapid and intensive periods. (Even Words With Friends is offering in-game tokens in return for watching sponsored content.)

Some consumers are responding with ad-blockers, or by dropping their use of social media altogether; or they want payment for their valuable time. I think we are generally over the notion of giving away our personal data in return for some “free” services – the price in terms of intrusions upon our privacy is no longer worth paying. So, brands are having to try harder to capture our attention, and they need to personalize their message to make it seem relevant and worthy of our time – provided we are willing to let them know enough about our preferences, location, demographics, etc. so that they can serve up relevant and engaging content to each and every “audience of one”. And brands also want proof that the ads they have paid for have been seen by the people they intended to reach.

This delicate trade-off (between privacy, personalisation and payment) is one reason why the attention economy is seen as a prime use case for Blockchain and cryptocurrency: consumers can retain anonymity, while still sharing selected personal information (which they own and control) with whom they wish, when they wish, for as long as they wish, and they can even get paid to access relevant content; brands can receive confirmation that the personalised content they have paid for has been consumed by the people they intended to see it; and distributed ledgers can maintain a record of account and send/receive payments via smart contracts and digital wallets when and where the relevant transactions have taken place.

Next week: Jump-cut videos vs Slow TV

 

 

 

 

Wholesale Investor’s Crypto Convention

Another day, another blockchain and crypto event. This time, the latest Wholesale Investor pitch fest in Sydney featuring companies that are looking to raise funding from accredited investors – either to invest in other crypto businesses, or as equity in their blockchain projects, or via a token sale.

Fran Strajnar, CEO and Co-Founder of Techemy delivering the opening Keynote Presentation

The pitches were punctuated by a number of keynote presentations, and panel discussions, to provide some context on what is going on in crypto, from a market, technology and regulatory perspective.

The presenting companies ranged from Xplora Capital, a specialist fund investing in blockchain technology, to Enosi, a platform for retail energy distribution. There were a few projects linked to the entertainment and event industry (Zimrii, FairAccess and Hunter Corp Records), and a couple operating in precious metals (MetaliCoin and Kinesis Monetary System). Ethereal Capital is focused on crypto mining, while Horizon State is bringing blockchain technology to voting systems. Systema is using AI on the blockchain to personalise e-commerce, Amber is like Acorns for crypto, Sendy* is an e-mail engagement platform, and Tatau* is building a distributed computation platform for GPU-based machines.

There was no doubting the level of interest in blockchain and crypto among the audience, but whether they are ready to invest is still open to debate. With the markets sending mixed signals (despite the generally positive industry news in recent weeks), institutional money continues to sit on the sidelines awaiting buying opportunities. My guess is they probably won’t want to wait too long, especially if we see the adoption of new security token standards, crypto-backed ETFs, and other asset diversification.

Meanwhile, over at Chartered Accountants ANZ, there was a very interesting seminar on the taxation of crypto assets. While there have been some positive developments (such as dropping GST on crypto transactions), the ATO is still being somewhat ambiguous about the treatment of crypto for CGT and income tax purposes. In particular, whether crypto assets will be recognised on the revenue account, or on the capital account, has implications for crystallising capital gains (or losses), and for carrying forward certain revenue gains (or losses). The inference being, there is a desire to extract as much as possible from accrued capital gains, while minimising the ability to rollover losses (especially given that many investors are probably sitting on unrealised losses if they bought in to the market during the late 2017 bull run). Essentially, crypto is not recognised as currency (whereas in Japan, for example, crypto is recognised as a legal form of payment), but as an asset that at a minimum, represents a bundle of rights. But the same could be said of a software license…

Next week: Tales from Tasmania

* Declaration of interest: Sendy and Tatau are both clients of Techemy, a company I consult to.