Chris Horlacher is president and CEO of Equibit Group, a company that’s putting securities on the blockchain.
When Kik Interactive CEO Ted Livingston was quoted in a recent article saying that “Almost nobody should be looking at blockchain,” I’m sure many readers familiar with the space gasped in shock.
But Mr. Livingston is quite correct in his assessment. It’s one I’ve maintained for a very long time. Blockchain is a fantastic, paradigm-changing technology, but the rush to put everything “on a blockchain” has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on projects that are unlikely to ever be commercially viable.
Blockchain technology can be used to completely change how humanity creates, secures and transfers intangible property. Money, contracts, insurance, licences, identity – you name it. Whereas today these things require the blessing of an outside authority to control, with blockchain, individuals can take ownership themselves.
In a world where the custodianship of financial assets is highly centralized, the underlying technology behind bitcoin looked to be a wonder poised to change how society creates and moves value. After more than eight years of studying the technology, speaking publicly about it, and founding a blockchain development company, it’s quite clear to me blockchain is just that – a wonder: a publicly accessible asset register using infrastructure funded directly by its users with an embedded form of payment known as a cryptocurrency.
Somewhere along the line, however, amid the hype, the many companies who started investing in blockchain technologies got lost – forgetting its true value proposition.
There are many lessons to be learned from how the world’s most prominent cryptocurrency – bitcoin – secures itself. For example, we can use those same features to produce tamper-proof databases, but they need not be blockchains. A number of companies have got caught up in the rush to blockchain; they’ve created networks that tick a box, a mandate, but are actually “permission-based” or “closed” networks – not blockchains as they were initially intended.
“Tokenization” – the process of assigning a digital proxy for a real-world asset – has also been fundamentally misunderstood in this rush. Many of the companies issuing tokens are injecting them into applications for which there is no need. Tokenization for the sake of tokenization isn’t a plan with any hope of generating a return on investment. Near-term, these tokens will serve only as a convenient exit for company founders.
People either forgot, or never knew, what the real value proposition of blockchain technology was. As investors and as human beings, we need to keep asking, “what’s the business case for these networks?” There are worse things than missing out on the next unicorn and, put simply, if a business isn’t looking to disperse their infrastructure costs and make individuals sovereign over their data and digital assets, blockchain probably isn’t for them.
Over the past 10 years, our faith in institutions – both financial and governmental – has been seriously eroded. We’ve endured trillions of dollars of currency debasement used to recapitalize banks, repeated corruption scandals and an endless stream of fraud settlements paid out by financial institutions. Outside of the Western world, it’s even worse.
With bitcoin, and technologies like it, there is a way for individuals to reach a relative island of safety and financial stability. By removing any dependence on third parties to secure their assets or transfer value, they have one less variable in their life to worry about.
It’s my hope that 2018 becomes the year when this industry resets. Whose lives does it want to change, and why? Blockchain still has the potential to do amazing things, things that upend centuries-old foundations of industry and replace them with something infinitely better. But we can’t lose sight of the real application of the value proposition itself, which is the radical transparency of the network and its power to bring people together on a level playing field. It can’t only be about closed networks, trading tokens and initial coin offerings. That misses the point entirely.
At Equibit Group, we’ve kept ourselves focused with a crystal-clear mission statement of reducing the securities industries’ dependence upon central securities depositories and transfer agents. This is a little-known and little understood corner of the industry that handles settlements of unspeakably huge amounts of intangible value, at an annual cost of tens of billions of dollars to investors, issuers, exchanges and dealers. This is the type of blockchain that industries should be looking at.