Blockchain for the Homeless to Techstars Startup

Ali Serag
Ali Serag
Apr 15 · 7 min read

2017 was the busiest year of my life, is it possible to put so much on your plate that it would topple over on you? If so, I’m sure I came frighteningly close.

I was organizing Canada’s first ever multi-cultural parade, working as a developer in SAP’s Predictive Analytics team for their machine learning embedded Analytics Cloud product, leading one of Canada’s largest tech intern communities, organizing design-thinking workshops, kicking-off my tech magazine, attending as many Hackathons as I could, mentoring a decentralized discussion platform at a local university and taking part in a brand-new summer program that would forever change my life.

The inaugural Summer Institute on Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technologies was being run by Dr. Victoria Lemuiex, a lively archival studies professor at the University of British Columbia, someone who truly embodied the continuous learning mindset.

The program was recommended to me by my friend who was president of the university’s Bitcoin club. The two of us had already spent many late nights over long car rides discussing Satoshi Nakamoto’s White Paper on Bitcoin, and my friend knew that although I wasn’t obsessed with cryptocurrencies, I was particularly interested in it’s underlying technology, Blockchain. It was the technology everyone was talking about — some argued it was just a decentralized database, others preached that it would change the entire world.

I had briefly read about Blockchain’s use of Merkle trees, which I remembered from cryptography-related projects I worked on in my first year when I was enamoured with everything cyber-security related and would read everything I could get my hands on about the world of white-hat hacking. At the time I only had a rough idea about the different use cases for Blockchain, specifically with regard to supply chains and privacy, but I had no idea how to actually utilize it or ‘create’ a blockchain.

Excited about the prospects of learning to be a Blockchain developer, I enrolled in the course along with my close friend, Salman, a serial entrepreneur and true tech genius. The classes would be on weekends, so I figured it wouldn’t interfere too much with the other stuff I was working on.

Over the course of the program, we learned about everything from the difference between private/public blockchains, how to code smart contracts with Ethereum and the mechanics of Hyperledger. We even learned how to create our own cryptocurrency. I had big dreams for my ‘Ali-Coin’ personal project, but needless to say, those aspirations crashed with the markets shortly thereafter.

As I progressed in the course, I found myself suddenly viewed as an ‘expert’ on blockchain — literally everyone wanted to know more about it, the hype was real. One Monday morning I was greeted by an email asking me to organize a presentation at SAP during their Cyber Security Month and gladly agreed. Soon enough, guys in the marketing team were messaging over Skype asking how they should best explain the technology to clients.

Following the Blockchain Institute, I was adamant about starting a social enterprise focusing on integrating technology with social good projects and non-profits. After proposing the idea to Salman and a few other friends, we formally founded Lightbyte. Before we knew it, we were connected with Kelso, the founder of Helping Hands, a local social enterprise that provided care products to the homeless in the Downtown EastSide, one of the most poverty-stricken areas in Canada. We realized that the homeless in Vancouver were often without any form of ID, their living conditions being unconducive to carrying something physical around with them everywhere.

At first we tried figuring out how we could use QR codes on packaging to determine if someone had already picked up a care-package in the last two weeks, however almost no one wanted to actually carry around the empty package for a long duration. We needed a way to verify an individual’s identity. We quickly realized that this wasn’t just a problem for Helping Hands — detox clinics required ID when administering to patients as well, hospitals spent enormous amounts on the same recurring homeless patients because of the inability to pull up medical records and having to re-run all sorts of tests. The problem was much more massive than the three of us originally realized, and we were set on creating a solution for it.

We began having weekly meetings in our offices late at night after everyone had gone home, brainstorming, ideating, conducting surveys. We came up with an idea prototype that would utilize facial-recognition technology or rfid trinkets which would connect to one’s health care-card, a digital form of which was stored on a blockchain. This would be connected to a database that we would connect to all these non-profits. As a clerk at a detox centre, you would instantly know if a patient had just gone to another centre in a different part of the city.

We saw the immense potential in the kind of anonymized data this project could create, a homeless shelter that had high volunteer turnover and poor knowledge-transfer processes could dynamically be sent an automated email telling them to expect a 30% increase in occupancy based on historical data with integrated weather APIs and recommend temporarily increasing beds to accommodate. Nonprofits didn’t need to have technical knowledge to benefit from technology. We could see overall trends in homeless activity throughout the city and make this data public for governmental, academic and NPOs to utilize in creating solutions. Data on preferences and habits that could help non-profits tweak their strategy and services. Data that would aid in identifying what exact week people tended to stop attending detox centres and implement strategies to retain attendance. Data that would shine light on what the homeless actually wanted or needed, not what well-meaning individuals believed the homeless needed.

After meeting with hospitals and other non-profits, we were disheartened when told it would be many years before anything like this could be implemented and integrated with the Canadian medical industry. Getting nonprofits to start using cameras was also met with reluctance. Our surveys proved that only 20% of the homeless were okay with having a picture of themselves taken for identity verification, a grass-roots effort to build trust was needed. Other team-members started getting busy with school and their careers, the project was put on hold.

Over the experience, Salman, Kelso and I learned a great deal about each-other, we worked very effectively together, we were enamoured by technology, discussed philosophy and ethics late into the night, had a knack for entrepreneurship and were all into finance, we loved ideating and innovation but more importantly, we were all also doers.

The innovator flame never dies. It was reignited when we met a few months later at a local Blenz coffee shop for aromatic hot mocha and started discussing the power of data, the problems with financing digital companies and the struggles startups go through. We discussed the promise of non-equity diluting revenue-based financing as an alternative, penned out sketches, and quickly realized how analytics and distributed ledger technology could come together to disrupt the way digital businesses are financed.

Soon after, I stopped my classes and decided to work full time on creating Fostrum, a cutting-edge financing engine that would be a catalyst in financing the digital economy.

The following several months consisted of incessantly being interrogated by well-meaning friends and family about when I would return to school and a diet that consisted almost exclusively of quick Oats. I was surprised to find myself quickly developing quite a taste with every bowl.

We joined Entreprenuership@ubc, an incubator program at the University of British Columbia, during the program we met with over 60 startup CEOs, Banks and Institutional Investors through which we were able to come to a product market fit. The validation acted as further fuel for us — banks couldn’t finance digital businesses that lacked physical assets, venture capitalists were only looking for the 1% of the companies they considered ‘unicorns’. Our solution would be able to make the 99% investable, would be friendly to founders and enticing to investors, most importantly, it would ignite unprecedented innovation in society. The positive social ramifications of Fostrum was evident, within weeks we were shortlisted for the WSA Young Innovators Award and invited to present at the World’s Challenge Challenge competition.

Following the incubator, we saw how we could grow exponentially if we’d join an accelerator program and applied to the Barclays Accelerator, powered by Techstars, one of the top FinTech programs in the world and notoriously more difficult to get into than Harvard. After 6 rounds of interviews, we were admitted into their 2019 Cohort. We decided to celebrate, with Oates.

As my journey continues, stay tuned for Part 2 of journeys yet to come.

Ali Serag

Written by

Ali Serag

Drinking coffee, writing code and talking tech. Ali’s heavily involved in the West Coast’s tech scene and is co-founder of FinTech startup Fostrum.

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