BRA —Matching the real economy with the Blockchain Ecosystem

Representing ZenCash I recently had the honor of being invited to the Blockchain Research Accelerator (BRA) in Berlin. All this started when I stumbled upon a great article last year, namely the “Token Classification Framework” put together by the Untitled-Inc Distributed Economy Think Tank and Ventures. I was curious what they were all about and contacted them with my questions. Ever since I had great contact with them and especially one of their co-founders, Peter. When I was invited to be a guest at their event I was pretty happy and excited.

The Untitled-Inc has currently launched the following ventures and initiatives:

  • Blockchain Research Accelerator — BRA: is a non-profit
    initiative which is currently focusing on providing a mentoring
    and networking platform to students during their Masters and
    PhD theses as well as access to talent and thought leadership for
    corporates and startups.
  • Coin Market Reg — CMR: linking the crypto economy with local
    jurisdictions. The ambition of this initiative is to provide an
    overview on the global regulatory landscape regarding crypto
    assets and blockchain technology as well as additional
    subscription based services and access to lawyers and tax
  • ICO 360: a VC grade assessment framework to identify and launch top quality ICOs
  • Adventum Partners — ACP: Consulting and Solutions regarding all things Crypto, Blockchain & DLT related for established organisations and startups. They are positioning themselves at the intersection of other innovative concepts and technologies within the Digital Transformation like the Industry 4.0, AI, VR and 3D printing.

The Event

The Event was held at the XU Innovation Lab in Berlin the 13th of July. From more than a hundred applicants 36 fellows were selected to participate in the first batch of the mentoring program. BRA’s ambitions going forward is to
provide thought leadership and a talent pool by fostering exchange and discussion between academics, both experienced researchers as well as Master and PhD level students, established organisations and the blockchain ecosystem.

One of the slides of the untitled-inc introduction. Thanks for letting me use this Daniel;)

Peter defined the main goal of the BRA in his opening talk: producing valuable publications and help students define their topics by providing access to corporates and the blockchain ecosystem. I really liked the analogy he used to refer to the state of blockchain development today:

Back in the day when electricity wasn’t around factories were constructed to have the most power consuming machines close to the center of the room where the steam engine was located. Even after electricity was introduced this layout persisted for a while, until the more logical layout of todays factories took over. Namely production lines in which the machines are placed in the order they are used in.

With blockchain we have “electricity”, but are still using the old “factory layout” in many cases. The transition is a process that naturally involves time and with events like this, one can be a part of designing the new layout.

Research within the field

Konstantin Ketz from the Frankfurt School Blockchain Center followed up on giving an overview on the current status on the research within the field.

While the Bitcoin Whitepaper was published in 2008, the first publication mentioning Bitcoin was only released in 2011. Since then there has been a steady increase in publications touching on the topic. The examples he gave were meant to give the participants an idea of where academia is at right now.

Some of the examples he mentioned were “Bitcoin research across disciplines” (Holub & Johnson, 2018) and “A Blockchain Research Framework” (Risius & Spohrer, 2017). An independent and international platform that should be mentioned as well within this context is the Blockchain Research Network which helps people get started with an overview and access to a range of publications.

One of the main shortcomings he sees is the siloed approach of many studies, focusing either on the technology, the business side or the social impacts. Especially within the blockchain field a multidisciplinary approach is often times very important to do justice to the complex implications. He was attending the BRA because he sees it as one of the formats that will help bringing all the different groups working in the field closer together.

I would like to highlight the efforts made by the University of Vienna at this point. They opened up the Research Institute for Cryptoeconomics which payed off already considering that many of the applicants were students from the WU.

An insight into Corporate Innovation

Martin Fröhlich (left) and Peter Trapp

Martin Fröhlich, from DB Digital was next to present his view on the current developments in the field and the endeavours the Deutsche Bahn is looking into. Namely those are:

  • Autonomous hotel rooms
  • Hyplerloops
  • and Flying Taxis

Sounds futuristic? Well, it’s 2018 and somebody needs to shape what 2030 will look like. The Deutsche Bahn is one of the companies, that is taking a closer look at blockchain technology and they created a nice video on that recently. One of the main hurdles, especially regarding the taxi project, is the lack of regulation. The technology to realise those projects isn’t too far away, but the legal framework is still missing.

Traditionally, the corporate environment is strong on assets, while the startup scene is strong on innovation. A recurring theme throughout the day was that all parties would benefit from more cooperation, which can be applied to this fact really well.

He also provided a great example of where it makes sense to use a shared ledger: since the Deutsche Bahn is a privately owned company that uses a lot of state owned infrastructure there needs to be a fair distribution of revenues. Right now, it can take up to five years for the funds to be distributed, especially for shared tickets with a variable amount of travellers and different destinations. Automated payments via smart contracts might be able to introduce a whole new level of efficiency into the process. Some might say a database would be way more efficient for this use case, but there were efforts to solve this problem for many years using databases and they weren’t successful. It might be time to try a different approach.

A Blockchain Project with Business Focus

Julian and Istvan preparing for their presentation.

NEM, being one of the sponsors of the event, were represented by Julian Richter, Head of Partnerships of Foundation Europe and Istvan Deak, Solutions Architect. They explained that companies that approach them can mostly be categorised into two groups: the ones exploring and the ones trying to improve existing processes.

Their focus is on ease of development with APIs and existing “smart execution tools”. Big corporates and startups benefit from seamless integration in existing systems and short development cycles. It is possible to build MVPs within a week on their platform.

They offer the option for companies to pay the transaction fees for the user interaction by utilizing one of the native smart execution tools: “pull transactions”. Adoption will be difficult if the user has to buy any tokens before he can have the first interaction with the company.

Their approach is to have the business logic in datacenters and the execution on chain through multisig contracts and wallets. NEM has a public blockchain and a private blockchain which offer the same built-in tools that should be enough for 80% of all use cases. If a given company needs even more plugins, they can use the private chain for a usage fee. If they build them under an open source license they can use the platform for free — and tools could even be integrated into the public chain.

The Oracle Problem

Another recurring theme throughout the day was the oracle problem. An oracle fulfils the function of bringing real world data into the blockchain reliably. There will always be a certain cost associated, because there needs to be an incentive to act honest. The incentive to act honestly must be greater than the potential upsides for a given party to submitting malicious data. There are different approaches to solve the problem, but it will most definitely be associated with a cost.

Handing the stage over to the fellows

After a short presentation of all participants, deep dives in the
format of a “world café” format were run. Each participant was sitting at a table or “cafe”, the rest of the group split up and went to go “speed dating” the fellows. This way the participants had the chance to get input from all the people present, ask their questions and get feedback on their ideas.

Nathan being a “table captain”. Thomas Euler, one of the Untitled-Inc Co-founders on the right.

For most of them defining their topic was the main goal. Often times they were advised to focus on one of the aspects they had considered and go into depth with this one, instead of covering a wide range and therefore only providing a high level overview.

There was a number of great topics, but one that especially caught my attention was a thesis on “Innovation within the Blockchain Ecosystem” by Nika London and Daniel Berwik.

A Blockchain Innovation Index

Graphic created by Nika London, Source: Diaconu, M., (2011). Technological Innovation: Concept, Process, Typology and Implications in the Economy. Theoretical and Applied Economics, 18(10), pp. 127–144.

Textbooks define technical innovation as a composite of three ingredients: Research & Development, Implementation and Diffusion. R&D is measured (mostly) by the allocated budget, implementation by the actual output produced and diffusion by the adoption of the output.

Nika wants to create a framework that translates those concepts into cryptolingo. This is hard to do but would provide quite a lot of value. Since a lot of the projects out there are open source, R&D is hard to come by from a budget perspective but maybe rather through GitHub metrics and community activity on the appropriate platforms. The same goes for implementation. Diffusion could be measured by a set of different metrics like on-chain transactions, listing in multicurrency wallets and listings on exchanges. I will stay in touch and maybe do an article summarising his findings once he publishes.

With a panel on trends and research in Blockchain & DLT this day full of content was wrapped up. Untitled Inc’s Daniel Pichler moderated the session with Brickblocks Mark Lasia, Robin Matzke of Humbolth University and Dr. Oliver Krause , co-founder of Untitled Inc. The discussion identified governance of protocols to assure long term success as one key topic. The second theme in the discussion was asset tokenization where creating a framework of regulation i.e. rights associated with the asset tokens was identified as the main hurdle to be overcome.

Final Thoughts

If you consider doing a thesis within the blockchain sphere I would highly recommend looking out for the next edition of the BRA. A lot of valuable insights were gained by all the participants. The format really did what it set out to do: help people create great publications, connecting the blockchain ecosystem, academia and business!

I would also encourage businesses looking into the technology to get into contact with the Untitled-Inc Distributed Economy Think Tank and Ventures. They are doing a great job and have highly competent people in their organisation.

Thank you guys again for having me. I hope I was able to help out a bit with ideas, insights and some contacts. I myself definitely learned a lot and would love to attend the next iteration of the Blockchain Research Accelerator!

Barbecue boat tour to finish the day, always a good idea. Me being center front, black cap.