“NGRAVE, a global player in the making: ‘Your cryptocurrencies are safe with us’ ,” by De Morgen
NGRAVE’s Appearance in De Morgen’s Edition of December 28, 2019
Read the original Dutch version here.
Translation in English below.
Facebook announced its Libra digital currency in 2019. How will Zuckerberg prevent fraud? What about hackers who plunder accounts? Can we trust that? Three young Belgians develop a technology for a secure virtual wallet.
by FREEK EVERS, 28 December 2019, 9:00 AM
July 2017. Xavier Hendrickx is awakened by a panicky message from a colleague. “Check out our accounts. All our money is gone.” Back then, Hendrickx worked on an innovative project that would demonstrate the true potential of blockchain technology. They had raised ten million dollars in Ethereum. That morning Hendrickx found that 44.000 Ethereum (8 million dollars at the time) had been stolen. Who was behind it is still unclear.
“In my head we made a fourteen-year-old boy who knows how to use a computer very happy.” Today, 29-year-old Hendrickx can laugh about the incident. “The crypto world has always attracted me because there are no rules yet. There are risks associated with that. “
Today, Hendrickx tries to minimize the risks of such incidents. He does this together with Edouard Vanham (27), with whom he had deep-philosophical conversations about crypto and the promise of blockchain back in the days. And with Ruben Merre (31), who has taken on the role of CEO in their company NGRAVE. The latter does not lack ambition. In addition to a LinkedIn profile that is full of postgraduate degrees, Merre takes the time during car drives to also learn Chinese or to delve into cryptographic details. “You never know when that knowledge will come in handy.”
Their philosophy, summarized in three sentences: in the 20th century, power and money have concentrated around a limited number of companies and institutions. Partly thanks to blockchain, the 21st century must write history as the era in which citizens are taking back control. Control of their money, their investments and their personal data.
That may sound idealistic. Note that one of the most powerful companies, Facebook, is already looking to provide an answer to that evolution by creating a virtual coin with about twenty other companies. In 2019, it announced that it wanted to develop a new virtual currency, the Libra. “The internet and digitization have changed the rules everywhere,” said David Marcus, who is responsible for the Libra project on Facebook, “except for money.”
In other words: Facebook and co. realize that not only computer nerds and risk investors will play with virtual coins in the 2020s, but that you and I too will become familiar with them. With that we will be able to effectively buy a coffee, a train subscription or maybe even a house.
According to believers, it is not the virtual currency itself that is so revolutionary, but the technology that supports such currency: blockchain. “This technology makes it possible to issue a virtual currency without the need for a bank,” says blockchain expert Xavier Hendrickx.
Why has that impressive technology not yet conquered the world? Simple, it is still in its infancy. “Not only does it take a lot of computing power and therefore energy to complete a transaction in virtual coins, such a transaction also takes too much time for the same reason,” says Edouard Vanham. “And we have not yet talked about safety.”
In the first nine months of 2019, 4.4 billion dollars (3.9 billion euros) of virtual coins were stolen. According to a report from CipherTrace, an American company that specializes itself in this technology. That is an increase of 150 percent compared to 2018, which was also a record year. Vanham explains why that is. “The philosophy behind blockchain is beautiful. But in practice, we encounter several challenges.” In a system where there is no bank as an intermediary, everyone plays their own bank, and everyone is responsible for their own safety. Whoever owns crypto coins has a “private key”, a unique piece of computer code that only the owner should know, and that gives access to the coins on the linked account.
“At no point in time should that private key be on a device that can connect to the internet,” says Vanham. “As soon as that happens, there is a chance that the crucial piece of information will end up in the hands of hackers. As soon as they get hold of that, they can commit the perfect theft.”
The big problem is that keeping such a private key yourself is extremely cumbersome. “You can write it on a piece of paper and hope that you don’t lose it,” says Vanham. “Or use a dedicated computer that does not connect to the internet. A lot of crypto investors are currently seeking shelter in so-called cryptocurrency exchanges. They are actually new intermediaries who also manage their clients’ private keys. With all the associated risks.” In the summer of 2019, an Irish exchange disappeared overnight. 246,000 people saw their virtual coins go up in smoke.
MONEY UNDER YOUR MATTRESS
According to Edouard Vanham, Xavier Hendrickx and Ruben Merre, managing crypto coins should be as easy as hiding cash in a sock under a pillow, but also be as safe as leaving euros at the bank.
If you surf to the NGRAVE website today, you will find a computer image of a device the size of an iPhone 5: the NGRAVE ZERO. The device works completely offline and cannot connect to the Internet, not via Bluetooth, nor via WiFi or USB. Crypto investors can easily make transactions using QR codes, such as in the Payconiq app, without the threat of the private key being exposed online.
It is not entirely clear yet how much the NGRAVE ZERO will cost. If everything goes according to plan, the pre-sale will start in 2020. The trio wants to appeal in the first place to enthusiastic crypto investors who want to arm themselves against hackers. Hendrickx outlines the situation in his sector: “In addition, many blockchain projects promise a cathedral in a desert. We are building something that can immediately contribute to the adoption of the crypto and blockchain industry.”
Once they have won the trust of those enthusiasts, they see enormous potential for their technology. “Today we only talk about crypto coins, but in the future we will encrypt property rights, shares and personal data on blockchain,” says Merre.
Reports from research agencies such as McKinsey and Deloitte confirm the vision of NGRAVE. By 2027, for € 21 trillion in gold, stocks, bonds, or who knows, home ownership would even be registered on blockchain applications. And we will — if it depends on NGRAVE — all consult and manage them with a successor of the NGRAVE ZERO.
SVEN DE CLEYN ABOUT NGRAVE
“I remember when Ruben, Edouard and Xavier came to introduce themselves,” says Sven De Cleyn, managing director of the start-up accelerator Imec.istart. “It rarely happens that brand new start-ups know so well what they are doing. I don’t want to give the word away too cheaply now, but Ruben behaved like a visionary. In addition, the trio are lucky that they complement each other very well. Xavier is an expert on the technical side, Ruben is the perfect CEO and Edouard brings in a lot of experience from the consultancy world.
“Even when we asked where they would get their resources to develop their product in the future, they pulled up a slide — which I use today in presentations for other start-ups. They realize better than anyone that they first of all need the community of crypto investors to make their project a success. In addition, they work well with Imec’s research center for the development of their electronics. Cosic, the research department of the KU Leuven, specializing in cryptography also helps them. All the technology, know-how and ambition is there to make NGRAVE a global player. ”