Leaders Series: Masha McConaghy @ BigchainDB

Issue 23— March 27th, 2017

This series highlights the unique stories of leaders from various communities across the growing digital currency and blockchain technology industry. The goal is to showcase the fantastic work these leaders are all doing at different levels of their respective organizations, and to encourage more people at all stages of their careers join the revolution we’re creating, together!

Image credit: THE ARTS+ // Stefan Stark

Masha McConaghy is co-founder and CMO at BigchainDB

She’s been involved with bitcoin and blockchain technology for the last 3 years.

What did you do before you started BigchainDB?

I come from the art world. I trained as a museum curator at the Louvre School in Paris, and did my PhD in Art and Science of Art at Sorbonne, where I examined the relation between art and commerce. I worked with contemporary artists, curated exhibitions, ran a gallery, and helped curate alongside curators at renowned museums including the Louvre.

During these times, I saw many artists use digital tools to create their works. Yet, very few collectors would dare to buy them. Given that we live in a digital era, this contradiction fascinated me, so I investigated further. From many conversations with collectors, I discovered that they don’t know how to collect an art object when that object is a file. It has different properties than physical paintings: it that can be copied easily with no loss of quality and spread on the internet in seconds.

In contrast, traditional physical art works are based on scarcity. Digital destroys scarcity of the artifact. Despite this, the young artists were embracing digital: they use digital tools (video, 3D printing, animation, sound art)and want their work to be seen by as many people as possible on the internet. But how do they pay the bills if the collectors don’t understand how to collect their art?

In mid 2013, I was visiting with my husband Trent, who’s a technologist and was closely following Bitcoin. I had been asking the question : how do you collect digital art? Then we realized : what if you could own digital art the way you own Bitcoin? We pursued this idea, which ultimately became ascribe, targeted for intellectual property (IP) on the blockchain.

Blockchain provided the security of the title and transparency into who has which rights to the “file”. At the same time, there could be thousands of copies of the file on the internet.

We made digital art be the initial focus, because we understood that community and its specific pain point — which we could solve. ascribe was one of the first blockchain applications, and probably the very first blockchain IP company.

From the beginning, we ran into issues of scale, which led us to building a scalable blockchain database, BigchainDB, treating ascribe as the very first customer while serving other blockchain projects that were encountering similar scale issues.

What’s been the most interesting experience you’ve had in your role so far?

It has been a life-changing experience, to come from the art world into co-founding a high tech company; every day is a new adventure and the pace is much faster. For example, I was very used to two hour conversations with artists; to enjoy the ambience of the room, share experiences, and discuss artistic practices. In the tech world, conversations are extremely short. I now have thirty minute Skype calls. And the meeting always closes with “what are next steps?” There’s certainly value in knowing how to best prioritize your time to stay efficient.

In day-to-day like, I really like:

  • Talking to non-technical people, to connect use cases to technology. Finding how technology can solve a very specific, real problem for the end users is very rewarding.
  • Helping to educate — it seems that few people understand the potential of blockchain technology; many consider it a buzzword, and don’t yet grasp the benefit for them as individuals. So when you give a very specific example of an application that gives real benefit, people get it immediately. We need more real use case applications like that, for people to understand the value of the technology.

ascribe has served us very well as a such an example for education. And of course we know it intimately, since it’s where we started our blockchain journey.

What problem is BigchainDB solving? Why do you feel passionate about this?

In working on ascribe, we gained a deeper understanding of the space of IP and the problems of creators. We realized that the Bitcoin blockchain was not well suited to our application’s needs. While Bitcoin offered more than enough from a security perspective, it did not have the scale or queryability to meet ascribe’s trajectory. For example, a single IP marketplace might need 100,000 separate transactions per day; and of course we wanted to serve hundreds of such marketplaces.

This level is infeasible in the Bitcoin blockchain for reasons of throughput as well as cost. This led us to build BigchainDB, a blockchain database software, along with a public deployment its public network, IPDB. Scale and queryability — at the levels of big data databases — were key targets from day one.

We see BigchainDB and IPDB as a foundation for storing structured data, which can sit alongside other decentralized building blocks such as file systems, processing (smart contracts), and electronic gold or cash. I love that technology transcends beyond the art world to help users from other industries. Like traditional databases, it can be deployed across many verticals, like healthcare, education, energy, IoT, supply chain, and others. This is already happening with startups and enterprises alike, such as RWE, Resonate, Authenteq and BenBen. These are exciting times!

As you think about the evolution of the bitcoin and blockchain space, what is one thing you think the business ecosystem or community is missing today?

Here are a few points:

First, we prefer to avoid the hype around blockchain buzz, and instead focus on real-world problems that this technology can help to address. Blockchain technology has the potential to unlock great value for society: deployed thoughtfully, it can shift power structures from single-entity control to a more collaborative approach.

Second, it is about how we create that value for end users. It is important to build applications that benefit the end users and us as society by using technology as a tool, rather than building applications while using technology for technology’s sake. There is similarity with the art world here. Just because Photoshop can create a cool feature, it is not necessarily a well-considered artwork. Photoshop is a tool to create artwork. For me, the artwork needs to contribute to the overall meaningful conversation. To so it needs to use the appropriate tools. Same here with using blockchain technology: one needs to identify what might create value to the target audience.

Next, awareness and education is also a space to develop. When I talk to people that are not comfortable with technology and explain blockchain technology’s societal benefits to them, they are extremely interested and get it right away. However, it still seems like the blockchain space is kind of like elitist club that only accessible to few “privileged” ones. This will change as we see more non-financial applications getting built, especially ones that directly touch consumers, such as for personal data or for or music.

Finally, interoperability. There are so many blockchains out there and each of them is serving a certain pain point, however few people understand it. Those blockchains should be interoperable, otherwise we are creating new silos of decentralized data, which of course is an oxymoron. This is why I believe in collaboration and community. We participate in many community initiatives like Interledger, COALA, and Open Music Initiative.

What changes do you think blockchain technology and decentralized applications will accelerate in our world?

The internet transformed our lives by decentralizing the access and flow of information and now we are in the next phase with blockchain technology. Bitcoin inspired many people in various ways and blockchain took inspirations even further. Having decentralized registries that no single entity controls, where the records are immutable and you can transfer assets — this has revolutionary benefits.

Years ago as we were conceiving of ascribe, we dreamed of museums of the world working together, sharing a database of digital and digitized works to collectively store the world’s cultural heritage. The baseline is a means for decentralized archival of the works themselves therefore solving the problem of digital archiving into the future. But going beyond, it would directly store attribution and licensing information; and help connect audiences to the content providers. BigchainDB and IPDB help the community to realize this dream. But now, it’s not just for museums, but for the internet and society at large. This is a unique opportunity in history to help rewire the internet for the good of the cultural commons.

Connect with Masha on LinkedIn!