Blockchain exuberance: Startups rush in

The hype around Bitcoin and blockchain technology has reached fever pitch. Last Sunday night, John Oliver dedicated 25 minutes to explaining the technology to his viewers before warning them that investing in cryptocurrencies was more like gambling than traditional investment.

This is sound advice for anyone thinking about pouring their life savings into cryptocurrencies. Whatever utility any specific cryptocurrency might have today, not all of the 1,500 cryptocurrencies that exist will survive. The underlying blockchain technology is a different story, and startups are already racing to figure out innovative uses of the open-source tech.

The Wall Street Journal recently offered an explanation for why blockchain tech is here to stay, even if Bitcoin stops being useful. The main point, for the uninitiated, is that blockchain offers people a secure, unalterable ledger of transactions. This is ideal for cryptocurrencies, as it eliminates the possibility of double spending, but it can be applied to all sorts of things.

Startups aren’t the only ones using the technology. Large companies like Walmart and IBM are already using blockchain to track shipments. A startup industry has already cropped up to help larger players utilize blockchain tech.

Everledger, for example, uses a blockchain registry to track certified diamonds. CartaSense uses a blockchain database to track freight pallets, notifying customers of delays or damage to goods.

Blockchain’s ability to prevent counterfeiting also makes it useful for job seekers. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology started issuing blockchain-based digital diplomas to graduates this year. This allows graduates a way to give employers a digital copy of their diploma that can be verified online. This previously could have been a more time-consuming process if an employer wanted to put in the work to verify a degree with the university in question.

The startup Appii wants to go even further, using blockchain to build resumes. Appii wants to enlist the help of employers and universities to track the advancement of individuals throughout their careers.

Blockchain tech is also proving useful in at least one decentralized internet platform. IPFS (InterPlanetary File System), which gives users a way to distribute content on a peer-to-peer network, is using blockchain to track files. There are other companies working on similar P2P internet concepts, but they’re not all utilizing blockchain. This tech can help eliminate duplicate files on the IPFS network and verify the integrity of a file, ensuring it hasn’t been manipulated.

This kind of system could also be used to trace ownership of a file. This would be useful in the case of copyrighted files. Some companies are already looking for ways to enforce copyright using blockchain. Given the prevalence of unauthorized copying in China, the world’s largest country seems as good a place as any to try out such a scheme.

ZhongAn Technology wants to create a blockchain consisting of hashed information combining identifying information of a user and data unique to a specific purchased file. The real trick would be getting such a scheme to catch on, as there are already ways to embed unique identifying information in digital files.

As in other economies, Chinese companies are not sitting out the blockchain craze. JD.com recently announced a new accelerator program in Beijing that’s starting off by investing in six blockchain startups: CanYa, Bluezelle, Nuggets, Republic Protoco, Devery and Bankorus.

Xiaomi, China’s darling of the startup world that may finally have an IPO this year, has also been paying attention. The company is creating its own blockchain-based game imitating the popular Cryptokitties game called Jiami Tu (essentially CryptoBunnies).

The list goes on, but there are so many companies using blockchain in new and unique ways that trying to compile a full list here doesn’t make sense. The fact is that blockchain has a lot of utility as a foundational technology that has the ability to make existing processes more efficient.

No matter what the evangelists say, blockchain is not a disruptive technology that will usher the world into an era of techno-libertarianism. It’s is still an important technological development, though, and it will impact many areas of the digital economy. Just don’t put everything you have into Bitcoin.

Blockchain is an important enough piece of technology that it’s the focus–along with fintech–of day four of the Startup Launchpad conference on April 14. Click here to learn more about the conference and see the full agenda.

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