While the cryptocurrency craze last year brought more consumer attention to blockchain technology, the future of this movement will be in the enterprise. Blockchain’s true potential is its ability to replace the archaic and centralized infrastructure that powers everything from payments to land registries with digital-first, decentralized, and trusted networks of data.
Skepticism, though, abounds. Jamie Dimon, CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase, has called bitcoin a “fraud,” only to walk back those comments later. He has more recently said that blockchain is “real”. The challenge of course is it is exactly people like Dimon who ultimately control the destiny of blockchain in the enterprise. Without leadership from the top, few CIOs and other buyers are willing to consider such a wildly disruptive new technology.
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That has been the experience of Manifold Technology founder and CEO Chris Finan and his co-founder Robert Seger. The two have an intelligence background, with Finan working at DARPA and Defense more broadly and Seger working at the NSA. Seger would go on to become CTO of Morta Security, which was acquired by Palo Alto Networks, while Finan became director of cybersecurity legislation for the White House before heading to the Valley and working at Impermium, a cybersecurity startup acquired by Google.
Taking advantage of their backgrounds, they got together in 2014 to try to connect blockchain into the enterprise. “We wanted to be the Cisco of enterprise blockchain providers,” Finan explained to me. “We were looking at what we can do to leverage cryptography to build the picks and shovels.”
Over the next few years, they built out a distributed ledger technology built on top of Amazon Lambda. The idea was that serverless technology like Lambda could offer quick scalability to a blockchain from day one, without requiring the kinds of decentralized technology adoption seen in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. “In that way, we try to let Amazon handle this scalability for us,” Finan explained.
There was just one problem: enterprise hasn’t gotten on the blockchain bandwagon yet. “They don’t want to buy a blockchain, they want to flip a switch and have it,” Finan said. He didn’t see institutions looking to migrate their infrastructure to a blockchain model, and “we found ourselves to be an engine manufacturer in a sector that wasn’t buying many engines.“ Even worse, “you definitely see VC interest in the enterprise infrastructure market definitely waning” when it comes to blockchain.
Stymied by the enterprise market, the team started investigating whether it could build consumer applications on top of its infrastructure. What they came up with is Volley, a blockchain-backed augmented reality marketplace to buy and sell goods, which is currently in beta and available in the Apple App Store. This new direction connected with investor appetites, and the company raised a $ 7 million series A from MalibuIQ, Westlake, and other investors.
The idea of Volley is that current online marketplaces for goods are filled with scams and other security issues. To improve trust and safety issues, Manifold has built a reputation system for buyers and sellers so that transactions are decentralized, but trusted. “We wanted to make it very expensive to make a fake account,” Finan said.
Using augmented reality, the app allows users to explore their world and see things for sale. The hope is that at scale, the app would show users hundreds of things all around them that they might purchase, from the backpack of the person in front of them to a car parked on the street. Right now, the technology only works with iOS and the ARKit library, with the company hoping to launch an Android version shortly.
Finan believes that a consumer marketplace is a near-perfect application of blockchain. “There has to be some sort of need for independent trust guarantees,” he said, which requires that a marketplace be filled with people who don’t trade often with each other and has goods that are not trivially cheap to replace if fraud were to occur. In addition, he believes you have to have “auditability” as well as high throughput for blockchain to make sense.
It’s easy to be cynical about two cybersecurity veterans diving into the consumer world. While Volley has to prove itself as a potential consumer winner, to me what makes the investment here more interesting is that there are two ways to win. Volley itself could become an interesting consumer play, or Volley might help to prove out Manifold’s serverless blockchain technology, which could find renewed adoption in the enterprise in the future. It’s the sort of hedged bet that investors are making in the blockchain space, as we await the further maturation of this brand new market.