Jeremy Silver – Blockchain and entrepreneurship

The CEO of the Digital Catapult and an entrepreneur specialising in digital media, big data, music and the creative industries talked about blockchain technology and enterpreneurship.

Digital Catapult aims to help drive the development of the British economy through encouraging digital innovation and culture by supporting initiatives like Mattereum. He wrote a discussion paper called Blockchain or Chaingang, published by CREATe at the University of Glasgow where he is an industry fellow. During his talk he touched on the work that his team is doing within the blockchain ecosystem, while also announcing that Mattereum’s cofounder, Vinay Gupta, would be the new blockchain fellow at Digital Catapult. The appointment is a demonstration of the government’s efforts to show how the development of Blockchain technology is helping companies and individuals.


Morning everyone! My name is Jeremy Silver, I’m the CEO of the Digital Catapult. It’s a real pleasure to be speaking at this event, and I’m even more amazed that some of you have been doing this for the last three days, this is your fourth day of doing this! Which is… Well, it provokes a number of comments, like “Get a life,” for example… [laughter] But no, actually I’m hugely impressed.

One of the reasons why we asked Imogen to make the presentation that she did is because as the Digital Catapult we’re really interested in both the technology solutions and the ideas that are coming out of all the conversations that are going on around us, the emerging technologies and the blockchain and the conversations that you’ve been having over the last three days, but also the vision of where that gets applied in the real world. What we don’t want, and what we’re all too familiar with I think, is technology that comes along and says, “Hey, we’re a great solution! Now, what’s the problem?” We know that there are lots and lots of different and conflicting tensions and different views of the way in which blockchain may come into the world and may be of value. I’ve been very interested in this now for about two and a half years, and roughly around the same time as Imogen first started talking about it I’ve heard about it as well and started following the events that she was holding in various places, bringing the community together to start to address the opportunity and the challenge, and starting to see what’s going on in other parts of the community as well.

The thing that’s quite remarkable is that two and a half years ago we were all talking about Silk Road, we were all talking about Bitcoin and we were talking about hype and the dodgy antecedents and all the rest of it, and in the period since then we now have every multinational in the world thinking about this seriously as a commercial industrial solution for their business; whether it’s Unilever or whether it’s the banking industry or whether it’s the insurance industry or the music industry, people are looking at this stuff seriously in almost every sector. And we know how significant it is, we feel the strength of it, and at the same time we understand what an early stage the whole thing is still at. That’s tremendously exciting but also requires a huge amount of effort, to really take it forward and give it the potential that we know it has. Of course lots of people have got different ideas about what this would actually do and to then change the nature not just of business but of society as a whole. For many of us there is a kind of idealism there that is incredibly attractive, about democratisation and about levelling of the playing field, and that’s quite some way away from where other people look at this and just go, “Wow, this is a really efficient technology, this is going to make me even more successful, even more commercially powerful than I was before,” and somewhere in between those two things is probably, I hope, the way it will all come together.

What I wanted to try and do this morning was in a sense to pick up from what Imogen has been saying and I’d love for us to come back to that, because I’m not going to talk for that long but I’d love for us to now have a bit of a conversation in the room about this. Just to tell you a little bit about what we’ve done so far here at the Digital Catapult, what our work around blockchain has consisted of, and then start to explore with you where it might go from here and what kinds of things we might do going forward that would help fill in the gaps and empower the projects that you’re all thinking about, and the nurturing and the plodding away at in your own world.

Where we started with all of this was a focus that said, “Hang on, financial services don’t need our help, they’re powering down the road.” Obviously that’s where all this stuff comes from and that’s the origins of it all, but we’re really interested in how we could apply all of this technology at least and these ideas into other areas that are outside of the financial services sector, that actually might apply to other sectors, like in our case we’ve thought, “Let’s think about content.” One of the reasons why it’s interesting to think about blockchain in the context of content in particular is because content is purely digital, that it is a purely IP matter. We haven’t got that fundamental challenge that we’ve got in other supply chains or in other sectors, where you’ve got to try and overcome the challenge of fixing a hash some way or a piece of code to a physical thing, because actually what you’ve got is code and code and code. Whether that code happens to be a wonderful piece of music that comes out sounding like a piece of music, or starts off as a piece of code somewhere inside Imogen’s brain, or whether it’s a piece of writing, or whether it’s a game – it doesn’t matter. The point is that in the creative industries, in the content world, so much of the content is purely digital already, and that makes things all come down to one problem.

We started thinking about this and we were talking to some guys at an organisation called the Games Fund. The Games Fund is a public fund that helps small games companies and developers come up with new ideas and helps them nurture their ideas. One of the things that they found when working with early-stage games developers was that quite often games get created quite casually: people start writing a storyline for a game, and then they get their mate in and he does a bit of work on the interaction and a bit of gameplay design, and then somebody else comes in and creates a few characters, maybe does a few textures, then somebody else does a bit of lighting… But actually they’re all freelance, they’re all doing other things, it’s just a bit of a fun thing because nobody knows if it’s going to go anywhere, and they’re all doing other things to actually make a living. But then at some point or other that project actually turns into a real commercial project, someone suddenly goes, “Actually, I’d like that, we’d like to commission that.” That’s where the problems start, because then what happened to all those contributions? Who made all those contributions? How much was that piece worth compared to that contribution? Nothing was established in the beginning, which means that people then have a potential for dispute, before they’ve even really got the project off the ground.

We thought, “Could we use technology, can we use blockchain to simplify that process?” and we’ve created a prototype model. And it’s just that, it’s just a model, but the idea is to find a lightweight, informal solution that nonetheless has the contractual weight behind it that would allow all those different contributions, all those IP contributions to that overall project, to be attributed correctly to the individuals who made them in such a way that there could be no dispute, that it would be immutable, that everyone would know from the get-go that yeah, that was the contribution that people made. Because groups like that are unlikely to want to form a company and go through all the trouble of issuing equity and doing all that kind of thing, and even if you did that, then if you’ve had more than one project, that wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem. So, this looks like a solution, and we’ve tried it, we’ve developed this prototype, we’ve been iterating on it now for about a year and a half or so, worked on it with about 15 new development companies, very excited but mostly quite small, and it seems to be working.

There’s a question about whether the fact that it’s blockchain kind of makes it sexy and therefore people prefer to sign up to it, but if you set that aside, it does seem like a fairly straightforward requisite. The great thing is actually that one of the companies that we worked with had a terrible falling out and the guys all ended up having a real bust-up argument with each other in a way which was quite unfortunate, obviously. But it’s great for us, because it meant that they then went back to the blockchain, to look to see who it was who developed all the different pieces that have been made and what contributions, and we were able to resolve that dispute, which was… proof of concept I think is what you say that is. We’ve been working on that, but that is now something that is beginning to be available, it’s on its way.

So we’ve done that and it looked like something quite useful and seemed to be getting some uptake and seemed to be working for people, and the reason we’ve done it is not because we want to own this or because we want to create some sort of platform that then everybody else signs up to. On the contrary, because what we’ve tried to do is create a model, is to create some code that is open source that other people can build into versions of things that you might be building, or that you could just look at and treat as a blueprint and say, “Okay, that’s the core structure. Let’s use that core structure and we’ll emulate that in what we’re doing.” So the purpose of our doing this, like everything that we do, is to try and help the stuff that you’re doing go faster and get to market more quickly, and speed up your ability to be able to do what you want to do by solving things that are on the side of that or somewhere that helps you get somewhere more quickly.

We started with games, and the reason we chose games was because for all the reasons that I explained in the beginning, that there’s lots of different casual contributors make a game quite complicated. The same can be true of music probably, but sometimes a piece of music is made by one person on their own; in games it’s nearly always a collaborative effort.

What we then thought about is what happens when you’ve got a finished product and you move further up the chain, if you like, the actual process, and you’re now into a place where you’ve got a finished project and you want to license it? Where’s the most difficult place where that happens? Where does that look the most complicated? Well, actually in the games world it isn’t that complicated, because in the games world you can license to the various console platforms and so on and that’s pretty much it, there’s not that many places it can go. Not so in music, as Imogen has just so graphically shown you. There are a gazillion places that you could actually put the music, there are umpteen people who are interested in licensing music: whether it’s used in an ad or used in a film, using it on radio or in a TV show or as part of a game – there are umpteen different places in which music gets used. Sometimes people want to use it as it is, sometimes they want to re-record the whole thing, sometimes they want to take a sample out of it – there are lots and lots of different ways. Not only that, but in every country in the world there are different people who own different parts of the rights to pieces of music. The tree is incredibly complex, the number of variables and permutations are incredibly complicated, hence Imogen’s very graphic explanation of why it’s currently such a limited situation.

So we thought, “Okay, that’s a great place to put some focus,” so for us that’s the next stage onward. We haven’t really started that work, but the work we are planning to do there is going to be a little bit different to the way we’ve done it up to now, because so far we’ve just had a development team internally talking to a few people outside and developing this little prototype. The next stage is really a bit more of a reflection of where things are in the marketplace, which is that there are a lot of different people trying to attack similar parts of these problems, or different parts of problems from similar points of view, and there are a thousand flowers blooming. On one level that’s a brilliant thing, and I think right now for where we are at this moment it’s great that we’ve got that level of energy, of enthusiasm, of difference of perspective, of people trying things on different currency platforms or coming at different parts of the problem, and what we’re interested to try and do is to see what role can we play to pull some of that together or to give some coherence to that. I don’t know exactly what the answer to that is, but that’s the next stage, and in a sense one of the questions I’d love you to help us answer this morning is what might be most useful in terms of going forward as to how we make some of that work.

One of the things we thought we’d do to help answer that question of course was to get Vinay involved. As some of you probably know, we appointed Vinay… He has just been appointed – he’s still fresh, he’s still in his honeymoon period – as a Blockchain Fellow to the Digital Catapult. [applause] It’s only the second one of these that we’ve done, and everyone around here has been going, “What is a Blockchain Fellow, and what sort of other fellows have you got?” We have got an Immersive Fellow as well here, he’s a VR and AR sort of guy, and we’re thinking about some other ones. We have to work out… The word “fellow” doesn’t automatically mean a man by the way, that’s another conversation. But the point of appointing Vinay to this role was really to galvanize the conversation, and today and the last three days has been a brilliant kick-off to galvanizing that conversation and making that conversation happen, and we think that that’s the way things should go going forward. What we want to do is provide a platform, be the place where as many of you as you want to can come and contribute and participate in a conversation that goes on, and it’s a global conversation effectively, that starts to build on this work and starts to really produce real-world solutions for businesses, for companies, for organisations and for societies, and we think that there is an enormous collective opportunity.

Obviously it’s a broad church and lots of people think about this in lots of different ways. We don’t want to be the ones trying to lay down the rules about this, we don’t want to make laws about it or even suggest that one particular solution is better than another, we think that there is going to be quite some time when we’re going to be in a very plural environment and that that’s healthy. Whether you end up thinking that the permissions world and the permissionless world will somewhere meet around the back of whatever it is that they’re around the edges of at the moment… I don’t know, none of us knows that, and in a way I don’t think it’s for us to prescript it, but what we do want to be is an enabling environment in which the energies and the focus and the connectivity that we engender is the thing that we add, with a relatively small but pretty talented group of developers who sit in the middle and hopefully help fill in some of the gaps.

We’ve got a few other people in the room. Marcus O’Dair, he is one of our researchers and residents, so the other thing we do is we bring academia into the commercial world. Marcus is from Middlesex University, and he’s here working on blockchain and music, which is a good thing. We’re also working with a company called Blocker who we’ve done a collaboration with with Innovate UK, so there’s a bit of money on the table and it’s helping those guys. This is an open invitation to collaborate; it is not a closed shop by any stretch of the imagination. We’re also occasionally hosting Sweetbridge as well. Now, they don’t work in the music space yet, but you never know who might down the road do what in these things. [laughter] They might have thought they were coming here to do hardcore food value chain stuff, but actually music has lots of interesting dimensions to it.

So, that’s what we’re about from an organisational point of view. We’ve got a year ahead of us, and Vinay as an Immersive Fellow… No, as a Blockchain Fellow… He could be an Immersive Fellow as well. One of the things that’s very interesting about the way we approach stuff here is we tend to think about technologies as enabling technologies, technologies are things that help other stuff happen. They’re not things in their own right; they’re things that make businesses grow, they’re things that make opportunities happen. We kind of segment them into different layers, and blockchain kind of lives in this data layer that we have. We have another layer which is kind of AI, and apparently we think those two layers are different from one another, but of course the wonderful thing about this world is that once you start to go in deeply into these things, you start looking at the applications of things, what you discover is the connections. Another of our colleagues is Anat Elhalal. Anat is our Lead Technologist for AI and has taken a great interest in blockchain as well. Again, those connections between these different areas of technology I think are going to be something that again we’re going to want to pursue, because the opportunities in this space are so stimulating.