5 start-ups blazing a trail in blockchain and digital assets

The World Economic Forum has recognised these five nascent companies as Technology Pioneers in the sector.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has chosen its Technology Pioneers for 2021. The group of 100 start-ups, all in their early to growth-stage, represent the bleeding edge in a number of technological fields.

Those recognised as Technology Pioneers participate in a two-year programme of WEF events and initiatives. This programme forms part of the WEF’s Global Innovators Community, described as “an invitation-only group of the world’s most promising start-ups and scale-ups that are at the forefront of technological and business model innovation”.

Alumni of past Technology Pioneers lists include Google, Twitter, Kickstarter, Mozilla, Spotify, Airbnb and Wikimedia. The programme was launched in 2000.

In the area of blockchain and digital assets, five companies from the UK, US and Zimbabwe were chosen for this year’s list.

Aave

Named after the Finnish word for ghost, Aave is a decentralised financial protocol allowing users to lend and borrow digital assets via the Ethereum network. Stani Kulechov founded the company in London in 2017, aiming to provide a decentralised, “non-custodial” alternative to traditional money markets.

All transactions on Aave are negotiated automatically, meaning users do not need to know each other, and borrowing must be backed up by collateral in the form of a different digital asset. This borrowing can take the form of fixed-rate loans, variable-rate loans that fluctuate according to demand, and “flash loans” which require no collateral but must be repaid in a single transaction.

The protocol is open source, providing transparency and allowing developers to build a variety of tools and applications to interface with Aave. It supports a variety of different digital assets, from Ether to stablecoins such as USD Coin. Additionally, the platform is managed in a decentralised fashion by users; purchasing the AAVE token gives you votes in governance decisions.

Aave has raised more than $49m in funding to date, and hosts a constantly growing lending market currently worth more than $16bn.

Adhara

Established by Julio Faura, Edward Budd and Peter Munnings in 2018, Adhara builds blockchain-based software for banks and central banks. In particular, the company focuses on central bank digital currency management, foreign exchange and payment systems.

Though based in the UK, Adhara evolved out of Consensys’ South African division and received $15m in seed money from its progenitor. All three founders have backgrounds in banking: Faura was head of blockchain for Santander, Budd served as chief digital officer at Deutsche Bank, and Munnings was FirstRand’s blockchain lead. The company has done extensive work with South Africa’s central bank.

Adhara’s suite features two key tools. LiquidityHub T.0 allows banks and groups of banks to manage their liquid assets by representing them as digital tokens which can easily be moved around between subsidiaries. PayHub T.0 simplifies and speeds up international transactions by using “digital payment objects” to easily work across borders and currencies.

Evernym

Utah-based Evernym was set up in 2013 by Jason Law and Timothy Ruff, aiming to “solve the digital identity crisis”. The company uses blockchain for online credential management systems, adopting a decentralised approach that aims to maintain individuals’ control over their online selves, called “self-sovereign identity”.

In 2016, the company set up a public ledger system called the Sovrin Network, based on its own open-source Hyperledger Indy codebase. The hope is that making Hyperledger Indy freely available will increase the adoption and interoperability of similar self-sovereign systems across the web.

Evernym is also working with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to develop an internet-wide standard for identification systems that don’t rely on central registries, called Decentralized Identifiers. The project has received funding from the US Department of Homeland Security, and may soon result in an official W3C recommendation.

Evernym also developed the software behind the International Air Transport Association’s Travel Pass, which allows air travellers to prove their Covid-19 vaccination and test status. The pass is currently being trialled by more than three dozen major international airlines.

FlexFinTx

FlexFinTx was founded in 2018 with the aim of “rebuilding identity for millions of Africans”. Currently, more than 400m people on the continent lack access to any means of identification, either traditional or digital. This Harare-based start-up, brainchild of Victor Mapunga and Haardik Haardik, aims to change that.

The Flex Network is built on the Algorand blockchain but, importantly, uses a WhatsApp chatbot as its primary UI. Users can generate digital identification in just a few text messages. This ID can then be used to register for services such as bank accounts, healthcare, employee contracts or insurance, even when internet access isn’t available.

In February 2020, the company became the first African member of the Decentralised Identity Foundation, joining names such as Microsoft, Accenture, Sovrin and Consensys in defining interoperable standards for self-sovereign identity. FlexFinTx says that its compliance with these international standards allows IDs generated on the company’s system to be used anywhere in the world.

Parity Technologies

London-based Parity Technologies describes itself as a “core blockchain infrastructure company”. The company was founded in 2015 by a team of self-described blockchain pioneers, most of whom migrated from Ethereum. CEO Jutta Steiner was Ethereum’s original head of security, while lead developer Gavin Wood was CTO and co-founder there. Kenneth Kappler and Aeron Buchan are also Ethereum alumni, with Björn Wagner completing the team.

Parity’s foundational technology is Substrate, a framework designed to simplify and streamline the process of building new blockchains. The company claims the tool is being used by more than 130 development teams across a range of applications, from digital wallets to the internet of things.

Parity themselves used Substrate to develop Polkadot, a “meta-protocol” which facilitates the transfer of information and tokens between individual, independent blockchains. “For instance, a school’s private, permissioned academic records chain could send a proof to a degree-verification smart contract on a public chain,” says the company.

The vision for Polkadot, according to Parity, is not just as a tool for blockchain developers, but as something that will fundamentally reshape the kind of secure, decentralised applications it’s possible to create. The company has lofty visions of a world free from “its reliance on a broken web” and where “large institutions can’t violate our trust”.

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