Over the past two weeks there have been a number of news stories related to R3 — a fintech startup that I now work at. The first of which was from the Financial Times, entitled Blockchain initiative backed by nine large investment banks. Today we announced an additional 13 banks have joined our effort.
Although I cannot speak for the whole team, I can give you the vision I have with the aim of bringing clarity to the various bits of information that have been circulating.
Over the past year, the R3 team has spent copious amounts of time conducting due diligence on the greater “distributed ledger” or “shared ledger” space. I joined as an advisor in January when they were already knee deep in the task; I am now Director of Market Research.
What I and several others on the team found is that while there were a number of orthogonally useful pieces floating around (such as multisig and ideas like Engima), none of the publicly available technology platforms that has been funded by venture capital provided a flexible, holistic base layer with the specific functional requirements for secure, scalable enterprise use.
This includes incorporating non-functionals that globally regulated financial institutions must adhere to such as: compliance, privacy, reporting and reconciliation. Similarly, many of the venture funded projects also failed to address the business requirements of these same institutions.
In sportsball terms, the nascent industry is 0-for-2 in their current approach.
Some of that is understandable; for example, Bitcoin solves a set of problems for a niche group of individuals operating under certain security assumptions (e.g., cypherpunks not wanting to interface with banks or governments). Regulated financial institutions do not operate under those assumptions, thus axiomatically Bitcoin in its current form is highly unlikely to be a solution to their problems at this time. As a consequence, the technology solutions pitched by many of these startups are hammers looking for nails that do not exist in the off-chain world.
R3 is not a Bitcoin company nor a cryptocurrency company. We are not seeking to build a “better” or even a different type of virtual currency. Why not? Instead of starting with a known solution, such as a spreadsheet, we are starting with the problem set which continually influences the customized solution. This is one of the biggest reasons I was attracted to this specific effort: R3 is not a re-enactment of Field of Dreams. Build it with the hopes that someone will come is the siren song, the motto even, for throngs of failed startups.
But weren’t the original shared ledgers — often called blockchains — robust enough to protect all types of assets and a legion of use-cases?
Many public ledgers were originally designed to secure endogenous, on-chain information (e.g., the native token) but in their current incarnations are not fit for purpose to handle off-chain titles. For instance, Bitcoin was not initially designed to secure exogenous data — such as transmitting high-value off-chain securities — vis-a-vis pseudonymous miners. And it appears all attempts to mutate Bitcoin itself into a system that does, ends up creating a less secure and very expensive P-o-P network.
What are we doing then?
Rather than try to graft and gerrymander our business requirements onto solutions designed for other problems, we are systematically looking at a cornucopia of challenges and cost-drivers that currently exist at financial institutions. We will seek to address some of these drivers with a generalized agnostic fabric, with layers that fulfill the critical infrastructure specifications of large enterprises and with services that can be run on top in a compliant fashion.
What is a Global Fabric for Finance (G3F) then? If you had the chance to build a new financial information network from scratch that incorporated some of the elements and learnings of the shared ledger world, what would it look like?
For starters, a fabric specifically built for and by trusted parties does not need something akin to mining or block rewards. In fact, not only is there is no Sybil spoofing problem on a trusted network but there are already many known, existing methods for securely maintaining a transaction processing system. Consequently, needing a block reward may (or may not) be a red herring and has likely been a costly, distracting sideshow to other types of utility that this technology represents.
If trust is not an issue, what use (as Arvind Narayanan and certain high profile enthusiasts have asked) is any part of the shared ledger toolkit? There are a number of uses, many of which I touched on in a paper back in April.
What about specific use-cases?
While a number of ideas that have surfaced at conferences and media events over the past summer, R3 remains focused on an approach of exploration and ideation.
And while there will likely be some isolated tests on some use-case(s) in sand boxes in the coming year, it is important to reflect on the G3F vision which will be further elaborated on by Richard Brown (our head of technology) in the coming weeks. If the fabric is only capable of handling one or two specific asset classes, it will fall short of the mandate of being a generalized fabric used to secure financial information for enterprises.
Why directly work with banks during this formative stage? Why not just raise money and start building and shipping code?
To be frank, if financial institutions and regulatory bodies are not involved and engaged from the beginning, then whatever fabric created will likely: 1) fail to be viewed as an authoritative and legal record of truth and 2) fall short of adequately address their exacting needs. It would be a non-starter for a financial institution to use technology that is neither secure, or whose on-chain record is considered non-canonical by off-chain authorities.
What does that mean?
While some in the shared ledger community would like to believe that dry, on-chain code supersedes off-chain wet-code, the facts on the ground continue to contradict that thesis. Therefore, if you are going to create a non-stealth fintech startup, it must be assumed that whatever products and services you create will need to operate under existing laws. Otherwise you will spend most of your time hiding out in remote Caribbean islands or Thailand.
The R3 team is comprised of pragmatic thinkers and doers, experienced professionals who understand that a financial system cannot be built with up and down votes on reddit or whose transaction processors may reside in sanctioned countries.
While nothing is finalized at the time of this writing, it is our aim at R3 to make the underlying base layer of this fabric both open sourced and an open standard.
After all, a foundation layer this critical would benefit from the collective eyeballs of the entire programming community. It also bears mentioning that the root layer may or may not even be a chain of hashed blocks.
Furthermore, we are very cognizant of the fact that the graveyard for building industry standards is deep and wide. Yet, as I mentioned to IBT, failing to create a universal standard will likely result in additional Balkanization, recreating the same silos that exist today and nullifying the core utility of a shared ledger.
It is a pretty exciting time in modern history, where being a nerd — even a cryptonerd — means you are asked to appear on stage in front of decision makers, policy makers, captains of industry and social media influencers. Some even get to appear in person and not just as a telepresence robot. Yet as neat as some of the moon math and cryptographic wizardry may be, failing to commercialize it in a sustainable manner could leave many of the innovative forks, libraries and github repos no more than starry-eyed science fair projects.
To that end, we are currently hiring talented developers keen on building a scalable, secure network. In addition, rather than reinventing the wheel, we are also open to partnerships with existing technology providers who may hold key pieces to building a unified standard. I am excited to be part of this mathematical industrial revolution, it’s time to strike while the iron is hot and turn good academic ideas into commercial reality. Feel free to contact us.