Held on 20th April at Draper University’s San Mateo headquarters, the FinTech Connection Forum succeeded at illustrating how bitcoin may be best considered a niche subject of curiosity in the wider financial world.
Featuring speakers as diverse as Citi Ventures’ Arvind Purushotham and CBW Bank’s Suresh Ramamurthi, the FinTech Connection provided a day-long forum for discussions on the broader opportunity that could be unlocked by disrupting the financial industry, noting at times how bitcoin and blockchain technology could play a part in this societal shift.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic about the technology was Tim Draper himself, who participates in the industry as one of its most active evangelists and investors, having invested in more than 20 companies and purchased nearly 30,000 BTC at auction.
In his opening speech, Draper was effusive in his praise for bitcoin the digital currency as well as its underlying distributed ledger, the blockchain, noting the ability to change how money moves and contracts are formed.
Draper told the audience:
“There are some laggard industries that are really big and one of them is finance. Finance could easily be as transformed as the music industry when Napster came. I think it’s these companies and others that are going to make that happen.”
Draper went on to inform the audience he had recently completed six all-bitcoin funding rounds for startups including BlinkTrade, ChainPerks, MeGO, Leetcoin, Plus Go and SFX.io.
“We funded each one with bitcoin or stock and that transaction is going into the blockchain,” he added.
Elsewhere, the subject of cryptocurrency appeared, albeit briefly, in talks given by Foundation Capital general partner Charles Moldow and CBW’s Ramamurthi.
The task of presenting a more concentrated conversation on the challenges and opportunities in the digital currency industry fell to Boost VC CEO Adam Draper, BlockCypher CEO Catheryne Nicholson and Yanni Giannaros, COO of SnapCard.
Together, the group presented a somewhat unorganized overview of developments in the bitcoin industry, sometimes struggling to impart the intricacies of a nuanced topic to an audience comprised of members perhaps hearing about the subject in detail for the first time.
In the face of the challenge, Draper did his best to keep the subject light, with the former talking about his preference for referring to the coming change in the financial system as one that will amount to a “bitcoin tsunami”.
“I’m seeing all the smartest minds I know working on bitcoin companies. All that brain power is going somewhere. I don’t know when that hits the surface, and I don’t know when that hits, but it will be an explosion,” he said.
The conversation did successfully identify some of the challenges facing the ecosystem, such as the lack of specific use cases for the technology, the elaborate consensus process by which changes are made to bitcoin’s core protocol and its issues competing against traditional payment methods in the developing world.
“What does bitcoin do better than cash? Sending money across borders, microtransactions, being able to send small amounts of money, and a store of value,” Draper said. “You don’t want to think about the US.”
In contrast, the panel was more confident of bitcoin’s ability to excel for machine-to-machine payments and in the developing world, areas where users may be willing to overcome the interface complexities of today.
“Explaining TCP/IP is difficult, but showing that you can send a message to anyone in the world is easy,” Draper concluded.
Overall, the panel succeeded at sparking debate, with reactions to its content proving varied.
Entrepreneur in residence at Draper University Ed Kaim suggested that bitcoin still faces a consumer adoption issue, as evidenced by the virtual currency panel, making the case that such an argument helped frame the topic realistically for attendees.
“Events like this validate the fair points that need to be considered when you’re looking to venture into this industry,” Kaim said. “I think you have a good perspective on this on what can be done legally and how to face consumers.”
Elsewhere, LibraTax interim CFO Melissa Craig suggested that the event was evidence of how innovators in Silicon Valley are struggling to communicate their message of innovation to the wider financial world.
Craig hinted at a cultural divide between the established financial epicenters on the East Coast and areas like Silicon Valley, a division that is affecting the industry more broadly.
“Accelerators bring together financial instiutions and innovators in financial technology, these two groups are talking past each other. The innovators from Silicon Valley have so much to offer, but banks do have licenses, which startups don’t have. They are still trusted holders of peoples money,” she said, adding:
“They have a couple things going for them that technology and enthusiasm are not going to overcome in the short term.
Middle America’s challenge
This need for bitcoin to form an underlying portion of a new financial system was expressed in Ramamurthi’s talk, which humorously detailed his personal journey from being an Indian immigrant to purchasing a rural Kansas bank. CBW inked a deal last fall with Ripple Labs to use its distributed payments protocol .
“Buying a bank is not fun,” Ramamurthi said, a point he stressed by detailing the government oversight and technological inefficiencies that slowed his progress at bringing the bank into the 21st century.
“We launched mobile check deposit, none of the customers cared. They wanted to come to the bank and gossip about who ran off with who. Most banks can’t get an API, it’s not possible,” he quipped.
The problem with banking, he stressed, is one of plumbing. He suggested that banks need real-time analytics engines based on technology that can scale, a transition in which he expects cryptocurrency to play an integral role.
“The most basic unit of a smartphone account is a bitcoin wallet,” he said, pointing to a slide that detailed the “complex animal” that banking could become if built on its strong foundation.
While intriguing, Ramamurthi was unfortunately unable to elaborate much on the point, as his talk quickly ended due to time constraints.
Entrepreneurs on the fence
Though Ramamurthi sees promise in blockchain technologies, other FinTech entrepreneurs seemed the most hesitant to embrace bitcoin.
Attendee and software engineer Vincent Phillips reported that he is in the process of launching a FinTech company, but that bitcoin is unlikely to play a role in its development today due to what he perceived as its inability to solve pressing problems.
“Someday perhaps bitcoin will play a role, but I probably wouldn’t spent a lot of time on it. I don’t think it could be exploited in the way we need to today, but it’s further along than I thought,” he commented.
Justin Abbott Chalew, CTO of Breeze, a startup creating an RFID payments solution for gas purchases, echoed similar concerns. Though he reported being interested in seeing developments, he said that it’s unlikely consumers would pay for gas with bitcoin.
“The argument is for the rails, but on my side, consumers buy gas and consumers are paying for it. They have credit cards, checking accounts, there’s no way we could accept bitcoin,” he said, adding that Breeze uses ACH payments to keep its costs low.
Paul Spiller, COO at investment app Acorns, called bitcoin “as interesting and intriguing as it was a year ago”.
Spiller went on to note the difficulty he saw in explaining what he believes is a solution for the developing world to an audience of FinTech VCs, stating:
“If you’re in a room full of VCs here, it’s not top of mind, it’s not solving a pain point they have.”
Images via Pete Rizzo for CoinDesk