“I think in 5 years, particularly in the blockchain space, Berlin will be known as the deep-tech center of the world for this technology” – Co-Founder of BigchainDB, Bruce Pon
BigchainDB Co-Founder Bruce Pon kindly spent some time with us in their new offices in the Silicon Allee Campus to explain why he thinks building data-driven blockchain decentralization technologies are for the betterment of humankind. Coming in with different perspectives about the digital world, forming a trinity of like-minded co-founders, and creating an epic platform where people can chain their data together in one place, Bruce Pon has experienced the full cycle of entrepreneurship in the digital age.
Okay Bruce, tell us the elevator pitch for your company.
We are one of the first blockchain start-ups in the world which focuses on giving people control of their assets whether it’s data and processes or anything relevant to that.
We’re building fundamental infrastructure components; data stores that are decentralized, data sharing that’s decentralized, identity from machines. We’re doing this so you never have another Facebook on Earth
In what year was BigchainDB founded?
We founded officially in 2014 but we started working in 2013.
Who are your founders?
And what was the link that brought you all together to form this company?
So, we had different perspectives on this, Masha was the instigator of this idea. She saw that the digital world doesn’t have scarcity and doesn’t have ownership. She realized that you do have attribution of somebody being able to create a piece of work, but once it was put onto the internet you lost control. She had been working at the Louvre, studied at the Sorbonne and she’d been dealing with the question of ‘how do you make digital property scarce?’
Meanwhile, her husband Trent was researching blockchain in 2013 and realized that because blockchain is a global immutable database, it could have the ability to at least lock in attribution and make it so that if that work spreads you could have unique distinct copies.
Then I came in from the perspective of a global view where if you were able to do this type of service of attributing intellectual property, making it so you could buy and sell that intellectual property globally, that was something that was a general solution for any intellectual property whether it’s for spare part designs, 3D designs, writing, music etc.
I had been previously building banks around the world and I had finished up a set of sessions at MIT, and it was clear to me that with artificial intelligence coming, robotics, automation, there’d be less and less for humans to grasp hold of without the ability to take control of their digital property, and as we worked on that project we realised that there were many problems, it was a nascent industry and we realised that you needed some sort of scalable blockchain database focused on managing data to give people that control – and so that turned into BigchainDB.
Decentralized technology is popular in Berlin; tell us a bit about your competition and why you are better?
We were years ahead of many other projects focused on data-driven blockchain de-centralization technologies. If we can collaborate with them then we will, and the space is, in my mind, still wide open so we’re not particularly concerned or looking over our shoulders because part of the ethos of this space is that all the software is open source, so if a competitor wanted to copy our software and then create a different product, they could! We don’t stop them, and the idea is that what we’re building is something that will help humanity and will figure out a way to build a business model behind this that gives return to the investors.
Very altruistic! Speaking of giving stuff away, what advice would you give to entrepreneurs just starting out in Berlin?
I think back to when we were starting the journey here in Berlin – we were automatically focused on global solutions and global problems — so we weren’t focused on a specific problem in Germany. Also, we went to a bunch of meetups and conferences like Tech Open Air, to get into the scene and try to find other entrepreneurs, but very rapidly what’s clear is that you should talk in as many conferences as possible, and not just attend. So, if you’re attending a conference just to see what you can find, that’s not an efficient use of your time. Once you’ve given a talk, then you have a much stronger basis to connect with people.
That’s some solid advice! So where do you go to hang out to escape from the crazy startup life in Berlin?
Berlin is growing exponentially, especially in the blockchain sector. Where do you see the city 5 years from now? 10 years?
I think Berlin’s growth is good and bad; it’ll be richer, there’ll be a lot more technology-driven innovations and start-ups, and we’re already rising in the ranks for AI machine learning blockchain, we are one of the best blockchain infrastructures in the world as an ecosystem. I think in 5 years, particularly in the blockchain space, Berlin will be known as the deep-tech center of the world for this technology, and that will be impactful in the sense that there will be a lot more people visiting Berlin, but that has good and bad implications. The bad is that it has additional pressures on the housing stock because of the developers coming into Berlin and wanting to live in the center, whereas it also has the ability to be more vibrant and cultivate a wider set of ideas.
What groups and individuals have been the most influential to you during your time as an entrepreneur in Berlin?
I think that the Ethereum community has done an excellent job of building and progressing through chaos and anarchy – and they are kind of the leading developer communities in the world for the decentralization technology, and it shows.
I think the entire movement towards blockchain decentralisation technologies, the initial people in the space, like the first 500 start-ups around the globe were all driven to do these projects because they saw that all the existing power structures, all the legacy stuff plus many of the internet companies that are starting to age such as Facebook and Google, were propagating the centralisation of power, and in the future we have a much more robust ecosystem of start-ups if the core technologies are decentralized and not tied to one specific person or group, and so that for us that is inspiring, how the whole space has been focused on building these technologies hopefully for humanity, and it was less profit driven and more vision and mission driven.
Awesome, so can you name one particular moment that has been pivotal during your time in the business?
When we released BigchainDB in 2016, I had over 200 conversations with enterprises who all wanted to understand blockchain, and since then the world has switched over to understanding our perspective, so we know we are at the very start of this movement, and now there’s a lot more money in this space and the challenge there is to find those teams that are still driven by the vision and the mission.
The stand out pivotal moments was a couple of things – firstly, the price of bitcoin hitting $10,000, that got a lot of people’s attention when that was going on. Secondly, the German project that failed called the DAO, it raised €150mil in one month for funding their project, that was a big eye-opener. And finally, in the summer of 2017, the whole industry raised somewhere in the range of $2bn, seeded a lot of teams for innovation and got hundreds of thousands of people around the world interested in these models. So, it’s not really one particular tipping point but a series of events that’s moved our space forward so that the nerdy stuff can be combined with incentives and communities; and now we are struggling and working towards making so the communities plus the technologies plus the incentives align to create something sustainable.
Has Berlin’s informal nature and unique history been a positive aspect of your time in the city?
I think that Berlin is one of the premier locations in the world particularly in our space for several reasons. Number one it is a little bit anarchistic, with the history of the Chaos Computer Club (CCC), based in Berlin — they’re the original hackers — that is a part of the history of an unbroken lineage to us that we’re happy to be a part of. Number two, the fact that Berlin is open to multiple cultures. I think we’re represented by about 23 countries here in this company, and the openness also makes it easier for us to hire people from all over the world, so that is a strategic advantage over places like America or the UK or anywhere else on Earth – we can bring people within 6-8 weeks from anywhere on the globe to work in this company and that is an advantage for Berlin and Germany.
And finally, Coffee, Tea, or Club Mate?
I typically stick to water actually! But sometimes I drink tea.
Interviewed by: Connor Bilboe
Edited by: Connor Bilboe
Photo: Andrew Haw