Nick Williamson is a blockchain entrepreneur but, as it happens, he’s also a professional poker player. It seems a useful combination of strengths considering the Wild West that is blockchain. Certainly with his Isle of Man – based venture, Credits, Williamson has firmly placed his bets on where he believes the technology can deliver big time for corporates and governments as they look to modernise and streamline their operations.
Founded by Williamson just two years ago, Credits’ aim is to become the go-to blockchain infrastructure company for organisations looking to quickly and easily apply the technology to address challenges such provenance, authentication and reconciliation. It has already made some impressive progress with its mission by joining forces with the Isle of Man government on several blockchain focused initiatives. The partnership, for instance, has yielded the first known government service run on blockchain, a registry of blockchain and blockchain-related companies, including cryptocurrency ventures, domiciled on the island. The work has led to the company’s novel “blockchain-as-a-service” proposition attracting interest from corporates and other governments. And only in August the company became the first official blockchain provider to the UK government, opening up the potential for it to provide its blockchain expertise across the public sector in areas such as the NHS, health and education.
Interviewed by Fusionwire at the recent Misys World Trade Symposium Williamson is clear about why he believes Credits has an edge over many of the other ventures operating in the blockchain technology space. “What we’re building is the underlying infrastructure and underlying platform that allows for use cases to be built up as blockchain apps and services. Compared to some of the other blockchain platforms that are out there right now the key difference, the one that is really giving us a huge advantage, is that we started by targeting a very specific segment of infrastructure. We are looking to enable an underlying computational construct rather than trying to create a cryptocurrency or trying to create a decentralised app.
“As a result of that approach we’ve been able to spend two and a half years thinking through problems to such an extent that we’ve been able to take out all the moving parts that are incidental to accomplishing the objective and so avoid having to throw in everything but the kitchen sink to solve problems. That’s meant huge benefits in reducing the complexity of our end solution for implementing services. It’s also meant we have been able to reason about the security aspects with much greater clarity. Another big benefit is much more efficient scaling – we’re seeing, on the basis of various benchmarks, it being several orders of magnitude faster than for some of the other blockchain platforms out there.”
Isle of Man and beyond
Credits’ initial use case for blockchain on the Isle of Man enabled it to demonstrate the ability of the technology to inject trust and transparency into a government service. The company now has several more blockchain collaborations on the go with the Manx government. The most high profile of these, publically at least, is what Credits calls the “federated Know Your Costumer” (KYC) application which employs the traditional KYC on-boarding process of real world identity and then uses the blockchain as a base station for that identity and a mechanism for its distribution and maintenance.
Williamson further explains: “We envisage a federated KYC application enabling individuals or organisations to authorise actions on their behalf or prove granular bits of their identity while still keeping it under control. It’s basically using it as a more accessible form of public key infrastructure. People can use it to take an initial, traditional KYC route to on- boarding, the kind that may happen with, say, the passport office, a bank or any other sort of financial intermediary. But then they would be able to use it different contexts. So, if an individual wants to open up a new account with another merchant or institution or organisation, he or she can use that same initial proof rather than having to go through the whole process again. It breaks things up so that so you can make these fundamental assertions about who you are and how you want to interact with these other services or indeed other people that use them.”
The Isle of Man projects undertaken by Williamson and his team, which notably includes chairman Michael King, the former managing director of Swift, the global financial network, has perked interest in the UK: “We are having initial conversations about various use cases with the UK government. As part of that we are also looking closely at what may make sense as far as first steps are concerned, whether they be in healthcare, welfare benefits or something more like regulatory reporting.”
In May the company, which also has offices at the Level 39 accelerator in London’s Canary Wharf, announced it had joined forces with cloud services provider Skyscape with the specific aim of developing blockchain solutions for the UK public sector. With Skyscape already an accredited provider of infrastructure to UK government agencies, and positive references no doubt in hand from the Manx government, Credits appears to be stealing a march on potential competitors in securing some public sector projects. But Williamson stresses the need for several things to fall into place at the same time: “It’s going to depend on three things. First, it probably needs to be something that is simple to implement [to start off with] because it’s already complicated enough rolling out a new piece of technology. Second, it needs to be something that has a meaningful benefit – we don’t want to be doing something just for the sake of doing something – the aim should be tangible end benefits. But the third thing is going to be actually finding the appetite to move forward….”
Blockchain to rescue reconciliation?
But even as Credits pursues opportunities with the UK central and local government it has its eye on other promising applications for its blockchain infrastructure services. One major target is financial reconciliation, the process that proves and documents that account balances are in agreement. Much of banking – settlement and payment for example – is fundamentally about reconciliation and banks spend billions annually dealing with it. Yet even with the advent of computers much of the process remains mind-numbingly laboured, relying as it does on manual intervention, mountains of paper and spreadsheets. And that means potentially costly misstatements and audit risks.
Williamson is certain that blockchain technology, with its offer of immutable, transparent information to all involved in a transaction and unerringly accurate updating of data in minutes rather than days could help banks and, more broadly, corporates modernise their reconciliation processes, saving time and money in the process.
“Reconciliation is really about a series of ledgers that need to be able to be updated and maintained by authorised people. For the most interesting use cases they also need to reconcile with other ledgers. That sounds simple to automate but historically we’ve been really bad at creating software that enables that. It’s actually been quite a difficult problem.
“What has happened, however, is that there has been a kind of paradigm shift in technology, something that tends to occur because several different areas of research or product development come together successfully? At that point you have a sufficiently good base in each of those categories to enable them to work together to begin addressing big, long standing problems like reconciliation, advance things.”
One example of such a shift is cloud computing, the culmination of over 60 years of development in areas such as hardware, bandwidth, processing and open-source networking: “The result has been a revolution in the way we can build companies, networks, and services.”
Similarly, explains Williamson, blockchain is the result of advances across a number of technologies and fields, including cryptography, public key encryption and peer-to-peer networking protocols, over the last few decades. “It’s not only about the software and the mathematics. Developments in hardware have also been critical – we finally have devices that are both cheap and widely available to help exploit all these advances.
“In the past you might have been able to ensure security at the mathematical level but, generally, not in practice, at least not to the extent that you can now, because the equipment was either very expensive or too specialised or both. It’s all really about capability meeting opportunity. And right now it’s about people taking advantage of these capabilities, targeting opportunities and starting to do the underlying work to mature these platforms out.”