Hi guys. Welcome to the Fintech Coffee Break. I’m your host, Isabelle Castro, and today I shared my coffee break with Dean Tribble, CEO of Agoric.
I spoke to him about what the could mean for fintech and the adoption of blockchain.
Isabelle Castro – Hi, Dean. How are you?
Dean Tribble – I’m great! Thank you for having me
Isabelle – Nice to have you on the show. So, to begin with, I want to know what gets you up in the morning.
Dean – Besides an alarm clock, right? What gets me up in the morning, I, you know, I’ve been working in the space of intelligent contracts since 1989, where it’s, you know, software that is, well, formally enforcing the terms of a contract like relationships between third parties. But informally, it’s software that enables strangers to cooperate, right? You know, you can do it. It enables you to cooperate where the money’s involved, assets are involved, where you’re dealing, and where programs can support interesting relationships between people who’ve never met and might never meet again. And that’s just been, you know, that’s just a really, really powerful thing. You know, it was a trillion-dollar market cap before we ever got to blockchain. And that just excites me. I mean, I just like seeing all the ways and all the things that people can do with that, you know, just it empowers people that empowers groups, it empowers, you know, a more cooperative world. And that’s been a driving vision for a long time.
And you guys at Agoric are doing some really interesting stuff toward that. What brought you to starting Agoric, and what was the journey to making that decision?
So I had, you know, I’ve done lots of distributed systems work early work in, in, in crypto early work in in in the internet and how to do large scale asynchronous systems and electronic commerce systems and all those kinds of things. But was in was working in fintech before work. So I had a multibillion-dollar payment instrument integrated with large banks and all that sort of thing.
And our friends, Zuko Wilcox, the founder of Z cash, and a few others saw in 2017 that blockchain was having problems where you get security experts creating smart contracts to do something valuable and important. And they’d deploy, and they’d lose $30 million, and then they’d fix it, and they’d lose another $30 million. And that’s, that’s not okay. Right. You know, that’s a problem. And so people. So So Zuko and others brought together some folks, Zuko Arthur Brightman, Mark Miller, our chief scientist, who has been the banner carrier for an approach to large-scale secure systems—Brian Warner, who had been on the security review team for ethereum.
They brought them together to a panel, which was basically, “So these are the ways that Mark and Dean and a few others have of building secure software systems of hardened software systems. Would that be good for smart contracts on the blockchain? Would that maybe help prevent some of these, at that time, enormous losses that were only, you know, in the hundreds of millions instead of the billions? They are now, right?”
The answer was pretty much unilaterally yes to that. And that was the genesis of putting together a team to do the Agoric blockchain, where it’s, it’s two elements of it, one is being able to bring this technology and bring the opportunity of large scale intelligent contract systems that don’t have a trusted intermediary in the middle. And I’ll come back to that. To 50 million developers instead of just a few 1000, right, and, and do so with a model that they can actually succeed at and maybe not have quite the kinds of security and programmability problems you see in ethereum and other platforms that descend from it. So that was the genesis of building Agoric.
You know, Isabelle. Enjoy open paren, you know, NFT thing, right, or, you know, Game Pass, or ticket to the concert. And if it’s a ticket to the show, I don’t want to give you a number; I want to give you an object that your front end, your application, your wallet, whatever it is, can go, you know, “ticket. map”, right, and find out where to go right or “ticket. byparking”, you know, and so you can get a VIP parking pass.
Dean – Yes. So you know, I mentioned security, but mostly in passing about the problem, security is hard. You’re never done; it’s always an ongoing thing. What you want is hardened systems you’re building on that, you know, that you can then use best practices and audits and all these things to build a system that is, that is, you know, as secure as possible, easier to make more secure. And more importantly, when you have an issue, you know, it’s segregated, you have an issue that has, you know, where the scope of the damage from an issue is minimal.
That’s how you do large-scale systems that are robust and healthy, even in a world full of attackers. But, so but the two big things that are complementary to that, I mean, I’ve done really strong hardened languages that at least three people could program, right, you know, and, if we want this ability to do large scale support for cooperation among strangers, then we need a system that millions of programmers can write. There you have to meet them where they’re at.
With the wrong architecture, you put multiple things that were, by themselves, safe. I mean, this happens in ethereum all the time. You have components that are safe, you plug them together, and now you’ve got a reentrancy boat, or you’ve got a security bug, or what have you.
So it’s not that millions of programmers want to be security experts; millions of programmers want to solve their problems and do so in a way that what they put together has a reasonable chance of being robust. And, you know, a few best practices and good support from the framework. And now you can go off and do your art site or game integration or your new extension to ticketing and that sort of thing.
Isabelle – So it’s kind of like the collective mind working together.
Dean – Exactly. It’s literally what it takes to get exponential growth. I mean, it’s literally one of those things where every month, you get to build on the work of a million other programmers and what they did last month because they rolled out new updates to their packages, or they rolled out new tools or new components that you can now take advantage of.
So you really get that, that that increase in productivity. And that’s why historically, we have always seen any given problem space. Eventually, a system that can compose large applications from smaller pieces eventually comes along. And it just, you know, once it takes off, it just ramps past anything, any deployed infrastructure that did not have that.
Isabelle – Where do you see this most impacting fintech and finance in general?
Dean – So fintech and finance are where blockchain use of smart contracts took off.
First, to be clear, right? That, you know, I said, smart contracts are software enforcing the terms of a contract-like arrangement. So eBay, PayPal and Venmo, Uber, and Lyft. And all of those are software implementing the contract between riders, drivers, bidders, and sellers on an auction and automating and enforcing those proceeds. So that was trillion dollar market cap before blockchain came along. High-Frequency Trading is a form of a smart contract or someone that’s writing software that’s enabling cooperation of, you know, millions of strangers trading trillions of dollars on an ongoing basis. And that’s huge.
What blockchain brings to the party is that you run with integrity that did not exist before blockchain, right? You’ve got hundreds of machines in different jurisdictions, administrated by different parties, all agreeing on what happened when you ran a smart contract. Or, how much money does Dean have in his account? And did he bid in the auction and then withdraw his bid? Or did he bid in the auction, and when one way or the other, his account balance is different?
So you only get to choose one of those, doing that on a single computer that any admin can hack and backdoor and change. That’s pretty straightforward. And that’s how almost all the software systems in the world are built.
Doing it where 100 computers are agreeing on the outcome. That’s one of the two or three substantial technical lifts you got out of the blockchain technology that gives you a level of integrity of execution that did not exist before.
You may remember the fintech disaster of Enron, where they were slipping in trades after trading had, in theory, closed, but they were pretending that they had happened before the close of business to pump their books. And you’ve got all you know, brokerage houses have been caught one way or the other with, you know, commingling funds or doing front running or those kinds of things. And you can arrange for all of those to be impossible in various regimes because you have this integrity of execution that people can rely on. So that means that you can now do smart contract businesses that do not have a trusted intermediary, or if they have an intermediary, it’s one where they can very carefully say, here’s the part you can rely on. I’m doing a spectrum auction across countries that don’t trust each other. It’s billions of dollars; everyone would like to know it all happened correctly. How do you do that in a technical arrangement that’s doing this daily? You can do that in blockchain; you can’t do that on any other platform or with any other technology. So that’s a big deal.
So where this applies to millions of developers is any use case, anything that people do any part of human endeavor, where you would like to enhance it by allowing third parties to extend it and combine that with money.
So I’ll take something that is, you know, a small, straightforward business that people have a lot of fun with, which is, let’s say, the comics industry. Paper comics, people go to the comic bookstore, everyone’s seen one, and plenty of adults do. Even if they don’t admit it, it’s an $11 billion or $12 billion industry. So not large in large industries. But it’s a nice example where it’s transitioning from DC or Marvel to artists that actually and creators of stories that work for those companies now have companies where they’re creating new IP, but everyone wants to be able to build in that world, they want third parties to be able to add new stories borrow your character in their stories. And that’s great. People have done fanfiction for years.
Now as soon as you add those third parties who want to sell their stories and they want to automatically pay a royalty to the creators of the original World and the creators of the characters, they’re borrowing. They want to pay artists to do some of the renderings. And they want to pay a fee to some AI rendering thing that will turn language into proposed art that then some artist is paid to modify all these things. As soon as you bring in that third party extensibility, where I want lots of people to be able to contribute in a way that I didn’t have to bring them in, I didn’t have to hire them, I didn’t have to do all these things, and they get to do their own thing. And you tie money to it. Now you either have smart contracts arranged to handle all that money automatically, or you have a vast amount of legal bills and lawsuits. Those are kind of the two ways those things fall out.
Enabling those kinds of structured cooperation with different rights that can all be programmatically enforced and not just building one walled garden where you can participate.
So hey, I’m one game company, and you can extend our game in precisely these ways. But instead, making it so that someone else can come along with a brilliant idea of how they can extend this thing where they’re going to bridge from the comics and the artist and so forth to a physical event at a convention that involves rev share with the bar that the event is added.
I mean, you quickly get very complicated economic activities. But each person is doing something simple that is valuable to them and contributes value to others, and they want to get paid for it. And you know, you put 1000 of those together that are all unique, and you have a really rich economy, but it’s the kind of thing where when you can engage millions of people, it rapidly blooms into something awesome. And so you know, and that’s just comics.
All the same advantages, payoffs, you know, ability to do third-party extensibility applies when you look at the $900 billion freight industry, where most freight ships on a truck of a company that has eight trucks or less, so that means the freight is already astonishingly decentralized. But man, it’s, you know, 120-day-long accounts receivables.
If people in the fintech space understand that, you want three-day payments, not 120 Day payments. If you’ve got a 20-person company that has receivables that are 120 days long, that’s really terrible economically. It makes them very fragile and makes us very vulnerable as a nation to economic impacts, causing all of these decentralized freight carriers to take a loss. Those kinds of things, all of which could be better if you could have a chain of custody on a blockchain
So I really knew the chain of custody from one tiny company to another, and then I could build, you know, accounts receivables loans to prove that I did my part of this three-week shipment journey. So I’d like to get paid for those things now. So it really does cover the spectrum of human endeavor from, you know, comics to shipping, right? Banking to insurance for that shipping, you know, all those things.
Isabelle – I mean, no, it’s amazing. It’s, it’s really, really amazing what you can do on the blockchain, and you guys are enabling it. I saw that you’d got some milestones coming up in the next couple of quarters: the launch of permission smart contracts on the Main net in Q2 and permissionless smart contracts. What do you hope? Or what do you think these different types of smart contracts will bring to the network?
But to have an on-chain economy, you need an on-chain currency; that’s one of the other significant steps forward in the Agoric platform. If you think about ethereum or other blockchains, you’re paying with a speculative token for gas prices for the ability to execute programs; that’s like paying your rent with Apple shares, right? You could do that, you know, and then pay for your groceries to Google shares and whatever. But you know, we learned a few 1000 years ago that having a stable token, as currency, was for economic exchange and unit of account, all that sort of thing was actually a good thing.
So we sort of took that as the underlying model. You need a stable token that is low volatility to write long-term contracts. To know that your rent in a year is approximately the same as your rent this month or next, instead of being 80%, more, 80%, or less, right? And so the first use case is sort is this, you know, symbiotic contract, which is a stable token, a, you know, something that has parity to $1, it doesn’t have to be exactly $1. But it has to be, you know, approximately $1, so a month from now, my long-term contract is paying the same price. And I know how much money I need to put in its account. So, we rolled out a first version of that in November, but we’re rolling out a CDB or an NYCEDC to be a Maker DAO style thing, so you can get more ways of minting that stable token to make for a larger, more scalable, more robust environment. And what was always in our roadmap was to do multiple of these. Again, that stable token, using our component model, is extensible, and we expect it to grow, evolve, and adapt over time as people contribute more to it.
So we have that big release, you know, to help the economy along. And the foundation for that is, you know, a big step up in the platform in terms of adding governance to contracts and evolving them over time. You know, upgrade them via governance and that sort of thing.
One of the distracting kinds of things that people discuss in the crypto space is. Oh, my gosh, you can’t evolve software, or someone will sneak in a terribly bad thing. It’s like, Well, okay, point me at one piece of software, where you are using version one of, and I will agree that you can’t evolve software, right? But otherwise, we need rational, strong mechanisms to safely evolve software and preserve security and contractual obligations along the way in that sort of stuff. So that’s what our platform is adding. So and so that’s been our focus up to now is to get the economy launched, then we pivot to enabling developers to deploy applications.
So while we continue to harden the platform, and again, hardening is a journey, you’re never done. You’re always continuing to harden and scale harden and scale as you as you go forward.
And so we are enabling that we will be working with some number of partners to get their applications on the platform where we know they don’t step into places that are not yet verified to be defended in all the ways we might want. You don’t want that if you’re a legitimate business. And so people will want to ensure you’re doing things that don’t do something dumb like that.
So the permission phase is the community votes, not Agoric; other than as a member of the community, the community has to approve the deployment of any new smart contracts. And it might well be that that’s what gets rolled out is a smart contract that multiple people can instantiate.
So if it is an NFT minting smart contract, then you can set up something that is going to do NFT minting for tickets for your ticket application, and I’m using it to mint achievements for my game as part of some indie game collaboration project or whatever, it’s the same economic fintech infrastructure underneath. It’s just different front ends and applications and uses for it.
And so that’s where the community says, here’s a component that everybody wants, you know what say we add that and let people mint it. Here’s a component that every here’s a service that everybody wants, but there really should only be one of it. Let’s add that and approve minting one of those, creating one of those contracts, as new infrastructure for the chain to be able to do this other thing in the community; you have to make a case to the community and get people behind it. And it’s a governance action to approve those things. There are multiple independent groups in the ecosystem that all weigh in with different perspectives to make sure that it will retain a healthy ecosystem, that it’ll be something that is focused towards migrating towards mainstream use cases, and that it won’t have negative impacts that sort of thing. So that’s the permission phase. And that’s in the next couple of quarters.
Then the permissionless phase comes after that. That’s after we’ve got permission phase, we get some of this out there, there’s business happening, transactions happening. And we’ve got a model that we know will work for paying for the use of the platform without impacting these core economic services. And so as those are allowed, then the bar to entry goes down. As more and more people can add things to the economy.
The goal is anyone can add things to the economy, and they just have to succeed at their business, or they go out of business, right? They don’t get to do it by being a parasite on other businesses; they get to do it by actually providing something of value. That’s the goal event of any economy. Once permissionless, we all continue to have influence, but that’s it. You know, that’s the decentralized dream, are you’ve got an open economy, not one where someone wise gets to decide what’s allowed and what’s not.
Isabelle – Yeah, no, absolutely. Working within the Web3 space. Are you concerned about the kind of regulatory “crypto crackdown” that’s happening this year?
Dean – Well, yes, absolutely. Well, I don’t know about a crackdown; I’m concerned about the regulatory environment and the regulatory challenges in general. We deliberately set out to be a US-based company because there are a lot of developers in the US, and, you know, we’d like to do US and worldwide. That has had its many tribulations. As a result, we spent entirely too much energy, attention, and money on carefully satisfying and navigating the regulatory uncertainties.
The regulatory environment of the SEC has certainly changed in the last couple of years, and not for the better in pretty much any dimension. Everyone’s all excited about the FTX. That was just classic, you know, front and back office commingling funds that had nothing to do with blockchain. Other than being opportunistic for fraudsters, you know, for someone to do it. But that was the brokerage house that the SEC was in bed with to try and kill Binance, to make everyone move to FTX because that would be their poster child.
I mean, the backroom crap on that is astonishing. And that’s an example of this regulatory environment not being great. Similarly, the UST was, you know, claimed to be a stable token, but many people would point out that this is not economically sound. Plenty of economically sound models for stable tokens have weathered all the ups and downs of the market since then, and sailed through just fine. That’s the technology that we’re based on. It’s, it’s a really powerful and valuable technology. And indeed, it’s apparently sailed through better than the US banking system in many ways.
So it’s one of those things where, you know, it makes a believer of more people, it certainly, you know, all of this, this, you know, regulatory and, and, you know, market manipulation, stuff that happens in the US is a real problem. But it doesn’t change the fundamentals of what we need to build. I mean, it doesn’t really change. You know, great, there was like NFTs, and they were high flying, and they were all the speculation and all the rage and all that, you know, and then it tanks, and people are mad, and there’s all this stuff. But there’s always a tail. And that was all the people that were the high-priced crap on the tail. Great. Someone got $10 million for a piece of digital art. Because someone with too much, you know, with too much money wanted to flex, that’s great. Lovely, you know, all very silly.
What I care about is some artists in Colombia got 50 bucks for a piece of art that they could never have sold because they couldn’t reach a market. They were able To sell it to a stranger in some other place that could celebrate it as being unique, show this stuff, and open up this artist of the world. That was not possible before. That’s way more important to me even though the economic value is lower, you know, than the one that flew high and, you know, like Icarus, you know, burned up in the sun.
NFTs in the sports space, fan tokens for engagement, have, I think, 11 times the revenue of all the speculative crap that got the headlines, and you know, people actually care about that. It’s what people do every day. It’s a real market in which people are already innovating for blockchain. All the interesting retail markets have fan tokens with sports, music engagement with music fans, music groups, fashion geisha; all that innovation was already happening.
So opening up opportunities for people is what this technology gets us, and that sometimes comes up against regulatory stuff, but a lot of it doesn’t. I’m, in some sense, more concerned that they’re doing really dumb reinterpretation of some of these regs to make it apply to stuff where it doesn’t. Oh, it’s a digital art collectible. Therefore, it’s a security, even though people have been doing trading cards, baseball cards, and trading card games, you know, for years and years and years, selling them saying the money’s you know that, you know, the things are going to go up. So, hopefully, it goes against the sales practice where people are inappropriately saying, you know, here number will go up, as opposed to here’s a trading card that’s in a fun game that people like, are you interested?
Isabelle – No, absolutely. I would like to go into this more. But unfortunately, we’re nearly at the end of the podcast. Before you go, I’ve got two questions. What’s one piece of advice that you have been given that you would give to someone else?
Dean – That I’ve been given that I would give to someone else? So there are two, if I may?
One was the one- I can clearly remember being given by my mentor at Microsoft, who then went on to make AWS happen. And it was; “As an architect, as a software architect, you can in a large organization, or a large community, you can succeed at two things. For a problem they know but haven’t figured out how to solve yet, or educate them on a problem they don’t know they have. But trying to solve a problem they don’t know they have, is a waste of your time.” I went back through my career before that, it’s like, wow, I spent a lot of time, you know, on these problems, like security, that people didn’t think they had, selling them a solution, and they get all excited. And then they go, Oh, it’s you know, you know, great, I love it. I want it. I want your new solution. Can you make it look like Linux? It’s like, no, that’s the problem we’re solving right now. Okay, so that didn’t work. So that was great advice.
The other is my favorite advice for people who are new to an industry, new to the software, or unique to any particular area. Because to a lot of people, you know, what my compatriots in many different companies and I have done looks very innovative. And functionally, it is very innovative. But it’s not because we are somehow especially innovative, though maybe we’ve learned that over time. But you go out to the edge of what people are doing, the edge of what’s novel, and then you do something obvious. You know, you get out to the edge. And then you’re going to try and solve the problem, and you know, zero knowledge math proofs, right? And that’s an edge of mathematics that people are, you know, figuring out, okay, hey, solutions here are worth billions of dollars. And I’m not sure what the question is. And then you go, look, and ask a question. And if you’re asking the question out on the edge, there’s a much, much higher chance that it’s one that someone hasn’t asked before. It may well be that the answer is obvious once you ask the question, standing in the right place, but to someone who’s a long way away, it looks like you just invented something fabulous. Because from the point of view of the larger economy in the larger ecosystem, you, in fact, did invent something fabulous. It’s just that it was a very, very small step from where you were standing. And that’s one of those things that many people have done.
There were companies founded, you know, years later on ideas that we just clearly had in passing in the early days of software because he’d go, you asked that question of, you know, how should you do make sure to file systems have the same files on them, which was the entire bet of the company Marimba, which was one of Andreessen early successful, you know, funding things. And that was something where, you know, we asked that in 1989 Xanadu, and it was obvious that you compute a hash all the files, you can read the hash, you do a roll-up, blah, blah, blah, you know, and to them, this was the secret sauce that they painted, and it was a huge thing. But just one of those things where you have to get to the right place, get out to the edge and ask questions.
Isabelle – I like that, but I can see that applying to many industries and sectors, especially in fintech in general, I like them a lot. Now, you got your curveball question. If you could have one superpower, what would you choose?
Dean – I used to have a prepared answer for this. But it’s regeneration and immortality because then I have time to figure out all the others. You know, I got lots of ideas, many things, and many things I want to do. And the hardest thing to find is more of his time. So it would be tied to ensuring I had time to do lots and lots of things and enjoy lots and lots of people.
Isabelle – Okay, perfect. I like that. Yeah, a really solid superpower. How can people get a hold of you?
Dean – Um, well, certainly look at the company Agoric.com. Or inter. trade, that is, the stable token project. That’s been out of it. I’m Dean Tribble on Twitter. Dean Tribble on telegram, although Twitter’s probably better, and email@example.com, you also get to me.
Isabelle – Okay. Perfect. Thank you so much for your time. I’ve loved having you on the show. And have a great rest of your day.
Dean – Well, thank you so much for having me. This was a lot of fun, and I look forward to talking again.
Isabelle – As always, you can chat with me on my LinkedIn or Twitter at @IZYcastrowrites. But to access great daily content, check out Fintech Nexus on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. You can also sign up for our daily newsletter, bringing news straight to your inbox.
For more fintech podcast fun, check out the website, where you can find more fascinating conversations hosted by Peter Renton and Todd Anderson.
That’s it from me. Until next time, enjoy your downtime.
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