Discussions from the Global Investor’s Conference: Blockchain for Social Impact

Featuring — Nisa Amoils (Grasshopper Capital), Cecilia Chapiro (UNICEF Ventures), Dr. Alex Cahana (Consensys Health), and Natalya Thakur (CELO)

Introducing the Panel

The discussion on Social Impact featured a panel representing the health care industry, investing firms, a payment platform, and an international organization.

To introduce our moderator, Nisa Amoils, the founder of Grasshopper Capital. She began her career as a corporate/securities lawyer and is now a venture capitalist, media commentator, and entrepreneur. She has been named one of Thinker360’s top 50 global thought leaders and influencers in FinTech. She and her team at Grasshopper has focused their investing on blockchain and other disruptive technologies. She’s the author of “WTF is Happening? Women Tech Founders on the Rise.”

Ceclia Chapiro, who represented UNICEF’s Venture Fund on the panel, this Argentinian native was a Fullbright Scholar at NYU and has worked since in social responsibility for the likes of Johnson and Johnson and UNICEF in Spain, Germany, Austrialia, and the US. She co-founded an organization called Yunus & Youth, which is dedicated to empowering young social entrepreneurs, and which has been endorsed by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus.

Dr. Alex Cahana, the Chief Medical Officer of Consensys Health, has nearly three decades experience in medicine and blockchain under his belt. Like Cecilia, he has also advised for the United Nations, serving as a Blockchain expert for HealthCare at the recent UN Economic Commission for Europe. Having worked in pain medicine, informatics and cryptocurrency companies, and investing firms, with a focus on blockchain all throughout, Alex is motivated by the goal, like his company, to use modern technology to “guarantee accessible, equitable and economically sustainable global healthcare, for all citizens of the world.”

Our final panelist, Natalya Thakur, is a fellow at the cryptocurrency start-up Celo, and an advisor of she256, an organization which aims to increase diversity in the blockchain and cryptocurrency space. As a seasoned public speaker, she has been featured in Fast Company, IDEO Futures Podcast, and SAP Women in Tech Conference, among other events. She previously worked at BlackRock in their blockchain and cryptocurrency strategy group and their fintech subsidiary. Her research has been published in Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. She is an MBA/MPA candidate at the Stanford GSB and the Harvard Kennedy School.

Can you tell us about your background and how blockchain technology has begun helping the world during this pandemic?

A physician’s take on blockchain in medicine

Alex brought up how he has been “a physician for over 26 years and has built up five pain departments in different countries in the world.” He also noted that he has been “involved in technology integration into the clinical workflow for at least 15 years.” He observed that “if you look at AI, decentralized AI or federated learning, if we look at all these privacy preserving technologies” they are all “starting to bubble.” He believes the use of
“knowledge cryptography” and encryption are giving way to a moment where “we are able to transform individuals from health service consumers to health and wealth producers.” Comparing it to other trends of decentralization, he stated “not only can you be your own travel agent and your own insurance agent” today, but you can actually “be your own your own doctor, and you can actually start to treat your health and manage your health and invest in your health just like you invest in wealth.” Treating your own health as an investable asset is concept that Alex is revolutionizing.

In terms of the pandemic, Alex noted that this moment has underscored the importance of supply distribution and the potential for blockchain to assist with that. He brought up how personal protective equipment (PPE), toilet paper, and other items needed in the moment “would be nice if they would be on a distributed ledger.” If they were, “we could coordinate a little bit” to ensure supply is available across the board as needed.

“Beyond the supply chain and the [contact] tracing, this distributed network allows us to answer the big questions, and coordinate and collaborate to while still preserving IP,” Alex commented. He said because of this “we see an acceleration of developing vaccines and treatments in a way that we haven’t seen before.”

As a final note he also mentioned the advent of “tokenization” and of “using data as a digital asset” and that people can be “incentivized to behave well” in terms of their health.

How the United Nations is using blockchain to help children

Cecilia introduced herself an advisor for UNICEF Ventures, which she described as “a division of UNICEF that focuses on exploring how emerging technologies can benefit children.” Regarding blockchain, Cecilia noted that UNICEF uses the technology to “conduct internal prototypes through which we can explore how we can increase efficiencies and transparency internally” and how to use “innovative financing models to distribute resources.” She noted, “we also use blockchain in our investments.” She described UNICEF’s Venture Fund, which is “a $30 million pooled funding-vehicle focused on identifying, piloting, and growing open-source technology start-ups.” The Fund invests in “frontier tech” and “data science — AI” and “extended reality drones.” By and large, the fund “invest[s] in solutions that are very early stage,” and that at present, “merely have a prototype, but have evidence to indicate their vision of something that can be improved or changed with blockchain.” If a company they hear from has “a pilot of their software” with only “a few users” what is important is that “their application has the potential to improve the lives of children.”

Nisa encouraged Cecilia to give specific examples of companies of this type that UNICEF has invested in thus far and she mentioned Atix Labs out of Argentina, which has built a platform that is “user-friendly” and “allows investors to track their investments” and “allows them to track the impact that those investments have.” In general, “it basically gives a lot more transparency into the whole investment process.”

Another example Cecilia mentioned is Statwig, out of India, which uses blockchain to “track the delivery of food or vaccines through the supply chain.”

Finally, Cecilia mentioned Prescrypto, out of Mexico City, which “basically focus[es] on giving patients ownership of their medical data” and they created “a platform that helps doctors connect with patients.”

A researcher’s take on Blockchain use-cases

Natalya introduced herself next, noting that she has been working in the blockchain/digital asset space since 2015, and co-authored the 2019 Blockchain for Social Impact Report under the commission under the founder of RippleWorks. In addition to being a fellow at Celo, she mentioned that she is the Associate Director of The Future of Digital Currency Initiative, which is a “partnership between the United Nations and Stanford University to help central banks develop digital assets.”

She noted that the work of Celo is “a start-up focused on financial inclusion” which is creating stable coins, which Natalya defined as “a type of digital asset that are pegged to currencies that we know and love today, i.e. the dollar or any other currency.”

Since COVID-19 emerged, Celo has been “piloting for COVID relief” with organizations like GiveDirectly and MercyCorpsNatalya noted that while they were “piloting with financial institutions before the pandemic,” that “now things have just escalated.”

Celo can help in various ways with the current situation — such as “getting stimulus checks to people faster” and helping with “digital identity footprint” of individuals such as refugees or “people who are travelling between countries or maybe are stuck in a country due to COVID and aren’t able to leave due to border closures.”

Blockchain for Social Impact: a report’s findings

Moving further into the subject of digital identity, Natalya described the 2019 Blockchain for Social Impact Report, in which her team interviewed over 110 organizations and tracked them over several years. She highlighted some use-cases, saying, “the first is agriculture and land rights.” In this case, Natalya explained that blockchain can be used in “helping with land registry, or land rights in developing countries,” noting how “a lot of the times people don’t have the means to track ownership.”

Or blockchain can be used in supply chain management, answering the question, “as food goes from farm to table, how are we tracking things, especially during a pandemic?”

Natalya next mentioned the use-case of climate change. “Blockchain is helping to improve the efficiency of electricity grids” and people are being “incentivized through blockchain” because they can “get tokens on the blockchain, and those tokens can be flipped into cash” Natalya explained.

Natalya also mentioned the use-case of blockchain for “licensing and diplomas” to “make sure that each certification is valid and reputable?”

Echoing Alex’s earlier comments, Natalya said “future of data ownership” is also a use-case. For example, in the case that “Netflix is gathering your [personal] data,” then, according to Natalya, a company such as Spring Labs could say, “Okay, Netflix is gathering all your data which you have signed the terms agreement to. But what we’ll do is we’ll track the use of that data on the blockchain, so that you can actually get paid for the use of your data.” In this way, Natalya says this is “actually a great way to monetize what we’re already experiencing today.”

The final use-case Natalya brought up concerned “governance and democracies.” She brought up Democracy Earth, which has created a way in which to “vote on the blockchain” which is “more secure” and “not controlled by any central entity.” They are also exploring the idea of fractionalizing voting, in which an individual could “give shares of [their] vote to someone else to vote on [their] behalf that [they] trust, like a local representative.”

Summing up the need for blockchain investment for impact

Alex, the most seasoned of the panelists, took the time to summarize and tie together the other panelists’ comments and underscoring the importance of the Social Impact work that was mentioned throughout the panel.

Citing the example of telehealth, Alex noted how he is often “pinged” and is told about this being new technology, when in reality he has been working with and trying to utilize this technology for a while, exclaiming that “this is like a 20 year old technology.” He said that many of the technology advances of this kind are “just optimization plays on a system that is not working.”

Drawing in the other panelist’s points, Alex concluded, “So, these technologies that both Natalia and Cecilia mentioned, that pertain to self-sovereign or decentralized identity, understanding and matching engines using, federated learning,” and companies that focus on how to “preserve your privacy” are “really things that investors have to start pouring money into” because “all [of] these start-up companies, including our own, are severely undervalued.”

Noting the importance of the work they are doing, Alex brought up the use-case of what his team has accomplished in “East Africa,” noting that “we have, in less than six months, [been] able to touch 100 million lives with self-sovereign electronic health records.” There is now, “with the pandemic, a real opportunity to seize this” Alex urged.

Noting that “there are a lot of brilliant folks” working on this technology but there “isn’t a cash infusion that actually follows” when “you compare it to” decentralized finance (DeFi).

Concluding the talk, Alex said, “I totally agree with the rest of the panel that now is the time really, to educate yourself and put a real effort to try to understand what is going on in order for this to succeed.”