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Crypto/Blockchain Interviews

Mercina Tillemann (YC 15), Chief Operating Officer of the Global Blockchain Business Council

Mercina Tillemann is Chief Operating Officer of the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC), which brings together innovating organizations and founding thought-leaders from over 50 countries to advance understanding of blockchain technology amongst governments, regulators, business leaders, and change-makers. She speaks regularly around the world about blockchain technology, including appearances at the G20 Summit, the European Parliament, the State of the Net, and the U.N.’s Internet Governance Forum.

Before joining GBBC, Mercina co-founded her own boutique consulting firm, A Curated Dialogue, which focused on distilling complex ideas into more digestible material. She brings a wealth of policy experience to her current role, having worked at the Office of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives for Nancy Pelosi, the Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress, the Colorado State House, and the Houston Department of Health and Human Services. She earned her Bioethics, Political Science, and Law degree from Yale in 2015.

The Politic: Tell me about how you got involved in the blockchain space!

Mercina Tillemann: I was initially approached about my current role in early 2016; at that point, I definitely associated blockchain with cryptocurrency. I thought of them as kind of being inextricably entwined, and there were a lot of negative connotations related to cryptocurrency at that point. I was approached by the former Deputy White House Press Secretary for Obama, who was setting up the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC). At the time, I was working with Johnson & Johnson  to create more equitable paradigms for global pharmaceutical pricing. It was a very satisfying project, but I didn’t feel like we had all of the tools to deploy the plans we were creating. 

When I initially heard about blockchain, I was not dazzled by the potential of actually working in the space. I thought it was an interesting technology to watch from a distance, but this woman, we met about it, and she told me to just read and study. So, for about three or four months, I did just that. And I became very excited about the promise of economic inclusion– the promise of giving a platform to the nearly two billion people who are unbanked globally for transacting in the international marketplace.

After about three or four months, I got back to her and I came on board, and I’ve been in this space now for the last three years or so. It’s been a very dynamic time to be in the middle of everything. And GBBC is interesting because we interface with large enterprises, startups, central banks, and governments. In that way, you get a really exceptional perspective on how various stakeholders are viewing the space, of how they’re acting and anticipating moves in the ecosystem. It’s been pretty fascinating. 

With respect to large enterprises, central banks, and the other various entities you’re working with, do you see them having different perspectives or outlooks on the future of blockchain?  

There are certainly different perspectives. What we find is that there’s just a tremendous need for education about blockchain generally, and then more specifically about the applications that are really useful or that are actually being deployed. There’s a huge amount of information about the industry, but a significant portion of the available information is neither digestible nor accurate.

So, we try to really distill what’s happening into coherent content that can be understood by any executive or government official in a way that gives them tools to actually create policy. That can either be company-wide, or for various jurisdictions, based on a real understanding of the industry and of the technology’s potential– as opposed to being driven by emotion or reaction. Too often policy responses are driven by emotion, which is something we are trying to solve in advance of its occurrence. Ideally policy decisions would be based on a real understanding of the technology. 

How do you see Yale’s role in the space?

It’s an important question. And we’ve seen a lot of very proactive universities which understand that this is going to be a very critical part of probably a multi-trillion dollar industry. It’s essential that people who are being educated-whether they’re in law, business, or technology-understand this new tool.

We work with MIT. They’re very active. I haven’t heard much from Yale. I came and spoke at an event which the School of Management (SOM) and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) hosted one or two years ago. I haven’t heard of that much happening at Yale, though I know the Yale Law School has been a bit more active in carving out some space in the blockchain world. Yale should be doing something; they should make sure there’s an offering and an acknowledgment of this new technology, which is likely going to redefine many of the underlying processes that make everyday life possible.

It’s interesting because in our work with regulators and corporates, we don’t actually spend much time getting into the nitty gritty of the technology, i.e., what it does and how you build a blockchain-faced solution. We focus more on the problems that blockchain technology can solve, and the problems for which it is the best tool to solve.

An important strategy in terms of education generally is that we’re not approaching blockchain as a solution “in search of a problem.” Rather we look at perennial pain points we haven’t had the tools to address in the past. Of course, I think it’s important to remember that blockchain is just a piece of the puzzle, and it’s best deployed when coupled with other emerging technologies, whether that be artificial intelligence (AI), automation, or any number of other tools now at our disposal. For instance, the Internet of Things (IoT) is going to be an essential piece of capture the real utility of this technology.

Let’s say you’re going to stand up in front of a class full of Yale students tomorrow. You’re not positioning blockchain as a “solution in search of a problem.” What are the x different, real problems that blockchain can solve? What use cases should Yale students really know about?

Payments are the initial use case or application for blockchain technology, and I don’t know that we have the killer app in terms of payments yet. When you look from the perspective of the non-developed world, the largest flow of resources moves in the form of remittances. If I’m a Kenyan doctor living in New Jersey and I want to send money home to my family, the fees  charged on those types of transactions can be exorbitant: 15 to 18 percent is not unusual at all. If a technology like blockchain can reduce those fees to one or two percent. That’s a life-changing development.

Similarly, I think it’s important to highlight the fact that in many of these solutions, the benefits are going to be felt more strongly in areas where underlying systems are not as advanced or as effective. During the 90s, for instance, you had a lot of places which were able to leapfrog and go straight to mobile before deploying other, more primitive copper-wire telephone systems. They didn’t have existing infrastructure, so they were able to immediately move to more advanced mobile platforms. We’re seeing that with blockchain as well. 

I think another important example comes in the form of agriculture. For a lot of places that have huge agricultural markets, it’s been difficult to prove the provenance of the products they’re exporting. Australia is a really good example. You have a company which is tracking highly sought-after Australian beef. Why? In China right now, they sell 500 times the amount of “Australian beef” than is produced in Australia. A lot of beef is being packaged that is “Australian” which isn’t actually coming from Australia. That’s a major problem because it decreases the value of the real Austrian beef. It depressed prices because the supply is higher, even though it’s counterfeit. So, they’re using blockchain technology to track the provenance of beef. I think that’s a really straightforward use case or application!

In a similar vein, in terms of supply-chain management and food safety, a number of companies are deploying blockchain-based solutions. Walmart is probably the best known. A few years ago, an executive picked up a mango from the shelf and wanted to understand where it came from. It took 30 folks over three days to identify everywhere this mango had been along the way from the farm to that particular Walmart store. That has pretty massive implications for food safety and waste. If a product is flagged or harmful, sellers need to understand exactly where those products came from. They really don’t want to throw away the entire stock if it can be narrowed down to a specific farm of even a specific plot of land on a farm. 

That capability is what we’re seeing with blockchain. After deploying a blockchain-based solution, Walmart was able to reduce the amount of time needed to track a product from three days to three seconds. They’ve now deployed the technology broadly, and a number of other industries are taking advantage of it as well. For instance, they’re also using it for pharmaceutical tracking, because it’s just a really good tool for those types of issues. 

I think it’s easy to focus on some of the more glamorous or sexy applications, but to me, the supply-chain management applications are actually going to make a big difference in terms of efficiency, safety, and reducing waste. Along those lines, one more interesting application is related to land titling. It doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing, but when you realize that the majority of individuals store the majority of their wealth inside their homes, and that huge numbers of people globally have no legally binding documentation to prove they own what they say they own, that’s a huge problem. Why? They don’t have economic mobility. They can’t use that property as collateral, which kind of stifles their financial growth and ability to improve their livelihood more generally. 

In a couple of places, they’re deploying blockchain-based land titling. Land titling is usually fraught with expense. Not to mention, a lot of time goes into actually just registering a piece of property. In some places, land titling has also been riddled with corruption. Even if someone has a land title which proves ownership of property, their government can simply determine that they no longer own that piece of property, or that the land title is invalid. If the government decides to change the land title, there’s no clear record that external sources can view, and there’s no option for individual recourse.

One example is The Republic of Georgia. They had what was rated one of the better land-titling records globally, because the World Bank had actually gone in and made sure that their data accurately reflected the situation on the ground. Accordingly, Georgia was a really good place to deploy a blockchain-based system. In that way, blockchain technology was able to change the process of land titling. They moved from a process which used to take several days and a few hundred dollars to something that can be done, in large part, online. What’s more, the actual cost of registering a piece of property is something like a fraction of a cent, and anyone who registers a piece of property receives a distinct key which they’re able to use to access their digital property title anywhere, at any time, regardless of natural disasters or political unrest. They can prove they own their property, which is kind of a big deal.

Consider what happened in Haiti during the earthquake. The office which housed all of their vital records was destroyed, and they’re still dealing with the aftermath of who actually owns what. I think having these decentralized and redundant digital systems is only going to become more critical as the prevalence of natural disasters continues to increase.

What’s the difference between registering a property title on the blockchain as opposed to just storing that on some online form/database?

The real innovation of blockchain, which I don’t think is discussed enough, is that it allows you to prove digital scarcity. In the real world, if I have a dollar bill and I give you that dollar, it’s very clear that those assets have changed hands. In the digital world, in order to verify that money or other assets are changing hands, we need to deploy many, many intermediaries in the process to verify that that activity has happened. Because when you move something digitally, you’re not moving the original version– you’re moving a copy of that original version. That’s how the internet works. For instance, when you receive an email, you’re not getting the original email but a copy of that original message. And that’s okay with email, but it’s not okay when you’re talking about money, or a passport, or a land title. 

What’s novel is that we are now able to prove that the digital representation of what you are representing physically only exists in one place– and that we can transfer ownership digitally and securely. That’s why blockchain is also a very good tool to verify digital identity. Amazingly, we don’t have digital birth certificates or passports. That’s because before blockchain, we didn’t have the ability to prove digital scarcity. Again, at its core, that’s the real innovation of blockchain, and that’s why it’s such a good tool for all of these applications.

Any final thoughts about blockchain for the readers?

I would just say that it’s a really dynamic space, and there’s a lot of room to identify real world problems for which we have not yet found effective solutions. Blockchain is likely going to be a part of many of those solutions, and if you’re interested in this space, get involved because it’s not too late. I think we’re really only at the beginning of understanding how this tool will create more functional, transparent, and secure solutions and societies globally. So get involved!