Old Surroundings, New Ideas
Edinburgh is a city steeped in a rich history. Amongst the latest and trendiest bars and bistros you can’t turn a corner without being reminded of the Lothian culture and traditions of the past. In amongst the coffee shops and designer outlets you’ll stumble upon the sturdy Freemason’s Hall, the gothic Scott Monument and of course the Edinburgh Castle – towering above the city below.
This stark contrast of old and new would ultimately be the underlying theme for my visit. In the historic Old Town area lies the University of Edinburgh. Founded in 1582, this is the sixth oldest university in the English speaking world and has produced talented alumni across many generations ranging from Arthur Conan Doyle to Alexander Graham Bell.
Passing through the campus’s alleyways and impressive architecture you stumble upon the Bayes Centre – a brand new, state of the art, six-floor high research institute focusing on everything from big data and AI to robotics and blockchain technology.
As you enter the main reception it’s hard not to be overcome by a sense of awe as the open plan design beams light from all directions. Spiral staircases shoot out from floor to floor like something reminiscent of an Escher painting.
The robotics department is on the ground floor and the first thing visitors are greeted with is a life size humanoid robot named the Valkyrie. The Valkyrie is one of only three robots designed by NASA with the intention of aiding human missions on Mars in years to come. Accompanying the Valkyrie is the Anymal – a four-legged robot designed to travel any terrain and ultimately replace life threatening jobs for humans such as putting out fires on sea-based oil rigs.
As I’m given the tour of the facility by our guide, Lee Wilson, I can feel a sense of passion and pride in the air. Lee has only been working at the institute for four weeks and knows the place inside out. As we pass through the Big Data department, we’re told tales of the researchers’ recent achievements:
“Diabetes has been a huge problem in Scotland in recent years due to this country being one of the unhealthiest in the developed world”. She continues: “After analysing many giant sets of data, we were able to make suggestions for NHS doctors to spot patterns in diabetes sufferers early on in their diagnosis. This in turn has, on average, added 3-4 years to these patients life spans.”
This passion and dedication that was exuberated by the members of the Bayes Institute would become a common theme.
I had been invited by Danny Les, Mentor in Residence for the Wayra/Telefonica Blockchain and AI Accelerator, to visit the facility and report on the days events.
I was due to meet one of the stars of the previous Wayra cohort Nick Jones, the founder of Zumo who are creating a convertible debit card that allows you to pay for goods and services with your cryptocurrency, and two very special guests who had come to see all of the great work being done by Danny and the Wayra group. Those guests were serial entrepreneur and cryptocurrency evangelist Brock Pierce and Reza Bundy – another entrepreneur who was the CEO of Mota Motors and founder of Ironplanet.
Brock is a man who has spent the last 8 years dedicating his life to advancing the blockchain industry and is credited with some of the major milestones we’ve seen such as the first ever ICO and STO, opening up the Korean and Chinese markets with Bithumb, creating Tether and leading the Bitcoin Foundation to name but a few.
Reza has a long track record of founding and running highly successful companies and is currently building Atlas Gold, a company which seeks to create monetary stability and food and water security through agricultural land grants backed from gold mining companies. Reza is also known for his social impact work most notably forming the Haiti Investment Team to help deal with the earthquake in 2012.
The Wayra group look to develop young blockchain and AI businesses with high growth potential in a collaboration with The University of Edinburgh. This partnership helps combine the technical and research expertise of UoE and Wayra’s commercial connectedness to London’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. This is supported by Scottish Enterprise offering Scotland wide businesses support.
The Wayra group had invited Brock and Reza to tour the building, discuss the progress being made at the Bayes Centre and have a group of their incubated startups pitch their ideas in a three-minute presentation style format.
After a round of introductions the pitch slam began with Brock and Reza seated at the head of the table in a scene akin to that of Dragon’s Den.
First to pitch was Sagecity – a blockchain platform that connects enterprises with tools and resources to make their businesses thrive with the end goal of saving them time, money and creating new revenue streams. The team, headed up by a youthful looking Adam Greenberg, took their turns to go through their slides in what was clearly a well rehearsed and polished presentation.
Brock and Reza watched on intently, taking in every word with a keen enthusiasm. When the presentation was finished Brock had a number of questions ready focusing on key aspects of their pitch. He offered up all kinds of advice based on his own experience and suggested an associate of his that the young men should speak to to progress further. It was clear at this point that he wanted to use his position to help any blockchain company who are looking to contribute to and advance the industry.
Although strongly affiliated with EOS, Brock describes himself as being “chain agnostic” and when discussing other projects stated that “if anyone succeeds in any of their missions then we all win.” It is this open minded outlook that allows him to take a macro level view on the industry and be able to offer up succinct solutions to some of the biggest problems in the space.
One by one each project stood up to present their business ideas, strategy and requirements and each time Brock and Reza would ask questions, offer advice and tell anecdotes from their own experiences. It was incredibly refreshing to see two individuals, who had already achieved so much in the crypto industry, show so much enthusiasm and passion when discussing these business ideas with Wayra’s young professionals.
Each business in the cohort was unique and looked to tackle a different problem in their chosen markets. We had Oodls who have set up a marketplace of user-generated content on Instagram, allowing users to generate revenue for their snaps. IntelliDigest who are looking to develop a more environmentally and holistic solution to food waste challenge.
Oycan, who offer up cloud-native analytics and infrastructure for enterprise-ready blockchain applications, and finally Trippo – an app that takes the screenshots you’ve taken of places, articles or images of a destination and combines them to generate a travel-friendly itinerary for your potential holiday destination.
As we went for lunch Brock and Reza mingled with the young professionals – talking about their projects, the latest news and exchanging business cards. Although time was very limited they tried to speak to as many people as possible and share as much advice as they could in the allocated time slots provided.
As the days events concluded, Brock summarised his experience of the Bayes Institute and his thoughts on Edinburgh as a blockchain hub in general as he stated, “It’s fantastic what you’re doing here. This University has the potential to be one of the biggest blockchain hubs in the world. You just have to focus on one thing – regulation.” He continued, “All you need to do is take a look at Wyoming. When you have blockchain friendly government regulation in place then you will attract all of the top talent, the best developers and the community. If Edinburgh continues to strive towards this then we could see the next Wyoming happening right here.”
An Air of Optimism
My experience with Danny, the Wayra cohort, Brock and Reza left me with a renewed vigour as I contemplated the future of the blockchain space. To see so many young individuals with a passion for blockchain technology and pushing the industry forward was greatly encouraging to experience. The investment from Wayra and the University shows that there is a real desire to put Edinburgh on the map as one of Europe’s central hubs for attracting young talent in this space.
I’d like to thank Danny for the invitation, Wayra for their amazing hospitality and Brock and Reza for their time.
Thank you for reading.
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