Can a mature blockchain industry emerge from the hype?
Consensus lived up to its billing as a cryptocurrency circus, with 8,500 conference attendees treated to surprise announcements, celebrity performers and even a three-Lamborghini sideshow.
But underneath the hype, fintechs large and small attending the three-day event at the New York Hilton Midtown said they found promise for a market still trying to find a path to unified operations and wider acceptance within financial services.
"In the early days of bitcoin … we thought we were solving the problem of silos, we thought we could connect the different global payments systems together using a digital currency,” said David Schwartz, Ripple’s chief cryptographer, who presented in a session titled “The race for interoperability.”
"However, in the following years we ended up building more silos — a bitcoin silo, an ethereum silo and so on. Now, as an industry, we are working to create protocols that allow us to make payments across all of those silos."
One major announcement came from Amazon Web Services, which announced it was partnering with the blockchain software firm Consensys to speed up deployment of enterprise blockchains.
Former JPMorgan Chase blockchain head Amber Baldet debuted a decentralized app store called Clovyr, which will initially support public and enterprise ethereum applications.
On the conference's third day, Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey endorsed cryptocurrencies. “The internet deserves a native currency; it will have a native currency,” he told audiences.
Blockchain technology also received a strong endorsement from FedEx CEO and founder Frederick W. Smith during a panel. “Blockchain has the potential to completely revolutionize trade across borders,” Smith said. “We think this is potentially a profound technological change.”
It didn't have that much appeal for Alan Lane, chief executive of Silvergate Bank in San Diego. The bank has been providing services to cryptocurrency companies since 2014 and now has 250 clients in the crypto space. Lane participated in a panel about custodial services for cryptocurrency.
“We’ve decided as a bank to focus on the actual cryptocurrency as opposed to blockchain software as a service,” Lane said. “Because this is a banking initiative for us, we have built a deposit platform to work with exchanges and institutional investors to help them on-ramp and off-ramp from U.S. dollars to crypto.
"We are less focused on blockchain as a technology, and we haven’t seen the use cases for separating blockchain from cryptocurrency application.”
He was among the few sounding a negative note about blockchain, however.
For the blockchain-based data-sharing platform Streamr, Consensus was a boon. The company’s CEO, Henri Pihkala, announced its launch of a real-time data marketplace and two new partners, Nokia and OSIsoft.
TrustToken, a platform that bridges blockchains and real-world assets, demoed its TrueUSD, a stablecoin, which is a form of cryptocurrency backed by an asset. Rafael Cosman, the company’s chief technology officer, said the token can be redeemed one-for-one for U.S. dollars and will be listed with bitcoin and ethereum on May 21.
Executives at SONM, an ethereum-based network for globally distributed computing power, pointed out that they had grown from the last Consensus conference, going from two employees to 15 exhibiting at the event.
"This year was especially important as we played bigger, aiming for more visibility in the community," said Aleksei Antonov, a co-founder of SONM. "We made a huge leap for the past year and we were waiting for this event to share our vision, results and the next milestones."
Even if it didn't move markets, the event made crypto devotees hopeful, said Larry Smalheiser, vice president of Spark PR, a technology public relations firm headquartered in Silicon Valley.
“It feels like it’s a critical point and there’s a lot of power and interest behind blockchain technology,” he said.