Ed Roman wants to disrupt technology conferences, as in the kind you register to attend and then show up at a designated time and place.
In 2014, the venture capitalist and managing director of hack.vc put together his first Hack.Summit conference, which took place entirely online and gave all of its proceeds to engineering charities such as Women Who Code, freeCodeCamp and CoderDojo. (Tickets were free, but donations were encouraged.)
The 2018 Hack.Summit, which concluded last Wednesday, focused exclusively on blockchain. The three-day event featured more than 30 talks. The most popular ones, Roman told ThirtyK, featured Jed McCaleb, co-founder of Ripple, Stellar and Mt.Gox; Riccardo Spagni, lead maintainer of monero (XMR); and Brian Behlendorf, executive director of the Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger Project.
More than 17,000 people attended at least one session at Hack.Summit, which made it “the largest blockchain event in history and a true testament that if we create an event for a good cause that’s accessible, people will want to get involved and participate,” Roman said in a recent conversation.
ThirtyK: Why did you start Hack.Summit?
Roman: Physical conferences in real life typically exist for a business purpose: to maximize profits for their centralized stewards. To ensure equitable access to learning, we do not charge standard ticket fees. Instead, we ask all attendees to contribute a donation if they are able, which will be donated to our nonprofit partners.
The best use cases I’m seeing for blockchain [are] to create a system of record for an industry that didn’t have a system of record in the past.
ThirtyK: How much were you able to raise this year?
Roman: We raised over $100,000, which breaks our previous records at past events we’ve run. We’re super proud of this and are grateful for the community’s contributions.
ThirtyK: Why did you decide to focus the 2018 Hack.Summit on blockchain?
Roman: This event has been held three times: 2014, 2016 and 2018. This year’s event was themed after blockchain because it’s a new technology movement that developers are excited about, but few engineers actually fully understand in depth, so there was an opportunity to educate the world and get to the bottom of important topics. Also, the decentralized nature of blockchain democratizes access and eliminates rent-seeking middlemen. We believe this concept should be applied to events as well.
ThirtyK: What were the most important topics covered?
Roman: Scalability. Many speakers had novel approaches to scalability. 2018 will be remembered as the year that a startup ecosystem was born to help scale blockchain implementations.
ThirtyK: What approaches impressed you most?
Roman: We were especially impressed by Coda’s use of zkSNARKs, Starkware’s use of zkSTARKs, hardware enclave approaches from Oasis Labs, probabilistic approaches from DFINITY, gossip-based approaches from Hedera Hashgraph and enterprise approaches to blockchain from Kadena. The scalability battle will be occurring for the foreseeable future, and we will learn over the coming months and years which technologies are bulletproof and which crumble. But it’s too early to tell which will win, since so much is theoretical today.
ThirtyK: Do you personally lean toward a certain scalability approach?
Roman: No comment.
ThirtyK: What will it take for one approach to win out?
Roman: It’ll take time and large-scale tests in real-world environments. It will also require that these systems are tested against real-world takeover attacks from third parties who have a financial incentive to break the systems.
ThirtyK: Were there other key topics that were addressed?
Roman: Regulation was another hot topic and will continue to be so for quite a while. The regulatory landscape is uncertain, and many of the best projects are taking a conservative stance, such as avoiding an [initial coin offering] altogether, to avoid regulatory scrutiny.
Also, fluff versus substance. There are relatively few use cases of blockchain implementations in the real world solving business problems today, but that is expected to increase in the future as enterprises become more amenable to embracing technology as it matures and proves itself.
ThirtyK: Regarding regulation, what will need to change to make companies more confident?
Roman: The [Securities and Exchange Commission] will need to give clarity as to [its] position on ICOs and token presales and potentially introduce regulation to help protect investors.
ThirtyK: What talk surprised you most at the conference?
Roman: The Codex Protocol surprised us with their unique, vertical-industry approach toward solving problems in the real world. This is a great example of a protocol that’s helping solve for a narrow pain point. In our experience as venture capitalists, this is a great approach that de-risks product market fit because you’re solving a tangible problem for a known set of customers, rather than being a solution looking for a problem.
[Editor’s note: Codex is building a distributed database of transaction histories of high-end art and collectibles.]
ThirtyK: What real-world problem is most critical for blockchain to solve?
Roman: The best use cases I’m seeing for blockchain [are] to create a system of record for an industry that didn’t have a system of record in the past. For example, a supply chain, a group of competitors or business partners. The reason why this is a good use of blockchain is because you can financially incentivize organizations to agree on that system of record through their mutual token appreciation.
ThirtyK: Is that why you’re interested in blockchain?
Roman: We think that’s a genius concept and incentivizes an ecosystem of participants to help you succeed. Traditionally with open source you have a tension where you might monetize via an enterprise version, but that competes with the open-source version in terms of features and functionality. Blockchain doesn’t have that challenge because everything is open source, but monetization occurs via tokens that are held back.
ThirtyK: How would you compare blockchain startups today with tech startups from previous eras?
Roman: We are in the early adopter phase of blockchain, which is similar to the early dot-com era. There is a reasonable chance of a “crypto winter” happening in the future, but we aren’t concerned about it, because what people forget is that Amazon, PayPal, Google and other huge companies emerged from the dot-com bubble burst.
ThirtyK: What do you think the topic for Hack.Summit 2020 will be?
Roman: It’s too early to tell.