Last year, perceptions of blockchain technology were caught in the crossfire of both cryptocurrency’s swift peak and dramatic plunge. It’s not surprising: cryptocurrency is the first and most visible application of blockchains, and many people think they are one and the same. It may be convenient and easy to use price or market cap to summarize the industry narrative. But it’s incorrect. The blockchain space is vast, spanning industries, each with different adoption curves and opportunities—and the nuanced value of the nascent technology isn’t reflected in these numbers. In fact, focusing on these metrics obscures what is really happening inside the space, putting execs at risk of developing blind spots that hide potentially disruptive development as it gathers steam.
But as billions poured into cryptocurrency in 2018, we did we learn something meaningful. The world got a high-stakes proof of concept exploring if blockchains could really be a way to safely transfer digital value from one party to another. Even as large-scale hacks of companies with poor custody practices filled the news, millions of people around the world contributed to a global battle test to see if the technology could safely hold or transfer, at times, well over a hundred billion dollars of digital value in the form of blockchain-driven cryptocurrency. This revealed challenges ahead (the need to evolve consensus and governance mechanisms, improve user experience, and get to regulatory clarity, to name just a few). But it also showed us that yes, blockchains can safely transfer digital value.
So how are businesses reacting? Corporations are paying attention, working hard to understand how this functionality translates to their industry, and how it shapes potential disruption. Here are several insider perspectives on where we are today, and where companies are investing in the technology as we go into 2019:
Jessica Groopman, Industry Analyst and Founding Partner, Kaleido Insights:
The market seems to be entering a winter, as AI did two or three times before its commercial boom. These kinds of shakeouts are ultimately a good thing because they help distinguish fact from fantasy. There are signals that suggest this will be a mild winter, rather than a full hibernation. First, several adjacent spaces that will influence adoption are growing, like AI, encryption techniques, and digital identity management. Second, we see some steps towards mainstreaming, with regulatory actions, consolidation in crypto-exchanges like Coinbase, and virtually all of the world’s largest technology companies building dedicated blockchain-based teams and products. Third, investment is moving away from speculation, such as in ICOs, and towards practical investments like smart contracts platforms, data exchanges, and prime use cases. One of most powerful things blockchain has done for business is teach us to think blockchain, i.e. to question the efficacy of centralized processes and think about value chains more strategically.
Brian Lio, CEO of research and advisory firm Smith + Crown:
The current markets are a poor reflection of the actual pace and type of development that is going on right now. We are seeing increasingly large brands and sophisticated multi-national organizations realize this technology has the potential for both disruption and opportunity. They are starting to perceive there is risk in leaving it up to others to figure out first. More and more companies are understanding they need to build their front lines, to understand the power this technology offers so they can start to prepare for or even take a lead in building what a blockchain-influenced future looks like for their particular industry. It’s happening across quite a few industries. Companies are becoming more public about their exploration, but we are also seeing thoughtful, innovative foundational work being done behind the scenes as well.
David Post, Managing Director, IBM Blockchain Ventures
We have a high degree of confidence that 2019 will be the year that enterprise blockchain networks—especially those addressing strategic industry use cases—will begin to emerge at scale. Blockchain business models will continue to mature, with both companies and the venture community helping to shape how these blockchain networks evolve. A variety of compelling concepts are emerging in financial services, supply chain, and media and entertainment. And we will see strategically important networks move to production, as companies partner with startups to solve complex challenges via the improved trust and transparency delivered by blockchains.
Linda Pawczuk, principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP
As we head into 2019, supply chain continues to be one of the largest enterprise applications for the technology—in a recent survey we found 53% of the execs surveyed stated they have ongoing supply chain use cases for blockchain. We’re seeing pharmaceutical companies, logistics providers, retailers, government agencies, and technology firms all working to enhance logistics network visibility via blockchain technology. We’re also seeing increased investment in digital recordation, digital identity and IoT from corporates. In the same survey, greater than 44% claimed to be working on an active use case using blockchain in at least one of these spaces.
Lou Kerner, Founding Partner of venture firm and advisory CryptoOracle:
Shakeouts are a natural part of our economic system. Economies with no shakeouts are the unhealthy ones. We’re still in the infrastructure phase of investing, building the rails that the industry will use to grow applications and services, and companies like R3 (enterprise blockchain), Coinbase (trading platform), Circle (finance company), and Ledger (wallet) are still attracting investment. The crypto bulls, like myself, believe crypto is a thing. The question is less ‘if’, than ‘when’. The companies getting the most funding today either have rapidly growing user bases or have great teams going after large opportunities, like stablecoins.
These insiders paint a measured counterpoint to the gloom and doom of headlines focused on crypto markets. However, “crypto winter” has certainly impacted blockchain entrepreneurs, with the price drop triggering sometimes fatal collateral damage to young businesses. Smith + Crown’s ICO Tracker shows the Initial Coin Offering (ICO) market chilled from 113 in December 2017 to just three in December 2018 . Poor treasury management practices created cash crises for upstart companies that kept funds in cryptocurrency after an ICO. Consensys and Steemit, two well-known firms in the space, reported layoffs in December while many smaller companies are quietly shutting down.
But as the market plunged, it released another kind of pressure. The misperception of cryptocurrency price as an indicator of blockchain potential had triggered overinflated expectations of blockchain technology. In the (relative) quiet after the fall, blockchain entrepreneurs now have the space in which to explore how to build on last year’s work to create something truly meaningful. From the outside, and next to 2018’s drama, measured but steady progress may feel almost boring. But inside the community, something very exciting continues to brew. It just requires more nuanced perception to see it.