How Bruce Pon, Founder at Ocean Protocol is helping data owners to exchange and monetize their data.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Bruce Pon: Thank you for asking. I’m well, and my family is well. We’ve taken precautions and followed the guidance. Everyone is healthy, but many are unable to resume work because of the lockdowns. For me, work has continued undiminished, and I’ve been able to increase focus and productivity by staying home and not travelling to conferences.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Ocean Protocol.
Bruce Pon: I’m from Canada, but I’ve worked in the United States, all over Europe and Asia in the past 25 years, first as a consultant, then an international project manager for automotive companies. Since 2014, I’ve been working in the crypto and blockchain industry.
I’m convinced that blockchain and crypto represent a new general-purpose technology – so much so that seven years ago, I stopped everything to work on this. I co-founded ascribe, the world’s first blockchain-based service for digital artists and collectors, using what’s now more broadly known as NFTs. We pivoted early on to a product called BigchainDB and then pivoted a second time to Ocean Protocol in 2017.
Ocean Protocol’s mission is to kickstart – giving back power to people, particularly helping data owners to exchange and monetize their data. We’re building a protocol to help people buy and share data securely while preserving privacy. This protocol uses blockchain and crypto technology, and it has the potential to unlock all the siloed data stored everywhere, lying latent and underutilized.
How does Ocean Protocol innovate?
Bruce Pon: Because we’re one of the earliest startups in the space, we’ve been at the forefront of innovation in crypto and blockchain from the very beginning. We filed several patents for NFTs and blockchain technology in 2014 and, through our open source software, have been able to share many “world firsts” that are now gaining broader adoption.
Innovation has happened by necessity because crypto is so new to everyone – but the core for innovation has been our visionary founder, Trent McConaghy, who has constantly surveyed new developments and assessed emerging technologies. Everything we’ve done since 2013 has been deeply uncomfortable and pushing the boundaries between theory and practice.
For example, in 2013, the terms “blockchain” or “crypto” weren’t accepted nomenclature or terminology. There was no language, and every concept needed to be unpacked; many people just switched off, and they weren’t curious enough to dig deeper. It was exhausting to explain the same concepts over and over again. To see NFTs pierce the mainstream is extremely exciting: it signals that the mainstream is ready for blockchain use cases, which means real adoption on a large scale for the entire industry.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business? How are you coping?
Bruce Pon: When COVID broke out, I was in Asia.
I remember reading the first reports on Jan 2, and by mid-January, after seeing the images and videos coming out of China, I had a sense that it wasn’t looking good. When the 50 million residents of Wuhan got locked down, I knew it was serious, so I rushed back to Europe to make preparations throughout February, installed hand sanitisers, bought masks for everyone, and instructed our entire team to stock up on essentials – all before the panic buying started. We made the decision for 100% work from home and closed our office on Mar 1, 2020, a couple of weeks before the lockdowns. I’m very grateful that no one on our team got COVID.
We’ve been 100% remote for over a year, and team productivity has soared. People are able to work from anywhere, and some have used the opportunity to migrate to warmer climates.
We’ve adjusted to the new reality by opening hiring globally, allowing us to get talent from anywhere, and we’ve doubled our team size. The lack of conferences and distractions has allowed us to deliver on our roadmap consistently and with higher quality.
I think that the team is happier, but there are negatives. The physical isolation and lack of human contact are sorely missing for extroverts on the team. Watching our governments bungle the vaccine rollout, particularly in Europe, is deeply frustrating. Summer is on the way, and people need relief from being cooped up and the constant back-and-forth of lockdowns.
In the spring of 2020, we asked ourselves if there was a way to help, so we founded COVIDathon, the world’s first decentralized AI hackathon that brought together developers, doctors, and biologists to build tech solutions addressing the global pandemic. For 2 months, 275,000 community members from 10 partner organizations collaborated and came up with results such as a drone navigation system, a disease detection app, and an aggregation/location app. We partnered with SingularityNET, a leader in decentralized AI, and Decentralized Artificial Intelligence Alliance (DAIA), an organization of 50+ companies, to make it happen.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Bruce Pon: Working in crypto and blockchain, we’re used to being a little ahead of the curve. The instinct to prepare in February, close our office and go 100% remote was uncomfortable but also familiar in that we went against the conventional wisdom at the time but were later vindicated.
It’s interesting because the crypto and blockchain industry was the first to start yelling and screaming that COVID was a serious risk. There were prominent VCs like Marc Andreessen, Balaji Srinivasan, and Ryan Selkis who were publicly echoing what I was seeing on the ground in Asia – so I felt that my conviction to act early and forcefully was grounded. The decisions I made weren’t particularly hard decisions – they had low downsides and high upsides, so it was a no-brainer.
As for lessons, we’ve looked for ways to structure the work that allows for asynchronous productivity independent of timezones. We know that the boundaries between work-life balance can become blurred, so we’ve encouraged all team members to do what is right for them and their families. We’ve given people more control over their life and work, knowing that other family members may experience job cutbacks, economic stress, or get infected with COVID.
Half our team joined during the pandemic. I’ve never met them, and the chance that we’ll all be able to be in the same room ever has a low probability given the new reality of travel restrictions, vaccine passports, and quarantines. So moving forward, we want to explore ways to increase cohesion and team relationships.
All in all, the team has fared well. No one got COVID. Morale is good. People are more productive. They have full control over their work and have the flexibility to manage personal affairs.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Bruce Pon: Workwise, we use a lot of remote tools ranging from Slack, Zoom, Github, Zenhub, Miro, Telegram, and other borderless tools for ideation, work planning, and software development.
One of our priorities was to write manuals for orientation, communications, and branding. Because we’re not able to travel and meet people, we need to find other ways to propagate the messages, images, and values. Our community has grown more than 10x in one year, so it’s more important than ever to have guardrails, manuals, and collateral that allows people to contribute effectively.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Bruce Pon: The space is new, and the opportunities are immense, so I don’t really see competitors abound. We’ve been at the forefront, and we look to collaborate with everyone so that we can grow the industry and accelerate adoption. There are still 20 years to go before we start seeing some sort of slowdown. We’re at 5-10% penetration globally with crypto and blockchain, and there are another 6 billion people that we need to get the word out to, so we have a lot of greenspace to run through.
As for staying in the game, we named 2021 our “Year of Scaling,” reflecting our shift from early product-market fit to traction. We’ve announced 14 partnerships in 2021, with lots more in the pipeline to address various needs and use cases.
Your final thoughts?
Bruce Pon: COVID is real and does great damage to a person’s body. Through friends and family, I know a dozen people that have died and many more with lingering long-term effects from brain haze, chronic fatigue, and organ damage.
Governments have been incompetent in so many ways, but there’s a miracle prevention cure in vaccines. The science behind mRNA vaccines has been in development for over 40 years, so if you get the chance to get vaccinated, take it. We’re not going back to normal until the entire world gets this under control.
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