Topl the world

Houston blockchain startup closes oversubscribed seed round of funding with local investors

Houston-based Topl has raised over $700,000 in its seed round. Getty Images

Kim Raath is pretty proud of her company right about now. Not only is she proud that her startup, Topl, a blockchain network with applications across industries, closed a 20 percent oversubscribed $700,000 seed round, but because she did it in a way that was directly in line with her company's values.

"Every investor that is invested now has focused on both the purpose and the profit, and I'm big on that," Raath, president and co-founder of Topl, says.

Houston-based Topl was created by a few Rice University graduates and doctoral students — Raath, Chief Technology Officer James Aman, and CEO Chris Georgen. The founders wanted to create a way to track impact in various industries, such as carbon footprints in oil and gas or fair wages for farmers in agriculture.

The team has built six blockchain platforms that operate on the Topl network — two are live now, and four will go live later this year. The platforms are focused on four different areas: agriculture (tracking food products from the farm to the shelves), mining (diamonds, for instance), sustainability and impact (tracking a program to see how it succeeds), and carbon credits and renewables within the energy industry.

"It's a validation time for us," Raath tells InnovationMap. "With two platforms already live and collecting transaction fees, we are now at a point where there are actual blockchain transactions happening on our network."

The fact that Topl's technology is already up and running is rare. For this reason, Raath says she has to focus a lot on educating investors, clients, and the rest of the community — something that's really important to her.

"In the blockchain space, there are not a lot of real applications live anywhere," Raath says. "A lot of people are selling ideas that can be built on blockchains, but have not executed yet."

Topl partnered with European NGO Fairfood to create an agricultural blockchain platform that currently is live. Shoppers in the Netherlands can buy a pack of nutmeg and track the product's progress from the farmer who grew and sold the spice. The other already launched platform is focused on sustainability. Topl worked with the Texas Coastal Exchange to create a carbon credit marketplace that can sell carbon offsets generated through the natural carbon sequestration activities of land the organization holds along the Texas coast.

"For us this round is taking these four spaces and validating ourselves, proving out volume, the blockchain's ability, and then, the big thing is, to build out our next version of our blockchain," Raath says.

Raath says the fundraising round was different from what she expected, but she's excited about her investors. Seventy percent of the round was raised by Houstonians, and 40 percent of the investors were women, she says. Topl also had investor interest across industries and backgrounds — from Rice University professors to former banking execs.

The round doesn't technically have a lead investor, but Samantha Lewis, director at the GOOSE Society of Texas, led a syndicate of investors that made up more than 40 percent of Topl's round. Lewis says the round was too early stage for something GOOSE investors would typically contribute to, but she believes in the company so much that she worked nights and weekends to accomplish some of the things a lead investor would do during a raise.

"Since this was their first big round that they raised, I stepped in to help advise them — thinking about the terms, strategic investors, how to pitch to different people, if they needed to oversubscribe, and little details like that," Lewis says. "Through working with them in this way, I was doing diligence with them, and I got really excited about it."

Lewis, who volunteers a lot within the Rice network, met Raath through Georgen and the two hit it off. Lewis was then able to bring in investors from her network to contribute under her syndicate.

This passionate group of value-add investors who are personally committed to the company is what makes this seed round different for Raath. Their commitment is encouraging to her.

"I 100 percent believe that the investors in this round will not allow Topl to fail," Raath says.

With the money, Topl will be able to grow its platforms, provide better product features, and increase marketing efforts. Topl's customers are drawn to the technology because of the business efficiency the blockchain adds to their supply chain, but they are also excited about how having this technology differentiates them from their competition. Raath says she's interested in growing Topl's ability to do joint marketing campaigns with their customers.

This type of promotion leads to a growing clientbase, and Raath says she sees an overwhelming interest from potential clients. Not only is Topl creating a series of platforms in various industries, but the company itself is connecting other companies through their clients.

"Topl is not just a technology," Raath says, "it's an ecosystem."

The music industry has adapted to the digital age — so should financial securities. Getty Images

One of my favorite movies growing up was Empire Records. It was the mid-1990s, and the closest we got to Instagram feeds was who had the best mixtapes. If you're not familiar with Empire Records (or what a mixtape is), I recommend watching the movie, but you don't have to worry too much about mixtapes any more.

Since Empire Records was released in 1995, the way we purchase and consume music has fundamentally changed. The physical music store was displaced by iTunes, and then the music industry evolved even further into a streaming economy. It took 24 years, but music evolved and it now operates in a fundamentally different way. Digitization of music was initially viewed as an existential threat to the industry, but in the end, music was digitized globally and the music industry very much survived.

The music industry has evolved and adapted to the digital age. The same happened across countless other industries, including financial services. Today we can invest in publicly traded stocks through a mobile app for free. However, a critical segment of capital markets has not evolved yet. The private securities space.

Transactions in private securities are still done on paper (no, DocuSign does not count as securities digitization.) Administrative costs are kept high due to the amount of paper that is processed and pushed through this system. As long as the foundation of private securities is paper, there is no amount of administrative technology out there to create an efficient market.

Public markets took the plunge into digital long before music did, and digitization of public markets enabled exponential growth globally. Trading volume, access to capital, and liquidity have all increased, and a large part of that can be attributed to the efficient and transparent nature of most public exchanges.

Efficient markets rely on price transparency and information equality. Currently, the private securities markets do not offer either of these characteristics. This is nothing new to people in the alternatives space, but how to reach these lofty goals, to create liquidity and reduce costs, is what I am excited about.

The reduction of cost does not relate only to commissions. There are administrative costs associated with private securities. Information distribution is slow and unilateral, forcing investors to depend on antiquated systems in order to track their investments. Nearly all of these costs are absorbed by the investor, and most efforts to date have not helped address the core issue, analog private security transactions.

Digitization of private securities is fundamentally different than tokenization. Tokenized securities are considered bearer securities. A digitized security, on the other hand, maintains its original status as a registered security, as long as its digitization is implemented in a manner that fits current regulatory requirements. Until recently, that had not been possible in a scalable way. Blockchain changed all of that.

Initial attempts at utilizing blockchain for private markets applied tokenization. Essentially, this configuration took securities that had clearly defined ownership records, anonymized them and put them on a public blockchain such as Ethereum. While there are some benefits to this approach, it also opened doors to significant fraud and securities regulation violations. Tokenization may provide liquidity, but the long-term risk far outweighs the value of liquidity for any prudent investor.

Blockchain does provide a framework that supports compliant digitization of private investments, it's simply not tokenization. The solution lies in using private permissioned blockchains that allow an appropriate degree of technical security while also ensuring transparency and accountability.

Blockchain enables us to maintain a statement of record that is both compliant, and scalable. Across the financial services industry, and across most other industries, blockchain is being deployed to help solve problems that were previously unmanageable. The blockchain is even helping farmers track their crops through IBM's blockchain. iownit has integrated blockchain at the core of our technology, proving that compliant digitization of private securities is possible and scalable.

The United States has a free market economy, so in the end, winners are determined by the market. It is our belief that the digitization of private securities is the responsible way to help this industry evolve. If you're still skeptical, just look at how the public securities markets have evolved since the '70s when electronic stock trading was enabled and the first digital public security trade was placed. Now try and imagine how private security markets will look in four years.

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Yosef Levenstein is the head of marketing at iownit, a Houston-based financial technology firm that is democratizing how investors and private companies transact.