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Houston expert weighs in on the trustworthiness of cryptocurrency

Detractors are suspicious of the anonymity that comes with blockchain technology. Supporters say it's exactly the point. Photo via David McBee/Pexels

Interest in cryptocurrencies reignited during the pandemic, driven in part by trillions of dollars in stimulus money that left many investors with “free money” to put to work. And while bitcoin recently tumbled nearly 55 percent from its peak, it remains the most valuable crypto asset in the world, with a market capitalization of around $589 billion. Its investors argue that it’s still a safer bet than stocks during this period of economic upheaval.

A renewed interest in cryptocurrencies — digital currencies that rely on blockchain technology, in which transactions are verified and records maintained by a decentralized system that uses cryptography — is widespread. Large corporations like Tesla, Mass Mutual and KPMG Canada have announced plans to hold cryptocurrency assets in treasury or accept them as payment. Meanwhile, major financial institutions are offering customers more digital asset investment options. Twelve years after bitcoin’s birth, mainstream investors are honing in on the currency, too.

In the midst of this market fascination, a fundamental question still remains. What exactly is cryptocurrency, and why should we care? And what about other industry buzzwords, like blockchain, decentralized exchanges or non-fungible tokens (NFTs)? Are they all just fads that will fade away?

Some have called cryptocurrency a Ponzi scheme, a tool for illicit activities, or a short-term fascination that will be irrelevant in a few years. It’s an understandable mindset, since there’s no intrinsic value in cryptocurrencies — not unlike the U.S. dollar after it stopped being backed by gold in the 1970s. But it’s also a shortsighted one. Blockchain technology, which allows users to exchange information on a secure digital ledger, is extremely useful because it automates contractual arrangements through computer programming.

I’m a firm believer that cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology that underpins them are here to stay, and understanding how this technology has transformed our environment, and how it will continue to evolve, is critical to succeeding in business.

First steps

Bitcoin took the first major steps towards a truly electronic cash system in 2008, in the midst of one of the worst financial collapses of all time. Governments worldwide were bailing out financial institutions that had been deemed “too big to fail.” Perceptions of economic inequality spurred movements such as Occupy Wall Street, which was fueled by a distrust in banks.

Bitcoin, on the other hand, wasn’t created by a trusted source — in fact, no one knows exactly who invented it. In a 2008 white paper, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” Satoshi Nakamoto — the pseudonymous individual presumed to have developed bitcoin — described the currency as a way to securely facilitate financial transactions between parties without having to involve a central intermediary. No longer would people have to put their trust in the large financial institutions that failed them during the financial crisis.

Detractors find the lack of a central authority with blockchain worrisome, but proponents say it’s exactly the point: You no longer have to trust the person or institution you’re dealing with. You only have to trust the algorithms that run the program — and presumably an algorithm will never run off with your money.

Instead, blockchain enables a cooperative of members to run the shared network ledger required to keep track of a currency’s credits and debits. No one can shut down the system so long as a group of computers anywhere in the world is able to connect to the internet and run bitcoin’s software.

Because of bitcoin, today we can uniquely own digital assets and transfer them with the certainty that people can’t spend the same cryptocurrency twice. The transactions that bitcoin-like applications make possible are registered in permanent and immutable digital records for all to see in a common ledger.

By enabling fast and easily verifiable transactions, blockchain technology is also streamlining business operations in banking, supply chains, sustainability, healthcare and even voting. Development in these sectors and others is continuing at an intense pace. Annual global funding of blockchain projects now runs in the billions of dollars. From 2020 to 2021 alone, it jumped from several billion to nearly $30 billion.

Second generation

Since bitcoin’s arrival, we’ve seen a second, more sophisticated generation of cryptocurrencies evolve, with Ethereum as their flagship. Ethereum has its own programming language, enabling users to write and automate self-executing smart contracts, allowing for the creation of tokens for a specific use. For example, imagine that when Uber was founded, it had created an Uber token, and only people who owned Uber tokens could use the rideshare service. Tokens currently power thousands of decentralized applications that give people more privacy and control in a variety of areas, such as internet browsing, financial services, gaming and data storage, among others.

Some critiques of cryptocurrency remain. One growing concern is that cryptocurrencies require a significant amount of energy to run their networks, leading to higher transaction costs, energy waste and limited scalability. Newer cryptocurrencies are attempting to find ways to verify transactions that require less energy.

Some people also worry about ongoing volatility in cryptocurrency markets. A third generation of cryptocurrencies has emerged to address this concern: so-called “stablecoins,” which are pegged to a government-issued currency, a commodity, assets, or basket of assets. For some, stablecoins are serving as an onramp into the world of crypto from the world of traditional finance.

Before a new technology becomes part of everyday life, we often see a long period of development, improvement and consumer adoption. Cryptocurrency and blockchain markets are still in this early development stage, but they’re also moving quickly into the mainstream. The total market capitalization of cryptocurrencies late last year briefly reached the $3 trillion mark, or roughly 15 percent of the U.S. GDP, and there’s been more than $100 billion locked into decentralized finance applications.

Large companies like IBM, Amazon and Bank of America are leading the way by tapping into blockchain technology in their daily business activities. It won’t be long until this market, previously characterized by speculation and wild volatility, will be transformed into a stable infrastructure framework. But companies need to get up to speed on the industry now. Those that commit to doing so will be the ones that thrive.


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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was written by Manolo Sánchez, an adjunct professor of operations management at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Calling all Houston innovators — now's your time to shine. Graphic by Naomi Galvez

Update: The deadline for nominations have been extended to midnight on Sunday, October 2.

InnovationMap is back to honor local startups and innovators — and this time, we've upped the ante.

Houston Exponential and InnovationMap have teamed up to combine their annual awards and event efforts to premiere a brand new program. The Houston Innovation Awards Gala on Wednesday, November 9, at The Ion will be a comprehensive event honoring Houston founders, innovators, investors, and more. InnovationMap and HX, which was acquired earlier this year, are in the same network of ownership.

Nominations are open online until midnight October 2, and nominees will have until October 11 to complete an additional application that will be emailed to nominees directly. A group of industry experts and Houston innovation leaders will review those submissions and determine finalists and winners across 11 categories. The categories for this year's awards are:

  • BIPOC-Owned Business honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation
  • Female-Owned Business honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by a woman
  • Hardtech Business honoring an innovative company developing and commercializing a physical technology across life science, energy, space, and beyond
  • B2B Software Business honoring an innovative company developing and programming a digital solution to impact the business sector
  • Green Impact Business honoring an innovative company providing a solution within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, alternative materials, and beyond
  • Smart City Business honoring an innovative company providing a tech solution within transportation, infrastructure, data, and beyond
  • New to Hou honoring an innovative company, accelerator, or investor that has relocated its primary operations to Houston within the past three years
  • DEI Champion honoring an individual who is leading impactful diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and progress within Houston and their organization
  • Investor of the Year honoring an individual who is leading venture capital or angel investing
  • Mentor of the Year honoring an individual who dedicates their time and expertise to guide and support to budding entrepreneurs
  • People's Choice: Startup of the Year selected via an interactive voting portal during of the event
Nominees can be submitted to multiple categories.

Additionally, the awards gala will honor an innovator who's made a lasting impact on the Houston innovation community. While you may nominate an individual for the Trailblazer Award via the online form, the judging committee will not require applications or nominations for this category and will be considering potential honorees from the ecosystem at large. If you are interested in sponsorship opportunities, please reach out to cbuckner@houstonexponential.org.

Last year, InnovationMap introduced its awards program and named 28 finalists and honored the nine winners on September 8. Click here to see more from last year's event.

Tickets for the November 9 event are available online. Early bird tickets will be $60 per person and startup founders will be able to attend for $25.

Click here to submit a nomination or see form below.


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