10 blockchain startups and how they can help your enterprise

Software, services, platforms: Businesses are bringing you blockchains in all shapes and sizes

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Peter Sayer/IDG

10 blockchain startups and how they can help your enterprise

Barely a day goes by, it seems, without another blockchain startup announcing a round of venture capital investment or, increasingly, an "initial coin offering" -- an unregulated way of raising funds that relies on cryptocurrency, not contract law, to record investors' stakes.

In such a fast-moving market it's always going to difficult to identify sound investments -- but here, for what they're worth, are ten blockchain businesses offering technological bricks you can use in the enterprise.

Bitgo

Bitcoin is the original blockchain application. It’s a cryptocurrency system that can guarantee payments between parties that don’t know one another.

One of the challenges for businesses wanting to process bitcoin payments is the integration of bitcoin with existing financial controls. This goes far beyond book-keeping, for which existing multicurrency systems might suffice. It’s also about managing access controls -- who may authorize payments, and to whom -- and logging who made which payments and why.

Basic bitcoin wallets do little more than store the private keys needed to make bitcoin payments, leaving their owners to build their own access controls and audit trails -- or do without.

Bitgo has developed a business-oriented bitcoin wallet that allows for multiple signatures and co-signing of transactions, rate limits and address whitelists to reduce the risk of erroneous payments, and APIs for integration with other enterprise applications.

As a sideline, Bitgo also develops private blockchain systems, including one for the U.K.’s Royal Mint that is used to record transactions in the mint’s online market for pure gold.

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Chain

Where bitcoin operates on a permissionless blockchain -- that is, anyone can access it -- Chain is offering enterprises a permissioned one.

Like all blockchains, Sequence enforces the immutability of data already on it. But it also restricts who can append data to the record by managing the secure enclaves containing the cryptographic keys required.

Chain suggests it be used to manage payment for ride sharing, lend money, create an exchange for cryptocurrencies or secure a mobile wallet. Any system that records a balance in an account is a potential application, it says.

Key to Sequence is the notion of a team, which is composed of people and systems with particular roles, and who may have access to ledgers. Each transaction in a ledger must be signed by the people or systems that have authority over the relevant assets or accounts.

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SETL

SETL offers businesses or markets a realtime blockchain settlement platform on which to build registers of ownership and exchange of securities, mutual funds, private equity or similar properties. The platform, OpenCSD, could also handle factoring and discounting to improve liquidity in the market for commercial invoices, according to SETL.

Four French asset management firms including Groupama AM and Arkéa Investment Services used it to build IZNES, a pan-European fund record-keeping platform.

Metro Bank in the UK has even tested using OpenCSD to record and process payment card transactions on customer accounts.

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Blockstream

Blockstream

San Francisco-based Blockstream builds on the original blockchain, the one underlying the bitcoin payment system. By attaching sidechains to the bitcoin blockchain, it benefits from that system’s immutability and global reach, and adds the ability to move assets not just from one user to another, but from one blockchain to another, linking disparate markets through a shared protocol. It offers an open-source software platform, the Elements Project, to help businesses make use of all that.

Another of its sidelines will put bitcoin in space.

One of the obstacles to bitcoin’s ambition to become a global payment system is the need for connectivity to use it. Without access to the global transaction ledger, you can’t tell whether a person offering you bitcoins really owns them, or has already spent them. Blockstream is launching a series of satellites that will continuously rebroadcast updates to the bitcoin blockchain so that users in areas without internet access can keep their transaction databases up to date. Getting details of any transactions they process out to the rest of the world is another challenge, but one that requires shifting a small fraction of the data.

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Elliptic.co

Elliptic

One bon mot circulating about bitcoin is that regulators see it as an investment in “prosecution futures.” Because the blockchain holds an immutable record of all the bitcoin transactions ever made, and how the various accounts that made them are linked together, if a transaction is one day identified as linked to illegal activity, prosecutors will have a chance to trace the associates and activities of those involved, even years after the fact.

And it has to be said that bitcoin users don’t all have a squeaky clean reputation: think ransomware or dark markets. Doing bitcoinbusiness with people involved in those kinds of activities could also be damaging to your own reputation. You wouldn’t want your nascent bitcoin burger bar business to become linked with the seedier side of the internet.

That’s where Elliptic comes in. Its goal is to identify illicit activity on the bitcoin blockchain, and warn financial institutions and law enforcement agencies of what it sees. Using the blockchain and its own evidence database, it allows businesses to generate their own auditable risk profiles for potential clients.

Elliptic even touts two ways its service can help combat ransomware. The company says it can use the attacker’s payment address to determine based on past transactions whether they are likely to decrypt the ransomed data if paid. And if victims do chose to pay, Elliptic says it may be able to follow the money to identify the extortioner to law enforcers.

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Waves Platform

If you think your customers would be excited by a blockchain-based loyalty program or voting system, but you don’t want to build it yourself, Waves Platform is ready to white-label one for you.

It’s already home to over 5,000 different kinds of tokens, one of them for a mobile gaming company and another for a developer of shared office workspace.

Waves is also testing way to increase transaction throughput using a new blockchain technology based on one of many proposed improvements to the bitcoin system. Rather than transmitting a large bundle of transactions for signing at regular but long intervals, the Waves-NG system processes transactions as they arrive, bundling a small number of them into microblocks, every now and then declaring one of the bundles to be a key block. It’s a little like the way digital video streams are compressed by sending a key frame then transmitting only the changes between frames until the next key frame.

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Ethereum

While bitcoin was built for payment processing, Ethereum has bigger plans for its blockchain. It was developed from the start not just to record transactions, but to run code, giving it the ability to perform smart contracts: Transactions that decide for themselves when they are ready to execute.

Ethereum’s smart contracts are written in a new programming language, Solidity. You write your code and run it on Ethereum’s global, decentralized software platform, the current version of which is called Homestead. The smart contracts can be used to create private cryptocurrencies, manage crowdfunded sales, build autonomous democratic organizations, and more.

Trust in Ethereum is based on the principle that code is law, which leads to problems if someone gets their code wrong.

Humans have stepped in to overrule things a couple of times.

The first was in June 2016 when someone exploited a loophole in a smart contract running a venture capital fund called The DAO to destroy a third of its value. Reversing the DAO exploit required asking all Ethereum users to accept a manual modification of the shared ledger: Those that accepted are now using a blockchain called “Ethereum”, while those that refused use “Ethereum Classic.” For many users the fork is transparent: The blockchain they are using continues to grow as before, with the exception that they can no longer use it to interact with businesses building on the other fork.

The second incident was in November 2017, when someone accidentally triggered a bug in hundreds of smart wallets created by Parity, irreversibly locking the funds in them. With cryptocurrency worth US$160 million at stake, Parity and its users may yet call for a hard fork to solve its own problems.

Businesses building on Ethereum should be aware that, while someone might be there to save them if they make a really expensive goof, they’ll likely experience some disruption if other businesses need bailing out.

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R3

R3 operates the Corda distributed ledger, which you can run for yourself on Microsoft Azure.

Corda has backing from 100 financial institutions, and has been tailored for that market. For example, like Ethereum, it’s able to execute smart contracts but unlike Ethereum, these contracts are intended only to allow the processing of financial transactions. No virtual voting here!

While the ledger itself is shared among all participants, Corda allows for messages to be exchanged privately between any two parties. This is useful in a financial services context because although you might want everyone to agree on a fact, such as that Company X has given you US$1 million, you might not want others to know the basis for the deal.

Corda is a permissioned system so users know who they are dealing with, and requires smart contracts to be backed up by “real-world” legal contracts that can be used to determine the smart contract’s intended operation in case of dispute.

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Peter Sayer/IDG

Gem

Gem wants to use blockchains to build shared identity systems that can be used to control access to information across a market or industry. It is initially targeting applications in healthcare, supply chain management and usage-based auto insurance, where sharing of information is key, but trust issues abound.

Using its GemOS, it says businesses can connect to any data store and blockchain network -- although initially it is targeting Ethereum and blockchains built using Hyperledger.

In the auto insurance industry, for example, Gem believes insurance companies could give customers a better deal if they had access to more information -- but customers are reluctant to grant access to data on their vehicle purchases, movements and emergency room visits to just anyone. Gem’s answer to this problem is to encrypt the data and link it to a centralized repository -- the blockchain -- in such a way that only authorized parties can read it.

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BigchainDB

Blockchains are already databases of sorts -- but ones that aren’t easy to query. BigchainDB hopes to change that, offering a scalable, queryable database with the traditional blockchain characteristics of immutability and decentralization.

A BigchainDB system operates as a federation of nodes, with each node running the BigchainDB blockchain layer on top of a traditional database such as MongoDB or RethinkDB. The company recommends building the federation on a cluster of servers with each one controlled by a different person and, ideally, in a different location or jurisdiction.

There’s a public instance of BigchainDB, the Interplanetary Database, for you to test at ipdb.io. BigchainDB says it is already working with partners deploying blockchain applications for the automotive, energy, and supply chain industries.