NEW YORK—On a Thursday night in lower Manhattan, just a brisk walk from Goldman Sachs, a group of developers and entrepreneurs met to explain how they were going to take over traditional finance.
Tina Zhen was ready. After sprinting since November to get her idea to market, this was the first time sharing it with other players in the decentralized finance space. She wanted to frame it right because there’s money riding on its success, and not just for her.
Zhen’s project is about a lot of things—“the cartelization of blockchain infrastructure,” information asymmetry, and the “fractured nature” of market pricing. But what it is really about is making sure cryptocurrency miners stop getting screwed. It’s about open finance.
Zhen is part of the third cohort of Tachyon, a ConsenSys-backed accelerator. (Disclaimer: ConsenSys also funds Decrypt.) Whereas the first two Tachyon cohorts were mostly remote and had no theme, the latest iteration is a 12-week session based in New York. Each team is working to make blockchain products and platforms that create what Jason Novack, one of Tachyon’s two program directors, calls “more open and interoperable financial systems.”
After beginning in November and taking a breather over the holidays, the founders—which hail not just from the U.S. but also from France, Germany, China, and elsewhere—all returned by January 16 for the accelerator’s first annual DeFi Day. Designed as a trade show, the day was a chance for the entrepreneurs to hone their pitch for a home crowd. ConsenSys staffers, DeFi dapp builders, and at least one Ethereum core developer were on hand to see their demos.
Because membership in the cohort came with $150,000 in funding—as well as the prospect of investor meetings come February—slots were competitive. A ConsenSys team across disciplines selected participants who had ideas for the next generation of open finance—the term favored over decentralized finance, which scares some people off (but DeFi Day has a ring to it).
A broad team allowed for a slew of sanity checks. Lawyers could chime in and say the project would face legal threats; technical experts could say when an idea wouldn’t work, even if the team hadn’t yet realized it. They weren’t looking for world-beating technologies, but instead for practical applications that solved a specific problem. What remained were nine teams with potential. The main factor, co-director Brian Dell said, was: “Do we have a clear idea of where they might go?”
Some projects started off in a much different spot at the beginning of the program. SimpleID, set to launch next week, began as a way of quickly onboarding people into crypto applications. But it took joining Tachyon for SimpleID to realize its true mission: “We really aren’t building dev tools anymore to solve onboarding. We’re building a platform to solve relationship-building problems.”
Now, it aims to help dapps communicate directly with customers through their applications rather than sending urgent pleas through Web 2.0 platforms like Twitter and Telegram. Justin Hunter, co-founder of SimpleID, said, “You see these messages, like, ‘You need to migrate your position. You need to take some sort of action.’ And people aren’t seeing it.”
That may not sound like a finance tool, but Hunter begs to differ: “It’s definitely not specific to open finance, but I will say the reason that it applies more urgently to open finance is we’re talking about people’s money.”
Such shifts in focus can be attributed not only to the program directors, but also to the types of people it solicited. Dell said they specifically sought out founders who “can ignore their products so they can talk to their customers.”
This emphasis on solving real problems, rather than rigidly adhering to imagined principles of DeFi or decentralization, may ruffle some maximalist feathers, but the point is to make something people want. Dell emphasizes that Tachyon-linked products should be “for people” not “to people.” In other words, audience comes first.
Take, for instance, Idle, a protocol that is constantly moving users’ funds to the lending protocol on which they’ll earn the best interest. CEO Matteo Pandolfi said the project arose shortly after he finished a finance degree and started using trading bots to arbitrage rates on decentralized exchanges. He was chagrined to find “there were some moments where our funds were idle.” That meant lost money. It led him to look into lending protocols, but then he found that interest rates were volatile. He sees Idle as a way of helping people like him earn more interest on their money.
But not everything is about making money. Antoine Scalia, CEO of cryptio, has developed a way of reporting it. Emphasizing that he’s attracted to “non-sexy businesses” that aren’t marketed at consumers, he made a bookkeeping platform because he has an accounting background...and because he needed to figure out his tax liability in France. While cryptio won’t do your taxes, it will take a company’s cryptocurrency activities and translate them into numbers that integrate with accounting and tax software, even if they’re involved in more complex staking mechanisms.
Unlike some of the other budding companies in this cohort, cryptio already had a product and customers before joining the accelerator. Its primary issue was figuring out which direction to go. “The team here helped us a lot to figure out what is the best use case to go first. What is the story that you have to tell?” All that was left was to leverage ConsenSys’ presence in the city and create their own footprint. The result: “Before, no one was aware of us in the U.S. and New York, and now every player that has a foot in the space knows us. And that’s only because—and thanks to—the accelerator.”
Near the end of the night, in which some of those players could be found eating cheese and collecting company stickers, Zhen was beaming. The judge from her first winning hackathon had come, not realizing she’d be there.
Her team’s project was different then. Now, it’s called Honey Lemon and is a market for collateralized cloud-mining contracts so miners can research prices and don’t get stuck in endless debt. When asked whether the project’s name might change, Zhen mentioned that it would have to be SEO-optimized so her target audience could find it.
Like the rest of the Tachyon cohort, she’d learned that the customer was more important than the product.