Ryan Chew is a co-founder and managing partner of Tribe Accelerator, the first blockchain accelerator supported by the Singaporean government.
From his favourite prata shop on Jalan Besar, Chew and partner Ng Yi Ming decided to create a global blockchain ecosystem with the aim of connecting blockchain start-ups with corporations, governments, and investors.
Backed by the likes of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, Temasek, Citibank, IBM and Intel, Tribe’s start-ups have gone on to raise more than $30 million. It’s an amazing journey for the technopreneur who started his journey at 19, fresh out of National Service and spending his meagre $3000 savings to develop a gaming application.
Since that initial stumbling block, Chew has faced different challenges that required him to adapt and adjust his own thinking and work processes. During the early days of blockchain, he dove into Fixir, an app that allowed you to get quotes really quickly, from reliable and trusted mechanics.
One of the problems that they had hoped to solve was the issue of counterfeit car parts. Using blockchain as a ledger in conjunction with NFC chips, non-mechanics would be able to tell if car parts were the real deal. Yet despite its promise, recognition of the technical complexity of implementation convinced them to put off the project; and even though nothing came of it, the conceptualisation process brought new ideas.
“There’s more to blockchain than just cryptocurrency,” says Ryan Chew. “Why aren’t people talking more about other use cases? This could be very beneficial for humankind.” Going through several different accelerator programs, Chew used this experience to conceive of a new accelerator program to facilitate adoption of this technology across different industries and not just fintech.
So far, Tribe has supported more than 30 start-ups from two batches with a combined value of more than US$1 billion. We caught up with Chew, our latest August Mentor, a man with the vision of changing the world through blockchain technology.
What are some of the fundamental misunderstandings of about blockchain?
I had this master class with a bunch of SME bosses who owned coffee shops and retail chains and the biggest misunderstanding is that blockchain is synonymous with cryptocurrency. While it’s the most widely adopted use case, there are many different use cases of blockchain in general.
The technology is an enabler. It enables you to solve problems, but it doesn’t necessarily solve all the problems by itself. It still has to work with different components of the full technical stack.
Another common misconception is that blockchain is a single source of truth. People fail to understand is that while it can hold truth, it is only as good as whatever you put in. So if the source is false or falsified, it can be abused like any other instrument.
You mentioned regulators themselves had negative preconceived notions of the tech, how did you convince them otherwise?
There is a lot of negative perception because back then, there was a lot of ICO scams that were coming out to make a quick buck. Hence, the government took a more hesitant stance looking at blockchain. I think we started to gain more traction exploring different use cases exploring and imagining how this particular technology could be used in many different ways and many different verticals to accomplish many different goals.
Could you share what are some of the real-world applications so far?
Let’s start with local issues. Open certs is a government initiative to put our certification on the blockchain. For example, when we go for a job Interview how is the employer going to verify that what you say on your CV is true? With blockchain, they can go onto a portal that’s developed by GovTech and verify. In the old process, it would be expensive and time consuming where people have to make calls and send emails to verify. If you have misplaced a 10-year-old certificate, it would be costly and time consuming to replace as well.
MIT Sloan assistant professor Christian Catalini said it best: The benefit of blockchain is two-fold. First, it reduces the cost of verification. Next, it reduces the cost of networking. We see a lot of use case in the cost of verification portion.
One of the start-ups we are accelerating aims to track your digital health passport. It’s especially useful during this COVID pandemic. If you go overseas, it’s easy for people to verify that you’ve been tested negative. Without this platform, the costs are enormous from a government-to-government standpoint. An officer needs to be able to call the right person at the right Ministry to verify the right database, and it would probably take three days.
Furthermore, there’s a lot of manpower and coordination involved and that can potentially introduce human error. We have another start-up looking to digitise identity. People in the third world or developing countries might be unbanked because they don’t have identification, or their record keeping is spotty. How are they able to verify their identity when it comes to opening a bank account? How do people like that get a loan?
You’ve gone from prata shop ideas to a $51 million company, has this journey given you any new wisdom? Have your mindsets changed?
Yes, my mindset has changed, as have my stress levels. [Laughs] In terms of wisdom, there are many things I have learned about leadership. I have learned more about delegation. It doesn’t mean sending tasks to people. There are many facets to delegation: Is this person already overloaded? How do I piecemeal a task so that the right person with the right capacity, can do the right thing and deliver what is required.
There’s the communication aspect as well. More often than not, the leadership equation is assumed to be the transmission of instructions down the chain but I believe that there are more layers to just top to bottom communication. How do we as leaders aid inter-team communications?
Communication must take place within teams and between teams, how do we create the process for them to talk efficiently within all these different teams? Another aspect of communication is what I call the “push pull concept”.
When we are working as a small team, information flow takes place from a leader’s push perspective: we push information down information as we gather new insights but as we grow and more projects come in, there is a need for active participation which leads to “pull communication”.
As we get busier, it’s harder to manage information flow and team members receive information from everywhere.
If they have time, they will stop to process who this information is for. If they don’t have time, they’re just going to act on the information based on their own. So then there’s a need for other team members to actively “pull” that information: Hey, what’s going on? Heard you have an update on this? There’s a lot of nuance in leadership, it’s all contextual.
What kind of problems are you looking to solve yourself?
We are always looking to solve problems in the eco-system but it’s very high touch. There’s too much hand holding and so we wondered how we would scale this up. So we launched a portal supported by IMDA to reach the masses so they can better understand the use cases of blockchain.
The other problem was after matchmaking corporates to start-ups and then start to build Proofs-of-concept (POCs), we couldn’t find the manpower to build it. That’s when we realised the talent shortage needed to be solved with Tribe Academy. We aim to develop the net generation of talent for frontier technologies like blockchain, cybersecurity, data science, and so on.
We want to democratise the ability to build applications. No Code is my way of tackling the immediate talent shortage in the short term while we train more talent and groom existing talent.
Do you have any regrets?
All my mistakes have led me on the path today, so not really.
(Photos: Allen Tan; Styling: Amos Chin)