There needs to be more education around the potential of blockchain. As an example, cryptoeconomics is an entirely new field within economics brought about by cryptocurrencies and remains largely unexplored. We need to educate entrepreneurs, engineers, academics, and policy-makers to better understand the needs of the crypto economy and how to ideate, build, deploy, and regulate useful blockchain applications.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Erick Pinos.
Erick Pinos is the Americas Ecosystem Lead at Ontology, the high performance, open source blockchain specializing in digital identity and data. Erick is also President of the Blockchain Education Network (BEN), a six-year-old global network of blockchain clubs, students, professors, and alumni. Erick has a BS in Management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he was the President of the MIT Bitcoin Club and a researcher at the MIT Digital Currency Initiative.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
My name is Erick Pinos and I am the Americas Ecosystem Lead at Ontology, the high performance, open source blockchain specializing in digital identity and data. I am also President of the Blockchain Education Network (BEN), a six-year-old global network of blockchain clubs, students, professors, and alumni. I hold a BS in Management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where I also served as the President of the MIT Bitcoin Club and a researcher at the MIT Digital Currency Initiative.
Can you tell us the story of how you got first involved with the Regtech or Crypto markets?
My fintech journey started in middle school when I participated in a stock market simulation game as an after-school program. I have a BS in Management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where I was the President of the MIT Bitcoin Club and a researcher at the MIT Digital Currency Initiative. It was at MIT I discovered blockchain for the first time when I was airdropped 100 dollars worth of Bitcoin as a promotional campaign on campus. Since then my interests in fintech have been focused towards programmable digital assets, especially ones utilizing blockchain.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I had a lot of help from my business partners at the crypto funding firm Game Theory Group. I was lucky enough to have met them right as I was graduating MIT. Their hustling style was very similar to mine. We were based in Boston but took many business trips to New York and San Francisco where I was able to get first-hand experience into the crypto VC world. It was through them I was able to network and meet many of my closest connections today. We worked very closely with the Asian blockchain ecosystem, which eventually led to me finding Ontology, which is where I work now.
Can you share 5 things that should be done to help stabilize the Crypto Economy?
- Better education. There needs to be more education around the potential of blockchain. As an example, cryptoeconomics is an entirely new field within economics brought about by cryptocurrencies and remains largely unexplored. We need to educate entrepreneurs, engineers, academics, and policy-makers to better understand the needs of the crypto economy and how to ideate, build, deploy, and regulate useful blockchain applications.
- More institutional acceptance. The public needs to be more trusting and open for cryptocurrency to become ingrained into society. More institutional acceptance legitimizes cryptocurrency in the public’s eye. Additionally, it’s unreasonable to think that everyone will be able to or even wants to manage their own private keys. More custodial services for cryptocurrency helps onboard mainstream users, bringing new money into the system.
- Better marketing. There needs to be less cryptocurrency marketing focused around trading and promoting crypto as a lifestyle. Cryptocurrency being pushed as a get-rich-quick scheme erodes the public trust in cryptocurrency. People aren’t being educated about the real use cases that blockchain and cryptocurrency enables.
- More interoperability. As blockchains choose to specialize and tackle different industry segments, interoperability will allow for communication and intermingling between these protocols. Much like the internet is built on different frameworks in different coding languages but remains a cohesive experience for the end user, so too should blockchain.
- Better UX. Crypto products often market themselves as “crypto” and design their UX in such a way that only crypto-savvy users can understand, thus alienating any mainstream users. Blockchain and cryptocurrencies should be pushed to the back-end and crypto companies should focus on creating a good easy-to-use product for the end user.
In your experience, what are the top strategies that crypto firms should be considering in order to have a competitive edge?
In order to have a competitive edge, crypto firms must be willing to quickly adapt to the changing market. Crypto firms in 2018 that were in denial that ICOs were coming to an end did not perform well. Likewise, the firms that are denying the new trends in decentralized finance happening now are under performing. Maximalism towards any particular project or technology has not worked out. Blockchain trends are constantly changing as the industry matures and the players collectively figure out which blockchain use cases are the strongest.
What are the 3 things that most excite you about the blockchain industry? Why?
- Decentralized data. I’m excited for blockchain to be used to store and verify data. With Ontology’s decentralized identity framework, users can have ownership of their data and choose who to share it with. Attestation on the blockchain allows for data verification, increasingly important in a world of fake news and deep fake videos.
- Decentralized finance. Programmable money and stackable applications allow for more complex financial instruments that previously were impossible to deploy. One example is Aave, which allows users to loan their cryptocurrency and receive temporary tokens in return. These tokens represent how much was loaned out and can be sent back and forth between users, all the while earning interest. Another example is Ampleforth, which launched a token whose supply contracts and expands to push the token price towards 1 dollars. These kinds of economic systems would not have been possible without the programmability that blockchain allows.
- Decentralized insurance. Right now insurance firms are incentivized to deny claims to make profit. Decentralized mechanisms to pool and distribute money would not need nearly as much staffing, so the cost of overheads would be slashed. Additionally, because a decentralized system is not a company that would need to maximize profit for shareholders, claims can be more appropriately given, which leads to a more just system. The same can be done for taxes.
What are the 3 things worry you about the blockchain industry? Why?
- I think the blockchain industry has a tendency to miss the long-term vision in favor of aggrandizing short-term money making strategies like trading, ICOs, staking, and now yield farming. Most people that come to me asking about blockchain could care less about what it does, just how to make money off it. This culture is perpetuated by some of the largest industry leaders in the space. Blockchain has to provide real value for the world beyond offering money-making opportunities through trading and arbitrage.
- I worry a lot about the scams that are prevalent in blockchain, more so than in many other industries. Cryptocurrency has made it easier to get scammed and people who are less tech-savvy are usually the target. There are rampant cryptocurrency scams being conducted on social media platforms that are successfully stealing thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency from users. We have to ask ourselves how much responsibility is on the user to not get scammed and how much responsibility is on the projects to put in mechanisms to help users not get scammed.
- Regulation is always a big issue. Many regulators are not tech-savvy and thus there is a real risk of passing well-meaning but ill-informed legislation that could stifle the growth of the blockchain industry.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
I try to provide the same opportunities that made me successful in the space to the students in my nonprofit the Blockchain Education Network (BEN). BEN is a community of blockchain students, professors, and alumni around the world that started in 2014. We find the funding and sponsorship to provide flights and lodging for university and high school students to blockchain conferences and hackathons around the world. We also provide online blockchain lessons, videos, and events for students to learn. Lastly, we provide networking opportunities for them to meet industry leaders and potential employers, co-founders, or investors in the space.
For example, in 2018 we brought 5 students from BEN India to the MIT Bitcoin Expo and covered partial flights and full housing. We were even able to get their visas approved for the trip. Afterwards, they went back and started blockchain clubs at their universities to teach more students about blockchain.
Can you share a story of a time when things went south for you? What kept you going and helped you to overcome those times?
Around the beginning of 2019, things had started going south for me. I had been running BEN, a non-profit, full time for about six months. Nearly the entire executive team at BEN had left, leaving just my Vice President and I with a tremendous amount of work. The blockchain space was well into the bear market, and the value of my personal cryptocurrency holdings had plummeted. Likewise, because of the bear market, blockchain companies had stopped making sponsorships and donations. We had no company funding to bring on other people, and we weren’t paying ourselves. In fact, I was putting in money every month to keep BEN afloat.
In many ways running a non-profit is even harder than running a startup. During financial hardships, regular startups could raise another round from VCs, which is a world that I was familiar with. But a non-profit can’t do that, and there was a huge stigma whenever we sought donations to cover administrative expenses.
It was too much risk for too little reward. I wanted more financial security for myself and my family. I also wanted to work on a product, not just education and advocacy. Things started to change when I switched my Vice President and I at BEN to part-time for us to start seeking other opportunities. I got in touch with VC friends of mine and traveled to China to meet with Ontology Network, where I accepted a position with the company. Things started to turn around as I was able to bring in a monthly income. I was able to cover my costs, travel to more blockchain conferences, and become a larger voice in the space. Ontology has been a valuable learning experience in working remote and with teams in different time zones. It even helped me structure BEN in a much better way for it to continue growing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” — Theodore Roosevelt
I learned pretty quickly to set high goals and not get bogged down by failure. I made it as the first student in my high school’s history to get into MIT despite being a first-generation citizen and having the bare minimum required grades and test scores. Then at MIT I failed a lot of tests and even a couple of classes. I constantly doubted whether I deserved to be there. I got rejected multiple years in a row from the Google and Microsoft internships that all my peers were doing. So I spent a lot of time working on my own startups, which all went nowhere.
I’ve learned to be more resourceful and to take every failure as a learning experience to move on to better things. I leveraged the connections I made during my startup experiences to get a research position at the MIT Digital Currency Initiative, which I leveraged into a blockchain internship at Nasdaq, which I leveraged into working with Game Theory Group, which I leveraged to get to Ontology, where I am at now.
My biggest regrets now are the moments when I didn’t take action or decided to play it safe. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt’s great quote, I’d rather fail at something knowing I gave it a try rather than never have tried in the first place.
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