‘Any conference about blockchain is 95pc white, male Silicon Valley types’

21 Nov 2018

Niall Dennehy, co-founder and COO of Aid:Tech, speaking in 2018. Image: Katie O’Neill/TEDx Trinity College Dublin/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Aid:Tech’s Niall Dennehy is helping to shape a blockchain start-up with major international ambitions, but not everything is rosy in Ireland.

There’s a growing sense of scepticism towards the huge glut of blockchain start-ups appearing on the scene, with ways to tie the distributed ledger technology to a whole range of different – and seemingly unexpected – projects.

Football on the blockchain? Not sure why, but fine. Dating on the blockchain? Dear God, no. These are just some of the examples you come across on a regular basis that highlight why companies at one point decided to add blockchain to their name in order to get more publicity.

Being a bit different

But they don’t all have to be like that. Before any scepticism was felt by this particular journalist, I came across a Dublin-based start-up called Aid:Tech two years ago that was using blockchain, but for what sounded like a purpose I could strongly get behind.

The simple premise was to use blockchain to help aid organisations track a charitable donation from the person donating to the person receiving it, in order to prevent instances where aid can be intercepted by corrupt governments or local warlords.

Since then, things have moved pretty quickly to the point that it is now one of the darlings of the blockchain world, having raised €1m earlier this year, been named as one of the top fintech start-ups in Europe and also been named winner of the Irish Times Innovation of the Year Award 2018.

More recently, it has started working with the charity Concern to use its digital identity system for aid distribution in war-torn Syria.

Now, co-founder and chief operations officer Niall Dennehy is set to speak at Inspirefest 2019 in what he says promises to be a big year for the company that has 10 staff based in Dublin, and plans to grow that number very soon.

Much of this is being driven by its roll-out of its TraceDonate programme, allowing a person donating to a cause to see in real time when their donation is being spent and by whom. Already, the start-up has begun working with a major Irish bank to allow its staff to donate using the platform.

Baby on the blockchain

Yet it is its work in Tanzania where Dennehy really sees the company’s technology come to life, where it is being used to automatically distribute medical entitlements to pregnant women using smart contracts. This has already resulted in the birth of what was called the first “baby on the blockchain”.

“The World Bank is fascinated by the tech and we’re hoping to scale it to 1.2m people in the next 12 months,” Dennehy said.

“[Its PharmAccess partners in Tanzania were] able to make real data-driven decisions about how they will distribute medical entitlements to pregnant women, so that they could tell from the data whether they were getting enough folic acid, sulphates and haemoglobin tests.”

With these sorts of outcomes, Dennehy said that Aid:Tech finds itself in a strange place when it comes to blockchain, claiming that most start-ups in the sector are based on “theory, hype, tokens, wallets and cryptokiddies [slang term for people unskilled in blockchain trying to enter the space]”.

“We don’t pay too much attention to others, but there’s an awful lot of crap and hype in the space,” he said. “You go to any conference now talking about blockchain and it’s 95pc white, male Silicon Valley types. They say very little.”

He admitted that at one point, Aid:Tech considered doing an initial coin offering (ICO) to raise funding and had even gotten the green light from the Central Bank but, after consulting with established banks, was told that would be a problem with investors in the long run.

“Their perception was – whether they’re right or not –  that it’s like a dirty thing with speculation and other dodgy stuff,” he said, “with people buying Lamborghinis and flying to the moon.”

The company hasn’t been doing too badly from a typical funding perspective as it is, particularly in Asia, where it signed its €1m funding deal with Singapore fund SGInnovate in collaboration with BlockAsset Ventures and other Asian investors.

‘If we stayed here, we wouldn’t be around right now’

However, Dennehy admitted that the Irish venture capital scene is not as rosy as some make it out to be.

“We find that the people here have to understand something before they commit to it. They look for hard facts, figures, balance sheets and traditional mechanisms,” he said.

“We’ve had very bad support here in Ireland, generally. It’s quite poor in the fintech space and, while it’s getting better, we’ve so many reasons why we’ve had to look abroad. If we stayed here, we wouldn’t be around right now.”

This encouragement to look abroad for funding is one of the messages he wants to convey when he takes to the stage at Inspirefest in May 2019, along with a general sense of encouragement for any other entrepreneurs looking to enter the blockchain space.

“We’re proving you can make money and do good at the same time,” he said. “It’s still early days for us and maybe we can show what can be done.”

Niall Dennehy, co-founder and COO of Aid:Tech, speaking in 2018. Image: Katie O’Neill/TEDx Trinity College Dublin/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Updated, 5.37pm, 21 November 2018: This article was amended to clarify that Aid:Tech received funding from SGInnovate in collaboration with BlockAsset Ventures and other Asian investors, not Enterprise Ireland.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Super Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic