Accelerator tightens Cascadia blockchain links

New program is primarily backed by the Canadian consulate general in Seattle

A Seattle-based accelerator program launched in January focuses on providing Canadian startups with technical and business blockchain expertise | Eivaisla/Shutterstock

New Yorker Arry Yu recalls spending much of 2017-18 travelling the world, making pit stops in Dubai, London, Greece and beyond, to examine locations aspiring to become centres of excellence for blockchain technology.

And after taking a step back, she realized there was something particularly special about the Cascadia region stretching from Vancouver to Seattle.

“This is the capital of all sorts of innovation,” said the chairwoman of the Washington Technology Industry Association’s Cascadia Blockchain Council. “All of these great technology companies are building their engineering headquarters here; the banks are having their engineering headquarters here.”

It’s the reason why Yu – with an assist from Canada’s consulate general in Seattle – wants to turn the region into the world capital of blockchain.

In January the council launched a new market accelerator program aimed at early-stage Canadian companies specializing in blockchain.

While some may be skeptical about blockchain’s association with volatile cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the technology itself is sound.

Blockchain acts as an expanding list of records – or blocks – that are linked through cryptography, essentially serving as a secure electronic ledger that cannot be manipulated by a third party.

During the first phase of the six-week accelerator program, five participants have been absorbing a mix of in-person learning and remote activities to bolster expertise in the technical aspects of business development within the niche subsector. They are set to conclude at the end of March

“It opens us to a completely new market that we don’t really operate in,” said blockchain expert Kesem Frank, co-founder of Mavennet Systems Inc.

His Toronto-based company develops products that provide support in a wide range of areas, from supply chains to digital identification.

“You essentially get a crash course on what’s going on in the Seattle area, the big players, how to engage with them, what resonates and what doesn’t,” Frank said.

He added his company is walking away with a Rolodex of names that would have been impossible to land had Mavennet not been accepted into the program.

“The one unexpected bit about this program was I got to meet so many of my West Coast peers, purely Canadian. It’s kind of funny that we had to travel to the U.S. to get acquainted,” Frank said.

The accelerator comes as organizations on both sides of the border have made a push in recent years to firm up economic ties running down the corridor between Vancouver and Portland.

Among the high-profile projects being explored is a proposed high-speed rail linking Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.

Other endeavours include the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative, a joint venture between the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington that sees the schools collaborating on data science initiatives tackling urban challenges like traffic and homelessness.

“You have these two similar diversified economies with very unique potential applications for blockchain, whether you’re talking about supply chain or food security,” said Rob Fiddick, a trade commissioner at Global Affairs Canada.

He said those similarities make Canada and the U.S. Pacific Northwest perfect partners to become a global hub for blockchain.

Brandon Lee, Canada’s consul general in Seattle, said the launch of the accelerator also comes at a time industry still awaits that “killer application” for blockchain.

“When it comes to blockchain we [Canada] have a very strong startup community,” said Lee, a former tech entrepreneur whose diplomatic mission is the primary backer of the accelerator program.

The key component going for Canada is its streamlined financial sector dominated by six major banks, he said.

The U.S., meanwhile, has about 6,700 commercial banks, making for a more fragmented system.

“Our governance regulatory framework is very structured, and very clear and consistent for the entire country,” Lee said. “These are ingredients for a technology like blockchain to thrive.”