If you’ve dismissed Bitcoin as a joke because of its wild price swings, Cameron Gray believes you’re making a huge mistake.
Gray, cofounder of Decentral Vancouver (436 West Pender Street), is convinced the open-source technology behind the peer-to-peer digital currency is the “next big thing”. He specifically points to Bitcoin’s block chain, the decentralized database that records all transactions conducted with this form of electronic money.
“The block chain is one of the most significant inventions since the Internet itself,” Gray, who’s also the organizer of the Vancouver Ethereum Meetup, said in an interview. “That sounds grandiose. I would say it’s even more important than the Internet, even though it’s built on the Internet. But from a socioeconomic standpoint, it changes everything.”
Decentral Vancouver is a community incubator for disruptive and decentralized technology that is ground zero for the local cryptocurrency scene. Inspired by Toronto’s Decentral business-development centre, it opened in February as Decentral Bangtown, launched a membership program in early November, and is now home to about a dozen startups and projects.
Gray and his fellow founder, Freddie Heartline, gave a tour of the rundown basement housing Decentral Vancouver and introduced the Georgia Straight to some of its mentors and members. The main room features sofas, fridges stocked with beer, a Bitcoin ATM, and a screen displaying an up-to-date Bitcoin price chart.
There are “mining” machines scattered all around the place, all dedicated to producing Monero, a cryptocurrency based on the CryptoNote protocol rather than Bitcoin’s source code. Asked why Monero, Heartline replied: “It’s just where the money is right now.”
Decentral Vancouver’s drop-in members pay $25 per month for access to the space. For $50 a month, premium members get workshops, meet-up hosting privileges, and maybe even a key to the basement, which Gray and Heartline are renovating.
“We hack in here,” Heartline said. “We’re building companies in here. We hang out and exchange information. We play video games. We have meet-ups.”
Heartline is involved with two startups: CoinOS is an open-source Bitcoin point-of-sale system used by businesses around town, and Carsurfing is a ride-sharing platform tied to Facebook events. But Gray said one of the most exciting projects hosted by Decentral Vancouver is a wireless mesh network tentatively being called PeerWeb.
PeerWeb’s founder, Jacob Payne, explained that the network, which is still theoretical, will allow people to resell their unused Internet bandwidth to others for Bitcoin micropayments. According to the web developer, this will create a “community ISP” and lower the cost of Internet access for users.
“When you’re not at home or you’re not at work, you’re still paying for that Internet that you’re not using,” Payne said, as passersby walked over the purple glass bricks embedded in the sidewalk above one end of the basement. “So what if, instead, you could actually have people pay you for that Internet that you’re not using, with Bitcoin?”
Payne is also the creator of Bitbasket, which is billed as a “scalable peer-to-peer multi-cryptocurrency wallet system”. He said the idea is to use cutting-edge “two-way pegging” or “sidechain” technology to make it easier to invest in multiple cryptocurrencies.
“It’s basically index funds for cryptocurrencies,” Payne said.
Other startups and organizations associated with Decentral Vancouver include the Bitcoin Co-op, Satoshi Vote, Tom and Gary’s Decentralized Dance Party, and Vanbex Group. Security expert Andreas Antonopoulos, Ethereum cocreator Vitalik Buterin, MaidSafe CEO David Irvine, and angel investor Roger Ver are among the Bitcoin luminaries who have given talks via video-conferencing to meet-up groups in the basement.
Decentral Vancouver member Charlene Tessier is the chief financial officer for Dana.io—the local startup behind a crowdfunding platform that accepts Bitcoin, Darkcoin, and Litecoin donations—and was the lead organizer of November’s Startup Weekend Vancouver. The financial and business analyst noted that companies typically have questions about tax compliance regarding cryptocurrencies. She believes that decentralized technology will “shake the foundation” of the financial-services industry.
“I generally encourage the use of cryptocurrency,” Tessier said. “It’s fascinating. As well, I believe, especially in the financial area, it’s the next evolution. Most of the major industries have been disrupted by technology, with the exception of financial.”
In a November 13 speech, Carolyn Wilkins, senior deputy governor of the Bank of Canada, said the central bank is watching developments in electronic money “closely”. She noted Bitcoin comes with both benefits (lower transaction costs than credit cards) and risks (no deposit insurance).
“Another important issue is the potential for e-money to fundamentally change the financial architecture in ways that we don’t yet understand but that could pose risks to financial stability,” Wilkins said at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. “Think about a crash in a cryptocurrency as an example. If the cryptocurrency were widely used, the economic and financial implications of such a crash would be significant because they would result in a dramatic reduction in household wealth.”
Jesse Heaslip, former CEO of Bitcoin-exchange startup Bex.io, and Bernd Petak, a technology-investment consultant, are two of Decentral Vancouver’s mentors. Petak noted that Vancouver is a “second-string player” in the global tech sector.
“In the cryptotechnology space, we’re a first-string player,” Petak said. “So there are as many exciting and innovative things happening in Vancouver at a big enough scale as there are anyplace else. I think we stand the opportunity to be on the A team rather than on the B team.”
According to Petak, fear of the political implications of decentralization is “silly” because this process has repeatedly occurred throughout history. As an example, he pointed to the creation of the first Apple computers, which helped bring personal computers to the masses in the 1970s.
“Look at the benefits of that,” Petak said. “No one would look back now and say that that decentralizing of computer power was detrimental to society.”