Exclusive: Chris Georgen on What Makes Topl Tick

Manu Shankar
Manu Shankar is the Editor of The Coin Republic, who oversees the content that is produced on the website. A former journalist himself, Manu has more than 15 years of experience in Journalism working with leading national dailies such as Hindustan Times, Indian Express, Mail Today and Online media such as NDTV, Rediff. As the Editor, Manu brings together his passion for blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies and fintech.

Chris Georgen is co-founder and Chief Architect at Topl. He has steered Topl from its inception as an idea to one of Houston’s most talked about start-ups. Chris leads Topl’s team of 8 as they work to advance development on the first impact and sustainability focused blockchain protocol in the world and engage with partners and clients across 6 continents. Before starting Topl, he obtained degrees in Mathematics, Chemical Physics, and Philosophy from Rice University. During his time at university, Chris performed research resulting in 3 co-authored papers focused on emergent phenomena in complex systems.

In an exclusive interview with The Coin Republic’s Manu Shankar, Chris talks about the formation of Topl, company’s first-ever implementations of the provably secure Proof of Stake protocol and much more

Excerpts:

Degrees in Mathematics, Chemical Physics, Philosophy and now successful co-founder and Chief Architect at Topl. How has the journey been so far personally and for the company?

Before my last year of university, I never thought of myself as someone who would become involved in start-ups. I was preparing to apply to graduate school to pursue a PhD in physics when some long-running conversations between a few of my friends (including Topl’s now CTO, James Aman) and I finally materialized into my first blockchain-powered venture. Our first start-up developed a mobile payment and customer loyalty system for small retailers, food trucks, and the like atop the Ethereum blockchain.

After failing to gain the commercial traction we were hoping for I pivoted back to some discussions that Kim Raath (our CEO), James (our CTO), and I had been having about the application of this technology to sustainable and ethical supply chains and related financing. The result of all this was Topl gaining acceptance into a Dutch incubator, Brightlands Innovation Factory, and receiving some funding from a German blockchain investor, Iconic Holding, all in late 2017 early 2018. From there, we started building and haven’t looked back since.

What led to the formation of Topl and what has been the vision and mission of Topl?

Topl was born out of conversations originally begun in the Center for Computational Finance and Economic Systems (CoFES) at Rice University. The three of us co-founders essentially began exploring the potential of blockchain technology to solve issues of trust and information asymmetry both in supply chains but also in supply chain or related financing, especially in the Global South.

While it definitely wasn’t something, we could put into words on day one, the vision and mission of Topl has always been to develop the infrastructure (rails, highways, pick your favourite analogy) to power more sustainable and inclusive economies. As an impactech blockchain, we see ourselves as helping businesses and organizations to prove and monetize their positive impact. They’re changing the world; we’re just helping out.

From Houston to now Europe and parts of Africa, Topl has slowly been creating an application-specific blockchain which targets both the social as well as the environmental side. What has been the three key lessons that you have learned in your journey?

There have definitely been a lot more than three lessons thus far, but I think I can pull one for three different areas—engineering, team, and fundraising.

First, with regard to engineering, the big lesson we’ve learned is just how much good (or bad) decisions made early on can affect your path forward. When we first began designing our protocol, we picked a programming language (Scala) and a ledger model (UTXO), while we had our suspicions, I would be lying if I told you that James or I actually knew the full extent of the benefits we would receive from these design choices.

On the team side, we’ve learned how lucky we are to be a company with a mission. At the end of the day, this isn’t just another app or a game this is something that exists to make people’s lives better, to make it easier for smallholder farmers to earn a living, to root out slavery in mining. Having a purpose has been one of the most effective drivers of our progress. Building a start-up is always hard. There are going to be days or even weeks when the pressure and difficulty of what you’re doing is so great that all the free espresso, happy hours, and cool workspaces in the world just aren’t going to cut it anymore. And during those times, purpose is really the best thing to keep your team moving forward together.

Finally, we’ve learned something that I imagine a lot of start-up founders already know—the more innovative what you’re doing is, the more difficult it’s going to be to explain to investors. Interestingly though for us it has little to do with our actual solution. The difficulty almost always lies in explaining the problem especially since our potential investors often have no experience in dealing with the problems, we’re solving first-hand.

A lot of investors can relate to the idea of waiting on a curb side too long for a taxi or wanting stylish clothes and accessories shipped right to their door every month, but very few can tell you want it means to be unbanked or part of an exploitive supply chain. They obviously care about these things but caring about something, however deeply, and having actually experienced it are still two different matters.

The number of women leaders in the blockchain is increasing day by day and Topl is also one of the very few blockchain protocols with a female CEO. What do you think about it and how can women contribute to the area?

While an issue in technology start-ups writ large, the lack of female leadership is especially acute in the blockchain/crypto space. If I had to guess, this likely an extension of a gender imbalance that can be traced back to the cypherpunk movements in the 80s and 90s that would eventually give rise to the blockchain community today.

It’s especially unfortunate though since in many problem areas that blockchains are trying to tackle (especially access to finance), women are overrepresented. And we can’t really design solutions that women will need to use without actually including women in the ideation, design, and development processes.

Topl is very fortunate to not only have an amazing female CEO but also a number of incredible and dedicated women both on our engineering and business teams. Our diversity isn’t just something that we’re proud of, it’s something that we view as a huge advantage.

Topl is also developing one of the first-ever implementations of the provably secure Proof of Stake protocol, Ouroboros Genesis. Tell us something about that.

One of the decisions we made early on in Topl’s design phase was to always borrow and build on the best research we could find whenever possible. The blockchain is an open source and collaborative community and there’s a lot of amazing work out there. IOHK, the group behind Cardano, has developed some ground-breaking ideas over the years including the Ouroboros family of consensus protocols, which are capable of being provably secure without the higher consensus thresholds and trusted party requirements of BFT systems.

Our research lead, Aaron has developed a test chain, Prosomo, to simulate the behavior of this family of consensus protocols and test their behavior in different real-world and adversarial settings and the results have been very promising. We expect to be able to merge this work into our production network sometime next year and have one of the first production implementations of Ouroboros Chronos anywhere. This updated member of the Ouroboros family doesn’t require any checkpoint system and even allows us to weaken our assumptions around the timestamps provided by the nodes.

With the increasing security threats that we have seen this year, how is Topl prepared to thwart them or what strategy does it have to ensure the privacy of its users?

Fortunately for us, we are currently focused on supply chain and impact certification use cases for our blockchain, so we’re really less of a target than chains currently handling funds or assets that can be quickly exchange for bitcoin or fiat. That being said, we’ve put a lot of effort into the design of our chain program engine (Topl’s version of smart contracts) and security has always been front of mind in that regard. Without getting too into the weeds, one of the things we’ve done is to push our chain program design into having very small, very modular components that are easier to debug and audit as well as limiting the ability of chain programs to hold or disburse funds autonomously, a feature that we’ve found to have little if any application in the markets we’re pursuing.

What is Topl’s expansion plan into newer markets such as Asia, Africa etc?

At the moment, Topl is at a very exciting phase of our development. To date we’ve done a lot of custom work, a lot of hand-holding to help groups get integrated onto our chain while it was still in a beta stage. By early next year though, we will be launching an off-the-shelf BaaS offering to allow seamless onboarding to our network for projects of all sizes without any requirements to host your own node or anything like that.

This is level of productization and ease of onboarding that we’re targeting really is the central pillar of our expansion strategy not just for Asia and Africa but also for new verticals. As our CEO often says, we’re transitioning for a charter plane operation to a commercial airline.

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