On a recent Monday in April, more than 100 executives from some of the world’s largest financial institutions gathered for a private meeting at the Times Square office of Nasdaq Inc. They weren’t there to just talk about blockchain, the new technology some predict will transform finance, but to build and experiment with the software.
By the end of the day, they had seen something revolutionary: U.S. dollars transformed into pure digital assets, able to be used to execute and settle a trade instantly. That’s the promise of a blockchain, where the cumbersome and error-prone system that takes days to move money across town or around the world is replaced with almost instant certainty. The event was created by Chain, one of many startups trying to rewire the financial industry, with representatives from Nasdaq, Citigroup Inc., Visa Inc., Fidelity, Fiserv Inc., Pfizer Inc. and others in the room.
The event — announced in a statement this Monday — marked a key moment in the evolution of blockchain, notable both for what was achieved, as well as how many firms were involved. The technology’s potential has captivated Wall Street executives because it offers a way to free up billions of dollars by speeding transactions that currently can take days, tying up capital. But a huge piece of that puzzle is transforming cash into a digital form. And while some firms have conducted experiments, the Chain event showed a large number of them are now looking jointly at a potential solution.
“We created a digital dollar” to show the group at Nasdaq an instant debit and credit on a blockchain, said Marc West, chief technology officer at Fiserv, a transaction and payments company with more than 13,000 clients across the financial industry. “This is the first time the money has moved.”
Chain is already known in some Wall Street circles for its project to help Nasdaq shift trading of non-public company shares onto a blockchain. But for the most part, it has kept relatively quiet compared with other fintech ventures.
The San Francisco-based company also used the April 11 meeting to introduce its customers and investors to Chain Open Standard, an open-source blockchain platform that the venture has been designing for more than a year, said Adam Ludwin, the company’s chief executive officer. What Chain has done is engineer the complicated elements needed for a blockchain to work, so that its customers can build custom solutions on top of that to solve business problems, he said.
“We’ve been quietly building with a whole bunch of folks for a few years,” he said. “Blockchains are networks, so we think collaboration is important, but what’s even more important than collaboration at the beginning is getting the model right.” The event was kept secret so executives could freely share nascent ideas and take risks. “The more press, the less quality of the dialogue and problem-solving,” he said.
The most common blockchain is the one supporting the digital currency bitcoin, which has been active since 2009. Financial firms have been reluctant to embrace bitcoin, however, as its anonymous users could entangle banks in violations of anti-money-laundering and know-your-customer regulations. Digital U.S. dollars, or any other fiat currency, on the other hand, doesn’t pose those risks.