Mona El Isa, 35
Corporate Job: VP Equities Trading, Goldman Sachs
Current Gig: CEO, Madeeba
After eight years as a rising star inside Goldman Sachs’ equity trading division, Mona El Isa decided, like so many others, to open a hedge fund of her own. Despite quickly raising $30 million in 2014, she soon began to struggle with the operational, regulatory and back office hurdles necessary to launch a successful fund.
“You never really understand something until you see it working in practice and you’re involved in every single part,” says El Isa. “And I was really shocked about how inefficient it was.”
El Isa begrudgingly pulled the plug on her fund in 2015 and returned the funds she’d been given to manage. She then took a year off and immersed herself in studying bitcoin, becoming a regular at bitcoin meetups in her native Switzerland. Her interest was in figuring out how the processes needed to operate a fund could be coded directly into the open source ethereum blockchain.
In February 2016 she founded Melonport, a startup that aims to decentralize and disrupt the mundane but critical operations necessary to run a mutual fund or hedge fund. Tasks like setting up custody, clearing, marketing operations and necessary regulatory filings and approvals have always made fund management prohibitively expensive. Most in the industry cite $150 million as the breakeven level for assets under management.
“Melonport could really level the playing field”, says El Isa from her London offices.
To pay for development of her ethereum based platform called Watermelon, her team raised almost $3 million in 2017, in part by selling the tokens that are now being used on the platform to perform a number of tasks like paying fees and casting corporate action votes. Then, earlier this year she did the unthinkable by Goldman Sachs standards: She gave it all away.
In February 2019, a group of nine companies and individuals took over control of the asset management protocol her team created. One of those companies, Madeeba, was cofounded by El Isa. Each member of the newly christened Melon Council was given tokens issued on the ethereum blockchain to represent their voting rights, giving all members, including Madeeba, equal say.
Instead of solving the problem of running an investment fund once, for herself, she is now solving it for anyone who wants to participate in the community. Just months after the Melon Council’s formation, 55 funds are using the melon (MLN) token to conduct trades, pay fees and cast votes as part of the shared fund management infrastructure. “One of the things that drives me is making it possible for people who dream about having their own fund and who are good at it to be able to do so,” says El Isa.
Melonport’s tokens now trade at $8.50 each, versus and ICO price of $40 and a peak bubble price of $243.
Eric Piscini, 49
Corporate Job: Global Blockchain Leader, Deloitte
Current Gig: CEO, Citizens Reserve
The former global head of blockchain at the Big Four accounting firm Deloitte saw firsthand the greed and corruption that led to the financial collapse in 2007.
“I was exposed to everything I wanted to know about banking, and everything I didn’t want to know about banking,” he says. “All the bad behavior and everything else.” So when his clients started to approach him with questions about bitcoin in 2012, he wasn’t surprised to learn that the cryptocurrency’s pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, left ample evidence that he created the cryptocurrency in large part in reaction against unscrupulous banking behavior.
After going through a bitcoin awakening and realizing the profound changes it could have for business, Piscini made it his mission to push Deloitte’s consulting army into the burgeoning field. By 2018, Piscini and two others had made Deloitte’s blockchain practice the largest in the world, with 1,200 employees, generating $50 million revenue, he says, and continually searching for new ways to move value without unnecessary middlemen.
Then, in April 2018, he struck out on his own aiming to use the technology that underlies bitcoin to bring more transparency to the way the world’s goods move. His Citizens Reserve, wants to turn supply chain infrastructure into a utility similar to, say, a city’s water system or electrical grid.
Piscini’s goal is to get clients to move beyond the private, permissioned blockchains used by many existing enterprises. He imagines entirely new business models using elements of the publicly accessible ethereum blockchain.
Piscini’s most difficult task will be to gather all the parties in a supply chain transaction–—insurance companies, credit score and logistics providers, inventory management services, and payments providers—onto a single platform. What will tie them together, he hopes, isn’t his own company, but a network of smart contracts and a token similar to Melonport’s that will pay loyalty rewards that users can then use to pay transaction fees and vote for the future direction of the platform.
By paying early adopters cryptotokens, which can then be used to pay fees, cast votes, or sold to another entity, these types of businesses, called distributed autonomous organizations (DAOs) have the potential to incentivize users of any traditional service to move to a decentralized network owned by the users.
“Institutions either want to create equity value or they want to create network value.” Piscini says of a central dilemma facing widespread corporate adoption of blockchain. “When you create network value, you create a platform that the community will eventually run and you will become just one of the participants of.”
Amber Baldet, 36
Corporate Job: Blockchain Program Lead, JPMorgan Chase
Current Gig: Cofounder and CEO, Clovyr
While studying political science at the University of Florida and working as a summer intern as a developer at a boutique research firm, Amber Baldet stumbled across her first Bloomberg Terminal, used to provide data to traders around the world, and was struck by how centralized data about the financial system was. “I had the sudden realization that the distribution of power in the world was not necessarily just about political dynamics but about these ongoing markets dynamics,” she says.
Amber then pivoted away from politics towards finance taking various jobs at financial firms after college, working as a business analyst and financial consultant. By the time she was hired at JPMorgan’s blockchain program, in the spring of 2012, she had already read the bitcoin white paper, and says the cryptocurrency had become her “cypherpunk side project,” adding, “I would actually check the internal search at JPMorgan to see if we were going to trade it on the FX desk or something, because I didn’t realize how politically contentious it would be.”
At JP Morgan Baldet began to carve out the company’s place in the new economy, by focusing on the underlying blockchain technology and figuring out how it could accommodate the privacy and speed demands of the bank’s large clients. She became the driving force in the development of JPMorgan Chase’s open-source ethereum based blockchain, Quorum, which was used to create JPM Coin, a proprietary implementation of the software. In spite of early success with Quorum Baldet became disillusioned with some of JP Morgan’s efforts.
She realized that not only were many of the biggest companies in the world building services restricted to their own customers, but the technology was difficult to understand for many of the smaller companies that stood to benefit most. Instead of democratizing finance, which had been her dream since that initial encounter with the Bloomberg Terminal, she was helping increase efficiency within the existing system.
Last April, Baldet quit with lead Quorum developer Patrick Nielsen to found Clovyr, a New York consulting startup making distributed systems–including both private and public blockchains–more accessible to smaller less well-heeled companies.
“If nobody’s working on crossing the barrier between public blockchain projects and large-scale enterprise projects — if all of those people stand in their silos,” she says. “Then it is a self-fulfilling prophecy that these things cannot create a cohesive ecosystem.”