As technology continues to change the way the economy works, how are politicians changing with it? What can we do to ensure that those who aren’t technologically inclined can keep up in an age of continued growth in automation and production through blockchain technology? In episode 2, Nick talks with Eric Porper, Co-Chair of the North Carolina Blockchain Initiative, about his work in helping politicians encourage technology as an industry, and helping them adjust to the fact that companies are expected to incorporate tech into their business plan, whether or not they identify as a tech company. Additionally, they talk about whether or not a college degree is absolutely necessary in a world of thriving entrepreneurship and change, and how we can help people evolve from fields that don’t currently utilize technology.
Experienced Chief Strategy Officer with a demonstrated history of working in the information technology and services industry. Strong business development professional skilled in Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Go-to-market Strategy, Applications, and Management.
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Hey Eric, glad to have you here. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you're working on?
I'm one of these people who has always been an entrepreneur, so I started companies in emerging technologies starting in high school because I love it and I love building companies and I love helping other people build companies. So if you look at what's been going on in the past 5 to 10 years with the expansion of accelerator programs, I really see a gap in the marketplace for true venture building and really taking ideas and exploring them fast and seeing where the market fit is, which leads us to where I am today with Unboxed Venture Studio. We want to take that concept and apply it to great ideas. Innovate rapidly and be very explicit when things aren't working.
You've done a lot of stuff in the entrepreneurial community, as well as some legislation and state-level stuff. You're an influencer on a couple of levels including the Carolina Blockchain Initiative. What are those and what prompted the involvement there?
So I got into blockchain as a technology and part of a technology stack that would solve a lot of the existing problems we have, especially in the financial markets, but also in a lot of areas. Privacy, any type of consumer information, advertising – it was always on my periphery until I met a couple of guys who were doing a Bitcoin conference in 2014 in North Carolina, which was one of the first conferences in the space. Through that, I started to go down this path of what blockchain means and how it has influence over various Industries. We took that conference, scaled it out, had a pretty big conference in 2018, got to talk with a 2018 lieutenant governor, and he expressed a lot of interest in seeing how we can educate legislators in the state so the state doesn't fall behind in adopting technologies. It's all about Economic development and how emerging technologies will enable a lot of opportunities from a financial perspective, investor perspective, and employment perspective in the state, which is what they want to see. So we put together the Carolina Blockchain Initiative with the intent of education through the development of a report and eventually turning it into a more legislatively focused venture. The goal is to drive these types of technologies and eventually extend beyond blockchain. We've been here in North Carolina, up in DC before a lot of this happened, and we met with a couple of Senators and every other entity that we can pack into two days. We learned a lot about what they're doing at the federal level so that we can bring it back to the state and put it in our report for legislators.
Sounds like, in your mind, one good way to impact the future of economic development in our state will be getting to legislators and making sure they're not clogging the wheels of progress. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?
Yeah – so states have a lot of influence on the types of entrepreneurial endeavors that happen within the state. It's based on how they view industries and how they write things into law. It's really simple. Regarding things like blockchain, or any other developments at the federal and state level, we need to make sure they're adopting policies to help explore what these things can do. Typically politicians are nervous about any change to the status quo, and most new technologies will be a change to the status quo, blockchain notwithstanding. So there should be a legislative sandbox where people can go for 2 years, report on how it's working, and report on the type of legislation that needs to happen based on what's really happening in the real world. Blockchain is going to enable new healthcare industries or new ways to do commerce. It's already happening. That's all because of blockchain. Our goal is to ensure that we don't adopt legislation today that will restrict the growth of the technology industry. We want to adopt small, smart policies so that we can be honed in on what the new industries that we are creating will surface up.
Blockchain seems like something that could either unintentionally or intentionally be regulated. lots of the things going on in Washington don't seem to be directed towards progress, so what do you think is going on in that space and how are you addressing it?
Well, you have to take the risk and start the company and demonstrate some real tangible use case for the technology. I want to do that. We should do that all the time. And we shouldn't wait for legislators to say that it's okay. But the flip side is that you have to talk directly to people in Congress, your representatives, because they don't know a lot, particularly about technology.
Is there a way to, instead of preventing a future problem, create opportunities for citizens in the future?
That's exactly what we're trying to do. We're looking at it as “this is about economic development.” Economic development is the only way to rise all tides, by creating more jobs more money and more opportunity. Most of the report is going to be focused on opportunities, rather than having large sections saying “here are the risks.” When we go talk to legislators it's all about the opportunities in healthcare and other fields, because they are committed to seeing progressive action in different spaces. They're committed to seeing that through, but they see it from a risk perspective. We need to change their viewpoint from a risk perspective to an opportunity perspective, and that's our goal as an organization.
How do you say North Carolina Stacks up and how are we positioned both regionally and nationally to be at the forefront for years to come?
Let me be controversial about it. Should North Carolina be a leader? Does it matter? I'm focused on the North Carolina Blockchain Initiative and doing things that make this the most attractive state for those technologies, but the reality is that blockchain is about decentralization. And we're seeing the decentralization of the workforce. All that does is make it easier for me to get the best talent to solve complex problems no matter where they are. I like North Carolina – I love North Carolina – I want to see it succeed. We are better positioned than most states because we have a lot of good talent and a lot of money in this state to connect dots. Those dots right now are scattered, and that's one of our biggest problems is that they aren't talking to each other. That’s a state issue because we don't have strong, good legislation to allow us to move as fast as we work. More than anything, we're positioned in a good place because of the talent and opportunity that exists here, rather than the willingness of legislators to cooperate with the industry.
That's a good point, I mean what's the value of a state? What's the value of any particular building where we work together? If you look at it, aren't University Systems a big driver of economic development and change? Don't they have a considerable say in these things? If we're talking about the future of business, technology, and entrepreneurship, should we care about state lines? What are your thoughts on that?
I don't even know where to go with that. The university systems are the drivers of the talent right now. I think that's changing and has been changing over the past few years, and I think that change is going to accelerate moving into the future. I think that we can see that University systems have been devalued in the past 2 months simply because of moving to online learning. What's the value of going? Especially with the price?
Absolutely. Talking about the economy of the future, as someone who's getting people to talk about technology at the federal level at the state level, how do you see the economy of the future shaping up in a way that makes us all a stronger population across socioeconomic status?
That's a complicated question. A big part of what we were tasked to do is looking at how these technologies would impact rural areas in North Carolina. It's complicated, but when you start looking at farming communities, because of technology like this, we're actually able to prop up farming communities. Because they don't have to worry about going through these large supply chain trackers, and we're already seeing that in various areas of agriculture. The philosophical view of technology is that all we're doing is removing barriers between each other, and the more barriers we remove between each other the more opportunities there are for individuals who have a product or service, whether that's a farm, a skill, a manufacturing skill, whatever it may be. So by adopting good legislation to enable these things we’re building up rural area development because those employees are getting opportunities that weren't previously available to them.
If you look at a lot of Industries and big tech companies in America today, there's a lot of issues with them outsourcing labor to other markets or other countries, whether it be because of cheaper labor, or other factors. For example, there hasn't been an industry replacing auto where jobs are being provided to towns and the population.
Well, re-education is really complicated. A lot of people think “well we need to get them programming or teach them about technology.” The reality, however, is that we aren't going to teach a bunch of steelworkers in coal miner's that don't have a job to all of a sudden become coders. One of the things in North Carolina, to bring it back to that university conversation, is our community college system. We have one of the best systems in the country with 700,000 students. There's a community college that's accessible to pretty much everybody in the state. They want to produce a lot of short-term, certificate type programs that governments can better leverage to get people trained on various skill sets. Because those community colleges, especially in this state, are so spread out, we can look at what opportunities are available in their small region and be sure that they're training on what's available. As far as how that relates to the future, we know that technologies are making it easier for you to start a business within your wheelhouse. So if you're just an employee who worked in a manufacturing plant for many years, you might be able to start a small business and use the community college system through a 12-week program and a grant from the state to see how things crop up from there. There's a lot of private market solutions to that and public support that can pop up from that.
Absolutely. I definitely think that technology is inevitable, and this isn't an anti-technology sentiment, but just tech for the sake of tack turns people off. It's the next Instagram sold for a billion dollars so that people can enrich themselves. That I think turns people away from the other side of it which is that if the tech can make farming more profitable than someone can be a farmer, and now we can afford more workers to work said farms because production up the supply chain is improved, more things make it to the market, etc. Technology is allowing not just skilled jobs, but unskilled jobs as well to improve the market and change the economy. Here's a whole new question though – is the university system today obsolete?
No, not obsolete, but that value proposition is changing. If you had to go to college today, what would you want to get out of it in 4 years? What would your desired outcome be? Because I think what happened is that you probably went to college and said “Oh I'm going to go get a degree and get a job.” We want to see people go into college and think “I want an outcome of being able to do x y and z and being able to start a career here.” And that might mean you shouldn't go to college right after high school. Maybe take a gap year. I can't even remember the last time I was interviewing someone and ask them “What school did you go to? What was your GPA?” Those things don't even matter. There are certain things about college that are valuable, like making connections, that I don't want to go away. There's something of a coming of age, living in a controlled environment, and other things that are beneficial. There are also other things that lead to tons of innovation in healthcare and other Industries through research. Being a part of a campus environment is really important, I think. They are lagging indicators of some kind of change.
Do you think certain majors should be spending more money on their education at a university-based on their expected ROI?
You know, I see where you're coming from. It makes sense that a history major or an art major might not need to pay as much as an economics major.
So tell me about what you're working on with Unboxed. Since we were just talking about universities, there's another part about that business related to public-private Partnerships. Tie it all together. We just talked about state systems, university systems, they're all lagging. What are you doing to address that question?
So Unboxed is focused on Venture building, which to me doesn't just have to be taking ideas and throwing them into a commercialization pipeline or a process to see if they're viable. That's a big part of it, and we'll take a few internally created ideas and put them through that process, and we'll take externally created ideas. Most Founders really need to go through a more hardcore venture building process. Incubation historically hasn't been a very successful business, with them teetering off after the 90s and early 2000. But there's a gap between the idea that you're ready for hardcore venture building and an accelerator. Incubation is still a really valuable part, and we're working with universities to provide the same venture building model to incubation. So let's take this idea that you have, that you might not have beyond an idea stage, pair you with university or other public or private resources, and put you through a pretty prescriptive incubation process that looks like venture building. We're going to rapidly iterate through your idea for you as founders and through the network that we know to see if this thing can really take off.
Absolutely. The more we can take this system and turn it into a more nimble and focused approach, the more I see the public-sector materialize and manifest itself with unboxed. We don't want the fact that they are big and that they are universities to slow the process. It's not a fixed pie that we're taking from. We want to add to the pie. This also applies and looking at the future of economies and legislation. We need to decentralize the idea of competition between these institutions.
Yeah. Keeping it small and simple is critical. These ideas move fast. I always say that you're not building a technology company anymore, you're building a healthcare company. Ten years ago, people would have said that you are a technology company, but that's not the way it works anymore. A lot of companies are normal companies that use technology as part of their process.
Do you want to talk about why venture building is an asset class in its own category?
Yeah. To me, that gets into me not having a simple answer to your questions. I do agree, that is the intent. I take it as far as to say that one of the things that we've talked about is that in the future all of these types of merging assets will be easily investible for people. We didn't talk at all about the investment side of things. Part of what we want to do at Unboxed is to make investing a bigger part of people's lives. Closing the wealth gap is really about getting more people to invest.
There is some closing of the wealth gap out there that's needed. More access to opportunities and other steps we need to take. However, it needs to be in a way that's not adding unnecessary risk. investors need to have accreditation because they could lose it. And the right type of setup should be more ways for people to have the right access to deals that allow people to have fulfillment and the potential upside in financial over awards. As we look to the future, it's about raising the tides for all people in creating a stronger population, whether it be health, education, training, etc. The more people that are thinking about those types of goals, like you said, the better.
Exactly. We minimize the risk of starting a company through radical transparency and explicit intent. We go all-in to make sure we can prove those things out, and when they're not proving out, we don't mess around and continue to pivot and pivot and pivot. That's why Venture building is somewhat of an asset class because we move fast, and when we notice it's not working we kill it. You just kill it. So we're minimizing risk, and we're able to look at these things differently than most venture capitalists can. The way accelerator programs work, it's beneficial for all.
Any last thoughts before we wrap up?
I think we should have a very focused conversation on the healthcare of the future and the opportunities that we look at and say that we should build ideas around them. It's the mindset of thinking about what's next.