“You can’t take away the fact that we are ICON’s accelerator. It’s also kind of interesting to be an accelerator of a blockchain platform. That’s a very unique thing. It’s like a very specific internet you’re trying to get apps on.”
Markus Jun, Investment Manager and Head of Research of Deblock, sits in a conference room in the company’s bustling office on the seventh floor of Euljiro’s WeWork Building. It’s another busy day for the VC firm and accelerator recently named ICX Station’s Seoul Launchpad.
Over the last month, Markus’s team has met with 50 projects, typically at a rate of five per day. Their goal is to let business focus on their projects – projects they hope will contribute to the ever-growing ICON ecosystem.
A guiding hand
Founded in April by ICONLOOP, the company developing ICON’s blockchain engine, and AD4th Insight, a leading blockchain-based marketing company, Deblock aims to grow the ICON ecosystem by not only incentivizing projects to build on the ICON platform, but by making sure they build on it correctly.
“We give projects a lot of different guidance,” says Jun. “It can be guidance related to token economics, guidance related to marketing, or guidance related to networking and funding.”
And in a country like Korea, proper guidance can be crucial. The country has taken a keen interest in crypto as of late. In November, the government will be sponsoring “Blockchain Promotion Week,” complete with a state-hosted hackathon. At least one province has a plan to create its own cryptocurrency, and the governor of the island province of Jeju is even lobbying to turn the jurisdiction into a blockchain and ICO free zone. Nearly a quarter of Koreans in their 20s want to invest in cryptocurrencies
The country continues to pose challenges to crypto, however. Concerned about scams and hacking, Seoul placed a ban on ICOs last year, a measure lawmakers are currently revisiting. The ban has forced Korean blockchain firms, including ICON, to go overseas for their ICOs. At a pair of recent seminars at the National Assembly, experts worried the legal environment could hinder the development of blockchain technology and lead to an exodus of national wealth.
It’s in this environment that Deblock aims to help over 300 projects over the next three years, projects chosen on their feasibility and understanding of blockchain technology. Jun notes, too, that Korea’s crypto scene boasts some unique strengths as well. The country is highly wired, and stock trading is very common. Korea’s highly developed service sector and the existence of well-established crypto exchanges has helped, too. He says, “Fiat injection was really easy in Korea, and this contributed to lowering the barriers quite a bit.”
Launching tokenized dreams
On Aug. 21, ICX_Station – the ICON Foundation’s global accelerator program – announced that Deblock would manage its Seoul Launchpad. ICX_Station Launchpads seek to push the boundaries of real-world adoption of blockchain technology using the ICON platform by bringing together its global network of investors and entrepreneurs.
Launchpad managers offer a wide range of assistance, from making introductions to service providers and helping with fundraising to providing technical support, allowing developers to focus on their projects. ICX Station currently runs Launchpads in Seoul and San Francisco; two more in Tokyo and Singapore will open shortly.
Being located in Seoul, the home of the ICON protocol, puts Deblock in a unique position to contribute. ICON is Korea’s largest blockchain developer base, says Jun. This is no small thing in a country where, he explains, so many existing large companies are trying to tokenize.
“When a large corporation decides to tokenize their business model, they want to go to the best or the largest developer base for blockchain in Korea, and that’s ICON,” he says. “By extension, their first meeting is usually with us, since we’re the accelerator for ICON.”
Though ICON’s official accelerator, Deblock is totally autonomous in its decision making. As the technical base, however, ICON provides a lot of technical support and even some business and networking support. The ICON Council – essentially the board of directors for the ICON Foundation – attends meeting with Deblock, too, especially with high profile clients such as major corporations.
Building a bigger ecosystem
Deblock stresses that it’s not just an investor in projects, but a partner, and a partner with a very specific goal – to build the ICON ecosystem. While Jun wants to invest in good DApps, he also wants to make sure DApps get the right guidance. Even Korea’s corporate giants often need a nudge in the right direction.
If Deblock chooses to accelerate a project, it may introduce the founders to its worldwide alliance of funds, which Jun claims includes some of the world’s largest.
The company can also use its extensive blockchain network to help market projects. Jun points to his team’s partnership with influential reviewers in the crypto space.. “Influencers have a lot of impact in this space because it is still new and everything is so connected, there aren’t many experts in this space,” he says. “So what we do is reach out to top reviewers who provide unbiased, objective analyses.”
Deblock also hosts events to not only help projects network, but to promote blockchain generally. Its monthly Demo Day, hosted jointly with ICON, is Korea’s largest, boasting attendance of 200 to 300 people per event. Four to five early-stage projects compete in the contest, judged by the audience of largely Korean blockchain enthusiasts and a panel of judges that regularly boasts figures from the country’s blockchain movers and shakers such as #Hashed CEO Simon Kim, Unblock CEO HW Lee, Upbit CEO JH Park and Ground X CEO JS Han. Winners take home about USD 3,000 – paid in ICX, of course, and join Deblock’s acceleration program.
Like a traditional accelerator. But different.
Being a blockchain accelerator such as Deblock means learning to do things differently. The biggest difference, says Jun, is the focus on token economics. He says, “This is an entirely new field we can provide a lot of guidance on.”
The focus on token economics isn’t the only difference, however. “All the traditional models related to IPOs or stocks and getting them listed, all those things don’t apply,” he says. “Everything is crypto-related. Even getting listed, it’s about listing a token which have entirely different requirements from stocks.”
From the investor’s perspective, the crypto space poses its own potential pitfalls. Jun cites accountability. “Having been an investor and researcher in the crypto space for the past two years, I’d seen projects raise tens of millions in their token sale without any accountability and transparency and this has always troubled me,” he says. “At Deblock, initially I had the same issue, but after discussions with Deblock’s Managing Partner, Hyun Oh, I realized we shared similar concerns.” Jun’s team is currently working on a transparency framework for the projects they choose to accelerate that would include quarterly financial reports and screening the structure of teams to ensure that accountability is “built in.”
Marketing in the crypto world is a very different game, too. “I’m not sure how much of an effect having an advertisement in Times Square would have,” he says. “I feel like you need to know certain avenues to focus on targeting the actual crypto users, for example, the influencers, and establishing networks with key players in this space.”
Though marketing for crypto may target a very specific group of individuals, it’s also worldwide in scope, says Jun, as crypto is really good at enabling borderless payments. “A person investing in an ICO in Africa goes through the same process as a person in Seoul,” he says. “Although the marketing is focused on crypto users, it’s still a global process.”