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Block Kong Breakfast: Alex Svanevik, Nansen

“The way I look at DAO is that they are the new version of the firm.”

Alex Svanevik, Nansen

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Block Kong Breakfast is a series of interviews with blockchain-related entrepreneurs and financiers in Hong Kong, brought to you by Charles d’Haussy.

As I was sourcing breakfasts for this series, someone at Nansen introduced the company to me as a blockchain, big data and A.I. play. Too many buzzwords.

Months later, the company name came back. This time it was about the all-star team, bold experimentation and DAO-incubated venture. That hooked me.

Alex Svanevik’s company, Nansen, constantly scans and analyzes over 50 million labeled Ethereum wallets and their activity.

The Economist’s May 6 2017 issue referred to data as the world’s most valuable resource. Who else has this kind of data in the blockchain world? I tweeted my request for a meeting: pick a Hong Kong place for breakfast, it’s on me.

We would finally interact over tapas and coffee, but via Google Meets. With COVID-19, Alex is currently stuck outside of Hong Kong. Bad news. But he is stuck in Barcelona, which is good news, at least for me: it means I have a solid excuse to sample Spanish food.

I picture the scene, like a movie director using his hands to imagine the shot: the restaurant El Born in Causeway Bay, with a cozy terrace and finger-licking tapas.

Alex has been in machine learning and data science for 10 years before moving to Hong Kong from Barcelona. It is actually here in the Fragrant Harbor that he applied data science to blockchain. Together with Google, his team brought the Ethereum blockchain data set to BigQuery, Google’s massive serverless data warehouse that enables scalable analysis over petabytes of data.

From there, with some friends, he started a consulting firm – but one based on the principles of decentralized computing. In 2019 the co-founders summoned a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) to host their newly created business, projects and ventures.

A DAO is like a corporation governed entirely by software, which is transparent, open to all, and can be amended by the user group rather than by a board of directors, statutes and executive managers. Alex and his group described their organization, D5 DAO, as a digital organism living and breathing in the Ethereum network.

“D5 looks like ‘DS’, so it stands for data science,” Alex explains as he sips a coffee on my screen. “D is also the starting letter of five core components of our company: decentralized, digital, data, distributed, and design.”

All this talk of Ds has me thinking I’d like to devour my dejeuner. I order a typical Spanish meal of Kas-brand sparkling orange juice, chorizo, and marinated octopus.

So what is Nansen?

Why did you build Nansen? I hope for an answer long enough to let me eat the tantalizing chorizo that has just arrived.

“After years of working with blockchain data, we found that many of our clients wanted the same thing: to know more about the wallets that are transacting on-chain,” Alex explains.

Alex says D5 AO incubated a project named after Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegeian explorer, scientist, diplomat, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Just as the man crossed Greenland on skis, the project travels across blockchains, analyzing on-chain data with a massive, growing database of wallet labels. Users access this data via dashboards, direct SQL queries, or APIs.

Nansen: the original version

The company labels Ethereum wallets out of various sources: heuristics, smart-contract parsing, investigations, user submissions, Web scraping, machine learning, plus, of course the interplay between those sources. More than 99% of Nansen labels are algorithmically deduced.

Labelling Ethereum addresses

Nansen is now big enough to have spun off from D5. It may later provide work for its Mother/DAO.

DAO history started in very experimental waters: the original “The DAO” was immediately hacked. This led to iterations among projects well known in the Ethereum community, such as Aragon, Maker, dsDao, Compound, and other distributed governance implementations. These are now driving the white-hot field of DeFi, or decentralized finance.

I have my qualms about DAO, however. Perhaps it is the octopus or the sparkling O.J., but I share with Alex my skepticism about DAO for tech ventures. I immediately go nuclear and throw Vitalik Buterin at him: “Didn’t the inventor of Ethereum say early-stage projects should begin as founder dictatorships?”

Alex isn’t impressed with my attack: “The way I look at DAO is that they are the new version of the firm…Internet Sovereign Entities make sense when members are internet-native and spread across the world as D5 is.” 

So for entrepreneurs comfortable with DeFi, DAO are a very pragmatic way to organize projects and people, at way lower cost than paper-based companies.

After witnessing innovation cycles and maturation in the industry for some time, I am certainly intrigued. Enough to plan another breakfast interview series?

It’s time to wrap up or I’ll get deeper into the DAO rabbit hole and order another round of tapas.

Alex can’t wait to be back in Hong Kong. After a few questions on quarantine, Alex and I agree to meet, in a Barcelona fashion, around tapas, Kas orange juice, data sets and blockchain in Causeway Bay.

El Born

  • 58-64 Paterson St, Causeway Bay
  • Kas Orange: HK$60
  • Chorizo tapas : HK$120
  • Marinated octopus: HK$90
  • Tip: HK$30
  • Total: HK$300

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Block Kong Breakfast: Alex Svanevik, Nansen