Block Kong is a series of interviews with blockchain-related entrepreneurs and financiers in Hong Kong, brought to you by Charles D’Haussy. For more about Block Kong, visit its website.
The first thing that Lionello Lunesu does is order the oatmeal. The restaurant’s about to run out of its signature dish, and Lunesu knows to grab one from the counter before worrying about whatever else might be on the menu.
We’re at Fine Wood Fast Food on Jervois Street, in Sheung Wan. It’s fast all right. As soon as we’re seated, the waitress screams “What do you want” as though if we don’t order RIGHT NOW we might not get served at all.
Lunesu, a native of the Netherlands, responds in Cantonese, which he picked up thanks to a two-week crash course when he first arrived in Hong Kong. The aunty, perhaps more surprised than impressed, cools down and lets us order. We both choose the set breakfast: steamed eggs, tomato, ham sandwich and a cup of coffee.
At HK$39, it’s the best deal in town. But you’re not exactly paying for the ambiance.
“We call this place Grumpy Mak Pei, which means grumpy oat meal,” Lunesu says, although I’m not sure it’s the oatmeal that’s bent out of shape.
My guest appears as informal as the canteen, dressed in a tee shirt, no watch – as though he doesn’t care about the time of day. That might be misleading though, for the co-founder of a blockchain startup.
He established Enuma Technologies with Montrealer Antoine Cote, whom he knew from working in Shanghai at Microsoft. They attempted a startup together there, then left to pursue separate ambitions. They both migrated to Hong Kong to run sales for a voice-controlled assistant they had developed; the idea was probably too early and the business didn’t go anywhere.
Lunesu has a track record of being slightly too far ahead of the curve. In 2001 he set up a “5D” virtual-reality company, which he finally sold to a company making flight simulations.
After dropping out of a computer-science program in the Netherlands so he could build video games with a friend, Lunesu wandered to mainland China, where he spent eight years, in Beijing and Shanghai. His final gig was as technology leader at Microsoft.
He enjoyed working there but chafed at being limited to the number of projects he could work on. Microsoft offered to move him to the U.S. but he wanted to stay in the region, which triggered his exploratory move to Hong Kong.
After a few false starts, he and Cote teamed up again in 2015, this time to launch Enuma to develop blockchain solutions. The technology was new to them. Lunesu had heard of bitcoin, but he hadn’t taken it seriously.
Their first project was to build the cryptography for a hardware wallet, but he and Cote decided to position Enuma as a blockchain engineering specialist, so now he just does programming – from user interface to the back end, but all for blockchain projects.
The partners have relied on Tweeting and word of mouth to land projects, such as for OAX Foundation, a decentralized exchange. Lunesu is not very interested in business development but he lights up when talking about works such as for OAX, which is about to release a new version of its platform. “This is really exciting,” he says.
Another project is Trusted Key, a digital identity platform using the Ethereum protocol, which was launched by another alumnus of Microsoft Shanghai. “This is a good, pragmatic balance between [permissionless] blockchain and enterprise standards,” Lunesu says. The Ethereum code manages access to data but the data itself is stored off-chain.
New projects aren’t flowing as easily now. “2017 and 2018 were the crazy years,” Lunesu says, noting he and Cote ended up turning down the majority of offers. Yet despite the hype at the time, the team never ran a token sale. Does he regret missing out on what could have been ridiculously easy money?
He shakes his head. “No. We prefer the venture studio model.”
Perhaps it has something to do with his time living in then-Communist Romania. Lunesu says venture building emerged from a hardware culture in which designers, engineers, marketers and manufacturers shared resources and profits.
“Programmers should not work only for cash,” he says. “They should venture with partners.”
Another surprise: Lunesu still doesn’t own any crypto-currency. “I’m pretty much a no-coiner,” he says, adding that he gets his kicks by trading stocks.
This is heresy among just about anyone who got into crypto as early as Enuma did.
“Bitcoin underperformed, technology-wise,” Lunesu says. He’s a fan of related protocols that emerged out of a hard fork, including Bitcoin Cash and its own offspring, Bitcoin ABC. He finds the ideas behind their software more progressive.
Also unlike many of his peers, Lunesu is keen to work with traditional institutions, rather than pursue crypto in its own world: “Too much innovation stays within the crypto ecosystem. It’s a shame it doesn’t go beyond that faster.”
He’d like to work with banks and regulators – not as a fintech brought in to solve minor problems, but as a partner in transformation.
“I don’t want to be in your accelerator,” he said. “I want to build products with you.”
Last year, the company won a grant from the Ethereum Foundation to pursue work on instant blockchain payments, using state channels. (State channels refer to payments for transactions on a blockchain that are executed off-chain, while retaining the same encrypted security, in order to boost speed and reduce cost.)
This could be exactly the kind of work that leads to collaboration with regulated financial institutions.
The highlight of 2019 so far, however, was an unscheduled visit to Enuma’s office by Vitalik Buterin, the co-creator of Ethereum. Lunesu is cagey about what they discussed – “a deeply technical review” he says – but he posted a photo on Twitter.
Fine Wood Fast Food
- 102 Jervois Street, Sheung Wan
- Oat meal, HK$25
- Set breakfast, HK$39 (x2)
- Total: HK$103 (US$13.20)
- Paid in cash