Block Kong is a series of interviews with blockchain-related entrepreneurs and financiers in Hong Kong, brought to you by Charles D’Haussy.
Most people think Hong Kong’s landmarks are the Star Ferry or the Peak. I think it should be the Mid-Levels escalator system. This is the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world, over 800 meters (2,600 feet) in distance and traversing an elevation of over 135 meters (443 feet) from bottom to top. Along the way are murals and other street art, such as this piece, which sums up the eclectic area.
There is rarely a dull moment at the escalator’s busiest intersections, such as the six-way mashup where it crosses Cochrane and Wellington streets in Central.
Above me this morning the escalator carries office drones from their flats in Mid-Levels to their offices in Central. Down here, on the street, I am meeting a Hong Kong blockchain pioneer at the local branch of The Cupping Room.
We have been here before, with Mark Wales from Galileo Platform. Gazing through the shop window are the same piles of croissants. My mouth begins to water. An oversized coffee machine hisses as the baristas prepare foamy lattes. My caffeine addiction wakes up.
My guest arrives elegantly blending executive style with an artistic touch. With a background in the arts industry, Jehan Chu has always cut a stylish figure in an industry not otherwise known for dressing up. With Kenetic capital, which he co-founded, he has made more than 130 investments in blockchain startups. He has been a relentless builder of the community, including within the Bitcoin Association, the Social Alpha foundation and the Ethereum H.K. meetup.
Born in the U.S., Chu studied at Johns Hopkins University where he taught himself HTML and built a webpage for his fraternity. After graduating, his first job was supposed to be at an NGO but he craved the action of New York City so at the last minute he joined an internet startup in the Big Apple. From there he jumped to Sotheby’s auction house as its tech lead. He nurtured a passion to become an independent art dealer. Meanwhile Sotheby’s transferred him to Hong Kong.
To appreciate and succeed in the world of art requires curiosity and an open mind – qualities that apply to technology as well. Chu read about Bitcoin in 2013 and a year later co-organized the first Bitcoin conference in Hong Kong. That same year, Vitalik Buterin published the Ethereum whitepaper, and Chu immediately understood the implications for its programmability functions. He launched the Ethereum Hong Kong meetup to facilitate discussions and learnings about this new protocol.
As one would expect in the blockchain world, the history of this community and movement in Hong Kong unfolds from the meetup archives. Here are some of Chu’s highlights:
- March 10, 2014: First Ethereum HK meetup. Stefan Tul presents “Ethereum 101: Who, What, Where, When, Why” over Skype. Eight attendees.
- June 26, 2014: Vitalik Buterin attracts 38 attendees and teaches smart contract coding.
- June 2015: Smart Contracts Workshop with Dr. Gavin Wood, Ethereum co-Founder and Dev Director.
- September 2015: Chris Hitchcott teaches how to build your first Dapp (Decentralized Application).
- January 2016: Ernst & Young host its first Ethereum HK meetup. The Big 4 accountancies are on the block.
- March 2016: ConsenSys’s John Lilic discusses blockchain for enterprise systems.
- June 2016: Event hosted at KMPG office. Full house. 150+ attendees. The battle of the Big 4 is on. My first ETH H.K. meetup attendance.
The participants in the room look like a scene from the London tube, or maybe a human zoo: from ties and cufflinks to tee shirts, sneakers to high heels, clean cuts to dreadlocks.
This event is an inflexion point for Jehan Chu: that’s the day he decided to switch his career from art to crypto. He teamed up with investor Lawrence Chu and began to place bets on companies in the ecosystem.
“Curves were crazy, let me show you,” says Chu as he digs into his crypto portfolio app. The graph I am shown looks more like a skyscraper than a hockey stick. Some super angels are reported to have struck “hundreds of Xs” returns on their early investments.
- June 2016: Chu helps organize the “Ethereum Developers’ Roll Call: What are you working on?” This event showcased Chu has an animated host of community meetings. By now he had built a track record of many free events, usually starting with an audience poll, to gauge their familiarity with the topics being presented.
- Aug 2016 : Ethereum developer meetup featuring Enuma.
- Sept 2016: Ethereum H.K. and Singapore joint meetup, and an after-party at Dev Con2 Shanghai.
- Oct 2016: “Stablecoins, tokens and monetary policy with MakerDAO”. Oh yes, the topic was discussed early!
- July 2017: Etherem H.K. took the party to Shenzhen for a meetup with Vitalik Buterin, or “V.B.” as they call him in mainland China.
- June 2018 : Crypto career day.
- July 2018: Nifty conference. Focus on non-fungible tokens and gaming on the blockchain.
By now Chu’s activities had become big enough to institutionalize everything under the firm now known as Kenetic Capital, which now included services such as advising corporations on blockchain and enterprise applications. Kenetic had also built its own OTC and high-frequency trading desks. Chu admits the company expanded too fast, with 55 employees at its peak.
By early 2019 the industry fell into “crypto winter”, forcing companies including Kenetic to cut staff. But throughout this dark period, Chu helped keep the Ethereum meetup and other community activities alive – indeed, in March he presided over a “super meetup” among Ethereum participants from across Asia Pacific, attracting thousands of people.
Chu’s career has been as much a rollercoaster as the industry itself. He says the internet industry went through a similar journey in the 1990s before it stabilized and blended into society. Social Alpha, the non-profit foundation Chu co-founded with his wife, has continued throughout the ups and downs to distribute grants to blockchain projects with social impact missions.
What’s changed since these early days? According to Chu, the crypto boom and bust has helped him understand where the value accrues between the hype, the smoke, the tech and the talent. Kenetic’s new fund invests only in the equity of blockchain companies – no more tokens. Chu is also betting that “The first 100 million users in crypto will come from enterprise onboarding.”
His story has been intertwined with Hong Kong’s. I ask him what the future looks like. According to him, Hong Kong’s traditional role in the region as a landing pad for international businesspeople and its central position fostered it as a magnet for meetups and entrepreneurs.
Singapore has been catching up, with a different regulatory framework and crypto pitch. But Chu says it doesn’t match in terms of concentration, diversity and speed of business.
We finish our croissants and coffees on an upbeat note: Hong Kong’s Ethereum meetup will soon celebrate its 100th event. See you there!
Cupping Room Central
- G/F, No. 18 Cochrane Street, Central, Hong Kong
- House Black, HK$35
- 8oz White Regular Latte HK$38
- Croissants x2 HK$20
- Total: HK$113