Who is Anna Brady-Estevez? She’s the Program Director for Chemical and Environmental Technologies and Distributed Ledger Technologies at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Like the other NSF Small Business InnovationResearch (SBIR) program directors, her background is in the private sector with expertise geared towards the needs of entrepreneurs as they try to scale their business. She has prior work as an inventor with start-ups, a Kauffman Fellow in venture capital, director of strategy at Fortune 200 companies, and management consultant at BCG. She’s what we would call in the industry, highly qualified. We followed up with her after a stellar discussion at CoinAgenda and spoke to about her how the United States government is looking to fund the future and get a wider range of entrepreneurs involved.
Thanks for speaking with us Anna! Can you give some background on the National Science Foundation?
Sure! At the National Science Foundation (NSF), we’re here to support the nation’s basic research and innovation. Why do we do that? The NSF was established to support the nation’s economic growth, health, and defense; it’s a funding agency that has nearly $8 billion in annual funding budget. Unlike some of the other agencies, most of our budget is for research. In around 2009, the NSF was already doing research related to cryptography, Bitcoin, and blockchain. Much of that is on the fundamental research side – if you think about the earliest stages of scientific research taking place in US universities, we represent around 27% of all or 60% of non-medical basic research.
The part of the NSF that I work in is the Industrial Innovation and Partnerships (IIP) Small Business and Innovation Research program. Basically what we’re doing is funding start-ups, around ~400 per year. Each year, we award nearly $190 million in funding to entrepreneurs across the country. For these projects, we help them make that transition; where they’re going from the science or leveraging that technology, to actually building a business out of it. We help them leverage these innovative use cases on top of an emerging technology like blockchain and distributed ledger more broadly. We also look at the potential for convergence of multiple fields, such as blockchain/DL with deep science, AI, machine learning, Internet of Things, etc.). We’re really here to support anything that’s innovative and disruptive across science and innovation and related business models. We look to learn from the market about what entrepreneurs see as the best opportunities.
Do you look at more cryptocurrency or blockchain-based businesses?
It’s interesting that people are treating it like it’s a sharp line between cryptocurrency and blockchain. I can personally see from the data that this is a trillion dollar space- which is very relevant to the nation’s economic growth. When you think about it from the market cap standpoint, over the past year, you’ve seen the trajectory from $20 billion to over $800 billion in market cap, to then $400-500 billion zone, with some recent short and much deeper dips. The market cap view misses the transaction volume: already several trillion dollars annually (an estimated $4 trillion across the top two protocols alone last year). As we look to see how we can be supportive of you as entrepreneurs being successful in this space, to a certain extent, there’s a line against cryptocurrency and blockchain, but we look at distributive ledger more broadly.
Blockchain is one of the most active spaces – but we also look at DAGs (Directed Acyclic Graphs), and really any type of distributive ledger. We’re already living in the data economy. Some folks might be thinking about this from the standpoint that cryptocurrency is where money becomes more efficient in going digital – obviously, money is digital already – but also, data becomes money or at least value that can be more readily exchanged in a number of ways. Some of the use cases that might not be seen as cryptocurrency, in the future, in a data economy where more of these cryptocurrencies or tokens take off, things will be monetized and transacted upon that wouldn’t normally be thought of as currency. So that line is blurred going forward in the future. Exchange of value is being disrupted and redefined.
Why do you think people are separating the two aspects of the industry?
There really is an evolution of how our economy works. If you think backward to how people were thinking of using the internet, 20, 30 years ago and where the value came from, it was not clear. If we think about the understanding of social media, it wasn’t clear. So in the past, it’s been more clearly demarcated: here’s what’s money, here’s what’s a transaction. But increasingly, as you move further into the data economy, the lines get blurred.
Do you see more positivity or negativity from the government perspective when looking at these disruptive technologies?
One of the government’s many roles is to invest in innovative ideas that private industry doesn’t want to take a risk on. NSF SBIR’s primary role is to fund innovators. We award grants, so it isn’t a debt to be repaid, and we don’t take equity, it is money given in a grant to help catalyze your company’s innovation. Ultimately, when transformative companies later succeed, this benefits the country and people’s daily lives more broadly. NSF is not typically a customer in a big way, so we aren’t trying to drive to solve agency-specific problems, but rather what is useful for the market. When you think about the government more broadly, it includes investors, customers, pilots, some of the largest stores of data that are relevant to the data economy on a standalone basis, in addition to regulators and representatives who drive policy.
At NSF SBIR, we’ve always funded the things that are challenges to the status quo. We’re always funding the disrupters of technologies…and I guess from a scientific standpoint, we see that every wave of technology has the potential to flame out, or to become dominant or useful in certain cases. From my perspective, distributed ledger, more broadly, is a useful innovation; it won’t be used for everything, it will likely be used for some things. But I guess whenever there’s a new technology, there’s fear from incumbents, and a need to learn about how to effectively use the technology. Some things will work and others won’t. So it’s more rapid in this space, but these are kind of normal problems for new technologies to be working through.
It’s nice to hear that because it’s important to remember that we’ve seen this many, many times before with other forms of technologies.
Yes! And we want to see how we can be supportive of American entrepreneurs being successful in this space. Ultimately, if there are better use cases, and fundamental technical or economic advantages, those things typically do win. So how do we support more of that in the U.S. so that we remain leading in areas that can be disrupted?
What are some of the mistakes you see companies making in this space?
I don’t have so much of an answer on that, but it’s such a fast-moving industry that there’s a benefit to folks sharing information (certainly some of these projects are very open-source). But when you think about that fast iteration and diverse set of skill sets, you might see projects that are really strong in one area. Since it’s such an early space, there’s a benefit to us all learning as much as we can, as fast as we can, because how companies compete and collaborate is changing rapidly. So, it’s less about mistakes and more about learning and building things that are hopefully useful. And it’s also about what fails: fail fast and hopefully build fast as well.
What are some of the developments or projects you’re excited for?
We don’t tell the companies what to build. We try to say instead, ‘entrepreneurs, innovators, show us what matters, show us what we don’t know, what the future could hold.’ We’ve tried to frame out some of the potential areas on our website that we see could be areas for improvement. The reality is, this early in the game, almost anything can be improved upon.
Do you see the role of women changing within the industry of cryptocurrency and distributed ledger technology?
I think what we see here is that it’s a multi-trillion dollar opportunity, much of which has not been built out yet. Some of the larger potential volume has not been realized or captured. If you think of something that’s a high-growth space, that’s both going to have economic, innovation, systems impact, and potentially societal impact, then whoever is at that table as innovators, is at the center of these major changes. They’re also among the people who profit from them, write the rules, invest in subsequent waves of innovation and so on. So for any group that’s not at the table, they should be asking themselves why they’re not there, and pulling up a chair to help lead this. There are a lot of women and others groups with skills who could add value and are not yet there in large numbers in the ecosystem; particularly as founders with large equity stakes. Those who have equity both drive decision making, and upon success have the ability to invest and direct subsequent waves of innovation. Think about how impactful some of the successful IT founders have been on society and the economy more broadly.
Often when you bring more diverse perspectives and ideas into a new sector, it helps it blossom faster–whether that’s geographies, people’s backgrounds or their personal perspectives. We hope to see more people get involved in the space. The message for those who aren’t involved yet is this: it’s still early, so if you have skills or ideas, come on down and apply to NSF. We can get involved with supporting companies at the earliest stages so that we can help pre-whitepaper, pre-ICO, etc. We generally fund companies that are two people, or three founders, sometimes one; it’s pre-revenue oftentimes. We just need to see that there’s a value case or a competitive advantage.
Entrepreneurs in this space are welcome to send a non-confidential 1-2 page executive summary to Anna at firstname.lastname@example.org.