Before his presentation at the Blockchain Expo on March 17th, The Block will talk to Fergal Downey about the inner workings of his engineering team, his thoughts on the challenges for business organizations and the possible future directions of the blockchain industry.

Fergal Downey is Vice President (VP) of Engineering at Rakuten Blockchain Lab in Belfast, the blockchain-based products and solutions team at Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten. Before joining Bitnet Technologies in 2016, he led an engineering team at Bitnet Technologies, a platform for managing cryptocurrency payments. He also served as Senior Director for Visa-acquired credit card payment company CyberSource in California and Belfast.

With two decades of fintech experience and his early involvement in new blockchain solutions, Downey’s session at Blockchain Expo will provide a deep insight into the practical aspects of blockchain adoption across the financial industry and beyond. He will speak in Rakuten about road tests and scaling the introduction of blockchain technologies.

“I’m going to make a number of recommendations on how we’ve approached and promoted blockchain adoption in a large company like Rakuten,” Downey told The Block. “The talk covers topics such as educating the rest of your company about what you want to achieve, developing partnerships, experimenting, and aligning with your company’s product strategy.”

One of the engineering team’s biggest projects in recent years was the development and maintenance of Rakuten Wallet, a cryptocurrency app released in August 2019 only for Japan.

Last month, the company announced that cryptocurrency holdings in the app could be used to fund users’ Rakuten Cash (e-money) accounts.

“These funds can then be used at hundreds of different retailers like 7-Eleven and McDonald’s,” says Downey. “News outlets reported that you can now buy a Big Mac with your crypto assets. We loved it as it shows mainstream adoption in Japan.” The Rakuten laboratory recently completed a proof of concept with the Irish IoT startup Wia to show a possible way to pursue the Covid-19 compliance of companies. Downey explains that his team “used a combination of occupancy information from IoT sensors in buildings to write tamper-proof events on a private blockchain, which then provides an audit trail for Covid-19 regulations.”

This is also mentioned in Downey’s upcoming session. “So you can see if a particular office, restaurant, or other business has stayed within its occupancy limits according to guidelines from local authorities. This is then recorded and accessible through the blockchain, ”he adds.

Talking about the day-to-day work at Rakuten Blockchain Labs and the challenges the company faces, Downey notes that having a blockchain-specific engineering team is different from traditional forms of data storage.

“One key difference is that we have to deal with the finality of the blockchain means of storing data,” he explains. “Once a transaction has been confirmed as an existing block in the ledger, there is no going back and we have to align our platform with it.

“Other problems arise from the constant changes in cryptocurrency systems,” adds Downey. “For example, we have to deal with a bitcoin money fork twice a year. The last time it forked, it wasn’t until after it happened that we knew which of the forks would be the main fork, so we had to factor in both contingencies. “

Adapting to extensive changes to cryptocurrency systems is an integral part of Rakuten Labs’ work schedule. Since Rakuten Wallet supports Ethereum trading, the upcoming Ethereum 2.0 upgrades are causing the team some difficulties.

“Some of the future Ethereum upgrades will damage our systems and some will not. It’s similar when you’re hooked into a third-party API and they change their API, “says Downey. “It is always likely that something will change.”

Downey elaborates on broader trends in the blockchain space and shares his thoughts on some of the key challenges companies and the industry will face in 2021.

He notes that skills have been a serious problem in the past as a lot of knowledge is required to create blockchain-based solutions. However, this is becoming less and less of a problem for organizations that offer Blockchains-as-a-Service (BaaS).

As this problem becomes less important, others become more important. “To see the real benefits of blockchain, you have to participate in a blockchain network,” says Downey. “If Facebook only had two people with accounts, it would be of limited use as a social network. [Blockchains] are more valuable when a consortium of organizations participates. “

Speaking of the industry in general, Downey believes that “many companies still consider blockchains to be optional. You see blockchain projects as side projects that don’t require prioritization. “

He attributes this to blockchains, which are still in its infancy as an emerging technology. With a view to the next decade of blockchain development and integration, Downey expects greater mainstream acceptance, a diverse selection of different blockchains for different functions, and increased tokenization of assets.

“I don’t think there will be a blockchain that rules them all. Just like with databases today, it will be a technical choice that depends on the specific requirements. With that in mind, however, I also think that interoperability will be key to the industry’s success. “

While bumps remain for the future of blockchain adoption, Downey and his team at Rakuten Blockchain Labs are working hard to smooth out those bumps and make the journey a smooth one.

Editor’s Note: Check out Downey’s talk at Blockchain Expo on March 17th to learn more about how the teams of blockchain-based solutions are achieving this adoption.

Would you like to hear more in person? For more information, visit the Blockchain Expo World Series in Global, Europe and North America.


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