Alessandro Buser, who the IOTA community probably knows as “AleB”, is a prolific genius who has his hands in a number of things. According to the internet, Alessandro is a senior associate and the tech lead at Blockchain Valley Ventures in Switzerland, has experience developing smart contracts (solidity) and IOTA, and is also a member of the IEN.
It's rare that we get a chance to learn from an engineer who also has an investing perspective from inside a top venture capital firm, so let's not miss this opportunity to learn a few things.
HelloIOTA Question #1:
Your background is super unique, and will certainly provide the community with valuable insights! We usually like to start by asking about where you’re from, what your early interests were, where you went to school/what you studied, and where you’ve worked. Everything prior to getting into the crypto space. But, you’re so young that most of the back half of those questions are probably still under development - so we’ll have to settle for a brief rundown of your life so far. Have you always been into programming? Did you grow up in what’s now become “blockhchain valley”?
I grew up in a small town in the beautiful Ticino, the Italian speaking part of Switzerland, and I was always very excited about video games, and especially loved World of Warcraft and StarCraft2. So since an early age I wanted to build games, and at 13 or so I invented a board-game (kind of a mix between Chess and “Die Siedler von Catan”) that I wanted to make into a video game, but rather quickly realized that I needed to learn coding to do that. So when I got my first PC at 14 I convinced my parents to buy me a license for GameMaker Studio and watched many hours of YouTube tutorials on how to use it. It took a while, but I learned the basics by building a smaller game which I published a year later. After that, I spent the following 2 years working on the actual board-game. While the development of that was going great, I hit some issues with the design/graphics (my artistic skills are very bad) and I spent less and less time on it, and ultimately dropped it when I moved to Zürich to start my university studies.
HelloIOTA Question #2:
They say the best programmers are self-taught. There aren’t any classes on smart contracts in school yet, so you’ve clearly taken a personal interest in crypto and put in the work on your own. How did you first discover cryptocurrency in general? Do you remember the day you first heard about it? What initially appealed to you about the technology?
I initially learned about Blockchain/Crypto in 2016 when I was still in high school, a friend of mine started talking about how he made some profits by buying Bitcoin and that got me interested (of course...). I did some research and watched some YoutTube videos on the topic, and was immediately intrigued by the idea of Ethereum and the “world computer”. I initially thought that I could use it for the game I was building, to make it multiplayer without needing servers. So I started to look deeper into Smart Contracts and learned a bit of Solidity from YouTube, but quickly understood that that was not possible, and transaction fees make most gaming use-case infeasible.
When I started University in 2017, the whole space was getting more and more exciting (as prices went higher and higher) and I started to go to some Meetups in Zürich. Here, I met more interested people with whom I created a “Blockchain Study Group” that met once a week to discuss all things Blockchain. At university I also participated and won 2nd place in a Hackathon around Ethereum and IPFS.
After the first Semester, I decided that I really wanted to get more practical experience, and Switzerland had (and still has) a lot of demand for Blockchain developers, so I decided to drop out of university and started working in the Industry as a Smart Contract developer.
HelloIOTA Question #3:
Presumably, after wading into Ethereum smart contracts, you came to learn about IOTA. Talk a bit about how you discovered IOTA, what stood out about the protocol, and why you’ve decided to allocate your time to developing on top of the protocol while also being part of the IEN. How does IOTA compare to some of the other options out there in terms of developing on it?
I discovered IOTA because I was looking for a topic to present to the Study Group, and the DAG architecture seemed like an interesting topic to discuss there. I went through Dr. Popov's “The Tangle” whitepaper and was excited - the core idea of having feeless transactions by making every user “help” other users seemed very elegant.
Initially, I was not interested in developing on IOTA as I had no use case in mind that required it, and I also just started to work as a Smart Contract developer on Ethereum, so my focus was on that. I still kept an eye on IOTA and joined IEN because I wanted to be involved somehow. As the protocol matured and some of the use-cases were getting more realistic, I started building a project in which a trading-bot would sell it’s trading signals to consumers. This project needed secure data transmission and micropayments, and IOTA with MAM was the only protocol I could do this on. Implementing this was also rather easy as I could use the usual tools and languages I am familiar with to get started quickly, instead of having to learn a whole new tool-box and language as I had to do with Ethereum/Solidity.
HelloIOTA Question #4:
You recently did a workshop that explained IOTA Streams. I took extensive notes on your presentation in preparation for this interview, and I’d broadly summarize Streams as being a medium-agnostic framework that allows for data to be loaded into the Tangle, and provides granular access control to that data in an author-subscriber model. More simply, IOTA Streams is a generalization of the old IOTA MAM (and MAM is just one application under the umbrella of Streams). Readers are encouraged to go back and watch that video for a technical discussion on this topic as well as a full code implementation. But maybe here you could clarify what IOTA Streams is, and then translate that into the real-world implications of a technology like this. For example, is Streams a building block that might play a role in a suite of new apps being built on IOTA? How important is this feature for industry adoption?
I always thought that the “killer apps” of DLT are: secure data transfers and smart-contracts. When I discovered MAM I got really excited as it provided a lot of the key functionality needed for secure data-transfers out-of-the-box. With Streams now, the IOTA Foundation is going one step further and providing an entire framework rather than just one “tool”, and while right now it is still in the early stages, the Channels-Protocol already shows how much more dynamic applications can be built with the Streams Framework.
It seems like Streams will be a foundational building block in many other “products” like IOTA-Access and IOTA-Identity, and it will be the core data-transport solution for many other applications being built outside the IF.
At iot2tangle, for example, we are building tools to facilitate the streaming of sensor-data from devices over the Tangle using the Channels-Protocol. And in our ongoing Hackathon we are seeing some great use-case that would be very difficult to implement without the data-security inherently provided by the Tangle.
From an industry point-of-view, for the first time many of the data-only use-cases that are technically possible with Blockchain but very impractical (supply-chain tracking, data marketplaces, self-auditing, etc.), are now entering the realm of actually being realizable. Most companies have already looked at these applications and for the most part decided that they are not feasible given the low transaction speed and high fees, or they implemented quasi-solutions like: only storing hashes of off-chain data or moving everything onto permissioned networks.
With Streams and Channels, a lot of these use-cases can be realized in exactly the way they were initially conceived and without any compromises. This is the main reason why I am very excited about Streams. It will finally allow companies to build and make concrete the ideas and products that were promised by Blockchain, but could not be delivered.
HelloIOTA Question #5:
With your experience coding in solidity, IOTA, and presumably various other environments, how does IOTA compare? Where do you see the IOTA protocol fitting into this space? Is there a reason why ETH seems to have a lead in terms of the number of devs building on it right now?
I would say that before the announcement of IOTA Smart Contracts, for me it was clear that Ethereum is the best option for Smart Contracts and Tokenization since it has a very big ecosystem and there are unrivaled benefits for the network effect one gets by building in that ecosystem. As all Ethereum Smart Contracts are natively interoperable, there is just so much value one can freely tap into by just building on there, and the widespread use of compatible wallets, exchanges, etc. gives Ethereum enough benefits to counteract the drawbacks of slow transactions and high fees.
IOTA is in a similar situation where there is a big ecosystem, but the focus was always on micropayments and data transfers, and there is still no real competition for that. So I always see IOTA in it’s own category as it allows for use-cases that are outside of what traditional Blockchains can do. As the IF understands this better than anyone, they have chosen a different “go-to-market” strategy where the focus is more on industrial (B2B) adoption rather than just community (B2C) adoption.
This difference in strategy has led the Ethereum community to be more focused on startups and quickly iterating businesses which often focus less on solving real-world problems and more on nice-to-have things like digital collectibles or KYC-less-finance. The road IOTA is taking seems to be based on a more long-term vision of creating a technology that actually allows us to solve the real problems the industry is facing, and these are usually not problems individual developers or newly created startups can solve.
With IOTA Smart Contracts, this dynamic will change a bit as for the first time IOTA is competing directly with Ethereum, at least for some use-cases (permissioned smart contracts). While I don’t think that the big established Ethereum based products will move over any time soon, it will definitely allow for more community involvement and more products/services coming from startups created by community members.
HelloIOTA Question #6:
Since you work at a venture capital firm, could you illustrate the way in which institutional capital allocators such as your firm are thinking about the competition between protocols? Is there a mental model that you guys use to predict which protocols should be built upon? Are you focused on finding second and third layer applications? Or is the underlying protocol a critical factor? What is the sentiment in the blockchain investment world right now, and how does that compare to past years (whether in your experience or what you’ve been told about how it was before you joined the firm)? Do you foresee there ultimately being only one winning protocol? A handful? Many? Where do tokens fit into the thesis? And where does IOTA fall along this spectrum?
There are many different views on this in the industry. Some firms are focused on only one protocol and try to benefit from synergies of different companies building on it. Others, like us, are more interested in the application itself and the problem it solves, and as long as the underlying protocol allows for the application to work well, it’s not important which one it is. But Ideally an application is protocol agnostic and able to move to another protocol without much effort if necessary (this is of course not always possible). So overall we don’t think much about the competition between protocols and are more interested in what is built on top of them. We are always happy if there is technological progress and new use-cases are enabled that solve real problems.
Ultimately, I think there will not be many protocols, maybe a handful, and they will all have their own niche and specialization. This is because network effects make it more valuable to build on a protocol that already has a lot of infrastructure and services available (wallets, exchanges, documentation, tutorials, etc.), so there is a natural tendency towards a winner-take-all market. But as long as the competing protocols have their own unique advantages and can cater to specific use-cases others can’t, they will continue to grow and get more traction, and therefore become more attractive. And IOTA has a lot of benefits that are unique in the market, especially for the data-only use-cases and those where it’s machines interacting with each other rather than humans.
As for the sentiment, even in VC which is not directly linked to the prices of Cryptos, there is a lot of correlation with the rest of the market. When I initially joined the sector in early 2018 the sentiment was more positive as the overall market was still hot and a lot of money was still flowing in. Over the last years as Crypto entered a bear-market, the entire industry cooled off a bit. This was, in my opinion, a good thing as it allowed everyone to refocus on what are actually useful products and services that create value and need to be supported, and not just follow the hype and search for the “next big thing”. Overall, I think most people have a way more grounded and realistic view of the technology and its limitations, and have grown a better judgement for where it makes sense to apply, and where it’s just used as another buzzword.
HelloIOTA Question #7:
Final remarks - feel free to add any closing words of wisdom to aspiring investors/technologists. Is there anything that the IOTA developer community should know from an external perspective? Is now a good time to jump into developing on IOTA? How do you think the eventual protocol updates will impact industry adoption? Is coordicide the only thing holding back adoption, in your estimation?
It’s of course never a bad time to learn coding, and there is a lot of demand for Blockchain savvy developers, especially in the finance and fintech space. But also for non-developers, there is a big lack of understanding of the technology and its use, but at the same time many companies are looking at entering the space either by building products or investing capital. So definitely keep learning about IOTA and DLT!
As for coordicide, it will definitely be the biggest event in IOTA’s history, but I am not convinced that the “lack” of adoption is due to centralization and the Coo. Rather, if one honestly looks at the space, the only real “adoption” is speculation (“Making nerds rich” -Dom), and I think the reason why the space never really moved beyond that is the inability of Blockchain technology to solve the actual problems; those that need more than 10 TPS and are not viable with transaction fees. So what will really make the difference is likely to be Streams, Access, Identity and Smart Contracts run on Chrysalis, as these are actual tools that can be used to solve these problems. But one also needs to be realistic that this will not happen over-night and that big problems require long planning and thorough development.
Now, we all know that good technology doesn’t create adoption in itself. There also needs to be awareness of it. Luckily we've got HelloIOTA for that : )
HelloIOTA would like to thank you so much for all you do in the crypto space generally, and in IOTA more specifically. We need as many young brilliant minds as possible to make our world a better place, so it’s a delight to see you so involved. We’re elated at the progress of DLT so far and can’t wait to see the wonderful future built by you and your generation. We're cheering for you and your generation.