Blockchain & IoT: Oaken Innovations Carves Niche in Cryptocurrency

With two global contest wins and a partnership with Toyota Research Institute's mobility ecosystem, the startup is making a name for itself in the realm of blockchain technology.

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Only months ago, Flower Mound resident James Johnson and four other likeminded blockchain enthusiasts were a group of people with a passion for exploring future uses of cryptocurrency.

Now, with two global blockchain contest wins and a partnership with Toyota on the books, they’ve officially incorporated as Oaken Innovations.

“We beat the world twice in technology competitions, so it’s time for us to enter the market,” said Johnson, Oaken Innovations co-founder and chief marketing officer.

“We beat the world twice in technology competitions, so it’s time for us to enter the market.” 
James Johnson

The startup is focused on developing software “at the intersection of blockchain and Internet of Things.”

Team members are scattered throughout Dallas-Fort Worth — with COO Hudson Jameson in Little Elm and CCO Lainey Fisher in Oak Cliff — and across North America — CEO John Gerryts lives an hour outside Toronto, Canada while CTO Shuang “Lex” Liang calls New Jersey home.

So far, most its work has centered on Ethereum, the general purpose blockchain that offers more freedom to build custom applications than Bitcoin.

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Members of the Oaken Innovations team: John Gerryts, James Johnson, Hudson Jameson, and Lainey Fisher. Shang Liang is shown virtually on the laptop in the center. [Photo courtesy of Oaken Innovations]

 

Blockchain, which uses a collection of independent computers to send information rather than a network server, is an early-stage industry that for many still holds a lot of ambiguity, but trust in the platform is growing.

This week, MasterCard and Cisco announced they’d be joining the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, an open-source blockchain alliance already packed with large corporations such as JP Morgan Chase and Microsoft. Value of the cryptocurrency token, Ether, increased to about $245 after news of the new EEA partners broke, according to Inc.

Locally, Johnson and Jameson have seen attendance to the Dallas Ethereum Developers Meetup they founded in 2015 soar. At the initial meeting, four people showed up while a recent gathering brought out about 100 Dallas-area folks.

OAKEN SYNCS UP WITH TOYOTA FOR BLOCKCHAIN INITIATIVE

Oaken also has entered into an alliance of its own with Toyota Research Institute developing mobility use cases for blockchain and distributed ledger technology.

“They were in that sweet spot that I was interested in,” said Chris Ballinger, TRI’s chief financial officer and director of mobility services, about Oaken’s work connecting blockchain with IoT.

Ballinger first met Oaken team members Jameson and Gerryts in January at blockchain developers conference in San Francisco.

At the time, the Oaken team was working on its first-prize, $100,000 winning entry for United Arab Emirates government’s Blockchain Virtual GovHack. Its project placed a Raspberry Pi computer inside a Tesla allowing the car to connect directly with a toll gate to make a payment rather than routing through an offsite server and using third party payment processers.

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Oaken team members John Gerryts (far left), James Johnson (third from left), and Hudson Jameson accept a $100,000 prize as first place winner in United Arab Emirates government’s Blockchain Virtual GovHack. [Photo courtesy of Oaken Innovations]

 

Johnson said the approach reduces the payment transaction time from days to seconds and transaction fees from 1-3 percent to about .01 percent.

“That was basically turning a car into a mobile wallet and paying tolls and paying for services with a mobility token, which is exactly what I wanted to do,” Ballinger said.

For TRI’s mobility ecosystem, Oaken used a similar peer-to-peer payment approach for car sharing.

“Except we changed the [toll booth] to a person who wants to rent a car and the car itself,” Johnson said. “… [after the payment is processed,] the car unlocks, allows them to push start the vehicle, and they drive off in the car.”

TRI debuted the proof of concept along with three others from startups around the world in May’s Consensus 2017, CoinDesk’s annual blockchain technology summit.

CREATING A MOBILTY ECOSYSTEM AROUND BLOCKCHAIN

Ballinger said TRI wanted to “create some buzz” in the industry demonstrating that blockchain has applications beyond finance in other industries such as auto and mobility.

The idea is to create open-source software tools that can be used to accelerate the adoption of blockchain especially in the realms of mobility services and autonomous vehicles. In addition to startups such as Oaken, TRI is working with MIT Media Lab and hoping to engage even more partners.

Ballinger said TRI doesn’t have many internal resources dedicate to blockchain or distributed ledgers, so its aligning with others to push the technology forward.

“The blockchain is a technology that works only when it’s part of an ecosystem.” 
Chris Ballinger

“The blockchain is a technology that works only when it’s part of an ecosystem,” Ballinger said. “It’s not something you can do on your own as a company, because you have to have an ecosystem of suppliers, customers, and mobility service providers all using it. That’s when it becomes valuable.”

The next step will be getting partners together in a room to discuss what the ecosystem could look like and a timeline to bringing ideas to fruition, he said.

“This year, most of what you’ll see are proof of concepts. The kind of things that we demonstrated. Next year, what I think you’ll start seeing is applications introduced in ecosystems at scale,” Ballinger said.

Oaken looks forward to having a seat at that table and establishing itself in the blockchain industry.

Where others might see uncertainty in the technology, Oaken sees potential.

“For all of us, I think it’s like if you had a chance to know what the internet was going to be like it was today back in 1993, and you get a chance to work on it,” Jameson said.


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