On Monday, Colorado state Sen. Angela Williams plans to buy her first bitcoin, or piece of one, and then spend it right away. Perhaps on a glass of Jack Rabbit Hill wine. Or maybe a T-shirt from Denver designer Atomic Child.
But instead of buying cryptocurrency online in the seedy, digital underworld of yesteryear (circa 2011), she’ll be inside the artsy new wine and spirits tasting venue Booz Hall in RiNo — and using a bitcoin ATM. Attending the first-time event for this year’s Denver Startup Week, Williams expects to be joined by a bunch of other “crypto curious” noobs playing around with blockchain technology, crypto wallets and cryptocurrency for their first time, too.
“This is an exciting new technology that is important to Colorado,” said Williams, who has more than an outsider’s interest in crypto. She sponsored one of the groundbreaking blockchain bills last session — the Cyber Coding Cryptology For State Records — to make way for government offices to use blockchain to secure sensitive data of Coloradans already on file.
“I wouldn’t say it’s mainstream,” she continued. “Cyber coding cryptography and blockchain technology is just getting on its feet here in Colorado. When we became the first state to legalize marijuana, we had to create a regulatory environment. This is (similar in) rolling out a new technology and new businesses.”
That’s kind of Denver Startup Week’s M.O. Heading into its seventh year, the week has become one of the nation’s largest free events. It also tends to give an up-and-coming trend full-on support with a dedicated cluster, as it did in past years with cannabis and internet of things.
“We are always looking forward to what sectors are trending upward in Denver, where we have the skill sets, assets and workforce that are the seeds of growth for Denver,” said Tami Door, CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership, which is a sponsor of the entrepreneurial event. “That said, blockchain was absolutely on our mind.”
What Door’s talking about is that for some reason, Denver is becoming a notable player in the blockchain world. Earlier this year, it was ranked as the 10th largest U.S. city for blockchain jobs, No. 6 for blockchain startups and 14th for blockchain companies, according to the Crypto Fund List, a research project by alternative investment firm The Blue Heron Group.
Colorado’s governor put a special Blockchain council together in June to figure out how the state should create a legal framework for the new technology. The group includes politicians, state department heads and leaders from private companies, including early bitcoin entrepreneur Eric Voorhees, now founder of ShapeShift, a cryptocurrency exchange.
Denver has also become home to some high-profile blockchain startups, including KeepKey, which makes a hardware wallet to store digital currency, and Salt Lending, which lends U.S. dollars and uses a borrower’s cryptocurrency as collateral. Salt is also sponsoring the Denver Startup Week Blockchain HUB event, a social and educational afternoon offering booze, crypto education and sessions on legislation, business models and development.
Momentum has also gathered in the community, with local meetups attracting more than 1,000 people. Denver hosted one of the largest events of its kind in February called EthDenver, which promoted a blockchain technology called Ethereum.
“The blockchain community in Colorado is one of the strongest in the country and we as a community need to continue that,” said John Paller, cofounder of ETHDenver and Opolis, a Denver firm building a blockchain allowing employees to move to a new job and take all their benefits with them.
But Paller knows there’s a large learning curve for the technology because it essentially builds a new internet that, ideally, isn’t owned or controlled by a few major companies or entities.
“The thing about blockchain is that it’s still kind of inaccessible for people. They’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t really understand all this stuff.’ They know about the cryptocurrency bubbles where a lot of people lost money. It’s true,” Paller said. “But blockchain is the underlying technology. Not cryptocurrency.”
In other words, cryptocurrency, like bitcoin, is like an app built on the blockchain. And blockchain is the software connecting multitudes of computers from different networks (not just those owned by Google or Amazon). Blockchain uses cryptography to verify transactions and also prevents changes to the original document. Blockchains like Ethereum can authenticate documents, news stories, medical records and even titles for home ownership. But a lot of those practical uses don’t exist yet.
(Note: The Colorado Sun gets some of its financial support from Civil, a company that is building tools to put journalism on the Ethereum blockchain. Blockchain publishing could help reduce the effect of fake news by verifying that stories are really published by The Sun and other newsrooms, sources are who they say they are and prevent stories from getting deleted should a wealthy media owner pull the plug.)
“At this time last year, we had the third largest Meetup for Ethereum in the country. How did that happen? I don’t know. You’ve got to think about the social political climate,” Paller said. “There’s an overarching libertarianism here. We were the first to legalize weed.”
At Monday’s event, there will be bitcoin ATM machines to convert cash into cryptocurrency. There will also be a handful of merchants who are expected to accept the cryptocurrency for their first time, including Atomic Child Design, fashion truck Wholly Craze and winery Jack Rabbit Hill Farm.
“I’m a huge, huge, huge supporter in the potential (of blockchain)” said Lance Hansen, a biodynamic grape grower in Hotchkiss and owner of Jack Rabbit Hill and Yeah Baby! Gin Palace in Denver.
Though he’s farmed for the past 17 years, Hanson said his roots are in the tech industry so he gets the promise of blockchain. He left the California software industry in 2001 to become a farmer in Colorado.
“I mean it’s everything that Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 were supposed to be,” Hanson said. “We’re finally getting to the point where we’re really getting rid of the intermediaries and enabling consumers, citizens and other stakeholders in society to have totally direct relationships with other people and partners they want to trade with.”
A vision he has for a useful blockchain application — and he’s hoping someone else will build this — is putting evidence of being a USDA-certified organic farm on the blockchain. There’s already annual auditing and a paper trail. By putting the documents online in a way that scammers can’t fake it, consumers would know where the food is coming from and whether it is really organic.
“We know of cases where the documents associated with the certification process have been changed and altered,” Hanson said. “This would be a classic application, much like land titles.”
The Blockchain Hub event at Denver Startup Week aims to educate users on buying cryptocurrency, storing it and using it. There will also be sessions to talk about the promise of blockchain and laws surrounding it.
“We’ve been able to curate the whole day and enlist the blockchain community,” said Jennifer Nealson, Salt’s chief marketing officer. “The governor’s council and all kinds of folks will be there to advocate for the blockchain community and show up so people will understand this is a significant.”