THE CIRCLE OF LIFE

Big banks’ blockchain specialists are flocking to cryptocurrency firms in search of freedom

Obsession
Future of Finance
Obsession
Future of Finance

Executives tasked with exploring blockchain tech for banks and consulting firms are finding it harder and harder to resist going full crypto. Case in point: three executives at BNY Mellon, Deutsche Bank, and PWC well known for leading blockchain work at their firms have left to pursue their own blockchain projects in recent days. Their reason? They want to pursue blockchain ambitions outside the strictures of a corporate innovation lab.

The executives are now either directly employed by blockchain “venture studio” ConsenSys, or will work on their own projects with ConsenSys funding. Among them is Alex Batlin, who formerly led blockchain work at BNY Mellon, and before that at UBS. He’s now working on his own company, Trustology, with backing from ConsenSys. “I am a big believer in cryptoassets being super exciting, so being able to take these ideas to production in a timeframe that I want to do it in, it’s really tricky to do that in a bank,” he says. The other two execs are PWC’s Ajit Tripathi and Deutsche Bank’s Edward Budd.

It’s not the first time execs at big banks have defected to go all-in on blockchain. One well known example is Blythe Masters, who joined Digital Asset Holdings as chief executive, after leading commodities trading at JPMorgan. Others have turned to blockchain ventures after departing the C-suite, whether as founders or investors. There’s ex-Barclays head Antony Jenkins, the founder of data optimization fintech firm 10x Future Technologies who joined the board of Blockchain in 2016, and former UBS chief information officer Oliver Bussman, who promotes Switzerland’s “Crypto Valley” as a base for blockchain companies in the canton of Zug.

The blockchain specialists are leaving their corporate employers with valuable contacts. Last year three members of a blockchain team at Deloitte in Toronto left to form their own startup, with their ex-employers’ blessing. Batlin, the former BNY Mellon man, says he hopes the bank will be a client of his new project eventually.

Money is flowing into the crypto space. For instance, ConsenSys was started in 2014 by Joseph Lubin, a cofounder of Ethereum, which has gained 2,900% this year alone. “I believe ConsenSys pays a lot better than a bank,” says one executive working on innovation at a global bank who has been involved in the cryptocurrency space for years, who did want to be named.

The executives who are moving say money isn’t the reason. For Batlin, it’s the freedom to move quickly on a technology that he’s been covering for his employers for years. It’s the same story with Tripathi, who was until recently a director at PWC in charge of blockchain and fintech matters. He’s now joining ConsenSys as a partner, and will be in charge of delivering projects to corporate clients. “You can’t turn on a dime in big corporations,” Tripathi says. “There is a bubble right now, and the bubble drives innovation. Does it make it easier for [blockchain startups] to attract talent? Absolutely it does, because there is definitely a lot more runway. But it’s not about the money.”

Budd, previously the chief digital officer for the global transaction bank at Deutsche, joined ConsenSys to help launch its new UK office, according to efinancialcareers.

For Batlin, a veteran of corporate innovation labs, the flow of talent from big banks and consultancies to blockchain startups is just part of the natural order. “In many ways, this kind of rotation is natural,” he says. “As you experiment in the lab you start getting ideas, but you can’t take stuff to production in a lab. That’s the definition of a lab.”

Correction [Nov. 20]: An earlier version of this post said 10x Future Technologies was a blockchain venture. It is a data optimization fintech startup.

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