Blockchain technology is a complex, decentralized database and network invented to hold and record peer-to-peer transactions of cryptocurrencies. Being relatively new, blockchain is the current interest within the technology and finance industries, with many believing that it has revolutionary potential to be interwoven throughout modern systems. However, the decentralized nature of blockchain also leads to poor consumer knowledge; buyers often do not always know what alternatives exist.
Hitomedia, a startup incubator based in Tokyo, Japan focused on improving the education and human growth sectors using innovative technology, is one company exploring the power of blockchain technology. This summer, Hitomedia hired a group of Minerva students to use cutting-edge blockchain technology to develop a product that could be brought to market as a new business.
Blockchain enthusiasts Luis Gonzalez, Juan Castro Fernandez, Abishek Dharshan, and Steven Tey, all from the Class of 2021, secured the internship after submitting a job application consisting of a professional pitch deck and a video introducing their project proposal: a decentralized digital art platform that would allow designers to coordinate and improve 3D models over the web.
Introduced to the cryptocurrency sector during their first year in San Francisco, the students were interested in this summer opportunity to learn about the professional paths within the industry. “I have always been fascinated by the possibility of starting my own business… I believe that the diverse set of courses I have taken at Minerva along with my external involvement with the technology community in San Francisco has helped me to ultimately find my passion for disruptive technologies like blockchain,” relates Dharshan, on his excitement to work with an incubator company in the technology industry, where he could help build an idea up from scratch.
To optimize their time with Hitomedia, the team defined their individual roles to delegate work and completed online courses in web design and product management, before arriving in Tokyo. They then assigned their project needs according to their strengths: Dharshan oversaw business and operations, Gonzalez managed back-end engineering development, Castro Fernandez led front-end engineering development, and Tey worked on design.
During the first week of the internship, the team met with Hitomedia Chief Executive Officer and Founder Masayasu Morita, who advised them to work on a project that each of them was passionate about. With this in mind, the team worked through an ideation phase during which they went through self-created brainstorming sessions and idea sprints to narrow their focus. Ultimately, they proposed to connect their personal passions and experience in blockchain technology and cryptocurrency and decided to create a working platform for dBay, a unified marketplace for non-fungible assets (NFTs,) which are unique and indivisible digital assets or tokens consist of online-based intellectual property, such as game avatars.
Seeing an opportunity to increase revenue and customer access to NFTs, the dBay team aimed to consolidate individual blockchain businesses into a single store, similar to physical retailers such as Amazon and Target, while also providing transactional security through smart-contracts.“We found that the lack of an established platform that allows for true ownership of digital assets to be a pressing problem,” the team relayed. “Because the blockchain ecosystem is still at its infancy, establishing such a platform would enable us to be catalysts within the development and adoption of the digital asset space.”
To start, the team had to problem solve one of the largest challenges of their internship: how to best understand and organize the full scope of the project. “Discussing the future course of the project with the team and clarifying our stakes proved to be a challenge due to the complexity of negotiating and achieving a common ground within our team,” said Dharshan. “However, our prior experience gained from civic projects and courses during our freshman year helped us in making better compromises.” These first year lessons guided the team to use techniques, like design-thinking sprints and brainstorming sessions, to construct the initial phase of the internship.
While the team was exploring the potential opportunities and constraints their project could face, they created a four-stage project management process, with their manager and advisor Ryo Shimokawa. The project management system broke the project into four three-week phases and divided each phase into weekly goals and subgoals.
The first stage was “Define and Planning,” where the team created the project’s mission and vision to align everyone’s goals and expected outcomes. In this section, they began to design for the dBay platform and drafted a work schedule to visualize what needed to be accomplished in order to launch the platform by the end of their internship. To maximize their efficiency to code the platform, the team incorporated a Japanese technique called Kanban, which organizes tasks and categorizes them into three buckets:“To be Done,” “Doing,” or “Done.” Each week, the team would review their task efficiency and assessed the work that still needed to be completed.
In the next stage, “Evaluate, Feedback, & Re-planning,” the team launched a minimal viable product (MVP,) which is a first draft or prototype of the project, which they presented to the internal team for feedback. In order to gauge market audience appeal, the team attended the inaugural NIFTY conference in Hong Kong, the world’s first NFT and crypto-collectible conference, to research the early-stage market and assess competition. At the conference, they pitched their dBay MVP to prominent NFT company leaders and venture capitalists, who were enthusiastic about the project and saw it filling an important gap in the industry. The team took the feedback from Hitomedia and the NIFTY attendees and incorporated it into the next iteration in their schedule, “Product Development.”
In this third phase, the team focused on continuing to build and redesign the platform in order to incorporate the feedback they had collected. The environment at dBay was useful as their coworkers' diverse expertise in both profession and experience with blockchain helped the team design dBay to be accessible for a wide array of potential users.
In the last phase, “Final Adjustment,” the team tweaked bugs to prepare their MVP for a presentation with Masayasu Morita and Hitomedia team. They tested for potential failure points within the website and discussed potential questions to impress their managers.
The project management process enabled them to successfully meet their weekly goals from the start, resulting in a completed MVP for dBay. The team’s discipline, time-management skills, and creation of the four-stage project management system impressed Shimokawa who noted, “Of course, I knew that they originally had a high level of thinking ability and ability to carry out before internships. However, more than that, I was impressed with the process of getting vision consensus with each other, and their attitudes to learn everything based on wonderful teamwork, efforts, passions, and curiosities that they want to realize even with a vision at all costs.”
In mid-August, the team successfully delivered a working alpha platform website for dBay. The landing page of the site achieved the team’s goal of unifying the NFT marketplace, where different types of tokens could be sold side by side and purchased in a single, easy click. The site also includes a form for NFT developers to submit products for inclusion in the marketplace.
With their MVP completed, the team pitched to Masayasu, describing their procedure, narrowing their company’s vision, and proposing next steps for the future. As a result of their hard work, Masayasu, Shimokawa, and the Hitomedia team were impressed with the team’s product and determination and encouraged them to prolong the incubation internship throughout the academic year.
“Despite a very difficult project, we think that it was very wonderful that Minerva students satisfied the requirements we requested, based on high quality output within the time period. The outputs they gave us will definitely be driving forces to advance our company, and we think that our employees were very influenced through working with Minerva students,” commends Shimokawa on the progress that the Minerva students made and on the future of dBay.
Currently, dBay operates under MIND Inc., a portfolio think-tank incubation company within Hitomedia, with the team aiming to publicly launch dBay as an independent company in the beginning of 2019.