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Blockchain firm gives refugees aid and identity


AID Tech co-founders CEO Joseph Thompson and chief operating officer Niall Dennehy

AID Tech co-founders CEO Joseph Thompson and chief operating officer Niall Dennehy

AID Tech co-founders CEO Joseph Thompson and chief operating officer Niall Dennehy

Some of the most innovative developments in financial tech are coming out of the developing world, where populations denied for decades the type of access to banking services that others enjoyed are finding new ways of handling money and transacting commerce.

Irish fintech companies are increasingly tapping into this innovation. Aid Tech is a startup that is looking at new ways of making the sometimes controversial charity sector more transparent

The company has just recently completed a funding round with some prominent US, European and Asian venture capitalists and private investors to raise $2m (€1.6m). A formal announcement will be made in the coming weeks.

It is also an example of a fintech company brought into being by the former staff of one of the big Irish-based tech multinationals, a dynamic that is seen as a key advantage for the growth of the sector in Ireland. Aid Tech's co-founders, Niall Dennehy and Joseph Thompson, met while working for Ericsson in Dun Laoghaire as technical consultants, travelling to other Ericsson sites around the world working with the company's engineers.

"We always had it in the back of our heads that we would start something ourselves but we just didn't know what," said Dennehy, now chief operations officer.

The pair shared a love of endurance sports and Thompson, now CEO, completed the gruelling 150-mile Marathon Des Sables in 2009, raising $122,000 in the process.

"One donor gave him quite a large sum of money as part of that. The donor later asked him to show him how the money was spent and he wasn't able to," said Dennehy.

By 2012, the two became interested in blockchain technology and through interactions with a friends' charity they saw that it could have huge potential to provide transparency.

"We were able to see a potential application for it based on the experience Joe had in the desert and afterwards how he had not been able to show how the money he had worked so hard to raise had been spent."

International aid was an even bigger potential market than charity, with some estimates suggesting as much as 30pc of overseas development aid goes missing - or $48bn of the OECD Official Development Assistance total.

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The unique transparency provided by blockchain - which keeps a record of every transaction in the chain - could be applied to the problem, they believed.

"So if a donor wanted to know where their money was spent and even who it was spent by, blockchain could show them that."

Before establishing the company, they asked ourselves a number of questions: "Could we do something that makes money? Could we do something that means we are not working for someone else and could it be fun? Finally, could we do something that could change the world?"

The company built a minimal viable product and worked out an agreement with the Red Cross to establish a pilot project working with Syrian refugees.

"We put cutting-edge digital blockchain technology in the hands of Syrian refugees. They bring that to a shopkeeper and they can see who they are and what they are entitled to.

"It could be rice, water or a generic dollar amount. A record of the transaction is kept on the blockchain so the charity can go back to its fundraisers to show them that their money, for example, was spent on buying rice.

"Not only does it give them the ability to obtain entitlements, but it also gave them a form of cross-border identity. We are working with the UN in Serbia, for example, where we digitise real money and convert it into a digital asset on the blockchain."

The company takes a fee per user per month, paid by governments, philanthropists, bodies such as Irish Aid etc, so it now has a revenue stream and, according to Dennehy, is one of the few companies in the world which has deployed and scaled blockchain technology in the real world. Currently the company employs seven people, but plans to grow that to about 30 employees in the next 12 months.

"We have a social mission but we are a for-profit company," he says.

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