The turbulence in the overall cryptocurrency sector following FTX’s collapse this month is well known. What’s gotten less attention, however, is the failure of projects that attempted to use the underlying crypto ledger technology in private, corporate settings, the once-hyped ecosystem known collectively as enterprise blockchain.
This week, TradeLens, a blockchain system built by software firm IBM and closely linked to shipping giant Maersk, announced it was shutting down, citing a lack of commercial traction. Some two weeks ago, the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) said it was scrapping a much-delayed blockchain announced in 2016 that was meant to replace the clearing and settlement system that powers that equities market.
Neither IBM nor ASX responded to requests for comment by press time.
Back in the early days of 2015 to 2016, a groundswell of banks and large companies saw potential in taking blockchain technology – which, as originally designed for bitcoin and the rest of crypto, is a public platform open to basically anyone – into private, firewalled realms where groups of companies could use the tech to track assets and distribute an immutable record of their existence.
The enterprise blockchain space, which doesn’t seem to experience the same bullish and bearish market cycles as public crypto, is now feeling a change in the broader economic climate, particularly in areas like shipping. This is one of the reasons TradeLens is closing shop, according to Lars Jensen, CEO of Vespucci Maritime, a consultancy firm to the container shipping industry.
“The container shipping industry has had a run of two years of extreme profits, which allowed access to pursue all manner of technological solutions out there,” Jensen said in an interview. “Now, the tide has turned and industry is going to be under severe pressure. So that means for all the technological solutions out there, this is crunch time. Do you provide commercial value above and beyond what is just hopes and dreams for the future?”
Speaking of TradeLens specifically, Jensen pointed out there is a lot of competition from a range of different track-and-trace solutions in the container shipping space.
“TradeLens basically wanted to provide everything to everybody,” Jensen said. “But some of the other visibility providers out there are a lot more niche. They focus on either specific stakeholders or specific parts of the process, and they have a lot more commercial success. So this might also be an indication that the market might not have an appetite for a one-stop-shop solution that covers everything, but is more amenable to more specific and targeted solutions for specific problems.”
Richard G. Brown, chief technology officer of R3, the builder of the Corda enterprise blockchain and one of the first startups in the space, said that while the shuttering of TradeLens and the ASX blockchain has happened in quick succession, the reasons are very different.
The ASX project’s failures have more to do with engagement between stakeholders and technology choices, said Brown, who referred to an Accenture report on the system.
“When it comes to TradeLens, it’s not about a failure in the technology,” Brown said in an interview. “The demise of TradeLens may have something to do with IBM pulling back, or partly the cyclicality in the shipping industry, but the technology and the concept seem to be architecturally congruent from the outside.”
Stepping back, Paul Brody, head of blockchain at global consultancy firm Ernst & Young, believes the whole idea of private blockchains is fundamentally flawed. Brody and his team have been long-time adherents of promoting enterprise adoption of the public Ethereum blockchain, which has included using tech such as zero-knowledge proofs to make the tech palatable to big businesses.
“All these private blockchain ventures have the same basic problem,” Brody told CoinDesk. “It’s a Web2 business model, but a little bit of Web3 pixie dust sprinkled on. And once the pixie dust kind of wears off, the value proposition doesn’t look so hot.”