What do people think of Virginia Tech
From August 16 to 25, Steven represented Rüttimann with his startup Block flyer the ZHAW and Switzerland in the Virginia Tech Global Challenge. The finalist of this year's ZHAW Startup Challenge did not win the $ 30,000 prize money, but he is richer with exciting impressions and many interesting contacts.
What does Blockflyer do?
Block flyeris a revolutionary payment system that provides air travelers with a single currency in just one single account. Blockflyer exchanges airline miles for travelers into its own cryptocurrency, which can be used as a means of payment by all of our partners regardless of alliances and mileage programs. We are rethinking what a loyalty system can do and improving aging systems with our blockchain-based approach, creating added value for all parties involved.
How did you come up with the idea?
The idea came quite spontaneously when I was having a beer with a good friend over a year ago and we suddenly thought how “cool” it would be to have enough airline miles to book a first-class free flight over the Atlantic . We then developed a rudimentary system to earn enough miles. However, this was based on the AirBerlin miles program, which unfortunately is now history. In the end, I probably didn't want to admit that the idea was now going under with the airline and began to think more about, among other things, how such a system could work for several airlines and a larger target audience. Over a year later, this is now called a block flyer.
When you got to Virginia Tech, what were your first impressions?
Since part of my family lives not far from Virginia Tech, I already know the region and American culture pretty well. What impresses me again and again, however, is the “college culture” that exists in the USA. University life is regulated down to the last detail and the campus is more like a small town than anything else. This is certainly something that we in Europe will never have to the same extent for reasons of space alone. If you don't want to, you never have to leave the campus for the entire semester, as everything can be arranged, arranged or procured on site. Leisure activities are not neglected either. In addition, most of the imposing buildings on campus are made of local limestone, the so-called “Hokie Stone”, which gives the whole thing a certain “Hogwarts character”. By the way, the “Hokie” is the mascot and image bearer of the VT and is a slightly exaggerated turkey!
During your pitch your microphone suddenly went off and loud music turned on (due to a technical error). How did you manage to stay so cool in a situation like this?
That is probably due to my practice. It has never been really difficult for me to speak in front of people and I don't really think about it. This is mainly because it is simply not worth getting angry about, because I couldn't change it after all! The situation was at least very entertaining. When I looked over to the technical desk, however, there was no one left, so I knew straight away that this interruption could last longer. I then tried to interact with the audience and especially with the jury so that the time would pass faster and the situation would be defused a bit. The speakers were, as I learned afterwards, overwritten by a technician at the other end of the stadium in order to do a sound test in the whole stadium, since the football season started the following week. In the end it was an unfortunate coincidence that it just hit my pitch, but there is nothing you can do about it, except smile and not let it get you down.
What were your personal highlights during the week in Virginia?
Something that was sometimes most valuable to me was the collaboration with my host company - a local company with which the teams work together in the week before the pitch to learn more about the American startup culture on the one hand and to use the pitch on the other. As luck would have it, my host company was a software developer with blockchain expertise, which of course made the collaboration incredibly valuable to me! We are still in contact after the challenge and are thinking about a potential collaboration. In private terms, the tour of the US Capitol in Washington was clearly the greatest highlight. I've been to Washington DC countless times, but I've never had the opportunity to go into the Capitol, which this time finally worked.
What lessons have you learned about block flyers and your further entrepreneurial career with you from the USA?
For me it was very interesting to see how the American market reacted to the topic of blockchain and crypto currencies. Because the mood is very divided. On the one hand, there are the technological advocates, with whom discussions in this area are always easy. On the other hand, a large part of the country is very skeptical about cryptocurrencies. For me, this means finding ways to make such concepts more accessible. The mood in Europe and Switzerland is similar, but not nearly as extreme. A big problem is the fact that most crypto currencies are very volatile and so great uncertainty arises. Another problem is that there is still little knowledge of such products, which leads many to use the term “Bitcoin” for them. This is bad for all crypto startups as Bitcoin is just an initial application of the technology. It can be compared to the first Mercedes-Benz patent car from 1889. At that time the population was also very skeptical about this new car, which suddenly no longer needed real horses. In retrospect it was certainly not the best car, but it was the first car! Just as Mercedes-Benz had to convince people of a futuristic technology back then, we at Blockflyer have to do the same for cryptocurrencies and loyalty systems in order to advance this market.
What are your next goals with Blockflyer?
“Back to the drawing board” as they say in English! You improve from pitch to pitch and in between the concept is put through its paces, tested, changed and improved. We are currently in the process of giving the project more depth through data models and research papers. A large part is based on showing the airlines in a mutual dialogue how the loyalty industry will change and where block flyers will create added value with this change. We are currently in contact with a number of airlines and are trying to respond to their needs in such a system. At the same time, we are also looking for financial means to set up Blockflyer as a company as soon as possible and then aim for FINMA certification as a financial intermediary. At this point I would like to thank the ZHAW Startup Challenge Team once again. Without this format, Blockflyer would probably not be where we are now, nor would it be a proud member of the Runway Incubator. In the end, when I think of things like that, I keep thinking of a poster that we have in the runway that says: “It's not about ideas, it's about making ideas happen!”.
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