In the second episode of our "In Conversation With..." series, David Savage (Group Technology Evangelist) talk's to BLOK BioScience CEO Alex Tai.
He shares his views on data, innovation, sustainability, regulation and the future skills needed to thrive in the technology sector.
Alex is a serial entrepreneur; formally COO of Virgin Galatic and CEO/Team Principal of Virgin Racing F1, he’s now tackling one of the biggest headaches facing humanity, identity.
Billions of people can’t identify who they are, whilst the world increasingly is looking for forms verification to travel, socialise and work.
How do we do that, and balance ethical concerns over data? Find out in this week’s interview.
FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
Thank you for joining me on today's conversation with another technology leader. Today I'm joined by Alex Tai, Alex thank you for taking some time out your day to chat to me.
It's great to be here Dave.
Look, we're talking to you primarily because you're the chief exec of BLOK Bio-Science and BLOK Solutions but you're also a fast jet pilot, you're kind of greedy according to your LinkedIn you hold the fastest route in the world record both East and West and were one of the founding team at Virgin Galactic, so you've had a fairly diverse and interesting career.
Yeah, I've been exceptionally lucky Dave so I guess I'm still not slowing down. I was very lucky to be a part of the founding team for Virgin Galactic, my team brought the idea to Sir Richard and he liked it and ran with it and being a pilot, having been a pilot prior and during the time I was at Galactic, I'd still have the opportunities to actually fly the spaceship so I still have very high goals and I've had a very blessed career to date.
Metaphorically and practically speaking there, look you said that that you're not slowing down and that's entirely correct because BLOK BioScience for anyone who's not aware, are working really one of the coldface problems with the pandemic and beyond the pandemic.
That's absolutely right, we've identified that civil liberties and our ability to get back to some sort of normality or at least approach the new normality that now we'll enjoy as as populations has raised lots of problems which have technical solutions that might require looking at new types of technological solutions, so BLOK Solutions whose job is in the name, to provide solutions went about doing this and specifically we're looking at identity solutions, so that where people and governments or companies or various different spaces may now require you to prove that you're not carrying the virus or at least attest to having had a test or a vaccination or a state of health, that they can do that without infringing on your civil liberties. So that's the problem that we tried to take on and the solution that we came up with is actually technology that's been around for a while but it hadn't been developed and it wasn't mature and that was purely self sovereign identity solutions.
The first question that I got to ask is what is self sovereignty and when you have that solution, who owns and controls the data?
Well self-sovereign means that it's yours, so anything which is yours it's in your purview, you own it, you keep it, you do what you want with it and you decide what parts of that data that you provide to anyone else but you likely want to provide it in a way that the third party, the counterparty doesn't get to keep it unless you choose to provide it in that manner. So self-sovereign is basically having the self, the individual being in control and holding all their own data.
But you mentioned a few minutes ago about civil liberties, one of the questions in this year's Harvey Nash Group CIO Survey was around customer trust and that saying that customer trust is new gold, you're asking customers to trust your solution where data has a direct influence on those civil liberties, whether or not they can access various different services and parts of society. It's a technology solution, some people might not fully understand that and I suppose building trust in that context isn't exactly easy, so how do you go about that?
It's worth dwelling on this particular point. So I'm director of the Global Blockchain Business Council and our goal is to further blockchain technology which is again, a relatively recent technology since the Satoshi in 2008 or nine or whenever it was that wrote the white paper, so that's only really only been around for the last 12 or 13 years but it's a fantastic trust accelerator because the data that goes into the blockchain as long as the data is correct, can't be changed so it's what they would call immutable and so you don't need to build trust because the data, as long as the data that's gone in is correct can't be changed, it's just can't, due to the nature of the technology and the clever way that it's been put together.
So that's a trust accelerator so we can use things like blockchain to accelerate trust but because of the transparency there, what happens is that everyone or in a lot of ways most people that are part of that community will have insight to that data because of the distributed nature of the way that the data is stored, so that has some actual drawbacks. If you don't want anyone to have your data and you don't trust anyone or you don't need to trust you just don't want people to have data, blockchain actually is, because it's a distributed file or distributed system of storing that data is maybe not ideal so the idea is to provide what we would call a decentralized system so rather than having, think of a vault and what you do is you put your data in that vault but it's a vault like The Bank of England or Fort Knox, The Central Reserve, everyone puts their data into the same place.
You have to trust The Bank of England to look after it and we trust the bank of England, we probably do but maybe you were living in a country that you don't trust your particular bank of wherever that is or that central resource, that's a centralized system where all the data goes into the central place and then you just access it and you allow other people to access it but what if that centralized system is not providing a good gatekeeper to it, and they're allowing the various actors or people that you don't want to see your data? That's the civil liberties that I meant.
So the way that you go about doing that is you have a decentralized system, so you don't have your vaults in a centralized vault, you have your own vault and what we've done is we've designed a system because of the advance of personal equipment devices and specifically smart phones, now all the data that you want is stored on your phone. It's actually not even stored in the cloud unless you choose that you want to have it stored in the cloud and most people don't need to.
This is health data, have I had a COVID test? Have I had a vaccination? Have I had a vaccination for hepatitis, for yellow fever, for all these? So this is health data and this is the specific use case but it could go on to, what about my credit data? What about my financial data? What about all my entire health records? What about my KYC, my know my customer for a for a bank?
Rather than giving to the bank, why don't you have that verified on your phone and say actually you can trust me and have the third party trustor build a system that says okay I trust the verifier on that person's phone, so if I'm getting a green check for KYC now you can do it in a decentralized manner and that's what we've built and we've built a decentralized system where the important question we should answer is, it's not that I won't provide your data to someone else, I can't because I don't have it, you have it but we've built you a system where you're holding your data and if someone else asks you, have you had a COVID test or have you had a vaccination or have yourself certified that you're free of symptoms today in this very focused view, we can provide an attested system that can be trusted by the border pass, rather than you having to trust the border control person or the person denying you entry into the business or the barman if you're a young lady that you don't want to give any of your personal identifiable information, your name your address, your age, all the rest of it, you can just say yeah, I'm over 18 or I haven't got and that is the system we're providing, a decentralized self-sovereign identity system.
A lot about what you're talking about there is taking technologies that have existed and I suppose reinventing them and you're creating opportunities for that technology to be used in really quite transformative ways, to give people access to society in a way that I suppose, frees us from the tyranny of the situation we're facing right now. You've worked in innovative businesses your whole life, you mentioned right at the top of the interview that you still hold dear the aspiration that you might fly a spaceship one day, so that's about as innovative as it can get let's be honest, another person who seems to be obsessed with space is Jeff Bezos and he recently stated that the success of Amazon was built on invention and that people yawning at your invention was the biggest compliment that they could give you, because it shows that that business had that constant thirst for reinventing itself, how do you build an organization that retains that hunger to push boundaries and constantly reinvent?
I think certain organizations have an unfair advantage with respect to innovation and that's generally because of the ownership of that because every CEO, every board, works to the advantage of the shareholders, so that's what you're looking to do, build value for your shareholders but depending on who your shareholders are they can give you the freedom to do things.
So certain companies, certain organizations do not like risk, they don't have an appetite for risk and it's because they are told that what we need to do is make a 5% return on our invested capital per year and this is the way we're gonna do that and if we do this which is pretty risk averse, we don't need to do it.
For example, an aviation company like Boeing or Airbus they will be seen as innovators but what we've seen over the last 50 years is that that innovation has gone backwards, so we had Concord operating 20 years ago, we don't have Concord operating now, we don't have a supersonic airliner because the risk to a business to make the investment in something which is that much of a leap forward ruins their returns or endangers their returns to their shareholders.
So what we need to do is choose what sort of company we want to be and just not expect too much out of certain companies. The wonderful thing about Amazon and the wonderful thing about Elon Musk's companies and the wonderful thing about some of the things that The Virgin Group have done is because of their ownership and and for example Google. You've had major shareholders who are able to say, actually this is what I want and I don't necessarily need to see a return on this, this is risk, this is pure risk investment because I want to see a change. One of the things that the Virgin Group wants to do and this came from our principle shareholder Sir Richard Branson, I want to change all businesses, I want to shake up all businesses and the most fertile area for us as a brand is to go into old business and shake them up.
In the UK, we had British rail running the infrastructure for railways, this was an old yawnable business that used to get your British rail sandwich, that piece of carpet, I didn't know all of the jokes about something that most of the millennials won't even remember.
Since then, Virgin came along and they came in and they introduced the red at the core in our Virgin product, we had the fantastic passenger satisfaction surveys provided from the feedback we had and now you have first-class service on the train, it's a wonderful way to travel but that was because we went into industries which needed shaking up with someone that was willing to take the risk to try it.
So what we need to do is if we're, first of all you need to choose to work for an organization or a set of shareholders that have a risk and appetite risk and they want to maybe see the ability to have real growth so first of all, do that and then we need to be brave enough to hire people that really understand what the future is going to be and then make some risks, take some risks to try different thing sand see what works.
You talk about forward thinking shareholders there and gave some great examples of some, of course there are a lot of shareholders I suppose that aren't so forward thinking and perhaps then that stifles innovation but when you talk about Branson who obviously you know and Elon Musk you referenced as well, what do you think is in their DNA as leaders that allows them to lead the kind of businesses that they do, that the other people regardless of whatever board that they they're working under can take a little bit from and try and push their organization forward?
There's many things and I am very lucky to have known, worked and socialized with Elon Musk in the past.
He is an incredibly clever chap and if you watch him or if you have the pleasure to interview him one day, things are just obvious to Elon but not obvious to us mere mortals and he has the ability to prosecute an idea because he can say no, we're doing it my way and it might be wrong but generally he's right and that happens and his leadership of a team is a completely different matter but his it's a force of the idea and the ability and the resources to actually get on with it and also excuse the pun but the the kahunas to go after some really dangerous things and I was close to him at a time when if the next rocket, if the Falcon rocket had exploded, Space X wouldn't have been there and now we see in the, over the last few days that his Starship which is an enormous 50 meter rocket, it's a behemoth, he's got three of them lined up ready, and they had two crashes, he knows they're gonna happen, he knows this but he now has the resources to get it done so his has worked out.
Branson's approach is slightly different, he is super smart but he's great at delegations so he delegates and he trusts people and he allows people to make mistakes.
I made many mistakes when I was working for Richard but he just expects you to learn from it and he invests in the team so he loves the team, all his companies are about the people inside the team and the companies are about finding the right people to prosecute a really, really good idea and it's that leadership and that delegation so there's different things that different people will provide. I've not worked with, I mean Jeff Bezos was, his company when I was chairman of the Commercial Space Flight Federation was part of the Commercial Space Flight Federation in the States but I didn't work people that, I know you will interview other people that have worked for Jeff, I'm sure he's got a different magic that propels his companies along.
One thing I did want to ask, we're talking about companies with huge success and in particular Amazon, a hundred billion dollars in the last three months I think of 2020, fantastic success and you kind wanna champion it. If you look at a smaller scale, we talk about the need for unicorns in London and champions of industry but at the same time, we're obviously very guarded against monopoly and worry about big tech overreach, how do we balance that? How do we champion success whilst guarding against monopoly? I mean, I know it's a question about regulation but where do you think we're falling short in managing that tight line between the two?
Now, the larger companies aren't gonna want me to say this but I'm sorry I'll say it nevertheless but you can't allow monopolies in a unit. The antitrust, it's actually quite strange that people don't understand where anti-trust came from. Antitrust were the trusts that were around in America that were backing the large railways that have monopolies.
So the whole antitrust thing, well where you had very dominant players and I think anyone would agree that Google is probably too dominant, that Amazon is probably too dominant, even Netflix and companies like this so you have to do what America has done in the past and needs to look at doing again but you have, it's a massive pie and you can't have one player own more than it should have in those particular markets and because what it also does is it takes, when they span borders and you have a company like for example Google that is able to take a lot of the marketing dollars from an entire continent like Australia and take all of those, the revenues and the profits and the investments and where it wants to invest that out of the country, that's not healthy for the tech industries and those company that should be able to compete against a dominant player and develop tech in the competition and this is again something from Richard Branson, competition's healthy.
The reason that Virgin Atlantic is a good airline across the Atlantic is because of British Airways, is because of American Airlines and the reason innovation happened was because of competition, the reason that you were given ice creams in your seats and there was a bar on board and we had really massages on table was because BA didn't give a shiatsu so we did, so that's what inspires innovation, competition, so we must allow competition to flourish by not having dominant players.
Well, I think it's prudent to ask you about sustainability 'cause sustainability is thankfully getting greater attention which is a very good thing let's be honest than in previous years and the responsibility of meeting targets is being accepted by businesses, I would love to ask you this because you've obviously worked in organizations that, I suppose in space flights and airlines and you could kind of go, are they going to be sustainable but you've also worked with with the formula E team as well so I I'd be really interested to find out what your perspective is on how organizations in the tech sector in particular, can do their part when it comes to making sure that they're champions of sustainability.
There's many different factors which will affect it and I think one of the fundamental things is regulation and you must just say governments must sense targets, of suitable targets but aggressive targets for the entire nations and different areas of sectors which are achievable, so if you said to the aviation industry next year you must cut your carbon emissions to this and therefore now you've gotta have hydrogen powered aircraft or electric based aircraft by this time, then it's never gonna happen, you'll kill the industry off but if you say, look by 2030, we want you to have a mix of other technologies, otherwise it's not gonna happen. That's how you provide it, by setting realistic goals that will cannibalize their markets.
You mentioned formula E, I was introduced, lucky we won, I ran the team, we were running electric racing cars, basically formula one cars but they're run on electric around the inner cities because we could, because there was no emissions of some of the the mega capitols of the world. We were in Rome, the mayoress of Rome came into our garage after we'd won, we got to meet the Pope and all sorts of wonderful people come to the garage, we went to him but we met and what The Mayoress of Rome said, she was fantastic, she's first of all, she was a Roman, that's great I'd never met a Roman introduce themselves I'm a Roman and she said look, what I've decided to do is we're gonna ban internal combustion engines from Rome from 2025, ban them.
So if you do that, then all of the car manufacturers have a goal, we need to change our business otherwise we're not going to have a business in this particular area and what started as an innovation with Elon Musk and certain other companies producing really good technology in the electric sector became actually, we've got to do this otherwise we won't survive and that's why you have so much investment from the General Motors of the world and the Volkswagen's of the world and the Toyota's into these types of technology.
So regulation is what's going to push us forward but it has to be informed and appropriate regulation.
It's interesting just to pick up on that point, do you think then that local regulation could be a far more effective force? 'Cause I suppose it's difficult for governments to make those changes as you kind of suggested at the top of your answer but a mayor can put something in place, like you'll realize in London, that has a as a big change on a small population but forces organizations to respond?
I think the lead has got to be taken from the governments because if you look at the Paris Accord, it's governmental signatories that say look, this is what and then they set the performance output.
Performance output was the two degrees and IT said by this time we want to try and limit the warming and so it's performance-based output and that was appropriate and then the countries themselves, so they agreed as a whole this is what we want to do, this is our target and then on an individual basis all of the bureaucrats rightly, they did a huge amount of really important work, worked how they were gonna do that and that might be part of something to do with the installation of homes that might be something to do with the way that domestic power is provided, that might be something to do with the emissions created from certain bigger but it's a mix of lots of different things and that regulation then should be passed down.
So yes the governments, the mayors, can appropriate something on a local basis but if. If it was only the mayoress of Rome that said it's gotta be electric vehicles, you're probably not gonna get the same effect as if it's the the mayor and mayoresses of 50 mega cities that are doing that because then it's really worth making the investment from a Volkswagen perspective or a Toyota perspective.
So I think it has to be governments but certainly cities and mayors can do their part and this generally on the local level it's taxation so you can say okay look what I'm gonna do is, for example I'm not gonna charge you as they do in London to go into the congestion area if you have an electric vehicle or a low emission vehicle whereas if you're driving a Chelsea tractor or something then fine do that but it's gonna cost you an awful lot of money.
We were touching on regulation there in the last answer and I think it's probably pertinent to come back to BLOK Solutions and BLOK BioScience. Tech is, generally speaking, ahead of regulation and with that in mind, how are you dealing with disparate regulation because identity and passports and so on, it sits very specific to individual countries, right?
Yeah, yeah absolutely, like everyone that, I feel for government. So not only do I feel for us as a species but as a species mankind have really been through it in 2020 and it's gonna be the same for the early part of 2021 and different countries and areas are gonna have different abilities to react to different challenges but mainly coming through from the COVID pandemic in itself. The way that the governments can help and regulation and technology can help is by looking at what industry needs, what the individuals need.
What the individuals need is to be able to educate their children and is to be able to go out and go into industry in the workplace and work, as well as being able to then go and take some of those funds possibly and then going to and socialize and use that, so what they need is freedom. So how do you provide those?
How do you provide your populace with freedom whilst you're still controlling the pandemic? Well, we now have technology around for that and unfortunately still they're absolutely right. Have you got COVID? The question is have you been in contact with someone, do you have symptoms? As easy as that, how are they doing this at the moment?
Write on a piece of paper when you get to the place, use no we can't do that, that's not the right way todo it, let's let's use an app so they, belatedly a lot of countries have an app but those apps are centralized, taking data on people and they were rejected. So what we found is proliferation of those devices was especially in the UK, the centralized version the UK came out with was rejected by the public and didn't get any uptake and it wasn't illegal not to have it, it was seemed to be a duty but unless you're in some of the more authoritarian countries where actually it is illegal then you must do it, otherwise wouldn't turn you, there wasn't that uptake.
What you need to do is provide technology which doesn't infringe on the civil liberties, IE. a decentralized system but provide technology which will be give you the ability to move around, so a freedom pass.
So now imagine the pass and this is what BLOK Solutions have been trying to provide through BLOK bias science and the and the BLOK pass, a decentralized freedom pass that you can use and say I haven't got COVID, whether that's a vaccination or whatever and you can use it not only to go into work you can use it also to get in to the cinema you can use it to get on the bus, you can use it if you're a teacher to say, actually I'm free of this and I should be able to teach my children or conversely that the people around you, the teachers working around you have been scanned and they have a passporting system which is providing privacy to the individual but providing protection to the community from the pandemic and those tools are now available.
BLOK BioScience has with BLOK paths the first and only so far, completely self-sovereign and certified by ID 2020 which is the World Health Organization backed organization that looks after self-sovereign identity solutions, certified as the only one in the world at the moment that can provide that health pass at the moment, so we believe we're not only protecting people's identities and their data but we're also protecting or giving the tools to industry and to governments to be able to protect their populations and to be able to get the country's industries going again.
Are the two able to exist perfectly, because look authoritarian governments obviously a bad thing but at the same time I'll be very transparent with you, I was on the vulnerable list, I'm a big believer in the power of vaccinations, I kind of reject the anti-vaxer movement and you taught there that it's important to have civil liberties and choice but at the same time it's important that governments can protect populations and protecting a population right now it seems to be, to try to get as many people as possible to have the vaccine and I kind of wonder whether there is a slight friction there between perhaps there's a restriction of some civil liberties to give people more liberty as a broader concern?
Yeah, so it's a dilemma for any government and I think this is where we need, what our industry needs to do, what BLOK BioScience needs to do and you're very helpful in helping us do that Dave, is let people, let governments know and let citizens know that these technologies exist so the citizens can demand them and the governments can provide them and also the cost of these is nothing. The cost of a BLOK pass is a dollar per person per year so really, really nothing in terms of the cost and really all it is is a digital wallet so it's a self-sovereign identity solution that you can say, okay here's my vaccine certificate.
Now if you have that, you can also put any attestation on that so you're right, the right thing to do in my view, being complete, is I think the vaccines are probably pretty safe and I've done an awful lot of reading and the various governments, especially the ones here in the UK and Europe and in the States and others, in South Africa and Brazil and other places, they're doing an excellent job of prioritizing safety.
So the vaccines are safe but if people choose that they don't want to take them that's their absolute right to not have them but they shouldn't exercise that just because it's their right, they should probably take the advice of their governments at the time if they think their governments are in their interest and they've likely elected them in the first place and do what's right but if you have one of these digital passports, if you have a BLOK pass, you could also as a proxy to a vaccination have a test so if they say to you, look you don't have to have a vaccine but if you want to go to work or you wanna get on the bus, then you have to have a test and you have to have a test once a month, once a week, whatever that cadence is going to be and you don't need to have the vaccine, that's maybe what you do but you give people the options so you don't alienate, you don't discriminate against any member of the population, you give them a choice but you inform that choice by saying look, this is pretty safe and by the way it's free but what we are going to ask you to do is a test to whether you've had a vaccination or a test and we're going to give you the tool to do that with a digital passport for the citizen that will just tell you and the bus driver won't know whether you've had a vaccination or a test, he'll just know that you've got a green QR code that swiped on the way and you're allowed on that bus.
You're an experienced leader of businesses right on that bleeding edge of technology, looking to the future in terms of growing those businesses what skills do you think it's important to hire over the next year or two? So not the far future but right now, what kind of skills are gonna help build organizations?
It really depends on the organization but then you need to allow to have free thinkers and in our business we want to have free thinkers and hard workers, they're really, that's all it is and people that if you provide them with a purpose, so anyone in the team needs to have a purpose whether it's a football team, our job is to stop goals being scored and score more goals in the opposition, you need to know what your job is so as a company, as an organization you need to provide very clear purpose and then the tools for that team to be able to do that and then to motivate them to get it done but then the team members need to be driven by that purpose or be able to be driven so they need to have that and then you would like to have freethinkers that are able to do that and feel that they can communicate, so as well as communicating to them they should be able to communicate back to you because if people believe in what they're doing, they're far more productive so for me, I want people that can think and people that will communicate and people that will adhere to a purpose and be driven by a purpose.
Well looking at a tiny bit further ahead then, absolutely purpose is key right now but do you think there is a case that there could be a shift in the skills that people are looking for? We've long talked about the role of machine learning, of automation within businesses, what that might do to the types of people that work in business not just technology organizations or do you think that the change might not be quite as drastic as some might might suggest?
No, I think there's been a bump in the road with the pandemic, it's a pretty major bump but I think in the future, 10 years hence from now, I was around in business in 2001 and a lot of people thought that the world was gonna be completely changed after 9/11, and we had a more major pandemic in 1918 and people forgot about Spanish flu so we will carry on.
So that because of the internet, because of the the digital technical revolution, things have become really, really efficient and I think there'll be a drive towards leisure and how we spend our time and the service industries that support those sectors and there'll be less requirement for manual work and doing the things that we can either get machines to do and so we'll be building the machines that will be doing the work for us in the future and roboticizaion and artificial intelligence will be doing a lot of the thinking but at the moment they still haven't built a machine that can dream or think and people like Elon think it's a bad idea in certain contexts, to have those sort of machines so we have to be able to create the vision and we need to be able to steal our and those, the the leaders of today need to be looking for the leaders of tomorrow and stimulating them and giving them access, so we need to let Pete, now, we need to get out the way and let the next generation come through and to be doing that all the time for the betterment of all of our businesses.
Look it's been an absolute pleasure speaking to you today, what do you think the chances are of you getting to fly that spaceship?
Oh pretty good, they're preparing another test flight very, very soon. Their stock prices is now, I think it was over 12 or 13 billion for Galactic so now it's a wonderful, the value for Galactic in the future will be actually point to point on the planet so it's getting anywhere on the planet in less than one hour.
So I know that Elon's focused on going to Mars, which is great and I actually said to him that I'd go with him foolishly over a drink along time ago and I would go Elon, if Elon goes I'd still won't wanna go but I want to come back. I think Elon's said he would like to die on Mars but he followed that up with saying but just not on impact which I thought was really funny. I don't think I wanna die on Mars but I would love before I do shuffle off this mortal coil, get to a position where you can go anywhere on this planet in less than an hour and do that exo-atmospherically, so that you're not polluting the atmosphere as you're doing it.
I love that you made sure to kind of suggest that Elon might be watching this, I'd love it if he was but look, it's been an absolute pleasure to speak to you today and thank you very much for your time.
Thank you Dave.