By: Steve Masur
Driven entrepreneurs with a great idea can have the power to change the world. In this series, we interview founders and CEOs that are making a difference by launching innovative products and services which are changing the landscape of business, finance, content creation, fine art, and more.
Jessica Houlgrave is COO and Co-founder of Codex Protocol, a decentralized title registry for art and collectibles back by an industry consortium that she operates with her business partner Mark Lurie. Jess wrote an M.A. Thesis on the applications of blockchain for the art ecosystem and has previously worked at Sotheby’s auction house. She works with artists who use blockchain as a subject matter or medium. Prior to Codex Protocol, Jess worked in private equity and finance. She has an M.A. Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art and and M.A. Economics and Management from the University of Oxford.
Can you tell us about Codex Protocol? How does the ecosystem work?
The Codex Protocol is a decentralized registry for unique assets. Our first focus is on Art & Collectibles, a USD 2 trillion asset class where the history and authenticity of an item are a primary value driver. Like any unique asset, this means it is important to preserve information about the item and related transactions accurately to preserve the future resale value. In the art world, we use the term provenance. It is crucial to the assets and issues with it cause substantial friction in the market.
At Codex, we’ve built the infrastructure which allows provenance information about assets to be recorded on the blockchain and verified by third parties. Crucially, this is done in a way that enables the owner of the item to maintain privacy.
Then we have several partners ranging from auction software providers like LiveAuctioneers, Auction Mobility, to auction houses like Heffel, as well as online marketplaces and asset-backed lenders. This creates an ecosystem of validators and users.
Do you remember when and your co-founder first had the idea? What inspired you to actualize it?
In 2016-17 I wrote a Master’s thesis on the applications of blockchain for the art ecosystem whilst I was working at Sotheby’s and studying at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. I have for a very long time been interested in applications of blockchain technology in real-world use cases. Mark’s previous business, Lofty, was an online marketplace for Art and Collectibles. We met in 2017 and had a shared vision for how we could enable an easier and more accessible asset class.
How did you begin allocating resources to build your team? How did you prioritize?
Our primary focus is on building the best technology, so we were mainly focused on hiring developers and of course our CTO and co-founder John Forrest who joined us from Microsoft. Of course, it’s essential to have a well-rounded team, but nothing matters if your technology isn’t up to scratch! This approach has worked well. We launched the first application, Biddable, in May, launched the Codex to the mainnet in July, and we’ve won several awards along the way.
What are some highlights so far?
Aside from product launches, it’s been overwhelming to receive so much inbound interest from prominent partners such as Heffel Fine Art Auction House and Luxury Asset Capital, as well as from so many artists. It shows there is a real need for Codex and its associated applications. We also set up the Foundation for Art and Blockchain and raised over $190,000 by auctioning crypto-themed artwork at the Ethereal Summit in May. The funds will help artists to engage with blockchain and spread the word about the benefits of decentralization.
Do you have a daily routine or things you do every single day? If so, please tell us more.
Like any startup founder, no two days are ever the same! I have a personal morning routine which involves a healthy breakfast, some yoga or a run, setting my intentions for the day and making a mental note of what I am grateful for. After that, it depends what I’m doing, where I am and who I am with. I also try to make sure the Codex team are empowered — I am privileged to work with people who are highly experienced and skilled, and I try to make sure that they can perform unencumbered and deliver on the Codex vision.
Are there any unique legal challenges related to your business that you feel comfortable sharing?
I don’t think it’s unique to Codex but there are many legal challenges associated with operating in the cryptocurrency sphere. Each jurisdiction has different approaches, so it was important for us to have different counsel from various jurisdictions to help us navigate the landscape. We placed a significant priority on launching Codex in a compliant way, as we have many partners and applications for which Codex will be important infrastructure.
Where do you see the fine art world heading for creators?
Art is important as a record of culture and humankind, and as a critical reflection on society. It’s imperative that creators are empowered and rewarded for what they produce.
What excites you most about blockchain?
The Diversity. Philosophical, political, geographic, socio-economic and educational backgrounds create an environment in which I thrive. It’s also the fuel for destructive creativity. While we have a long way to go, I am optimistic that as more people engage with blockchain, we will see uses and applications we have yet to even dream of.
Do you have any advice to share with other entrepreneurs with regards to growing a brand or business?
Business is all about people and integrity. Your co-founders, investors, team, partners, and customers are all important and your focus should be on delivering to them. Being an entrepreneur is a journey that is full of peaks,troughs, and surprises. I find it worthwhile to remind myself of my personal values often.
What about advice for an existing business that is considering implementing blockchain technology?
Understand why you need a blockchain. While blockchain may be trendy, the reality is that it’s a nascent,complex technology, and very often a centralized database can suffice. It’s important to understand the limitations of the technology. There is extraordinary potential, but there are few instances of enterprise-ready solutions. Finally, seek expert advice – there are a lot of people who claim to be blockchain experts but it is important to work with people who have in-depth knowledge and experience to make sure that you aren’t wasting time and money. Mostly though, get educated. Blockchain is going to disrupt and transform many industries in the next decade or so – it’s exciting!