Mark Bivens ’89 and Iku Mohamed (Photos courtesy of the subjects) In explaining the premise of the company, John is also quick to mention ASIJ, the middle school computer lab and the influence Japan has had on him and his brother. “When we were thinking about building this company, my twin brother and I thought back to where we learned to write software. Let’s call it YEN, the actual national currency. It was an obvious tie in to what we do now.” The namecheck also references the massive hand Japanese innovators have played in shaping the cryptocurrency landscape. The 2008 Bitcoin whitepaper, which is considered a manifesto of sorts for cryptocurrency programmers, was written under the alias Satoshi Nakamoto. While the identity of the author is one of crypto’s biggest mysteries, many still look to Japan as the origin of Bitcoin. From there, Japan led the charge for nearly a decade, both in terms of cryptocurrency adoption and formulating some of the first government exchange licenses and regulations in the world. In 2017, the Japanese yen accounted for approximately half of Bitcoin trading volume worldwide, according to Mark Bivens ’89, a Tokyobased investor and Board Partner at Truffle Venture Capital, who has written extensively on Bitcoin and cryptocurrency in Japan. As new financial centers in Asia rose to prominence, Tokyo held promise as the breeding ground for decentralized financial enterprises. “Cryptocurrency could potentially represent an opportunity to regain relevance,” said Bivens. However, the ecosystem in Japan has changed abruptly due to a series of scandals, including embezzlement and hacking cases at major exchanges, most notably Mt. Gox in 2014 and Coincheck in 2018. In total, these cases have represented a loss of over one billion US dollars. The Japanese government responded in kind by passing broad regulatory legislation. “It effectively closed off Japan as a source of funding for ICO projects, despite the appetite,” explains Bivens, who says the regulatory landscape for cryptocurrency in Japan remains in flux. While Japan’s future in the field is uncertain, John maintains he wants to pay homage to its past and cryptocurrency foundations in the country. The name YEN gives credit to Japan for its success and failures. “They were the first ones that had to stress test the technology and the politics, so the entire world is learning every day from Japan,” John says.
THE AMERICAN SCHOOL IN JAPAN
Coincheck CEO Koichiro Wada at a news conference in Tokyo (Photo: Toru Hanai/Reuters) “Most countries are open to cryptocurrency because the Japanese government and community has paved the way.” Cryptocurrency’s future, in Japan and internationally, is hotly debated, but most agree it is a nascent technology. “We’re still very much in the dial-up stage, so the answer is no one knows what the future holds. So as a business we have to think in decades not years.” Rather than cementing YEN’s revenue models at this stage in the operation, he admits, “the name of the game is survival. If you can survive the ups and down, the seasonality, the crypto-winters and the crypto-summers, you’re going to have a successful company. The ones from the net days that didn’t quit that are still here are billion-dollar companies.” More than unicorn aspirations, John says he has jumped into the volatile cryptocurrency industry, first and foremost, because it is the most intellectually stimulating work he has done in his career. “This is keeping me really young. There is no technology more exciting in the world right now than this, cause it’s changing everything.” For those of a certain age who remain skeptical of the technology, given the headlines, the scandals, and the volatility, John believes that even those who are holding out now “will most likely be using a decentralized service in their lifetime and they won’t even know it.” With hopes that cryptocurrency continues its climb to mass adoption, John is one ASIJ alum that has created a business that could potentially ride out the industry’s ascent. No doubt, cryptocurrency is a firebrand technology and with YEN, John is adding kindling to the flame.