New impetus for research on the blockchain with start-up Utocat
The blockchain is one of the emerging technologies. It could revolutionize several sectors of the economy, starting with the banking and insurance sectors. The Utocat start-up, pioneer and expert in this field, has called on Inria in order for make advances in applied research with regard to this cutting-edge technology. A fruitful partnership, even if it was not a foregone conclusion.
In the world of digital technology, a new technology is on its way to totally changing practices in several sectors of the economy: the blockchain. Still relatively unfamiliar to the general public, this 'chain of blocks' is a storage system that enables an operation to be automated, authenticated, and its date and the identity of the parties concerned to be certified. This global database is secure, transparent and operates without a central control body: it is therefore shared by its different users. Some specialist observers are already talking of a 'design revolution' or a 'tool that will revolutionize our lives'.
A cutting-edge technology
The blockchain is, in any case, an extremely cutting-edge technology and, for the time being, counts few specialists in the field. The company Utocat is one of them. Based in Lille, from 2014 onwards this start-up specialized in the connection to the blockchain dedicated to banks and insurance. Its 'Blockchainiz' platform provides them with a solution facilitating the use of the technology with a view to successfully automating their processes without the need to develop basic functions such as using Wallets and Smart Contracts.
“For example, when you want to open a bank account, you need to provide proof of residence”, Clément Francomme, founder and CEO of Utocat, explains. “By making the link with the chosen organization to recuperate your proof of residence, the blockchain makes it possible to automatically certify that the document in question is genuine. In that case, the technology is used as a digital certification of identification. It is a guarantee that a network's stakeholders really are who they say they are”.
In order to go further in automation functions, Utocat has developed Catalizr, a connector between bank, investor and company that enables the automation of the management of unlisted securities between these three actors and facilitates investment in very small businesses (TPEs) and SMEs via a completely digital and secure process in the blockchain. Especially since, Clément Francomme adds, "today, there is too much waste with regard to investment due to slowdowns - which often result in withdrawals - during the exchanges between the different actors in the chain".
The uses of the blockchain are very varied; however the level of maturity of this technology remains one of the main stumbling blocks for its development. For it to be a success with the general public, several technical challenges must therefore be overcome.
A partnership to push the boundaries
In order to simplify its uses, Utocat has forged a privileged partnership with Inria. Consequently, the start-up has decided to finance the contract of a full-time post-doctoral researcher for a duration of two years. Recruited by Inria and based at Inria Lille - Nord Europe, the mission of this researcher is to develop research on the blockchain and more specifically to improve the visualization of the database as well as navigation.
“The discussions with Utocat began two years ago when Clément Francomme came to the Plateau Inria and to EuraTechnologies to find out what Inria was doing on the blockchain technology”, Margot Corréard, partnerships officer for the Inria center in Lille, explains. “It took us a year to define the strategic subject for the start-up and discuss with the different research teams in our center, before developing a partnership with the Rmod project team, which is specialized in the analysis of existing applications for their development and in new programming languages.” It is the role of the Technology Transfer, Innovation and Partnerships department (STIP) to bring the worlds of business and research closer together in order to combine scientific challenge and consequences for the company.
Quite a challenge!
And yet, at the beginning, there was nothing natural about this partnership. “We did not know this technology in detail!” Stéphane Ducasse, head of the Rmod* project team, admits. “We thought that we would be able to apply our analysis techniques. Providing a different perspective with the visualization of data on the blockchain and helping Utocat whilst learning about a new field is exciting!” A challenge that the Rmod team obviously wanted to tackle immediately!
First of all, we carried out a proof of concept in order to validate that our analysis techniques were effective for the blockchain. Thanks to InriaTech - an initiative whose aim is to facilitate the adequation of the research results conducted in the different Inria project teams with the needs of the businesses - we were able to immediately assign an engineer to work with Utocat for two months. This first phase was a success as, in two months, the engineer - attached to the Rmod team - developed a prototype tool called 'smart inspect'; a kind of small inspector that can enable a developer to identify bugs in the blockchain. And so, little by little, the advances are beginning to materialize. In the short term, the post-doctoral researcher's research should lead to the development of a tool to visualize operations in the blockchain.
“By working with Inria, we are benefiting from the experience, expertise and structures we could not access in other configurations, and this enables us to make fundamental progress on the technical solutions whilst also advancing research”, Clement Francomme says. “The final goal is to adapt more easily to our customers by providing new solutions developed thanks to the partnership with Inria”. For Clément Francomme, the blockchain holds great promise: “This will improve relationships of trust in digital exchanges and open up new opportunities”.
Beyond the advances for Utocat's activity, the partnership with Inria will benefit the entire developer community. The institute and the start-up have, indeed, decided to share the research subject on the blockchain in 'open source', i.e. freely accessible to all. A partnership that truly is fruitful for everyone.
*the Rmod project team is a joint team with the CNRS and the Université Lille I - Sciences et Technologies. At UMR 9189, CNRS-Centrale Université Lille I - Sciences et Technologies, CRIStAL.