During wintertime in Norway, when the sunlight doesn’t last more than a couple of hours a day, Balázs Némethi, as a fresh expatriate didn’t have friends around to fight the lonely evenings. When others would find a hobby or watch TV, he decided to start a project to focus on.
The project he ended up with is not what one would call small.
Taqanu is a startup for providing financial inclusion for refugees. They want to create a blockchain-based digital identity and offer banking services.
If you want to do anything in a new country: find a job, find a flat or pay the bills, you need a bank account. The problem is, you can’t even start filling out a bank account application form without a government ID. A digital footprint would offer a solution to this problem: you could be identified by a digital footprint – location history, Facebook friends, photos and posts you share and such -, replacing government-issued passports and ID cards.
For an ambition of this size, one would assume that Balázs must have had plenty free time in Norway. When you meet him you realise that quite the opposite is true: it’s not that he has a lot of off-time, he’s just full of energy and ideas.
We met in Berlin and started with a brief history.
YZ: How was life in Norway? What did you learn there?
Norwegians are great at keeping a healthy work-life balance. They would work hard for eight hours, but then they would go home and hang out in front of the fireplace for the evening. This is something I try to take with me from those days: I try to keep one day a week when I do absolutely no work at all. It’s great for new ideas.
I’m not so great at this, sometimes I get stuck in work-mode for ways too long, but then my friends intervene: if I’m not responding for a few days, they would start writing me texts like “hey, it’s Tuesday night, stop working!”
YZ: How did you stumble upon the Taqanu idea?
The point with finding any project in Norway was to be distracted from reality. I was on the market for something with the promise of keeping me excited during the evenings: a project that’s bigger than you are.
It took some corners to arrive at Taqanu. I was interested in blockchain and banking, and explored ideas in that area. Plus, I was in Norway and I’m Hungarian, and then, in the Summer of 2015 Hungary built the wall to keep refugees out. All the people I’ve met in Norway asked about this one thing: how is it with Hungary and the wall? I tried to explain that it’s not like everyone in Hungary would want to keep the refugees out, most of us are in fact nice people.
These chats around the topic helped a lot to discover the utility in a digital fingerprint, and so the idea was born. I started to work on Taqanu.
It all started as project to offer banking services for refugees. Now it’s been developing into a global solution for decentralised identification and an answer to the lack of access to financial services for the estimated two billion people without financial opportunities.
YZ: What’s the next step after the idea is born? How did you get started?
I went to blockchain meetups in Oslo to pitch the idea. I had great experience there, the success started to knock on the door pretty early.
Taqanu was one of the few selected startups in the first Nexuslab programme. In cooperation with the London startup accelerator Startupbootcamp Fintech, Nexuslab gave us mentorship and coaching sessions for three months. There was only a small glitch: the final month of the programme was held in Zurich. I didn’t think twice, quit my architect job in Norway, and started to pack my bags.
The programme was great, Taqanu was taking shape, and I was talking to people who previously seemed to be way out of my league. I was invited to be a panelist on the “Proof of Identity for Refugees and Beyond” discussion on the European Identity & Cloud Conference in Munich, talking about blockchain based supranational identity infrastructure with people like Kim Cameron, Chief Architect of Identity at Microsoft or Mia Harbitz, advisor at the World Bank Group.
YZ: You left Norway and then Zurich for Berlin. Why are you in Germany now?
Know your customer (KYC) is an important metric for how a business verifies their clients. It shows how difficult it is to work with companies like banks, insurers or export creditors. The stricter the KYC regulation, the more difficult operating Taqanu would be – so I went to find the place in Europe where it’s the easiest, which is currently Berlin.
YZ: You started Taqanu all alone. Would you have rather had a cofounder?
Of course I’d love to have a cofounder! I don’t have one now, but it’s not a deal breaker. I mean, I won’t give up the idea just because I don’t have a cofounder. That said, I do have help: I have fantastic mentors who help me, and every question I ever came up with so far, there was always someone around who could help me with those.
Taqanu is not a project you could stop halfway through either. I feel that by helping people I have a huge responsibility on my shoulders. It’s actually a great hack, if you like: not wanting to let people down is a plus force that keeps me going. It’s a great thing to have in times of doubt.
YZ: Your Linkedin profile tells me that you’ve always been an entrepreneur
I studied architecture, but after university I thought I’d never actually work as an architect. I finished school pretty much only because one of my teachers said early on that I wouldn’t. My personality doesn’t like to lose: if someone says that there’s something I can’t do, it keeps my drive on days when something has not worked out. As I meet so much skepticism, I want to prove them wrong.
Originally I came from a physics background which helped to understand the deep, nerdy background of creating rendered 3D images. Rendering is something that most architects need, but it’s also very tricky to get it right. If you don’t know how to do it your best option is to hire someone who does, because learning it would take a ridiculously long time. We were pretty good at it, so With a couple of friends I started a rendering company.
We’ve organised the Central European Startup Awards, and when the first mobile apps came about, I’ve seen a picture on 9gag with a villainous alarm clock. It’s a standard alarm clock app where you set the time and it would wake you up just like any other app, except, that you have to pay for snoozing it. We had a nice amount of downloads, and we’ve been featured all over the Hungarian Internet: it turns out that an interesting product that’s well done doubles as a PR stunt.
YZ: All your projects have one thing in common: they are all finished products with high attention of detail.
Yes, the attention to detail is very important. It’s probably one of the reasons I finished university. After some time of deciding whether architecture was really for me, I figured that if I’m doing something I shall do it well. I chose a difficult subject for my thesis and decided to make a great job of it: even the tiniest of signs on the buildings were designed down to the pixel, something which most people don’t even notice. The technology I chose for the architecture was cutting-edge, and all in all it just looked brilliant. I’ve heard that my professors were talking about the project long after I left with the best grade.
If you look at the Taqanu logo, every part of it is symbolic: it resembles a chain because of the blockchain. The way the squares transform into curves displays the digital transformation. And, the name, in an ancient Akkadian language means: “to be safe”.