Today, after an extended period in "stealth mode," Blockchains LLC announced what it has been up to. Jeffrey Berns, the company's CEO, took to the stage at the company's launch event in Prague, where this year's Devcon is being held, to announce a series of initiatives.
(Disclosure: ETHNews is a division of Blockchains Management, Inc., which is the parent company of Blockchains, LLC.)
For those unfamiliar with the company, it made news earlier this year when it purchased 60,000+ acres of the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center (TRIC) in northern Nevada, home to the Tesla Gigafactory. Rumors popped up about what the company was working on. The company declined to say much beyond that it wouldn't be mining cryptocurrency.
Today, Berns confirmed rumors that had been populating reddit: That land will be used to build a smart city built on the Ethereum blockchain. He plans for the city to have all the trappings of a functioning community, including homes and apartments, markets, schools, and even banks, something Berns admitted to disliking so much that he bought one. (He plans on using blockchain tech to make it the "most customer-friendly" bank in the world.)
Berns imagines the city to work on four technologies: artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and 3D printing, all integrated with blockchain technology. And he pointed to the company becoming an incubator for pilots in areas such as clean water and energy.
To that effect, yesterday, October 31, NV Energy, Nevada's public electricity utility company, put out a press release stating that it had partnered with Blockchains LLC "to work together on energy projects powered by blockchain technology." The pair will incubate projects "that place the customer in control of energy creation, consumption, storage and transactions." As Berns put it in his speech, it will create "relationships where the customer isn't really a customer, but a partner."
Of course, that city has yet to be created, and much of the presentation was a sales pitch to the developer community.
"We have a sandbox that has all of these tools, all of this potential. We have investors chomping at the bits for tax-free money. What we don't have is the developer talent that we need because it's such a huge undertaking. What we need is we need all of you to find ways to work with us, work for us, work around us, but join us in this cause. Help us."
The event was the culmination of a marketing campaign months in the making. After the land purchase, the company made no significant announcements, though it did hire the founder of MyEtherWallet, Kosala Hemachandra, as its "chief blockchains officer" in June. It popped back up on the scene after completing its move to TRIC and then again last month when Berns took part in Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval's tech summit alongside Tesla and Panasonic executives.
That's when the advertising started. The company has aired two teasing commercials built around a sandbox theme. The target audience, though, has seemingly been the attendees at Devcon. As a top sponsor, the company clearly wants to position itself as a part of the community, and is making that pitch directly to the ecosystem. As Josh Stark, founder of L4, detailed via Twitter, the company's efforts in Prague were hard to miss:
The obvious question, in light of today's announcement, is: Will Berns' pitch work?
That, of course, depends on who you talk to. Even before the announcement, the advertising campaign created a wariness with some, who saw it as hype.
One Devcon attendee, who works at Status.im and has a background in advertising, said, "There's definitely in this sort of community a resistance against advertising and against sanitized messaging."
Another conference-goer, who works for a well-known project in the space, used stronger language about the campaign: "I inherently find it quite offensive…It doesn't make any sense. When you go to the website, it's a lot of flair. There's not really a lot of the mission content of what it actually is."
Chelsea Palmer, a volunteer who helped organize the Diversity and Inclusivity mixer for Devcon4, was more evenhanded:
"I think they're trying to engage this innovating spirit, and I really do appreciate that. I think they have really good intentions, but they've been building hype around what they're doing and that's actually maybe backfired because people are like, 'Who are you?' People have been waiting and have been confused by the billboards everywhere."
The launch itself, while it had plenty of flair – the young girl from the commercials took hologram form to chat with Berns – was seemingly also meant to begin fleshing out the company's mission. Berns, who said he has already spent $250 million of his money on the endeavor, discussed other concepts the company is working on – among them an eSports arena in northern Nevada; an "immersive content creation studio" that will "give back control to content creators"; and a series of underground bunkers in the US, Switzerland, and Sweden for the storage of cryptographic keys.
Before the launch, Palmer said that in one key way, the company was already making a positive impact in the space. After finding it difficult to secure money for the event she was helping to organize, she says Blockchains LLC stepped in to provide all the funding:
"People don't often put their money where their mouth is. Whatever it is they're working on, it has led to a lot of kind of snarking and stuff like that, but I have to say – education, diversity, all of these social initiatives, it's really hard to find people actually put up money for them."
After the launch, an air of skepticism remained, at least for some participants. When asked about his feelings about the announcement, one developer said, "It really depends what they really want to do. Of course, the stuff they were saying was really awesome, but I am still skeptical." That mood may go with the territory, something Berns admitted in his speech to being prepared for. "I read the reddit feeds," he said. As another launch-goer told ETHNews, "engineers and nerds" make for "the most skeptical audience ever."
Other launch attendees are walking away with an open mind. One, Simon Reynolds, said he had heard rumors about bunkers and an incubator in Nevada but didn't link them to this project until tonight. "I thought the billboards were a bit much," he admitted. "Not because I didn't like them, but I kept thinking about all the crypto scams…I was sure while I was headed here, 'This is going to be an ICO scam somehow.' And then we get here and it's very impressive. And then they start talking and it's extremely impressive. And never once did they ask us for money, which is kind of a very good sign."
Alison Berreman contributed reporting for this article.