Hi, I’m Jason! I grew up between Boston and Nashville. I then spent 10 years in Washington DC, first attending The American University studying International Relations, then 7 years as a consultant for USAID, World Bank, and others.
I started spending time in East Africa through that work in 2010 and moved to Kenya in 2013 to start MARAMOJA, the first taxi app anywhere in Africa at the time. We realized in the process of building that taxi app that we were solving the wrong problem. We realized the problem was actually about trust. Then we began to focus our attention there, building better models of digital trust.
Our startup is called UTU, which means “humanity” in Swahili.
UTU is building the trust infrastructure of the internet to help businesses and consumers engage and transact in an easier, safer, and more trustworthy way.
Our AI-based API products collect and analyze data to create trust signals and personalized recommendations that help consumers and businesses make the best decisions for their situation. And the UTU blockchain protocol rewards users for trustworthy actions and compensates them for sharing their data while protecting their privacy.
UTU changes the economics of trust, ensures trust can’t be bought or manipulated and leverages data to help people make better decisions.
As I mentioned earlier, UTU spawned from our work on MARAMOJA.
In other more developed metropolitan areas, like New York and London, drivers and riders are interchangeable commodities. But in Kenya, and indeed in many parts of the world, trust is the key to how riders select drivers, and vice versa, and we realized this when building MARAMOJA. So we began working on new models of digital trust to support this.
We realized that current online trust systems can’t always be trusted and are out of date. Anonymous ratings, reviews, and trust scores are often manipulated, static, and don’t reflect how we trust in the real world, which is based on relationships and connections. These issues lead to poor purchase decisions for consumers, and harmed reputations, and lost sales for online businesses. We also saw that artificial intelligence can be used to provide personalized recommendations based on users’ own networks and individualized models of trust.
Even our earliest, simplest implementations of UTU’s concepts yielded +20% conversion rates and customer satisfaction, along with higher retention rates and lifetime value. People started reading about our approach to trust and coming to us from all over the world, telling us about the trust problems of their marketplaces, and asking to license our technology. This was the genesis of UTU.
We later saw that blockchain can be leveraged to ensure that these ratings and reviews can’t be manipulated and that a token model could be layered in to reinforce our product value proposition with an economic incentive model that promotes digital trust.
We’ve got both practical and theoretical knowledge and experience in trust. As mentioned, we first built the trust mechanism from a need that we encountered with MARAMOJA, so this is not just some theoretical game for us. Our CTO Bastian Blankenburg has also built and used trust models in his own research, and we’re collaborating with the University of Southampton in the UK in this respect.
We have some of the strongest AI engineers and data scientists (many PhDs) on our engineering team. On the business side, we have serial entrepreneurs on our management team who have built, launched, and grown multiple companies.
And we are extremely well connected on the African continent, which is a massive emerging market for crypto and faces many of the problems we are solving.
I always struggle with this question. I’m building what I know to be my life’s work and there’s nothing else I should be doing other than this. When you get to wake up every day and try to move the world closer to a model of digital trust that actually works for people and improves our online experiences, there’s little cause or time to think about what else I might do.
The metric we are optimizing for is the number of API calls for our products, which is a function of how many companies are using our APIs. So we are actively marketing and selling our Trust API to online marketplace companies, as well as our Creditworthiness API to financial services firms and decentralized finance (DeFi) lending platforms.
The level of enthusiasm for what we’re building has been amazing. We’ve been able to garner about 15 pilot clients in a short amount of time. And what’s so interesting is that our solutions can be applied to so many different industries and use cases, and this range is reflected in our client base already. So we’re really excited to see how far-reaching we can be when we hit scale.
I am most excited about the two technologies we’re working with today - blockchain and artificial intelligence. Within those, I’d say I’m excited by any technology that embraces our humanity, rather than seeking to replace it.
Blockchain is able to transform the economics of products and give users and communities ownership in the platforms that they use. This is significantly changing how business is done today. And the immutability of the data on the blockchain ensures that data, like ratings and reviews, can’t be manipulated.
AI is another technology that is transformative. The ability to analyze and glean insights from massive amounts of data relatively quickly is amazing, and our personalized recommendations wouldn’t be possible without it.
It’s ironic that one of the technologies that I am most worried about is also AI. We’ve heard all the stories about facial recognition and surveillance that are used to intrude on privacy, and this is all facilitated by AI. That’s why we are so adamant in ensuring that the data that we collect is done so with the permission of our users and that data is used in a privacy-preserving manner.
I’ve been reading Hacker Noon for many years now, and I admire how it went from being a developer-focused blog to a massive, wide-ranging tech publication.
The content ranges from developer tutorials to life-improvement stories all focused on tech. It’s truly a unique reading experience, and we would be honored to be published on Hacker Noon.
I’d probably tell myself to stop talking and listen. I’d also tell myself to stop trying to plan a career and start pursuing whichever things fascinate me at the time, and trust that all the dots will connect somehow.
This year I’ve learned a tremendous amount about mental wellness and resilience. I’ve had a long and winding journey, with many challenges, professional and personal along the way. As an entrepreneur, our teams draw from our energy - staying mentally strong through the ups and downs of a startup is critical for both personal wellbeing and company success. I do this through a combination of meditation, yoga, and breathwork that help me stay centered and focused.
Vote for UTU as the startup of the year, Nairobi, Kenya.