Hot off a seven-figure investment, Iomob is going back to its original strategy of being a decentralized mobility marketplace.
At launch in 2018, the company set out to be a blockchain project, according to CEO and co-founder Boyd Cohen, but the bad reputation of Bitcoin and the ensuing “crypto winter” saw Iomob make a detour to build in a centralized way.
“We also discovered the market wasn’t ready for what we were building because all the tools to make a scalable, global travel mobility platform were not really ready for prime time.”
Fast forward to last year and Iomob - a Phocuswright Europe Summit Pitch winner and Battleground winner - went back to its roots to “embrace blockchain and decentralization” once more.
Cohen says the thinking was that the technology was ready, the ecosystem was better prepared than before and mobility partners and integration companies were signing up.
In an interview with PhocusWire, Cohen discusses use cases for NFT and blockchain in travel, the move from being centralized to decentralization and the readiness of the industry.
On the challenges of going from being centralized to decentralized…
A lot of people in blockchain say it’s going to be almost impossible for classical entrenched Web2 companies to do the migration because of their whole business model, their systems and their technology. There’s too many things stuck in Web2 to make a meaningful transition to Web3.
We’re early enough in our journey that it’s more possible. In blockchain there’s something called progressive decentralization. What that means is that instead of on day one 100% is decentralized and on the blockchain, you gradually decentralize components of your solutions.
One of these big system integrators is partnering with us for a national tender for a client that has tens of millions of customers. It’s a very big country and we expect we’d have to do about 100 integrations of mobility services to meet their passenger needs across that whole country - we’re talking scooters, taxis, parking, EV charging, buses, public transit - all of these services integrated across a very big country.
If you ask Iomob, the centralized company, how does that happen today? All our source code is proprietary and we’re the only company who has access to that code and is able to integrate all those mobility services but in embracing progressive decentralization we’re going to open our proprietary source code to this large global integration partner and allow its team to integrate the mobility services in that country into our platform.
That’s an example of progressive decentralization that is super logical, is going to be beneficial to our customers and will allow us to expand much more rapidly than if we tried to do it in-house.
On the readiness of mobility companies to be integrated…
We have Karhoo, a U.K.-based taxi aggregation company with something like three million taxis around Europe. Tier and Voi are partners of Iomob so, we are able to get these companies integrated in our platform. Why? They want to optimize fleet and service utility.
If you think about customer acquisition costs, Uber spends something like $2 billion a year on customer acquisition costs and it is going to continue to do that and continue to have its own app and its own walled garden but it could also expose its vehicles to the Iomob network and optimize its fleet because no operator of any service has 100% occupancy and utility.
Iomob can create new demand partners for them and optimize their revenue streams. One of the beauties is that once we integrate a partner once it’s available to any deployment, any user of Iomob - technically available, commercially it depends on the companies.
On the evolution of blockchain and tokenization in travel…
There is a level of awareness of legacy operators across all industries that blockchain is something they need to take really seriously. Four years ago, when we started Iomob, it was this very fringe thing that nobody really understood. They’re not as afraid of it anymore and they think they’d better start figuring it out because it’s coming whether they want it to or not.
I saw a statistic the other day that there are now more people in the U.S. that have a wallet for crypto trading than have a bank account. So, their customers are becoming crypto savvy, NFTS are popping up as a mainstream adoption thing, metaverse is mainstream and companies are trying to figure that out.
One of the things that’s nice about Iomob for a legacy company is they can dip their toe into blockchain without having to transform their whole infrastructure into blockchain. We just leverage blockchain to help expand and decentralize the network of mobility services connected to Iomob. They can learn from us and experiment without having to take any meaningful risks.
On use cases in travel for blockchains and NFT going forward…
Blockchain is great for creating trustless networks. When you have actors that operate in similar industries and often compete with each other, they’re worried about each other knowing too much and don’t want to partner with competitors. But, when you have a fragmented industry as big and important as travel where there are so many competitors but they could also find ways to collaborate.
Think about about what’s happening with airlines and interlining, it’s a super logical use case for blockchain. In some cases they might compete but in some they could logically collaborate. Right now interlining is so outdated in how it’s being done. You get these one-off agreements being formed between different airlines, it’s such a bad, inefficient way to do things.
Blockchain would allow a trustless network of airlines to participate in an interlining platform where they could all benefit and that could be then be made available to customers so, that’s one area.
The whole travel and transport ecosystem is fragmented, you have lots of competition but you have lots of areas where collaboration would make sense but it’s too time consuming, cumbersome and there are too many pitfalls around trust to make this happen at scale. Blockchain could really attack that issue by making things transparent and connecting actors around the world who otherwise wouldn’t.
I also think we’re going to see more about non-fungible tokens (NFTs) in the travel space. The thing is, today NFTs have been primarily viewed as digital art and some people call them jpegs that you can own and that’s the start of NFTs, but they are tools for containing digitized agreements that are automated.
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You can automate agreements that are tied to an NFT and you could have NFTs with different levels of access to VIP lounges or other benefits. It’s a way to validate your right to something and that can be smart contracts that are programable and can automate what the owner of that NFT can do with that NFT.
On Iomob’s NFT and blockchain developments…
We’re launching an NFT campaign on April 1 and we’re going to deploy them in the cities where our technology is being deployed. We’re going to do 100 special NFTs call mobsters (mobility monsters) of local vehicles and city locations.
They’re a graphical representation of this NFT but they can confer other benefits to the user and those benefits don’t even have to be accrued at day one. We’re going to do an airdrop (cryptocurrency distribution to a wallet) to anyone that buys these NFTs in the future. We can deposit value to whoever owns it. Owning that NFT entitles you to benefits that can be programmed in at the time you bought it or even added to your ownership rights in the future.
Here’s another use case that starts to push the envelope of what can be done with an NFT. If you own a car right now but you only use it 5% of the time which is the average, imagine you were to go to the airport for five days and instead of having to park it there for five days, you get money because you post your car to the internet of mobility. You decide, with a smart contract, to digitize your physical asset to allow you to establish the terms and conditions of how your car can be used, by whom and under what context.
Today NFTs have been primarily viewed as digital art. That’s the start, but they are tools for containing digitized agreements that are automated.
Your NFT is no longer a fun character, it’s a smart contract. When you sign that contract and turn it on, your vehicle is turned on or off the Iomob network whenever you want. Then the decentralized protocol will know when your vehicle is available and when somebody meets your criteria and needs a car they will see your car as one of the options they can choose, alongside say, Hertz or Enterprise.
It’s a different kind of NFT. It’s a programmable smart contract that can confer rights and obligations and responsibility and be modified or adapted or accrue benefits in the future. These are things we’re working on now.
The last thing, our vision is in enabling metaverse travel agencies. Metaverse are often virtual worlds that are designed in fantasy places but not all metaverses are fantasy.
Nike and shoe companies are buying property in the metaverse and offering digital NFTs that look like virtual sneakers so you can buy an NFT in the metaverse and that NFT also confers the right for you to acquire, to your home, a physical shoe that is the exact design and to your shoe size.
The view of the metaverse as this extremely virtual-only place for gamers is because that’s what’s being done now but the future is not just virtual gaming, it’s commerce, people engaging in all sorts of activity in ways that are not just digital.
That Nike example is perfect because you discover a sneaker you want in the metaverse but you get a physical version of it delivered to your house.
Our view of the metaverse travel agency is to take all these things Iomob does in terms of integrating the global mobility ecosystem in a digital layer and make those things available in the metaverse.
Next Earth (an NFT-based replica of earth) is a metaverse that relies on satellite imagery. I could be in Next Earth and discover a cool place in Thailand and say “who wants to go?”
You could arrange travel to go there through a metaverse travel agent, powered by Iomob that allows you to visualize your journey. Iomob could propose three ways to go - plane, train and car and have a CO2 counter to help nudge people to choose more sustainable journeys.
We think it could unlock some amazing experiences for people because they could visualize the journey and choose it in the metaverse. If they book it in the metaverse, they would get a QR code with details and we would offer a companion app that would allow a travel agency to see that the metaverse is now in the real world and can scan the code to help with arranging a bike, taxi or scooter and things to do.
I feel that’s what we’re missing as a global society around what blockchain, metaverse and NFTs can be. The real power is connecting the universe, the ecosystems of services and connecting the virtual and physical world.
On placing a value on NFTs…
It’s the same with any collectible. How much is the Mona Lisa worth? It’s what people think it is worth. How much is your collectible car from 1935 worth? Well, what’s the supply and demand for that car?
With NFT for digital art, there are things you can do. In the real world, to try to create scarcity or interest, the standard thing in the NFT industry was to issue 10,000. Each one is unique so there’s different layers that can be created.
For ours there is only going to be 100 made for each city with animals, vehicles and different scenes. Some might have glasses on or a hat and you have an artist design the layers. They are then put into an engine that generates random art, leveraging those layers and you can say which traits you want to be more rare than others.
On the remaining barriers to blockchain and tokenization in travel...
Technically I think most of the tooling, the underlying architecture required to leverage blockchain for the transport industry, exists. There is still caution from legacy operators, there are some issues with onboarding users in the sense that a lot of the user experience in blockchain deployments is poor.
It’s complicated, you need to get a wallet, then get Ethereum and then to transact and that all needs to get resolved especially for when you want to get to the payment piece of things for end users. That’s a real pain for people except for early adopters.
I don’t think crypto payment for travel is going to be mainstream for a while. I don’t mean you won’t see it, in the next year we’ll enable it as an optional currency. But, the biggest barrier to massive adoption is anything that touches a customer if it requires that customer to be knowledgeable enough to download a wallet and deal with private keys for accessing it and you need that for NFT. But, for the B2B enterprise side, the technology is ready for that.