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Zero-Knowledge infrastructure can secure ‘trillions’ in institutional money in 2024: Interview Polygon Labs

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In an exclusive interview with Colin Butler, Global Head of Institutional Capital at Polygon Labs, Butler brings a unique and informed perspective to the table, discussing various pivotal aspects shaping the future of blockchain and cryptocurrency. This interview explores the impact of traditional financial instruments like ETFs on the crypto market, the significant strides made in institutional DeFi in 2023, the evolving role of tokenization in institutional adoption, and Polygon’s strategic position in this rapidly changing landscape. His answers offer a comprehensive look at the current state and future prospects of blockchain technology in the institutional domain, highlighting both the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Butler highlights 2024 as a critical year for institutional adoption of tokenization. He emphasizes the maturity of the underlying infrastructure, capable of supporting immense financial values. The focus is on the significant improvement in security, particularly with Zero-Knowledge technology, which is crucial for traditional finance (TradFi) institutions to engage with blockchain and cryptocurrencies. The integration of ETFs and similar products is expected to significantly enhance trust and legitimacy in cryptocurrencies. Butler foresees a broader investor base, increased market stability, and reduced volatility driven by deeper involvement from traditional financial institutions.

He discusses the challenges and future of tokenization. He mentions the need for institutions to improve infrastructure and supply to meet the growing demand. He predicts rapid growth in areas like tokenized funds and structured products, with physical assets like real estate and art being slower due to inherent challenges.

Butler is uniquely positioned to comment on the institutional perception of DeFi, as the below interview highlights.

You’ve mentioned that big institutions are now tokenizing real-world assets and the implications of on-chain assets becoming institutional in the form of ETFs. Can you elaborate on how this trend might evolve in 2024?

I see 2024 being an extreme inflection point for the institutional adoption of tokenization. The underlying infrastructure is now in a state capable of securely supporting the billions, if not trillions, of dollars worth of value that traditional financial institutions bring with them. 

Security has been the blocker to date; you only have to look at the broader crypto and DeFi ecosystems to see the impact of security defects and the potential for significant monetary losses as a result. However, with the implementation of Zero-Knowledge technology, a level of security is in place that even the most hesitant of TradFi proponents can get on board with.

What impact do you foresee ETFs and similar products having on the broader crypto market and investor confidence?

As TradFi deepens its crypto involvement, we’ll witness a substantial increase in overall trust and legitimacy of cryptocurrencies as an asset class. Crypto products will appeal to a broader range of investors, including those who have been previously skeptical. With increased confidence and more consistent investment flows will come greater market stability and a reduction in the volatility characteristic of the crypto markets to date.

You predicted that 2023 would be a pivotal year for institutional decentralized finance (DeFi). What developments have you seen this year that reinforce or challenge this prediction?

2023 was a year of clear progress. We saw the launch of Clearpool’s institutional borrowing platform, allowing lenders to set their own stablecoin loan terms. JPMorgan’s deposit tokens suggest a growing interest from traditional financial institutions in blockchain solutions, though within a regulated framework. 

The integration between legacy financial systems and blockchain is a complex one. There has been major advancement and interest, certainly, but also a recognition of the remaining hurdles, particularly around regulation. BlackRock’s embrace of Bitcoin and cautious stance with DeFi epitomizes the institutional desire for clarity amidst regulatory complexities.

How do you think the progress made in 2023 will shape the institutional DeFi landscape in 2024?

With the massive improvements brought by layer-2 networks and ZK technology, we’ve seen the Ethereum network successfully update to a more efficient and cost-effective infrastructure that can make DeFi protocols accessible and appealing to institutional users.

In 2024, I think we’ll see a shift in the user base of DeFi from primarily retail to more institutional participants, driven by the development of more sophisticated financial tools like derivatives. Furthermore, the entry of large entities like BlackRock into DeFi will pave the way for new standards and frameworks that make DeFi a clear win for traditional finance more broadly.

Considering your belief in tokenization as a world-changing phenomenon, what do you think are the key drivers for its widespread adoption by institutions?

I think the institutions building these products need to go out and sell them. You can lay out all of the benefits: 24/7 trading, access to vehicles and assets for which you had no prior access etc. But does this create an order of magnitude better solution that people can clearly see like in front of them? It’s tough to say.

Until now the infrastructure hasn’t existed for the technology to be accessible by the average person, as a result, demand has been low. While the benefits for tokenization are undeniable, the supply and infrastructure has to exist for widespread adoption. That’s the challenge we face as an industry. We’re small in every leg of the stool: infrastructure, supply, and demand. We need institutions to continue to grow their infrastructure and, in time, demand will grow in tandem with supply.

How do you see tokenization evolving in the next year, especially in terms of new asset classes or innovative use cases?

In 2024, I see tokenization growing rapidly in some areas but slowly in others.
Tokenized funds will continue to grow over the next three to six months. Next I see structured products, such as currencies, being tokenized more regularly and private credit will come soon after. These are the most logical use cases for tokenization and because they’re digital the transition on-chain should be fairly smooth.

Bonds and equities are likely to come next. But the last to be tokenized is going to be physical assets like gold, real estate, art, wine, etc. While these physical assets have heaps to gain, due to them not being digital, the transition will take a lot longer. There are a lot of challenges we face to tokenize physical assets, some of which may never be solved.

As the Global Head of Institutional Capital at Polygon Labs, how do you see the platform fitting into and influencing the institutional adoption of blockchain technology?

If you’re an institutional investor you want two things: high liquidity and security. The Polygon networks give you both.

Investors can tap into the entire Ethereum ecosystem through the Polygon networks, providing access to high liquidity. And, the development and adoption of zero-knowledge tech in the Polygon network will increase the security of transactions.

I believe that due to these two factors, institutional investors will be looking towards the Polygon protocols, more often than not, when looking to invest in blockchain technology.

Can you share any insights or case studies where Polygon has been instrumental for institutions in adopting blockchain?

This year Hamilton Lane, one of the leading global investment funds, started allowing individual investors to access their $2.1 billion flagship fund through tokenization on the Polygon PoS network. This reduced the minimum investment required from $5 million to just $20,000. This collaboration between Hamilton Lane and Securitize went so well that they later started offering a new fund with a $10,000 minimum investment.

But this isn’t one case study in isolation, South Korea’s largest financial group, Mirae Asset Securities, also trusts the Polygon network for their adoption of Web3 technologies.

While ABN AMRO became the first Dutch bank to register a green bond on the blockchain, using the Polygon network. And, JPMorgan used the Polygon PoS network as part of the Singapore CBDC project.

The Polygon protocols are playing an instrumental role in institutional adoption of blockchain technology by providing infrastructure that can handle the flow of billions of dollars.

Given your role in educating the institutional investment community about blockchain, what are the key areas of focus or common misconceptions you address?

There’s a common misconception that blockchain and cryptocurrency, particularly Bitcoin, are synonymous. But blockchain encompasses much more than just cryptocurrencies. It’s a foundational technology that offers tokenization, smart contracts, and a wide array of applications.

The transparency offered by public blockchains is a significant feature, often underestimated in their ability to provide real-time visibility into transactions and analyze the risk of each platform’s transactions as they occur. Contrary to popular belief, the incidence of illicit activities in these businesses is minimal, as shown by the analysis of transaction inflows into mainstream exchanges.

Another common misconception is that blockchains are inherently limited by low transaction speeds and scalability issues. Scaling solutions like the Polygon networks for Ethereum are crucial developments in making blockchain technology more viable for widespread institutional use.”

How do you approach the challenge of balancing technical depth with approachability in these educational efforts?

I think it’s important to explain things in as simple terms as possible. Although blockchain emerged thanks to several impressive technological innovations, notably advanced cryptography, it’s important to draw analogies with familiar examples and portray blockchain as an evolution of existing financial systems rather than a radical departure.

For instance, smart contracts can be likened to automated versions of self-executing contractual clauses much like an escrow service in traditional finance, but with automation and predefined rules. Fundamentally, a blockchain is a digital ledger, similar to accounting ledgers in traditional banking, but more advanced and transparent. This ledger records transactions securely, akin to how banks record financial transactions, but with increased transaction speed, and enhanced transparency. The most important aspect of blockchain education is to show how it enhances and improves upon current processes. It didn’t emerge out of nowhere. It came about to solve some of the limitations faced by traditional finance.

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