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IBM teams with Maersk on new blockchain shipping solution

IBM and shipping giant Maersk having been working together for the last year developing a blockchain-based shipping solution called TradeLens. Today they moved the project from Beta into limited availability.

Marie Wieck, GM for IBM Blockchain says the product provides a way to digitize every step of the global trade workflow, transforming it into a real-time communication and visual data sharing tool.

TradeLens was developed jointly by the two companies with IBM providing the underlying blockchain technology and Maersk bringing the worldwide shipping expertise. It involves three components: the blockchain, which provides a mechanism for tracking goods from factory or field to delivery, APIs for others to build new applications on top of the platform these two companies have built, and a set of standards to facilitate data sharing among the different entities in the workflow such as customs, ports and shipping companies.

Wieck says the blockchain really changes how companies have traditionally tracked shipped goods. While many of the entities in the system have digitized the process, the data they have has been trapped in siloes and previous attempts at sharing like EDI have been limited. “The challenge is they tend to think of a linear flow and you really only have visibility one [level] up and one down in your value chain,” she said.

The blockchain provides a couple of obvious advantages over previous methods. For starters, she says it’s safer because data is distributed, making it much more secure with digital encryption built in. The greatest advantage though is the visibility it provides. Every participant can check any aspect of the flow in real time, or an auditor or other authority can easily track the entire process from start to finish by clicking on a block in the blockchain instead of requesting data from each entity manually.

While she says it won’t entirely prevent fraud, it does help reduce it by putting more eyeballs onto the process. “If you had fraudulent data at start, blockchain won’t help prevent that. What it does help with is that you have multiple people validating every data set and you get greater visibility when something doesn’t look right,” she said.

As for the APIs, she sees the system becoming a shipping information platform. Developers can build on top of that, taking advantage of the data in the system to build even greater efficiencies. The standards help pull it together and align with APIs, such as providing a standard Bill of Lading. They are starting by incorporating existing industry standards, but are also looking for gaps that slow things down to add new standard approaches that would benefit everyone in the system.

So far, the companies have 94 entities in 300 locations around the world using TradeLens including customs authorities, ports, cargo shippers and logistics companies. They are opening the program to limited availability today with the goal of a full launch by the end of this year.

Wieck ultimately sees TradeLens as a way to facilitate trade by building in trust, the end of goal of any blockchain product. “By virtue of already having an early adopter program, and having coverage of 300 trading locations around the world, it is a very good basis for the global exchange of information. And I personally think visibility creates trust, and that can help in a myriad of ways,” she said.

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Y Combinator is launching a startup program in China

U.S. accelerator Y Combinator is expanding to China after it announced the hiring of former Microsoft and Baidu Qi Lu who will develop a standalone startup program that runs on Chinese soil. Shanghai-born Lu spent 11 years with Yahoo and eight years with Microsoft before a short spell with Baidu, where he was COO and head of the firm’s AI research division. Now he becomes founding CEO of YC China while he’s also stepping into the role of Head of YC Research. YC will also expand its research team with an office in Seattle, where Lu has plenty of links. There’s no immediate timeframe for when YC will launch its China program, which represents its first global expansion, but YC President Sam Altman told TechCrunch in an interview that the program will be based in Beijing once it is up and running. Altman said Lu will use his network and YC’s growing presence in China — it ran its first ‘Startup School’ event in Beijing earlier this year — to recruit prospects who will be put into the upcoming winter program in the U.S.. Following that, YC will work to launch the China-based program as soon as possible. It appears that the details are still being sketched out, although Altman did confirm it will run independently but may lean on local partners for help. The YC President he envisages batch programming in the U.S. and China overlapping to a point with visitors, shared mentors and potentially other interaction between the two. China’s startup scene has grown massively in recent years, numerous reports peg it close to that of the U.S., so it makes sense that YC, as an ‘ecosystem builder,’ wants to in. But Altman believes that the benefits extend beyond YC and will strengthen its network of founders, which spans more than 1,700 startups. “The number one asset YC has is a very special founder community,” he told TechCrunch. “The opportunity to include a lot more Chinese founders seems super valuable to everyone. Over the next decade, a significant portion of the tech companies started will be from the U.S. or China [so operating a] network across both is a huge deal.” Altman said he’s also banking on Lu being the man to make YC China happen. He revealed that he’s spent a decade trying to hire Lu, who he described as “one of the most impressive technologists I know.” Y Combinator President Sam Altman has often spoken of his desire to get into the Chinese market Entering China as a foreign entity is never easy, and in the venture world it is particularly tricky because China already has an advanced ecosystem of firms with their own networks for founders, particularly in the early-stage space. But Altman is confident that YC’s global reach and roster of founders and mentors appeals to startups in China. YC has been working to add Chinese startups to its U.S.-based programs for some time. Altman has long been keen on an expansion to China, as he discussed at our Disrupt event last year, and partner Eric Migicovsky — who co-founder Pebble — has been busy developing networks and arranging events like the Beijing one to raise its profile. That’s seen some progress with more teams from China — and other parts of the world — taking part in YC batches, which have never been more diverse. But YC is still missing out on global talent. According to its own data, fewer than 10 Chinese companies have passed through its corridors but that list looks like it is missing some names so the number may be higher. Clearly, though, admission are skewed towards the U.S. — the question is whether Qi Lu and creation of YC China can significantly alter that.

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