Cornell Blockchain Archive: “Selling the Business of Trust” (DNV GL)

An interview with DNV GL — Cornell Blockchain

Note: Published on Dec 3, 2019 on Medium

Interview Overview:

As part of an ongoing interview series, Cornell Blockchain sat down with Brett Gray, Digital Transformation Manager at DNV GL, to discuss the history of DNV GL, blockchain integration, strategic partnerships such as VeChain, and about ongoing projects like MyStory and the recently announced Foodgates platform. Below is a transcript of the ~50-minute interview covering the topics mentioned above as well as other things. Please keep in mind some parts of the transcript have been edited for clarity. The parts that are italicized are Cornell Blockchain’s questions for Brett Gray.

The interview was conducted by both Cornell University students Eric Hu and Trent Davis. Eric is a senior studying both Economics and Biology and is the President/Co-Founder of Cornell Blockchain. Trent is a second-year master's student studying Applied Economics and Management and Cornell Blockchain’s Director of Corporate Outreach/Communications. If you have any questions regarding our upcoming interview series please contact Trent on LinkedIn.

DNV GL Introduction:

DNV GL is an international accredited registrar (certification and auditing body) that operates as a quality assurance and risk management company. Headquartered in Oslo, Norway, the company was founded in 1864 as a certifying body for maritime vessels. Today, it has over 12,000 employees worldwide with over 2 billion yearly revenue, operating in sectors such as Maritime, Oil & Gas, Healthcare, Food and Beverage, Aerospace, and Renewables.

About Brett Gray:

Brett Gray is a Digital Transformation Manager at DNV GL. He oversees all digital products, strategy, and solutions for the North American region. Projects spearheaded include the MyStoryTM in collaboration with the VeChain blockchain. Previously, he served as a Digital Transformation Consultant at Aquent and at Softway. He obtained a B.A in Communication and Public Relations from Texas State University-San Marcos and studied Visual Communications at the University of Texas at Austin. You can follow his twitter here and view his LinkedIn here.

Brett Gray — Digital Transformation Manager — DNV GL

Here is the transcript of the interview with Brett Gray, Digital Transformation Manager at DNV GL:

(TRENT) Today we’re talking with Brett Gray who is the Digital Transformation Manager over at DNV GL. Thank you again for joining us today Brett we are excited to get to talk to you about DNV GL in general, your position there, and how the company itself is working with blockchain. So thank you again for meeting with us.

(BRETT) Of course, happy to be here.

(TRENT) First off I was wondering could you give us a brief history of DNV GL and what the overall goal/mission of the company is?

(BRETT) Yeah absolutely, so DNV GL actually has a pretty incredible history. They’re almost 160 years old and they started back in Norway originally as a certifying body for maritime vessels. Literally old pirate ships that you think of, these vessels that would be sending and charting goods across large ocean bodies. The company would certify they were built correctly. That if a monarch was going to charter a ship and pay for that ship to transport goods that there was a good likelihood that ship would return, that it was built correctly. That has since grown into the maritime industry that we know it is today. Obviously a lot of technology has changed tremendously from wooden ships to the type of vessels that we work in now. That is the original place where we started working in the area of trust.

Since then we have grown into five business areas; maritime, oil and gas, energy, digital solutions, and business assurance. I work in the business assurance division. We focus on helping people just like we used to in the 1800s with trusting ships, now we help them trust their business. Whether that be food and beverage, automotive, aviation, health care, we help determine whether their quality and sustainable/ethical practices are going on in the business correctly so that you can share that information with your customers, with your partners, and the entire ecosystem around it all.

(TRENT) With your position as the Digital Transformation Manager would you give us a brief idea of how you are helping drive blockchain adoption throughout the industries DNV GL works in?

(BRETT) This is kind of a really interesting question with regard to my role and the way that my company sees digitalization. So at DNV GL obviously with a 160-year history, our business has been trust. You need an audit done for this type of business practice we would send out an auditor to perform that role. We are a third party trusted verified source. We issue certificates so that companies can say that they are in requirement or underneath the standards that are required by their federal, international, industry widebodies, or a self-assessment that they want to confirm they are adhering to, we want to come in and verify these activities.

What I do as the Digital Transformation Manager is I look at how we can use technology to transform the way that we deliver our core services. So blockchain is one of the technologies that I see as a disruptor across a lot of different industries, but as it relates to the certification business it’s a really logical step to upgrade on what we are currently doing. At DNV GL we deal a lot with counterfeit certificates where if someone wants to win a bid sometimes they are required to have a certain type of certificate that maybe DNV GL, or a competitor, would issue. So some companies simply copy and paste the certificate. One way to alleviate this is by pushing all of our certificates onto the VeChain blockchain. We started doing that on Ethereum and then migrated over to VeChain.

The whole point is to make it so that you can very quickly scan a QR code to confirm a certificate. This has dramatically reduced counterfeit certificates. The way that we think of blockchain is a large upgrade on what we are currently doing. We provide the business of truth so that customers can trust the business process and the products. Blockchain allows us to take that extra layer of security and share that information across multiple parties.

(TRENT) It is relatively common to hear about large and historic companies, like DNV GL which is almost 160 years old, to have some push back or hesitancy to develop/implement new technology, like blockchain for example. Has there been any hesitation or push back within DNV GL about how the tech could be utilized in this space?

(BRETT) I think there is hesitation about digital transformation in every organization. I have been a part of several organizations and the unique thing that DNV GL has done is they have brought in the mindset of digital transformation from the very top-down. From our CEO Remi Eriksen, he has pushed down all the digital transformation, not just from a director level or an executive-level but this is coming from the most important person in the company. He believes in digitalization and as a result, he has empowered people. Not only from an expertise perspective but from the budgetary perspective. Giving them support and giving them the resources that they need to be successful.

At the same time, I think the real push back people have is how it is going to disrupt their job in terms of services and security. The reality is is that blockchain is a major disruptor. We at DNV GL see how that is going to disrupt a lot of industries and we want to be in front of that, we want to be a part of that transformation. So if there is an opportunity for us to have a kind of “ripping off the band-aide moment” if you will, we want to be part of helping people understand blockchain and helping drive adoption.

Even internally that has been somewhat of a challenge to make sure that people are on the same page. Strategy from a high level to boots on the ground sometimes can have some dissonance. What we have done at DNV GL is equipped our personnel infrastructure in a way that the 10,000-meter view and the boots on the ground view are in alignment.

(ERIC) So last year DNV GL implemented the MyStory platform which allows consumers for example to track Italian wines, can you explain a little bit about how the MyStory project works?

(BRETT) Yeah, MyStory is very near and dear to my heart. MyStory is a really cool application of how blockchain can be used and how it is being used to do some really cool things across different industries. For the pilot of the program, we used Italian wine which is obviously some of the best wine in the world. We wanted to be able to showcase that this Italian wine was authentic, but not just that is was authentic but also what it means to be authentic Italian wine. This is not just a marketing story because you could go to any grocery store in the US and buy a bottle of wine that has an Italian flag on it, but maybe it was brewed in a garage in Nebraska. The sticker doesn’t make it an Italian wine it just means it is marketed as such.

So MyStory aims to end that perception. We want to be able to tell the stories of enterprise brands. We want to help them talk about the quality, origin, and the social/environmental integrity of the products they are selling to consumers. In our 160 years of business, specifically in the area of retail, fashion, food and beverage, and luxury goods, we have seen a shift of consumer trust. Historically, brands have held high amounts of trust with consumers, but in recent years we have seen that shift away from brands, where trust now lies in products. Consumers are looking at products and they are saying “can I trust this product?” And they are really expecting more transparency with communications with brands so they can pay more attention as to what goes into the products they are buying. They want to know the quality, they want to know the social responsibility, they are now more educated and want to know if it is a solid and responsible product.

On the flip side, we have seen from talking with our customers that brands are struggling to share information with their consumers. They are struggling to connect some of the specific actions they are taking to create better quality products with consumers and then communicating the value of the things they are doing. They are also struggling to find really engaging ways for consumers to truly connect with their products.

That’s where MyStory comes in. We use MyStory as a way to connect the brand with the product with the consumer so that there is one story, one product, one truth for everyone to understand. We do that kind of in three key steps.

First, we define the story we want to tell. Whether that is worker rights, ecological footprints, or the origin of the product like with the Italian wines. Whatever the story is we define it. Then we go to step two where we gather evidence from the supply chain. All of the information is verified by DNV GL. So we go out and we look for proof of action events. This is when we send out auditors who are experts from the industry to look for documents, certificates, and data from all across the production systems. To do this we use all sorts of data collection strategies. For example, we use a lot of IoT sensors, devices, and beacons to collect data. We then verify that data to make sure it is accurate. From there we move on to step three where we put all of this information into MyStory where it is then stored on the blockchain. At that point an enterprise product ID is issued, we label the actual asset, and then that is put on the blockchain so that a person can scan a QR code to connect the one-to-one story and data with that exact product.

So you think about with wine, for example, we track data from farming all the way to marketing sales, from seed to sale. This includes harvesting data, energy consumption, additive usage, chemical, and sensory tests, bottling processes, activation of the digital content, there is a whole lot of things going on and DNV GL is the bridge between the physical asset and the digital. We use blockchain, specifically MyStory, powered by the VeChain blockchain, to connect all of that into one concise product.

Watch the above video to learn more about the MyStory project in action with Italian wine in Brett Gray’s own words

(TRENT) Recently there were some announcements, specifically on November 9th, at the 2019 China International Import Expo of a new partnership between DNV GL, ASI Group, and VeChain resulting in a new blockchain ecosystem tracking food products imported from France into China. Could you explain the overall idea of this new ecosystem and how it could potentially transform the marketplace of consumer confidence in China?

(BRETT) Absolutely, so as a caveat I work primarily in North America but I do work with the global team. In a nutshell, this specific project is about providing a trusted blockchain-powered platform for international buyers to protect the product quality and safety for high end-luxury oriented food and beverage products from France. Much like MyStory, we look at this as a way to help drive adoption through the consumer. A lot of businesses are wary of the infrastructure, investments, time investments, and as well as the data sharing with people across the supply chain, so instead of trying to get the businesses to change we see a way to help drive adoption by starting with luxury goods where consumers are wanting the information. They want to know about traceability and transparency. For us, it’s less about blockchain, but it is more about telling the truth about our products. Blockchain is just a means to an end for us to do that, for us to communicate product authenticity, to provide immutable data that is granted through the VeChain blockchain, and then share different secure transactions about where that product came from.

Our goal is to see blockchain transform within the next ten years from the current differentiator that it is for tracking luxury goods, to become the norm for food providers, for retailers, all types of products from the B2B environment and even the B2C environments. We want to see blockchain as a way to communicate a story of truth about the product, and one of the ways that is going to happen is because consumers will demand it more and more and more. As that consumer demand grows up businesses will be more likely to see that ROI and look past the areas of infrastructure investment, data compliance, etc., and be more willing to address those challenges.

(ERIC) I think based on that last comment on how you’re able to see a bit more ROI and go past the investment, have you seen positive reactions from customers to projects like MyStory? And has that affected operations or the top line of companies at all?

(BRETT) So this is one of the key talking points I like to share with people about blockchain in general because it is something that we are seeing at DNV GL. Blockchain is going to disrupt business models. I told you for 160 years we have been a third party verifying activities and issuing certificates. Now we are using blockchain and MyStory to connect us directly with the customer, so we have never had that kind of access to the customer before. Usually, we are working as a third party to the brand. Now we are connecting with the customer which is forcing our business model to change. It is forcing us to think about the information we are collecting and how we can provide a better service.

Likewise, blockchain is going to force all kinds of companies to think differently about their business model. Not only with how they deal with their suppliers or their supply chain, but also with their specific customers because more information will be available to consumers. They will have to think about their operations and logistics more in-depth and the kind of butterfly effect that will happen. What is really cool is this technology allows us to collect so much more information, become more optimized, and become more efficient. What that means is that we are going to have to trust each other a lot more, we are going to have to work more strategically where complex supply chains that have say high turnover, will have to operate with more trust and leeway allowing for more information to be shared between actors. That will lead to more valuable products and more valuable business transactions.

Just like we see here at DNV GL, our product has now gone from what was once a commodity of purchasing audits which were not much different than those of our competition to a product that now we provide a digital service verified by the blockchain. I joke with people all the time that on Ethereum I had this little blockchain that said I was 6’6”, I’m not 6’6” in real life, I’m maybe 5’8” on a good day, but there was nothing saying this was not true. It is now immutable, it is on there forever, you cannot deny it but that doesn’t make it true in the real world. Here at DNV GL, we are really transforming the way people think about blockchain as less of a heat-seeking missile but more a verifiable tool like MyStory that changes the way businesses operate. So it has kind of forced people to work with each other differently. Gone are the days of time and material contracts, and fixed bid agreements, people are going to have to work in a lot more gray area to figure out how they’re going to work together. Remuneration strategy will have to be very creative and we have had to come up with some of those on our end at DNV GL.

(TRENT) We have kind of talked about this a little bit but I really want to lock down this idea, why is it important from a DNV GL standpoint, or even your personal standpoint, that the information that you are looking at with MyStory or the new Foodgates program gets locked down on a blockchain instead of your standard or traditional database?

(BRETT) That is a really good question, and it is a question I ask a lot for our customers. Something to be very clear is while I am a proponent of blockchain I am also a proponent of the right solution. As the Digital Transformation Manager, you get faced with a lot of questions or problems where people think “oh, well let's just throw new technology at it to solve the problem.” Blockchain is a really great technology but that does not mean it is a silver bullet, you should not throw it at everything.

That said, there is sometimes when blockchain is the perfect solution. I think a lot of the app craze back when there were commercials saying “there's an app for that” where many people would come to me and say “hey I need to develop an app for this project,” but in reality the requirements and problems they were trying to solve were better fixed using a new database or a new repository.

Blockchain is really important when you are sharing information with multiple parties that need to trust it. So we look at blockchain really as a data storage container, as a way to lock data at a place/point in time, so that it can be verified by DNV GL on behalf of a customer, and then demonstrated across multiple types of stakeholders. Whether that be customers from a material perspective or customers who are buying the end product. Typically in a supply chain, there could be tens of hands exchanging raw materials before a final product is exchanged, and that is data that could be really valuable for them to provide better products to their customers. Blockchain allows us to do that somewhat simply so the information can be more widely distributed.

The data is immutable which means no one can access it, change it, or corrupt it, that is really important because when you are talking about the supply chain you are talking about proprietary data that if found out could permanently damage a company. Using blockchain allows us to make sure the right people have access to the right data while simultaneously allowing for a transparent ecosystem. It also ensures the data cannot be changed or hacked like a typical database may be vulnerable to. By being very secure of the information we are finding before putting it on the blockchain we are issuing a lot of confidence to the customers about the information about their products. We are forcing our team and our partners to think very wisely about the information they put on the blockchain before they do it, creating more trust with the customer than traditional data storing methods.

(ERIC) With products like MyStory increasing consumer confidence, how do you see a project like it developing in the future? How do you see it evolving in the future?

(BRETT) That’s something I dream about on a daily basis. With MyStory it is a one-way communication of the story of a product. I love that it is called MyStory since it is literally the story of a product. You scan the QR code and you get a detailed map of the product’s lifecycle from development to shelf, so there is so much real estate that can be utilized in so many ways, not just for consumers but brands as well. Wouldn’t it be nice to incentivize people scanning these products by issuing out security tokens to be used for discounts or coupons to encourage additional sales? There are also ways to do more lead capture for these brands in making it kind of like a rating system so that communication moves to a two-way conversation allowing brands and customers to directly rate each product.

I think there’s really a lot of opportunities in the types of tagging and tracing solutions, not just with what technology currently exists but tech that is being developed right now. Whether that be with biomarkers or bio scanning, so you can track more complex and sophisticated assets. I think there are opportunities to change the way people think about blockchain as well.

To me, the clear takeaway is that we are putting blockchain in a tangible way so that consumers work with it on a daily basis. I’ve taken a bottle of wine to show my grandmother who grew up in WWII and knows nothing about what blockchain is, but when I put the bottle of wine in her hand and she can scan the QR code to learn all the ins-and-outs that went into creating that unique bottle wine, all of a sudden she is using blockchain in very clear terms and is able to understand it more. So if we are able to use platforms like MyStory with more products and put it in front of more people, I think we will be able to help drive blockchain adoption across all kinds of industries.

(TRENT) It sounds like you are hearing a lot of great feedback from consumers who are able to take advantage of MyStory, and thus, who are interacting with the VeChain ecosystem through MyStory. That being said most governments have been relatively slow to adopt regulations or to embrace blockchain technology. However, at the 2019 China International Import Expo when the Foodgates ecosystem was announced both President Xi Jinping of China and President Emmanuel Macron of France essentially took part in the announcement. When we pair that with the things President Xi is saying about blockchain adoption in China it seems governments may be coming around to this new tech. Do you see the tides may be shifting with governments beginning to embrace this technology, or potentially creating regulations to make implementing blockchain technology easier?

(BRETT) I would say yes and no. So I think that more and more governments are going to find ways to regulate cryptocurrencies. That is a big area of concern. Every government wants their cut of the pie or a piece of the action. I think our real area of regulation that you are going to start seeing is by industry bodies and associations.

For example, something that we could see in the future in the industry are national associations saying we are going to mandate that in order for you to participate in the association you must use a blockchain solution to demonstrate your product is meeting our own regulatory framework. This can be pushed or encouraged by government agencies, but not necessarily enforced by them but instead by the industry itself. In turn, this can trickle down to where associations or industry leaders will encourage those in the industry to adopt these technologies to better certify their products. We have seen ideas like this start to be implemented in the hemp industry for example where consumers want to see information from seed-to-sale.

So I think it is a little bit less today about governments and more about associations regarding regulating blockchain adoption. That being said I wouldn’t be surprised to see in areas like food, especially products that may be commonly recalled, to see regulatory framework around blockchain integration to be developed. But I do think you will see associations or industries creating their own regulations before we see governments potentially doing the same.

(TRENT) So if we play off of that idea, we know that right now the US doesn’t really have any regulations regarding cryptocurrencies or tokenomic business models. How is it that MyStory can be implemented here in the States since it leverages the VeChain blockchain which uses a tokenomic model?

(BRETT) This is one of the many reasons that we partnered with VeChain as opposed to other blockchain partners. VeChain has a variety of protocols in place that allow us to be very flexible with our customers. Keep in mind with our business being 160 years old a lot of our clientele are Fortune 500 companies that have very little interest, 0 to none most times, in holding any type of cryptocurrencies or crypto assets, so they don’t want to invest in that. However, they want the security of blockchain.

VeChain has a protocol called “Fee Delegation” that allows for one party to pay for the transactions of another account. This means users aren’t required to purchase crypto or manage private keys to use the blockchain. These are difficult processes to manage for even advanced crypto-enthusiasts, not to mention a large enterprise such as ourselves. VeChain allows DNV GL to pay for transactions in fiat, and then VeChain handles the conversion to crypto for us on the back end. We get to focus on the blockchain while they focus on the crypto. It makes it easy for us and our clients.

It is a really interesting space. VeChain is really a perfect strategic partner for us because of their commitment to using blockchain towards supply chains. They have an amazing team of people that I work very closely with and that are very closely related to DNV GL across our entire global operation. They have been extremely valuable in helping us change our supply chain tracking models but also our business model in general. It is not only DNV GL coming to the table, but instead DNV GL and VeChain combining together to make things work for our customers.

(TRENT) Now we’re going to take a little bit of a turn here and ask you some more questions about you. Questions like how did you find yourself at DNV GL working on digital transformation, what are some of the qualities both DNV GL and you think are important for working in the blockchain sphere, etc., and I think Eric has a few of these for you.

(ERIC) First off, your past work experience shows you have always had a big interest in digital transformation so what exactly interested you in continuing that passion at DNV GL?

(BRETT) I love technology, I think it’s the future, and when I was younger I didn’t have that technical skill. I used to work in healthcare for a long time as a recruiter, the common job posting was always for a developer. I really wanted to get into that area and I had a brother who worked in the mobile app space. He was able to help me get kind of a sales role where was I selling digital solutions. There is where I learned a lot about technology from a high level. Even though I didn’t have a whole lot of traditional technical skills I was able to learn the ropes if you will and talk to some people who are just insanely smart, like .net developers and solution architects. Working in that kind of strategy role really helped me understand the potential for digitalization.

My background is in communications, and when taking all of those communications classes in college the idea that message sent does not always equal the message received was very important. So I serve as kind of a bridge between creative resources, digital resources, and our customers to make sure that what the customer needs in order to solve their problem we could deliver exactly that.

So at DNV GL something that really drew me here was their commitment to problem-solving the right way, and building technology that solves problems instead of just building cool, shiny things that don’t actually serve any need. One of the ways you will learn to do that across industries is where the commitment for projects comes from. Before even interviewing at DNV GL I knew a fair amount about the company due to preexisting relationships I had with people there. Through this, I knew that from the CEO down they were going to be adopting digital transformation initiatives that interested me. I knew that these digital projects weren’t going to be killed by those higher up since the CEO was the one pushing for this digitalization. At DNV GL they have made it abundantly clear that digital transformation is a top priority, and they’ve hired me and people like me across the globe, to keep pushing for digitalization.

(ERIC) Say I am a student and I am looking for internships or a job in the blockchain space in general, whether traditional or more start-up like, what suggestions would you have for students to make sure they stand out?

(BRETT) So even the way that this connection came about was largely about leveraging the resources accessible to you. Trent and I met over LinkedIn since we were both talking about blockchain and he sent me a message asking if we could just talk about what we were both doing. It was free for him and free for me, it didn’t cost anything and resulted in a very valuable exchange of information. Using LinkedIn is a very valuable tool that everyone has available to them.

It’s also important to be really honest when approaching companies. I don’t think there is anything wrong with approaching companies and saying something like “hey I’m really interested in this but I don’t necessarily have a ton of experience there. I would be willing to try things in a different way in order to work at your company though.” With my role, I am not a traditional blockchain developer, you know I don’t code or anything like that, but I know how to solve problems and I know how to speak the language enough so that both the tech-focused people and customers will both understand what I am talking about in a way that is valuable for them.

I think finding out what challenges are going on in the blockchain industry and what challenges are going on in technology in general that you think you can add value to is very important. I like to say “find the Brett shaped hole” which means go find an area where your talents and expertise are extremely valuable. I’m a communicator that loves technology, and I work in a role where I have to be a communicator who loves technology. It’s a perfect fit.

Some advice I would give to people is to go to meet-up events. Look at industry associations and build really good relationships. As much as you can improve your technical skills your soft skills are going to become increasingly more and more important. Especially as technology continues to grow, blockchain continues to grow, and the implementation of more smart contracts, we are also going to see automation grow. This means we’re going to need people to both to do the coding and developing but also people who can think outside the box creatively, and then be able to implement new ways to do the work or fix the problems. Soft skills are going to be extremely valuable so having relationships and connections with people are one of the most important things you can do.

(TRENT) Awesome, so we have one final question for you here. If you could go back five years ago and master one skill in order to better prepare you for your career now, what would that one skill be?

(BRETT) First, if I could go back five years from now I would invest in Bitcoin and then sell before the bubble burst.

But actually, if I could go back in time and master one skill as a student, in general, it would be listening. So many times in technology we assume the solution before we even hear the problem. I mentioned the app buzz earlier, when I go to conferences everyone assumes because we have MyStory on the banner or the table that blockchain is the right solution for every problem and that is not always the case. It is really important to listen as to why blockchain is the solution to the problem. If you can listen and you can hear the challenges then you can figure out the rest. That is why when I talked about MyStory I explained our three-step process for how to properly implement it. All of that requires us to do a lot of listening as both individuals and as a company. We need to listen to the story of the product, to the issues the company is facing, and then we need to listen to what the data is saying we can put the proper information on the MyStory web app so then the consumer can listen to the information as well.

If you are a good listener the technology and solution will eventually take care of itself. Not to mention, if you are a good listener you’ll probably be able to learn a lot better so if you want to listen to a lecture or podcasts, for example, you’ll absorb a lot more information. I think that I am a fairly good listener myself but I think that is one skill that people will continue to need.

(TRENT) Awesome! Well, that wraps up all of the questions we have for you today. We want to say thank you again for sitting down with us and taking the time to walk us through your experiences at DNV GL, with MyStory, and all of the other topics we covered today. Thank you again, Brett, we really appreciate it.

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