From startup challenger bank to blockchain innovation, Secco Aura’s offline payments and ‘economics of value’ strategy could pave the way for a future model of consumer data ownership. Anna Milne meets CEO and co-founder Chris Gledhill to find out more about how it works, and which markets it is targeting

Chris Gledhill, founder of Secco Aura, has turned his back on the constraints of chasing a banking licence and evolved his offering into something rather more niche. And he is specifically targeting 16-19-year-olds.

Secco Aura aims to enable people to own their personal data, hence the term ‘data brokers’. Gledhill talks about turning the existing marketing and advertising model on its head, enabling consumers to choose whether to sell their own data to a supplier of goods.

Coming from a banking background and having started a challenger bank, Gledhill found the constraints of pursuing a banking licence too restrictive. Ultimately he found he did not need to pursue one for what he was trying to achieve, giving Gledhill more freedom to innovate without the constraints that apply to challenger banks.

Secco Aura presents what Gledhill sees as the future of value exchange. He sees the number being up for traditional banks in a matter of 50 years.

Secco Aura currently targets so-called fashionistas because its aim is to create a “reputational economics” system, as Gledhill puts it.

“Fashion people care a lot about their reputation; they already broadcast a personal interface, which is what they are wearing and the causes they are passionate about. They have already got additional cues like wristbands and jewellery, badges, etcetera that all mean something. They are very brand-aware. They are very adept at dealing with non-monetary units, vouchers and discounts. They understand the value of reputation.”

Secco Aura enables people to create a digital persona, a digitally augmented version of themselves in a Pokémon Go-style broadcast which ranges 100m around them. That interface is their basic profile, along with several APIs that the broadcaster has programmed.

An example of an API could be to rate an outfit someone is wearing, with the option of rating it with a medal, which could extend to the benefactor a voucher to buy it at a discount. The wearer gets a ‘like’ for their outfit, increasing their reputational value, and the retailer gets a new sales channel.

“All those interactions are through non-monetary value tokens via Bluetooth or personal Wi-Fi hotspots.

“At the moment social networking is an online activity; we are taking it offline. [We want] to walk into a conference about banking and be able to scan 350 people to find out how many investors are in the room, or how many data scientists,” Gledhill explains.

One person can create a piece of value – for example a beer token – and send it to another’s phone. It is cryptographically stamped so the recipient knows for certain who the sender is. It is non-refutable and can then be redeemed. The transaction is untraceable.

“We are a platform and underlying technology, but essentially a platform where you can create a wallet on your phone, create or store data or monetary assets, be able to create your own value tokens based on that, and then broadcast to other people. It can apply to so many different use cases; we are going specifically for fashion to start with because it works very well with fashion people. That’s why we are based in Soho, surrounded by fashion houses,” Gledhill explains.

This sounds good, but how profitable is it? And is it sustainable as a business model?

“We’re not replacing anything. Secco Aura is in a category of its own. Right now states and corporates create currencies, but people don’t; we’re filling that space. Right now social interactions are online or offline; we’re merging the two. The vision we have with Secco would create positive social change, so whether Secco or someone else implements our vision, everyone is a winner!

“There are plenty of use cases for offline or anonymous transactions. If you have an allergy you need to broadcast to a medical professional who comes to see you, there’s no point having that on an NHS database: you need it with you, offline, instantly verified.

“If you have a list of medications you’re on, that also needs to be verified, signed by someone else. It’s like having this client server model where we serve ourselves with our own data. It seems an obvious model we should get to,” Gledhill explains.

Amid the ongoing argument of whether banks should target a younger audience who, let us agree, are not as profitable as their silver-haired counterparts, Gledhill presents an economic model of the future in which he suggests tokens and data ‘brokerage’ are the new commodities for exchanging value.

“You need a licence if you hold and process people’s money, but because they hold it themselves, it’s not ‘real’ money; it’s what they’ve created, so technically we don’t need a licence. It’s like creating leather wallets, we’re just the container; people create their own vouchers and discount tokens. This gives us more freedom to innovate,” Gledhill states.

The common thread between financial services and the platform for creation of value tokens is, as Gledhill explains, anonymity.

Gledhill, with a background in computer science, is developing blocktree, a blockchain-based network which accommodates anonymity. At some point he wants to patent this, which will require a peer-review paper, which is in itself a full-time occupation. At this point it is more about acquiring funding.

For all blockchain’s benefits, anonymity is not one of them. Gledhill says blocktree is the equivalent of issuing a digital cheque, thereby empowering the customer. The platform enables customers to make offline transactions, via Bluetooth or personal Wi-Fi hotspot, hence the anonymity. A ‘cryptographic stamp’ verifies it, thus a customer can create and send a beer token, for example.

In the same way, traditional marketing is also turned on its head. Customers become custodians of their own data. Via Secco Aura, they broadcast their personality – their digital profile – transmitting as much or as little as they like and, on the same platform, companies can approach them to ask to buy their email address, for example, and send them details of goods that may interest them.

Transactions that take longer or have a series of verifications, or multiple transactions can be taken online to complete.
Secco Aura is certainly a novel concept, and it is not the first time a fintech has said that traditional banks could possibly have only 50 years left. It is difficult to imagine this being the future. But it would also have been difficult to imagine things as they are now 20 years ago, let alone 50.