Building the future of IoT: An exclusive interview with IOTA Co-founder Dominik Schiener

  • We had the privilege of a sit-down with Dominik Schiener, the Co-founder of IOTA and the chair of the IOTA Foundation.
  • He talked about the journey so far, the transition with the Chrysalis upgrade, what’s in the future for IOTA, the rise of meme-coins and how meditating rejuvenates him and keeps him focused.

It’s wonderful to have a few minutes of your time. You have been quite an inspiration to me ever since your “Rooftop Talk” in August 2017. It struck me that you had such a grand vision of IOTA on a 10-15 year time horizon. By that time I had already bought some IOTA, but with that talk I decided to sell my other cryptos and go all in with IOTA. I think at the time I imagined I was catching a big wave and would just ride it; I have since learned that I grabbed onto a roller coaster! The journey to the promised land is never smooth!

In April 2019 I was living in Texas and talked my wife into driving 4 hours to Austin so I could see you and Mat Yarger talk at the University of Texas. I was pretty much just anonymous in the background, but I did grab a picture with you:

(I usually have a beard, so I look a bit strange in that photo.)

So, that’s my history with IOTA. I have zero programming skills and always felt bad about not being able to help with development. I have a teacher’s salary so did not have money to run a big marketing campaign. I was wondering what I could do to play a role, and in one of your talks you told people to just do things – to not ask permission – so I started publishing notes that I was taking. I felt a bit uncomfortable, since it was you and others actually producing the content and I was just making outlines, but it’s surprising how many doors have opened just by trying to be a contributor in my own small way. I bring this up just to encourage others to use their skills in some small way–they too may find their efforts amplified by the support of the community.

Let’s jump into it!

Kevin: We are only 4 years past the Rooftop talk where you were trying to lay out the vision of where you hope IOTA could be in 10-15 years. How has the journey been, compared to what you imagined back then? How has the vision changed?

Dom: The vision remained the same, but the velocity is much higher than it was 4 years ago. The journey has been quite exciting, which is no surprise. We have grown tremendously during this time, and we have built up reliable structures and operations. Because of that, we are more confident than ever that the great vision that guides us is within reach. Our overarching goal has not really changed: IOTA is set to become the web of trust in the IoT, and we are working on that every day. The interest we have from real world businesses and organisations, from studying our technology to building production-ready use cases, only adds fuel to our efforts.

Kevin: You have talked about the importance of being directionally-right. This makes sense–you can see the mountain peak you are climbing towards, but you don’t know the exact path from the beginning. How much of a course correction did the project take with Chrysalis? And now that Chrysalis is in place, what does the path look like moving forward?

Dom: Stephen Hawking once said that “intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” Of course, the IOTA Foundation faces its ups and downs, just like every other organisation. Nonetheless, being directionally right means that we do not let temporary setbacks push us off-course; rather, we adapt to new challenges to reach our goals.

Chrysalis is one such adaptation to new circumstances. Some of our partners do not want to wait for IOTA 2.0, so we decided to offer a production-ready ledger already now, even before we reach our final goal of fully decentralizing value transactions on the IOTA network. We were happy to take this path. Today the Tangle is production-ready and supports development reliably. All future updates until we reach full decentralization will be incremental and seamless.

Kevin: In that Rooftop talk, you said, “…every time we tried to push out something new, and we were saying, ‘Hey look, we actually solved blockchain’s problems,’ nobody was listening to you. You can kind of compare this to screaming underwater, because you have a protocol that actually solves problems, that can truly change something, but nobody cares, because everyone is too busy making money with Bitcoin, or Ethereum, or whatever. . . “

Are you still screaming underwater? Who is hearing you better now? Any thoughts on how the community can spread the word more effectively?

Dom: It is in the nature of crypto that people and businesses turn to working, scaling alternatives in times of hype and congested public ledgers. If the technology also meets the sustainable zeitgeist, even better. As the IOTA protocol matures, we already see growing demand, especially from businesses. In that regard, we are quite happy about “being heard.”

In the crypto space, there is a distinction between those looking to make a quick buck and those interested in technological solutions that add to the bottom line of their businesses and value streams. IOTA is comfortable in both worlds and has no problems getting heard. One of our strengths is working collaboratively with any size of industrial players in a multitude of business verticals. Meanwhile, the collective crypto space doesn’t seem to be very interested in actual technological progress. Meme-coins can be fun, but I am certain that technologically advanced protocols will ultimately prevail and enjoy wide adoption.

In terms of getting heard, our community is also doing a great job of educating their peers about what we’re working on and the economic and environmental opportunities that our projects represent. And that’s actually how anyone can contribute: talk about it, write it down, compare technologies, so that everyone can understand it, and be open to criticism. Newcomers into our community are greeted with open arms, so if you’re new to IOTA, join our discord and participate actively!

Kevin: What are IOTA’s biggest pain points at the moment? What are the bottlenecks?

Dom: The success we have achieved as a team and community notwithstanding, there is still work to be done. We have to meet the growing demand from the industry side and find developers and experts despite an unprecedented global scarcity of skilled staff.

Running such a large non-profit requires a lot of resources, structure, and patience, but we are confident that we are on the right track. In terms of finances, we are getting on an increasingly stable footing. This is also thanks in part to public funds and grants which help decrease our dependence on fluctuations in the token price in the short and medium term.

Kevin: A big business runs nothing like a startup. Startups that grow large inevitably have difficult transitions. The IOTA Foundation is kind of in-between: it is no longer a handful of developers bootstrapping an idea, but it is also not a big company with thousands of employees.

How are you balancing your time between Foundation members, partner companies, and the IOTA token community?

Dom: We have assembled an excellent team, and we support each other very well. We can rely on the experience of our supervisory board but also of those who have worked in the private sector or at universities for years before joining IOTA. This brings the necessary professionalism and soft skills to streamline everything. What binds us all is our pioneering spirit: we create new technology and bring it into the world. Every day is exciting, and we face the challenges with zeal because we know how important it all is.

I personally have found a good balance. I am sure our collective cool will be tested once IOTA 2.0 is out and businesses large and small are knocking on our doors… But this is the kind of stress we welcome, of course.

Kevin: Have the logistics gotten easier, or is it getting ever-more complicated?

Dom: The logistics are becoming more complex each day, but we also have more experience and more people to keep everything running. In the end, it feels like it’s getting easier. Setting up an organization like the IOTA Foundation was no small feat, especially in a highly regulated country like Germany. But now that we have done it well, it benefits us all every day. The structures we set up enable all staff to act independently while not losing focus of our main goals. The logistics of managing an endeavor like ours still requires a lot of attention, especially when growing the way we did. We did not grow just to be bigger but to match increasing demand. In essence, some things today run more or less autonomously while we address topics that are typical for a bigger organization as opposed to a start-up.

Kevin: What are you doing to stay in Zen mode?

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Dom: Healthy food, working out every day, positivism, taking care of my Bonsai… I guess it’s the little things. Recently I also started meditating, which I can highly recommend. My co-workers and most of the community are supportive and kind, so nowadays it is very rare that I get out of my Zen mode. Keeping up with this level of pressure over a long period of time certainly takes a toll. It is crucial to find your inner peace and balance. I am very happy that I found that for myself.

Kevin: How has your role shifted as the Foundation has grown?

Dom: My role has shifted significantly. In the beginning, I often did programming myself and helped with the so-called light-wallet. Now our developers do that — they have more time for such tasks, and my programming skills are certainly not a match to those of an experienced engineer.

I spent quite some time promoting our efforts and solutions at conferences, talks, and meetings with partners, business, and organizations. My management duties also expanded as the Foundation grew. Right now I mostly work in the administrative and organizational areas, and I do so from my home-office, just as everyone else at IOTA.

The IOTA talks I regularly do are not a replacement for attending conferences and business meetings, but community work and collaboration with interested viewers and new developers is very rewarding. It makes me feel less detached from everything and allows me to connect with people, especially in times of the COVID-19 pandemic

Kevin: Do you foresee hiring anyone in upper management who specifically has experience leading companies in the transition from small to large?

Dom: I can say this much: we have some interesting personalities and experts in the pipeline.

Kevin: What positions are you most anxious to fill with the right people?

Dom: At the end of the day, we are looking for the perfect candidate for each position, which is why we spend so much time on it. I think the antidote to growing pains is that we work with the best experts in their respective fields and that everyone here knows what IOTA is really about.

We have a very experienced supervisory board and a lot of expertise in our own ranks, so we can look into the future quite confidently. As in every organization, people come and people leave as their lives change, they develop new interests or passions. That’s all part of it. Staffing is certainly important and also time-consuming. But this is not different to any other tech-driven organization, with the caveat that the crypto space is relatively small, so the competition to hire top talent is fierce.

Kevin: Is IOTA a blockchain killer?

Dom: It’s in the nature of things that new technologies replace existing ones, but our plans don’t really involve intentionally disrupting supposed competitors. The technology’s utility and the crypto market decide that. I also think that the IoT and data markets allow for some co-movers because a global transformation is rarely done by a single technology. As far as IOTA is concerned, right now we do have the best technology and the industry backing to achieve wide adoption in the IoT. But that doesn’t mean there is no room for others.

Kevin: How do you imagine the IOTA Ambassador program rolling out?

Dom: The Ambassador program is a grassroots participation and collaboration idea that originated in the IOTA community. We are still figuring out the motivations and incentives we should build into it to unfold its full potential. As soon as we have a good working concept, we will inform the community and start a public discussion about it.

Kevin: The rocket seems to be ready to launch, but it didn’t take off (price-wise) like people were expecting right after Chrysalis. Do you think it will just take a bit to gain momentum? Or do you anticipate there will be a tipping point where it takes off rather suddenly?

Dom: Crypto really is unpredictable. Right now meme coins seem to be the latest hype, and people are happy to throw money at them. Other people base their decisions on perceived “potential” or “promise” and flock to projects that objectively don’t have much going for them, in terms of technology or adoption. In the end, no-one really knows what happens next and what people value. It’s in constant flux. IOTA could very well be the next one with a huge spike. We are not really focused on short-term price fluctuations. If the tech isn’t there, the spike is ephemeral. We, therefore, focus on the tech and its adoption.

Kevin: What is the larger crypto community misunderstanding about IOTA?

Dom: I wouldn’t say “misunderstanding” but rather missing the scope of our mission. The IoT is literally the next industrial revolution, and we positioned IOTA to meet the growing demand for trust and efficient solutions. We are the missing piece in that puzzle. At one point in the not-too-distant future, some people will have an epiphany and finally understand what we have been preaching for quite some time now. 

Kevin: What are people not asking that they should probably be asking?

Dom: One of the driving forces in the IOTA Foundation is our belief we have the solution to some of the world’s biggest problems. Some highly valued projects don’t even have a roadmap or a plan on how their protocols should be used outside of the crypto realm. For us, crypto is a worldwide revolution, but it’s not supposed to only serve a small niche. So, perhaps people in the crypto space should ask more often, “What positive impact could this technology have?” instead of looking at charts every couple of minutes.

Kevin: Is there anything else you would like to share at this time? Or that you would like to ask the community to do?

Dom: Many people in our community have made outstanding contributions, especially in recent months. Whether it was testing the Firefly wallet, contributing to the core architecture, writing articles on the web, or organizing e-meetups, we are really lucky to have such a dedicated group of people among us. And I think that’s where our future lies, an active community that creates value for everyone through participation and collaboration, an antidote to the crypto-hype.

Sure, having a higher price valuation is nice, but this is no guarantee for longevity, as we have seen in recent years. Only an active, helpful community and a technology with a unique selling point can solve real problems — and we have both. The next few months will be eventful and exciting. They will show what IOTA is really made of. We spent a lot of energy and time pursuing IOTA’s goal of a fully decentralized, secure, and feeless DLT and cryptocurrency. With each passing day, we get closer to reaching that goal. Everyone at the Foundation, myself included, has been looking forward to what’s coming next for a long time.


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About Author

Kevin V. Young, PhD, is a biologist with a keen interest in the cryptocurrency ecosystem, particularly IOTA.

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