Interview with Dr Adrian Burden, BlockMark Technologies

Dr Adrian Burden and his business partner, Tom Alcott are tech entrepreneurs with a particular interest in blockchain technology. They have a research and development laboratory in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, where they initially explored non-fungible tokens and distributed ledgers. For anybody out there who is not in the know, non-fungible tokens are individual, one of a kind, digital assets with blockchain managed ownership. If you accept that collecting is a hobby for some people, (stamps, trading cards, classic cars, vinyl records) you can make the leap to understand that digital collectables is also a thing, and being unique, they can vary in their rarity, desirability and utility. A marketplace has developed around non-fungible tokens (NFT) and similar to art, the value of a NFT being worth that which someone is willing to pay for it. In the month of December last year,  NFT art sales reached an all time high of $8.2 million, significantly demonstrating the growth of the NFT based art scene.

With the support of the London Midland Labs technology accelerator program, Adrian and Tom looked at NFTs from the point of view of ticketing, and launched their own digital collectibles called BlockMark Gems. This served as a ‘proof of concept’ project, in other words, creating and taking part in a NFT blockchain venture was the smartest way to gain a thorough understanding of the technology and verify its potential for other projects.

Adrian comes from a material science background, and has been involved in the development of a number of patents over the years, including flat panel displays and plastic electronics. A Sunday Times /Maserati 100 entrepreneur and the author of, ‘Start to exit: how to maximize the value in your start up’, Adrian has always been one to explore and innovate. Working for his own technology start up a few years ago, Singular ID, he co-invented and patented an anti-counterfeiting system which worked by giving items their own materials-based fingerprint. This work gave him key insights to the problems faced by organisations regarding counterfeiting and managing the flow of accurate and trustworthy information.

Tom worked as a social network analyst, developing social capital in the finance sector and it was this understanding of network resilience that was key to his early adoption of blockchain technology.  From there, he went on to become operations director to the social enterprise start up, FRANK water and co-owner of the gourmet pepper specialist, Peppermongers until its sale in 2016. From his experience of receiving batches of pepper sometimes of dubious quality, despite the paperwork, Tom gained insights into the adulteration endemic in global food chains.

Adrian and Tom combined their expertise and realised that they could use blockchain technology to provide software systems to manage processes around certification, accreditation and protecting intellectual property.

In 2017, BlockMark Technologies was launched, the flagship project being BlockMark Registry which is a platform using blockchain technology that would allow the secure verification of certificates of all kinds.

We caught up with Adrian to ask him about how BlockMark is revolutionising the security, simplicity and authenticity of certificates, and how this could eventually be used to tighten up the security and trustworthiness of certificates linked to physical objects (like products).

Why are certificates significant?
As you go through life, you collect certificates, perhaps starting out with some swimming badges and a cycling proficiency. You might clock up some GCSEs, A-levels, a degree and then First Aid at work, insurance, memberships and ongoing professional development credits. If you work for a company or run one, you are constantly renewing and keeping tabs on certificates, ensuring compliance, insurance and best practice. Where are all of these certificates at any one time and who is in charge of them?  How do you control a certification process that needs annual renewal?

The other important issue to bear in mind, is certificates are widely faked, including fraudulent degree certificates, bogus safety certificates, and scam insurance policies.  Sometimes criminal organisations create and sell fake credentials to unsuspecting clients and sometimes holders of certificates generate their own versions either from scratch or they tamper with the information to extend validity or change the scope.  About a year ago, a survey by Prospects found that 49% of large businesses and 48% of SMEs had encountered a candidate who lied about their degree qualifications, such as falsely claiming a degree or inflating their grade.  Recently, the European Safety Federation has highlighted the problem of fake ‘certificates’ and compliance documents relating to personal protective equipment (PPE) in the fight against COVID-19.  Even the Cyber Essentials scheme has had problems with fake, tampered and misrepresented certificates or badges.

How does the BlockMark Registry work?
The BlockMark Registry is a platform which is essentially built around three parties, the people that issue the certificates, the people that receive certificates and those that need to verify them. The platform uses a cloud-based database, but interfaces to the Ethereum blockchain to stamp records about the certificates on a distributed ledger when required (like when a certificate is issued or verified). The blockchain is an added feature that will grow in importance as a way of notarizing the certificates thus providing an independent way of showing that they were issued.

Let’s imagine we are logging in to the BlockMark Registry platform as a certifying body, and we find ourselves on a dashboard where we can create a template for a certification scheme. We can then start issuing that certificate to individuals or to organisations, sending out an email to the recipient to inform them that they have a certificate and can view it or print it off. The digital version of the certificate is viewable on a screen and the logo or badge representing that certificate can be downloaded onto a website or email footer. The big difference about the digital certificate and badge is that whereas in the past, this has been in the form of a jpeg for example which can be cut and pasted and may stay on a website long after it has expired, the BlockMark certificate and logo is downloaded as code which can be embedded in your website or CV. Each time the certificate or logo is viewed online, the code retrieves the information from the BlockMark platform in real time and the logo is refreshed for as long as it’s valid. If it has expired, it will disappear. If you were to hover your cursor over a BlockMark badge, information pops up giving details about who it’s issued to and by whom, with the issue and expiry date. If you click it, you can access more detailed information about that certificate.

Would I need two accounts, one for my personal certificates and one for work?
The way we built the platform is you would automatically get a personal account space as well as an organisation space, all visible within one dashboard. When you leave the organisation, your personal account space stays with you.

Not only does the BlockMark platform give a simple solution to the admin and filing of an individual’s lifetime collection of certificates, it also seriously reduces the administration for businesses.

Within an organisation, you might find that the Cyber Essentials certificate, for example, is sent out to the IT manager, the First Aid at work certificates have gone to the individuals, and the insurance certificate has gone to the finance department. As a director of a company, you need to know that everything is current and correct and where to find the appropriate piece of paper if needed. The BlockMark Registry platforms allows a company to control all certifications from one dashboard, to add or subtract employees to the organisation, and to keep an eye on when an item is expiring or needs action.

Who is using BlockMark?
We are currently testing with a group of Certification Bodies that work with IASME, with the view to providing digital certification for many of the certificates issued by IASME.

The IoT is a particularly interesting certification, as you are effectively certifying an object, not an organisation or a person. Another example of that which we’re working on is certifying a building which would include it’s safety assessments, building regulations and modifications. Both of these will need the option to be able to transfer ownership, so our platform is constantly evolving to implement new features.

Tell us about your work developing health certificates
Over the summer in 2020, we were funded by an Innovate UK grant to develop our platform to look at how we could adapt to be able to issue health certificates, either test results or immunisation records of individuals.

We adapted the International Certificate for Vaccination and Prophylaxis ( ICVP) as this “yellow card” is the World Health Organisation (WHO) accepted format used around the world. The idea was to create digital certificates based on that format to securely record any vaccination, including COVID 19. As a result of that work, we were invited to make a pitch for providing a Covid test certificate.

How can digital certificates recorded on the blockchain be developed to reduce fraud?
At the moment, the blockchain is being used as an independent source of truth, in that it provides a tamper-proof dated-stamp record of the issued certificate and its content. This means that with a receipt, you can check the validity of the certificate without involving the issuer, the recipient or us as a middle-man.  Therefore, if someone tampers or changes a certificate, it will not match with the blockchain record.  This can reduce fraud.

In the future, as interfaces with blockchains become more intuitive and mainstream, certificates themselves may sit on the blockchain as smart certificates linked with computer code.  This means they could expire automatically, renew if certain criteria are met or interact with other smart contracts (such as instigating an insurance pay-out as a result of being a valid insurance certificate).

Many physical objects are linked to certificates for insurance, warranty, proof-of-origin, safety / conformity, etc. If the digital certificate is harder to tamper with and can be more tightly linked to the object, then this helps to ensure the physical object is as described.  There is always an issue that the ‘link’ between an object and its certificate can be broken (e.g. serial numbers can be tampered, printed documents can be reproduced with changes). One solution is to insist upon stronger evidence as part of the record, this could be in the form of a witness certificate, a photograph, or a certificate relating to the equipment used.  Every security improvement makes it harder and more costly to falsify details, so, digital records can become stronger and more difficult to dupe.