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How a drop-out got off to a running start

Jeroen Merks, self-anointed “Bitcoin King of the Tweakers”, may be found at Techruption on an almost daily basis. The road to Techruption was a rocky one. After winning a Hackathon, he abruptly dropped out of his Bio-Informatics study program to move to Heerlen. He has been working at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus as a blockchain programmer for the start-up NestEgg ever since. We spoke with Jeroen on a rainy August morning in Heerlen.

Bitcoin Blockchain Start-up

Your life has changed dramatically over the past year. You are now part of the “bright minds” at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus. How did this come about?

“I’m originally from Zoetermeer and studied Bio-informatics at the University of Applied Sciences in Leiden. Just before completing my studies, I decided to embark on a different adventure. I was involved in the Blockchain Education Network during my studies, and this was where I met Nathalie Drost and Dean Masley (co-founders of NestEgg). Together, we decided to enter the three-day Hackathon that Dutchchain held in Groningen. When I first got there, Nathalie, Dean and the rest of our team had already started, and were on a roll. I felt a little lost because I didn’t know anything about the main theme of the Hackathon, pensions. The first thing I did was google ‘pensions’…”

You participated in the Hackathon and succeeded in making a difference. Tell us about your experiences at this event.

“During the Hackathon, I saw professionals walking around in suits, people stuck in their mindsets, with hackneyed ideas. Our team spotted a problem we could actually solve: the current pension system which 72% of the Dutch population no longer trusts. I saw the potential in blockchain technology to help do something about this. Using blockchain technology, we could develop a system that would enable people to make their own decisions about investing to save for their retirement without the intervention of a bank or other organization. Instead of participating in the current pension system, people get more say about what they do with their money. We won the Hackathon with this idea. Since then, we have elaborated on our idea with the help of the asset management company APG at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus in Heerlen, and we founded the start-up company NestEgg.”

“Blockchain is still evolving and the Netherlands could play a leading role”

There are not a lot of blockchain programmers yet in the Netherlands. What sparked your interest in blockchain?

“I was 16 when I became one of the first members of the Piratenpartij (Pirate Party), a political party in The Netherlands that is committed to a free information society. The aspect of privacy involved in the sharing of information intrigued me. These days, personal data is usually shared in online databases, and we have no idea where all the information actually is, who is managing it, and what is being done with it. Thanks to blockchain technology, you remain the administrator of your personal data. The technology is advancing rapidly, and once it goes mainstream, social constructs such as tax systems and bank payment systems will undergo radical changes.”

What do these changes mean for our day-to-day lives?

“Blockchain technology makes bitcoin payments possible, for one. Transactions can be made using electronic currency, without the intervention of a financial institution. This changes our payment system, making it an interesting development. At present, 2.3 billion people worldwide do not have access to our current financial system, but the arrival of bitcoin means that they will have the possibility to participate. Bitcoin gives ‘power to the people’”.

I have heard you say ‘power to the people’ before. What is your dream?

“Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron declared London the bitcoin capital. This indicates how seriously the government takes blockchain’s potential. My dream is for the Netherlands to become a trendsetter when it comes to blockchain.

We are already seeing that none of the large organizations are dismissing blockchain; they consider it relevant. Seven years ago, this was limited to nerds and ‘bearded men’, but these days, even the ‘smart suits’ are joining the party. It is obvious that the Dutch government wants to do something with blockchain, but is still struggling with the technical know-how and legislation. It is very important for blockchain to be given the freedom to develop that was also afforded the Internet at the time.

The developments in blockchain are moving so fast now that I can barely keep up. I don’t really have the time anymore to play ‘Bitcoin King of the Tweakers’. We are working hard on NestEgg because we believe there is a need for change in our pension system. People want insight into their money and data, and to be able to determine what happens with them. Once again, ‘power to the people’.”

Author: Catharina Burgman. Translation: Allison Klein