From blockchain obsession to start-up Saga: Matthew Neary is a pioneer in education and organizational forms

From blockchain obsession to start-up Saga: Matthew Neary is a pioneer in education and organizational forms

Since “people eager to learn shouldn’t be limited by their wallets”, Matthew Neary and Eric Boby aim to launch a new peer-to-peer educational platform with their company Saga that will change this. This platform allows tech experts to offer offline classes in their own city, at times that are convenient for them. The icing on the cake for those taking the classes: in the future, it should be possible to pay for the knowledge gained after the fact.

Blockchain startup pioneer knowledge development
Education model

His blue eyes peering out from behind glasses, Neary sports tousled dark-blond curls and stubble. Wearing jeans and a khaki T-shirt under an unbuttoned striped shirt, he relaxes on a bench in the sun. He hasn’t really been able to take advantage of the lovely Indian summer that suddenly arrived in the Netherlands; his one free evening had been reserved for work. Developing Saga, the platform designed to make tech-knowledge-sharing accessible for everyone, takes time. He recently had an “aha-moment”; he discovered that using Bubble could make basic functionalities quickly available for Saga. This was a great time-saver for Neary and Saga co-founder Eric Boby, who, apart from innovative challenges, are also having to spend a lot of time on the considerably less exciting matters all entrepreneurs just starting out face, such as filling in “an awful lot of forms”.

A few years ago, the now 25-year-old Matthew Neary could never have imagined that he would become an entrepreneur. Born in New Zealand but with Dutch roots on his mother’s side (“Unfortunately, I don’t speak Dutch,” he says), he worked for a media organization in London specialized in sports. This was a logical choice for someone with a bachelor’s degree in television communications. While in the British capital, Neary focused “increasingly on political and social issues and the fight against climate change”. In early 2016, he moved to Maastricht to get a second bachelor’s degree, but left the program this year after becoming “completely obsessed” by the opportunities blockchain technology offers. After brainstorming on potential applications, the link with education ultimately appeared to be the most appealing. It wasn’t “about becoming a start-up, but about coming up with a new education model.” An aspect Neary admits he initially wasn’t working on, the business side got kicked into overdrive after he met a few people at Techruption.

“It was about coming up with a new education model.”

Crowd investment

Initially going by the name Seed, Saga has grown to become an online meeting place where tech experts (“educators”) can offer classes offline in their own environment. Even though these educators do not have to be education professionals, they do have to have specific knowledge. In the future, blockchain technology must ensure that experts can assign badges to the students (“learners”) for the classes they have taken and the skills they have acquired. The learners in turn provide feedback, which helps establish the expert’s reputation and registers it in the blockchain. The better the feedback, the higher the expert’s ranking, and the more prestigious a badge he or she assigns becomes. The classes are paid for in advance. This is the plan for the time being at any rate; the future plans are ambitious. Neary and Boby are actually looking to raise funds through crowd investment as an option for people who are interested in the classes, yet cannot afford to participate just yet. After all, anyone who is interested in learning should not have to be prevented from doing so by the contents of their wallets; this is the idea behind the plan. “The Saga community is all about investing in one another.” Educators invest time in learners and if the future vision becomes reality, they will be rewarded (in part) for their efforts later on. Learners pay educators by contributing a percentage of their income. This “moment” must be subject to a time limit, Neary emphasizes.

It is a truly philosophical discussion, the idea that the reputation (and rewards) of a Saga educator will be determined in the future by the incomes of the learners, Neary laughs. He refers to the “Difference Principle” of the political philosopher John Rawls who asserted that social and economic inequality may only be justified if it benefits the welfare of the least fortunate in society. Applying this to Saga, the idea is that high-quality classes given by inspiring people must result in unique and better résumés for the learners who can thereby expand their opportunities on the job market and improve their positive economic prospects. Gathering the required knowledge is not hindered by a lack of financial resources and learners can then share their own expertise at a later stage. Ultimately, all of this must benefit society and by extension, every individual who is a part of this society. According to the young entrepreneur, blockchain technology offers opportunities to measure the impact this has between individuals themselves, and between individuals and society and the world. Neary uses environmental concerns as an example. “The reason we do not have an effective approach to this is because the link between our behavior and the effect this has on the environment is not directly visible. This becomes a different story when you see how every Euro you spend leads to more oil production and deforestation. Blockchain technology makes it possible to set up a system that links expenditures that are harmful to the environment to financial and other consequences and vice versa. This offers new perspectives.”

“Disrupting the hierarchy”

A new version of Saga is in the making on the Seed website, the objective of which is stated as being “to create an omnipresent public infrastructure for education in the 21st century. Once the network is in place, its supervision will be turned over to the community.” It is an idealistic concept that is fitting when one considers the origin of blockchain technology. Matthew Neary does not have an answer yet to the question of how exactly this will take shape, and there is no earnings model yet for this Saga phase. “It involves pioneering in education, and later perhaps in terms of new organizational forms.” This shouldn’t be a surprise coming from someone who describes himself on social media as “just another fed-up millennial with a world to save.” Anyone looking at co-pioneer Boby’s LinkedIn profile will discover that he looks forward to “disrupting the hierarchy and power structures of today’s institutions: for the people by the people.” We have not reached that point yet, however. Over the coming months, the challenges will involve finding a blockchain programmer and ensuring that a sufficient number of high-quality classes are offered. Everything must be done step-by-step, or in this case, block-by-block.

Author: Gwen Teo