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Psychedelics: the next big thing?

I am always looking for the next big thing. Sometimes I am way too early, but by spending time on it before others do so I have been able to start ‘first-to-market’ companies and/or make very interesting investment returns over the years. For example podcasting (I was looking at this in the summer of 2004 already and it gave me the initial idea for Tudou.com, what turned into the first online video company), e-books (I used e-ink readers before Amazon even launched the Kindle), and of course Bitcoin and blockchain technology.

For a couple of months I have been looking at a completely new category, psychedelics. These are a kind of psychoactive drugs that can change your perception of the world, your mood or your creative abilities. You don’t get addicted to them and often one or two treatments can have life changing effects.

My interest in psychedelics started after reading Michael Pollan’s book “How To Change Your Mind”. It describes his journey to learn more about the history of psychedelics and the current status of these hallucinogens. Michael Pollan also tried several psychedelics himself and described the effect they had on him. The book opened my mind: I now understand why psychedelics can make a the world a better place for many people and that despite what governments tend to make us believe, they are not dangerous at all. I see them as a kind of medicine, but one that big pharma does not like because it will eat into its margins.

Some of the more well know psychedelics are LSD, psilocybin (‘magic mushrooms’), ketamine and MDMA. When administered in clinical settings they can have profound effects on people. Michael Pollan’s book gives numerous examples, such as terminal cancer patients suddenly feeling at ease with the fact that they will die (one of them called himself the happiest person in the world a few days after his session). He also describes a study in which 80% of people who tried to quit smoking successfully stopped after just one session, and he gives examples of many people with severe depression or anxiety who managed to live a normal happy life again after a psychedelics treatment. The big difference with traditional pharma is that normally one or two sessions with a relatively large dose are enough to get this result, instead of taking pills on a daily basis for a long period of time. Another way of taking these drugs is by micro dosing them, meaning you take a very small amount that does not make you high but that lets you focus more or makes you more creative.

Many clinical trials for several kinds of psychedelics are happening at the moment and showing promising results. In Canada some psychedelics are legal already when administered in a clinical setting. In the USA the FDA has called psilocybin a breakthrough therapy last year for severe depression, which will help speed up the process of approving this psychedelic. Because of this I believe we will observe a come-back of psychedelics in the near future (many of them were legal until the late 1960s).

Based on these developments I see a very bright future for psychedelics in a clinical setting or by micro dosing them. I am not sure yet about the effect on the recreational use of psychedelics, but my assumption is that it will follow the same path as cannabis (CBD and THC). Therefore I started looking at which companies are operating in the sector and I teamed up with my regular business partner Sean Clark and with Ben Samaroo (who was also involved in several of my other ventures). We decided to set up a small venture capital fund (Synaptic Ventures) earlier this year and started investing in the best private companies in the space.

We strongly believe the Canadian capital markets are open to good private companies in the psychedelics field, so we try to find the best ones and invest in them before they go public. We looked at many different companies over the past months and found some real gems, but (as usual in fast growing sectors) also some real pump and dumps. We try to stay away from the lower quality companies and so far invested in five companies that we believe have great founders and good business strategies, and that most likely will do well. It seems we made some good decisions (or maybe it was just luck), because two of these companies will go public over the next couple of weeks and a third one will likely be taken over by another psychedelics company.

If you are interested in this space and learning more about our venture fund feel free to get in touch with me. If you come across companies that you believe have good potential feel free to reach out as well. Our investment focus is on private companies in North America that are interested to go public, but we also recently started looking at some companies in Europe and Australia.

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The world after COVID-19

While the fight against the virus is far from over, my thinking over the past days has been mainly focused on what the world after COVID-19 will look like. Although it’s certainly not guaranteed, my assumption is that we will eventually find a vaccine that will work for most people, but that until then we can’t go back to normal. That will be a period of constant testing, wearing face masks while outdoors, social distancing and likely more temporary lock downs.

But even after we have a vaccine the world will be a very different one from just 3 months ago. In this post I will focus on things that are visible to everyone. I won’t go into issues such as less globalization and onshoring (disrupted supply chain issues, higher prices for many products), the possible collapse of the financial system (because of unlimited printing of money), or the effects on the real estate market.

Work and education
One thing that has become clear over the past couple of weeks is that many jobs can be performed from home. You don’t necessarily need to drive to an office anymore to do all your work, many things you can also do from a remote location. My feeling is that this will have a big impact on the world after COVID-19: rent is expensive in many locations, so there is a real incentive for companies to start looking at letting people work 2-3 days a week from home. Some jobs may only require people to come in once every 1-2 weeks for a few hours. This means that office space requirements will be a lot less than before 2020. The result: a lot of empty office space that can be used for other purposes. But also the demand for more dedicated spaces at home to work and to take video meetings from. As a positive side effect, I think dress codes will be more relaxed as well. Ties already disappeared almost everywhere, but after working from home for many weeks the next thing to go will be the suit. I have been wearing jeans and a jacket for years at work, that might be the new normal as well (the sweatpants will hopefully remain at home).

The same is true for education. Within a few weeks all schools and universities had to change to a completely online curriculum. And surprisingly most of them managed! Sure, the solutions are not perfect, but it suddenly becomes clear that there may be different methods than teaching 20-30 students in a class room with a dedicated teacher, or teaching hundreds of students in a university auditorium. I believe new schools will be developed that rely less on in-person interaction, and more on distance learning with very good teachers and with the help of AI and (eventually) virtual reality. Traditional schools won’t disappear, but I believe that the majority of the classes can be taught in a different, more scalable way.

For example, an extremely good teacher can develop an online course for several schools and have 1-2 hours per week per school to meet with the students in a group setting or for one-on-one meetings. She can work with (less qualified) teaching assistants who can help students with questions and who can do the examinations. Schools can save a lot of money on teachers, students only get taught by the best teachers, and schools may actually need less physical real estate because students can do most of the courses from home. Something similar will be the case for universities, where you can literally enroll in a course with the best professors in your field. This will take time to develop, but I believe it will be unstoppable now that educational institutions have seen that online education can replace in-person teaching.

Entertainment
A sector that has been hit very hard by the virus is the entertainment sector: restaurants, bars, cinemas, sports facilities, and concert halls. What they have in common is that they are currently all closed and therefore most of them may be bankrupt before we have found a vaccine for the virus. That means that even if we can go back to a new normal, most of your favourite hangouts may not be there anymore. Some may start over again with different owners, but because of social distancing they can’t fully operate until a vaccine has been found or until most people have antibodies.

Restaurants will likely have less tables and these tables will be further away from the others. There might be limits to the number of diners, which will make dining a less intimate affair. Waiters may not come to the table anymore to take your order and food will be put close to, but not on, the table. Likely the delivery of meals will remain an important part of their future business. Bars will possibly have to ask patrons to keep a distance from others, which makes it unlikely that many people would want to go there anymore. Cinemas might not sell all chairs, but leave empty chairs between customers, which will make the business unprofitable. So they need to come up with new business models in order to stay alive. Maybe we’ll see more private screenings or even screening of movies at home that are still in the cinemas, for much higher prices (maybe people might pay a few hundred dollars to watch the latest James Bond in the first week after its release at home). And the good old drive-in cinemas might see a come back because of COVID-19.

Sports events with live audiences will likely not be back until we will have a vaccine. Large groups of people are the perfect breeding ground for the virus. So either sports competitions will have to be stopped for a year or they will be played without public. Formula One is already more of a TV sport than one to watch live, but the same may happen to other sports as well. This might mean that all players in a league would have to stay quarantined during the whole season, simply because one player could infect not only his own team but also other teams.

Shopping
Going shopping in a mall may be a thing of the past. Some will still be there, but many will lose a large number of their tenants during the lockdown. Even after the quarantine phase is over most people won’t have as much to spend as before, so they will not buy new shoes, clothes, or electronics, leading to the closure of even more shops. Maybe flagship stores will remain, places where you can see the products before ordering them online.

I believe people will continue to shop online, also after the virus has been contained. It’s just so much easier: I had never ordered groceries online before the virus hit, but after just a few week I already prefer it over going to a supermarket. Amazon is not able to handle all its orders right now, but in the world of shopping they will be the big winner of the virus.

Travel (business and pleasure)
I used to travel a lot and although I cut down travel by at least 50% last year (partly because of climate change), I am now for the first time in 25 years experiencing a business life without air travel. I have not taken any flights yet this year and I actually like it. No more wasting time in airports or on delayed flights, and especially no more constant jet lags. Zoom has replaced all of my in-person meetings and it works surprisingly well. I think a lot of companies will realize that you can get a lot of business done through online tools as well, so I believe business travel will not be the same anymore. The same is true for conferences, many are more a perk to keep employees happy than a place where you learn something new. Of course it’s good to meet people face to face, but seeing the same people at every conference (as was the case in the Bitcoin world) does not add much value either. So I believe that even after COVID-19 there may be less conferences and many of them will be at least partially virtual.

Tourism will change even more in my opinion. Until there is a vaccine I think we may see either 14-day quarantines after every international flight or there will be COVID-19 tests both before boarding and after landing. People with antibodies may be able to travel more freely, but for now that will be a very small minority of the people. Just for that reason, I believe international recreational travel as we know it won’t be back for until the summer of 2022. I think the era of cheap tickets and package deals me be over as well: many low cost airlines will likely not survive the current lock down and the period until there will be a vaccine. So there will be less competition, the national airlines (saved by governments) will suddenly have many of the tourist routes to themselves and they will not offer $99 flights anymore. I think even the regular flight tickets will be a lot higher, partly because airlines that are saved by governments might have to pay loans back so they have to be more profitable, and partly because there is simply less competition. Because demand will be down (there will be a lot less people that have money available for international holidays) I believe there will be a lot less flights as well. No longer will there be 10+ flights per day from Vancouver to China but maybe just 2 or 3. I think that’s a good thing and I hope this might help to solve the climate crisis as well.

Unemployment
The biggest effect of COVID-19 will be that many companies will not be able to survive the crisis. In many countries 20-30% of the working population may be unemployed a few months from now. That is unprecedented, at least in our lifetimes. I believe people are completely underestimating these numbers and their consequences. I am very worried about social unrest, especially in countries without good social security. I have been a big fan of Universal Basic Income, maybe this is the time that governments will finally give it a try. My view on this is that if they do start with UBI it won’t go away anymore.

Because so many people are laid off, many will not be able to pay their mortgage or other debts and will have a hard time surviving. They will only buy products they really need (mainly food), but won’t be spending anything on other products. No more new cars, no more holidays, no more new iPhones, but also no more nights out in bars or restaurants once they reopen. The indirect effects of this will be huge and will likely lead to a lot more bankruptcies and additional unemployment. I think we may not just see a recession but a real depression, similar to what happened in the 1930s. People will be forced to sell their boats, their second houses or even their cars just to survive, so there will be some real bargains for people with access to cash.

The new normal: better or worse?
The new normal won’t be as normal as some politicians make you believe. I think we will be facing a very different but also very difficult future. Most people will get through it and there will be many new opportunities, but it will get harder before it gets easier. Hopefully some good things will come from this as well. For example, after spending more time at home people may realize that spending time with family is more important than just work. Community and helping each other may suddenly become more important as well. Maybe it could even be the first step to realize that climate change is real and that we can fight it if we completely change our lifestyles. At least we now know that it is possible to change our consumption patterns, even if just for a short period of time. I am not optimistic about the next 12 months, but I do believe that as a society it could be a wake up call to change our lives.

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Scam alert: Fake First Block Capital website and fake job offers

Last week we received an email from someone checking if a job offer he received from us for a remote job position was real. We found it a bit strange because we are not hiring for remote positions and we don’t even have any open positions. Then shortly after that we received another one, this time with a full contract signed by someone not working for First Block Capital and with a company chop (Canadian companies normally don’t use company chops, this is typical Chinese).

We then looked a bit closer at the email address the job offer had been sent from and it turned out that they had bought the domain firstblocks(dot)capital – I am not going to link to it here, I don’t want Google to index it higher than it should be – instead of firstblock.capital. They had copied our complete website and it seemed they are now recruiting fake staff.

Among others the recruited staff have to provide copies of their IDs and and address proofs, so likely they are just trying to steal people’s identities.

First Block Capital only hires people after in-person interviews in our office and we do not offer any remote positions (at least not a position where you will work remote from day one onwards). So if you receive such an offer this is not from us. Please check the email and the website, if they are from First Blocks Capital that is not us.

We put a notice on the contact page of our website, so we hope people will see it if they do some research on the company that hires them. The reason I write this post is also so that people will hopefully Google their job offer and find this article.

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Is this the beginning of a global financial meltdown?

Three weeks ago I wrote a post titled ‘The Perfect Storm’, about why I am extremely bullish about Bitcoin. Since then the Bitcoin price has been very volatile and it’s down about 10 percent since I wrote the piece, but I still stand 100% behind my message that Bitcoin is ready to break out. This post is related, although it’s less about Bitcoin and more about the more traditional financial markets: I think we are at the beginning of a global financial meltdown.

Since I wrote my last blog post the Coronavirus turned from a local epidemic into a global pandemic. It is now spreading all over the world and many countries seem to be failing to contain it. It will have a huge economic impact and I believe this has not yet been priced in, simply because markets underestimate the global effects. One of the biggest economies in the world has come to a virtual stand still and this has been the case for over a month already. People in China are slowing going back to work, but it can take months before the country is back to it its pre-January levels. That means products and parts are not shipping, and factories all over the world can’t deliver their products on time.

Now the same is happening in other countries as well: South Korea and Japan are leading the pack by closing schools and factories, Iran’s leadership seems to be infected (10% has the virus already), and now Europe will be the next victim. In N-America Seattle could be the next Wuhan, simply because the government neglected to contain the virus in time and they are still not doing much. Don’t be surprised if in a few weeks the whole US economy comes to a stand still as well.

The day before I wrote my last blog post the Dow reached an all time high of 29,551 points. Since then there has been huge volatility and the index is now down about 12%. This may seem like a lot, but it’s not: the index first reached this level in January 2018, so basically 2 years worth of returns have been wiped out. What’s happening now because of the Coronavirus is just the tip of the iceberg.

From the outside it may look like things are fine, but when you look under the hood you will realize we are in for some major trouble. First of all, the FED tried to stop the fall in stock prices by doing a 50 bp rate cut. That is a major event that only happened a few times during the past 20 years (among others after 9/11 and during the 2008 financial crisis). There are some differences though: because interest rates are so low now, a 50 bp rate cut basically means cutting interest rate levels by 30%. That is huge. But worse, this time the 50 bp cut had no effect at all! The markets kept on falling after the rate cut. Huge overnight repo operations (basically printing $100 billion or more per day) also did not help anymore. I believe the FED is helpless unless it will start printing even more money (which could lead to hyperinflation) and that means the markets will be on their own. Likely interest rates will go to zero and we’ll probably even see negative interest rates, but it won’t help. It’s too little too late.

With powerless Central Banks equity markets will start falling heavily. In 1987 the market dropped 23% on Black Monday. If that would happen now it means the Dow would close below 20,000 points. I think it will happen, but it may take a few weeks to get there. Most people simply don’t seem to grasp the effects of the virus and what the secondary effects will be. If this becomes a depression you could see the Dow in 15,000 territory and possibly even lower. Maybe that’s good, because the markets were in a huge bubble caused by quantitative easing, but keep in mind it might wipe out most of the pensions of baby boomers. You don’t want to imagine the effect of that…

Most of the bubble in stock markets was caused by companies buying back their own shares. Because money was incredibly cheap they issued tons of debt (bonds) and used that to buy back their shares, causing their share price to go up. Because of stock options managers were strongly  incentivized to do this (their stock options go up in value when the share price goes up), instead of investing the money in the business.

The money mainly came from pension funds that lent it to corporates. So what will happen now? When the economy gets into a downward spiral these companies will be less profitable or even start to lose money. That means they won’t be able to borrow anymore or it will be more expensive for them to borrow. So they will be forced to stop buying their own stock, meaning that share prices will start falling. They may even have to sell their own stock again in order to pay back their debt, which means stock prices will go down even more. At that point baby boomers will likely start selling as well: their retirement is for a large part in equity so if markets go down 20-30% they might start to panic.

We are pretty close to that in my opinion. Unless the money printing press goes into overdrive there just won’t be buyers anymore and that’s when things really get scary. Pension funds are much more diversified than many individual investors, but their equity investments will also be hit hard and they may not be able to fulfill their financial obligations. It gets even worse, because a lot of baby boomers are now at their retirement age, so pension funds will be net sellers to pay for their pensions. Without corporates buying share prices might drop even more. Some pension funds may actually blow up because of this.

It’s not a coincidence that over the past weeks a lot of corporate CEOs resigned, January 2020 actually set a record for the most CEO departing their jobs in the US. They saw this coming and did not want to end their careers with their companies in big trouble. It’s almost a perfect storm and unless the Coronavirus would be contained there is no real way out anymore.

The best way to play this is in my opinion to get out of equity if you are still in there and switch to cash, bonds, gold and bitcoin. Although gold and bitcoin both did not show a lot of strength when the markets started crashing, I believe both are great stores of value during a recession or even a depression. Cash is good so you can get back into the equity markets at much lower valuations. Of course shorting the market is a great idea as well, but because of volatility it’s a lot more expensive than a few weeks ago. Because markets may go down for a longer period of time you would need expiration dates that are at least 6-8 weeks from now (and possible much longer).

We will be in for a wild ride with many people losing their jobs, their investments, and even their pensions. It could change society completely, and not for the better. Just like most people in North America the markets still don’t see how bad the situation is, so at least there might still be time to position yourself well. Be prepared for the worst. Good luck.

Disclaimer: this is my personal opinion and not meant as investment advice.

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The Perfect Storm: Why Bitcoin at $10,000 in 2020 is different from Bitcoin at $10,000 in 2017

Tonight I was walking along the Vancouver Sea Wall, something I do regularly these days. Just walking at a fast face (6-7 km/h) while watching the sea, the boats, the waves, and the occasional seal popping up, but mainly thinking through new ideas. I was feeling a bit anxious, which is unusual for me, so I tried to figure out why I was feeling that way. Suddenly I realized it is because of Bitcoin, not because of its recent performance (BTC is up 45% over the past 6 weeks) but because I realized we are finally at the point where Bitcoin is ready to break out. Let me explain.

Last Friday (6 days ago since I am writing this) Bitcoin broke through $10,000, an important psychological barrier for many investors. I was at a dinner party with friends while watching the Bitcoin price. During the beginning of the dinner I was more focused on the price than on the conversations (my bad…) and I actually managed to screen shot the exact moment when Bitcoin hit $10,000.

Of course the topic changed to Bitcoin right away (most of the people had some exposure to Bitcoin already) and I explained why this was an important moment for crypto. Not because Bitcoin would never go below $10K again (it actually dipped to $9850 a few days later), but because this was the first time that Bitcoin traded over $10K while I felt it was priced correctly. Breaking through $10K at the current fundamentals and at high volumes means $20K this year is suddenly very likely and my predictions of at least $100-200K per Bitcoin in a few years seem more and more likely.

During the past days I was more focused on non-crypto investments and new business ventures so I did not really take the time to put my thoughts on this together. But while walking I realized my mind had already done the work for me. So I am just going to type my thoughts into a blog post.

In 2017 BTC went up to an all time high of almost $20,000, but what people forget is that the ‘race’ from $10,000 to $20,000 lasted for just over a week and $14,000 to $20,000 happened in just 2 days. Hardly anybody bought or sold above the current price, meaning that today’s price of $10,000+ is actually quite similar to an all time high.

I remember that on December 6, 2017 we were on a Hut 8 road show on Wall Street and that we could not believe what was happening to Bitcoin when we checked our phones during investor presentations. Late afternoon after our presentations were finished, Mike Novogratz invited us to fly back to Toronto on his private jet and during the flight we mainly kept on checking our phones instead of enjoying the food and drinks. I think we hit $16,000 while in the air and I have to give it to Mike that he called the top at that point. He said it was time to start taking profits, something I was not so sure about yet at that point.

The next day I was speaking at a GMP conference in Toronto and I was literally checking the price while I was on stage (and announcing to the audience that the price had gone up a $1000 to $18,0000 while I still on stage). Looking back I should have realized it was crazy and could not continue like this. It was indeed not sustainable and not long after that the Bitcoin price started to crash hard.

Today is very different though. 2017 was mainly a retail investor market, but most of these investors have left the market since. They did not really understand what they were investing in so they either sold at a loss or totally forgot about their investment. 2020 is different, I feel the current bull market is led by institutions and family offices. Well-informed investors that invest because they see Bitcoin as a potential store of value in volatile times. They were not in the market in late 2017 because they were either not allowed to be in it yet (e.g. there were no approved custodians) or because they did not know how to invest in Bitcoin. We have come a long way since then, but it’s still not easy to buy and hold Bitoin (one reason why we are very far from a new top). The narrative has changed though and many people start to see Bitcoin as a real new asset class.

One important factor is that there is finally a model to value Bitcoin. When Sean and I did a roadshow all over Canada for the FBC Bitcoin Trust in September 2017 we always made the comparison to Gold, explaining that if Bitcoin would just become a store of value and its market cap would be just be 10% of Gold, the price would be $50,000-60,000 (this is based on today’s BTC market cap of below $200B, while Gold is worth over $8 Trillion). I also explained the value of Bitcoin as a potential currency, and the value of the Bitcoin blockchain as the most secure database on earth, that would make Bitcoin even more valuable, but most people did not understand it. They wanted to see a model.

And now there is one, the stock to flow model, developed by fellow Dutchman Plan B (who wants to remain anonymous). The model is based on scarcity of Bitcoin and it can be used to calculate future Bitcoin prices. So far it hold up very well and it predicts a Bitcoin price of at least $50,000 next year and possibly up to $100,000. From there it keeps on going up to $1 million by 2028-29. Wishful thinking? Maybe, but 7 years ago Bitcoin was a factor 100 lower than now, so it could easily go up another factor 100 in the next 7 years. Many people have been trying to falsify the model, but so far nobody has managed, which is a very strong signal for me.

The title of this post is The Perfect Storm because I believe the world is heading into the wrong direction at the same time that Bitcoin is becoming more prominent. First of all because of the Coronavirus (another topic I should write about soon). In 2017 it was not clear what BTC was going to be: a currency, a store of value or something else. Right now BTC has shown a couple of times that it seems to be mainly a store of value (it still might have other functions in the future as well). The Coronavirus might be the catalyst for a new crisis.

China has literally come to a complete stand still. People can’t leave their homes (or don’t want to, even if they can), most stores and restaurants are closed and the retail economy has come to a stand still. But even more important, factories are closed and will remain closed for the foreseeable future. This means that supply chains all over the world will be disrupted soon. Even if your product only has one small part sourced from China you won’t be able to build your product. People in North America and Europe don’t see the effects yet and it’s actually hard to believe for me that it’s still business as usual here. But I believe that will change fast and it may be the Black Swan event that will lead to a major stock market crash. When that happens it could lead people to invest in Bitcoin as a safe haven, meaning a potential huge spike in the Bitcoin price.

Even if the Coronavirus won’t be as bad as I think it is, we still have the problem that many countries have so much debt that they will never be able to repay it. Whatever you call it or whatever it is, quantitative easing, repo short-term lending or simply printing money, the effects are all the same. This is not sustainable. The powers that be want the current state to last as long as possible, because they make tons of money. But it won’t last. The corona virus could be the nail in the coffin that will lead the financial markets to collapse. But even if it is not, something else will happen soon that will push Bitcoin as a safe have investment.

In 2017 the crypto bull market was led by retail investors, but not many are still in the market. However, they are quickly coming back. I can see it on Twitter where I suddenly have a lot more Bitcoin conversations than just a few weeks ago. I can see it in the altcoin markets, where coins that in my opinion have zero value suddenly go up with double digit percentages. And the emails start coming in again from people that want to buy large amounts of BTC. Something is happening, I can feel it. And I guess that’s where my anxiousness came from. I want to be behind my laptop knowing what is happening in the markets and being part of it. But walking the Seawall is probably more healthy and a better use of my time for an hour per day.

During Bitcoin’s past 7 years I have only felt twice like this. Once in October 2013 when I was a partner in a venture capital fund and I literally had no interest in looking at new companies simply because I believed putting money into BTC would lead to much better returns (too bad I did not follow my gut feeling, this was when Bitcoin just broke through $100, two months later it hit $1000). The next time was in early 2017 when Bitcoin started its new bull run from $1000 to almost $20,000 and I felt BTC was finally more or less de-risked.

Now it’s February 2020, Bitcoin trades at just over $10,000 and it seems stronger than ever. The mining reward halving is coming up (which cuts supply by 50%, meaning a potential doubling of the BTC price), governments seem to be okay with Bitcoin and Bitcoin mining, and the Stock to Flow model predicts a 5-10X price increase before the end of 2021. The financial markets are at unsustainable all-time highs, a virus is threatening the world, and climate change is slowing but surely making the world a much worse place to live. It seems like a perfect storm to me and it may be time for Bitcoin to make its next big move.

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I survived a three-day water fast

I am in the home stretch of a 3-day water fast, I stopped eating 68 hours ago (I only have 4 hours to go!) and did not have any food since then. I stayed hydrated by drinking 3-4 liters of water per day and only had one black coffee every day (zero calories). Was it easy? No, but it was a very good experience.

I have been doing intermittent fasting (IF) on and off for years and it starts to feel normal to me. I now generally eat all my food within a 6-8 hour window every day, meaning I only consume calories between 12:30 pm and 7:30 pm pm the next day. Sometimes I even only eat between 6-8 pm, but I also have regular cheat days (mainly on weekends and holidays, or when traveling) where I eat a light breakfast and when I drink a few glasses of wine at night.

I feel great doing it and I can now easily run 15 km in the morning without eating anything first. The main reason I started intermittent fasting is because it’s healthy and it has been neglected too long. Big pharma wants to sell you medicine to heal you, instead of making sure you don’t get sick in the first place. I did tons of research before doing my first experiments with time restricted eating, and I found that not having 3 meals a day can actually improve your health significantly. Evolutionary, 3 meals a day certainly was not the standard, so it’s not surprising that our bodies are not fully adjusted to our new nutritional standards.

For example, fasting for 16-18 hours per day significantly reduces your blood sugar levels, especially when you combine it with exercise. By lowering your insulin resistance you decrease your risk of getting diabetes, which is more and more important with our regular sugar, carb and highly processed food filled diets. IF may actually reverse Type 2 Diabetes. It also reduces inflammation in the body, which is very important given that many diseases (including some cancers) are caused by chronic inflammation.

For me IF works well, it’s an easy diet to follow and it actually makes you more aware of the foods that you eat. I don’t mindlessly snack anymore on days that I follow IF and I appreciate my first meal of the day a lot more than I used to. Drinking tea or coffee in the morning actually tastes a lot better when you are fasting than when you had food already.

Because I read so much about health and nutrition I often came across water fasts. To be honest, I dismissed these fasting diets for a long time. I do not go on a diet to lose weight and I always assumed that that was the main reason people did them. It turns out that’s not correct, although weight loss certainly plays a role (I lost 2 kg in the past 2 days simply because I didn’t consume any calories) the main reason to do multi-day water fast is to reset your immune system and to put your body into autophagy.

What does that mean? Basically, when your body does not get any nutrition it starts to clean out damaged cells, in order to regenerate newer, healthier cells. It also puts your body into deep ketosis (the state that you are in when you don’t eat any carbs for an extended period of time), so it starts to burn its own fat. Your glucose levels go down rapidly and after about 72 hours all the glucose stored in your body has been consumed. A 3-day (or longer) water fast basically resets your immune system. Studies have shown that cancer patients who do a 3-day water fast before chemotherapy reported a higher tolerance to chemotherapy, fewer chemotherapy-related side effects, and higher energy levels. This is a significant finding that convinced me that water fasts may be hard to do, but that the long term gains are so important that they are worth the short term pain.

Autophagy may actually prevent cancers by destroying the cells before they can grow and spread. Even though I am quite healthy (knock wood, praise Murphy) I want to stay that way as well, and preventive medicine is very important to me. Three day fasting also activates stem cells of the immune system to renew and repair themselves. It not only reduces damage to cells, it also replenishes white blood cells and replaces damaged ones. All in all sufficient reason for me to give this a try.

On Tuesday this week (it’s Friday when I am writing this) I had a regular intermittent fasting day. I had a light lunch followed by a small dinner (salmon and asparagus, no carbs), and after that I decided to stop eating until the weekend would start. The first evening was easy of course, because I normally don’t eat or drink much at night. The next morning was business as usual as well, because I normally don’t eat breakfast. Around 3 pm I started to feel a bit hungry however, so I decided to go for a 30 minute run. That went well and my hunger was gone. I had a slight headache though so I decided to have one cup of coffee and that did the trick. Although I drink a lot of coffee, I normally can go without caffeine for a day or 2 without any problems, but in combination with long fasting I think my body was craving for coffee.

At night I only drank water and I was worried that I would get so hungry that I would not be able to sleep. But that was not the case. Of course I did feel hungry, but I was more tired than usual (likely because I did not eat). So when I went to bed I did not even read for 30-60 minutes like I usually do but fell asleep almost right away. The next morning I woke up full of energy. I had a great, deep sleep, much better than usual. It was full of dreams, more than usual I feel. And I did not wake up once during the night, which surprised me (I tend to wake up at least once or twice every night and then stay awake for a while).

Because of a blizzard I had to clean both my boat and my driveway, which kept me busy during most of the morning. After that I worked for a couple of hours and I felt I could concentrate much better than before. I did not really feel hungry anymore, but I started to miss eating. I was thinking about food literally all the time, something I never really do. I noticed food when reading a book or when watching TV and I felt a bit jealous that other people could eat but I could not.

Then around 5 pm my energy was suddenly completely gone, I literally had to sit down. I had planned to go for a run, but I realized I could not do it. For a minute I thought I should just push through and get on the treadmill (too much snow to run outside) but because this is my first 3-day fast I wasn’t sure what would happen. I actually felt a bit dizzy and did not want to pass out on the treadmill. So I put myself in front of the fire place with a great book (How To Change Your Mind, What the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression and transcendence by Micheal Pollan) and a litre of carbonated water. That helped a bit, but I felt tired for the rest of the night. I did not feel hungry though although sometimes I had a short (1 minute) craving for food. I watched a show on Netflix in bed but was too tired to really enjoy it and fell asleep quickly.

I again had a pretty good sleep. I woke up once but instead of thinking about work or other things, I could easily relax and fell asleep right away again. But in the morning I realized I still had no energy. I could hardly get myself out of bed. I also felt cold, something that had started the day before already when I suddenly had very cold feet. But because it was the last day of the fast I did not care too much. I did some emails and realized I could not concentrate as well as I usually can. I then decided to study Chinese characters for an hour, but I gave up after 10 minutes. I was not able to focus on it and I seemed to forget characters that I would have remembered in a normal situation.

So around lunch time I decided to just write a blog post about my experiences – and that’s what I am doing now. I still have a few hours to go before I can slowly start eating again and my plan was to just spend those hours with a book in front of the fireplace. However, while writing this post I start to feel my energy coming back. It’s a strange experience, as if my body is coming out of a deep sleep and all of a sudden it is awake. I read that in 7-day fasts (which you should not do without medical supervision), day 4-6 are generally much easier than the first 3 days, so maybe I am getting into that stage right now.

Although I am not hungry at all anymore I still look forward to eating something again later. I actually brush my teeth a few times per day just to feel toothpaste in my mouth. I will likely start with a light chicken broth, a salad and maybe an egg. If my stomach can handle that I plan to grill a steak and some veggies later at night. If I feel well tomorrow morning I plan a light breakfast (no intermittent fasting for me for the next couple of days), maybe a quick lunch (I have a 4 hour meeting Saturday afternoon) and then a dinner party with friends tomorrow night.

Generally I feel happy that I did this experiment. It’s interesting to get to know your body better. And it’s great to know that if needed I can quite easily go without food for a while (I hope I never need it though!). I have to say that it was harder than I had expected. Because of IF I knew I can easily set aside thoughts of food, but I had not expected to hit a wall after 48 hours of fasting. Maybe my glucose ran out by then already and I started to be in full ketosis? I guess I should have measured it, but it’s too late now. I do know that my current ketone level is 8 mmo/l, which is MUCH higher than most people who are in full ketosis (they are between 1.5 and 3 mmo/l).

Will I do this again? Yes, I probably will. I like a bit of a challenge and this is a relatively easy one (a full marathon is much harder). But because I had no energy left over the past 24 hours I am thinking of doing a 5-day fasting mimicking diet first. It should lead to similar results, but because you still eat about 700 calories a day you will likely feel a lot more energized. If I do so I will write another blog about it.

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Disrupting education

Earlier this year I received the International Honoree Award from Beta Gamma Sigma, the academic honor society for the best students at top business schools all over the world. According to Beta Gamma Sigma I received the award “in recognition of advancing the ideas of our Society through outstanding business and managerial leadership”. I was really happy with this, and even more so after I saw others who had won this award over the last years: among others the CEO of Xerox, the CEO of KPMG, and even the President and CEO of Proctor & Gamble.

As part of the award ceremony I was invited to give a keynote speech at the AACSB Annual Meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland. At that meeting deans of accredited business schools from all over the world were discussing the topic of “challenging your core foundations”. I was asked to discuss in my keynote the topic of challenging your core foundations as well. So when preparing for it I thought it might be interesting to use my entrepreneurial experience and tell them what I would do if I would start a business school from scratch.

The best way get an audience of up to 1500 business school deans to listen is to shock them a bit. So I told them that I believe the current business school model is outdated and ready for some serious disruption. Especially in the US the cost of an MBA is extremely high and potential big profits attract new incumbents. MBA schools would have to challenge their core foundations in order to stay relevant in a world that is changing very fast.

My ideas were based on a scalable education that would be at least 80% cheaper than the average US MBA. Some of the strategies that I talked about on stage included having a (mainly) online MBA with a few offline locations in strategic and/or exotic locations and meet-ups all over the world. Not with a campus the middle of expensive New York City, Paris or London, but in a more secluded and cheaper location (like INSEAD’s campus in Fontainebleau). A location that people like to go to sometimes and where professors like to teach temporarily (somewhere in the Caribbean for example).

I would not be hiring full-time (expensive) professors, but I would invite top professors to give lectures in a Virtual Reality environment and record these, so the recording would be VR as well. A lecture series could be used for several years or could be updated every now and then. Harvard has been using this for their CS50 course for a few years already, so this is not a new concept. By having small high tech campuses in nice locations it might help to attract professors or other guest lecturers.

The next step would be to develop Artificial Intelligence tutors that would get to know the student and his/her strengths and weaknesses, and that would teach and explain the student exactly what he/she needs to learn. The result would be highly personalized learning using both top professors and AI tutors. Setting it up might not be cheap, but once it’s up and running it will keep on improving itself through reinforced learning, and overheads would be much lower than regular MBA classes.

Another important step would be branding, which is quite important in the MBA world. I would approach this by emphasizing that the MBA is completely different from any other education: it would be global, it would use VR, it would use AI, and it would be much cheaper than any other MBA (I would aim for a price tag that would be at least 80% lower than similar educations).

If I would go into EdTech (which I am not planning to do) I believe a model like this could work. But that’s not why I talked about it of course, my aim was to wake people up to the fact that the world is changing and you have to adapt to survive and thrive. Hopefully it will have made some deans think critically about their programs, but I am not sure. The MBA industry seems to be stuck in the past and that’s why I decided to post some of my ideas here as well. Maybe it can inspire others? If you’re inspired by this take a look at the Lambda School as well, they are using a similar disruptive model to teach coding.

As a side note, during this conference I also did a couple of interviews. Two were published on the AACSB website and I found them on YouTube as well. This one is about teaching an entrepreneurial mindset:

And this interview is about smart investing:

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Why China’s new digital currency could quickly become a global currency

China announced recently that it will launch its own digital currency based on the Chinese renminbi, probably with its own centralized blockchain. The currency might launch in early 2020 already and I believe it could be much bigger than just a China domestic payment system.

China, like many other countries, wants to control the way its citizens pay for goods and services, so that’s an important incentive to launch a digital currency. Cash is hardly used anymore in China, even beggars now use QR codes to receive digital money. However, the current digital payments are not run by the state, but managed by private companies Tencent (WeChat Pay) and Alibaba (Alipay). WeChat has over 1 billion users and Alipay has 1.2 billion users, meaning that if China would use their platforms it will be much easier to roll out a state-owned digital currency.

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WeChat Pay and Alipay signs in the T&T supermarket in Vancouver

I believe China may have something bigger in mind, however. Until about a week ago non-Chinese residents could not use WeChat Pay or Alipay in China, simply because you needed a Chinese bank account or Chinese credit or debit card. All of a sudden this changed: first Alipay announced that foreigners could now prepay money into their Alipay account and 2 days later WeChat announced that you can now link non-Chinese credit cards to WeChat. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I believe the government pushed (or allowed?) them to start adding non-Chinese customers in an effort to make WeChat and Alipay more international.

For a while you could pay in some stores in Vancouver with WeChat or Alipay already, but it seems the 2 payments giants are now actively pushing this payment method and they are coordinating their efforts. I noticed large signs in stores promoting payments with WeChat or Alibaba, and I was surprised to see that even Canada Post has this payment option already. This means that Chinese when traveling abroad won’t have to change money anymore, but they can keep on using RMB. Nor do they need to use credit cards, they can simply use the same apps as they are using in China. Obviously merchants like it as well, because they don’t have to pay the 2-3% credit card fee. A very smart idea to slowly get the Chinese RMB accepted as payment outside China.

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Canada Post accepts WeChat Pay and Alipay

I don’t think Vancouver, or North America in general, is important yet to these two payment methods. Most likely WeChat and Alipay are looking to roll out their services in countries where the financial system is not so well developed yet, such as Africa or parts of Asia. Those markets are relatively easy to conquer because people are used to cash and most don’t have bank accounts.

The game changer will be that China might integrate its new digital currency with WeChat and Alipay. Once they do that their domestic digital currency could suddenly become a digital currency for large parts of the world. And once it gets a good reception in parts of Africa and Asia it will automatically expand to other parts of the world, simply because people demand to use it. I think it’s a brilliant strategy, especially because so many people outside China already use WeChat for communication and it has a digital wallet built in.

The US has been so focused on stopping Facebook-coin Libra that they may have overlooked the risk of China doing something similar. By stopping Libra they may have shot themselves in the foot: if the US would have embraced Libra they could have been in the same position (by using WhatsApp to roll out internationally a Libra coin based on the US dollar), but because they tried to stop innovation they may now lose out in the upcoming digital currency wars. I don’t think Libra will be allowed to launch in the US any time soon, so China can move full speed ahead.

And what does this mean for Bitcoin? Just like when Libra was announced I think the effect of a Chinese digital currency will likely be positive. Simply because it introduces more people to crypto: once you have used a cryptocurrency and have a wallet on your phone, the step to using Bitcoin will be a lot smaller. We don’t know much about the Chinese digital currency yet and whether it will be supported by external wallets, but if that’s the case they sky will be the limit. Because if other wallets can also hold the Chinese digital currency, people could change it for Bitcoin and hold it in the same wallet! That probably seems a bit far fetched right now given the capital controls in China, but if they allow customers to spend RMB outside China already they may also allow them to change some of it to Bitcoin. Time will tell, but for sure there are interesting times in crypto land ahead!

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Will we stop the climate crisis? I now have serious doubts.

After working on climate catastrophe solutions and investments for the past year or so I have come to the conclusion that what we are doing is not going to make any difference. The grassroots movement and Greta Thunberg mean really well, but it won’t make a difference. We need extreme global solutions right now (banning cars and banning flying for example), anything less won’t be enough. Let me explain why I have become so negative.

To start, I still believe we can stop and turn around climate change. But we have to move very fast because time is running out. And more important, we have to make huge global decisions that will be very painful for all of us. And that’s what the biggest problem is.

People are not willing to make sacrifices for the climate, simply because they don’t see the big picture or because they feel others should make changes first. I have seen it during the Canadian elections last month where many people felt that Canada should keep on using its natural resources to create jobs and prosperity. They feel other countries should take steps first. The problem is that people in these other countries say the same thing, they all want others to take action first. Arguments about jobs are so short sighted: yes, you can keep a few more jobs for now, but the future cost of those jobs will be so much higher of the temporary wealth they create. Once we get to the point of no return these jobs will be gone (probably long before that already) but the additional burden they have created will not go away anymore.

A few weeks ago I went to a Greta Thunberg rally in Vancouver. I was really excited about it and felt stoked about being part of it. But the event had the opposite effect on me and I felt it was depressing. I realized that the people in the climate change movement are the wrong ones to force a change. Not only was the organization of the demonstration terrible (speakers were hardly visible from the crowds, the speeches lasted way too long and were all similar), but instead of trying to be an inclusive group of people they were actively trying to exclude other groups. I fully agree with them on stopping the oil pipelines, but why combine that point in a speech with supporting the staff of the hotels in Vancouver that were on strike? Keep these issues separate, they are completely unrelated. The same with the support for the demonstrations in Chile that came up a few times in speeches, they are unrelated. Even though I feel sympathy for both the hotel staff on strike and the demonstrators in Chile, I feel they just don’t belong in a climate crisis march.

You need to rally as much people behind you as possible, by excluding others on issues that are not related you don’t do that. The people at the event did not seem like the ones that can make a change in the world, but they did not seem to realize it themselves. It made me feel a bit depressed to be honest. I thought Greta Thunberg was doing a great job until I saw her in action. I highly respect what she is doing, but she is not a very likeable person and I don’t think these climate strikes will make any difference. The grassroots movement may think they are changing the world, but they are not. They are just not the right people to make the change and they won’t get the right people on board with this kind of events.

The only thing that can save us are extreme global measures, things that might seem over the top until it is too late. Once we hit a level of about 450 ppm of CO2 in the air we will get into an unstoppable cycle that will make the current climate crisis seem a like a minor nuisance. At that point the effect of the melting permafrost will lead to methane being released into the air, something that will have catastrophic effects. We have to do everything we can to stay below 450 ppm. At the current rate we will get there by 2030, at which point it will simply be too late to do anything.

That means taking drastic global measures to cut CO2. What kind of measures? I believe the only way to save the planet is to immediately ban flying, to ban fossil fuel cars, and to reduce meat consumption by a large percentage. Sounds crazy? Yes, but if we don’t do it the effects on the planet will be so much worse that we would wish that we would have taken these measures when there still was time.

It will be very painful if we can’t fly anymore. Of course all the airlines will be out of business and hundreds of thousands of people will be out of their jobs right away, but we have no choice! We need to change our lifestyles and we will have to be forced to change them. Voluntarily we won’t do it. The same is true for fossil fuel engines in cars. We will need to make the switch to a different kind of transportation, most likely (shared) electric vehicles in the short run or potentially even autonomous vehicles. I am sure this will lead to new innovations very quickly (fully electric planes with much longer ranges for example), innovations to come out with products that are currently not economically feasible. The same for eating meat, there are simple and cheap solutions to drastically reduce the methane belching of cows (adding a bit of seaweed to their feed or to the water they drink), but there is no real economic incentive to implement it.

We have to make a transition to 100% renewable energy in a few years, while taking out as much CO2 as possible, for example through technological solutions like carbon sequestration. We need to change our lifestyles to a slower kind of life. No more flying to a holiday summer destination, but going there by train or other cleaner modes of transportation. Crossing an ocean might mean taking a boat. Or maybe Elon Musk’s hyperloop trains will be the solution to intercontinental travel. Things will take more time, but is that really a big problem? In the short term yes, but we will get used to it very fast. The Internet, virtual reality and free global communications make it a lot easier to achieve this than it would have been 20 years ago. It will impact me a lot more than most people, but I am willing to sacrifice this.

Of course I realize that the world will not come together to do this until time has run out. Partly because some people do not believe in the climate crisis (most will eventually, but by then then it will be too late), but mostly because people don’t realize how close we are to a complete catastrophe. A democracy seems like the best political system to most people in the West, but it is not fit to solve problems like this in time. I believe yuou actually need unelected (but smart and humane) leaders to be able to get things done, like in a corporate environment. Leaders that are respected by the people they represent, but that do not have to work on their re-election every 4 years or so.

Because of all of this I have come to the conclusion that we might as well party like it’s 1999, because we won’t come together and fight the approaching disaster. The grassroots movement is not going to make a difference. We need global measures to force people to change their lifestyles 100%. Not just by buying carbon credits to offset their emissions, but by completely stopping their emissions. It’s sad, but it seems to be the reality. For a while I thought I could make a change but except for creating awareness and investing in new technologies I just don’t see that it will have enough impact. We will need a global political force willing to make very painful decisions and we will need that right now. Unfortunately we are further away from that now than we have been in a long time.