In 2016, a Pakistan-based diploma mill was found to have made US$140 million from selling global customers bogus university degrees. The ramifications reached as far as the U.K., Malaysia and the Middle East, as many job applicants raced to soup up their resumes to match employers’ rising demand for degrees.
Years later, diploma mills have become a billion-dollar industry. Yet human resource managers and recruiters cannot keep up, with many still using old-school expensive and time-consuming ways to verify qualifications such as agencies that conduct background checks.
TuringChain, a Taiwanese startup, is looking to revolutionise the way certificate and authentication is done with TuringCerts, a blockchain-powered solution that creates an anti-counterfeit e-portfolio for individuals, with verification possible with a single click.
CEO and co-founder Jeff Hu said: “A quarter of all data on LinkedIn is fake or exaggerated, while 27% of university degrees can be bought online. Meanwhile, hiring managers are still using very traditional ways to verify qualifications.
“Usually it takes six weeks on average and US$150 to verify a single certification. Those who skip these steps and end up hiring people with fraudulent qualifications, years later the cost is even higher as it costs an estimated US$40,000 to replace a fraudulent employee,” he remarked.
Extrapolate this to the 3.38 billion working population worldwide and 1.7 billion students at every level of education, each having multiple qualifications and certificates, and TuringCerts’ market is astronomical.
Protecting data, privacy
“TuringCerts solution is sort of a global e-portfolio for students, powered by blockchain. We can onboard educational institutions within 15 minutes and give them a digital stamp, which they then use to issue tens of thousands of certifications right away. These certificates will be stored in the Turing Certs e-portfolio, matched with IDs unique to individual students.
“Students will be notified and can view these verified certificates, which are stored permanently in the IOTA blockchain. This also simplifies the job application process for graduates: instead of filling up a 10-15 page form about their awards, qualifications and certificates, they can simply share their unique TuringIDs with recruiters and employers,” Hu added.
TuringCerts uses Smart Identification that is globally accessible and uses the W3C DID, the identifier standard. This protects digital certificates from manipulation – a significant upgrade from PDFs, which can be forged easily.
It already has a provisional patent in the US and expects to receive its Taiwanese patent soon. TuringCerts’ contract with Italian institutions on volunteer certificates and National Tsing Hua University, a top-tier university in Taiwan, compelled it to be compliant with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the EU standard for data protection and one of the world’s strictest privacy protection regulations.
In addition, TuringCerts utilises approval-based sharing of information and the development of zero-knowledge proof cryptography currently ongoing — meaning no one has knowledge about what is stored on their servers until approval from individuals. It also creates SmartLinks, a short and verifiable link, which can easily be integrated with large-scale HR platform such as LinkedIn.
“We are in the process of becoming compliant with ISO 27001 and additional commons, the international standard for information security. This is necessary, as a lot of our interactions are with governments and universities handling sensitive private data,” Hu said.
Tiered, targeted pricing
Turing Certs caters to three groups of users: educational institutions, students, and enterprises.
Hu said: “We use a multi-tier pricing model. In the first tier, we make it free for all students, universities, or colleges registered with governments to access and add certificates to our database, and are therefore welcome to contact and join us.
“The second tier involves education or examination institutions that issue certificates to generate revenue, like Coursera. These we charge an annual subscription fee that accounts for a quarter of our revenue. In this tier, TuringCerts’ digital solutions dovetail with the digitalised experiences these institutions offer their students.
“The majority of our revenue surprisingly comes from industries such as Real Estates, Agriculture, and Artworks. These traditional industries are obsessed with a strong motivation for digitalisation. TuringCerts serves as an important role to deal with long-term contract storage, e-signing and e-stamping, traceability records, originality proofs, and digital footprints,” Hu said.
“We are excited to see there is much more opportunity to brings blockchain to many angles that are close to our daily life. Now we can see TuringCerts’ logo on soybean sauces, rice packages, and soaps made from crops,” he added.
Today, TuringCerts houses over 5,700 certificates from more than 40 schools across the globe, including executive education qualifications issued by Berkeley Law Executive. Half the schools are from Taiwan, including the country’s top two institutions: National Tsing Hua University and National Taiwan University.
In addition, Macao uses TuringCerts for its K-15 educational institutes and universities. Although the Taiwanese startup has yet to enter Southeast Asia, it already has a partner in Indonesia and Macau, which is trying to convince the Indonesian government to adopt e-verification for the country’s education sector.
Cross-industry demand for verification solutions
While TuringCerts’ end goal is to track students from kindergarten, to high school, college and even beyond through executive and postgraduate education, its solutions have been adopted by industries as varied as real estate and agriculture.
“We have a very large contract with a real estate company in Taiwan, which uses TuringCerts to store all their e-signed documents. Real estate contracts need to be stored for decades, and so this client views TuringCerts as a secure, confidential database that ensures key information cannot be manipulated,” Hu noted.
In agriculture, traceability has become a key component of tracking a crop’s lifecycle and journey from farm to fork, due to increasing customer awareness of food origination as well as rising health and environmental concerns.
“We work with a soybean sauces producer, who wants full traceability. The entire lifecycle of crops is recorded module-by-module on a digital record, which will be stored with blockchain on TuringCerts. These digital records are converted into QR codes, which customers can scan and immediately learn the entire story of the soybean,” Hu said.
Eyeing Southeast Asian debut
Fresh off a seed fundraising round that valued TuringCerts at US$3.4 million, Hu is considering a pre-A round either in the fourth quarter of 2021 or the first quarter of 2022 to fund the startup’s expansion into the Southeast Asian region via Malaysia and Indonesia.
“Our latest injection from a well-known capitalist investor can sustain us for 1.5 years so in the near future, our focus is on building partnerships with universities that are keen to digitalise their campuses in Southeast Asia.
“We will also reach out to traditional industries such as agriculture that need valid certifications for health and safety purposes or as a differentiator to their customers,” Hu said, noting that TuringCerts’ angel backers so far hail from the medical, music, and investment banking sectors.
This article is produced by the e27 team, sponsored by STPI
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