Financial institutions in Canada have largely embraced blockchain technology, with most major banks, including the central Bank of Canada, conducting pilot projects or at least research into the uses of blockchain technology in banking. In fact, the Bank of Canada has gained a reputation for blockchain-friendliness with its experiments with mock digital currencies and payment systems on the Ethereum blockchain.
As for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, they've mainly been getting the cold shoulder from Canadian banks, with most crypto startups having some difficulty getting bank accounts and accessing other banking services.
Addison Cameron-Huff, a Toronto-based technology lawyer and the president of Decentral Inc., told Bitcoin Magazine :
"Banking is still difficult in the Canadian blockchain industry. And especially so for businesses at the interface of the banking system and crypto.
I don't think any of the banks can be said to be very friendly in terms of business banking services (although they have made multimillion investments in blockchain companies)."
ATB Financial Steps Up to the Plate
Not so for ATB Financial, a financial institution based in the province of Alberta.
ATB Financial has established an Office of Innovation with campuses in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta, designed to look at ways to assist new innovative startups, including blockchain and cryptocurrency businesses.
In an interview with Bitcoin Magazine, ATB Financial's innovation director, Mike Brown, said:
"We noted that access to basic business banking services was difficult for startups in the cryptocurrency space to acquire. We have recently undertaken a pilot, however, to provide banking services for a small group of cryptocurrency startups in order to understand how to mitigate those barriers that do exist for financial institutions."
Brown says ATB's pilot project is mainly meant "to build [their] knowledge and understanding of the nuances and unique challenges associated with this industry."
As a qualifier, Brown notes that providing banking services to a cryptocurrency exchange, for example, doesn't mean ATB Financial is either endorsing or providing an opinion of cryptocurrency as an investment vehicle.
Creating Smart Contracts for the Oil and Gas Sector
Oil and gas are the mainstays of Alberta's economy; the process of paying royalties is now being simplified by ATB Financial's work in helping to put oil contracts as smart contracts on the blockchain.
Brown told us:
"ATB has built a proof-of-concept blockchain to streamline oil and gas royalty payments. We have validated the model with the industry and have recently engaged two large industry players in designing the next round of solution development and pilot testing."
Contract negotiations are done separately and then cemented onto the blockchain with ATB only seeing the payment details. All other terms are kept confidential among the negotiating partners.
Dave Bradley is the founder and chief innovation officer of Oleum Capital , an Alberta-based oil and gas services company working with ATB and regulators to launch an energy, oil and gas ICO . Bradley told us:
"ATB's willingness to tackle the tough issues around AML/KYC in the Bitcoin and blockchain space has empowered a new wave of innovation in the province of Alberta.
"What we are doing at Oleum Capital (our oil and gas backed ICO) wouldn't be possible without solid banking partners giving us a seat at the table," added Bradley.
Alberta Is Crypto-Friendly
The province of Alberta has always prided itself on being business-friendly and open to new innovation.
"Generally within Alberta there is strong economic development support to support the growth of new industries — especially when they are able to leverage the strong human-capital that already exists here. To that end, Alberta lives up to its entrepreneur-friendly status and does approach most startup activity (including that in the realm of blockchain [technology]) differently."
Brown told us there is a lot of activity in the crypto field right now in Alberta:
"There are currently several new cryptocurrency businesses being created in, and also moving to, Alberta. There are new exchanges, mining operations and ICOs.
"Being able to provide a solid banking relationship has been a critical component for many of these businesses. From the mining perspective, Alberta is taking off and there are several new large-scale installations taking place as we speak."
A keen observer of the Canadian crypto scene, Amber D. Scott, CEO of Outlier Canada, said:
"It's encouraging to see ATB taking an open approach to Bitcoin and blockchain companies. Mike Brown has a fascinating role — one that can help to build a bridge between the world of traditional banking/finance and technology. Canada has spawned some world-leading companies, but we're not going to be able to keep them unless they can access basic services like banking."
Cameron-Huff thinks there may be some movement in Canada toward a friendlier relationship between banks and cryptocurrency startups:
"Banks are still very wary of the industry and they don't want exchange-like businesses, but the banks are slowly starting to understand that most people in the crypto space are not handling money — they're developing new software."
Correction: ATB Financial is a financial institution, not a bank. An earlier version of the story has been corrected to reflect this.