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Startup Ownum's First Product Is Blockchain Vehicle Titles

Vehicle titles, birth and death certificates, tax credits and vehicle tags are the focus of four subsidiaries under Ownum, a holding company trying to make paperless blockchain solutions for government processes.

Cleveland-based blockchain company Ownum launched its first product Friday and announced three in the works, each with the stated purpose of eliminating a specific paper-based government process.

Incorporated in May 2018, Ownum is a holding company that now claims four subsidiaries — CHAMPtitles, Vital Chain, DigiCredits and Tech Tags — which are developing products of the same respective names, all meant to identify an expensive paper-based process, create a digital asset of it and record that digital asset to a blockchain. CHAMPtitles, a blockchain portal for processing vehicle titles, was the focus of Friday’s announcement.

Speaking with Government Technology after the launch, CEO Shane Bigelow described CHAMPtitles as a simplification of a process that typically involves a consumer, a car dealer, a manufacturer, a bank, an insurance company, a state DMV and a title-issuing authority such as a court clerk or county recorder. He said digital solutions prior to blockchain weren’t feasible, because metadata coming in and out of databases can be reverse-engineered so banks and insurance companies can glean each other’s proprietary information from it.

“The reason this wasn’t possible a couple years ago is that all those parties are unwilling to communicate with one another on a singular database system. They’re unwilling to have their information come into a central location and be monitored by the state, so they force the process to be on paper,” Bigelow said. “The only reason the title-issuing authority is involved in the process was because [in the past], the other six parties didn’t really trust each other. The bank didn’t trust that the lien was going to get on the title correctly, the car dealer wasn’t trusted by the manufacturer. … Cryptography associated with blockchain is so much further advanced than anything you could put around a database that it now enables all of these parties to transact securely and comfortably with this system.”

Bigelow clarified that CHAMPtitles doesn’t necessarily remove any parties from the process, but it’s supposed to make their day-to-day work more efficient. He said the focus will be on registering cars in 2021 and beyond, so ideally, as the program becomes popular and more widely used, new-car transactions will require less staff time and fewer title-issuing authorities than they do now.

He said customers for this product will vary by state. CHAMPtitles will seek state contracts where it can, but in states where vehicle title fees are pre-allocated to other projects, the company would send data to states while selling access to its portal to banks, car dealers and insurance companies who might benefit from a paperless workflow.

Bigelow explained Ownum’s three other blockchain companies as follows:

  • Vital Chain digitizes the birth and death certificate process, allowing for faster and cheaper access to important records without in-person visits, mail and document fees. It’s in a nascent stage, and Bigelow said he hopes to have a proof-of-concept to show to prospective clients —hospitals, funeral homes, coroners and state governments — by the end of 2019.
  • DigiCredits facilitates the transfer of tax credits in a way that government entities can trace them. Bigelow said the core of the program is built, because it’s the same as the company’s other offerings, but the timetable on DigiCredits' release will depend on market demand and cooperation.
  • Tech Tags will be part software and part hardware incorporated into vehicles, intended to help state governments ensure the right mileage taxes or other fees are being paid in instances where a vehicle’s owner and user are not the same person — specifically, in the future when autonomous and rideshare vehicles are more prevalent. Bigelow said Tech Tags will involve policy discussions, is several years out and will work with CHAMPtitles.
Well aware of the many blockchain solutions that have failed to catch on, including some of his own investments, Moreno, Ownum’s founder, has learned a few lessons from them. He said he’s confident in CHAMPtitles because of its specificity, manageable scale and relatively fewer number of parties who need to get on board for it to work.

“You have to tackle a small, simple, elegant problem. Other companies … have tried to take on too big of a topic, like for example, voting. … It’s a great application for blockchain, in my opinion, but it’s so controversial, visceral and partisan that it’s very hard to get something like that done,” he said. “With vehicle titles, most voters don’t hold the titles themselves. They’re held by banks, leasing companies or fleets. As a result, you can do things more rapidly than you would with something that touches every consumer or voter. It takes a lot of friction out of the system.”

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.