NFT ‘paradise’ and Europe’s hidden blockchain hub

Austria has quietly become a blockchain and NFT hub – Photo: Shutterstock

Vienna may have been a mystery to 80s pop band Ultravox but the global blockchain and crypto sectors will soon become more acquainted with its burgeoning start-up scene. 

Crypto exchange Bitpanda has established itself as Austria’s first blockchain based unicorn by trading a range of digital tokens from big hitters like BTC to less well-known coins such as HBAR, but Robby Schwertner, AKA Crypto Robby, says this firm is just the tip of a start-up iceberg in the Alpine state.

Schwertner runs a consultancy providing advice on blockchain to corporates and start-ups and says that despite Austria being the least well-known country internationally in the DACH region, (Germany (D), Austria (A), and Switzerland (CH)) it is punching well above its weight when it comes to blockchain and crypto firms.

Bitcoin to Euro (BTC/EUR)

“Let’s talk numbers, there are roughly 200 blockchain organisations and start-ups in the Austria country. In comparison we recently surveyed Germany and found there were between 350 and 400 similar companies active there and not a single unicorn. 

“This is despite the fact that Germany’s population of 80 million is ten times larger than Austria’s. We already have Bitpanda and there are strong rumours that Binance is looking to set up in Austria.”

Binance has not yet replied to Capital.com’s request for comment on this. 

Crypto Valley’s challenge

Switzerland does have a more active blockchain scene than Austria, with its Crypto Valley, centred in the city of Zug, home to 14 firms with a valuation of $1bn or more. Crucially though, says Schwertner it sits outside the European Union meaning it cannot access the so-called passporting system for financial services. 

Roughly speaking, the EU’s passport system means that financial products licensed in one member state can be sold in any of the other 26 countries across the trading bloc, giving access to a market of nearly 450 million people at – relative – ease. 

“Switzerland has a long tradition of being the first mover in the fintech industry and it has a greater number of blockchain firms and a more advanced legal framework for the sector than Austria. But Switzerland has the problem that it’s not part of the Eurozone. 

“So the lack of a passport makes Switzerland a good hub for saving taxes, but a bad one to establish blockchain businesses,” says Schwertner.

 

Austria an NFT ‘paradise’

One aspect of Austria’s EU membership is the primacy of the union’s financial regulation but individual countries still hold sway over taxation issues and the Alpine state brought in a crypto tax of 27.5% as of 1 March this year. 

This tax regime, however, does not apply to non-fungible tokens (NFTs). 

Earlier this year Austria’s world famous Belvedere Gallery sold NFTs linked to Gustav Klimt’s iconic Kiss painting and Schwertner suggests NFTs’ exclusion from the tax framework may not have been an oversight. 

“The Gustav Klimt NFT was a big success and interestingly with regard to the art scene there are no taxes on NFTs yet. One can ask why this is? Maybe the government wants to ‘Kiss’ the art community,” says Schwertner.

“Right now Austria is an NFT paradise, you could even say an NFT tax haven”, he adds.

NFT of Gustav Klimt's iconic Kiss paintingNFT of Gustav Klimt’s iconic Kiss painting – Photo: Belvedere Museum

A DeFi cultural community 

Austria’s tax regime may be helpful for establishing an NFT sector but Patrick Tomelitsch, who heads up Vienna-based digital outfit Cultural Places, which calls itself, ‘The first DeFi (decentralized finance) cultural community’, in the world, says that Austria’s cultural riches are a unique asset in their own right. 

“People know Austria because of culture. In Asia for example, everyone knows about Beethoven and Klimt, and there are huge fan bases which already exist for their work. And when people come to Austria they visit St Stephen’s Cathedral, they go to the Belvedere Museum.”

Cultural Places is taking a multi-pronged approach to digitalising Austria’s culture. Firstly, there is a ticketing mechanism, which prevents fraud and manages the secondary market, a major issue given that its estimated 90% of recycled tickets are being sold by professional scalpers

Tomelitsch’s initiative also involves NFTs, provides avenues for crowdfunding art projects and is developing metaverse based projects that allow people all over the world to get a close up view of Austria’s cultural riches. 

“By combining NFTs for culture with decentralized rewards as well as better ticketing options while at the same time helping cultural institutions to finance themselves in a better way. Well, for now that is still unique.”

Adding on the layers

Cultural Places is in the process of launching a digital token which will be based on the Polygon (MATIC) blockchain. Tomelitsch says that he is a big fan of layer two protocols (secondary frameworks which are built on top of an existing blockchain), and that Polygon has multiple advantages over its rivals. 

 “Polygon makes a lot of sense not just because of its speed, but also its low gas fees and mass adoption,” he says. 

MATIC to USD chart (MATIC/USD)

Tomelitsch is also bullish about the potential for DeFi to disrupt the traditional heavyweights of both the tech sector and financial firms. 

“DeFi is definitely a threat to the established firms in the long run. Because we don’t really need the centralized exchanges anymore. 

“Giving power back to the community and to the people is a very important thing. And that’s what DeFi does because it cuts out those big firms which are currently taking all your data. Here I am specifically talking about Silicon Valley. DeFi is a big threat to those firms.”

Austrian banks look at DeFi

Threats, as the saying goes, are also opportunities and even here Austria’s traditional firms are looking towards the potential of blockchain and DeFi.

The country’s biggest lender, Raiffeisen Bank International (RBI) has set up an Elevator Hub which is looking into a range of blockchain and crypto projects.

In an interview with Capital.com, RBI’s Gernot Prettenthaler, senior partnerships and ecosystem manager at the bank, stressed that the firm is very much in the research stage with respect to its blockchain projects.  

But he was confident that centralized entities like RBI could harness the power of DeFi in a way that is palatable to consumers, once EU-wide regulations such as the Market in Crypto Assets (MICA) legislation hit the European statute book. 

MICA may be important for established entities but Vienna-based start-up Brokkr Finance is already launching a service that intends to bring DeFi to the masses. 

Bringing DeFi to the masses

Web3 is easy to say but more complex to use, with multiple steps needed between depositing your fiat currency on a centralized exchange and ultimately deploying these on decentralized protocols.

​​Lukas Götz, co-founder of Brokkr, which went live in April, says the firm aims to streamline this process and bring the benefits of crypto and DeFi to users who would previously not have been able to access the sector due to its complexity. 

“Some users are put off DeFi at the moment because it’s too complicated, it’s scammy and time consuming. What Brokkr does is automate all these steps, and offers investment strategies based on smart contracts. 

On terra firma 

“So for the user, it is pretty simple and pretty straightforward. You just need to send the funds to one address. And from there on the smart contract takes over and does all the necessary steps,” he says.

Brokkr’s product came out of Götz’s experiences with his previous start-up Block 42 which was a mixture of crypto and blockchain venture capital and advisory and which integrated closely with the Terra blockchain (LUNA) and the Fantom (FTM) ecosystem.

“We are tightly connected with these two networks and we will build our product based on the communities which are following these ecosystems. Brokkr will definitely expand in the future, maybe to Ethereum (ETH) or Solana (SOL) as well,” he says. 

Brokkr may have its roots in Vienna but Götz says that the nature of DeFi means the project itself is supranational and therefore not linked to a specific location. 

DeFi is supranational

Austria may be home to a disproportionate number of blockchain start-ups, but the nature of DeFi means that ultimately they can be located anywhere. 

“The teams working on Brokkr are made up of people from all around the world. And value captured on the protocol is transferred to participants by the token. So everything sticks to this decentralized ecosystem. 

“So if one country’s doing too much regulation, compared to other countries, they will just lose talent, and innovation.

“Because it’s super easy for me to sit here in Austria and open up a company anywhere in the world.”

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