Winston-Salem’s hottest startup aims to disrupt the world of blockchain

13 minute read

Tucked behind Turbine Hall in Winston-Salem’s Bailey Power Plant, you’ll find Fluree. The tech start-up, which recently had to expand its space to make room for a growing number of employees, is developing a blockchain-based data platform that enables companies to communicate—and trust—their data.

In the blockchain start-up world, Fluree is swiftly turning heads, racking up numerous awards and accolades, both locally and globally, including being named one of Google Startup Grind’s Top 50 Global Startups as well as a Top Emerging Blockchain Startup of 2020.

But it’s not all talk. Fluree’s ascent was marked recently by a record-setting round of seed funding. In 2019, the company announced a $4.73 million seed funding round, led by some giants in tech venture capital—4490 Ventures and Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund. It was the largest tech infrastructure seed round ever in North Carolina.

Fluree is the brainchild of established tech innovators Andrew “Flip” Filipowski and Brian Platz. Filipowski led Cullinet, one of the largest software companies of the 1980s, before founding PLATINUM, which he grew into the eighth largest software company in the world and then sold for $4 billion, the largest sale of a software company at the time.

Platz is also an experienced entrepreneur and executive, having founded a series of SaaS companies and the well-known web development community A List Apart. Before Fluree, Platz and Filipowski co-founded SilkRoad Technology which grew to more than 2,000 customers and 500 employees in 12 global offices.

With the latest stamp of approval by superstar investors such as Steve Case, it’s no wonder the buzz that swirls around Fluree. Despite all the success that Platz and Filipowski have had with Fluree and their previous tech ventures, with this start-up they still feel like they have something to prove.

And that something has a lot to do with geography.

“I still have a chip on my shoulder when someone says you can’t build a great company in Winston-Salem,” says Platz.

The Genesis of Fluree

Fluree is not Filipowski and Platz’s first rodeo. Between the co-founders, they have more than five decades of experience with enterprise software and data platforms. Their experiences building other tech companies generated the seeds that would become Fluree.

Repeatedly, the duo ran into issues with products and applications working together, issues that resulted from a lack of transparency and security in data communication.

“For a long time, we felt that there needed to be a better way of communicating and securing data,” Platz explains. “We were brainstorming a technology infrastructure that allowed products to work together without those challenges.”   

Over the past 30 years, technology innovation has proceeded with breakneck speed. Innovations like blockchain and capabilities like distributive computing and sharing data opened opportunities for exploration.

While Fluree’s founders were mulling over what blockchain could do for application and data storage, Filipowski remembers a moment when the need for Fluree became evident. It happened at an anniversary celebration for another technology. In 2018, IBM asked him to give a keynote at their 50th anniversary of DB2, a relational database management system.

“I had been an expert in that area for many, many years, but I hadn’t realized it was that many years!” Filipowski recalls. “I said to Brian that we had to fix this; this stuff is ancient, and it’s not getting any better.”

Platz and Filipowski thought that current data platforms—in addition to being outdated—had severe limitations. It took decades for the layers of technology to finally accumulate to make their ideas for Fluree’s platform viable. Now it was time.

“We had a monster opportunity to put together a data platform that reflected the realities of 2020—if not 2025—and get some distance from technology built decades ago,” Filipowksi says.

The year 2014 brought the opportunity to explore possible solutions. Platz and Filipowski exited SilkRoad Technology, which gave them time—a lot of time—to work on the beginnings of Fluree.

“Both Flip and I love technology and just having the time to explore and build new things was exciting,” Platz says.

Developing Fluree’s technology, however, didn’t happen quickly. Platz and Filipowski spent three years experimenting and building their data platform before Fluree was officially incorporated in 2016.

“We probably built the technology that Fluree is today seven or eight times. Each time we learned, and we got closer,” Platz says.

In that time, the duo put together a plan to revolutionize and modernize the data platforms that undergird all applications.

How exactly does Fluree revolutionize data security and communication? To understand what Fluree does, you have to understand the value of data.

The Big Deal About Data

On a day-to-day basis, most of us understand that the applications we use are proliferating, and our data is being stored and communicated more frequently than we realize. We might even feel some of the frustrations of communicating data and worry about its security.

Companies, industries and government entities experience those same concerns on steroids. They store and use data of all kinds and need to communicate that information—both internally and externally—more than ever before.

“Today’s applications are exploding because the value of data is becoming exponentially greater,” says Kevin Doubleday, Fluree’s communications director. “We need to share data, run analysis on it. Current platforms just don’t accommodate those actions well.”

In order to share data with outside parties securely, companies must be able to trust the data—to know where it originated and who has touched it.

“Bring trust to information and then you can share it,” Doubleday says.

Fluree’s data platform uses blockchain technology to ensure the trustworthiness and communicability of clients’ data. It securely stores information, which cannot be changed by other users once added. Customers use the platform to power next-generation applications, interoperable data sources and data-driven ecosystems.

“Fluree is a technology, but it’s also a philosophy,” Doubleday says. “It’s data-centric, starting with the value of data, and then we give it a borderless capability where it can be versatile and dynamic across applications. It’s completely scalable and allows stakeholders to fully realize the value of their data.”

Fluree partners with independent software vendors, cloud partners and systems integrators to provide unique solutions for clients in such industries as supply chain, aerospace, insurance and financial services. Many of the start-up’s customers are start-ups themselves, though Fluree is also making headway with larger companies and even government entities.

The start-up recently announced blockbuster contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense and Air Force. A little closer to home, Fluree is also partnering with Wake Forest School of Medicine to develop innovations that improve health care. The Center for Healthcare Innovation, a group within the School of Medicine, is working with Fluree to create tools to integrate and assess research data.

The uses for the platform, however, could—and Fluree thinks will—be used by any application or service that needs to ensure the security and integrity of its data.

“If you’re dealing with information and data, you need to evaluate how Fluree would benefit your company,” Filipowski says. “With our platform you can go to any point in the history of your data and see what it was looked like, which is critical in order to understand where your data has been and know that it can defend itself against any onslaught.”

If you’re not steeped in this world, this technology might not sound that radical, but there’s a reason this data platform is part of what many are calling the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

Joining the Revolution

In 2015, Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, introduced the concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in response to rapid technological advances. This revolution revolves around the impact of digitization, made by possible advances in communication and connectivity.

“We call it the Web 3.0,” Doubleday explains. “It’s the next generation of connected digital information.”

“With the Fourth Industrial Revolution and emerging digital technologies, many of associated concerns are consumer privacy concerns,” Doubleday continues. “Who owns my data, and how are they using it? These are concerns for you and me as much as they are for a supply chain company.”

Fluree’s role in this revolution is foundational and architectural. Platz foresees Fluree’s technology forming the foundation of just about every application developed. It’s an opinion his co-founder shares. 

“I think we’re going to become an integral part of everyone’s knowledge and information platform requirements,” Filipowski says. “There will be very few companies a decade from now that will not be using Fluree for at least some part of their data platform.”

It’s an ambitious goal, and one that will take an army to complete.

“We’re literally talking about flipping the architecture of the standard enterprise app that has been in existence for 40 years,” Doubleday says. “In order to accomplish such a feat, it starts with building a ground-up community of developers, business partners and advocates who are excited about this data-centric revolution.”

Doubleday cites Fluree’s ability to source talent in Winston-Salem as the first step in building a great company and developing key partnerships.

“There’s this notion among Fluree employees that the company can have an incredible impact on the world—not just the business or enterprise world,” Doubleday says. “We know the impact it can have on the democracy of information; we have this unspoken environment of passion for what we’re doing because we cannot wait to see the vision come to fruition.”

That vision doesn’t just motivate their employees; it’s baked into the company’s very structure. When Fluree was incorporated in 2016, Filipowski and Platz founded the company as a public benefit corporation, a status that allowed them to embed a community mission into the company’s DNA.

Fluree offices
Fluree operates out of the Innovation Suites on the second floor of Bailey Power Plant in Winston-Salem’s Innovation Quarter

“We are always looking for how we can blend technology with doing good in this world,” Filipowski says. “That’s why we founded Fluree as a public benefit corporation.”

Public benefit corporations dedicate time and resources to a community mission. For Fluree, the mission is to help people transition to careers that they are passionate about, whether it’s veterans, people just starting their careers or those who just need a change. Fluree provides its employees with flexible time that each can spend pursuing this cause in a way that is meaningful to them.

“We’re just a 14-person company right now, but as Fluree becomes more successful—perhaps the largest technology company in the world—the vision is that we effectively create the largest free university in the world,” Platz says. 

That “free university” would be driven by the time, talent and technology that Fluree employees pour into helping people transition to careers that they are passionate about. Such a program could help ease some of the bumps along the revolutionary road.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution will change how people work and what skills the market values,” Doubleday says. “If we can play a proactive role in helping them along that journey, that’s where our values lie.”

This kind of revolutionary tech company you’d expect to find in Silicon Valley. Why headquarter the start-up in Winston-Salem?

That’s where the chip on Platz’s shoulder comes in.

Why Winston-Salem?

Before Fluree, Platz and Filipowski started another company—SilkRoad Technology. Founded in 2003, the human resource solutions company is headquartered in Chicago. But that wasn’t where the company began.

Originally, SilkRoad was headquartered in, you guessed it, Winston-Salem, where Filipowski lived at the time. Platz relocated to the Camel City soon after to be close to his business partner. With the location of the company came board meetings and investor visits. Initially, many of their investors were West Coast venture capitalists. When they visited Winston-Salem in the early 2000s, they weren’t impressed with the environment and amenities available and often suggested that SilkRoad relocate to somewhere larger.

“Eventually we brought on more and more investors, and there was enough pressure that we succumbed and officially changed our headquarters to Chicago,” Platz says. “I always felt like they won in a way.”

That memory stuck with Platz. When the time came for Fluree to take shape, both founders wanted Fluree to have its home in Winston-Salem. It was a second chance to prove that tech start-ups could thrive in this environment.

“Not only has Winston-Salem changed tremendously in last 10 years, but also I still have a chip on my shoulder when someone says you can’t build a great company here,” Platz says. “For me, part of establishing Fluree here is that I want to prove that those investors were wrong.”

Winston-Salem skyline
Much of Winston-Salem’s economy has shifted in the last several decades from manufacturing to health and technology.

The flourishing of Fluree in the City of Arts and Innovation has proven that there’s something to starting a start-up here. As the company continues to thrive, they’re laying a template for others to follow. Here, Fluree has both attracted investors and sourced tech talent.

“It’s hard work, but it can be done,” Platz says.

Fluree’s founders have found that the Innovation Quarter and Winston-Salem have their own benefits to offer a tech company getting its start, benefits that come with being located in a smaller town.  

“In Winston-Salem, you have access to all the resources,” Platz says. “In a big city like Chicago, it’s very difficult to have a conversation with the right people. Here, it’s frictionless.”

Locally, Fluree has made connections with customers—such as local giving platform One Donation and Benekiva, a company that connects insurance companies and beneficiaries, as well as Wake Forest School of Medicine—as well as partners like Flywheel Coworking and Capital Connects in Greensboro.

“We owe Innovation Quarter and all our local partners our gratitude,” Doubleday adds. “This environment and mixture of great infrastructure, great partners, great people, great talent and low cost of living has really helped create the on-ramp for us.”

The tenacity of Fluree’s founders and the ever-expanding entrepreneurial ecosystem of Winston-Salem are creating the right atmosphere for the tech start-up to thrive. With the addition of new clients and strategic partnerships, Fluree has a promising start to changing the foundation of data security and communication—all from Winston-Salem.

“We want to prove you can build a successful, revolutionary tech company—and you can do it here,” Platz says.

To learn more about how Fluree uses blockchain, check out Fluree University, an e-learning component that explains more about the start-up’s technology.