Pras Michel Wants His Blockchain-Powered Phone to Help Users Own Their Data

The Fugees co-founder is getting ready for the Blacture M1, expected later this year

Video: Nick Gardner
Headshot of Marty Swant

Pras Michel, the Grammy-winning hip-hop artist, wants smartphone users to start controlling—and monetizing—their own data.

Michel, a founding member of the Fugees and now founder of the blockchain platform Blacture, is getting ready for his company to debut its first blockchain-enabled smartphone. The phone will let users eventually get paid for sharing data with marketers and internet companies while also earning money for engaging with and buying from brands.

At an Adweek event on Wednesday focused on blockchain technology, Michel and fellow co-founder Alpesh Patel explained more of their vision for the Blacture M1, expected to debut later this year. The phone—built in partnership with Qualcomm and Intel—will come with a Mastercard-backed prepaid debut card.

“[W]e’re about to see that individuals are now becoming their own IP,” he said. “The fact that someone is taking your data and selling it is technically your IP. You are what I call your ‘personal intellectual property and equity’, and so we figure that in the future, you’re going to be able to monetize that yourself. The ones that are monetizing the data need to share some of that revenue back to the consumer.”

Blacture will roll out its new platform in phases, said Alpesh H. Patel, CEO of the Blacture M1. The first phase will involve implementing a way of getting money back after buying products online. The second includes a rewards program for sharing data and other information, followed six to eight months later by a way for M1 owners to monetize their data.

According to Patel, that will start off with technology that lets users share their location data as they’re walking or driving down the street, in case companies want to market them various rewards in the form of ads.

“Nothing in this industry is really innovative or creative, [but] the prices keep going up,” Patel said. ” … The most potent, and most powerful real estate on the planet is your six-inch screen. And right now, it’s nearly 100 percent one-way. You’re nearly giving everything to everyone, but you, as the user, don’t get anything back.”

While Blacture might be among the first to debut a blockchain-enabled smartphone, it’s not the only company thinking about what the world might look like when users gain more ownership of their data. HTC is also developing its own Blockchain-enabled smartphone, the HTC Exodus, which will come with a way for cryptocurrency owners to secure their digital wallet. Meanwhile, Sirin Labs is developing one called the Finney, which will have dual screens and multi-layered cybersecurity measures.

There are other companies focused less on hardware and more on partnerships to let users monetize their data. The Kin Foundation, which created the cryptocurrency Kin last year alongside the Canadian messaging app, Kik, has been forging parterships with brands, rewards companies and others to build an ecosystem that it hopes will let users earn discounts and prizes for engaging with ads they might be interested in. And this fall, a company called Datawallet will roll out a beta version of a platform that lets users take their data from platforms like Facebook and Amazon and storing it all in one place.

While smartphones from the likes of Apple, Samsung and Google all cost between $700 to more than $1,200 for the latest models, Blacture’s is focused more on the mid-range market. That could include marketing toward people without a traditional banking account that want a new way to make money or store money.

It’s too early to tell whether the rewards offered through owning a Blacture will be compelling enough to persuade people to move away from their Apple and Android phones to try something new and untested. However, as blockchain technology and data ownership become more prominent, Michel said Blacture is aiming to get ahead of the trend.

“You want them to feel involved because you want them to keep buying your product,” he said. “The minute people start to feel marginalized, they start to move. You saw what happened with BlackBerry, for example. They weren’t able to go through innovation and keep up with the rest.”

To illustrate, he provided an anecdote from his own life, when he first heard about Bitcoin several years ago while visiting a friend who had been campaigning with Ron Paul back in 2009.

“I had $100,000 on me in cash—don’t ask me why,” he said. “But we were talking, and he said, ‘Listen, there’s this new thing. You should put $1,000 into it.’ I [asked] what it is, and he said it’s this thing called Bitcoin that was trading at 70 cents. I said, ‘Why would I do that? I don’t even know what the hell it is.'”

He continued: “I’m trying to show you that he was a part of the Ron Paul crew that didn’t like the Federal Reserve, but the reason why cryptocurrency came alive is because you had a group of people who wanted to cut the middle-man out.”

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.