Today’s podcast episode features John Belizaire, CEO of Soluna, the world’s first utility-scale blockchain infrastructure company developing power plants and combining them with high-performance computing facilities, currently developing its Harmattan Project in Morocco. As a serial entrepreneur, John has successfully founded and scaled multiple industry-leading technology startups that have achieved market leadership and double-digit growth, including FirstBest, an insurance software company acquired by Guidewire, and The Theory Center, a software company acquired by BEA Systems. Before becoming an entrepreneur, John was the lead architect for Intel’s Digital Enterprise Group.
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So KIBO, Hey everybody, Ethan’s Sergei here and I’ve got my cohost with me over here. Sakib scheme is a good friend and business partner to keep, go ahead and introduce our guest today.
Yeah. So today we have John Belzer from Soluna and he is joining us for the 39th episode of crypto mining tools. We actually worked with Soluna on a daily basis and I kind of wanted to get to know John and, and so then what they do John, please introduce yourself.
Yeah, John very glad that we have you on yeah. Before you introduce yourself, why don’t you tell us a little bit more, everybody has their own unique story of how they got into crypto or the crypto space. So introduce yourself and tell us about that.
Okay. Yeah. Happy to do it. And thanks for having me on for the, for, for the listeners’ sake cicadas, right? We’ve been working with you guys and we’ve been very happy. It’s been a great partnership. We enjoyed the transparency you guys have and we hope to continue that, that relationship going forward. So I am the CEO of Soluna. Soluna is a interesting company. We are a combination of renewable energy development and enterprise scale or utility scale mining. And the reason we essentially have both of those types of businesses under the same umbrella is because we believe that ultimately vertical integration of renewable energy specifically, and the crypto mining space is is the future energy is such a big part of the business of mining. And the more you can bring that asset close to the operations of the business the better you can be as a crypto miner, the more more your, your destiny can be in your hands, if you will.
Sure. We also believe that down the road, there are other larger opportunities that we’ll talk about, I’m sure on the show that get created by having both of those core competencies within one company. And your question about how did I get into this space? It’s about two plus years ago, maybe about two and a half years ago, late 2017. I was sort of coming to the end of a sabbatical that I was on after the sale of my last a startup. And I had been evaluating a few opportunities. None of them sort of necessarily jazz me up completely that I’d wanted to sort of jump in. And it was the first time that I was exploring opportunities that were not companies that I would be forming. I was being asked to become CEO of these companies. And along the way I was keeping in touch with my long time mentor and a gentleman named Michael support, who is a private equity firm, a GP. And just before a regular holiday, I’d take during, you know, December the week between December and new year’s, I always sort of like go hire rock somewhere. Yeah. Do that. And and he said John, did you, did you sign anything yet? And I said, no,
Says, well, yeah.
You know, I need you to come down and take a look at this thing we’re working on. I mean, we’ve been, you know, we’ve been working on it for awhile. And just to be clear, I want you to look at it because, you know, I want you to be CEO. I said, well, what is it? You know, cause I know his business is, is investing in industrial companies and you are mostly been running software startups. And so sure. And so so I go to his, he says, look, it, it, the only thing I can tell you right
Now it’s done. I love the secrecy in our industry.
It’s, it’s it’s a combination between, you know, renewable energy and blockchain, you know, and part of that sentence I heard was blockchain, Oh, blockchain,
What is a blockchain
Office? And and honestly I go in sort of expecting to just, you know, find a gracious way of saying no, I’m good.
No, they, they, they, they start in on the whole space and educate me on crypto Bitcoin relationship with, with power this huge utility resource. They were, they that they had access to in Morocco that needed that, that was stranded and needed a way to be monetized and, and how these two worlds were coming together and, and, and how the space is shaping up. And it, it, it turned into a series of meetings. I did go on vacation, but while I was doing was thinking of getting back to ask more questions. Right. But, you know, to, to, to, to, to, to put it plainly, you know, that has led to a two and a half year series of questions, like, why wouldn’t I do this kind of thing? So it’s it was a, it was a very exciting entry into the space. I went down the rabbit hole and, and, and here I am,
That is, yeah. That’s an amazing story. Thanks. Yeah.
I, I liked telling it because I, I, to ask everyone who, you know, how they got into this space and prior to this, in my previous life, I wasn’t running an insurance software company. And I learned through asking that same question of insurance people that none of them, none of them you know, purposefully came into this space, you know what I mean? They don’t by accident or some happenstance. And so it was interesting to hear all the stories over the last few years of folks, how folks got into the space. Yeah. I think it’s,
It’s really interesting that, you know, some of us we get into the space for different reasons, but we end up learning so much more, especially about monetary policy, monetary history, about decentralization and, you know, pretty much what the next you know, 10, 15, 20 years is going to look like,
Oh, no doubt. If you, I mean, if you look at the space you really have an incredible sort of ecosystem market app, right? You have, you do have the infrastructure elements. So the mining companies you’ve got the digital currency or digital asset space that in of itself is sort of like an emerging area that’s never been seen before. Have the you, you know, you have the decentralized financial infrastructure opportunity and then you just have like, just super, super incredible tech, right? Just, just code that is being built to enable all sorts of, of interesting ways to use this technology. And, and these new assets in new and interesting ways. Everything from, you know, a, B to B and B to C commerce to you know, store value, you know, think about the pandemic, how much investment came into into these assets and thinking this whole space as, Hey, we should, you know, in big companies you know, like micro strategy, sort of deploying portions of their balance sheet to the assets. And and then you have an entire wave of infrastructure development because you’re, you’re, you’re going to build a whole new financial system that is, you know, native decentralized, and that’s never been done before. It reminds me of when I got into the tech space in the mid nineties, you know, this was sort of the, the realm of early internet mosaic. I was there. I was there then, you know, I remember calling Netscape and saying, how do we, we call it [inaudible] Vista.
That’s where I, that’s where I got all my my wares from and a lot more of this. Yeah. You know, I mean, it was just fascinating how rapidly that took off. And, you know, some of the same questions were being asked, what is this, what is this, what is the internet? And what does this really mean? And, and you know, I even had the same naysayers, you know, the people like when this internet thing blows over, everything’s going to go back to business as normal that people aren’t going to buy things online. People really want to go in and shop. They want to talk to somebody and look at Amazon. Right. That’s right. That’s right, man. In the world right now, because the dominant companies eventually, you know, sometimes you know, innovation takes time to take hold. And once it becomes, you know, part of the fabric, it’s really hard to not imagine it any other way, you know? Right. I actually walked through New York city streets sometimes. I don’t even really know why they’re still there, but I see a phone booth and I’m like, wow, that’s right. You used to make phone calls, you know, like, what are you, do we know why the phone
Boots are disappearing? Right. Yeah.
Well, I mean, I mean, cell phones are ubiquitous
It’s so we can’t escape from the matrix.
Maybe that’s why the, so, so NeoCon. Yeah. No, that’s great. That’s great.
Yeah. The.Com bubble. And because of that, you know, look how much
It has really changed our lives,
The internet it’s affected every part of our lives. And I think
Blockchain technology is going to do just that. It’s better technology, you know, that’s right. That’s exactly right. And it always has these sort of bumpy starts where lots of, lots of crazy ideas and crazy people come in and it gets a bad name. And then once that’s sort of washed out, there’s a real focus on what’s the real value here, and you start to get real companies, large players come in and it becomes an institutional you know, change in what’s going on. I’m on the board of a company that for example, uses blockchain to provide transparency to supply chain. And that’s a huge thing. Think about, you know, the products you buy in the store would be really interesting to know where they come from and how those raw materials are sourced and what those local economies, how, how are they benefiting from, you know,
Sale in the grocery store? Is it on sale because they got a good deal or is it on sale because
It’s end of life then. Exactly, exactly. It would be, it would be good to know. So there’s, there’s lots of things that we’re going to see change and it’s only a matter of time.
Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. you know, you’ve been in this for a limited time relatively, I mean, you know, Bitcoin’s been around since 2009 or a little bit before that even but you, you seem to have just really easily adopted and just taking this in full wash. What’s the most fascinating thing that you’ve learned in the past two and a half years where the most interesting thing you’ve learned?
Oh, that’s a great question. I think the most interesting thing is the intersection between you know enterprise scale or I’ll call it sort of industrial scale mining and power and the power industry. You have sort of two interesting forces that are taking place on the, on the, on the energy side. We are now in what I would describe as a, a climate awakening on people
They, they, yeah, the power companies are slowly coming to realize like, wait a minute, this is big business and we can do serious business. Yeah.
That’s all right. With the, with these enterprises. And I’m going to touch on another aspect that they’re realizing, and that is that most of these utilities and most large energy sectors let’s take an in the United States, you’ve got these, these big sort of sectors of, of the energy space that are a combination of different States that say, and they’re called ISO system operators. And, and and these companies sort of work together to or these States rather work together to enhance and structure how power will develop and evolve. And and in a number of large regions, there is a whole focus on deploying renewable energy as a larger percentage of the power mixture on the grid. And that’s very exciting for all the reasons that we know, right. We, we want to get to the, the, the goals that the the Paris accord has put out and the effects on climate change. And so but there are also challenges with that. You know, you have renewable energy resources coming online. The grid was built to be powered by carbon power and have really smooth and continuous generation of power that matches demand. And now when you add a giant solar plant, it’s, it’s not always there, right?
Well, yeah, because it cycles, you know, it has uptime and has downtime. And my understanding, one of the biggest challenges with renewable energy is the challenge that we have no ability to store it’s excess.
That’s exactly right. Yep.
And it’s very capable of producing vast amounts of energy. It’s just in limited time periods and we have no ability to store it and then use that stored energy and it’s and its down periods. And I can understand how mining can kind of offset that because when it creates that excess that’s when mining can step in and really utilize it and harness it. And so, yeah, that’s absolutely fascinating. Yeah,
That’s exactly. That’s exactly the point I was ever going to make. And that is that, you know, as you know, these resources change and the mixture changes, the challenge is that they, the grid just can’t absorb all of those new resources. And so if there’s a way to add additional capability to the grid that could absorb it and to your point, batteries is sort of the, the, the GoTo thing or pumping water up to a really high place is another way to, you know, go to go to solution. But mining is now being viewed as a new alternative to that. If you could build flexible data centers that could ramp up very quickly and that excess power you would reduce the amount of power that gets spilled thereby enhancing the amount of green that you can add to the grid. And as a result, you know, lowering costs and improving the experience of power and energy on the grid for the long haul. That’s what we’re excited about at Soluna. We’re investing now to bring all of the innovation and technology and learnings that we’ve developed in the process of building our facility in in Morocco. It’s it’s a scale site, 900 megawatts.
Wow. So almost a full gigawatt
That’s right. And we’re building out in phases. And in that, in that project, we’re designing in essentially a computing farm with a whole host of, of, of capabilities for mining and a control system that allows us to match the demand to the production of the, of the wind farm, but also deliver a smooth profile of power to the grid. So we’re, you know, we’re probably building the biggest pilot known to man up this technology. And then we’re bringing that during, during the pandemic, you know, we did two things. Number one, we all, we all grew beards, as you can see, minus minus seven
Shaped for the podcast. Pretty funny yet. I didn’t even know why he wrote this about one week on me. So give me another couple of weeks and yeah, I’ll be good to go.
That’s that’s that, that, that’s a big diff this is six months. It took me,
And I’ve been saying to my wife
Probably cut this off now. And she’s like, no, no, no, no, no, this is good.
That’s it? Yeah. I’m probably going to have it for a while.
So that was first thing. The second thing was we started thinking about how can we bring this concept of a computing facility, a flexible computing facility that’s connected to a renewable resource to other markets. And so exploring the U S the, the Netherlands and places where there is this high degree of energy spillage when you start adding renewables and just tremendous interest in what we’re doing. And and we’ve had some fascinating conversations around this and we’re building, you know, all sorts of of capabilities to, to, to make this a reality. And so that’s what, that’s what excites us, this kind of confluence of renewable energy and, and the business, the business of mining now. So, so that was the answer to your question. Like what, what, you know, what’s been fascinating for you to learn? The second thing I would say continuing to share learnings is how how hard the, the business of mining is.
It’s not an easy business, actually. You need to understand a lot about, well energy. We’ve talked about different systems data center operations. And I know that it really started as you say haven’t been around for a while, but I’ve, I’ve seen a lot of dead carcasses. And, you know, most of the learnings from that is lots of people have sort of started in a hobbyist way and just assume you just plug these things in and you put them close to each other. And maybe if you were to paint here and there, and you’re printing money, it’s actually like everything it requires perfecting, you know, processes efficiencies and finding ways to get to scale in order to be successful relative to other players in the marketplace. So I think that’s, that’s been really fascinating. And I would say the last thing that for me has been interesting has just been how close the, you know, architecture of the Bitcoin network, for example, has been to behaviors that sort of drive it’s it’s it’s growth.
So this whole concept of, you know, economic drivers, right. You mind, because you want to provide security, but then the fact that you have to expend costs and energy to do that you know, creates barriers to entry, but it also provides the security and the asset that you gain encourages you to deploy that expenditure. It’s a network effect that all ties to leaps in technology. It’s it’s I guess that’s, that’s to say how incredibly proficient and well architected this white paper, you know, essentially an elegant solution to, you know, the Byzantine general problem. So that’s fascinating to me.
Absolutely. It’s fascinating. And you are so right about you know, really putting in the work to getting the details. Right. We had a guest on here that was talking about keeping the air density that the miners have access to. Just by controlling that correctly, the heat can then be more efficiently removed from the miners and the fans have to work less, which operating costs by 20%. And when you think about it all makes sense, but you’re absolutely right. Like, as, as a hobbyist minor, I remember the first miners that I had, you know, I put them down in my garage and I put some dryer, duct vent in a window, and I thought, that’s all I needed, but, you know, if you really want to you know, be in this for the long haul, you have to think about those very minute details and control them and, and be on top of them. And that’s what makes the difference between, you know, extreme success and just getting by.
Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
And I think you know, using renewable energy the lower that you can get your energy costs you know, the better advantage you have over other players in the market. And so, you know, by using renewable energy sources, like a lot of people are using oil and gas and they have a very low cost of energy because of that. And I’m sure wind is also quite low.
Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. Energy costs representing such a large portion of the operating costs of a facility like that. Getting the lowest footprint on that is really important. And the, the, the, the bigger you get in a more scaled, you get, it almost leads you to, you know, vertically integrate. And that’s, that’s, that’s the, the thesis that we were based on where maybe owning the assets becomes a part of the picture if you want to be in for the long haul. Oh yeah. And, and you have more control of that price. If you can build it at a cheap price, which means going to places where the resource will be incredibly productive, but hard to build, because it’s so far from infrastructure, the economy doesn’t have a need for the power in the near term. And so you could deploy this model of vertical integration and then provide the power to the grid as well. So we, we we’re, we’re fascinated by, by just, you know, how those two worlds come together and it’s sort of a core foundation to what we’re about as a company,
Vertical integration. So Keith, why don’t you show our audience our vertical integration in the technology framework that we’re working with with crypto mining tools.
All right. Let me go ahead and do that real quick.
Oh, it’s for some reason my screen isn’t sharing.
Can we not able to share your screen scheme?
Nope. It’s not a nutshell for me for some reason.
Okay. yeah. Can you,
We talk about Cryptomining.tools. So we have a website Cryptomining.tools wherein we have the world’s first global hosting platform. We have hosting facilities worldwide that were verified from around the world and they are
Available with their power cost and their type of facility, like a, if it’s managed unmanaged or you know, the type of facility that you you would like, you can basically go ahead and select that and, and request quotes from any facility. So that’s a world’s first, and then we also have a a calculator and a comparison app that can help you compare and, and and basically find the best manner for your needs. You can go through all different types of models where adding models every day, we have the [inaudible] on there as well for you to check profitability. So yeah, those are some of the things that we have on Cryptomining.tools. And I will hand it off to Ethan. Yeah. If, if you get a chance, go to our website, it’s a great place where you can learn, you can educate yourself on what the best miners are out in the market, and you can also shop.
So not only can you learn what miner is the best fit for you and your situation, but you can actually go to our online shop. You can make a purchase, and if you need that power and, and hopefully we can add more renewable power solutions which I think is, is vital to our industry. You can also get that. So anywhere from fully managed hosting to power purchase agreements, you can actually purchase your own raw power, you know, drag up your own container full of miners and, and start utilizing that power. So yeah, if you get a chance, Cryptomining.tools, it’s a, it’s a great resource. And we’re going to go back to John here. Now, John, tell us more about this, this beard situation you’re saying, you’re saying is, is six months has taken you to get to this point? Yes.
So that’s right. I mean, I look, I, I the idea is that you know, we were trying to find a way to stay connected as a team, because with, with with COVID and, and the pandemic and lockdowns, we really couldn’t see each other physically anymore. And so suddenly our operating system, as a company changed such, then we moved to higher levels of, of interaction among the team and to you know, create ways for us to stay connected. I thought we should do something together as a team where you can put, you know, same thing. You can’t go play soccer or anything like that. And so I thought let’s let’s all grow a beard. And and I would see the women on our team couldn’t really do that, but so, you know, we, we, we let’s all grow a beard and a Chronicle, the beards and the development over time.
And you know, first few days, you know, Larbi our head of engineering from, from Morocco, like his beads already, like flush. Yeah. Nathan. Yeah, yeah. You know, he’s already like, he’s got like, you know, he’s got like this steak size, you know, patches of hair, you know, feel, you know, you know, his, his, his, his grows fast, but it’s very, it’s, it’s very blotchy, you know you know, he’s very patchy. I mean, and then and then here I am, and I barely got a mustache going at this point. And they’re like, John, like, what’s going on? And then suddenly, I don’t know what it was like, you know, if I, if I, you know, took some extra vitamins or, or you know, the different bottle of wine or something, but suddenly it started, it started growing and it just started huffing and puffing and, and making its way out.
And and, and here it is. So I, I didn’t ever knew I could grow a beard. I’d never really grown one. I, I tend to be really, you know, low haircut or no hair cut and, you know, clean shaven because it’s so stubby and he ran all the way around you. You grew the top and this hair, this hair equally is, is is, is way beyond the length that it should normally be. And so I’ve grown it out. And and the funny thing is, I’ve gotten, you know, so now I’m on the zoom calls all the time. I’ve gotten everything from, wow, you look younger too. You know, you look like Whitecliff John, you know, I’m like, wow, that’s, that’s great. And so people were like, yeah, I like it. You gotta stay with it. You know, cause I’m thinking after this conference, I mean, this, this, this this contest I’m going to just cut it all off. And and I was telling my wife the other day, okay. I think it’s time to go. You know, she’s like, wait, what do you mean? Why, why, why are you going to do that? And more important. She’s like, what are you gonna do with the beard?
And, and and I said, well, well, that’s going to go to, no, no, no, I like the beard, you know, I think you should hold on to it. Just, just trim it. You know, I says, Oh, so you like the beard, you know? And so I think it’s going to be around for a while guys.
That’s absolutely awesome. So, so John, can you tell us a little bit about Morocco and how are you finding it, you know, working over there? Obviously as you said, the governments are, you know ha they have excess energy. And so it’s much better for you guys to locate over there. How are you finding
Actually, yeah, to be honest, Morocco is a fascinating country. Not withstanding all of the rich history culture, food the very diverse you know, parts of the country, you know, it was Northern Africa. And so you’ve got all sorts of amazingly beautiful parts of the country. But when you, when it comes to renewable energy, it’s actually probably one of the most forward leaning countries in that regard. They have a Countrywide mandate to deploy more than 53% of their power from renewable sources. So they want to get to energy security. When we started working with them, they were essentially a net importer of power, right? So they had to bring power in and bring raw material in to generate power. They’re moving now to the point where in the next few years they will become a power Xsporter.
And so there’ll be a deliver power to their neighboring countries in Africa and beyond they have, they’re probably one of the largest concentrated solar plants ever, ever developed that powers a good portion of their grid. And in the regions that we’re involved with, the you know, there’s a tremendous amount of you know, wind energy that could generate really low cost power for the grid infrastructure and the local city there to really help advance the economy. The government has been very supportive of what we’re doing. Mind you just like any other country we’ve had to spend lots of time educating them on blockchain currency. I think I’ve spoken to the central bank there at least five times you know, and probably the other lots of other ministries there, but I have found that they are, they’re very, you know, very well-spoken, they, they, they educate themselves and really understand the value that this would bring.
And one of our core values as a company is not just to extract, but to contribute. You know, we’re really about bringing this vertical integration to places that could benefit from it in the way that I talked about in developing countries, more renewable power. You look at the continent of Africa, it’s, it’s, it’s there’s, there’s so much energy, poverty, if you will. And an approach like this could help to reverse that, but we try to also use the facilities that we developed as a catalyst for creating a new community. They’re a technically oriented community, you know, blockchain and the whole space. There’s, there’s really a you know, a drought in expertise around the world for these types of things. And so if we can build a center of excellence, we can then add more capabilities. There’s lots of really young, bright, intelligent people coming out of the universities there.
And so we’re using our project to build that ecosystem and that center of excellence for, for blockchain there. So Morocco has been really great. The pandemic has really been challenging for us because you know, with the lockdowns and restricted travel, it has, you know, created all sorts of delays and things that we could be doing on the project. But we have we’re very resilient as a company, and we have found lots of interesting ways to get Moroccans who were used to you know, having conversations over a meal, you jump on a zoom call and, you know, keep moving the ball forward. So that has helped us a lot over the last few months.
You know, I, I love hearing these stories because, you know, every time I talk to somebody, you know, they’ll ask me, you know, what do you do, Ethan? What do you do for a living? And, you know, I’ll, I’ll say, you know, I’m in the crypto industry or the mining industry, or, you know, and immediately what comes to their mind is, Oh, that stocks that, that stocks and that’s, that’s too risky for me. Right. You know, I didn’t get in the stock market. I don’t have any money in the stock market. I don’t need to hear any more about this. What they’re not understanding is, you know, I’m a part of an industry that has literally changed. I mean, completely changing things. Especially in, in developing countries, developing areas, developing nations you know, just like you said, getting them to where they have a power equity, where they have an abundance of power to sell.
But beyond that, they’re also getting a financial system that is, is independent. It’s not controlled by any single one government or entity. It is free from, from some of the tyrannies and some of the systematic discrimination that we have in our existing system. And it’s liberating. It is liberating people to changing their lives for the better. And I just can’t explain that in a, in a very simple or eloquent way to anybody, but this is what I’m proud of. This is the industry I’m, I’m part of. And I just feel like we’re so lucky to have you on today as our guest, John, can you let our listeners know a, what is a good way to reach out to you if, if they would like to learn more or collaborate with you in any way?
Absolutely. you should, they should definitely visit our website. We’re Soluna.io.
Can you put that up a sucky for everybody to see the Soluna.io?
Yeah, we’ve got a great series of emails that folks can, can connect with us on that’s, you know, hello at soluna.io. We we have we have a podcast as well, so you can get to know the team and what we’re learning. We try to we’re learning a lot about energy and, and you know the, the crypto space. And so we try to put sort of our learning out there in the open, so people can join us on the journey, if you will. We incurred it’s called the kingdom podcast by Luna, and definitely encourage folks to go and check that out. We have a blog as well on medium, where we share some of our thoughts and, and, and learning. And we also have a telegram channel as well, so Luna, so there’s lots of ways to, to, to connect with us.
We are interested in talking to folks who have lots of experience in energy, lots of experiences want to help go build you know, large utility scale facilities with us around the world to really help move renewable energy and the, you know, decentralized finance space in the right direction. And and so we’re always interested in talking to new and talented people. So please be from Austin. That is awesome. Thank you for joining us today, John, for a great know great, great podcast. Absolutely. Thanks. Thanks guys. Thanks for having me on, I really appreciate it as well. Thanks again. Alright. I guess Bitcoin keep going up. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Alright. Bye bye.