E033 The Blockchain World Needs PhDs! From Biotechnology to Bitcoin Wallet Recovery

December 6th 2020

Niels Zondervan is the founder and owner of the company Wallet Recovery NL. Niels is a scientist and an entrepreneur with a background in Biotechnology and Bioinformatics. During his four years as a PhD student, Niels worked at the department of Systems & Synthetic Biology at Wageningen University. His research focused on pathogenic bacteria such as M. tuberculosis, and M. pneumonia as well as Staphylococcus and Streptococcus species. These bacteria were studied using the integration of multi-omics data, dynamic modelling, and genome-scale modelling (GEM). After spending four-year in academia, Niels decided to switch his career path from academia to entrepreneurship to find a better balance between his professional and family life.

In 2019 he founded his consultancy company, Wallet Recovery NL (https://walletrecovery.nl) which provides: recovery services for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, blockchain forensics services, and expert advice on crypto and blockchain-related projects. In his free time Niels likes to be involved in boards, discussion groups, crypto projects, practice parkour, martial arts, play the piano and travel the world.

Niels’s company Wallet Recovery NL: https://walletrecovery.nl/🔥 (open for collaboration both with national and international clients)

Niels’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/niels-zondervan-71566828/

Bitcoin Wednesday Conference: https://www.bitcoinwednesday.com/

Free course on the blockchain (in English and Dutch):


Blockbar Den Hague, weekly meetings: https://www.blockbar.nl/

The episode was recorded on December 5th, 2020. This material represents the speaker’s personal views and not the opinions of their current or former employer(s).

Natalia 00:09 Hello, everyone. This is yet another episode of career talks. In these meetings, we talk with great, interesting persons in many industries who successfully transitioned from academia and are willing to share their fascinating stories with us. Today, I have the great pleasure to introduce Niels Zondervan. Niels is the founder and the owner of the company Wallet Recovery NL. Neils is a scientist and entrepreneur with a background in Biotechnology and Bioinformatics. During his four years as PhD Student, Niels worked at the Department of systems and synthetic biology at Wageningen University. His research focused on pathogenic bacteria such as M. tuberculosis, and M. pneumonia as well as Staphylococcus and Streptococcus species. 

These bacteria were studied using the integration of multi-omics data, dynamic modeling, and genome-scale modeling (GEM). After spending four years in academia, Niels decided to switch career path from academia to entrepreneurship to find a better balance between his professional and family life. In 2019, he founded his consultancy company Wallet Recovery NL which provides recovery services for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Blockchain, forensic services, and expert advice on crypto and blockchain-related projects. In his free time, Niels likes to be involved in boards, discussion groups, crypto projects, martial arts, and playing the piano. Fantastic to have you here with us. 

Thank you so much for joining. And thank you so much for coming. I’m very intrigued about your story, especially about work-life balance because I think if you set the company in the blockchain industry, it doesn’t sound like something that easily translates to good family life and work-life balance to me at least. If you can do that, then you’re a magician. I’m very curious about your story. I would like to now give the floor to you. I would be most happy to hear your story from your perspective.

Neils Zondervan 02:39 What you said already sums it up. I have a background in biotechnology and bioinformatics. I tried to do a PhD. And a PhD was a bit of a mixed experience. I think it was a great moment for growth. In the end, it has helped me to develop myself. But it was also a time of challenges because, at that time, I met my wife and we got married. I got two kids during my PhD. 

And I worked on three different European projects. And needless to say that combination of like getting two kids during your PhD, multiple projects, brought some difficulties, of course, because being a PhD is all-consuming. You have to focus all your energy on your career and your scientific progress in writing articles. And in the end, what helped me realize is that within academia, it’s quite hard to find that balance of having enough time for your family as well as doing a scientific career. 

During my PhD, I started a company together with some friends. We call it Big Bio Data. And together with two other PhDs, we worked on a company where we were planning to integrate all kinds of biological data and do amazing stuff with it. And in the end, what I learned is that the business part that we were working on was much more enjoyable for me than the PhD itself. I get into a little bit of a crisis during my PhD because you have all these different interests. You have partners within the European project who wants something. You have to be professional on something and you have to do something. 

After I described it, I basically realized that it was not really for me. It was time to move on leaving my academic career and start to build my own company. And I think for everybody who goes to similar transition, they notice that it’s not easy, especially if you’re used to be like successful in academia, you know, got very great results so far in my thesis. It’s a big step to say like, Okay, I’m gonna drop all that and I’m gonna do something completely different. 

No matter how exciting it is, it still also picks your mind like, is it a failure, is it am I doing the right thing because you have to change your mind. I started my own company whilst recovering now. And I’m now working with a company for like a bit more than a year. And it’s been a great journey. It’s like a rabbit hole of continuous exploration, meeting interesting people, and a lot of developments for myself. And interestingly enough, I find it much easier to combine entrepreneurship with family life than doing it easily with my family. You said there’s like a lot of stress within the blockchain industry, that’s true. But in my experience, the stress within a PhD career can often be more.

Natalia 05:46 That’s very interesting that you’re saying, maybe the difference is that now you don’t have a boss. There are a lot of calories to burn. There are a lot of duties and a lot of things to do, but at least you’re not dependent. In that sense, it maybe helps with family life. But I’m still amazed that you can say so, especially about the blockchain industry, that maybe for people who are watching this episode, it will be also good to mention what the blockchain is because, in public opinion, it’s still often masked with cryptocurrencies. I know that it’s not easy to explain in a few words what this is but if you could try to explain it to our viewers, then that would be great.

Neils Zondervan 06:37 I will try to give a brief explanation of what it is. And I can already tell you there are like 1000 opinions out there about what actually blockchain is and what crypto is. This is my take on things. I think the easiest way to explain it is by describing how Bitcoin works. I think most people heard of Bitcoin as this very famous cryptocurrency that proposed to have an alternative to, you know, government-controlled currency, such as euros and dollars. And it’s like one big letter or database which is shared among different people. 

Let’s say you have a normal banking system. I will ask my bank to do a transfer, for example, to some family I have in another country, and the bank will take care of that. And they do this using database. They make a change in their database and another bank adds some money to their database. It’s just zeros and ones moving around. But there’s a bit of a problem with that. The problem is that you have to trust the bank. And as we all know, that can be tricky because, at the moment, banks are printing huge amounts of money. 

That’s not something that you as a consumer or user of euros and dollars or money has any saying. Bitcoin is an alternative in the sense that it uses a distributed database meaning that everybody has the same copy of the same bookkeeping database of who owns what amount of money. 

And I think that was the start of the revolution, Bitcoin, but the real revolution is so much more because this idea of having a database system that is shared among many peoples creates a trustless environment. It means that I do not need to depend on a bank or a government or a central bank to trust them in making things right in saying that if I pay money, it actually will arrive. And therefore it can also be used for much more different things. It can be used to transform simple writing about lends or to make contracts with people about businesses and payments. It can be used to track movements such as logistics. 

Nowadays, people stay in this crypto revolution. The biggest part and the most important part of the revolution is Bitcoin. It has to have digital money. And other people say no, this digital truth, and yet you have a distributed ledger that’s shared between different actors. That’s the true power of blockchain. And that is much broader. It can be used in all kinds of industries. That’s what you see is happening at the moment. 

Blockchains are used to make sure that trade fair, that’s coffee farmers get paid enough that you have traceability of products. And my personal opinion on this is both truths are true. Bitcoin itself is a huge revolution. And I think many people are still investigating that they’re saying, No, it’s all the blockchain. It’s not about Bitcoin. Now, it’s not true. To have an alternative to government-controlled currencies is very powerful. And it’s the beginning of a new era. 

And in the way, you see this also happening globally right now because most governments switching now to government-controlled cryptocurrencies. All big countries like Europe, the US, China, and Japan are all working to change from having just the Euro that’s zeros and ones, to having, for example, a Euro that is actually on a distributed system. 

They need this because otherwise, people will not trust anymore the financial system. I think what you see right now that it is happening is validation or proof that those people say Bitcoin is a real revolution. That’s true. But on the same side, you see many interesting developments in the blockchain space that are going way beyond just using real payments, what I said the smart contracts, traceability, and all these things.

It’s a very exciting space to work in because there’s so much to do for basically all kinds of people. You don’t need to be a mathematician to do anything useful with Blockchain. You can also just be someone who implements a transport chain and put us on a blockchain. You can be somebody who buys and sells coffee and wants to prove that the price is fair for the farmers. 

You can have distributed ownership of houses using Blockchain, you can do many things. And I am also not a huge mathematician, I did dynamic modeling. I did some mathematical modeling during my PhD. But what I’m currently doing is hacking. I’m cracking people’s wallets. Let’s say that somebody has some bitcoins and they cannot access them anymore. They have a wallet which is an encrypted piece of software that hold our keys to their money. Then I can help them to translate what they think are their passwords to crack it and give them access again to the money. At the same time, you can also do all kinds of interesting analyses and science on the blockchain. You can analyze how people interact and how many people you are connecting to. 

For example, if you make payments, you can do forensics on the blockchain, and you can do some sort of detective work. It’s enhanced and incredibly whitespace. It has a place for people of all kinds of years backgrounds. For anybody who’s willing to explore there, I would greatly encourage it because it’s one of the big revolutionary technologies coming up now. I think you have like big data. You have AI, so artificial intelligence coming up, you have blockchain. Information science is becoming very interesting. And I think blockchain is a very important development in these changing technologies.

Natalia 12:10 Thank you so much for this explanation. It’s very in-depth and very informative. I fully agree with you that this is the future. And I have to proudly say that this week, we introduced payments in Bitcoin on the website of Welcome Solutions. I have to say that it’s still not very user-friendly, especially the Lightning Network, like the setup that still requires some technical skill. With that, I needed help. Shout out to Perry. Thanks so much for your help. I had a chance to get his help there. But with Bitcoin, it was much easier. But with the lightning, it’s still a job for a hacker.

Neils Zondervan 13:03 I agree. It’s developing technology. It’s not yet consumer-ready.

Natalia 13:08 I just wanted to say that I fully agree. It’s always my issue that like, I know a lot of people in blockchains just because I’m interested in it. I attend events and I kind of like the personalities of many people I know, in this space. I like the fact that they are so outgoing, brave and like visionary, and also hard working. And that’s what I like about people. I have to say that I myself invested a lot in crypto when I was at the end of my PhD and then I lost it all because I was very naive at that point. 

That was the first time when I was out of academia. Of course, there were a lot of people who probably saw my naive nature and persuaded me to do a lot of transactions that were not very good for me. In the end, the remaining of my money was stolen from some cryptocurrency exchange. Altogether, it was a disaster. It was like a speed growing up process.

Neils Zondervan 14:21 You must enter the crypto space. And it’s interesting that you talk about these non-successes. I think many people who started with crypto have done so, for example, the reason that I started my company while recovery now to recover crypto was that oh my god, I lost my passwords. I made a mistake. I did something very complex. 

When I was just before my PhD, I set up a very complex system, putting Bitcoin nodes on a virtual system with an encrypted drive with a password on top of it. Depositors partly copied and something went wrong. I had to hack myself and that’s why I created a company because I had to help myself which in the end was not that difficult. It took me two days off my PhD of real focus to just hack myself. But I think many people have these experiences. I think that in any mature system, you need to have people who help out with these kinds of problems. That’s the real initiation when I started this company. 

Nowadays, it’s much broader than just hacking people’s wallets. But that’s basically the startup result. I think that you really need to know what you’re doing once you start, especially using cryptocurrencies. Because normally, people are used to having a bank. And you can always call the bank like, Hey, guys, I made a mistake, I made a transfer, can you please refund it or move it back? Because you don’t have a bank, so you’re directly talking to the system. You are your own bank. It gives a huge amount of responsibility. You have to be very careful to make a move. I’m always advising people to not make an adverse decision. Somebody has a great talk, he transferred some money. Think about it for at least 24 hours, what am I doing? Maybe talk to friends. What do you think about this?

Natalia 16:04 I’m not bitter about blockchains and cryptocurrencies at all. For me, it was just this very harsh experience when I was out there in the real world for the first time. And I learned a lot from that. I think that I’m totally different person now than three or four years ago. And I think that I was financially dumb back then. 

And now I became much more aware. I also realized that there is nothing like, when you go online, and you look at these financial gurus that teach you about how to invest your money, every one of them has some secret strategy to sell, you know, this is the best way, this is the best way. But there is no best way because everyone has a different personality and you have to always adjust. For instance, I’m good at finding value and handling things. But I should never trade because I’m too impulsive for that. And it has nothing to do with intelligence.

Neils Zondervan 17:13 It’s also the danger of having a highly trained mind. As a PhD, we are quite smart. I think we can honestly say that without bragging. And it’s great. You are a very adaptive critical thinker. You can learn various things very quickly. For example, in the crypto space, I was not an expert when I started all this. But the danger is that because we have such a highly trained minds, we want to do something. I want to use it and I want to make decisions. And that’s one of the biggest dangers in trading. One of the best trading decisions is to do nothing. Something I learned the hard way is like, trading is not for me as well. If I advise people to get into Bitcoin, what I just advise is to invest in the amount that you are willing to lose because there is always some risk involved and you should not worry too much about it. 

If you invest your house into it while you’re worrying all the time, that’s not going to be a positive factor in your life. But if you’re investing an amount that you can lose, you can just forget about it. Wait a few years and I can tell you that there’s a very high chance that your value will greatly increase. Because especially with Bitcoin, you see it’s moving very much up and down. 

But every four years, you have this whole thing, and afterward, if it will go up, then at this moment, you’re also in such a moment near the point that we will make jumped probably to 100 1000s or a few on $1,000 per Bitcoin. If somebody wants to invest, I would advise just investing what you can miss for once. And don’t look at it. Just forget it for at least a year. And then look again and probably you have made the right decision and good investments. You actually have financial advice. Do your own research. 

Natalia 18:51 I would just constrain myself from making any advice financially. But for me, it’s interesting from the sociological point of view that blockchain is such a mixed bag that it attracts all kinds of people. It attracts people who are extremely greedy but also people who are extremely innovative. And when I had those hard times when I actually lost my money. I lost them because of blockchain people. But on the other hand, people who are buying me food and dinners when I most needed it, were also blockchain people. They are people I met people in space and who understood me best as well.

Neils Zondervan 19:37 That’s one of the biggest surprises I had when I moved out to academia. You hear many people who leave academia and especially if they start working for a company, many people are disappointed and that’s because they miss this kind of enthusiasm and open-mindedness that many people in academia have. There are a lot of smart, intelligent people around you That’s true. But to my surprise, what I found out is that people in both the entrepreneurship space as well as in the blockchain space are at least as open-minded as people I met during my PhD. They are very interesting personalities out there and a few that you have to be careful with because indeed there are opportunities for abuse. I’m using, for example, my skills to help people recover the coins. 

But I can tell you that there would be much more money in it for me if I would use my skills for negative because two out of the three clients who approached me, I have to reject simply because they come to me with a wallet. And they cannot prove that it’s their own wallet. They have no idea what the password is, meaning they somehow acquired it illegally on the black markets. 

Then I say, No, I’m not going to help you. But if it was just to earn money, I would help them. Because there’s a lot of profit in there. You have good actors and bad actors there. But one thing is for sure, you find a very interesting person. And it’s out there, people are very much thinking about society, about systems in general, I think you’ll find a lot of system fingers in the blockchain and crypto space. That’s really interesting and will help you develop yourself as well.

Natalia 21:12 Could you tell us a little bit more about your business? What does it normally look like? You already explained a little bit about what the business proposition is. What do you do? Why did you decide to focus on this particular subject? And how do your clients find you? How do you charge for your services? 

Neils Zondervan 21:43 Sure, I will because I find it also quite interesting. I started this business with a pure simple idea. What I had in my mind is I have a very simple use case, because most businesses are actually about simple things, not complex things and it’s often a big mistake. People who come from academia think I have to make something magical that connects many things together. And then you have a value proposition. And that’s not true. Most businesses actually fries because there’s a small gap and niche or they connect to things that were not connected before. Often, the simple thing works best. 

And in my case, what I want to connect is a few hacking skills with encrypted wallets. My idea is that you get a customer who has an encrypted wallet and he has some idea about passwords. And based on what he knows about passwords, for example, he uses his name John or Bennett and uses his birth dates. And sometimes he uses an underscore in his passwords or exclamation marks based on these patterns that he usually has in his password. It’s very easy to generate a pattern to try all kinds of passwords. 

I can generate maybe a million passwords and try them to unlock the wallet. Hacking is nothing more than just trying passwords at an incredible speed. I have a very powerful computer that does it for me. It can generate billions of passwords and try them to unlock wallets. For me, the ideal case is somebody who has a wallet and some idea about passwords. I throw in some software, I perform some tests based on what I know about passwords and I lock it. 

But what I actually found out is that it’s much broader than that. If you look at my customers this week, I had one guy who was a very simple case, he invested in crypto and I put in some password pattern and I correct him in 20 seconds. That’s how long it took for my computer to communicate with the person. It took me like maybe one or two hours to write emails with him to build trust. And in the end, I told him like okay, for 10% of the value in your wallets, I’m gonna help you out. And that’s basically my business model. I correct your wallet for 10% if it’s a normal simple case meaning if you have one bitcoin in there, I opened one Bitcoin and the rest I transfer back to them. 

But the reality is much more complex. Because the second customer I got this week, had an iPads having a wallet installed on there. And I bet they work with very closed environments that send boxes. It’s encrypted. At first, I had to hack the iPads. Now, here’s the thing. I never had an iPad before. It took me one day to figure out how do you hack an iPad. It’s a great first experience. But altogether, it makes the case much more complex and uses a wallet type that I was not familiar with, and now communicating with the developers of the wallet to find out what kind of encryption they used. This idea of the thing is a very simple concept. It’s a great start but has no guarantee that you experience the business. And of course, more diverse cases always find people who needed to trace transactions or bad actors on the Bitcoin blockchain. That’s doing digital forensics, tracing people, general hacking but also security advice, giving companies advice on how to help consumers easily manage those keys to their wallets.

Because that can be quite dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. And in the end, you want to have a very easy customer experience as well as great security. In the end, it’s much more diverse than what I started off with. And I think that’s often what happens in business. You have to be flexible. One trick is that in academia, people always think I’m, like my academic achievements, or my papers, the projects I did and you take pride in that. 

And in business, it’s completely different. People don’t care. It doesn’t even matter if you have a PhD. You need to know enough to sell that you can do something. You need to have credibility. The network is a very important word of mouth. And then if people know that you are this very smart and adaptive person who can solve many kinds of problems, they come to you, even if you don’t know how to solve the problem to start with. And then they come to you with a problem. I say, Okay, this is what it will take for me to solve your problem. 

And I learn it. That’s the great skill of having a PhD. It’s not the paper writing but it’s just knowing that you are very good at problem-solving. That’s how the business grows. And that’s a different mindset. I had to change from focusing on getting everything 100%, right, being perfectionistic, getting papers that are taking an endless amount of time in academia to saying, No, I take the 80 20% rule, 80% is good enough, I need to know 20% to sell it. And then I need to be able to increase my skills to 80% to solve the problem. The other parts I just leave out because most people don’t need perfection in the business.

Natalia 26:44 I couldn’t agree more. That’s something I’m still learning. I think it also depends a bit on your client as well. When you write a book that is meant for PhDs, I know that they actually, require high-level writing. If they find linguistic mistakes, they pointed them out. When I read self-help books for the population, they contain a lot of mistakes but they still have good reviews just because the general population is not as attentive to detail as PhDs. I have to actually take care of it.

Neils Zondervan 27:27 I was thinking about the book as well. If you’re starting to write your own book, for this kind of people, you need to go at least 90% level with your profession because you had critical people. But for me, one of the reasons why I left academia is because I like the thinking phase. I’m a plant in development test. I like to create ideas. And then I want to quickly move on to just testing it roughly and going to value proposition making something out of that. That was what I was missing in academia a little bit. And certainly academia, people. 

They’re often working on interesting things but they ignore the interesting things. When you have a great discovery you found out that there’s something very interesting correlation, then that might change the way we think about things. The first thing that you will worry about colleagues is, do you certainly know that you do enough statistical tests to know what is this and what is that and that is partly a good attitude because it leads to perfection in having very well built articles. But at the same time, it really hinders progress. In my opinion, academia is a very non-progressive field just because they’re so conservative. 

Instead of like spending, you know, a little bit of time and getting like spending 20% of the time to get 80% of the results and finding out something interesting, instead to go for the 100%. Meaning that you have to spend an additional 80% of your time. For me, that was very frustrating, you know, endless reviews of papers. I’m not interested in that. After I write the concept, I did an initial analysis and found something interesting, and wrote the draft. For me, it’s done. And I think that’s just a difference in attitudes and mindsets. 

That’s also very important. If you’re a PhD and you get out of academia, don’t be negative about yourself. Many people think that, oh, I failed or it’s a mistake or doubt. You have great minds and probably you’re good at presenting information and writing information. Switch from that negative attitude. It’s often seen as looking at what’s maybe not good or not perfect to thinking about that. If you move into entrepreneurship, and you have these very mediocre or dear people obviously but that’s part of the idea I really like. 

They find that part of your idea which is really adding value and they focus on that. And personally, I appreciate that it’s a kind of mindset to focus on the positive things because it quickly helps you to reinvent yourself again and again and to move on and then you move towards your ideal business idea and you can start. That’s also how it went with my business. I didn’t start immediately jumping into the blockchain. I also thought about moving into junior Information Science. I did some dabbling with artificial intelligence and big data just because I found it such an interesting field. Then I moved into blockchain a little bit and I found out that even more revolutionizing than Big Data and Information Science and I decided to create mine. 

Natalia 30:25 Why do you think there are a few PhDs in blockchains? There’s actually you are the first person who I’m talking to here on this channel, who is in the blockchain industry. And honestly speaking, it was hard for me to find just anyone. Although I think I easily can say that I know a few 100 people at least, I don’t really think that there are many PhDs in this industry. Why do you think that it might be a case?

Neils Zondervan 30:53 You’re ready to as I think about all the connections I made, you know, two or three out of 100 who actually are having a PhD, some of them multiple, by the way. But I think the reason for this is that for people who went to academia and then into PhD, it’s like a narrow funnel. You get more and more specialized but also you get more closed off. You get more insecure about yourself. The longer you stay in academia, the more doubtful you are to move out and the more you’re fixed in this idea that academia is the true path to take. And that’s not the case if you are having a PhD. You’ve learned to do a little bit of programming, a little bit of data analysis, and a little bit of logical thinking and you didn’t neglect your social skills and networking skills. Basically, you can do anything. 

And with Blockchain that means I didn’t have any background in the blockchain. You know, I just learned everything myself within one year. I read some nice books about mastering Bitcoin. If you really want instant Bitcoin. Oh, yeah, lately about open source intelligence techniques. I’m certainly learning how to do digital forensics online. And I think there are two lessons to take here, it’s not about what you can do already. It’s about what you are able to quickly learn. And this is a great thing. If you have a PhD, you can very quickly adapt. And I’m not the only example. If you look at my wife, she also did PhD. She’s now working at the home applied university. She knows a bit about blockchain for me. And she decided, well, that’s interesting. 

She looked at it. And at the moment, she’s developing one course in big data visualization and one in the blockchain. It’s not because she had a background in it but just because she has a PhD. And I think that’s basically the mindset that you need to keep in mind that you are this versatile kind of person if you are moving out of academia. You can do great things with that in academia. But trust me, you can also do great things in corporate roles in entrepreneurship. The only downside is that you have to turn down a little bit of position. A company doesn’t automatically trust you often. 

After one or two years, they say, Okay, you have great management skills and understanding of actually what you’re doing. You move up the ladder. And personally, I just went back to corporate roles. I decided to go into entrepreneurship meaning that you have for one year, hardly any earning that’s on warning, and we really don’t expect to earn much money in our first year. It’s nearly impossible. Then you move up because you have the network that you build yourself, you discover yourself and then you can do great things. That’s my experience.

Natalia 33:30 Great. This lack of PhDs in blockchains bugged me a lot because when you think about the fundamentals, then they are very close. Academia is now all about sustainability, fairness, and openness. And that’s exactly what blockchain is all about. 

Neils Zondervan 33:50 It’s gonna be fairer than a blockchain, findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable. In a blockchain, everybody shares the same truth and that’s the true power of the blockchain. Now, I think you’re really right there.

Natalia 34:01 I think it’s because the blockchain industry indeed requires a lot of self-navigation skills. And I can tell again, wherever there is like to be truthful, like wherever there is a lot of money, there is also a lot of random people and it just attracts all kinds of people and also the lizard brain starts working right for most people who are there. And I think this’s like a mixed bag. 

And you need some amount of time and experience to be able to find the right people for the right projects. To me, it also took a while. Now, I have great friends. I know at least a few people who I can discuss with and learn from and I am very competent and close to the real development in the blockchain. They’re not just these business developers, whom schools just call talking heads, but they contribute to this innovation. But it took a while. 

This dump is just not easy because this whole field is not established. And I also think that since it’s developing so fast, you have to be very good at selecting information. Because when you open the news website with crypto blockchain, it’s flooded with information every day. And every day there are projects that are created and projects that fall. It’s changing so quickly. My question for you is, how do you keep up with this changing world? Because it’s just morphing so fast.

Neils Zondervan 35:44 I think a few pieces of advice on that. One is to use the network. Don’t trust online videos. Don’t go to YouTube because you end up in all kinds of trading videos. Before you know it, you’re spending a lot of time trading and losing money because the more you change, the more you spent often. Instead, go to physical meetings as you have. 

For example, Bitcoin Wednesday, and Amsterdam is really great gathering of very intelligent people from all kinds of the blockchain space. It’s one of the best places to start to just get a broad idea. I started by going to Bitcoin Wednesday, and reading, and mastering Bitcoin. A great book was written by Scott, Antonopoulos, a very famous guy in the blockchain, and afterward, it all started attending meetings. None of the blockchains is bitcoin and crypto meetings of people were interested in this. 

And by talking to people you learn a factor of 100 more than what you could ever learn in these videos online. This’s how you quickly get to the truth of things because we’re together also as truth and you know, we are a distributed network of truth. If you talk to your network to all these people out here, you really get an idea of like, what products are interesting which ones are actually bullshit or fishy. Then you can decide to also put focus on things. In my case, I focused on security, like how you manage private keys that get access to your money, how to give security advice, blockchain forensics, and these kinds of things. 

But I did not really dabble yet with decentralized finance which is a very interesting field, by the way, if you want to earn quick money. My advice would be to learn how to do carry-on contracts. You have to like that. I think there’s a lot of money in there. But to be honest, I find the more traditional fields such as Bitcoin, maybe even more interesting. I think that’s very important that you have to choose like, what you want to embrace and just do your part in that you can never do everything perfectly or understand everything perfectly. 

And for the things that do not understand perfectly, that’s the great thing. I just have people in my network. It wants something to know about the various coins. I just know this guy who knows a lot about coins. If you want to know something about the theory of smart contracts, I know two guys who are super knowledgeable on this. Don’t try to be the Smarty Alex which stipulates a PhD mentality. You need to be able to do everything wrong. You are your network. You just need to know this little bit of context to help you further develop your skills. 

Natalia 38:28 I couldn’t agree more. I think especially in blockchains, most of the interesting things happen beyond the media. And I totally agree. I think I couldn’t agree more that it’s so important to filter out information. For a few years, I don’t watch the evening news at all because mostly catalyst catastrophes politicians are doing in the media. It has nothing to do with the real economy. And that’s what I’m interested in. I filter for whatever is important. Then my friends and family will turn me on the phone. I don’t know, about Corona, I probably learned with like a week or two weeks delay, but you know, I learned about it because it became such a big thing that I couldn’t miss it.

Neils Zondervan 39:14 You’re working on the news every day that actually makes you more knowledgeable or more capable of dealing with I think, you know, Facebook is the number one destroyer of quality time and doing something useful in your life. I’ve already said many years ago that I just use it to connect to friends but don’t actually use it. I think it’s like a second way. We are very information-hungry people, especially those of academic backgrounds. Be careful what you feed your brain. Because if you feed a lot of garbage or scattered information, you’re not helping yourself. 

Natalia 39:51 Again, I couldn’t agree more. And I’d like to ask you again a little bit about your business. First of all, how does it work? How can potential clients find you? And do you take a down payment? Or is the payment only when the bitcoin is recovered? And what is your success rate? Let’s say I have a broken desk like what’s my chance? Shall I have hopes? Or is it a lottery?

Neils Zondervan 40:18 It’s very hard to estimate these things because everything depends on specifics. Let’s start with the procedure. The procedure is very simple, somebody contacts me, and he or she explains the situation because the situation depends on giving the context of how difficult something is going to be. And it’s something that somebody has just a wallet and needs to be recovered. I did say like, okay, for 10% of the value, I will crack it. But it means only no cure, no pain. If I can recover your money, I will demand my fee, or basically, I have extra money. 

I’ll just follow like 10% to myself and 90% to the clients, and then it’s done. And then I get some free advice on how to properly manage the security because I think once you move to crypto and security, you like to help people and not let them be abused by negative actors. But I also do consultations. For a consultation, I’m just using an hourly rate. And if it gets very complex, for example, hardware wallets, hacking is very complex. I’ll charge more for that. That’s basically the procedure. And I think the success rate is very difficult because it depends on how much money’s involved and also the type of wallet. That’s some case I couldn’t solve in the past.

Natalia 41:38 I would like to ask you one thing about wallet recovery. I personally know people who have happened to have a broken disc but they have this fear that they will get the feedback that it’s not recoverable. They’re afraid to try because for them, at this moment, they still have hope. And it’s a bit like shredding if you don’t know, then it’s a bit like your Bitcoin might be alive. They prefer to leave this hope than to go to a specialist like you. I cannot understand it. For me, it’s really hard to digest because the more time you take, and the more you wait, the less likely that you recovered because this disc is also naturally aging. I always try to just do it.

Neils Zondervan 42:39 My personal advice is to as quickly as possible, use a very, you know, noticeable company for this recovery. I can do a little bit. But I personally don’t advise doing that. Simply because I’m not the best professional out there. There are some professional companies in the Netherlands that can give you the best recovery service, like really high-end machinery to recover hardest, and maybe it costs far from viewers, but to be honest, I’m willing to bet 1000 euros on something that has a higher chance of success and leaving something on the plank, and most likely it will destroy things because we need hard drives that just can magnetize a stone and slowly decay. 

One thing that needs to be done like today, if I would advise it is to start recovering whatever is on the hard drive. And now the data that’s on there, like you know the bits, that can be correct. That doesn’t mean, okay if you have it somewhere backed up on two or three USB sticks on your email, it doesn’t matter. That will not lower your chance of success in recovery. 

That is the first initial step that recovery should be taken today and then correcting it. This’s something that can be done now. But it can also be done later. I mean, computational power increases. What I say to clients who are now not successful, because I had some clients that I even you know, even for 10 years just because I wanted to hack it, I didn’t I think something like 100 billion passwords, not really economically feasible to do that because it costs me money and time. 

But I did it and now it’s not possible to crack it and the value in there is not so much but maybe in a few years, the computer speed is within a factor of 10 or 100 faster. And also the value of Bitcoin is probably like affected by 10 or 100 more and it will be worthwhile. But you have to start the recovery. To this friend, I would strongly advise starting now because it’s better to work with reality and I was hoping than just throw it away because leaving something like this is strongly the way because we are in the greatest year for very great certainty that for 10 years that’s the kind of coverage.

Natalia 44:43 That’s exactly what I always tell them to just do something.

Neil Zondervan 44:49 Whether you hire me or not please just do me a sign as do me a favor as you know, like security guy and someone who’s interested about Bitcoin just doesn’t throw it away. I don’t like things to go wrong.

Natalia 45:01 What was maybe just to ask you one more question about your business? What was your biggest surprise? What kind of difficulties and what kinds of surprises did you meet on your way ever since you started this company?

Neils Zondervan 45:17 I think my biggest surprise is that you start off with some idea. And oftentimes, that is not reality. I mean, life is what happens to you and business is what happens to you. That’s just amazing. I mean, if you would have asked me, like, one year ago, where I would never envision that I’m now able to help people, you know, follow people online. I’m trying to convert the whole blockchain into a database. I could have never thought that I would start doing this kind of project. 

But once you start, like diving into the rabbit hole that’s called blockchain in crypto, quickly develop yourself and do things that are much more surprising. And I think the second surprise was for me to people, it’s like, I think they’re one of the greatest assets of the space once you know the right people there. You go to meetings and you know which people are actually trustworthy and friends. It’s a great essence in your life both on the friends level as well as the technical level that you know people who can help you out with things. 

One of the big advantages which we didn’t discuss yet is how helpful this is for my family because, you know, all these things that I’m talking about, like, discovering Bitcoin, blockchain, and many other crypto projects, and I’m not even talking about right now. I think I did it within two and a half days of work per week. Now, I’m actually taking care of my two kids. This is one of the reasons that I moved out of academia. I needed to also take care of my kids and it worked out. It’s not about the amount of time you spend, the most quality time. I’ve two opinions about what you need to work hard. 

For some things, you need to work hard and spend a lot of time. But for other things, especially in business, you need to work smart. And that sometimes means that you just need to not work, take a day’s leave, for example, and get back to the problem and solve it. That’s my thing. That’s what I find different for most businesses, like taking the time to develop your ideas to make strategic decisions because if you don’t take the break to make the right strategic decision, it’ll end up with you losing a lot of time and money. Try to also think about well being balanced in life because you needed to reinvent yourself. That’s the thing we’re doing. We’re continuously reinventing ourselves.

Natalia 47:39 Fantastic. Lastly, I like to ask you a little bit about the general advice and also about your plans for your PhD thesis. Is this ever gonna happen? And if so, when can we expect it? For me, it was very hard to finish my thesis after I already decided that I’m going my own way. I started helping people with careers. I just didn’t have that motivation anymore. That was something that I felt like bleeding while doing because I already knew that this was a dead-end project for me. How does it feel for you? And also, what would you like to advise to all these PhD candidates who would like to try something new.

Neils Zondervan 48:29 It’s very recognizable as that’s the first thing. I noticed once that it’s been like a PhDs and it’s like the trick. The more you invest in something, the harder it is to stop something. And a piece that is really true, and that you really give your all because you’re emotional, you really get into it. And it makes it harder and harder to stop it. If you move out of academia, you suddenly realize, like, why have I been doing this? why have I been spending like 200 or 300% of my energy on this? I’m only willing to spend 60% of my energy on this because there’s real-life out there that I want to enjoy. And there’s more. For me, that was also a bit of a difficulty. I still like to finish my PhD so I can call myself Dr. crypto. 

But it’s more than sensuality anymore. Because once you get a PhD, you think it’s the world. Once you’re outside of the PhD, you suddenly see it’s just a part of it. I’m working on it. I recently submitted a paper but I find within myself the struggle that I do not want to invest more time into it. It’s also because I changed my mindset already. My supervisors like to go to 100%. They want 100% perfection. Shouldn’t you change this and make this another graph on another bench? 

And I’m already thinking about the 80 to 20% rule thing which means we tend to cling to the energy and I can get 80% of the results. I’m not willing anymore to give that 100% or 200% of energy. What advice I would give to people who are getting out of academia is I think what you really want is you are not a PhD. Sometimes, it’s good to take a step back. And it doesn’t mean that you should not finish your PhD. It’s not about success or failure. 

Many people associate not finishing a PhD with failure. And that’s not true. I mean, if you’re an investor, the first thing you do is lose the investment. If you know that your value is decreased to 80%, then it will only go down. And the smart investor, the one who actually makes money will say, Okay, I drop it, I take my loss of 20% and I start something new. And I think in life, it’s something similar. You have to realize that saying no, or backing down, sometimes walking the path backward before you continue on your life journey is sometimes best to do. Keep in mind that sometimes the best way forward is to take a step back. 

Natalia 50:58 I’m curious about your future also. Is this wallet recovery project something you’re planning to do for the next 10 years? Or do you also have some other thoughts in mind?

Neils Zondervan 51:13 This is something I can always do on the site, especially because you get more and more knowledge. You get software execution development. And each time, I have a difficult case for a client, I developed software and packages and instruction manuals for the household for the next client. When you see the initial investment time and it’s always indigenous, initially, you invest more than once. It’s basically working hard parts. But then slowly, you get the hang of things and you start growing your network, and the amount of time spent on getting actual clients and building your knowledge decreases. 

That’s the point you want to get to. You want to have a few valuable services or products that you can offer which deliver you a bit of steady income with little effort. The nice thing is that it frees up space for new projects. What I’m looking forward to is that I already have invested in many other interesting cryptocurrencies and projects that I want to develop. When I mentioned, for example, to make open-source software to convertible Bitcoin blockchain is a database which you can use to ask scientific questions, as well as for forensic purposes, I’m 100% certain that just as soon as time starts emerging, it’s already happening slowly. 

I’ll start to take on new projects. You take a bit of a break. They have emptiness and we didn’t add in something new arises. And that’s also again, a lesson with net inertia. First, you need to often go into a crisis and create this empty space before something new is going to rise. You can often not jump from, you know, 80-hour working week into an 84-hour working week in business. You need to get a crisis first. Take a bit of rest and then go back into like, Okay, what is that I actually want to do. That’s at least my experience.

Natalia 52:54 You have to start questioning yourself. For me, it was also the same way that after my contract expired, I took a gap year. And it was not very much of a vacation because I was doing a lot of projects. I even got one white paper for one blockchain project. But unfortunately, it was one of these projects that never really took off. It was, in some ways, a lesson that you don’t always profit from doing a project, especially for sharing with people who might be smart but are not necessarily going to succeed with the project just because there are just projects. 

That relates to the fact that you have to know the right people and take on the right projects. I think this choice actually has a lot to do also with the ways you should choose academic projects because the more experience you have, the better you are picking the project. Every project has the same potential. Some of them have like natural potential straight away and some other are published in the High Impact Factor journals and will never get attention. The more projects you do, the better you are at estimating the odds. And it’s the same with blockchains. But it needs a lot of time. And I agree with you. It’s more about who you know and getting the right information than bombing everything that is out there.

Neils Zondervan 54:33 End product is not the blockchain product you do but it’s that you’re building yourself. That’s the true project product. I think that’s also what you need to think about with a PhD. As a PhD, your professors may be higher than the European project you’re part of and then you’re actually a PhD and that’s wrong. You should be the master of your own PhD. 

Because within the projects I worked on already so often in the beginning that there were some flaws, some serious issues. And if they cannot be addressed, the project gets lower and its success rate decreases, and the amount of energy you need to put into it increases. Something that’s very valuable to develop from your PhD is just as critical thinking and also intuitive thinking that you can start to estimate these things. And the same thing happens in the blockchain space. 

Every failure is a success story. It’s just like the same entrepreneurship because through the process, you learn a lot and you become a much better and more knowledgeable person. The true product is the skill that you will develop in a time. And for me to say, I’m not my company, I’m my own product. If I want to change and do something new, I’m quite certain that I will be much better at it right now than a year ago.

Natalia 55:46 But I think this is a trend right now. It’s even employees that work for corporations. You always have to take care of your own expertise and public image. And even if you are employed, people still write blogs and are active on LinkedIn to build their network and to build recognition. Because after all, this is what gives you more opportunities and then makes you visible to people in a broader network not just within your company, and also gives you network safety. 

The more people you know, the more profile interprofessional teams, the more opportunities you will get. You’re building yourself as a professional in your image. You cannot escape this today, whatever you do, whenever you’re an entrepreneur or freelancer, or you have a seemingly safe position in a big company, you still have to in some ways, make the world know what you do and also have a concept of who you are as a professional. 

Neils Zondervan 56:59 I think the past was people working in office spaces just on the desktop and doing their own thing. The future is this, people are all a little bit entrepreneurial and you’re all developing yourself continuously by learning a new skill. I mean, we’re living in a digital world. I mean, the corona crisis taught us that as well. Everybody has to adjust. We learned how to do meetings online and connect and share knowledge. And I think that’s the future. 

I think more and more we move away from traditional spaces like everybody’s in physical space together in one fiscal structure of a company, everybody will be more likely to inspire to a network of people that are connected to dabbling in business, one dabbling in product to helping another entrepreneur, helping another business and having maybe a main job somewhere where they work. It might even not be physical. They might just be working on the computer. 

Natalia 57:48 I have exactly the same prediction that I think also in like 10 or 20 years, people will more define themselves by problems they solve than positions they have. Today, when you as a person, what you do for a living. They’re usually saying, I’m a writer, or I’m a programmer. It’s associated with the type of activity they do. But I think in 10 years since we are all like mission-driven, it will be more. I work on behalf of improving decentralization in finance or I work on helping people with careers and that will actually entail 20 different types of activities that altogether aim at the same purpose. 

Neils Zondervan 58:28 It’s much broader. And you know, PhDs often think like one thing, I’m a specialist in one particular situation and in analyzing nonsense. You’re a critical thinker who can work on large European projects and can communicate with or ask if presentations can rise and can critically think and develop themselves meaning that you’re like a spider web. You can do anything with a bit of effort, of course. 

Natalia 58:53 For PhDs who are thinking of getting familiar with the Blockchain industry and potentially working there, what kind of advice could you give them to start? I’m asking this question because I often feel it’s really hard to contribute. If you want to contribute to the blockchain industry in some ways, you have to do one of two things or both. You have to either be a programmer and get involved in programming new protocols or networks in blockchains. 

You have to be an educator or a talking head right to know the whole industry well enough so that you can represent this industry in some ways and either educate the public opinion or write some educational materials or in some ways become a public person. Are there any other ways if you’re not the type of talking head and if you’re not the type of showman and you don’t really feel like you’re a world-class programmer, either. 

Neils Zondervan 1:00:07 I think there’s like nearly a limited amount of ways to contribute. The first thing I would always advise to start exploration by going to meetings. I attend, for example, every Friday block our den Hague, which is now online. There’s a discord group. And it’s fascinating. You find many different types of programmers, billers, educators, and just all and together. We know a lot individually. We know a little bit together. We know lots and lots about Bitcoin Wednesday. I always advise the clients that one of the best starts is don’t trust everybody because they’re also some people who are just looking for prey. 

But in general, 90% of the people are very interesting to talk to. I met bankers there and I used discussions with programmers people into mining people or programming. But you can be anything. Some of the interesting projects that I like to monitor are the queen project, for example. many people contribute in different ways. So we have, for example, some very great progress there. But people who are able to make a nice logo, or a bit of criticism on the website that’s actually poorly designed, or on the total lack of marketing, or how to design a wallet. There are many ways to contribute that are way beyond the technical. 

Some people are just salespeople. Some people like our group on Twitter. Some people like to design interfaces. Some people are creative. Some people even just meditate. They just mediate different discussions because some technical people were brilliant in our minds can sometimes be very non-constructive in our discussions because of just too many ego goals. And in this way, I think you can create value very easily in many fields, no matter what your background is. 

Now there’s one difference the creating value. And there’s of course a difference between creating value and earning money. I think that one is a little bit trickier. There are plenty of companies where you can contribute something and you can do something useful. But you cannot earn money automatically. I mean, especially you know, in 2017, two big booms within Bitcoin and crypto space. Afterward, there was the crypto writer as they call it because there was disillusion and people oversold blockchain in general. There were a lot of projects started which are just bullshit and easy monographs. 

Now, I think we get into the mature phase. In that sense, I think it’s a good time to get into blockchain because blockchain is now moving towards the point that it’s not a hype anymore. It’s real. And you see it emerging everywhere. I mean, I think just yesterday, or the day before I saw, they’re gonna use it for managing lands in Afghanistan, putting all the plots of land on the people in Afghanistan on there because you need to have a trustless environment there. You cannot easily trust the local governments to take care of this coffee sector. I’m drinking very great coffee. Also, they do traceability on the blockchain. You can even dip via the blockchain saying, I like this company so much. I’m giving one year to the farmer directly. That’s the way that you can have a direct impact on their lives. 

I think that there are so many opportunities and interesting ideas arising. That’s a good idea. If you like blockchain to move into space and to start exploring, start meeting interesting people. And before you know it, you’re talking about business ideas. And even if not talking about business ideas, you can do amazing things and learn.

Natalia 1:03:41 You mentioned this distinction between working in an industry and creating value because there’s a big difference. And indeed, most PhDs are purpose-driven but also value creators. That actually matters. That was exactly my question because indeed, you can easily find jobs, but not every one of these jobs. Some of these jobs are no different than office jobs in companies like traditional companies. 

We always have this desire to improve something to something new. In this case, there’s somebody here to enter so you have to first learn enough and meet the right people again. But if you’re patient enough, then you will get there. Thank you so much for joining us today and for your fantastic explanation of blockchain and the blockchain industry. And I couldn’t agree more with anything you were saying. It’s also a surprise to me that we have so similar views on how the job market is changing. 

Neils Zondervan 1:04:53 it’s also because we’ve done similar paths. I think everybody who went through PSD faces a crisis to rebuild themselves to explore. I think we all come to similar realizations about those things that are good and bad because it’s not negative about academia. And academia can also do great things. I think if you want to write projects, you have the right people that might supervise you and that can be a great experience. But if things are a little bit friction, there are some bad combinations that happened with me. It’s just no life happened. It’s not somebody to blame. It just gets projects, different opinions in there, and things that are making the workouts as I wanted. That made me move out. 

And I think that anybody who follows Paul has similar realizations. I read the first two tips now of your book. And I couldn’t agree more. I think anybody who has similar experiences will benefit from these kinds of talks and also from reading these kinds of books because this is just the path that you are walking once you get on this. From out there, it’s just your own exploration, your own discoveries, and well, maybe just not only having, you know, groups to talk about blockchain and crypto, maybe you should also have groups just to talk about these things to just share our experience on how to move on life or how to create value and how to find a purpose.

Natalia 1:06:21 I have to say that my little contribution to blockchains, like I didn’t make any major contribution so far. But my main minor contribution was that I smuggled quite a few pro blockchain sentences into this book. This’s what I can do for distributing information about blockchain. For me, I stopped thinking about algorithms and now I have a plan of what I want to do with my company. And I don’t see a clear way how I could contribute to blockchains. At the moment, that’s why I just keep it open. But I still keep in touch with friends because I just liked them. 

And they are very interesting people in how this field is developing. Sometimes, it’s hard for me, like, on my mind, when I see what I lost, you know, five in financial terms because so it’s sometimes it just hurts to see that I could have been financially free by now, if not what happened, but I still want to know how it’s going to develop. And maybe at one point, I will also find a way to contribute but I also learned that you cannot force things. 

Neils Zondervan 1:07:39 I think contributing is very broad. It’s contributing as a PhD. We often think like, you need to have paper or white paper, in this case, to contribute, or you need to have a crypto project to contribute. But that’s not true. Just existing in the space communicating with people, that’s what creates value. What I said is groups that I’m meeting with, continuously create value and it continues to shape and sharpen our own minds and each other’s minds. I think that we need to move away from this idea of just creating financial and very fixed success and creating more like the network success. I mean, come on, that’s what blockchains are about a network of distributed consensus.

Natalia 1:08:24 I will try to close this meeting. Once again, you know, I’m Polish and we Polish people are known for always saying goodbye 10 times. I’ll tell the same, like ending once again. Thank you so much for joining us today and for all this valuable information. And I wish you all the best with your business. And I’d like to see, let me know if you when you graduate like I hope that I can tell you that I mean finishing PhD disease and all this bureaucracy is related to the defense. Indeed, it’s not easy to take on your chest if you already have something important going on in your life, like a company. But it’s also a lot of relief when it happens. It’s good at the end of the day. It’s like a project that took a few years of your life and a lot of dedication. Once it comes to the end, you will feel a lot of satisfaction, even though you don’t go this way anymore. 

Neils Zondervan 1:09:39 I hope so too. I’m working on it. I mean, I’m just not prioritizing and just making our lives but I hope to see that future as well. 

Natalia 1:09:48 All the best and thank you. Thank you guys for watching and for getting to the end of this meeting. And if you would like to get more of this type of content, please subscribe to the channel. We would like to welcome all the comments and questions you might have so we’ll go through the comments and we’ll attempt to answer your questions. Have a great day, everyone.

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Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2020, December 6th). E033 The Blockchain World Needs PhDs! From Biotechnology to Bitcoin Wallet Recovery? Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/career-development-strategies-e033-the-blockchain-world-needs-phds-from-biotechnology-to-bitcoin-wallet-recovery/

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