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Interview

Edilson Osorio: A Brazilian startup in Estonia

A São Paulo entrepreneur expands into the Baltic nation and leads the digital governance sector

An expert in information security, infrastructure and blockchain, Osorio has been in the field for 25 years

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When 45-year-old computer scientist Edilson Osorio founded a digital governance and information authentication startup in 2015, he had no idea that he would soon move his business to Estonia—a former Soviet republic on the shores of the Baltic Sea, in northern Europe. About the size of the Brazilian state of Espírito Santo and boasting a population of 1.3 million, the nation is one of the most advanced in terms of digital governance––the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) by governments, companies, and organizations to help speed up processes and make people’s lives easier.

Through state-of-the-art technologies, such as blockchain and cryptography, OriginalMy has developed several digital tools that prove the authenticity of documents, individuals, data, and records. “The platform we developed six years ago was very advanced and little understood in Brazil,” explains Osorio.

The company’s headquarters was moved to Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, in 2018, but its presence is still significant in Brazil, where much of its revenue comes from. The startup also has clients in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and has even represented Estonia in international events—including the World Summit Awards, a United Nations initiative that rewards high impact digital solutions for social development.

In a video interview from Tallinn, Edilson Osorio answered questions from Pesquisa FAPESP. Check out the highlights below.

What does OriginalMy do, exactly?
We are a digital governance and information authentication startup. Our company’s mission is to prove the authenticity of documents, contracts, individuals, records, and data using state-of-the-art technologies, such as encryption and blockchain. Our platform was designed to fight paperwork bureaucracy, fraudulent documentation, and fake news. This technology is only around because of blockchain, a kind of digital ledger that stores data in a decentralized format for each participant of a given transaction. Blockchain makes records immutable and processes completely transparent (see Pesquisa FAPESP no. 278). The information it records cannot be changed or is at least very difficult to change. The process is transparent, and anyone can verify it.

What are the benefits of the tools you offer?
They are useful for businesses, governments, organizations, and society in general because they are transparent, reduce costs, and allow anyone to verify the authenticity of documents, signatures, and individuals at any time. In many cases, our platform replaces notary publics in Brazil, while in others, it cannot, because the law dictates that certain things can only be handled by notary publics. These institutions are part of Brazilian culture and have a key social role: proving that things are real. But, despite recently absorbing digital solutions, Brazil’s notary public model is outdated. We offer a kind of technology that authenticates documents and recognizes signatures and individuals and it can, in some cases, eliminate the need to physically go to the notary’s office.

Why did you decide to move the startup to Estonia?
Mainly because of regulatory issues. When I founded OriginalMy, our authentication platform was very advanced and little understood in Brazil. Nobody really understood what blockchain was, and people often associated the term with cryptocurrencies, a concept that was also unclear at the time. This has caused upheaval and much resistance from some public institutions and regulatory entities. There have been attempts to block our company from operating. We were threatened, and it became very difficult to raise funds to help the company grow. It got to a point where it was no longer viable to keep the business in Brazil, so our lawyers advised us to move abroad. We looked for jurisdictions around the world that understood this technology and did not see it as something illegal. Estonia caught our attention, as it had already made an effort to regulate blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Moreover, it is a nation where digital governance is extremely advanced: 99% of its public services take place online, including voting. Choosing Estonia was a natural decision. Since then, we have been headquartered in a technology hub, the Lift99, in the Telliskivi neighborhood near downtown Tallinn.

What was the move to Estonia like?
It all started in early 2018 when I joined the e-residency program, which allows any foreigner to start a business in Estonia. It doesn’t give you the right to live here, but you can get a digital ID, start the company, and manage it remotely. Months later, I joined another government program called Startup Visa, which allows you to physically set up your company in the country. We were one of the first startups approved by the program. Setting up OriginalMy here went very smoothly. There was zero bureaucracy and the cost of operation is very low. The regulatory aspect is also much clearer; people understand what we do. It also brought me closer to the European market, so I can easily do business with customers from any European country. Plus, it has one more benefit: the government gives the company a lot of support. If I need a developer to improve some tool or another, the government introduces me to an expert in a day or two. Being here is strategic for the improvement of the OriginalMy tools.

Setting up OriginalMy in Estonia went very smoothly. There was zero bureaucracy and the cost of operation is very low

How did you adapt to the country?
It was strange at first, especially because Estonians are very reserved, mainly for historical reasons. They suffered greatly during the period when the nation was part of the former Soviet Union. Estonia only became independent 30 years ago. But they are only reserved until you get to know them better. Once an Estonian gives you a hug, you know you’ve made a friend. They are very cordial and polite. Another significant aspect is that it is very cold here. But I had no trouble adapting; I much prefer the cold to the heat of Brazil. It is perfect for work, since a pleasant temperature is maintained in enclosed spaces at all times.

What is life like in Estonia?
It is extremely safe here. I leave the office at three in the morning with my laptop in my backpack, with no fear whatsoever. I have a much better quality of life than I did before. Fortunately, last December, I was able to bring my wife, Miriam—cofounder of OriginalMy—here after nearly two years living by myself. My last visit to Brazil was in 2019. An interesting aspect of Estonia is its large Russian community. Some schools teach Russian as a first language, and there are entire neighborhoods of Russian dissidents who remained here after independence, where most people speak Russian.

Have you represented Estonia in international blockchain forums?
Yes, I have been part of events in Latvia, Denmark, Lithuania, and in the United Arab Emirates. In October 2020, we were voted the best cybersecurity startup at a global investment event in Dubai. That same month, OriginalMy was deemed the best and most innovative digital solution in Estonia, and represented the country at the World Summit Awards, a United Nations initiative that recognizes high impact digital solutions for social development. I have developed a personal relationship with government experts in the field of blockchain, so they often ask me to represent Estonia [abroad]. Recently, I was asked by the government—more precisely an organization called Startup Estonia—to lead the nation’s global talent community. My role is to gather information on the challenges faced by foreign entrepreneurs so that the government can improve their innovation environment and attract more talent.

What does the OriginalMy client portfolio look like?
Even though we moved the company headquarters to Estonia, Brazil is still a significant source of our income. In Brazil, we have about 15,000 active customers using our platform and another 7,000 using our digital identity solution—a product we developed. But we have been transitioning into a more international market with have clients in several other countries. One of our customers from China, which I won’t name, is an energy company that does business in Brazil with a company from the same sector. We provide both partners with identity validation solutions. Thanks to our online signature tool, OMyPass, they have been able to securely sign agreements worth tens of millions of dollars. We have also established an agreement with lawyers from Portugal, who are interested in our electronic evidence preservation tool (which preserves the content of an e-mail, web page, social media post, or a conversation that took place in a messaging application). We also work with a foundation in Ghana called the E-Governance and Internet Governance Foundation for Africa. I have been teaching workshops and introducing them to digital governance; this work is done entirely remotely.

Does the company still have offices in Brazil?
Yes; while our head office is in Tallinn, we have an office in São Paulo, run by a trusted associate of mine. We have a sales department, a support department, a marketing department, and a team of developers. We hold daily online meetings. I used to have employees here in Estonia, but I had to downsize because of the pandemic. As soon as we have more customers in Europe, we will set up a new office to service them. Because of the cultural differences between the two nations, I realized we need to localize our system and the platform. Beyond adapting to the local language, we must be careful to follow all local laws.

Estonians are very reserved until you get to know them better. Once an Estonian gives you a hug, you know you’ve made a friend

Does the platform offer electoral solutions?
Yes. OMyVote, which we developed, is a voting platform that enables fully online, secure, encrypted, and secret elections. We presented it to the Superior Electoral Court in late 2020. It is a tool that allows people to cast online, remote votes via their smartphone, computer, or tablet, while maintaining secrecy and inviolability. It has security layers that prevent fraud and allow the process to be fully auditable. It is in line with protocols that have been in place for some time in countries like Estonia. Here, people have a few days during which they can vote remotely by computer; then, there is one weekend during which those who did not vote online can do so in person. In their most recent election, I believe 60% of the votes were cast online.

When did you first become interested in cybersecurity?
I have a degree in computer science and a specialization in information security and I have worked in this field for 25 years. I went to technical school for data processing and began developing software early on. I developed my first program at 14 or 15; it helped monitor the comings and goings of buses for an urban transportation company in São Paulo. Then, when the Internet became popular in Brazil, I developed an interest in cybersecurity. In the late 1990s, I founded one of the first companies in this industry, Safe Networks, with a classmate from college. It is still active, but I’m no longer in it. I’ve remained in this field ever since.

What has your career been like? 
I have practically only ever worked as a consultant or an entrepreneur. I was also a professor for a while at UNISA (Santo Amaro University), my alma mater in São Paulo. My training was heavily focused on risk analysis, because being an entrepreneur in Brazil means being very resilient and knowing a lot about risk. I have also been a skydiving instructor—where I met my wife—and done sport climbing and sailing. These sports have helped me understand risk better; they helped me learn how far I can go by keeping numerous variables under control, and how to manage chaos and avoid catastrophe.

How did the concept of OriginalMy come about?
The company was born of my interest in cryptocurrencies. Not just the cryptocurrencies themselves, but also the kind of distributed, decentralized systems used to manage cryptocurrency trading—meaning multiple computers processing data separately to arrive at a common result. I experienced something like this in the early 2000s, when a company developed by me and one of my brothers, Elisson Osorio, was hired by the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research to participate in the FAPESP-funded Cancer Genome project. OZ Technology managed information technology and development for the Ludwig Institute. At that time, a distributed computing system was developed using a few dozen computers that belonged to the institution’s researchers; together they achieved a processing capacity similar to that of a supercomputer owned by Ludwig, the Paracell. My brother developed the working tools alongside the researchers, while I took care of the computer network infrastructure. In 2013, I sold my share of the company when an investment fund became interested in it.

Two years later the startup got off the ground.
That’s right. In 2015, Brazil saw for the first time a kind of secure technology for authenticating, consulting, and auditing documents in a transparent and public environment—blockchain. Its development was focused on the preservation of intellectual property, in the field of copyright law. After that, our business broadened its scope and began offering other digital governance solutions.

Is it true that a presidential candidate has already used the OriginalMy platform?
Yes; it was during the 2018 election. The candidate in question—Fernando Haddad, from the Workers’ Party, wanted to prove the authenticity of his government plan, which was being distorted in the media. The document was being downloaded, altered, and shared via Facebook, WhatsApp, and other digital channels. He had no way of proving which version was the correct one. With our tool, the original document was authenticated using blockchain technology. This way, he was able to guarantee that the information was valid and immutable. We helped prevent fraud and disprove fake news.

You have been in Estonia since 2019. Have you learned to speak Estonian yet?
No, I never had to. OriginalMy is based on an international hub of startups, many of them belonging to foreigners who have also moved here. It is a bubbling ecosystem of innovation. No one needs to speak Estonian or Russian, which is the country’s second language. Our communication takes place entirely in English.

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