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January 22, 2024 | Alumni

Web3, here we come: Alum Kent Fenwick on the internet's future

By David Goldberg

Kent Fenwick smiles for the camera next to a sign that says Computer Science.

Kent Fenwick says U of T inspired him to always be at the cutting edge of technology. Photo by Kemeisha McDonald.

Agora co-founder and CTO Kent Fenwick (MSc 2009) has always tried to stay ahead of the technology curve.

He was the first kid in his class to try Google and the neighbourhood kid people would call to fix their computers. That pioneering spirit is also the reason he founded a company that facilitates Web3 governance, a new way to use the internet. It’s also why he chose U of T’s Department of Computer Science in the Faculty of Arts & Science to do his master’s degree.

He says a nurturing environment and brilliant minds stood out from his time at U of T, “I had to overcome a lot of imposter syndrome when I started. Everywhere I went, I thought: 'How did I sneak in here?' Everyone was so smart.”

Abundant opportunities and groundbreaking research

The constant challenge pushed him to be an active contributor and elevated his academic performance. He fondly recalls the abundant opportunities, events and groundbreaking research he witnessed.

“Everything that was just theoretical during my time at U of T is here now. We had virtual reality headsets to play with back in 2008, years before the tech became mainstream,” says Fenwick. “At the conferences and in the classrooms, teachers and students were talking about this idea that ambient computing will be everywhere, and you’ll just have this device listening to you and suggesting next actions – this was long before AI personal assistants landed in millions of homes around the world.”

Fenwick’s thesis supervisor was computer science legend Professor Emeritus Ronald Baecker. Using a mobile app and external GPS, Baecker and Fenwick devised a system that could help pre-dementia patients remember people’s names.

“Kent is a brilliant software developer,” says Baecker, who is currently teaching at Columbia University. “Enthusiastic, energetic, optimistic – a born entrepreneur who is changing the world.”

Journey through turbulent world of tech startups

After U of T, Fenwick embarked on a fast and furious journey through the turbulent world of tech startups in Toronto and San Francisco. “I worked at this company called Crowd Tilt, which was like a mix of Kickstarter, GoFundMe and PayPal on steroids. We raised a tonne of money, a pure rocket ship that launched in several countries, and then it exploded in glorious fashion.”

Kent Fenwick sitting on the floor in the centre of a large room.
Fenwick in 2015, getting work done in his makeshift corner office in Toronto during the early days of Crowd Tilt. Photo by Tim Ryan.

Several years later, he would join Clearbanc, now Clearco, a Toronto-based startup with its own rapid rise and fall. Rather than being disheartened, these roller-coaster experiences only invigorated Fenwick and one of Clearco’s co-founder, Charlie Feng, and another early Coinbase designer, Yitong Zhang, to start Agora in early 2023, a business dedicated to the emerging domain of Web3 governance.

Web3 focuses on decentralization

Web3 is the name given to the next phase of the internet. While Web1 was about reading content and today’s Web2 introduced the ability to create and share content, Web3 focuses on decentralization and the combining of our real and digital lives.

Instead of big companies like Apple, Google and Meta controlling most platforms, Web3’s decentralized nature gives users more power over their data and the apps they use.

"Web3 native companies build their application on top of a giant public database, also known as a blockchain,” explains Fenwick. “If Company A is writing to the blockchain, Company B can build their app and read what Company A wrote." Kent likens it to a vast playroom where any participant can seamlessly share and access information to create new kinds of applications not possible in today’s private Web2 paradigms.

“Everything that was just theoretical during my time at U of T is here now. We had virtual reality headsets to play with back in 2008, years before the tech became mainstream”

Agora gives Web3 companies, known as distributed autonomous organizations (DAOs), the ability to develop a governance system. Fenwick compares it to Canada’s parliamentary system or a publicly traded company interacting with its shareholders. Concerned parties can vote on adding new features to a service or funding future projects instantly, usually with crypto currency.

“We enable elections so you can delegate your votes to specific elected officials who make decisions for you on behalf of the community,” says Fenwick.

“And some of these decisions on our system allow you to make very consequential decisions for these DAOs, so we give them tools to see how people are leaning in a vote. It helps them lobby and rally the people they need to pass important decisions.”

Web3 hosts content that can be read by humans and AI and is expected to support expansive and immersive virtual reality spaces, like the ones envisioned for Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse.

Leading the charge into the unknown

Fenwick says Web3 is in its early days, and he still doesn’t know exactly how it will integrate into our professional and personal lives, but he’s looking to lead the charge into the unknown. You can bet that whatever comes next, whether it be Web4 or the next wave of the AI revolution, Fenwick is eager to traverse the challenges and opportunities of next gen tech.

“I’m an optimist,” he says. “I am leaning heavily into the AI revolution. I'm not scared of that, I'm embracing it.”

Originally published by the Faculty of Arts & Science