A very Filipino story: Meet the founders of Web3 education platform Proof of Learn

Kevin Yang and Sheila Marcelo: It all started with crypto. Photos: Esquire Philippines

By Paul John Caña  

To be very technical about it, Proof of Learn (POL), a tech platform that uses blockchain technology to educate developers on Web3, was founded in December 2021. But one can argue that the seeds for this fledgling company were planted years or even decades ago, especially when you consider the background of its founders. 

From Web1 to Web3

Co-founder Sheila Marcelo has been dipping her toes in technology since the days of Web 1.0, or when the internet was simply read-only; a place where people were passive consumers of whatever information was on it. Born and raised in the Philippines, Marcelo graduated with an MBA and Doctor of Law degrees from Harvard University. The Filipino tech pioneer went on to teach at Harvard Business School and founded Care.com, the groundbreaking online marketplace for childcare, senior care, special needs and other forms of caregiving.

Marcelo ran Care.com for 14 years. An example of a Web 2.0 company—or one that made possible more interactions, social networking, and user-generated content on the internet—Care.com made Marcelo a household name in the world of tech. After the company was bought by holding company IAC in February 2020, Marcelo thought she and her husband would go on sabbatical, take a year off to travel, and basically spend some time just taking it easy.

Sheila Marcelo was born and grew up in the Philippines before she flew to the U.S. to study. Photos: Esquire Philippines

But then the pandemic hit.

“Instead, our year off became all about crypto,” Marcelo tells Esquire Philippines. “When you’re quarantined, there’s not a lot of other things to do. So, we started investing in crypto and reading a lot about it. We really got smarter about crypto.” 

About a year later, Marcelo got an invitation to work with global venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates (NEA) as a venture partner. That got her started looking at investing professionally, particularly in cryptocurrencies. It was then that she heard about rising Filipino gaming startup Yield Guild Games (YGG) and came upon a documentary that showed regular folk in Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija earning money from playing a relatively new online NFT (non-fungible token) game called Axie Infinity. 

“I was very impressed by that,” Marcelo says. “It just made such an impression on me that you can have a grandmother who was under-educated in a rural area of the Philippines get smart about crypto. And here I was trying to figure out Axie Infinity myself. I said, ‘What if we can improve the user experience overall?’ Because that’s my background—user consumer applications globally, getting wide adoption, and mass market to solve social problems. That’s what spoke to me.”

But Marcelo knew she couldn’t do it on her own and that she needed help. Little did Marcelo know that, at that point, she would soon meet fellow Filipinos that would kick off a new journey that was focused not on play-to-earn (as Axie Infinity was), but on learn-to-earn.

Computer nerd

One can argue that POL’s beginnings also stretch back to co-founder Kevin Yang’s days as the nerdy kid who was into computers. The son of Kenneth Yang and grandson of George Yang—both of whom are perhaps best-known as the president and founder, respectively, of McDonald’s Philippines—the younger Yang grew up in the Philippines tinkering with his Macintosh desktop, teaching himself how to program and write simple code during a time when computer science education wasn’t as widely available as it is now.

So, he applied and eventually got accepted to Stanford University’s computer science program, zeroing in on HCI or human computer interaction and artificial intelligence (AI). 

Kevin Yang is the grandson of the founder of McDonald’s Philippines, George Yang.

“It was this magical place for me to learn the most cutting-edge things in technology,” he says. “I ended up becoming an app builder.” Yang helped build over 30 different mobile apps, and even helped develop the McDonald’s’ McDelivery app.

In his senior year of college, Yang’s friend told him about Ethereum, a decentralized platform powered by blockchain technology. Of course, it’s probably best-known as cryptocurrency like Bitcoin.

“I was like, ‘Wow, what is this thing about Ethereum where, suddenly, you can program money to do things?’ And at the time, we were programming data, right? I thought it was the most fascinating thing. I started looking into it more deeply, and I saw one of the first NFTs called Cryptokitties. For me, it was like, ‘Oh my god. This is just like my childhood collecting Neopets!’ But in this case, I actually own this collectible.”

That got Yang started not just with collecting NFTs but teaching himself how to program smart contracts, or basically familiarizing himself with blockchain technology. When the pandemic hit, NFT games like Axie infinity exploded, which led Yang to thinking that the time was ripe to do something in that space. In 2021, he bought a ticket to NFT.NYC, one of the leading NFT events in the world.

And that’s when his path crossed with Marcelo’s.

Birth of POL

Marcelo was keen on meeting the person behind YGG. Luckily, she was friends with Filipino tech pioneer Nix Nolledo, founder of listed consumer tech company Xurpas, as well as with Manny Ayala, co-founder and managing director of Endeavor Philippines, which is part of a global network of high-impact entrepreneurs. It was through them that she got introduced to YGG co-founder Gabby Dizon at NFT.NYC.

“It’s a very Filipino story,” Marcelo says with a grin.

When she shared her own plans of getting into the learn-to-earn space and mentioned looking for someone she could partner with, Dizon and Nolledo both mentioned only one name: Kevin Yang. 

“Over dinner we just hit it off,” Yang says. “It was like we’ve known each other for some time.” 

“We saw eye to eye and just moved really quickly,” adds Marcelo.

By December 2021, POL was born. The company quickly raised a seed round amounting to about $17 million (about P900 million) led by NEA and joined by Animoca Brands, GoldenTree Asset Management, gumi Cryptos Capital, Infinity Ventures Crypto, Arca, Wavemaker Ventures, Learn Capital and Rethink Education. It’s envisioned to become the leading educational Web3 platform in the world down the line, but for now, the company is focused on providing much-needed manpower—specifically, developers—for Web3. The next evolution of the internet, Web3 is centered around blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies, NFTs, DAOs (decentralized autonomous organization), and decentralized finance.

Marcelo says there are roughly 32 million Web2 developers in the world today. Meanwhile, there are only about between 150,000 to 250,000 total Web3 developers. 

“And the largest number is probably the coders of Solidity, which is the Ethereum language,” she adds.

But if we’re talking developers who are active monthly, the number goes down to only about 80,000 across the world, according to Yang. 

“If you take a (space) with a $2 trillion dollar market cap, and split it across very, very few developers, then you begin to see this huge supply demand, where each developer can make a potential of maybe as much as $50 million in market value, just by being a productive engineer in the Web3 space,” Yang says. “That’s why it’s such a huge pain point in the industry. There’s no shortage of capital and no shortage of demand from customers. And yet there’s no one to build it. They’re all fighting for the same developers and so that’s why we feel that this is such an important problem to address.”

This is essentially the raison d’etre of POL. While both Yang and Marcelo have displayed a keen interest in participating in this new virtual world, they understand how difficult the mission is if there aren’t enough builders.

“So, I think our first duty is really to the developers being part of this, we call it a creator economy,” Marcelo says. “And the developers power the creator economy, but they themselves are creators. How do we make them feel valued? Educating them first and then others can follow, is really the way we view it. That’s why Metacrafters is our first project.”

YGG’s Gabby Dizon with Marcelo and Yang

Introducing Metacrafters

If POL is Sky Mavis, Metacrafters is its Axie Infinity. Built on the idea of gamified learning, Metacrafters is a multiplayer, learn-to-earn game with a curriculum designed by Silicon Valley Web3 developers and where players are students who can earn crypto-based rewards as they progress through the courses.

“Let’s say you want to learn a new chain,” Yang explains. “You take this introductory course where you’ll be greeted by an instructor. We’ll walk you through how to program certain parts of the blockchain. And as you continue, you get greeted with assessments. You can check if your answer is correct. You can take a screenshot of your code terminal to see if the code that you’ve provided was the correct output. So you’re really going through this very engaging learning experience.”

Yang adds that what makes the game interesting are the rewards for those who complete the course.

“We really want to boost core course completion,” he says. “Engineering is hard, and programming is difficult. So, we want to make it, first, this community-based experience where you can go on our Discord when you get stuck, ask questions, and talk to other people. And you can also have this incentive or reward as well.”

The rewards come in a “loot box” filled with goodies that can include actual income in the form of credit. 

“You get this digital diploma, which is the POL NFT,” Yang says. “And then you get this treasure NFT, which is like rare items in our game.”

Metacrafters was launched during a splashy event attended by Marcelo and Yang, as well as their partners and friends that included Dizon and Nolledo at Green Sun in Makati in May 2022. (At the time of this interview, the game was already going into testing with Filipino developers and should be launched soon, if it hasn’t already).

Both Marcelo and Yang say it’s no coincidence that POL is being launched here in the Philippines by Filipinos. They point to the mass adoption of something as seemingly technical like NFT gaming (Axie Infinity) in rural places in the country that helped paved the way for play-to-earn to evolve into learn-to-earn.

“I would see lolas, farmers, tricycle drivers, they would onboard to something very complicated like crypto wallets,” Yang says. “It’s not simple, right? And they would start to learn all about these very technical nuances in crypto, by being onboarded by play-to-earn.”

Yang adds that he was shocked to learn that the Philippines had actually become one of the world’s top countries in terms of crypto adoption.

“As a Filipino who has been so used to seeing Silicon Valley leading and everyone following, I thought it was amazing that we’re the leaders in the adoption of a new frontier. So, I knew we had to do something here.

“I think Sheila and I share this mission that not only can Pinoys be the leaders in consumption of crypto but also in the creation of crypto itself. That’s why we feel that grooming and educating the talent here in the Philippines is so important.”

This article originally appeared in Esquire Philippines and is being published with permission.  

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