Made in Switzerland: The Ambrosus vision for life-essential supply chains

By Tom Lyons.

While today’s global supply chains are remarkable in many ways, they are also often inefficient, relying on outdated technology or manual processes, and prone to errors and fraud. Blockchain technology, which can be used to securely record and transmit data in decentralized networks, has long been seen as a promising means to improve these chains.

Ambrosus, which is a member of the CVA, is a project to build a blockchain-based ecosystem for supply chains for life-essential products like food and medicine (although, as its founders point out, the protocol can be applied to almost any complex supply chain, such as commodities).

One thing that sets Ambrosus apart from other projects is that it is building hardware as well: sophisticated sensors that can constantly monitor and securely send data to the blockchain as an item moves from manufacturer to end user. Another interesting aspect of Ambrosus, at least from our point of view at the CVA, is that it is very much a homegrown Swiss effort.

Not only is the project based in Zug, but much of its key technology has its roots in the EPFL, which is one of Switzerland’s and the world’s top universities. Many of the key figures in its management team are Swiss as well. This includes Chief Technology Officer Stefan Meyer and the newly named Chief Product Officer Vlad Trifa, along with Head of Science Professor Esther Amstad and Professor Jean-Paul Sandoz.

To learn more, we talked to Stefan and Vlad about the background and ambition of their project.

Vlad, you built and led the Digital Innovation Lab at Swisscom, Switzerland’s largest telecommunications company. You have been an advisor to the Ambrosus token sale, but have just announced you’re joining Ambrosus full time as its Chief Product Officer. Why the move?

I think Ambrosus is one of the most exciting blockchain projects in Switzerland, and one of this country’s most interesting startups in any field. While our country has its fair share of startups working on cutting-edge core technologies, there are fewer here – or anywhere, for that matter – that have both an interesting product and one that addresses a really important business problem.

Ambrosus’s ambition is to rethink and improve life-critical supply chains like food and pharmaceuticals. The idea is to combine blockchain with high-tech sensors to do tracking and ensure traceability, integrity and efficiency along the whole chain. That’s ambitious. It’s not an easy win – but considering the inefficient and unfortunately often insecure ways these critical supply chains are managed today, I think it’s a very worthwhile goal. It also matches well with many of my own interests.

Which interests are these?

I studied computer science at both the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne, where I got my masters, and the ETH in Zurich, where I got my PhD. My interests are in distributed computing in general and the Internet of Things specifically, and I have been highly involved in the IoT community for a very long time. I was one of the founders of webofthings.org, for example, as well as of EVRYTHNG, which has been a successful IoT smart products platform. I even co-wrote a book about the web of things.

One thing I have consistently argued is that the IoT needs to be built on open platforms using existing or open source protocols as much as possible. I really think interoperability is crucial. With the advent of blockchain we have the missing link to connect physical hardware, like sensors, to the Internet in a way that ensures data integrity and, through smart contracts, allows for high levels of automation. Ambrosus is built on these principles, which is why it not only interested me but, considering my previous experience, why I thought I could contribute.

So what is your vision for Ambrosus after the token sale?

I think Ambrosus is catering to a promising market. It is building a product that almost all stakeholders in the supply chain really want – from the producers to distributors to consumers. The common denominator in this is transparency and trust. As the CPO of Ambrosus my main focus will be to work with the development team and our potential clients to help shape the portfolio so that, using Ambrosus’s ingredients, they can develop ecosystems that address their issues, bring down costs, and increase efficiencies.

Vlad Trifa, left, and Stefan Meyer, CPO and CTO respectively of Ambrosus.

Stefan, you are one of the founders of Ambrosus. What’s your background, and why this project?

My academic background is in food analysis, sensors and data encryption. I did my masters at the EPFL in Lausanne, and after getting my PhD at the University of Leeds, I returned to Switzerland and have been among other things associated with the EPFL’s Innovation Park.

I helped found Ambrosus for two reasons really.

One is because I recognized that there was a clear problem with supply chains today. Until now, it has been difficult to get accurate data about the state and integrity of materials and products in a long chain. And even where data is available, it is challenging to collect it, aggregate it, disseminate it and, above all, ensure its accuracy and integrity.

The other was because we saw that technology had advanced to a point where we could solve most if not all of these issues. I am talking in particular about advances in sensor technology and of course the invention of the blockchain.

With these building blocks we can develop supply chain ecosystems that are not only more secure than what we have today, but also more efficient and transparent. That’s the motivation.

What kind of technology is Ambrosus using? Are you building everything yourself?

In my opinion the heart of the supply chain problem is a data problem. How do you get accurate data, then how do you store it, how do you aggregate and analyze it, and above all, how do you make sure no one is tampering with it?

The technologies we are developing at Ambrosus deal with all these aspects. We are working on advanced sensors that can be attached to individual items in a supply chain – a food product or medicine for instance – and monitor its quality and its environment all through the journey from the point of origin to the end user.

We are also building a blockchain-based protocol that can be adapted for use in different supply chain settings. This can be used either with our sensors or, depending on the situation, with existing sensors or new types of sensors developed by someone else – it doesn’t matter as long as we can be sure the data is good. Because our protocol is Ethereum-based we can also write smart contracts, which should add lots of efficiencies as well as transparency and accountability to the whole chain.

We are launching a new token too, Amber, which is used to bring the whole thing together. An Amber token is associated with each item in the chain. Among other things it holds the data as the item moves along, and also provides incentives for all the stakeholders to do the right thing. So it is a central part of the equation.

You are currently launching Amber in a token sale. What are your plans for the project once you’ve raised funds?

Basically to continue with what we have already started. Besides the work on the technologies I already mentioned, for instance, we have developed a working decentralised marketplace where farmers can make direct sales to buyers at no commission. This is a good example of the new kinds of ecosystems we can build with Ambrosus. We are also developing a decentralised commodities trading platform, where agricultural commodities coupled with quality certificates can be traded securely and quality can be assured through the accompanying Amber token. And we are building apps for consumers to conveniently scan the packaging and receive full information about the history of the product on hand. We already have a working version of one of these too.

If I say so myself, I think we’ve accomplished a good deal in the early stages of the project. The purpose of the funding is to finish what we’ve started and then to go on developing new products and services.


About Ambrosus

Ambrosus, which is a member of the Crypto Valley Association, is a project to radically improve the global supply chains by creating a trusted ecosystem in which it is possible to reliably record the entire history of products and execute commercial transactions accordingly.

Ambrosus seeks to enable a more secure and autonomous supply chain, improve distribution processes and allow consumers to easily see where their products come from and what is really in them.

More on Ambrous at www.ambrosus.com. The Ambrosus token sale runs through October 22.

The project was also recently featured on Swiss TV (German).

About Stefan Meyer, Chief Technology Officer, Ambrosus

Stefan has over 20 years of R&D experience in food analysis, ultrasound sensors and data encryption. Previously, Stefan led R&D projects at Nestlé, MHM Microtechnique and Vitargent Biotech and also sold two projects to Maersk Group and Perrot GmbH. He was the Founding Managing Director of the Integrative Food and Nutrition Center at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL). Stefan holds a PhD in Food Science (ultrasound applications in food industry) from the University of Leeds and an MSc in Geosciences from the University of Lausanne. Stefan is also a Member of the Swiss Federal Office for Agriculture.

About Vlad Trifa, Chief Product Officer, Ambrosus

Vlad is the Founder of Web of Things and former Head of Digital Lab at Swisscom. As Co-Founder of EVRYTHNG, he has designed and built large-scale IoT platforms used by Fortune 100 companies (incl. Coca Cola, Unilever, LVMH, GE). Previously he served as Research Associate at MIT and UCLA. He holds a PhD and MSc in Computer Science from ETH Zurich and EPFL respectively. He also co-authored the seminal book Building the Web of Things.