In January 2023, more than two dozen individuals were charged for their alleged participation in a scheme to sell fraudulent nursing diplomas and transcripts from accredited Florida nursing schools. This crime opened up the question as to how can we truly trust someone’s word, especially in an age where it’s becoming increasingly easier to create and/or obtain fraudulent personal information.
Two Duke University alumni may have found the solution.
Validity is a Durham-based verification software startup designed to stop fraudulent information claims, eliminate exposure to issues with third-party data organizers and help maintain data ownership. Its initial target market is universities, and in fact just yesterday it launched its first product—the Validity Registry—with Duke University.
Validity’s mission is to ensure that the organization becomes the central source of truth by storing credentials on a public blockchain, rather than relying on outside parties to handle their data.
Co-Founders Michael Cutro and Mike Liu—aka “the Mikes”—came up with the idea of Validity after completing a blockchain course at Duke. At the end of the semester, their professor gifted the class their own NFT credentials. After digging deeper into the technicalities of obtaining an NFT, they realized and recognized the power in owning your own form of credential, without the hassle of obtaining it through another website or entity.
Having ownership over what has been named “yours” is what got the Mikes to figuring out that NFTs aren’t necessarily needed to do this.
“What we created together is a medium that empowers organizations to re-imagine how we trust one another on the internet,” Cutro said. “You should be able to trust a person with their word.”
Most universities, including Duke, use education verification platforms such as the National Student Clearinghouse or Parchment in order to verify students’ enrollment status, graduation and degrees earned. The issues with these programs, however, are that they will either require payment for verification and/or store personal data from the university, according to Cutro.
With the Validity registry, the Mikes are changing the status quo of instant verification for universities, as the university will become the central source of truth of its own data without an additional charge by a third party.
As companies transitioned from analog to digital, it became increasingly difficult to maintain and organize data, especially for universities that have centuries of credentials to keep track of. Therefore, these institutions must rely on third parties to house their data. The downside to using these outside entities is how it serves the surveillance capitalism we have today, according to Liu.
“They own all the data of the user, they become the norm and they benefit a lot from [the data],” Liu said. “We are at a level that we’re comfortable enough to build a decentralized source of truth. We don’t need to own a database or a server when you can actually see the proof yourself.”
Origin of the name
That’s where the name Validity comes in. At its core, Validity is a product of a trust crisis that occurs with having to find information online. Cutro calls Validity a bridge to a more universal source of truth, which is the promise they see in the blockchain.
“An axiom is a statement that people accept as self-evidently true and does not require further explanation or proof,” Cutro said. “Where you work or go to school is not an axiom.”
“We built a trust platform… where the organization becomes the source of truth, and a proof is provided that your claim has evidence to establish validity. Instead of having to entrust a third party, anyone can now instantly access the proof from the organization’s website, almost to the point of your claim becoming an axiom.”
Validity’s product will allow university registrars to launch smart contracts into which they can encode years of alum data onto a public Ethereum L2 blockchain called Optimism. That will then allow anyone to validate directly from the registrar’s website instantly, unlike with the National Student Clearinghouse or Parchment.
The program requires input of a first name, last name, birth year and graduation year in order to verify a person’s alumni status. These specific details are found directly in the blockchain and not on another company’s database, ensuring true and accurate credentials that are not stored and processed by external entities unrelated to the university.
Through Validity, anybody will be able to access credentials directly from a university’s registrar for free and forever. With this application, even if the Mikes were not to be involved with the company or organizations anymore, the credentials will still be accessible through the university’s own database and on the blockchain.
Universities can also trace any potential hacking and fraud, as every action with verifying credentials are tracked. Validity does not store any of the data themselves.
In early 2023, Validity successfully secured a seed investment from Palo Alto-based Maven Ventures, an early investor in Zoom and four other unicorn exits that makes only six investments a year. Cutro and Liu plan to use the funding toward focusing on accelerating product development, expanding outreach and enhancing the product further. With this funding, Cutro said it was able to push their development six months ahead of schedule.
“This is the first ever verification platform directly on the University’s website that talks to the blockchain,” Cutro said. “We are not offering something that is better—we’re offering something that doesn’t exist yet. It’s a new opportunity, an entirely new solution!”
As of yesterday, Validity is running its program on Duke’s official registrar website.