How the blockchain is improving EB-5 project tracking, with Connor Irish and Sam Newbold
Connor Irish and Sam Newbold are the founders of EB-5 Proxy, new blockchain software that allows firms to track EB-5 projects accurately and safely, beyond the capabilities of standard real estate development software, and that bridges the gap between web 2.0 and the upcoming web 3.0. In this episode, they chat with host Ali Jahangiri to explain how they got the idea, how it can improve EB-5 deals, and why it matters to both EB-5 investors, regional centers and EB-5 fund managers.
Connor: Historically, all of those documents had to be shared anyways, whether it's with a title company and a lender for drawdown endorsements, what have you, those actionable events are things that developers have to do anyways. We're just giving them a clear channel path, and with that clear channel path, we've overlaid this EB-5-centric algorithm and functionalities to create a single one-stop platform where a regional center can hit it, a developer can hit it, an investor can hit it, and it gives just the right amount of information that gives you that perfect ledger and gives you a really nice user experience and a nice user interface, so you can kind of watch the project grow through your screen.
Ali: This is the "Voice of EB-5" by "EB-5 Investors Magazine." Each week we sit down with experts in the EB-5 investment space to get valuable insights and the latest EB-5 news. Good morning, everybody. I wanna welcome my two new guests on the "Voice of EB-5." We've got Sam Newbold and Connor Irish. Welcome, you guys.
Sam: Thanks, Ali.
Connor: Thanks, Ali. Happy to be here.
Ali: Well, the two new guests are the newest and greatest in technology meets EB-5. They've created a blockchain software. Both of these guys, their backgrounds are in law and they've been working at this for a while. I'm actually excited to have the two co-founders on this call. The company is called EB-5 Proxy. And I want to turn it over to Sam and Connor to welcome you guys to our podcast and maybe they'll give a little background to how they got here today.
Connor: Yeah. Thanks, Ali. So, as Ali mentioned, Sam and I are both attorneys by trade from the legal background. I'm a real estate development attorney and Sam is a practicing EB-5 attorney. This entire, you know, platform, the impetus, and the idea behind it is, Sam and I had a very robust deal flow at Baltimore practices. Sam still does. And we saw the same pain points and inefficiencies over and over, time and time again, so many redundant emails, redundant file sharing, redundant tracking, redundant monitoring, and the list goes on. So, we put our heads together a few years ago, just with the basic idea of there's gotta be a better way to do this. And that's where this all started. And three years later, we've got a pretty high-powered blockchain platform with real estate bones and EB-5 muscles.
Sam: Yeah. So, we started attacking the issue of fund administration and deal flow from a purely real estate problem, to begin with. We started tinkering with the idea that blockchain, with all of its different applications, really could work well with how a lot of the structure of real estate deals is vertically integrated. And because blockchain creates this very linear immutable transaction record of everything that happens in the deal flow, we thought that blockchain was the perfect software solution to not only store and identify data in a secure way, but as we got into it, we also saw opportunities in fund administration.
And because I've been doing EB-5 work for over a decade at this point, it just made so much sense. We were like, "Wow. Okay. So, there really should be a better way to track funds through a deal." And by working through these problems with our developers, we're able to come to a solution that really does streamline the entire process of EB-5 funding. And we were able to more recently develop that into a job creation tracking tool so that it really can transmit economic analyses better in a real-time fashion, track all the reporting that needs for...under the new regulations and policies. And we've been able to really develop this very powerful software tool that can provide end-to-end solutions for fund administrators in the space. So, we're pretty excited about where we are with this product. We've already started to bring on deal flow with successful drawdowns. And look, the sky is the limit with this product, and we're happy to be here.
Ali: Well, obviously, it's a big deal in the industry. I am excited that you guys are doing this, especially because the industry has never seen software, especially on blockchain, but software to create efficiencies. I kinda wanna go back a little bit. What year did you guys get started and how the software was kind of built. Did you find developers first who came up with the idea? Who called who? Kind of give me the story, if you guys can, on how you two came together and this thing was created.
Connor: Sam, why don't you start on this one?
Sam: Yeah. Believe it or not, Connor actually worked for me for a year or two before he went off and started working for DLA Piper and Dorsey & Whitney and some other powerhouse real estate development groups and firms. So, he actually got a taste of EB-5 working for me years ago. And it was after that that I saw an opportunity with fund administration. Once the first draft of the Grassley Leahy language for overhauling the EB-5 program kind of hit my desk, I thought, "Wow. These are tech..." That was the first time, as an industry, we started using the word integrity measures. And I was like, "I really think the future of EB-5 is going to have this in it." And I don't remember... That might have been 2018, right? It was the first time we heard this integrity measure package in any kind of proposed legislation. And that's when it really dawned on me, "Oh, wow. Okay. This could be really huge if it ever actually becomes part of any sort of legislation."
And so it was really at that point I was like, "Okay, look..." I was in blockchain and reading about blockchain as an opportunity prior to that time, but it was really around 2018 that this idea really started to take shape. And I approached Connor about it because I saw the problem as both a real estate technology problem and an EB-5 capital private equity problem. And the more that I spoke to Connor about it, the more he was able to tell me that, look, real estate software sucks.
If you're a real estate developer and you were trying to manage a project and waterfalls for deals, drawdown solutions, there's a bunch of different players in the game. It's a very disjointed...in terms of software. You have family offices that do stuff on spreadsheets. You have more sophisticated developers who use different tools like Procore and others to manage their projects. And, you know, there's no really sort of go-to solution there. And we worked through some of these pain points. We really just took a giant sheet of paper and kind of mapped out what a deal flow would look like. And we took it to our blockchain team that we were working with at the time on completely different things, and they were like, "Yeah, this has huge potential."
So, that was circa 2018 when we really started trying and put that together. We started out using a completely different kind of blockchain technology at the time. We pivoted to something else and now we're in the process of moving everything over to Substrate, which is a parity chain with Polkadot, which is really the most robust, safest, most advanced blockchain software technologies that there is in the market at the moment, even more so than Ethereum. So, we're really excited about all that.
But in terms of how we actually looked at this from an EB-5-specific standpoint was, look, I was doing EB-5 deals all the time, day in and day out. And one of the most frustrating parts about EB-5 was, you know, look at the end of the day when you're doing an 829 or even an annual filing for a project, you just get a giant wheelbarrow of documents at the end of the day to sort through about, "These are all the expenditures we had." And it wasn't really that accurate, to be quite frank, and it was just really a big time suck to kind of go through documents and organize documents and try to figure out what total expenditures were to a budget and job creation estimates, and things of that nature.
So, I really sat down and Connor and I attacked this from a final product 829 job creation report and worked backwards from there, and kind of reversed engineered that whole process. And the way that we've developed the software to date, you really are capturing all the relevant data points and documents that you need upfront from day one that you onboard a project. So at any given time you're able to retrieve everything that you would need for an 829 filing, but you're doing that from the beginning. And by doing that, you're able to give people this real-time check-in on how much money has been spent, what it was spent on, and how many jobs have been created.
And so because of that functionality with it, any of the users on the software can just pull that data whenever they need to, which makes compliance and reporting easier, it just kind of takes the stress out of any potential site visits or audits that might be coming down the pike for regional centers or projects. And it just provides that level of transparency that the integrity measures, I think, are meant to force the industry to adopt. And it's really kind of a turnkey solution that gives people the satisfaction that, "Hey, this is how we're able to maintain compliance, track all of the data, store it in one place." And as you said, Ali, EB-5 hasn't necessarily... immigration in general.
Ali: I know Connor jumped in full-time now and is building a team and doing all this. Did you guys, like, flip a coin? How did it work out where Connor decided to jump in and Sam you're still a lawyer right now?
Connor: It's a good question. And as Sam kind of alluded to it, the historical conception in this entire platform, is Sam views it as the 829 backwards, and I view it from property purchase forwards to vertical. Because of the industries that we're and the practice that Sam still has that I had, that was the chair that you sat in. So, we met in the middle, in concept and, you know, as Sam said, you know, we wrote this all out on a piece of paper.
The first time I wire-framed the entire product, there wasn't enough room on the desk and enough paper so I literally grabbed a piece of my niece's sidewalk chalk and wrote out every functionality, line and block, button by button out in my driveway and then out into the street. We thought through it in that analog lock-step fashion, every single step from the beginning to the end. Every real estate project, whether or not it's got EB-5 or it doesn't, or it just has traditional construction financing or maybe it has tax credit or tip or qualified opportunities, you know, whatever special purpose financing that might be a part of, it's still a linear experience or it's a linear event.
You purchase ground, you go through the diligence process as part of that, you close on a construction loan, you get private capital, and you go vertically, you stabilize, you sell, on and on and on, depending on the asset class, of course. But that's where we started. We did the whole line and block or analog timeline for the entire thing. And then once we got into building a software solution, that's kind of where we started. We started it with that funnel approach of, let's do everything. And as we got into the nitty-gritty details, and I was kind of the wire framer throughout that process. You kinda realize at some point you don't need the most powerful platform in the world to do the whole thing, but you do need a pretty powerful platform to do pieces within that timeline.
And so that's really why fund administration is a perfect fit because not only are you able to capture all of that data that Sam mentioned, but already and historically go back...as far back as you want. Historically, all of those documents had to be shared anyways, whether it's with a title company and a lender for drawdown endorsements or, you know, what have you. Those actionable events are things that developers have to do anyways, we're just giving them a clear channel path. And with that clear channel path, we've overlaid this EB-5-centric algorithm and functionalities to create a single one-stop platform where a regional center can hit it, a developer can hit, an investor can hit it.
And it gives just the exact right amount of information that gives you that perfect ledger and gives you a really nice user experience and a nice user interface so you can kind of watch the project grow through your screen. So, how did I end up going full-time and Sam is still in practice? Because of how much chalk I laid down on the driveway and how much energy and effort I've put into the real nitty-gritty details, I know this platform better than anyone. Sam knows the EB-5 regulatory landscape better than anyone. So, between the two of us we make a pretty powerful team.
Ali: That's awesome. So, Sam, you're immigration specialist or you're a corporate specialist?
Sam: Immigration is what I do, but I work closely with our corporate securities teams here.
Ali: That parlays perfectly, right? If you're an immigration specialist, you know what's needed for the USCIS. That parlays perfectly with what Connor is doing and the software is doing, right?
Sam: Yeah. It's so funny because when we were mapping this stuff out, Connor was thinking of it in terms of his day-to-day of having to deal with title companies and lenders. And I was thinking of it literally in my head as what goes into an 829 form.
Sam: And so we were able to really marry the best of both worlds there with how we designed this out and captured things on both levels.
Ali: So, in an ideal world... Let's just talk about ideal, you guys are a startup in software and you've taken the approach of "Let's tackle the EB-5 problems and issues and put it on a software." So, in the big picture, what happens next? Let's just hypothetically say that the EB-5 portion of this picks up even more than it has. I know you guys have been doing a great job setting up clients, but imagine it picks up even more. What's in the horizon? What do you see with the software?
Sam: Look, we've been relying on our core development team, Max Gravitte and Agusto Lara, who are critical members of our enterprise because they're extremely plugged into what's coming down the pike with blockchain. And based on our conversations with them and other people within blockchain specifically, this has the potential to be enormous. This specific piece of software has the ability to scale vertically and horizontally, not just within finance but within all kinds of industry sectors as more and more people in businesses start to adopt web3 specific applications and technologies through the tokenization of intellectual property like NFTs or the tokenization of secured interests like you might see coming down the pipe very soon with Wall Street and the stock market.
You're going to need a platform that can sift through both the native web3 environment and the legacy legal environments that support traditional transactions in the world right now. This is a very unique piece of software. It wasn't necessarily designed intentionally this way, but because of the way that we were approaching the problem, we've actually solved for that problem by creating what we've created. And we believe that this is the beginning of a huge opportunity that we are in position to capitalize on by bringing to the market a very user-friendly, secure platform that will allow the web3 universe and the legacy universe to interact seamlessly in one place. Right now that disconnect is huge, specifically in the bank and secured transaction world.
Ali: Everyone talks about this term, blockchain this, blockchain... What does that mean? I mean, we're in EB-5 space and we're obviously a little bit more traditional brick and mortar finance, immigration. Now there's this new thing called blockchain. Tell us a little about what that means to the old guys like me.
Connor: It's a really, really good question because Sam and I, you know, when we first started down this path, we've had to go from traditional legacy legal brains... Lawyers think a certain way, engineers think a certain way. And so the way that we were trained to think about things was not in abstract or technological or coding languages. So, we've had to bring our own understanding of blockchain generally a long ways from when we first started.
I think the best way to explain it for someone that doesn't have a subscription to Wired Magazine or isn't really techy, blockchain gives you the ability to create a ledger and encrypt all of the instances on that ledger. So, if you use a really, really simple analogy like let's take an EB-5 project, for example, like, we onboard the project, the first drawdown would be kind of like a core block, right? I mean, we've kind of set up the web of the project and the protocols, which gives you a little bit of a framework, but then the first drawdown, for example, would be the first block and the next drawdown would be another block and on and on and on.
And if you think about it that way, kinda that linear fashion, a blockchain makes a lot of sense. Now when people talk about blockchain, the benefits, you know, being security driven, you know, theres's a reason that cryptocurrencies use blockchain, but it's just the gasoline that runs the engine. So, if you compare it to a company...like a large social media company. If you get on and it's like that's a web... That would be an example of a web2 company. If you get on, you type in your username and password, and you start having a chat with one of your friends or connections, that company might represent that that information is all private.
However, as the admin of that web platform, there's nothing to stop them from viewing that information. So, they might have a moat around the software and nobody supposedly can get in, but the king of the castle within the moat, can access anything at any time no matter what representations they make.
Where blockchain really shines is every single one of those instances and every single user, that's encrypted data. And the only way it can be accessed is with an individual's private keys. So, you can only unlock the chain with your private keys and those aren't hosted anywhere, you know, on the web. They're generated immediately when you create the equivalent of your username and password. So, when you create, almost like your avatar to live in the web3 space, you get private keys, they're generated once, you print them off and you put them in a safety deposit box, and nobody can ever look at them, and nobody can pull them off of the internet. So, with those private keys, you have your own ability to unlock your encrypted information and nobody else can get it.
Sam: Yep. And that's what the whole decentralized idea and concept behind blockchain is, right? It's a decentralized system of information such that nobody really has access to or owns all of the information. The data might be there, but nobody can read it. The only people that can read the data are the people with the proper key certificates to unlock that data. And so the data storage is on a cloud, but it's just gibberish to everybody unless you have a key to access it and understand it.
And because nobody really owns any of that data, it's public, there's no king of the castle. Every instance or every block or every fingerprint that represents a user has their own moat around it, and that's it. So, it's a fantastic concept and really that's not that new. The idea of blockchain has been around for decades, believe it or not. Well, you know, with the advent of cryptocurrencies and the development of it, you know, primarily from 2012 onwards you're seeing just how quickly it's being adopted for a lot of different applications.
Ali: So, let's just fast forward to I'm a developer, I'm about to use your software, about to sign up. How does this link up with the Escrow bank? How does it link up with the fund administrator? I know you guys have the software, and there's a fund administrator portion, and then there's like a bank portion. And the quickest way and the most easy way for the listeners to understand. How does this all link together?
Sam: So, the platform has various users on it. It has an investor user, an NCE, an NCE manager user, a regional center user, a developer, or a builder user, or a business operator user, and then the admin user. And really, it just creates an interface for all of those actors and users who are able to communicate on chain with the different transactions. So, in terms of building out the actual financial transactions, if you use an Escrow provider or you're setting up your segregated EB-5 account under the new act, then the fund administrator, which can be a lawyer, a CPA, a broker/dealer, or a registered investment advisor will be the co-signatory on that account who would be using the platform to really do the fund administration on. That's really how it functions.
And so when money is released to either the Escrow account and/or that segregated drawdown account at the NCE level, when those rules happen, that gets captured on chain. If there's a document that's submitted, for example, like to confirm that certain transfer of funds has occurred, that gets put on chain. And everything that gets put on chain is a block that's encrypted, that can only be accessed by the individuals who created that block, and that's what secures it.
And so every time something is added to the chain, it does so in a linear fashion with the immutable characteristics of the person who provided that on the daytime, the location on earth that they did it at, and it really just creates a very transparent, encrypted universe of all of that data happening in a linear fashion. That's how the data is stored. In the future in terms of where we see this going, for example, with Signature Bank, just as an example, they're very active with their Signet platform, which is in the blockchain space and cryptocurrency. I think eventually, as more and more banks do that... Because it will happen, within five years every major bank will have some form of a web3 interface for dealing with tokenized currency. We'll be able to interact with that directly, and all of that will be seamless on chain. We'll see how long that'll take, but that is the ultimate end goal.
Connor: Yeah. And, you know, to make an important point is web3 and blockchain and any of the buzzwords around just, you know, the general web3 universe, there's a lot of misconception, confusion. uncertainty. A lot of people don't really know what it is. They're like, "Well, how does that work?" It's really pretty simple and we've tried to bridge the gap as much as we possibly can to make an interface that's just like the interface that everybody is used to using, generally. You get to the platform through our URL, you log in. The only real difference is at the login point because of the security protocols or the security benefits and capabilities you have with blockchain is you just have to have your phone with you. So, as long as you have your phone with you, you can log right into the platform.
Sam: You can log in with your face.
Ali: Oh, wow.
Sam: There's no username or password, there's no email, none of that, you know, way that you sort of created profiles before it exists in this environment. You have a key certificate that allows you to create a wallet, right? That wallet has your digital fingerprint in it that's tied to your biometrics like your face, for example, using a very secure functionality called Anchor. And when you go to log in, there's a QR code that you scan with your phone and then your phone does your facial recognition, and then that's how you log in. And so really the only way you can log in is if you have your mobile device and your face.
Connor: Which you're always gonna have at least one of those.
Sam: True. We hope.
Connor: It's the exact same login experience except, just like Sam said, the phone checks in with the computer and checks in with you. That makes sure we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that it is the correct actor. Okay. So, you get past the login, right? And that's a pretty user-friendly secure experience. I type in URL, QR code, biometric recognition, now I'm in the platform. Okay. Where does this really, really solve a bunch of problems? Where does this platform kind of shine? In just a traditional real estate space and even in the historical EB-5 space, what is a drawdown really?
A lot of people that might listen to this might not really understand exactly what we're talking about in the drawdown. Well, if you get a loan, a traditional construction loan for $100 million, the bank doesn't give you $100 million. And the title company doesn't insure the bank for $100 million loan policy. What happens is the developer, when they need to draw down on that $100 million loan, they go to the lender in the title company and say, "Hey, here's $10 million worth of invoices or $10 million worth of lien waiver. You know, $5 million is for our GMP construction contractor, you know, like it's our big general contractor. And then the other $5 million is for our architects, our engineers and our legal teams." You got half-hard costs and half-soft costs, basically.
Well, with that documentation, the bank looks at it, the title company looks at it. Either they both independently say, "Okay. This is real evidence that you actually need $10 million of the overall $100 million. Here's your first draw. Here's the $10 million drawdown." At that point, the title company also actually issues you with a drawdown endorsement. But anyways... So, take that same framework and apply it to EB-5, and this is really what the role of the fund administrator is supposed to do, is be the gatekeeper, verifier, is the overseer that the funds are being properly spent, allocated, earmarked, whatever.
So, on the platform, let's say it's the same exact scenario, developer has a $50 million EB-5 offering. They have some charges coming due, whether it's in the soft cost or hard cost space. Same exact process. They simply get onto the platform, log in, type in the amount of the draw, provide... upload that supporting documentation. That goes to the fund administrator. As long as the numbers match up, and it's kind of true to the e-con report and budget, that's a pretty quick approval. But once they click approve, you have now set a new... This is something we're trying to integrate with Signature. We'd like that approval right there to serve as the actual co-signatory approval. We'll have to do some API integration, but in any event, the light turns green on the platform and the fund admin approves the actual release to the bank.
So, we've done... I mean, we did probably $15 to $20 million in draws in the last two weeks-ish. And we have a fund admin or an RIA partner, documents went to the platform. As the platform... As the tech guy, I just looked and made sure they were all there. Fund admin logs in, he clicks approve and approves at the bank and the funds are released. So, I think the... We did one draw last week, it took four minutes because it was a single lien waiver, single large amount. Everybody was on the same page. Boom, boom, boom, four minutes drawdown done.
Ali: Well, it looks like you're making life easier for both the developer and the borrower, right? I mean, is that what this is? It just makes it easier for... And also, I guess, the immigration lawyer, right, Sam? It makes it easier for them to process the 829s, right?
Sam: Yeah, it makes everything easier for everybody in the space. If you are a stakeholder in EB-5, the solution really streamlines the whole process. When Connor was talking about the drawdowns are tracked against the budget and the economic report, that's really kind of a functionality of creating the end result in real talk by being able to track how the money is being spent. And it's not just EB-5 money, all of the money in the deal is tracked so that you have an accurate representation of what the progress is of the project, how much money has been spent. Not just EB-5 money, but all money. And you're tracking that against the NECs codes in the economic report. We track against inflation.
And so you're getting real-time data as to this is what's happening in the project. That's good for immigration lawyers. It's good for business plan writers and economists. It's good for the borrower. It's good for the lender. It's good for the regional center, obviously, because they're able to just log in and see what's going on today, you know, in this project A of theirs. Project B is here and project C is there. And when they get tapped on the shoulder by USCIS for their annual audit or whatever it might be or their annual compliance filing, they can just pull the data and they have that and they can track it and report on that. And to me, it just makes the EB-5 industry really run smoothly.
There's so much, I think, uncertainty and maybe hesitation by some folks in the industry about these, you know, regulations and how they're gonna be rolled out, but we believe that this software really kind of ticks all the boxes in handling that. And we're still working on it. We have clients who come to us and say, "We'd like to see this functionality or that one." And so it's really cool because they really like it. They see the value of it and we're just, you know, constantly trying to provide the best product possible.
Ali: One day maybe you can get the actual permanent residency card sent to you digitally on the proxy app at some point.
Sam: That would be cool.
Ali: But I guess last thing I just kind of wanted to go to in terms of a developer looking at this or a regional center looking at this and saying, "Hey, we want to sign up." Besides the cool aspects for the investor and the developer, where is the efficiency for a regional center, a developer, when signing up? Are they paying more to get this?
There's a lot more costs associated with doing business in EB-5. But the product can help reduce a lot of costs. It could reduce legal fee costs for time spent digging through documents and having to generate reports. It can reduce the costs and time preparing for an audit. You could potentially just do your annual filing yourself, just by pulling the data and filling out the 956G because if it will be that simple. And there's a lot of costs, I think, that are covered by this that could be, not just the cost of the product but just the hidden value of eliminating some additional costs that we know are gonna come down the pike.
Connor: The whole goal when we thought about who is the primary beneficiary in terms of whose life gets the easiest. When we started down that path, I wanted the developer's life to be the easiest because I've been a real estate developer, I've represented real estate developers and construction lenders and private equity groups, what have you. As we've grown, and as we've advanced the technology, everybody benefits from an efficiency and experience point, to Ali's point.
However, our customer base is twofold. One, it's for any fund administrator in the EB-5 space. This really is, and we've designed it specifically to be, the "easy button." Anybody can be a fund administrator with this software as long as they're a CPA broker/dealer or RIA or attorney. That is one customer base. The other customer base is the actual funds themselves. We have a strategic partnership with an RIA that we offer, strictly the software product to any fund administrator. And then if you want the full suite of services, we have an RIA that we're partnered with. So, if you don't know...you don't have any friends or connections that you would want to be a fund admin or you don't have preexisting relationships, you can call us. We've got the RIA and the software. Alternatively, we do license it out to individuals as well.
Ali: Well, guys, I appreciate both of you guys for being on this, the two co-founders of EB-5 Proxy. I look forward to the next stage, the growth. And everyone will be watching you guys closely. I know there's a buzz around town that the blockchain guys are...they're growing. So, I think the eyes are on you two to perform here.
Connor: Yeah. We're happy to be positioned, you know, our first month of actually offering projects to sign up for the enterprise product, we actually signed up over $1.5 billion in offering size after we showed all of the functionalities, all of the benefits. So, we've got a really strong market response thus far and we're excited to continue that trend.
Ali: Well, thank you both for being on the show. We'll get this out to the masses in EB-5 so they can hear the background with you guys. I appreciate both of you.
Sam: Awesome. Thanks, Ali.
Connor: Thanks, Ali. Appreciate it.
Ali: This has been the "Voice of EB-5" by "EB-5 Investors Magazine." To learn more about this episode, please visit eb5investors.com/podcast. To stay up to date with the latest EB-5 discussions, be sure to subscribe to the show wherever you listen to the podcast. And if you like the show, please consider leaving us a five-star review. It helps us out a lot. See you next week.