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“When shopping online or at the mall, it’s easy to figure out a product’s price and the basic materials from which it’s made. It’s much harder to find out where it came from and how it was produced. Filling that information gap is the goal of a startup called Provenance, and it’s using the technology that underpins Bitcoin to do it.

“We are a software company. We don’t sell any products, we’re not a certifier or anything. Our real mission is transmitting information,” says founder Jessi Baker, a 30-year-old who has a background in manufacturing, design, and engineering.

With Provenance, she is building software that will help progressive companies gain a competitive edge by sharing the processes and materials that go into their products. The site will look friendly, with photos and text where consumers can track, for example, how their t-shirt was made, from cotton field to freighter ship to store shelf. Companies that use it will be able to embed the stories into their product sales pages.

Provenance’s approach is different. The system is built on Bitcoin’s blockchain technology, the main innovation that allows the decentralized cryptocurrency to function. Before Bitcoin, digital records were easily copied and open to fraud (that’s why a digital currency couldn’t exist). A blockchain creates a public ledger that tracks each transaction in a linear, chronological order—each computer on the network has a copy of the transaction database, so fraud isn’t possible.

The Provenance system obviously is all voluntary and relies on a company’s desire to be more transparent. A firm that doesn’t want to participate won’t (There will also be an option for any player in a particular supply chain to remain anonymous, so a company can report part of its supply chain publicly and part internal.) Still, Baker thinks more and more companies are interested in this trend. Already, several small businesses in the UK are participating in a beta period, such as the eyewear company Kite and the jewellers McCaul Goldsmiths. As Provenance builds out its platform and aims for a bigger launch this Spring, it hopes to sign on much larger firms with more complex products.”

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