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They bonded in first-year university over a mutual interest in cryptocurrency. Now they’re taking on the gaming world.
Maxim Sindall and Majd Hailat are the head honchos of a startup company called Altura, which deals in the arcane world of cryptocurrency, blockchain technology and NFTs (nonfungible tokens) as part of the multibillion-dollar international online gaming industry.
And despite a massive drop in cryptocurrency values in recent weeks, the digital entrepreneurs are prepared to stick it out in the hopes of a prosperous future.
“We’re starting to sign deals with significantly larger gaming companies, with higher quality games and our infrastructure is really coming together. So the company and our products and our trajectory has not changed and we’re very confident,” Hailat said.
Among its services, the company sells a “smart” NFT with properties that are changeable (unlike standard NFTs), offers a technology to game developers that allows them to incorporate cryptocurrency more easily into their games and has created a marketplace for buying, selling and trading in-game items.
But in order to focus on their company, Sindall and Hailat made the big decision to drop out of university.
For Hailat, the Michigan-born son of Jordanian immigrants — the family moved to Windsor, Ont., when he was two years old — it was difficult telling his parents he was leaving school last year, partway through his second year in computer engineering at the University of Toronto.
“I told (my parents) even a year or two before, I really want to start something and if I do, I have no issue dropping out of school. They were very hesitant. They told me, ‘you should have a degree no matter what, it’s a good backup. Later in the future, if something was to happen, you could use it,’” Hailat recalled.
For Sindall, it was less of a struggle. His mother, a tenured professor at 24 who’d earned a PhD at 22 from Cambridge University and who has served as CEO of two publicly traded companies, actually supported his decision to leave his program in mining engineering.
“It kind of dawned on us when we were starting to do really well, this doesn’t really make any sense (staying in school). My mother was actually the one (who) came out and said, ‘look, I think it’s good that you guys left university and pursued this,’” Sindall said.
“University is always going to be there. The institution has been around since 1827 in the U of T’s case. It’s not going anywhere but this opportunity might so we might as well embrace it,” he added.
In April 2021 — in the midst of first-year exams — they decided to proceed wth the company, only to receive a cease-and-desist order hours from launch from a U.K. legal firm demanding they not use the company name they’d chosen.
“We changed all of our marketing. Our community was incredibly confused 20 minutes before the launch as to why there’s a new token name. That was a very insane day,” Sindall said.
The two had met in first-year university and struck up a friendship over a shared interest in cryptocurrency. Sindall had been crypto-mining since he was a teenager (both are now 20) and Hailat had been coding — writing digital code — since Grade 9. Both bring different skill-sets to the partnership.
“I bring a lot of technical skills to the table, a lot of coding knowledge and (Sindall) has a lot of connections. Something about Maxim made me realize if I was going to go into business with anyone, it should be this guy. He’s a dynamic guy. He can’t always explain technology really well, but everybody just likes him right away. That’s one of his strong points,” Hailat said.
“We’re a unit. There’s no partnership that doesn’t have its up and downs but we’re a unit and we’re focused on the same mission and we’re doing it,” said Sindall, who grew up in downtown Toronto and attended the Island Public/Natural Science School on Centre Island.
They’re also introducing some serious innovation to the gaming industry that they hope will make the company a commercial success.
Chief among them, the creation of a “smart” NFT for the gaming market. An NFT, which up to this point has been a static or unchangeable item, is a relatively new form of cryptocurrency, which allows anyone to have digital ownership of a real world item, whether it’s an image such as a work of art or photo, or, in the gaming world, an in-game item like a sword.
“Before Altura, … an NFT was a static image, title and description, something that cannot change. That was the nature of an NFT. So Altura came up with this technology that allows NFTs to change without sacrificing any of the previous properties. That is the first time the market has seen anything like that,” Hailat said.
The second major innovation: giving gaming companies the ability to use NFTs much more easily, reducing the time it takes — because of the technical difficulty of coding — from several months to a matter of a few days, he said.
“Our tools allow game developers to create games that use NFTs without having to know anything about crypto,” Hailat said.
They’ve also created a marketplace for the buying, selling and trading of NFTs, noting game developers get a piece of the action — royalties — from every transaction, giving them an incentive to participate, Sindall said.
“These in-game items have a whole economy and a market of their own,” Sindall said.
It’s big business. In the gaming world, some NFTs have sold for millions of dollars, Hailat noted.
But the cryptocurrency market — which includes NFTs, which are similar to bitcoin tokens — has been a roller-coaster of booms and busts since its inception a decade ago, with a serious drop in value recently.
“Within the last two years, there’s definitely been a lot of shady actors, shady companies and things that have put a really bad stigma on crypto. I think the public has gotten a little bit burned within the last two years and there’s a lot of resistance now towards the crypto market … I totally understand that,” Hailat said.
“We were seeing (NFT) pictures of dogs for $3 million … with (people) thinking they’re going to become rich. So obviously that’s a sign of a bubble. I think crypto is here to stay but it needs to cool down,” he added.
Jon French, director of the University of Toronto Entrepreneurship program, said cryptocurrency, NFTs and blockchain technology dominated the conversation at the recent Collision Conference — which focuses on digital technology — held in Toronto last month.
“I’d say they (Altura) are in one of the most exciting spaces that we see in the tech and the startup ecosystem right now. While I don’t know how the company is without looking under the hood, they (Altura) are definitely playing in the right space,” French said.
“Anything crypto-related continues to be highly speculative. But the underlying technology … I think is here to stay. I would agree it’s a roller-coaster for anybody that’s in crypto right now, but I think the underlying blockchain technology will continue to create new businesses and new business opportunities that we haven’t even dreamed up yet,” French added.
For his part, Hailat said the company is performing well even as the crypto market falters.
“It felt like a dream because we went from being these nobodies at U of T to now, there’s 70,000 people on the internet talking about our company and all of a suddenly, money is flowing through the door,” Hailat said.
“The entire (crypto) market is down substantially. But the company itself, I’m more confident in the future and the success of the company than I’ve ever been,” he said.
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Young entrepreneurs take on gaming with a 'smart' NFT | TheRecord.com – Waterloo Region Record