Why a Boston sneaker design veteran and crypto entrepreneur are making NFT shoes

What Endstate really sells are NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, which it regularly releases in limited quantities. Customers purchase an NFT, specify their shoe size, and receive a real pair of sneakers within weeks.

The shoes offer a variety of benefits and access to real-world experiences. (I wasn’t kidding about the cheesesteak thing.)

During NFT.NYC in June, Howard and Collen met me at a coffee shop days after raising a $5.5 million seed round from investors including Archetype Ventures, Accomplice, and Castle Island Ventures.

Endstate co-founders Bennett Collen (left) and Stephanie Howard (right) wore matching sneakers at NFT NYC this summer.Anissa Gardizy

The co-founders arrived in matching sneakers that looked like regular shoes until Collen tapped his smartphone near the laces. A 3D rendering of his shoes popped up on his screen, along with the word “authentic” in green.

This is how Collen confirmed that his kicks were one of the 50 pairs made for Endstate’s first sneaker drop. The company embeds a chip in the tongue of each sneaker that is connected to the corresponding NFT.

Why is that important? For Endstate, NFTs represent much more than digital art. The startup operates in the “utility NFT” space, which means that digital assets come with certain rights and privileges for the owners, similar to a contract or membership.

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It’s a key development in the industry since the market for NFTs as digital artworks has largely collapsed.

Nic Carter, a partner at Castle Island Ventures, wrote in a recent blog post that several “tech-savvy luxury brands” have probably considered selling NFTs that didn’t come with a physical good or utility component over the past year.

“Now that the hype has died down,” he wrote, “these brands will realize that the real innovation isn’t taking advantage of fans by selling them overpriced JPEGs of dubious utility, but rather offering merchandise with an enduring digital ownership.” connects.”

In fact, Endstate’s goal is to collaborate with artists, athletes and entrepreneurs on NFT sneaker drops and then connect these digital assets to physical goods and real experiences and rewards.

The Endstate Ukraine Aid sneaker.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The company is currently selling $250 worth of sneakers in partnership with Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith. Sneaker owners can attend an event hosted by Smith in Philly, as well as an exclusive game-watching party. (Because of the chip in the shoe, “the sneaker is the ticket,” Howard said.)

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The perks come throughout the season – after his first touchdown and for every run a certain number of yards, NFT holders receive a gift card for a free cheesesteak.

“It’s fun, but it shows how NFTs are unlocking that other world, beyond the physical sneaker,” Howard said.

Though Howard couldn’t share details, she said Endstate is in talks with musicians, creators and a well-known sneaker and streetwear brand.

Endstate is also selling limited-edition sneakers next month for this year’s Boston College Red Bandana game honoring Welles Remy Crowther, an alum who died after killing at least a dozen during the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City had saved people.

The two co-founders of the company have experience at the cutting edge of innovation.

For Howard, it’s with sneakers. She joined New Balance out of college and was the Boston-based company’s youngest employee when she designed the 1996 New Balance 850s, a breakthrough shoe that the company re-released in 2019. (It was the first pair where the “N” logo didn’t appear on the side of the shoe.)

Designer Stephanie Howard poses for a portrait circa March 1996. At 23, Howard is the youngest designer at New Balance, the Boston-based company that is the nation’s #3 manufacturer of running shoes. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Boston Globe via Getty Images

Howard went to Reebok before becoming design director at Nike. For the last ten years she has been an innovation consultant for brands such as Timberland, Vans and Converse.

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Collen, a BC graduate, brings seal of approval from the tech world. In 2014 he founded Cognate, a company trying to verify and enforce trademark rights on the blockchain. “Trying to sell the 2016, 2017 to lawyers was an uphill battle,” he said.

GoDaddy, the internet domain registrar and website hosting company, bought Cognate in 2018.

Collen teaches blockchain and cryptocurrency at BC and wanted to start another blockchain business during the pandemic. He met Howard after attending a webinar on sneakers and law, which she attended as a panelist.

Collen and Howard believe that in the not too distant future, everything consumers care about in the real world—sneakers, clothes, accessories—will be digitally replicated. (That’s the “final stage” of product ownership, according to them.)

“This bottle of water will not have a digital counterpart, but will have something that has value or meaning to me that I want a digital counterpart for,” Collen said. “We want to be at the forefront”

Anissa Gardizy can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.