Women You Should Know: Jess Houlgrave

By Mary Ahearn

November 20, 2018

Art & Tech

Women You Should Know: Jess Houlgrave

Jess Houlgrave co-founded Codex Protocol, a decentralized title registry for the arts and collectibles industry.




“I think if we have more women in tech we’ll see faster and better technological advances.”



In the next edition of Women You Should Know, ArtTactic Editorial talks with co-founder of Codex Protocol, Jess Houlgrave. Jess earned her Master’s in Economics from Oxford University and her Master’s in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. A former private equity investor and investment banker, Jess teamed up with Mark Lurie to found Codex Protocol in 2017.


Codex uses blockchain technology to address some key issues in the art and collectibles industry, such as verifying provenance and ownership. The identity of an object is stored securely on the blockchain as a Codex Record, making the object easier to buy, sell, and manage. Biddable also allows collectors and dealer to buy works using cryptocurrency.


In her interview, Jess discusses how she became interested in blockchain, the current state of technology in the art market, and how she uses some of the profits from her business ventures to fund technical education programmes for girls in developing countries.



  1. How did the idea for Codex Protocol develop?


In 2016-17 I wrote a Master’s thesis at Sotheby’s Institute of Art on the applications of blockchain for the art ecosystem. I’d been fascinated by cryptocurrency and blockchain, and I have a background in economics, finance and private equity, so was keen to understand the implications of this ground-breaking technology for art, which has always been a big passion of mine. My co-founder Mark previously founded Lofty.com, which is an online marketplace for art and collectibles. He sold that in 2016 and was also looking at how blockchain could be used to solve problems in the art & collectibles space.



2. Your co-founder is Mark Lurie. Do you as a female entrepreneur face different challenges as Mark, or are your challenges the same on the whole? 


Mostly I would say that we face the same challenges. Finding investors, building a team, getting a product to market, not having enough hours in the day – these are universal challenges faced by all entrepreneurs. I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge but we do sometimes get treated differently!



3. Codex seeks to apply cutting edge blockchain technology to the art world. Have you encountered resistance within the art world community, perhaps from those who don’t understand the implications of this new tech, or those who just don’t want it?


Throughout 2018 I‘ve seen an enormous rise in the interest in blockchain technology from the art world. We want Codex to be something that works with, and for, the existing art ecosystem as well as making it more accessible to people. That’s why we’ve partnered with existing players like LiveAuctioneers, Auction Mobility, Heffel Auction House, BlueThumb and Tagsmart. There is certainly a lot of education needed to help address some early misconceptions about the technology, but mostly I think people are really curious and often excited. We’ve had lots of inbound enquiries from auction houses, galleries, other companies and even artists who are keen to work with Codex.



4. Women don’t seem to be represented very well in tech the tech industry, and even though there are many women in the arts industry, they are often not represented in positions of power. What is the most challenging aspect of being a female entrepreneur in the arts and tech start-up space?


Women are definitely underrepresented in tech. I think that’s beginning to change though and there are some amazing female tech entrepreneurs who are great role models. In particular women like Jojo Hubbard (Electron) and Galia Benartzi (Bancor) who work in the blockchain space are role models for how women can be really successful. I think sometimes there is a perception that being a female entrepreneur is particularly hard or that tech isn’t a very female-friendly space. This seems to put some people off, but really they should just get involved.



5. What would your advice be to other female arts entrepreneurs that want to use tech to improve their businesses?  


All entrepreneurs in the art space, irrespective of their gender, will need to use tech to improve their businesses. The world is changing, the needs and wishes of collectors are changing and anyone who doesn’t use technology effectively will be left behind. My advice? Be curious and open minded and question your biases.



6. If you could change one thing about the art industry, what would it be? What about the tech industry – what would you change?


I’d like more artists to be involved in the tech industry. Artists are the great at explaining, questioning and challenging new technologies. Technologies can inherit the biases of the people who develop them so we need a huge range of people to start engaging with technology to make sure we aren’t reinforcing the status quo but are actually improving the world. I’ve done lots of work with artists working in the art/blockchain space and I’m always amazed at the different perspectives they bring. We recently set up a foundation to support that mission at the moment and I’m really excited to see what happens.


I’d also like to see more women in the tech industry. I’m a co-founder of shEOS, a block-producer for the EOS blockchain that was founded by all women. Some of our revenues go to funding technical education programmes for girls in developing countries. I think if we have more women in tech we’ll see faster and better technological advances. After all, right now the industry is missing lots of female brain power! As for the art industry, I’d like to see more value going to artists and I think technology can help us facilitate that.



7. How do you envision new tech such as blockchain helping women now, and in the future?


Blockchain is a wonderful tool for recording attribution. So I hope that it can help people be adequately compensated for the work they do. Whether that’s women, artists or anyone else. Today a disproportionate amount of value accrues to the middle man across most industries and I think blockchain can help change that.