Blockchain in bloom: New initiative drives research grants, incubator, courses

Clockwise from top left: Bosun Adebaki, MBA 19, Karin Bauer, program manager for the Berkeley Haas Blockchain Initiative, high school students attending a She256 event, Asst. Prof. Giovanni Compiani, Kate Tomlinson, MBA 20, and Adam Sterling, executive director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Business.

Clockwise from top left: Bosun Adebaki, MBA 19, Karin Bauer, program manager for the Berkeley Haas Blockchain Initiative; Asst. Prof. Giovanni Compiani; Adam Sterling, executive director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Business; Kate Tomlinson, MBA 20,  and high school students attending a She256 event.

Bosun Adebaki, MBA 19, will spend time this spring researching the merits of Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC), a form of digital money that’s being tested by governments and central banks worldwide. His goal is to determine how central banks can use digital currencies to become more competitive, flexible, and efficient.

Adebaki, a fellow with the Berkeley Blockchain Xcelerator, is among eight graduate students and seven faculty members from across UC Berkeley who received the first round of grants from the Berkeley Haas Blockchain Initiative, a new program funded by a grant from blockchain industry leader Ripple.

“We’re moving quickly to become a hub for all of this innovation that we believe will lead to new research discoveries and technologies that seek to solve the world’s most pressing business and societal problems,” said Karin Bauer, program manager for the Berkeley Haas Blockchain Initiative.

Ripple chose Haas last June as a partner in its $50 million University Blockchain Research Initiative (UBRI), an effort that has expanded to include 29 prestigious universities around the world. Haas received a multi-year, multi-million-dollar grant to support research in blockchain, cryptocurrency, and digital payments. The Berkeley Haas Blockchain Initiative is housed in the Institute for Business and Social Impact (IBSI) at Haas and reaches across all of UC Berkeley.

A global research network

Laura Tyson

Laura Tyson, faculty director of IBSI and former Haas dean

“It’s exciting to watch the Ripple UBRI Partnership gather momentum at Haas and across the Berkeley campus,” said Prof. Laura Tyson, faculty director of IBSI and former dean of the Haas School. “Individual companies and researchers can only accomplish so much. But by supporting a research network that spans across so many great universities and over five continents, Ripple is building a powerful program that could lead to important advances for not only the entire sector, but for the world.”

Blockchain, originally developed to securely and transparently record transactions involving bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, has become one of the hottest areas in business because it represents a fundamentally new way of handling large volumes of sensitive data. Blockchain keeps encrypted records in widely scattered networks of devices, and its advocate say it’s less vulnerable to manipulation and fraud, and is well suited for delicate operations such as money transfers and title searches.

The Berkeley Haas initiative is supporting pioneering academic research to examine the changes these technologies are bringing to a wide range of industries and the financial system, and also how they might be harnessed to reduce poverty and enhance the greater good. In addition to awarding research grants, the initiative is partnering on the new Berkeley Blockchain Xcelerator, a  joint venture of Berkeley Engineering’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, the Haas School, and Blockchain at Berkeley to incubate blockchain startups. In addition, the initiative has a pool of funds to distribute to students organizing blockchain-themed events, such as speaker series and conferences.

“Ripple’s generous gift to Haas is in recognition of our ability to drive innovation and inspire research collaboration across different professional schools and programs at UC Berkeley in blockchain, cryptocurrency, and digital payments,” Bauer said.

Fifteen research grants awarded

The first round of grants went to professors from Berkeley Engineering, the School of Information, and Haas, as well researchers from the Berkeley Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity and the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing. Haas Prof. Paul Gertler received funding for research focused on adoption of digital payment systems by small businesses in emerging markets, and Asst. Prof. Giovanni Compiani received a grant to study what drives demand for cryptocurrencies among both individual and institutional investors. Blockchain courses taught by Adam Sterling, executive director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Business, and Ikhlaq Sidhu, chief scientist and faculty director of the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, also received grants.

Eight students from Berkeley Law, Berkeley Engineering, the School of Information, the Department of Economics, and Haas each received smaller grants that will allow them to complete research projects within a semester.

She256 advocates for diversity in blockchain.

She256 advocates for diversity in blockchain.

Haas students participating, in addition to Adebaki, include Kate Tomlinson, MBA 20, and a business consultant for Blockchain@Berkeley, who will be researching applications of blockchain within the energy sector. Her project will dive deeper into the specific challenges of financial reconciliation, hardware integration, and data sharing as they apply to the energy sector. Lauren Fu, MBA 19, will research ways to assign vehicle accident liability by collecting and storing accident data using blockchain—so that the data collected will be auditable and tamper-free.

She256, co-founded by Sara Reynolds, BS EECS 21 and a Blockchain@Berkeley consultant, also received a grant to continue to develop the reach of the organization, a movement to increase diversity and break down barriers to entry in the blockchain space. The annual she256 conference will be held on Sunday, April 28, at Haas.

Supporting the Berkeley Blockchain Xcelerator

The Berkeley Haas initiative is also providing entrepreneurship training for teams accepted into the brand new Berkeley Blockchain Xcelerator, funded by the Berkeley XLab. The Xcelerator provides money, mentorship, and resources to teams building blockchain enterprises.

Neeraj Goyal, MBA 19, and Ije Anusionwu, MBA 20, wanted to use blockchain to help refugees track and sell valuables that they leave behind when they are uprooted. The pair have applied for a grant through the Xcelerator program to help build a startup based on the idea. (Grants will be announced this spring.) “Capital will be important, but we also need the expertise of people who have founded companies successfully,” said Goyal.

Working with the Sutardja Center on blockchain makes sense, says Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program. “We teach complementary skills that are critical for commercializing any technology,” said Shrader, who will teach courses through the program. “At Haas, we take what we know about business management and apply it to frontier technologies in a systematic and methodical way. Cooperating with Berkeley Engineering on projects large and small is what Haas students want.”

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