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Startup Spotlight: How late-night crypto conversations led to hyphen labs launch

two men standing in downtown Berkeley
Tarek Mohammad and Jin Kim, both MFE 23, launched hyphen labs in November 2022.

When Jin Kim and Tarek Mohammad, both MFE 23, met at orientation for the Berkeley Haas Master of Financial Engineering program last year, they instantly connected over a shared passion for blockchain, crypto, financial systems, and entrepreneurship. 

Intense discussions, many times lasting until 4 a.m., led Kim and Mohammad to launch hyphen labs, a platform for industry decentralized finance (DeFi) trading. DeFi is a broad term for applications and projects in public blockchain geared toward disrupting traditional finance. 

While at Haas, hyphen labs was accepted to the UC Berkeley SkyDeck accelerator cohort, and was the first MFE-founded startup to make it into the Techstars accelerator program. Kim and Mohammad, who launched hyphen in November 2022, are now heading to Miami and Boston to raise a seed round.

In this interview, they discuss what led them to Haas, the experience of launching a fintech startup, and the challenges ahead.

Haas News: Tell us a bit about your background and what led you to Haas?

Tarek Mohammad: I have a unique story because I come from a unique place. I studied economics and actuarial science as an undergraduate in Lebanon. However, starting in 2019, Lebanon experienced huge economic turmoil. The government defaulted on its government bonds, and then the banking system defaulted. I lost all my personal savings. By that time, I was working for KPMG as a consultant. Then Covid hit. During that period, the ammonium nitrate explosion hit the Port of Beirut in August 2020. The KPMG office was five minutes walking distance away from the explosion and one of my managers died.

With all of this change and turmoil, I decided to create a fintech startup. I quit KPMG. By then, I’d decided that the banking system needed to be fixed, and the only way to do it was through blockchain because with blockchain, there are no intermediaries. Then I applied to the Master of Financial Engineering program at Berkeley Haas and arrived in the states in March 2022. During my studies, I won the Franklin Templeton Blockchain contest in Palo Alto. After this, Jin and I decided to partner on a venture together and never looked back.

I’d decided that the banking system needed to be fixed, and the only way to do it was through blockchain. — Tarek Mohammad.

Jin Kim: I am from South Korea and worked in AI research as a machine learning researcher. That got me interested in trading with AI algorithms and a professor at my school. I started and ran a small hedge fund focusing on U.S. equity and crypto investments using AI. Though trading was still my thing, crypto trade got me more into the blockchain itself. So, I went to work as an investment analyst intern at the VC arm of Dunamu, the biggest crypto exchange in Korea. Since I liked finance trading, algorithms, and crypto, I thought I should attend a master in financial engineering program. The best program out there happened to be Berkeley, which is also near Silicon Valley. It fit both of my goals: to get a bit more academic and hands-on experience in the field and exposure to people who like to take risks and try new things.

What does the company do?

Mohammad: What we’re trying to do is build an infrastructure for institutions to be able to get crypto exposure, specifically on DeFi. So, if say, BlackRock wants to access the DeFi infrastructure or trade on crypto on DeFi, they can use us because we provide a solution. We hold custody of their assets and provide them with a DeFi interface and infrastructure that provides some compliance and comfort. 

When did you realize that your idea was unique and could work? 

Kim: It wasn’t a simple “aha” moment. We interviewed our potential clients every day to hear what they needed and found that every client is different, so their respective needs are also different. It helped us greatly to pause every now and then to review what we learned. With these quick pauses and iterations, we saw a pattern emerging with many people dealing with a problem that was worth looking at. Then we had a feeling about what would work. 

We saw a pattern emerging with many people dealing with a problem that was worth looking at. — Jin Kim

What are some of the challenges that you all are facing while building a startup?

Mohammad: It’s a perfect time to be a builder, but it’s a challenging time for fundraising, especially over the last few weeks with the banking meltdown. On the personal side, we also have unique challenges. As international students, it isn’t easy with our visas. Many international classmates immediately go to work after graduating for visa reasons instead of going into entrepreneurship directly. But running a startup, we needed to consider our visas while we figured out the payroll, hiring, and acquiring talent. Moreover, we also needed to figure out the product itself. I’m talking to customers every single day. 

What did it mean to get accepted to Techstars, and how has the experience been?

Mohammad: It’s really a great community. It’s a hub for entrepreneurship, one of the biggest hubs in the world, and one of the biggest funds. Of course, the process was challenging, with a low acceptance rate. But it’s an ecosystem. You’re surrounded by people you can relate to, people who are builders and ex-founders. So, it’s more of an ecosystem for us. It’s a lifetime membership.

What are some ways in which the Berkeley Haas community has helped you throughout this process?

Mohammad: We worked within the MFE network and the broader Haas alumni network. We get a lot of answers regarding our product and our company’s direction from talking to these people. So mostly, we think about this from the networking side and how existing students and MBAs with industry experience can help us shape our direction.

What was something that really attracted you to Berkeley Haas and how has being in Berkeley helped you in your pursuits? 

Mohammad: Maybe it’s a cliche, but some of the greatest startup companies come from Berkeley—firms like Intel, Tesla, and SanDisk. These companies are considered the north stars in their respective industries. Being in the Berkeley ecosystem pushes you every day to create and innovate. Beside Techstars, we got into SkyDeck, the incubator batch. This allowed us to connect to founders on campus. School for us was not just a place to study, but also a workspace to meet fellow founders and innovators. Finally, the campus location near Silicon Valley in the Bay Area boosted our reach outs and accelerated our product discovery. And I think that the international aspect and diversity here helps. On the mentor side, we are lucky to have Linda Kreitzman, founder of the MFE program and a current lecturer, and Professor Christine Parlour as mentors. 

School for us was not just a place to study, but also a workspace to meet fellow founders and innovators.— Tarek Mohammad

Kim: Berkeley was such a great place to connect with people from faculty to alumni. So many people helped us out or referred us to people who could be of help. It was a humbling experience. We often ask whether we deserved all this help. We hope to do the same for other Berkeley founders, peers, or alumni to pay it forward.

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