Pioneering new course looks at business, tech, and law surrounding blockchain

Berkeley Haas offers new Blockchain course

It’s easy enough to find a computer science class that covers the bits and bytes behind blockchain—the global digital ledger that’s linked and secured using cryptography. More difficult is finding a curriculum that tackles the potentially disruptive business, legal, and regulatory implications of the complex new technology.

That’s about to change, as Berkeley Haas in spring 2018 offers a cross-listed class to business, engineering and law students. Called “Blockchain and the Future of Technology, Business, and Law,” the new course will provide an overview of the technology behind blockchain and explore the huge range of current and potential real-world applications.

“Blockchain is one of the most significant technologies to impact business in many years, but there’s a lack of understanding about what it means to business and law,” said Haas Lecturer Greg La Blanc. “Engineering students think that money simply grows on bits, but have no idea what the business model is. Law and business students are confused about the technology.

Greg LaBlanc
Greg La Blanc

The course is limited to 60 students, 20 each from Haas, Berkeley Engineering, and Berkeley Law. They’ll work in mixed teams of six to produce a proposal for a workable blockchain-related business plan by semester’s end.

What is blockchain?

Blockchain is a decentralized and encrypted method of tracking digital assets. It’s designed to operate without any central company or government in charge, so that no single party can change records they didn’t create. Blockchain is often associated with digital currencies such as Bitcoin—but the technology covers far wider territory. Blockchains are being used to do everything from protecting digital identities in Estonia to removing contaminated turkeys from the supply chain in Texas—and it’s become a trendy investment in Silicon Valley.

La Blanc, who teaches finance and strategy at Haas, is the course co-founder, along with Adam Sterling, executive director of the law school’s Berkeley Center for Law, Business and the Economy, and Engineering Professor Dawn Song, a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. All three will teach during throughout the course, along with engineering post-doc Raymond Cheng.

Sterling, JD/MBA 13, who enrolled in La Blanc’s finance class as a Berkeley MBA student, said the two have stayed in touch, working on various projects since he left. The new course came out of a meeting the two held with Song. “We saw so much overlap in what we were doing,” Sterling said.

Adam Sterling

La Blanc said the 15-week course will include lectures on topics such as the history of money and currency, the founding of Bitcoin, and the stories behind the industry experts who are building cryptocurrency products. The course will include a variety of guest speakers.

Pitching to VCs

By the end of the course, each student team will create a blockchain-related business plan “that is technically feasible and regulatory compliant,” Sterling said. Members of the VC community will judge the students’ pitch decks and their computer code, as well as their legal memos.

Interest in the course and in blockchain across campus is strong. Blockchain at Berkeley, founded a year ago, now has 100 members and more than 1,600 people participating in the club’s events and activities, says Ashley Lannquist, MBA 18, one of the group’s consulting managers.

“Students see this as a very impactful emerging technology that will play large role in the future, and they want to understand it and effectively participate,” Lannquist says.

“Blockchain does have the potential to be a really disruptive technology for many industries,” Sterling said. “There’s a lot of excitement around the early applications, but we’re especially excited for the long-term implications and that’s what we want to equip our students to understand.”