The Penn Blockchain Club: What The Next Generation of Blockchain Innovators Are Up To

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The Penn Blockchain Club (PBC, http://pennblockchain.com), an organization registered with the university’s famed Wharton School started in 2017. In the short time since the club has rocketed to over 380 members and has participated in a number of pitch competitions, most notably finishing as a runner-up in ConsenSys Academy’s 2017 inaugural MBA Blockchain Venture Competition.

BBHQ had the pleasure of interviewing key members of the club to learn more about what they are focusing on, how they explain blockchain to their parents, and what trends and challenges they see in the blockchain space.

Vivek Chauhan, Aaron Diamond-Reivich, and HQ Han from Penn Blockchain Club joined BBHQ for the interview. Here is what we learned about and from PBC:

Can you tell us more about your student blockchain club?

“The purpose of the Penn Blockchain Club is to build a community of students who are interested in and passionate about blockchain and related technologies. The organization provides an avenue for any interested members of the community to learn about blockchain. We started as a 20 member club last year and grew to be one of the biggest self-funded, student-run clubs on campus. Our members are from across UPenn schools such as Wharton, engineering, and law, and include both grad and undergrad students.

“Our mission is to educate our 380+ members on the latest technology trends, innovations and disruptions, increase the number and quality of networking and recruiting opportunities with blockchain companies, and strengthen the UPenn brand in blockchain-dependent industries.” -Vivek

 

What is the background of your members?

“Our members have a wide range of backgrounds. We pride ourselves on creating a diverse community, bringing blockchain expertise from a range of different perspectives. To this end, our club is about 50% undergraduates and 50% MBA, JD, and Masters students. Furthermore, our club is diverse at the undergraduate level as well. It is comprised of computer scientists and business students.” -Aaron

 

What are the Penn Blockchain Club initiatives over the next 12 months?

  • Lunch and Learn sessions led by industry leaders
  • Bi-weekly industry newsletters
  • Recruiting and interview workshops, student-led classes covering blockchain, cryptocurrencies, etc.
  • Mentorships
  • Industry treks
  • Social events
  • The Blockchain Conference
  • White paper sessions
  • Content creation via blogs, podcasts,etc.

-Vivek

 

What services do you offer to companies interested in blockchain?

“The Penn Blockchain Club offers consulting services to both established companies looking to incorporate blockchain into their business strategy and new companies looking to build blockchain-based applications. In the past, our consultants have both audited existing smart contracts for security concerns and wrote full contracts.” -Aaron

 

Can you share examples of blockchain projects you have worked on and their associated deliverables?

“I worked with a cross-disciplinary team of students on a smart contract adjudication platform which helps incorporate subjective terms in smart contracts. We pitched the idea to ConsenSys and were runner-up in the blockchain venture competition hosted across top schools worldwide. We have been encouraged to take the idea forward and are working to further validate our business model and product assumptions before deciding to launch the startup.” -Vivek

 

PBC recently hosted the Penn Blockchain Conference, can you share the highlights and key takeaways of this event?

  1. While the blockchain buzz may be too hyped up, there is a lot of groundbreaking work being done.
  2. There is a shortage of talent in the industry, especially devs and there is a lot of upside for students who make an effort to contribute to the sector.
  3. Focus on building things that will help in the long run as compared to being caught up in the marketing buzz around tokens and blockchain.
  4. Both public and private blockchains will have their place in the ecosystem and will serve different needs of diverse participants.
  5. Here is a great summary by Coindesk.

-Vivek

 

What role do you see the academic world playing in the adoption of blockchain by the business community?

  1. Educate students in blockchain fundamentals and channel their interests towards a career in blockchain.
  2. Empower students with access to opportunities and skills to pursue the opportunities.
  3. There is a lot of research due in many aspects of the rapidly developing blockchain ecosystem, from network design to game theory and incentive structures, from governance models to scalability tradeoffs. The academic world has an open field to contribute to this space. -Vivek

 

What do you think are the remaining hurdles for blockchain technology to go mainstream in the enterprise ecosystem?

“As reported in the DTCC paper (http://www.dtcc.com/blockchain) ‘it is immature, unproven, has inherent scale limitations in its current form and lacks underlying infrastructure to cleanly integrate it into the existing financial market environment. Improvements will come with time as they have with every new technology and as the industry learns from successes and failures of marketplace experiments.’

“There is a lot of work due on scalability, balancing tradeoff between privacy and transparency, effective implementation of the idea of zero-knowledge proof, network incentive design, and decentralized governance bottlenecks. Also, lack of legal and regulatory consensus, ability to integrate with modern data management tools and the tradeoff between network speed and security. Finally, the need for unprecedented coordination across enterprises to be able to leverage the technology.” -Vivek

“A lot of people will tell you scalability, interoperability, privacy – these are legitimate hurdles now, but I’ll take a more practical standpoint in answering this question. What I mean by practical is taking an industry and breaking it down into its parts – what are the incentives for change?

“On a macro level, in the enterprise ecosystem, you have incumbents, disruptors, (eventually) consumers, and also regulators on the side. When you look into specific industries, the dynamics between these players differ – in highly regulated industries like healthcare and finance, incumbents and regulators hold a strong position. From the provider of the service point of view, they will have to do a cost-benefit analysis to determine if one, a blockchain is suitable (it’s likely that they go through with a pilot and find a central database better); two, how bad is their legacy system, and are there functions fulfilled by their legacy system that require centralization; three, how much resources and cost would it be to re-haul their systems; four, how are they going to run the governing consortium, if it is a permissioned system. Either that or there is insurmountable pressure from the disruptors, or consumers that demand transparency.

“The reality is that the exercise each real business has to do is very rigorous, and not all the costs or the benefits are completely known. So a lot of decisions to make, as the technology also improves itself (to work on the scalability, interoperability, privacy) to make itself more viable.” -HQ

 

What percentage of your classmates get blockchain or is it still a small group?

“It is still a small, but a rapidly growing group. I would say 5% of people have a basic understanding of what blockchain is and broadly what’s its potential. This is a big number given student engagement, club activities, and serious interest only started trickling down to student body early last year. The interesting thing is the interest is very well represented across graduate and undergraduates and between tech and business people.” -Vivek

“At this point, almost all of our classmates have a basic understanding of blockchain. However, they have almost no idea how the technology actually works. There is a group of students, mostly those who have taken at least one of the courses offered by our club, who have a strong understanding of the workings of the technology.” -Aaron

“I would say still a small group, despite the immense interest. Wharton ran a half-credit class for FinTech in the Spring Semester, and we covered blockchain. There were a lot of basic, but I think very essential, questions asked during these sessions.

“In addition to being involved on the board of the Penn Blockchain Club, I am also the Co-President of the Wharton FinTech Club (~350 members) and from our membership survey, we found that Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies is one of the top interests of our club members, but not the top place they want to recruit.

“I think this shows that it’s difficult topic to understand, because a lot of it is tech – and we have a long road to go to educate as many people as possible.” -HQ

 

What use cases/future do you see for the blockchain and women?

“The use case of blockchain is wide. It’s the first time we have a new technology potentially transforming the very heart of enterprises, its ledger, and database. Every current ecosystem where there is inherent lack of trust, high coordination cost, lack of transparency among participants can potentially use blockchain. I usually follow this diagram to broadly distill down the use of blockchain technology.

“I am working on a research paper evaluation blockchain use case across capital markets. It’s well agreed among the incumbents and disrupters that blockchain can potentially save billions of dollars in financial markets. Another favorite use case is supply chain and trade finance. I will be interning at ConsenSys over the summer and be working with Viant.” -Vivek

“An interesting question. I think the nature of blockchain, as with the Internet, is that it is a technology than spans industries. It’s very fundamental, its impact can change the infrastructure of many industries, not just finance.

“This means that women participation is ever important. We want the female voice to be heard, in the causes that matter to them. For example, blockchain can be used in emerging countries who do not have established payment rails, to pay. There are many projects looking at identity as well (eg, World Bank, ConsenSys uPort (https://www.uport.me/)). The Gates Foundation has a project called mojaloop (http://mojaloop.io/) which serves financial inclusion. This has enormous potential not just for women (but we have long seen the huge GDP impact of economic opportunity for women), but countries as a whole. The fact that this is going to impact everyone, means that men and women, young and old should take part in the voice to shape the technology the way they wish and think will create value. By embracing diversity, that’s the only way we can benefit everyone as much as possible.”  -HQ

 

What is your hope for the blockchain?

“I don’t think it’s a good use case for all our current problems, but I hope for the right use case, it will bring efficiency and transparency into day to day lives.” -Vivek

 

What impact do you see the blockchain having on business?

“Enormous cost saving, lean operations and better coordination with upstream and downstream collaborators.” -Vivek

 

How do you explain blockchain to people/your parents?

“Imagine you and four friends wanted to play poker, but none of you had chips. We could still play poker if we ask a fifth friend, let’s call him Chris, to keep track of how much money each player has. However, we have to pay Chris for this service and trust that he will not cheat. This is the current system. Chris is the bank. What if we didn’t want to trust Chris to be honest? Instead, you and your four friends can each keep track of how much money each player has. At the end of each round, you can compare your individual ledgers, and come to consensus on the true ledger of the game. This is the blockchain solution.”  -Aaron

“It’s an online ledger shared between many parties where the rules for updating and using the ledger are prefixed and once anything has been added to the ledger it cannot be deleted.

“On a more big-picture level, I would say it’s a technology which allows unknown and untrusted participants to coordinate and collaborate and exchange value online.” -Vivek

 

What do you hope stays the same about the blockchain and what do you hope will change about it?

“I hope, the recent focus on enterprise use case and testing product-market fit for using the technology without the forced use of tokens continues. I hope the ICO market cools down and takes down scammers out of the ecosystem. They bring a bad name to the good and hard work done by many people in this space. I also hope regulators and governments see the potential of the technology and facilitate the development of frameworks which can help rapid adoption of this technology.” -Vivek

 

Do you see the blockchain being adopted in the US by the business community for different reasons than by the international community?

“It depends on the regulatory restrictions enforced in the US, but is totally possible. Governance of network, data restrictions, and the play between private and public ledger will share how different countries adopt blockchain. Especially, if businesses move closer to public blockchains it will be interesting to see how US government and regulators dictate/collaborate enterprise applications.” -Vivek

“I think that the most dramatic benefits of blockchain is in underdeveloped countries where the banking system and government is corrupt. In these countries, blockchain offers an opportunity to create a financial and identity infrastructure that does not fall at the whim of corrupt leaders. In countries like America, where, for the most part, we don’t have wide-scale corruption problems, blockchains’ impacts are more subtle, targeting data ownership and efficiency concerns.”  -Aaron

Randall is a former startup founder who built up his blockchain expertise at Decoded, an international tech education group. Since Decoded he has completed coursework on the Hyperledger blockchain and also writes about the blockchain at Coinmonks on Medium.

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