Blockchain is a transformative technology capable of disrupting industries and even altering the social fabric. The recent initial coin offering scandals, plummeting cryptocurrency values, and the general wild west nature of this space have scared off some early adopters and entrepreneurs, and it is a shame. Blockchain has the potential to make a truly positive impact in the consumer and enterprise space.
The students in the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship Blockchain Challenge Lab proved that blockchain can be used for good, including social good. Professors Alex Fred-Ojala and Luke Kowalski mentored twelve teams of 4-6 students from incredibly diverse backgrounds, including startup semester foreign exchange students, computer science, economics, and social science majors. Four teams emerged as contenders to be sent to the Collider Cup (where other SCET challenge labs like sports tech, amazoogle, and alt.meat also sent their top talent). We will describe our winning team, RIPchain, and also mention three other, promising blockchain plays in the social impact space.
The three intrinsic qualities of blockchain are transparency, peer-to-peer architecture (allowing disintermediation of brokers adding little value), and immutability (making the source of truth safe from hackers, governments, or agitators). We had introduced these concepts to the students, all in the context of the Berkeley Method of Entrepreneurship. We have added some training in user-centered design and design thinking in order to validate the student concepts and seek iterative feedback from the end users of the apps, services, and services. We discussed blockchain adoption challenges associated with performance and scaling concerns, as well as the lack of standards and regulations gating deployments. All the teams that navigated this complex matrix went on to create actual start-ups in class, complete with user personas, prototypes, go-to-market strategies, and even 4-minute TED-style lighting talk pitches. Here are the top four, starting with our winner:
- RIPChain – sent to the Collider Cup!
The morbid name caught everyone off guard, but here is the central thesis: The truly wealthy can afford an estate attorney to create a will, a trust, and even a health directive. But the average middle-class Jane or Jose cannot afford the $10K fee, if their assets are, for example in the $50K-200K range. Yet, they still want an easy to use, verifiable, and dispute-resistant platform for recording their wishes and for distributing their assets. A blockchain platform can enable a safe, incorruptible, verifiable, and efficient means to record and administer wills. This team had one of the better problem/solution slides and they created a prototype without a computer science student on their team! Did we mention that two of the team members were 16-year-old seniors, and that RIPChain was approached by a couple of venture capitalists and angels who were serving as judges during the Collider Cup? Congrats to Chandler Kowtko (Econ), Cindy Wong (Civil Eng), Daven Subbiah (Neurobiology), and Jagan Subbiah (Neurobiology)!
- The second team to use blockchain for social good was BlockAction. They embarked to reform the field of class action lawsuits. They had a great mentor from Skydeck (Brian Bordley) who asked them to ensure that the claimants actually got reasonable settlements, or that the bulk of the gains did not just go to the law firms. The team had addressed the high costs of distribution and slow settlements by deploying smart contracts on the blockchain. They created a white paper, live prototype, and sent us some sample code to review. Vidur Maheshwari (CogSci), Weifan Xu (CivilEng), Christian Murray (Nuclear Eng), Lindsay Saldebar (Business), and Adhiv Dhare (EECS) were the team behind this venture creation. I hope they go through with it, since the pain of responding to class actions is usually not worth the gain. Blockchain could democratize it.
- TimeLock was yet another innovative use of the blockchain platform to improve and protect individual IP rights, wrestling control away from a few entities controlling the flow of information. While we do have the patent system to protect our intellectual property, it does appear to be fairly overburdened and inefficient. TimeLock is proposing a verifiable and immutable “digital safe” for posting prior art. This could include research papers, inventions, or even scientific experiments. Their blockchain solution could even enable a peer-to-peer marketplace, where individuals and corporations could license IP and circumvent expensive processes and costly brokers. Arjun Sarup (CS), Justin Wong (CogSci), Nithi Narayanan (CS), Reshma Khanna (CogSci), and Cristiano Lacerda (Startup Semester) were part of this disruption, and I hope they get funded, but after they are done with finals!
- And who said that the technology field is dominated my males? Here is an all-female team proposing to utilize blockchain as a firearm registry. They had cleverly constrained their initial solution to responsible smart gun owners. They want to launch on Ethereum, utilizing smart contracts and non-fungible ERC-721 tokens called PISTL. Team members here were Rebecca Bair (Bio), Natalie Enos (Business), Marielle Kinney (Econ), Karina Martinez (CS), Kimia Zargari (CogSci), and Ashton Smith (EnvDes).
These examples illustrate that the concepts and inherent qualities of the blockchain could create positive change in the world. The negative stigma of news stories highlighting initial coin offering scams will hopefully end soon. It will take young and creative minds in multi-disciplinary entrepreneurial courses and ventures to bring about and accelerate this shift, and we will see blockchain transform our lives and make a positive social impact.
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