With blockchain, Berkeley student group sets standard

Four regulators with the Securities and Exchange Commission spoke at a conference organized by the Blockchain at Berkeley student group on Thursday. (UC Berkeley photos by Hulda Nelson)

When the Securities and Exchange Commission needed to reach an influential audience of blockchain developers and investors to explain its new rules for regulating the bewildering technology behind investments like Bitcoin, it turned to Blockchain at Berkeley.

And the SEC picked well. In the last year, the student group has become one of the most influential blockchain organizations in the Bay Area.

The student group’s conference on Thursday attracted a standing-room-only crowd of 250 developers, investors and technologists who paid as much as $900 a ticket to listen to student-moderated panels about investing, management and the new SEC rules.

“Berkeley is definitely a hub for people who are interested in this space,” said Rob Peterson, the founder of Bee Token, a San Francisco company trying to reimagine Airbnb using blockchain. “They’ve done a really good job creating interest.”

Blockchain, at its heart, is a bookkeeping method that chains together entries in a computer program so they are difficult to edit later. Companies and investors can examine the chain and verify that a diamond really did come from a sustainable mine in Africa, securely share health records or trade an electronic house deed without needing a notary.

But the technology is still a bit like a web browser in 1994: an intriguing tool with promise, but no real utility. And in its early gold rush days, blockchain has attracted scammers and hustlers.

The crowd at the Blockchain at Berkeley conference was a mix of investors, lawyers and developers.

The crowd at the Blockchain at Berkeley conference was a mix of investors, lawyers and developers.

But companies, and universities are beginning to catch on. Already the 60 student members of Blockchain at Berkeley have consulted with major companies like Airbus, Qualcomm and BMW. Berkeley’s engineering school has a blockchain lab, and Berkeley as well as other major universities are offering courses on the topic.

“The way we’re running the organization is much closer to a company,” said Ronen Kirsh, 26, co-founder of the club and a senior economics major. New recruits are required to read management books, and if they can’t keep commitments or obligations they’re asked to leave.

“Actions speak louder than words and that’s what we try to emphasize,” said Kirsh, who was a sergeant in the Israeli Defense Forces before attending Berkeley.

The group has hosted other conferences, one of which attracted the attention of SEC regulators eager to interact with blockchain developers.

“We were very impressed with the organization and the speakers and the broad breadth of topics discussed, and frankly the depths of those topics discussed,” said Scott Walker, an attorney-adviser in the SEC’s San Francisco office who spoke at Thursday’s conference. “We’d been looking to engage in a dialogue, and we thought this was the best place to reach the community.”

Along with consulting, the club also works with faculty on research projects and educates students and business leaders on the promise of blockchain.

When James Ioannidis, a Palo Alto entrepreneur, wanted to learn more about the technology, he started watching Blockchain at Berkeley’s student-led online courses. And when he heard about Thursday’s conference, he paid $900 to attend hoping that he connect with the community and find his next great idea.

The conference attracted 250 people, who paid as much as $900 for a ticket.

The conference attracted 250 people, who paid as much as $900 for a ticket.

“I’m trying to figure out what’s next,” Ioannidis said. “This space is super interesting. It changes at lightning speed. It reminds me of the early startup days in Silicon Valley.”

Berkeley seems especially suited for discussions about blockchain, which promises to eliminate the need for banks, notaries and regulators and give anyone with a cellphone the power to verify online truth.

“It is so new that it brings up all of these fascinating policy and regulatory questions,” said Adam Sterling, head of Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Business and the Economy and a speaker at the conference. “When you have the best confluence of the top technology minds and the top legal and policy minds, I think we become the center of it.”

Contact Will Kane at willkane@berkeley.edu

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