The Educator-Entrepreneurs of Crypto

Crypto may be skeptical of legacy institutions, but some professors are making it work.

AccessTimeIconOct 5, 2021 at 1:55 p.m. UTC
Updated Apr 10, 2024 at 3:12 a.m. UTC

Why is it that professors interested in cryptocurrencies so often build their own blockchains? This isn’t a setup for a joke. In the crypto milieu, there’s a particular type of public figure who is often known as much for his or her academic accomplishments as for being a supreme coder.

Take Cornell University’s Emin Gün Sirer , one of the founders of Avalanche, a layer one, or base, blockchain looking to complement and compete with Ethereum. There’s Dawn Song of the University of California, Berkeley, and the privacy-focused chain Oasis. David Mazieres, a tenured professor at Stanford University, helped build both Ripple and Stellar.

This post is part of CoinDesk’s Best Universities for Blockchain package. See our ranking of 230 schools here.

“If you want to develop new capabilities, then either you have to work within those constraints,” like the scalability or cultural issues of existing blockchains or start from a “clean slate,” Song said in a phone call. It’s less a matter of ego, than expertise.

The reason the earlier question sounds like it might have a punchline is because of the notorious anti-establishment mentality in crypto. People who build (mostly) open-source protocols and tools might just be hardwired to be skeptical of centralized institutions – including banks, governments and the media.

Said another way, if “a wallet is your resume” then credentials matter less. Whether you’re an Ivy League dropout, a former Goldman Sachs exec or an unemployable stoner, you can make it in crypto so long as you bring something to the table.

Song, 46, a former MacArthur Foundation fellow, is the type who heard, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” and decided to do both. After taking some time off to focus on Oasis, she’s now back full-time at Berkeley, teaching a massive open online course ( MOOC) on blockchains and privacy tech.

“I spend my time doing research, writing papers, brushing up on privacy and also teaching in the space,” she said. It’s hard to see where she and the other crypto “educator-entrepreneurs” find the time. Or the will.

The university, in particular in crypto, is often derided as an out-of-touch institution. Although academics, funded by government defense spending, were essential to building the cryptographic primitives on which the current web stands, crypto is showing how the next generation of the web often occurs outside the ivory gates.

That was one of the central issues CoinDesk wrestled with when producing this year’s Top Universities for Blockchain ranking. What’s the use of a computer science degree when you can learn Solidity on your own? But that’s only one way to look at it.

“I mean, I think the academy is anti-establishment,” Stellar’s Mazieres said over Zoom. Today, big tech companies Apple, Google and Facebook represent the “walled gardens” of computing. “If you want to do something that these companies aren’t, or that isn’t good for their bottom line, then you pretty much have to do it in academia,” he said.

It’s the university system or a startup, he added, “but [universities] don’t have the same sort of like profit constraints.”

Of course, crypto has its own economic foundations that encourage research and development. Launching a “commodity money” – like bitcoin (BTC) or ether (ETH), used to secure and pay for the underlying blockchain computation – is like issuing your own grant. Crypto protocols like Zcash have found ways to deploy and integrate cryptographic techniques like zk-snarks that were once only theorized, and have the money to advance that research. Likewise, a host of wallet companies have made commercial use of similarly-experimental multi-party computation (MPC).

For Mazieres, academia represents another path for builders looking to reinvent the world through cryptocurrencies. The peer-review process may be slow, but a professorship provides insulation from market volatility, a modicum of job security and the benefit of being surrounded by some of the smartest people on the planet.

“It’s very hard for me to imagine leaving Stanford before I retire,” he said. In fact, it’s the same interest in “egalitarian” technologies that keeps his feet in the private world of cryptocurrencies and the somewhat-democratic university system. “Certainly one of the draws is the fact that I can do everything open source and publish everything,” he said.

But the profit motive is strong.

Avalanche, the smart contract blockchain, is an almost $50 billion enterprise. Noted venture firms Three Arrows Capital and Polychain Capital recently led a $230 million funding round into Avalanche Foundation, a major organization that builds and maintains the blockchain.

In a conversation last month, Ava Labs founder Gun Sirer revealed he’s stepping away from Cornell, where he’s taught for the past two decades. It’s there where he conducted his first investigations into the blockchain economy – unearthing the “the selfish mining attack” on Bitcoin and other bugs in Ethereum.

In addition to the less-than-ideal situation of teaching during an ongoing pandemic, Gun Sirer noted the value proposition of spending his entire day coding and building Avalanche. “I’m stepping down to step up,” he said.

“I have skin in the game and decided: Hey, if somebody is going to take our ideas and commercialize them, then it should be me,” he said.

He’s not alone in taking a sabbatical to work full-time in crypto. OpenLaw’s founder Aaron Wright is also leaving his teaching perch at Cardozo School of Law to focus on his decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) incubator.

Wright said one of the reasons he’s stepping back is because he thinks it might be time to monetize The LAO, which was “really in core research and development” this past year. Although there are clear rules that seek to prevent conflicts of interest between professors and their businesses while teaching, sometimes the best move is to step back.

Although these rules vary from institution to institution, conflict of interest (COI) rules generally try to prevent professors from exploiting the work of their student or favoritism. Gun Sirer, willing to speak off the cuff, said he thinks “COI” rules have gone too far and often prevent two like minded individuals that want to work together from doing so.

“There is an inherent conflict whenever you’re commercializing things, it’s there, that that conflict is going to be there,” he said. And room for abuse. But providing an opportunity for students to work on a live project, build a portfolio and publish their research in an open-source environment is a net benefit, he said.

Oasis’ Song noted this “hands-on experience” is a bit like an internship under ideal scenarios.

“That’s what makes universities special,” Wright said. “They’re not wedded to particular companies and they’re not protecting the public if it was like a government.

“There’s just a lot of latitude to explore and try to come up with the right answer.” Including building new blockchains.


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Daniel Kuhn

Daniel Kuhn is a deputy managing editor for Consensus Magazine. He owns minor amounts of BTC and ETH.