Blockchain Goes to College

MBA programs consider investing in Blockchain and cryptocurrency education. 

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As Bitcoin and Blockchain continue to make headlines, business schools are debating how to fit cryptocurrencies and their software architecture into the course curriculum. Stanford plans to launch its first Blockchain course in spring 2018. Students at Harvard Business School recently founded a cryptocurrency club.

In Oregon a few universities are putting out feelers.

“The faculty are sort of evenly split on whether [Bitcoin] is a viable alternative currency,” says Jameson Watts, a marketing professor in Willamette University’s MBA program. Willamette incorporates Blockchain discussions in several courses, says Debra Ringold, dean of the Atkinson Graduate School of Management, but it’s up to professors to expand formal coursework.

Stephen McKeon, a University of Oregon professor of finance, says his students have shown interest, enough to warrant creating a multiweek Blockchain lesson plan. The curriculum is part of a venture capital and fintech elective offered to MBA and Master of Finance students.

“People are going to run into this technology in virtually all industries,” McKeon says. “Giving students a foundation is important.”

Neil Bergquist, a Seattle resident who earned his MBA from Willamette in 2010, agrees. “It definitely merits a course,” says Bergquist, founder of Coinme, a cryptocurrency startup. “It’s kind of like anyone getting an MBA needs to learn about the internet. It’s going to affect everything we do.” 

Bergquist  founded the first licensed Bitcoin ATM in 2014 in Seattle, and now runs 39 such ATMs in seven states; the closest to Oregon sits in Vancouver Mall. He believes initial coin offerings (ICOs) — sales of a “token” currency like Bitcoin or Ethereum (another cryptocurrency ) — mark the future of startup fundraising.

In 2017 he raised $18 million from a sale of “UpToken,” a virtual coupon that gives customers a 30% discount at his ATMs. After the sale, Bergquist created a fixed supply by trashing all remaining UpToken.

He also offers a product called “crypto financial services,” a category that includes  Bitcoin 401(k)s and IRAs for those brave enough to entrust their retirement to cryptocurrency. 

“It’s kind of like anyone getting an MBA needs to learn about the internet. It’s going to affect everything we do nowadays.” — Neil Bergquist

Bitcoin crashed into popular consciousness over the past few months as its value in December soared to $19,000 a unit, before dropping down to $10,000 in mid-January. Still, if you’re not a computer geek, Bitcoin and Blockchain — the latter is a type of online ledger that allows people to record and encrypt Bitcoin transactions — can be difficult to get your head around. 

Some futurists (business school profs included) hail Blockchain as the next World Wide Web — a bit of computer code that will revolutionize business models everywhere. Blockchain, they believe, has the potential to transform venture capital, health care, banking — any institution that depends on agreements or transactions facilitated by a middleman. That’s because the technology  can be used to create so-called “smart or self-executing contracts,” in which computer algorithms filter data to make decisions without human intervention. 

An auto insurance company, for example, could run data from self-driving cars through a Blockchain ledger to change rates in real-time based on driving performance.

McKeon’s lesson plan will cover the regulatory environment and use cases for Bitcoin, Blockchain and Ethereum, including smart contracts, ICOs and “decentralized autonomous organizations”— corporations that enforce rules and standards through computer code.

Guest speakers (via Skype) will include the authors of Cryptoassets: The Innovative Investor’s Guide to Bitcoin and Beyond. Students will discuss emerging issues, like Blockchain’s potential to replace traditional VC and real estate assets, and whether Blockchain investments should be regulated like securities under the SEC. 

Even if Blockchain is in its infancy, MBA programs would do well to pay attention, Bergquist believes. Learn before it’s too late, he says. “You might be more of a risk not knowing.” 

Some Oregon MBA administrators and faculty are adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Portland State University has yet to build momentum around crytpocurrencies.  If UO had a bigger finance department, says Dave Preston, academic director for the University of Oregon Executive MBA, Blockchain might deserve its own course.But he advocates a pragmatic approach.

“This is just one emerging technology among many,” Preston says. “For executives in our program, we need to show them how to recognize many disruptors. You could pick any one.” 

“The biggest constraints universities are facing is the lack of people to teach these things,” McKeon says. “There just aren’t many people who actually understand it.”

Preston advises students and companies against betting big on Blockchain, at least until banks and lawyers get their heads around the technology. Watts, at Willamette, has his own reservations. “I see it as a gamble, not an investment, at this point,” he says. “The value this technology provides is still very uncertain.” 

Bitcoin’s free fall seems to bear out that contention. But cryptocurrency fortunes could swing upward as students and professors unravel the topic and find new applications.

“The biggest constraints universities are facing is the lack of people to teach these things,” McKeon says. “There just aren’t many people who actually understand it.”

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