Wondering whether blockchain has captured the imagination of college students? Look no further than the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where nearly one-third of the MBA students in the Kenan-Flagler Business School class of 2019 are members of a blockchain club.

It’s not just the students. “At the faculty level interest in blockchain has grown campus-wide,” says Professor Eric Ghysels, who splits his time between the business school and UNC Chapel Hill’s economics department. The technology, Ghysels tells ThirtyK, is gaining attention from faculty in not only the business and economics departments but also in other UNC schools and departments, “from computer science to the law school.”

And that’s a good thing because if blockchain is to expand and even go mainstream there will be a need for workers to handle the many technical aspects. That’s where Ripple comes in.

UNC Chapel Hill is one of 17 universities located in the U.S. and around the world sharing in the $50 million University Blockchain Research Initiative from Ripple, the technology company behind a popular payment protocol and exchange network. Announced last week, the initiative’s goal is to “support and accelerate university research.” This will be done via a broad scope of subjects and disciplines involved in making blockchain a reality, from computer science and engineering to business, finance and the law as well as on how the technology is fostering new connections among them.

Putting blockchain to use in the real world will require a generation of workers with a broad grasp of technology, economics, entrepreneurship, history and law.

“Both research and teaching in this area must be interdisciplinary,” says Ghysels. “The new technology addresses privacy issues, poses regulatory and law enforcement challenges and provides new gateways for entrepreneurship as it uproots existing and established industries, and that’s just a short list.”

A Broad Focus

The Ripple grant reflects a recognition that universities continue to drive much of the research that has advanced the blockchain and its underlying technologies, including cryptography and networking.

“Academia has traditionally been a critical driver of technical innovation,” Eric van Miltenburg, senior vice president of global operations at Ripple, said in a Ripple news release. “The University Blockchain Research Initiative is an acknowledgment of the vital importance of the unique role universities will play in advancing our understanding and application of cryptography and blockchain technology.

Some of the 17 universities participating in the initiative are focused heavily on the technical aspects of the blockchain. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, will focus on a new financial technology initiative within its computer science and artificial intelligence lab, while the University of Oregon will fund cybersecurity research and teaching.

Others, however, are focused more broadly on putting the technology to work. At the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, the engineering school and the Wharton Business School are working together through the grant to create a dual-degree program combining an MBA and a master’s in science.

Blockchain is a major point of intersection between business and engineering,” Kevin Werbach, associate professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School, said in a statement. “We plan to research a broad range of topics in in this field, ranging from privacy to smart contract design to regulatory questions to creating trust in decentralized environments.

At Princeton University in New Jersey, the project will be housed in the Center for Innovation Technology Policy, where the focus will be “the nuances of real-world applications of these technologies,” Edward W. Felten, the center’s director, said in a statement that noted the “surge of interest among Princeton students” in cryptocurrency and blockchain technology.

The Big Picture

These interdisciplinary connections are by design. Ripple deliberately did not stipulate the focus of research at participating universities.

“Much of the enthusiasm and activity to date around blockchain is disconnected from real use cases that result in clear benefits to businesses or civil society,” van Miltenburg said in the Ripple release. To that end, the initiative focuses on supporting “faculty and student-led projects that explore increasingly useful applications of blockchain and cryptocurrencies.”

Putting blockchain to use in the real world will require a generation of workers with a broad grasp of technology, economics, entrepreneurship, history and law.

At UNC Chapel Hill, where the grant is housed in the Institute of Private Enterprise, students will collaborate with public sector officials and startups in the Research Triangle region, according to Ghysels. At the same time, they’ll make connections that go all the way back to the 7th century B.C. in lectures touching on the history of money in fintech classes, all while preparing to organize the school’s first hackathon in December.

“At this early stage of blockchain technology, we can already see the potential impact it will have as it revolutionizes how firms create and deliver products and services,” Ghysels says.

Mark Toner
Mark Toner is a Washington, D.C., writer and editor. He has covered business, technology, media, education, and healthcare for a wide range of trade and industry publications.