Swell 2019: Closing Academia and Industry’s Blockchain Gap Through UBRI


Mind the Gap” is a beloved warning from London’s Underground that has since crossed over into popular culture, appearing in video games, books and on t-shirts around the world. It was also the subtext of Dr. Paolo Tasca’s fireside chat about Ripple’s University Blockchain Research Initiative (UBRI) at Swell 2019. 

Originally, the phrase was meant to inspire caution as travelers transitioned between trains and station platforms. While Dr. Tasca did not utter that exact phrase during his conversation with Ripple’s Senior Manager of University Partnerships Lauren Weymouth, he did speak to the gap that exists between academia and industry and the danger it represents for blockchain. 

Over time, Dr. Tasca has often observed large gaps between industry and academia around emergent technologies because of diverging points of emphasis for each sector—profits versus research. But as the Executive Director of the Center for Blockchain Technologies at University College of London (UCL), he is committed to closing the gap around the study of blockchain so that he can foster collaboration between the two groups and maximize the technology’s potential. 

UBRI has been an important part of this strategy. Dr. Tasca expressed appreciation for Ripple’s close collaboration with students and faculty. He is leveraging this relationship in three distinct ways to deliver more “close-to-market” research and align all the disparate fields of academia and business that contribute to the advancement of blockchain. 

Blockchain Community Engagement 
The Center for Blockchain Technologies (CBT) brings together more than 180 people from around the world to learn from and work with one another. Through UBRI, Dr. Tasca and CBT have issued an open call to community members to collaborate and promote research. So far, they have financed nine projects and anticipate continuing their call for participants through 2020. Through UBRI program, CBT’s lectures also collaborated with Ripple’s team to supervise 10 Master students working on Decentralised Finance research topics. 

Recent efforts have included a 10-day hackathon called Block-Sprint that brought 20 teams from across Europe to London to compete. One of the stated goals of the competition was to enable experimentation on top of Ripple, Xpring and other platforms. The success of the competition  was confirmed by the numbers: 160 individuals, 60 mentors, 36 companies & Institutions, 100,000 £’s In Prizes & Benefits. Dr. Tasca and his team are already planning the next year 2nd edition of Block-Sprint in London. 

Internet of Value
Dr. Tasca views the Internet of Value as an empowering ideal that should evolve into a public good for the benefit of the most rather than as something to be monetized for the profit of the few. In an earlier presentation at Swell, he characterized it not as an option for society but rather a need driven by the intersecting trends of datafication, platform business models, a growing interest in impact-oriented businesses, and an emphasis on utility over products. 

To dive deeper into these trends and associated challenges such as systemic risk, governance, and privacy, Dr. Tasca and his team plan to publish a white paper on the Internet of Value by January 2020. The paper will also highlight the importance of blockchain and digital assets to the Internet of Value and its potential impact on industries ranging from finance to media and global supply chains. 

Blockchain in Application 
Of course, not all of the CBT’s work is theoretical. It is also engaged in empirical and experimental work with supranational organizations, Central Banks and governmental agencies like the UK Land Registry. As part of this last project, CBT teams are using blockchain and tokens to track land ownership and transfers. 

Ultimately, beyond transforming governmental and business models, Dr. Tasca sees these projects as being useful opportunities to educate and positively influence regulators and government agencies. He is actively seeking new interactions with other groups as part of that effort. 

Through these programs and others like the upcoming UCL Blockchain Incubator, Dr. Tasca hopes to continue the CBT’s deep collaboration with Ripple. Together, he believes it’s possible to not just “mind the gap” between academia and industry but close it in such a way that blockchain and digital assets will flourish in the coming decade leading us to an open, accessible, secure and equitable global economy.

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