Penn's Stevens Center for Innovation in Finance will launch a blockchain-specific accelerator program, the Cypher Accelerator, starting in spring 2022.
The program will accept a cohort of 10-15 projects every semester to complete a three-month program that prepares them to launch a blockchain or cryptocurrency company. Blockchain is a type of database technology that stores information in separate, interconnected blocks which allows for increased data security. Project teams will have access to collaborators and advisors, such as Shark Tank's Mark Cuban and venture capitalist Tim Draper.
The participants, who do not need to be affiliated with Penn, will have access to a variety of resources — including mentorship, networking, opportunities, and workshops — that will help them develop their blockchain-technology startup ideas.
The structure of the accelerator will consist of three phases, each one month long. Participants will go from consulting with industry leaders to developing an elaborate business model and investment plan. The process will culminate in the final phase, “Demo Day," in which participants will pitch their project to investors to earn financing for the project.
Stevens Center Managing Director Sarah Hammer said she hopes the Cypher Accelerator will create a larger pool of cryptocurrency and financial technology presence on campus. Financial technology is the integration of technology and algorithms into financial processes.
“Part of our mission is to support the blockchain ecosystem and to provide rich opportunities for students and faculty in the Penn community,” Hammer said.
The Stevens Center was inaugurated in March 2019 to create a space for Penn community members to become involved in leading financial technology trends. Since its inauguration, the Center has also set a focus on blockchain technology and its practical use in finance innovation.
The Cypher Accelerator's blockchain projects and startup ideas will cover a range of topics, Hammer said. The accelerator will not only focus on cryptocurrencies and virtual coins, but also on varied applications of blockchain technology to other industries such as health care, insurance, and agriculture.
Wharton and College junior and student director at the Stevens Center Rishin Sharma, Cypher student manager, said the initiative will help introduce Penn students to new career opportunities.
“If I’m very honest, personally speaking, I think at this school there are too many creative, smart people to just be working at [big] banks,” Sharma said.
He added that Penn students have the power to shape key industries based on the career paths they choose.
“If we can get more kids moving to FinTech and working on innovating and disrupting financial markets, that’s how Penn can truly shape how the 21st Century financial system exists,” Rishin said.
Hammer also said that financial technology is starting to shape the financial industry.
“Whether you’re interested in cryptocurrency trading or you’re looking at a more traditional industry like private equity, the reality is that blockchain and financial technology are infiltrating all of that,” Hammer said.
The Stevens Center will also be working on a development series to offer classes and workshops to Penn students who want to learn about finance and technology.
The first Cypher Accelerator cohort will begin in spring 2022, with applications due on Nov. 30. The program will run from February to late April or early May.
“Our goal is to make the learning process easier, and get people to understand the technology and be able to develop it as well so that they can pursue their own projects,” Accelerator Manager and Engineering junior Sebastian Melendez said.
Melendez is working on the Development Series, which he said will provide an opportunity for Penn students to learn about blockchain and decentralized finance.
"Right now there are a lot of people at Penn that want to get involved and learn about blockchain and decentralized finance, but they don't know how to do it," Melendez said. "Our goal is to provide those resources to students."
As one of the few academic centers in the United States focused specifically on FinTech and blockchain, Hammer said the Stevens Center will attempt to bring together all of Wharton's strengths to support innovation through the Cypher Accelerator.
“Think about our strengths at Wharton in business and finance," Hammer said. "If you can combine that with cutting-edge ability in the leading technologies, we’re just unstoppable."