Big tech companies, aspiring blockchain developers and state legislators “stampeded” to the University of Wyoming’s campus over the weekend for a series of events, competition, educational opportunities and legislative planning.
Dubbed the “Blockchain Stampede,” the conference-competition hybrid featured the second annual WyoHackathon coding competition, meetings of the Wyoming Blockchain Task Force and opportunities to learn from industry leaders.
Both the Hackathon and the Sandcastle competition centered around blockchain and cryptocurrency technology, which has also been the focus of recent conversations in the state Legislature as it looks to finally fulfill a years-long promise to diversify its economy, passing 13 blockchain-related bills last session.
So far, the response seems to be positive; Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, told the Boomerang Thursday there are already about five different applicants to become Special Purpose Depository Institutions, essentially opening newly legislated cryptocurrency banks in Wyoming.
“We haven’t had a bank chartered in the state of Wyoming in about a dozen years, and all of the sudden we’re looking at a minimum of five,” he said. “We’re expecting a total of up to 12, so it’s pretty cool.”
Blockchain Task Force member Caitlin Long told the Boomerang that between the different companies vying for the SPDI charters, “the pipeline is about $20 billion of assets.”
“We have that pipeline visibility now,” she said. “If all $20 billion gets here, that’s $4 million of revenue, which is about 2.5% of the state’s budget every year. The state didn’t spend any money to get that.”
The biggest challenge so far, she said, has been “trying to stay ahead of this” to keep itself a leader in the industry. She added the group is now more focused on getting companies to the state.
During the events this weekend, many companies were not only announcing intent to get the SPDI charters but also using the hackathon to potentially hire UW talent and even move their companies to the Cowboy State.
Kraken CEO Jesse Powell noted his San Francisco, California-based crypto-asset exchange company is exploring the idea of applying for an SPDI, and while negotiations are still ongoing on what the company’s presence will look like in Wyoming, he would expect “at least 5-10 people employed here.”
“It’s a great place to locate developers to, they have much more certainty here on the things that they’re building if they’re building blockchain-related things, because of some of the recent bills that were passed,” Powell told the Boomerang Saturday.
Wyoming also has its challenges; He noted getting upper-level management in tech companies to want to move from expensive tech-hubs like San Francisco to Wyoming isn’t necessarily easy.
Still excited about the future of blockchain in the state, Powell said part of the reason Kraken was the title sponsor of the weekend’s events was that it was “a great opportunity to bring more awareness to what’s happening here in Wyoming and to get more people involved in it.”
Additionally, Charles Hoskinson, founder of cryptocurrency and blockchain company IOHK, wants to set up “some form of a research lab specifically for cryptocurrency and blockchain technology” in Wyoming, noting he’s already discussing the idea with the UW administration.
“It’s really exciting to see we may be able to prototype or develop some technology here in Wyoming that could end up being used in Mongolia or Ethiopia or Rwanda,” he told the Boomerang. “We get to say made in America, which is also fun.”
Not only is the legislation and regulations enticing, Hoskinson noted that it’s been easy to communicate with lawmakers in the process about what is working for them.
While all this is going on, other states and federal agencies like the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission are watching; Hoskinson said Wyoming “is a vital sandbox in the U.S. conversation of what the U.S. policy is going to be for everything.”
More than that, he said the legislation has put Wyoming on the map worldwide.
“The world is watching,” he said. “Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Singapore — I’ve been to all these places and high-level officials have all mentioned Wyoming. … It’s just surreal to see how just a little bit of progressive policy in terms of being open to cryptocurrencies has had a dramatic impact on the international conversation.”
Now that Wyoming has the world talking, Hoskinson said the companies must start investing in the jurisdiction to watch the work pay off.
Powell also noted he wanted to get involved in the weekend’s events to encourage cryptocurrency’s growth in the state and nationwide.
“If we can show that Wyoming is leading by example and benefiting from it, then all the better for everyone,” he said.
Trying to stay ahead of the curve, on Thursday the Legislature’s Blockchain Task Force voted unanimously to ask Gov. Mark Gordon to support a budget request from the University of Wyoming.
“I think it’s critical that, if we’re going to build an entire ecosystem in Wyoming for blockchain, that we have the expertise and a workforce available to support that without having to import everyone,” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie. “I’m not sure $2 million’s enough, but it’s an excellent start. When you work in a department at a university, you want to make sure you have sufficient critical mass — that you don’t just have one person doing research, but that you’re building a research group and that you have continuity if one person leaves.”
Rothfuss co-chairs the blockchain task force.
“The continuity is essential and we’re not going to have that unless we have ongoing funds,” he said.
UW’s Board of Trustees have asked the state to, beginning in the 2021-2022 biennium, provide $2 million to support the university’s fledgling blockchain programs.
According to the funding request signed off by the trustees in July, that $2 million would be used to support UW’s proposed blockchain and fintech certificate programs.
Should that funding be provided, UW computer science professor James Caldwell told the blockchain committee UW wants to hire four blockchain professors: two in computer science, one in finance and one in agricultural economics.
In recent legislative sessions, the state has provided some one-time funding for UW to begin developing its blockchain and fintech certificates.
After legislators appropriated another $2 million in 2019 for UW’s engineering programming, Caldwell some of the funding has been used to hire a professor of practice in computer science.
Both Powell and Hoskinson expressed the desire to create some sort of pipeline for Wyoming students to jobs, especially as companies move to the state and as UW implements the blockchain and fintech certificates.
“It’s really exciting to see what potential is there and if we can leverage what’s being done on the state’s side into a broader federal policy, I think this is a great way to get that done,” Hoskinson said.
Beyond the big legislature activity, the university hosted its second hackathon starting Friday evening. Various tech companies worldwide offered Hackathon challenges with “bounties” — totaling to over $200,000 in prize money for the weekend — with prompts incorporating not only coding but creating 4K-quality video and more.
With over 30 teams from at least seven states, the hackathon saw a diverse playing field. Teams included college students, start-up companies and even a high school team from Shoshoni.
The winner of the hackathon is also named the wild card entry for today’s SandCastle Foundation Invitational, a blockchain technology pitch competition.
EIR Systems, a team from Chattanooga, Tennessee, made the trek to Wyoming just for the SandCastle Invitational. The company combines blockchain technology with the prescription medicine filling process, using its secure transfer processes to help combat issues like overfilling an opioid prescription.
“It’s about saving time, saving money and saving lives and that’s really where we felt blockchain was the best application for this tech because of the inherent benefits it brings to the prescribing process,” said company co-founder Ryan Seaberg.
Even if they don’t win, the opportunities presented by networking at the BlockChain Stampede events alone was worth the trek to Laramie.
It presented a great opportunity not only to visit Wyoming for his first time, co-founder Tyler Seaberg said, but “to be able to learn from a big community of potential developers at the hackathon and people who are also creating businesses in this space.”
“There are not blockchain conferences happening all over the United States,” he added. “So, it was a really cool opportunity.”
EIR Systems is one of eight competitors vying for the top spot at the SandCastle Invitational, and for a good reason. The winner of Sunday’s competition, considered the competition for the entire North American region, will go on to compete in the final, international SandCastle Challenge in Dubai.
SandCastle Foundation chairman Chris Snook said they wanted the Blockchain Stampede to be the location for the North American region of the competition because the recent blockchain legislation Wyoming passed has made the state a “crypto haven.”
“This is a really cool, wide-open, wild west kind of ethos but it’s a unique event in that way,” he said.
Daniel Bendtsen contributed to this report.