What Is blockchain.lab at Schulich?
When the FTX crypto exchange imploded into bankruptcy last month, media outlets across Canada contacted one of the country’s foremost blockchain experts – Schulich’s Henry Kim, the founder and director of Schulich-based blockchain.lab.
The lab is doing cutting-edge research on blockchain, one of the most disruptive technologies to come along in decades. One of the defining features of blockchain – its ability to serve as a platform for disintermediation – makes it a potentially highly disruptive threat to the financial services industry, but at the same time blockchain has the capacity to reduce costs, improve product offerings and increase speed and efficiency. In other words, blockchain is a true game changer in the world of business, with nearly limitless applications and the ability to create new business models overnight.
In this month’s column by Professor Kim, we look at some of the many research projects taking place at the lab – everything from bitcoin adoption and decentralized grain exchanges to payment systems for electricity micro-grids. The column also touches on the subject of how blockchain technology is helping to drive the development of Web3, which some have described as the future of the Internet.
It’s a compelling case for why business leaders of the future will have to be well versed in managing technology-enabled companies – and in understanding the disruptive and innovative power of blockchain.
Detlev Zwick, PhD
Dean, Tanna H. Schulich Chair in Digital Marketing Strategy
Schulich School of Business
What Is blockchain.lab at Schulich?
In 2015, Marek Laskowski, a postdoctoral fellow that I had been working with, had repeatedly tried explaining bitcoin to me and I could never quite understand it. I recall telling him to sell his bitcoins when its price reached a $382, a mystical number in mathematics. This was the first of many prognostications that has kept me firmly placed as a professor driving a sensible car rather than a Lamborghini-driving crypto prof-king.
This is how it all turned out though: I read an article by Goldman Sachs titled, “The Blockchain Can Change… Well Everything.” Whereas I had thought of bitcoin as a libertarian, cypher-punk poker chip, I realized that the blockchain technology underlying bitcoin was drawing interest from the Goldman Sachs, IBMs, and Walmarts of the corporate world. So, Marek and I co-founded the blockchain.lab and fortunately for us Toronto was, and still is, one of the most vibrant places in the world for blockchain, crypto, and now, Web3, communities. We immersed ourselves in that community: to learn, to meet people, and to use the lab as a collaborative space to work with really smart people and forward-thinking organizations to do interesting, novel, and circumspect research. Note: circumspection has often been in short supply in the blockchain and crypto space.
Since its inception, this is what the lab has accomplished:
- We have written over 30 academic publications on blockchain-related topics in collaboration with:
- Institutions such as Bank of Canada (bitcoin adoption), Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (use cases in agriculture), Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (payment systems for electricity micro-grids), and US National Institute of Standards and Technologies (supply chain provenance)
- SMEs and startups such as: Hero Engineering (payments for vehicle-to-grid electric vehicle charging), ClimateCHECK (carbon auditing systems), Blockchain Research Institute (Chinese Central Bank Digital Currency, use cases in agriculture, decentralized commercial insurance, blockchain interoperability), Insolar (enterprise-grade blockchains, token-economics), Aion Networks (AI-based consensus mechanism), Grain Discovery (decentralized grain exchanges), and Accu-Label (provenance in agriculture)
- Student and post-doc researchers in the lab have received over $400,000 in research funding from those organizations as well as the Schulich School of Business, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Ontario Centre of Excellence Voucher for Innovation (OCE VIP), and the non-profit Mitacs.
- We are sought after by national media for our blockchain expertise. For instance, in November, I did a syndication interview, talking to ten CBC radio stations from Yellowknife to Victoria about the FTX crypto-exchange collapse.
- I co-lead York University’s Digital Currencies Research project with Professor Joann Jasiak from the Department of Economics at York. We are funded by the university’s $600,000 Catalyzing Interdisciplinary Research Cluster grant. Our mandate is to bring an interdisciplinary perspective to investigate areas of importance to Canadians such as: bitcoin and cryptocurrency use as well as evaluations of their carbon footprint; digital and financial inclusion of under-served and marginalized communities; and technical and regulatory design of central bank digital currencies (CBDCs).
At its core, a blockchain is database technology that enables decentralized, often not mainstream, communities to make decisions and operate even without a trusted centralized intermediary. Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer currency and payment system, not beholden (and conceived in response) to the “too big to fail” banks of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Ethereum is the best-known platform for the web3: a web that enables decentralized communities to build and use online services that offer the benefits of web2 centralized platforms like Facebook and Google while allowing communities’ members to monetize their contributions without giving up their privacy. Our latest paper, titled “Overcoming the Balkanization of Blockchain Research: Web3 is about Tokens AND Protocols AND Online Communities,” explains that research in web3 must expand its scope far beyond economics and computer science toward more interdisciplinary investigation.
This “decentralized, often not mainstream, communities” ethos is also at the core of what the lab is. For instance, our “balkanization” paper’s co-authors reside in Canada, Portugal, India, and Indonesia. A few months ago, the Ontario Ministry of Research, Innovation, and Science connected me to a financial institution in Liechtenstein who wanted a tour of the lab. I may have to squint to find Liechtenstein on a map, yet they found us! I said that the lab physically is one server in my office, not much to see. The lab however is much more. It is me, and it is:
- Marek Laskowski: A juggle-many-balls-in-the-air researcher, entrepreneur, web3 evangelist, and co-founder of the lab. He has worked on numerous efforts with the lab including our paper titled, “Token Economics in Real-Life: Cryptocurrency and Incentives Design for Insolar Blockchain Network,” which appeared in IEEE Computer. Marek is currently working with the New Order DAO as well as BlockScience token economics consultancy and United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT).
- Hjalmar Turesson: A polymath with a PhD in neuroscience from Princeton, who picked up machine learning, AI, and blockchain on the side. Among his varied contributions is his work on “Privacy Preserving Data Mining as Proof of Useful Work: Exploring an AI/Blockchain Design,” which appeared in Journal of Database Management. Hjalmar is currently Deloitte Scientist and Adjunct Professor at Schulich’s Master of Business Analytics and Master of Management in Artificial Intelligence programs.
- Shivam Saxena: A researcher, entrepreneur, and a gifted explainer of hard concepts. He has published many papers with the lab, including “A Permissioned Blockchain System to Reduce Peak Demand in Residential Communities via Energy Trading: A Real-World Case Study,” which appeared in IEEE Access. He is currently investigating vehicle-to-grid electric vehicle charging as a Mitacs postdoctoral fellow at York University.
- Ushnish Sengupta: A researcher interested in ethical and equity issues in technology use who has headed social enterprises like Free Geeks Toronto and Generation Connection. At the lab, he researched agriculture use cases, in papers such as “Meeting Changing Customer Requirements in Food and Agriculture Through Application of Blockchain Technology.” Ushnish is currently an Assistant Professor of Community Development at Algoma University and a collaborator on the York Digital Currencies Project investigation into financial and digital inclusion.
- Charlie Shier: As a Schulich undergrad, Charlie was the first recipient of the NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Assistantships at the lab. Charlie founded Novera Capital, a blockchain startup in the fintech space with which the lab collaborated. While directing from Novera’s office in the MaRS building in Toronto, Charlie still managed to complete his law degree at Harvard and is now practicing at Latham and Watkins LLC in New York.
- Stephanie Jonsson: A PhD candidate in the School of Gender, Feminist and Women Studies at York University, founder of the Ontario Digital Literacy and Access Network, a metaverse fashion retailer, and a crypto-for-good do-er. Stephanie is building upon her research on the social and technological barriers experienced by 2S-LGBTQ+ older adults to contribute to the York Digital Currencies Project investigation into financial and digital inclusion.
We are excited to see where the web3 space goes; the Schulich-based blockchain.lab’s decentralized, often not mainstream, community of researchers will surely follow it.
Henry M. Kim, PhD
Associate Professor, Schulich School of Business