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VEDA Hosts Annual Blockchain Conference

VEDA Hosts Annual Blockchain Conference

Industry leaders discussed blockchain, AI advancements, and the next stage of the crypto revolution.

Chris Dixon and Anthony Borquez speaking at the Blockchain Conference

Chris Dixon and Anthony Borquez sit down for a fireside chat at the Blockchain Conference.

[USC Photo]

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Technology today is completely different than it was five years ago, let alone 10 years ago or 20 years or more. Every year, progress thrusts forward with advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, cryptocurrency, and complex algorithms. With so many changes on the horizon, few people know what the future will look like or how we’ll get there.

The VanEck Digital Assets Initiative (VEDA) is hoping to answer those questions. On March 20–21, VEDA held the annual VanEck Southern California Blockchain Conference, cohosted by student organization Blockchain@USC, in which experts and innovators convened in Bovard Auditorium to discuss what lies ahead for the rapidly evolving technology. Eric Chung, managing director of VEDA, kicked off the event with an eye on the wider landscape of digital assets and blockchain development.

“In 2018, I taught the university’s first smart contract class and co-created the blockchain minor program,” Chung said. “At that time, I could have probably counted on one hand the amount of faculty who were interested in taking blockchain technology seriously. Fast forward to today, we have about 10 courses, a talented student organization, Blockchain@USC, and the integration of the VanEck Digital Assets Initiative.”

The crowd of faculty and staff, students and industry leaders, were greeted with another opening message, this time from VEDA’s co-founder and namesake, Jan Van Eck, CEO of the VanEck investment firm. The founder echoed Chung’s sentiments, stressing the importance of community-building in this highly specialized area of study. From engineers to thought leaders, from hobbyists to connoisseurs, Van Eck and the initiative are working to expand the blockchain ecosystem.

Anatoly Yakovenko is one such thought leader. The co-founder of Solana, a blockchain platform, spoke in a fireside chat with the head of partnerships at the Solana Foundation, Amelia Daly. The wide-ranging discussion covered the legality of blockchain, Yakovenko’s philosophy around team-building, and even the viability of “meme coins.”

While Yakovenko is well-established in the industry today, he started out like many of Marshall’s own entrepreneurs: following an exciting idea with his friends. He recalled living near Solana Beach in San Diego, the inspiration for the company name, and forming a routine with his fellow blockchain enthusiasts.

“We’d wake up, bike to work, surf, bike home, surf again, and go code on whatever side project we had,” Yakovenko said. “We did a lot of stuff that failed. And around 2017 is when I had this eureka moment.”

That “eureka moment” came when Yakovenko devised a way to encode passage of time as a data structure. The approach differentiated Solana from its rivals like the Ethereum and Bitcoin blockchain networks and enabled Yakovenko and his co-founder to compile their team and begin their startup journey.

“I often like to give this advice to first-time founders, but I probably sound like every Silicon Valley VC,” Yakovenko said. “Build for your vision. You have to find that one thing that is unique.”

Build for your vision. You have to find that one thing that is unique.

— Anatoly Yakovenko

Co-Founder, Solana

Among the conference’s other industry pioneers was Chris Dixon, founder and managing partner at a16z Crypto and author of Read Write Own: Building the Next Era of the Internet. Before Dixon’s book signing closed the first day, he sat down for his own fireside chat with Anthony Borquez, co-director of VEDA and professor of the practice in entrepreneurship at the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

“People like Peter Thiel argue that we’ve been living in this era of stagnation. It feels to me like we are now heading for technology acceleration,” Dixon said. “I feel like this will be the most exciting time in a very long time to be graduating from school and having these opportunities.”

The field of computing is evolving, enabled in large part by the doors blockchain opens.

“I envision a world where you can build blockchain-based applications that are social networks, games, financial services, AI,” Dixon said. “Anything you can build in a corporate model, you can build in the blockchain model, but that was not really possible three years ago.”

Dixon frequently invests in startups, and over the years, he’s learned what he values in an investment opportunity. His advice to young entrepreneurs was to persevere in the face of failure, especially in the volatile world of blockchain.

“The people I know in my career who have had high integrity and worked hard and been smart about it — maybe the first startup didn't work, but in almost every case, eventually [they] had really interesting successful careers,” Dixon said. “We routinely fund people the second and third time if they have high integrity and work hard.”

For Dixon as for many of the conference’s speakers — including Tom Bilyeu, Emad Mostaque, Devin Walsh, and Brian Brooks — the internet is grossly imperfect but rich with possibility. Users like Dixon and the leaders of VEDA can shape it, constructing a new world of potential with each technological step forward.

“I got excited about the internet because of the open and democratic nature of it,” Dixon recalled. “It was this community-owned system. I worry that we’re losing that. That is what led me a decade ago to start getting interested in blockchains.”

The conference continued into the next day at Town & Gown where attendees enjoyed further talks on the next evolution of blockchain and networking opportunities with their fellow enthusiasts.