Cryptocurrency Gets Real On Campus

BLOCKCHAIN BROTHERS: Viraj Mehta, Gabriel Bianconi, Charles Lu, Paa Adu, Max Horland and Tristan Vanech, ’18, are among the students who have become serious cryptocurrency investors. Photo: Eli George Goodman, ’21

Near the end of the Bitcoin boom in early January, Max Horland drew from his summer earnings to invest in Siacoin, a cryptocurrency. Two days later, its price rose by 300 percent. “I felt the rush,” says Horland, ’19. “When you start doing it, and then your friends start investing in it as well, soon that’s all you talk about.”

It is no longer uncommon at Stanford to hear 20-year-old students talking like Wall Street traders about “the market.” They are discussing the highly volatile digital “coins,” of which Bitcoin is just the most prominent, that can store value, make purchases and complete other transactions, but are not controlled by any central bank.

Charles Lu, ’18, and Paa Adu, ’18, remember roping in uninterested friends simply to collect enough signatures to start the Stanford Bitcoin Club in 2014. Fast forward to this winter, when almost 300 people showed up to their speaker event. “Everyone’s getting into crypto now,” says Lu, the group’s president.

It is no longer uncommon at Stanford to hear 20-year-old students talking like Wall Street traders about “the market.”

Significant numbers of students, especially those interested in computer science or financial markets, are finding themselves well situated to take advantage of the new interest in cryptocurrencies. Take Viraj Mehta, ’18. Even though he didn’t know much about the industry, his background in math and computer science enabled him to teach himself. Soon, he and Gabriel Bianconi, ’17, founded Airlock Capital, which uses algorithmic strategies to invest in cryptoassets. You might expect that students would have trouble raising money for such a venture, but Mehta says their Stanford pedigree is attractive to investors. Moreover, because the industry is so young — Bitcoin was only released in 2009 — few competitors have much experience.

The openness of the field is part of its allure. Axel Ericsson, ’18, and Zack Lawrence, ’18, were roommates when they decided to drop out of school and found 1protocol, which allows users to earn interest from idle cryptocurrency tokens. “Ultimately,” says Ericsson, “we want to build things that only we could come up with.”