Blockchain poised to disrupt more than just the financial industry

Profiles in Innovation

Heather Sullivan, associate director of external relations for Marquette University’s College of Business Administration and Graduate School of Management.

We’ve all seen the headlines.

Over the past few months, Bitcoin has taken the investment world by storm, and fortunes have been made and lost by many in its wake.

But what is Bitcoin? For starters, it’s not a coin. It’s a cryptocurrency, but on a deeper level, bitcoin is an application for a platform of technology known as blockchain.

Heather Sullivan is the associate director of external relations for Marquette University’s College of Business Administration and Graduate School of Management. She recently founded Marquette’s blockchain lab. The lab is a way to bring content around disruptive technologies to the classroom, building on experiential learning opportunities for students.

According to Sullivan, blockchain is being built, tested and proven in a variety of applications poised to disrupt all industries.

We sat down with Sullivan to learn more about blockchain and its impact on Wisconsin’s innovation economy.

What is blockchain technology, in the simplest terms?

“Blockchain, one type of ‘distributed ledger technology,’ allows people all over the world to verify transactions with others via distributed, peer-to-peer networks. It removes middle men and central, controlling powers and creates ‘trustless’ ways to transact via math and cryptography.

“These transactions could involve payments (e.g., Bitcoin), smart contracts, or any kind of messages conveyed from one person to another that require an element of trust.

“There are certain benefits to using a ‘distributed ledger’ to manage transactions, including the way blockchains group transactions into blocks chained together using a hash function. This makes the information immutable (unchangeable) and transparent while allowing a degree of anonymity, as well.

“The most important takeaway, I think, is trust. Distributed ledger technology removes the need for people to trust each other. Trust is being put into math, rather than people.”

What are some examples of applications of blockchain technology that we might be familiar with today?

“Bitcoin for a long time has been considered blockchain’s ‘killer app,’ but that is on the verge of changing as more applications are built, tested and proved. Most familiarity with blockchain at the moment is in the cryptocurrency space. There has been a bit of mania around this over the last few months, with people buying and selling different cryptocurrencies, but there are many exciting projects in development that will emerge in the next year or two. One example that made some headlines was Chronicled’s work to ensure designer sneaker authenticity using blockchain. (The tech startup hopes to use smart tags containing blockchain technology that will allow buyers and sellers to verify the authenticity of specific high-end sneakers). Some major corporations, including Walmart, are working on proofs-of-concept around blockchain as well. They have conducted some successful experiments using blockchain to track food contamination. This is just scratching the surface.”

As you see it, are there one or more industries today really advancing blockchain technology?

“Blockchain was introduced during the global banking crisis and it has really taken hold in the financial world. Over the next few years, it will begin to disrupt supply chains, real estate, record-keeping, artistic rights and anything that involves trusted transactions. Any industry that stands to gain the most from the efficiencies blockchains present will likely drive its adoption.”

Do you think blockchain technology is applicable to all industries?

“I think it will affect any industry that is involved with payments and trusted transactions of other types, but it isn’t a panacea for every problem that exists in every space. There are technologies available now that can solve industry problems better than blockchain.”

Are there organizations or companies in Wisconsin focused on research and development of blockchain applications? Can you give us some examples?

“Yes! There are some major Fortune 500 companies that are involved in blockchain R&D all the way down to seed-stage startups. Two local startups that have spoken publicly about their work on blockchain platforms are Milwaukee-based DocLaunch, which partnered with Wipfli on a product, and Milwaukee-based SteamChain, a gener8tor company that utilizes blockchain technology specifically for manufacturers and OEMs. Fiserv’s chief technology officer, Marc West, spoke publicly at (Marquette’s) blockchain technology conference about their interest in blockchain. Many financial services companies like Fiserv are looking at blockchain. The insurance industry is also doing some R&D. It’s very exciting to see what will emerge.

What, in your opinion, is the future of blockchain technology? Why do people need to be familiar with the technology?

“I think people will need to understand decentralization and the way it will change their lives by removing the need to trust others, whether individuals or corporate entities. Do they need to understand cryptography and the technology behind blockchain? Not unless they are planning to go into blockchain careers. Who understands the technology behind email or the internet? Very few of us. But we use it every day to make our lives better and more efficient.”

What implications does the advancement of blockchain applications have on Wisconsin’s innovative economy?

“Blockchain is affecting the global innovation economy by introducing a technological advancement that could revolutionize the way people around the world transact. We don’t want to be left behind here in Wisconsin. Our innovators here are just as capable of harnessing this technology for the good of people in our own state, the region, the country and the world. We need to be leaders in embracing this and other disruptive technologies.”

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