Ripple partnership puts UO in elite company of blockchain research

The University of Oregon will soon have a stake in the emerging technologies of blockchain and cryptocurrency, thanks to a commitment announced today by Ripple, one of the leading companies in the field.

The UO is one of 17 universities worldwide in the University Blockchain Research Initiative, a multiyear, multimillion-dollar program founded by Ripple to support academic research, technical development and innovation in blockchain, cryptocurrency and digital payments. The multiyear agreement will fund a new program in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Computer and Information Science.

Brad Garlinghouse Other schools in San Francisco-based Ripple’s initiative include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton and Stanford. The initiative was announced by Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse onstage at the Money 2020 conference in Amsterdam June 4.

At the UO, the Ripple partnership will fund a professorship pursuing cybersecurity research, including blockchain technologies and their application, along with a number of graduate student positions, undergraduate scholarships and research funding. This partnership also enhances opportunities for students to engage with industry.

“I think this is just an absolutely wonderful opportunity,” said Joe Sventek, head of the computer science department. “Two things we need to be good at to prepare students for this field are data science and cybersecurity. We’ve done a lot of work to get into the data science realm. This moves us further into the cybersecurity realm.”

Sventek’s department will administer the Blockchain, Cryptocurrency and Cybersecurity Program. Departments within the college and the UO’s Center for Cyber Security and Privacy will collaborate with the program.

“We’re proud and honored to be part of this exciting field, and we’re grateful to Ripple,” UO Senior Vice President and Provost Jayanth Banavar said. “We believe the partnership will engage UO students and faculty from a range of academic fields and backgrounds to produce interesting research and technical developments, and give our students an advantage in preparing for this growing field.”

Blockchain technology burst onto the scene in 2008 with the cryptocurrency bitcoin and other digital currencies. Most people still associate blockchain with these digital currencies.

However, the technology it is based on — basically a secure, decentralized, digital public ledger that prevents retroactive modifications — is now also being applied to record financial transactions and digital payments, to monitor supply chains, and for other uses. It is expected to transform financial services and information technology industries and to shape future business practices.

“Academia has traditionally been a critical driver of technical innovation,” said Eric van Miltenburg, senior vice president of global operations at Ripple. “The University Blockchain Research Initiative is an acknowledgment of the vital importance of the unique role universities will play in advancing our understanding and application of cryptography and blockchain technology. It also speaks to the reality that university graduates will fuel a continually evolving and maturing financial marketplace and workforce.”

On LinkedIn, 4,500 job openings with the terms “blockchain,” “bitcoin” or “cryptocurrency” in the title have been posted this year. That’s an increase of 151 percent over the total from 2017.

“There is vastly enhanced demand for students with cybersecurity expertise,” Sventek said, “and those with experience in blockchain technology will be more employable.”

UO faculty members will develop curriculum and guide research, while Ripple will lend the support of its staff as well as technical resources to the UO and its other partner schools.

Ripple will also provide funds to support cybersecurity research for which faculty members from across campus can compete. Sventek can see natural collaborations between the new program and faculty in the Charles H. Lundquist College of Business and the School of Journalism and Communication, for example.

The technology essentially tracks the virtual fingerprint of everyone who touches a specific item, when that occurred and any actions they may have taken with it. This includes everything from transferring funds between two parties to complete the purchase of goods to tracking the path a box of tomatoes takes from a farmer’s field to your neighborhood grocery store.

“It may have come about because of bitcoin, but blockchain is becoming a very important technology not just for the financial industry but also as a way to track the movement of goods from one supplier to another,” Sventek said. “It’s a way to keep a supply chain secure through an entire distribution network.”

The new hire will be a member of the Center for Cyber Security and Privacy, the UO’s lauded interdisciplinary unit that is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security. Sventek expects to launch the hiring process in the coming weeks.

By Jim Murez, University Communications