Ripple, Blockchain-Based Payment Network, to Grant $50M to 17 Universities for Blockchain, Cryptocurrency Research, Workforce Development

A photo illustration of the Ripple cryptocurrency ‘alt coin.’ (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

A blockchain-based payment network is granting $50 million to 17 universities around the world as an investment in shaping the workforce of the future.

Ripple, a network that bills itself as using blockchain technology to enable individuals, banks, and payment providers to exchange payments globally and instantly, announced Monday the launch of the University Blockchain Research Initiative. Through UBRI, Ripple will donate more than $50 million to 17 initial university partners around the world to “support academic research, technical development, and innovation in blockchain, cryptocurrency, and digital payments,” the company said in a statement.

Ripple owns the cryptocurrency XRP. A cryptocurrency is a virtual currency used as a medium for exchange, securing and verifying transactions through blockchain technology — a decentralized system that stores data across many computers rather than in a single storage facility like the cloud or a server. This decentralization of records and transactions makes the blockchain and cryptocurrency more secure than traditional technology and transactions. While leading economists have called cryptocurrency the “mother of all bubbles,” the blockchain technology behind it has largely been heralded as having the promise to revolutionize the world and lead the “next industrial revolution.”

Ripple’s donation comes amid an economy that’s racing toward artificial intelligence and automation. Recognizing academia as a traditionally “critical driver of technical innovation,” Ripple is hoping that institutes of higher education can prepare students for rapidly changing workforce needs while also helping the world gain a deeper understanding of how cryptography and blockchain technology will reshape the marketplace.

“Over the last several years, there’s been a clear and recurring theme that the demand among students to get more information, for a deeper understanding of blockchain and learning technologies, has grown dramatically,” Eric van Miltenburg, Ripple’s senior vice president of global operations, said in an interview. “Our engagement with universities was encouraging to us because the schools we’re working with are not looking at blockchain from a theoretical point of view, but how it can be applied, how it can be focused in ways that benefit the overall ecosystem of players. Academia could help shine a brighter light on the issues that matter most and remove the mysteries that exist around launching technology.”

American university partners include the University of Pennsylvania; Princeton University; the University of Oregon; the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Each institution will have full autonomy in determining its areas of research and focus. Ripple will be available to provide subject matter expertise and technical resources.

The company joins a host of other Silicon Valley technology companies, including Salesforce, Netflix, and Facebook, that are investing heavily in education. In March, Ripple donated $29 million to fulfill every request — more than 35,000 in all — made on DonorsChoose, a crowdfunding website for school and classroom projects, mostly in disadvantaged schools.

“It’s in the private sector’s best interest to help where it can,” van Miltenburg said. “There’s a fine line, and we’re being sensitive to that to not be prescriptive in telling what they need to do.”

Preliminarily, the University of Texas at Austin will use its UBRI grant to build a center for analytics and transformational technology to support research into blockchain, cryptocurrency, and digital payments. The University of Oregon is funding a new blockchain and cryptocurrency security program.

Global investment in financial technology companies grew by 18 percent in 2017, to $27.4 billion. Ripple notes that 4,500 job openings with the terms “blockchain,” “bitcoin,” or “cryptocurrency” in the title were posted on LinkedIn this year — marking a 151 percent increase over the total LinkedIn job listings with those terms in 2017.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” van Miltenburg said. “We obviously need great people to do what we do, but the need is only going to grow. There isn’t a degree to date for students pursuing a blockchain or cryptography major. Just like years ago, there weren’t degrees in artificial intelligence or machine learning, and those are now becoming the norm.”

A 2017 report by Dell Technologies declared that 85 percent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet. A 2013 Oxford study estimated that developed countries will see the extinction of nearly half their existing jobs over the next quarter-century. “No government is prepared,” The Economist reported.

With UBRI, Ripple is looking to change that. And among Ripple’s goals for the program are to ensure that the workforce of the future is prepared to apply what they learn about blockchain technology to their future careers, whatever they may be, and to clarify and identify the ways in which blockchain technology can have a material impact on addressing problems in business.

“Let’s make sure the folks coming out of universities are armed with what they need to be successful,” van Miltenburg said. “Fintech and blockchain is a relatively nascent field, and people claim now they know what it is and what it can do. But if you went back 20, 25 years and asked universities what the impact of the internet would be — they might have a little bit of an idea but wouldn’t have known that it would become what it is today. There’s an opportunity for universities to get us further down that learning curve and really identify and impress on folks how the blockchain will impact the world.”

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