Center Spotlight | Blockchain Isn’t a Fad, It’s the Future

From his Global Exploration course to his newest Blockchain Program Initiative, Tower Center Associate Simon Mak is revolutionizing entrepreneurship at SMU. We asked him about his research and the public policy implications of crypto currencies.

Tell us about your latest projects.

SMU Professor Simon Mak with his students in Malaysia.

The Caruth Institute For Entrepreneurship just launched the Blockchain Program Initiative, and what we want to focus on is talking and teaching entrepreneurs how to do blockchain startups. It’s not a tech program, although you need to understand basic tech, but it’s more about different business models and different uses for blockchain. As a matter of fact, I launched a blockchain entrepreneurship class for my MBAs this last fall, and next week I’m going to an international conference and teaching other entrepreneurship professors how to teach blockchain entrepreneurship.

I’ve created my own startup called Genesis Blockchain Academy, and its purpose is to take all my classroom content and package it so that other universities and professors can immediately launch a blockchain program. My company is actually being incubated in the SMU incubator, and it’s the first faculty-led SMU-incubated company.

How did you get into studying blockchain?

I got started in blockchain through Bitcoin, which is how most people get into it. Bitcoin is the crypto currency and blockchain is the technology. I got into Bitcoin because my students were telling me to go into Bitcoin and I was embarrassed that I didn’t know what they were talking about, me an entrepreneurship professor.  I’m an engineer by training, so I said, “if I’m going to get into something, I’m really going to get into it.” Not only did I decide to buy Bitcoin, I learned about the technology underneath it. I started learning about blockchain and I was like, “Wow, there is a lot of cool stuff you can do with blockchain.” And the rest is history.

How are governments responding to crypto currencies?

From a policy perspective, the number one issue is it impacts national currency because it is an alternative to a country’s fiat currency. That’s why countries are afraid of it. Regulatory agencies like the SEC are also afraid of it. You have regulatory agencies at the Federal Reserve and then you have regulatory agencies like the SEC who are afraid that people are buying all of these crypto currencies and being swindled. The whole job of the SEC is to prevent people from being swindled in investments. The third regulatory agency related to crypto is the IRS. They want to tax crypto currency and crypto transactions, but they haven’t figured out how to track it yet. These are all regulatory policy frameworks, depending on what you’re interested in. It’s a wonderful, wonderful area of research.

The country that is the most advanced in their policy is Malta, so I visited Malta last summer.

What is Malta doing differently?

Right now with crypto currencies, most regulatory agencies say that it’s either a coin or a security, but there are gray areas in between. Malta has defined the gray areas in between and so depending on how you use the crypto currency the regulation is a lot softer. They try to help you promote it. And so most of us who are legitimate business people, we should not be treated like we’re criminals and thieves, and we should not be regulated as such. That’s the main issue.

Malta wants to encourage commerce. I don’t know if most established countries want to encourage an alternative coin. Although, countries are now saying they may come up with their own crypto currency. If they do, they can track it. People say “Oh crypto currency is used by criminals.” But no, it’s the U.S. $100 bill that’s used by criminals. You can’t track a U.S. $100 bill, but you can track every coin.

Do you think that’s the future?

Absolutely. I think crypto currencies, or digital currencies, that is the next movement. It’s going to save the government billions of dollars because they don’t have to produce and manufacture coins and paper. China is already cashless. You can no longer do cash in China—it’s all digital, or credit cards.

Why did you decide to take your students to Malaysia?

I started a Global Exploration Entrepreneurship class. We research how other countries do entrepreneurship and then we pick a country and we go.

Most governments have realized that they need to promote and develop their entrepreneurial citizens. In most countries in Europe and Asia, the governments are putting a lot of money into local startups. The local people aren’t used to being entrepreneurial. America is either the only country or one of the few countries that has never had a monarchy. We’re not used to being told what to do, so the government is pretty hands off when it comes to entrepreneurial stuff. But in every other part of the world it’s not; the government has to get involved. That’s why we travel—we want to see what kind of incentives other governments provide.

Malaysia realized their regulatory framework is archaic. Malaysia had one unicorn (a startup that has a valuation of $1 billion), but it was regulated so heavily they moved to Singapore. They lost their one unicorn—so the government immediately went all in to support startups.

Why did you decide to teach entrepreneurship?

I believe in calling. I really felt called to change careers. No one said I should do it, but I’m a spiritual person and I truly felt a calling to change careers.

Teaching entrepreneurship is hard. I’m trying to teach students to be comfortable with trying new things. That’s really hard for people. Then I’m also trying to teach students to be comfortable with trying new things and having it fail. Our education system right now is not set up to teach students how to fail. As a matter of fact, our schools have failed to teach students how to fail.

I get to be a different voice in my students’ head, encouraging them not to go work for the man, but be the man.