Cambridge University’s first crypto academic on joining Blockchain and why economists like Paul Krugman and Nouriel Roubini are wrong
Dr Garrick Hileman.
LONDON — Hot cryptocurrency company Blockchain has hired academic Dr. Garrick Hileman as its first head of research.
Hileman has been studying cryptocurrencies since 2011 and holds posts at both the University of Cambridge and the London School of Economics. He developed the first course on cryptocurrencies at Cambridge and still teaches it at the University’s Judge Business School.
Hileman is also well respected in the crypto community, having been an early employee of sector news website CoinDesk. In that role, he created and authored the State of Bitcoin and State of Blockchain reports between 2013 and 2016.
Blockchain is the world’s biggest cryptocurrency-wallet provider, with over 24 million of its wallets in use across 140 countries. The London-headquartered company is also working behind the scenes to build crypto-inspired products and services for mainstream finance. Blockchain recently hired former Goldman banker Breanne Madigan to lead Institutional Sales and Strategy.
Business Insider jumped on the phone with Hileman to hear about how he got into crypto, why he’s bullish on the technology while other economists are sceptical, and what he’ll be doing at Blockchain.
‘I felt very comfortable pivoting my career’
Blockchain CEO Peter Smith.
Hileman first discovered cryptocurrencies when he was doing his PhD at the London School of Economics in 2011. His thesis was on currency black markets and he heard about bitcoin, which at the time was largely being used to power the online black market Silk Road.
“It grabbed my attention and I thought, what is this thing?” Hileman told BI. “That was one of my first papers, looking at the taxonomy of cryptocurrencies.”
The more he looked into the space, the more intrigued he became.
“It’s a very multidisciplinary subject so I think the complexity of it is very appealing to me,” he said. “Someone like myself who’s worked in technology, worked in finance, studied economics, studied history, has an interest in policy questions — it really ticks a lot of boxes for me personally.”
Hileman had spent more than a decade working for companies like Bank of America, The Home Depot, IDG, and Allianz before going back to academia.
“To me, it made sense that this was going to become something important and more significant over time so I felt very comfortable early on devoting significant time and really pivoting my career,” he said.
‘Many economists have a hard time seeing the technology’
Economist Nouriel Roubini is a bitcoin skeptic.Screenshot via Bloomberg TV
Hileman’s views on crypto make “unusual as an academic based economist,” he admits.
“Many of my peers in academia have not been as enthusiastic about cryptocurrency or as open to the success its enjoyed and its growing importance.”
Paul Krugman has called bitcoin “evil” and “an obvious bubble.” Tyler Cowen describes himself as a “blockchain skeptic.” And Nouriel Roubini, the economist credited with predicting the 2008 housing bubble, recently called bitcoin “bulls—.”
“It seemed like it was underestimated by a lot of people,” Hileman said. “Nouriel Roubini of course of late has been making a lot of noise but he’s one of many — Paul Krugman, Tyler Cowen, Brad DeLong and others — who have really bashed bitcoin for many years now.
“It’s been actually pretty surprising for me to learn that many economists have a hard time seeing the technology. The use of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology is really a technology platform and not just a currency, not just a return to the gold standard or something.
“Some of them don’t have the best track record for understanding technology, to be frank. Paul Krugman famously thought the internet wasn’t all that more significant than a fax machine. I’m not sure I would have a lot of success helping them understand the significance of this technology as a new platform, as something that in some ways can be compared to the internet.”
‘Crypto years are kind of like dog years’
Dr Garrick Hileman.
In his Cambridge course, which he will continue to teach while at Blockchain, Hileman teaches the history of cryptocurrencies, the definition of money, the definition of blockchain, use cases for both, smart contracts, and adoption of the technology.
“I think it’s very difficult to understand what bitcoin and cryptocurrencies are if you don’t first understand what money is,” he said.
“It’s been an eye-opener to me and many people who’ve been educating people about cryptocurrencies to learn how little people know about money — even people in finance and very, very smart people don’t know for example that the vast majority of our money is made through the process of lending by banks, privately owned institutions. Very few people when I ask for a show of hands know that the coins and notes in our pockets represent 5-10% of the money supply.”
As for bitcoin, Hileman says he does not believe it counts as money: “It falls down as a widely used unit of account. It’s a store of value, it’s a means of exchange, but it’s not a unit of account.”
While Hileman is confident of the significance of blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies, he is not comfortable making predictions about how the space will evolve.
“Crypto years are kind of like dog years,” he said. “You pack 6, 7 years worth of time into a single year it seems. I personally am not making any 5 to 10-year projections.”
A ‘kid in a candy store’
Hileman said he feels like a “kid in a candy store” in his new role at Blockchain.
“Blockchain is one of the premier data organizations in the crypto space and has been a big supporter of my research in the past,” he said.
“I’m going to be first and foremost really looking to better understand the data landscape both in terms of Blockchain as a company as well as across the space.
“There’s a lot of things we still don’t understand — where people who are using cryptocurrency, for example, are based primarily? How is cryptocurrency being used? Which cryptocurrencies are gaining more fundamental traction? I think a lot of work still needs to be done just on the empirical side.”
Blockchain’s CEO and cofounder Peter Smith said in a statement that Hileman’s role will be to “not only help to advance our company but the industry at large with his work.”
Hileman added: “Other areas I’ll be looking at early on are things like stable coins, which I think are a very interesting innovation. These are cryptocurrencies that are designed to be stable in value relative to things like the US dollar and may solve some of the volatility problems that many cryptocurrencies have and serve as a deterrent to payments.”