New York University is emerging as an increasingly important hub in the blockchain ecosystem. Renée Leibler, an Executive MBA candidate at NYU Stern, has become a leading figure in the space, both on campus and in the broader blockchain community. Leibler is the President of the NYU Stern Blockchain Digital Asset Forum, a group that brings blockchain and digital asset speakers to campus events. She is also the co-founder of Harmonic Chain, a blockchain, cryptocurrency and digital asset firm focused on business, financial and advisory services.
Leibler began her EMBA program at NYU Stern in 2017, while she was a professor of entrepreneurship at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. Her initial decision to get an EMBA was driven by her desire to further her career in academia. After to FIT, Leibler led several start-ups, beginning her career in mobile technology, then going on to work in fields as varied as commercial real estate and the equine business.
Leibler was first introduced to Bitcoin in 2015, when her then-CTO sent her a Bitcoin, but her interest in the space didn’t truly blossom until 2017. Leibler credits the booming ICO market in 2017 as sparking her dive into the space. With her entrepreneurial background, Leibler was familiar with the challenges start-ups face in raising money, especially in the case of female or minority entrepreneurs. Leibler saw the ICO markets as a transformative, democratizing power for the start-up fund raising ecosystem.
“As a woman in the startup space and having [experience] trying to raise money for some of my previous ventures, I know how difficult it could be for a woman or a minority,” Leibler said, regarding the crypto market. “I had been thinking about how to approach this problem and to make it better for all entrepreneurs.”
Traditional startup fundraising tends to flow through a relatively small group of institutions and decision makers, whereas ICO funding allows for more open access.
“I thought it was a very good model for adding equality for entrepreneurs who are out there trying to raise money… [fundraisers] no longer had to go through a centralized organization where a few controlled a lot of the capital. Instead, with an ICO, it’s really a form of crowd sourcing,” Leibler said.
As her interest in blockchain technologies grew, Leibler began organizing popular meetups with thought leaders at her home in Greenwich, CT. In October 2017, she began inviting her NYU Stern classmates to her events. To make it easier for her classmates to attend, Leibler reached out to the school administration to locate a place to hold her events on campus.
In her discussions with NYU, Leibler realized there was no existing group or infrastructure for exploring blockchain at NYU Stern. Thus, the NYU Stern Blockchain Digital Asset Forum was born. The Forum’s first event invited Ari Paul, Chief Investment Officer at Block Tower Capital, on campus. The event was so successful and well attended that the Forum exceeded the room’s 150-person capacity.
In addition to founding the Forum, Leibler also co-founded Harmonic Chain this year with Tim Paolini, her EMBA classmate, and with William Reinisch, a player in the venture capital industry. Harmonic Chain is focused on investing in core technology that will power the growth of the evolving blockchain ecosystem. The Fund’s investment thesis revolves around investing in technology that will power the expansion of professional and financial services using blockchain.
“I look at platforms that will connect people to resources,” Leibler said. “There are many emerging platforms right now that have to do with supply chain, getting resources to refugees, etc. All of these issues can be resolved on the blockchain… and can really impact our economy.”
An example of a project that matches Leibler’s investment thesis is Bloom, which launched its ICO in November 2017. Bloom created a platform to disrupt credit scoring and lower the cost of using credit ranking services, thereby allowing users across the globe to have greater access to financial systems.
“One of the things that I saw with [Bloom] was the ability to impact millions, if not billions of people around the world who have not been able to access to any type of credit,” Leibler said. “Having access to capital can certainly make the determining factor between having opportunity… and not having opportunity.”
Harmonic Chain aims to begin raising funds for an investment vehicle in the fall of 2018. While preparing for the fund launch, Leibler and her team are performing advisory work for start-ups and working with a group of NYU computer scientists.
Many blockchain funds have raised capital primarily from family offices, which can have greater flexibility in their investment decisions than traditional financial institutions. Leibler and her team are targeting institutional investors along with family offices, many of which may become end users of the platforms that Harmonic Chain is funding.
“The technologies that we will invest in will hopefully solve some of the problems that we see today that are keeping the institutional investor out of digital assets. Those issues have to do with custody and clearing,” Leibler explained.
While Leibler and her team have been building Harmonic Chain, the Forum has stayed busy, organizing a series of speaking events on campus throughout the spring of 2018. The Forum’s most recent event was held off campus, in partnership with Blockworks Group, on June 28 at Caden, an event space in the Lower East Side. The event featured multiple rounds of talks, with prominent speakers from the blockchain industry. Roughly two hundred people attended. Though events of this quality typically have high ticket prices, the forum was able to provide tickets priced at an accessible $25 each.
One of the Forum’s next projects will be supporting and participating in the NYU Fintech Conference being planning for later this year. To learn more about the Forum and how you can participate, you can follow them on Twitter (@NYUBlockchain) or Facebook.