MouseBelt, a blockchain and cryptocurrency accelerator, has announced a partnership with UCLA and two other University of California campuses to directly fund courses and research projects in the field.
The $1 million program is a departure for the firm, Ashlie Meredith, the university program director at MouseBelt, told Modern Consensus.
The company spent the last year and a half funding more than 65 student-run groups and events at universities around the world. The new project is different in that involves directly funding university courses and professors’ research. MouseBelt typically works with student-run blockchain associations rather than with schools’ administrations.
Initially, the company is funding a blockchain and cryptocurrency class at UCLA. It is also supporting research proposals by engineering and business professors at UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis. Over the longer term it plans to raise $500,000 to directly fund researchers and invest another $500,000 in up to five student-developed companies.
“MouseBelt has been actively involved in supporting student organizations and entrepreneurs in bringing blockchain to UCSB,” said Christopher Russo, associate director of corporate business development at UC Santa Barbara, in a statement. “We look forward to seeing how broader collaborations between researchers, faculty, and administrators across multiple UC campuses will continue to foster blockchain innovation on campus.”
While the three California universities are conveniently close to MouseBelt’s San Francisco office, the MouseBelt University program has a broader ambition, Meredith said.
Among the student groups it has worked with are the Oxford and Cambridge Blockchain Societies, the Harvard Law School Blockchain and Fintech Initiative, Texas Blockchain at University of Texas, and Spartan Blockchain at Michigan State. It also works with smaller schools, such as Middlebury Blockchain Club and the Brooklyn College Crypto Club. Other programs range as far afield as Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and Croatia.
“We provide support for events and we offer some educational resources and one-on-one mentoring,” Meredith said. “Then at the end of it we welcome them to submit their projects for a pitch competition. Those investments are going to look pretty similar to our accelerator investments. They’d become one of our portfolio companies.”
One of the key educational resources MouseBelt University offers the student groups and organizations it works with is a series of eight-week courses focused on the practical side of turning an idea into a company. Along with engineering, “we also do a business course, and a leadership course,” she explained. “In the business class we try to keep up to date with use cases that have a good market right now. Problems that need to be solved.” Other areas covered range from branding and business development to pitching skills.
The leadership course covers practical topics like planning a conference, budgeting and fundraising, and how to attract and retain talented staff. “I also talk about the social impact of blockchain, different technologies for enhancing democracy, and privacy—all those things,” Meredith added.
The company thinks of MouseBelt University as an investment in education that “is ultimately a long-term play,” she added, noting the blockchain business as a whole is suffering from a shortage of skilled engineers, and too few college-level courses to create more.
That is beginning to change. The 2nd Annual Coinbase Report on Higher Education, released on August 28, found that 56% of the world’s top 50 universities now offer at least one course in blockchain or cryptocurrency. That’s up from 42% in 2018.
“[W]e’re trying to invest in the health of the ecosystem overall in everything that we do at MouseBelt,” said Meredith. “The better the education that these students have access to, the more confident and competent they’re going to be as blockchain engineers. So, we have more engineers building more projects. We’re going to see more innovation in the space.”
Which isn’t to say that what MouseBelt is doing is altruistic, Meredith admits. By working with students as they learn about the technology and come up with proposals for companies, MouseBelt gets to see the plans that can turn into successful companies well before the creators are ready to pitch to the standard venture capital firms with which it competes.
That’s also behind MouseBelt’s decision to be an accelerator rather than a VC, she said. The company has engineers, legal experts, and experienced industry executives that go in and work with the companies it funds.
“It’s a hands-on approach,” Meredith said. “Identifying a smaller number of really promising candidates and helping them every step of the way to be successful, instead of just throwing money at a ton of companies and hoping that one will be successful.”