Armed with stacks of resumes and sunny smiles, the students wandered through the Spanish-style auditorium at the University of California, Berkeley, on the hunt for a gig to launch them into the working world. But the companies manning the booths weren't McKinsey or Goldman Sachs, firms that traditionally scoop up college grads by the truckload — instead they were upstarts in the much-hyped world of blockchain.
"A lot of companies don't actually have real products," observed Sutter Grune, a senior computer science major at Santa Clara University who was hanging out near the Libra Credit booth. "This one I'm in line for is a lending platform," he said. "I don't think they have a product either."
Dan Schatt, the former PayPal executive who cofounded Libra Credit, confirmed the startup intends to come out with a product in Asia this summer and plans to launch in the US at a later date. Libra Credit is indeed building a lending platform, as well as a new way to assess consumer credit. "Imagine," Schatt said, "a revolving line of credit against every new asset class becoming available through blockchain."
Students had to do a lot of imagining at the Blockchain Career Fair on Wednesday afternoon. The Berkeley event, billed as the largest-ever blockchain career fair in the United States, featured more than 30 young companies related to the blockchain — the digital ledger technology that, in various forms, underpins cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum, and which has been like catnip for a certain type of libertarian-minded entrepreneur. Names like Thunder Token, Zcash, and SpankChain filled the room.
To say there's a blockchain "industry" at this point is probably a stretch. It's more like a large cluster of enthusiasts trying to see what's possible with a technology that's very much the new hotness in Silicon Valley. Blockchain promises the ability to record transactions authoritatively, without a central authority — and has inspired startup efforts in finance, artificial intelligence, data security, and pornography, to name a few of the fields represented Wednesday.
For those at the career fair, this newness produced both genuine excitement and a dose of wariness.
"We're trying to bring truth to the space," said Ronen Kirsh, a cofounder of Dekrypt Capital, a blockchain investment firm that contributed some of the main funding for the fair. (Kirsh and his Dekrypt cofounders attended Berkeley and started a blockchain student group.) "There's a lot of bullshit and fake stuff out there."
There are also a lot of job openings — 14 of them, statistically speaking, for every engineer employed in blockchain, according to Steven Chen, the managing partner of CryptoParency, a blockchain consulting firm that was another major funder of the event.
Among the few established blockchain companies at the fair was Coinbase, the popular cryptocurrency exchange. Others that have yet to launch included aelf, a cloud-computing startup that intends to debut this summer; Eluvio, which is working on infrastructure for online content and is "at the proof of concept stage," according to Marc Lusinchi, a consulting engineer; and Bodhi, a prediction market whose leaders plan to take it live next week but will have to exclude US users for legal reasons. Many had sold tokens to investors through initial coin offerings, or ICOs — one way they got the capital to secure a booth at the fair.
"I was looking around and there are a lot of things that aren't actually live — they're trying to get engineers to snag to help them become a real thing," said Paulo Donati, who works in San Francisco for the Japanese cryptocurrency exchange bitFlyer.
One company that stood apart was SpankChain, in town from Los Angeles. "I know it's like porn," Donati said, "but their engineers are really, really good."
SpankChain, which held its ICO last fall, does payments for adult film performers — with an Ethereum-based currency that, according to the company, is more private and secure than credit cards and lets the performer keep more of their earnings. It also launched a product called CryptoTitties that lets people scroll through pictures of breasts and reward their favorites with cryptocurrency.
Why the adult industry? "I was like, hmm, where is consumer adoption gonna happen first?" said Ameen Soleimani, the CEO. "And logic compelled me to start SpankChain."
The SpankChain booth certainly seemed popular at the male-dominated event. At one point, Daisy Ozim of Team Block Society swooped in and said she was interested in discussing ways to promote gender diversity and inclusion in the blockchain field. "We're all about that," said Wills de Vogelaere, SpankChain's cofounder and head of product.
The boom in cryptocurrencies over the last year has made many fortunes. Ozim told BuzzFeed News she was worried about how these millionaires were using their newfound wealth. "Blockchain, if we're not careful, can create a lot of economic inequality and unstable communities," she said. In particular, she pointed to the effort by a group of entrepreneurs to build a "crypto utopia" in Puerto Rico, which this week suffered another islandwide blackout.
Some saw the blockchain itself as a positive social force.
"I'm very hopeful about the future blockchain is going to bring," said Breeze Liu, a Berkeley senior majoring in peace and conflict studies. She said she believed blockchain technology could help large organizations, including disaster relief groups, run more efficiently. "I want to make sure people are not being exploited by middlemen," she said.
The question on other people's minds, though, was whether such dreams about blockchain were getting ahead of the reality.
"I feel like we have to solve other problems," like the scalability of the technology, before building new applications, said Eliott Atlani, a Berkeley masters student in systems engineering. Atlani is "passionate about blockchain," he said, "but I'm not sure if I want to work in that space."
"I feel like it's going too fast maybe," he said. "I think maybe in a few years a lot of startups will fail. But that's OK. That's how we progress."