Two current MIT students—Sloan graduate student Dan Elitzer and junior Jeremy Rubin—got together last winter to brainstorm a way to catalyze Bitcoin use on the MIT campus. They had a growing fondness for digital currencies as an emerging technology and knew others did too.
What if they gave every current undergraduate student the Bitcoin equivalent of $100 to use as they wish, the two asked themselves. Would 4,500 undergraduates be enough to jumpstart a digital currency economy on campus?
They’ll find out this fall. In April, Rubin and Elitzer announced that donors had underwritten $500,000 for the MIT Bitcoin Project, to fund their idea. The students are currently coordinating a method of distributing those $100 payments to each current undergrad this September.
Their project will be the largest targeted Bitcoin giveaway in the brief history of the currency. And many will gauge the potential for digital currencies in the world upon seeing MIT’s results. If MIT students can’t make sense of them, after all, who can?
Elitzer and Rubin still knew they’d have to do some education on campus before rolling out such a large project. A year ago, Elitzer founded MIT’s Bitcoin Club, which hosted an expo this spring to lure digital currency professionals to campus to speak. This summer, Elitzer, Rubin, and classmate Richard Ni are hosting hack nights with the club, and they have organized BitComp, a $15,000 summer startup competition to develop useful Bitcoin apps for MIT students (Round 1 winners included Rafael Pass Phd ’06 and Tiffany Wong ’16). They’re also meeting with professors and researchers who will help them distribute the currency and study its results.
Alex Morcos ’97, ’98, MEng ’98 is one of many alumni fans of digital currency. With a background on Wall Street, Morcos recently co-founded cryptocurrency think-tank Chaincode Labs. When Morcos met Elitzer at a conference last winter, Elitzer pitched him the MIT Bitcoin Project. Almost immediately, Morcos pledged to fund half of it. This week, Morcos responded to a few questions about why he said yes.
Why did you make this gift? What are your hopes for the change it will affect?
Jeremy and Dan had dreamed up this wonderful project, and I believed that it would provide a great opportunity for both MIT and the Bitcoin ecosystem. I’m hopeful that this experiment will both showcase the positive promise of Bitcoin and also excite a new generation of computer scientists to this fascinating new field. It will also help move MIT to the forefront of this research area.
Why is MIT the perfect place to try this kind of project?
MIT has long been a leader in the application of new technology to solving the world’s problems. Bitcoin represents the beginning of an entirely new field of research which holds the potential to radically change finance and banking. This presents tremendous opportunities to benefit society as costs and barriers to entry come down and access is opened to the underbanked.
How has your work in venture capital convinced you that such an investment at MIT is worthwhile?
I actually haven’t worked in the VC industry other than a few small angel investments. But I have long thought that any investment in MIT is very worthwhile.
How did your own experience at MIT shape your thoughts later on about digital currencies, if at all?
MIT taught me an appreciation for elegant solutions to difficult problems, and this was what first drew me to Bitcoin.
How will you know that this experiment was a success in the short or long term?
I’m hopeful that it will be very obvious that some exciting new developments have come about because of this project.