MG VT Blockchain 021519 (copy)

Jiayi Wang (center) collaborates with fellow Virginia Tech students Neal Mangaokar (left) and Zachary Geier, while designing a blockchain program.

Virginia Tech is pitching a new effort to foster a blockchain industry hub in the region, at least in part to take advantage of a billion-dollar upstart putting down roots in Blacksburg.

Block.one represents a massive opportunity that should not be ignored, Virginia Tech Foundation CEO John Dooley said Friday.

The company is positioned as an early leader in the booming blockchain industry; it has a reported $3 billion in financial backing; it was co-founded by Christiansburg resident Dan Larimer; and it has expressed interest in growing its Blacksburg office.

If Block.one succeeds, so could Southwest Virginia — the theory goes.

Virginia Tech has requested $246,800 in state money through GO Virginia to help capitalize on the opportunity, plus $250,000 in matching funds. The Virginia Tech Foundation would contribute $190,000 of that, and the rest of the match would be split between localities from the New River and Roanoke valleys.

The regional GO Virginia council voted unanimously to approve the requested funds Friday. Now, it will move on to the GO Virginia state board for final approval.

Block.one is “such a unique resource that we just aren’t used to having,” Dooley said after Friday’s meeting, noting that it’s not without risk since so much about the technology is yet to be seen . “It’s one I’m willing to hedge a bet on. We don’t want to be in a situation that we say, ‘Boy did ever miss that opportunity.’ ”

Even Brandy Salmon, Tech’s administrator who pitched the project, admitted the technology is hard to fully grasp.

Essentially, blockchains are digital ledgers maintained by massive networks of users. Because there’s no central organization in charge, they’re virtually impossible to cheat. They can store information and manage transactions online in a way that’s never before been possible.

The most famous use of the technology is Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but developers continue finding more and more uses.

“The opportunity around blockchain, for us, it will blow your mind,” Salmon told the council.

The Blockchain Ecosystem Catalyst project, as Tech is calling it, would aim to grow the local talent pool, attract more blockchain companies here and create an industry cluster as the technology goes mainstream — with a hometown company at the forefront.

It would create a blockchain resource center, academic programming, professional development services, industry partnerships and online tools. The initiative would also support things like a “Blocksburg Summit,” an industry gathering planned for this November.

Virginia Tech separately received a $3 million gift from Block.one last year, earmarked to boost blockchain curriculum on campus. Tech will begin offering classes for a certificate in blockchain later this year and the school is exploring the possibility of a minor down the road.

The Blockchain Ecosystem Catalyst project would build off that by helping to foster an ecosystem off campus that supports these startups and professionals.

Block.one declined comment on its relationship with Virginia Tech on Friday.

Salmon said it’s not just about one company, but also the other startups that may sprout from Tech and Block.one’s efforts.

She added that the region is at the genesis of something big, and that’s not an opportunity that comes around often.

“It’s a little hard to get your mind around the impact this could have to our region. And it needs this multiplier effect to get going,” Salmon said. “This grant provides us a bit more of that foundation that we need.”

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