It looks like a collection of characters — but it is much more complex than a set of images. It was a learning experience where students emerged with skills that are not easy to find in today’s economy. In a student-led project, Bret Shilliday, Rylan Laplante and Arian Haghighat created images of Rex, the UCalgary mascot, using blockchain technology in the fall 2022 section of Finance 559.9 – Decentralized Finance.
“This is not as straightforward as it appears — they created this program on the blockchain. When deployed, it generates a Dino non-fungible token (NFT) for their digital wallet,” says Dr. Alfred Lehar, PhD, academic director for the Decentralized Finance (DeFi) Lab, associate professor of finance who led this course.
Each student who completed the course received their own NFT. Right now, this is a fun collection. Future applications could be digital invoices, the digitization of land titles or university credentials.
“Blockchain technology will certainly transform finance and a lot of the business processes that we run in today's economy,” says Lehar. “Part of the DeFi Lab is to study how these blockchain systems will impact finance and the broader business community.”
Skills for an emerging industry
Decentralized finance (DeFi) is an ecosystem of smart contracts that allows token trading, lending, investing (yield farming), and the handling of NFTs. New innovations arrive constantly as DeFi grew from zero to tens of billions of dollars in the last three years. The underlying technology will have a huge impact on how we do finance.
Haskayne offers two courses in FinTech, one at the undergraduate level and one for MBA students, as well as one course in decentralized finance for undergraduate students. Students who have taken the classes have considerably increased their employability, garnering skills that are in high demand in this rapidly growing sector.
“The DeFi lab at Haskayne gives students the skills and context required to make a direct and immediate impact upon entering work in the blockchain industry,” says Brandon Rochon, head of research, Covalent, BComm’21.
“It’s obvious to directly hire students from the DeFi Lab because we can be confident they already know the basics of blockchain and can meaningfully contribute from day one.”
Advancing research from a finance perspective
Approaching blockchain research from a finance — rather than a technological — perspective, Lehar and his collaborators are examining how blockchain can affect a number of systems including novel forms of trading in financial markets collateralized lending and efficient settlement. An interdisciplinary team from across UCalgary submitted a proposal for the Bank of Canada that explored considerations for a Canadian Central Bank digital currency (CBDC).
The DeFi Lab is not a physical space, but a gathering of resources focused on advancing learning and research in decentralized finance. Central to the lab is computing power. The data sets that researchers and PhD students get to analyze are enormous and only possible to crunch using advanced servers purchased specifically for the virtual lab and housed in the university’s data centre. PhD students are a vital component of the DeFi Lab, acting as mentors and helping with research activities.
Looking to expand relationships
Lehar is looking to build more relationships with companies working in FinTech and DeFi.
“As researchers, we are also looking for data,” says Lehar. “There can be a win-win with companies where we can apply our powerful lab to data problems while advancing research at the same time.”
Much of the data that the lab uses for research and teaching comes from Covalent, a blockchain analytics company based in Vancouver.
“Alfred was one of our first customers for blockchain data back in 2020 and the partnership has grown ever since,” says Ganesh Swami, co-founder and CEO of Covalent. “We've hired multiple high-performing team members out of the DeFi Lab because they come prepared with a strong understanding of blockchains and the data behind them.”
There are a multitude of ways to get involved with and support the DeFi Lab. Guest speakers from this growing industry help provide a perspective on the rapidly changing landscape, and student placement opportunities allow students to put their newly minted skills to work. These collaborations help to further grow the FinTech ecosystem.