The University of Wyoming’s Sports Complex in Laramie played host to a new type of competition on Sept. 7-9: a blockchain-based hackathon.
WyoHackathon 2018 attracted about 400 people and nearly 30 teams of software developers from as nearby as the UW Computer Science Department and as far away as Kenya, China, Egypt, Slovakia, Switzerland and Canada.
Developers worked day and night – some stopping only to nap on cots arranged at one end of the War Memorial Fieldhouse – to win more than $100,000 in donated cash and incentive prizes offered for the most innovative blockchain-based software solutions that would benefit Wyoming.
Sunday, each team pitched its idea to a team of judges. Winning projects included a virtual token solution designed to increase profit for ranchers, a ledger of corporate blockchain addresses for the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office, and a utility token platform to protect Wyoming’s water resources, among many others.
Industry leaders also made a splash over the weekend. Blockchain company ActiveAether will relocate its headquarters from New York to Jackson, and plans to donate $20,000 in computing capacity to UW’s Computer Science Department. Meanwhile, Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne said his company will open a development office in Wyoming.
“We are building a blockchain community in Wyoming, one company at a time,” said Caitlin Long, the volunteer chairwoman of the event and a founding member of the Wyoming Blockchain Coalition.
It was the first event of its kind in Wyoming, but the concept of a hackathon isn’t new; similar events have spawned some of today’s most prolific ideas and technologies.
There’s “no reason that the next Google couldn’t be built” in Laramie, said Joseph Lubin, the co-founder of Ethereum, during a presentation at the event.
Long said she had three goals for the Hackathon: to attract blockchain software companies to Wyoming, to provide a platform for the blockchain industry to thank Wyoming for its welcoming environment, and to elevate UW’s Computer Science Department.
“The Computer Science Department has been teaching blockchain already for a year, and the UW Foundation was one of the first universities in the nation to accept cryptocurrency donations,” she said. “UW is ahead of the curve and we’re boosting its global recognition in these regards.”
James Caldwell, the head of the Computer Science Department, said the event helped to energize his students and the department, establish UW as an authority on blockchain and bring in donations to the department.
“It certainly is a strong move forward for the state and UW,” he said.
All three candidates for governor – Republican Mark Gordon, Democrat Mary Throne and Libertarian Lawrence Struempf – helped judge the “Best for Wyoming” category and spoke to participants, touting the bright minds and young talent the event brought to the state.
While there are no specific plans yet to host the event in 2019, several organizers and participants said they plan to return next year.
Such an event wouldn’t have been successful – or even possible – without bold moves made by the 2018 Wyoming Legislature to create a blockchain- and crypto-friendly business environment in Wyoming.
The Legislature passed five bills, the first of their kind in the nation, that not only made it legal for blockchain and cryptocurrency companies to operate in Wyoming but also made it easier for them to earn capital and grow in the state.
Eugene Luzgin is the founder of blockchain company EOS Tribe and traveled from Canada to attend the Hackathon. When he was forming EOS Tribe, he had to choose between incorporating offshore or in Wyoming. He chose Wyoming and became the first to register a blockchain company in the state after the legislation passed.
“The laws are working,” he said.
In Wyoming from Jan. 1 to May 18, there were a total of 82 limited liability company initial filings with the terms “blockchain” “crypto” and “currency” in their formation names, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported.
“We’ve paved the road for the revolution that you guys are starting,” said David Pope, the executive director of the Wyoming Blockchain Coalition, during a panel discussion at the Hackathon. “Wyoming is saying: look, we want developers to come to Wyoming, and we want those companies to change the world.”
Granted, not every blockchain company that registers here will have a physical presence in the state, added Jeff Pope, an attorney with Holland & Hart. But they’ll still pay Wyoming fees and taxes, and many are bound to eventually physically locate here as they come to realize the high quality of life Wyoming’s wide-open spaces offer.
“Wyoming is interested in economic diversification, and the blockchain industry can provide it,” Long said. “We are attracting serious software entrepreneurs, and unlike the dot-com boom – where most software companies were located in Silicon Valley – today’s software companies can be located anywhere. The industry is highly global and highly mobile, and it will congregate where it’s wanted. Wyoming is one of the places that is welcoming it.”
Still, the laws regulating cryptocurrency and blockchain technology remain somewhat unsettled. While Wyoming has created definitions and opened a friendly environment for this cutting-edge business model, the federal government has yet to say whether it agrees with Wyoming’s position. And, depending on the situation, federal law can still trump state law.
The law firm Holland & Hart is among the first private companies to come out in support of Wyoming’s crypto-friendly laws, and the firm was a sponsor of the Hackathon.
At a panel discussion at the event, Holland & Hart attorney Isaac Sutphin said the attorneys are always working to protect companies from ending up in a courtroom.
“But there’s no sure thing here,” he said. “We believe that this fight is inevitable.”
The courts will have to hash out exactly how this industry should be regulated, he said. That means eventually a company will have to be the first to “jump off the ledge” and take the risk to test out the laws in litigation.
However things shake out, Wyoming will go down in history as leading the industry and creating a friendly environment for technological innovations.
“Of course, there will be problems,” Long said. “But there were problems in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom, and it probably doesn't regret attracting the tech industry.”
One Hackathon participant from Colorado, Will Carter, encouraged his home state to let this new industry breathe and grow like Wyoming has.
“Don’t stifle it with your regulations,” he said. “Let it be the wild, wild west for now.”