UA launches Blockchain Center of Excellence to work on industry applications

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,723 views 

(from left) Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Matt Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, talk during an event announcing the Blockchain Center of Excellence at Walton College.

Blockchain is a big buzzword in the business world and it’s no longer just associated with Bitcoin and cryptocurrency. Some of the state’s largest employers from Fort Smith-based ArcBest to Bentonville-based Walmart are exploring and testing blockchain applications in their respective businesses.

Blockchain applications use technology to replace the functions traditionally performed by institutions, such as verifying identities, making sure accounts are funded before transferring value and attesting to the authenticity of an asset, giving blockchain the potential to make business processes more trustworthy, efficient and secure.

Seeking to expand its programs regarding blockchain, the University of Arkansas announced Wednesday (Aug. 1) the newly established Blockchain Center of Excellence as part of the Sam M. Walton College of Business.

The center is funded largely by industry partners starting with an executive advisory membership which is limited to 10 people. The first five of those members have already made their commitment to the program: ArcBest, IBM, J.B.Hunt, Tyson Foods and Walmart. The college is in the process of choosing the remaining five. The UA did not release the dollar amounts associated with those memberships but said there is also a lower membership tier level and there will be room for the entrepreneurship community to also take part with a membership scaled to them.

UA Chancellor Joe Steinmetz told Talk Business & Politics the program is expanding because there is demand and industry support behind it. He said it’s timely and is not coming at the expense of other programs.

The university tapped Mary Lacity from the University of Missouri-St. Louis as the director of the center. Lacity is an author on the blockchain topic and deemed one of the foremost educators in the new field. She joined the UA this summer after being a keynote speaker at the UA’s  blockchain conference held in Fayetteville on April 6. Lacity foresees the center of excellence serving as a platform-agnostic, open and inclusive resource for Arkansas and beyond. She said the technology is immature and enterprises need to overcome significant obstacles to transition more blockchains out of innovation labs into real world use. She said most of the value in blockchain lies in its yet-to-be developed potential and a wide range of research and and business applications.

“Our vision is to make the Walton College a premier academic leader in advocating for and educating on blockchains,” she said.

Lacity said the center will offer a graduate certificate in blockchain and an interdisciplinary minor for undergraduates. She said students will work directly with industry on use cases and research for new applications.

The University of Arkansas Board of Trustees and the Arkansas Department of Higher Education approved the center in May. Steinmetz said the creation of the center is a natural extension of the Walton College and UA’s expertise in information systems and data analytics. He said the center will be a place where university, government and industry can work together to reap the benefits of this emerging technology to benefit all of Arkansas with business development and the creation of new jobs.

“We are thinking bigger and asking more questions on blockchain. As an institution we are on the leading edge of something,” Steinmetz said at the event.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson was also a guest at the event. He said the center is another example of teamwork between education, government and industry.

“This morning I was in Springdale at an announcement for ammonia refrigeration, I spent time at a rock quarry here, and tonight we’re celebrating blockchain. Now that’s a diversified economy,” he said. “Technology is important to our future. I feel like the kid standing on his tiptoes looking into the circus tent. We are not sure where this will lead us but with the help of IBM, ArcBest, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt and Walmart this institution can research, advocate and support innovation for new applications that will benefit the entire state.”

Jeff Amerine, founder of Startup Junkie, told Talk Business & Politics this is an exciting time in technology. He said it’s not unlike when the internet was introduced out of Silicon Valley and even more recently when the big push was to learn more about the implications of Big Data.

“The University is getting in early here on blockchain and there is going to be much learning to come, which should provide opportunities for our tech entrepreneur community to innovate and plug in,” he said.

Walton College Dean Matthew Waller said the mission of the center is threefold.

“We will develop and establish research partnerships by conducting collaborative industry-university research, we will promote and enable dissemination of knowledge about blockchains, and we will accelerate industry adoption of blockchain technology,” Waller said.

The center aims to collaborate with Arkansas-based companies who will set the agenda for the research and integration into business application, and perhaps create new businesses, said Rajiv Sabherwal, UA department chair of Information Systems.

At the blockchain conference in April, officials from Walmart, Tyson Foods. J.B.Hunt and ArcBest said they were working on pilot projects using blockchain technology in their respective industries. There are specific applications for retail, food safety, supply chain and logistics as well as healthcare, banking and agriculture. J.B. Hunt execs said they have been engaged in blockchain applications for two years. The company is also part of the BiTA consortium – Blockchain in Transport Alliance –  that is setting the common standard and framework from which the industry can build their its own applications.

Tyson Foods is using the technology in a pilot that can trace product from family farms to its distribution centers. This pilot has been underway for two years within its own supply chain.
Walmart has tested blockchain applications with food safety and sustainability for several years.

Lacity said blockchain is not a cure-all for contract, ledger, supply chain, security and other challenges facing businesses in an increasingly digital and connected world. More research is needed on blockchain’s impact and implementation before it becomes a mainstream tool for business.

“I have only been here one month and the excitement and support around this program has been incredible,” she said. “We are planning a huge hackathon this fall with industry and we will also have bigger blockchain conference in the spring.”