How accelerators can help DC catch the blockchain wave

While the D.C. region is already well-known for its capabilities in the field of cybersecurity innovation, it’s yet to fully catch the wave of the development of blockchain technologies. To learn about how entrepreneurs and innovators can learn to steer the development of new blockchain advancements, we spoke with Brian Park, managing partner at SparkLabs Cyber+Blockchain.

ABERMAN: Tell me a bit about this SparkLabs initiative. It seems pretty exciting.

PARK: Yes. So, SparkLabs is a Global Accelerator Program, and it actually was founded by three guys from Palo Alto. And they were thinking, hey what do we do? Let’s go raise some funds from Palo Alto, Silicon Valley, and what do we do with that money? Do we put that money into more Silicon Valley based companies? It’s a very saturated market. So their thinking was, okay, how about if we give exposure of the Silicon Valley money into Asia?

And so, they started their accelerator program in Seoul then went into another smart city, Seongdong, which is a 35 billion dollar smart city project there, and then finally they expanded to Taipei, Australia, Oman, Beijing and Shanghai. And so, with this eighth accelerator, we’ll actually be bringing that Silicon Valley money back into the U.S., to D.C.

ABERMAN: I find that really interesting, Brian. I know about SparkLabs, and I watched its expansion overseas. What was it, or what is it about D.C., that caused the organization to go out into Asia, and then loop around and come back and plant a flag here?

PARK: So, there is a little bit of backstory behind this, because what happened was, I was the managing director of an incubator called Fishbowl labs. It was actually based out of AOL. We were thinking about, hey, we had 33 graduate startups, and we had four or five pretty big successful startups, including a cybersecurity company called Threat Quotient. So basically, our program, with our 33 graduates, had raised almost one hundred million dollars in follow-in funding. And so, we were thinking, how do we morph this program into something more structured? So, from an incubator to a real accelerator?

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So we were thinking, okay, how about if we convert Fishbowl Labs into an accelerator? And so, we actually went across the United States to figure out, can we bring a national brand, another accelerator brand, and rubber stamp Fishbowl into a part of a national accelerator network? And so, we talked to a couple of accelerator companies, and actually, domestically, didn’t really work out. So my friend, Bernard Moon, who’s one of the GPs at SparkLabs, he was like, hey, why don’t we add you guys to the family? And I was like, yeah, okay! That would make sense. But you know, you guys are Silicon Valley money into the APAC region.

Well, how would it make sense for us to take that expertise that you built out there, to be brought back in to here, domestically in the United States? And so, we originally had the concept of cybersecurity, to add the blockchain part of this. So, SparkLabs is actually one of the biggest investors in the blockchain space in Asia. And so, we had to think, how do we mix the two industries together? Because how are they related?

ABERMAN: Because we’re big in cybersecurity, everybody around the world knows that. But people don’t tend to think of us as a blockchain place.

PARK: So, here’s the interesting thing about this. So as I looked into it, if you ever see blockchain, the best implementation of blockchain out there is Bitcoin. Bitcoin is basically an open source, anybody in the world can download that software, run the software, and become a miner, and now be an active participant in the network. So if you ever see the birth of the Bitcoin movement, it all started from the cyberpunk movement. And if you ever see, like, when Satoshi Nakamoto put the little white paper, he put it into an email thread called cryptography.

ABERMAN: You’re absolutely right. So, we’ve got SparkLabs, it’s operating here, it’s an accelerator, it’s got international reach. If I’m listening to this, and I’m an entrepreneur, what’s in it for me? What are you looking for in the way of entrepreneurs, how will they apply, how does your program work?

PARK: What an accelerator is is very simple. It’s a school that has a fund attached to it. And so, instead of having students pay us, and then we matriculate them into a curriculum, we pay them. And it’s an exchange for a piece of their company. We’ll give them a $50,000 check for up to 6 percent of their company. And then, there, we would match them with mentors through a 14 week program. Three to four mentors, and they all have different backgrounds.

ABERMAN: When’s your next program start?

PARK: So, we are anticipating mid Q2 to start, but we are still doing fundraising. Because it is a fund, we are a school that actually has a fund. And so, we’re about to close on that fund.

ABERMAN: So if I’m a local rich person, and I’m looking for exposure to startups, I bet you would love to talk to them.

PARK: I would love to talk to you. Yeah, absolutely.

ABERMAN: So the other thing you’re doing here in town to promote the ecosystem is Startup Grind. What’s Startup Grind?

PARK: What it is, it’s actually one of the largest independent high tech communities in the world. And they’re networking events programmed around fireside chats, kind of like what we’re doing right now.

ABERMAN: Yeah, except you’re not having me on.

PARK: We’ll fix that for sure.

ABERMAN: But more to the point, before I let you go. If I’m part of the entrepreneur community here. If I want apply to the SparkLabs program, do you have an application process online yet, or will you announce that when you’re ready?

PARK: Yeah, we will announce it when we’re ready. But if you want to, you can go to our website, sparklabscyber.com, and when we’re ready, we’ll have the application link. And if you are a government employee, and you’re bored at work, and you have some amazing idea, please, please, go to the site. Apply, talk to me. I will buy you coffee.

ABERMAN: There you go folks. There’s your offer: if you’re bored at work today, you can get in touch with Brian Park, and he will buy you coffee, and help you build a company. Brian, thanks for joining us today.

PARK: Thank you, Jonathan.

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