Alum Pilots Virtual Accelerator with Duke Summer Blockchain Innovation Program
While at Duke, Nic Meliones ’11 participated in many programs—the Enterprising Leadership Initiative, the Markets and Management Certificate, Duke Emerging Scholars in Computer Science, social innovation courses, and independent study around creativity in innovation—that would shape his future path as an entrepreneur.
He also learned valuable lessons about entrepreneurship early on, such as how to pivot. Through what was then the Program 4 Entrepreneurs (P4E) at Fuqua, undergrads could earn course credit for founding companies; Meliones started a business that would bring renewable energy to regions where it was cost-competitive. “We found a spot in Costa Rica to try it out, but we actually found a ton of oranges, so we decided to just sell oranges instead,” he said with a laugh.
After graduating, while working in San Francisco, Meliones asked mentor Christopher Morton (MBA ’09) for advice about founding a tech company. “He said, ‘Put in your two weeks at work tomorrow, and it will force you to figure out how to do it,’” Meliones remembered.
So he did just that—quit his job and started going through hackathons that let him build his network and explore his ideas. At the 2013 Bitcoin Conference hackathon, he talked to everyone he could about what problems they thought blockchain could solve. “Almost everyone was talking about micropayments,” he said. “So we said, all right, let’s build it this weekend! It was so much fun.”
“It” became BitWall, which made it easy for publishers to accept Bitcoin and other alternate payments. Meliones grew the company for five years, sold it, and began to reflect on his journey and what lessons he could glean from it. “We were plugged into some incredible resources, but it took us probably a year and a half to figure out how to leverage our resources—investors, advisors. That was a significant waste of time. How could we reduce that down to the smallest amount of time possible?”
Meliones said he and BitWall cofounder Kwaku Farkye were thinking about these lessons “mostly selfishly in terms of our next startup.” But then they saw many of the founders they were advising encountering similar issues. They considered other changes in the work landscape—namely, the need for everyone in the workforce to develop entrepreneurial skills moving forward, the increasing geographic distribution of innovation, and the increasing need for companies to offer APIs. They thought through how advancements in tools powering virtual economies could make it possible to provide startup coaching at scale.
Based on the opportunities presented by these “tectonic shifts,” as Meliones calls them, he and Farkye founded Rev, a virtual accelerator and bot-driven startup experience. Using Slack, users progress through “recipes” to move through the core phases of the startup journey. This format provides founders with artifacts they can use moving forward, including pitch decks and one-pagers, and is supplemented by live fireside chats and hot seat-style events with innovators and investors.
“We’re committed to accelerating the way innovators start, learn, and scale,” Meliones said. “Whether you want to make the jobs of tomorrow as a founder, or take the jobs of tomorrow as an employee, innovation and entrepreneurship skills will be the engine that gets you there.”
Scaling Startup Coaching in the Duke Summer Blockchain Innovation Program
When Rev was ready to pilot with its first large cohort, Meliones turned to his alma mater. Funded by a grant from Ripple UBRI, The Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative (I&E) partnered with the Pratt School of Engineering and HackDuke to offer the program to students and alumni.
A three-week bootcamp and a weeklong hackathon took participants through the first phase, identifying a “hair-on-fire” problem and establishing a hypothesis. The accelerator was designed to support more advanced teams continuing their work, taking them through customer discovery, building product traction, and scaling.
Five Duke startups had been selected for the accelerator in advance of the program, and with a first-place finish in the hackathon, Full Moon AI also won a spot. But once program administrators saw the level of enthusiasm of teams across the board, they invited anyone who had made meaningful progress. “Even over the course of a few weeks, we saw such a passion and conviction for the teams to continue their journeys,” Meliones said.
Students & Alums Connect & Collaborate Virtually
Shortly after graduating from Duke, Henry Yan E’17 read a Medium post by Fred Ehrsam ’10, cofounder of cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase. In it, Ehrsam predicted blockchain would become the “backbone of virtual worlds—the system for currency, assets, identity, even governance.” Yan had already started studying and investing in cryptocurrencies during his years at Duke, and as a gamer enthusiastic about VR, he was captivated by the future Ehrsam described. Yan kept pondering over it as he worked for Facebook, LinkedIn, and investment firms after graduation. He eventually founded Metaverse AI to allow millions of users (of VR, gaming, virtual social networks, and beyond) to traverse seamlessly through the metaverse—a collective virtual cyberspace.
“Imagine if you could take your identity and virtual avatars and traverse seamlessly between the different virtual worlds,” Yan said. “Blockchain makes this possible because it acts as a shared infrastructure layer.” In a dystopia (“Have you seen Ready Player One?”), the virtual world could be controlled by corporations who could manipulate or dictate someone’s identity and data. But thanks to blockchain’s decentralized nature, a Metaverse AI user can decide how to interact with the metaverse across platforms. “We believe it’s essential for people to take control of their avatar identities and metaverse data, and launch mainstream applications such as Virtual Celebrity, Gaming, and NFT,” Yan said.
Metaverse AI has already gone through other accelerators, including the Filecoin Frontier Accelerator, and gained notable investors. Even heading up a relatively advanced company, however, Yan gained valuable insights from the Duke Summer Blockchain Innovation accelerator and speakers—along with the chance to recruit more teammates. Yan connected with Thivya Sivarajah E’23 and Jody Smith MBA ’05, a seasoned entrepreneur, via the bootcamp Slack channel; both joined the Metaverse AI team.
Yan, who’s based in San Francisco, was traveling in Asia during the program. “Frankly, the technical and business problems we’re solving are so exciting that we were able to overcome the jetlag and work seamlessly,” he said.
Other accelerator teams worked on projects ranging from a platform that supports tax-advantaged cryptocurrency investments, to a role-playing game in which users learn about decentralized finance, to a savings account with better returns using non-volatile stablecoins.
Jimmie Lenz, Director of Pratt’s Master of Engineering programs in FinTech and Cybersecurity, was a guest at an accelerator hot seat session where teams answered questions about their projects’ potential applications and challenges.
“Some of the projects that were presented not only embraced attributes of blockchain, but took them to a new level,” Lenz said. “It was fantastic seeing how the projects pushed the boundaries of the technology, and the business considerations that are possible utilizing decentralized finance. There is a need of more support for this type of emerging system technology and finance experimentation.”
With more than 300 students and alumni participating in the Duke Summer Blockchain Innovation Program, Rev’s scalable coaching model meets ever-increasing demand for support.
“When I was still at Duke, fewer than 50 people knew about blockchain,” Yan said. “Now the current first-years and sophomores are so excited about this industry, they’re spending time on top of their summer internships working on their projects. That’s really inspiring to me.”