10 Sep 2018 20:12 IST

Making blockchain secure

Mechanism Labs wants to help make the technology scalable and put it to more diverse use

Twenty one-year-old Aparna Krishnan, who grew up in Muscat, Oman, is one among the 20 people who have been awarded the 2018 Thiel Fellowship, a grant started by tech entrepreneur and co-founder of PayPal Peter Thiel. She plans to use the fellowship to build her venture — Mechanism Labs — which she co-founded with her friends from UC Berkeley in the US.

Mechanism Labs is “the world’s first open source blockchain research lab”. Started in 2017 by Aparna, Alexis Gauba, Maaz Uddin and Zubin Koticha, it hopes to channel the “collective intellect of humanity in a meaningful and collaborative way” to help decentralise blockchain someday. A blockchain is a data structure that makes it possible to create a digital ledger of transactions and share it among a distributed network of computers, according to the ‘Blockchain at Berkeley’ website.

“Typically, Thiel fellows skip or drop out of college to receive the $100,000 grant and support from the Thiel Foundation’s network of founders, investors, and scientists,” Aparna explains. “I’d heard about it before, but never thought I’d consider taking it and quitting school.” With the grant, she hopes to create some impact with her work in the blockchain space. But what made her get into such a specialised field? To answer this, Aparna takes us back to the very beginning — her childhood.

Child wonder

“I spent a lot of my childhood between Muscat and Chennai, where my extended family lives. Growing up, I was always passionate about maths and computer science. At a time when other students my age were reading Harry Potter books, I was reading Vedic maths books.” She says that she naturally participated in a lot of maths and computer science olympiads. “Going into university, I knew I wanted to focus on the intersection of these two fields. I took the relevant courses, like some graduate-level classes in cryptography and algebra.”

But it wasn’t until she heard about Bitcoin that she was introduced to blockchain technology. “It was unlike anything else I had read before; it was a simple application of cryptography that was revolutionary. The elegance of the protocol was what initially drew me to blockchain,” Aparna says. “From there, the more I started reading about different protocols and solutions, the more I was drawn by the promise of the decentralisation. I saw it more as a movement, less as a technology.”

Aparna introduced a series of courses called ‘Education at Blockchain’ at Berkeley and taught the largest university-accredited course on blockchain. “Berkeley lets students teach classes if they have a plan. I worked with a team of people to get the courses up and running. In fact, one of the courses we came up with is now on edX and has over 15,000 students,” she says.

Soon, she was teaching about blockchain at several organisations around the world. “Through this process I realised that people wanted the blockchain to do things it couldn’t because of inherent weaknesses. The blockchain wasn’t scalable, private or secure. I knew I was well-equipped to solve that problem because of the knowledge I had. So I put together a research team with Zubin, Maaz and Alexis to focus on solving such problems,” Aparna says.

Teaching blockchain

She found herself spending over 40 hours a week on research, apart from attending classes at UC Berkeley, where she was studying computer science. “When the Thiel Foundation reached out, I considered applying. But dropping out of college wasn’t an option even when I was invited to attend the final summit.” It was Zubin, her co-founder, who convinced her to attend the final summit with an open mind because he knew she wanted to work on Mechanism Labs and her research above anything else. “Seeing other people my age who had dropped out of school, I realised that I could focus all my time doing something I enjoyed rather than splitting that time with school.”

She credits the immense support she received from her co-founders for helping her take the plunge of opting out of school. She says, “Having the right team — Alexis, the most determined and gritty human being (I know); Zubin, the visionary; and Maaz, the most level-headed human — gave me the confidence to make the decision.”

At the final summit, Aparna and 59 others made a series of pitches and sat through interviews where the foundation gets to know each individual. She says that she really enjoyed the process because “it gave me the opportunity to connect with amazing people regardless of whether or not I got the fellowship”.

How did it feel when she found out that she’d been selected? Humbled, she says. “A month later, when I got a call from the fellowship informing me that I’d been selected, I was excited to finally work full-time on something I have been passionate about for over two years.”

What’s next for Aparna and Mechanism Labs? “We would love to be on the cutting edge of research, contributing to the fast-growing blockchain proof-of-stake space of research.”