New York Plans Blockchain Center to Stake Claim as Industry Hub

It’s Blockchain Week in the Big Apple, but if city leaders have their way, New York will become more than just a nice place for the industry to visit.

Announced Monday, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) is launching several initiatives to put the city on the map as a blockchain technology hub. Foremost among them is a plan to open a “Blockchain Center” that will both promote public awareness of the technology and facilitate conversations among industry stakeholders.

A key topic of the center’s conversations will be making the regulatory environment more attractive to innovative businesses – which will inevitably mean examining New York State’s BitLicense regulations, widely blamed for driving away startups since they took effect in 2015.

The NYCEDC also announced a competition, expected to launch in late 2018, intended to generate ideas for improving municipal services with blockchain tech. As a first step, the agency will issue a request for proposals (RFP) from organizations that want to run the contest.

Kicking off its charm offensive, over the weekend the NYCEDC, along with the non-profit GrowNYC and CoinDesk, co-sponsored a hackathon in Times Square where developers worked to come up with blockchain-based solutions for tracking the food supply chain for farmers markets around the city.

Last but not least, the agency is co-sponsoring Blockchain Week with CoinDesk. Underscoring the NYCEDC’s motivation, the series of events around town will include a free job fair Wednesday at the New York Hilton Midtown, the venue for Consensus 2018.

Karen Bhatia, a vice president at the agency, said it sees the city’s major industries – finance, healthcare, media and real estate – as potential beneficiaries of blockchain.

“We’ve been looking into blockchain for probably close to a year now. We’ve been monitoring it,” Bhatia told CoinDesk. And while New York already boasts more blockchain job openings than Silicon Valley, according to analytics firm Burning Glass, she added:

“We saw an opportunity to be at the forefront of experimentation in blockchain as sustaining more of a foothold.”

A strategic industry

Taken together, these moves signal that the NYCEDC views fostering blockchain activity as a strategic play that can create thousands of jobs for New York. The NYCEDC is the city’s official economic development corporation, and its board members are appointed by the mayor and other senior leaders.

For the Blockchain Center, the NYCEDC will provide $100,000 in seed funding for the first year “as a pilot test, to see what the learnings are,” Bhatia said, though she expects additional funding to be available as needed from private sources, given the amount of investment in the sector overall.

“Funding is not really the biggest issue when it comes to blockchain,” she said.

The plan is for the center to have a full-time staff, she said, though the NYCEDC is not yet sure how big it will be. The agency is looking at several potential locations, including a city-owned property at South Street Seaport.

Ideally, the center will have street frontage and be open to passersby, Bhatia explained.

“The goal of this is to be a community center where people can walk in and learn more about what blockchain is, both the public as well as people who are working on new ventures and want some sort of a roadmap for how they should proceed,” she said.

Elephant in the room

Yet the center will also likely play host to some heated discussions since another of its express goals is to get entrepreneurs and regulators to – in Bhatia’s words – “sit down and have a real discussion about how these regulations are affecting innovation and entrepreneurship in New York City.”

While federal regulators will be invited to take part, so will the New York State Department of Financial Services, which created the BitLicense.

Bhatia noted that the NYCEDC took part in a February roundtable hosted by two state senators on revisiting the controversial regulation.

And though the NYCEDC recognizes the need for regulations to protect consumers, the center will look for ways to do that without squelching startups, Bhatia said, concluding:

“We’re very well aware that the regulations are affecting blockchain companies here in New York.”