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Crypto/Blockchain Interviews

Agha Khan (Yale OpenLab 19), Blockchain and AI Strategist for Techstars, OpenLab, and KPMG

Agha Khan is a Mentor at the NYC-based Alchemist Blockchain Techstars Accelerator. The program is a joint partnership between Techstars, the worldwide entrepreneurial network, and Alchemist, the industry leader in token sales, blockchain project development, and investment. Previously, Mr. Khan advised KPMG, a top-three investment bank, on its market making/trading desk for crypto assets. That role included supporting retail aggregators and institutional client flow for cryptocurrencies, front-to-back trade flow assessment and spot trading for crypto derivatives, and due diligence and third-party risk assessment on crypto exchanges. 

Mr. Khan’s previous posts include five years at Deutsche Bank, serving as Head of Regulatory Reporting Operations in the Americas and four years at Bloomberg, serving as a Senior Client Manager. Mr. Khan recently completed MIT Sloan’s Executive Program for Blockchain Technologies and MIT CSAIL’s Executive Program for Artificial Intelligence Business Strategy. He is an External Advisory Board Member of Yale OpenLab, an interdisciplinary program which focuses on open source and disruptive projects.

The Politic: Tell me about how you got involved in the crypto space!

Agha Khan: I was at KPMG, and I consulted for Goldman’s Bitcoin trading-desk project. I helped them strategize and ran working groups on fork management, counterparty credit risk, etc. I was running a team that helped with front-end/back-end testing, trade flows, and integration; I also helped Goldman conduct exchange and custody due diligence on various exchanges to increase deal flow from clients. 

Since then, I’ve been involved with Techstars, which just had its first blockchain cohort. They’re looking to do another one next year. I’ve also been advising blockchain-related startups– mostly DeFi companies because of my finance background and capital markets experience. I help dYdX with their product strategy and UI/UX (user interface/user experience).

What kind of work goes on at OpenLab?

They’re doing a couple of different projects. They’re doing one around carbon credits: putting all the carbon credits on blockchain and creating a marketplace for them. They’re working with different NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to create a global blockchain based marketplace for carbon credits.

What kind of KPMG labs are you talking about?

KPMG has their own incubation labs. Fortune 500 CEOs come into the labs, and we show them what we can do in terms of capability and services, either from a technology or data perspective. Basically, we would say, “Here are the key problems that you have facing the industry, here are the disruptors that could pose a potential threat or affect the revenue streams, and here’s what we could do in terms of bridging the gap– either through acquisition or developing competing products or services.

Either we do these sessions one-on-one with the CEO, bring in the executive team, or do an industry roundtable and bring in executives from a bunch of different companies. In the latter case, we would address something along the lines of, “Here are three to five challenges that your industry is facing.” So, it’s more of a collaborative back-and-forth in terms of how we view the direction of their industry and how they can benefit from or address the problems.

Have you been on Yale’s campus or do you consult online?

I haven’t been on campus. OpenLab usually comes to New York City. I have to get in touch with Martin again, but I think the idea was to do events for the overall, wider blockchain or crypto community within Yale– to open up these discussions to the undergraduates, graduates, and even the arts and sciences and engineering schools. They also do these hackathons, so it was really about building up more of that curriculum and more of those events. That will probably be more so in the Fall because most people are away for the Summer. 

How did you get involved with the Bitcoin trading-desk project at Goldman?

I think it was purely by accident. It was a really interesting project because the space was new to everyone at Goldman. We brought in some experts and helped everyone become familiar with the technology. It was enterprise wide, so we interacted with stakeholders in front office, credit risk, compliance, legal and finance functions. The goal was basically just to understand how the mechanics would work, how a trade would go through the bank, or even something as simple as how you would issue a margin call because there’s so much volatility. We had a lot of interesting panel discussions.

What’s your take on the problem of institutional custody?

The issue of institutional custody is being solved by a number of companies, including Fidelity, which is going to come out with its institutional custody services in the near future. There are all these custodians on Wall Street, so they’re building an analogous, institutional-grade custody, which BitGo (by providing institutional investors with cryptocurrency services for security, custody, and liquidity) solves. Once you’ve solved that problem, you don’t have to worry about the risk of hacking, identity theft, or someone sending Bitcoin or Ethereum out to another wallet.

Once the Fidelity institutional solution goes live, I think you will see more institutional trading activity in this space. If you think of institutional funds right now that are investing in crypto, they are setting up their own infrastructure to be able to store these tokens. It’s annoying, and it’s a lot of hassle to do that; it’s okay if you have $10 million or $20 million in assets, but once you scale upwards to $500 million in assets, the risk of hacking increases significantly.

A hedge fund can buy Bitcoin because they have a wider mandate in terms of buying and selling different asset classes, but a mutual fund on the S&P 500 can’t buy Bitcoin. They would have to change their investment memorandum to buy cryptocurrencies.

Once you get institutional-grade custody in place, firms like VanEch want to offer ETFs and mutual funds for Bitcoin. Right now, the only company offering something similar is Grayscale, and unless you’re a high networth individual, you can’t invest with them. On the other hand, ETFs can open up the space to retail. As soon as regulation clears up, we’ll get institutional money into the market.

Any advice to someone considering entering the space?

If you want a career within blockchain and cryptocurrency, then I would go to a startup that’s addressing some sort of problem. There are people that are looking at banking the unbanked, people working with identity, people working with improving money transfers for all the remittance payments that go to Western Union and the banks. 

I would pick an industry. If you’re interested in retail, there are all these projects going on, for instance, where they’re actually putting the supply chain on the blockchain. Walmart and Target are putting the entire provenance of supply chain on the blockchain. There are DeFi startups which are working on moving derivatives markets on the blockchain. There are decentralized exchanges that are being created. As of now, the main exchanges have ended up being the powerhouses in the space, which is sort of anti-crypto because the idea is for everything to be decentralized. 

Take classes on how to build Smart contracts on the blockchain. Learning how to code a smart contract is a skill set that is in high demand right now. The crypto community is pretty open, and they understand that it’s a new space, so people are still learning and nobody has all the answers. It’s less-established, so they’re open to new ideas, young people, and experimentation.

Any final thoughts? Maybe on the diversity of the space?

I organized a panel at NYU on building a career in blockchain. We had all of their undergraduate and graduate students come in. Many of them said, “I’m not an engineer,” or “I’m a chemistry major,” or “I have a marketing degree.” The response from the panelist was that blockchain startups need marketing people as well. If you’re good with products, services, or strategy, then startups are interested in hiring you.