How did you spend your summer break when you were 16? For 2018 Cryptochicks Hackathon winner Ananya Chadha, the answer was simple: interning with Ethereum giant Consensys in Toronto, working on a gene editing project at SickKids Hospital, and taking a course on self-driving cars. Oh, and spending any of her remaining free time building brain–computer interfaces. (You know, just the normal ways to spend a summer vacation.) BREAKER caught up with Chadha to hear about what she learned from creating her own cryptocurrency, what meeting Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin was like, and her future plans for her Hackathon-winning project.
How did you first hear about blockchain and cryptocurrencies?
I’m part of this after-school program for high school students in Toronto called the Knowledge Society, which exposes youth to a lot of exponential technologies like blockchain, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. More recently, I started doing a lot of research to understand the technology and all the specific problems it has the possibility to solve. I attended some conferences and meetups in Toronto, because Toronto has a lot of really great blockchain people. After attending some meetups, I took some online courses.
Then I heard about the Cryptochicks Hackathon. Cryptochicks was the first real hackathon that I went to. I was originally on a team with five other women, who were all really awesome. We were doing something for, like, blockchain for taxes, for charities and nonprofits. And I don’t know if it’s because I’m young so I don’t care about taxes yet, but I just could not do it. I thought it was totally uninteresting. So I broke off and formed my own team of one and built my genomics data on the blockchain platform. I ended up doing really well at the hackathon and winning, and from there, it was like a domino effect. I ended up speaking at EDCON, the Ethereum developer conference. I spoke at the CDO Summit in New York, and it opened up a lot of different opportunities for me in the blockchain world.
I definitely spent a while researching that, because if a really smart dude is telling you it's a super cool technology, it's probably a super cool technology.
You met Vitalik at EDCON, right?
Yeah, in the speakers’ room. I hadn’t known Vitalik at the time. Well, I hadn’t known him in person. Of course I knew who he was! [Laughs.] For the entire day, he had been bombarded by every person there. I got my friend Bob [Summerwill] to give me an introduction and I got to speak with him, for a good half hour. Just about everything that I was up to, not only in the blockchain space, but in general. He told me about zero-knowledge proofs, which were really interesting. I definitely spent a while researching that, because if a really smart dude is telling you it’s a super cool technology, it’s probably a super cool technology.
I watched this video where you talk about how you made your own cryptocurrency. How did you learn to do that?
At the time I was totally isolated. I had been doing it all by myself, and hadn’t really known anyone in the space. So my learning rate was actually very slow. The problem with online courses is you don’t know which course is going to be useful; you don’t know when you’re going to use the information. I definitely got most of my information from one article that was like, ‘How to Build a Token,’ but I got stuck. That was when I went to my first blockchain meetup in Toronto, and, oh my goodness! I realized that real people who have done this before are actually super valuable. That’s why I think I learned so much at the Cryptochicks Hackathon: because there were just so many mentors who just worked on blockchain full time, who knew everything inside-out and backwards, who were literally only there to teach you.
What inspired your Hackathon project?
Healthcare is transitioning to using artificial intelligence and machine learning to find mutations in our diseases and then how can we fix them. The thing that’s most interesting to me is that you need a large amount of data and the data currently has two really big problems. Security’s the first one, and accessibility and reliableness of the data is the second.
In terms of security, there’s one company called DNAsimple, which is kind of similar to 23andMe. They send a box to your house, you provide your biological samples, they send it to the research lab, and they pay you like $50. But the problem is that this company knows everything about you. They know where you live; they know your name; they know your bank account; they also know all of your biological information. So if they wanted to enact biological warfare of people with certain phenotypes, they totally could. It’s actually kind of scary.
So how does your project help solve this problem?
So I was thinking about it—how could you provide data anonymously? You could probably do it through some anonymous form. [But] currently the incentive for a lot of people to give their information is they get paid. It’s hard to pay someone if they’re anonymous. So that’s why I built my genome project on the blockchain. The thing about blockchain is there’s been so much infrastructure around payment of cryptocurrency. I built a smart contract which pretty much said, ‘You upload your information. If it is used, the person who used it will pay you $200.’
Then the second problem was that the data oftentimes is skewed because people who provide their data to these research studies are people who are typically in urbanized areas who have access to these smaller companies like DNAsimple. Researchers go into clinical trials and try those drugs on people outside of the population, and it causes unintended and harmful effects. My platform allows the infrastructure to exist to be able to get information to users all across the world, to be able to provide their information over the internet to a researcher who needs it.
Are you going to pursue the project further?
A lot of people have told me that it makes sense to pursue it. I went to San Francisco and I spoke with a lot of [people] there. There were a couple of companies that tried something similar, but the problem that they’re facing, is that you somehow have to convince a company like 23andMe or DNAsimple to adopt your technology. If you want to integrate, you’re very heavily reliant on one of these three existing companies. Then the other option is just to do everything from scratch: make your own kits; make partnerships with lots of testing labs—it’s just a lot of work. Maybe I’ll do it later; I’m not entirely sure right now. But the idea makes sense and I definitely want it to exist eventually.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photos courtesy Ananya Chadha.