How he did it: from MBA grad to blockchain entrepreneur
November 5, 2018
“The main thing people need to understand about blockchain is that it’s about trust,” Kesem Frank (MBA ’15) says before delving into the nuts and bolts of the technology, including how it works and its potential applications.
On this day, he’s speaking casually from a downtown Toronto office space occupied by Aion, a rapidly growing blockchain technology company he co-founded in 2016, but he’s explained blockchain many times before, often in front of packed conference halls — and a few times at the Rotman School.
He’s a sought-after speaker. Frank recognized the true potential of this emerging technology from the beginning. A few years ago, he quit his job as a consultant with Deloitte, set up a desk in his living room and got to work on starting a new venture. Within a year, he and his team had raised 27 million dollars in funding.
“In business school, you can do anything and everything. If you were an investment banker you can try out consulting. If you were working in marketing, you can enter an accounting case competition or develop a plan for corporate sustainability.”
—Kesem Frank, MBA ’15
What is it that Frank saw that so many others missed? How did he know that this new technology was the next big idea?
It all comes back to blockchain’s potential of enhancing and ensuring trust, says Frank. The idea of prioritizing trust is a recurring theme for this successful entrepreneur. Looking back, trusting his ideas and instincts has driven his career decisions and motivated him to take risks.
Acquiring business basics with the Rotman MBA
Before he started thinking about blockchain or creating a company like Aion, Frank had been interested in business and entrepreneurship. When he first arrived in Toronto, having just earned a law degree, he considered his options.
“Practicing law seemed like the most practical decision. But when I thought about what I really wanted to do and how to unlock those opportunities, applying to business school made sense,” he explains. “From there, going to Rotman was a no-brainer.”
He saw the MBA as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore.
“In business school, you can do anything and everything. If you were an investment banker you can try out consulting. If you were working in marketing, you can enter an accounting case competition or develop a plan for corporate sustainability,” he explains. “The MBA is a great time to figure out what you really enjoy doing.”
Frank jokes that in his class, he became known “as the guy who would do anything.” He participated in marketing, strategy and accounting case competitions, enrolled in the second-year Creative Destruction Lab elective class where he worked with emerging ventures and got to know as many students and professors he could.
Those experiences paid off. Not only does he credit his experience at Rotman with giving him the business skills to launch a new venture, but his diverse experiences helped him land a consulting role at Deloitte after graduation.
It was during his time at Deloitte, where Frank was a member of the firm’s blockchain practice, when he really started to get a handle on the emerging technology.
Blockchain is commonly known as the platform responsible for moving cryptocurrencies, like bitcoin, between people. But Frank paid attention to the technology’s defining features and quickly realized that it would have much wider implications beyond the financial sector.
More specifically, blockchains are known to be robust because they are essentially databases that are managed in a decentralized way. If one component of a blockchain is shut down or fails, the remaining parts of the system will be undisturbed and will stay operational. And the technology’s design makes it extremely difficult to hack.
“I knew that blockchain was going to change everything. In every industry, you’re dealing with multiple stakeholders to complete complicated deals. This technology solves a huge problem in maintaining trust and completing checks at every step, with every transaction,” he explains.
“I knew I couldn’t just be a bystander to this big change that was coming.”
In May 2016, he and two of his colleagues left Deloitte and launched Nuco, a company that specialized in bringing blockchain technology to mainstream industries. In getting started, he found himself using the business fundamentals he picked up at Rotman.
“As blockchain has grown and taken off, we realized we had to evolve with it.”
—Kesem Frank, MBA ’15
“As an entrepreneur, you’re required to work on everything all at once,” he explains. “You need to know accounting to file your taxes for the company. You need a handle on capital markets and strategy to develop your business plan. Finally, you need to understand marketing and how to pitch.”
The network at Rotman was essential in helping him get started. One of his first clients was a former classmate.
Frank and his business partners have gone on to work with a variety of clients in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, government and other industries, keeping a focus on ensuring that record keeping and transactions are completed securely and efficiently.
Since they launched, the group has been grown in size and scope. In 2017, the team launched an open-source platform that allows separate blockchain networks to communicate with each other securely. And just a few months after that, the group expanded and renamed themselves Aion.
Today, the Aion ecosystem is comprised of different business streams: Mavennet, a commercial entity that fulfills the original purpose of working with clients on using blockchain applications, the not-for-profit Aion Foundation that’s centred on developing open-source code to support the technology, and a venture capital fund called Bicameral Ventures that supports emerging companies in the space.
When he thinks about what he’s most looking forward to, Frank is most excited about a future he can’t fully imagine.
“As blockchain has grown and taken off, we realized we had to evolve with it. We no longer wanted to be just a client-focused company, but a group that’s really advancing the technology with these open-source platforms and funding opportunities,” he says.
“If we’ve done our job right, we’ll support talented people in building really interesting products. We can’t wait to see what they’ll come up with.”
Written by Rebecca Cheung | More Student Stories »