“At Cypher, we are always on the cutting edge of what’s happening, and that’s what continues to enable us to stay ahead.” – Sarah Hammer, Esq., Founder and Executive Director of Wharton’s Cypher Accelerator

Guided by industry experts, powered by Wharton students, Cypher forges new futures 

The Cypher Accelerator is a financial technology accelerator launched through the Stevens Center at Wharton. A remote, non-dilutive program dedicated to startups building their companies in a technology-based future, it is led by Professor Sarah Hammer, Esq., Cypher Founder and Executive Director at Wharton, who is also Adjunct Professor at Penn’s Carey Law School, and Co-Director of the Stevens Center, David Erickson, who is also a Wharton Senior Fellow and Lecturer of Finance. Erickson took charge of leading the program during Hammer’s Spring 2023 leave of absence, over the course of which time she spent as Pennsylvania’s Acting Secretary of Banking and Securities.

The program has brought Wharton’s business and finance expertise, global reach, cutting-edge perspective, and operational support to launch the world’s leading blockchain companies.  

“The Cypher story is really a Wharton story,” Hammer says. “It’s a story about how Wharton is the leading school of business and finance in the world. We have world-class expertise, our reach is global, and we have a highly engaged student body. At Cypher, we are always on the cutting edge of what’s happening, and that’s what continues to enable us to stay ahead.”

Through these focused efforts on developing some of the world’s best talent in the start-up sector and financial technology (FinTech), Cypher has worked to advance the blockchain ecosystem while supporting groundbreaking research and development in the space. According to Erickson, “Cypher is one of the most important programs funded annually by the Stevens Center.” 

Sarah Hammer, Esq., founder and Executive Director of Wharton’s Cypher Accelerator
David Erickson, Co-Director of the Stevens Center and Wharton Senior Fellow and Lecturer of Finance

How Cypher harnesses industry challenges by empowering positive leaders in FinTech

As Cypher looks to expand through the continued elevation of those start-up founders who it remains committed to serve, Wharton is opening and elevating the scope of the program. Today, the accelerator is going beyond just the blockchain-based accelerator that grounded Cypher’s original founding, expanding also to companies and founders pledged to forging excellence in the field of financial technology (FinTech). This also includes harnessing advancements made in artificial intelligence, robotics, and quantum computing, and applying those developments to rocket Cypher to greater heights in the world’s financial sector. 

Through Hammer’s leadership, Cypher continues to endure, thrive, and expand throughout the sector’s recent hardships. Many of these challenges began with the pandemic and the cryptocurrency crash that followed soon after, in addition to the FTX bankruptcy and the chaos also born from the recent collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. 

According to Hammer, these obstacles powered Cypher’s evolution by forcing the program to pivot to its participants’ needs in real time. 

“Rising out of the pandemic was Cypher, because [the program] is both collaborative and interactive from anywhere in the world,” Hammer says. “The team got together organically, and forced ourselves to ask: ‘what are we great at Wharton? What are we the best at? And how can we really capitalize on that interactivity coming out of the pandemic?’  These hardships are those that Cypher pushed through, and I’m really proud of us building a community and a cutting-edge program through that. I think this endurance is a testament to the culture we’ve created here at the School.”

As the sector continues to navigate a rapidly changing world, Cypher’s future is guided through the steady hands of Hammer and her team. After years of working as a leader on Wall Street, Erickson is currently a ten-year venerated member of Wharton’s faculty and continues to advocate for the work of the Stevens Center as its reputation expands to reach globally.

As for Hammer, her regulatory expertise is regarded highly in Congress. She has been called on to speak as an expert to the Chambers during a 2021 Committee Hearing on Cryptocurrency. As mentioned, she was brought on to serve as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Banking and Securities in January 2023; and, prior to her leadership at Wharton, Hammer also served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions at the United States Department of Treasury.

Despite their combined and extensive experience in the field, throughout Wharton Stories’ conversation with Hammer and Erickson, both expounded on the point that the narrative of Cypher’s success is one that is told most strongly through the success of the program’s participants, in addition to the hard-working Wharton students who power the day-to-day operations of an extraordinary class of FinTech accelerators.

Cowboys Labs founders Lorenzo Melendez and Ulysses Atkeson at Demo Day 2022. (Image: Sarah Hammer)

At Cypher, Wharton students work with the future of industry

Wharton students working for and with the accelerator are called the Managers of Cypher, and are known throughout Wharton as a small and highly competent campus micro-community. Dedicated to the growth and expansion of the future of FinTech, their work remains invaluable, and the Stevens Center relies on the dependability and passion of these student managers to fuel Cypher’s full suite of subprograms and world-class virtual workshops. 

“These workshops were delivered by Wharton faculty and industry leaders, across disciplines, to the companies in Cypher” Erickson says. “This past spring, we hosted about fifty workshops over the seven-week period. All of our programs are highly interactive; and in this year’s cohort, three of the six companies were international and so, we were able to bring in speakers from around the globe, all via the web or Zoom meetings.”

Cypher’s leadership in Hammer and Erickson, plus their team of managers and Cypher’s senior advisors and mentors, utilizes the strength of Wharton’s legacy and its resources in accelerating those companies who participate in the program. For example, senior advisors come from leading venture capital, asset management, and law firms around the world. The top names are well represented; including Andressen Horowitz, Bessemer Venture Partners, Bain Capital, Union Square Ventures, QED, and Point72. For 2023 and beyond, Cypher will bring on advisors from additional top names in artificial intelligence and other financial technologies.

“We’ve done that because we want to provide the very best opportunities to our community,” says Hammer. “And to do that, we need to have the best companies, the best founders, join Cypher; that’s really important for our joint collaboration as the program unfolds throughout the year, and helps the community feel even more connected than before.” 

Manuel Godoy, founder of Felix, Wharton MBA alum, pictured during Demo Day 2023 (Image: David Erickson)

At Demo Day, the careers of companies and individuals alike are forged through demonstrable excellence 

The second cohort of Cypher completed the program in Spring 2023. At Cypher and via the resources and leadership of the greater Stevens Center community, the program’s cohort model is powered through a series of workshops that begins at the idea stage, and continues to thread the needle throughout the year’s duration. 

Following the early stages of brainstorming and focused strategy around a founder or group of founders business propositions, Cypher guides these leaders through the process of honing their product’s development, teaches them how to engage investors, and steers participants through the nitty-gritty details to which all companies must stay attuned; such as how to set up legal structures and ensure accountability to one’s team of investors. 

At the end of the program’s yearly cycles, Cypher’s cohorts descend on New York’s Penn Club for the accelerator’s culminating annual event: Demo Day, which is when the cohort companies in the accelerator have the opportunity to showcase their products and/or ideas to investors. 

“Once these companies develop their product, they have the opportunity to demonstrate their work at [Cypher’s] Demo Day.” Erickson explains. “They’re launching their companies in-person to a combination of in-person and virtual audiences…and what we do is connect them with the very best people in the world who can support them going forward.”

Cypher sits at the intersection of many of Wharton’s strengths, including the School’s expertise in finance, access to Penn’s talent and the larger University ecosystem, and relationships with global leaders in the financial sector. The success of Cypher is not only a testament to its leadership but also to the remarkable achievements of its participants and the Wharton students who power this FinTech accelerator. As Cypher forges ahead, it remains rooted in Wharton’s legacy as the leading school of business and finance, leveraging its expertise and global network to stay ahead of the curve.

– Grace Meredith

Posted: July 18, 2023

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