Interview with alum Thiago Costa, founder of Hashdex and new partner of the Summer Internship Program in Brazil

December 2, 2019
By Diego C. Smirne

Thiago, you are one of the founders of asset management company Hashdex and have a Harvard PhD degree in Applied Mathematics. Firstly, please tell us about your academic and professional path. As a Harvard alum, what does the University represent to you? How important were the years you spent there for your endeavor with Hashdex?

I discovered math at the age of 12 through math olympiad, and during high school (in Fortaleza) I would spend most of my extra-curricular time in intensive trainings preparing for national and international competitions. This early exposure to a more abstract and creative type of math fostered a taste for science in general. It also opened a lot of doors and helped me develop a solid academic track in schools such as IMPA, Unicamp, Caltech and Ecole Polytechnique. At these schools, I took classes and engaged in doing research in various fields involving Math, Computer Science and Engineering. I joined Harvard for a PhD program in Applied Mathematics and, while I initially thought I would work with control theory, I became interested in Machine Learning, so I joined a lab at the Statistics Department. My PhD research centered around building theory and methodologies to explore massive relational datasets, like social networks data. Because I had to deal with really large datasets, I also became familiar with Big Data Engineering tools. It turns out that all this Data Science expertise I acquired at graduate school is useful in many contexts that extrapolate academia. After leaving Harvard, I chose entrepreneurship.

Harvard is an extremely rich intellectual environment that obviously impacted me in many ways. One of the most profound marks it left was related to the fact that I would often meet very bright people that would choose unusual career paths. Then I would see these people becoming leaders in their respective fields and having tremendous impact in their world. I found this environment very inspiring and I started getting used to the liberating idea that, with hard work, I could shape my career path in order to have the exact type of impact I wanted, no need to follow a predefined track. In that context, I realized that entrepreneurship was the right space for me. Besides all the useful knowledge I acquired in my studies, the PhD program also provided me some type of personal growth that is actually quite important for entrepreneurs. In academia, we need to make informed bets and take a lot of risks, and it requires a non-trivial level of patience and resilience to find focus and motivation and overcome the uncertainties. The idea that hard work, high standards and patience can get you anywhere are the feelings that I most closely associate with the university as an Alumni. Harvard for me is a representation of these values. 

Why did you decide to apply for a PhD at Harvard? What were your plans then, and what were they after you finished your degree?

When I was an undergraduate student at Unicamp in Computer Engineering, I received a scholarship to spend a year at Caltech, where I worked in a really fun Darpa Grand Challenge competition building an autonomous car. The experience was great, and I felt like the educational system in the US was very special. At this point I was pretty sure I wanted to apply for a PhD program in the US and Harvard was on top of the list. 

I initially thought I would stay in academia after the PhD, but I also considered the possibility of working in the tech industry. At Harvard I developed a taste for entrepreneurship, and my first experience was, still as a student, to launch a data platform called Atlas Politico that tracks government data, public opinion and political risk. Atlas is now a thriving company operating in multiple countries. 

At some point I started getting interested in Blockchain. For two times I worked as a teaching fellow for a class at Harvard that involves cryptography, which is a very important piece of this technology. I started reading papers and I got initially attracted by the sheer mathematical beauty, ingenuity, of the Blockchain protocols. But what really made me believe this thing has a future and that I should consider it for business was the realization that Blockchain could have a great impact on the way society creates and exchanges values. Hashdex operates in that space by creating regulated investment vehicles for institutions and individuals that see this new class of assets as an investment opportunity.

 Alum Thiago Costa, new partner of the Summer Internship Program in Brazil

Tell us more about Hashdex. Where did the idea for the company come from? How has it grown, and what innovations does it bring to the market?

Investing in Blockchain technologies, such as Bitcoin, is actually quite painful. First you need to have a minimum understanding about how the technology works, sometimes even basic concepts are quite complicated. Then you have to find an exchange you trust to purchase coins, sometimes you only find regulated exchanges abroad. If you are smart enough you realize you shouldn't keep your tokens at the exchange, because there they risk being stolen. So finally you need to find a safe place to store your coins or you risk losing control of your assets. These difficulties make investing in Blockchain not an option for most institutional investors. At Hashdex we build regulated funds that take care of all the technical and operational complexities and have a solid governance and auditing structure to provide a secure investment vehicle for this new asset class. The Hashdex Digital Assets Index for instance, has a dynamic methodology to select digital assets that broadly represent the Blockchain market. We have funds following this index available in multiple channels for Brazilian and International investors. 

Have you offered internships for university undergraduates at Hashdex before? If so, tell us about how the experience worked out. Why is it interesting to have students working at Hashdex?

Yes, we have an on-going internship program for students based in Brazil and, from June to August, there is a Summer Program for students abroad. We accept both undergraduate and graduate students. In 2018, the first year of the Summer Program, we brought students from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Chicago, Wharton and Dartmouth, and in the second year we had students from Stanford, Berkeley and London Business School. As a startup, Hashdex has so many opportunities for an intern to develop meaningful and impactful work! All interns that came to Hashdex were extremely talented and brought great energy to the company.

Hashdex is one of the new host organizations partnering with the DRCLAS Summer Internship Program (SIP) in Brazil. Why will it be interesting for the SIP applicants to work at Hashdex?

Hashdex is in a very interesting space between Financial Markets and Tech. No matter if you'd like to work in a regulated fund for an exciting new asset class, or if you are more interested in exploring the tech (both related with our automation processes or with blockchain technology itself), we have a place for you. Despite Blockchain being such a hot topic, students have limited opportunities to learn about it at school because it is so new and multidisciplinary. Our internship program is a great exposure to this new world. We are based in Rio de Janeiro, a beautiful city with a vibrant culture.