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WTF is an NFT?

September 17, 2021
by Margie Cullen
diagrams and writing on black paper

THIS MAY, THE UNIVERSITY ANNOUNCED it would auction off non-fungible tokens (NFTs) connected to two of its most recent Nobel Prize–winning discoveries: Jennifer Doudna’s gene-editing tool, CRISPR, and James Allison’s cancer immunotherapy.

Rich Lyons, Berkeley’s chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer, explains that the idea of creating NFTs around a piece of intellectual property (specifically, university patent disclosures for Doudna’s and Allison’s inventions) is a way to get the world excited about the scientific breakthroughs coming out of Berkeley, and academia in general. “There’s so much skepticism around science lately. We do want people coming away from this and saying, ‘That is pretty cool!’”


NFT stands for “non-fungible token.” Fungible items are interchangeable; for example, dollar bills (and bitcoins) are fungible because each one has the same value as every other. Non-fungible items, by contrast, are unique, like Picasso paintings. So, an NFT is basically a digital asset that is designed to be unique and, therefore, precious.

You may well wonder how anything digital can be unique, since it’s so easily copied. Fair point. Lyons likens NFTs to original photographs. “People say I can create a fake simply by taking a screenshot. You can do that with any photograph. Does that mean photographs are worthless? Absolutely not.”

Going, Going … Gone

Berkeley alumna Maggie Valentine led the creative design of the immunology NFT, titled “The Fourth Pillar,” a reference to the other pillars in the fight against cancer: surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. The NFT comprises ten pages of James Allison’s original notes and correspondence—in negative, rendered as a grid, slightly askew against a deep blue background.

The auction was held on June 7 and, over the course of 24 hours, four independent bidders made six bids in total. The winning bidder was FiatLuxDAO, a group of alumni connected to Blockchain at Berkeley, who pooled their resources. Their winning bid was more than $50,000.

The date of the CRISPR NFT auction is yet to be determined, but Lyons expects it to be even more successful. After all, no less an authority than Bill Nye the Science Guy has called CRISPR the most important discovery in the last several years. And if the Science Guy says so, well … . Let the bidding begin!

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