John Wu’s Journey from Tech Investor to Blockchain Entrepreneur and Web3 Champion

Blockchain entrepreneur John Wu ’92 built his career through Cornell connections and gives back as an advisor, speaker, and benefactor.

By: Janice Endresen
John Wu standing next to a Dyson School banner.

John Wu ’92, president of Ava Labs (photo by Ming DeMers)

“I’m always humbled by how Cornell has helped shape my life,” says blockchain entrepreneur John Wu ’92, president of Ava Labs and a graduate of the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. Recalling several instances when faculty, staff, and alumni opened doors for him, he draws a clear connection between his experiences as a student, his Wall Street career on the buy side as a tech investor, the Cornell connections that led to him becoming a tech entrepreneur, and why he’s happy to come back to campus to give students a practitioner’s perspective.

One professor who was an early guide and mentor was Deborah Streeter, now professor emerita of the Dyson School. “She taught a markets class that was very commodities-focused,” says Wu, “and she helped me get a summer internship on the New York Cotton mercantile exchange, where I gained so much experience in how marketplaces work and how to create a two-sided marketplace.”

When he decided he wanted to learn more about Wall Street markets and how the financial services industry worked, Cornell Career Services connected him with an alumnus who was a senior managing director at a well-known Wall Street firm and who welcomed Wu to shadow him for two hours, then answered questions over lunch.

After graduating from Cornell, Wu became a buy-side investor at Tiger Management, a hedge fund, and worked as a buy-side technology investor throughout most of his career. For him, finance and technology have always been intertwined because, he says, “I love innovation of all kinds—not just from a pure technology perspective, but innovative ways to govern, innovative business models, how to be creative and do new things as society changes.”

Avalanche blockchain and the birth of Ava Labs

Now, Wu is working to change how the financial services technology infrastructure works via Web 3 and the Avalanche blockchain — technology developed at Cornell by Emin Gün Sirer and two of his PhD students. Sirer, then associate professor of computer science at Cornell University, stepped away from his faculty role at Cornell to focus full time on developing the technology’s applications, founding Ava Labs in 2019. He is the company’s CEO.

John Wu and Emin Gun Sirer standing side by side, smiling.
John Wu and Emin Gün Sirer, Ava Labs founder and CEO (provided)

A software services firm that has grown dramatically since its founding and works with many high-profile clients, Ava Labs supports Avalanche and builds things on the technology’s base layer. In the startup’s early days, when they were both working on another new venture as advisors to Cornell Blockchain’s student founders, Sirer asked Wu to come work for Ava Labs. “Emin wanted to take the technology he had developed inside of Cornell with his PhD students and commercialize it,” says Wu, “and he asked me to join because I had the business operating experience and an understanding of the current venture environment.”  Wu welcomed the opportunity and joined Ava Labs as president in 2020.

Because the technology it is built on was developed at Cornell, the university owns a percentage of Ava Labs. Staying close to its Cornell roots, Ava Labs has hired close to 70 Cornell-related students, mostly engineers from the computer science department. As a firm built on technology developed at Cornell, founded and led by Cornellians, and staffed by Cornell graduates, Wu calls it “almost a derivative of Cornell.”

Staying involved and giving back

Recognizing the central role Cornell has played in his own life, Wu is passionate about staying actively involved and giving back to Cornell. A member of the Cornell University Council, he also serves on the advisory councils of the Dyson School and the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science.

John Wu sitting at a table talking to students with other tables of students seated at tables in the background.
John Wu participating in speed networking with Dyson School students when he was on campus for the Dyson Advisory Council meeting in October (photo by Ming DeMers)

This year, Wu spent the third week in October on the Ithaca campus, where he participated in the Dyson Advisory Council meeting, followed by the Trustee-Council Annual Meeting. Earlier in October, he participated in the Computer Science Council meeting in New York City. And in April, he delivered a keynote speech, “Back to the Future: From WWW to Web3,” at the Cornell Blockchain club’s conference on the Cornell Tech campus.

John Wu standing and speaking on a stage at the front of a lecture hall / large room filled with students.
John Wu speaking at the 2022 Cornell Blockchain club conference (provided)

Wu has served as an advisor to Cornell Blockchain from its inception, along with Sirer, and he stays in touch with Cornell Blockchain club leaders as well as computer science and Dyson School students, asking them what he can do to help out.

As the world changes, education has to evolve, says Wu. “Business jobs change, technology disrupts things in all aspects of life,” he says. “And part of what alumni can do is contribute back their knowledge of the pragmatic day-to-day.”

Ema Wu and John Wu standing side by side and smiling.
John Wu with his daughter, Emma Wu ’25, at Cornell in October (photo by Ming DeMers)

Overall, he finds visiting Cornell’s campuses and engaging with faculty, fellow alumni, and students wonderfully energizing. He enjoys students’ youthful exuberance and can-do attitude. “I learn something new every time I come back,” he says. And now he enjoys an added bonus when he comes back to campus: spending time with his daughter, Emma Wu ’25, a student in the College of Arts and Sciences, and learning about the areas of study and issues she and her classmates are immersed in.

Wu has also given back to Cornell generously as a donor: He and his wife established the John and Stephanie Wu Scholarship to help make Cornell affordable for admitted students and they have contributed to funds for the new building for the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science.

John Wu standing in front of a large class of students and speaking.
John Wu speaking to a class at Cornell in 2017 (provided)

Blockchain technology, Web3, and the spirit of open innovation

As someone who loves technology and innovation, Wu is naturally drawn to the possibilities blockchain opens up, especially Web3. While blockchain is the technology underlying Web3, Wu says, Web3 is more than just technology. “Web3 is also a spirit and a mindset,” he says. “And the ultimate spirit of Web3 is open innovation.” Avalanche blockchain was built to take advantage of Web3 and offers a platform with infinite scalability and fast, energy-efficient transactions.

In Web2 — the internet we are all familiar with now — control, power, and data access are all centralized. “If you want to develop an application on an Apple phone, you pay a fee to Apple to get your application on that platform so others can use it,” Wu says. “That’s why Apple, Amazon, Google, and a few others have become so powerful in our society; it’s because they control your data,” he says. “They control how that data is viewed, and how it’s used to sell you more stuff in Amazon’s case, and what kind of things you read in Google’s case.”

In contrast, anyone who wants to build on a blockchain-based Web3 operating system can. “It’s almost like a cooperative,” says Wu. “Here is the base layer; if you want to contribute your code on top of it, or take pieces of it, you can. And you can continue to build things on it.” The only gate for builders is the cost of compute and processing power.

“The Web3 concept is more community based,” Wu explains. “We all are contributors and we all derive value from it.” Applied to finance, Wu sees the Web3 blockchain technology as a tool to reinvent financial instruments and deliver greater financial freedom.

He also sees Web3 as more democratic.

“I’m not saying this new open style of inventing and usage should be for everything,” says Wu. “But for certain things, I think it’s actually better, especially when power is getting more and more concentrated into fewer hands in today’s society. Having a new way to think about how to govern and how to get more people involved is also very important, especially when the world is becoming more and more centralized.”

Learn more about Wu’s view of Web3 in his TEDx talk, Web3: Never Bet Against Innovation. 

Living Cornell’s core values

Wu believes his close ties to the university have helped make him who he is. “My core values as a human being came from my parents and from activities in high school and life before Cornell as a young man,” he says. “But they were also shaped here at Cornell.”

Wu says he will never forget reading Cornell’s founding principle, articulated by Ezra Cornell: “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” The university’s six core values have always resonated with him, as well; two that he has incorporated most deeply into his own life are “purposeful discovery” and “a community of belonging.” Right from the start, he embraced the Cornell community and its values and developed friendships that still hold strong. And through his ongoing involvement, he continues to make new connections today.