Bennett Collen ’11: From BC to blockchain and back

Meet Bennett Collen ’11, entrepreneur, founder and CEO of CognateCM and, starting this fall, adjunct faculty teaching a brand-new course on blockchain technology. How did this double major in environmental geosciences and communication become a blockchain expert? And what does this have to do with democratizing trademark protection? Read on.

It all started, as most educations do, around the dinner table. Bennett was just a kid when he earned what he calls his “unofficial JD” in trademark law while passing veggies to his parents, intellectual property attorneys Jess Collen '79 and Jane Collen '79. Dozens of after-school office visits and two unrelated bachelor’s degrees later, he joined their law firm and began to develop the concept behind Cognate.

“My dad and I started identifying a need for helping small businesses protect trademarks,” Bennett said. “Every business has a name, slogan, product names. It could be a one-person consultancy, a small e-commerce store, or a food truck. Their trademarks are their most valuable assets. But how can you protect the trademark rights of companies with unregistered trademarks?”

Therein lay the rub—and the opportunity. To enforce and protect its trademark rights, a company has to prove when, where, and how its trademarks are being used. That’s a time-consuming and expensive proposition for small businesses that can’t afford to hire lawyers to protect their IP. Bennett and his dad saw that need and started a service that lets small businesses upload information on the use of their trademarks.

There was just one problem, Bennett said: “What happens if I’m uploading vital info and you go away tomorrow? Will I still be able to access it?”

Democratizing trademark protection with blockchain

That’s when blockchain entered the picture. “We were looking at ways we could secure data, and we [thought of] blockchain,” Bennett said.

He had been reading “everything I could get my hands on” about the distributed ledger technology, Bennett said. “I fully immersed myself in the blockchain ecosystem to understand how we could take advantage of the technology to provide the service to customers.”

Then the Collens attended a lecture at MIT that removed any doubt. Bennett came away convinced that “blockchain just really elegantly answered the need,” he said.

Using blockchain technology, they built an online platform that allows any business to create time-stamped, immutable records of trademark use and to affordably protect their trademarks. Customers who sign up for this Common Law Trademark Registry can use its “CM” certification mark to put potential infringers on notice.

Blockchain helped Bennett and his dad realize the full potential of their idea and their goal of democratizing trademark protection, and it wasn’t long before Cognate took off.

From BC to GoDaddy…

In September 2018, Cognate was acquired by GoDaddy, just five years since inception. Why GoDaddy?

“GoDaddy hosts 18 million small business customers,” Bennett said. “They’re really good at providing services to help small businesses simplify how they run their business.”

Bennett and his dad did a pitch and a small pilot, which went well and led to “talking about coming in-house.”

They had a new and compelling service that was a value-add for GoDaddy and an accelerant for Cognate. It was the perfect fit—and a win-win. As a GoDaddy product, Cognate can keep existing customers and acquire new ones.

…And back

This past spring, Bennett came back to campus to judge the 2019 Strakosch Venture Competition. During his visit, he talked with Jere Doyle '87 and a few students running a crypto club. He found out there were no blockchain courses and offered to teach one.

To gauge demand, he taught a pilot course with Professor Gerald Kane. Based on the success of the pilot, he’ll be teaching BC’s first blockchain course in the fall.

“I’m very excited to be teaching that class,” Bennett said. “BC is very special to me. I met all my best friends there. Both my parents and two sisters [Jocelyn Collen '12 and Abigail Collen '15] went there. I still love going back there for football games.”

Almost a decade after he graduated, Bennett says, “the culture has changed significantly since I was at BC. Facebook was new then, and Google wasn’t cool yet. Now the zeitgeist around startups is more well-known—and there are so many resources at BC.”

Back then, Bennett never thought about starting a company, even though he’d grown up watching his parents build their own law practice. Now he knows better. “Starting your own business is a viable path,” he said.

It’s still too soon to know where this alum will go next, but Bennett hints that he’d “love to start another company and take it further along in the lifecycle.

“Cognate was an early exit,” he said. “Who knows? Maybe the next one will have a big enough payoff that I can buy the Red Sox.”