Vitalik Buterin is best known as the founder of Ethereum, the cryptocurrency platform that has generated the second-largest market capitalization and is currently the most actively used blockchain.
Buterin was born in Russia and raised in Canada, in a suburb of Toronto. As a child, Buterin was quickly noticed for his mathematical skills and labeled as a gifted child. Buterin notes that growing up, sometimes he wished he were more normal; he often felt isolated from his friends due to his clever mind.
Buterin first learned about Bitcoin in 2011 from his father, a computer scientist and software developer. At age 17, Buterin had no reason to be particularly interested in the concept of a currency with no intrinsic value. But later that year, upon quitting World of Warcraft, Buterin was looking for a new way to spend his time. Like most crypto enthusiasts, Buterin was skeptical of central governance, and saw governments, corporate institutions and banking as “evil.” Buterin believed digital currency could be a robust force in the decentralization movement as the framework for building a new type of economy defined by increased accessibility, transparency and accountability.
In 2011, Buterin began his career in crypto by writing articles for Bitcoin Weekly, a small publication that paid him in Bitcoin. His articles quickly caught the attention of Mihai Alisie, a Romanian writer and programmer who reached out to Buterin about a new project. Together, they started a publication called Bitcoin Magazine, with Buterin working as head writer while he was an undergraduate studying at the University of Waterloo.
In 2013, Buterin attended a Bitcoin Conference in California and realized that his interest in cryptocurrency was more than just a hobby — it was a realm of possibility. He dropped out of college and began sketching ideas for how to contribute the movement. Later that year, he applied to be an intern at Ripple, but was ultimately rejected due to visa reasons. Some joke that the U.S state department unknowingly did him a huge favor; without their rejection, he would have never started working on his next project — Ethereum.
Buterin spent the next year traveling across the world and learning about different projects and ideas that developers were considering to add onto the Bitcoin network. But, ultimately, he realized that the nature of the Bitcoin programming language limited its functionality. He believed that blockchain technology could be used for all sorts of softwares, asset holdings, databases and networks, not just cryptocurrency. And so he embarked on a new idea. He wrote the white paper for Ethereum and sent it out to his friends. Immediately, there was a positive response. Many cryptographers believed in his vision and wanted to help him realize it.
At the next Bitcoin conference Buterin attended in Miami, he presented the idea to the public. Most crypto enthusiasts were on board and were confident that Ethereum would blow up as the next big idea in the blockchain world. Buterin’s idea highlighted an innovative new idea, where users could develop their own altcoins, as well as program new smart contracts using the Ethereum network (essentially building an entire new ecosystem for blockchain). Soon after, Buterin received the Thiel Fellowship, a fellowship for students under 23 year old to develop their scientific, entrepreneurial or socially charged ideas. Buterin was only 20 years old at the time.
After raising 31,000 BTC, the Ethereum Foundation was established as a non-profit in Switzerland. However, Buterin’s decisions about the future of Ethereum were not universally accepted by all of the Ethereum co-founders. Charles Hoskinson, for instance, was radically opposed to Buterin’s desire to run Ethereum as a non-profit. Instead, Charles thought it would be better for the company to be a VC-backed for-profit. Hoskinson was so furious about this disagreement that he left the company to start his own — IOHK, which led to Cardano. But, in 2018, Hoskinson joked, “What the hell do I know?” in regard to Ethereum’s blowout success.
Though Buterin is anti-establishment, like most crypto entrepreneurs, there are various contradictions — according to his critics — to how Ethereum runs and his overall philosophy and techno-utopian vision. For example, an inadvertent hard fork in Ethereum in November 2020 revealed to some the extant of Ethereum’s reliance on Infura — when Infura went down, so did many Ethereum DApps.
In the years since Ethereum was developed, Ethereum’s market capitalization hovers at around $200 billion as of March 2021. Vitalik, himself, has generated a net worth of somewhere between $400 and $500 million.
The massive growth of Ethereum was not due to a stroke of luck; Buterin and his team are constantly working on improving and expanding the possibilities of Ethereum’s blockchain network. Though Ethereum is already a huge step away (and possibly forward) from the concepts outlined by Satoshi Nakamoto with Bitcoin, Buterin and his team have been committed to advancing the network to its next stage.
Dubbed “Ethereum 2.0,” the next stage of his project aims to decrease traffic on the network and transaction costs by increasing incentives for node validators — aka a gradual change from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake. The new plan outlines incentives for validators to lock up their ETH and thus, increase the network’s overall security and improve its scalability.
This project will be developed in phases and is currently in phase 0 (as of 2020). Though this project is still in the early stages, knowing Buterin (and his team of co-founders), there is plenty of optimism that they will succeed.
Buterin is a crypto idealist. Motivated by ideas over profit, he has often sold his coin holdings at unlucky times (with the benefit of hindsight) under the belief that cryptocurrency would never go full mainstream. He has publicly revealed that he would be far wealthier if he had HODL’d a bit more. Moreover, he was caught off guard in 2017, when the alt techno-utopia aspect of crypto was superseded by a flurry of get-rich-quick ICO scams. In a Financial Times interview from 2018, he was quoted saying “We’ve created a culture where some totally random project raising something like $8m is like, oh yeah that’s peanuts, you know you’re in a bubble!”
In the same interview, Buterin flirted with the idea of eternal life, something that is increasingly popular amongst Silicon Valley figures. He noted that by 2060, we should be able to pursue life extension technologies on a large scale. Some of his philanthropic work mirrors this personal philosophy. In 2018, he donated $2.4 million to the SENS Foundation which aims to research ways to stop and reverse aging. Buterin believes that choosing not to live forever (if given the option) would be “the equivalent of jumping off a cliff.”
"In an international context you cannot assume that there is even a single government that everyone trusts, whereas public blockchains are more easily perceived as being neutral."
Picture source: Twitter Profile