He’s known to eat whole lemons– rind, seeds and all. He learned Mandarin in just a few months. He can add long strings of numbers in his head with his calculator-like mind. And his worldly possessions– including Hello Kitty socks, unicorn t-shirts and all the rest– can fit inside of a single briefcase.
Recent tweets from the eccentric wunderkind behind Ethereum seem to indicate that he may be getting ready to move on to a new project. But what will he do if he decides to leave the Ethereum Foundation? Read on to learn more about Vitalik Buterin and find out what he might do next.
Who is Vitalik Buterin?
Vitalik Buterin is the mind behind the open-sourced distributed computing platform known as Ethereum. He’s also the co-founder of Bitcoin Magazine and is widely considered to be a cryptocurrency thought leader. Buterin currently leads Ethereum’s research team. Their ongoing mission: to refine the Ethereum protocol and develop better, more efficient versions of it.
Buterin now has over 800,000 Twitter followers. According to Forbes, his net worth exceeds $200 million. Here’s a high-level summary of Buterin’s story so far.
24-year-old Vitalik Buterin was born in Russia. His family emigrated to Toronto when he was six. Even at this early stage, it was obvious that Buterin had above-average mental talents. Though his high intelligence probably made school easy for him, being different came with its own set of difficult challenges.
Buterin elaborated on his childhood struggles in an interview with Wired:
“I remember knowing, for a while, for a long time, that I was kind of abnormal in some sense. When I was in grade five or six, I just remember quite a lot of people were always talking about me like I was some kind of math genius. And there were just so many moments when I realized, like okay, why can’t I just be like some normal person and go have a 75% average like everyone else.”
As a teenager, Buterin entertained himself by playing video games. In his about.me profile, he claims to have had an emotional breakdown after Blizzard rebalanced World of Warcraft.
“I happily played World of Warcraft during 2007-2010, but one day Blizzard removed the damage component from my beloved warlock’s Siphon Life spell. I cried myself to sleep, and on that day I realized what horrors centralized services can bring. I soon decided to quit.”
Rise to fame
Buterin’s disappointment turned out to be a major turning point for the development of cryptocurrency. After quitting World of Warcraft, Buterin started looking for other activities to occupy his time. He decided to attend a cryptocurrency conference in San Jose. What he saw and heard there convinced Buterin that cryptocurrency had huge potential.
Buterin elaborated on this experience in an interview with Wired:
“That moment really crystallized it for me. It really convinced me that, hey, this thing’s real and it’s worth taking a risk and jumping into. So I did.”
For Buterin, jumping in meant dropping out of college to devote all his time to studying emerging blockchain platforms. He went around the world to visit with the developers of various crypto projects. After several meetings, Buterin concluded that coders weren’t thinking big enough.
Bitcoin’s creators intentionally limited the complexity of bitcoin transactions. As a result, Bitcoin developers have to devise many complicated workarounds to build bitcoin applications. Buterin’s Ethereum protocol, on the other hand, is far easier for programmers to manipulate.
It didn’t take long for Ethereum to catch on. Ether– the underlying cryptocoin that powers the Ethereum protocol– is now the second most popular cryptocurrency in the world. There are hundreds of Ethereum-based tokens. Their combined market capitalization exceeds ten figures. In fact, all but one of the top ten tokens in the world are based on Ethereum.
What’s Next for Buterin?
Last year, Buterin breifly became fed up with the culture around cryptocurrency and threatened to move onto other projects.
More recently, Buterin received a job offer from Google. He then posted the offer to Twitter and asked his followers if he should drop Ethereum and accept the position.
Vitalik deleted the tweet, but not before Yahoo! Finance and others reported on it:
Next came a series of tweets that seemed to indicate that Buterin could be in the process of turning over the reins Ethereum to his collaborators.
After those tweets, Buterin went on to clarify that he intends to remain involved with Ethereum for the time being.
If Buterin does eventually decide to quit Ethereum, what would be his next project? Here are some likely possibilities.
One reason why Google may have contacted Buterin is that the search giant is trying to find ways to catch up with emerging blockchain companies and other potential competitors.
In a June interview, Google co-founder Sergey Brin admitted to CNBC that his company “failed to be on the bleeding edge” of blockchain development. Brin also revealed that X– Google’s semi-secret research division– may be working on blockchain-related projects.
If Google X really is working on a groundbreaking new blockchain-related product, it makes sense that they’d want to recruit Buterin.
In March, Bloomberg reported that Google was in the process of developing its own distributed ledger. And just a few weeks ago, Google’s big data analytics platform BigQuery added support for Ethereum. Google’s announcement of the new feature even mentions Buterin by name:
“Like its predecessor, Bitcoin, you might think of the Ethereum blockchain as an immutable distributed ledger. However, creator Vitalik Buterin extended its set of capabilities by including a virtual machine that can execute arbitrary code stored on the blockchain as smart contracts.”
Machine learning and life extension technologies
Given Buterin’s 2017 tweet about “lambo memes and immature puns,” his next career move may not be crypto related.
Buterin recently revealed that he has several other interests that have nothing to do with blockchain technology. In an interview with Roland Berger, he said that if cryptocurrency was “not an option” for him to study he might have pursued other fields.
“If that [cryptocurrency] was not an option, machine learning. And if anything in computer science was not an option, life extension. I put life extension in third place only because I am not as talented in biology as I am in computer science. I think life extension research is incredibly important. If we succeed, it can literally save billions of lives.”
Buterin’s Most Likely Successors
The many talented developers that work with Buterin will pick up the slack if he decides to move on. Here are some of the most prominent crypto developers that have contributed to Ethereum.
Ethereum researcher Justin Drake is the second name Buterin mentioned in his tweet. Before joining the Ethereum Foundation, Drake started a bitcoin payments company called Duo Money. Duo Money integrates with OpenBazaar, a distributed e-commerce platform. He got involved in crypto in 2014, when he used his fellowship grant to learn more about bitcoin. Drake graduated from Cambridge with a BA in Mathematics and continued his studies at the French School of Shanghai.
Like Buterin, the press often calls up Drake when they need a comment about Ethereum or the crypto industry in general. He has talked to many different publications, including TechCrunch, DiarioBitcoin and others.
Hsiao-Wei Wang– the third name Buterin referenced when he dropped a tweet indicating that he’s handing over the reins of Ethereum– is a Taiwanese Ethereum researcher with a background in computer science. She graduated from National Chiao Tung University with a Master of Science in Network Engineering.
Out of the three developers Buterin mentioned, Wang seems to be the youngest and the least experienced. Though she doesn’t seem to be in a position to take over as the public face of Ethereum, she’s been very active on Github. Last year, she submitted over 500 contributions to Ethereum and other repositories.
Vlad Zamfir is the outspoken Ethereum researcher and the face of the Casper protocol upgrade– an improvement to Ethereum’s existing Proof-of-Stake algorithm. Before joining the Ethereum Foundation, Zamfir taught math and statistics. His comments about the existing state of Ethereum development are often brutally honest:
“There’s still technical problems. It doesn’t scale. It’s not efficient. It’s not secure. It sucks, basically. It’s shitty technology.”
If the Casper update lives up to its promise, Zamfir could make a name for himself and become a high profile Ethereum guru– especially if Buterin leaves the project.
Stephan Tual is the Ethereum Foundation’s former Chief Compliance Officer. Though he has more business experience than most of the developers connected to the Ethereum project, he has a rocky relationship with the Ethereum Foundation. Tual resigned in September of 2015 as he explained in his farewell Ethereum blog post:
“Ethereum is both an idea and an ideal, encompassing the first censorship-resistant network build specifically to enable those who need it the most to safely trade, privately self-organize and freely communicate, rather than relying on the crippled walled garden handed out by the powers that be. Due to divergence in personal values, Eth/Dev and I have mutually decided to part ways.”
Tual founded his first internet business back in June of 1996, when the World Wide Web was still in its infancy. After leaving the Ethereum Foundation, he founded Slock– an Ethereum-powered real estate marketplace that enables anyone to rent, sell or share their property without the assistance of a middleman. Now, he’s a consultant that helps businesses develop and deploy blockchain-based initiatives.
If the current group of Ethereum developers ever decide to create a fork and go their own way, they might enlist Tual’s help. Tual was one of Ethereum’s early skeptics.
As things stand, it’s hard to tell how serious Buterin is about leaving the Ethereum Foundation. He’s known for having a quirky sense of humor. Perhaps Buterin is simply playing with his Twitter followers for reasons that are only obvious to him.
Alternatively, it could be that Buterin’s vision for Ethereum isn’t working out in the way that he had hoped. Dan Larimer– another brilliant but occasionally quixotic crypto entrepreneur– once left a project in an abrupt manner. Larimer notified the Steemit community of his resignation with a three-sentence Steemit post, leaving some to speculate that he had grown tired of the “unfixable” community that had coalesced around the decentralized blogging platform.
With roughly $200 million in the bank, Buterin definitely has the financial resources to pursue whatever he wants to do next. His next project could be crypto-related, or it could be something else entirely. So far, it seems that Buterin’s goal isn’t to accumulate as much money as possible. Instead, he appears to be more interested in projects that change the world or make it a fairer place from his point of view.
If Buterin does leave, Ethereum researchers Dan Ryan, Justin Drake and Hsiao-Wei Wang may fill his shoes. In terms of GitHub contributions, all three have already made important contributions. Ethereum developer Vlad Zamfir could also rise to prominence, as well– especially if the upcoming Casper update lives up to its hype.