There’s a name you may not have heard of, a man who went from obscurity to the main stage in the past few years: Vitalik Buterin. Buterin, 22, is not only the creator of Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other cryptocurrencies but is one of the biggest forces in the global digital currency community. So who is the man behind the virtual money?
“There’s a saying I would describe as by the time your product is ready to be bought, someone has already sold it,” Buterin says. “With Bitcoin, I guess I would say it was one of the first few companies to be put on sale with a well-defined public valuation.”
Buterin and several other developers created Bitcoin in 2009. Two years later, they created Ethereum, a platform for smart contracts that is designed to be more efficient than Bitcoin. Buterin says he wanted to “transfer some of the things I had learned in cryptography” to “clean up the world’s most popular cryptocurrency.”
To do that, Buterin created Ethereum’s smart contracts platform, which allows users to write computer code and run it without requiring any central authority. To get them to run, developers typically need permission from the Ethereum miners, a small group of users who verify transactions on the network. Buterin thinks the system is still too centralized, and he hopes to turn it into something that isn’t beholden to any single group.
Buterin has not always been so high-profile. He grew up in Alberta, Canada, in an isolated town of about 2,000 people, but he was drawn to tech and computing from an early age. At 14, he sold his Nintendo DS and began experimenting with computer code and cryptocurrencies. He attended the University of Waterloo, and it wasn’t long before he was leading an online discussion group on Bitcoin, becoming the de facto leader of his class. In 2013, he created one of the first GitHub accounts, and the following year, he co-founded Ethereum.
“The first day we launched the site, we had 2,500 people coming to it, looking for developers to make apps on it,” he says. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is amazing! I can do so much more with this stuff than I could ever do on my Nintendo DS.'”
His success in Ethereum started to attract attention. At the end of 2014, he won a contest for Canadian teens in Bloomberg Businessweek and became the face of the Bitcoin world. Since then, he has had to respond to media inquiries and controversy almost constantly. In 2015, he sued the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission after it accused the cryptocurrency of being a “Ponzi scheme.” (The suit was dismissed after several years of court proceedings). He also sold a Bitcoin startup to Facebook in 2014, one that made him a multimillionaire. (The sale was later criticized for hurting the company.)
Bitcoin hit an all-time high in January, and at one point the price of a single Bitcoin was worth about $1,000. Ethereum, on the other hand, has been at a much lower price for much of Buterin’s career. In 2016, it reached a new low of about $8 per Ether (another cryptocurrency), and today it’s valued at about $140.
Buterin says he doesn’t believe that cryptocurrency is going to replace government-backed currencies, but he has his own vision of what it will be used for. “Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are useful tools for transferring value, but I think they’re more interesting for applications where there’s a need for anonymity, such as gambling and black markets,” he says.
At the end of the day, Buterin says he loves that the digital currency world is a breeding ground for innovation. “I have a great deal of respect for people who are able to take these complex concepts and make them understandable,” he says. “That’s my kind of fun.”