Vitalik Buterin: the man who changed cryptocurrencies

Maths prodigy Vitalik Buterin became fascinated by bitcoin as a teenager. Now 28, he is worshipped as a near deity by crypto-enthusiasts.

Vitalik Buterin
Buterin is scathing about those who view cryptocurrencies as a wealth-making opportunity
(Image credit: © Valentin Flauraud/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Vitalik Buterin’s remarkable looks make him an easy target for online hecklers: he’s been described as everything from “Bond villain” to “alien crackhead”. But at gatherings of the faithful, the inventor of cryptocurrency ether is worshipped as a near deity.

At a big convention in Denver in March, queues stretched round the block for days in anticipation of an audience, says Time. As the crowds pushed inside, “a wiry man with elfin features” was seen “sprinting out of the venue, past astonished selfie takers and venture capitalists”. Some gave chase on foot and on scooters; Buterin outran them all, “disappearing into the privacy of his hotel lobby, alone”.

Welcoming the bear

That, of course, was before the crypto winter set in in earnest. In May, when the price of ether had fallen 55% from its peak, Buterin tweeted that he was no longer a billionaire, notes Bloomberg. It’s safe to say that his personal wealth has taken another substantial hit during June’s carnage. Still, no one can take away his achievement.

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At 28, Buterin has a claim to be “the most influential man in crypto”, says Time. His genius move nine years ago was to plot a way of using the blockchain technology underlying bitcoin “for all sorts of uses beyond currency”. By throwing open the Ethereum blockchain to all comers, he came to preside over “a trillion-dollar ecosystem”, in which games and overhyped crazes such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) jostle with more practical applications built by banks and entrepreneurs. The platform “now rivals Visa in terms of the money it moves” and its native currency, ether, is the second-biggest behind bitcoin.

Buterin, who was born in Russia of mixed Russo-Ukrainian heritage and grew up in Canada, is scathing about those who view crypto primarily as a wealth-making opportunity. He reserves particular contempt for people who rode the boom and flaunted it as investment prowess. That means he can view the bust with a degree of equanimity. “The people who are deep into crypto, and especially building things… welcome a bear market,” he has said.

Buterin was born just outside Moscow in 1994, He is the son of two computer scientists, and grew up steeped in tech and maths. It was his father, Dmitry, who introduced the then teenager to bitcoin in 2011. He began writing articles for Bitcoin Weekly – earning “five bitcoins a pop” (then around $4), later co-founding his own magazine while studying computer science. By the time he dropped out of college, he had gained quite a following. In late 2013, he wrote a paper proposing Ethereum – and subsequently rallied eight enthusiasts to help him build it.

The Cryptopians

The story of this extraordinary “fellowship”, who “slummed together” in a house in Zug, Switzerland to plot the course of Ethereum, was later written up by Laura Shin in her book, The Cryptopians. There was tension from the outset between those who wanted to run the project as a commercial venture and those, like Buterin, who were more “mission-driven”. Ultimately the group split, says Cointelegraph. But they stayed together long enough to launch Ethereum at a bitcoin conference in Miami in 2014, later holding an initial coin offering (ICO) of the ether token to raise cash.

Buterin was singled out by tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel for a grant. One can see why Thiel took a shine to him – both are “visionaries” driven by ideas of sociopolitical experimentation. Buterin sees Ethereum as a possible launchpad for fairer voting systems and universal basic income. In another nod to Thiel, he’s drawn to “life extension” technologies, predicting there’s a decent chance that someone born today will live to be 3,000. The question of why anyone would want to doesn’t even occur to him –his eyes are clearly still fixed on the long road ahead.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.