At the age of 19, Vitalik Buterin spent six months travelling around the world. Buterin wasn’t backpacking through Europe with his buddies or riding across South America on a motorcycle. Instead, the Moscow born, Toronto-raised developer was gathering the knowledge and contacts for a project that could change the world: a technology platform called Ethereum.
Like the cryptocurrency bitcoin, Ethereum is based on the blockchain, an immutable public ledger that records the movement of data. In Bitcoin’s case, that data represents currency, but Buterin proposed to build a platform that would keep track of everything from money and memberships to legal agreements and share certificates.
The story goes that Buterin learned about Bitcoin from his father at 17 and began writing about it for cryptocurrency news websites. (Naturally, he was paid in Bitcoin.) He co-founded an online publication, Bitcoin Magazine. In 2013, he went on his world tour, visiting developers in other countries who shared is enthusiasm for code. He returned to Toronto later that year and published a white paper proposing Ethereum.
Soon after, venture capitalist Peter Thiel gave Buterin a $100,000 fellowship to drop out of the University of Waterloo and work on his new project full time. Buterin co-founded the Switzerland-based non-profit Ethereum Foundation to oversee his creation. Most of the team working on the project are decentralized, while 22-year-old Buterin flits between locations. The foundation released a beta version of the platform in mid-2015.
While other developers contribute the bulk of Ethereum’s code these days, Buterin, now 22, is focused on the high-level road map for the project. “He’s far more interested in theory than applications,” says Eric Lombrozo, a Bitcoin core developer and Ethereum contributor. Shy, but charismatic, “[Buterin] is a very bright young kid who is passionate about learning difficult subjects,” says Lombrozo, though he notes the coding prodigy has a tendency to try to reinvent things rather than build on existing work.
Major financial institutions are already showing interest in blockchains. The likes of Deloitte, KPMG and Goldman Sachs regularly host events where Buterin and other developers speak. Earlier this year, the Bank of Canada revealed it has also been studying Ethereum, and UBS has been considering it as a way of issuing bonds. Proponents say this is merely the start. In Ethereum’s most ambitious form, companies could be run completely autonomously on its platform, governed not by executives and legal minders but by a smart contract that enshrines its rules in code. “Vending machines are kind of a smart contract,” explained Buterin in a talk earlier this year. “There’s a set of rules implemented in physical hardware that say, ‘When you put a dollar in, some bottle or drink comes out.’” Smart contracts would follow a similar “if this happens, do that” structure, albeit much more securely than a Pepsi dispenser.
There’s still a long road ahead, though. It’s not clear whether Ethereum can scale to handle the volume of uses Buterin imagines. And there are security concerns as well—a software bug recently exposed millions of dollars of funds held in an Ethereum application. (The handling of the incident has quite literally split the community in two, resulting in what’s called a “hard fork” of the blockchain.) “The jury’s still out,” according to Bitcoin developer Peter Todd, who says Ethereum has done a good job of marketing itself, but who isn’t sold on a technical level.
Whether or not Ethereum succeeds, blockchain is likely to have a big impact on how business is done in the future. If his record so far is any guide, Buterin is sure to play a big part.