Emin Gün Sirer and Team Rocket climbing up to Avalanche
February 16, 2022
Behind Avalanche‘s disruptive blockchain, driven by the open-source platform of the same name to create DeFi applications, custom blockchains and smart contracts, are three genius minds from Cornell University, the mysterious Team Rocket and “a mythical creation story”.
Sirer’s Turkish origins
Born in the 1970s with Turkish nationality, Emin Gün Sirer studied at Robert College (Istanbul). Growing up in Turkey, as he says, educated him to recognise fraud; flush it out, catalogue it and understand it. Some time later, this aptitude would drive his first interest in cryptocurrencies.
Moving to the United States, he graduated from Princeton University in Computer Science and completed his studies at the University of Washington, receiving a Ph.D. for the same subject in 2002.
In 2018, he will co-found Ava Labs, the company that created Avalanche, with Kevin Sekniqi and Maofan “Ted” Yin, Ph.D. students in Computer Science at Cornell University, where Sirer had been an associate professor since 2007.His interest in blockchain technology, however, had materialised long before, so early as to anticipate Satoshi Nakamoto and Bitcoin.
Karma: a Bitcoin against free-riding
It’s 2003 and Emin Gün Sirer published the whitepaper of Karma: the first peer-to-peer, distributed production, proof-of-work virtual currency. Sounds familiar? That’s right, these are features of Satoshi Nakamoto’s creation, only 6 years ahead of Bitcoin.
Well, why haven’t you heard of it? Why isn’t it listed on Young Platform? Simple: Karma was not intended to be Bitcoin, i.e. a solution to a deep financial crisis.Sirer himself explained why his system did not succeed: the timing was not right and he did not have as a long-term vision as Satoshi who “jumped out and said, ≪Hey, I want to replace the dollar≫”. In fact, Karma is “just” a project for egalitarian engagement in peer-to-peer collaboration, a payment system for people who want to share files online.
Karma measures the “reputation” of a node in a decentralised network: the token is spent when using resources (information or energy) and is earned by uploading useful files to the network. A node cannot access services that cost more than its Karma budget, which solves the free-riding problem.
An entity in a network is a free-rider when it uses more resources than it produces. Be it information, energy or material goods.
Karma has many of Bitcoin’s qualities: it is not controlled by any single entity, its supply is programmed and decentralised, every transaction between nodes and their balances are certified by a consensus-like system. Moreover, the issuance of karma follows the “proof” of having performed a task (proof-of-work) which, in this case, consists in providing information or performing some calculation.
Karma, however, did not take off, mainly due to a lack of funds, so Sirer’s research on blockchain remained silent until Bitcoin’s epiphany. In 2008, the future father of Avalanche was dazzled by Bitcoin’s disruptive technology but, like all intrepid disciples, he was not afraid to criticise Satoshi’s creation.
Sirer’s unwavering commitment, tenacity, ambition and inexhaustible motivation, however, led him to create a blockchain in his own image: Avalanche. Karma did it justice, literally.
Avalanche and the Pokémon pseudonym
Avalanche’s protocol has an equally interesting history. Its consensus mechanism (Snowball) was written by “four” hands, one per co-founder plus the hand of the mysterious Team Rocket. The bizarre collaboration began thus:
- On 16 May 2018, an article titled “Snowflake to Avalanche” was published by the anonymous group, accompanied only by a protonmail and an untraceable Ethereum address.
- Sirer, excited by the discovery, shared the project on Twitter, and then collaborated with these mysterious individuals on a revision of the project.
- The revised consensus mechanism was distributed through a Cornell University service.
- Sirer founded Ava Labs and adopted Avalanche’s blockchain mechanism.
The use of a pseudonym to protect one’s identity is not a new practice in the crypto world: Satoshi Nakamoto’s name is the first to be fabricated; Team Rocket’s intent is the same and they make no secret of it. By naming themselves after the antagonistic Pokémon formation, they intend to echo what the creator of Bitcoin did, who is named after Pikachu’s trainer, originally called Satoshi.
In the article reviewing the Avalanche mechanism, Team Rocket, among the authors, is linked to the famous motto “Blasts off at the speed of light!”. (“Ready to go at the speed of light!”), an exclamation made by Jessie and James during their dramatic entrances. They took Satoshi’s teaching literally.
Reverence or rivalry? Perhaps both. Sirer, in fact, in presenting the Avalanche project, speaks of a “breakthrough” to solve the trilemma of scalability and contain the cost of DeFi’s fees, but also claims to be following in Satoshi’s footsteps to have the same decisive impact as Bitcoin.
Sirer’s sceptical positivism
The Ava Labs team today consists of more than a hundred people, including engineers, designers, finance, law and marketing experts. Despite its size, Avalanche is constantly expanding.The end of 2021, in fact, witnessed the debut of Avalanche Rush: in this project, which aims to introduce other applications into Avalanche’s DeFi ecosystem, the utility token AVAX is an incentive for liquidity mining. Ava Labs has, for now, allocated $20 million for users to contribute to the Aave protocol and another $7 million for participation in the Curve protocol.
A process in which participants provide cryptocurrencies to liquidity pools, i.e. “containers” that aggregate the funds received, in exchange for tokens and fees, in proportion to their contribution.
They are looking for the next Emin Gun Sirer with Avalanche Rush, a mission consistent with his philosophy. Indeed, in his personal blog (Hacking, Distributed), he takes the perspective of the “progressive technologist”: he believes in improving people’s lives through technology.To do so, he promotes blockchain research: in 2021 alone, his support has led to the emergence of at least 300 projects on Avalanche, as well as more than a million API requests per day.
Another cornerstone of Sirer’s thought is caution: he does not jump into price predictions, even if supported by factual fundamentals, because the community would take his words out of context, constructing deviant narratives.
Similarly, he warns against being hasty: anticipation is sometimes a condemnation (Karma teaches); for now, the focus should be on supporting the improvement of blockchain technology.Finally, he recommends scepticism: criticism, the scientific process of refuting hypotheses, selects the best projects.Sirer is convinced that cryptocurrencies will not wipe out fiat currencies, governments and wars, but perhaps his humble, scientific and realistic vision will lead to the construction of the so-called Ethereum Killer.