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Layne Lafrance and CryptoKitties: Ethereum’s first NFTs

August 26, 2022

9 min

Layne Lafrance and CryptoKitties: Ethereum’s first NFTs

Who is Layne Lafrance? A blockchain enthusiast who contributed to the success of the first NFTs on Ethereum: the CryptoKitties. Her academic background and contact with the distant reality of Asia have cultivated her curiosity, an aptitude that has led her to the top of Dapper Labs, one of the leading organisations in the “non-fungible” reality. Follow the story of CryptoKitties and Layne Lafrance to the creation of Flow, a blockchain for DeFi and Web3.

Who Layne Lafrance is: introspection and finding Zen

Layne Lafrance was born in western Canada, but grew up in London, where she graduated with honours from Tasis England High School. She completed advanced studies in statistics and became an expert in rhetoric and English literature, as well as delving into micro and macroeconomic theories. Subsequently, she returned to Vancouver to study finance and entrepreneurship at the University of British Columbia (UBC), from 2013 to 2017, and the Spring Startup School (2015).

During those years, she developed a passion for technology and founded Ping, a project with a ‘paradoxical’ objective, as Lafrance’s Linkedin profile states: to encourage people to interact in real life through the use of mobile devices. Her study of blockchain only began later when, on the verge of graduating, she worked briefly for Axiom Zen: a ‘startup that builds startups’. Basically, a venture capital company and incubator for ideas based on new technologies, such as machine learning, augmented and virtual reality and, indeed, blockchain. Here Layne led a technical team in a project to automate administrative tasks, and met Dieter ‘Dete’ Shirley, the colleague who passed on to her his knowledge of blockchain.

Back at UBC to finish her studies, The Cansbridge Fellowship awarded her a $6,000 scholarship for a summer internship in Asia. Before embarking on this experience, however, she undertook a trip to Thailand to try and find her own answer to the question “who is Layne Lafrance”. She recounts her search for herself in three posts on medium: the first, Soul Searching is Dangerous Business, reports on the impact of distance from home, in the absence of plans and companions. In ‘silence of her thoughts’ she found the truth: ‘the quality of my life will depend entirely on those around me and how my work influences them’. Thus, she also defined her purpose as working for the 99 per cent of the population who own less than half of the world’s wealth: ‘solving difficult problems, that’s what interests me‘.

On the 22nd of May 2017, she started her internship in Hong Kong, at Heartisans, a ‘health tech startup’ that was developing a watch to measure blood pressure. Layne Lafrance helped position the product in the US market, a difficult challenge from what he says in this interview. The lack of familiarity with the context, however, allowed her to develop empathy and not to confuse respect and indecision. The Asian tendency to be reluctant to ask for others’ opinions is not insecurity, but an attempt not to impose one’s own thoughts on the other. This leads us to the second chapter of her diary, written at the same time as the internship: ‘Mind over matter‘, worrying only about the things we are in a position to change, i.e. ourselves.

This feeling of being “at one with the universe” and “zenned out” accompanied Layne to the end of her experience in Asia: the last episode, It’s not about where you are, but who you’re with, pulls the strings of her adventure and shares the legacy given to her by four figures. A street vendor and a supermarket clerk gave her the value of curiosity and happiness. Lee, an accounting clerk, convinced her to be minimalist in her life and uncompromising in her goals for growth. Finally, Nicole educated her in constructive criticism and scepticism.

Her thoughtfulness and eagerness for knowledge spurred her on to study blockchain in her time off from her internship and so, upon returning from Hong Kong, she again sought a position at Axiom Zen. This is where the story of Cryptokitties began, another story to get to know Layne Lafrance.

Layne Lafrance: experiences and projects

The story of CryptoKitties: Ethereum and Dapper Labs

In September 2017, Layne Lafrance was appointed Product Manager of Axiom Zen, working alongside her friend ‘Dete’ to find business models that could benefit from the unique features of blockchain. In this regard, Layne said she chose this technology because of ‘the concept of trustless transactions’. This allows people, without trusting each other, to place their trust in the protocol code. The blockchain allows everyone to ‘see, respect and accept the same terms’, resolving the element of conflict that ‘arises from the inability to negotiate fair terms‘.

As is seldom the case, the first whitepaper Layne Lafrance read was neither about Bitcoin nor Ethereum, but about Stellar: “one of the smartest and most convincing I have read”, surely recognising herself in Denelle Dixon‘s mission of promoting global financial inclusion. Layne Lafrance’s first opportunity to actively participate in a blockchain project, however, arose within Axiom Zen: as early as 2014. CEO and founder Roham Gharegozlou wanted to counter the risks of centralisation using Bitcoin‘s blockchain, but Dieter advised him to develop on Ethereum instead, impressed by the potential of smart contracts.

The team therefore, even before Layne returned, had formulated the idea of CryptoKitties: a game where you can buy, sell, collect and pair up ‘virtual cats’, like Tamagotchi, whose originality and ownership is certified by Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), based on the Ethereum standard ERC-721 token, of which Dieter is the co-author.

So, in October 2017, Layne and her colleagues presented the project at the ETH Waterloo, an Ethereum hackathon in Canada, which was enthusiastically received by the developers gathered there. Already in December 2017, the first CryptoKitty (Genesis) was sold for around 245 ETH (more than $110,000!): from then on, 50000 NFT cats were created, one every 15 minutes until November 2018, the “generation 0” born without “mating”.

Lafrance, however, still owns the CryptoKitty generated at the project’s testnet: ‘The First‘, the progenitor of the NFT cats. Perhaps, however, she did not imagine what would happen shortly thereafter: soon after the launch, Cryptokitties transactions congested the Ethereum blockchain, forcing the miners to increase the gas limit to handle the volume of transactions.

The need to make the project scalable was obvious. The user experience needed fast and cheap transactions, but Layer 2 solutions had not yet established themselves: the CryptoKitties were looking for a new home, a blockchain ready to welcome them. In March 2018, Dapper Labs was created, directly from the core of Axiom. They reconfirmed Layne Lafrance as product manager, precisely with the aim of building a blockchain more suitable for an NFT project: Flow.

The Flowverse: an ecosystem for DeFi and Web3

Flow’s blockchain is based on a particular Proof-of-Stake (HotStuff) algorithm that divides the transaction validation process between four groups of nodes: consensus, verification, execution and collection. Regarding Flow’s technology, Layne said: ‘we were the first to really consider the power of composability, to suggest sharding, to architect a multi-node system that prioritised speed, scalability and participation’, and about the last point, he pointed out that ‘Flow is designed to perform when people come together, build together […] Complex communities need to be able to evolve’. In April 2021, Dapper Labs moved nearly 100,000 CryptoKitties from Ethereum to Flow, but they didn’t stop there: many other NFT projects would soon find  a home on their blockchain.

Dapper Labs’ commitment was soon repaid by their collaboration with the National Basketball Association (NBA), which resulted in ‘NBA Top Shots‘: NFT mini-videos depicting highlights of certain games, as if they were ‘animated’ figurines, based on the Flow blockchain. They have also partnered with other sporting realities: the Spanish football ‘La Liga‘, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC Strike) and the American National Football League (NFL All Day), proposing the same format of NFT moments, collectable by opening virtual ‘packages’.

Now that you know the story of CryptoKitties and other projects launched by Dapper Labs, we are now ready to enter the Flowverse, the platform that aggregates all information about NFT collections, DAOs, DeFi applications and games built on Flow’s blockchain. The Twitter account and the official website onflow.org present the concept of an ‘open metaverse‘, essentially easy access to the Web3, both for users and developers: in this regard, the Flow Ecosystem Fund was announced in May 2022, with $725 million to build Web3 applications on Flow’s blockchain.

We close with Layne Lafrance’s words about the future, not only about Flowverse, but of the crypto world in general: “a vibrant blockchain ecosystem is one in which people have fun with friends and experience things they wouldn’t otherwise do”.