The best industrial research labs throughout history have played a critical role in pioneering much of modern technology. Two modern examples of successful research labs — both founded in the wake of radical advances in the field of artificial intelligence — include DeepMind and OpenAI. Both of them have since pushed the field to new heights.
In the last decade, the world of crypto and web3 has likewise emerged as a new frontier in technology, and it has matured into an independent field of knowledge that brings together elements of computer science, economics, finance, and the humanities. After all, like personal computers and smartphones, modern blockchains behave just like computers — they are fully programmable. What makes them unique, however, is that they allow developers to write code that makes strong commitments about how that code will behave in the future. It is that property that makes it possible for Bitcoin to guarantee that there will only ever be 21 million bitcoins. And, it is that same property that brings about a fundamentally new model of computation.
With the advent of Ethereum and other blockchains that are fully programmable, web3 has unlocked an extremely rich design space for innovation. It’s a space that we’ve only just begun to explore. In the past several years, we have seen entrepreneurs build applications that include novel blockchain-based financial primitives (DeFi); social networks that empower artists and creators (via NFTs); games with built-in economies that transcend those games and interoperate with real-world markets; and new mechanisms for large-scale human coordination that rely on open-source code running on blockchains (DAOs), rather than on centralized intermediaries.
Innovation in the space is only accelerating. Each new entrepreneurial idea for a web3 application or protocol tends to uncover fresh research challenges that are fundamental to how this technological movement will play out. Already, those challenges have included hard questions about how the computational infrastructure will scale and evolve; how token incentives in protocols should be structured to align all participants (tokenomics); and how to best build token economies into consumer-facing web3 applications like games and social networks.
There is an opportunity for an industrial research lab to help bridge the worlds of academic theory with industry practice, and to help shape crypto and web3 as a formal area of study by bringing together the very best research talent from the various disciplines that are relevant to the space.
Today, we’re excited to announce the creation of a16z crypto research, a new kind of multidisciplinary lab that will work closely with our portfolio and others toward solving the important problems in the space, and toward advancing the science and technology of the next generation of the internet. But what will the next great industrial research lab look like? We’ve asked this question to founders, technologists, and researchers over the past 18 months, and two key components stood out…
(1) The people
First, the most important element of any successful research lab is the people. When we decided to build a16z crypto research, we knew the person at its helm would have to be a brilliant researcher, communicator, and educator who could also assemble and lead a world-class team. This person would have to be capable of bridging the gap between academia and industry by leading close collaborations between our team and founders in our portfolio. Finally, we knew that whomever we brought onboard would have to be aligned with our mission of advancing the science and technology at the core of crypto and web3.
In our view, there are really only two people in the world that bring together all those attributes.
For twenty years, as a researcher and computer science professor at Stanford and Columbia, Tim has led the development of Algorithmic Game Theory, a field that brings together ideas from Computer Science and Economics to solve real-world computing problems. He wrote the definitive textbooks and courses on the field.
In recent years, Tim has increasingly focused on research problems in web3. That is no surprise, given how fundamental questions about incentives are in the space. For example, prompted by discussions with Vitalik Buterin and other members of the Ethereum community, Tim published the first formal analysis of the (initially polarizing) fee mechanism that was proposed in EIP-1559. The report helped the community get comfortable with the proposal, and it was subsequently deployed to the Ethereum mainnet in August of last year.
Besides Tim’s brilliance as a researcher, he’s also a great teacher. The YouTube lectures for his crypto and blockchain course at Columbia, for example, are one of the best and most popular introductions to the space.
Getting to know Tim over the course of over a year has left us with no doubt that he’s the perfect person to lead a16z crypto research full time. We’re thrilled to announce that Tim has joined us as Head of Research.
Dan is a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Stanford University, where he leads the Applied Cryptography, the Stanford Center for Blockchain Research (CBR), and the Computer Security Lab. He is one of the most distinguished cryptographers and computer security researchers in the world, wrote the definitive textbook on applied cryptography, and is also a renowned educator and entrepreneur.
In recent years, Dan’s work has focused on cryptographic tools for blockchain applications. He co-developed the concept of a verifiable delay function (VDF), and has designed several other cryptographic constructions (like BLS signatures) that have since been widely adopted in web3. His cryptography MOOC, which is free and open to the public, is a popular way to get started with cryptography.
For the past four years, Dan has worked closely with us and our portfolio as a Research Advisor. With the creation of a16z crypto research, we’re excited to promote Dan to Senior Research Advisor. His work with us will be integral to setting the direction for the team, while continuing to provide support for founders in our portfolio.
Both Dan and Tim have made countless contributions to their fields, but great researchers never work alone.
The founding team
Under Tim’s leadership, we’re bringing onboard a multidisciplinary, all-star founding team of Research Partners. Each member is a leader in their field, has made outstanding research contributions to web3, and has worked toward deploying those contributions in the real world.
The founding members of the team include:
Joseph Bonneau wrote the (text)book on cryptocurrency technologies, and he’s also published work on social networking privacy, cryptographic protocols, side-channel attacks, software obfuscation, and reverse engineering. He has taught cryptocurrency courses at the University of Melbourne, NYU, Stanford, and Princeton, and received a PhD in computer science from the University of Cambridge and BS/MS degrees from Stanford.
Benedikt Bünz is the Chief Scientist of Espresso Systems and is finishing up his PhD in Dan Boneh’s applied cryptography group at Stanford. His research is focused on the science of blockchains using tools from applied cryptography, game theory, and consensus, and has already had a huge impact in the industry. His work includes Bulletproofs, one of the most widely used zero-knowledge proofs today; and verifiable delay functions, which are a fundamental component of ‘green’ blockchain consensus.
Scott Duke Kominers is the MBA Class of 1960 Associate Professor of Business Administration in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School and a Faculty Affiliate of the Harvard Department of Economics. He’s one of the best market design scholars in the world, and also advises a number of companies on real-world marketplace and incentive design, such as building reputation-based systems. He holds a PhD in Business Economics from Harvard.
Valeria Nikolaenko joins from Novi at Meta, where she was a research scientist and cryptographer for the Diem blockchain, started by Facebook in 2019 as Libra. She specializes in modern cryptography, computer and web security, post-quantum cryptography, and is one of the world’s experts in proof-of-stake blockchain design. She has worked extensively on Schnorr signatures — including half-aggregation, threshold deterministic signing, and study of cryptographic libraries — and long-range attacks on proof-of-stake blockchains. She received a PhD in Computer Science from Stanford University, advised by Dan Boneh.
We couldn’t ask for a better founding team to work along with the founders in our portfolio on solving some of the hardest problems in web3.
(2) Pipeline to real-world adoption
The second pillar of a successful technological research lab is an effective pipeline that takes scientific ideas into production. To this end, the research team under Tim will be deeply integrated with our protocol design & engineering team under Eddy Lazzarin, our legal and regulatory teams under Miles Jennings and Michele Korver, and our marketing team under Kim Milosevich, including editorial under Sonal Chokshi (who also formerly worked at Xerox PARC before Wired and a16z).
The four teams will work together with companies in the a16z crypto portfolio to: (1) generate ideas for solving hard open problems; (2) write production-grade code that brings those ideas to life; (3) make sure our ideas and implementation are compliant with any applicable regulations; and (4) share our findings with the broader web3 community.
There is no shortage of important challenges in web3. We couldn’t be more excited for a16z crypto research to dig in with our founders and the broader web3 community, and work towards solving them together. If you’re interested in joining the team as a researcher, please email [email protected]. And to follow the work of this team, please subscribe to our newsletter.
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