From the beginning, our core thesis has been that the best way to think of a modern blockchain is as a new class of computer that has the ability to run a special kind of program. These programs are sometimes called smart contracts, and they’re different from ordinary programs in that they have a life of their own. They are independent, and once written, they obediently execute themselves subject to nobody’s authority. Because of this property, smart contracts are uniquely capable of earning trust.
But smart contracts today have two big limitations: (1) they are fully transparent by design and therefore don’t allow for privacy (2) they don’t scale to millions (let alone billions) of users. These limitations exist because trust requires verification. Transactions on a blockchain need to be transparent so that everyone can verify that they are correct. And, they tend not to scale because it takes time and energy for all computers on the network to perform that verification.
But research in a cutting edge area of cryptography called zero-knowledge proofs promises to unlock an elegant solution to the privacy and scalability problems. We spent a great deal of time looking at various approaches and teams working on this. Aleo’s solution is both elegant and pragmatic.
We first met Howard Wu, Aleo’s founder, back in 2018. We were immediately impressed by the depth of his knowledge in cryptography and distributed systems, and by his vision for crypto’s potential. He was collaborating closely with a number of prominent academics from Berkeley, Cornell and other institutions on Zero-Knowledge Proof research. Later that year, Howard published a seminal paper in this space with many of those same collaborators titled “Zexe: Enabling Decentralized Private Computation.” It describes how it’s possible to change the way that transactions on a blockchain are verified so that it can be done privately and more efficiently. The trick lies in the use of a cryptographic primitive that allows any participant in the network to create a short mathematical proof that a transaction was processed correctly, but that doesn’t reveal any details about the transaction itself. The magical primitive that makes this possible is called a zero-knowledge proof (or zk-proof). The result with Zexe is a template for a blockchain that is entirely private and that scales far beyond most blockchains that are live today.
The implications of this idea are more profound than they might seem at first. Privacy is important as a feature, not just because it protects users’ personal data, but also because it fundamentally extends the design space for applications. There are things that can be built with a private smart contract that are simply impossible to build with a transparent one. For example, a simple game that hands out cards face-down to different players would need some way to make sure that those cards aren’t immediately visible to everyone playing. Building such a game on today’s blockchains is simply not possible — it’s too easy for the players to cheat by inspecting the blockchain and looking at each other’s cards. With Aleo, on the other hand, building a game like this will be straightforward. Of course, that’s just a toy example, but the point is that a blockchain like Aleo unlocks a whole new realm of possible applications.
When we reconnected with Howard and team a couple months ago, it became immediately clear that the team he’d brought together is world class. Their pace of execution is one of the most impressive we’ve seen, even by crypto standards. Not only do they now have a live testnet of their protocol, but they have also built a full programming language for Aleo called Leo and a development environment called Aleo Studio; both of these together make for a great developer experience. We are also very excited that our former partner, Alex Pruden, is now Aleo’s COO.
Given the breakthrough technology, the huge idea, and this team, we are thrilled to announce that we’re leading Aleo’s Series A, partnering with Howard and the team to help make their vision a reality.
* * *
Katie Haun Kathryn (“Katie”) Haun is a general partner. Previously, she spent a decade as a federal prosecutor focusing on fraud, cyber, and corporate crime alongside agencies including the SEC, FBI, and Treasury. She created the government’s first cryptocurrency task force and led investigations...
Ali Yahya is a General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz where he invests in crypto.