Bring­ing Crypto Out of the Shad­ows


IF YOU’RE LOOK­ING for the states­man of cryp­tocur­rency, you could do worse than Joe Lubin, the soft-spo­ken founder of Con­sen­sys, which helps big com­pa­nies with blockchain and launches prod­ucts based on the Ethereum plat­form, which he co­founded. His peers ap­par­ently agree: When he sat down with me re­cently to dis­cuss his con­cerns about our in­au­gu­ral list of crypto-as­set ty­coons—we found ten who hover near $1 bil­lion and an­other ten who could be on their way—he said he spoke for him­self and oth­ers in the rank­ing.

Lubin sug­gested that he and his ilk were sim­ple pro­gram­mers who weren’t look­ing for pub­lic at­ten­tion. He made this ar­gu­ment at the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum, as we sat in a pri­vate meet­ing room in the “Ethe­real Lounge,” a three-floor build­ing he’d quickly built out on Davos’ main prom­e­nade. For a week, thou­sands of the world’s eco­nomic elite flooded in for pan­els, pow­wows and free drinks and food. Next door, a gi­ant Crypto HQ drew sim­i­lar throngs. Hardly signs of a per­son or in­dus­try try­ing to re­main pri­vate—a point Lubin, from his Davos perch, con­ceded.

His sec­ond ar­gu­ment: How were we sure our numbers were right? Fair ques­tion, one we ask our­selves per­pet­u­ally. Dur­ing 36 years track­ing the world’s rich­est peo­ple, we’ve honed our meth­ods but kept the un­der­ly­ing phi­los­o­phy con­sis­tent: Err on the con­ser­va­tive side. It’s an im­per­fect sci­ence—and in this in­stance we’ve adopted ranges to fac­tor in the lack of trans­parency and wild volatil­ity.

Fi­nally, Lubin brought up se­cu­rity: Since crypto sits out­side the bank­ing sys­tem, it’s more vul­ner­a­ble to theft. True among the small fry, for sure. But those on this list (and we spoke with al­most ev­ery­one on it) con­firmed they’ve taken steps to pro­tect them­selves from hack­ers and thugs—break­ing up pass­words and stor­ing pieces in safe de­posits scat­tered across the coun­try.

Ul­ti­mately, Lubin, along with other mem­bers of the crypto elite I chat­ted with, ac­knowl­edged the im­por­tance of this project. While even the big­gest crypto bulls will pri­vately ac­knowl­edge that 95% of ini­tial coin of­fer­ings are hype, scams or worse, a blockchain-en­abled fi­nan­cial sys­tem of some kind is here to say. As in the dot-com boom in 1999, some of these crypto bil­lion­aires will bust, the of their era. Oth­ers will weather the in­evitable reck­on­ing and morph into some­thing stronger, crypto’s eBay or Google. Our list pro­vides a snap­shot of a piv­otal mo­ment, part of the trans­parency needed to pull crypto away from its prove­nance as the fa­vorite cur­rency of drug deal­ers and into the ado­les­cence of a le­git­i­mate as­set class.

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