Internet giants challenged by new crypto platform

Dfinity, a non-profit foundation that’s building a new crypto platform, has raised $102 million in new investment.

GAME CHANGERS
In the world of crypto, everything seems to happen at warp speed and in super sizes. Dfinity, a non-profit foundation that’s building a new crypto platform, has raised $102 million in new investment, led by Andreessen Horowitz and crypto investment fund Polychain Capital. It’s pursuing a grandiose vision to create a new technical architecture that will serve as the foundation for future software applications and companies. It aims to be more efficient, secure and publicly accessible than current cloud-computing products like Amazon Web Services.

In less than two years, Dfinity has collected a stunning $190 million in private funding, even though it has only released a test version of its product. Other crypto-focused investors like Multicoin Capital and Scalar Capital also bought Dfinity tokens in this “presale” round, which values the company at $1.9 billion.

Dominic Williams is the brains behind the project, and he has no shortage of confidence. “I’ve got quite a strong technical background,” he tells Forbes. “A long time ago, I graduated at the top of my class for computer science [at King’s College London].”

After graduating in 1995, he became a serial tech entrepreneur. He eventually launched a multiplayer online game, Fight My Monster, that gained millions of users. In 2014 he started working on algorithms for cryptocurrency platforms, and the next year he conceived the technological theory behind Dfinity. He formed Dfinity as a Zurich-based nonprofit foundation in 2016 and eventually opened a Palo Alto office, which has become its largest location.

What business problem is Dfinity trying to solve? Williams says Silicon Valley tech companies have become so large and powerful that they’re stifling innovation for startups. He cites examples like Zynga, creator of the game Farmville, which once had more than 200 million users. It fell from grace after Facebook changed its news feed algorithm, choking off its growth. “I know some startups that have built on Salesforce, and now they have colossal service bills that affect their ability to be profitable,” Williams adds.

Since Dfinity’s platform won’t be controlled by one organization, but a distributed network of computers, it will theoretically remain neutral and unbiased. Its goal of becoming a general-purpose computing platform pits it against incumbent products like Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud. Williams says Dfinity’s architecture makes it more secure and more efficient for engineers to build on, partly because it cuts down on the time needed to get different moving pieces of an application to coordinate with each other.

But why does an early-stage, 43-person startup need so much money? Dfinity expects the $102 million to last “a number of years.” Williams thinks the company will grow to nearly 200 people in 12 months, and he’s paying top dollar for talent in areas like cryptography, programming languages and distributed computer systems.

Dfinity salaries are on “on a par” with other organizations like Google that go after top talent, Williams says. “If you’re a machine learning specialist or a cryptography specialist, it’s kind of like being an NBA star,” says Chris Dixon, a Dfinity investor and partner at Andreessen Horowitz’s $300 million crypto fund, a16z crypto. Google has given multimillion-dollar pay packages to top engineers.

Dfinity is a 16z crypto’s largest bet to date, and Dixon is most excited about the people behind the project. “The group of people that Dominic has assembled over the past several years is, far and away, one of the most impressive teams that we have met in the space,” Dixon wrote in a blog post. One example: Williams hired Andreas Rossberg, the co-designer of WebAssembly, a technology that runs inside today’s top Internet browsers to make them faster. “WebAssembly is probably one of the most important technologies of the current decade,” Dixon says.

Another key reason investors are backing Dfinity is a technological breakthrough called “threshold relay.” Created by Williams, it processes transactions more quickly than platforms like Ethereum. Meanwhile, it strives to maintain a secure, “trustless” system that’s distributed across thousands of computers and doesn’t require verification by a single, centralized authority.

Industry experts see Dfinity’s technology as promising. Will Martino founded Kadena, another organization that’s building a crypto platform with faster transaction speeds. “There’s only a few really practical visions for where the space is going, and they’re one of them,” he says. “Among the candidates to move into the Ethereum space, the strongest one is probably Dfinity,” says Joe Lubin, an Ethereum cofounder and the head of blockchain consulting firm and crypto startup incubator ConsenSys.

Dfinity investors justify the nearly $2 billion valuation by pointing to the global business market Dfinity can address, which is in the trillions, according to Dixon and Multicoin Capital partner Kyle Samani. But until the product launches in the wild and is battle-tested against real usage, nothing—especially in crypto—is guaranteed. Dfinity plans to launch the platform publically in late 2018 or early 2019.

Published: September 3, 2018