To the crypto-conscious, blockchain industry conferences have become annual pilgrimages of sorts, drawing each chain’s respective believers to multi-day extravaganzas in exotic locales around the world.
There’s the familiar Bitcoin conference (which appears to have found a home in Miami) and Ethereum’s long-running ETHDenver. Starting last autumn, new, billion-dollar base layers joined in, with Solana’s coming-out party, Breakpoint, held in Lisbon.
Now Avalanche has entered the fray, having just wrapped a six-day summit in Barcelona, Spain.
“This is the first time the developers, the users, the investors can all get together,” said John Wu, president of Ava Labs, the company that supports the Avalanche blockchain. “That was the goal.”
In the past year, Avalanche has emerged from relative obscurity to become a major challenger to Ethereum, the incumbent leader among smart-contract compatible blockchains.
The AVAX token returned an eye-popping 2,800% last year, breaching the top 10 cryptocurrencies by market capitalization. (This year, the token has fallen about 18%.) The total valued locked (TVL) on the chain’s decentralized finance (DeFi) apps soared past $10 billion for the first time in November. It currently sits at fourth on the TVL charts, behind Ethereum, Terra and Binance Smart Chain, but above Solana.
Even “normies” may have noticed Avalanche’s advertisements plastered across New York City subway cars, or the sea of red triangle emojis that its loyal users tout on social media.
“Avalanche has successfully reached escape velocity,” said Darryl Wang, a conference speaker and former investor at the Three Arrows Capital offshoot DeFiance Capital. “I moved from 100% Ethereum to most other EVM-compatible chains. Now, 90% of my transactions are on Avalanche.”
Avalanche is compatible with the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM), meaning applications that are built using the Ethereum programming language Solidity are also able to deploy on Avalanche with minimal tweaking from developers.
So far, EVM compatibility has proven to be catalytic for upstart base layers, with Polygon, Fantom and Avalanche all courting users who are fed up with Ethereum’s high transaction fees.
EVM compatibility may be losing its edge, however, with Terra and Solana – both unable to easily communicate with Ethereum – steadily climbing the TVL charts, a proxy for user mindshare. However, Avalanche leadership sees shared code as an advantage.
“Solana goes with the moat strategy,” Wu told CoinDesk in an interview in Barcelona, referring to the chain that is perhaps Avalanche’s biggest competitor. “We are purposely not doing that.”
Even among the nascent, decade-old cryptocurrency industry, Avalanche’s arrival is particularly impressive – it was only founded in early 2020, making the $25 billion blockchain just over two years old.
Avalanche is the brainchild of Emin Gün Sirer, the Turkish-born computer scientist and ex-Cornell University professor who developed much of the technology behind Avalanche. Today, Gün Sirer serves as CEO of Ava Labs.
Perhaps most notable about Gün Sirer and the rest of Avalanche’s leaders is their institutional pedigree, particularly in an industry where teenagers, college dropouts and pseudonymous anons frequently carry outsized influence.
“They’re definitely more seasoned,” said Aave founder Stani Kulechov of the top brass at Ava Labs. “They run the Avalanche ecosystem in a very efficient way. They’re very mission-driven, while Ethereum is more values-driven.”
Wu, who boasts not one but two Ivy League degrees, says he first met Gün Sirer through Cornell, his undergraduate alma mater, where Sirer had been a long-time professor of computer science in distributed systems, the umbrella discipline of blockchain.
“I called up my undergrad and asked who are the best crypto people in the comp sci department,” Wu recalled. “They told me to talk to Gün.”
In 2017, the pair became advisers to the Cornell University Blockchain Club.
In crypto, founders frequently achieve deity-like status, with Bitcoin’s Satoshi Nakamoto, Ethereum’s Vitalik Buterin, Cardano’s Charles Hoskinson and Terra’s Do Kwon being leading examples. While fewer have heard of Gün Sirer, he has been called “a huge celebrity” in his native Turkey.
“He’s a big reason why we decided to build on Avalanche,” said Mustafa Mercan, a conference attendee who, with his five-member team from The Hatch project, flew to Barcelona from Istanbul.
Institutions and degenerates alike
Avalanche has been playing a two-pronged strategy, courting both the institutions looking to taban a toe into crypto waters, and the decentralized finance (DeFi) degenerates chasing the next 1,000% APY Ponzi protocol.
In the conference’s opening remarks, Gün Sirer joked that there were both “highly credentialed” and “highly questionable” people in attendance, a nod to both the institutions and degens in the room.
Among the institutional crowd, conference attendees included traditional financial services companies such as Deloitte and Mastercard (MA). In the more degenerate camp, there were the remnants of Wonderland’s “Frog Nation” and rabid enthusiasts of the play-to-earn crab game, Crabada.
Perhaps the most “degen” scandal on Avalanche involved Wonderland, which grew to become one of the largest dapps on the chain before its CFO, the pseudonymous Twitter user @0xSifu, was revealed to be ex-Quadriga co-founder Michael Patryn.
“If you compare the number of Wonderland stuff on Avalanche with what’s happening on Solana or BSC, you’ll see a smaller percentage than on other chains,” Wu said when asked about the Wonderland snafu, perhaps Avalanche’s only major PR disaster in recent memory. Rumors swirled that Wonderland founder Daniele Sestagalli was told “not to come” to Barcelona.
One power user told CoinDesk that Avalanche’s retail appeal comes from its robust community and ample opportunities to make money through Avalanche’s incentive programs.
“In general, the majority of the dapps on Avalanche are community-driven,” said Wang. “Solana is very [venture capital]-driven. If you bought a Solana token in Lisbon, you’re down bad – I guarantee it.”
Marketing Avalanche to both retail and institutional audiences has proven to be a balancing act for Ava Labs. “You talk to a degen and they’re, like, ‘You’re a Boomercoin,’” said Wu. “When you talk to someone in TradFi, they’re, like, ‘You’re so cutting-edge.’”
Among the conference attendees who spoke with CoinDesk, the institutional crowd appeared less passionate about Avalanche, or perhaps for professional reasons are bound to keeping poker faces. Many institutions admitted to collaborations with multiple layer 1, or base, blockchains as a way to hedge their bets in an industry where the winners still remain unclear.
“We’re technology agnostic,” Harold Bosse, head of product innovation at Mastercard, told CoinDesk in an interview. “We understand that there will be a multi-chain future.” Although he declined to comment on specific partnerships, Bosse said Mastercard was “very excited” to explore commercial use cases with Avalanche.
The crypto lending platform BlockFi echoed Mastercard’s “play the field” strategy. “We’re looking at a number of different layer 1 projects,” said BlockFi Küresel Head of Institutional Distribution David Olsson. “Given we need to effectively manage risk for our clients, we think it makes sense to explore not just one but several.”
Tekin Salimi, an ex-partner of Polychain Capital, a crypto venture capital firm that is very active in the Avalanche ecosystem, sees the crypto space as inherently “more collaborative” than traditional finance.
“It’s more like we are inventing a whole new asset class, and the rising tide lifts all boats,” said Salimi, who announced his new venture fund, dao5, at the conference.
As every smart-contract blockchain competes to onboard the Mastercards and Frog Nations, one indicator of competitiveness is the size of the war chest a project’s respective foundation can deploy to lure in users.
In the past eight months, Avalanche has launched four nine-figure incentive programs to bring development onto its chain, which even among base layers newly flush with cash, is particularly generous. There’s nearly $800 million in AVAX at play for everything from GameFi to Grimes.
“The goal is on-ramping developers onto Avalanche,” said Gabriel Cardona, an Avalanche developer relations lead and one of 60 engineers with Ava Labs. “In one year, I predict we will have over a billion transactions and well over a thousand dapps.”
Currently, the largest dapps on Avalanche include Trader Joe, a Uniswap fork that serves as the chain’s core decentralized exchange. Another popular dapp is the play-to-earn game Crabada, Avalanche’s answer to the popular Axie Infinity.
Despite Avalanche’s upward trajectory, critics of the blockchain point out that it doesn’t yet have a robust non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace like Ethereum’s OpenSea or Solana’s Magic Eden. Marketplaces serve as core pieces of infrastructure, and Avalanche’s dearth of an OpenSea equivalent has stifled NFT adoption on the chain.
Other critics have pointed to the plethora of “copypasta” projects on Avalanche. To date, the most popular dapps on the chain have been forks of popular protocols like Uniswap or Ohm, or redeployments of blue-chip protocols like Aave and Curve that all first launched on Ethereum.
Such is the dilemma faced by many EVM-compatible chains, which are forced to choose between organically growing their own ecosystem or bootstrapping growth by courting Ethereum’s sloppy seconds.
So far, Avalanche still lacks a uniquely “Avalanchean” project, which even large incentive programs have failed to produce.
Perhaps the most buzz at the conference centered around subnets, or networks that allow applications to establish their own customizable blockchains on Avalanche.
Subnets allow projects on Avalanche to set the rules of their own chain – including who the validators are, which programming languages are used and who has access to the subnet. The idea is similar to Polkadot’s parachains, Cosmos’s zones and Ethereum scaling solution SKALE’s networks.
“We have all come to the same conclusion: The way to have scalable and accessible blockchains is by making them application-specific,” said Billy Rennekamp, Cosmos Hub lead at the Interchain Foundation. While Rennekamp told CoinDesk he is a Cosmos enthusiast, he is first and foremost a proponent of cross-chain interoperability.
Avalanche’s subnet architecture is also designed with scalability in mind, allowing computationally intensive applications to avoid clogging the main network, similar to how Axie Infinity built its own Ronin blockchain.
“If you think about the blockchain themselves as a public database, it’s almost like every application needs its own database,” explained Josh Neuroth, head of product at Web 3 infrastructure provider Ankr. “If you want to onboard millions of users, you need your own blockchain.”
Ava Labs’ Cardona, the DevRel who also hosts a podcast called “Subnet Show,” told CoinDesk that it’s possible to “launch a subnet in 20 seconds.”
“We want to create an institutional-friendly subnet with Avalanche and get other DeFi protocols to participate,” Aave’s Kulchev told CoinDesk. “The [know-your-customer check] happens on the subnet level evvel, and then you’re free to use all the protocols.”
Aave has been grappling with a bifurcation between its retail and institutional client needs, launching Aave Arc last November, a permissioned version of its popular DeFi protocol. A whitelist-only subnet, Kulchev said, could more efficiently bring DeFi to institutional investors conscious of regulatory constraints.
Jump Crypto’s President Kanav Kariya also revealed that the trading giant was “exploring a few subnets with the Avalanche team” in a keynote speech, adding the effort was “still largely explorative.”
“In one year, the CoinMarketCap Top 100 is going to be totally different, and the primary driver will be Avalanche subnets,” said Cardona. “Finally, blockchain is maturing to live up to the promise we always envisioned. It feels very rewarding after all these years.”
After a flurry of panel discussions, networking events and late-night tapas, a two-day, 300-person hackathon bookended the conference.
“The focus is incredible,” Anthony Beaumont, co-founder of Encode Club, told CoinDesk at the hackathon site. “There’s even a husband-wife team that bought their baby.”
CoinDesk spoke with a team of French college students building Clash Royale, a mobile game that allows players to bet with friends using AVAX tokens.
“It was really challenging, we took a lot of time to find an idea,” said a sleep-deprived Bora Mindas, 22, of the hackathon experience. The team built the game on top of an existing Avalanche subnet, called WAGMI.
Avalanche founder Gün Sirer was also spotted at the hackathon, making rounds to advise each individual team.
“It was a kaç conversation,” said Mindas, who, when asked by CoinDesk if Gün Sirer revealed any particularly juicy insights, replied with a grin, “No alpha.”
“When I came to crypto, I saw people talking about Avalanche on Twitter,” said Mindas. “I really like the people, so I kept on building.”