Who is Vitalik Buterin? From university dropout to Ethereum mastermind

  • Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum, propelled the platform to become the world’s second most valuable cryptocurrency, showcasing his profound impact on the crypto landscape.
  • From receiving his first bitcoins at age 17 to abandoning university for his ideas, Vitalik Buterin’s unique blend of technical expertise and a steadfast commitment to decentralisation powered his ascent as a crypto innovator and visionary.
  • Buterin’s vision for Ethereum transcends financial transactions; it aims to establish a fully decentralised suite of services that could revolutionise how people interact with digital and real-world applications.

Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum, launched what is now the world’s second most valuable cryptocurrency, with a market value of approximately $404 billion. Buterin, who has been involved in the cryptocurrency sector since its inception, has emerged as a prominent figure in the industry.

In 2024, Buterin celebrated his 30th birthday, referring to January 31, 2024, as the “end of my childhood.” How did Buterin become one of the world’s youngest crypto billionaires? Let’s uncover the story of Buterin’s ascent to the forefront of the cryptocurrency industry.

Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum

Foundations of genius

Vitalik Buterin was born in 1994 in Kolomna, Russia. At the age of six, he emigrated from Russia to Canada with his family, as his parents sought better employment opportunities. His father, Dmitry, is a computer scientist.

During his third year of elementary school in Canada, Buterin was placed in a gifted education program, where he developed a keen interest in economics, programming and mathematics.

Later, he completed his secondary education at Toronto’s esteemed Abelard School. Buterin’s interest in cryptocurrencies began when his father exposed him to bitcoin when he was 17 years old.

Following high school, Buterin enrolled at the University of Waterloo, where he took advanced courses and served as a research assistant for Ian Goldberg, a renowned cryptographer known for co-creating Off-the-Record Messaging, a cryptographic protocol that encrypts instant messaging conversations.

Buterin visited other countries in 2013 in search of like-minded developers. He then came back to Toronto to present Ethereum in a white paper. He left college early in 2014 to focus on Ethereum full-time, partly due to the $100,000 Thiel Fellowship award.

The University of Basel’s Faculty of Business and Economics awarded Vitalik Buterin an honorary doctorate. This accolade recognised his contributions to blockchain technology as the co-founder of Ethereum in 2018.

I cried myself to sleep, and on that day I realised what horrors centralised services can bring.

Vitalik Buterin

Cry for decentralisation

In Vitalik Buterin’s post, the decentralised network idea was inspired by his experience of the game producers weakening his cherished World of Warcraft character.

From 2007 to 2010, he was an avid World of Warcraft player, but he quit after Blizzard nerfed his favorite warlock’s Siphon Life spell. He wrote on his bio page, “I cried myself to sleep, and on that day I realised what horrors centralised services can bring.”

Perhaps it was here that a passion for decentralisation took root. In 2011, Buterin developed a keen interest in bitcoin, the world’s first cryptocurrency.

Behind the pages

Unable to purchase bitcoin tokens due to financial constraints, Buterin sought alternative ways to engage with this burgeoning field. He found an opportunity as a writer within the newly emerging cryptocurrency sector. For each article he penned, he earned 5 bitcoin, allowing him to immerse himself in the world of digital currencies while building his holdings.

After getting to know Mihai Alisie, another cryptocurrency enthusiast, the two started Bitcoin Magazine.

Referred to as the first significant newspaper devoted to cryptocurrency, Bitcoin Magazine started publishing a print version in 2012.

Buterin applied for a job at crypto platform Ripple when he was employed at Bitcoin Magazine. Unfortunately, their planned job fell through when Ripple could not afford to sponsor Buterin’s U.S. visa.

Also read: Ethereum’s EIP-3074: Making normal wallets ‘smart’

Genesis of Ethereum

Banner on the official Ethereum company website

Determined to establish himself in the cryptocurrency world, Buterin authored a whitepaper in 2013 that outlined his concept for what would eventually evolve into Ethereum, which he described as a “decentralised mining network and software development platform rolled into one.”

Initially, Buterin aimed to “improve” bitcoin by advocating for the inclusion of a programming language to facilitate application development. When his proposal was rejected by the bitcoin community, he advanced his ideas by co-founding Ethereum with a group of other investors, establishing a new cryptocurrency platform.

Buterin publicly introduced Ethereum at the North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami in 2014, describing it as a general-purpose global computer on a decentralised network and highlighting potential uses like decentralised exchanges during his 25-minute speech.

Following this, the team founded the Ethereum Foundation, a non-profit organisation headquartered in Switzerland, tasked with overseeing the cryptocurrency platform.

Ethereum became the world’s first smart contract platform, with its July 2015 introduction.

The successful launch was underpinned by five core principles: simplicity, universality, modularity, agility, and non-censorship. These guiding values formed the foundation upon which the platform was built.

Reflecting on the Ethereum Project in 2020, Buterin conveyed: “I am truly grateful to have the opportunity to work in such an interesting and interdisciplinary area of industry, where I have the chance to interact with cryptographers, mathematicians and economists prominent in their fields, to help build software and tools that already affect tens of thousands of people around the world, and to work on advanced problems in computer science, economics and philosophy every week.”

Pop quiz

What significant event in Vitalik Buterin’s life motivated him to focus on decentralization, ultimately leading to the creation of Ethereum?

A. Losing a scholarship

B. The weakening of his World of Warcraft character by game producers

C. His father losing his job

D. Facing a significant financial loss in early Bitcoin trading

The correct answer is at the bottom of the article.

Buterin’s philanthropy

Engaging extensively in philanthropy, Buterin initiated his contributions in 2017 by donating over $750,000 worth of ether to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute. This organisation is committed to promoting the advancement of safer artificial intelligence.

In 2020, Vitalik Buterin, along with Sam Bankman-Fried and Haseeb Qureshi, made a significant contribution of $150,000 to the SENS Research Foundation to combate aging and aging-related diseases.

Continuing his philanthropic endeavors, Buterin made headlines in 2021 with a substantial donation of $1.14 billion worth of SHIBA coins to India’s Crypto Covid relief fund. This generous gesture amounted to 5% of the circulating coin supply.

Later in the same year, on May 12, Buterin further demonstrated his commitment to advancing scientific research by donating $336 million worth of Dogelon Mars to the Methuselah Foundation. This foundation focuses on extending human lifespan through innovative approaches.

In 2023, Vitalik Buterin’s commendable gesture involves a substantial donation of $100 million to strengthen Covid-19 research initiatives in India. Instead of traditional cash, Buterin has chosen to contribute in the form of USD Coin cryptocurrency.

Also read: Ethereum earnings tripled in Q1 2024, reaching $370M

Vision in the metaverse

The “metaverse” is going to happen, but I don’t think any of the existing corporate attempts to intentionally create the metaverse are going anywhere.

Vitalik Buterin

Apart from Ethereum, Buterin is also keen to contribute to the development of metaverse.

Buterin expressed his belief in X’s post: “The ‘metaverse’ is going to happen, but I don’t think any of the existing corporate attempts to intentionally create the metaverse are going anywhere.”

Some believe this was a direct jab at Meta CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, as Meta seeks to make a name in this emerging market.

Buterin continued his criticism, saying, “We don’t really know the definition of ‘the metaverse’ yet. It’s far too early to know what people actually want. So anything Facebook creates now will misfire.”

Andrew Bondarenko, founder and CEO of decentralised finance (DeFi) platform Tokonomo, asserts, “Buterin expects Ethereum to dominate the metaverse race in the next 10 years.”

Considering the diverse and expansive developments unfolding on the Ethereum platform, which include innovations in decentralised finance (DeFi), the creation of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and the stabilisation of cryptocurrencies through stablecoins, it’s truly exhilarating to witness such dynamic and rapid progress.

The correct answer is B, The weakening of his World of Warcraft character by game producers.


Sylvia Shen

Sylvia Shen, a news reporter at BTW media dedicated in Fintech and Blockchain. She graduated from University of California, Davis. Send tips to s.shen@btw.media.

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