Who’s behind this? #20: AZTEC Protocol, Tom (CEO, Co-founder)


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AZTEC Protocol

Hi Tom, we met back when you were at EF. At the time you were building creditmint and now AZTEC Protocol. In just few months your company has become the leading zero knowledge transactions solution on Ethereum. Your team has one of the strongest crypto / engineer individuals that I know. What’s even cooler is that you are based in London. Only few people know who is behind your company, Can you share a bit about your background?

I first started working with Zac in January 2017, just weekends at first. I came from finance and Zac had trained as a physicist and C++ developer. I had been working in a quiet corner of the debt markets and here was a seemingly perfect technology to build a sort of vending machine for company loans. I really liked the idea you could programme a swap between assets without a clearing house — the great paperweight of a public ledger could take settlement risk out of multi-trillion dollar markets.

But we soon realised privacy on Ethereum was quite a long way off. The only known technique at the time (the SNARK) was too expensive to run on mainnet. And pseudo-anonymity (the idea that a busy network with lots of transactions can help to ‘smudge over’ one’s transaction history) wasn’t good enough — the finance industry needs confidential transactions. So during our six month stint at the Biscuit Factory, Zac plunged into cryptography, and soon surfaced with a spec for AZTEC 1.0. We were lucky to work with Jens Groth, creator of the mathematics now running ZCash (GROTH16). He helped Zac build the soundness proof.

We doubled the team on the Entrepreneur First programme — Arnaud and Joe were in our cohort. Both are exceptional engineers as well as deep thinkers, and the four of us still run the company.

How did you get into the bitcoin and blockchain industry?

I was first handed the Yellow Paper by my opera-singing flatmate (Zac’s brother!). I think a lot of the appeal was aesthetic at first. It sits nicely at the intersection of economics and computer science, and I saw a chance to re-engage the brain.

The ‘mission’ was of course compelling — I was a 2009 graduate after all! If this tech could raise the liquidity of assets, it should lower demand for deposits / bank accounts and drain leverage from the system. Over-simplistic, probably.

Of course I didn’t foresee this would lead to us building a company like AZTEC.

You used to work at a Hedge Fund and now run a blockchain company, can you share some of your learnings?

I’m not sure how much my time in finance informed the process of building AZTEC.

I left an industry that was still quite damaged by 2008 — and I definitely thought I was joining one built on principals. So I was pretty miffed to watch all that utility-token nonsense in 2017/18. It’s quite surprising that it bewitched so many clever people. Anyway, nice to have moved beyond that now.

What is the vision of AZTEC? What makes it special compared to the other privacy solution like STARK or privacy coins like ZCASH?

We want to bring bank-grade privacy to public networks.

Today almost no one is doing ‘important things’ on blockchains. I should clarify that, obviously, infrastructures like MakerDAO and Compound are very important. But you and I aren’t generally doing on-chain transactions that identify us. For example, we don’t receive income and pay expenses on these networks (i.e., very few identifying financial habits — for now). Pseudo-anonymity is maybe good enough for putting the occasional bit of ETH into Compound. But as we move out of toy mode, transaction privacy will be an absolute prerequisite.

As for the technology, our company is named after our first “range-proof” technique. It’s our first technique, not our last. It’s the one that gets us to mainnet efficiently and expressively. The vision of AZTEC is to give fintechs the ability to build confidential digital assets. On AZTEC, you can send, swap, mint, burn and pay income as well as redemptions all in zero knowledge, without rolling your own cryptography.

We are also really excited to have just announced PLONK, an efficient universal SNARK, co-authored with Ariel Gabizon (Protocol Labs and formerly ZCash). This paves the way for more general systems of privacy on public chains.

Who is your target audience?

We’re making a play for developers at the moment, especially those building fintech applications, from capital markets systems to consumer apps.

Anything to add?

We’ve an exciting couple of months upcoming — our MPC Ignition Ceremony in October and an early vision of the earth view is here. Those wishing to participate in the ceremony can register here. It’s important to realise that this setup isn’t just for AZTEC — it’s an Open Source asset for the community, and will be used for future cryptosystems (including PLONK).

And we’re on the lookout for a world-class applied cryptographer — please see our AngelList profile.

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