An Inside Look Into How Crypto Projects Are Made
The story behind the Voltaire House, an emerging blockchain hub.
Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it. On a quiet, sunny street in Buenos Aires, Argentina, just two blocks long, sits one of the biggest emerging hubs fueling a $100+ billion crypto market: The Voltaire House.
While surging markets have captivated investors, the stories behind some of the most innovative projects in crypto have remained untold — until now.
Building Something From Nothing
In 2011, while studying computer science at ITBA (Argentina’s MIT), Manuel Araoz enrolled in a cryptography class and a course on distributed systems. It wasn’t long before he discovered Satoshi Nakamoto’s original Bitcoin whitepaper.
“The paper seemed really interesting,” he told me. “But when I shared it with my professors, they dismissed it as nonsense. I thought this tech could change the world.”
Manuel quickly discovered early bitcoin communities and began exchanging ideas with others who saw vast potential for blockchain-enabled technologies. “These communities pushed me to discover new ideas that radically changed my worldview,” he said.
After graduating, Manuel created the first-ever non-financial blockchain application, Proof of Existence. Soon after, he joined BitPay as one of their first employees. As Tech Lead, he was charged with building a development team in Buenos Aires. To serve as an operating base, Manuel leased a two-story, five-room building in the burgeoning Palermo Hollywood neighborhood.
Creating a Community
Using his network of software developers, designers, and engineers — many of whom he met while attending university — Manuel quickly populated the house with a dozen colleagues.
Franco Zeoli, who would later join Voltaire, described the early days of the house as an innovative hotspot. “These kids were hard-wired to experiment and build businesses,” he said. “Surrounded by entrepreneurs, all you needed to do was invest your time. The ideas and projects would come naturally.”
After leaving BitPay, Manuel and his comrades continued leasing the house themselves. “We had these offices and liked working there,” said Esteban Ordano, one of Voltaire’s earliest members. “We figured, let’s keep it and build our own projects.”
Thus, the Voltaire House was born.
With a reputation for radical thinking and disruptive ideas, a long waitlist quickly formed, with projects and entrepreneurs looking to set up shop at Voltaire.
One weekend, Voltaire member Ari Meilich organized a weekend hackathon with everyone from the house. The goal was simple: to build Doppel, an app to find your Doppelganger. They scraped millions of Facebook profile pictures to train a neural network that would find someone in the world that looked like you.
The app, which they built for fun alone, was finished in less than 48 hours.
“These guys take their projects seriously,” said Dana Bottazzo, an early investor in Decentraland — the latest Voltaire-backed venture. “I’m still not exactly sure when they sleep.”
Another graduate of ITBA, Yemel Jardi, was one of the first members invited to Voltaire. The allure of joining other crypto-fanatics was too good to pass up:
“At the age of 13, I got into magic. I studied and performed for several years before diving into software engineering. I love the quote ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ The guys at the Voltaire House proved that every day.”
Yemel helped fellow member Dario Sneidermanis start Muun, a Lightning Network wallet. They soon moved the operations into the Voltaire House. Dario quickly invited two more members: Patricio Palladino, a former coworker at Google, and Franco Zeoli, who had previously worked with Esteban Ordano.
“They were looking for guys with compatible skills, but the culture fit was most important,” said Mariano Rodriguez, the designer on the Buenos Aires BitPay team. He would go on to work with several Voltaire projects and Bitcoin companies, a common habit among members.
How a Project Evolves
Sharing resources and leveraging previous work are both core habits of Voltaire-backed ventures. The development of Streamium was a prime example.
Streamium was one of the first major house-backed projects. Three members — Manuel, Demian, and Esteban — would eventually launch a company based on its origins.
The project was the first app to implement payment channels, an emerging technology to help scale blockchain payments. When its original model (monetized video streaming) wasn’t commercially viable, they scrambled to leverage their work in other fields.
“We were pitching the product, but we ended up finding investors looking to back us as a team” said Manuel following a fundraising trip to the U.S. “That gave us some time to find the right opportunity.”
Their projects went through countless iterations, incorporating the feedback and experience of numerous Voltaire members. At one point, they were developing a platform for paying international contractors with Bitcoin.
Following the DAO hack, they finally found an answer: auditing smart contracts. The resulting product was Zeppelin Solutions, which has since helped raise over $250 million for organizations such as Brave, Golem, and Blockchain Capital.
While membership and participation in individual projects oscillates, the persistent communal sharing of resources, connections, and expertise has been a cultural mainstay of the house — arguably its biggest strength.
“Communities like the Voltaire House force you to constantly challenge yourself,” said Voltaire member Martín Triay. “We’re always pushing each other‘s skills and creativity.”
Where Crypto Eats Lunch
If you want to truly understand the culture at Voltaire, you have to attend one of their lunches. Calling them intellectually stimulating would be an understatement.
The conversation is typically at the cross-section of philosophy and technology. Moral conundrums are a house favorite. How should autonomous cars act in a situation that would save the driver but kill a pedestrian? Who is liable if a bot malfunctions and causes harm? What kind of neuro-security should we develop to protect users of brain-to-brain interfaces?
Unsurprisingly, the guest list is often impressive: Andreas Antonopoulos, Zooko Wilcox (Zcash), Sergio Lerner (RSK Labs), Ryan X. Charles (Yours.org), and Andrew Lee (Purse). Employees of BitPay, Kraken, and other crypto projects are also known to drop in.
VR + Crypto
In 2015, members of the Voltaire House pitched in to buy a new HTC Vive VR Headset. They were stunned.
“When I first encountered immersive VR experiences, it felt like the first time I learned about blockchains,” Esteban Ordano said. “I think we are just touching the tip of the iceberg in what’s possible.”
They began modeling what the future would look like after dozens of industries and everyday activities are adapted to virtual spaces. As with other closed systems, they predicted that a single corporation (or several) would control the future of virtual reality worlds.
To fight back, they created Decentraland, an open virtual platform powered by the Ethereum blockchain.
Blockchains and VR were a natural pair to Voltaire. “The idea behind Decentraland is to build an environment where the network itself can benefit,” said Ari, the Project Lead.
Decentraland is a VR platform powered by the Ethereum blockchain. Users can create, share, experience, and monetize content and applications.decentraland.org
VR isn’t alone. Voltaire has also incorporated creative minds in other fields, such as machine learning.
Pablo Zivic, Ari’s co-founder at his big-data company Benchrise, is an AI specialist whose PhD thesis applies machine learning algorithms to the psychology of music. Javier Silveira and Bruno Cuervo have also made AI a core part of their product offering at Opinautos.com, another project based at Voltaire that is currently generating 2.5 million monthly users.
The Voltaire House 2.0
The Voltaire community remained selective when adding new members, but years of growth pushed them close to capacity. In 2016, Dana Bottazzo, an early investor in several Voltaire projects, funded the opening of a second house — roughly three times the size — to accommodate new invitees.
It’s just getting started, but nearly a dozen people already work there everyday on multiple projects, including Zeppelin Solutions, Ryfter, and Decentraland.
Imagining the Future
Countless major technologies that everyone takes for granted today were created during the internet boom of the late 1990s. Early innovations included video streaming, cloud computing, social networking, and mobile browsers. The gyrations of equity markets did little to stop the inexorable impact of the internet.
Cryptocurrency markets will also fluctuate, but the innovation surrounding blockchains — the underlying technology — will continue. The seeds of future disruption are being sown daily in communities like the Voltaire House.
And they aren’t alone. Major crypto communities are popping up in places like New York, Seoul, San Francisco, Berlin, Lisbon, Zug, and Singapore. The future of the blockchain is already underway. Don’t blink.