As digital currencies have become more and more widespread, it seems like just about every new startup is linked to the space in some way or another. While some of these companies and projects will go on to see great success, it's far more likely that an endeavor in the blockchain or cryptocurrency areas will see middling results at best. Any estimates of a project's future prospects are completely off the table, however, when a cryptocurrency or blockchain heavy hitter is tied to the project. Attaching the name of a cryptocurrency superstar to a new company, coin, or bit of technology can be a quick way to lend an air of credibility to a project in an industry where skepticism tends to rule and where investors are increasingly on the watch for potential scams. Below, we'll explore some of these major figures in the digital currency realm and what has helped them achieve their current level of fame and recognition.
Perhaps the single most famous figure in the digital currency area is also its most mysterious. Satoshi Nakamoto may not even be a single person at all, but rather a group of developers and cryptocurrency visionaries. Satoshi is the pseudonym of the founder (or founders) of Bitcoin, the world's largest cryptocurrency by market cap. While analysts and investors have engaged in significant speculation and research in order to guess or determine who Satoshi really is, so far these efforts have come up empty handed. Regardless of the real person or persons behind the Satoshi moniker, however, the success of BTC and its position at the forefront of the blockchain and cryptocurrency spaces is very much not a mystery.
Vitalik Buterin is the creator of the blockchain platform Ethereum as well as its digital token ether (also known, coincidentally, as "ethereum"). Buterin launched a massive digital currency empire that is now worth more than $50 billion, making it the second-largest cryptocurrency after BTC. Perhaps even more importantly, though, is the Ethereum platform itself. Ethereum revolutionized the smart contracts space, paving the way for initial coin offerings (ICOs), new decentralized apps (dApps), and much more.
Many of the leading figures in the digital currency world are also highly controversial, and Roger Ver is absolutely at the top of both lists. Ver, known as "Bitcoin Jesus" for his early evangelism in support of the cryptocurrency. He became an early backer of a number of prototypical bitcoin-related companies and business ventures. He gained detractors, however, for his support of the Segwit2x protocol and the decision by developers and miners to hard fork the cryptocurrency. Further, his personal story has likely contributed to his reputation as a controversial figure; he renounced his U.S. citizenship and moved to the Caribbean island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis.
Of all of the developers that had a role in the creation of the cryptocurrency movement, Nick Szabo is one that many analysts believe may actually be the figure behind the Satoshi Nakamoto alias. Szabo is considered a pioneer in the blockchain and cryptocurrency realms. He developed the earliest smart contracts and launched "bit gold," an important precursor to the bitcoin empire which lent many of its architectural features to BTC's network.
When searching for digital currency pioneers, it helps to look to the development team behind bitcoin. Gavin Andresen was a part of that team, having been appointed as lead developer on the Bitcoin Core project by Satoshi Nakamoto. Andresen worked on the bitcoin project starting in 2010 and later went on to found the Bitcoin Foundation in order to move into an advocacy role. Although the Bitcoin Foundation did see public criticism for some of its endeavors and advocacy projects over the years, since 2014 it has focused on a set of core development goals. Through his work in developing bitcoin itself and now on the Foundation, Andresen for many years has played a pivotal role in shaping the cryptocurrency world.
Charlie Shrem joined Gavin Andresen in founding the Bitcoin Foundation. Prior to that, though, he took an early interest in bitcoin, founding a bitcoin startup called BitInstant. Shrem's activity with BitInstant ended up getting him into legal trouble, however. In 2014, Shrem was arrested on charges related to money laundering for illegal purchases made on the Silk Road marketplace. By that time, BitInstant, which had received initial support from Roger Ver and other figures on this list, was already shut down. Shrem resigned from his position with the Bitcoin Foundation and was ultimately convicted on the charges of illegal activity. He spent more than a year in prison. However, upon his release, he returned to the cryptocurrency space, albeit with other types of projects.
Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss
Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss rose to prominence in the early days of Facebook (FB). While popular culture may continue to give them recognition for their role in that story, they have had an equally monumental impact in the digital currency space. The twin brothers co-founded Winklevoss Capital and Gemini, a digital asset exchange. Tyler Winklevoss became the world's first bitcoin billionaire, having invested $11 million in the digital currency in 2013, long before it reached public prominence.
Brad Garlinghouse is the CEO of Ripple, the global payments-focused blockchain network and currently the third-largest digital currency by market cap. Garlinghouse entered the cryptocurrency space after ample experience in the broader tech world, having been CEO of the file-sharing startup Hightail and having served in senior-level roles at AOL and Yahoo. Under Garlinghouse's leadership, ripple has developed into one of the most popular cryptocurrencies. Some analysts even go so far as to argue that Ripple, as a result of its global payments focus and perhaps more than other digital currencies, may be the most likely coin or token to inspire the eventual large-scale adoption of digital currencies by the traditional financial world of banks and Wall Street institutions.
Some of the most important figures in the development of the cryptocurrency space are not cryptocurrency creators themselves. Such is the case with Brian Armstrong, the co-founder and CEO of Coinbase, one of the largest and most popular digital currency exchanges in the world. Coinbase provides transactions in four major digital currencies (bitcoin, bitcoin cash, ethereum, and litecoin) and with dozens of fiat currencies. The exchange has also proven to be a leader in the area of cryptocurrency storage, providing users the opportunity to store their cryptocurrencies online with unprecedented security.
Charlie Lee was formerly the Director of Engineering for Coinbase, a position which would already place him among the most important figures in the cryptocurrency world. However, where Lee has really left his mark is in the creation of the digital currency litecoin. Aside from his work with litecoin, Lee remains a passionate cryptocurrency advocate. He continues to involve himself with numerous different digital currency development projects, as well as related startups and exchanges. Like many of the other figures on this list, however, he is not without his share of controversy and even outspoken detractors.