This article originally appeared in the Motley Fool. 

Last year, the cryptocurrency market was practically unstoppable. After beginning the year with a combined market value of just $17.7 billion, virtual currencies ended 2017 with an aggregate market cap of $613 billion. This better than 3,300% annual gain in valuation, which was mostly from the expanded market caps of existing tokens rather than a result of new coin offerings, might be the best year-on-year increase ever for any asset class.

However, things have been markedly different in 2018. After briefly ascending to new heights on Jan. 7, the combined market cap of all cryptocurrencies proceeded to lose two-thirds of its value at one point. As of Feb. 14, the market value of virtual currencies is down 27% from when the year began.

Virtually all of the largest digital currencies have tumbled in unison since the year began. Bitcoin, the world's largest cryptocurrency and the digital token most likely to be accepted by merchants worldwide, has sunk by nearly $5,000 per coin in a month and a half. Meanwhile Ripple, which emerged from bitcoin's shadow by gaining over 35,500% in 2017, has lost almost 53% of its value since 2017 ended, falling to only $1.09 per XRP coin.

These Cryptocurrencies Have Skyrocketed As Other Virtual Coins Crumbled

While there have been plenty of reasons for investors to run for the hills of late, including increased regulations out of South Korea and China and a decisive shift in the emotions of retail investors, a handful of cryptocurrencies -- four to be exact -- have bucked the downward trend. In fact, the following four virtual currencies are up by double or triple digits since the year began, according to data from CoinMarketCap.com.

Ethereum: Up 20%

Though bitcoin and Ripple have been in a race to the downside, Ethereum, the second-largest cryptocurrency by market cap, has actually vaulted higher by 20% thus far in 2018. The lure of Ethereum is that its blockchain has pretty much been the basis of evolution for countless other cryptocurrency blockchains, and it's being tested by more enterprises than any other digital currency.

The Enterprise Ethereum Alliance began roughly one year ago and now counts 200 corporations and organizations from around the world as members that are testing its blockchain in some capacity. There are, in particular, three aspects of Ethereum's blockchain that businesses really seem to like.

First, Ethereum's blockchain transcends currency-only applications that were all the rage when bitcoin first came to market, meaning a wide moat of industries and sectors are considering how blockchain can be used to their advantage. Second, Ethereum's blockchain incorporates smart contract protocols, which aid in the facilitation, verification, or enforcement of a contract, essentially making them more legally binding. Third, Ethereum's smart contracts and blockchain are highly customizable by enterprises, giving them the ability to pivot blockchain to fit their business needs. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Ethereum deserves to be the world's most valuable cryptocurrency.

VeChain: Up 107%

Of all large cryptocurrencies (i.e., those with a $1 billion market cap, or larger), none has been more impressive so far in 2018 than VeChain. This blockchain-as-a-service company has more than doubled since the year began, following two key news events in January.

The biggest catalyst appears to be an announced partnership between VeChain and DNV GL, a global provider of assurance services. The deal entails utilizing VeChain's blockchain, along with Internet of Things devices embedded within a product, to create a transparent and real-time supply chain that factories, distributors, retailers, and consumers can use to pinpoint the location of a good, as well as how well it performed in testing. Supply chain management is a big selling point of blockchain that's probably being underrepresented at the moment.

Also, VeChain became the first cryptocurrency in history to pass the Cryptocurrency Disaster Recovery Plan (CDRP), according to PwC. The CDRP analyzed various threats to VeChain's blockchain -- based on likelihood and severity -- and determined that VeChain had adequate control procedures in place to protect crypto assets. 

With a deal in place and a feather in its cap in terms of network security, VeChain is riding high.

NEO: Up 57%

One of the most interesting aspects of NEO, which has only been outperformed by VeChain thus far in 2018, is that its blockchain is built around Ethereum's network, with some proprietary twists, of course. Founder Da Hongfei expects that NEO will be able to scale better, as well as be more compatible with existing network infrastructure, relative to Ethereum.

However, what might have crypto-enthusiasts scratching their heads a bit is the lack of decentralization with NEO. Usually, investors in digital currencies come to expect that coins will not be controlled by any large group of investors or founders. Yet with NEO, its development team does control a substantial number of issued coins. Though this does create concerns that the development team could make moves contrary to what the NEO community would prefer, it also means there's a much smaller consensus loop since fewer people are involved, which often means quick decision-making. In fact, NEO has touted a processing speed of up to 1,000 transactions per second, which is light years faster than the Ethereum network. 

Though Da Hongfei has hinted at a decentralization of NEO in the future, for now it's all about NEO's ability to differentiate from Ethereum while not sacrificing network performance.

Lisk: Up 38%

Last, but certainly not least, Lisk has galloped 38% higher since the year began.

Lisk is intriguing in that rather than focusing its network on a single blockchain, as essentially most of its peers have done, its network relies on sidechains to the Lisk-run main blockchain to keep the network running smoothly. The key advantage to these sidechains is that they don't require developers to learn new coding languages, as is often the case with Ethereum's smart contracts, which are written in Solidity. Running on something as simple as JavaScript, these sidechains, which are just independent ledgers, link to the main blockchain without hurting speed or performance.

As noted by CoinCentral, by utilizing a primary Lisk-run blockchain with these unique sidechains, along with an open-source software development kit, businesses have the ability to create easily downloadable digital applications. In other words, they can focus on app functionality rather than spending their time having to code a central blockchain. 

Though it's not perfectly clear why Lisk has been off to the races in recent weeks, the best guess I can offer is Japanese cryptocurrency exchange bitFlyer's announcing in late January that it would be adding Lisk to its platform. 

Long story short, there's a whole lot going on beyond just bitcoin and Ripple.

ethereum-crypto-bitcoin-ripple-digital-currency-blockchain-getty_large Cryptocurrency Photo: Getty

Sean Williams has no position in any of the stocks or cryptocurrencies mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks or cryptocurrencies mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.