Shelita Burke 2
Recording artist and cryptologist Shelita Burke is taking bitcoin music sales to mainstream audiences. Daniel Horowitz

Hundreds of people are flocking to the blockchain industry to get “hilariously rich,” as the New York Times stated in an article about the rise of cryptocurrency. Yet not everyone is going coo coo for crypto puffs because of prospective riches. Here are eight blockchain industry influencers to watch in 2018:

1. The Bank Whisperer

Amber Baldet
Amber Baldet, Blockchain Program Lead at JP Morgan Benjamin Spradley

Amber Baldet, the executive director of JP Morgan’s Blockchain Center of Excellence, is perhaps the most prominent cypherpunk on Wall Street. CoinDesk listed her among the world’s most influential blockchain stars because her secret superpower is connecting enterprise players with hackers, cryptocurrency innovators and rogue developers roaming the open source outlands of experimental technology. She’s a driving force behind the blockchain platform Quorum, which international corporations and banks are using to explore the same technical features that make cryptocurrency so interesting.

Just like most bank employees, it’s almost impossible to get a statement about what she’ll be up to in 2018. But keep an eye out for Baldet’s rare Twitter announcements. Sometimes, news of the blockchain industry’s infrastructural milestones are hidden in plain sight.

2. The [Reluctant] Messiah

Vitalik Buterin
Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin John Phillips/Getty

Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin is perhaps one of the most famous developers to emerge from the cryptocurrency boom. This Russian-Canadian programmer was swamped with offers to join initial coin offerings in 2017. Although he constantly says he is more interested in strengthening infrastructure than joining startups, the rumors never cease.

Buterin is also a popular target for trolls. His thin frame and penchant for colorful cat-themed apparel draw gendered insults portraying the community leader as effeminate and weak. Gender discrepancy plagues the blockchain community’s public discourse, from Github and social media to the press. A survey of 22,136 articles by the Global Media Monitoring Project estimated men accounted for 65 percent of sources in mainstream tech coverage in 2015, 79 percent in economic stories and 84 percent in political stories. Due to all the focus on male blockchain stars, at public events it’s common to see Buterin deflecting pleas for messianic predictions about the future as he struggles to speak with peers who are actually working on open source projects.

Nonetheless, Buterin is still a leading figure at the Ethereum Foundation, plus startups like Zcash and Omise Go. In addition to warding off gossip, he is also busy working on groundbreaking improvements for the Ethereum ecosystem. “2017 really has been the year where hype in crypto, including financial hype and social hype in general has far exceeded the reality of what existing blockchain systems can offer,” Buterin told TechCrunch. “Everyone in the Ethereum space recognizes that the world is watching, and we are ready to deliver.”

3. The Engineer

Rain Revere wears multiple hats. She is the lead architect of the ShapeShift Prism project, a fully collateralized cryptocurrency portfolio scheduled for beta launch in 2018. There are already more than 5,000 people on the Prism waiting list.

This engineer also founded the blockchain startup Maiden in 2017. Revere and her business partner Shira Frank are working to increase the cryptocurrency community's diversity through educational programs and consulting services. They’ve already started work with their first consulting client, SALT cryptocurrency lending platform. Contracts are lined up for several more.

The idea is to help people with diverse backgrounds gain the technical skills to make blockchain technologies, then connect them with job opportunities. “There’s a ton of demand on the engineering side,” Revere told International Business Times. “If we want the blockchain space and the future of our economy to be as intelligent and decentralized as we hope, we need that social decentralization.”

Meanwhile, her Prism team is redefining how people think about digital wallets and portfolios. “It’s built to work with Ethereum smart contracts. So there’s no counterparty risk. It’s a fully trustless system,” she said. Instead of juggling dozens of wallets for different tokens, Prism will allow cryptocurrency users to manage all their digital currencies in one decentralized portfolio. “Right now it’s really difficult to diversify in crypto," Revere said. "It [Prism] allows you to store this entire portfolio with as many cryptocurrencies as you like, all controlled with a single Ethereum private key.”

Today, cryptocurrency users generally have to rely on exchange businesses like Kraken or Coinbase to get new tokens. These platforms are often hacked, suspend services when their system gets overloaded, and collect information about their users in order to comply with regulations. Keeping cryptocurrency on an exchange is a security risk to boot. Plus, users have to pay hefty fees to move cryptocurrency off the platform. So the cryptocurrency community is moving towards decentralized exchanges, where people will be able to do peer-to-peer token swaps.

Ledger hardware wallets, a ShapeShift competitor with regards to hardware KeeyKey wallets, can now directly access a decentralized exchange through the order book Radar Relay. This wasn’t a Ledger project; It was an open source development pioneered by the decentralized exchange's community. Revere said Prism's API will also be made public in 2018, so Prism and other portfolio products could have similar capabilities in the future. “That’s going to invite a host of third party developers to create those kinds of integrations,” she said. “Meanwhile, Maiden is looking at education as the main tool for social change, educating people in the blockchain space.”

4. The Investor

Joyce Kim
Stellar co-founder Joyce Kim is now a managing partner at the global, blockchain-centric fund SparkChain Capital. Joyce Kim

Joyce Kim, co-founder of the Stellar cryptocurrency network and managing partner at the $100 million SparkChain Capital fund, described herself as “permanently remote.” This Korean-American investor is constantly flying anywhere untapped opportunities lurk in the shadows. Stellar’s cryptocurrency Lumens have seen remarkable growth despite slumping bitcoin prices. OnChainFX estimated Lumen prices rose 1,727 percent over the past three months, up 181 percent in January alone.

Stellar is often compared to Ripple because both ecosystems have similar origins. Both cryptocurrencies were made for faster, cheaper transactions than bitcoin or Ethereum. Yet Stellar advocates are working to distinguish it from the enterprise-oriented startup Ripple. “A lot of the people that I met when I was running Stellar were people who just had an idea for their community,” Kim told IBT. “They are not the typical big finance companies. They are people who say ‘hey, women in my community have a hard time with savings accounts,’ or ‘farmers have a hard time dealing with the financial management of their crops’...yes, they eventually make businesses to address these needs. But it’s not just large financial institutions.”

Kim stepped down from her role as Stellar’s executive director in 2016 to focus on venture capital. She is one of the most experienced protocol creators to switch sides. So far, SparkLabs has invested in 158 companies, from Andela in Nigeria to BLOCKO in South Korea. With Kim at the helm, the new SparkChain fund will make its first round of investments in blockchain startups this year. She wants to focus on equity in more mature projects rather than initial coin offerings.

“We’re going global instead of focusing on Silicon Valley or certain Asian economies like some funds do. We’re going later stage instead of seed stage,” she said. “Companies are creating tokens that they may not even need for their product, as a fundraising mechanism. They are tying so much of the success of their company to what a future market cap much of their effort will have to focus on keeping their market price up, which is a completely different goal than building a great product.”

In 2018, Kim plans to deepen her involvement with a variety of cryptocurrency communities, beyond bitcoin, Stellar and Ethereum. “2018 should be the year of execution. Either we are going to build things that people use, that have traction, or we’re going to see this technology not reach its full potential,” Kim said. “I’m talking with entrepreneurs all over the world and building blockchain projects in different geographies.” One example she admires is the fintech startup BitPesa in Kenya. Expect to see Kim sniffing out creative blockchain applications that most Silicon Valley veterans still overlook.

5. The Pragmatist

Primavera De Filippi hops back and forth between the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. "I'm trying to understand what is the actual added value that the blockchain provides, is it enabling anything new and different that could not be done before?” De Filippi told IBT. “And if that is the case, then what do we have to do to make sure those promises are fulfilled reality?" This spring Harvard will publish “Blockchain and The Law,” a book De Filippi wrote with Cardozo Law School professor Aaron Wright, chair of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance's legal working group.

Unlike many bitcoin enthusiasts, her work takes an unflinching look at the cryptocurrency market’s unequal wealth distribution. "It [the internet] came with many promises of individual freedom and emancipation, but over time it has been increasingly turned into a very powerful tool for surveillance and for control,” she said. “In the case of blockchain technology, which is still largely immature, I'm trying to understand whether and how we can push the technology more towards the values of individual emancipation, collaboration, and disintermediation. Just like the Internet, it will probably end up being used for a little bit of both."

She’s also the creator of a blockchain-based art project called Plantoids, which started in 2015 and now includes multiple pieces on display in galleries around the world. The plant-shaped robot automatically collects cryptocurrency payments then hires artists to replicate itself. "I created the first plantoid and it has since then reproduced itself into several others,” she said. “It is autonomous, because no external party can control it, it is self-sufficient, because it is able to collect the necessary resources to reproduce itself."

The lessons we learn today about autonomous protocols could influence the future of blockchain ecosystems. This artistic project removes some of the divisive elements that cause infighting in the bitcoin community, focusing solely on the mechanics of independent software, copyright law and grassroots contribution. De Filippi is working on a new, more sophisticated plantoid to debut in 2018.

“The new plantoids can introduce a new set of criteria, i.e. additional genes into its DNA code. It's an evolutionary algorithm,” she said. “The plantoids that are the most popular, either because they are the most beautiful or because they have a governance system that is more interesting, will collect more money and will therefore end up replicating more often, so that particular branch will grow and evolve.”

6. The Artist

Artist and bitcoin evangelist Shelita Burke
Recording artist and cryptologist Shelita Burke is taking bitcoin music sales to mainstream audiences. Daniel Horowitz

Indie recording artist Shelita Burke made waves in 2017 when she taught 3,851 longtime fans how to use bitcoin to buy her album. Now she’s teaming up with music producer Marcus Bell to launch a blockchain-centric publishing company. They published their first e-book, a branding guide for artists and musicians, in January and already received more than 100 messages from prospective authors. This new crypto-savvy publishing house will focus on audiobooks, artistic experiments with smart contracts and traditional manuscripts. For example, buying a book from the Ethereum-powered website will automatically pay the author with no intermediary fees or cuts. Burke is herself looking to push the boundaries between music, literature and smart contracts. She’ll be performing and leading workshops on blockchain technology in the music industry at South By Southwest in March.

7. The Entrepreneur

Maxine Ryan
Maxine Ryan, co-founder of the Hong Kong-based fintech startup BitSpark. Maxine Ryan

The Hong Kong-based blockchain startup BitSpark has been working with remittance companies and payment processors since 2014, facilitating thousands of transactions a month for at least 10 different money transfer operators. It is one of the few local providers working with both international bitcoin payments and regular remittance. “Right now we work in seven countries, like the Philippines and Indonesia,” BitSpark co-founder and COO Maxine Ryan told IBT. “Scalability is really what we’re looking at next.”

The startup’s 2017 initial coin offering raised $1.4 million with a new Bitshares-based token project called Zephyr. “It’s a tradable rewards token for our customers,” Ryan said. “Every time they do a transaction on the platform we want to reward them with tokens.” In 2018, BitSpark is collaborating with the United Nations Development Programme to develop a peer-to-peer Zephyr pilot program in Tajikistan. “We’re talking to the Tajikistan regulators,” she said. “Last year at [fintech] conferences people were like ‘bitcoin, whatever, it’s a scam.’ But now this year there’s been a completely new point of view about what this technology can do for people.”

Ryan is more excited about cryptocurrency’s potential to impact social change than yield profits. In 2013, the World Bank estimated remittance accounted for 49 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP. Overall economic growth fell in the following years, hindered by trouble with local currency reserves and international exchange access. “I think Tajikistan is a perfect use case because they have a systematic distrust of the banking system,” Ryan said. “So much so that people are willing to keep cash in their house and use a taxi driver to move’s about translating the [blockchain] technology in a useable way, which will help equalize things in some aspect.”

8. The Gatekeeper

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong
Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong. Anthony Harvey/Getty

Brian Armstrong, CEO of the popular cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase, holds the reins at one of the world’s most famous cryptocurrency platforms. It reportedly has more than 13 million users and raked in $1 billion in revenue last year. This is how many bitcoin newbies buy their first cryptocurrency, so Armstrong's work is a pivotal force in driving mainstream adoption.

The 34-year-old entrepreneur has the power to help introduce a young token to mainstream audiences, as he did with litecoin in 2017, or sway public opinion about what currency can even be called “bitcoin.” Cryptocurrency users are eagerly awaiting news that Coinbase could add new assets in 2018, although so far official announcements deny all such rumors.