An adventure through blockchain’s cultural resonance in Vancouver

Innovators in the space chat crypto, origin stories and their hometown.

The world’s first Bitcoin ATM, in the flesh in downtown Vancouver. The customer is no ordinary one. Scanning in is Mitchell Demeter, the founder of the world's first BitcoinATM and now president of Netcoins, a Vancouver-based crypto exchange company. Photo ℅ @Keri_Adams on Twitter. Demeter ID ℅ Ayelen Osorio.

“When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know.” I was recently reminded of this James Baldwin quote. As I write for Vancouver Tech Journal and plug myself into the city’s tech ecosystem, I often hear about how blockchain, cryptocurrency and NFTs intersect in Vancouver. This quote rings especially true for me when I think about these spaces. Damn…does it ever feel like something I don’t know enough about. Perhaps, you, me and Baldwin are all in the same boat on this subject. Thankfully, over a series of conversations, innovators from the industry brought me up to speed and I discovered some interesting anecdotes along the way. Join me on the adventure. 

The first person I spoke to was Erik Ashdown, head of ecosystem growth for Covalent, which has been referred to as the Google of blockchain. “Okay, Goo- err, Erik, can you tell me about Vancouver’s crypto leaders?” Without missing a beat, Ashdown responded by spelling out E-N-J-I-N—Enjin––a local cryptocurrency company. Enjin was co-founded by Vancouverite Witek Radomski, “a ridiculously smart guy,” according to Ashdown. “We all pale in comparison to him. What Enjin can do blows my mind,” I was told. What’s so mind blowing? A quick Coin Market Cap search returns a remarkable result: a billion-dollar plus market cap for Enjin’s cryptocurrency, Enjin Coin—good enough to count itself among the top 100 in the world.

I closed the Coin Market Cap tab on my browser and immediately opened LinkedIn to connect with Radomski. On another tab—Zoom—shortly after, I asked for Radomski’s opinion on blockchain in Vancouver. He was quick to remind me that in 2013, a Waves coffee shop near the Vancouver Art Gallery became home to the world’s first Bitcoin ATM. One machine turned into 85 by the end of 2019 before hitting the 154 ATM marker in July 2021. 

Another primary focus for Radomski and Enjin are NFTs, an innovation that also has deep roots in Vancouver. “We were really the first platform in the world for minting and creating NFTs. This was before ‘NFT’ was even a coined term. Dapper Labs then came out with and built CryptoKitties in Vancouver,” Radomski stated. He also explained that a pair of standards that police and define digital tokens—ERC-721 and ERC-1155—stem from Vancouver.

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Self-consciously, I nodded in mutual understanding despite “gesundheit” being a more appropriate response. When I called upon Google—correctly, this time—I learned that NFTs are riddled with contracts. The contracts are in place due to the relative infancy of the industry plus the difficulties in policing a digital product. These contracts are aptly named. They exist to ensure a common standard exists for NFTs so they can be created, uploaded, bought or sold in an equitable, sustainable fashion. 

Standards are authored by those working within the industry and brought forward to the overarching governing body, in this case the Ethereum blockchain. The process feels a little bit like political motions. One such motioner author of ERC-721 is Dieter Shirley, co-founder of local juggernaut Dapper Labs. ERC-721 sought to standardize the use of visuals in NFTs. The standard was set with CryptoKitties, Dapper’s first foray into NFTs, in mind. But, the motion appears to really set the stage for Dapper’s wildly popular NFT product, NBA Top Shot.

Radomski co-authored the second standard he shouted out, ERC-1155. The standard was built upon ERC-721’s but expanded upon it. As the applications for NFTs evolve, the need arises for standards to evolve, too. ERC-1155 has a major impact on various industries according to Enjin, but gaming is a major application. The need makes sense as gaming relies upon, essentially, multiple visuals strung together and sometimes these visuals require individual NFTs. A union of gaming and NFTs was recently showcased by East Side Games, a gaming company located in—you guessed it—east Vancouver. Video game manufacturers by trade, East Side Games made their blockchain debut in April 2021 by crafting their parent company LEAF’s first NFT-based game. 

I couldn’t help but wonder why Vancouver acted as this catalyst. “There must be something in the water,” I thought to myself. Radomski hypothesized that it was the city’s energy, not the drinking supply. He recalled back to another moment from the early 2010s that would surely feature in Vancouver’s encyclopedia entry: Occupy Vancouver. “There's lots of people protesting various things here like Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Vancouver. There's a lot of people that try to think a little bit revolutionarily here, I guess. That sort of mentality led to the kind of experimenter of people wanting to do that. In Vancouver, there's a lot of people experimenting with this kind of stuff.” 

I logged out of my chat with Radomski before I was pointed in the direction of DMG Blockchain Solutions and CEO Sheldon Bennett. He called me from the 2021 Miners Summit—serious event envy on my part—to detail the origin story of DMG, a Vancouver-based Bitcoin mining company. To paint the entire picture of his start in blockchain, Bennett shared that there are less regulatory strings attached to Bitcoin mining in Canada rather than the US. This geopolitical landscape opened the door.

“I got into this industry kind of by accident,” he told me. While working overseas, a colleague moved to San Francisco to work for Bitfury, a company that provides blockchain software—infrastructure for organizations to accept Bitcoin as payment—and hardware—Bitcoin mining instruments. Small talk turned large the next time the pair caught up. The friend told Bennett that the mining of cryptocurrencies was hampered by regulations in the US but a more seamless process existed north of the border. 

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“[The US government wasn’t] sure between state and federal how they were going to manage crypto and the government wasn't all that clear on [the technology]. In Canada, there weren't any markers out there on federal or provincial rules and regulations saying ‘we're opposed to this’ in some way. It was very neutral: ‘do what you want,’” Bennett pointed out. “So, I think that's why Bitfury went and said, ‘Okay, let's head to Canada first.’”

The friend shoulder-tapped Bennett to implement Bitfury’s hardware in Canada. So, over the course of three years, he successfully tracked down and grew a few Bitcoin mining sites in Alberta. That’s when the entrepreneurial bug took hold of Bennett. “I worked with them slowly over a few months then more and more and more. Three years went by and they had these great sites up and running in Alberta. I decided instead of being an employee, I'd rather be an owner. I gathered some of my friends and started DMG.”

Literally all of NFTs happened here in Vancouver—everything. It's crazy - Radomski

These anecdotes exist as reminders of Vancouver’s influence on the global tech industry. The next time you walk past the Waves at Smithe and Howe or read about Covalent or Enjin or DMG, think about the local community of innovators building massive companies right in our backyard. “There's a lot of really smart people here building really cool stuff that is applicable to a much larger market,” Ashdown shared. I look forward to meeting more of them. 

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