By Yibai Meng, MEng ’22 (EECS)This life in tech interview is part of a series from E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. In this course, Master of Engineering students were tasked with conducting an informational interview to learn more about working in tech. They then submitted a written account of the interview, edited and organized to create a clear, compelling narrative. Per the interviewee’s request, all personal identifying information has been changed. For most students, being accepted into a computer science PhD program at New York University (NYU) is a dream come true. They would probably cherish their chance at such a prestigious school, earn a doctorate, and find a job in academia or industry. However, Dave thinks differently. After one year into his PhD program, Dave dropped out and founded a cryptocurrency start-up. He believes his work will bring a revolution to how people use Ethereum and bring the cryptocurrency world into the everyday lives of ordinary people. Ethereum is the cryptocurrency with the second largest market share. It has a distinguishing feature called “smart contract,” allowing people to write and execute custom code on the blockchain. Smart contracts have already been used in diverse ways: many other cryptocurrencies are written with smart contracts; there are smart contracts for automated loans and currency exchange services; there are even smart contracts for lotteries that are mathematically fair. It can be said that cryptography made cryptocurrencies safe, and smart contracts made Ethereum intelligent and versatile. However, with the rapid growth of the cryptocurrencies market, the transaction load on the blockchain increased as well. Transactions have to compete for the limited spots on the blockchain to “go through,” making fees skyrocket. Now each transaction costs tens of dollars, which is certainly not tolerable for many people.
“To bring Ethereum more into the mainstream, we need to lower the fees drastically.”To bring Ethereum more into the mainstream, the fees must be lowered drastically. Dave is trying to solve this pressing question by using a novel cryptography tool called “zero-knowledge proof.” This tool allows a given party to prove a message follows certain rules without revealing the contents of such a message. It’s like convincing you that I have an iPhone without letting you look at it. Using zero-knowledge proof, we only need to place the “proof” part into the blockchain, greatly reducing the amount of on-chain data, therefore reducing the fee, while keeping Ethereum’s integrity intact. The story of how Dave got into this field is as fascinating as the magic behind zero-knowledge proofs. Dave always had a broad interest in all aspects of computer science. He interned at a lab doing electric circuit programming during his undergraduate studies, focusing on hardware acceleration. His supervisor was very satisfied with his performance and recommended him for another internship position in a cryptography research lab, accelerating a zero-knowledge proof algorithm with electric circuits. The zero-knowledge proof project was supposed to be a one-off project — the main focus of his group was the theoretical properties of cryptographic algorithms. However, his chance encounter with this technology changed his professional life. After being admitted for PhD studies in that cryptography research lab, Dave became acquainted with cryptocurrency and Ethereum and was fascinated by their potential. He noticed the various ways people are trying to alleviate the “fee problem” and found a term he was familiar with: zero-knowledge proof. The existing solutions are very rudimentary and can only deal with simple transactions, not to mention extremely slow. Being one of the few familiar with both zero-knowledge proof and cryptography hardware acceleration, Dave saw through their limitations, and realized the improvements he could bring with his expertise in both fields. After careful thought, he dropped out of his dream school and founded his start-up. Dave’s company is making great progress — quite a few complex transaction types are now supported, and speed is no longer an issue. They are on course to make a big release early next year. Dave told me he went down this path almost entirely by chance: if he didn’t do that internship about electric circuit programming or chose a topic other than zero-knowledge proof, he probably would still be a PhD student. Although there’s still some uncertainty in their product, he looks toward the future with hope and anticipation. “Learn with breadth, and open your eyes wide to the possibilities,” Dave said. Connect with Yibai Meng. Edited by Nick Yang.
Life in Tech: From PhD program to Cryptocurrency Start-Up was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.