Meet Emin Gün Sirer – Founder of Avalanche

  • Emin Gün Sirer has a strong academic background in distributed systems design.
  • Prolific and humble, his team attracted many developers to Avalanche.
  • Avalanche Rush garnered lots of attention and pushed his project to the forefront.
  • Can Sirer’s team keep investors’ mindshare? There are plenty of reasons to say yes.

The Curse of Staying Humble

Emin Gün Sirer was arguably the first to publish the concept of Proof-of-Work minting for a cryptocurrency. The paper called the currency ‘Karma’ and was released in 2003. Now it is one of the most downloaded pieces of research from Sirer’s alma mater, Cornell University.

In an interview with he admitted that his “system did not go anywhere because I didn’t get the timing right, and I didn’t have a vision as big as Satoshi.” Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakamoto appealed to the ultra-liberal cypherpunk crowd and proposed to replace the fiat money system with his deflationary ‘Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System’. This brazen claim, and the mystery surrounding him, sparked the imagination of developers and early adopters worldwide.

In the interview, Emin Gün Sirer acknowledges this. “I had a much more limited vision, a much more realistic vision, but it would have been much better to have an unrealistic vision that rallies people than to have a realistic vision that is narrower in scope and doesn’t get people going with the same fervor.”

The same humble, realistic vision could be his current project’s (Avalanche blockchain) curse and blessing. The scientific, principled attitude attracts decent, prolific and intelligent people, but the humble demeanor generates less news-worthy headlines.

Time After Karma

Failing to find funding for Karma in 2003, the young researcher took a hiatus from cryptocurrencies until Bitcoin appeared in 2008. He was impressed with Nakamoto’s vision and the integrity and quality of the published research but discovered a security flaw.


Called ‘selfish mining’, the attack allows a minority of miners to replace a potentially large number of blocks with their own version by mining in secret and then submitting them all at once. Only about one third of the total mining power is needed before selfish mining becomes more profitable than its honest counterpart.

Bitcoin’s community didn’t respond kindly to the suggestion and ridiculed the research. But after careful consideration they arrived at the same outcome. Gün Sirer said that many of his most loyal supporters and collaborators came out of this initial altercation.

The Cornell IC3 co-director realised then, that a global financial network needed much more throughput and functionality than Bitcoin could offer. Setting to develop a way to escape the ‘trilemma’ of blockchains, and advance speed, decentralisation and security at the same time, Sirer worked with Kevin Sekniqi and Maofan Yin to develop Avalanche.

Setting off the Avalanche

Emin Gün Sirer has a strong academic background in distributed systems research. These are unique qualifications to develop something new. His team came up with a consensus algorithm called ‘Snowflake’, that can achieve near-certain finality in less than a second and has room to scale.

Snowflake is unlike Bitcoin’s PoW Nakamoto consensus, Proof-of-Stake protocols like Tendermint (used by Binance Chain and others) or Proof-of-Authority (a version of which is used by Iota and Nano among others). Snowflake sets Avalanche apart from any other blockchain with its unique approach. Avalanche employs staking validators, but the way they reach consensus is different from other Proof-of-Stake coins.

Avalanche (AVAX), aims to surpass the network capacity of fiat stalwarts Visa and Mastercard. Snowflake consensus uses small subsets of the network it randomly polls. If most of the polled nodes agree that a transaction is valid, another set is polled until the snowflakes form an avalanche. A detailed explanation can be found here.

So far, Avalanche inspired nearly 300 projects, built on top, and handles over 1bn API calls per day. It has more than 1,000 validating nodes active.

A CryptoGrapher's Education

Born in the 1970s, Sirer attended high-school at Robert College, received his undergraduate degree at Princeton University and finished his graduate studies at the University of Washington, according to Wikipedia. Later, in 2002, he received his Ph.D. in Computer Science and Engineering.

He worked at AT&T Bell Labs, DEC and NEC before becoming an associate professor at Cornell University, where he focused on distributed operating systems. In 2013, Sirer published his paper on selfish mining, titled "Majority is not Enough, Bitcoin Mining is Vulnerable". He proposed ‘Bitcoin NG’ to overcome many of the original flaws.

Continuing to make waves as a security researcher, he was the first to point out severe flaws in ‘The DAOs’ smart contracts and called for a moratorium on the project. His call went unheeded and nearly ended Ethereum’s nascent life in 2015. If you’re not familiar with the story, Bloomberg has covered it in all its glorious suspense.

Widely cited, he later won the ‘Popular Science Brilliant 10 Award’ and is known for his candid critique of blockchain startups.

Emin Gün Sirer in the limelight

Taking to Twitter in September 2020, he lambasted the increasing number of new tokens:

“This is how many blockchain projects work: lots of hype, lots of technical-sounding claims, partnerships with companies too embarrassed to say they were duped, and no actual working novel system, just smoke and mirrors around old tech.” Sirer said this in the context of a thread comparing many new coins with now defunct hype-child Nikola Motor.

In an April 2020 AMA session with Equilibrium, he quipped: “BTC Maximalists Are Right That 95% of Crypto Is a Scam” and the majority of projects are simply “recycling something that belongs to someone else.”

He clearly lost some friends that day.

Avalanche didn’t gather much of the spotlight at first. The project had been quietly building since 2018 and then made a private token sale, followed by a public one in June 2020, successfully raising $42m.

Avalanche attracted developer attention from the start. Fueled by a healthy culture, good documentation and Gün Sirer as the scientific north star, the “Internet of Finance” started to develop.

Running Ava.Labs

Emin is CEO of Ava.Labs, the company responsible for the development and marketing of the Avalanche network. “Digitize All The World’s Assets” is the bold claim at the center of its homepage and “Build the Internet of Finance” is engraved in the title bar. So it comes as no surprise that the network attracted copious amounts of De-Fi projects.

Claiming to be the ‘fastest smart contract platform’, EVM compatibility meant that lots of code from the Ethereum space could be reused. Avalanche’s low fees and near-instant transactions were welcomed by De-Fi and the ability to bridge the blockchain to others opened an avenue of capital inflows.

Ava.Labs announced Avalanche Rush, a $180m liquidity incentive program for De-Fi, in mid August, shortly after releasing the Avalanche Ethereum Bridge, that allowed Ethereum tokens to be transferred to AVAXi. During peak gas prices, skilled users could save 60% on their transaction fees by bridging their ETH to Avalanche, swapping on one of the native exchanges and swapping back. One such swap, called BENQi, blew up as a result, and attracted $2bn in TVL in less than 3 weeks - a rush indeed.

Bold Moves, Bold Results

The last months have seen unusually bold moves by the Avalanche team. Websites to aggregate projects built on top, as well as staking or validators counters have been created or embellished.

The team is frequently on Twitter exchanging pleasant banter or pushing projects built on top of Avax. It seems that the last two weeks of August have propelled Avalanche from the project you wanted to see succeed to an actual smashing success.

Gün Sirer’s team managed to build something unique in the blockchain space and inspire many others to build on top. Ethereum's history shows that if there is one thing that spells success for a blockchain project, it is how much development it can attract. An open and inclusive culture, far from maximalism, is a close second.

Avalanche has both in spades. While Sirer is outspoken about flaws he sees, he’s not religious about his approach and is open to scientific discussion. While his calm, scientific and rigorous approach doesn’t seem to inspire as much world-building as Vitalik Buterin’s limitless vision for Ethereum, it does seem to result in very well designed, usable dApps.

Avalanche’s coin, AVAX, has broken out of the shadows lately and Avalanche Rush has just gotten started. The coin’s price displays substantial volatility this far, but the amount of developer interest marks it as an interesting space to watch.

Emin Gün Sirer brings scientific street cred that Cardano’s Hoskinson wishes he had. With a penchant for results, his team delivers and steadily gains recognition. Competitors like Solana or Elrond mean that it is far from certain that Avalanche will ever become the famed ‘Ethereum killer’. But given the amount of development, it could well be.

Nothing in this article constitutes professional and/or financial advice. The content is provided exclusively for informational and/or educational purposes. Nothing is to be construed as an offer or a recommendation to buy or sell any type of asset. Seek independent professional advice in regards to financial, tax, legal and other matters.