By JOANNA PACHNER
Friday, November 30, 2018
EARLIER THIS YEAR , a huge wave of flamboyance and conspicuous consumption issued from usually self-effacing Canada. In May, hundreds of global digerati navigated Manhattan through heavy rain to board a 210-foot yacht for a party cruise around New York Bay. At the end of the six-hour bash, hosted by a Toronto cryptocurrency company, two attendees won Aston Martin sports cars, each worth about $250,000.
A month later, the media were invited to tour Canada's largest condo. Purchased for $28 million, the apartment in downtown Toronto's St. Regis Residences (formerly the Trump International Hotel and Tower) boasts more than 16,000 square feet laid out over the building's top three storeys, with a balcony that circles the middle floor like a glass-and-steel belt. The world also got a peek at an office unlike anything anywhere any time soon. Tentative plans call for visitors to the downtown Toronto space to be greeted by a holographic receptionist who directs them through concealed doors. Curved panoramic screens will panel the walls, the glass floor of the conference room will reveal mini cars zooming around a track and, to top off the ultimate boymogul fantasy, the CEO's office will be reached by a tunnel.
The man whose money paid for all this pageantry is Anthony Di Iorio, a Toronto entrepreneur who flirted with the billionaire elite on the back of prescient investments in bitcoin and other digital currencies (though this year's crypto crash likely damaged his net worth). Over the past five years, Di Iorio has emerged as Canada's leading ambassador for the crypto economy, and he hasn't minded blowing big wads to raise the nascent industry's profile.
The office? That's supposed to be the future home of Di Iorio's company, Decentral Inc., which he envisions as an innovation hub for blockchain-related startups. He estimates he's invested millions into more than 30 ventures, including his own: the Jaxx wallet app for holding bitcoin and other digital currencies. The NYC party was a pre-launch event for the product's latest version, which coincided with one of the industry's flagship conferences. Amid parking lots packed with Lambos and private parties featuring Snoop Dogg, it wasn't easy to make a splash, so he flew in Chicane, his favourite DJ, from London and parted with a couple of his favourite cars. As for the condo--an upgrade from Di Iorio's current $6-million pad--it will serve as both his home and a private event space. He paid for it in cash. "I don't like being in debt," he says.
This might all be just an entertaining sideshow, the latest iteration of tech nouveau riche swagger, were it not for the genuine importance of what Di Iorio is pushing. Not bitcoin--in time that may prove to be another sideshow--but blockchain, the ungainly word that heralds communication technology's next chapter. While real-world applications are in their infancy, both flaky crypto-enthusiasts and business mucky-mucks agree that industries as diverse as finance, real estate, social media and health care will be transformed by blockchain over the next decade. A World Economic Forum survey projects that an amount equivalent to 10% of global GDP will be stored on blockchains by 2027, and just about every large company, from banks to telcos to shipping lines, is running a pilot to see how it can profit (or protect itself) from
this latest disruption. "The impact of blockchain on business will be bigger than the impact of the Internet on business," says Jeff Pulver, an American entrepreneur and VoIP pioneer.
Wild hyperbole? Read on and be the judge.
Di Iorio, a 43-year-old businessman who previously sold patio doors and drilled geothermal boreholes for a living, has placed himself at the centre of innovation by being a core early convener of talent and promoter of their ideas. He is also the co-founder--and primary early funder--of Ethereum, the world's second-most-valuable blockchain platform after bitcoin and the one that really matters to the business world.
Today, his goal is nothing short of turning his hometown into the Silicon Valley of the crypto age. But the digital currencies upon which Di Iorio made his fortune may only play a small part in blockchain's ultimate future. How astutely he places his bets during this crypto downturn will determine whether he emerges as a visionary who saw the revolutionary potential of a technology most people can't fathom or just another lucky speculator who threw great parties.
THE DECENTRAL OFFICE IS A BRIGHT LOFT with whitewashed walls, but that's not why the CEO is wearing sunglasses. Di Iorio just had corrective eye surgery, and as he slumps into a black foldout couch in the lobby, he explains that light strains his eyes. The place has the requisite tech startup accoutrements--a Ping-Pong table in the middle of the room, a glassenclosed meeting pod, six roaming telecommuter robots--but feels makeshift. The company's future office, slated for the top five floors of this building in Toronto's Entertainment District, is now on hold pending a hoped-for crypto rebound.
Di Iorio is a small man with a toned physique and aloof manner. He sports a dark-grey hoodie over a white tee; dark, tight jeans; and white Acne Studios sneakers (he wears a new pair, at $300-plus a pop, every month and travels with a shoe-cleaning kit). On his chest lies a pendant featuring an old Mexican clock, a present from a crypto-billionaire colleague, Brock Pierce, that's long been part of his uniform.
He's often photographed in blue sports caps. The effect is a cross between Mark Zuckerberg and Drake: understated techie casual meets pricey street chic.
While a PR person and two assistants hover nearby, he sets down some ground rules: He doesn't want to talk about his family or his money. His voice is pitched low, requiring me to lean in, and he's clearly used to being in charge. When I open with a question about his background, he says, "I'll start at the beginning. I do this quite often."
Raised with two older siblings in an affluent family in north Toronto, Di Iorio was fascinated with technology from childhood. When his parents wanted to punish him, they'd take away his computer. While studying commerce at Ryerson University, he tried his hand at building websites but was never really a coder. After graduation, he set tech aside to learn the business world. He worked in marketing for a machine manufacturer, then for his family's patio door manufacturing business in Woodbridge, Ontario. After the family sold the company in 2008, his father backed him in a geothermal drilling startup, but it didn't last long. At various times, he also invested in real estate, worked as a DJ and made digital art. Nothing really stuck.
In mid-2012, while listening to a podcast called Free Talk Live, he heard about bitcoin. It was a way to send and track units of value digitally that, theoretically at least, couldn't be hacked. Di Iorio had an anti-authoritarian streak and what he read about boom-and-bust cycles and inflation had made him question the fundamentals of mainstream economics. In his mind, bitcoin solved most of the problems with money. A cryptocurrency has a fixed supply--there can only be up to 21 million bitcoins; you can't just print or mint more, thus diluting value. It's fungible. It's transferrable. And it removes middlemen, enabling people to make payments without a bank.
He bought his first bitcoin, for $9.73, on the day he heard about the currency. "It was the culmination of my love of computers, communications, entrepreneurship, economics," he says. "This technology could enable people to solve these problems that I had been studying." He started reading obsessively, forgoing sleep. Having recently cashed in a housing investment that had more than doubled in five years, he began piling money into bitcoin.
He wanted to talk to more people, so he created the Toronto Bitcoin Meetup Group. The first event, held at a pub in 2012, drew about eight attendees, mostly hard-core techies. Among them was a lanky youth with unruly hair and a shy manner named Vitalik Buterin, a first-year computer science student at the University of Waterloo (Buterin would soon drop out to co-run Bitcoin Magazine). "He was a very undersocialized kid who couldn't hold a conversation," recalls Di Iorio.
As attendance grew to hundreds of people, the meetings became weekly. Russell Verbeeten, a Toronto technology entrepreneur who had recently returned from London, recalls them being largely focused on projects that could evolve the bitcoin platform. "Like everyone else, I couldn't understand the full implications, but we soon realized the number of computer engineers who could safely build on top of bitcoin was very small." To expand beyond Toronto, Di Iorio formed the Bitcoin Alliance of Canada and was elected its executive director. It was an unpaid position, but Di Iorio didn't lack money. With bitcoin rising to about $1,000 by the end of 2013, his initial investment in the cryptocurrency had shot up to about $2 million within 18 months.
Through his global network, Di Iorio says he was "inundated with opportunities." One of them ended up being transformative not just for him but the entire industry. But our hour is up. "We're up to 2013," Di Iorio announces. "We're going to have more of these hour-long sessions and continue where we left off."
TECHNO MUSIC POUNDS through the Rebel nightclub as a mixed crowd of suits and shorts, sandals and heels, aged hipsters and teenagers with fake IDs files through the doors. Even with pulsing neon lights inside, it's hard for the eyes to adjust to the gloom, seeing as it's 10 a.m. on a sunny August day.
The venue on Toronto's lakeshore is playing host to the Blockchain Futurist Conference. Despite a recent crash in cryptocurrency values, more than 1,000 attendees are here to learn how to profit from what one panelist describes as a $4-quadrillion opportunity. Backstage, former Dragon Bruce Croxon mingles with crypto entrepreneurs while octogenarian former CNN host Larry King, listed as an advisor to a blockchain startup, waits to moderate a panel on mass adoption of the technology.
This stuff isn't easy for the masses to wrap their heads around. In essence, blockchain is a shared digital ledger, or database, that maintains a canonical archive of every transaction (block) in a historical record (chain). Bitcoin is the name of the blockchain used to trade units of value called bitcoins, but there are thousands of such currencies (or tokens) today.
Because the record book exists simultaneously on computers around the world, it can't be fudged without everyone knowing, enabling individuals to conduct transactions without the need for a central authority to verify accuracy. "Blockchain's true power is as a trust machine: It allows multiple parties to trust each other even though they have no incentive to do so," says Marc Lijour, a Toronto consultant with blockchain company ConsenSys, who helps corporations adopt the technology. "It's like working on Wikipedia: Everyone contributes, but you can see what changes were made."
As such, blockchain can help any sector that relies on the integrity of records to gain speed and reduce costs. Financial transactions are a natural starting point. Processing a credit card payment requires multiple parties to validate the availability of funds, authorize their transfer, bill the cardholder then reconcile the records. Right now, that process can take three to five days--an eon in the digital age. With blockchain, it can happen in real time, with minimal or no human intervention, at much lower cost. "In the institutional environment, everyone has a proof of concept going, with teams exclusively dedicated to this," says Geoffrey Cher, head of the fintech practice at Bay Street law firm Wildeboer Dellelce LLP.
Almost every sector will be affected. In the blockchain world, anything that has value--personal data, health records, songs--could be managed and exchanged in a private and secure way. DigitalBits, for example, is building a blockchain for trading loyalty points. In a dim nightclub backroom lined with garish flowers-and-snakes wallpaper, founder Al Burgio explains that he's creating a secondary market for digital assets such as Air Miles, Petro-Points and Canadian Tire money, like a foreign currency exchange. Since most people already participate in reward programs, DigitalBits doesn't need to educate them. "Rather than translate blockchain for the masses, we're bringing the masses to blockchain."
Up on the main stage, the MC introduces the opening keynote speaker, "a legend in the Toronto space." Di Iorio mounts the stage, wearing his usual white tee, jeans and clock pendant.
He knows this venue well, he tells the audience, having held his last birthday party here with 50 friends. He's supposed to discuss interfaces, but says he's changed his mind. Instead, he devotes the next half-hour to walking the attendees through his personal crypto journey: the love of computers, the first bitcoin purchase and, finally, the launch of Ethereum, his most successful venture to date. "Ethereum wouldn't have gotten off the ground if I didn't bring Vitalik and other people together," he points out.
The creation of Ethereum has already started to gather a mythic aura. A few days after the conference, Di Iorio greets me in his downtown condo, where he's living until the St.
Regis place is finished. The space is dominated by a massive live-edge dining table and overlooks a pool on the balcony. It's a sultry afternoon and as Di Iorio pads around sockless, he looks tired, as if he just woke up from a nap.
Once he settles into an expansive L-shaped couch with a glass of unsweetened iced tea, he explains that when Vitalik Buterin showed him a white paper he wrote in late 2013, he wasn't sure what to make of it. "He's a brilliant writer, but his ideas were very complex, and he would lose me on a lot of the stuff." So he ran it by Charles Hoskinson, an American mathematician he had met through his work for the Bitcoin Alliance.
Hoskinson was immediately excited. What Buterin was proposing was a new kind of blockchain platform that could run programs--"smart contracts"--that would automatically execute transactions when certain conditions were met. For example, a car rental company could provide access to a vehicle once the customer had paid a fee, or an assembly plant could send an order for parts as soon as its inventory hit a certain level.
Within weeks, Di Iorio, Hoskinson and Buterin, along with Buterin's Bitcoin Magazine co-founder Mihai Alisie and another colleague, Israeli entrepreneur Amir Chetrit, got to work. Di Iorio's downtown Toronto office was their ostensible headquarters, but the team was dispersed around the world.
When, in January 2014, they flew to Miami for the North American Bitcoin Conference, it was the first time some of them met in person. Along with additional collaborators, they shacked up at an Airbnb beach house Di Iorio had rented.
Buterin introduced Ethereum at the conference and was mobbed after his speech. The enthusiastic response put the team in an exuberant mood, with some musing about buying an island where they could found a new society. Di Iorio focused on the business potential, envisioning a company that would dominate the blockchain age. Many of the developers, however, were starting to favour a non-profit, open-source platform--more like Linux than Microsoft Windows.
After Miami, the team registered Ethereum Switzerland GmbH in Zug, Switzerland, a country with relatively permissive laws regarding cryptocurrencies. That summer, Di Iorio flew to Zug to sign papers that would make him and a few others directors of the new company. He found a group of people there he hadn't expected to see. At the meeting, Hoskinson, who had been named CEO, was fired. Chetrit also left. "We were totally blindsided," says Di Iorio. "It was like a coup." The next day, Buterin, who as the project's creator could resolve decision stalemates, informed everyone that Ethereum would switch to a non-profit foundation. He later told a business magazine that making Ethereum a for-profit company went against the ethos of a community without a self-interested central authority. (Both Buterin and Ethereum declined to provide further details.) Di Iorio retained his position as co-founder, but he was furious. "I hadn't dropped all my other ventures to build a nonprofit," he says. "I felt Vitalik was overstepping his reach in making that decision. I had my money in this project, which I still hadn't fully gotten back." He estimates he had put in $300,000 to $400,000 to fund operating and development costs, money he considered a loan. But even with a nonprofit structure, Di Iorio stood to profit. Ethereum had always planned to raise capital through a crowd sale, which is like an IPO but instead of receiving shares in a company, buyers get digital currency--in this case called ether. Di Iorio got a share of the 10% ether allotment granted to the roughly 60-member contributing team (because he was a founder, it was "substantial," he says), and he later bought more on the market.
The July 2014 crowd sale price was set at 2,000 ether to one bitcoin. Ethereum ended up raising 31,000 bitcoins, then worth $18.4 million (U.S.)--larger than any initial coin offering (ICO) in the world up to that point. Ethereum quickly became the primary focus of crypto developer activity, and ether's value went on to soar almost 5,000-fold, peaking at $1,400 (U.S.) in January, which put the total value of the ether tokens issued at $135.5 billion (U.S.). Suddenly, Di Iorio was fabulously rich.
DI IORIO STAYED WITH ETHEREUM until 2015 but has had no direct involvement since. "From that point, I recognized it's not about bitcoin or Ethereum," he says. "There are lots of other currencies, and I don't want to tie myself to one technology." Instead, he refocused on Decentral, the company he had established in early 2014 and fully owns.
With his new cred as Ethereum's co-founder, Di Iorio shifted Decentral into consulting, helping Bay Street institutions understand blockchain's potential. In early 2016, a consulting gig with TMX Group turned into a part-time job as chief digital officer, but he only lasted eight months. He says the split focus wasn't working for him, so he's back at Decentral full time, focused on taking Jaxx to the next level. In 2016, the company had five employees; now there are about 40. "What the browser is to information, the wallet is to value," says Di Iorio, who tends to speak in sound bites when talking about Jaxx. "Everything we do at Decentral is about interfaces that connect humans and technologies--something that's missing in this space right now."
The goal sounds laudable, but the atmosphere in the office can occasionally be tense. Hoskinson, who remains in regular touch with Di Iorio, describes him as a challenging manager.
"If you work with Anthony, you have to be prepared for conflict, because he comes at you like a wrecking ball. But when you fight with him, if you're right, he'll back down. Some
people thrive on it, some hate it like hell."
Decentral has seen considerable turnover in the past. Addison Cameron-Huff, a technology lawyer who was Decentral's president and Di Iorio's right hand, resigned in September after about a year in the role. He wanted to pursue other opportunities, he says, but lauds Di Iorio's hard work and dedication.
Di Iorio makes no apologies for his management style, comparing himself to a movie director. "Everyone has their role, but it's the director who's executing. And because it's my own money and my vision, I have the right to do that."
IT'S THE FIRST WEEK OF SEPTEMBER and Di Iorio is in a hurry.
He recently returned from a cottage holiday near Algonquin Park that followed a four-day "retreat" at home with his girlfriend. "We didn't talk. No phones, no TV, no electronics, just reading and writing," he says. "I just slowed right down." He also fasted--only tea and water. But with Jaxx Liberty set for release in three days, he seems stressed and distracted.
Last year, Di Iorio decided to rebuild Jaxx, which had become one of the top 10 digital wallets on the market, from scratch. It was a tough call, recalls Cameron-Huff, but the software's original architecture made it poorly suited to the Ethereum era. The product also garnered some bad publicity when stories circulated about $400,000 worth of digital assets being stolen from a user's account. If old Jaxx was like PayPal, providing a single interface to multiple digital payments, Liberty is more like a Bloomberg terminal: It allows users to send and receive digital assets, manage their portfolios, integrate with different crypto-exchanges and monitor markets.
Di Iorio won't reveal the private company's revenue, which comes largely from the fees companies pay Jaxx to support their platforms, but says before the crypto slump Jaxx had a million monthly active users, though it has fewer now.
Despite his rush, he's agreed to show his new condo at St. Regis. Arriving at the 32nd-floor lobby of the building's residential portion, he's annoyed to find his private elevator fob doesn't work. Once on the 56th floor, he briskly walks through a new 5,000-square-foot apartment gleaming with dark hardwood and white marble. The other, larger condo on this floor is also his; he will knock down the separating walls to create one unit, with an elevator leading to the upper floors. Those floors are still all raw concrete and exposed ducts, which gives the penthouse, with its soaring ceiling, a kind of steampunk grandeur. He plans to let the condo sit empty for a couple of years while he develops a design. "Every time I think about it, I try to immediately get it out of my mind," he says as he walks around issuing instructions to his bodyguard to organize a cleanup of the empty plastic cups and liquor bottles discarded around the space. "I have an opportunity to make it the grandest space in Canada."
Di Iorio's ultimate aim is to make Toronto a blockchaindriven tech mecca. He says he's poured "many tens of millions" into 30 to 40 startups--more than 20 in the past 12 months alone--in a wide range of blockchain-related sectors: identity, gaming, lending, real estate. He points to new blockchain platforms Qtum and VeChain as two that have emerged among the top 20 most valuable crypto projects, though neither is generating any substantial revenue yet. He has a small team that helps him vet proposals but relies largely on his own experience and gut. "If it's an idea that I came across in the first year or two and it didn't make sense then, it still doesn't."
One of the challenges facing companies like Decentral is the boom-and-bust nature of the crypto markets. Back in late 2017, investors piled in, and both bitcoin and ether surged to unbelievable highs. But the bubble soon burst, and companies that opted not to exchange some of their tokens for dollars have seen their capital plunge by 70% or more. The value of ether has dropped more than 80% since its January high, to around $200 (U.S.). But Di Iorio insists that such downturns can serve a useful purpose. "It weeds out those who aren't efficient and don't have long-term plans," he says. Since his investments typically take the form of funding in return for tokens, most of his assets remain tied up in crypto, so his own net worth has taken a hit--which might explain why he recently put the plans for his futuristic new office on hold. But he's sanguine: "Easy up, easy down. If it doesn't come back, I'm still good. I'm not worried at all."
I ask about the bodyguards--he has a seven-person, full-time security detail. "Being my own bank, there are consequences--I'm at risk," he says. Yet this concern seems at odds with his public extravagance. Di Iorio takes umbrage at the idea that his lifestyle is flashy. He considers his real estate purchases part of a diversification strategy. As for the parties, cars and high-tech offices, "it's about user experience, people coming to have a great time. I want people to go, 'Wow, that's amazing.'" Nevertheless, those trying to sell the corporate world on blockchain feel Di Iorio attracts the wrong kind of attention.
"It doesn't help our work with enterprise when there's a lavish display of money," says one observer, who requested anonymity. "People in Canada are very prudent. Crypto creeps a lot of people out." Matt Spoke, founder of Toronto-based blockchain foundation Aion, in which Di Iorio has invested, argues, however, that the high-profile lifestyle serves as a beacon to VCs and banks. He points out that Angela Strange, the Canadian who recently became a partner at tech investment powerhouse Andreessen Horowitz, talks about the "Canadian handicap" of insufficient boldness and flash. "In Anthony's mind, he needs to be a figurehead for this movement, and he's taken it on himself to develop a public persona: 'I'm going to change the world, look how much money I'm making.' This is not unusual behaviour in Silicon Valley."
Di Iorio is polarizing in other ways. He's by far the most vocal of Ethereum's founders, but some argue the self-promotion exceeds his contribution. His previous focus on cryptocurrencies also turns off those who want to push blockchain into more mainstream business applications. "In the local ecosystem, you have the crypto circle and the blockchain circle, and the two don't interact," says a member of the latter community. "Blockchain people are purists and look down their noses at promoters. [Di Iorio] sits in the middle."
However, even Di Iorio's critics credit him for piling his fortune back into the industry. Spoke compares his impact to that of the so-called PayPal Mafia: the founders and employees of the online payments company who went on to build startups like LinkedIn and Tesla. "You'd probably find that half of [Canadian blockchain startups] have some connection to Anthony."
But these are very early days--the equivalent of Arpanet in the Internet's evolution or MS-DOS in the PC era. How blockchain is eventually adopted by the masses, who don't understand the jargon and don't care about the protocols, may have little to do with currencies like bitcoin or ether, just as few at the dawn of email could imagine Twitter or Uber. Di Iorio made some savvy early bets, but as he offers a quick handshake, dons his sunglasses and is whisked off in a big black SUV to his next appointment, I'm reminded of an observation made by one of his former colleagues: "In this space, luck and skill can sometimes look the same."
PHOTO GRAPHS BY JOHN KEALEY
DI IORIO RECENTLY PAID NEARLY $28 MILLION IN CASH FOR THIS PENTHOUSE CONDO ATOP TORONTO'S FORMER TRUMP HOTEL. IT SPANS THREE FLOORS, HAS 16,000 SQUARE FEET OF SPACE, A CEILING THAT SOARS TO 100 FEET AND A SPIRE
DI IORIO'S LOOK IS TECHIE MEETS STREET CHIC: WHITE TEE, DARK JEANS AND $300 ACNE STUDIOS SNEAKERS, WHICH HE REPLACES EVERY MONTH
SOURCE PRICEWATERHOUSECOOPERS; ALEXANDRA POSADZKI AND JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL