THERE’S A RULE in the world of blockchains so ingrained that some call it folklore. Bitcoin, the original iteration of blockchain technology, is great at two things. One is keeping data secure, with a ledger others can’t sabotage. The other is “decentralization,” or getting lots of people to work together without a central authority to call the shots. But those two nice properties come with a big tradeoff: Blockchains can’t scale.
David Tse, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford, is skeptical of that “blockchain trilemma.” The idea, he noted at a gathering of “cryptoeconomists” last week, had never been precisely defined—he could find no mathematical proof for it. Tse and his colleagues had done the math and, he declared onstage, developed a more efficient algorithm for keeping blockchains secure. And so they formed a company called Trifecta to build out their idea, adding Tse to the growing ranks of academics-turned-blockchain entrepreneurs.
Tse’s talk followed presentations by the Turing Award–winning MIT professor Silvio Micali, founder of Algorand—which has raised more than $120 million from investors—and the MacArthur genius and UC Berkeley professor Dawn Song, founder of Oasis Labs. Each is trying to build new blockchains from the ground up, seizing upon a mismatch between excitement over the core innovation of blockchains and disappointment about their performance.
Tse is a recent blockchain convert. He began working on blockchain about 18 months ago, after a career focused mostly on wireless networks. He’d noticed parallels between the clunkiness of the early mobile web and the current state of decentralized networks. Plus, researching blockchain avoided the drawbacks of machine learning, a field increasingly consolidated in large companies that hoard talent, data, and servers. “Blockchain research, on the other hand, is much more decentralized,” he says.
Academics like Tse have added all kinds of new features to blockchains, often with the aim of improving security and privacy. Those projects include Zcash, where a team of professors brought privacy-protecting technology to Bitcoin, which is increasingly tracked by law enforcement.