Cryptocurrency has two kingpins. Forbes’ 2018 ranking of the world’s billionaires includes only a couple people who accumulated their vast fortunes from digital assets: Chris Larsen and Changpeng Zhao.
While Bitcoin typically dominates the press around cryptocurrencies, neither Larsen nor Zhao directly earned their billions from it. They’re instead deeply involved businessmen who are part of the larger, rapidly expanding ecosystem of cryptocurrency, helping to drive the coins into the future. Meanwhile, they’re proving that there’s more than simply a lot of money to be had in this still confusing world.
The tech veteran turned crypto-king
Chris Larsen, a 57-year-old American, is a veteran of the country’s tech industry. The co-founder and former CEO of Ripple, a cryptocurrency and payment network intended for global transactions, previously served as CEO and co-founder of Prosper, a peer-to-peer lending marketplace, and Eloan, an online platform for lending. Ripple counts major banks among its clients, including Bank of America and UBS, and has more direct control over its currency than Bitcoin, whose founder remains anonymous.
Ripple’s token, XRP, had an unprecedented rise over the winter that made Larsen almost overnight one of the richest people around the globe. His net worth briefly skyrocketed to about $60 billion. But the coin steeply dropped, and, based on Forbes’ reporting, Larsen will have to settle for a worth of $4.6 billion at the moment, putting him at No. 456 on the magazine’s list. The current executive chairman of Ripple, Larsen reportedly holds 5.19 billion XRP as well as a 17% stake in his company.
Larsen, who wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing that banks should be seen as parent-like figures to their customers, has deep connections to finance that have no doubt helped propel Ripple.
A Chinese-Canadian ace coder
That also happens to be true of Changpeng Zhao, aka CZ, 41, CEO of the cryptocurrency exchange Binance, which is on a remarkable hot streak. It became the largest exchange of its type on earth in under 180 days.
Zhao, a Chinese-Canadian, started his career as a coder working on trading systems for the Tokyo Stock Exchange and, later, at Bloomberg’s Tradebook, developing software for futures trading. Having spent time in Tokyo and New York City, Zhao moved to Shanghai and started Fusion Systems, specializing in high-frequency tech for brokers.
He found his calling in 2013 when he heard about Bitcoin. But it was only last year that he launched Binance, along with raising $15 million for its BNB token. What separates Binance from competitors is its furious speed. The digital exchange can process 1.4 million transactions per second, for which it has attracted millions of users. "No decentralized exchange today can handle our volume, and none are as secure as we are," said Zhao, who studied computer science at Canada’s McGill University and wears hoodies.
While Binance trades various coins, its own BNB has been steadily climbing, with a market cap as of this writing of about $1 billion. The exchange has sweetened the deal by offering a 50% discount on trading fees for BNB. The company’s latest venture is creating a decentralized, public blockchain—software that supports cryptocurrencies—which is meant to shield against thieving hackers.
Zhao’s large stake in Binance and his stockpile of coins have moved him up the moguls’ list in short order. With an estimated net worth of $1.4 billion, his programming smarts and entrepreneurial spirit have made him one of a couple thousand of the richest people anywhere.