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Startup Behind Zk-Starks Tech to Seek Cryptocurrencies as Customers

May 26, 2018

A breakthrough blockchain privacy solution forged at the Technion in Israel is taking its first steps from theory to reality.

Heralded by developers, so-called zk-starks offer a promising way to compress large amounts of information into small proofs, named starks, and can use zero-knowledge to preserve the privacy of that information. They’re also efficient, transparent and secure against quantum computation, something that in the past, has pushed excitement surrounding the tech.

But rather than launching a new cryptocurrency, founders Eli Ben-Sasson and Alessandro Chiesa are going the corporate route, offering their novel technology to actual blockchains in exchange for their native assets, or what the team calls the “tech for tokens model.”

Starkware will provide stark-powered technology to cryptocurrencies in exchange for a fee priced in the local currency, and if the market cap rises as a result, Starkware profits as well.

“Development teams are really like investors, but instead of investing money, they invest technology and skills,” Ben-Sasson told CoinDesk.

But the Israel-based startup has some notable investors of its own as well, having raised $6 million in a seed-funding round from Pantera, Floodgate, Polychain Capital, Metastable, Naval Ravikant, Vitalik Buterin, the Zcash Company and hardware supplier Bitmain.

In the first stage of the company, Ben-Sasson told CoinDesk they’ll be partnering with some major figures from the blockchain space, (“the usual suspects,” Ben-Sasson said,) to bring zcash-style private transactions to public ledgers.

While the partnerships are yet to be confirmed, Ben-Sasson said that there is “plenty of interest” from a range of different on-chain and off-chain cryptocurrency efforts.

Indeed, advocates from many communities have spoken positively about the technology in the past, including ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin, who previously hinted that such a system could be deployed on top of “ethereum 3.0.”

It’s notable considering while Ben-Sasson and Chiesa were both founding scientists at zcash, the new technology offers a wholly different outcome.

Ben-Sasson told CoinDesk:

“Our technology is unique because it is the only one out there right now that allows true exponential speedup of verification for arbitrary computations with no setup assumptions and no keys to be distributed in advance.”

Not just privacy
As detailed by CoinDesk, zk-stark proofs are notable for their ability to hide information without sacrificing computational integrity, or what Ben-Sasson calls “transparent privacy.”

If that sounds complex, it’s part of a growing interest in zero-knowledge proof systems, a form of cryptography dating from the 1980s that has been touted as a way to preserve data privacy without obscuring information to the point where it cannot be verified by the blockchain itself.

While the technology underlying privacy-centric cryptocurrency zcash also achieves this feature, zk-starks allow for zero-knowledge without the need for a trusted setup, a stage in compiling private blockchains that has been criticized for being vulnerable to attack.

Achieving this in a way that relies purely on cryptography, the transparent aspect of starks is central to its value add.

That said, Ben-Sasson said that while such qualities provided by zk-stark technology give it an advantage over other privacy solutions, the length of the proofs are still quite large, and as such, they’re up against a range of competitors.

“From a very rational point of view in this department of you know, single transactions, shielded transactions, starks are good, but they are not unique. They are one out of many solutions,” Ben-Sasson told CoinDesk.

Instead, the privacy aspect of starks is an option that can be sidelined in favor of another feature of the technology- compressing large data sets.

“You could add zero knowledge, you could have it without zero knowledge. Each solution and chain could decide,” Ben-Sasson said, “It’s like a switch you can turn on or off with very little implication.”

As such, going forward, the team plans to market the tech for its ability to create succinct, verifiable compressions of large amounts of data- and in this regard, the tech just keeps getting tidier.

“We have yet to encounter the lower bound that puts the limit of where it will end up,” Ben-Sasson said, “It could go down further.”

In the future, Starkware may move to provide in-house verification services for such proofs, and additionally, might create purpose-built hardware for performing the computations as well.

“When you go through scalability starks really stand out,” Ben-Sasson told CoinDesk,

“Scalability is the biggest problem in the blockchain space.”

Tech for tokens
Contrary to many scammers claiming otherwise, Starkware is not doing an ICO.

And while ultimately, a zk-stark powered cryptocurrency isn’t unfeasible, Ben-Sasson said that for now, the company will focus on what they do best. As such, the first step is to create a “Starkshield consortium,” a group of representatives from public blockchains looking to integrate the tech for privacy-preserving purposes.

“First of all, so we’re trying to formalize this Starkware consortium where we will integrate our technology into their systems and get tokens,” Ben-Sasson said.

Conceived of by several members of the company including Ben-Sasson, CEO Uri Kolodny, and product lead Avihu Levy, this tech for token model is a notable shift in a landscape that has been dominated by ICO startups. Indeed, while the hype sometimes appears to have settled, according to the CoinDesk ICO Tracker, the funding just keeps flooding in.

“ICO, what does it mean? It means give us a lot of money now and trust us to deliver something good. That’s a problematic model,” Ben-Sasson said.

At the same time though, it’s important for developers to be paid for their work. “We’re very proud of our engineering team,” Ben-Sasson said, “They’re very talented in both math and programming.”

Plus, ultimately, Ben-Sasson stressed that creating a coin for every new technology that emerges isn’t a sustainable trend, and for now, it’s enough to contribute to existing projects as they stand.

“We think that there should be viable business opportunities for development teams doing good work to be compensated in a meaningful way with existing tokens,” Ben-Sasson said.

If the team does decide to launch a zk-starks cryptocurrency in the future, they’ll use the same model to pay other developers as well.

“We want to be on both sides of this tech for tokens thing,” Ben-Sasson said, adding:

“Further down the line to the extent we have our own token we could engage other development teams that we think will bring value to our efforts, and would like to offer them a similar deal.”

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