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2021 in Review: the Top 10 Crypto Heroes of the Year

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Key Takeaways

  • Crypto had an eventful 2021, and many standout figures helped the industry thrive.
  • DeFi experts and NFT evangelists featured in our Heroes of the Year.
  • Members of the U.S. Senate also defended the industry at a pivotal moment.

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Philanthropists, NFT evangelists, and DeFi experts all featured in this year’s top 10 crypto heroes round-up. 

The Crypto Heroes of 2021

Let’s face it: 2021 was a good year to be in crypto. If you held the right coins, they went up—in some cases, by a lot. But aside from the life-changing returns many people made, this year had a bit of everything. 

There was drama thanks to a series of multi-million dollar hacks, bad actors using insider information to profit, and major networks grinding to a halt. There was innovation in DeFi, and not only on Ethereum: this year, an explosion of activity on alternative Layer 1 networks strengthened the market’s belief in a multi-chain future. There were clear signs of mainstream adoption, helped mainly by the buzz and confusion surrounding NFTs. And, as with every previous bull run, there were harsh criticisms of the space from ill-informed onlookers. This year, it was regulators and anti-NFT “right click savers” who did their best to paddle against the crypto tidal wave. 

On the other hand, there were those who surfed the wave and helped push the space forward. Some of this year’s most notable crypto proponents included key figures from the NFT space, members of the U.S. Senate, and philanthropists who used the parabolic price rises to do good. Here, Crypto Briefing highlights the top 10 in our Heroes of the Year round-up. 

Sandeep Nailwal

Sandeep Nailwal is the co-founder of Polygon, Ethereum’s most successful scaling solution to date. Polygon has had a big year: it attracted several DeFi blue chips like Aave and Curve, its ecosystem now includes an arsenal of ZK-Rollups, and MATIC was one of the best performers in the market. 

This year, Nailwal made a name for himself outside of crypto, too. As the Delta wave of COVID-19 started to spread in April, he set up the COVID-Crypto Relief Fund to raise money to help those affected by the pandemic in India. 

Nailwal’s altruistic efforts didn’t go unnoticed. The fund attracted donations from many big names, including former Coinbase CTO and angel investor Balaji Srinivasan and former Australian cricketer Bret Lee. The largest contribution came from Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin, who memorably donated 500 ETH and 50 trillion SHIB to the fund, with a market value of over $1.14 billion at the time.  

The COVID-Crypto Relief Fund has been putting the funds it raised to good use and still holds over $400 million in an Ethereum wallet. Over the last few months, it signed a deal with UNICEF India to provide 160 million syringes for the country’s vaccination drive, and has partnered with several charities in India to provide ICU beds, CPR training, and ration kits to those in need. 

Polygon was one of the frontrunners of 2021 in crypto. That Nailwal still found time to set up the hugely successful COVID-Crypto Relief Fund on top is nothing short of remarkable. TC

Cobie & Ledger 

Cobie and Ledger have never met face-to-face because they live on opposite sides of the Atlantic, but that hasn’t stopped them from becoming one of crypto’s favorite duos. Together, they’re best known as the hosts of UpOnly, one of the space’s most informative and entertaining podcasts. Since the start of the year, they’ve been hosting in-depth discussions with some of the best traders in the space, and every episode is packed with enough alpha to help anyone on their path to making it. 

Their alliance is endearing in part of the stark contrast between the two: where Ledger is a warm family guy who’d probably be getting his degen fill playing Texas Hold‘em or longing lumber futures if Satoshi had never existed, Cobie comes across as more of a brainy psychonaut of the Silk Road generation (he likes LSD and saw the potential in Bitcoin a lot earlier than most of us). 

Cobie often mocks Ledger for his trading blunders, but without him, he’d be like a Laurel who made it on the standup circuit without ever finding his Hardy. Besides the laughs and tips UpOnly has given us, Cobie and Ledger make our heroes list this year for their legendary Twitch raiding sessions. The premise for this crypto phenomenon involves Cobie joining an amateur musician’s live stream and requesting to take over room hosting rights, then inviting his Twitter followers to invade the stream. At that point, he encourages the performer to download MetaMask, before any crypto natives watching pile in with donations. Ledger, meanwhile, is always on hand to assist with the technicals and any questions the musician may have. 

In the most memorable session of the year, 24-year-old Mela Bee received the equivalent of around $250,000 in ETH, REN, and other digital assets after a night of playing Radiohead and Blink-182 covers. Cobie has also used his platform to help those battling illnesses by giving them exposure to his audience of newly-rich followers. In a year that saw music fans and other skeptics around the world launch misguided attacks against NFTs and the broader crypto space, Cobie and Ledger used their online presence to help a lucky few when they least expected it, proving the power of Internet money and the community behind it. CW

pplpleasr 

Even if you’ve never heard of pplpleasr, real name Emily Yang, you’ve most likely come across her art. In 2021, she made history by getting some of crypto’s most prominent personalities on the cover of Fortune Magazine, but she got her start in the space creating work for some of DeFi’s top projects. When she minted an NFT of the promo video she created for Uniswap V3 earlier this year, she donated the 310 ETH it raised to charities supporting ethnic minority groups. It was worth over $525,000 at the time.

It’s since her appearance on Fortune, though, that she’s really blown up. “Just a year ago I was jobless and worried about income,” she writes in a pinned August tweet linking to an interview with the publication. “I hope my story can inspire others, and I can’t thank the crypto community enough.” Yang is as good a proof as any that NFTs have the power to change the lives of millions of creators and collectors around the world, and it feels like her journey is only just getting started. CW

Bored Ape Yacht Club/Yuga Labs 

The NFT space had a lot of big winners this year, but there was one project that stood head and shoulders above the rest: Bored Ape Yacht Club. Launched as a collection of 10,000 provably unique apes living on Ethereum, Bored Ape Yacht Club has gone on to become a fully-fledged lifestyle brand with its own merchandise range, event series, and partnerships with the likes of Universal and Adidas. Yuga Labs, the creator of Bored Ape Yacht Club, strengthened the brand by arranging lucrative airdrops for NFT holdersand it says a token and play-to-earn game is coming in 2022. Admittedly, Yuga Labs owes a lot of its success to the community of Bored Ape holders, which now includes celebrities like Stephen Curry and Jimmy Fallon. Still, that’s largely because it adopted a strategy of rewarding its community first. 

Another of the most popular avatar NFT collections, Larva Labs’ CryptoPunks, also went mainstream this year, but its roadmap has been less remarkable. In May, Larva Labs bagged $80 million from a largely uninspiring collection called Meebits, with a portion allocated to Punk holders. The pair behind the project also signed a Hollywood deal that will allow for its NFTs to be represented in film, TV, and other media, but that’s about it. Larva Labs has since been occupied with issuing copyright takedown notices to protect its coveted project, while Yuga Labs has made it clear that the community is its biggest priority. As a result, Bored Ape Yacht Club is already the trendiest NFT collection less than a year after launching. If Yuga Labs continues the winning streak it started in 2021, soon it could convincingly flip Punks to become the most valuable. CW

Sam Bankman-Fried 

Since getting into crypto in 2017, Sam Bankman-Fried has overseen one of the space’s top trading firms in Alameda Research, established FTX as a strong rival to Coinbase and Binance, and become the world’s richest under 30-year-old. He’s been able to achieve all of this in part because of his machine-like agility that allows him to go from trading to podcasting to playing League of Legends in the blink of an eye. But just as importantly, Bankman-Fried might be one of the most hard-working people in the industry. He famously likes to sleep in his office so that he doesn’t have to switch off from work mode, and FTX is always the first exchange to create a market for exotic derivatives to appease crypto’s more adventurous traders.

A big Solana proponent, Bankman-Fried posted a memorable tweet back in January offering to buy another trader’s entire SOL holdings when it was changing hands for $3, inadvertently warning the community that it was bound to rise. It’s up 6,500% since then. Besides endorsing Solana early, this year Bankman-Fried has sought to grow the FTX brand by marketing the exchange hard in the sports industry. But rather than rising to the top himself, he seems more interested in bringing crypto to 1 billion users (notably, he plans to give most of his staggering $22 billion wealth away through effective altruism). If FTX and Solana continue on the trajectory they had in 2021, it’s likely that Bankman-Fried will be able to add ushering in mass crypto adoption to his achievements. CW

Senators Ron Wyden, Pat Toomey & Cynthia Lummis 

Regulation was a big theme to the year in crypto, not least in the United States. Arguably the biggest development of the year centered on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which was drafted to include vague wording surrounding crypto tax policy and the definition of a crypto “broker.” The loose definition meant that Proof-of-Work miners, Proof-of-Stake validators, and DeFi protocol developers could potentially be subject to unduly stringent tax rules, which would be detrimental to DeFi. 

While the Biden administration supported the original draft, Senators Ron Wyden, Pat Toomey, and Cynthia Lummis insisted on a clearer definition of a crypto “broker,” winning the support of Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong, Coin Center, and other key crypto community members. 

The House of Representatives eventually passed the less crypto-friendly draft and Biden signed it into law, but Wyden, Toomey, and Lummis haven’t stopped fighting for amendments that favor crypto innovation. “Digital assets are here to stay in our financial system and the decisions we make now will have impacts far into the future. We need to be fostering innovation, not stifling it,” Lummis argued as she and Wyden submitted a new bill that included amendments on crypto tax reporting requirements. The United States would do well to take heed of her message. CW

Vincent Van Dough

Like many other Ethereum whales turned JPEG aficionados, Vincent Van Dough has done a lot to promote NFTs. They’ve built up one of the best and most valuable JPEG collections in the space, and their reputation is such that any new purchase they make is seen as a significant seal of approval. At the height of NFT summer, they even teamed up with Three Arrows Capital to launch an NFT fund called Starry Night Capital.

What really caught our attention, though, was their gambit with a group of artists from the furry community during a heated debate about NFTs. This year, many members of the furry community have come out in opposition to NFTs, citing vague environmental concerns, asserting that they have no value, and claiming that individuals are stealing from artists when they tokenize their work in exchange for ETH. 

As a part challenge, part troll, Vincent Van Dough responded by minting an NFT montage of a smug-looking Pepe the Frog using multiple “stolen” furry artworks, captioned with the phrases “LAWSUIT MATERIAL” and “CALL: 1800-SUE-ME.”

Of course, the Pepe NFT drew the ire of the furry community exactly as Vincent Van Dough had planned. They then offered to pay $5,000 to any artist whose work had been used in the NFT. All they had to do was mint their work on Ethereum and send it to their wallet. 

Vincent Van Dough had forced the critics’ hands. If they accepted his offer, they would be admitting that they were wrong about NFTs being a scam. If they declined, they missed out on $5,000, and their arguments about NFTs having no value would lose their weight. None of them accepted, meanwhile Vincent Van Dough is still ruling the NFT space today. TC

samczsun

If you’ve ever used DeFi on Ethereum, samczsun, real name Sam Sun, may have saved you from a major exploit in the past. Sun is the most prolific white hat hacker in DeFi, to the extent that a late night “you up?” message from him has become every Solidity developer’s biggest fear. 

Sun has held positions at Stripe, Wish, and Trail of Bits, and he currently works as a research partner at one of the top venture capital firms in the space, Paradigm. Over his years of activity as an independent security researcher, Sun has saved the DeFi community hundreds of millions of dollars in potential losses due to smart contract bugs and security flaws.

In 2020 alone, he found and privately disclosed critical vulnerabilities in Curve, Synthetix, Kyber Network, Nexus Mutual, Ethereum Name Service, Yearn.Finance, and more. This year, he found a critical bug in Sushi’s Miso token launchpad, a zero-day exploit on Etherscan, and a critical bug in Ethereum’s standalone CLI client Geth, which, if exploited, could have caused the Ethereum network to fork. The Ethereum community is fortunate that Sun uses his talents for good. There are few more deserving of the title of a “hero,” at least in Ethereum’s dark forest. SS

Caitlin Long

Widely regarded as one of the most influential women in blockchain, Caitlin Long is perhaps best known for her leading role in drafting and conceptualizing Wyoming’s trail-blazing blockchain legislation. She’s a 22-year Wall Street veteran who has been active in the crypto industry since 2012. While the current regulatory landscape concerning crypto in the United States is far from perfect, Long is one of the industry’s spokeswomen who has helped push it in the right direction.

She has helped the state of Wyoming pass 24 crypto-friendly laws, making it one of the friendliest places for crypto businesses in the U.S. Wyoming was also the first U.S. state to authorize a new type of state-chartered depository institution that can custody crypto assets and provide banking services to blockchain businesses.

In July, Wyoming became the first U.S. state to legally recognize DAOs and grant them the same rights as limited liability companies in July under Long’s guidance. Outside of her tireless legislative work, Long’s frequent podcast appearances and elaborate Twitter threads have helped elucidate the most shadowy corners of the industry to both insiders and outsiders. SS 

Daniele Sestagalli

Daniele Sestagalli is the beloved leader of the so-called “frog nation”—a crypto-native social movement denouncing anything it perceives as centralization in DeFi. That can include anything from venture capitalists and institutions to centralized stablecoins and the supposedly decentralized protocols that rely on them. So why does Sestagalli make our top ten heroes list? Because the community loves and praises him as one. That’s largely because he built Abracadabra.Money, Popsicle Finance, and Wonderland.Money, three innovative projects that fall under the buzzy “DeFi 2.0” umbrella. Sestagalli is also known for his enchanting words on Twitter, which have recently turned unsuspecting onlookers into frogs and helped his audience snowball (he has over 221,000 followers at press time, far more than he had six months ago). More recently, Sestagalli stepped up to rescue Sushi after the project faced months of internal issues. Whether he’ll manage to save DeFi from the “corrupting centralizing forces” remains to be seen. Either way, we think he’s already earned the title of a hero. SS 

Disclosure: At the time of writing, the authors of this feature owned BTC, ETH, SOL, MATIC, ENS, SNX, SUSHI, CRV, WNXM, and several other cryptocurrencies. One of them also had exposure to YFI, UNI, and REN in a cryptocurrency index. 

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