The richest people in cryptocurrency… for now

February has been a rollercoaster for Bitcoin, with the cryptocurrency plunging from nearly $20,000 in December to US$11,000 at the end of January then down again to under $6,000 in the first week of February before swinging back over $10,000 by February 26.

For the bandwagon jumpers and the uninitiated (likely the majority of people), the drop was a gut punch, signaling the “impending burst of the Bitcoin bubble” that the media – and Larry from the mail room – had warned them about. But for Forbes recently published list of cryptocurrency billionaires, the volatility in virtual currencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum and Ripple is par for the course.

Many on the Forbes “Richest People in Cryptocurrency” list, a first for the magazine, have either founded virtual currencies or been early adopters. They hold more than $350 million, are 42-years-old on average (versus 67 for the Forbes 400) and have seen an average 14,409 percent price change in their chosen currency of Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Ripple in 2017 alone.

Given that there are no public filings for Forbes to confirm its figures, the wealth estimates for the those on the list span a broad range. But as Forbes editor Randall Lane said of the list, no one’s denying that an engulfing majority of initial coin offerings are “hype, scams or worse,” but blockchain in some shape or form is here to stay.

“As in the dot-com boom in 1999, some of these crypto billionaires will bust, the of their era. Others will weather the inevitable reckoning and morph into something stronger, crypto’s eBay or Google,” Lane writes. “Our list provides a snapshot of a pivotal moment, part of the transparency needed to pull crypto away from its provenance as the favorite currency of drug dealers and into the adolescence of a legitimate asset class.”

So, who are these shadowy cryptophiles, and how did they make their billions? Let’s take a look.

Chris Larsen, co-founder and executive chairman of Ripple

Chris Larsen

Few cryptocurrency billionaires embody the volatility of virtual currency quite like Chris Larsen, co-founder of Ripple, a system designed to help banks transfer international payments using blockchain. In early January, when the XRP currency was at an all-time high of $3.84, Larsen was reportedly worth $59 billion – briefly making him wealthier than Mark Zuckerberg. By the time Forbes published their list, the 57-year old’s 5.2 billion XRP were worth closer to $7.5 to $8 billion*, which is nothing to balk at. That said, it’s still a more than $50 billion write-down. There’s no question Larsen’s the real deal – let’s just hope Ripple is too.

Joseph Lubin and Anthony Di Iorio, co-founders of Ethereum

Like a more sophisticated brother to Bitcoin, Ethereum functions as both a currency and a platform for running applications. It can be a challenging concept to grasp but that hasn’t stopped the Ethereum platform from gaining notoriety amongst investors. Joseph Lubin, a Toronto native, and former Goldman Sachs exec helped fund Ethereum shortly after coming across programmer Vitalik Buterin’s white paper on the platform. He also launched Consensys, a venture production studio for the Ethereal ecosystem. He’s rumored to be worth $1 billion to $5 billion. Like Lubin, Anthony Di Iorio, also threw his weight behind Ethereum early and has founded his own ventures including Decentral, which host’s Toronto’s first Bitcoin ATM and designed the JAXX crypto-wallet. He’s worth $750 million to $1 billion.

Changpeng Zhao, CEO of Binance

After learning about Bitcoin in 2013 from a venture capitalist he played poker with, Changpeng Zhao began floating between cryptocurrency projects. But last July he struck digital gold, raising $15 million through a 200 million token crowd-sale of Binance, a crypto-exchange he’d conceptualized. Today it has more than six million users, making it the most popular exchange of its kind and Zhao is now worth somewhere between $1.1 billion and $2 billion.

Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, Co-founders of Gemini

The Zuckerberg-slighted duo, famous for suing the Facebook founder for allegedly stealing their idea to build Facebook, drew from their $65 million in Facebook stock and cash settlement to invest in Bitcoin. They rode the turbulent ups and downs between 2012 and 2015, investing in Ethereum as well. The pair co-founded Gemini, a platform not dissimilar to Coinbase, where crypto investors can turn their virtual currencies into U.S. dollars. Although they’ve yet to rival The Zuck in wealth, the brothers Winklevoss are worth $900 million to $1.1 billion each, which is, in our opinion, a decent start.

Matthew Mellon, Individual Investor

Matthew Mellon

The former chair of the New York Republican Party’s finance committee and heir to the century-and-a-half-old Mellon Banking legacy, Matthew Mellon played the role of volatile investor happily, chasing Bitcoin in the early days and shelling out $2 million to acquire Ripple. “Crypto is scary and dark. It’s anti-America,” Mellon, who’s 54, told Forbes. “I am pro-America, pro-business and pro-bank. That’s why I went with Ripple.” It paid off, today the renegade investor is worth $900 million to $1 billion.

Brian Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase

Where everyone else was seeing risk, Brian Armstrong saw demand. In 2012, he founded Coinbase, one of the most widely used crypto-exchanges in the U.S. The platform has both a brokerage side where investors can buy Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, Ether and Litecoin with a bank account, and an exchange for traders. He’s worth $$900 million to $1 billion, however, a spokesperson for Coinbase told Forbes their estimates were incorrect given that they used his stake in the company to calculate his worth.

Matthew Roszak, Co-founder of Bloq

Ah yes, the man who claims to have given both Sir Richard Branson and Bill Clinton their first Bitcoins. Matthew Roszak started buying up crypto in the early days of initial coin offerings in 2013 and launched the Tally Capital fund, which has since backed blockchain startups like Coinbase. His estimated net worth hovers in the $900 million to $1 billion range.

Brock Pierce, Chairman of Bitcoin Foundation

Because every good news story needs a cameo by a former child star, Brock Pierce (who played the younger version of Emilio Estevez in The Mighty Ducks, among other roles) also graced the Forbes list. But his appearance shouldn’t be a huge surprise to industry insiders. The founder of a Youtube-esque network and tech entrepreneur always had an eye on virtual prizes, which put him onto crypto-currency eventually. His latest project is building Sol, a decentralized autonomous community run on blockchain in Puerto Rico. Pierce is worth somewhere in the realm of $700 million to $1 billion.

The remaining people on the list:

Michael Novogratz, CEO of Galaxy Digital: $700 million to $1 billion

Brendan Blumer, CEO of $600 million to $700 million

Dan Larimer, CTO in $600 million to $700 million

Valery Vavilov, CEO of Bitfury: $500 million to $700 million

Charles Hoskinson, Co-founder of Ethereum, IOHK (Cardano): $500 million to $600 million

Brad Garlinghouse, CEO of Ripple: $400 million to $500 million

Barry Silbert, CEO of Digital Currency Group: $400 million to $500 million

Vitalik Buterin, Creator of Ethereum: $400 million to $500 million

*All Cryptocurrency/U.S. dollar conversions are as of Forbes calculations on January 19, 2018.


Andrew Seale

Andrew Seale is a Toronto-based business writer who contributes frequently to Yahoo Canada Finance, The Globe and Mail's Report on Business and The Toronto Star.