#BerlinCryptoCapital: A Portrait Series featuring the people shaping Berlin’s crypto ecosystem

#BerlinCryptoCapital: A Portrait Series featuring the people shaping Berlin’s crypto ecosystem

Follow the #BerlinCryptoCapital thread here!

Coming from Paris to start The Family in Berlin, the city only meant two things for me: Rocket Internet & Soundcloud. After a few months — and as I got more and more contaminated by the crypto-virus — I started to discover lots of great crypto projects in Berlin.

And not only did I discover amazing Berlin-based crypto projects, I also found that a big chunk of the wider scene was actually using Berlin as a platform to hire, operate & scale. Cool! But of all the remote (and sunny) places they could go to build the future of crypto…why did they choose Berlin?

That’s what I wanted to find out, so armed with my camera I started meeting the people of crypto in Berlin! Here’s a (surely) biased overview of what they taught me.

I’ve got you, under my skin… 🕵🏻‍

Decentralization is in Berlin’s DNA on multiple levels. Berlin has one of the world’s most vibrant political histories, and as mentioned by numerous people, that history shapes the way the city thinks, talks & acts.

In the past century, Berlin basically got unbundled, notably after WWII. It happened politically, through the Länder re-organization and Berlin separation, but also economically: the car industry went to Stuttgart and Munich, press and insurance to Hamburg, finance to Frankfurt, etc. In a sense, Berlin is already the capital of a decentralized country, fertile ground for the crypto economy 🙂.

Then Berlin became the center of the Cold War (1947–91), “a huge geopolitical struggle, its citizens being tugged at by different governments halfway across the world”, as Robert from Polkadot told me. This rampant conflict bred one of the greatest state surveillance initiatives in history: the Stasi (1950–89). Headquartered in Berlin, the Stasi was the official state security service of the GDR (East Germany). It was so infiltrated into life in the GDR that one out of every 63 East Germans was collaborating with it. By the time East Germany collapsed in 1989, the Stasi counted 91,015 employees and another 173,081 informants. They would drill tiny holes in apartments and hotel rooms to film citizens with special video cameras. Just look at this one — that’s some serious 1950s-spying skills! No wonder why privacy & censorship resistance are key topics around Berlin…

Internationally, Berlin brought Soviet and NATO powers closer together than anywhere else and the city became the world’s spy capital, with both sides trying to gather info about the other. As it became impossible to pass from East to West following the erection of the Berlin Wall (1961), espionage shifted from people-focused to tech-focused. The Teufelsberg listening station is still a vestige of Berlin’s spying history, even if it’s now a counter-culture hot-spot. There has been so much spy-related history that Berlin even has a spy museum!

Going around the system ✊🏽

With a bit of historical context, it’s easier to understand how the Berlin counter-culture was born. Squatting spots, musical experiments, anti-establishmentarianism, Berlin has it all according to Joshua from Vaultoro and Brian from Epicenter. One must note that vacant buildings & military service conscription also helped Berlin attract flocks of creative young people, wired with a sense of newfound freedom & responsibility to create a better future for the “lost generation”, as Pawel from Point9 puts it.

This going-around-the-system mindset is not only rooted in political activism but also in technological activism. Most of the people from the Berlin crypto scene linked the emergence of the movement with the foundation of the Chaos Computer Club, the world’s oldest hacking group. Worried about the rising fascism and a possible tech-enabled Stasi 2.0, these hacktivists grew from a handful to now 5,500 members that reached 11,000 attendees at its 2016 annual events. They’ve been introducing people to data privacy through their crypto-parties (no, they’re not connected to the Kitties one…) where they guide participants in starting to use Tor, CloudFlare, PGP & DuckDuckGo. As a matter of fact, Greg from IPDB identified the Tor project as being “largely Berlin-based” and a “community that has been smashing at the edges of cyberculture and building up the radical side of the internet”. Trent from Ocean Protocol added that Wikipedia has its largest non-US engineer office here, too. That sounds very Berlin-y to me 😎

The new ideological center of the decentralized world 🧠

That’s how Berlin became the new ideological center of the decentralized world. The city suffered from the deep absence of privacy and developed ideologies & strong communities in which these questions have been central for a very long time. As Robert from Polkadot puts it, “the people making the crypto-currencies scene have been in Berlin for decades”. And that’s why after the NSA scandal, lots of security experts flew towards Berlin for political reasons, as mentioned by Zoe from Neufund.

For Ele from OSCoin, if Berlin is the ideological center of this new technological movement, it’s because there’s a strong upside to “not being in Silicon Valley, as it forces us to rethink some stuff and creates some space for us to think about certain things differently. We have our own space to create our own things.” It’s a view shared by lots of people around Europe, and Martin from Gnosis agrees: “It’s quite natural that Ethereum didn’t crystalize in the Valley as its main purpose is about changing the way the economy works, not just optimizing it.

Cheap as F*CK 🥙

And talking about differences with San Francisco, folks in Berlin regularly talk about prices. For Robert from Nakamoto, low-rents & cheap Berlin cost-of-living enabled lots of early believers to #HODL. He actually lived in a car for 2 years so as not to sell his bitcoins, “too busy to spend the money anyway!” This was a key thing for lots of early pioneers, being able to afford a decent living while exploring new horizons.

Berlin is economically attractive not only because it’s cheap but also because of taxes. According to Jörg from Bitwala, Germany was—in 2012—the 1st government to regulate crypto, declaring it as a Unit of Account. “It’s tax-free if you hold more than 1 year”, he told me. This early regulatory move triggered a wave of people moving to Berlin from all over the world.

International talents 💎

The city’s attraction doesn’t stop at taxes! Berlin is a truly international city, owned by no one (Brian from Epicenter). “Berlin is a completely blank slate” as Peter from the Web3 foundation puts it. By nature, the city became the European capital with the widest range of interests (Ele from OSCoin) — computer science, economics, politics, arts, history… The city mixes people from lots of different fields. Like Bitcoin, Berlin is “the result of different ideas from diverse fields being put together in such a magical way (Ele from OSCoin). As Berlin isn’t dominated by any one industry, so the crypto-scene isn’t geared towards any, as for example London would be for blockchain enterprise financial applications.

Berlin has this inclusive international mindset (Cassidy from Chlu) for multiple reasons:

  • Visas are super easy to get (Robert from Nakamoto) and initiatives like Berlin Partners are streamlining the process, especially for tech talents.
  • It’s the first hub connecting Eastern Europe to Western Europe, with the Rocket Internet era having helped to attract the region’s top talent to Berlin. As a matter of fact, Miriam even thinks that’s one of the reasons Berlin is blooming with crypto projects. As lots of talented developers got bored by building marketplaces and e-commerce platforms, they started toying around with crypto on the side! They are now jumping in full-time, fueling the crypto talent pool 😇
  • And as Gavin from Parity & Peter from Web3 told me, Berlin has Europe’s best parties! That’s actually what convinced Gavin to move here and set up the Ethereum office.

Humans after all… 🧛🏻‍

It’s a decentralized world but as Radoslav from Bitbond puts it, “We’re human beings after all, we are wired to socialize with people whom we share common interests with.” People in Berlin definitely shared an interest in privacy, but guess what they also shared? Beers! Almost everyone in Berlin roots their “A-ha!” crypto moment to Room77, which in May 2011 became the world’s first brick-and-mortar establishment to accept bitcoin. The bar also started hosting the Berlin Bitcoin meetup in 2013, and as every German TV station mentioned it, it drew lots of folks. Business school drop-outs, anarchists, artists, consultants, everybody could share a beer & talk crypto. The 1st mobile wallet was developed by a guy who was tired of bringing his laptop to the counter to pay his tab (Brian from Epicenter)!

And even if lots of people are working remotely around the world, even if most of the teams working on protocols look like the Tower of Babel, the scene needs to gather around some physical spaces. And that’s why Martin launched Full Node, Europe’s largest blockchain co-working space! “Decentralized or not, it made a lot of sense to be close to those you’re dependent on” he commented, while Gnosis was hosted in the Ethereum office.

To be fair, Ethereum played a key role in Berlin’s crypto growth. Their Berlin office really became a global hub, Fabian told me. Most of the EthCore Devs are there, and that brought lots of projects to the city. A pretty impressive list of projects from the Ethereum ecosystem are in Kreutzberg, one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods: Gnosis, Raiden, Parity, Web3 foundation, Truebit, Polkadot, Cosmos, enough to attracts lots more in the future.

Conclusion 👻

To say the least, I’m pretty excited about the Berlin crypto scene. This combination of political history, ambition & international context gives me hope that the city will keep attracting top talents into its net. I’m also confident that Berlin’s inclusive community will make the best out of them! Of course it’s just starting and like any ecosystem its success will ultimately be measured by the success of its members. On that note, one thing that’s still missing is the emergence of a local scaled-up crypto-company like Ripple or Coinbase, which are now clocking in at ~500/600 employees—as wisely mentioned by Brian from Epicenter.

This is the next step, so let’s #BUIDL 🙂 On our side, we’ll keep on organizing dinners, events & bridges among crypto-ecosystems in Europe!

Anyhow, if you’re in Berlin & want to connect to the local crypto community, you know where to knock😇