VITALIK BUTERIN, 24, is the Russian-Canadian programmer who created Ethereum, the world’s second-most valuable cryptocurrency network behind Bitcoin. Ranked No. 10 on Fortune's 2017 list of the most influential people in business under age 40, Buterin was born in Kolomna, Russia, and raised in Toronto, where he was recognized as mathematically gifted at a young age. "When I was in grade five or six," Buterin recalls, "I just remember quite a lot of people talking about me like I was some kind of math genius. And there were just so many moments when I realized like, okay, why can't I just be like some normal person and go have a 75% average like everyone else?"
In 2011 at 17, he learned about Bitcoin—unstoppable, unmediated digital payments—from his computer-scientist father and started earning Bitcoin himself by writing about cryptocurrency for specialty blogs and scholarly journals. A year later he co-founded Bitcoin Magazine, the first serious publication about cryptocurrency. Buterin was a shy idealist who was able to look past Bitcoin’s vertiginous market volatility and stampede of new investors and imagine how the decentralizing potential of the underlying technology could apply to more than banking. In 2013, he published a white paper describing how blockchain—the distributed ledger technology that underlies bitcoin—could be an enabling platform for all kinds of autonomous software such as "smart contracts" which self-execute. He proposed a blockchain called Ethereum (from "aether," the medieval notion of an invisible medium that permeates the universe), a ubiquitous "decentralized platform for applications that run exactly as programmed without any chance of fraud, censorship or third-party interference."
In 2014, Peter Thiel awarded Buterin $100,000 to drop out of the University of Waterloo, where he had completed one year in computer science, and finish writing the code for Ethereum. Today, Ethereum is still in its infancy (albeit with a market cap on April 25 of $61 billion), and Buterin and his fellow crypto coders are working to scale it, with the goal of enabling thousands of ultrafast secure transactions at once. If his dreams for Ethereum are realized, the implications are staggering. "Whereas most technologies tend to automate workers on the periphery doing menial tasks," Buterin says, "blockchains automate away the center. Instead of putting the taxi driver out of a job, blockchain puts Uber out of a job and lets the taxi drivers work with the customer directly."