The Stacks Summit “Bitcoin Unleashed”

Bitcoin Unleashed took place on Tuesday, April 5th, and Saturday, April 6th, at the Faena Forum and was the first Stacks summit I’ve attended. Years ago, I had dabbled in the predecessors of Stacks – Namecoin and Blockstack. However, I became reinterested in January after searching for the best blockchain platform to build a reputation system I’d been toying with called TRAJAN. In March, the Stacks Foundation awarded my cofounder and me a $20,000 grant to build an MVP. My goal in attending Unleashing Bitcoin was to increase my knowledge of Stacks and meet potential users and collaborators for TRAJAN.

You can watch all of the presentations on YouTube here. And here are photos of day one, the afterparty, and day two.

If you don’t know much about Stacks, start here. In short, Stacks enables DeFi, NFTs, apps, and smart contracts for Bitcoin.

The event website describes the summit thus:

Join us for Bitcoin Unleashed, a two-day event (yes, IRL) offering a wide range of Bitcoin-focused programming. Sessions include live demos, technical workshops, keynote speeches, parties, panels, and discussions on everything from DeFi to decentralized gaming, NFTs, etc. The event will be an incredible environment for cross-collaboration, where people from all ends of our ecosystem can come together to lay the groundwork for Bitcoin innovation.

The Setting And Vibe

The milieu at Bitcoin Unleashed reminded me of Bitcoin pre-2017 before a vocal minority preached the merits of an Amish version of Bitcoin- that any cryptography-based token or app that came after Bitcoin is a sin. But any cryptography-based token or app that came before Bitcoin was holy and good. In the pre-2017 era, people were open and generally enthusiastic about building on Bitcoin. For example, Mastercoin and Counterparty developed ways to set up contracts and create tokens as layer two on Bitcoin. Another example is Namecoin, an essential early innovation. Namecoin was the first fork of Bitcoin and still is one of the most innovative “altcoins.” It was first to implement merged mining and a decentralized DNSNamecoin was also the first solution to Zooko’s Triangle, the long-standing problem of producing a naming system that is simultaneously secure, decentralized, and human-meaningful. – https://www.namecoin.org/

Back then, most welcomed the innovation, even if the implementations had flaws. Stacks brings back the spirit of invention on Bitcoin, but with a superior and novel implementation, benefitting from the lessons of time and many talented software engineers. I could go on at length on this topic, but my focus here is the conference.

The event venue was upscale and artistic, the vibe professional but breezy. I would describe the average (but not all) participants as Bitcoin “centrists,” not skewed towards libertarian/anarchist activists, hackers, or bankers. I’m ideologically driven, so I had to adjust to the crowd slightly. The attendees were primarily practical, well-grounded people who balanced skepticism against open-mindedness. The common thread was an appreciation for Bitcoin while trying to extend its uses into smart contracts, NFTs, Defi, and DAOs.

The presenters consisted of developers, investors, and educators who have all made concrete contributions to Stacks, with one or two exceptions. Social media influencers were (nearly) absent from Bitcoin Unleased. Also happily lacking was corporatism. The event had sponsors, and a couple of projects/companies dominated, but it didn’t feel like a suit convention. Or that big money Wall Street interests had captured Stacks. On the flip side, the libertarian/anarchist vibe was muted. The attendees wanted to build crypto-based alternatives to the existing financial system and web architecture because they had concluded that both are corrupt and dysfunctional. Many of the NFT people were easy to spot, with their artistic flair.

Stacks people fit in a small niche. So I created the Venn diagram below.

Bitcoin Unleashed reflected IRL what I’ve experienced online – the non-profit Stacks Foundation, the Stacks Accelerator, and Bitcoin Odyssey Fund passionately seek to help entrepreneurs and developers succeed in their efforts. Various leaders in Stacks are genuinely friendly, open, and savvy people. I never got a feeling of feigned helpfulness to capture opportunities. More importantly, the Foundation and fund are developing various initiatives to extend their reach. If you’re interested in doing something with Stacks, I recommend joining their Discord server. The community is nascent but proliferating with budding results.

Funding Stacks projects. This was a lively panel.

Favorite Topics, Speakers, and Projects

The conference had two stages, with parallel tracks. So I was only able to attend half of the presentations. Actually fewer than half, because I was eating or socializing during some presentations or taking a break from socializing. Also, several of the talks I wanted to attend coincided.

The opening presentation was “Bitcoin is Savings Technology” – The bedrock of DeFi must be high quality collateral. That’s why Stacks is building DeFi on Bitcoin, the highest quality collateral on Earth. The simplest financial use-case is saving and lending. This transforms Bitcoin into a savings technology. Listen to this blue-sky session on a world underpinned by BTC savings.

People who follow me on Twitter (sorry!) might know that I dislike the phrase “savings technology” because savings is an act, not a technology. But the term has entered the common vernacular, so what can I do? MacKenzie Sigalos moderated with Meltem Demirors and Muneeb Ali as the speakers. They made an animated case for bitcoin acting as the reserve currency for a new financial system. I agree with their thesis, and that is why I think Stacks can extend the programmability of Bitcoin by working as collateral and by the Stacks stacking function. However, I can’t entirely agree with those who say Bitcoin will become the reserve currency of the existing financial system.

An interactive whiteboard at the conference.

The next presentation I liked was “Let Stacks Fund Your Buidl-ing on Bitcoin.” – With a robust grants program, the Stacks Foundation has funded innovative projects – Arkadiko, StackerDAO, Ryder, and many more – that are building out the ecosystem of decentralized applications on top of Bitcoin and tooling for Stacks. Is your project next? Learn about the grants program and hear from grantee DLC.Link about their exciting Partner grant.

As a Stacks Foundation grantee, I wanted to meet Will Corcoran, who runs the grant program. He’s been accommodating in getting TRAJAN started. Will gave an overview of the program and then handed the microphone to Aki Balogh, CEO of DLC.Link. They received a grant to help build their discrete log contract application that creates cross-chain interoperability for Bitcoin. So, again, extending the programmability of Bitcoin.

One of my favorite Stacks projects is LNSwap, a non-custodial cryptocurrency exchange that provides a fast, private way of swapping Bitcoin for Stacks and vice versa. Its creator, Zach Pseudo, discussed how LNSwap could be used to pay for Stacks NFTs with bitcoin. I support any tool that enables non-custodial, non-KYC methods of obtaining bitcoin.

These were all presentations from day one of the conference. I didn’t go to the afterparty as I needed to catch up on sleep after a few long nights before the event. But I heard it was good. Day two brought more actionable content.

One presentation I missed but wanted to attend was “Payments Tech for your Secrets.” As Bitcoin pushes its way into the center of the global macro stage and settles into a regulatory framework, privacy and confidentiality seem more and more like a commodity accessed through a clever combination of cryptographic tools and workarounds. Efforts continue, though, to widen access to this valuable commodity with several Stacks products that aim to meet a massive growth in demand for privacy and confidentiality.

Privacy sits at the top of my concerns for Bitcoin. So I wish I could have heard about the efforts in Stacks to further privacy.

The final presentation I’ll mention is, “Why DeFi Is Being Built on Bitcoin,” which was a discussion between Stacks co-founder Muneeb Ali and Gina Abrams. They elucidated the strengths of Stacks as a Bitcoin-integrated blockchain for decentralizing finance. Bitcoin is necessary but insufficient to build a new financial system away from the State-Megacorp duopoly. Stacks offers a promising tech stack to do so.

Final Thoughts

Paying $250 was a bargain in exchange for the actionable content and meeting many impressive builders at Bitcoin Unleashed. I will attend next year and recommend others do so as well. Tomorrow will be two weeks since the conference. Since I returned, I’ve been working on TRAJAN and reading up on what I learned. I hope more will open their eyes to the need to extend the programmability of Bitcoin. Right now is an opportune time for entrepreneurs and developers to get started with Stacks.

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