In the spring of 2019 Anna Rose, the co-founder of the ZKValidator, met Joe Lallouz, CEO of Bison Trails, at NYC Blockchain Week. Anna is also the co-host of the Zero Knowledge Podcast—a weekly show that explores zero knowledge research, blockchain tech and the decentralised web. Soon after meeting, Anna invited Joe and Aaron to appear on the podcast to talk about Bison Trails.
At one point Joe mentioned, “So you could run the Zero Knowledge validator on Cosmos and you wouldn’t have to be hyper technical to be able to do that. Zero Knowledge could have decision making [power] on a protocol like Cosmos or Polkadot that you believe in, without having to have a 10-person engineering team. That’s pretty cool. Would you do it?”
Anna replied “Maybe we should start the Zero Knowledge validator right here on this podcast!”
The seed of ZKValidator was planted.
A few weeks after that podcast interview, Anna chatted with her soon-to-be ZKValidator co-founder, Will Harborne. Will is the CEO of DeversiFi, a project that leverages ZKPs for scaling on Ethereum. Anna and Will could see that running their own validator was an exciting opportunity not only to participate in validation on Proof of Stake networks, but also to help push and prioritise ZKP research and privacy tech on these networks through participation in on-chain governance. And so the ZKValidator was born.
The ZK in ZKValidator stands for zero knowledge proofs (ZKPs), a cryptographic means to prove that a secret is true, happened, or is valid without revealing any other information about it. One of ZKP’s most well understood uses in blockchain is validating that a transaction has occurred without revealing where it was sent, or how much was sent, thus keeping everything about a transaction private. But the technology has many more potential applications, such as for scaling, selective disclosure, and compression of data.
In just the past few years, Proof of Stake has gone from experimental to mainstream. Mining pools, the combining of computational resources to earn rewards, have been replaced with delegations to validators, the combining of digital assets to earn rewards. This shift from work-based network security to value-based security created the opportunity for a new class of infrastructure providers like Bison Trails to emerge, and new opportunities for individuals and organizations.
As Joe explained on the podcast, Bison Trails makes it easy for anyone to run secure infrastructure across multiple blockchains. Bison Trails’ Participation Clusters are fully-managed, non-custodial validators and supporting infrastructure for Proof of Stake networks, with enterprise-grade security. The Bison Trails platform operates nodes across AWS, GCP, and Azure, providing near-infinite redundancy and uptime. This infrastructure is most often used by funds and exchanges, but has also enabled forward-thinking organizations to launch their own Staking as a Service offerings.
ZKValidator takes this idea one step further. Their innovative concept is to launch community-funded validators focused on a single issue—privacy and zk technology. Their pitch to delegators/nominators: Stake with us and we will push the topic of your privacy and the inclusion of ZKP and privacy tech on your behalf. Anyone can stake their digital assets and earn participatory rewards for helping to secure networks while supporting ZKValidator’s mandate and its research initiatives.
Anna and Will chose Bison Trails to power the ZKValidator because it is a fully-managed platform. Bison Trails handles network upgrades, security, availability, and all aspects of node operation for Anna and the ZKV team. Thanks to this, ZKV can focus on their mission.
Anna: I realised that with this project I would be able to bring the two communities of zk researchers and protocol developers closer together. When it comes to token ownership, or bringing existing business activities on chain, privacy is more than a “nice to have”—it is a requirement for adoption.
Today, Bison Trails powers the ZKValidator nodes across Cosmos, Polkadot, Kusama, and NEAR. In addition to their role in the governance of these systems, the validator fees help support other ZKV activities, such as organising privacy-focused workshops, events, and working groups as well as producing reports like the Cosmos & Privacy Baseline Report and the ZKV Baseline report on Polkadot/Kusama. Anna hopes that the success of the ZKValidator program will inspire other mission-oriented blockchain teams and organizations to launch their own mission-driven validators.
Anna: We are entirely focused on advocacy of a single issue, so in a lot of ways, we are quite neutral about other aspects of a chain. All those who stake with us are signaling their support of the mission and communicating to the network that privacy is a priority.
After this initial work is complete on a network, Zero Knowledge tackles the main work of the ZKValidator. Anna describes this as a phased process across the protocols the ZKValidator supports.
- Map the privacy ecosystems in each network in baseline reports like those mentioned above
- Connect teams and initiate specific research projects.
- Research and document what possible privacy technologies can be built on and into the networks, including cross-chain private tokens and purpose built private connected chains.
- Craft governance proposals to support and protect privacy of participants who are active on the networks we work on.
- Publish our results and actively promote within the Zero Knowledge Research community.
Advocacy validators have the potential to vastly improve the quality of on-chain governance. Pooling resources could give shared voice to smaller token holders, and allow non-technical token holders to better participate in protocol governance by delegating to representatives.
What’s next for the ZKValidator? Expansion to more protocols.
Anna: Working with Bison Trails has helped us get a lay of the land of what is possible in PoS and which networks to keep on our radar. As they continue to offer support for new PoS networks and other services, we also see interesting opportunities emerging for the ZKValidator to branch out in different directions as well.
And because Bison Trails is doing the technical due diligence, we can focus on our value proposition and what we think we can accomplish in the network on the privacy side. It has given us a chance to focus on our core competencies while feeling confident that our delegators and nominators are staking to us with the highest standard of security.
ZKValidator’s success shows that anyone with a strong community can launch their own validators to provide Staking as a Service, and leverage their brand identity as a competitive advantage. From foundations and advocacy groups, to athletes and crypto-evangelists, mission-based staking services can change the relationship between protocols and token holders.
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