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Behind the scenes of Coinbase’s ambitious new Base blockchain, and what to expect from ‘on-chain summer’



Jesse Pollak is one of the main forces behind Base, Coinbase’s new blockchain that the company is touting as a safe, low-cost, and developer-friendly platform for on-chain development. Since test-launching early this month, the Ethereum-based layer-2 chain has already attracted $68 million in ETH and over $200 million in trading volumes.

Collaborating with another popular layer-2 option known as Optimism, Base is built on the OP Stack as a way to optimize scalability. In a recent interview, Pollak shared insights with Fortune contributor Anna Tutova about his journey in the industry, the motivation behind creating Base, and how the blockchain will shape the next wave of crypto adoption after its mainnet launches this month.  

(This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

What can you tell us about your background, and how you got involved in the industry?

I found out about crypto in 2012 originally. I was in university and was sitting at a lunch table and ended up talking to someone at that table about Bitcoin. Little did I know that person was Olaf Carlson Wee, and he was actually on his way up to join Coinbase as the first employee. He went on to start Polychain and do a bunch of other stuff in the industry, but that was my first education. I met him, learned about Bitcoin, and really started getting excited about crypto.

Did you study computer science?

Yeah, I was studying computer science at that time. And, actually, I was kind of starting my first company right then. We were a kind of security company, identity company, and I dropped out of school pretty quickly thereafter, went on that full-time in 2013, and we worked mostly with crypto companies. And so, folks like Bitfinex and Bitmex were customers of ours back in 2014-2015. They paid us and used our software to let customers log into their products.

So what was your product, and how did you join Coinbase?

We were basically building a really easy way for people to log in. It was two-factor authentication without passwords. It was called Clef, based on the French word key. We worked with crypto companies because they were looking for a secure and easy to use way to identify users. And so, did that for five years. That business didn’t work out. And then I joined Coinbase through an acquisition at the beginning of 2017.

I spent the first four-and-a-half years kind of building and leading all the teams that built Coinbase, Coinbase Pro, Coinbase Wallet on the engineering side. I grew those teams from a few people to a couple hundred people. And then in late 2021 I took a step back from that and said: “Hey, what would it take to bring Coinbase on-chain?”

Was that your initiative to start Base?

It was a massive team effort. The company identified that the world was moving on-chain, and that in order for us to help accelerate the next generation of crypto, we needed to figure out how could we bring our business on-chain from being just the centralized exchange to really enabling utility in the crypto economy.

Our CEO, Brian Armstrong, wrote “The Coinbase Secret Master Plan” in 2016. And by 2021, we had worked our way through the first three phases. We had the protocols, we had the exchange, we had the consumer interfaces, but we didn’t have millions of dApps that billions of people were using.

After about a year of exploration, what we identified was: It’s still too hard, it’s still too expensive, it’s still too complex. And so, we started building Base to make it incredibly easy for anyone anywhere to build dApps and then incredibly easy for anyone anywhere to use dApps. And that, combined with the Coinbase Wallet, we believe is going to enable the next wave of crypto adoption.

You use OP Stack by Optimism. So how is Base different from Optimism?

We’ve been collaborating with Optimism for a long time. We actually started working with them on Ethereum before Base existed on something called EIP 4844, which is an upgrade, in theory, that’s gonna reduce the cost of layer-2s like Base by about 10x. As we got to work with the Optimism team, we realized they have really great technology.

When we were starting to build Base, we did a survey and said: “Do we want to build our own technology or do we want to use existing open source technology?” We decided to use the OP Stack, which is this open-source, MIT-licensed toolkit. We felt it was really a way we could build Base, that would contribute back to the broader community and contribute back to the broader ecosystem. So Base is powered by the OP Stack.

In terms of how Base is different from Optimism, we don’t think that these things are competitive. We have this vision of a super chain where all of these are going to come together to create one unified experience for customers.

So Base uses the technology known as an Optimistic rollup?

Yes, Base is an Optimistic rollup. That said, one of the really powerful things about the OP Stack is that it’s built to be configurable and modular and upgradable. And so, one of the things we’re actually working on is adding ZKprover to the OPstack, so we’ll be able to have ZKprover alongside the Optimistic prover. We’ve seen three really awesome proposals from high-quality teams, like Risk Zero, O(1) Labs. And I think we’re on a timeline where we’re gonna start to see results from that in the next year.

You launched your mainnet for builders recently. Can you tell me more about this and about the response to it?

We launched the testnet in February, and we actually just opened up the mainnet for builders three weeks ago. We’re doing this kind of really dedicated period right now where we’re focused on just builders before we let everyday people onto the chain, and working to get those builders’ apps live, get the experience really smooth, make sure that everything’s working from a scalability perspective, from a security perspective. And then, in early August, we’re gonna be launching the full mainnet. At that point we’re gonna have a hundred plus apps that are already ready to go.

The response we’ve seen has been incredible, in collaboration with Coinbase and Optimism and all these other folks who are doing incredible work in the industry in bringing those next billion users on-chain. So that’s what we’re focused on.

How many developers are building on Base?

We’ve seen thousands of developers already building on Base. We’ve been really impressed and excited about the response. My whole calendar is just filled with meeting builders, you know, and some of that is meeting businesses. But I’ve really tried to carve out a huge percentage of my time to focus on individuals, to focus on the people who are just building, whether it’s their nights and weekends, or whether it’s their full-time thing. They are taking the time to write code to put it on Base, whether it’s public goods or little dApps or NFT projects. I think those builders are the people who will create the next wave of innovation that changes the world.

If you look at things like Uniswap or Compound, the original versions of those products were built with one or two people. You don’t need to be a big company to build on Base. Anyone can build on Base and I think the most impactful ideas are actually to come from individuals who take the time, take the energy to build something really unique and powerful.

What are some of the most exciting projects currently being built on Base?

Top of mind for me: Parallel is a really cool game. They launched the beta in July. Blackbird is a small-business and restaurant loyalty platform. It was created by the founder of Eater and Resy, two of the biggest restaurant brands in the United States. They’re fully on Base. Super excited about them.

Oak is building a local community currency stablecoin on Base. And then, of course, we’ll have all of the things that you know and love: the Uniswaps, the Aaves, the Compounds, 0x’s, all the infrastructure for developers. The thing that we are excited about is expanding Base so it’s not just a financial place but a real-world utility for things like music, art, gaming, social media, that people build on Base—and that they scale to millions and then billions of people.

You decided not to launch a related token. Why?

We’ve been really clear that we don’t have any plans for a token. In general, our thesis is that Ethereum is a very workable gas token. It’s what people are already used to holding and spending to use on-chain applications. And so, we want to stay close to Ethereum, and we want to build on that legacy.

But it’s quite costly to use Ethereum.

There’s definitely improvements we can make on cost. If you look at Base versus Ethereum today, running the same dApp on Base is probably going to be 20 times cheaper on Base than it is on an Ethereum with EIP 4844. That’ll go to like 40 to 50 to 100 times cheaper.

I think if you look at tokens today, there’s this crazy kind of financial incentive and financial undercurrent that can obscure what actually is happening and whether there’s product market fit. And we really wanted to focus on making sure that we are building a platform that developers loved and that users loved, and we believe we can do that without a token.

You’ve been through a few cycles since 2012. Can you tell us what you will be the catalyst for the next bull market? Overall, what trends do you see?

I won’t speculate on prices, but we’ve been saying it pretty consistently: We believe this is on-chain summer. This is the summer where everything’s starting to move on-chain and it’s starting to happen faster and faster. People say we’re in a bear market right now, but when I look around the industry, I look at the frequency of launches. I look at the innovation that’s happening. I look at the excitement. I look at the people who are at these conferences, there is so much energy. There’s so much happening. There’s so much impact that is being made every single day. And so, whether that translates to price impact right now or six months from now—or 12 months from now, or 18 months from now—I don’t know.

You mentioned that Base had interest from potential enterprise clients. Can you tell me more about this? For example, the European Investment Bank launched a bond on Ethereum or something like that.

We are working with all kinds of builders on Base from those individual developers that I was talking about earlier to the largest Fortune 500 companies in the world. Can’t share anything in this interview right now, but I think starting this summer you will see that there are global brands that are building on Base, from consumer-packaged goods to finance to whatever you want, and so we’ll have a lot more to share in the next few months.

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