The Why of NEAR
When Alex, Illia and the rest of the early team came together in 2018 to explore the ideas that would eventually become the NEAR Protocol, we each used slightly different words to express a single feeling — that the trends of both governments and corporations over the past decade have made it significantly more difficult to drive and distribute innovation than was the case before.
Each of us saw that developers and entrepreneurs need a better set of tools and it was clear that decentralized technologies offer a powerful new opportunity. Most promisingly, the blockchain technology pioneered by Bitcoin and extended by Ethereum uses a fully decentralized architecture to create a system where developers can build apps that have access to a new way of storing and transferring value which enables the development of disruptive business models.
The NEAR Project was born to make those ideas useful for a much wider group of participants. NEAR provides a highly performant open source backbone for running applications that tap into the flow of high value money and data. In today’s world, any app that isn’t a static HTML page can benefit from these tools. NEAR is the first decentralized application platform to allow these applications to reach mainstream usage because they are both performant and usable.
But the NEAR Purpose is larger than just the NEAR Protocol:
Our purpose is to enable community-driven innovation to benefit people around the world.
When we first assembled these words, they struck like a gong and it was clear we had finally articulated the Why which brought us together in the first place. Let’s look at each piece of this statement:
“Our purpose is…” “We” are a wide-ranging collective of developers, entrepreneurs and visionaries who have endorsed this purpose and begun working towards its enablement. While we share the same reason why we are here, we operate across many different areas of the ecosystem and in multiple entities and the world. There is no single leader or controller of this Purpose; it is permissionless.
“…to enable…” We aren’t here to do all the work ourselves… we are emphatically here to create the platform, tools and environment in which others can help themselves. That is how we achieve the greatest leverage for change.
“…community-driven innovation…” Many of the most important innovations which drive today’s businesses grew out of the collaborative nature of the early web and the openness of the entrepreneurial community in general. When the community is allowed to permissionlessly drive innovation, the scope of ideas will always exceed that which can be created through the top-down dictates of a single company or government.
“…to benefit people…” Not all innovation is created equal and we are specifically motivated by those innovations which can be harnessed to improve the condition of real people rather than finding better ways to weaponize their psychology against them as too many of today’s tools do.
“…around the world.” Not all innovation is distributed evenly around the world and so we must ensure that artificial barriers which prevent individuals from accessing markets, information or freedom are overcome.
The NEAR Foundation
While we are excited to say that the NEAR Protocol MainNet genesis occurred on April 22, 2020, NEAR is more than just a blockchain. It is a full suite of tools and protocols and components that are being researched and developed by world class teams who are distributed across the globe. Because of the fractured nature of the creators and the differing goals of each tool that makes up the NEAR platform, there is no single project which represents the fulfillment of the above-mentioned Purpose. Rather, it is the sum of the parts which do so.
The NEAR Foundation (https://near.foundation) is, at the broadest level, the steward of the *full* NEAR purpose. This foundation is an independent nonprofit entity based in Switzerland whose charter directly contains the words of that Purpose. To fulfill it, the Foundation plays a supporting and coordinating role between the players of the ecosystem. It is the lighthouse which helps keep the ecosystem oriented towards the North Star of that Purpose.
The Swiss “Stiftung” (German for “foundation”) structure, which the NEAR Foundation uses, is shared by some of the highest profile projects like Ethereum and Polkadot for a reason. This structure is neither flexible nor simple to operate because there is very strict regulatory oversight within the highly regulated Swiss jurisdiction. Stiftungs are legally bound to pursue their Purpose and funds that have been given to them cannot be removed for any reason except the fulfillment of that Purpose. These reasons are why most decentralized projects have opted for simpler or more flexible legal structures. But they are precisely the reasons why the Swiss Stiftung is the gold standard for projects who are operating reputably, transparently and with positive intentions.
NEAR is a global community effort which could become the backbone for the global economy so it is important to everyone building it — and building *on* it — that everything about it is held to the highest standard. Thus, we have worked to make sure everything from the structure of the Foundation to the code produced in support of the project are set up in a way that engenders trust.
To be clear, there will always be some tradeoffs between effective execution and community involvement, between transparency and privacy, and between short term decisions and long term value creation. But we would rather acknowledge those tradeoffs up front and will do our best to address them as openly as possible so the community has the trust it should in a project of this scope and magnitude.
The Foundation Council
A Swiss Stiftung is directed by an independent council which is similar to a corporate board of directors but with greater regulatory oversight. These members have the power to guide and ratify decisions of the Foundation but they can be removed by the regulatory authority if they are failing to pursue the Foundation’s purpose.
While the Foundation has obviously been operational for some time now, I am proud to officially introduce the first NEAR Foundation Council for the first time. These members were chosen for their particular blend of skills and outstanding reputation within the community:
Mona El Isa
is a serial entrepreneur with a deep history in both traditional finance and blockchain. She is currently the founder and CEO of Avantgarde Finance and previously founded Melonport which built the Melon protocol. As part of Melonport, Mona oversaw the first successful handoff of power from a blockchain foundation to fully decentralized governance.
is a successful founder, operator and allocator in the technology space. He co-founded Orchestream in network management (LSE/NASDAQ in 2000, now part of Oracle), founded Tideway in application management (acquired in 2009 by BMC) and led Automic Software in business automation (acquired in 2016 by CA Technologies). Then as co-founder of Firestartr he backed firms like Tray, Citymapper and Transferwise; as GP at OpenOcean (founders of MySQL” and MariaDB) backed Truecaller, Bitrise and Supermetrics. This evolved into leading the Europe-based Fabric Ventures, successor to Firestartr and sister to OpenOcean. The Fabric team specifically backs entrepreneurs in the decentralized app and Web3 arena like Orchid, Keep, Polkadot, Messari and, as I’m happy to finally share, NEAR too.
is a gifted technologist and entrepreneur who is cofounder and CEO of Near Inc, a company which has done much of the early research and development work for the NEAR project. Illia formerly managed a team at Google Research which worked on core question-answering capabilities and he co-developed the Tensorflow machine learning library used by the majority of applications in machine learning. He has been a driving force behind NEAR from its earliest inception.
Also of note, Ali Yahya has joined as a nonvoting advisor and observer of the council. Ali is an engineer who formerly excelled in Google’s Brain and Moonshot divisions and who is currently a partner at Andreessen Horowitz. He brings both technical depth and strategic guidance to the Foundation.
As you can see, this initial council — which is populated with successful execution-oriented entrepreneurs and technologists who have been working together since last year — is specifically designed to provide NEAR with the support it needs to build its technical infrastructure and deliver its vision to help developers and founders across the world. I’m privileged to support them and to have their support on this journey.
How the Foundation will Operate
There are many models for the operation of nonprofits and foundations but few which create the kind of operational efficiency, clarity of vision and quality of output which are absolutely necessary to deliver world class software and seed a global ecosystem. Technological development doesn’t behave the same way as charitable giving and there is no reason to confuse the two models.
The NEAR Foundation stewards a purpose without borders or boundaries and thus its operations will span the globe. We are competing with massive technology companies to marshall the best talent in the world to solve some of the hardest technological and societal challenges of our time. It will require significant skills and resources to attract world class teams and coordinate the governance of the protocol as it grows.
To achieve such an ambitious purpose, the NEAR Foundation has to combine the best practices of a high growth technology project with the purpose-driven nature of a nonprofit. Our DNA is fundamentally entrepreneurial. Everyone who is involved knows that we have to hold ourselves to the same standards of operational excellence that drive successful disruption in other industries.
In the path towards realizing its purpose, the NEAR Foundation exists to address a number of specific challenges in the NEAR ecosystem:
Let’s look at each of these in greater depth.
This ecosystem is made up of an ever-growing number of participants. The research, development and evolution of the NEAR Project requires coordinating a number of participants. During the early phases of the ecosystem, this means providing technical leadership for the design of NEAR Protocol and related tooling plus gathering those teams who can best build, test and deploy applications related to it.
As the ecosystem grows, we anticipate the scope of coordination to increase across a wider portfolio of tools and groups. In particular, the most important asset we have is our broader community of developers, entrepreneurs and end users so the Foundation will do all it can to provide them with the framework within which they can organize to support each other while still remaining a nonessential part of their operations.
For the ecosystem to grow, its participants need to be given sufficient incentives to drive their participation. Our early mission is to do so by ensuring that the protocol itself creates the proper incentives to drive adoption but many aspects of the ecosystem development, including the development of the core protocol itself, can only be done with additional assistance.
The Foundation will drive its financial and technical resources to support teams at all layers of the ecosystem. On the financial side, this will include a balance of grant funding (for projects, teams or communities unable to support themselves) and possibly also participatory funding (eg incubation, acceleration and traditional investment). On the technical side, this includes work across the spectrum from advisory to coordinating the direct support of projects building on NEAR who need it to overcome their own technical issues.
When building something completely new, the biggest obstacle is that, by default, no one cares. To fulfill our purpose, we will need to raise the awareness of this new suite of tools and the problems they solve among end users, developers, regulators, governments, businesses and beyond. Each of these groups will require a different approach but education is core to each of them so the NEAR Foundation will be well invested in this effort.
This explicitly includes empowering local communities to host meetups, run workshops, organize hackathons, write documentation and otherwise do whatever it takes to help bring new participants into the ecosystem and up to speed. This is an emphatically collaborative effort across a wide range of entities that make up the NEAR ecosystem.
As part of a decentralized ecosystem, the NEAR Foundation exists to steward the purpose of that ecosystem through servant leadership. While the structure of the Foundation is designed from the start to be independent and nonessential, we want to ensure that it is serving the key stakeholders of our ecosystem in a way which is representative of their interests.
To that end, the community will play an active part in each of the key activities the foundation undergoes. Our goal here isn’t to reinvent governance from day one but to provide a template of strong communication and transparency to start with and, as the ecosystem matures, to cede more and more of those activities back to the community’s guidance through adding elements of direct democracy, corporate governance and representative systems as appropriate.
We are frequently asked how the Foundation will participate in the active running of the protocol and the distribution of its overall token resources during its earliest stages.
As part of the Roadmap to MainNet rollout, the Foundation is helping to test the network and stand up its initial nodes. Since there is no inflation during this period, the Foundation doesn’t gain any tokens by undertaking these activities and they are intended to be temporary.
Once the network progresses to its next phase, the Foundation will hand off the running of nodes to the decentralized community of validators. The Foundation doesn’t intend to run full MainNet validating nodes again or to participate in voting with any of the tokens under its direct or indirect control as part of the governance functions it oversees, though it may delegate some portion of its Endowment to other validators (not affiliated with any of its directors or executives) during the early phases of the network. The NEAR network will run and govern itself independently.
As part of the initial rollout, the Foundation has a number of tokens under its control or custody. One portion of those, the Endowment (which totals 10% of the initial amount), are reserved for the Foundation in order to support its long term operations. Another portion is distributed to early collaborators and backers. The last portion (which begins large but decreases in size by the day) is intended for distribution to the community via a variety of different means from drops to grants to sales and beyond over the next several years.
To allay any concerns about the Foundation’s involvement, almost all of the tokens in its possession, whether intended for its own use or for distribution, will be programmatically locked up to varying degrees. Half of the Endowment will be locked up for long term release and each of the distribution buckets will be locked in rough accordance with the intended timeline of their use. It should go without saying that the Foundation has the network’s integrity and health as its top priorities.
My father always liked to say that you should strive to be “nonessential but irreplaceable” and that’s a good roadmap for how the Foundation’s role will progress through time.
While it is an important force in standing up the network for the first time, the Foundation will transition to a position as a cheerleader and advisor for the ecosystem as it hands off more and more of the operation and governance of the network to its participants. Ultimately, the Foundation will persist as long as its Purpose remains unfilled but its path will be increasingly overseen and steered by the community at large as the project grows.
The Foundation will always be a unique entity in the NEAR ecosystem but it should be a nonessential one for that ecosystem’s continued operation and success.
I look forward to a day when it is no longer necessary for the world at all.
With MainNet live, we have moved into a different phase of NEAR’s development. You will hear more from us as the early distribution activities are rolled out and the steady state system governance design is released. We hope to always be a helpful source of information about the NEAR network in all its phases (through both calm and difficult times) and to provide ways for participants to onboard to the project and get acquainted with each other along the way.
You can be a part of this story as well.
The NEAR Foundation represents the manifested voice of all the developers and entrepreneurs who struggle to bring innovation to the rest of the world and we need your help because there is a long way to go. Whether you’re a gifted engineer, a hustling marketer, a visionary product person, a diligent operator, a passionate lawyer or just a community enthusiast — we have a spot for you somewhere.
Find your place among the teams that drive this forward at https://near.org/careers or get involved directly as a Contributor at https://near.org/community. If you are a developer, you can jump into the code at https://docs.near.org and if you are already a founder, you can find support for your journey from the Open Web Collective, a platform-agnostic founder community, at https://openwebcollective.com.
Join us and build the future today!
CEO, NEAR Foundation
Erik is a serial entrepreneur who leads the NEAR Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to enabling community-driven innovation and a driving force behind the NEAR Protocol, a blockchain-based application platform which gives developers access to Open Finance and the Open Web.