Don't call it a comeback.
Tezos, the blockchain project backed by the largest ever initial coin offering (ICO) at the time of its 2017 launch, hasn't exactly been able to translate its hype into success as yet. Hamstrung by series of legal woes, the open-source software, designed for blockchain governance, has spent months ironically held back by real-world challenges similar in spirit to those it was designed to overcome digitally.
But after a whirlwind transition at the non-profit that oversees the software, the protocols creators and investors are moving swiftly toward a beta and a formal release. Outstanding issues remain, mostly of a legal and bureaucratic nature, but those involved say the technology is taking strides toward going live.
"Nice to be back to business," venture capitalist Timothy Draper, a financial backer of the Tezos protocol, told CoinDesk in an email.
Draper is, of course, discussing that transition, during which grassroots investors became activists and completely took over governance of the Swiss foundation that controls the funds raised in its 2017 token sale.
To recap, the story begins when Dynamic Ledger Solutions (DLS) proposed a totally new blockchain called Tezos that would use proof-of-stake to confirm blocks and could amend itself over time, as technology changed.
In July, it raised $232 million in the largest ever ICO up to that point. The funds were controlled by the Tezos Foundation, which soon proved unwilling to spend the funds on developing the protocol.
In October, this tension spilled out in public view when Reuters reported that the creators of the protocol, Arthur and Kathleen Breitman, had called for the ousting of the foundation's chair, Johann Gevers.
Then, at the beginning of February, a group of activist Tezos investors set up an alternate legal entity called T2 in case DLS decided to launch the protocol under a different legal entity. By the end of the month, Gevers had stepped down and members of the T2 board were moving onto the foundation's board.
"Through the adversity, we've grown and we've strengthened," Ryan Jesperson, the new president of the Tezos Foundation board, told CoinDesk in his first interview taking a seat on the board.
The first two board members to join were Inria's Michel Mauny and Jesperson, who initially founded T2.
Kathleen Breitman, one of the two original creators of Tezos, told CoinDesk in an interview:
"If we're going to talk about silver linings of the past few months there's been a bunch of people who've just stepped up and kind of been drawn - by their passion moreso than anything else - to self-organize."
One intense month
But if all of this sounds fast, that's because it has been.
In a phone interview with CoinDesk from Switzerland, Jesperson described himself as a normal rank-and-file investor, one who "came to be concerned" about the protocol's future.
Still, no one could have anticipated the impact Jesperson's next moves would have.
Cornell's Prof. Emin Gun Sirer, an advisor to Tezos, told CoinDesk bluntly:
"I don't think anyone expected the dramatic situation to be resolved this quickly."
Indeed, at the time, Jesperson talked about T2 more as a backup plan.
"Really, the purpose of the T2 Foundation was to find a safe and timely place for the whole network to launch," Jesperson said. "Over time it became apparent that there became another solution."
That solution was letting T2 board members take over the Tezos Foundation as former members stepped down. He described it as a voluntary move on the part of Gevers and fellow board member, Lars Haussmann, who had only joined the board at the end of January.
The new board chair declined to detail what gave his team the leverage to assert control over the organization controlling the pre-sale of Tezos tokens (or "tezzies"), saying that he "generally wants to be forward focusing as much as possible and not rehash the past."
Jesperson did say that, since taking over, he's only become more sold on the technology. While declining to go into detail about the financial wellness of the institution, he did confirm there were "no surprises." Funds are flowing to developers now and other initiatives to build the ecosystem will move forward soon.
Breitman said, "Once the token is launched I think it will be easier to have a conversation about what happened and what sort of lessons we learned."
Former board chair Johann Gevers did not reply to a request for comment.
With the new leadership in place, Tezos has been running hard toward a release.
Jesperson had to quickly relocate himself and his family from the U.S. to Switzerland, rotating through temporary housing as they sought a permanent spot. Meanwhile, he's been working long days setting up the necessary operational structure so that a launched protocol can thrive.
In the last week the foundation finished incorporating Tezos AG, an operational entity "that will provide basic administration and general management functions," he said. Jesperson will have a role at both Tezos AG and the foundation.
They are also working to set up Tezos France, which will be an organizational home for the existing team of developers that have been building the protocol.
"Then of course at the same time we support any other organizations that want to be involved and support Tezos. There's all sorts of grassroots people getting involved in their own way," Jersperson said.
The T2 Foundation, he said, is not needed any longer. Its purpose was to give Tezos a safe legal entity to launch under if needed, but that's no longer necessary.
Sirer said, "We're all very excited and focused on the great technology to come from a well-funded effort built around a strong vision."
In its most recent update, the foundation projected a Q3 public launch following a Q2 beta release. An alpha has been running for the last year, but Jesperson noted that real-world conditions are needed to really see how the technology performs.
The software is going through two technical reviews now. One by Inria, a French technical institution focused on computer science. Tezos was built in the programming language OCaml, which was created at Inria. The other is a security review by Least Authority, a company originally founded by Zooko Wilcox-O'Hearn, who currently runs zcash.
With development moving forward, the Breitmans have been free to focus on their Tezos-related interests rather than Tezos itself.
"Arthur and I never wanted this to be the Kathleen and Arthur show. We think there's a lot of wisdom in the crowd. And what's nice about Tezos is that it's so agnostic that anyone can propose an upgrade to the protocol," Breitman said.
Dynamic Ledger Solutions is looking forward to building products that can work on top of Tezos.
"I remain excited about the great opportunities Tezos provides, and look forward to getting the first version shipped," Draper said.
Fortunately for all stakeholders, the team building the protocol didn't stop their efforts during the upheavals.
"I think what people don't realize was that during this whole time the development moved forward," Jesperson said, concluding:
"From this point, we really want to be the model for how a blockchain project functions."
Tezos image via SwissInfo