The Nil Foundation, which is written as =nil; Foundation, has raised $22 million in a round led by Polychain Capital.
The round, which closed toward the end of last year, brings the foundation’s valuation to $220 million and sees participation from other investors including Blockchain Capital, Starkware and Mina Protocol, according to the release.
Founded in 2018, Nil is the developer of the Proof Market protocol, which enables Layer 1 and Layer 2 blockchains and protocols to generate zero-knowledge (ZK) proofs on demand.
A ZK proof is a cryptographic technique that confirms whether a statement is true or false without revealing that statement’s contents.
The raise comes as a new crop of ZK start ups jostle for market prominence. Ulvetanna, a startup that builds hardware to increase the efficiency of ZK proofs, also announced today it has raised $15 million in seed funding from Bain Capital Crypto and web3 venture firm Paradigm, among others.
How does a proof market work?
Generating proofs can be expensive, time-consuming and resource-intensive for projects. Many decentralized projects instead rely on centralized intermediaries to generate proofs rather than maintain their own proof generators.
Running a proof generator for an individual project can be risky, said Mikhail Komarov, founder of Nil Foundation, in an interview with The Block.
"They would need to dedicate themselves, to dedicate their optimization process, to dedicate the hardware selection, to dedicate everything to a particular project, which is [an] all-in strategy, which doesn't work out to be honest," Komarov said.
The Nil Foundation’s protocol aims to solve this challenge with a protocol that enables to developers to list orders specific to their needs and for proof generators to meet those needs.
The Proof Market protocol is a mix between an auction and a marketplace, Komarov said. "It's not only about the cost of a proof, but it's also about like the timeliness of a proof, so this is one more nuance we had to deal with," he said.
For some projects, timeliness is key no matter the cost, Komarov said. For others, they want a cheaper proof regardless of the time it takes to generate.
Proof generators will rise
Pricing for proofs often depends on both computation cost and hardware spend, Komarov said. The Nil Foundation currently runs several proof generators, but the hope is that other players will also step in, he added.
"We target not to provide computational powers ourselves, but to facilitate [and] to coordinate someone who actually is good at it, like validators, like professional proof generators," Komarov said.
"Some professional proof generators will rise, just as professional validators rose," he added.
Raising as a form of insurance
This is the Nil Foundation's first raise since launching back in 2018 and it was an equity round with token warrants, Komarov said. The raise is a type of insurance for the foundation as it tries to navigate some technical heavy lifts, he added.
"We were a self-funded nonprofit state for four years," Komarov said. "This raise was never for money, every investor of ours is someone who brought us some use cases."
The foundation currently has over 40 employees. The new funds will be used to further roll-out the proof market protocol and build out solutions that improve the speed, security and reliability of data on blockchains, according to the release.
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