VC Firm a16z Wades Into Crypto Tech Research with ZK Projects ‘Jolt’ and ‘Lasso’

  • New projects from the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) are focused on ZK proofs, a type of cryptography that can help scale blockchains.
  • Because so many of a16z’s portfolio companies rely on ZK tech, the firm is making a bet that its own contributions can help those companies succeed.

Silicon Valley venture-capital giant Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) released a pair of open-source software projects on Thursday aimed at speeding up the core tech behind zero-knowledge (ZK) proofs, the tech that powers some of today’s buzziest blockchain projects.

The new ZK research from a16z marks a notable milestone for the venture firm, which has in recent years taken a more active role in developing some of the core tech behind the companies backed by its venture dollars. The projects also mark the firm’s first foray into deep-tech research – underscoring the increasing influence that venture firms are beginning to exert over the technologies that they fund.

The team’s first project, Lasso, proposes a new method for speeding up ZK systems. Along with a16z’s Justin Thaler, the project’s whitepaper was co-authored by Srinath Setty, a researcher at Microsoft, and Riad Wahby, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. The team has released code for Lasso under an open-source license, meaning outside developers can use it in their own projects.

The second project, Jolt, introduces a type of zero-knowledge virtual machine (zkVM) that uses Lasso. Jolt is currently just a research paper, but a16z says it plans to release a version of it in code sometime soon – also under an open-source license.

Because so many of a16z’s portfolio companies rely on ZK tech, the firm is making a bet that its own contributions will play a role in helping those companies succeed — thereby helping its own bottom line. Open source contributions can also bolster a16z’s reputation among developers and builders — which can become an important differentiator if it competes with other firms to lead deals.

ZK proofs are cryptographic tools that have applications outside of blockchain but have seen a surge of interest in recent years due to their applicability to blockchain scaling. They have recently become the go-to method for helping blockchains reduce fees, increase speeds, and preserve transaction privacy.

ZK proofs “scale blockchains by kind of doing the hard work off-chain, and only having the blockchain verify the proofs,” said Thaler, an a16z researcher and associate professor at Georgetown University who co-authored the Lasso and Jolt research. With ZK proofs, “you can get a guarantee that this work was done correctly, but not have all the blockchain nodes in the world doing all the work.”

What are Lasso and Jolt?

Lasso, a ZK “lookup argument,” is presented by a16z as an improvement to one of the under-the-hood components powering ZK-SNARKs – a fundamental building block behind a big chunk of ZK-based crypto projects.

According to a16z, Lasso “provides roughly a 10x speedup over the lookup argument in the popular, well-engineered halo2 toolchain; we expect improvements of around 40x when optimizations are complete.” (Halo2 is a popular open-source tool built by the team behind Zcash, a ZK-based blockchain focused on private transactions.)

Alongside Lasso, a16z is also releasing the open-source code for Jolt – its new approach for building zero-knowledge virtual machines (zkVMs). Virtual machines are computers run entirely by software, rather than hardware, and they serve as the foundation for most blockchains – which are like giant computers that allow anyone to read and write files. ZkVMs are VMs powered by ZK technology – used when security and privacy are paramount to how a VM operates.

One type of zkVM – the so-called zkEVMs – has come to power the new class of Ethereum “layer 2” scaling chains that are currently the talk of crypto developer circles, and have been major recipients of a16z venture money. Early versions of these chains rolled out to users over the past year have already amassed more than $1 billion in user deposits, according to DefiLlama.

With Jolt, a16z says it will provide a general-purpose framework for building certain types of zkVMs that are easier to debug.

“Relative to existing SNARK VMs, we expect Jolt to achieve similar or better performance – and importantly, a more streamlined and accessible developer experience,” a16z said in its statement.

Correction (August 10, 19:50 UTC): Adds names of contributing authors Srinath Setty and Riad Wahby. Clarifies that a16z’s code for Jolt has not been released yet.

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