“A genius”, “the ultimate geek”, “a brain like we rarely see”… The laudatory words of Nicolas Bacca's relatives and ex-collaborators say a lot about the esteem he arouses. And yet, the co-founder of Ledger – left the company in September 2023 – is very accessible: it is not uncommon to see him wandering around blockchain developer conferences or stopping by at events of the start-ups in which he invests. His fortune, estimated (at least) at several tens of millions of euros, is not ostentatious. And if its jargon can scare away more than one philistine unfamiliar with the notions of elliptic curves, Nicolas Bacca always does his best to make it as intelligible as possible.

As Bitcoin approaches its fourth halving, an automatic mechanism that will halve the production of new tokens, Capital met the cryptographer about to unveil his new project.

Capital : When did you find interest in Bitcoin?

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Nicolas Bacca: I got started at the end of 2012 and quickly realized that it was a different asset due to its limitation of 21 million units. This is really what makes it its monetary characteristic in my eyes. However, I'm not a big fan of economic theory, so I actually came to it more through cryptography. It's incredible to have succeeded in inventing this protocol which allows digital systems to be exchanged without an intermediary. For me, that was what was totally revolutionary, the fact that it was uncensorable. For me, it was already a means of payment of last resort, in the sense that if you are not able to pay someone, you will always manage to send them bitcoins and they will always manage to exchange it for what he desires. I see it much more as a bargaining chip.

How did this encounter with Bitcoin occur?

I was interested in it because I had this open smart card solution which allowed secrets to be managed. I was kind of at the end of a cycle: I used it to manage passwords, as a digital account manager, but I realized that everyone didn't care about saving their passwords. I was surfing sites, maybe Slashdot (technology news site) and I discovered it like that. I was immediately convinced that there was something to be done, a way to free up trade globally. But there was very complicated cryptography, key management, which really doesn't interest anyone. However, I had this card solution which I therefore modified to manage keys which are used for Bitcoin transactions. My sidekicks (Olivier Tomaz and Cédric Mesnil, historical partners of BTC Chip, one of Ledger's ancestor companies, Editor's note) thought I was crazy but followed me, as usual.

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Could you imagine that 12 years later, Bitcoin would also be present in society?

No. Honestly, I thought it would be something that would stay under the radar. I didn't think we could have this somewhat confidential dimension and the launch in parallel of ETF, countries on the verge of collapse with populations who consider that Bitcoin can protect their purchasing power. At startup, it is still a protocol that was written by an anonymous entity (Satoshi Nakamoto, Editor’s note) and which ends up having a level of recognition which allows it to threaten global finance since it is recognized today as an asset in its own right. It's actually funny to see the headlines that changed a lot once Blackrock launched its ETF. We no longer see too many articles that explain that Bitcoin will boil the oceans. In 15 years, it's incredible.

Recently, your long-time partner within Ledger, Eric Larchevêque, told us his fear of the end of fiat money. Are you on the same line?

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No, I'm always happy to use my euros. Afterwards, I get rid of it faster than my bitcoins. It is always easier today to use euros, even to finance businesses.

What is your view on the technological developments around Bitcoin, such as the protocol Rune (fungible token issuance protocol) or RGB (secondary network of smart contracts)?

I tend to look at simpler things: what interested me in Bitcoin was its simplicity. We know what he's doing, it's very clear. Its proof-of-work consensus is the only algorithm whose effectiveness has been mathematically proven. It's simple, it's clumsy, but it works. As soon as you add elements like programming, it immediately becomes much more complicated: if you look at RGB today, it's an abomination technically, it's incomprehensible. It's the same with Lightning. In my eyes, there are ways to think about scalability solutions (scalability) simpler. BitVM is considering Zero-Knowledge proofs (or ZKP, zero-knowledge proof, which allows the authentication of information without revealing its content). Today, there are plenty of ZKP languages, which are not linked to a particular blockchain and which are becoming more and more powerful, with fewer and fewer resources required. This is progressing at considerable speed. These are things that didn't exist 5 years ago. Today, I'm much more interested in thinking about evolving Bitcoin through these kinds of alternative protocols than in building things on Bitcoin. For me, we must continue to touch Bitcoin to do maintenance and to optimize it to make it more efficient, rather than building things of incredible complexity on it.

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What do you think about Covenants (a protocol that allows transactions to be scheduled based on conditions decided by the user)?

I find it fascinating. A protocol (Mattfor Merkleized all the things) was developed by Salvatore Ingala at Ledger to allow contracts to be expressed in a very simple way. It reads very well, a bit like the Bitcoin white paper. This makes it possible to imagine ways to run just about anything on Bitcoin with reasonable performance conditions. That interests me a lot more than RGB for example.

Can we say that you remain very curious about protocol innovations, even outside of Bitcoin?

I'm really curious about tech and all the advancements in crypto that are consistent. I like protocols that are easy to read, where we understand where the developer wants to go, where it's not a question of doing a billion things. This is the Unix philosophy (kernel, which gave birth to the majority of current operating systems) : Unix is ​​an assembly of small programs which do a very particular task well but which, together, manage to accomplish grandiose tasks. I really see cryptoassets this way: you can find very well targeted elements on the right and left. But at the end of the day, it is the zero-knowledge proofs that fascinate me the most because beyond scalability, they are not linked to a particular blockchain and this will allow us to regain control of the Internet, too centralized today.

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⋙ Eric Larchevêque (QVEMA, M6): “All my money is in bitcoin. I don’t want euros, it would keep me from sleeping!”

Is there a link with your new entrepreneurial adventure launched when you left Ledger, Smoo.th (a company of which he has been CEO since February 2024)?

We do not yet have a company name on which we communicate: we are still in the research phase. It will rather be for the end of this month of April. But as far as this company is concerned, it's really about finding a way to regain control of your digital life. We are thinking about all these issues, starting with the world of cryptoassets. In our vision, this entry will no longer be made through a wallet but through an Internet page, as we have always consumed the Web.

Somewhere between P256 (solution deployed by the French start-up Cometh to facilitate access to the wallet) and Magic Link (American start-up, which allows access to cryptoassets via a link) ?

Yes, there will be similarities but it's also because with Cometh, we did research together. In reality, Cometh reuses our technical bricks. We will focus on user experience. This will truly be how we distinguish ourselves.

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Reinventing access to cryptoassets in a secure way is a promise that seems very close to what Ledger could have done. Why not do it in the company you co-founded?

I started talking about it at Ledger : moreover, during our Ledger Op3n conference, I presented a project called Fresh, which allowed access to crypto via WebAuthn (user authentication standard, common on many devices and software). In reality, I didn't find any interest in this type of subject at Ledger. They wanted to stay focused on the devices. It wasn't their business and I knew it would be difficult to convince in a hardware company. So, like any good entrepreneur, I set out to create my product.

Have you set a timetable for unveiling this product?

We will take the time to have the prototype that suits us well but we are leaving for the end of April. It's imminent.

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