ICF Funding Program: 2019 Year in Review

The Interchain Foundation (ICF) runs a general-purpose funding program to fund projects that advance the ICF’s mission of supporting open, decentralized networks. In 2019, we ramped up the program significantly. We put out four Requests for Proposals aligned with our primary focus of “Expanding Environments”, and a separate RFP for a “General Application” to improve information aggregation about network validators. We continued to fund projects outside of these specific RFPs, though most of the funded engineering projects have sufficient overlap with an RFP category. A number of community and social good efforts were also funded in 2019.

In this post, we review the projects funded in 2019, the reasons for funding each project, where you can find information about their progress, and what’s next in 2020. A full list of projects funded, including those from earlier years, can be found on Github.

RFP-2019–EE-1: Proof-of-Stake Improvements

The current mechanism on the Cosmos Hub is arguably the most advanced, live Proof-of-Stake implementation in the world, but there are many dimensions along which it can be improved including: monetary policy, delegator and decentralization incentives, validator slashing risk, fee distribution, account management, interchain security, and much more. In 2019, there was significant focus on delegator incentives, account management, and cryptographic primitives in the underlying consensus layers that unlock new functionality like secure randomness and verifiable delays. Projects funded by the ICF that support these PoS improvements are as follows:

This is an image of a table in a Google Doc, since Medium apparently cannot handle tables. See the actual table with working links.

While important work is underway at the application layer and in the underlying consensus and cryptographic layers, there is still so much more to be done in the world of Proof of Stake protocols. Especially, for Cosmos, there is need for more robust specifications and simulations of the existing design, as well as improvements that will simplify the network experience, for example, auto-bonding of rewards. There’s also considerable research, design, and development necessary to understand how staking will integrate with DeFi apps and how cross-chain staking will work in a world with IBC. We hope to see more projects taking on these challenges in 2020!

RFP-2019–EE-2: Interchain Infrastructure (IBC, Pegs, Oracles, etc.)

At the heart of the Cosmos Network is the idea that digital rights can be securely transferred between distinct decentralized administrative domains like blockchains. The purpose of this RFP was to support projects that expand the number and type of blockchains able to participate in this common distributed custodial infrastructure. In 2019, the focus was on IBC and connecting Cosmos to the Bitcoin and Ethereum mainnets. While progress on IBC has been ongoing, the specification process has been very open and collaborative, with significant input from a number of stakeholders in the ecosystem, ensuring that IBC meets the needs of a wide variety of systems — the incarnation of TCP for blockchains. Projects funded by the ICF in 2019 that expand the interchain infrastructure include:

See table with working links.

We anticipate IBC being activated on the Cosmos Hub in 2020, which will unlock further opportunities for innovation in privacy, security, performance, and application layer protocols in the Internet of Blockchains. We look forward to more projects contributing to these areas. Further, the ICF will continue to support projects building bridges to other popular blockchain networks to expand the interchain ecosystem, like ZCash and Tezos.

RFP-2019–EE-3: ABCI Frameworks and State Machine Integrations

A key feature of Tendermint Core is the ability to securely replicate arbitrary deterministic state machines in any language via ABCI. The purpose of this RFP was to expand the number of languages for which there are mature ABCI implementations and frameworks, with the goal of making blockchain application development on Tendermint as accessible as modern web development.

The dominant ABCI framework today is the Cosmos-SDK, written in Golang. Originally conceived by All in Bits as the foundation for building Gaia, the Cosmos Hub, the Cosmos-SDK is now being used by many projects and the number of contributors continues to grow. The ICF has been funding a number of parties to work on the SDK, including improved testing and simulation, smoother blockchain upgrades, and modules supporting new crypto-economic primitives like token bonding curves. Projects funded by the ICF in 2019 that focus on the Cosmos-SDK include:

See table with working links.

While the Cosmos-SDK grows in popularity, the ICF also funded other projects to build out the ecosystem in other languages, including Javascript, Rust, Haskell, and Swift. Projects funded by the ICF in 2019 that focus on ABCI support in other languages include:

See table with working links.

Additionally, and as detailed in a prior blog post, we’re seeing an explosion of Virtual Machines being integrated with the Cosmos technology stack. This greatly increases the options to application developers as it enables new languages and runtimes with on-chain smart-contract functionality. See the blog post for more details on the virtual machines being integrated with Cosmos, which include:

See table with working links.

We’re excited about the early adoption of these Virtual Machines. In particular, with the new Ethermint maturing under ChainSafe, the popular Ethereum project, Aragon, has announced they will be moving to an application-specific Aragon Chain, to be built using Ethermint.

While the ABCI ecosystem continues to mature and expand, there are always more languages and virtual machines to integrate with. Some popular languages, like OCaml and Ruby, still do not have robust ABCI implementations, and there is continued opportunity to build and enhance application frameworks in all the languages that have implementations. There are also other popular virtual machines to be integrated with, most notably the Tezos VM. We hope to see many of these projects come to light in 2020.

RFP-2019-EE-4: Signing on Mobile, Browsers, and HSMs

At the heart of every Cosmos blockchain are validators signing votes and users signing transactions. Signing is a critical, highly sensitive operation and is the foundation of all security in the system. In 2019, the focus was primarily on wallet functionality and the ability to sign with offline devices like the Ledger Nano. Projects funded by the ICF in 2019 to support signing transactions include:

See table with working links.

While the signing ecosystem is expanding for users, there are still many opportunities to improve the experience and security of signing transactions. Further, as the validator set matures, there must be a continued focus on secure signing techniques for validators. The ICF will continue to fund projects that create a secure and accessible signing experience for all network participants.

RFP-2019–GA-1: Distributed Validator Intelligence Platform

Validators are the protectors of the Cosmos Network, and participants put their trust in validators to operate the network on their behalf. Information about each validator can be dispersed, opaque, unverified, and time-consuming to navigate (ex. location, security set up, on-chain metrics etc.), making it challenging for users to evaluate validators efficiently. The ICF put out an RFP for one or more teams to build platforms and tools to provide ways to create, collect, and review on and off-chain data about validators in a transparent manner, to help network participants make informed decisions about their delegation strategies and earnings. Projects funded in 2019 to address these challenges include:

See table with working links.

While the ICF has funded several projects that have made meaningful contributions to providing validator intelligence, there is continued opportunity to expand the information provided on platforms to ensure it is complete, current, and continually useful to the community. This includes opportunities for more decentralized curation, where economic mechanisms, rather than centralized intermediaries, secure the validity of information. The ICF will continue to support tools that enable the transparent availability of on and off-chain data so participants can continue to efficiently conduct due diligence and feel secure about their delegation choices, while remaining compliant in their participation in the network.

Community and Social Good

Finally, while we did not put out a specific RFP for it, the ICF has been funding projects focused on growing the Cosmos community and on nurturing larger social good. More generally, the ICF funds projects aligned with its mission and values. Projects funded in 2019 to support community and social good include:

See table with working links.

Throughout 2020, we’ll continue to fund projects that have a community or social good application. These types of initiatives expand the reach of the Cosmos community and the general capacity of this innovative technology to have a strong social impact.

Funding Program in 2020

Overall, the ICF funding program has produced many successes in fundamental research, wallets and block explorers, virtual machines and ABCI frameworks, and improvements to the Cosmos-SDK and Tendermint. We’ve established fruitful collaborations with many world class teams and were able to celebrate together at the inaugural Interchain Conversations conference in June 2019.

In 2020, we look to continue and expand on these successes. However, we have learned that we will need more support and community involvement in order for the funding program to continue to scale. We will be making some organizational changes to the funding program to incorporate more feedback from a wider group of stakeholders into the decision making process. As those changes will still take a few months to put in place, the program will not formally open again until Q2 2020. That said, there are a few grants remaining in the backlog that will continue to be processed before the grant program re-opens.

Stay tuned for more information about updates to the funding program and when we will be formally accepting applications!

We are excited and hopeful for the year and decade ahead. The flourishing Cosmos community is truly unique and the leadership and engagement of this community is indispensable. We can’t wait to see what 2020 has in store!

The ICF (https://interchain.io/) is the Swiss foundation funding and pushing the frontiers of blockchain-related infrastructure.