They made millions on Luna, Solana and Polygon: Crypto’s boom beyond Bitcoin
By David Yaffe-Bellany
Etienne vantKruys, a globe-trotting cryptocurrency investor from Amsterdam, was hunting for a new investment two summers ago when he met some early backers of Luna, a digital coin that offers a framework for decentralized finance. Impressed by their commitment to the project, he bought $25,000 of Luna for 20 to 35 cents a coin.
These days, despite a recent fall in cryptocurrency prices, the value of a Luna coin is up to around $50. VantKruys’ original investment? It’s now worth about $5 million on paper.
“Dude, man,” he said on a recent call, “we’re in some happy country.”
You have probably heard of Bitcoin, Ether and even Dogecoin millionaires. But over the past two years, their ranks have rapidly expanded, as speculators recorded huge profits from more obscure cryptocurrency projects, some with names that sound cribbed from a children’s cartoon. Now there are Solana millionaires, Luna millionaires, Polygon millionaires.
Even after the drop in cryptocurrency prices dampened some of the hype, the gains remain staggering. The value of Solana, a cryptocurrency platform that provides an alternative to Ethereum, has grown by more than 6,000% since January 2021. The price of Cardano, another crypto platform with its own currency, is up 500%.
The wealth generated by these coins shows how widespread the cryptocurrency phenomenon has become. More than 11,000 digital currencies exist, and anybody can create one with a bit of coding. Some of the coins are tied to complex “DeFi” projects, which offer decentralized borrowing and lending options, while others serve as currency in video games like Axie Infinity. These currencies, usually created for some kind of practical application, are distinct from meme coins like Dogecoin, a joke currency that soared in value last year.
“Every type of financial service is now being replicated in these decentralized environments,” said Stephen McKeon, a cryptocurrency expert at the University of Oregon. “This is what’s driving all the investment.”
The investors profiting from obscure coins come from a variety of backgrounds. There are industry aficionados who had already made money on Bitcoin and Ether, and newcomers who have notched impressive gains practically overnight.
In interviews, members of this new class of crypto millionaires said they were still figuring out what to do with their growing wealth. Some have made splashy purchases, renting fancy apartments or partying in foreign countries. Others have relocated to tax havens like Puerto Rico or quit their day jobs as they plowed even more money into an ever-expanding set of tokens.
In January, Cal Graham, 28, a British cryptocurrency speculator, invested $200,000 in a new token called LooksRare, which is part of a trading platform for the unique digital collectibles known as NFTs, or nonfungible tokens. He sold all his LooksRare holdings less than two weeks later, walking away with nearly $500,000 in profits.
Graham, who lives in a luxury apartment in London, became a crypto millionaire through his investment in Ether, the second-most-valuable digital currency behind Bitcoin. He said he had made at least $1 million more by trading lesser-known currencies like LooksRare.
“I’m a simple man, I like simple pleasures,” he said. “I will be buying myself an expensive car and an expensive Rolex at some point.”
A former human resources officer, Graham described himself as “semiretired,” with a daily routine that often consists of several hours of intensive tweeting (he doles out market analysis to his 90,000 followers), boxing practice at the local gym and movies in the evening. Eventually, he plans to funnel his LooksRare profits back into the cryptocurrency market.
But as some people mint millions from little-known cryptocurrencies, others have seen impressive gains disappear overnight. For every Solana or Luna, there’s an out-of-the-way token that shoots up in value, only for its price to collapse. Some of these projects are scams, or what industry experts call “rug pulls,” in which someone aggressively markets a coin, then immediately liquidates the holdings, leaving investors with major losses.
“There’s too many pockets of froth that lure a lot of people who are just getting crushed and duped,” said Ed Moya, a cryptocurrency analyst at the trading company OANDA. “You have a lot of social media influencers that are pumping up certain coins that are worthless.”
Even paper gains from a successful investment in a legitimate coin can turn out to be just that: paper gains. That’s because it’s difficult and labor-intensive to convert large amounts of cryptocurrencies into dollars. Some little-known coins are unavailable on mainstream exchanges like Coinbase, meaning they first have to be converted into a better-known cryptocurrency, like Ether or Bitcoin, said Philip Gradwell, the chief economist at the crypto tracking firm Chainalysis.
A sudden conversion of a large amount of cryptocurrency can also be dangerous, causing the price of the coin to collapse as it’s turned into dollars.
Some of the new crypto millionaires have found more sophisticated ways to protect their wealth, joining earlier generations of wealthy Bitcoin investors in offshore tax havens like St. Kitts and Nevis.
“They say, ‘Why do I need to be a U.S. citizen, what’s the benefit?’” said Armand Tannous, a wealth management executive who advises crypto investors seeking citizenship in other countries. “‘I’m a global citizen, I don’t need to live in the U.S. anymore, I don’t need to pay taxes anymore.’”
Many people who have gotten wealthy through little-known cryptocurrencies said they didn’t plan to cash out. They said they preferred to HODL, or hold on for dear life, and keep speculating.
Consider vantKruys, the Luna investor. He said he recently used about $1 million of his cryptocurrency holdings to buy a house for a loved one. But he has no interest in selling his stash of Luna, despite market volatility that led to a drop from $99 to below $50 per coin between December and January.
“My idea is Luna is going to be $500 in five years,” said vantKruys, who is 45. “That’s the horizon we’re playing with.”
Recently, he has become fixated on another obscure token, Pocket Network, that offers digital infrastructure for a range of blockchain initiatives. (VantKruys, the managing partner at the crypto fund TRGC, is an adviser on the Pocket Network project.)
VantKruys once heard about a Dutch investor who had sold his house to make a huge Bitcoin purchase. At the time, he said, he thought the man was insane, but now he’s contemplating a similarly substantial investment in Pocket Network.
“My dude, it’s just the first crypto where I’ll probably do something crazy,” he said. “You’re at the poker table — you’re like, all in.”