CEO Josh Smith talks about CureCoin, the latest edition to the HitBTC platform, and the race to end COVID-19

For this interview we conducted in honor of CureCoin joining the HitBTC ecosystem we talked with CureCoin’s CEO, Josh Smith. Smith developed CureCoin as an offshoot of Folding@home, a non-profit project that simulates protein behavior with users’ computing power. CureCoin has incentivized the process of protein simulation, hoping to thereby draw in more users and boost the research process.

Normally, CureCoin and Folding@home distribute computing power to research efforts into various degenerative diseases. However, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, CureCoin has prioritized research into the novel coronavirus in order to expedite the process of finding a cure.

We at HitBTC are pleased to welcome CureCoin to the community and hope our users find the interview with Josh informative. Additionally, if you haven’t yet, check out our fascinating first interview with a bioinformatics researcher contributing to the CureCoin project. For other projects looking to apply for support via our COVID-19 initiative, please check out our previous blog post. The deadline for applications runs through May 1.

HitBTC: You launched Curecoin in 2014 with the intention of supporting Folding@home’s computing research on protein misfolding diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s. Over the years your initiative has demonstrated an impressive use of blockchain technology in the real-world, encouraging everyday people to donate their computing power for further medical development. How did you come up with the idea of creating an altcoin with such a significant practical purpose? Was it your first project in the realm of blockchain science?

Josh Smith: The idea arrived back in 2012 while mining bitcoin was becoming an involved personal hobby for me. I was particularly interested in the parallel processing power being employed by GPU’s, and that is when I set out to see what else was taking advantage of this power. When I discovered folding@home, I knew I had found myself another great new hobby that I could really enjoy and began folding immediately. Back then there was a bit of an imbalance between the AMD and Nvidia cards being that Nvidia cards could fold much more efficiently than AMD. At first I started posting bounties on bitcointalk where I was offering small amounts of random cryptocurrency in exchange for people joining my team and folding. This system quickly started to evolve into more and the vision to create the world’s most powerful folding team was born. This was my first real project of any large substance in the blockchain world.

H: Why did you decide to become a part of the Folding@home project? Did you foresee its huge potential in combating debilitating disorders?

JS: Unlike some other Distributed Computing Network (DCN) projects related to protein folding, Folding@home deals directly with drug discovery and exploring intermediate states of proteins (in healthy cells and in those that are stressed by disease). While other projects are important, for example Folding@home builds on the work done by Rosetta@home (which primarily aims to find a final ‘conformational state’ of these proteins, Folding@home, given a large enough scale of participation, can explore potential drug targets with the highest level of efficiency (especially since they can utilize the power of both modern CPUs and GPUs to do the work). Modern GPUs also happened to be the number one source of hashing power in the cryptocurrency community mining scrypt (like Litecoin). As their equipment obsolesced for mining, we thought Folding@home with Curecoin would be the perfect transition for those considering selling their used equipment to gamers. Incidentally, Curecoin’s mission is to add other biotechnology related DCN’s when the time and resources make that appropriate. Supporting multiple DCN platforms concurrently requires a lot of resources, since we not only have to deal with supporting our blockchain, but also we find ourselves supporting team members setting up their research software (which differs from DCN to DCN).

H: Folding@home is now considered to be one of the world’s most widely distributed and fastest computing systems with a speed of approximately 1.18 exaFLOPS, or 2.36 x86 exaFLOPS, allowing it to fold several proteins in the 1.5 millisecond time range. What’s been the role of CureCoin in achieving this level of performance? What was the most challenging aspect of implementing blockchain technology into various biological computations?

JS: Actually, Folding@home’s record of stability, security, and openness, and with the initial help of advisors we leveraged to help us access the legacy point reward system without straining their servers, made wrapping a blockchain reward system around their legacy Point Reward system relatively straight-forward. Since we rely on a trusted oracle, in the form of cryptobullionpools (Curecoin’s version of a cryptocurrency mining pool), and stats delivered securely from the Folding@home consortium (publically available) to our servers, we’ve been able to translate the legacy points reward system, into a blockchain with a controlled supply. With the help of over 30,000 registered participants (5,000 active at any one time currently), we’ve been able to generate over 1.1 Trillion points on Folding@home’s system (which have been translated into rewards on our blockchain). This has far exceeded the performance of any team in Folding@home’s history over the long term. There are teams that have been spurred into rapid response with the latest coronavirus crisis affecting all of us, but we’re confident those new participants will take a look at our system more closely in the next few weeks and months. It makes us wonder why the big players in the tech world (many of whom we’ve reached out to) were not really pushing Folding@home to help research Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Diabetes, Influenza, HIV and Ebola over the past 20 years.

H: What novel methods do Folding@home researchers utilize to statistically analyse the dynamics of protein folding? Are there other cases that you see where projects can be modernized with the help of blockchain technologies in order to make the best use of their networks?

JS: It should be noted, the research is largely exploratory, and weighted towards academics; thus the 220 published papers based on the project to date have been referenced in more than 3,600 other studies, some related to AI, neural networks, and big data analytics (not just drug discovery). [Markov modeling provides a robust understanding of specific clusters within proteins that are grouped in certain strains, mutations, or any specific characteristic that could be unknown]. All research results are open-sourced, and available upon request from the consortium. Even negative results are good, since they can help to keep other researchers from “re-inventing the wheel”.

DCN contributions by individuals and companies are a personal choice. Whether you decide to contribute anonymously as an altruist, or create your own team, fold with an existing one, or join our team doing something truly unique (to support your power consumption, equipment maintenance, and building a science-based digital economy that we’ve named “Epistemic Currency”. We define this as “Using work to generate scientific data and knowledge as a commodity”. Blockchain organizations could have a greater impact on DCN related research if DCN’s could digitally sign certificates of completion for participants, adding a level of security and decentralization to the Proof-of-Work alternative we demonstrate. Because some consider contributions of computational power at purely philanthropic levels, getting policy changes at DCN’s to help blockchain endeavors have proven to be challenging so far.

H: Recently, the Curecoin team has managed to generate 1 trillion cumulative points on Folding@home’s network, which is an unprecedented result. Why, do you suppose, your initiative has turned into such an attractive cause for crypto philanthropists?

JS: A virtuous circle is created by the forming of the combination of a desire by individuals to help humanity by protein folding… and the hope to make some money as well, or philanthropic giving. Let’s look at a direct comparison of most teams in the Folding@home network to those teams with crypto currencies being rewarded, such as Curecoin.

The typical team does have the team camaraderie and the joy of doing the needed protein folding work. These team performances are driven by people who have multiple talents, namely, computer expertise, very modern fast GPUs, and the ability to pay for electricity on a long-term basis without compensation.

In contrast, those teams that issue a successful crypto currency for protein folding are also able to attract buyers of the currency. End users of a currency utilise it or buy it speculatively with hopes of a price rise in the future, or with the knowledge that purchasing and holding Curecoins is a form of philanthropic giving. These outside users buy the currency from the Curecoin team folders, thus partially or completely offsetting the cost of electricity and/or the price of GPUs. This enables a greater number of people to fold for the team, at more points per day by any given folder. Thus, we count as team members those who use and buy the currency, not only those who fold. People who can afford to buy Curecoins, or take Curecoins in payment for items either directly, or on their website using, but don’t have the interest to develop high-end computer folding systems, are just as important as people who fold. The efficiency is very high, because efficient folders spend effort folding, while efficient workers in other fields work at their specialty, and will potentially receive Curecoins for their work or buy them for philanthropic or usage purposes. Creating a robust network of non-profits, merchants and workers who accept Curecoin payments is certainly one of our intermediate-term goals. This is the full-circle mission: to create direct payments, and to benefit humanity’s basic research in the sciences in the process.

H: Considering the growing awareness of the project and its unique merged mining concept, how do you see the future of Curecoin?

JS: Curecoin retired the version 1.0 merge-mining concept in 2018 (80% to folders, and 20% split between SHA-256 miners and PoS wallet holders). Instead, today’s version 2.0 model still includes folding rewards as the primary incentive to earn Curecoin, but Proof-of-Stake has moved to around 4% per annum to encourage folders to hold the coins with no additional need to use ‘mining’ to secure the blockchain.

If we’re talking about merge-folding, then that would be our partnership with Foldingcoin – where the same folding account could earn both CURE and FLDC (a counterparty asset) for the same folding computations. This is still available, and although there are questions about the future of Counterparty, FLDC may have some interesting solutions to solve the dilemma. Merge-folding was introduced to create redundancy for both science blockchains. Taking two varied approaches to rewards, on two separate blockchains, helps to ensure that our coins’ mutual legacy and value can survive adversity.

H: Currently, Curecoin is greatly assisting Folding@home in its quest for a coronavirus vaccine which is urgently needed to end the 2020 global pandemic. What is special about working on the COVID-19 infection compared to your experience with the Ebola virus epidemic in 2013-2016?

JS: [These diseases are not the same in how they are transmitted (nor in the RNA they contain): The coronavirus is a single-stranded, positive-sense RNA virus, while Ebola is a single-stranded negative-sense RNA virus, so how they bind inside our cells is different. The coronavirus is a respiratory disease that can be transmitted merely through breathing the same air in close proximity of an asymptomatic patient, Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever transmitted only through contact with bodily fluids of patients who are visibly ill.]

Even though the Coronaviruss fatality rates of infected individuals averages below 4% (compared to 50% for Ebola), it’s aerosolized method of transmission makes the COVID-19 potentially much deadlier on a broad scale. The good news for both infections is, there was existing data on similar diseases at the time of outbreak. Hemorrhagic fever for Ebola, and SARS for coronavirus. Folding@Home is using the SARS research they did in response to the 2003 SARS epidemic to jump-start their research.

Researchers take a three pronged approach:

  1. Find existing drug compounds that could help reduce the severity and spread.
  2. Create new anti-virals (protease inhibitors) which prevent the proliferation of the virus inside the human body AFTER infection.
  3. Create a vaccine to prevent the virus from attaching and infecting our cells in the first place.

Folding@home research has focused on all three to some degree – finding compounds that block the spike proteins from binding (vaccine) – ominously named the “Demogorgon” after the creature from “Stranger Things” that bears its resemblance). And looking at protease inhibitors (anti-virals), which, once infected, prevent the coronavirus RNA from fully maturing inside their capsids (their protective crystalline coating) – letting the immune system work on ridding our bodies of the now-inert virus bodies.

H: Are you aiming to engage as many crypto enthusiasts as possible to fight against the disease? Do you think it’s important for blockchain businesses to focus on your activity in order to accelerate their own mass adoption efforts?

JS: Yes, the idea behind CureCoin was to bring in both large scale GPU/CPU farms made for cryptocurrency mining and also the “average” user who would be using anything from an older desktop cpu to a single newer gaming rig with 1 or 2 modern CPUs. The crypto enthusiasts could make a world of difference with their larger scale computer clusters. The current Curecoin results have already proven that this is one of the best ways to accelerate research by attracting large and small scale users. If all (or even 25% for that matter) of the cryptocurrency miners in the world united to join Folding@home with us, we could potentially change modern medicine and the world as we know it.

It would help a lot in the long run for crypto businesses to help us highlight the work we are doing. Mass adoption of this system is the key to accelerating this research.

H: Except for donating unused computing power, how can crypto projects, including crypto exchanges, help Curecoin and Folding@Home? Are you seeking any other kinds of cooperation?

JS: Certainly the more listings Curecoin can get on exchanges, with diversified trading pairs could help Curecoin reach more communities within crypto who are focused on their own unique missions. We talk about this in our white paper – looking at purchasing CURE as a carbon offset which in this case, represents an act beneficial to humanity. Higher volume and increased interest encourages more people to participate in our realm of citizen science – and will result in larger amounts of computational research being accomplished. Curecoins help subsidize protein folders’ power consumption and equipment. In turn, this gives us resources to fund expansion of the project in terms of diversifying the citizen science we support and help decentralize our model for broader adoption.

Simply incorporating more citizen science projects into Curecoin in the future would increase Curecoins’ utility and encourage more people to participate in research around the world.

Getting more “low-power” folders involved in the concept is also critical. Many first time users look at the top folders list, and are discouraged to find their earnings on the Curecoin system are overshadowed by people with “means” who can dedicate a small data-center’s worth of computing power. We’ve introduced concepts like FoldingClub to help level the playing field through pooled folding. We focused it around our 501(c)3 sponsored charity The Curecoin Project, with a portion of the earnings from the FoldingClub going to prizes that include Bitcoin, Curecoin, Foldingcoin.oin, Amazon gift cards, and occasionally a nice GPU to give folks an incentive. This allowed even people with 10 year old laptops in West African nations to participate and win … and in countries where people survive on $60 dollars a month – an $80 Amazon gift card was a pretty big deal.

We were certain Curecoin could change the minds of women regarding crypto, a group disproportionately under-represented in both realms (crypto and Folding@home). Only 3% of Folding@home participants are female – and thus the same probably translates to Curecoin. Even attending a conference for women in technology at Berkeley didn’t seem to move the needle. We are really hoping to change that paradigm beyond gaining a few “likes” on social media, but at least we were able to attract one of our science contributors, who happens to be a brilliant woman.

We could definitely use one or more well-known celebrities to help promote Curecoin and Folding@home.

It would also be great if one or more scientists could help to translate the published academic papers from Folding@home into layman’s terms, thereby helping the public understand what is being accomplished… We are willing to publish these summaries on our website.

Curecoin has donated over $41,000 to charities thus far, so feel free to help out with that or the work of our all-volunteer team overhead expenses.

Our team of folders and supporters would like to thank the staff of HitBTC for your work in highlighting projects that are fighting COVID-19. Stay well.