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Every new realm needs brave explorers. It needs bold individuals willing to ignore naysayers, gird up their loins, and journey to undiscovered regions where there may be monsters. (Or, the bureaucrats of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.) The odyssey can be difficult. It may also be expensive, and it will certainly be full of risks. But the rewards, for those who travel carefully and wisely, can be huge.

The NFT world, in which so many people are now building such groundbreaking projects, is no exception. It was built by a small group of NFT pioneers who broke that ground first, and it wouldn’t be what it is today without these trailblazers:

1. Meni Rosenfield

Meni Rosenfield

The first steps in the development of NFTs can be traced back to December 2012, when Meni Rosenfeld, a mathematician and President of the Israeli Bitcoin Association, published an article entitled “Overview of Colored Coins.” The article described a methodology that would allow some Bitcoins to be separated from others. Those coins, “colored” to show their difference, could be used to build applications, turning Bitcoin from a coin to a development space.

2. Kevin McCoy

McCoy Quantum

The first NFT art was made by digital artist Kevin McCoy, and its creation addressed the key question that has inspired NFTs ever since. In 2014, McCoy and his wife Jennifer had created Quantum, a work of code-driven digital art. McCoy wanted to sell the work but needed a way to prove its provenance. Working with tech entrepreneur Anil Dash, he registered Quantum on Namecoin, an offshoot of Bitcoin, and proved that digital artists can sell original works online.

3. Mike Winkelmann

Mike Winkelmann

Few people owe more to Kevin McCoy than Mike Winkelmann, the digital artist better known as Beeple. Winklemann took the provenance-proving marriage of art and blockchain pioneered by McCoy to become the first digital artist to sell his work through auction house Christie’s. Not only did he show that digital art backed by NFTs could sell in the same way as mainstream art, he also showed that collectors would pay a lot of money for that art. His collage of 5,000 images sold for over $69 million, which is still the most expensive NFT to date.

4. Roham Gharegozlou

Roham Gharegozlou

Not all art on the blockchain is as serious as Quantum or Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days. In 2017, Roham Gharegozlou wanted to demonstrate the appeal of the blockchain by using it to create something that was fun and had mainstream appeal. He instructed the team at his company, Axiom Zen, to use Ethereum smart contracts to build a game featuring cartoon cats. CryptoKitties required players to buy Ether to breed and trade digital kitties. The game was a huge success and showed that the blockchain could be used for fun and gaming and not just for sending and receiving funds.

5. Joel Comm and Travis Wright

Joel Comm and Travis Wright

Best known for their shows The Bad Crypto Podcast and The Nifty Show, which explain blockchain and NFTs to a mainstream audience, Joel Comm and Travis Wright choose to mint multiple successful collections on the WAX blockchain, a faster and more cost-effective alternative to Ethereum. Their Blockchain Heroes series of digital trading cards paved the way for thousands of NFT creators to enter the WAX space. The duo is recognized for launching the first physical product launched as an NFT “kickstarter,” and they are responsible for pioneering many of the gamified elements NFT creators enjoy today.

6. Matt Hall and John Watkinson

Matt Hall and John Watkinson

In 2017, John Watkinson was playing with a pixel character generator, a tool for creating characters using random sprites. He was generating interesting figures that looked like heavily pixelated punks, but he didn’t know what to do with them. Working with his friend, Matt Hall, they chose to mint CryptoPunks on Ethereum. The question was whether people would want to buy and sell simple, randomly-changed images. With many CryptoPunks selling for millions of dollars on the secondary market, it became clear that even simple collectibles had a market in the NFT space.

7. Wylie Aranow, Kerem Atalay, Zeshan Ali, and Greg Solano

Wylie Aranow and Greg Solano

While other pioneers showed that the blockchain could prove the provenance and ownership of digital art and that people would buy those works even when the art was simple, Wylie Aranow, Kerem Atalay, Zeshan Ali, and Greg Solano showed that ownership of NFTs could form the basis of communities. Their Bored Ape Yacht Club, images of cartoon simians representing lazy, rich tech investors, have sold for millions and inspired real-world meet-ups. NFTs look like a digital world, but the Bored Ape Yacht Club proved that what starts on the blockchain can have consequences off of it.

8. Andrew Colosimo, Daniel Kraft and Bas de Gruiter

Andrew Colosimo

NFTs are now revolutionizing the gaming world, giving players a chance to earn from their efforts and own their in-game assets. But it was Andrew Colosimo, Daniel Kraft, and Bas de Gruiter at blockchain gaming platform Xaya who paved the way. They released their game, Huntercoin, in February 2014 as an experimental one-year project. Hunterworld, a fully decentralized autonomous game world, still runs and allows players to fight each other in their hunt for resources.

9. Cyrus Adkisson

Cyrus Adkisson

NFT art has found a market, but so has NFT land in virtual worlds. Cyrus Adkisson developed Etheria in July 2015, shortly after Ethereum launched, and it served as the inspiration for massive worlds like Decentraland and The Sandbox. The world was small — just 33×33 hexagonal tiles on which owners could build with connecting bricks. All information, from owners to bricks and even brick color, was stored on Ethereum, and the assets were tradable.

10. National Basketball Association

Top Shot

We’ve become used to seeing brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s cash in on interest in NFTs by producing their own collectibles, but the first brand to see the benefit of giving fans digital assets was the NBA. The NBA launched its line of NFTs called NBA Top Shot in October 2020 with the help of Dapper Labs, showing other brands that if they were missing an NFT collection, they were missing out.

In the realm of NFTs, brave trailblazers have shaped the landscape, defying skeptics and venturing into uncharted territories. From Meni Rosenfield’s groundbreaking work on colored coins to the NBA’s launch of NBA Top Shot, these visionaries have demonstrated the transformative power of NFTs. These pioneers have laid the foundation for others to follow, uncovering immense opportunities in the NFT space.

Inner Image Credits: Provided by each of the corresponding NFT Pioneers; Thank you!

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Leeloo Thefirst; Pexels; Thank you!

Deanna Ritchie

Managing Editor at ReadWrite

Deanna is the Managing Editor at ReadWrite. Previously she worked as the Editor in Chief for Startup Grind and has over 20+ years of experience in content management and content development.