Inside Satoshi Island’s Bid to Become a Cryptopia
You're reading the August 2022 issue of Automated Teller Machine (ATM) brought to you in partnership with Arculus, a leading cold storage crypto and NFT wallet. Each month, our ATM featured stories provide deep dives on impactful investment issues and trends.
It's 7 A.M. in the South Pacific.
You step outside of your futuristic modular home, fully awakened by the warm ocean breeze.
Grass gives way to sand as you wander down to the beach. The steam from your locally-sourced coffee fills your nostrils. Seagulls caw, palm trees sway and the ocean water laps at your toes.
As your toes sink deeper into the wet sand, a notification buzzes on your phone. Your salary has just been deposited into your crypto wallet, a combination of Bitcoin, Ethereum and NFTs. No need for cash or any other form of currency on the island.
After rinsing your feet, you hop into your solar-powered golf cart and head to work. Downtown is a quiet, sustainable paradise of modular buildings made with the same pre-fabricated blocks as your home.
But before heading inside to work at your six-person blockchain startup, you meander into the local coffee shop for a top-off.
The room buzzes with discussions of Ethereum 2.0, which are the best altcoins, and the vast implications of NFTs. Conversations start at level 10 because everyone on the island already has an artisan-level understanding and appreciation of cryptocurrency.
That's because you have to be a crypto diehard to live here.
You're on Satoshi Island.
Satoshi Island Exists
Though it may sound outlandish, Satoshi Island is already a real place in the South Pacific. According to the project's organizers, the concrete is being poured as we speak.
The organizers say that the goal is to show the world that society can be run entirely on blockchain and decentralized finance. And not just a functional one, mind you, but a 100% sustainable one at that.
What's more, Satoshi Island isn't the crypto community's first attempt at a blockchain-based paradise. Other ongoing projects include AKONCITY, Próspera and Bitcoin City.
But Satoshi Island is the first such project to receive an endorsement from a national government. In March, the prime minister of Vanuatu, the Honorable Bob Loughman, signed a letter of approval, noting that he “welcomes the Satoshi Island (SI) project and its community to our country.”
However, despite the regulatory thumbs up, it's far from guaranteed that Satoshi Island can become the cryptopia that it's promising to be. The project's organizers say that they're building a blockchain-based paradise. But is Satoshi Island more likely to become crypto's own Fyre Festival instead?
This Is Satoshi Island
Before immersing ourselves in the political intrigue surrounding Satoshi Island, let's start with the geography and demographics.
Satoshi Island is an island in the South Pacific spanning 32 million square feet — roughly 1.25 square miles or 800 acres.
The island, formerly known as Lataro, is part of the 83-island nation of Vanuatu.
Satoshi Island Holdings Limited, the company that purchased the island, didn't publicly disclose how much it paid for the island. However, luxury lifestyle site Robb Report puts the listing price at around $9.9 million.
At the time, Lataro was officially uninhabited, but the previous owner had built a private resort consisting of four buildings: a main house, two guest houses and staff accommodations. All of the buildings were run on 99% solar energy.
So, who is Satoshi Island Holdings Limited (SIHL)? And why did it buy an island in Vanuatu?
Firstly, we can safely assume that SIHL has no connection to Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious inventor of Bitcoin.
Instead, the group consists of five core members:
- James Law: head of island design and development
- Denys Troyak: head of operations
- Taras Filatov: technical development
- Benjamin Nero: communications
- Daniel Agius: investment & migration
Of the five, Law and Troyak seem to be doing most of the steering.
James Law is the Hong Kong-based CEO and founder of Cybertecture, a small, award-winning design and architecture firm. He's the brains behind those neat-looking pods in the photos above.
Addressing an audience at his 2011 TEDx talk, he described “cybertecture” as the marriage of tech and architecture. Think smart home (Alexa, Nest, etc.) but on a macro scale that includes businesses and commercial real estate.
In his talk, he said: “We need to find the kind of tool that can make these cities start to think for themselves — a way in which they become self-intelligent and take care of us.”
It seems that Blockchain is the exact tool he needed to create his “smart city.”
Denys Troyak, Satoshi Island's head of ops, is a bona fide blockchain Renaissance man.
Since 2014 he's worked in augmented reality, airdrop, virtual real estate, blockchain-based eSports, crypto credit lines and more.
He described the genesis of the SI project with the endearing verve that investors often look for in startup leads:
“While discussing a “dream” of having a place of “our own” within my network; full of crypto veterans who seek nothing else but assistance for the crypto industry and blockchain technology to have a global adoption. A few of the group decided to come together to make this dream a reality and I was offered an integral role to which of course I said YES!”
Together, Law and Troyak exude the two key ingredients that all visionaries need: experience and passion.
But as we'll find out later, those aren't the only ingredients necessary to launch a startup, never mind an entirely self-sustaining society.
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Quick History of Cryptopias
In 2020, entrepreneur and singer Akon announced plans for AKONCITY, a $6 billion “real-life Wakanda” based along the coast of Senegal. The hyper-futuristic, LEED-certified smart city would use the founder's own AKoin token as its only currency. In stark contrast to Satoshi Island, one of the primary goals of the AKONCITY project is to address poverty and create local jobs. Forty percent of the Senegalese population lives below the poverty line, according to World Bank data. AKONCITY committed to laying critical infrastructure before attempting to sell any land. A hospital, school, police station and solar power plant are all scheduled to be done by 2023 with the whole city following by 2030. Unfortunately, ever since Akon laid the first stone on August 31, 2020, momentum on the project has stalled.
What Does an “Entirely Crypto-Based Society” Look Like?
The SI team aims to create and sustain “an entirely crypto-based society.”
So what exactly does that mean? Surely it involves more than just using crypto to pay for coffee.
While Satoshi Island doesn't have a white paper, the team offer glimpses across its website and online community on Discord into how various aspects of the society will work.
Citizenship on Satoshi Island is denoted by an official NFT. Only 21,000 will ever be minted, and citizenship is required to build a home, own a home and vote.
Notably, Satoshi Island citizenship does not include Vanuatu citizenship, which is required for permanent residence and requires a separate $130,000 “investment” in a local development fund. It's unclear if an investment in Satoshi Island would qualify.
The SI team says that of the 21,000 citizenship NFTs, it plans to release the first wave free to early supporters. Unverified reports on the Satoshi Island Discord server indicate that over 130,000 applications have already been submitted as of late May 2022.
Land and Housing
Land ownership on Satoshi Island will be tracked using NFTs as well. Anyone can buy land using SI's NFT marketplace — but only citizens can develop the land.
Satoshi Islanders will be able to design and purchase their own homes in the Metaverse using Cybertecture's slick, futuristic housing pods as building blocks. Pods start at $60,000 each.
The pods seem based on Cybertecture's Alpod concept from 2015, a lightweight aluminum shell that would presumably be easy to “airdrop” onto an island.
There was a time when you could visit an Alpod in a park in Hong Kong. But it's unclear if and when aspiring islanders would be able to visit a model SI home before making a purchase.
Satoshi Island is subdivided into 2,100 “blocks” of land that are about 60 x 65 feet each (~0.09 acres).
Each block will be broken down into 10 NFTs representing a 10% ownership of the block. That makes 21,000 land NFTs for the whole island.
Residents who share a “block” with three, five or even nine other NFT holders would be expected to collaborate with them on how to develop the block.
There are endless options to consider. They could stack 10 pods on top of each other to build a cohousing space or form a decentralized autonomous collective (DAO). Or one of them could simply buy out the other NFT holders and keep the block to themselves.
On June 19th, Satoshi Island announced the official pricing model for securing property on the island. Land would be auctioned off on crypto exchange OKX, with individual Land NFTs and entire blocks starting at 1.55 ETH (~$1,700) and 10 ETH (~$11,100 USD), respectively.
Read more>>What Are Real Estate NFTs? Everything You Need to Know
Officially, the requirements to become an SI citizen are pretty light. You must have a crypto-focused social media presence and NFT minting/buying experience. But SI's ideal denizens are described by the team as “blockchain projects, exchanges, banks, or other crypto associated businesses.”
As for island support staff — engineers, medical services, food service and the like — Satoshi Island will create over 300 long-term local jobs, according to a source from the leadership team.
That number will surely rise as the tiny crypto paradise develops. According to CruiseWatch, cruise ships typically need at least four staff members for every ten guests. That means that a fully inhabited Satoshi Island may need somewhere in the realm of 8,500 staff to support the island.
Food & Water
Feeding 21,000 citizens — plus staff and visitors — requires lots of food.
As per the official website, Satoshi Island “has dedicated farmland located on mainland Vanuatu… This will provide Satoshi Islanders with fresh, organic food all year round.”
As far as whether there will be enough water, Troyak has stated that water will be sourced from the rainwater harvesting system as well as from the surrounding South Pacific Ocean.
In an interview with Youtuber Zerocool, he said, “We have a huge natural water source under the island and there's a lot of unpolluted fresh rainwater that's being collected as well.”
Energy & Wi-Fi
SI's goal is to become 100% sustainable through “self-renewable methods.”
Much of the island's sustainability will come from James Law's Cybertecture modules themselves, which “have their own solar panels and waste management system.”
And naturally, the island is already set up with Wi-Fi.
Each transaction made on Satoshi Island will be done using cryptocurrency and blockchain.
On August 3rd, 2022, Satoshi Island announced STC: the proprietary token that will power the island’s economy.
“All commerce on the island will be conducted in Satoshi Island Coin,” the team wrote in a report called Satoshi Island Tokenomics. Similar to Bitcoin, STC would be capped at 21 million tokens total.
On August 10th, Satoshi Island launched a presale of an undisclosed amount of STC, with each token going for 0.004210526 BNB ($1.40 USD at the time). And although each buyer was restricted to “just” 387 tokens, the team claims that the initial wave of STC sold out in 3 minutes and 42 seconds.
Related>> How to Explain Blockchain in Under 30 Seconds
Police, Schools and Medical Care
As for schools, doctors, police and other supportive pillars of a healthy society, no details have been released other than, “We will have them,” or “Vanuatu has them.”
So those are the plans for Satoshi Island. Now let's take a closer look at one of SI's proudest selling points, its endorsement from the local Vanuatu government.
Quick History of Cryptopias
Back in 2013, the Honduran government passed legislation allowing businesses to set up their own Zones for Employment and Economic Development (ZEDEs). ZEDEs have their own laws, taxes, courts and more — not unlike Hong Kong or Disney's special district in Florida.
The introduction of ZEDEs drew the attention of foreign investors looking to colonize a crypto paradise. So in 2017 we got Próspera — a low-tax crypto-focused city-state where Bitcoin is legal tender. Próspera calls itself “a hub for sustainable economic development” aiming to attract businesses in various industries.
To its credit, Próspera has actually broken ground and has developed a physical coworking space. Plus, the project has partnered with EY and has financial backing from Peter Thiel.
But in April 2022, Próspera suffered a major setback when the newly elected Honduran congress voted unanimously to repeal the recent laws protecting ZEDEs. So while Próspera does exist, its future remains uncertain.
What Satoshi Island's Government Approval Really Means
One of the very first paragraphs of the Satoshi Island homepage reads:
“After years of preparation, a green light from the Vanuatu Prime Minister and Minister Of Finance and all approvals in place, Satoshi Island is now ready to be developed into a real-world crypto economy and blockchain based democracy.”
Indeed, back in March 2022 PM Loughman, published his support for the SI project as seen in the letter below.
Two months prior to the PM's endorsement, SIHL was blindsided when the Vanuatu Financial Services Commission (VFSC), Vanuatu's equivalent to the SEC, published a damning report claiming the venture may not really exist.
“This could be a scam and anyone investing in these NFTs could potentially lose their money,” the VFSC said in a statement it later retracted.
In response, SIHL filed a legal complaint against the VFSC, claiming VT57.9 million in damages (~US$500,000) as reported in the Vanuatu Business Review.
The result? The report was pulled, the complaint was dropped and the air was as clear as a Vanuatan breeze.
Now, let's circle back and unpack the PM's love letter.
Your inner cynic may be wondering, “If Bitcoin is ravaging El Salvador, why would Vanuatu approve Satoshi Island?”
First, unlike El Salvador, Vanuatu is not adopting a new legal tender. Nor is it even investing in the SI project. PM Loughman hints at his motives for giving SI the green light right inside the letter itself:
“With the difficulties that the world has faced due to COVID-19, which has severely affected the tourism sector, Vanuatu looks for innovative solutions to help grow our economy.”
According to the World Bank, Vanuatu received $350 million from tourism in 2018. That's over a third of its $914.7 million GDP. Then due to COVID-19, it plunged to $67 million.
So from the PM's point of view, hosting the Crypto Capital of the World may help to make up some of that grisly 80% deficit.
Plus, if all 21,000 Satoshi Islanders eventually go through the proper channels to become Vanuatu citizens — including the $130,000 mandatory investment in a “local development fund” — that would generate another $2.73 billion for the tiny island nation. Even if just one in 10 does, the investments could make up the entire tourism revenue deficit.
So I think we have to be very careful not to misread the government's letter of approval.
The government isn't saying, “We believe so firmly in the success of Satoshi Island that we've dedicated $50m to the project.”
It's more like, “Looks neat, could bring in tourism dollars, go for it — just don't break our laws.”
Quick History of Cryptopias
The world's most effusive crypto bro — El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele — proudly tweeted on May 9, 2022, that Bitcoin City is “coming along beautifully.” Designed by architecture studio FR-EE, Bitcoin City lives on the slopes of Conchagua, an inactive volcano on El Salvador's southern coast.
Creators intend the city to house thousands of crypto enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and especially miners. They intend to make it a global mecca for the crypto trade. And Bukele intends to fund the project by selling “volcano bonds.” He claims his government already has $1.5 billion worth of international demand.
President Bukele strategically chose to erect his cryptopia on a volcano. He planned this, not just for the media attention or to buy out any potential James Bond villains, but to harness Conchagua's limitless supply of geothermal energy. In theory, this could supply Bitcoin City and the army of miners with plenty of sustainable power.
Perhaps if it were another head of state — one that wasn't facing intense international scrutiny and racing toward national default or dealing with a 2% national incarceration rate — Bitcoin City might have a chance. But as we'll see in a bit, President Bukele needs to clean up his other attempt at a cryptopia first.
Any Questions? Good Luck Getting Them Answered.
The SI leadership team acknowledges that its grand vision may invite some skepticism.
“We understand that to some, the notion of a real private island being turned into a crypto paradise could be unbelievable at first glance,” it wrote in a post on Medium titled Satoshi Island Due Diligence. “For the rightly skeptical crypto lovers and crypto haters we have prepared this due diligence article which we urge you to read and verify for yourself by doing research before writing off Satoshi Island as illegitimate.”
In the article, the team presents evidence that:
- The island is real.
- We've tweeted from it.
- We have some local staff.
- The government of Vanuatu approves of it.
- We have the director of Vanuatu Investment & Migration Bureau on board.
- We've been tweeted about (by Chainlink et al).
- SIHL owns the island.
- We've built two model homes.
It presents the evidence that it's currently on track for the following milestones listed on its homepage:
|Q2 2022||First batch of SI Modules created.Physical island development begins.|
|Q3 2022||First modules arrive and "short stay accommodations" ready for visitors.|
|Q4 2022||Private opening.|
|Q1 2023||Public opening.|
I find that timeline to be ambitious. Sure, those modules do look pretty easy to stack. And they probably float, so you don't need a helicopter to get them to the island — just a really long paddle.
Even still, can you really develop the land, lay critical infrastructure and build an island community in less than nine months?
To find out, I asked a well-known veteran of the commercial real estate finance community in Atlanta to comment on the viability of the SI development timeline.
“It's virtually impossible. Permits alone can take nine months,” he said.
My contact wasn't the only outside expert skeptical of SI's timeline.
David Lesperance, a Canadian tax and citizenship attorney, started pressing SI leadership for answers on LinkedIn.
In an article titled, “Is Satoshi Island Bitcoin's Fyre Festival?” Lesperance asked questions that any experienced investor would ask, including:
- What evidence is there that there is initial funding already in place for the necessary infrastructure (e.g., roads, electricity, internet access, water treatment, waste disposal, fire and police, marina or air access) to make the island habitable?
- What are the excise and customs duties payable on the prefabricated housing modules?
- Where and by whom will these modules be constructed? What do they cost? To what quality standards? Delivery timetable?
In response, SI's head of ops, Denys Troyak, wrote a comment accusing Lesperance of “clearly looking to just invent issues.”
As Lesperance pressed on, Troyak called him a troll and blocked him.
Troyak's defensiveness to Lesperance's benign line of questioning seems a bit harsh, considering that the SI team isn't entirely reinventing the wheel here. Luxury island communities, modular housing and even early-stage cryptopias already exist.
“Satoshi Island, even if it lived up to all the claims, would provide no special benefits or lifestyle that cannot be achieved elsewhere at a fraction of the price,” wrote Lesperance in an email to Investor Junkie.
“The added bonus is that these places exist in reality, not just on a website.” he continued.
As it turns out, Troyak's negative reaction to Lesperance's line of questioning wasn't too out-of-character from the SI team. Instead, there's a concerning trend of the leadership acting evasive — or oddly hostile — toward anyone asking probing questions.
In fact, if you're not part of the SI tribe, you're unlikely to get any responses to your questions. Our multiple requests for comment to the SI team across various channels (email, LinkedIn, etc.) were never responded to.
Even enthusiasts of the project were chided by the leadership team if it felt that they did too little “research” before raising an inquiry. When a Discord user and fan of the project innocently asked about long-term sustainability, the SI official account had this to say:
This was a similar response to when another user innocuously sought clarity on which NFTs — citizenship or land — were free.
On May 25, 2022, the SI team launched a surprise presale of 5,620 land NFTs, citing “market conditions” for the urgency.
A few days later it canceled the presale, saying, “We may not sell enough land to cover infrastructure costs on the island.” Another official reason given on Medium was “to protect the community from gas wars.” (This happens when there are too many transactions on the Ethereum network at once. Gas wars drives up transaction fees and often results in failed transactions.)
Two weeks after the canceled presale, the SI team finally started recording answers to questions it received through Discord, but specific information regarding infrastructure was still kept under wraps. In these interviews, Troyak admitted that no hospitality staff, security or engineers have been hired.
“We can't really go off and start hiring engineers without knowing exactly what the demand is,” he said.
On June 19th, 2022, Satoshi Island finally launched their public sale of all 21,000 Land NFTs on crypto exchange OKX. Bids started at 1.55 ETH each ($1,700 USD at the time).
But after receiving just a few dozen offers, SI leadership retracted the public sale on July 4th, citing their “success at attracting private buyers.” They also announced a new partnership with Tenset, a crypto token and “launchpad project” that would help SI “secure the right partnerships and required capital.”
At the time of this writing, Tenset (10set) has a safety rating of E | Poor on Is This Coin a Scam.
Meanwhile, the cancellation of the public Land NFT sale has led to rising doubt and disquiet inside the Satoshi Island community. Some longtime followers have even begun calling Denys out directly for the lack of project clarity – to predictable results:
(A user later confirmed that MoonSafari was, indeed, banned).
A longtime moderator also revealed that no Land NFTs have been sold. While they may have meant “sold on OKX specifically,” the inconsistent language raises questions about the project’s claimed “success at attracting private buyers.”
In August, the Satoshi Island team shifted focus to the newly-announced island token: STC. They claimed that Tenset has attracted “around ten thousand buyers,” and that the presale to their own community sold out in just under 4 minutes.
And despite no visual indicators of progress, “It is not long before we will see homes and offices on the Island.” Denys also extended an invitation “to all influencers to visit this beautiful Island and document your journey.”
Satoshi Island plans to launch in Q1 2023.
Quick History of Cryptopias
In September 2021, El Salvador became the world's first country to officially accept Bitcoin as legal tender, along with the USD. President Nayib Bukele also converted $103 million worth of treasury assets into Bitcoin over a series of purchases in late 2021 and early 2022.
Eight months later, however, El Salvador's big bet on Bitcoin had become an indisputable disaster — and a cautionary tale to the rest of the world. And the government's BTC investment had lost nearly $40 million in value. Meanwhile, adoption rates are in the single digits and Bukele's refusal to stop buying Bitcoin has led Moody's to downgrade the country's credit rating to Caa3.
Even if Bukele's big bet on Bitcoin pays off, the self-described “world's coolest dictator” has other issues to address. In June, Amnesty International accused Bukele's government of committing “massive human rights violations” during a “draconian” anti-crime crackdown that resulted in a 2% incarceration rate. That's a far cry from a crypto paradise.
Crypto Fyre Festival in the Making?
Remember the Fyre Festival? It's possible that Billy McFarland actually believed (at least for a while) that he could pull off the grandiose event. However, it ended up with none of its promises met and lots of people losing lots of money — if they weren't first stranded at an airport and then on a barren island.
If Fyre Festival had been a crypto-based project, we would probably call it a “rug pull.”
For the uninitiated, a rug pull is a popular type of crypto fraud where the founders of a project — whether it's a new cryptocurrency, an NFT collection or a private island — abandon said project and disappear with investors' capital.
One of the more famous recent examples is the fake SQUID crypto. Signs of an impending rug pull include but aren't limited to:
- No white paper to explain intricate yet essential project details.
- Mysterious/vague funding source and no funding from institutional/trusted sources.
- No liquidity lock, which prevents smart contract owners from accessing liquidity pools before a certain date.
- No third-party audits performed and results published.
- A focused effort on “keeping up appearances” on social media without tangible, measurable progress.
- Lack of transparency.
- Unrealistic timeline.
To be clear, I don't want Satoshi Island to fail. I'd love to see it thrive, create a sustainable community of crypto enthusiasts and single-handedly resurrect Vanuatu's tourism economy.
And to their credit, Satoshi Island insists that they won’t actually take anyone’s money until they’re sure it’ll all work out.
Per their update on June 19th, “Those interested will be able to make offers without sending funds and once we have enough buyers of land to develop the island as advertised we will accept the offers.”
But promises to refrain from taking investor capital before they need it don’t make Satoshi Island’s timeline appear any more realistic.
It's already late Q2 2022, and the SI leaders plan to welcome its first residents in Q1 2023, a milestone they recently doubled down on in their June “answers” Youtube (linked above). In those same interviews, they continued to withhold some specifics of how the entirely self-contained island society would operate.
Perhaps an even more revealing video is coming. And maybe that's when Troyak reveals everything and proves to those cryptoless ancient Romans that a society really can be built in a day.
I suppose we'll see. Investor Junkie plans to continue following this story and providing updates.
Could a Blockchain-Based Cryptopia Ever Work?
Putting aside some questionable logistics, I asked my fellow advisor on the Blockchain Chamber of Commerce, Linda Goetze, what she thought of the concept of Satoshi Island.
Is it really so nuts to believe a better society can be built using blockchain? Here's what she said:
“They are nuts so far as they believe that the technology is capable of supporting a different level of economics that is not simply debt based. Even things as simple as a local supply chain could lead to challenges.” Linda Goetze, Co-Founder and Executive Vice President, DFM Data Corp
A society is an immensely complex machine made up of 10,000 highly sensitive and interconnected moving parts. Satoshi Island came up with blockchain-based optimizations for maybe six of them.
The blueprint for a whole crypto society just isn't there. And the SI team isn't accounting for the least predictable variable of all.
“The human component is, as always, unpredictable — and it is very difficult to organize a DAO structure that can take all variables into consideration,” said Goetze.
Does that mean a blockchain-based society is unattainable?
To answer that question, we can turn to Estonia.
While bold and trendy blockchain projects like AKONCITY and Satoshi Island have been seizing headlines, the tiny Baltic nation of Estonia has quietly been showing the world how it's really done.
Labeled “the most advanced digital society in the world” by Wired, Estonia has been digitizing public services since way back in 1997. It was also an early blockchain adopter in late ’08. And today, 99% of Estonia's government operations are available to citizens as e-services.
- Your Digital ID contains your medical data, voting privileges, proof of identification for travel and more.
- X-Road is like Estonia's own decentralized blockchain with no single point of failure.
- E-Residency allows you to register as an Estonian business or citizen and pay Estonian taxes without ever setting foot there.
- Estonia's Data Embassy — the world's first — contains backups of all critical data.
As a result of its digitized, blockchain-based society, Estonia annually saves 1,400 years of working time and 2% GDP. And in 2021 the country started researching the viability of launching its own central bank digital currency (read: government-sponsored crypto).
The difference between Estonia and Satoshi Island? Estonia shows us what can happen when you start with a successful society and later weave crypto into it. That's the model most world leaders will eventually follow.
So perhaps there's hope for a cryptopia yet.
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