Arjun Kalsy was skeptical.
He’d just received a LinkedIn message from someone named “Gajesh Naik”—a crypto developer looking for guidance on a new project. This in itself wasn’t necessarily suspect. As vice president of growth for the fast-rising Indian crypto company Polygon, Kalsy is used to working with coders across the world.
Naik stood out, though, in part because he claimed to be 13 years old.
“I was 100% sure this guy was a scammer,” Kalsy told Decrypt, “Like, no way. Really? 13 years old? He’s probably some big hairy dude.”
This was about a month ago—and at first, Kalsy didn’t bother to reply. It was only after a few more unanswered messages that he conceded to a Telegram chat, which evolved into a face-to-face video call on Zoom.
“Then, I saw,” he said. “Man, it’s actually a 13-year-old kid.”
Gajesh Naik is, in fact, 13 years old. But he’s also chief architect of PolyGaj, a DeFi protocol built on the Polygon blockchain. Today, PolyGaj manages around $1 million in cryptocurrency. Late last month, after the billionaire Mark Cuban made an investment in Polygon, that number was nearly $7 million.
Consider the fact that Naik even knows what a “DeFi protocol” is. DeFi is an umbrella term for non-custodial software programs that handle your cryptocurrency for you, without the need for mediators like banks or investment managers. When you entrust your money to a DeFi protocol, you’re funneling it directly into a series of smart contracts—essentially just code that dictates how your funds are invested; PolyGaj is a hub for these sorts of investment mechanisms, asking users to pony up crypto for a risky shot at appealing returns.
But code has to come from somewhere.
“I had the basic math skills, like addition, subtraction,” said Naik over the phone from his family’s home in Goa, India. “That’s all which was required. Then afterwards I started learning all the programming languages.”
Met @robogajesh , a multi-talented 10 year who is passionate about AI, Robotics and Programming. Smart youngsters like him are the strongholds of our emerging startup ecosystem in Goa. #GSID2018 pic.twitter.com/iu1SCyYNyb
— Rohan Khaunte (@RohanKhaunte) April 27, 2018
As Covid-19 has burned through southwestern India over the past two months, Naik has been at home with his parents and little brother. His father, Siddhivinayak, has a degree in computer science, but currently works as a civil service officer. It’s thanks to his encouragement, as well as a newfound passion for cryptocurrency, that Gajesh has been able to sink time into PolyGaj.
He has also recorded explanatory videos about crypto for his YouTube channel, and agreed to public interviews with Indian influencers. The prominent crypto investor Balaji Srinivasan gave him a shoutout on Twitter.
Crypto is leveling the global playing field. The only connection you need is an internet connection. https://t.co/mc98GqNgUK
— balajis.com (@balajis) May 21, 2021
“I think the investment in the form of resources that we put in—especially time—is paying off now in the attention that he gets,” Siddhivinayak told Decrypt. “Pretty satisfied.”
Since that initial Linkedin message, Kalsy and Naik have stayed in touch. “Now a lot of investors have started reaching out,” said Kalsy. “So sometimes he asks me, ‘Hey man I have to talk to this guy, what do I say?’” His guidance has more to do with ethics and street smarts than with system architecture.
As for how exactly a 13-year-old kid was able to code a multi-million dollar ecosystem on his own, Kalsy explained that Gajesh is probably more of a shrewd creative than a coding genius, since PolyGaj is “essentially a clone of Goose Finance,” a DeFi project built on a different blockchain called the Binance Smart Chain. The two sites look almost identical, outside of a few minor tweaks. Kalsy added that the algorithms behind PolyGaj come from a contract called “MasterChef,” which underpins another popular DeFi protocol: SushiSwap.
“When you talk about coders,” Kalsy said, “there are two broad types. One is your mathematician coder, who's into algorithms and data structures. And then the second is something like Gajesh, who's more on the execution/business side. If he sees a good project, he can design something like that, but he probably won't come up with an algorithm for the Traveling Salesman Problem or something like that.”
It’s a distinction that makes sense for someone operating without the benefit of a college education.
“I've seen many of these dapps,” said Naik, referencing the decentralized applications that offer access to the world of crypto investing. “They are awesome. And some have much more potential.”
It's very assuring to see future of Goa being built step by step by young prodigies like Gajesh Naik! I remember meeting young Gajesh Naik, two years back, and was delighted to see his passion for AI, Robotics & Programming. My best wishes for Gajesh, his parents & his teachers. pic.twitter.com/fSIOVPeRiq
— Rohan Khaunte (@RohanKhaunte) June 27, 2020
According to Kalsy, Naik is “the kind of guy who can build the next Facebook or the next WhatsApp”—the kind of application with the potential to offer a crucial service, rather than one that solves a technical challenge.
Not everyone has been as supportive as Kalsy. Chris Blec, a DeFi researcher, has criticized the code behind PolyGaj’s $GAJ token for allowing a single administrator to exert control over the entire network. The address currently designated as the contract’s “owner” also happens to hold around 350,000 $GAJ, or nearly $150,000 at today’s prices.
I can’t debate & investigate 13 year olds, guys. I’m honestly not sure what to do here. I might have to just abstain from the “minor with an admin key” situations and let y’all figure them out for yourselves. pic.twitter.com/x2ZeKe8iDu
— Chris Blec | DeFi Watch (@ChrisBlec) May 21, 2021
In a message to Decrypt, Blec stressed that Naik is too young to understand the risks associated with DeFi. “There’s nothing that anyone else can do to prevent someone—even a 13 yr old—from deploying a smart contract that could eventually reach millions of billions in TVL,” he wrote (TVL, or “total value locked,” refers to the amount of money managed by a given DeFi protocol). “The protection of any 13 year old should come from his own family.”
It’s not exactly that Naik himself is managing investors’ crypto; if you put your money in PolyGaj, you’re at the mercy of a system designed by a 13-year-old, rather than the whims of the actual 13-year-old—a small distinction, but an important one, from Kalsy’s perspective.
“It’s not the stuff you'd attribute to a 13-year-old kid,” said Kalsy, “but he's doing a good job. And he's delivered on everything he said. I know for a fact he's genuine. He’s not one of those guys who drag and run with the money or something like that.”
For better or worse, blockchains are mostly transparent. Naik has nearly 18,000 followers on Twitter, and his full name is out in the wild; if he were to use his administrator privileges to run off with the money, Kalsy reasoned, his reputation would be destroyed.
“I can only hope that over a period of time with sustained efforts, I can earn the love and respect of this awesome community,” wrote Naik in a blog post.
When we spoke last month, Naik was on vacation from school. He said that when things resume, he plans to devote “four to five hours” to schoolwork, but will continue to work on PolyGaj whenever he can.
Before we hung up, I asked him how he’d respond to the question of whether someone his age should be handling this kind of money.
He hesitated before settling on an answer.
“Age is just a number,” he said.