I started with nothing, says man who shook art world

32-year-old who made his wealth in virtual currency feels connection with digital artist

Mr Vignesh Sundaresan, known as Metakovan in the virtual world, caused a stir when he bought a work of digital art for a record US$69.3 million (S$93 million) worth of cryptocurrency. The self-described "entrepreneur, coder and angel investor" in blo
Mr Vignesh Sundaresan, known as Metakovan in the virtual world, caused a stir when he bought a work of digital art for a record US$69.3 million (S$93 million) worth of cryptocurrency. The self-described "entrepreneur, coder and angel investor" in blockchain technology says he moved to Singapore from Canada three years ago.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

He may have spent a record US$69.3 million (S$93 million) worth of cryptocurrency on a piece of digital art, but entrepreneur Vignesh Sundaresan insists he is just an "ordinary" man with no real estate to his name - at least not in the "real world".

"I don't have a car, I don't have a house. I am a minimalist," says the 32-year-old, whom The Sunday Times met yesterday for dinner at his favourite restaurant in Little India. The bachelor rents a condominium unit nearby.

In person, the man who says he is the chief financier of crypto-based fund Metapurse is an introvert. Metakovan, his alter ego in the virtual world, is a bold, influential persona with more than 20,000 followers on Twitter.

On March 11, Metakovan caused a stir in the art world when he bought the landmark work at a Christie's auction. The record-smashing piece, Everydays: The First 5,000 Days, is a virtual mosaic by Beeple - artist Mike Winkelmann. The image file is linked to a non-fungible token (NFT), its certificate of authenticity recorded using blockchain technology.

Beeple's work, which drew the highest sum anyone has paid for a digital artwork, is bested only by David Hockney's and Jeff Koons' pieces for the auction record of a work by any living artist. Metakovan paid for the work using ether, the world's second-biggest digital coin.

Last Thursday, after days of intense media coverage and speculation over his real identity, Metakovan unmasked himself as Mr Vignesh, a self-described "entrepreneur, coder and angel investor" in blockchain technology.

He and his collaborator Anand Venkateswaran, who goes by the handle Twobadour and is in his late 30s, revealed their names in an article on online newsletter platform Substack. The two men, who are from Tamil Nadu in India, run Metapurse, which claims to be the world's largest NFT fund.

Mr Vignesh, who moved to Singapore three years ago, says: "There are countries like India that are thinking of banning crypto. If my story can inspire someone, and (have them) say, 'Let's not ban crypto', I would be happy to reveal myself for that."

One reason why he used a pseudonym, he says, was a desire to suspend people's judgment.

"When they see a brown guy doing something, they rush into judgment without looking at the work. As Metakovan, maybe they were very nice to me, because they didn't know I was brown."

Last Thursday, the duo also announced the launch of a Metapurse Fellowship, which will offer US$100,000 each to five storytellers - writers, producers or content makers - spread across 12 monthly stipends.

The crypto enthusiasts first met about 10 years ago at Indian newspaper The Hindu, where Mr Vignesh was a technical consultant and Mr Anand was a journalist.

Today, Mr Vignesh is the chief executive of Portkey Technologies, a Singapore-based information technology consulting firm. Mr Anand, who is currently in India, is head of communications at Lendroid, a crypto-economic foundation founded by Mr Vignesh.

"We are fans of the Metaverse, Ready Player One, all those things," Mr Vignesh adds, referring to the 2018 Steven Spielberg film about a virtual reality (VR) world, and to their fascination with the Metaverse - the idea of a shared space built on VR, virtual currency and NFTs.

And they are not alone. In the past few years, virtual worlds have been springing up. These computer simulations of the real world, with futuristic names such as Decentraland, Somnium Space and Cryptovoxels, are like video games where users can roam and interact with others via avatars.

People like Mr Vignesh have bought plots of virtual "real estate" in these cities, erecting virtual museums and monuments to house their works and complementing these with soundscapes. His first NFTs, which he bought in 2017 for about US$200,000, were parcels of land in Decentraland.

The Beeple artworks in his collection are displayed in virtual museums - and he plans to get a "famous architect" to design a virtual monument for his latest purchase.

Before moving here in 2018, Mr Vignesh says he was in Canada, where he co-founded Bitaccess, a vendor of bitcoin ATMs that was backed by American seed money start-up accelerator Y Combinator.

"I felt the regulations (in Canada) were not very clear, and it was not getting better. I was looking elsewhere, and Singapore and Switzerland were options I had in mind. Singapore had better food, so I just came here," he says wryly.

"All of what is happening in Metapurse right now is just my personal funds. Maybe in the future, Metapurse could be a listed company."

Metapurse hopes to launch a virtual "production house" in the Metaverse for artists to collaborate with one another. They hope to complement this with a physical gallery space in Singapore, perhaps using VR technology to immerse people in the Metaverse.

When Mr Vignesh speaks about cryptocurrency, he sounds almost reverential. "It's more like I owe crypto than crypto owing me. Because who would give you money and teach you about life? Crypto taught me politics, economics - and now it's teaching me art."

One thing Metakovan and Twobadour clearly excel at is the ability to craft a compelling story. Mr Vignesh's account of his life - from poor college student to crypto whale - sounds a bit like a superhero's origin story, even though he says he has no such pretensions.

For one thing, there is his alter ego Metakovan, which he says he created last year as an "exosuit".

"I am a very different person when I am Metakovan," he says. "Vignesh is from scarcity, where I built my life with nothing, and ended up with some resources. But Metakovan was born rich."

The son of a mechanical engineer and social worker, Mr Vignesh grew up middle class - "lower middle class" during his schooldays, when his family ran into financial troubles. As an undergraduate at BITS Pilani university in Dubai, where he studied mechanical engineering, he could not afford his own laptop, he says.

He bought his first Beeple works last year because he felt a "soul connection" with the artist, he says. "Those 13 years of Beeple's work and 13 years of my work, I felt, ran in parallel. He started as an amateur and I started with nothing."

In 2013, Mr Vignesh discovered cryptocurrency and tried to look for ways to earn money on the bitcoin network. His mother, who lives in Chennai, was unimpressed and told him to "go do something useful" instead. "She was like, 'What is this, is this a fantasy stock market?' "

Then things got lucrative and she changed her mind. It was she who gave him the moniker "Metakovan" (Tamil for "king of meta") when he explained the concept of the Metaverse to her.

"When real life changes happen - like when I help her upgrade the house - she's like, now I understand it is real money."

He says he started investing in NFTs around 2017, in "very small amounts" as a hobby. "Virtual worlds were opening up and I thought I'd buy some land."

During the pandemic last year, traffic in the virtual worlds started picking up and he started exploring NFTs more seriously.

Metapurse's first experiment in the virtual world was dubbed the "B.20 project". In an auction last December on online marketplace Nifty Gateway, it bought 20 single-edition pieces of Beeple's work for US$2.2 million. It then bundled up these NFTs, which were fractionalised into "B20 tokens" and offered to the public, to enable shared ownership. The bundle's market capitalisation, which has been fluctuating, was as high as about US$200 million over a week ago, according to Mr Vignesh.

He declines to reveal his net worth, but says most of his assets are in non-NFT crypto.

He believes virtual worlds will pave the way for what he calls cultural decentralisation.

"Right now, there are a few companies or houses which have most of the attention of the world. But if this (virtual) world is successful, there won't be one big production house, or one big something, but a lot of smaller things, each with its own audience." This cuts out the middleman as artists interact directly with their fans, he adds.

Critics have accused Metakovan of engaging in a form of insider trading. Mr Vignesh says: "I just hope people are more open-minded and take the time to look into what we are trying to do, instead of saying, 'It's just a money grab'."

He says he bought digital artworks for the B.20 project for US$2.2 million and made US$1.4 million.

"I hold half of the tokens, and I don't plan to sell them at all," he says. But he might barter some of his tokens with others one day.

His journey has not always been smooth, he says. Being heavily involved in crypto has brought about other challenges, such as having difficulty applying for visas and bank accounts. He also made some investments in projects that were not very successful.

Amid the recent craze for NFTs, which have been appreciating greatly, some commentators are drawing parallels with the 2017 bitcoin frenzy, saying this could be another bubble waiting to burst.

Singapore FinTech Association founding president Chia Hock Lai says: "The good thing about NFTs is they might create new innovations, but of course it might turn out to be a big bubble and some will get hurt, especially those late in the game."

Mr Vignesh says: "I started with nothing, so if everything goes to zero, no one can take away the experience, the knowledge... If this goes down, I think I will go down with the ship."

At yesterday's meeting, he shows this reporter that he can access Metakovan's Twitter account. "I will only say that I operate Metakovan right now, that I've operated him for a while."

He adds cryptically that "Metakovan" might not always be who the rest of the world thinks it is.

"Tomorrow, Metakovan could be a different person. It could become a three-people-operated account, not just me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 21, 2021, with the headline 'I started with nothing, says man who shook art world'. Subscribe