crypto bridge: Crypto bridge heists swiping $1 billion spur race for alternatives

High-profile hacks on crypto “bridges” — which let users swap digital tokens across blockchains — are creating opportunities for exchanges and other businesses to offer more secure alternatives.

Crypto exchanges FTX and Coinbase Global Inc. are deepening their capabilities to provide bridge-like services on various blockchains, so users invested in Bitcoin or Ethereum can easily participate in other networks’ financial or gaming apps. FTX, for instance, launched a marketplace last year that allows customers to trade Solana-based nonfungible tokens, and to easily swap their Ethereum for the chain’s main Sol coin to buy them. Users can also deposit an Ethereum-based NFT and withdraw it on Solana via FTX — instead of a bridge. And more app developers, like institutional lending marketplace Maple Finance, are moving onto new blockchains, making bridges unnecessary for certain transactions.

While some measures may have been in the works prior to the breaches, their urgency and attraction have increased after hackers siphoned more than $1 billion out of crypto bridges like Wormhole and Ronin — most of it in February and March. An April survey of 500 U.S. adults by OnePulse showed that 80% of respondents don’t trust crypto networks to protect their funds. While Ethereum-connected bridges still contain some $17.4 billion in value locked, that’s down about 17% in the past 30 days, according to tracker Dune Analytics.

“It wouldn’t shock me if more users wanted exchanges as bridges given their expertise and bankroll,” Sam Bankman-Fried, chief executive officer (CEO) of FTX, said in an email. “We’re currently bridging some chains together and are thinking about potentially doing more.”

With decentralised bridges, which are operated via software, it’s often unclear who runs them, who can access their funds and how, and whether users will be reimbursed in case of a hack. On the other end of the spectrum, a more centralised alternative may be run by a company that is licensed and regulated and can be held accountable for any problems.

On March 17, Coinbase Wallet introduced support for Solana, letting users send, receive and store Solana and SPL tokens, which are coins native to the Solana blockchain. For example, if investors had previously wanted to move a USDC coin — one of the top stablecoins — from Ethereum to Solana, they needed to deposit the USDC into Coinbase to buy Sol, then swap that token for USDC-SPL on market maker Raydium. Now, that can be done through Coinbase directly, according to Austin Federa, head of communications at Solana Labs.

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“The more exchanges do this, the easier it becomes to explore Solana’s offering without having to support a decentralised exchange or a bridge,” Federa said in an interview.

In its blog, Coinbase said it plans to further integrate into the Solana ecosystem, letting users connect to its decentralised applications, or apps, and manage their Solana NFTs directly within their Coinbase Wallet.

Meanwhile, a slew of non-exchange apps like Maple are building versions for other blockchains — partly to help customers avoid bridges.

Maple, which started on the Ethereum blockchain, launched on Solana in late April. Previously an investor with USDC-SPL stablecoin on Solana had to go through a bridge-like Wormhole to deposit funds into Maple. Now they can make the deposit directly.

“The institutional and the corporate partners that we’ve dealt with really wanted this security,” said Sid Powell, chief executive officer (CEO) of Maple Finance. As security and performance of decentralised bridges get better, more people will likely begin to use them, he said, noting that Maple is considering expanding onto other networks, like Avalanche.

Going onto different blockchains can require extensive rewriting of code for an app, though it can offer a lot of benefits. Crypto apps can potentially grow faster if usage of the underlying blockchain balloons.

“The primary and most prevalent reason is to tap different consumer bases,” said Bodhi Pinkner, a portfolio manager at Arca, a digital asset management firm. “You can increase your user base theoretically. It would reduce the need for bridging if you assume every application is deployed cross-chain on every chain.”

Still, bridges won’t be disappearing anytime soon. With more than 18,800 tokens and thousands of blockchains, they are necessary for heavy users like Arca.

“People are becoming more conscious of the bridges they use,” Pinkner said in an interview. “But the need to bridge is so large that avoiding them for someone like us is not an option.”