Michael Heinrich: A Resilient Founder's Third Act

Michael Heinrich: A Resilient Founder's Third Act


Apr 13, 2024

This article was originally published on

Michael Heinrich was 26 years old when his life started falling apart. Sure, he’d graduated from UC Berkeley, one of California’s most prestigious academic institutions, performed research at Harvard, and ticked off internships and jobs at leading firms like Microsoft, J.P. Morgan, Bain, and Bridgewater. But he still felt empty. His personal relationships were in tatters. He had no motivation at his high-powered job. 

A long period of self-reflection and discovery would ultimately lead him to some radical life changes. A new plant-based diet, a meditation practice, and transformative conversations with loved ones would lead to a more fulfilling life. It would also lead him to start 0G Labs, one of the most ambitious new startups in the blockchain industry.

Michael doesn’t have too many memories from his childhood in East Berlin, but he does remember the night of November 9th, 1989 - the night the Berlin Wall fell.

“We lived just 100 meters from the wall. That night, I remember I was in my room when I woke up to loud noises outside. I was curious, so I went out onto our balcony. I saw my parents celebrating with champagne glasses. I saw masses of people walking towards the wall. I remember thinking it was really cool, but I was also tired and confused so I went back to bed. I was really little and had no idea what was happening nor the historical significance of it. That would come much later.”

Up until then, Michael had spent almost his entire life in Berlin. His parents were German born Russian speaking academics who had met while attending the University of Donetsk in Ukraine.  Michael was born in Alushta, Ukraine but his parents shortly moved the family to East Berlin to Michael’s fathers home city. 

Michael’s childhood was not unlike that of any other kid’s experience in the US.  He recounts enjoying being part of an after-school group. “In first grade, there was this after school group called the Young Pioneers. It was every kid’s first introduction to Communism. You’d get a blue or a red scarf based on how old you were. The older Pioneers would help the younger Pioneers.”

An image of the Young Pioneers (courtesy:

Too young to understand the greater context of a program designed to indoctrinate youth in communist principles, he simply remembers thinking the other kids in the cohort were exceptionally friendly. But when the wall came down, the Young Pioneers were no longer. “I remember going to my parents and saying, ‘Hey, the Pioneers were so nice! It was such a great group. What happened to them?’ And my parents had to explain that they no longer existed; we were living under a different system now.”

Soon after the wall fell, Michael’s dad would get a job with SAP in their Berlin office and then transfer to their Palo Alto Labs California office. Moving to the U.S. would bring changes to Michael’s life much more significant than losing his beloved after school group.

When Michael's dad started at SAP, the Heinrichs were met with a whole new world. They got a new car, a BMW provided by the company. “I had never seen a car like that before. There were only two or three kinds of cars you could drive in East Berlin.” They also got a color TV, which exposed Michael to ads for toys that he had never seen before. “I didn’t know about any of these toys, but very quickly I knew I wanted all of them!” he tells me laughing.

Michael had also arrived in the U.S. without being able to speak any English. His parents enrolled him in a German American school where most of his classmates were children of other German families. It took several years for him to pick up English to the point where he felt comfortable interacting with others. I asked Michael what it was like for him growing up in the U.S. as an immigrant from East Berlin. He tells me it wasn’t easy. “The first time someone asked me if I was from East or West Berlin, I wasn’t sure how to answer. I lied and said West Berlin and the person immediately started making all these derogatory comments about East Berliners. I was like, ‘Ok, this is what the world really thinks about East Berlin.’ I remember thinking I needed to keep my identity hidden now.” 

With this gap between him and his community, Michael spent most of his high school years bored and isolated. To combat the boredom, he’d often hang out after school at the SAP office his dad worked at. SAP always had the coolest new computers to play with. 

Initially, Michael would spend his time aimlessly surfing the web on the office computers. However, after enough time loitering around the SAP office, one of his dad’s coworkers decided to put him to work. He took Michael through a two week coding bootcamp and then tasked him with writing software for various SAP initiatives. One of Michaels’ first projects was writing online software for their HR self-help tool. He was rewarded with shiny new gadgets. “I was too young for them to formally pay me so they compensated me with free hardware. I got a new laptop out of it.”

Michael took to programming quickly and continued to explore the field outside of the classroom. However, within academics, he was forced to make a change when his German American school didn’t have enough students. “Essentially, so many German students had left town that the school couldn’t support a full 11th grade. I was left with the choice of transferring into a public high school or doing something different. I found out about junior college and decided to take my GED and enroll in the local college for 11th and 12th grade.”

The isolation from others that Michael felt as an immigrant played a part in this decision. “I felt that if I went to a normal high school, I’d be around people who couldn’t relate to the stuff I was into, like programming. I thought that maybe if I put myself in a different environment, I might find older people that can relate to the stuff I liked.”

Michael ultimately thrived in junior college. “I enjoyed being in classes with different age groups. The youngest was 16 and the oldest was 60. The views people held could be very different from my own. It was quite an eye-opening experience.” After three years in junior college, Michael transferred to UC Berkeley where he continued to excel. 

At Berkeley, he made top marks and took classes split between engineering and humanities-focused disciplines. Professionally, he also made great strides, stacking prestigious internships during college and full time roles post-graduation. His first summer internship took him back to SAP, next was working on the Visual Studio team at Microsoft, then a stint at JP Morgan. Upon graduation he took a job as a consultant at Bain, and later joined Bridgewater where he worked through the great financial crisis. From moving to the U.S. without speaking the language, to landing roles at some of the most prestigious firms in the world, Michael had a lot to be proud of. Unfortunately, he was also pretty miserable.

“I was not enjoying what I was doing,” recounts Michael of his work at Bridgewater. Around this time, he’d been through an extremely challenging breakup with a longtime partner, and had yet to fully address the pain it had caused. “The monetary rewards at Bridgewater were just filling a hole, but the hole was too deep. I couldn’t fill it. I needed to leave to go through a period of self-discovery. Something was nagging at me.”

It was time to finally address this hole in Michael’s life instead of attempting to mask it. He left Bridgewater, changed his diet, and dove deeply into transcendental meditation. He started going on retreats. And ultimately, his journey of self-discovery led him to one fundamental issue in his personal life.

“I realized that I  had created a story that I would never be good enough for my dad. I needed to get into the best schools, get the best grades, the most prestigious jobs. All so that I would be good enough in his eyes. That I would be worthy of his love.”

He decided to address this issue head on. He picked up the phone and called his dad. 

“I called him up and said, ‘First of all, Dad, I love you. I’ve also been creating this story and I want to create a completely different possibility of us being together and I want to start right now.”

While surprised, his dad responded positively, saying that he had no idea Michael had felt this way. He was ready to make the change too.  

It was the exact intervention that Michael needed. “It changed the way I started seeing the world. I could finally say, ‘I don’t need to live based on what other people think of me or what they expect of me. I can truly make choices in terms of what is key to me, what I want to see in the world.’”

Michael celebrating a recent birthday with his father.

Michael can’t help but reflect that this conversation with his father represented the second time a major unlock had occurred in his life. The first was over 20 years ago when he was a child in East Berlin. When the wall came down, it opened up a new world of possibilities. His family was able to come to the US, bringing with it new jobs, educational opportunities and more. Through this conversation with his father, Michael felt like another world had been unlocked. He was no longer constrained to organizing his life based on the expectations of others. Now, he could finally start living his life on his own terms.

After his resignation from Bridgewater and period of introspection, Michael enrolled in a Masters program at Stanford focused on engineering and business management. With a new approach to his life, one that focused on values-based experimentation rather than external validation, Michael started his first Web2 company, Oh My Green (later rebranded to Garten). Inspired by his new healthier lifestyle, Michael’s startup was a corporate wellness company that sourced and delivered healthier cafeteria options for businesses. “After just a few weeks of building an MVP in class, we started having real orders come in. The first order was $7. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, somebody bought something from us!’” 

Michael during the early founding days of Garten.

Few classroom startups see the kind of immediate traction that Michael saw with Garten. One of the very first customers they secured was Apple, and after landing them, a flood of new inbound interest came from other large corporations. They saw $300k ARR in their first year of formal business, then $3m, $10m, and ultimately $100m by 2019. Garten was also accepted into YCombinator in 2016 and raised multiple rounds of funding, achieving unicorn status. Unfortunately, Garten’s good times did not last forever.  

“It was like flying an airplane in total darkness, no communication to the control tower, the engine was burning and the crew was panicking. No one has any idea what is going on or how to fix it.” That was the situation Michael found himself in when COVID hit in early 2020. As a corporate catering business, remote work wiped away 95% of Garten’s business instantly. Michael was forced into massive layoffs, needing to let nearly 70% of the company go. He did everything he could to handle the situation with grace but it was still extremely hard.

“We told everyone that we wanted to hire them back when things changed. We were going to do whatever it took to ensure our survival so that we could bring people back. We cut costs rapidly, sold equipment on Ebay and Craigslist, and did an emergency equity fundraise.”

In a testament to Michael’s dedication as head of the company, Garten did survive the pandemic and continues to operate to this day. Still, by the end of the process, Michael felt like it was time for him to move on from Garten.

“That period as CEO of Garten felt like running crisis management for three years. I wasn’t operating in my zone of genius. I felt so drained from the entire experience and knew I needed a change. Leaving Garten left me with a real sense of sadness and loss, but I also felt excitement for starting a new chapter in my life.”

Towards the tail end of his time at Garten, Michael was approached by a classmate from Stanford, Thomas Yao. “Thomas told me that two founders he had invested in five years ago were looking to start something on more of a global scale and were looking for another co-founder.”

The two founders Thomas was referencing were Fan Long, an MIT PhD, 2 time Olympic gold medal winner in informatics, and professor at the University of Toronto, and Ming Wu, a 11-year Microsoft Research veteran and Computer Architecture PhD. Fan and Ming were the technologists behind Conflux, China’s largest and only regulatory compliant layer 1 protocol. As Thomas explained to Michael, the two of them were looking to start a new company in web3 that would allow them to build outside of China. Michael was intrigued by the idea of getting to work in crypto (he’d bought his first Bitcoin in 2013 and even ran a small mining operation for fun with his brother in 2017).

Thomas brought the group together over several dinners where all four of them could get to know each other better and explore different ideas. Michael reflects on those early interactions.

“Ming and Fan were the best technologists I’d ever met. I felt so much excitement meeting with them and talking through different business ideas. It was really fun, the dynamic felt great, our value system totally gelled. I had a sense of hope and excitement that I hadn’t felt in three, four years.”

The 0G founding team Fan (left), Thomas, Michael, and Ming

After spending months ideating and speaking with numerous developers in the industry, Michael, Ming, Fan, and Thomas settled on the idea of building a novel approach to data availability. “We saw competitors in this space barely achieving 1.5MBs per second. When I talked to ecosystem projects, it was exceptionally clear that current throughput was not enough if you want to do things like on-chain AI, on-chain gaming or high frequency DeFi. We realized that if we approached our architecture differently, we could create a super high performance platform.” That platform would become 0G - the first modular AI chain.

0G’s data availability (DA) solution is designed to meet the enormous demands of off-chain verification of executed states without jeopardizing scalability and security. The crux of their solution lies in their separation of work required for data availability. Unlike other competitors, 0G separates their architecture into a “data publishing lane” and a “data storage lane.” The data publishing lane guarantees data availability through consensus of data availability sampling, requiring only tiny data to flow through the consensus protocol to avoid the broadcasting bottleneck. The data storage lane enables large volumes of data transfers and is supported by the storage layer that accomplishes horizontal scalability through designed partitioning.

An early diagram of 0G's architecture.

With this bifurcated approach, 0G has been able to achieve throughput that others in the space haven’t been able to touch. In their recent private testnet, they were able to achieve 10MB/s per node, numbers 8x faster than Celestia and 50x faster than an individual node on EigenDA. 

This solution is highly performant, modular, and unopinionated - and it's actually prepared to meet the high performance requirements of onchain AI. Their storage system will be sufficient enough to store LLMs and metadata in order for OPML or ZKML to run large AI models. Through their horizontal scaling and multi-layer storage design, 0G is set to fuel the future of onchain AI by being the fastest and lowest cost data propagation mechanism.

The 0G team recently closed a $35m pre-seed round that Symbolic Capital was proud to co-lead. And with this impressive funding, Michael is ready to start building out his vision.

“I’m excited to achieve this vision where we can make AI a public good. On top of that, we can actually achieve parity between web2 and web3 applications from a cost and performance perspective. There is certainly a lot more stuff that we need to build to get to parity on the AI side, but I can finally see a clear path to build what the industry needs.”

This is certainly a big vision, but with Michael, you have the rare founder with the combination of operational and technical experience to actually deliver on such grand ambitions. We’re just as hopeful as Michael is about the future 0G is building.

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