Prometheus, Fire, and Bits

8 min readMay 1, 2020
Prometheus tortured by the eagle. Christian Griepenkerl (1839–1916).

In Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus steals fire from the Gods and brings it to Earth’s humanist civilization. Also accredited with molding humanity from clay, the rebellious Titan was eternally punished for his theft of fire. However, with fire, humans could extend their civilization beyond their clay limitations and into an energetic force. Innovation preceded by theft against the old gods pushed us forward.

The Primitive Protocol

Primitive designs base smart contracts that operate under the conditions of ignorance and bliss. These primitives serve as tools for protocols on DeFi to use, including our own protocol.

Alpha Release Features:

  • ETH Put ERC-20 Token with 200 DAI strike price expiring May 30, 2020.
  • Liquidity Pool for DAI that mints put option tokens and sells them for premium.
  • Premium charged by pool based on the pool’s utilization, a proxy for volatility.


The first contract we have designed is the Prime, a base ‘smart’ ERC-20 binary option primitive. A holder of a Prime has the right to swap Token A to Token B, which was wrapped into the Prime, at a fixed exchange rate, for a fixed lifetime. This is similar to a binary option, because the holder is betting that the market exchange rate between Token A and Token B will eventually be greater than the exchange rate defined in the Prime. This ability to swap, also called the right to exercise, has a limited period of availability. Each Prime has an embedded strike date, which is when the Prime will ‘expire’. Upon expiry, the ability to exercise and mint new Primes is locked.

Mainnet and Community

We are live on mainnet as of today, May 1st, 2020. Our goal is to build community on day zero, when the protocol is still seeding itself into the world of DeFi. The next development cycles will be taking the community’s sentiment as a key input to what is built. The usefulness of our primitives starts with the users and builders in our community and this is why it is critical for us to start developing that relationship starting now.

Risk and Security

The contracts are not secure and anyone who interacts with them are putting their funds at risk. The front-end interface continues to be a work in progress. Our focus during this early period of development has been on the security of the contracts, rather than the front-end interface. We have gone through multiple iterations and have settled on a simple design which can be both improved and built upon going forward.

The Prime as an Option ERC-20 Token Primitive

Primes are relatively cheap. The value of Primes decays over time as their strike date gets closer, which makes them useful for short-term hedging instruments. As a user, I can buy a Prime which effectively locks in an exchange rate between two tokens, that can be exercised at some future time before expiry. The key benefit is that I do not have to put up the capital to exercise the swap until I want to exercise. The only price paid is the premium, which is often much less than the assets the Prime has effective control over.

Our mantra for designing primitives is: “Strength, Security, and Simplicity”. In the Prime contract, there are four core functions which each take different token inputs and output different results. The contract assumes tokens are sent into it before its functions are called. This is because the contract caches its balance at the end of every transaction so in the next transaction they can compare the current balance with the previous balance. The difference in these balances is how many tokens were sent into the contract, and this determines how many tokens will be sent out. This gives external contracts and accounts flexibility because they can determine which tokens to push to the Prime. The Prime operates with ignorance of how tokens are sent into it, which drastically simplifies the contract’s code.

Alpha Architecture

For our alpha release, we have built two contracts that are meant to make interactions with the Prime simple. Primes are options that need a counter-party to provide the ‘underlying’ asset, which every Prime wraps into it. We’ve designed a liquidity pool to serve as a counter-party. We’ve also designed a trader contract that would allow users to directly mint, swap, redeem, and close Prime option positions.

Pooled Liquidity

The pool we have designed for this release is an ETH Short Put pool. Liquidity Providers (“LP”) will deposit DAI, the DAI is used to mint new ETH Puts, which are then sold to buyers for premium. The premium’s earned by the pool are distributed to the LPs based on their provided DAI. LPs in this pool are betting that the price of ETH will be above 200 DAI (the strike price for the first Prime option) at May 30, 2020 (the expiration date for the first Prime option). These options are American style, which means the assets can be exercised at any time before expiry. LPs are effectively buying ETH at a 200 DAI price, which would attribute a loss to them if the market price of ETH is below 200 DAI.

The premium that the pool charges is based on the utilization of the pool, time to expiry, and ‘moneyness’ of the option; the ratio of the strike price to the market price. If the pool has low utilization, the premium will be cheap. If the pool has high utilization, the premium will be expensive. This algorithmic premium should be able to promote demand or supply based on what the pool needs. This pricing model is actively being researched and developed on, this release will serve as the first live test of it in action.

Buying Options from the Pool

Users can hedge against the price of ETH declining by purchasing a Prime from the pool and holding it. If the price of ETH goes below 200 DAI, Prime holders start to earn a return. The true breakeven is at a lower price, because the premium that was paid also needs to be earned back. Once the premium is earned, net profit starts to accrue. For example, if the price of the Prime is 1 DAI, the strike price is 200 DAI, and the market price is 190 DAI, the user would profit (200 -1- 190) = 9 DAI if they exercised their Prime option.

There is no direct way for the user to sell their Prime back to the pool. This is not because of technological limitation, but because of the focus on security for the alpha release. A pool that supports multiple Primes increases the surface area for the contracts to be attacked by a factor of four, because of the additional connections that are made between contracts. The logic for a pool to handle multiple Prime markets will be developed for the next release.

Future Pools

This alpha release pool is a short put pool. The next pools we build will have specific trading strategies that can be more complex. The pool being designed for the beta release will be taking a synthetic long position on ether. This works by having the pool write put options using its own pool, while purchasing call options from another pool. The pool will earn premiums by writing and selling the ether put options, and then the premiums will be spent on purchasing ether call options, a synthetic long position. Multiple pools can be designed to trade specific strategies like this. Lazy capital’s heaven, where LPs can deposit funds into a pool that trades synthetic longs, spreads, calendars, etc.


The Alpha Primitive release is deployed to mainnet with unaudited contracts. Users who interact with any Primitive contracts will put their funds at risk.

We have purposefully developed the alpha contracts with limited features, pause functions, and admin access control in order to mitigate risk. Ironically, adding access control through an admin key degrades the security of the contracts, but it gives us more flexibility in the event of a vulnerability.

Security Risk

In the event of a vulnerability, and depending on the severity, we can pause every function except withdraws.

Access Control

In the event an Admin private key is compromised, they would be able to pause the protocol and set new addresses for the Pool. The level of access control we’ve integrated into the contracts will not be there in future releases, only the alpha. The worst case scenario is if a private key was compromised, and the compromising party added a malicious Prime contract designed to steal the Pool’s funds.

Oracle Risk

In the event of a flash crash of ether’s DAI price, the only oracle risk is in the Pool contract. Depending on the severity of the crash and the secondary effects on the Pool, we can pause the Pool. The Pool charges a premium to option buyers using the price of ETH in DAI as a parameter, which is what the oracle provides. The Pool could potentially charge a premium that is lower than the true value, which would attribute a net loss to the LPs.

Surface Area Risk

The Prime contract which is the ERC-20 option does not have any direct oracle interactions. It also does not have a direct integration with the pool contract, it is a standalone contract. This was a purposeful design that reduces the the possible vectors of attack on the Prime contract.

Concentrated Risk

The Pool contract facilitates the interactions between traders and liquidity providers, a bridge. However, this is where the most risk is concentrated in the Primitive Protocol. The Pool contract will hold deposits from LPs while also facilitating trades with Traders using the Pool’s funds.

Liquidity Provider Risk

LP funds are at risk while they remain unutilized in the Pool, and Traders funds are at risk when they conduct transactions. Utilized Pool funds are locked in the Prime contract as underlying assets, which remains separate from the Pool. Only the holder of the Prime has access to the underlying assets of that Prime, up until the expiration date.

Option Holder (User) Risk

In the event the Pool has its entire balance sheet drained, underlying and strike assets, no funds locked in the Prime contract would be affected. At this point, the Pool would be paused to prevent further damage. A vulnerability in the Pool contract will likely not affect Prime option holders, but it is absolutely a possibility.

Worst-Case Scenario

The worst case scenario would be if the Pool used all their funds to underwrite options, and the Pool’s Prime Redeem balance was drained. In this case, the Pool has no way to access their underlying assets or claimable strike assets. Therefore, to mitigate this risk, we have limited the amount of times that the Redeem balance of the Pool is transferred.

Zero to One, with Community

We are moving into the development of the Beta, which will bring a new ERC-20 token that is embedded with an option. Imagine a token that has the value of the base token while simultaneously having the option to swap to another token…

Join our team for this journey.