The great Tian-Yuan Zhao ( 天元 )

Tian-Yuan Zhao … in his own words

He built his career across three major domains:

Tian Yuan Zhao … In Memoriam

To a player of the Chinese strategy game “Go”, Tianyuan (天元) is the “center of heaven” - or middlepoint of the board; to the people he met around the world, Tian Yuan (天元) Zhao (赵)  was a center of gravity - drawn by his radiant smile, engaging personality, and alluring moves on the dance floor. Born on May 5th, 1992 in Lanzhou, China to father Junhui Zhao (an avid Go player) and mother Lan Wu, Tian lived an adventurous and accomplished 32 years - transcending borders, domains, and circles in both the physical and virtual worlds.

Arriving in Winnipeg at the age of 5, Tian had a happy childhood where he expressed himself through arts and culture - shaped not only by his proud Chinese heritage but also its universal power in building connection to people. Through drawing, storytelling, and musical performances, he brought joy to audiences at school (Dalhousie School, Acadia Junior High, and Kelvin High School), his local church, and most poignantly in a performance of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, where his empathy for Quasimodo confirmed to his parents that “love and kindness existed in his heart”. Over the years, Tian became a man of many voices - a falsetto that emerged in karaoke solos at conferences, a crowd-favourite Donald Trump impression, and his performances in Tales of Harmonia, a musical choir he co-founded at the University of Toronto which he attended in 2010. 

At U of T, he built formative friendships while studying Industrial Engineering at the university’s prestigious Applied Science & Engineering program. It was here he emulsified the rare combination of empathy, technicality, and efficiency by specializing in Human Factors design, talents he would build his career and entire lifestyle upon. It was here he formed his “free spirit”: with the free market of entrepreneurialism and startup culture, the freedom to express himself with Tales of Harmonia which to this day hosts regular concerts, and notably - a talent in coincidentally appearing at the events with free thinkers and free food. Through his studies, he became fluent in the technical parlance of user experience, user interfaces, and Figma, but he is equally remembered for the way he connected with people at personal level - with kind words, smothering hugs, and raucous laughter from a clever pun – in-Tian-ded or not. 

As he came of age in his working life in 2015, so too emerged an evolution of the internet that inspired and resonated with his spirit: Web3. He brought his whole self to the technology - his eye for design, his curious mind to blaze new frontiers, and his kind heart to build things for a better world. Projects like GoodDollar - a Web3 enabler for Universal Basic Income, Raise - an app empowering African diaspora to remit wealth back home, among many others all benefited from Tian’s design talents. But where Tian truly shone was when at the helm - co-founding ReFi Toronto and startup Circonomy - both of which introduced to our vocabulary the concepts of ‘Regenerative Finance’ and ‘Solarpunk 2077’, with climate change, poverty, and world conflict as its ‘Schelling Point’. He expounded the virtues of how to use Web3’s principles powered by blockchain’s capabilities to build economies that were not solely extractive, but enriching the Earth and the lives of everyone on it. Through his vision and efforts he shared across events, lectures, and podcasts around the world, he flipped the paradigm of a technology whose ethos is decentralization, trustlessness, and incentivization into one that brought people together, in empathy, with the greater good at its core.

2024 was poised to be a transformative year for Tian – enlivened by a strict workout regimen, overhauled wardrobe, new job, and energetic confidence – but on April 9th, a sudden illness tragically ended that trajectory. Tian is survived by his parents, who in spite of the heartbreak, take solace in knowing that he’s now unburdened by the worries of the world and enjoys the warmth of God’s Kingdom, where they look forward to their happy reunion someday. While Tian had no children to carry on his name, the monument of his legacy endures - in the communities he’s built, in the creations he’s inscribed on-chain, and in the immediate joy his memory brings to all our hearts. 

Another interpretation of his name 赵天元 in Chinese is “Summoning Sky Money”, which to those in Web3 could mean ‘an airdrop’ - and like any airdrop, we know what a blessing it is to have received him into our lives. While you’ll be missed here among us – the sky shines a little brighter with you resting there, Tian.

Tian's Memorial Service will be held on Sunday, April 21st 5-10PM at Clubhouse Toronto (643 Yonge Street); Register here to attend.

In lieu of flowers the family has requested donations "In the memory of Tian Yuan Zhao" to any of the following organizations: World Vision Canada, The Canadian Red Cross, World Animal Protection, or the Tales of Harmonia Choir.

By Randall with thanks to contributions from the Zhao family, Keshav, Bill.