February 22, 2019
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Security token offerings aren’t looking much better in 2019

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Pressed to explain who is using them, and why, 99 percent of cryptocurrencies let out all their air, go flying around the room making a raspberry sound, hit the wall and fall behind the couch forever.

The party is over. A few, however, can present a credible use case. “Tokenized securities” could be one of them: a more open and efficient way to transact shares and notes as well as distribute cash flows.

Proponents of “security token offerings” (STOs) have been telling that story now for a little more than a year. This data report canvases the market, finds few are buying it, interviews market participants for perspective and reveals gaps in the use case at the ground level that explain its failure to thrive.

In October 2017, the market for “initial coin offerings,” or ICOs, reached a peak, with more than 100 capital raises closing through the sale of crypto tokens, according to market data provider Token Data. Proponents thought these tokens were an innovation on par with the joint stock corporation: not a claim on cash flows, but a vessel to participate in and directly capture the value latent in network effects. “Tokenized” networks raising money that month ranged from the prosaic, like a no-fee crypto exchange called Cobinhood ($13.2 million), to the ludicrous, like Dentacoin, “the blockchain solution for the global dental industry” ($1.1 million).

At the time, it was nearly unheard-of for such a project to acknowledge its token might be a security like the mundane stock certificate. In the following months, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) sent dozens of subpoenas to token issuers, indicating that they disagreed. By the following March, the number of SEC registrations for new token offerings equaled more than half the total ICO deal activity for the month.

As SEC moved in and ICOs cooled, a new enthusiasm for paperwork

The sudden popularity in 2018 of the so-called “security token” was undoubtedly a scramble to paper over cash grabs. However, there is a use case for “tokenized securities” that is worth considering. Bitcoin showed how ownership could be digitally secured and transferred without intermediaries. A tokenized security could do the same for investment contracts. “Smart contracts” are a value proposition that has been discussed in cryptocurrency since long before Bitcoin.

There is reason to be optimistic that this form of programmable ownership can bring efficiency, transparency, liquidity and access to the $1.7 trillion annual US private placement market. The value proposition is that smart contracts will reduce the cost of compliance in primary issuance and secondary trading. Issuers benefit by reduced liquidity premiums and more buyers to compete for their offering. Investors benefit by gaining more access to opportunities for growth-stage investment. This is a compelling story in US capital markets that have, for nearly two decades, starved retail investors of exposure to growth-stage investments.

Decline of the small-cap IPO reduced retail opportunities for risk & return

This value proposition, and a narrative of regulatory chill in the markets, have led some to believe that tokenized securities would bring back a bull market in crypto. The Wall Street hype machine has moved on from crypto; security tokens are one of the few areas in which the avid listener can detect faint echoes of its passing.

Media hype

  • “If it works you’re going to see tremors across Wall Street.” -CNBC commentator
  • “Apple and Tesla shares on the blockchain could be the next big thing” -CNBC headline
  • “2019: The Year Digital Securities Offerings Become the New ICOs” -CoinDesk
  • “Why security token offerings are replacing initial coin offerings” -Silicon Valley Business Journal

From 30,000 feet up, the use case for tokenized securities looks compelling. As with many blockchain-based projects, zoom down to the user level and misaligned incentives appear for key market participants.

  • Investors: Digital tokens carry technological risk, regulatory risk and market risk. Without a liquid market ready and waiting, private placement investors have little incentive to layer risk on top of the risk-return they already understand.
  • Brokers: Effective bankers and broker-dealers charge a premium for primary issuance; the more effective they are, the less incentive they have to adopt, especially given their investors are not clamoring for this product.
  • Issuers: With markets awash in private capital, there are very few quality issuers that cannot raise funds. The better the investment opportunity, the likelier its access to funds and investment banks in the top quartile, where investment decisions have kingmaker effects in the market. Interest in innovation that disrupts these relationships is therefore inversely related to suitability for capital, a repeat of the pattern in US issuers accessing new equity crowdfunding options under the JOBS Act of 2012.

If you build it, will they come?

To determine whether new tokenized security issuance is finding a fit in the market, Canary Data, an open crypto research initiative, undertook an exhaustive search of news wires and the SEC’s EDGAR database, beginning in 2017 and ending mid-January, looking for public statements and filings related to security token offerings. It’s an imperfect method; our database of offerings is constantly evolving as new information becomes available. But in an emerging segment of the financial markets it reflects the level of credible, mainstream activity.

We filtered out tokens that are in the mold of the ICO “utility token,” offering a financial instrument as a form of access to a valuable network effect. Many of these have registered as securities, but it is the value proposition of a tokenized tradtional security — a claim on cash flow, represented as a token — that we are interested in.

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Binance releases a first version of its decentralized crypto exchange

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Binance, the world’s largest crypto exchange, has launched an initial version of its highly-anticipated decentralized trading service (dex) today which is available now at

The launch — which is initially a testnet as the URL suggests — has been a long time coming and it is designed to complement the main Binance exchange, which does around $1 billion in daily trading volumes according to data from

That core service is centralized, like most others, meaning that the exchange manages its customers’ fiat or cryptocurrency balance for them. Centralized exchanges also set the price, pick the selection of assets on offer and make money from transaction fees. Some see that as necessary but others disagree. Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin went so far as to say that centralized exchanges should “burn in hell” for their controlling position.

That, as seasoned crypto traders will tell you, leaves customers open to loses from hacks, shutdowns or other kinds of unexpected issues. Common advice is for users to take control of their own cryptocurrency and manage it via a wallet. That’s where a dex comes into play because it allows users to trade directly from their wallet, as opposed to the cumbersome exercise of transferring tokens into an exchange to trade and then withdrawing them afterward. So the Binance dex is a direct complement to its centralized exchange and it gives customers more options.

Binace also claims that it offers speed.

“Binance Chain has near-instant transaction finality, with one-second block times. This is faster than other blockchains today,” said Binance CEO Changpeng “CZ” Zhao in a statement. “With the core Binance Chain technology, Binance DEX can handle the same trading volume as is handling today. This solves the issues many other decentralized exchanges face with speed and power.”

The Binance decentralize exchange

Zhao has also touted the dex as a new revenue driver for the company since it sits on Binance’s own blockchain with the company operating a number of nodes itself. Zhao previously told TechCrunch that when its nodes are used in transactions, the company will gain some of the network fee. Not that Binance needs help making money; a recent report from The Block suggested it made a profit of $446 million in 2018, a year that was most definitely a downer for the crypto industry across the board.

We do have one concern about the Binance Dex, however, and that is that it includes an option to unlock a wallet using a private key.

Pasting a private key into a browser is a major no-no in crypto circles. Users are encouraged to avoid this option for unlocking a wallet since there are a plethora of alternative options that include Metamask — a popular browser extension with over a million users — hardware devices such as Ledger, Trezor or Yubikey and — more recently — authentication apps from the likes of MyEtherWallet or Parity Signer.

Of those secure options, the Binance Dex currently supports Ledger (the hardware and app), but the other options are KeyStore file upload or the less-secure private key or mnemonic phrase.

While you can argue that the onus is on the user when it comes to private keys, service providers do have a responsibility.

Many, including Zhao, commonly claim that crypto adoption is in its early days while terms like ‘education’ and ‘democratization’ are repeated often by many in the space. Removing the private key, and thus limiting potential phishing attacks, would seem to be a part of educating new users and helping make crypto safe for others who join.

It may seem far fetched, but the phishing threat is very real. Leading wallet said it had been hit by attacks regularly, including a hijack on its Amazon DNS servers, while MyEtherWallet was hit at least twice last year as attackers went after its DNS and phished other users by compromising a free VPN service.

As a result, MyCrypto dropped the private key option from its primary web-based service.

“We’re removing support for private keys on the web version of MyCrypto because it’s not safe — and we encourage others to follow suit,” the company wrote in a Medium post.

But others haven’t followed, perhaps aware that removing the private key entry mechanism would mean many that users opt for alternatives were unlocking their wallet is easier.

MyEtherWallet, which competes directly with MyCrypto, has a strong warning around its private key entry option while Binance, to its credit, is warning dex users that using a private key or mnemonic phrase to unlock their wallet means there’s “a much higher chance [of losing them] due to phishing websites or applications.”

There is a positive. Binance said it plans to add the option to unlock a wallet on the dex using Trust Wallet, the mobile app it acquired last year.

“We’re working toward decentralized accessibility to cryptocurrency. We want users to have full control over their private keys, and easy access to decentralized applications, to maximize the potential and mainstream adoption of cryptocurrency. Binance DEX is one step further to realizing our vision for greater freedom of money,” Viktor Radchenko, the founder of Trust Wallet, said in a statement.

That would certainly be a major step forward for tightening security. Still, it is somewhat disappointing that Binance hasn’t taken a stand here. It certainly has the clout to send a major message out to the industry and cut down on potential phishing attacks.

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The plot to revive Mt. Gox and repay victims’ Bitcoin

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It was the Lehman Brothers of blockchain. 850,000 Bitcoin disappeared when cryptocurrency exchange Mt. Gox imploded in 2014 after a series of hacks. The incident cemented the industry’s reputation as frighteningly insecure. Now a controversial crypto celebrity named Brock Pierce is trying to get the Mt. Gox flameout’s 24,000 victims their money back and build a new company from the ashes.

Pierce spoke to TechCrunch for the first interview about Gox Rising — his plan to reboot the Mt. Gox brand and challenge Coinbase and Binance for the title of top cryptocurrency exchange. He claims there’s around $630 million and 150,000 Bitcoin waiting in the Mt. Gox bankruptcy trust, and Pierce wants to solve the legal and technical barriers to getting those assets distributed back to their rightful owners.

The consensus from several blockchain startup CEOs I spoke with was that the plot is “crazy”, but that it also has the potential to right one of the biggest wrongs marring the history of Bitcoin.

The Fall Of Mt. Gox

But the story starts with Magic: The Gathering. Mt. Gox launched in 2006 as a place for players of the fantasy card game to trade monsters and spells before cryptocurrency came of age. The Magic: The Gathering Online eXchange wasn’t designed to safeguard huge quantities of Bitcoin from legions of hackers, but founder Jed McCaleb pivoted the site in 2010. Seeking to focus on other projects, he gave 88 percent of the company to French software engineer Mark Karpeles, and kept 12 percent. By 2013, the Tokyo-based Mt. Gox had become the world’s leading cryptocurrency exchange, handling 70 percent of all Bitcoin trades. But security breaches, technology problems, and regulations were already plaguing the service.

Then everything fell apart. In February 2014, Mt. Gox halted withdrawls due to what it called a bug in Bitcoin, trapping assets in user accounts. Mt. Gox discovered that it had lost over 700,000 Bitcoins due to theft over the past few years. By the end of the month, it had suspended all trading and filed for bankruptcy protection, which would contribute to a 36 percent decline in Bitcoin’s price. It admitted that 100,000 of its own Bitcoin atop 750,000 owned by customers had been stolen.

Mt. Gox is now undergoing bankruptcy rehabilitation in Japan overseen by court-appointed trustee and veteran bankruptcy lawyer Nobuaki Kobayashi to establish a process for compensating the 24,000 victims who filed claims. There’s now 137,892 Bitcoin, 162,106 Bitcoin Cash, and some other forked coins in Mt. Gox’s holdings, along with $630 million from the sale of 25 percent of the Bitcoin Kobayashi handled at a precient price point above where it is today. But five years later, creditors still haven’t been paid back. 

A Rescue Attempt

Brock Pierce, the eccentric crypto celebrity

Pierce had actually tried to acquire Mt. Gox in 2013. The child actor known from The Mighty Ducks had gone on to work with a talent management company called Digital Entertainment Network. But accusations of sex crime led Pierce and some team members to flee the US to Spain until they were extradited back. Pierce wasn’t charged and paid roughly $21,000 to settle civil suits, but his cohorts were convicted of child molestation and child pornography.

The situation still haunts Pierce’s reputation and makes some in the industry apprehensive to be associated with him. But he managed to break into the virtual currency business, setting up World Of Warcraft gold mining farms in China. He claims to have eventually run the world’s largest exchanges for WOW Gold and Second Life Linden Dollars.

Soon Pierce was becoming a central figure in the blockchain scene. He co-founded Blockchain Capital, and eventually the EOS Alliance as well as a “crypto utopia” in Puerto Rico called Sol. His eccentric, Burning Man-influenced fashion made him easy to spot at the industry’s many conferences.

As Bitcoin and Mt. Gox rose in late 2012, Pierce tried to buy it, but “my biggest investor was Goldman Sachs. Goldman was not a fan of me buying the biggest Bitcoin exchange” due to the regulatory issues, Pierce tells me. But he also suspected the exchange was built on a shaky technical foundation that led him to stop pursuing the deal. “I thought there was a big risk factor in the Mt. Gox back-end. That was may intuition and I’m glad I was because my intuition was dead right.”

After Mt. Gox imploded, Pierce claims his investment group Sunlot Holdings successfully bought founder McCaleb’s 12 percent stake for 1 Bitcoin, though McCaleb says he didn’t receive the Bitcoin and it’s not clear if the deal went through. Pierce also claims he had a binding deal with Karpeles to buy the other 88 percent of Mt. Gox, but that Karpeles tried to pull out of the deal that remains in legal limbo.

The Supposed Villain

The Sunlot has since been trying to handle the bankruptcy proceedings, but that arrangement was derailed by a lawsuit from CoinLab. That company had partnered with Mt. Gox to run its North American operations but claimed it never received the necessary assets, and sued Mt. Gox for $75 million, though Mt. Gox countersued saying CoinLab wasn’t legally certified to run the exchange in the US and that it hadn’t returned $5.3 million in customer deposits. For a detailed account the tangle of lawsuits, check out Reuters’ deep-dive into the Mt. Gox fiasco.

CoinLab co-founder Peter Vessenes

This week, CoinLab co-founder Peter Vessenes increased the claim and is now seeking $16 billion. Pierce alleges “this is a frivolous lawsuit. He’s claiming if [the partnership with Mt. Gox] hadn’t been cancelled, CoinLab would have been Coinbase and is suing for all the value. He believes Coinbase is worth $16 billion so he should be paid $16 billion. He embezzled money from Mt. Gox, he committed a crime, and he’s trying to extort the creditors. He’s holding up the entire process hoping he’ll get a payday.” Later, Pierce reiterated that “Coinlab is the villain trying to take all the money and see creditors get nothing.” Industry sources I spoke to agreed with that characterization

Mt. Gox customers worried that they might only receive the cash equivalent of their Bitcoin according to the currency’s $486 value when Gox closed in 2014. That’s despite the rise in Bitcoin’s value rising to around 7X that today, and as high as 40X at the currency’s peak. Luckily, in June 2018 a Japanese District Court halted bankruptcy proceedings and sent Mt. Gox into civil rehabilitation which means the company’s assets would be distributed to its creditors (the users) instead of liquidated. It also declared that users would be paid back their lost Bitcoin rather than the old cash value.

The Plan For Gox Rising

Now Pierce and Sunlot are attempting another rescue of Mt. Gox’s  $1.2 billion assets. He wants to track down the remaining cryptocurrency that’s missing, have it all fairly valued, and then distribute the maximum amount to the robbed users with Mt. Gox equity shareholders including himself receiving nothing.

That’s a much better deal for creditors than if Mt. Gox paid out the undervalued sum, and then shareholders like Pierce got to keep the remaining Bitcoins or proceeds of their sale at today’s true value. “I‘ve been very blessed in my life. I did commit to giving my first billion away” Pierce notes, joking that this plan could account for the first $700 million he plans to ‘donate’.

“Like Game Of Thrones, the last season of Mt. Gox hasn’t been written” Pierce tells me, speaking in terms HBO’s Silicon Valley would be quick to parody. “What kind of ending do we want to make for it? I’m a Joseph Campbell fan so I’m obviously going to go with a hero’s journey, with a rise and a fall, and then a rise from the ashes like a phoenix.”

But to make this happen, Sunlot needs at least half of those Mt. Gox users seeking compensation, or roughly 12,000 that represent the majority of assets, to sign up to join a creditors committee. That’s where comes in. The plan is to have users join the committee there so they can present a united voice to Kobayashi about how they want Mt. Gox’s assets distributed. “I think that would allow the process to move faster than it would otherise. Things are on track to be resolved in the next three to five years. If [a majority of creditors sign on] this could be resolved in maybe 1 year.

Beyond providing whatever the Mt. Gox estate pays out, Pierce wants to create a Gox Coin that gives original Mt Gox creditors a stake in the new company. He plans to have all of Mt. Gox’s equity wiped out, including his own. Then he’ll arrange to finance and tokenize an independent foundation governed by the creditors that will seek to recover additional lost Mt. Gox assets and then distribute them pro rata to the Gox Coin holders. There are plenty of unanswered questions about the regulatory status of a Gox Coin and what holders would be entitled to, Pierce admits.

Meanwhile, Pierce is bidding to buy the intangibles of Mt. Gox, aka the brand and domain. He wants to then relaunch it as a Gox or Mt. Gox exchange that doesn’t provide custody itself for higher security.

“We want to offer [creditors] more than the bankruptcy trustee can do on its own” Pierce tells me. He concedes that the venture isn’t purely altruistic. “If the exchange is very successful I stand to benefit sometime down the road.” Still, he stands by his plan, even if the revived Mt. Gox never rises to legitimately challenge Binance, Coinbase, and other leading exchanges. Pierce concludes, “Whether we’re successful or not, I want to see the creditors made whole.” Those creditors will have to decide for themselves who to trust.

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Crypto wallet BRD raises $15M for Asian expansion

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Mobile cryptocurrency wallet BRD is announcing that it’s raised $15 million in Series B funding.

The funding comes from SBI Crypto Investment, a subsidiary of Japanese financial services company SBI Holdings (formerly a subsidiary of SoftBank). BRD said the funding will allow it to grow its product and engineering teams, and to expand in Japan and across Asia.

“SBI Group’s investment in BRD allows us to firmly cement ourselves in the Asian market,” said BRD co-founder and CEO Adam Traidman in a statement. “It shows incredible support for the foundation that we have built in North America and reinforces our proven ability to scale the success we have achieved in the past 4 years. The new investment will ensure our long-term global growth, and we are incredibly excited about collaborating with SBI as a strategic investor and business partner to make that happen.”

It’s surprising to see a crypto startup raising money now, given the broader crypto downturn. After all, BRD bills itself as the simplest way to start buying and storing cryptocurrencies — but does that mean anything if consumers are being scared away from investing?

When I asked Spencer Chen, the company’s vice president of global marketing (and an occasional friend of mine), about the industry’s recent challenges, he argued, “The need for a single, global currency still exists.”

“That’s what all got lost in 2018 as the fast-money, traders, and speculators came piling into the crypto space,” Chen told me via email. “It really convoluted the core mission of a natively digital currency. Money that worked just like the open internet. As a company that’s built-to-last and committed to the core mission of crypto currency, there was nothing more frustrating than to witness the many steps backwards the industry at large took in 2018.”

In fact, BRD says it doubled its total install base in 2018, ending the year with 1.8 million users globally. It also says it’s currently being used to store the equivalent of $6 billion mostly in Bitcoin and Ethereum — with a 24 percent increase in monthly active users between November and December, after it started accepting stablecoins (which are pegged to the value of a fiat currency).

BRD has now raised a total of $55 million. It’s also announcing a partnership with Coinify, allowing users to make cryptocurrency purchases using bank accounts in the European market.

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Crypto mining giant Bitmain is reportedly getting a new CEO as its IPO plan stalls

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Bitmain, the Chinese crypto miner maker, looks like it has reached an interesting point in its pathway to going public. There’s been little heard since the company filed to go public in Hong Kong in September, but now it appears that a new CEO has been hired and its two founders are leaving.

That’s according to a report from SCMP which — citing two sources — said Wang Haichao, Bitmain’s director of product engineering, has assumed CEO duties following a transition that began in December. Founders Wu Jihan (pictured above) and Zhan Ketuan will be co-chairs with Wang described as the “potential successor.”

The publication said that it isn’t clear when a new CEO will be named, or indeed whether an outside appointment will be made.

Bitmain declined to comment on the report when asked by TechCrunch.

The company, which is said to have been valued as high as $15 billion, certainly appears to have stalled with its IPO following the filing of an application on September 26. That document opened up a treasure trove of financial information regarding the company, which is estimated to supply around three-quarters of the world’s crypto mining machines.

Indeed, Bitmain’s IPO filing showed heady growth in revenue. The company grossed more than $2.5 billion in revenue in 2017, a near-10X leap on the $278 million it claimed for 2016, while sales in the first six months of last year surpassed $2.8 billion.

However, there were no figures for Q3 2018 and, since September, the price of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency has plummeted further still, therein reducing the appeal of buying a mining machine and likely impacting Bitmain’s sales.

Bitmain saw impressive revenue growth as the crypto market grew, but it isn’t clear how the business weathered the price slump that affected the market in 2017

We reported that the company likely made a loss of around $400 million in that Q3 quarter. Things are likely to have been trickier still in Q4, as crypto prices dropped so low that mining companies in China were reported to be selling off machines because the cost of power to mine was lower than the reward for doing so.

Bitmain has diversified into non-mining services, to its credit, but its efforts to grow Bitcoin Cash — a controversial fork of Bitcoin — have been controversial and likely loss-making, to boot.

The price of Bitcoin Cash is currently $162 at the timing of writing, that’s down significantly from around $2,500 one year ago. That doesn’t bode well for Bitmain’s investment into the cryptocurrency, and it likely explains why the company has made layoffs, like others in the crypto space.

What a difference four months can make. The challenge for the company’s (apparent) new CEO is certainly a daunting one.

But Bitmain’s struggle isn’t unprecedented. Just this week, its closest rival — Canaan — was linked with a U.S. IPO. The company had planned to go public in Hong Kong last year but it allowed its application to expire as crypto market prices went south.

There’s plenty to watch out for in the mining space in 2019!

Editorial note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

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