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December 15, 2018
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Feds like cryptocurrencies and blockchain tech and so should antitrust agencies

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While statements and position papers from most central banks were generally skeptical of cryptocurrencies, the times may be changing.

Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve of Saint Louis published a study that relates the positive effects of cryptocurrencies for privacy protection.

Even with the precipitous decline in value of Bitcoin, Ethereum and other currencies, the Federal Reserve author emphasized the new competitive offering these currencies created exactly because of the way they function, and accordingly, why they are here to stay.

And antitrust authorities should welcome cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies for the same reason.

Fact: crypto-currencies are good for (legitimate) privacy protection

In the July article from Federal Reserve research fellow Charles M. Kahn, cryptocurrencies were held up as an exemplar of a degree of privacy protection that not even the central banks can provide to customers.

Kahn further stressed that “privacy in payments is desired not just for illegal transactions, but also for protection from malfeasance or negligence by counterparties or by the payments system provider itself.”

The act of payment engages the liability of the person who makes it. As a consequence, parties insert numerous contractual clauses to limit their liability. This creates a real issue due to the fact that some “parties to the transaction are no longer able to support the lawyers’ fees necessary to uphold the arrangement.” Smart contracts may address this issue by automating conflict resolution, but for anyone who doesn’t have access to them, crypto-currencies solve the problem differently. They make it possible to make a transaction without revealing your identity.

Above all, crypto-currencies are a reaction to fears of privacy invasion, whether by governments or big companies, according to Kahn. And indeed, following Cambridge Analytica and fake news revelations, we are hearing more and more opinions expressing concerns. The General Data Protection Regulation is set to protect private citizens, but in practice, “more and more individuals will turn to payments technologies for privacy protection in specific transactions.” In this regard, cryptocurrencies provide an alternative solution that competes directly with what the market currently offers.

Consequence: blockchain is good for competition and consumers

Indeed, cryptocurrencies may be the least among many blockchain applications. The diffusion of data among a decentralized network that is independently verified by some or all of the network’s participating stakeholders is precisely the aspect of the technology that provides privacy protection and competes with applications outside the blockchain by offering a different kind of service.

The Fed of St. Louis’ study underlines that “because privacy needs are different in type and degree, we should expect a variety of platforms to emerge for specific purposes, and we should expect continued competition between traditional and start-up providers.”

And how not to love variety? In an era where antitrust authorities are increasingly interested in consumers’ privacy, crypto-currencies (and more generally blockchains) offer a much more effective protection than antitrust law and/or the GDPR combined.

These agencies should be happy about that, but they don’t say a word about it. That silence could lead to flawed judgements, because ignoring the speed of blockchain development — and its increasingly varied use — leads to misjudge the real nature of the competitive field.

And in fact, because they ignore the existence of blockchain (applications), they tend to engage in more and more procedures where privacy is seen as an antitrust concern (see what’s happening in Germany). But blockchain is actually providing an answer to this issue ; it can’t be said accordingly that the market is failing. And without a market failure, antitrust agencies’ intervention is not legitimate.

The roles of the fed and antitrust agencies could change

This new privacy offering from blockchain technologies should also lead to changes in the role of agencies. As the Fed study stressed:

“the future of central banks and payments authorities is no longer in privacy provision but in privacy regulation, in holding the ring as different payments platforms offer solutions appropriate to different niches with different mixes of expenses and safety, and with attention to different parts of the public’s demand for privacy.”

Some constituencies may criticize the expanding role of central banks in enforcing and ensuring privacy online, but those banks would be even harder pressed if they handled the task themselves instead of trying to relinquish it to the network.

The same applies to antitrust authorities. It is not for them to judge what the business model of digital companies should be and what degree of privacy protection they should offer. Their role is to ensure that alternatives exist, here, that blockchain can be deployed without misinformed regulation to slow it down.

Perhaps antitrust agencies should be more vocal about the benefits of cryptocurrencies and blockchain and advise governments not to prevent them.

After all, if even a Fed is now pro-crypto-currencies, antitrust regulators should jump on the wagon without fear. After all, blockchain creates a new alternative by offering real privacy protections, which ultimately put more power in the hands of consumers. If antitrust agencies can’t recognize that, we will soon ask ourselves: who are they really protecting?

News Source = techcrunch.com

TNB Aura closes $22.7M fund to bring PE-style investing to Southeast Asia’s startups

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TNB Aura, a recent arrival to Southeast Asia’s VC scene, announced today that it has closed a maiden fund at SG$31.1million, or around US$22.65 million, to bring a more private equity-like approach to investing in startups in the region.

The fund was launched in 2016 and it is a joint effort between Australia-based venture fund Aura and Singapore’s TNB Ventures, which has a history of corporate innovation work. It reached a final close today, having hit an early close in January. It is a part of the Enterprise Singapore ‘Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering’ scheme which, as you’d expect, means there is a focus on hardware, IO, AI and other future-looking tech like ‘industry 4.0.’

The fund is targeting Series A and B deals and it has the firepower to do 15-20 deals over likely the next two to three years, co-founder and managing partner Vicknesh R Pillay told TechCrunch in an interview. There’s around $500,000-$4 million per company, with the ideal scenario being an initial $1 million check with more saved for follow-on rounds. Already it has backed four companies including TradeGecko, which raised $10 million in a round that saw TNB Aura invest alongside Aura, and AI marketing platform Ematic.

The fund has a team of 10, including six partners and an operating staff of four. It pitches itself a little differently to most other VCs in the region given that manufacturing and engineering bent. That, Pillay said, means it is focused on “hardware plus software” startups.

“We are very strong fundamentals guys,” Pillay added. We ask what is the valuation and decide what we can get from a deal. It’s almost like PE-style investing in the VC world.”

A selection of the TNB Aura team [left to right]: Samuel Chong (investment manager), Calvin Ng, Vicknesh R Pillay, Charles Wong (partners), Liu Zhihao (investment manager)

Another differentiator, Pillay believes, is the firm’s history in the corporate innovation space. That leads it to be pretty well suited to working in the B2B and enterprise spaces thanks to its existing networks, he said.

“We particularly like B2B saas companies and we believe we can assist them through of our innovation platforms,” Pillay explained.

Outside of Singapore — which is a heavy focus thanks to the relationship with Enterprise Singapore — TNB Aura is focused on Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, four of the largest markets that form a large chunk of Southeast Asia’s cumulative 650 million population. With an internet population of over 330 million — higher than the entire U.S. population — the region is set to grow strongly as internet access increases. A recent report from Google and Temasek tipped the region’s digital economy will triple to reach $240 billion by 20205.

The report also found that VC funding in Southeast Asia is developing at a fast clip. Excluding unicorns, which distort the data somewhat, startups raised $2.6 billion in the first half of this year, beating the $2.4 billion tally for the whole of 2017.

There are plenty of other Series A-B funds in the region, including Jungle Ventures, Golden Gate Ventures, Openspace Ventures, Monks Hill Ventures, Qualgro and more.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Payment service Toss becomes Korea’s newest unicorn after raising $80M

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South Korea has got its third unicorn startup after Viva Republica, the company beyond popular payment app Toss, announced it has raised an $80 million round at a valuation of $1.2 billion.

This new round is led by U.S. firms Kleiner Perkins and Ribbit Capital, both of which cut their first checks for Korea with this deal. Others participating include existing investors Altos Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, Goodwater Capital, KTB Network, Novel, PayPal and Qualcomm Ventures. The deal comes just six months after Viva Republica raised $40 million to accelerate growth, and it takes the company to nearly $200 million raised from investors to date.

Toss was started in 2013 by former dentist SG Lee who grew frustrated by the cumbersome way online payments worked in Korea. Despite the fact that the country has one of the highest smartphone penetrations rates in the world and is a top user of credit cards, the process required more than a dozen steps and came with limits.

“Before Toss, users required five passwords and around 37 clicks to transfer $10. With Toss users need just one password and three steps to transfer up to KRW 500,000 ($430),” Lee said in a past statement.

Working with traditional finance

Today, Viva Republica claims to have 10 million registered users for Toss — that’s 20 percent of Korea’s 50 million population — while it says that it is “on track” to reach a $18 billion run-rate for transactions in 2018.

The app began as Venmo -style payments, but in recent years it has added more advanced features focused around financial products. Toss users can now access and manage credit, loans, insurance, investment and more from 25 financial service providers, including banks.

Fintech startups are ‘rip it out and start again’ in the West –such as Europe’s challenger banks — but, in Asia, the approach is more collaborative and assistive. A numbe of startups have found a sweet spot in between banks and consumers, helping to match the two selectively and intelligently. In Toss’s case, essentially it acts as a funnel to help traditional banks find and vet customers for services. Thus, Toss is graduating from a peer-to-peer payment service into a banking gateway.

“Korea is a top 10 global economy, but no there’s no Mint or Credit Karma to help people save and spend money smartly,” Lee told TechCrunch in an interview. “We saw the same deep problems we need to solve [as the U.S.] so we’re just digging in.”

“We want to help financial institutions to build on top of Toss… we’re kind of building an Amazon for the financial services industry,” he added. “We try to aggregate all those activities, covering saving accounts, loan products, insurance etc.”

Former dentist SG Lee started Toss in 2013.

Lee said the plan for the new money is to go deeper in Korea by advancing the tech beyond Toss, adding more users and — on the supply side — partnering with more companies to offer financial products.

There’s plenty of competition. Startups like PeopleFund focus squarely on financial products, while Kakao, Korea’s largest messaging platform, has a dedicated fintech division — KakaoPay — which rivals Toss on both payment and financial services. It also counts the mighty Alibaba in its corner courtesy of a $200 million investment from its Ant Financial affiliate.

Alibaba and Tencent tend to move in pairs as opposites, with one naturally gravitating to the rivals of the other’s investees as recently happened in the Philippines. It’s tricky in Korea, though. Tencent is caught in limbo since it is a long-standing Kakao backer. But might the Ant Financial deal spur Tencent into working with Toss?

Lee said his company has a “good relationship” with Tencent, including the occasional home/away visits, but there’s nothing more to it right now. That’s intriguing.

Overseas expansion plans

Also of interest is future plans for the business now that it is taking on significantly more capital from investors who, even with the most patient money out there, eventually need a return on their investment.

Lee is adamant that he won’t sell, despite Viva Republica increasingly looking like an ideal entry point for a payment or finance company that has missed the Korean market and wants in now.

He said that there are plans to do an IPO “at some point,” but a more immediate focus is the opportunity to expand overseas.

When Toss raised a PayPal-led $48 million Series C 18 months ago, Lee told TechCrunch that he was beginning to cast his eyes on opportunities in Southeast Asia, the region of over 650 million consumers, and that’s likely to see definitive action next year. The Viva Republica CEO said that Vietnam could be a first overseas launchpad for Toss.

“We’re thinking seriously about going beyond Korea because sooner or later we will hire saturation point,” Lee said. “We think Vietnam is quite promising. We’ve talked to potential partners and are currently articulating ideas and strategy materialized next year.

“We already have a very successful playbook, we know how to scale among users,” Lee added.

While the plan is still being put together, Lee suggested that Viva Republica would take its time expanding across Southeast Asia, where six distinct countries account for the majority of the region’s population. So, rather than rapidly expanding Toss across those markets, he indicated that a more deliberate, country-by-country launch could be the strategy with Vietnam kicking things off in 2019.

The Toss team at HQ in Seoul, Korea

Korea rising

Toss’s entry into the unicorn club — a vaunted collection of private tech companies valued at $1 billion or more — comes weeks after Coupang, Korea’s top e-commerce company, raised $2 billion at a valuation of $9 billion.

While that Coupang round came from the SoftBank Vision Fund — a source of capital that is threatening to become tainted given its links to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — it does represent the first time that a Korea-based company has joined the $100 billion mega-fund’s portfolio.

Some milestones can be dismissed as frivolous, but these two coming so close together are a signal of increased awareness of the potential of Korea as a startup destination by investors outside of the country.

While Lee admitted that the unicorn valuation “doesn’t change a lot” in daily terms for his business, he did admit that he has seen the landscape shift for Korea’s startup ecosystem — which has only two other privately-held unicorns: Coupang and Yello Mobile.

“More and more global VCs are aware that South Korea is a really good opportunity to do a startup. It is getting easier for our fellow entrepreneurs to pitch and get access to global funds,” he said, adding that Korea’s top 25 cities have a cumulative population (25 million) that matches America’s top 25.

Despite that potential, Korea has tended to focus on its ‘chaebol’ giants like Samsung — which accounts for a double-digital percentage of the national economy — LG, Hyundai and SK. That means a lot of potential startup talent, both founders and employees, is locked up in secure corporate jobs. Throw in the conservative tradition of family expectations, which can make it hard for children to justify leaving the safety of a big company, and it is perhaps no wonder that Korea has relatively fewer startups compared to other economies of comparable size.

But that is changing.

Coupang has been one of the highest profile examples to follow, alongside the (now public) Kakao business. But with Viva Republica, Toss and a charismatic dentist-turned-founder, another startup story is being written and that could just inspire a future generation of entrepreneurs to rise up and be counted in South Korea.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Coinbase abandons its cautious approach with plan to list up to 30 new cryptocurrencies

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Coinbase is the most conservative exchange in cryptoland, largely because it operates in the U.S. under the watchful eye of the SEC. The $8 billion-valued company trades fewer than ten cryptocurrencies to consumers but on Friday announced it announced a major expansion that could see it list up to 30 new tokens.

The company said it is considering support Ripple’s XRP, EOS — the Ethereum challenger that held a year-long ICO that raised $4 billion — Stellar, a creation from a Ripple co-founder, chat app Kik’s Kin token and more.

The full list is below:

Cardano (ADA), Aeternity (AE), Aragon (ANT), Bread Wallet (BRD), Civic (CVC), Dai (DAI), district0x (DNT), EnjinCoin (ENJ), EOS (EOS), Golem Network (GNT), IOST (IOST), Kin (KIN), Kyber Network (KNC), ChainLink (LINK), Loom Network (LOOM), Loopring (LRC), Decentraland (MANA), Mainframe (MFT), Maker (MKR), NEO (NEO), OmiseGo (OMG), Po.et (POE), QuarkChain (QKC), Augur (REP), Request Network (REQ), Status (SNT), Storj (STORJ), Stellar (XLM), XRP (XRP), Tezos (XTZ), and Zilliqa (ZIL)

The company last announced new asset explorations in July, although today it did add four new ERC tokens to its pro service.

Coinbase recently revamped its policy on new token listings. Instead of abruptly adding new assets, a process that sent their valuations spiking along with rumors of inside trading, it now goes public with its intention to “explore” the potential to list new assets in order to lower the impact of a listing. It also doesn’t guarantee which, if any, will make it through and be listed.

“Adding new assets requires significant exploratory work from both a technical and compliance standpoint, and we cannot guarantee that all the assets we are evaluating will ultimately be listed for trading,” the company said.

Support for tokens is pretty nuanced. Coinbase lists some assets on its professional service only, with just nine supported on its regular consumer-facing exchange — those are Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, Ethereum, Ethereum Classic, Litecoin, Zcash, USD Coin, 0x and Basic Attention Token.

The company may also introduce some tokens on a state by state basis in the U.S. in order to comply with laws.

Brian Armstrong told the audience at Disrupt San Francisco that Coinbase could list “millions” of cryptocurrencies in the future

Coinbase is looking into this glut of new tokens — some of which, it must be said, are fairly questionable as projects let alone operating with uncertain legal status — at a time when the market is down significantly from its peak in January, both in terms of trading volume and market valuations.

In recent weeks, sources at a number of top exchanges have told TechCrunch that trading-related revenues are down as much as 50 percent over recent months and, while the numbers for Coinbase aren’t clear, there’s no doubt that its revenue is taking a big hit during this ‘crypto winter.’ That makes it easy to argue that Coinbase is widening its selection to increase potential volumes and, in turn, its revenue — particularly since it just raised $300 million from investors at a massive $8 billion valuation.

Coinbase defenders, however, will argue that a greater selection has long been the plan.

Ignoring the reasons, that’s certainly true. It is well known that the company wants to massively increase the number of cryptocurrencies that it supports.

CEO Brian Armstrong said as much as our TechCrunch Disrupt event in San Francisco in October, where he sketched out the company’s plan to be the New York Stock Exchange of crypto.

“It makes sense that any company out there who has a cap table… should have their own token. Every open source project, every charity, potentially every fund or these new types of decentralized organizations [and] apps, they’re all going to have their own tokens. We want to be the bridge all over the world where people come and they take fiat currency and they can get it into these different cryptocurrencies,” he said during an on-stage interview at the event.

That tokenized future could see Coinbase host hundreds of tokens within “years” and even potentially “millions” in the future, according to Armstrong.

The company has done a lot of the groundwork to make that happen.

Coinbase bought a securities dealer earlier this year and it has taken regulatory strides to list tokenized securities in the U.S, albeit with some confusion. In addition, its VC arm has backed a startup that helps create ‘digital security tokens’ and the exchange introduced a new listing process which could potentially include a listing fee in exchange for necessary legal work.

These 30 new (potential) assets might not be the digital security tokens that Coinbase is moving to add, but the fact that the exchange is exploring so many new assets in one go shows how much wider the company’s vision is now.

The crypto community has already reacted strongly to this deluge of new assets. As you might expect, it is a mix of naive optimism from those invested in ‘under-performing’ projects (shitcoins) who think a Coinbase listing could turn everything around, and criticism from crypto watchers who voiced concern that Coinbase is throwing its prestige and support behind less-than-deserving cryptocurrencies.

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

News Source = techcrunch.com

Teen debit card Current now acts more like a real bank account

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Current, the app-controlled teen debit card that’s managed by parents, is starting to look more like a bank. Today, the startup announced it’s now adding to its debit account for teens support for routing and account numbers. That means working teens will be able to direct-deposit to their Current account their paychecks from after-school and summer jobs, then use the Visa debit card when they need to make purchases — including when shopping online.

The company first launched its debit card and app for teens and parents last year, with the goal of giving parents a more modern way to dole out allowances and reward their kids for household chores.

Through the app, parents can set chores, transfer funds and track their child’s spending. They can also set limits on how the money can be used, including restrictions on the amount that can be pulled out of an ATM as well as ways to block spending by category — like blocking purchases at bars or airlines, for example.

Meanwhile, by offering the funds on a debit card, teens get a sense of autonomy as well as a way to practice money management and financial discipline.

Now, the company wants to better serve its teenaged users who are working outside the home.

Today, traditional banks will offer accounts to teens in some cases — like if they have a recurring deposit from an employer, for example. But Current won’t have the same restrictions, the company says. Teens who are earning money on their own — but not necessarily on a recurring schedule — can opt for Current instead.

“Gen Z’s entrepreneurial spirit is strong, and they are looking for ways to earn money on their own
terms, taking part in the gig economy and starting their own businesses,” said Current founder and CEO Stuart Sopp, in a statement. “These working teens need a debit card for supplies and services, and a way to get paid including direct deposit and routing and account numbers so they can connect with e-commerce
platforms,” he noted.

The launch of account numbers follows Current’s recent addition of instant transfers, which allows parents to immediately fund teens’ accounts without a wait or any extra fees.

The startup charges parents a $36 annual subscription for its service. It competes with other teen-focused solutions in the fintech space, including Greenlight Financial and those from traditional banks. Current is backed by $10 million from QED Investors, Cota Capital, Fifth Third Capital and others.

 

News Source = techcrunch.com

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