- The cryptocurrency space is going nuclear right now, with Bitcoin, Ethereum, and more soaring in value.
- With adverts in Times Square and celebrity endorsements including Floyd Mayweather, once-esoteric products are creeping into the mainstream.
- ICO fundraisers are raising hundreds of millions, and traditional bankers are starting to get in on the action.
- Mainstream financial insitutions are opening their doors to bitcoin for the first time to try to persuade ordinary consumers to invest.
If you visited Times Square in New York City in May 2017, you might have spotted something unusual.
Above the heaving crowds of tourists and taxis, boxed in by adverts selling gadgets, soft drinks, and musicals, sat an unconventional billboard. Huge, dark and enigmatic, it flickered with a glitch-like animation -- a wireframe logo rotating and fizzling, and a name: EOS.
It's not a name that most would recognise -- but EOS had been formally announced that week in New York, and would go on to raise a staggering $185 million (£143 million) from investors in just five days in an unconventional crowdsale known as an "ICO."
But there was just one hiccup: Due to ambiguity around the US regulatory environment, investors in America would be explicitly forbidden from investing in that crowdsale in late June.
EOS, simply put, is a futuristic platform for developing decentralised software applications, and is being built by parent company, which took the wraps off it at the digital currency conference Consensus in New York in June.
In an email to Business Insider,CEO Brendan Blumer said the advert was targeted at attendees of the conference, "many of whom were developers and not to the wider public," and was not an attempt to solicit investment. EOS was not publicly discussing the ICO at the time, he said. (EOS first officially published info about its upcoming ICO on June 22, though it was known beforehand that it planned to hold one.)
In an email, advocacy group Coin Center director of research Peter Van Valkenburgh said that "for a technically savvy person it would be trivial to use a virtual private network (VPN) while browsing the web in order to appear as though they are visiting the site from a non-us country," in order to get around any restrictions on investor location.
ICOs, or Initial Coin Offerings, are an alternative, unregulated way of fundraising enabled by blockchain technology. Investors are sold digital "tokens" in exchange for their financial contributions, which can then varyingly be used to allow access to the finished product, act as a kind of voting power, or for other purposes.
Once esoteric, they're currently one of the hottest tickets in tech circles. And that billboard was, at the time, one of the most visible examples yet of how even the most arcane aspects of the cryptocurrency craze are now bleeding into the "real" world -- accompanying a wave of interest in more "mainstream" digital currencies like bitcoin.
ICOs are booming -- repeatedly raising hundreds of millions of dollars and overtaking mainstream funding sources. Digital currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum are soaring in value, increasing tenfold in a little over a year.
Meanwhile, mainstream financial services and trading platforms are opening their doors to cryptocurrencies. Adverts are appearing across Western cities trying to persuade ordinary people to invest. And even celebrities like Floyd Mayweather are getting in on the hype, backing ICOs on social media as a potential shortcut to riches.
To those in the crypto space, these are the early days of a new technology revolution -- while detractors argue we're in the heart of a giant bubble, and people are going to get hurt. Others argue both might be true.
"This is both one of the most ridiculous bubbles in history and a genuine breakthrough," Simon Taylor, cofounder of London fintech consultancy 11:FS told Business Insider. "And as a genuine breakthrough, it's a breakthrough because there are new ways to fund and monetise the building of infrastructure that is shared, and that to me is really exciting."
Bitcoin is riding high
This has been a wild year for cryptocurrencies.
After years in the wilderness, the value of bitcoin -- the granddaddy of crypto -- is soaring. It's setting all-time highs of as much as $4,700 (£3,600), up tenfold on the $450 (£348) mark it was languishing at around the beginning of 2016, according to historical data from Coindesk. Ethereum, an alternative digital currency, has also gone nuclear -- from the $12-mark as recently as March 2017 to $385 (£299) today.
To many enthusiasts, this surge is vindication after a period of extended stagnation. The soaring prices are swelling their holdings, reaching values many times that achieved in the previous heady peak of $1,000-plus, way back at the end of 2013.
If Bitcoin collapses 50% from current levels, it will still beat every asset class for 2017 returns.-- Ari Paul (@AriDavidPaul) August 15, 2017
But the real crypto success story of 2017 is ICOs. These alternative fundraisers are pulling in extraordinary sums of money, often in a matter of hours, minutes, or seconds. Tezos pulled in $232 million in July. EOS made $185 million in five days. Filecoin bagged $186 million in its first hour -- albeit only from accredited investors. Brave raised $35 million (£27 million) in less than 30 seconds.
With real-time charts, websites like ICO Stats show the potential profits on offer for those who strike gold on ICOs -- with the trade-able tokens or digital "coins" surging in value. Investors in IOTA enjoyed a 254% return on investment (ROI) over the last month. Backers of Spectrecoin got 215% in the last week. Blockpay's ROI was 77% in just the last 24 hours.
According to one estimate, initial coin offerings raised more money than established venture capital early-stage funding in 2017 so far.
"It's getting harder for institutional investors to ignore the rise of cryptocurrencies. Indeed the debate has shifted from the legitimacy of the 'fiat of the internet' to how fast new entrants are raising funds," Goldman Sachs analysts wrote in a recent note to investors.Goldman Sachs
"Whether or not you believe in the merit of investing in cryptocurrencies (you know who you are) real dollars are at work here and warrant watching especially in light of the growing world of initial coin offerings (ICOs) and fundraising that now exceeds Internet Angel and Seed investing."
So who is it that's investing?
It's not just crypto-nerds any longer
It's exceedingly difficult -- impossible, in most cases -- to figure out who's behind any specific cryptocurrency transaction. Bitcoin, like most other digital currencies, is anonymous (but not untraceable) -- which was one of its key selling points in the early days when it was perhaps best-known for buying drugs on the dark web.
That said, it's still possible to approximate who's using it. The cryptocurrency space has always been driven by a core group of passionate advocates, motivated by a radical libertarian ideology focused around decentralision and the power of cryptography. (Gavin Andresen, one early developer of the digital currency, said it appealed to his "mostly libertarian" politics.)
This is at the heart of much of the excitement around ICOs: It's a totally new way of raising capital that does away with the traditional gatekeepers, financiers, and venture capitalists.
But it's not just these "crypto-nerds" investing in ICOs any more.
"It's crossed over," Taylor said. "The momentum came from the crypto-nerds, but it's crossed over beyond crypto-nerdery into family offices and small asset managers, and really in the beginnings of the institutional side of investing especially in Asia-Pacific-based, non-US-based funds.
"Whenever there is an asset bubble, people see opportunity, people rush in, there's an element of it being a gold rush."
Charles Hayter, CEO of digital currency data site CryptoCompare, said similar. "At the moment the ICO space is a mixture of high risk exploration hybridised with a kickstarter feel -- the traditional finance world knows what a blockchain token is and will use it as a form of digital bearer certificate to allow transferal of gold or digital cash," he wrote.
"Finance professionals have recognised the demand element that makes ICO's spike on trading and are taking advantage of this phenomenon."
Bitcoin, Ethereum, and token sales have created huge wealth for a select few in a comparatively short space of time -- and that attracts attention, Taylor said. "Tokenaires" (people who got rich off token sales) hired private bankers, these bankers had other clients, and it cascaded outwards from there.
"You can't acquire a lot of wealth without rubbing shoulders with people who've dealt with a lot of wealth before, so you naturally see the thing starting to extend beyond that, and some lawyers have gotten involved, and accounts have got involved, and asset managers have gotten involved."
Regulators are now starting to wake up to the subject. The US Securities and Exchange Commission is looking into the space, examining whether tokens can be unregulated sales of securities, and in late August warned about pump-and-dump scams disguising themselves as ICOs. Chinese authorities, meanwhile, have warned of the risks involved -- and are reportedly considering banning them entirely until it can formulate clear rules.
These regulatory and compliance issues mean it's all still early days, said Taylor, who previously worked for Barclays on blockchain. As such, some investors are approaching the issue cautiously and sensibly -- while some others aren't. "One of those [groups of people] probably has a future, the other probably doesn't."
'It really really blow[s] my mind'
Richard Liu is one of these investors who made the jump from traditional finance to the world of ICOs. He previously worked at China Renaissance, a China-based investment bank, helping startups raise capital from venture capital and private equity firms.
"It was not easy, but when I saw the Brave Browser can issue a token BAT [basic attention token, the tokens Brave uses] and raise $35 million dollar worth digital currency, it really really blow my mind," he wrote in an email. What I could do best in 2 months, token crowd-sale can finish within seconds."
In June, he took the plunge, joining FBG Capital -- an investment group that invests in token sales as well as arbitraging price fluctuations in digital currencies like bitcoin and ethereum.
When deciding on a potential ICO to back, the firm conducts due diligence much like it would for a traditional venture capital investment, Liu said: "We will study the business and technique fundamentals, review on the Github code, Meet and talk to founding team, conduct due diligence, and also study the community behind the token."
Like Taylor, he agrees that some "investment professionals" are starting to move into the ICO space, though he believes the majority of investors are still "true believer[s]" or "long lived in crypto space before."
He described a vision of ICOs not as a frothy new avenue for investment -- but a potential creator of real, long-term value, arguing the blockchain space is currently analogous to the internet decades ago. "What has happened to the Internet 20 years back could rekindle on the blockchain space again, so we are looking for next BAIDU, GOOGLE like companies."
A 'cannabis revolution' and a growing surge of celebrity interest
American rapper The Game has teamed up with Jess VerSteeg, an entrepreneur and Miss Iowa 2014, to kickstart a "cannabis revolution." And they plan to do it with an ICO.
The musician -- real name Jayceon Terell Taylor -- is sitting on the advisory board of Paragon, a tech firm that hopes to use the blockchain to shake up the marijuana market. Its tech could let doctors certify prescriptions for vendors, or track batches of organic cannabis from farms, it suggested in a press release.
It aims to raise $100 million (£77 million) selling tokens in an ICO starting on September 15, and The Game (who is also an established marijuana entrepreneur) has been hyping it on Twitter.
Paragon is an example of how it is not just the "crypto-nerds" and finance professionals who are backing ICOs. Celebrities are starting to get in on the buzz, and promoting them to their millions of fans.
Champion boxer Floyd Mayweather has also publicly thrown his weight behind two ICOs. First, he hyped up prediction market Stox in July -- posting a photo of himself on a private jet next to literal piles on money, promising "I'm gonna make a $hit t$n of money on August 2nd on theICO."
Stox went on to raise $30 million (£23 million) -- and was recently promoted by another high profile sportsperson on Instagram, Uruguayan footballer Luis Suarez.
Mayweather then signalled his support for the ICO of Hubii Network, a decentralised media marketplace, in August, telling his fans: "You can call me Floyd Crypto Mayweather from now on." (The second Instagram post was hashtagged #ad, suggesting he was being paid for his support. It's not clear what he invested in either case.)
Other areas in the blockchain space are also seeing an influx of high-profile attention. Businessman and television personality Mark Cuban is backing cryptocurrency venture capital firm 1confirmation despite his previous warnings that bitcoin is a bubble -- and he also plans to participate in the ICO of sports-betting platform Unikrn, Fortune reports.
Actress Gwenyth Paltrow, meanwhile, has joined the board of digital wallet firm Abra as an advisor following its appearance on Apple's reality TV show "Planet of the Apps."
Even Estonia (yes, the country) wants a piece of the pie. It aims to launch its own digital currency called "Estcoin," planning to kick things off with an ICO. It joins the ranks of more unconventional ICOs like "PAquarium," which plans to build the world's largest aquarium (it raised a relatively small $620,000 (£479,000)), and Dentacoin, a blockchain for the global dentist industry (its ICO kicks off on October 1).
"There are elements of a bubble in what we are seeing right now. Certainly there are sky high valuations for products that are dubious in their nature to say the least," Hayter said.
"If it pops the whole market will drop with it. However bitcoin and ethereum will hold up more strongly as they will be the flights to safety in the cryptosphere."
Ordinary people aren't buying into ICOs (yet) -- but they are noticing bitcoin
After the Times Square advert, EOS made another foray into the physical world in July: London taxis.
paid for all-over adverts that wrapped around black cabs in the capital to coincide with London Fintech Week 2017. The firm said the logo was there "to help attendees easily identify the taxis we had hired" to shuttle people around.
The adverts remained on the taxis for four weeks afterwards as they transported punters and tourists round the British capital -- a physical reminder that though the cryptocurrency sector began in forums, chatrooms and underground recesses of the internet, it's no longer limited to them.
Simon Taylor from 11FS doesn't believe the ICO craze has filtered down to "ordinary" people yet. But it has been accompanied by a huge new wave in older cryptographic assets like bitcoin, as exemplified by the soaring prices -- and consumers are noticing that.
"The man, woman on the street conversation has moved onto 'where can I get some bitcoin?' Not 'Where do I get the latest token?' ... this second wave of investment in the crypto asset space has made people pay attention to the first."
In recent months, there has been a huge push to attract non-crypto-nerds to the space for the first time -- led by companies that didn't traditionally deal with cryptocurrencies.
In June 2017, Brokerage firm eToro launched a "CryptoCopyFund" -- which includes Bitcoin, Ethereum, Ripple, and other cryptocurrencies. The investment vehicle is now being promoted in high-profile adverts dotted around London, at bus stops and on tube trains.
"The general public is just starting to get interested in blockchain technology. They want to know more about what it means for the future of our society," eToro UK MD Iqbal Gandham said in an email.
"As people are learning more about the different potential applications of blockchain technology, they also see an investment opportunity. We're making it easy for people to invest in this space, and to educate themselves on the different cryptocurrencies in the market."
The company doesn't plan to get into the ICO game just yet, however: "It's an interesting investment space with a lot of great opportunities. For now, we're only offering cryptocurrencies with sufficient existing scale and liquidity to make sure investors can move in and out of the asset smoothly."
Adverts are also popping up online, with trading platforms Trading212 and Plus500 among the companies paying for Facebook ads in the hope of cashing in on the renewed wave of interested in the space.
These adverts sell themselves on ease-of-use -- arguing they are "hassle-free and safe," or that "crypto needn't be cryptic" -- or otherwise bigging up the potential for huge returns. "'If only I bought Bitcoin when it was $350...' Now you can!" promises an eToro Facebook advert.
Hargreaves Lansdown, a financial services company, also launched two bitcoin ETFs (exchange-traded funds) for its consumer investors in June -- though it cautions against investing for most customers.
"In terms of esoteric investments such as crypto currencies, there is a small amount of interest from sophisticated investors and we have 2 bitcoin ETFs available to investors as a result. We don't recommend them, clients can choose to buy them if they wish," spokesperson Danny Cox said in an email.
"For the vast majority of investors its wise to stick to your knitting and the blue chips. This may not feel as exciting as a crypto-currency, however getting rich slow is not boring in my view."
This post originally appeared on Business Insider.