- VCs not Investing in Blockchain: VC investment in blockchain and Bitcoin companies hit a new low in number of financed companies. While the total sum of investment was relatively high, half of it came from financial institutions and tech giants rather than VCs.
- But Banks & Tech Corporations Do: Microsoft, Intel and Amazon, together with top financial institutions such as Bank of America and Citigroup are presenting new blockchain solutions to developers, but the VCs are still lagging behind them in terms of investment and involvement in the industry.
- Exceptions: Lightspeed, Union Square, and Andreessen Horowitz each hold an average of five portfolio companies in the blockchain and bitcoin space.
- ICO Storm: ICOs are exploding, bringing in $1.73 billion dollars since the beginning of 2017, five times the total capital raised by ICOs by the end of 2016.
- Fight or Flight: VCs are afraid to jump into blockchain investment because of the competitive threat ICOs pose; because of heavy regulation, due to treating crypto tokens as securities; because of too many bankruptcies and too few success stories; inability to create monopolies; Blockchain’s lack of scalability; and because of the inability to separate Blockchain infrastructure from the shady aspects of Bitcoin.
Blockchain technology has been a buzz word for quite some time, yet it is Terra Incognita for most industry leaders, and is a space that still suffers from underinvestment. As the black swan of the tech world, blockchain hasn’t managed to acquire the place other buzz-related technologies, such as self-driving cars or A.I., acquired long ago. Associated with the high volatility of Bitcoin, and some of the shady activities that have exploited the digital currency, blockchain is still raising too many question marks in the eyes of the VCs, the same people who usually pioneer investment in revolutionary innovations.
But there are other possible reasons for the lack of Blockchain support by VCs. A major force behind VC objection to blockchain technology is called ICO, or Initial Coin Offering. ICOs are a blockchain, token-based fundraising alternative that is quickly becoming popular, making VCs and their traditional, slow, and sometimes heavily taxing process completely redundant. ICOs not only simplify the investment process, but also provide ways for startups to share equity and other benefits with their investors, their users, suppliers, and the entire community around them. In that light, ICOs are filling the financing gap that VCs and other investors are leaving behind.
So far, 2017 is the breakthrough year for ICOs as $1.73 billion has been raised by startups using token sales, and ICO fundraising is forecasted to reach $1.8 billion by October. Notable ICOs include those of Tezos ($208M), EOS.IO ($200M), Bancor ($153M), and Status ($95M), as well as about 60 token sales in total. Have the investors made a profit? It depends, but the total market cap for all Altcoins (Cryptocurrency excluding Bitcoin) has risen from $2.2B on January 1st to roughly $71B yesterday. This is an increase of over 3200%, so yes, some investors are definitely happy.
But Blockchain technology extends way beyond ICOs and even digital coins. Leaving currency aside, blockchain turned out to be a viable system of value sharing with no need for a trusted third party, such as a bank, or any centralized system. Blockchain can be used as a trusted digital ledger for an infinite selection of applications: it can be used as the infrastructure of a digital wallet, a voting system, or a platform that authenticates identity, ownership or certification, or certifies the traces of a supply chain. Microsoft and Intel have developed their blockchain frameworks for enterprises and financial institutions such as Citigroup and Bank of America has been investing in blockchain startups.
Yet VCs are not buying. Is it moral bias? Fear from the impact of ICOs? Seeing something the others don’t or simply “staying behind the curve”? It’s difficult to tell. Fact is, VCs are not aligning behind blockchain, leaving a vacuum that quickly fills up while posting possibly the biggest gamble for the future of their own ventures.
How alienated are VCs from the blockchain industry? According to a recent study by CB Insights, traditional equity-based investment (non-ICO) in blockchain companies hit in the second quarter of 2017 their lowest point since 2013, to 16 financing rounds. However, these 16 rounds totaled in $232 million, which was actually as high as the entire VC investment in self driving cars in the entire first half of the year.
But VCs were just a small part of that picture. Almost half ($107 million) of the VC-based quarterly funding for blockchain companies went to the banking consortium R3, which was actually funded by the largest financial institutions such as Bank of America, Citigroup, Barclays, Credit Suisse, HSBC and tech giants such as Intel. Another $40 million went to the Bitcoin-based digital wallet Blockchain, from cryptocurrency-oriented investors such as Digital Currency Group, and mainstream VCs such as Lightspeed and Mosaic.
As the graph below shows, top VCs are hardly in the blockchain game, hesitant to invest in more than one or two companies per quarter altogether around blockchain technology. Only a portion invested in more than one company in the space in total. Notable VCs Lightspeed, Union Square, and Andreessen Horowitz each hold an average of five portfolio companies in the blockchain and bitcoin space.
So, who are the most dedicated investors in bitcoin and blockchain technology? The leaders are cryptocurrency-dedicated funds and hedge funds such as Digital Currency Group, Blockchain Capital, Pantera, Fenbushi Capital and Future Perfect. They are joined by a small group of innovative VCs ,managed by partners who are keen to cryptocurrencies such as Marc Andreessen (Andreessen Horowitz), Fred Wilson (Union Square), and Tim Draper (Draper Associates).
Blockchain is not waiting for VCs to enter the game. It is exploding. Here are 3 major signals for this:
1.ICOs are exploding: In the meantime, it seems like everyone but VCs have joined the blockchain party. The ICOs were the ones who took the bigger bulk of business press attention in the second quarter, raising about $750 million for 60 companies. However, VCs and other institutional investors were not among the investors, as long as ICOs are not regulated and are outside the charter of investment given to general partners by their limited partners.
2.Cryptocurrency, not just Bitcoin, is experiencing great momentum. The graph below tells the story. Bitcoin is barely the whole picture. Other blockchain-based cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum and Ripple are on the rise. This graph shows the total market capitalization for the top seven cryptocurrencies excluding Bitcoin:
Here, Ethereum and Ripple can be seen gaining more and more market share of the entire cryptocurrency market:
3.Enterprises are pouring in: Technology corporations and financial institutions didn’t wait for the VCs to come and adopted their solutions for blockchain-based decentralized networks. Among tech giants, leaders Microsoft and Intel have been pushing blockchain agendas for internal use among their customers, which are mainly big companies. Earlier this week, Intel and Microsoft joined forces to launch Coco, a blockchain framework for business that processes about 1,600 transactions per second, 1000X more than comparable blockchain frameworks, such as Ethereum consortium. The new platform uses Ethereum-based smart contracts and enables confidentiality and security over the network with the aid of other distributed ledger systems. With Coco, fashion retailers, for example, might form a blockchain consortium to verify authentic designer merchandise, and track delivery, payments, and stock inventory.
Earlier in 2015, Microsoft announced a cloud-based blockchain developer environment for Azure, its cloud platform. Since then, the company has partnered with numerous blockchain technologies such as HyperLedger Fabric, R3 Corda, Quorum, Chain Core, and BlockApps. Competitor Amazon made a similar move, partnering with blockchain investment firm Digital Currency Group to offer an experimentation environment for startups and developers and partnering with a few blockchain companies on its AWS cloud platform. Google too is in the game, although not directly, investing through its VC in Ripple, the third largest cryptocurrency after Bitcoin and Ethereum, and in Blockchain, a bitcoin wallet startup.
At least two large-scale blockchain projects are permissioned by global enterprises: Open-source project Hyperledger, established by the Linux Foundation, is partnered with Intel, J.P Morgan, SAP, Fujitsu, Accenture, Daimler, and R3. Many of these organizations are also a part of the Ethereum Alliance, with the addition of enterprises such as Microsoft, BBVA, Credit Suisse and more.
So, to sum up, why are VCs so afraid of blockchain? There are quite a few reasons for this:
- Fear of the impact ICOs have on traditional VC business: VCs have sustained many threats, from family offices taking up innovation, crowdfunding, and private equity firms digging into investing in startups directly. But never has the danger been so clear and imminent as with ICOs. In the long term, ICOs as a funding vehicle for start-ups could rival the traditional VC model. Blockchain tokens issued by start-ups during an ICO are a more liquid asset than any stock in a private company held by VCs. In the current situation, venture capital funds are an illiquid asset class, and they have to wait 7-10 years to realize their results and measure the IRR. But blockchain tokens are immediate and can disclose a company’s momentum in real time. Naturally, VCs would feel suspicious regarding a real-time investment model that challenges them. Also, ICO might bring to the table another new kind of investor, making deals less exclusive than what they used to be, on a scale that crowdfunding hasn’t done yet. On the other hand, this will demand disclosure by startups of performance indicators in the public domain. In that way, GPs and LPs will have a clearer idea of the performance of their portfolio.
- Inability to separate blockchain as an infrastructure for businesses from Bitcoin and ICOs: Blockchain is a technology concept that can turn over industries. It is a secured and distributed electronic ledger, which allows all transactions – such as payments, loans, and contracts- to be tracked in real time. Bitcoin is a coin that can be used for digital transactions, and ICOs are a method for raising money using the offering of digital coin based tokens. Most VCs will not even go so far as understanding these nuances, not to mention acting rationally upon each of these sectors.
- Inconvenient Regulation: Last month the SEC declared blockchain tokens to be considered securities, rather than assets. This decision puts the U.S in an inferior position relative to countries such as Switzerland and Singapore that treat blockchain tokens as assets. In order to attract investors and make the ICO process easier, U.S blockchain companies might list in those countries, or else use regulation S and D exemptions with the SEC in order to raise funds. That limits American funding to a mere 99 accredited investors, but does not limit global investments.
- Few exits and high rate of failure: As an immature discipline, Bitcoin and blockchain companies not only have a poor history of exits, but also a high rate of failure. According to research focused on cryptocurrency investments listed on the Coindesk database, 14% of a total number of VC-backed blockchain and Bitcoin companies went bankrupt or were sold in a fire sale. 85% of them were focused on Bitcoin. The numerous M&As in the business mainly concentrated around Bitcoin exchanges, and do not seem to be related to VCs.
- Blockchain was unscalable and not business oriented until recently: Putting aside cryptocurrency mining, which consumes a lot of energy, blockchain frameworks are not efficient enough for business applications. Ethereum, for example, processes around 16 transactions per second. However, Microsoft has recently showcased a blockchain framework that processes 1,600 transactions per second.
- Inability to create a monopoly: Investor Peter Thiel once said that “entrepreneurs starting a company should aim for monopoly and avoid competition.” However, the idea behind blockchain, a decentralized and public network, is intolerant to monopolies.
- Investing in ICO is still dangerous: In the current situation, direct investment in ICOs entails perils for VCs besides regulation. This includes a complicated process of cashing out (of a digital coin), currency’s high volatility, the high cost of capital in due diligence, and a reduced defensibility in the case of a large investment, according to a paper by Lerer Hippeau investment firm.
How Can VCs Get Involved with Blockchain?
It might be a little too late for VCs to join the blockchain revolution. The original early stage cherry-picking model of VCs calls for identifying a revolutionary technology before anyone else, rather than jumping on an already moving wagon.
In addition to traditional equity investment in blockchain-oriented companies, VCs can act prudently, starting with new and creative formations. For instance, they can raise blockchain dedicated funds or hedge funds, re-contracting their LPs regarding the new rules of the game, such as raising a part of the fund through ICO or investing in liquidated securities such as cryptocurrency tokens.
Another option is to invest in the economy created by an ICO, or in its token adoption, rather than buying tokens in the ICO itself. This can be done by providing money, real estate, computing power, guidance or support to developers that are building on top of the blockchain protocol.