Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have a natural fit with sports memorabilia, another category of speculative asset whose value is primarily dependent on the prices its adherents are willing to pay. A new startup called SportsIcon aims to deliver even more value via sports-focused NFTs, with direct collaboration with athletes and lessons from the pros to accompany the one-off digital collectibles.
SportsIcon has backing from Roham Gharegozlou, the CEO of Dapper Labs, which was at the very forefront of the NFT craze and which powers NBA Top Shot. It’s also funded by rapper Nas, whose portfolio includes a number of prescient early bets, former NBA player Andrew Bogut, Eniac Ventures’ Partner Nihal Mehta and more. The company announced its initial round of funding along with its public launch, but declined to disclose the total amount, noting only that it was “in the seven figures.”
Initially, SportsIcon will be debuting between 15 and 20 NFTs, created in collaboration with athletes, that commemorate specific, historic moments from their sporting careers. Accompanying these NFTs will be “two-hour masterclasses,” which the company said in a press release will give “fans access to their mental and physical training methods, techniques and best practices.”
That masterclass approach is due in part to the background of co-founder Chris Worsey, who previously built a number of edtech startups including Coursematch. Worsey told TechCrunch that the key to its approach lies in the exclusive content that will be packaged along with the NFTs it’s bringing to market. SportsIcon is differentiated because it’s creating unique content, shooting for two days with the athlete — the first day will be “interviews about their journey and their past,” the second day will be shooting them on the training field, he said.
“This is the key: The beauty is the built-in scarcity of this content,” Worsey added. “We won’t be releasing it elsewhere.”
The hope is to build a “long-term relationship with the icons,” he explained, while the exact financial details/split will differ from deal to deal. In some cases, the athlete is donating their proceeds to the charity of their choice. Each unique art piece will be auctioned off, and the packs will sell for anywhere from $10 to $999. The more expensive packs will be “the really rare, scarce moments where the icon’s talking about their greatest moments,” according to Worsey. Packs can also include real-world prizes like signed memorabilia or box seats at a game.
The real differentiator for SportsIcon, he says, is down to the focus on content, and creating something that’s not only unique, but also high-quality.
“SportsIcon is different because we invest in the content,” Worsey told TechCrunch. “We hire world-class directors and we make world-class content.”
While the startup isn’t yet revealing any of the athletes its working with on its debut NFTs, it says the first sports stars that will appear on the platform will come from soccer, tennis, MMA, basketball and baseball, with agreements with stars in each of those areas currently in progress.
ConsenSys, a key player in crypto and a major proponent of the Ethereum blockchain, has raised a $65 million funding round from J.P. Morgan, Mastercard, and UBS AG, as well as major blockchain companies Protocol Labs, the Maker Foundation, Fenbushi, The LAO and Alameda Research. Additional investors include CMT Digital and the Greater Bay Area Homeland Development Fund. As well as fiat, several funds invested with Ethereum-based stablecoins, DAI and USDC, as consideration.
Sources told TechCrunch that this is an unpriced round because of the valuation risk, and the funding instrument is “full”, so the round is being closed now.
The fundraise looks like a highly strategic one, based around the idea that traditional institutions will need visibility into the increasingly influential world of ‘decentralized finance’ (DeFi) and the Web3 applications being developed on the Ethereum blockchain.
In a statement on the fundraise, ConsenSys said it has been through a “period of strategic evolution and growth”, but most outside observers would agree that this is that’s something of an understatement.
After a period of quite a lot of ‘creative disruption’ to put it mildly (at one point a couple of years ago, ConsenSys seemed to have everything from a VC fund, to an accelerator, to multiple startups under its wing), the company has restructured to form two main arms: ConsenSys, the core software business; and ConsenSys Mesh, the investment arm, incubator, and portfolio. It also acquired the Quorum product from J.P. Morgan which has given it a deeper bench into the enterprise blockchain ecosystem. This means it now has a very key product suite for the Etherum platform, including products such as Codefi, Diligence, Infura, MetaMask, Truffle, and Quorum.
This suite allows it to serve both public and private permissioned blockchain networks. It can also support Layer 2 Ethereum networks, as well as facilitate access to adjacent protocols like IPFS, Filecoin, and others. ConsenSys is also a major contributor to the Ethereum 2.0 project, for obvious reasons.
Commenting on the fundraise, Joseph Lubin, founder of ConsenSys and co-founder, Ethreum said in a statement: “When we set out to raise a round, it was important to us to patiently construct a diverse cap table, consistent with our belief that similar to how the web developed, the whole economy would join the revolutionaries on a next-generation protocol. ConsenSys’ software stack represents access to a new automated objective trust foundation enabled by decentralized protocols like Ethereum. We are proud to partner with preeminent financial firms alongside leading crypto companies to further converge the centralized and decentralized financial domains at this particularly exciting time of growth for ConsenSys and the entire industry.”
With financial institutions able to see, ‘in public’ DeFi happening on Ethereuem, because of the public chain, they can see how much of the financial system is gradually starting to merge with the blockchain world. So it’s becoming clearer what attracts these major institutions.
Mike Dargan, Head of Group Technology at UBS said: “Our investment in ConsenSys adds proven expertise in distributed ledger technology to our UBS Next portfolio.”
For MasterCard this appears to be not just a pure investment – Consensys has been working with it on a private permissioned network.
Raj Dhamodharan, executive vice president of digital asset and blockchain products and partnerships at Mastercard said: “Enterprise Ethereum is a key infrastructure on which we and our partners are building payment and non-payment applications to power the future of commerce… Our investment and partnership with ConsenSys helps us bring secure and performant Enterprise Ethereum capabilities to our customers.”
Colleen Sullivan, Co-Founder and CEO of CMT Digital said: “ConsenSys is the pioneer in bridging the gaps across traditional finance, centralized crypto, and DeFi, and more broadly, between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. We are proud to participate in this funding round as the ConsenSys team continues to pave the way for global users — retail and institutional — to easily access the crypto ecosystem.”
TechCrunch understands that the fundraise was started around the time of the Quorum acquisition, last June. The $65 million round is in majority fiat currency as opposed to cryptocurrency and is an adjunct to the round done with JP Morgan last summer.
The presence of significant crypto players such as Maker Protocol Labs shows the significance of the fund-raise, beyond the simple transaction. The announcement also comes just ahead of the Coinbase IPO, which makes for interesting timing.
ConsenSys’ products have become highly significant in the world where developers, enterprises, and consumers meet blockchain and crypto. In its statement, the company claims MetaMask now has over three million monthly active users across mobile and desktop, a 3x increase in the last five or six months, it says. This is roughly the same amount of monthly active customers as Coinbase.
The ConsenSys announcement comes just ahead of the Coinbase IPO. While Coinbase is acting as an exchange to turn fiat into crypto and vice versa, it has also been getting into DeFi of late. Where there are also resemblances with ConsenSys, is that Coinbase, with 3 million users, is used as a wallet, and MetMask, which also has 3 million users, can also be used as a wallet. The comparison ends there, but it’s certainly interesting, given Coinbase’s $100 billion valuation.
As Jeremy Millar, Chief Development Officer, told me: “Coinbase has pioneered an exchange, in one of the world’s was regulated financial markets, the US. And it has helped drive significant interest in the space. We enjoy a very positive relationship with Coinbase, trying to further enable the ecosystem and adoption of the technology.”
The background to this raise is that a lot of early-stage blockchain and crypto companies have been raising a lot of money recently, but much of this has been through crypto investment firms. Only a handful of Silicon Valley VCs are backing blockchain, such as Andreessen Horowitz.
What’s interesting about this announcement is that these incumbent financial giants are not only taking an interest, but working alongside ConsenSys to both invest and build products on Ethereum.
It’s ConsenSys’ view that every payment service provider, banks will need this financial infrastructure in the future, especially for DeFI.
Given there is roughly $43 billion collateralized in DeFi, it’s increasingly the case that major investors are involved, and there are increasingly higher returns than traditional yield and bond or bond yields.
The moves by Central Banks into digital currencies is also forcing companies and governments to realize digital currency, and the ‘blockchain rails’ on which it runs, is here to stay. This is what is suggested by the Greater Bay Area Homeland Development Fund’s (a Shenzhen / Hong Kong joint partnership) decision to get involved.
Another aspect of this story is that ConsenSys is sitting on some extremely powerful products. Consensys has six products that serve three different types of people.
Service developers who are building on Ethereum are using Truffle to develop smart contracts. Users joining the NFT hype are using MetaMask underneath it all.
The MetaMask wallet allows users to swap one token for another. This has proved quite lucrative for ConsenSys, which says it has resulted in $1.8 billion in volume in decentralized exchange use. ConsenSys takes a 0.875 percent cut on every swap that it serves.
And institutions are using Consensys’ products. The company says more than 150,000 developers use Infura’s APIs, and 4.5 million developers create and deploy smart contracts using Truffle, while its Protocols group — developer of Hyperledger Besu and ConsenSys Quorum — are building Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) for six central banks, says Consensys.
Consensys is also making hay with the NFT boom. Developers are using Consensys products for the nodes and infrastructure on Ethereum which stores the NFT files.
Consensys is also riding two waves. One is the developer eave and the other is the financial system wave.
As a spokesperson said: “Where the interest in money and invention started happening was on public networks like Ethereum. So we really believe that these are converging and they will continue to, and every one of our products offers public main net compatibility because we think this is the future.”
Millar added: “If we want to help the world adopt the technology we need to meet it at its adoption point, which for many large enterprises means inside the firewall first. But similarly, we think, just like the public Internet, the real value – the disruptive value – changes the ability to do this on a broader permissionless basis, especially when you have sufficient privacy and authentication available.”
The crypto industry as a whole has seen a momentous year of growth, heavily spurred on by the entrance of institutional investors adopting bitcoin due to its store of value properties. The 2020 spike bitcoin experienced was also accelerated by its global adoption as the number of global cryptocurrency users surpassed 100 million in Q3 2020.
For Luno, a U.K.-based crypto company founded by Marcus Swanepoel and Timothy Stranex in 2013, it grew to 6 million customers from January 2020 to January 2021. However, that number has since gone up to 7 million. Today the company, headquartered in London, has nearly 400 employees across London, South Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria and Singapore, with customers in 40 countries globally.
According to CEO Swanepoel, Luno’s numbers have been increasing month-on-month over the last seven years. However, this is the first time it is observing an acceleration of this magnitude.
There are a couple of reasons for Luno’s surge in numbers (like any other crypto exchange startup). Generally, despite talks of bitcoin being used in everyday life by crypto enthusiasts and interests from institutional entrants like BNY Mellon, Mastercard and Tesla, it is a long shot before becoming mainstream.
For now, crypto mainly serves investment purposes. This singular factor has particularly made it very popular with Africans — a demographic that has been a major part of Luno’s growth and the huge traction it is witnessing.
Last year, the company surveyed the markets in which it currently operates. It featured 15,000 respondents from South Africa, U.K., France, Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nigeria; the answers helped Luno understand how the pandemic influenced attitudes towards the current financial system. According to the survey, 54% of Africans were ready to adopt a single global digital currency, compared to 41% for Asia and 35% for Europe.
Africa’s dominance also shows in its numbers. Out of the 7 million customers it has globally, 4.7 million people are in Africa. This number was 2.3 million in January 2020. Luno’s app installs across the continent have increased by 271% within this time frame, and trading volumes skyrocketed 12x, from $555 million to $7 billion. For context, Luno did $8.3 billion in total trading volume.
But a large part of this growth is down to Luno’s early play in the market. Over the last few years, infrastructure in parts of the world that could not previously support the crypto market has improved substantially. Luno has played a vital role as one of the first platforms to improve the crypto marketplace experience by including local currencies. It also helped to lay the groundwork for educating people on digital currencies.
“The last time bitcoin went up as it did during the past year was in 2017 and 2018, and it was mostly driven by retail, but it was still very difficult to buy crypto. There were trust issues; it would take days to get your account verified and even set up a wallet,” Swanepoel told TechCrunch. “Now, over the last three years, companies like ours, especially in Africa, have built up this infrastructure, KYCs, new payment methods, customer experience and support. The experience is much better and education levels are a lot higher. To me, I think that’s played a large role in crypto adoption in the continent.”
In September last year, Luno got acquired by Digital Currency Group (DCG), an investment firm that builds, buys and invests in blockchain companies. Some of its portfolio companies include Coindesk, Genesis and Grayscale Investments. Before acquiring Luno, BCG first invested in the company’s seed round in 2014. Then last year, Swanepoel said he saw the opportunity to take Luno to a larger scale after noticing the immense growth and adoption on its platform.
“The first five to six years for us was on a small scale and now, we want to go big. So it helps to have a global platform like DCG to do it from because they have large amounts of capital and are committed to investing in Africa as well as outside the continent,” he remarked.
The CEO adds that DCG has more visibility on the crypto industry and trends. The acquisition was simply for Luno to leverage DCG’s insights and stay ahead of the curve, which looks to have paid off. Since the acquisition, Luno has seen the number of active users increase by 167%. As of January, the average user held more than $7,000 in their wallet, up 56% from December 2020.
Nothing lasts forever, but if the crypto market bull run is anything to go by, crypto isn’t the fad people once thought it was. In Q1 2021, companies like Coinbase (going public Wednesday) and Robinhood experienced monster numbers showing strong growth projections. For Luno, it expects to continue growing exponentially, a trajectory that sets the company on track to reach 1 billion customers by 2030.
Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!
Last week, I talked about Clubhouse’s slowing user growth. Well, this week news broke that they had been in talks with Twitter for a $4 billion acquisition, so it looks like they’re still pretty desirable. This week, I’m talking about a story I published a couple days ago that highlights pretty much everything that’s wild about the alternative asset world right now.
If you successfully avoided all mentions of NFTs until now, I congratulate you, because it certainly does seem like the broader NFT market is seeing some major pullback after a very frothy February and March. You’ll still be seeing plenty of late-to-the-game C-list celebrities debuting NFT art in the coming weeks, but a more sober pullback in prices will probably give some of the NFT platforms that are serious about longevity a better chance to focus on the future and find out how they truly matter.
I spent the last couple weeks, chatting with a bunch of people in one particular community — one of the oldest active NFT communities on the web called CryptoPunks. It’s a platform with 10,000 unique 24×24 pixel portraits and they trade at truly wild prices.
I wrote about the history and legacy of CryptoPunks, a vibrant $200 million NFT marketplace built around trading pixelated characters. There are only 10,000 of them and owning the cheapest one will cost you about $30k. https://t.co/X4iTSl6FjC
— Lucas Matney (@lucasmtny) April 8, 2021
This picture sold for a $1.05 million.
I talked to a dozen or so people (including the guy who sold that one ^^) that had spent between tens of thousands and millions of dollars on these pixelated portraits, my goal being to tap into the psyche of what the hell is happening here. The takeaway is that these folks don’t see these assets as any more non-sensical than what’s going on in more traditional “old world” markets like public stock exchanges.
A telling quote from my reporting:
“Obviously this is a very speculative market… but it’s almost more honest than the stock market,” user Max Orgeldinger tells TechCrunch. “Kudos to Elon Musk — and I’m a big Tesla fan — but there are no fundamentals that support that stock price. It’s the same when you look at GameStop. With the whole NFT community, it’s almost more honest because nobody’s getting tricked into thinking there’s some very complicated math that no one can figure out. This is just people making up prices and if you want to pay it, that’s the price and if you don’t want to pay it, that’s not the price.”
Shortly after I published my piece, Christie’s announced that they were auctioning off nine of the CryptoPunks in an auction likely to fetch at least $10 million at current prices. The market surged in the aftermath and many millions worth of volume quickly moved through the marketplace minting more NFT millionaires.
Is this all just absolutely nuts? Sure.
Is it also a poignant picture of where alternative asset investing is at in 2021? You bet.
Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:
Amazon workers vote down union organization attempt
Amazon is breathing a sigh of relief after workers at their Bessemer, Alabama warehouse opted out of joining a union, lending a crushing defeat to labor activists who hoped that the high-profile moment would lead more Amazon workers to organize. The vote has been challenged, but the margin of victory seems fairly decisive.
Supreme court sides with Google in Oracle case
If any singular event impacted the web the most this week, it was the Supreme Court siding with Google in a very controversial lawsuit by Oracle that could’ve fundamentally shifted the future of software development.
Coinbase is making waves
The Coinbase direct listing is just around the corner and they’re showing off some of their financials. Turns out crypto has been kind of hot lately and they’re raking in the dough, with revenue of $1.8 billion this past quarter.
Apple share more about the future of user tracking
Apple is about to upend the ad-tracking market and they published some more details on what exactly their App Tracking Transparency feature is going to look like. Hint: more user control.
Consumers are spending lots of time in apps
A new report from mobile analytics firm App Annie suggests that we’re dumping more of our time into smartphone apps, with the average users spending 4.2 hours a day doing so, a 30 percent increase over two years.
Sonos perfects the bluetooth speaker
I’m a bit of an audio lover, which made my colleague Darrell’s review of the new Sonos Roam bluetooth speaker a must-read for me. He’s pretty psyched about it, even though it comes in at the higher-end of pricing for these devices, still I’m looking forward to hearing one with my own ears.
Image Credits: Nigel Sussman
Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:
The StockX EC-1
“StockX is a unique company at the nexus of two radical transitions that isn’t just redefining markets, but our culture as well. E-commerce upended markets, diminishing the physical experience by intermediating and aggregating buyers and sellers through digital platforms. At the same time, the internet created rapid new communication channels, allowing euphoria and desire to ricochet across society in a matter of seconds. In a world of plenty, some things are rare, and the hype around that rarity has never been greater. Together, these two trends demanded a stock market of hype, an opportunity that StockX has aggressively pursued.”
Building the right team for a billion-dollar startup
“I would really encourage you to take some time to think about what kind of company you want to make first before you go out and start interviewing people. So that really is going to be about understanding and defining your culture. And then the second thing I’d be thinking about when you’re scaling from, you know, five people up to, you know, 50 and beyond is that managers really are the key to your success as a company. It’s hard to overstate how important managers, great managers, are to the success of your company.
So you want to raise a Series A
“More companies will raise seed rounds than Series A rounds, simply due to the fact that many startups fail, and venture only makes sense for a small fraction of businesses out there. Every check is a new cycle of convincing and proving that you, as a startup, will have venture-scale returns. Moore explained that startups looking to move to their next round need to explain to investors why now is their moment.”
Until next week,
Last month, hours before news of Beeple’s $69 million NFT sale grabbed the front pages of newspapers across the country, a pair of 24 x 24 pixel portraits of aliens wearing little hats sold separately for around $7.5 million each.
The sales, which occurred within 20 hours of each other, didn’t garner the same headlines that the Beeple auction received, but there was a bit of coverage in the tech press, mostly because one of the aliens was sold by Dylan Field, the CEO of design software startup Figma. In a Clubhouse conversation following the sale, Field said he hoped that a century from now the blocky image he had sold would be seen as the “Mona Lisa of digital art.”
Punk #7804, which recently sold for 4,200 Ether (about $7.5M at the time of sale)
The pixelated alien portraits belonged to an NFT platform called CryptoPunks. In the world of NFTs, the platform is as close to ancient history as it gets, meaning it’s almost four years old. There are 10,000 punks, all of which were procedurally generated and claimed for free when the project launched in 2017.
Since then, the economy built around trading these images has sauntered on with a small but passionate community, at least until a few months ago. That’s when it suddenly exploded, dragging into the fray Silicon Valley CEOs, prominent venture capitalists, famous YouTubers, poker stars and major business personalities. The platform has seen nearly $200 million worth of transaction volume in official deals since launch, according to NFT tracking site CryptoSlam, with 98% of that volume flowing through the platform in the past few months.
The sudden rise in punk prices is owed to an explosion of interest in NFTs largely brought about by climbing cryptocurrency prices, the rise in popularity of Dapper Labs’ NBA Top Shot and the resurgence of the physical collectibles markets, all of which have made some investors more comfortable with the idea of betting on digital goods.
Today, the cheapest punk you can buy will run you about $30,000 in Ethereum cryptocurrency, while the rarest may be worth just shy of $10 million.
CryptoPunks have captured plenty of attention, but even with all eyeballs on the project, people still aren’t sure exactly what they’re looking at.
“In NFT world, people are talking about selling Jack Dorsey tweets, Top Shots and Beeple in the same sentence right now,” Sotheby’s CEO Charles Stewart told TechCrunch in an interview. “The lines can get a little blurry. When you look at CryptoPunks, are they art? Are they collectibles? Are they… you know, well… what are they exactly?”
Image Credits: Lucas Matney
Back in early 2017, John Watkinson and Matt Hall were playing with a pixelated character generator they built, and they were pretty enthusiastic about the fun little pop art portraits they had been cooking up. By June, they had created 10,000 characters with different hairstyles, hats and glasses for a project called CryptoPunks that would be hosted on the nascent Ethereum blockchain. Some punks had a handful of attributes, some had none, some were apes, some were aliens. While the creators had a hand in curating some elements, they let their generator take control of the creativity.
They launched to modest interest from a small community of blockchain enthusiasts who only had to pay a few pennies in Ethereum “gas” transaction fees to own their own punk. It was a novel idea, pre-dating the NFT platform CryptoKitties by months and NBA Top Shot by years, but it arrived at the cusp of crypto’s 2017 wave during the early throes of initial coin offerings, where scams were plentiful and attention was hard to come by. Hall said that about 20-30 punks were claimed in the days following launch.
Then a week later Mashable wrote a story about the fledgling crypto art project, and within hours every punk was gone.
Some users went all-in immediately. One user that went by the username hemba has become something of a cautionary figure in the CryptoPunks community, claiming more than 1,000 punks at launch and selling every one of them before the market took off this year, missing out on tens of millions of dollars in profits at current prices. Another user who goes by mr703 claimed some 703 punks in total at launch, hundreds of which they are still holding onto years later in a collection similarly worth tens of millions.
In a Discord chat with the pseudonymous mr703, we asked whether they felt they had enough or if there were any punks they still intended to buy. “I own all the punks I ever really want,” they typed back. Their public wallet shows they paid more than $37,000 for a punk in the minutes in between our question and their answer. They spent $35,000 on another one several hours later.
Some investors who have already gone all-in backing risky cryptocurrencies see NFTs as a way to diversify their crypto holdings. Others see CryptoPunks as more of a game.
CryptoPunks creators Matt Hall and John Watkinson
“I think that with each year that passes the definition of what is gambling and what is investing move closer and closer together,” says Mike McDonald, a 31-year-old professional poker player who recently bought his first punk.
Why are some punks worth tens of thousands of dollars while others are worth millions? Users in the thriving CryptoPunks Discord community have had to decide that on their own, combining objective analysis of the rarity of certain design attributes with the more subjective impressions of punk “aesthetics.”
Things aren’t always predictable. Earrings are the most common attribute for punks, commanding much lower price floors than those with beanie hats, which are the rarest attribute. But hundreds of punks are wearing 3D glasses, yet they tend to earn a hefty premium over those with green clown hair even though fewer of those punks exist. Some attributes gain market momentum randomly; for instance, the market for punks wearing hoodies has been particularly hot in recent weeks.
“Obviously this is a very speculative market… but it’s almost more honest than the stock market,” user Max Orgeldinger tells TechCrunch. “Kudos to Elon Musk — and I’m a big Tesla fan — but there are no fundamentals that support that stock price. It’s the same when you look at GameStop. With the whole NFT community, it’s almost more honest because nobody’s getting tricked into thinking there’s some very complicated math that no one can figure out. This is just people making up prices and if you want to pay it, that’s the price and if you don’t want to pay it, that’s not the price.”
As prices have surged, owning a piece of the CryptoPunks’ finite supply has become a “digital flex” in its own right, especially when used as an avatar on social media sites, several punk owners told us. That has drawn plenty of wealthy buyers outside the blockchain world, including influencers like YouTuber Logan Paul who uploaded a video last month detailing his $170,000 purchase of several punks.
“When you don’t have a punk, the ecosystem seems like this gentlemen’s club of the 10,000 people that can afford these kinds of avatars,” says McDonald.
There is some concern among the community whether all of this outside attention is a sign of an impending crash in prices, though many investors feel reassured by the historical value of CryptoPunks among NFTs. Nevertheless, some of the investors have a hard time convincing those in their lives that what they’re doing is anything but reckless.
After a recent six-figure punk purchase, user Chris Mintern says his girlfriend was exasperated that he had just dropped more money on a punk than her house was worth. “She says it’s all just a bunch of internet nerds who don’t appreciate the value of money. That to them, it’s just a game and numbers on a screen,” he told TechCrunch.
The community surrounding CryptoPunks has largely bloomed on the chat app Discord in a dedicated group where users that are verified as punk owners tend to drive conversations and can gather attention for up-and-coming NFT projects they’re betting on.
“It’s a bit of a cult,” said user thebeautyandthepunk in an interview.
Like many early users, thebeautyandthepunk has stayed pseudonymous since claiming a couple dozen punks at launch, telling us that no one in her life has any idea she’s sitting on an NFT collection likely worth millions — except her accountant. She did recently decide to make it known that she was one of the few female traders who have been present in the overwhelmingly male CryptoPunks community since the beginning.
“I really try to keep my real life and my crypto life completely separate,” she says. “But people need to know that women have been [in this space] for a while and we’re not going anywhere.”
Today, all 10,000 punks are scattered across some 1,889 wallets, according to crypto tracker Etherscan. Some of those accounts are inactive and feared dead, with the punks inside them lost on the blockchain forever. The largest single wallet of punks today belongs to the platform’s creators, holding some 488 punks. It’s their only ownership in a blockchain-based marketplace where most mechanics are already set in stone.
“We’re just users now, too. Nothing about our website is specific to us having created the project,” Watkinson tells TechCrunch. “Our only equity is through the punks we own. We don’t take a cut of the market or anything.”
Image Credits: Lucas Matney
Today, CryptoPunks’ creators are working on NFTs full time. While they can’t make any underlying changes to the CryptoPunks contract, they have aimed to improve the website’s marketplace while hopping into the Discord group to keep an eye on the ever-growing community of users.
“It was never our intention for this to sort of be our careers,” Watkinson says.
In 2019, the duo debuted a follow-up project called Autoglyphs, which brought generative art to the blockchain. It didn’t boast the pop aesthetic of CryptoPunks, but it added a new layer to their exploration of blockchain art. Hall and Watkinson have built up a company around their various projects called Larva Labs, and they are in the process of building up a new NFT project that they hope will have a lower barrier of entry than CryptoPunks and Autoglyphs.
“As the CryptoPunks get more and more expensive, they’re just hard to get into,” Hall says.
At around $200 million in official marketplace sales, CryptoPunks’ total lifetime sales volume is about 40% of what Dapper Labs’ NBA Top Shot has achieved in its past several months. Though CryptoPunks has done so with 0.35% of Top Shot’s total transaction volume, which is fewer than 12,000 trades compared to more than 3.3 million, according to CryptoSlam. Those high transaction numbers spread across millions of NFTs mean much less value per transaction on Top Shot, but a much, much bigger pool of active users.
Last month, Dapper Labs announced they had raised $305 million at a $2.6 billion valuation as they look to expand their private Flow blockchain to other blockchain “games” through more high-profile partnerships. Hall and Watkinson have been watching Dapper Labs’ success, but don’t think Larva Labs will need venture funding to continue exploring what’s next for NFTs.
“Rather than looking at becoming a large company and doing a deal with the NBA or something like that, we’re more just looking forward to kind of just continuing to explore the tech possibilities,” Watkinson said. “What we love about CryptoPunks is the action, and so we’d like to find a way back to sort of that level of action, and our next project is going to try to find ways to sort of keep the deal flow going.”
They have few details to share on the new project, which they said will debut “relatively soon” this year.
Image Credits: Lucas Matney
CryptoPunks lore is largely steeped in the assertion that they are the oldest NFT project on the Ethereum blockchain. It’s a line that was floated by almost all of the punk owners I spoke with as the main reason they had dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the platform. In Paul’s recent YouTube video, he justified prices to his skeptical friends by noting, “[CryptoPunks] is the first and that makes it special.”
But over the past few weeks, holes in that narrative have begun to emerge, as “crypto archaeologists” have begun to unearth abandoned NFT projects that were created in Ethereum’s earliest days, with at least one arriving before CryptoPunks. We recently spoke with Cyrus Adkisson, the creator of a project called Etheria, which he debuted back in 2015, just three months after Ethereum’s mainnet went live. The project allowed users to buy up, sell and build on hexagonal swaths of digital land on a large map. It didn’t develop much of a following at launch and sat abandoned for years on the Ethereum blockchain until Adkisson saw the “fever pitch” developing around NFTs and started searching for the passcode to his old account.
“I remember calling my parents toward the end of February, telling them I may be sitting on a goldmine here,” Adkisson told TechCrunch.
After ultimately gaining access to his Etheria account, he then fired off a few tweets from Etheria’s long-dormant Twitter account, detailing that the bulk of the 914 tiles across two externally tradeable versions were still available and could be claimed for 1 Ether each. Adkisson says by the end of that weekend, his previously empty wallet was filled with $1.4 million worth of Ethereum.
1/ I hear that NFTs have become a thing. Here is some essential about Etheria, the first NFT project ever deployed to the Ethereum blockchain all the way back in October 2015 and presented at DEVCON1. pic.twitter.com/aBZghPdFbS
— Etheria (the OG NFTs) (@etheria_feed) March 13, 2021
Age alone won’t make Etheria a hit; the major challenge from here is building up a community around the project that brings in more users and pushes the prices of land tiles higher. A tile recently sold for nearly $25,000 worth of Ether, but early adopters are struggling to balance waiting out the market’s development with liquidating enough tiles so that new users can get involved and the project can build hype.
“With these projects, it’s like, yeah, you have the historical context, but now you need to build a solid foundation with your communities because your real measure is not now, but it’s going to be what your community, size and engagement look like in a year,” says Allen Hena, an NFT enthusiast who helped attract attention to the Etheria community last month with a series of blog posts.
In the days following the project’s resurrection, the young community has already seen plenty of disagreement and infighting as Adkisson aims to maintain some level of control over the platform on which plenty have already pinned their retirement plans. Owners are mainly frustrated by Adkisson’s attempts to make an older version of Etheria externally tradeable, something that would likely make land tiles on the existing contracts considerably less valuable. Since our interview, Adkisson has left Etheria’s Discord server and admins in the group have vowed to continue on without him as he decides which direction he wants to take Etheria 1.0.
While punk owners we talked with are keeping an eye on these newly reemerged projects, they’re also skeptical that Etheria’s older status will do much to impact CryptoPunks’ value to NFT history.
“On paper it looks cool but it didn’t actually do anything for the community,” says user Daniel Maegaard. “CryptoPunks did all the hard work.”
Punk #6487, which Daniel Maegaard recently sold for 550 Ether (about $1.05M at the time of sale)
Maegaard, a 30-year-old crypto investor based in Brisbane, Australia, is more tied up in the value of CryptoPunks than most. He recently sold a particularly rare female “zero-trait” punk for more than $1 million. He’s also the owner of one of the rarest — some argue the rarest — punks, the only one with seven unique attributes, a qualifier that has earned it the nickname “7-atty” and a sacred place in punk lore. When he bought the punk for about $18,000 in Ethereum last year, it was the most anyone had ever paid. He isn’t keen to let it go anytime soon, saying he recently turned down a private offer for $4.2 million from a group of investors that hoped to tokenize the NFT and sell fractional shares of it to other users. Part of holding onto it is the potential for further gains, but the real reason, he says, is that he’s beginning to feel an emotional bond with his collection of digital files.
“These little pixelated faces, it should be easy to give them up. I’ve sold a few punks and I’ve regretted every sale, I experienced that when I sold my zero-trait punk,” Maegaard says. “Like, yeah, a million dollars is nice, but I really liked her.”
Twitter is abuzz with the news that Topps, a company perhaps best known for making collectible trading cards, is going public via a SPAC.
The reverse merger with its chosen blank-check company values the combination on an equity basis at $1.163 billion. That makes Topps some sort of unicorn. And because it has both e-commerce and digital angles, Topps is technically a
fruit tech company.
Why do we care? We care because Topps and its products are popular with the same set of folks who are very excited about creating rare digital items on particular blockchains. Yes, the baseball card company is going public in a debut that could easily be read as a way to put money into the NFT craze without actually having to buy cryptocurrencies and go speculating itself.
So let’s have a small giggle as we go through the Topps deck and then ask if the company is being valued on its actual, and modestly attractive, present-day business or on possible revenues from future NFT-related activities.
What is Topps? A mix of business units that it breaks down into four categories: Physical Sports and Entertainment (trading cards), Digital Sports and Entertainment (digital collectibles, apps and games), Gift Cards (gift cards for external brands), and Confections (candy).
In terms of scale, the company’s physical goods and confection businesses are by far its leading revenue drivers. Here’s the data:
Image Credits: Topps investor presentation
First, observe that the company’s pro forma adjusted EBITDA nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020. That’s an aggressive expansion in hyper-adjusted profitability. And note how much the company’s physical sports business grew from 2019 to 2020; a nearly 50% gain helped the company grow nicely last year.
As hot as the blockchain space appears to be these days, it’s still far from simple to get a decentralized application reliably up-and-running. The NFT boom and rising cryptocurrency prices have brought more attention to applications running on the blockchain, but the dominant cloud service platforms aren’t quite ready to make a full-commit to the needs of these developers.
QuikNode, which recently raised funding from Y Combinator and is in the process of wrapping its seed funding, has been building out a Web3 cloud platform for blockchain developers that can help them create and scale applications. The startup seems to be further along than most of its fellow YC batch mates, founded back in 2017.
At the moment, running a decentralized app can involve a lot of base infrastructure headaches that take developer attention away from their actual products. The initial setup can require days worth of downloads to sync to these networks for the first time while maintenance costs can also be high, the startup says. QuikNode allows app developers to rent access to nodes that let them operate on the blockchain network of their choice, enabling them to sidestep maintaining and monitoring their own node.
Alongside node management and maintenance, QuikNode’s product integrates developer tools and analytics to simplify running a decentralized app. The challenge for QuikNode will likely be maintaining an edge here in the shadow of cloud giants if the decentralized app market grows to a sizable (and consistent) presence on the web. QuikNode is itself a customer of these large cloud companies, opting to focus on software rather than building up physical data centers, nevertheless they’re still directly competing with these big players.
“I think we have about two years on Amazon, we’re on their radar,” CEO Dmitry Shklovsky tells TechCrunch.
For the time being, QuikNode’s small size gives it a distinct pricing advantage compared to nascent programs from other cloud providers. Plans start at just $9 for users launching the most basic applications, with structured plans increasing depending on the amount of “method calls” being performed. Renting a dedicated node is $300 per month. From there, the startup offers several chain-specific add-ons with options like Archive mode that give applications access all historical value states inside smart contracts on the network or Trace mode, which lets developers request nodes to re-execute transactions.
The team currently operates over 1,000 nodes and has around 400 customers. As QuikNode aims to scale their customer base, Shklovsky says that one of the best paths to customer acquisition have been guides educating decentralized app developers on how to connect to the most popular networks.
Currently, the largely Miami-based team supports networks on six chains including Ethereum, Bitcoin, xDai, Binance Smart Chain, Polygon and Optimism.
imToken, the blockchain tech startup and crypto wallet developer, announced today it has raised $30 million in Series B funding led by Qiming Venture Partners. Participants included returning investor IDG Capital, and new backers Breyer Capital, HashKey, Signum Capital, Longling Capital, SNZ and Liang Xinjun, the co-founder of Fosun International.
Founded in 2016, the startup’s last funding announcement was for its $10 million Series A, led by IDG, in May 2018. imToken says its wallet for Ethereum, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies now has 12 million users and over $50 billion in assets are currently stored on its platform, with total transaction value exceeding $500 billion.
The company was launched in Hangzhou, China, before moving to it current headquarters to Singapore, and about 70% of its users are in mainland China, followed by markets including South Korea, the United States and Southeast Asia.
imToken will use its latest funding to build features for “imToken 3.0.” This will include keyless accounts, account recovery and and a suite of decentralized finance services. It also plans to expand its research arm for blockchain technology, called imToken Labs and open offices in more countries. It currently has a team of 78 people, based in mainland China, the United States and Singapore, and expects to increase its headcount to 100 this year.
In a press statement, Qiming Venture Partners founding managing partner Duane Kuang said, “In the next ten to twenty years, blockchain will revolutionize the financial industry on a global scale. We believe that imToken is riding this trend, and has strongly positioned itself in the market.”
The NFT ecosystem is having an explosive moment and the startups that were ready to run with it are getting lots of cash to continue capturing that momentum.
SuperRare, an NFT art platform that has garnered tens of millions in new sales in recent weeks, has just raised millions from investors. The $9 million Series A round was led by Velvet Sea Ventures and 1confirmation. Other investors participating in the round include Collaborative Fund, Shrug Capital, Third Kind, SamsungNext, Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures, Mark Cuban, Marc Benioff, Naval Ravikant and Chamath Palihapitiya, among others.
In an announcement of the raise, the team called the crypto art scene a “global phenomenon.”
SuperRare launched its art platform in 2018, since then it has differentiated by maintaining a closed early-access platform that more closely curates the art they sell. Everything on the platform is a single-edition 1/1 sale. The team has said they plan to launch the site widely next year. The company earns a 3% transaction fee on art sales on the platform in addition to a 15% gallery fee for primary sales. One unique facet of the platform is that creators can continue to earn on a piece’s appreciating value following with 10% commissions on secondary sales.
While NFT art sales have taken off in recent weeks, there are still many structural issues facing their mainstream adoption largely due to scalability issues with Ethereum’s mainnet, which SuperRare operates on. Plenty of firms are building layer-two infrastructure that improves speed and cuts down on energy usage and transaction fees. Today, ConsenSys launched a platform called Palm featuring artists Damien Hirst as the platform’s first artist drop.
After a lengthy crypto winter, blockchain startups are coming back with a vengeance amid a surge in startup investing, a surge in enthusiasm around NFTs and a surge in bitcoin prices. Today, NBA Top Shot maker Dapper Labs announced in had raised $305 million in venture funding.
The NFT craze has been an intriguing moment for digital artists who have seen great leaps in how tech has allowed them to create their work, but not as much progress in shifting how they profit off of it.
Though crypto’s early adopter artists have seemed to gain the most attention thus far, more institutionally present artists are dipping their feet into the token world. One of the bigger barriers has been the environmental concerns tied to the Ethereum blockchain, which required intense energy usage to mint new artwork, tied to incredibly high transaction fees, something that has invited controversy for early artists because of climate change concerns.
There have been a number of blockchain products to emerge in recent months that promise the benefits of Ethereum with greater speed, lower costs and lower energy usage, most notably Dapper Labs’ Flow blockchain, which powers their NBA Top Shot product. Today, we saw the debut of a new “layer-two” entrant from ConsenSys, called Palm, which operates as a sidechain on Ethereum’s main network but will be supported via the popular crypto wallet MetaMask.
As part of Palm’s launch, the artist Damien Hirst announced he will be launching an NFT project, his first, called “The Currency Project,” on the platform’s Palm NFT Studio.
Ethereum has already committed to transitioning to a more energy-efficient proof-of-stake consensus structure, but it’s unclear how quickly that’s going to happen. The network currently relies on a proof-of-work system (as does bitcoin), which use an energy-intensive manner of prioritizing where the next block in a chain is mined that gets more intensive as a network sees more traffic. It’s a reason why crypto mining operations have had to consistently invest in the latest hardware to maintain an edge and use more power. Proof-of-work does away with most of that, instead choosing nodes on the network to mine the next block based on reputation or their existing stake. There are some real security tradeoffs that have required workarounds though plenty in the crypto community aren’t quite satisfied with the compromises, though proponents argue that environmental concerns should take precedent.
In a press release, the team behind Palm says the ecosystem is “99% more energy-efficient than proof-of-work systems.”
Unlike Dapper Labs’ Flow, Palm benefits from its interconnectedness with the community of Ethereum developers, something that was present in today’s announcement that showcased several industry partnerships including Nifty. The news arrived alongside details this morning of Dapper Labs’ monster $305 million fundraise that will give the company backing to build on the momentum of Top Shot, which has given the broader NFT space the wave of enthusiasm it’s currently experiencing.
From the early success of Crypto Kitties to the explosive growth of NBA Top Shot, Dapper Labs has been at the forefront of the cryptocurrency collectible craze known as NFTs.
Now the company is reaping the benefits of its trailblazing status with a new $305 million financing led by some of the biggest names in Hollywood, sports, and investing.
The new round values the company at a whopping $2.6 billion, according to multiple media reports, and comes at a time when NFTs have captured the popular imagination.
Leading the company’s financing was Coatue, the financial services firm that’s behind many of the biggest later stage tech deals. But heavy hitters from the entertainment world also took their cut — these are folks like NBA legend Michael Jordan as well as current players and funds including Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Kyle Lowry, Spencer Dinwiddie, Andre Drummond, Alex Caruso, Michael Carter-Williams, Josh Hart, Udonis Haslem, JaVale McGee, Khris Middleton, Domantas Sabonis, Klay Thompson, Nikola Vucevic, Thad Young, and Richard Seymour’s 93 Ventures.
Entertainment and music heavyweights including Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures, Will Smith and Keisuke Honda’s Dreamers VC, Shawn Mendes and Andrew Gertler’s AG Ventures, Shay Mitchell, and 2 Chainz also bought in on the action.
And from the venture world comes other strategic investors like Andreessen Horowitz, The Chernin Group, USV, Version One, and Venrock.
The company said it would use the funds to continue building out NBA Top Shot and expanding the updated digital trading card platform to other sports and a broader creator community.
Top Shot has already notched over $500 million in sales for its animated trading cards featuring things like LeBron James dunking and the sky (at least for now) is seemingly the limit for the collectible applications of blockchain.
It’s like the one thing that cryptocurrency can do really well and it’s been embraced far beyond the world of sports collectibles. The recent $69 million sale of a digital piece of art at Christies also marks a watershed moment for art world.
“NBA Top Shot is successful because it taps into basketball fandom – it’s a new and more exciting way for people to connect with their favorite teams and players,” said Roham Gharegozlou, CEO of Dapper Labs. “We want to bring the same magic to other sports leagues as well as help other entertainment studios and independent creators find their own approaches in exploring open platforms. NFTs unlock a new model for monetization that benefits the fans much more than advertising or sponsorships.”
Powering the Top Shot system and Dapper Labs’ other offerings is a new blockchain protocol called Flow, which purports to handle mainstream consumer applications at scale, and can support mass adoption.
Flow also allows for transactions using fiat currency and credit cards in addition to provide a much needed ease of cryptocurrency, and can keep customers safe from the fraud or theft common in cryptocurrency systems, according to a statement from Dapper Labs.
Flow enables NFT marketplaces and other decentralized applications that need to scale to handle mainstream demand without extremely high transaction costs (“gas fees”) or environmental concerns, the company said.
“NBA Top Shot is one of the best demonstrations we’ve seen of how quickly new technology can change the landscape for media and sports fans,” said Kevin Durant, Co-Founder of Thirty Five Ventures. “We’re excited to follow the progress with everything happening on Flow blockchain and use our platform with the Boardroom to connect with fans in a new way.”
Already companies like Warner Music Group, Ubisoft, Warner Media, and the UFC, as well as thousands of third party developers, artists, and other creators are using the Flow mainnet to sell collectible cards, and develop custodial wallets.
Additional investors in the round include: MLB players like Tim Beckham and Nolan Arenado; NFL players: Ken Crawley, Thomas Davis, Stefon Diggs, Dee Ford, Malcom Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, Jordan Matthew, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, DK Metcalf, Tyrod Taylor, and Trent Williams; team ownership including Vivek Ranadive (Kings), and notable sports investors Bolt Ventures.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are trending hotter than pogs right now, and the number of articles published on the subject in the last few weeks has ballooned into the thousands. So a pardon must be begged at the outset here, but the overlooked potential of token economies is simply too important to let slip away.
NFTs are but one small part of a much larger development in the world of finance capital. What leaves some scratching their heads and chuckling could, within a decade, completely transform the model of investment that has been in place since the rise of Silicon Valley.
NFTs have had a strange first step into the spotlight, bringing wealth to a very small group of people and making most people simply perplexed. Before NFTs are written off as a flash in the pan, it might be worth considering that NFTs were never designed to be very useful in traditional investment frameworks.
It can be hard to imagine how this might all play out, but we are already seeing the outlines of this new economy begin to poke through the dried-out skin of the old model.
An auction house selling a $69 million JPEG is akin to a horse-and-buggy driver strapping a small nuclear reactor to the top of the cab and declaring, “This is an atomic buggy!” as the horse continues to chug along, doing all the work. You’ll get the attention of bystanders, but nothing has fundamentally changed here.
Each of the headline-grabbing NFT sales seen recently are instances of exactly this kind of backward thinking. And the bystanders criticizing the buggy driver and saying, “nuclear reactors are hype,” are not really seeing the long-term implications, or they just don’t like horses.
From early conceptions of investment as a way to fund transoceanic ship voyages, to the rise of venture capital as we know it today, the entire cosmos of finance capital has remained an elite sport. This is because the current model is based on big investors getting big wins.
Almost the entire world of finance capital is structured on big whales and unicorns, mythical creatures that mere mortals consider themselves lucky to have glimpsed. The word “structured” is chosen here carefully, as the “big-dog” theory of capital is literally built on powerful intermediaries that facilitate the will of these top investors.
The invention of bitcoin is an epochal event in the development of finance. Bitcoin itself has crystallized into merely another playground of power, but the technological tremors it left in its wake are starting to emerge as the real game-changers. Primarily, distributed ledger technologies (DLTs) — of which blockchain is but one instance — are a breakthrough on par with being able to send a message instantaneously to a person on the other side of the world.
DLTs mean that finance capital no longer has a need for powerful intermediaries — or intermediaries of any kind. Middlemen are currently very necessary in order for parties to establish trust in transactions, trades contracts or investments. Paying for the services of these middlemen can be written off as the cost of doing business for large companies and wealthy individuals, but these expenses remain prohibitive barriers for many.
DLTs break down these barriers because trust is established by and built into the very architecture of the network itself. With DLTs, anybody with an internet connection can do big-dog-style business deals at whatever level they can afford, and the way that these deals are transacted is through tokens.
DLT economies are going to be adopted by all of the major investment players in the next few years as the advantages of decentralizing investment are too numerous to ignore — lower friction for transactions due to automation, much quicker (real-time) results and analysis of market conditions, greater security through transparency, and a higher level of customization for financial products and services. The adoption of decentralized finance by major players will have a net-positive impact for everyone else.
Tokens are the lifeblood of this new system, and non-fungible tokens are just one type of token. In this emerging model, there are payment tokens that behave like money, security tokens that are comparable to stocks, utility tokens that provide functions like space or bandwidth and hybrid tokens that mix these tokens into new forms. If it sounds a bit confusing and exciting, that’s because it is.
The main takeaway to understand here is that tokens are going to replace not just stocks and other investment products but also the entire idea of having middlemen between you and your purchases, whether that middleman is an investment broker, a credit card company, a platform provider or a bank. The decentralized economy is going to be a much more open and direct kind of market.
It can be hard to imagine how this might all play out, but we are already seeing the outlines of this new economy begin to poke through the dried-out skin of the old model. These protrusions are most apparent where economic reality doesn’t really make sense.
Think of the emerging gig economy, where nobody really seems to have a steady job anymore, where each of us is some kind of professional mercenary, moving from gig to gig. Think of the huge number of subscriptions that most of us carry like millstones around our necks. Think of the paradoxically frustrating relationship of musicians to streaming platforms, or artists to galleries. Think about the amount of crushing poverty that still remains on our planet.
These are all instances of models of living and working not really fitting into old containers. We can all sense that these aspects of our lives aren’t really functioning optimally, but we can’t quite say why and we certainly don’t know what the solution might look like. Decentralized, tokenized economies have the potential to erase all of these pain points, paradoxes and kludges and replace them with something much more intuitive and elegant.
This new reality is easy to imagine in some of its attributes: Instead of nine different subscriptions, you can just pay directly for the content that you want, when you want it. Instead of artists giving up half of their earnings to galleries or musicians giving, well, all of their earnings to streaming platforms, they now just take direct payment for their work through fluid networks built by and for this type of content. Instead of paying brokers to facilitate your investments, you can now just invest directly in the enterprises that interest you, including formerly out-of-reach sectors like real estate investment. Instead of crushing poverty and fiercely protected borders between classes, we break down barriers and give everyone access to value.
Many of the other developments in a token economy have yet to be imagined, and this is probably the most exciting aspect of all. When we distribute the economy globally, in a way that allows anyone with an internet connection the ability to interact and contribute in a meaningful way, we are unlocking the value of untapped assets that are worth literally trillions of dollars. So what is holding us back, and how do we get there as soon as possible?
The hardest part of unlocking this new economy has already been achieved — we have the technological understanding of how to distribute and decentralize a system of consensus that combines with a system of digitizing assets for trade and investment.
The remaining work that will actually bring this system online is fairly obvious — first and foremost, we need to take a look at the ecological impacts that this new system has had in its infancy. We should absolutely outlaw mining farms or set the strictest limits for how much of their energy comes from nonrenewables. If the backbone of this new economy is destroying the planet, we need to shut it down before it grows, full stop. The system needs to be ecologically sustainable.
The second most immediate concern is that there are currently no standards, no common network, that the multitude of different cryptocurrencies and tokens agree on. It’s astounding and absolutely frustrating that the various cryptos are hardly even talking about this.
It’s as if we have a bunch of different companies not only inventing the light bulb but also inventing their own light sockets and wiring protocols, and each one is insisting that they are the best and they will win out in the end. Light bulbs are great, but can we please agree on one socket? This beautiful new economy will never get off the ground unless we build a neutral, interoperable network, and this network needs to be feeless and scalable.
The last cause of immediate concern is regulation and legal frameworks. There are too many people still in crypto that have some kind of anarchist’s deathwish to just be completely left outside, and this is not serving the long-term goals of our communities.
I’m all for knocking intermediaries out of the value chain, but this doesn’t automatically entail the establishment of a never-never land that no regulatory agencies are invited to. Legal frameworks for decentralized economies go hand in hand with our ethos of open-source, community-building, transparent operations. We all need to be advocates for thorough and precise regulation of our nascent technology.
With ecology, interoperability and regulation as our watchwords, we can begin work on building the actual apps and other infrastructure that will allow users to leverage the power of a new economy. The uses are limitless, from selling excess electricity to your regional smart power grid, to investing in your favorite artists’ network, to accepting direct payment for your own labor, to — yes — buying NFTs, which will make a lot more sense in the new economy.
The non-fungible token (NFT) mania has inspired Ethereum fans to spend more than $224 million on crypto collectibles so far in 2021 through marketplaces OpenSea and Rarible, but many buyers may not understand what they actually own.
“An NFT is not that different from any other crypto purchase in that you are buying control over information in an entry in a ledger,” said attorney Nelson Rosario, one of the founders of Smolinski Rosario Law.
NFT buyers don’t actually own the media files associated with their blockchain receipts, whether those files are JPEGs or GIFS or MP3s.
NFT buyers don’t actually own the media files associated with their blockchain receipts, whether those files are JPEGs or GIFS or MP3s. The best way to know which aspects of the NFT craze will outlast this trendy boom is to look at the history of comparable assets. As it turns out, people have been making crypto collectibles for nearly seven years.
Zebedee co-founder Christian Moss, who has been working on blockchain-based games since 2014, said he stopped making Bitcoin-based collectibles because transaction fees shot up. To make matters worse, some buyers viewed tokens as investments instead of as toys.
“They were tokens on Bitcoin,” Moss said. “A lot of developers ended up trying to pump their tokens and prices. … It felt like people who played those games felt like they were investors on the board. I don’t want my game to be an investment vehicle. Then players might try to sue me if they lost their tokens. It changed the dynamic of the game.”
These days, Moss helps people earn small amounts of bitcoin by playing mainstream video games like Counter-Strike. That way, there’s no confusion about how to value virtual assets; cryptocurrency is money and in-game assets are toys.
“NFTs aren’t game items at all; they are receipts,” Moss said. “If you have the receipt, you might be able to get an item in a game, but they can’t allow a Zelda sword NFT [in Counter-Strike], for example, because that might be copyright infringement. There are legal implications there.”
Indeed, legal implications are the crux of the NFT trend. Whether a court would protect the receipt-holder’s ownership over a given file depends on a variety of factors.
“It’s great if the artist intends to transfer any copyright for a work of art to an NFT purchaser, but can that be perfected to the point where a court of law or copyright office would recognize that transfer? That gets into additional questions of jurisdiction,” Rosario said. “Brands and platforms need to make sure they have the right agreements in place to govern these relationships.”
With regard to NFT sellers who take screenshots of other people’s content and profit from a corresponding NFT, Rosario said it’s hard to say whether that violates any laws.
“You probably start by looking at Twitter’s terms of service and begin the investigation there. It really depends,” he said, adding that impersonation or stealing someone’s passwords are different issues entirely.
And there are still open questions beyond copyright issues and fraud, such as sanctions and porn regulations.
A growing number of adult content creators are selling erotic NFTs on platforms like Rarible, often earning hundreds of dollars per photo. One such artist, PolyAnnie, said she has earned more from selling NFTs on Rarible alone than her average annual earnings across platforms like OnlyFans, Patreon and ManyVids combined.
“I sold 90 NFTs, bringing in 10.11 ETH in five months,” she said. “I purchased 18 NFTs from other creators, too.”
Some jurisdictions have age-verification requirements for platforms with adult content, while other jurisdictions make platforms potentially liable for child porn or revenge porn if the platforms don’t heavily moderate explicit content. As such, platform providers tend to be conservative about their terms of service.
“A lot of these NFT platforms don’t want to deal with the risks of sexually oriented content,” PolyAnnie said.
That’s why some sex workers have had their content censored by platforms like Rarible. As for the most popular NFT platform, OpenSea, which raised a Series A round from a16z earlier this month, CEO Devin Finzer said his team moderates the platform and limits search results for adult content, so those NFTs can only be found by someone going directly to the creator’s profile.
“We haven’t exactly nailed it down, but one option is a separate section of our site for that type of content,” Finzer said.
Payment card network Visa has announced that transactions can be settled using USD Coin (USDC), a stablecoin powered by the Ethereum blockchain. Crypto.com is the first company to test the new capability with its own Visa-branded cards.
USDC is a stablecoin co-founded by Circle and Coinbase and by managed the Centre consortium. As the name suggests, USDC is a cryptocurrency that follows the value of USD. One USDC is always worth one USD — hence the name stablecoin.
In order to make sure that the value of USDC remains stable, USDC partners keep USD on bank accounts every time they issue new tokens. Those accounts are audited to make sure that there are as many USDC in circulation as there are USD in those accounts.
So why do stablecoins exist even though money is mostly digital these days? Like other crypto assets, stablecoins present some flexibility when it comes to sending, receiving and storing value. You don’t need a bank account and everything can be easily programmable. And you don’t need to support legacy systems, integrate with banks and pay transaction fees to other financial institutions.
While USDC originally started as a token on top of the Ethereum blockchain, USDC also supports two other blockchains — Algorand and Stellar. Visa has chosen to focus on the Ethereum variant of USDC for now.
The payment company already supports 160 currencies across the globe. That’s why you can seamlessly use your Visa card when you travel abroad. You’ll see a card transaction in your home currency on your card statement, but the merchant gets paid in their own local currency.
Thanks to a partnership with Anchorage, Visa is adding support for its first digital currency. Anchorage recently received a federal banking charter and is positioning itself as a digital asset bank. Visa was probably looking for a trustworthy partner for this program. As Anchorage got a thumbs-up from regulators, the partnership makes sense.
For Crypto.com, it means that it can send USDC directly to Visa. For instance, if a Crypto.com customer holds USDC in their wallet and makes a card transaction, Crypto.com doesn’t have to first convert USDC tokens to USD.
It can send USDC to Visa’s Ethereum wallet address at Anchorage to settle the transaction. The merchant then gets paid by Visa in their own currency. Visa says there will be more partners down the road in addition to Crypto.com.
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“I’ve been using cryptocurrency before this,” Tolokonnikova told TechCrunch, noting Pussy Riot members have been interested in blockchain technology since around 2015. “Masha [Alyokhina, Pussy Riot co-founder] had problems with her bank accounts. Whenever she would open one, the government would shut it down because she would use some of her money for protestors. Right now she can’t even have her own credit card.”
Now Tolokonnikova is raising hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of ether this month by dropping a four-part series of NFTs for the group’s newest music video, “Panic Attack.” She says these profits will be donated to a clandestine women’s shelter in Eastern Europe, which caters to women who violated social norms.
“Women in this region are still being treated as property. There’s a stigma. A lot of these women are queer or did something like smile at a stranger, things that are associated with shame on the whole family. If we publicized the location of this shelter, it would motivate people to find the shelter and try to destroy it,” Tolokonnikova said. “As an activist, it’s really exciting to see a tool that’s not controlled by any government.”
It might be easy to dismiss this NFT initiative as a publicity stunt for Pussy Riot’s first studio album, “Rage,” scheduled for release in May. Plus, the NFT platform the group is using, Foundation, could censor the group and make it difficult for buyers to view or trade NFTs. Crypto collectibles, and any corresponding cryptocurrency earnings, are only censorship resistant when held in a creator’s personal wallet, not on a private company’s platform.
On the other hand, Tolokonnikova said her “interest in the technology is long-lasting,” and that she’s already exploring ways to utilize crypto tools to subvert sexist power structures. In addition to donating cryptocurrency to activists, Pussy Riot is also sponsoring an NFT scholarship program to cover the Ethereum transaction fees for feminist artists.
“Right now it’s now only for activists and political art works,” she said. “It’s also about educating the Pussy Riot community … we are looking at ways to make NFTs more accessible at a lower price point.”
Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot performs in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo by David A. Smith/Getty Images)
In the meantime, the group is working on collaborations with other NFT artists like Viktoria Modesta, known for avant-garde fashions for people with disabilities. From Tolokonnikova’s perspective, NFTs offer a way for women artists to gain recognition from the traditional art world. She said that because Pussy Riot focused on performance art and digital art, traditional galleries and collectors rarely took her work seriously. Now, with crypto collectibles, museums and galleries are taking note.
“That is a game-changing dynamic for so many artists who, for the first time in their careers, will be recognized as artists,” Tolokonnikova said. “Before, as part of Pussy Riot, I would use speaking fees or other types of event fees and use that to fund the performance art. I was never paid for the art directly. Now I’m focused on these NFT drops and I’m treating it really seriously.”
While many of the NFT boom’s breakaway stars are white men with traditional credentials and years of professional experience, like Beeple and Trevor Jones, women like Tolokonnikova are a fast-growing segment of the crypto ecosystem. Crypto exchange surveys show women make up roughly 15 to 50 percent of tallied users, depending on the region. Organizations like Metapurse, She256 and Meta Gamma Delta offer some mentorship and funding opportunities for women, as well.
“Metapurse is already doing some of this work, but we want to make our own tiny steps to bring more female and queer artists in the space,” Tolokonnikova concluded. “I think it provides amazing tools for the business of the creators’ market. It’s more than just for art. It enhances a creator’s power.”
As Coinbase is about to go public in the U.S., another cryptocurrency company is having a blockbuster first quarter of 2021. Blockchain.com, the company behind a popular cryptocurrency wallet, an exchange, a block explorer and more, has raised a $300 million Series C round.
If you’ve been paying attention, you may remember that I wrote about Blockchain.com last month. At the time, the company announced a $120 million funding round. In other words, the company is raising once again just a few weeks after its previous funding round.
This time, DST Global, Lightspeed Venture Partners and VY Capital are leading the round. Existing investors also participated. Following today’s funding round, the company has reached a post-money valuation of $5.2 billion.
Originally named Blockchain.info, the company first launched a blockchain explorer. If you’re not familiar with the blockchain industry, an explorer lets you enter the hash of any transaction that occurs on a blockchain to get more information — you can retrieve the transaction amount, the number of confirmations, the wallet addresses of the sender and the receiver, etc.
But Blockchain.com is better known for its open-source wallet. The company offers a noncustodial wallet, which means that you’re in control of your private keys. Blockchain.com can’t directly access your funds.
31 million users have verified their identities on Blockchain.com. The number of active users have tripled over the past 12 months.
Blockchain.com has diversified its activities over time. It has launched an exchange so that you can buy and sell cryptocurrencies from Blockchain.com directly. The startup also offers services to institutional investors. Blockchain.com can help you when it comes to buying and selling cryptocurrencies, custody, large over-the-counter transactions, etc.
When it comes to revenue, “Blockchain.com is highly profitable across each of our business lines,” co-founder and CEO Peter Smith wrote. The new influx of funding is all about working with late-stage investors and growing rapidly. You can expect some Blockchain.com acquisitions down the road for instance.
Move fast, break things, get hacked.
That’s what happened at Roll, the social currency platform that allows creators to mint and distribute their own Ethereum-based cryptocurrency known as social tokens. Last week, Roll disclosed a hacker had stolen $5.7 million from its hot wallet, a little over a year after the company launched.
Roll set up a $500,000 fund to help creators recoup their losses, and the company promised to hire a third-party to audit its security infrastructure.
But the company has so far been unable to contract with security investigators to probe the breach, leaving the startup to look for clues itself. A week has passed since the breach, and the social currency startup says it still doesn’t know how the hacker broke in or stole its private keys.
In a call with TechCrunch this week, Roll executives confirmed its infrastructure never underwent a security audit, a process designed to help find and fix vulnerabilities, prior to its launch.
“We weren’t ready from a security standpoint,” said Roll CEO Bradley Miles.
“This incident was a big setback for us, we will revamp a lot of infrastructure around this that we have in place to prevent something like this from happening again,” said Roll’s chief technology officer Sid Kalla, who oversees cybersecurity because the company does not have dedicated staff.
The executives said while its smart contracts — the technology that underpins the blockchain — were audited by a third-party firm, the rest of the company’s infrastructure was never stress-tested.
“That was a shortcoming on our end, and we should have done this earlier,” said Kalla.
The emptying of Roll’s hot wallet comes as social currency climbs to new levels of popularity. Roll has netted high-profile creators like actor Terry Crews, along with hundreds of other social currency on the platform, many plummeting in value after the hot wallet was hacked.
Some of the larger social currencies, like $WHALE, bounced back fairly quickly after the breach of Roll’s hot wallet. A month earlier, $WHALE “serendipitously withdrew” a large amount of its supply to its cold wallets, which aren’t connected to the internet, in anticipation of community distributions. The social currencies that had measures in place proved some resiliency against the hack.
— Legendary (@Legendary_NFT) March 16, 2021
After the company realized its hot wallet was emptied, the company spent the first two days following the money trail. Miles said the company engaged with forensic blockchain company Chainalysis for help. The company said it was looking at his logs, but says they have not seen any anomalous logins. Roll uses Amazon’s cloud for its infrastructure, and only a handful of employees have access to the private keys, and their accounts are secured with app-based authentication codes, said Kalla.
“We’re a young company, we’re growing extraordinarily quickly,” said Miles, who admitted that the company’s response “could have been better.”
“There’s no scenario in which you can lose that kind of money and not bring in incident response,” said Jake Williams, founder of cybersecurity firm Rendition Infosec. “The idea that you would try to do a DIY incident response, especially if it’s not your core capability, is just ridiculous.”
“To rebuild trust, the company has to come clean on where the failures were at,” said Williams, a former NSA hacker turned incident responder.
Roll is rebuilding its infrastructure, but did not give a timeline for when the work would be completed. The company said it won’t allow users to make withdrawals until it’s confident that its infrastructure is secure. The company says it will engage a security company to audit the changes to its infrastructure. Roll also said it will reduce how many tokens it holds in its hot wallet.
Miles said the company’s relief fund for creators was raised to $750,000, which he said will go directly to affected communities. The company also plans to hire a dedicated chief information security officer when its next financing round closes.
Sending money from the U.S. to Nigeria can be a painstaking process. For remittance platforms like Western Union, it will cost a transfer fee and take between one to five business days for money sent from a U.S. debit card to enter a Nigerian bank account.
Crypto remittance platforms are rising to the challenge of fixing these cross-border payment issues by reducing time and fees. Just yesterday, we talked about Flux, a Nigerian fintech solving this problem in the present YC W2021 batch. Today, another YC-backed startup, Afriex — but from the Summer 2020 batch — is raising a $1.2 million seed round.
The company founded by Tope Alabi and John Obirije in 2019 provides instant, zero-fee transfers to Africans at home and in the diaspora. It allows users to deposit cash on the app, send money to a bank account or another user, and withdraw money to a connected bank or debit card.
Like other crypto remittance platforms, Afriex has built its business on stablecoins — cryptocurrency backed by the dollar. In essence, the company buys cryptocurrency in one country and sells it in another to offer better exchange rates. This is in contrast to better-known platforms like Western Union and Wise that use traditional banking systems.
Last year while the startup graduated from YC, it claimed to be processing about $500,000 per month in transaction fees and is used in over 30 countries. At the time, Afriex was only present in Nigeria and the U.S. But having started operations in Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda, Afriex claims to be processing millions of dollars each month for thousands of Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. On its website, though, Afriex states that customers can only send money to and from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Canada, and the U.S.
With the new investment, the Lagos and San Francisco-based startup is looking to scale up by growing the team and expanding to other markets.
Pan-African VC firm Launch Africa led the seed round. Other investors include Y Combinator, SoftBank Opportunity Fund, Future Africa, Brightstone VC, Processus Capital, Uncommon Ventures, A$AP Capital, Precursor Ventures, and Ivernet Holdings. Angel investors like Russell Smith, Mandela Schumacher-Hodge Dixon, Furqan Rydhan, and Andrea Vaccari also took part.
The SoftBank Opportunity Fund, a subsidiary of the SoftBank Group, targets founders of color in the U.S. running early-stage startups. Since launching in June 2020, it has invested in 22 startups and Afriex seems to be the only one catering to a set of users in the US and another continent.
This is due to Alabi’s upbringing as an immigrant child who has had a mix of both worlds. It was difficult to send money home to Nigeria and his experience as a blockchain developer at Consensys made him realize he could solve a problem.
“We would go back home every two years and even then, I would always take note of what was missing and what could be improved. I would find myself having to pay for foreign expenses with money that was sitting in a US bank account,” said Alabi. “Traditional remittance companies were so slow and expensive that I knew I could do it better with crypto. Remittance is the best and most important use case for crypto. Our goal is to build the world’s largest remittance company, starting with emerging markets.”
Nigerian startup Xend Finance uses decentralized finance (DeFi) to address currency devaluation. DeFi aims to bridge the gap between decentralized blockchains and financial services. Aronu Ugochukwu and Abafor Chima founded the startup in 2019, and Ugochukwu is quite familiar with currency devaluation.
Currency devaluation is a common economic nightmare faced in most African countries and other developing countries worldwide. It has become imperative for organisations like credit unions to hedge their collective funds against their local currency’s devaluation.
“We’ve experienced three massive currency devaluations in the last three years in Nigeria, and this is similar to different economies in the world with unstable economies,” Ugochukwu said to TechCrunch. “My mother and I belong to different cooperatives where we save and make monthly contributions to help one another in the cooperative. Realizing that despite saving regularly, we were losing more value for our money. This gave birth to Xend Finance.”
Today, the company announced its mainnet launch, opening up the ability for credit unions to access DeFi for their members by using decentralized stablecoins such as DAI and BUSD.
Not only is Xend Finance trying to protect credit unions from fluctuation, but it is also changing how they operate. In these unions, groups of individuals contribute to informal savings for their different mutual benefits.
However, they are often limited by three factors. One is in its size — only a small knit of people in a particular locale can access the service. The second is lack of insurance, which means people don’t have the confidence to join saving cycles. The third has to do with how credit union members default in payments, affecting how much is paid down the line.
Image Credits: Xend Finance
Xend Finance is plugging these gaps using blockchain technology. The platform allows credit unions to have over 1,000 members who don’t stay in the same geographical location. It also employs smart contracts to lock each member’s contribution and enable flexible payouts when a payment cycle is due, which reduces default payment rates. The company also says it offers decentralized insurance to protect members against any form of asset loss that results from contract failures. However, this isn’t a traditional insurance contract from an insurance company.
Besides, the company says credit union members can earn interest in their savings by exchanging their crypto or fiat currency for stable cryptocurrencies and locking crypto assets on lending platforms. According to the company, there’s a possible 15% available annual percentage yield on the platform.
The company claims to be the world’s first decentralized finance (DeFi) credit union platform and the first DeFi company to launch out of Africa. Its technology is built on Binance Smart Chain (BSC), a blockchain for developing high-performance decentralized applications.
In 2019, the startup based in Enugu, Nigeria took part in the Google Launchpad Africa accelerator and the Binance Incubation Programme. It has since secured $2.2 million from Binance, Google Launchpad, NGC Ventures, Hashkey and AU21 Capital, among others.
From December 2020 to January 2021, Xend Finance executed a testnet with over 1,500 participants in 75 countries. This helped them find product-market fit, and last week, the company did a beta launch of its mainnet where it received over $500,000 in deposits. They also signed a credit union partnership with a software service provider, TechFusion Africa and its 5,000 members.
Image Credits: Xend Finance
The company intends to onboard a lot of customers now and focus on revenue later, Ugochukwu says. And when it does, the play will be to charge a commission (not more than 5%) on the return on investment when members of cooperatives or regular individuals save or perform contributions on the platform.
Having run some tests and passed several iterations, Xend Finance is fully going public today, and Changpeng “CZ” Zhao, CEO of Binance, expects the platform to show what can be built on BSC.
“Africa is one of the most important continents, representing the future and emergence of DeFi and blockchain capabilities,” said Zhao. “We are very excited about the mainnet launch of Xend Finance, with a team we backed early on that has a strong foothold in Africa and have been strong advocates for what Binance Smart Chain can accomplish. With their platform, they can bring stable currency and DeFi investment opportunities to those who normally wouldn’t have them.”
Along with the mainnet launch, Xend Finance will introduce the $XEND token through a Token Generation Event (TGE) on Balancer. The company says the token will reward users for performing different operations in “the protocol, as well as allows a decentralized governance of the Xend Finance ecosystem.”
For Ugochukwu, Xend Finance presents people with the opportunity to channel their savings into stablecoins without worry that their money will devalue overnight and earn higher interest rates through DeFi. “We are very excited that blockchain will have a positive impact on the people of Africa,” he said.