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Art app SketchAR to allow artists to list their artworks on NFT marketplaces directly

By Mike Butcher

An update to an existing art app that allows artists to access NFT marketplaces directly, could have the potential to democratize access to the NFT world for artists not currently in crypto. SketchAR, is an existing mobile app that allows artists to turn photos into illustrations using its AI-based computer vision. It is now is launching a new feature that allows users to turn their art into NFTs directly inside the app, and then sell it. Content produced on the app can also include a public community feed and digital learning courses.

The app, which boasts it has almost a million users already, will start off selecting a single ‘Creator of the Week’ from its community for their art to be NFT’d on the OpenSea marketplace. But a new feature will shortly enable any artist using the platform to create and auction an NFT on-demand.

However, there a catch. The artwork will have to be created directly in the SketchAR app in order to prove the artist is the legitimate rights holder, says the startup. This is, however, an advantage, says the startup, since very few marketplaces monitor the derivation and authenticity of artworks uploaded proactively.

And for now, it looks like there is no real equivalent app on the market, although there are of course plenty of ways to create an artwork and then upload it to an NFT marketplace in a separate process.

Andrey Drobitko, CEO and founder told me: “It’s a unique offer since it allows even amateur designers to create an art piece and turn it into an NFT without diving deep into the ecosystem, connecting their wallet to their OpenSea account and paying significant gas fees to minting.”

He said: “Since the art piece comes from the app SketchAR, it also ensures it’s authentic and wasn’t stolen – something that happened quite a few times with NFTs.”

SketchAR said it also built its own infrastructure that allows it to use Ethereum and other 2-layer solutions like Flow, Immutable, or Binance Smart Chain, to reduce costs.

“Basically it competes with artists and designers learning a lot about blockchain, how to work with it, and working directly with marketplaces like OpenSea or Rarible” added Drobitko.

“15 years ago I realized I couldn’t make much money as an artist and only continued to make art for pleasure. It’s different now and we’re excited to support artists, help them develop creative skills, and successfully monetize their artworks,” he said.

It’s estimated there are roughly 50 million artists globally, but fewer than 10% are able to make it their primary source of income.

According to NonFungible.com more than $2 billion was spent on NFTs during the first quarter of 2021 representing an increase of about 2,100% from Q4 2020.

China Has Triggered a Bitcoin Mining Exodus

By Gian Volpicelli, Wired UK
The promise of a crackdown is sending the country's crypterati scrambling for the exit.

In search of a new crypto deity

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!

Last week, I wrote about tech taking on Disney. This week, I’m talking about the search for a new crypto messiah.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


The Big Thing

Elon has worn out his welcome among the crypto illuminati, and the acolytes of Bitcoin are searching out a new emperor god king.

This weekend, thousands of crypto acolytes and investors have descended on a Bitcoin-themed conference in Miami, a very real, very heavily-produced conference sporting crypto celebrities and actual celebrities all on a mission to make waves.

Even though I am not at the conference in person (panels from its main stage were live-streamed online), I have plenty of invites in my email for afterparties featuring celebrities, open bars and endless conversations on the perils of fiat. The cryptocurrency community has never been larger or richer thanks to its most fervent bull run yet, and despite a pretty noteworthy correction in the past few weeks, people believe the best is yet to come.

Despite having so much, what they still seem to be lacking is a patron saint.

For the longest bout, that was SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk who bolstered the currency by pushing Tesla to invest cash on its balance sheet into bitcoin, while also pushing for Tesla to accept bitcoin payments for its vehicles. As I’ve noted in this newsletter in the past, Musk had a tough time reconciling the sheer energy use of bitcoin’s global network with his eco warrior bravado which has seemed to lead to his mild and uneven excommunication (though I’m sure he’s welcome back at any time).

Goods & services are the real economy, any form of money is simply the accounting thereof

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 5, 2021

There are plenty of celebrities looking to fill his shoes — a recent endorsement gone wrong by Soulja Boy was one of the more comical instances.

Crypto has been no stranger to grift — of that even the most hardcore crypto grifters can likely agree — and I think there’s been some agreement that the only leader who can truly preach the gospel is someone who is already so rich they don’t even need more money. It’s one reason the community has offered up so much respect for Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin who truly doesn’t seem to care too much about getting any wealthier — he donated about $1 billion worth of crypto to Covid relief efforts in India. A Musk-like cheerleader serves a different purpose though, and so the community is in search of a Good Billionaire.

The best runner-up at the moment appears to be one Jack Dorsey, and while — like Musk — he is also another double-CEO, he is quite a bit different from him in demeanor and desire for the spotlight. He was, however, a headline speaker at Miami’s Bitcoin conference.

Dorsey gathers the most headlines for his work at Twitter but it’s Square where he is pushing most of his crypto enthusiasm. Users can already use Square’s Cash App to buy Bitcoin. Minutes before going onstage Friday, Dorsey tweeted out a thread detailing that Square was interested in building its own hardware wallet that users could store cryptocurrency like bitcoin on outside of the confines of an exchange.

Square is considering making a hardware wallet for #bitcoin. If we do it, we would build it entirely in the open, from software to hardware design, and in collaboration with the community. We want to kick off this thinking the right way: by sharing some of our guiding principles.

— jack (@jack) June 4, 2021

“Bitcoin changes absolutely everything,” Dorsey said onstage. “I don’t think there is anything more important in my lifetime to work on.”

And while the billionaire Dorsey seems like a good choice on paper — he tweets about bitcoin often, but only good tweets. He defends its environmental effects. He shows up to House misinformation hearings with a bitcoin tracker clearly visible in the background. He is also unfortunately the CEO of Twitter, a company that’s desire to reign in its more troublesome users — including one very troublesome user — has caused a rift between him and the crypto community’s very vocal libertarian sect.

Dorsey didn’t make it very far into his speech before a heckler made a scene calling him a hypocrite because of all this with a few others piping in, but like any good potential crypto king would know to do, he just waited quietly for the noise to die down.


(Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Other things 

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

Facebook’s Trump ban will last at least 2 years
In response to the Facebook Oversight Board’s recommendations that the company offer more specificity around its ban of former President Trump, the company announced Friday that it will be banning Trump from its platforms through January 2023 at least, though the company has basically given itself the ability to extend that deadline if it so desires…

Nigeria suspends Twitter
Nigeria is shutting down access to Twitter inside the country with a government official citing the “use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” Twitter called the shutdown “deeply concerning.”

Stack Overflow gets acquired for $1.8 billion
Stack Overflow, one of the most-visited sites of developers across the technology industry, was acquired by Prosus. The heavy hitter investment firm is best known for owning a huge chunk of Tencent. Stack Overflow’s founders say the site will continue to operate independently under the new management.

Spotify ups its personalization
Music service Spotify launched a dedicated section this week called Only You which aims to capture some of the personalization it has been serving up in its annual Spotify Wrapped review. Highlights of the new feature include blended playlists with friends and mid-year reviews.

Supreme Court limits US hacking law in landmark case
Justices from the conservative and liberal wings joined together in a landmark ruling that put limits on what kind of conduct can be prosecuted under the controversial Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

This one email explains Apple
Here’s a fun one, the email exchange that birthed the App Store between the late Steve Jobs and SVP of Software Engineering, Bertrand Serlet as annotated by my boss Matthew Panzarino.


illustration of money raining down

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

For SaaS startups, differentiation is an iterative process
“The more you know about your target customers’ pain points with current solutions, the easier it will be to stand out. Take every opportunity to learn about the people you are aiming to serve, and which problems they want to solve the most. Analyst reports about specific sectors may be useful, but there is no better source of information than the people who, hopefully, will pay to use your solution..”

3 lessons we learned after raising $6 million from 50 investors
“…being pre-product at the time, we had to lean on our experience and our vision to drive conviction and urgency among investors. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough. Investors either felt that our experience was a bad fit for the space we were entering (productivity/scheduling) or that our vision wasn’t compelling enough to merit investment on the terms we wanted.

The existential cost of decelerated growth
“Just because a technology startup has a hot start, that doesn’t mean it will grow quickly forever. Most will wind up somewhere in the middle — or worse. Put simply, there is a larger number of tech companies that do fine or a little bit worse after they reach scale.”

 

Again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.

Xometry is taking its excess manufacturing capacity business public

By Alex Wilhelm

Xometry, a Maryland-based service that connects companies with manufacturers with excess production capacity around the world, filed an S-1 form with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announcing its intent to become a public company.

As the global supply chain tightened during the pandemic in 2020, a company that helped find excess manufacturing capacity was likely in high demand. CEO and co-founder Randy Altschuler described his company to TechCrunch this way last September upon the announcement of a $75 million Series E investment:

“We’ve created a marketplace using artificial intelligence to power it, and provide an e-commerce experience for buyers of custom manufacturing and for suppliers to deliver that manufacturing,” Altschuler said at the time. Xometry raised nearly $200 million while private, per Crunchbase data.

With Xometry, companies looking to build custom parts now have the ability to do so in a digital way. Rather than working the phones or starting an email chain, they can go into the Xometery marketplace, define parameters for their project and find a qualified manufacturer who can handle the job at the best price.

As of last September, the company had built relationships with 5,000 manufacturers around the world and had 30,000 customers using the platform.

At the time of that funding round, perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that the company’s lead investor was T. Rowe Price. When an institutional investor is involved in a late-stage round, it’s usually a sign that the company is ready to start thinking about an IPO. Altschuler said it was definitely something the company was considering, and had brought on a CFO, too, another sign that a company is ready to take that next step.

So what do Xometry’s financials look like as it heads to the public markets? We took a look at the S-1 to find out.

The numbers

Xometry makes money in two ways. The first comes from one part of its marketplace, with the company generating “substantially all of [its] revenue” from charging “buyers on its platform.” The other way that Xometry engenders top-line is seller-related services, including financial work. The company notes that seller-generated revenues were just 5% of its 2020 total, though it does expect that figure to rise.

Frst and Fabric Ventures announce fellowship program for crypto entrepreneurs

By Romain Dillet

VC funds Frst and Fabric Ventures are teaming up to create Le Crypto Fellowship. With this program, the two firms want to find the next 10 crypto entrepreneurs in France. And they think they might foster the most promising crypto startups if they don’t have any preconceived idea and team yet.

As Pierre Entremont from Frst writes in a Medium post, there are a lot of opportunities if you want to build the next crypto success, but few entrepreneurs are actively looking at this space.

“Nearly all crypto developers and entrepreneurs are already rich and therefore don’t step up their ambition,” he writes.

Blockchain development and DeFi projects are nearly always open source. Learning resources are available for free around the web. So it’s not that hard to get started and build a prototype, but you have to get started. Frst and Fabric Ventures think they can create the right framework to incentivize the next generation of entrepreneurs.

If you get accepted into the program, the two VC firms will hand you €100,000 in exchange for 7% of your company. Basically, this should cover one year of salary for one person in France with a salary of €50,000, €21,000 in employer contributions and €29,000 in expenses. You can be based in another country as long as it’s in the same time zone and you incorporate your company in France.

This way, you get to play around and think about an ambitious idea without feeling any financial pressure. You’ll join a Discord channel with other fellows and you’ll attend weekly Zoom meetings during the first few months. After that, Fabric Ventures and Frst partners will schedule regular office hours with you to check in on your progress.

If you end up creating a proper company and taking your idea to the next level, the fellowship may later ask to invest an additional €700,000 for a 20% stake in the company.

Candidates can apply until June 15. Le Crypto Fellowship isn’t looking for people who already have an idea or are only available part-time. But if you want to join as a team of two or three, you can. Instead of €100,000, you’ll get €200,000 or €300,000. Working as a team will probably help you remain motivated over the long haul.

This isn’t the first startup mentoring program. The Thiel Fellowship is arguably the most well-known. But Le Crypto Fellowship doesn’t limit itself to college dropouts and has a different focus. It’s going to be interesting to see if it pans out and if the VC firms will have a second, a third and a fourth batch down the road.

The Mayor of Reno Is Betting Big on the Blockchain

By Gregory Barber
Hillary Schieve invests in cryptocurrencies herself, and she sees the technology as a way to improve government services.

Augmented reality NFT platform Anima gets backing from Coinbase

By Lucas Matney

Augmented reality and non-fungible tokens, need I say more? Yes? Oh, well NFTs have certainly had their moment in 2021, but the question of what they do or what can be done with them has certainly been getting voiced more frequently as the speculative gold rush begins to cool off and people start to think more about how digital goods can evolve in the future.

Anima, a small creative crypto startup built by the founders of photo/video app Ultravisual, which Flipboard acquired back in 2014, is looking to use AR to shift how NFT art and collectibles can be viewed and shared. Their latest venture is an effort to help artists bring their digital creations to a bigger digital stage and help find what the future of NFTs looks like in augmented reality.

The startup has put together a small $500K pre-seed round from Coinbase Ventures, Divergence Ventures, Flamingo DAO, Lyle Owerko and Andrew Unger.

“As NFTs move away from being a more speculative market where it’s all about returns on your purchases, I think that’s healthy and it’s good for us specifically because we want to make things that are more approachable,” co-founder Alex Herrity says.

Their broader vision is finding ways for digital objects to interact with the real world, something that’s been a pretty top-of-mind concern for the AR world over the last few years, though augmented reality development has cooled more recently as creators have sunk into a wait-and-see attitude toward new releases from Apple and Facebook. Both the AR and NFT spaces are incredibly early, something Anima’s co-founders were quick to admit, but they think both spaces have matured enough that the gimmicks are out in the open.

“There’s a context shift that happens when you see AR as a vehicle to have a tactile relationship with something that you collected or that you see is a lifestyle accessory versus the common thing now where it’s a little bit more of an experiential gimmick,” co-founder Neil Voss tells TechCrunch.

The team has worked with a couple artists already as they’ve made early experiments in bringing digital art objects into AR and they’re launching a marketplace late next month based on ConsenSys’s Palm platform, where they hope to showcase more of their future partnerships.

 

Dapper Labs backs art hardware startup Infinite Objects in $6 million seed raise

By Lucas Matney

The NFT world is all about reshaping the idea of digital ownership, but art hardware startup Infinite Objects sees a big opportunity in making physical copies of those assets as it looks to reshape digital art and collectibles.

The startup makes screens that show a single video from a single artist and don’t do anything else. You can’t download apps to the screens or upload your own photos to them or check the time or weather. If you even want another piece of art from Infinite Objects, you can’t just download it, you have to actually go to their site and buy another display with that artwork on it. Each screen boasts information about the work, edition numbers and serial numbers etched on the back of it, inextricably tying the physical display to the work that it displays.

Infinite Objects CEO Joe Saavedra tells TechCrunch they’ve raised $6 million in seed funding from a host of backers including Courtside VC, which led the deal, and NBA Top Shot creator Dapper Labs.

For the longest time, Infinite Objects was an NFT platform without the NFTs. The company has worked with artists since 2018 to make (often limited run) series of physical display frames highlighting a specific digital work of the artist that looped forever. Sure, users could watch that looping video on the Infinite Objects website whenever they wanted, but the value was in owning an official copy of that artist’s work. Sound familiar?

When the wider popularity of NFTs as a speculative asset hit earlier this year, Saavedra saw a huge opportunity as internet users began discussing the future of digital art and digital scarcity. His team had already flirted with NFTs, partnering with artist Beeple back in December — months before he would spring out of relative obscurity in art circles with a $69 million sale at the Christie’s auction house — to release “physical tokens” of NFTs he was selling on the platform Nifty Gateway.

Saavedra sees a bigger opportunity for companies and creators in the NFT world to make their assets more approachable and understandable to a general audience with what his company is building, but he also sees a chance to transform NFTs from blind ownership to something more focused on actually appreciating the digital art that’s been purchased.

“When it comes to ownership, it’s exciting to be buying an NFT for $500 or $5,000, but what’s not exciting is having to open Safari on your phone to show it off,” Saavedra tells TechCrunch. “This physical vessel that we’ve designed is just so understandable for people who maybe don’t even understand what the blockchain at all, but they certainly understand limited edition physical merchandise.”

Saavedra is dismissive of other digital displays that cycle through artwork and says that art owners could also just toss images of their NFTs onto the TV if they wanted to, but that they all only serve up art as “glorified screensavers.”

The team at Infinite Objects sees broader opportunities in the NFT world but they’ve been tight-lipped on exactly what these efforts will look like. You can see some potential hints in the list of backers in this round, including most interestingly NBA Top Shot creator Dapper Labs. The startup has been building out its own blockchain called Flow and Saavedra was quick to sing its praises in our conversation, noting that its more scalable and sustainable than the Ethereum network. Dapper Labs recently announced its first major third-party NFT platform, partnering with avatar startup Genies –another investor in this round — for a digital accessories storefront that’s being launched this summer.

Serena Ventures, Betaworks, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, GFR Fund, Kevin Durant & Rich Kleiman, Genies, and Ashton Kutcher’s Sound Ventures also participated in the round.

 

Settle raises $15M from Kleiner Perkins to give e-commerce companies more working capital

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Alek Koenig spent four years at Affirm, where he was head of credit.

There he saw firsthand just how powerful the alternative lending model could be. Koenig realized that it wasn’t just consumers who could benefit from the model, but businesses too.

So in November 2019, he founded Settle as a way to give e-commerce and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies access to non-dilutive capital. (Not every company wants to raise venture money). By June 2020, the startup had launched its platform, which is designed to help these businesses manage their cash flow. Over time, he recruited a previous co-worker, Shane Morian, to serve as Settle’s CTO.

And today, the company is announcing that it has raised $15 million in a Series A funding round led by Kleiner Perkins. This follows a previously unannounced $6 million seed raise led by Founders Fund in November 2020. Other investors in the company include SciFi (Affirm founder Max Levchin’s VC firm), Caffeinated Capital, WorkLife Ventures, Background Capital and AngelList Venture CEO Avlok Kohli.

With the pandemic leading to a massive shift toward digital and online shopping, ecommerce and CPG businesses found themselves with the challenge of keeping up with demand while trying to manage their cash flow. The main problem was the lag between accounts receivables and accounts payables.

“These companies suffer from the problem where there are these huge cash flow gaps from buying inventory, waiting to receive it and then turning it into revenue,” Koenig explains. “It takes quite a bit of time for these customers to actually get revenue from all those inventory purchases they need to make. What we do is make it really easy for companies to pay their vendors with extended payment terms.”

Settle does this by automatically syncing to a business’ accounting software and combining that with working capital products it’s developed.

Put simply, Settle will pay a vendor, and then brands can pay Settle back when they turn that COGS (cost of goods sold) into revenue. The startup says it also saves brands money on expensive wire fees.

Image Credits: Settle

“Businesses really value getting cash sooner, so they can use it in their operations,” Koenig said. “We’ve worked to reimagine the CFO suite for brands, starting with integrated financing and bill pay solutions.”

The concept of non-dilutive capital is not a new one with other startups tackling the space in different ways. For example, Pipe aims to give SaaS companies a way to get their revenue upfront, by pairing them with investors on a marketplace that pays a discounted rate for the annual value of those contracts.

Settle is focused on the e-commerce vertical, and building a unique product for that category, Koenig says, rather than trying to build a product aimed for several different industries.

“We don’t want to be a mediocre product for everybody,” he told TechCrunch. “But rather a phenomenal product for this vertical.”

Since its launch last June, Settle has seen its business jump by 1000% although it’s important to note that’s from a small base. Settle is currently working with over 300 brands including baby stroller retailer Lalo, Spiceology and men’s skincare brand Disco. So far, all of its growth has been organic.

“Last year when the pandemic hit, offline retail shut down and ecommerce got a big boost. But that meant that a lot of these companies were running out of orders and were out of stock on many items, so they were just kind of leaving money on the table,” Koenig said. “Once they started using us, they were able to buy more inventory, so we actually help them make more profit, and not just create more sales.”

His reasoning for that last statement is that by giving these businesses the ability to purchase items in bulk, they could get cheaper price per unit costs as well as cheaper shipping costs.

The company is planning to use its new capital in part to grow its team of 20, as well as raise more debt so that it can continue lending money to businesses.

Kleiner Perkins’ Monica Desai Weiss said her firm believes that Koenig and CTO Morian’s expertise in underwriting, capital markets and e-commerce give the pair “a rare skill set that’s unique to their market.”

She’s also drawn to the company’s embedded approach.

“Whereas most lending businesses are fairly transactional and opportunistic, Settle becomes deeply embedded in the way their merchants forecast and grow,” she told TechCrunch. “That approach has demonstrated inherent virality and their timing is perfect — the past year has changed consumer behaviors permanently and also produced massive opportunities for global entrepreneurship via ecommerce. In that way, we see the umbrella of e-commerce expanding massively in the coming years, and we believe Settle will be key to enabling that shift.”

Elon Musk Tweets—and Gives Crypto Markets Growing Pains

By Gregory Barber
The Tesla and SpaceX billionaire has sent Dogecoin and Bitcoin on a roller coaster this month—and exposed weaknesses in the cryptocurrency market along the way.

Egyptian furniture marketplace Homzmart lands $15M Series A for MENA expansion

By Tage Kene-Okafor

In most parts of Africa and the Middle East, a consumer journey and experience in buying furniture is not fun. A typical shopping process would entail looking out for the best price and quality and asking for recommendations and checking offline stores, one after another.

It is rare to find one-stop shops, especially large offline ones, that can adequately cater to the needs of consumers in the MENA region. Home goods and furniture marketplaces have launched in the last three years around the region to meet this need. Egypt’s Homzmart is one such, and today the company is announcing it has closed its $15 million Series A investment.

The company was founded in 2019 by Mahmoud Ibrahim and Ibrahim Mohamed, but it didn’t launch until the first quarter of 2020. This round of financing follows a $1.3 million seed investment raised in February last year. According to the company, this brings the total amount raised to $17.2 million. 

China’s MSA Capital, one of the investors in Homzmart’s seed round, co-led this Series A investment alongside Nuwa Capital. Other participating investors include EQ2 Ventures, Impact46, Outliers Capital, Nuwa Capital and Rise Capital.

The furniture industry in Egypt has been historically characterized by poor accessibility for consumers. Homzmart’s marketplace collects designs, price ranges and other details of its retailers’ products and solves high distribution costs for them by providing access to consumers who have flexible financing options. In addition, Homzmart said it incorporates AI to optimize content for retailers and intelligent tools to help customers with their purchasing decisions.

“As a marketplace, we stand between the supply and demand. So we connect furniture and home goods suppliers with consumers,” CEO Mahmoud Ibrahim told TechCrunch in an interview. “It’s almost like a big hassle to buy furniture in Africa and the Middle East. And I think it’s a pain all over the world when it comes to having a place that you can shop all your needs when it comes to home products.”

Over the last 12 months, Homzmart claims to have grown 30x in sales. It also showcases more than 55,000 products from thousands of brands and merchants. The online marketplace is tapping into the rapidly expanding $8 billion industry where 14 million customers in the region search online for furniture monthly.

Homzmart

Ibrahim Mohamed (COO) and Mahmoud Ibrahim (CEO)

When Homzmark kicked off its hard launch and raised its seed round, it was right at the start of the pandemic. Ibrahim said the company was uncertain that it would survive due to anticipated behavioral changes in consumer spending. But the opposite happened. Customers in Egypt grew to like the product, resulting in more sales like most marketplaces and e-commerce platforms witnessed this past year.

“At the beginning, we were very worried and not sure how customers would react to buying furniture during the pandemic in the Middle East online. So we’re actually amazed by the traction as it seemed like the region was waiting for something like this to happen.”

The growth experienced within the pandemic was one reason MSA Capital decided to double down on the startup. As stated by Ben Harburg, the firm’s general partner, “The pandemic exposed the extreme vulnerabilities and inefficiencies of the Middle East’s archaic offline retail ecosystem, logistics and supply chain. Into the void stepped Homzmart as the next-generation, digitally enabled online marketplace and optimized logistics provider for large-item retail addressing both consumer and enterprise customers.

Another reason behind the investment, the firm said, is the vast experience of both founders in e-commerce and fulfillment. Ibrahim was the VP of Operations for Jumia Egypt before becoming the Group COO of Daraz, a Southeast Asian company acquired by Alibaba in 2018. Mohamed is also a Jumia alumnus and was part of the logistics development and expansion team in Egypt

Although their experience with different verticals in everyday commerce in Jumia and Daraz was invaluable, the founders chose to launch in the niche furniture market instead of building a similar model as their former employers. “We decided this was a really good vertical that we needed to focus on and hold ourselves accountable to digitizing in the region,” Ibrahim said about developing the niche product.

Homzmart’s first year in business was all about understanding supply and demand. The next couple of years is a strategy to expand across the MENA region, helping fulfill demand from a young and fast-growing consumer middle class.

“Whatever we did in Egypt, we need to do across the region. Homzmart isn’t looking to be just an Egyptian platform, rather a regional platform,” the CEO said.

The company has strategically launched operations close to Damietta City, Egypt, to focus on this regional market opportunity. The city is known to be one of the largest furniture manufacturing hubs in the Middle East and thus allows Homzmart to streamline the region’s vertical industry supply chain. An integral part of this supply chain is handling logistics and the movement of products from merchants to buyers. The company said a sizeable tranche of investments would be used for this effort.

What’s next for the company when logistics is handled?

“I’ll say the thing that keeps me awake at night is the fact that our business is growing very fast. And we need to make sure that we’re building the right institutional infrastructure for that business, to make sure that after two or three years, we’re building like a very solid, multi-billion dollar business,” Ibrahim remarked.

Bosta raises $6.7M to expand e-commerce delivery business across Africa and MENA

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Per a recent report by Bain & Co., e-commerce is expected to grow to $28.5 billion in MENA by 2022 from a 2019 value of $8.3 billion. Egypt, one of the most active e-commerce countries in the region, is anticipated to grow 33% annually to reach $3 billion by 2022.

But for any e-commerce business to thrive, its last-mile delivery arm has to be well figured out. Bosta is one such company in Egypt helping small businesses with logistics and last-mile delivery. Today, the company is announcing it has closed a Series A investment of $6.7 million. U.S. and Middle East VC firm Silicon Badia led the round, with participation from 4DX Ventures, Plug and Play Ventures, Wealth Well VC, Khwarizmi VC, as well as other regional and global investors

This investment comes a year after the company raised a $2.5 million round, which takes its total investment raised to $9.2 million.

Bosta was launched in 2017 by Mohamed Ezzat and Ahmed Gaber. The company offers next-day delivery to customers and handles exchange shipments, customer returns and cash collection.

The idea for Bosta came during Ezzat’s time at Lynks, his previous consumer goods startup. Lynks, the first YC-backed company from Egypt, allows people in Egypt to buy brands from the U.S., China and the U.K.

As co-founder and COO at Lynks, Ezzat was responsible for logistics, international clearance and last-mile delivery. In 2016, Egypt experienced an economic downturn coupled with the Egyptian pound devaluation and government restriction on imports. For Lynks it meant slow growth, but Ezzat was concerned about fixing the last-mile delivery bit, which, according to him, was a huge pain point.

“My nightmare was always the last mile. And at that time, you know that e-commerce is still very, very small. So it’s only 1% of the whole retail value,” he told TechCrunch. “So I was always thinking, how come if we want the e-commerce to grow, and we don’t have any strong company when it comes to last-mile because, in the end, every transaction on an e-commerce platform is a transaction on a courier platform.”

E-commerce is a fragmented sector where 80% of transactions come from small businesses selling on Facebook, Instagram and social media in general. Most of these businesses lack a strong delivery experience, and Ezzat left Lynks the following year to start Bosta

Being in the parcel delivery industry, Bosta wants to help these companies to grow profitably. It also tries to simplify logistics and allow its customers to have full control over the delivery process.

“You can use Bosta to get anything to your doorstep. You buy in our local currency, and we buy everything, handle the shipping, customs, clearance and bring it to your doorstep,” the CEO added.

The company doesn’t own fleets of vehicles to carry out operations. Instead, it operates an Uber-like model where drivers sign up, are made contractors and make money when a delivery is completed.  

Since 2017, the company has delivered more than 4 million packages to businesses, more than half since the pandemic outbreak last year. Bosta completes more than 300,000 deliveries per month, which is a 3.5x increase from when it raised its previous round, Ezzat stated. He also claims that more than 2,200 businesses use its platform daily and achieve a 95% delivery success rate.

Asides from small businesses, Bosta works with major e-commerce platforms like Souq (an Amazon company) and Jumia. Depending on the volume of goods transported, Bosta charges small businesses about 35-40 Egyptian pounds, while the big players are charged less, at 20-25 Egyptian pounds.

Speaking on the investment, Fawaz H Zu’bi said in a statement: “E-commerce has always had amazing potential in our region but was always being held back by something whether payments, logistics, market fragmentation, or customer adoption. We are excited to finally see companies like Bosta emerge to tackle some of these issues and help e-commerce realize its full promise and potential in a region that has now ‘turned on’ digitally.”

In the next two years, Bosta plans to deliver more than 15 million parcels in Egypt and serve over 20,000 businesses. The funds will be used for those causes, as well as expanding operations across Africa, MENA and the GCC.

“The investment is to dominate Egypt,” said Ezzat. “We want to make sure that we deliver the next day across Egypt, not just in Cairo, where we currently do. And to be a market leader when it comes to e-commerce on the continent and be profitable. This is the main target for us now and also to start operations in Saudi Arabia.”

Elon Musk giveth and taketh away

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!

Last week, I wrote about Facebook’s never-ending Trump problem. This week, I’m looking at Elon Musk’s wild week of whipping crypto markets.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.

The big thing

This week, Elon Musk may have crashed the crypto markets with a tweet.

Musk has always been anything but predictable but retail and institutional investors are also anything but dismissive of his ability to pump up markets — especially if there’s a good joke to tell in the meantime. A few days after he crashed Dogecoin because of his appearance on Saturday Night Live where he called the currency a “hustle,” he drove the price of Bitcoin — a cryptocurrency with a $1 trillion market cap –down as much as 17% with a tweet basically noting that he now believes Bitcoin is bad for the environment and that Tesla will not be accepting Bitcoin payments for its cars after all.

The impact was immediate. Crypto investors flooded into his mentions pleading for mercy and complaining to each other in public and private that he shouldn’t have been so rash. Unrelated coins across the cryptosphere dipped as investors worried whether the tweet, shipped at a tenuous moment for this bull run would drag the space down to earth. A later tweet that he was working with Dogecoin developers directly on improving its efficiency sent the joke coin (worth billions of dollars) surging and supplied crypto investors with a worrying insight that perhaps this is all just a joke to Musk.

Days later, Bitcoin has erased months of gains — though Dogecoin isn’t doing too poorly.

Musk has had his own dealings with the SEC in recent years, but his market moving tweets have seemed dubious at times but have generally seemed to be just another case of him trolling. Tesla’s investment in Bitcoin has complicated this somewhat, and while it’s not known whether he actually has holdings of Dogecoin, he’s certainly put himself in a less flexible legal arena when his company has a billion dollar stake in the fortunes of Bitcoin which he seems to lord control of over with his Twitter.

Retail investors aren’t used to blowing up a billionaire’s mentions and eliciting a response and there’s a certain irresistible power that comes with that especially for pumping nascent bets like Dogecoin, but I suspect that there’s going to be some reticence among a certain class of investor to invite Musk’s brand of randomized volatility into their wallets.

Elon Thanos snapping your crypto holdings https://t.co/x4wiOhq8Zg

— Kyle Russell (@kylebrussell) May 12, 2021

Other things

Jim Urquhart / Reuters

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

Uber and Lyft supplying free rides to vaccine appointments
In an effort to get more Americans vaccinated, the Biden White House has partnered with Uber and Lyft allowing riders to get free rides to and from vaccination sites, covering up to $15 each way.

State attorneys tell Facebook to nix Instagram for Kids app
Attorneys General representing some 44 U.S. states and territories signed a letter pressuring Facebook to abandon its plans to create a version of Instagram designed specifically for kids.

Burning Man plans for a virtual year
The Covid-19 pandemic has taken yet another year of Burning Man away from attendees. The festival in the Nevada desert has been a favorite of high-profile tech executives, but this year they’ll have to settle for a wholly virtual experience.

Ethereum creator donates $1 billion to India Covid recovery
One of the wildest story of the weeks involves the creator of Ethereum dumping billions of dogecoin copy cats that were unceremoniously gifted to his account, donating them to a host of charities. He donated some $1.5 billion worth of cryptocurrencies in total.

Amazon nukes accounts of some major Chinese sellers
Alleging fake reviews and behaviors that violated its store policies, Amazon took the nuclear option on a number of massive Chinese sellers on its platform that were responsible for billions in merchandise value. Those account holders aren’t too happy and Amazon isn’t too repentant.

GasBuddy hits top of App Store 
In the wake of the Colonial Pipeline attack, several states in the eastern United States were left with gas shortages, pushing the gas-finding app GasBuddy to the top of the App Store for the first time ever.

Extra things

Illustration Expensify

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

The Expensify EC-1
“Let’s make it clear from the outset that this story is about an expense management SaaS business called Expensify. As you’d expect, yes, this is about the expense management market and how Expensify has grown, its technology and all of that. Normally, that would make us change the channel. But this is also a story about pirates; peer-to-peer hackers who asked, “Why not work from Thailand and dozens of countries across the globe?” and actually did it using P2P hacker culture as a model for consensus-driven decision-making — all with pre-Uber Travis Kalanick in a guest-starring role..”

Is there a creed in venture capital
“Entrepreneurs and investors should recognize that contracts are worth very little without the ongoing relationship management that keeps all parties aligned. Enforcement is so unusual in the world of startups that I consider it a mostly dead-end path. In my experience, good communication is the only reliable remedy. This is the way.

5 ways to raise your startups PR game
“I get emails every week from companies coming out of stealth mode, wanting to make a splash. Or from a Series B company that’s been around for a while and hopes to improve their branding/messaging/positioning so that a new upstart doesn’t eat their lunch. How do you make a splash? How do you stay relevant?”


Again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.

Crypto and blockchain must accept they have a problem, then lead in sustainability

By Annie Siebert
Monica Long Contributor
Monica Long is the GM of RippleX.

As the price of bitcoin hits record highs and cryptocurrencies become increasingly mainstream, the industry’s expanding carbon footprint becomes harder to ignore.

Just last week, Elon Musk announced that Tesla is suspending vehicle purchases using bitcoin due to the environmental impact of fossil fuels used in bitcoin mining. We applaud this decision, and it brings to light the severity of the situation — the industry needs to address crypto sustainability now or risk hindering crypto innovation and progress.

The market cap of bitcoin today is a whopping $1 trillion. As companies like PayPal, Visa and Square collectively invest billions in crypto, market participants need to lead in dramatically reducing the industry’s collective environmental impact.

As the price of bitcoin hits record highs and cryptocurrencies become increasingly mainstream, the industry’s expanding carbon footprint becomes harder to ignore.

The increasing demand for crypto means intensifying competition and higher energy use among mining operators. For example, during the second half of February, we saw the electricity consumption of BTC increase by more than 163% — from 265 TWh to 433 TWh — as the price skyrocketed.

Sustainability has become a topic of concern on the agendas of global and local leaders. The Biden administration rejoining the Paris climate accord was the first indication of this, and recently we’ve seen several federal and state agencies make statements that show how much of a priority it will be to address the global climate crisis.

A proposed New York bill aims to prohibit crypto mining centers from operating until the state can assess their full environmental impact. Earlier this year, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission put out a call for public comment on climate disclosures as shareholders increasingly want information on what companies are doing in this regard, while Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that the amount of energy consumed in processing bitcoin is “staggering.” The United Kingdom announced plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2030, and the prime minister launched an ambitious plan last year for a green industrial revolution.

Crypto is here to stay — this point is no longer up for debate. It is creating real-world benefits for businesses and consumers alike — benefits like faster, more reliable and cheaper transactions with greater transparency than ever before. But as the industry matures, sustainability must be at the center. It’s easier to build a more sustainable ecosystem now than to “reverse engineer” it at a later growth stage. Those in the cryptocurrency markets should consider the auto industry a canary: Carmakers are now retrofitting lower-carbon and carbon-neutral solutions at great cost and inconvenience.

Market participants need to actively work together to realize a low-emissions future powered by clean, renewable energy. Last month, the Crypto Climate Accord (CCA) launched with over 40 supporters — including Ripple, World Economic Forum, Energy Web Foundation, Rocky Mountain Institute and ConsenSys — and the goal to enable all of the world’s blockchains to be powered by 100% renewables by 2025.

Some industry participants are exploring renewable energy solutions, but the larger industry still has a long way to go. While 76% of hashers claim they are using renewable energy to power their activities, only 39% of hashing’s total energy consumption comes from renewables.

To make a meaningful impact, the industry needs to come up with a standard that’s open and transparent to measure the use of renewables and make renewable energy accessible and cheap for miners. The CCA is already working on such a standard. In addition, companies can pay for high-quality carbon offsets for remaining emissions — and perhaps even historical ones.

While the industry works to become more sustainable long term, there are green choices that can be made now, and some industry players are jumping on board. Fintechs like Stripe have created carbon renewal programs to encourage its customers and partners to be more sustainable.

Companies can partner with organizations, like Energy Web Foundation and the Renewable Energy Business Alliance, to decarbonize any blockchain. There are resources for those who want to access renewable energy sources and high-quality carbon offsets. Other options include using inherently low-carbon technologies, like the XRP Ledger, that don’t rely on proof-of-work (which involves mining) to help significantly reduce emissions for blockchains and cryptofinance.

The XRP Ledger is carbon-neutral and uses a validation and security algorithm called Federated Consensus that is approximately 120,000 times more energy-efficient than proof-of-work. Ethereum, the second-largest blockchain, is transitioning off proof-of-work to a much less energy-intensive validation mechanism called proof-of-stake. Proof-of-work systems are inefficient by design and, as such, will always require more energy to maintain forward progress.

The devastating impact of climate change is moving at an alarming speed. Making aspirational commitments to sustainability — or worse, denying the problem — isn’t enough. As with the Paris agreement, the industry needs real targets, collective action, innovation and shared accountability.

The good news? Solutions can be practical, market-driven and create value and growth for all. Together with climate advocates, clean tech industry leaders and global finance decision-makers, crypto can unite to position blockchain as the most sustainable path forward in creating a green, digital financial future.

Solana, a blockchain platform followed by top crypto investors, says it’s far faster than Ethereum

By Connie Loizos

Solana isn’t known yet outside of the crypto community. But insiders think the blockchain platform is interesting for a wide variety of reasons, beginning with its amiable founder, Anatoly Yakovenko, who spent more than a dozen years as an engineer working on wireless protocols at Qualcomm and who says he had a lightbulb moment at a San Francisco cafe several years ago following two coffees and a beer.

His big idea centered on creating an historical record to speed along “consensus,” which is how decisions are made on blockchains, which are themselves peer-to-peer systems. Right now, consensus is reached on various blockchains when members solve a mathematical puzzle, a mechanism that’s called “proof of work.” These miners are rewarded for their efforts with cryptocurrency, but the process takes many hours in Bitcoin’s case and days in the case of Ethereum, and it’s insanely energy intensive, which is why neither Bitcoin nor Ethereum has proved very scalable. (Bitcoin’s heavy reliance on fossil fuel is the reason Elon Musk cited earlier this week to explain why Tesla is no longer accepting Bitcoin as payment for the company’s electric cars.)

But there is another way. Indeed, crypto watchers and developers are excited about Ethereum and other currencies that are transitioning to a new system called “proof of stake,” wherein people who agree to lock up a certain amount of their cryptocurrency are invited to activate so-called validator software that enables them to store data, process transactions, and add new blocks to the blockchain. Like miners, “validators” take on the role to earn more cryptocurrency, but they need far less sophisticated equipment, which opens up the opportunity to more people. Meanwhile, because more validators can participate in a network, consensus can be reached faster.

Yakovenko is enthusiastic about the shift.  We talked with him yesterday, and he’s certainly not rooting against Ethereum, saying it would be “devastating for the entire industry” if Ethereum weren’t able to pull off its transition to proof of stake, given its mindshare and its roughly $500 billion market cap.

Still, he argues that not even proof of stake is good enough. The reason, he says, is that even with proof of stake, miners — and bots — have advance access to transaction information that allows them to exploit users, or front run transactions, because they can control transaction ordering and profit from that power.

Enter Yakovenko’s big idea, which he calls “proof of history,” wherein the Solana blockchain has developed a kind of synchronized clock that, in essence, assigns a timestamp for each transaction and disables the ability for miners and bots to decide the order of which transactions get recorded onto the blockchain.

Yakovenko says it also allows for faster block finalization and much faster consensus because the timestamps of previous transactions no longer need to be computed. “Basically, the speed of light is how fast we can make this network go.”

Certainly, Solana — which has sold tokens to investors but never equity in the company — has many excited about its prospects. In recent interviews with both investor Garry Tan of Initialized Capital and CEO Joe Lallouz of the blockchain infrastructure company Bison Trails, both mentioned Solana as among the projects that they find most interesting right now. (We assume both hold its tokens.)

Others say on background that while they understand the developer benefits and need for more scaleable blockchains than Ethereum, Solana still needs to more developer mindshare to prove its long-term worth and it’s not there yet. According to Solana itself, there are currently 608 validators helping secure the Solana Network and 47 decentralized applications (or “dapps”) powered by Solana. Meawhile, they were reportedly 33,700 active validators helping to secure “Eth 2.0” as of late December and 3,000 dapps running on the Ethereum blockchain as of February.

In fairness, the Ethereum network went live in 2015, so it has a three-year head start on Solana. In the meantime, Solana has a lead of its own, says Yakovenko, who is based in San Francisco and has assembled a distributed team of 50 employees, including numerous former colleagues from Qualcomm. Asked about other projects that have embraced a proof of history approach, he says that while it’s “all open source” and “anybody can go do it,” there “isn’t a set of our biggest competitors saying they’re going to rework their system and use this.”

One likely reason is that it’s almost comically complicated. “It just takes a lot of work to build these systems,” Yakovenko says. “It takes two to three years to build a new layer one, and you can’t really take an idea for one and stuff it in the other one. If you try to do that, you’re going to set yourself back by six to nine months at the least and potentially introduce bugs and vulnerabilities.”

Either way, Solana, which itself has a $12 billion market cap, isn’t interested in competing with Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies on every front anyway, suggests Yakovenko. All it really wants is to completely disrupt Wall Street and the rest of the global markets, even if he doesn’t put it that way exactly.

He knows it sounds crazy. But the way he sees it, what Solana is building is “an open, fair, censorship-resistant global marketplace” that’s better than anything inside of the New York Stock Exchange or any other means of settling trades. It’s certainly a much bigger opportunity than he imagined, backed at that cafe.

As he said yesterday: “Everything that we do to make this thing faster and faster results in this better censorship resistance, and therefore better markets. And price discovery is what I imagine is the killer use case for decentralized public networks. Can we be the world’s price discovery engine? That’s an interesting question to ask.”

He’s far from alone in pondering the possibilities. Pointing to the wild swings in cryptocurrency prices right now, he says he suspects that “part of that is just developers and folks discovering the network and building cool applications on it.” It’s exciting when people can “self serve and build stuff that they want to go to market,” he adds. “It’s the secret weapon of decentralized networks versus any incumbents like Bank of America or Visa or whatever. Those big companies can’t iterate and move as fast as global set of engineers who can just come together and code whenever they want to.”

He saw very similar dynamics play at Qualcomm, in fact. “Working in a big company, it seems like there’s a ton of resources, right? They can accomplish anything. But you saw us working on proprietary operating systems while the Linux guys were just working first for fun, right? And it seemed like it was just a weird hobby that people had; they were coding operating systems at night; they were coding over the weekend. Then all of a sudden, Linux is the de facto mobile iOS of Android.”

If you’re curious to learn more about Solana, we’ll have a podcast coming out soon with our longer conversation with Yakovenko. In the meantime, the outlet Decrypt today published an explainer titled “What is Solana?” that you might check out here.

GameStop FOMO Inspires a New Wave of Crypto Pump-and-Dumps

By Cecilia D'Anastasio
Thousands of would-be investors are joining Discord groups that promise big earnings by manipulating the crypto market.

CryptoPunks maker Larva Labs launches their new NFT project, Meebits

By Lucas Matney

The creators behind CryptoPunks, one of the most popular NFT projects on the web, just revealed their latest project called Meebits. The project boasts 20,000 procedurally generated 3D characters that are tradeable on the Ethereum blockchain.

There have been hundreds of 3D avatar NFT platforms popping up over the past several months hoping to gain momentum and capture the enthusiasm of crypto buyers, but the traction of the Larva Labs team whose pixel portrait CryptoPunks project has netted more than $550 million in lifetime sales will likely make this platform another hit. Meebits arrives at a time of peak hype for their first effort CryptoPunks which is weeks away from a Christie’s auction that many are expecting to see fetch a price in the tens of million of dollars. It also arrives as Ethereum has had one of its best weeks on record, punching through all-time-highs nearly every day this week. Ethereum is currently trading at just shy of $3,300.

In a blog post, the Larva Labs creators posit that they hope that Meebits will eventually serve as avatars for “virtual worlds, games and VR.” Meebits not only boast a revised art style, but Larva Labs has made some underlying changes to the no-fee marketplace, the most significant of which is likely the ability to customize trades allowing users to swap Meebits with each other in a more complex manner.

In my profile of the company’s CryptoPunks project last month, the team’s founders hoped that their new project would lower the barrier of entry as CryptoPunks prices reached stratospheric heights, it seems that even by doubling the total supply (20,000 avatars versus CryptoPunks 10,000 figures) Meebits are poised to still be an expensive affair.

The company is distributing the Meebits avatars through a Dutch auction, meaning the price for buying and minting a Meebit will lower to zero Eth (plus Ethereum gas fees) over the course of a week. Currently users are paying 2.49 Eth to mint a Meebit a random, a nearly $8,500 investment at current prices. Nevertheless, around 2,000 of them have already sold, meaning the creators have already pulled in nearly $20 million worth of Eth after just over two hours on the market.

 

In the race toward Web 3 financial privacy, Secret Network attracts backing from key players

By Mike Butcher

In the real world — the world on which the global economy runs — we don’t expose every aspect of our financial activity in public. We want to be able to select which parties can access our financial data and under what circumstances — for example, our credit history or bank transactions. The problem with the blockchain world is that this financial privacy doesn’t really exist. This has led to pretty bad abuses, such as the practice of “front-running,” where a nefarious person can take advantage of you immediately after seeing your transaction on a public blockchain. What’s required is a real infrastructure improvement to this problem, for, without it, the crypto “Shangri-La” of “DeFi” (decentralized finance) will never have a hope of taking off.

It’s therefore significant that some well-known organizations in the realm of blockchain financing are investing the equivalent of $11.5 million into SCRT, the native coin of the Secret Network blockchain. The investment was led by Arrington Capital and Blocktower Capital and also includes Spartan Group and Skynet Trading.

Previous investors in Secret include Outlier Ventures, Fenbushi Capital and Hashed, as well as Secret Foundation and Enigma MPC, and node operators such as Figment and Staked.

Tor Bair, founder of Secret Foundation said: “The addition of these valuable and experienced partners to the Secret ecosystem marks a significant inflection point for Secret Network as we concentrate on expanding and supporting our fast-growing application layer.”

Secret, which used to be called Enigma before a pivot, claims to have been the first privacy-first smart contract platform. (The first version of this blockchain was called the “Enigma Mainnet,” but this branding was changed to Secret Network via a governance vote in summer 2020).

So far in 2021, the Secret Network ecosystem has launched several native applications, including SecretSwap, a “front-running resistant,” cross-chain AMM with privacy protections. It is also developing Secret NFTs.

So why is this at all significant? Why should we care? It’s simply because, without privacy, DeFi is highly unlikely to go mainstream.

Without privacy in transactions, the traditional economic system won’t bother taking any notice of crypto and blockchain, outside of noting whether the price of bitcoin goes up or down.

Admittedly, Secret is not the only player tackling this area. It is playing in the same arena as blockchain projects such as Phala (not yet on mainnet, and built on Polkadot), Oasis and Aleo, which recently just fundraised via Andreessen Horowitz.

What these projects all have in common is this race toward what’s known as the Web3 “application privacy” space. Once again, they are trying to reproduce the kind of financial privacy that we have all come to expect from the traditional financial system, but which remains elusive in the blockchain world.

However, this approach should not be confused with privacy coins like Monero and Zcash. These are coins, and therefore not the same at all as the above-named projects, which are aiming at what’s known as “programmable privacy.”

Bair told me: “Transactional privacy [via privacy coins] just means hiding simple aspects of transactions from other parties — a narrow form of privacy. Smart contract privacy — what we call ‘programmable privacy’ — is a much more powerful idea, allowing developers to build complex decentralized and permissionless applications that also protect data privacy, with big consequences for Web3 security and usability. As an analogy — imagine trying to build a decentralized Facebook. Normal blockchains expose all data by default, a much worse outcome for user privacy and security. Only smart contract privacy allows you to build these types of complex applications without compromising the user experience and threatening their safety.”

Front-running is often described as getting a transaction first in line before a known future transaction occurs. Bair claims Secret protects against this at the protocol level because all interactions with smart contracts are encrypted and cannot be viewed even by the network validators, “so all DeFi applications built on Secret Network are front-running resistant by default” he told me.

That said, Secret will still have to compete with the myriad privacy projects already on — for instance — Ethereum, such as Automata. The Secret Network is a standalone blockchain and would still require a developer community to be successful, versus Ethereum and Polkadot, which technically have a head start, of sorts. But these blockchains are public by default. So Secret’s hyperfocus on the issue of privacy may yet make Secret a major player in this realm.

Bair commented: “Only programmable privacy can give users and developers this level of control in the DeFi world. Without programmable privacy, DeFi will never achieve mass adoption outside of purely speculative activity. Secret Network intends to become the foundation for new types of DeFi applications that better protect users while also allowing traditional institutions to participate securely, with protections for sensitive data. Also, blockchains don’t need thousands of developers to succeed in the short term — they need the right developers who build the early critical applications.”

Furthermore, Secret has in its favor the fact that due to the whole nature of decentralization of the blockchain, the space isn’t nearly as much a “winner-take-all” environment as the general internet has become due to the growth of the large Big Tech platforms — that would be counter to the point of decentralization. As Bair told me: “Secret’s vision is to become a data privacy hub for all public blockchains, collaborating more than competing with networks like Ethereum (to which we already have a live bridge with over $100 million in assets locked).”

Secret Network claims it was one of the first blockchains to feature privacy-preserving smart contracts, which it launched on mainnet in September 2020. It says this means all decentralized applications built on Secret Network have data privacy by default. The Secret Network blockchain itself is based on Cosmos SDK/Tendermint, giving it its own independent consensus, on-chain governance, and features like slashing and delegation. It is secured by the native coin Secret (SCRT), which must be staked by network validators and is used for transaction and computation fees as well as governance, said the foundation.

Commenting on the investment, Michael Arrington, founder of Arrington Capital said: “Secret is the first blockchain ecosystem to prioritize privacy. Financial privacy is critical to individual freedom, and Arrington Capital has long been committed to financial privacy and censorship resistance. The rapid expansion of decentralized finance makes solutions like Secret Network a timely addition to the DeFi ecosystem.” (Arrington Capital was established by Arrington, who was also previously the founder of TechCrunch, but who has no involvement in the title these days).

Jamie Burke, founder of Outlier Ventures in the U.K. and a Secret backer, told me: “Privacy will be essential to the security and adoption of Web3, from DeFi to NFTs and beyond. Secret Network brings new and unique privacy functionality to the space, and as a result we believe it will be foundational to the next generation of successful Web3 applications.”

Secret is also getting support from DeFi players such as the Sienna Network. Monty Munford, Chief Evangelist and Core Contributor to the privacy DeFi company told me: “Of all the networks in all the world, we chose Secret because it was a yes-yes-yes brainer. They understand privacy and we understand DeFi; it’s a match made in heaven.”

Paxos raises $300 million to build a cryptocurrency infrastructure giant

By Romain Dillet

Paxos has raised a $300 million Series D funding round led by Oak HC/FT. With today’s funding the round, the company is now valued at $2.4 billion. The company has been building infrastructure and white-label services for enterprise clients that want to offer cryptocurrency products to their own customers.

In particular, Paxos has partnered with PayPal for its cryptocurrency features. Since October 2020, PayPal customers have been able to buy, hold and sell a handful of crypto assets — Bitcoin, Ethereum, Bitcoin Cash and Litecoin. Venmo, a PayPal subsidiary, added the same cryptocurrency features just a few days ago.

Investors in today’s funding round include Declaration Partners, PayPal Ventures, Mithril Capital, Senator Investment Group, Liberty City Ventures and WestCap.

Paxos offers different products, such crypto trading and settlement, custody and the ability to issue tokens. It focuses on big enterprise clients, such as Revolut, Crédit Suisse, Société Générale and StoneX.

The company tries to be as compliant as possible. And it plans to remain committed to regulation across several geographies and verticals.

For instance, Paxos plans to launch the Paxos National Trust Bank and to apply for a Clearing Agency registration with the SEC in the U.S. In Singapore, the company is applying for a Major Payment Institution license. Paxos thinks that this regulation edge will foster partnerships with more enterprise clients looking for safe cryptocurrency opportunities.

Paxos has also launched its own stablecoin called Paxos Standard (PAX). Stablecoins are crypto assets like BTC or ETH. But the value of PAX is indexed on USD. At any point in time, one PAX is worth one USD. Other popular stablecoins include Tether and USDC.

The company also lets you issue your own branded stablecoin. For instance, Binance has worked with Paxos to issue BUSD on its platform. As expected, one BUSD is also worth one USD.

Paxos is also well known for PAX Gold, a digital asset that is backed by physical gold. It’s an alternative to gold ETFs that should be more efficient as it lives on the Ethereum blockchain.

Finally, Paxos has its own cryptocurrency exchange called itBit. According to CoinMarketCap, itBit only features a handful of trading trading pairs. It isn’t meant to be a consumer-facing exchange but it powers Paxos’ other products.

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