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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.

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.

 

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.

 

Wealthsimple raises $610M at a $4B valuation

By Darrell Etherington

Canadian fintech giant Wealthsimple has raised a new round of $750 million CAD (~$610 million) at a post-money valuation of $5 billion CAD (~$4 billion). The round was led by Meritech and Greylock, and includes funding from Inovia, Sagard, Redpoint, TSV, as well as individual investors including Drake, Ryan Reynolds and Michael J. Fox (basically, all the most famous Canadians).

Wealthsimple’s big new raise more than doubles its valuation from its last round, a $114 million CAD (roughly $93 million) funding announced last October, which carried a post-money valuation of $1.5 billion CAD ($~1.22 billion USD). The Toronto-based company has been a leader in the realm of democratizing financial products for consumers, including stock trading, crypto asset sales, and peer-to-peer money transfers.

The company says that it experienced significant growth during the pandemic, which is likely one big reason why its valuation rose so much between its most recent raise and this one. Its commission-free retail investment platform has grown “rapidly” over the course of the past 14 months, the company says, and the crypto trading platform which it launched last August has also seen strong uptake given the recent surge in consumer interest in cryptocurrency assets.

Late last year, Wealthsimple soft-launched its P2P money transfer app, Wealthsimple Cash, and in March it made it available to all Canadians. The app is very similar in terms of features to Venmo or Square’s Cash app, but neither of those offerings have been available to Canadians thus far. Wealthsimple’s app, which is free to use and distinct from its stock trading and crypto platforms, has thus tapped significant pent-up demand in the market and seen rapid uptake rthus far.

With this funding, Wealthsimple plans to “expand its market position, build out its product suite, and grow its team.” The company also offers automated savings and investing products (the robo-advisor tools it was originally founded around), as well as tax filing tools, and it has demonstrated a clear appetite and ability to expand its offerings to encompass even more of its customers financials lives when committed with fresh resources to do so.

The company says it has over 1.5 million users, with over $10 billion in assets under management as of the last publicly available numbers.

EU-based digital assets platform Finoa inks $22M Series A funding led by Balderton Capital

By Mike Butcher

Institutions need to keep their crypto assets somewhere. And they aren’t going to keep it on some random, or consumer-grade crypto operation. This requires more sophisticated technology. Furthermore, being in the EU is going to be a key barrier to entry for many US or Asia-based operations.

Thus it is that Berlin-based digital asset custody and financial services platform
Finoa, has closed a $22 million Series A funding round, to do just that.

The round was led by Balderton Capital, alongside existing investors Coparion, Venture Stars and Signature Ventures, as well as an undisclosed investor.

Crucially, the Berlin-based startup works with Dapper Lab’s FLOW protocol, NEAR, and Mina, which are fast becoming standards for crypto assets. They are going up against large players such as Anchorage, Coinbase Custody, Bitgo, exchanges like Binance and Kraken, and self-custody solutions like Ledger.

Finoa says it now has over 250 customers, including T-Systems, DeFi-natives like CoinList and financial institutions like Bankhaus Scheich.

The company says its plan is to become a regulated platform for institutional investors and corporations to manage their digital assets and it has received a preliminary crypto custody license and is supervised by the German Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin).

The company was founded in 2018 by Christopher May and Henrik Ebbing, but both had previously worked together at McKinsey and started working in blockchain in 2017.

May commented: “We are proud to have established Finoa as Europe’s leading gateway for institutional participation and incredibly excited to accelerate our growth even further. We look forward to supporting new exciting protocols and projects, empowering innovative corporate use cases, and adding additional (decentralized) financial products and services to our platform.”

Colin Hanna, Principal at Balderton Capital, who leads most of Balderton’s Crypto investments, said: “Chris, Henrik, and the entire Finoa team have built a deeply impressive business which bridges the highest levels of professionalism with radical innovation. As custodians of digital asset private keys, Finoa needs to be trusted both with the secure management of those keys and with the products and services that allow their clients to fully leverage the power of native digital assets. The team they have assembled is uniquely positioned to do just that.” 

May added: “We identified a lack of sophisticated custody and asset servicing solutions for safeguarding and managing blockchain-based digital assets that successfully cover the needs of institutional investors. Finoa is bridging this gap by providing seamless, safe, and regulated access to the world of digital assets.”

“Being in the European Union requires a fundamentally different organizational setup, and poses a very high entry to new incumbents and other players overseas. There are few that have managed to do what Finoa has done in a European context and hence why we now see ourselves in a leading position.”

Lobus raises $6 million for an art management platform on the blockchain

By Lucas Matney

Reshaping ownership proofs in the fine art markets has been one of the blockchain’s clearest real-world use cases. But in recent months as top auction houses have embraced NFTs and popular artists experiment with the crypto medium, that future has seemed more tangible than ever before.

The ex-Christie’s and Sotheby’s team at Lobus is aiming to commoditize blockchain tech with an asset management platform that they hope can bring creator-friendly mechanisms from NFT marketplaces like SuperRare to the physical art world as well, allowing art owners to maintain partial ownership of the works they sell so that they can benefit from secondary transactions down the line. While physical art sellers have grown accustomed to selling 100% of their work while seeing that value accrue over time as it trades hands, Lobus’s goal is for artist’s to maintain fractional ownership throughout those sales, ensuring that they earn a commission on sales down the road. It’s a radical idea and a logistical nightmare made feasible by the blockchain’s approach to ownership.

“We’re really on a mission of making artists into owners,” Lobus co-CEO Sarah Wendell Sherrill tells TechCrunch. “We are really leveraging the best of what NFTs are putting out there about ownership and asking the questions of how to help create different ownership structures and interrupt this asset class.”

The startup is encapsulating these new mechanics in a wide-reaching art asset management platform that they hope can entice users of the aging legacy software suites being used today. Teaming robust ownership proofs with a CRM, analytics platform and tools like dynamic pricing, Lobus wants to give the art market its own Carta-like software platform that is approachable to the wider market.

Lobus tells TechCrunch they have raised $6 million from Upside Capital, 8VC, Franklin Templeton, Dream Machine, Weekend Fund and BoostVC, among others. Angels participating in the round include Rob Hayes, Troy Carter, Suzy Ryoo, Rebecca and Cal Henderson, Henry Ward and Lex Sokolin.

A big goal for the team has been removing the complexities of understanding what the blockchain is and instead focusing on what their tech can deliver to their network of art owners. While the NFT boom of the past few months has already produced billions in sales, efforts like Lobus are attempting to cross-pollinate the mechanics of crypto art with the global art market in an effort to put stakeholders across the board on the same footing. In addition to having partnerships with around 300 active artists, Lobus has also sold their platform to collectors, artist estates and asset managers.

At the moment, Lobus has around 45,000 art objects in its database, encompassing about $5.4 billion in asset value across physical and digital objects.

Tesla sees bitcoin as important financial tool to access cash quickly

By Rebecca Bellan

Tesla’s relationship with bitcoin is not a dalliance, according to the comments made by the company’s CFO and dubbed “master of coin” Zach Kirkhorn during an earnings call Monday. Instead, the company believes in the longevity of bitcoin, despite its volatility.

Tesla invested $1.5 billion in bitcoin this quarter and then trimmed its position by 10%, Kirkhorn said during the company quarterly earnings call. That sale made a $101 million “positive impact” to the company’s profitability in the first quarter, he added. Tesla also allows customers to make vehicle deposits and final vehicle purchases using bitcoin. 

Tesla turned to bitcoin as a place to store cash and still access it immediately, all while providing a better return on investment than more traditional central bank-backed safe havens. Of course, the higher yields provided by the volatile digital currency comes with higher risk.

Tesla bucks the trend of the more cautionary Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell who noted back in March at virtual summit hosted by the Bank for International Settlements that the Fed considers crypto speculative assets that are highly volatile and therefore not useful stores of value. That matters because the basic function of currency is its ability to store value. He also noted that digital currencies are not backed by anything and compared it to gold and not the dollar.

From Kirkhorn:

Elon and I were looking for a place to store cash that wasn’t being immediately used, try to get some level of return on this, but also preserve liquidity, you know, particularly as we look forward to the launch of Austin and Berlin and uncertainty that’s happening with semiconductors and port capacity, being able to access our cash very quickly is super important to us right now.

And, you know, there aren’t many traditional opportunities to do this or at least that we found and and talking to others that we could get good feedback on, particularly with yields being so low and without taking on additional risk or sacrificing liquidity. Bitcoin seemed at the time, and so far has proven to be a good decision, a good place to place some of our cash that’s not immediately being used for daily operations or maybe not needed till the end of the year, and be able to get some return on that.

Tesla is watching the digital currency closely, Kirkhorn said, noting that there is a lot of reason to be optimistic.

“You know, thinking about it from a corporate treasury perspective, we’ve been quite pleased with how much liquidity there is in the bitcoin market,” he said. “Our ability to build our first position happened very quickly. When we did the sale later in March we also were able to execute on that very quickly. And so as we think about kind of global liquidity for the business in risk management, being able to get cash in and out of the market is something that I think is exceptionally important for us.”

While Tesla did trim its position in March, Kirkhorn added that the company’s intent is to hold what it has long term and to continue to accumulate bitcoin from transactions from its customers as they purchase vehicles. Musk, who also goes by Technoking, announced in March that Tesla would accept bitcoin as a form of payment in the United States.

Blockchain startup S!NG wants creators to lean on NFTs to protect their intellectual property

By Lucas Matney

After a years-long crypto winter, it been the spring of NFTs, but as digital art prices sober up after an explosion in sales, blockchain founders are looking to find more stable opportunities in the space that can grow over time even as speculative interest in NFTs shifts.

One particular interest has been using NFTs to reshape the creator economy in a manner that actually benefits artists more than the platforms that host their work. A new flavor of this pursuit comes from the recently launched S!NG (pronounced sing) which has built a platform around simply letting user upload files to their servers and time-stamp those uploads on the Ethereum blockchain. It’s a dead-simple mechanic with an ambitious framing, ensuring that artists maintain credit for their work as they create it.

The team behind the app sees a future where artists use the platform as an autosave for their intellectual property during the creative process, enabling them to scribble down notes or upload a quick demo and save those moments on the blockchain, a step that they hope can eliminate or expedite rights disputes for creators that can point to a clearly time-stamped breadcrumbs trail. By virtue of the app’s name, it’s clear that they are aiming to attract songwriters and musicians in particular but the company’s onboarding also showcases wider ambition in the creator world, enabling users to designate if they are a photographer, writer or programmer as well.

“You have the best of both worlds with very public witnesses to a very private event,” says CEO Geoff Osler. “Your content is never out there, but you can have this massive attestation to the fact that it exists at a certain point in time.”

The iOS app itself is pretty straightforward. After uploading a piece of media, be it a photo, video, audio or text file, users can tack on additional files, make note of additional collaborators or add notes before submitting it and christening the work on the blockchain. The file itself is private with a hash hosted on the blockchain while the encrypted files are stored on S!NG’s AWS servers, so creators don’t need to worry about their early ideas being served up to a public audience. A concern here for early adopters is what happens if the blockchain startup eventually goes under and those servers go with it, but that’s an issue facing plenty of startups that are backing the underlying media files of NFTs on centralized servers.

Image via S!NG

Rights disputes might be something more top-of-mind to those who have spent substantial time in their specific creative industry, compared to to budding artists who are likely wholly concerned with getting their work seen in the first place. While public links allow a work’s origins to be tracked down once it’s complete and ready for public consumption, S!NG’s aim is to develop those moments earlier in the development of a work and aid artists who might be involved with more collaborative creative processes where ownership of ideas can appear more obfuscated from a legal standpoint.

“If I get something stolen from me, I’ve got a team that’s going to defend me and they’re probably going to win or settle any claims, but if you’re a 16-year-old kid, you don’t have that ability so that’s what we want to provide, but more as a deterrent,” musician and advisor Raine Maida tells TechCrunch. “I think when you see the S!NG watermark or you see that it’s saved and shared through the wallet.. you don’t have to understand blockchain but you’ll know S!NG is that company that protects you.”

For the time being, non-fungible token-based legal defenses are probably a bit unusual, but the team’s founders believe that blockchain-based ownership proofs will be entering case law organically just as technology like DocuSign has been accepted.

If the company can successfully push creators to weave the S!NG platform into their toolkits, the startup will have plenty of ripe opportunities to capitalize on in the incredibly young blockchain creator space. While many artists may see the NFT space as a speculative cash grab, the company’s founders seem publicly focused on sidestepping hype for the time being.

“Frankly I don’t give a shit about all of this crazy NFT stuff with things selling for a bazillion dollars,” Osler says. “I’m interested in the small artist who has 1,000 fans who will eagerly pay up $15 to keep that person in business.”

Crypto market takes a dive with Bitcoin leading the way

By Lucas Matney

Cryptocurrency prices continued to tumble Friday with Bitcoin leading the charge, with prices for the internet currency dipping below $50,000 for the first time since early March.

Bitcoin is down roughly 20% week-over-week, around 30% from its all-time-high of nearly $65,000 early last week. The market cap of the coin has dipped below $1 trillion. The tumble has been less severe for Ethereum which hit an all-time-high just yesterday but has since dropped 13% as the broader market has crawled back.

Plenty of altcoins have also taken a beating. Dogecoin erased the breakneck gains of the week and then some, nearly halving its price after a meteoric climb last weekend. XRP is down 35% week-over-week, Stellar is down 30% and Polkadot is down 25% since last week.

Overall, Coinmarketcap estimates the global crypto market has shrunk around 10% in the past 24 hours.

Crypto prices have been on a tear for the past several months, but the past week has been the clearest sign of a correction to climbing prices, though many see news of President Biden’s adjustment to the hikes on the capital gains tax as the most apparent reason for the market’s slide as investors cash out hoping their gains won’t be reached by a retroactive application of the rules.

Coinbase, which went public last week via direct listing, shaved about 10% off its share price this week, but was largely unaffected Friday in intraday trading.

ConsenSys raises $65M from JP Morgan, Mastercard, UBS to build infrastructure for DeFi

By Mike Butcher

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.”

African crypto usage spurs Luno as customers reach 7M

By Tage Kene-Okafor

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.

Crypto trading on Robinhood spiked to 9.5M customers in first quarter

By Mary Ann Azevedo

It’s been a big year for crypto, and Robinhood shared some stats today providing more evidence that the crypto boom is more than just hype — at least for now.

In a blog, Christine Brown, Robinhood’s head of crypto operations, revealed that in the first quarter of 2021, 9.5 million of its customers traded crypto via the company’s platform. That’s up big time from the 1.7 million customers who traded crypto in the 2020 fourth quarter.

Brown says the company’s intent behind launching Robinhood Crypto in the first place was to give its customers the opportunity to buy and sell cryptocurrency in addition to the range of assets offered through its brokerage, Robinhood Financial.

Robinhood Crypto currently offers seven tradeable coins: Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, Bitcoin SV, Dogecoin, Ethereum, Ethereum Classic, and Litecoin. 

Brown also noted that Robinhood’s crypto team has already more than tripled since the beginning of the year, although it’s not entirely clear how many staffers it currently has on that team. There are a number of crypto-related openings on its careers site, including an open “Crypto CFO” role.

The company is making clear that crypto is an important part of its overall business and part of its mission to democratize access to the masses.

“All it takes to spend, trade, and store cryptocurrency, theoretically, is an internet connection — you don’t need access to a big line of credit, or startup capital,” Brown wrote. “You don’t even have to be awake at a certain time of day to trade. The crypto market doesn’t close. Crypto was born out of a mission to take power away from institutions and return it to the people.”

Last August, Robinhood raised $200 million more at a new, higher $11.2 billion valuation in its third raise of the year before filing to go public in March. The company has had a tumultuous past year or so that was filled with time in front of Congress, bad PR from a user’s suicide, and settlements with the SEC.

Meanwhile, TechCrunch also reported earlier this week that in the first quarter of 2021, American consumer cryptocurrency trading giant Coinbase grew sharply, generating strong profits at the same time. Specifically, the company notched revenue of $1.8 billion in Q1 2021, up from $585.1 million in Q4 2020. Net income totaled “approximately $730 million to $800 million,” up from $178.8 million in Q4 2020.

The Cult of CryptoPunks

By Lucas Matney

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

A ‘more honest’ stock market

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

The NFT high-rollers table

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

The origin of the species

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.”

Coinbase to direct list on April 14th, provide financial update on April 6th

By Alex Wilhelm

Today Coinbase, an American cryptocurrency trading platform and software company, said that it will begin to trade via a direct listing on April 14th. In a separate release the company also said that it will provide a financial update on April 6th, after the close of trading.

Coinbase’s impending public debut comes at an interesting market moment. As some tech companies delay their offerings over demand concerns, Coinbase is pushing ahead with its flotation perhaps in part because it will not price its debut in the traditional sense; direct listings forgo raising capital at a specific price point, and instead merely begin to trade, albeit with a reference price attached.

That Coinbase will release new numbers before beginning to trade is at once interesting and pedestrian. It’s interesting as TechCrunch cannot recall a private company looking to go public holding a similar event. And, Coinbase deciding to share “first quarter 2021 estimated results” and “provide a financial outlook for 2021” is also in part a common move, as many companies provide updated financials in their S-1 documents if time passes from when they first file to when they actually trade.

We’ll be tuned into that call, as the numbers shared will impact not only how Coinbase trades when it does float, but will also provide insight into how active consumer trading is writ large, and particularly in the cryptocurrency space; more than one startup in the market today depends on trading incomes to generate top-line, so seeing new numbers from Coinbase will be welcome.

The company will trade under the ticker symbol “COIN.”

QuikNode is building a blockchain developer cloud platform to compete with AWS

By Lucas Matney

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.

NFT art marketplace SuperRare closes $9 million Series A

By Lucas Matney

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.

 

ConsenSys launches a more energy-efficient NFT ecosystem with a project from artist Damien Hirst as its first drop

By Lucas Matney

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.

PayPal’s new feature allows U.S. consumers to check out using cryptocurrency

By Sarah Perez

PayPal this morning announced the launch of Checkout with Crypto, a new feature that will allow consumers to check out at millions of online businesses using cryptocurrency. The feature expands on PayPal’s current investments in the cryptocurrency market, which include its partnership with Paxos to power its service that allows customers to buy, sell and hold a range of cryptocurrencies, and more recently, its acquisition of cryptocurrency security startup Curv.

According to PayPal, customers with cryptocurrency holdings in the U.S. will be able to check out using their cryptocurrency at PayPal’s 29 million global online businesses in the coming months. The feature will also work without any additional integrations or fees required by the businesses themselves.

Essentially, Checkout with Crypto allows the customers to sell their cryptocurrency through PayPal at the time of checkout, then settle the actual transaction in U.S. dollars. For the businesses, that means nothing really changes on their end — they’re still being paid in USD, not cryptocurrency. But PayPal’s feature makes it possible for this transaction to take place within the same checkout flow, making it easier on shoppers to quickly make their purchases using cryptocurrency.

At launch, the service will support Bitcoin, Litecoin, Ethereum and Bitcoin Cash — but only one type of cryptocurrency can be used for each purchase.

If the customer has enough cryptocurrency to pay for their online purchase, then the Checkout with Crypto feature will appear, alongside other traditional payment methods, like the customer’s bank account, PayPal balance, or credit or debit card. Like other payment methods, Checkout with Crypto will also include PayPal’s safety and security benefits, including fraud protection, return shipping and purchase protection on eligible items, PayPal notes.

After the transaction completes, the customer will receive both a record of the cryptocurrency sale, as well as their purchase receipt.

The company had announced its plans to launch support for checkout with cryptocurrency last year, when it first entered the cryptocurrency market. It said that after providing support for buying and selling cryptocurrencies, it would launch a checkout feature in 2021.

Today, PayPal makes makes money by charging transaction fees when customers buy or sell their cryptocurrencies, which is why it’s not placing any fees on their merchants themselves.

PayPal’s launch will help to dramatically expand the number of places where cryptocurrency can be used for real-world purchases, which could help accelerate mainstream adoption of digital currencies. The move comes shortly after last week’s announcement from Tesla, which said U.S. customers could now buy a car using bitcoin, and Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten’s news earlier this month where it said users could check out with online merchants in Japan using cryptocurrencies.

“As the use of digital payments and digital currencies accelerates, the introduction of Checkout with Crypto continues our focus on driving mainstream adoption of cryptocurrencies, while continuing to offer PayPal customers choice and flexibility in the ways they can pay using the PayPal wallet,” said PayPal President and CEO Dan Schulman, in a statement about the launch. “Enabling cryptocurrencies to make purchases at businesses around the world is the next chapter in driving the ubiquity and mass acceptance of digital currencies,” he added.

 

 

NBA Top Shot maker Dapper Labs is now worth $2.6 billion thanks to half of Hollywood, the NBA, and Michael Jordan

By Jonathan Shieber

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.

NFTs are part of a larger economic development in finance capital

By Annie Siebert
Dominik Schiener Contributor
Dominik Schiener is co-founder and chairman of the IOTA Foundation. He has been in the blockchain space since 2011, with several startups in Switzerland, the U.K. and Germany. His primary focus is how to improve physical infrastructure with digital infrastructure such as DLT and AI.

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.

Non-fungible what?

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.

Whales, dogs and unicorns

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.

Token economies will be transformative

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.

The rubber hits the road like this

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 work ahead is very clear

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.

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