- ICOs have raised $180 million this year, compared to $101 million in all of 2016, according to Smith + Crown.
- Start-ups with little to no revenue are raising money by selling custom tokens.
- There's currently no legal or regulatory framework for this emerging type of offering.
Talk to a cryptocurrency enthusiast and there's a good chance you'll hear some version of this: It feels a lot like 1999.
That's not to suggest that bitcoin and its ilk are the next Webvan or Pets.com, but looking more broadly at the current trend, the analogy makes sense.
While bitcoin crossed $2,000 over the weekend and is up by almost 150 percent this year, other digital currencies have rallied even more. Ether has tripled in value in the past month and Ripple's XRP is up about tenfold.
In 1999 we saw the speculative internet IPO. Today, it's the ICO -- initial coin offering.
Companies built on
Thus far in 2017, companies have raised $180 million in ICOs, compared to $101 million all of last year, according to Smith + Crown, a blockchain research, data and consulting group. Often, these are very early projects that are far from generating significant revenue.
"We're in a very frothy phase of ICOs," said Naval Ravikant, a Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur who's also a venture partner at digital currency firm MetaStable Capital. "People are getting caught up in the vision and it's going to take 10 to 20 years to build out. In the meantime, people are throwing money at anything that looks like it has a shot."
Interest in cryptocurrencies is reaching the masses. This week, New York is hosting two industry conferences -- Consensus and Token Summit. On Monday, 86 firms from Toyota to Merck joined a group called the Enterprise Etherium Alliance (EEA) to create standards for smart contracts.
Meanwhile, 10 financial institutions signed up with cryptocurrency platform Ripple last month to send real-time international payments, joining a roster of clients that already included Bank of America and RBC.
The ultimate vision is
Start-ups building applications on blockchain are launching ICOs to raise capital without giving up big equity stakes in their companies and to drive interest and usage of their product.
Currently, the market is almost entirely unregulated. In its purest form, an ICO looks like a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, which is a legal way for a company to raise money by having users fund an early-stage project in return for perks and early access. Crowdfunding can be risky, because if the company cannot deliver the product as promised, backers have no recourse.
But unlike a campaign to fund a Pebble smartwatch or the development of a mobile game, ICOs are inherently financial in nature and can look more like securities, particularly when the tokens fluctuate in value. As ICOs gain popularity and dip more into the mainstream, look out for the regulators.
"If anyone is selling these securities to U.S. citizens, you will get in trouble with the SEC for sure," said Pamela Morgan, an attorney and the CEO of consultancy Third Key Solutions, at a bitcoin meetup in Switzerland last month.
Civic, the developer of a digital identity platform for online transactions, is aiming to raise $33 million in an ICO beginning Thursday, to build out its network.
Vinny Lingham, Civic's
"These tokens are tokens you need to use to function within our platform," said Lingham, who started the company last year. Unlike the case with an IPO, Civic is booking the proceeds from the ICO (or token sale) as revenue, since it's selling a product that customers can eventually use.
Investors in the ICO will pay with bitcoins or
Stan Miroshnik started the Argon Group in 2016 as an investment bank focused on digital currencies. He's advising on the Civic offering and has plenty more in the pipeline, with an ICO scheduled about every three weeks.
But Miroshnik said there's clearly excess in the market now, with companies that have no functional business and no real relation to blockchain looking to ICOs for a quick buck.
"We are very cautious," said Miroshnik. "This is something that should be coming from the community and projects related to
Prior to Civic, Miroshnik's biggest deal was last week, when
"It's an asset on our balance sheet that has value and we're converting it into fiat," said John Quinn, co-founder of
As of late Wednesday, the ICO had raised almost $29 million of the $30 million target. Buyers in the offering can use the currency to pay for storage and bandwidth.
Filecoin will be the first offering on a new platform called
Ravikant, who's an investor in both Filecoin and
"We're going to try and prove to the market that you and do a legal coin offering," Ravikant said. "If the SEC doesn't crack down, this party will be amazing, the biggest party in town for a long time. If they do crack down, a lot of people are going to feel a lot of pain."