Even if you're skeptical about cryptocurrencies, the ICO, or initial coin offering, has been one of the hottest trends in tech this year.
Startups that raised money through ICOs have accumulated a record $2.2 billion this year alone, according to Coinschedule.com.
Unlike a stock IPO, where companies sell shares, an ICO lets investors buy digital "coins" used on cryptocurrency platforms. Companies built on blockchain, a digital database for recording financial transactions, raise money by selling these tokens, which can be used to pay for goods and services on their platform or can be stashed away as an investment.
So what's causing the ICO craze this year?
Charles River Ventures' Rafael Corrales, an early investor in Blockchain, a bitcoin wallet maker with $70 million in funding, narrowed it down to three main drivers:
- First platform shift in many years: There hasn't been a major tech platform shift in nearly a decade since the launch of the iPhone in 2007. Voice technology is emerging but it's still very early, Corrales said. But the blockchain, the underlying technology that enables ICOs and cryptocurrency transactions, is proving to be one of the most meaningful new tech ideas that could fundamentally change finance. "There hasn't really been anything super interesting in the last few years," he said.
- Not many entrenched competitors: The tech industry has very large incumbents, including Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, who have their feet in almost every emerging space imaginable. But they have not jumped into the cryptocurrency space in any serious way yet, opening up a lot of opportunities for smaller players. "The big tech companies are not setting the rules here," he said.
- Democratization of financing: You don't have to be a sophisticated investor from a large institution to make a bet on ICOs. That allows any individual to invest in a startup running an ICO, unlike the traditional startup world where VCs took the lion's share of investing opportunities. "Now all of a sudden, an individual can invest in an interesting concept," he said.
Corrales said the ICO space still has a lot of problems, like the lack of proper regulation. And he pointed out that the fact that startups are raising a lot of money at once, instead of in separate stages, like more traditional startups do, is concerning. Still, he expects the ICO craze to continue until some credible regulatory body like the SEC or IRS comes down hard on a select group of people that they will try to make an example of.
But in aggregate, he says the exuberance in the space is a good thing because it lays the groundwork for the industry to mature. And eventually, he hopes to see the next big tech company come out of this space, much like the 90's dot com bubble led to the creation of Google and Amazon, among others.
"It's just noisy right now because of a Cambrian explosion that's happening. But I do think there will be a handful of important companies and innovations that will come out of it," he said.