China banned new cryptocurrency sales, but a Macau company still aims to raise $500 million in an ICO

Key Points
  • Macau gaming company Dragon Corp. is aiming to raise $500 million through an initial coin offering (ICO)
  • The tokens issued in the ICO will be used by VIP junket operators by offering credit on behalf of casino operators
  • Dragon's ICO will not be subject to a regulatory crackdown by Chinese authorities because it is being issued in Hong Kong, according to Chakrit Ahmad, CEO of Wi Holding
Dragon Corp wants to raise $500 million in an ICO
Dragon Corp wants to raise $500 million in an ICO

Macau gaming company Dragon Corp. is looking to raise half a billion dollars through an initial coin offering (ICO), in an effort to integrate blockchain technology into the world's largest gambling market.

The tokens issued in the ICO would be utilized by VIP junket operators, which are middlemen who act as facilitators for the multi-billion dollar casinos, by offering credit on behalf of casino operators.

"This is the first time anybody has allowed the public to invest in a public junket or become a shareholder of a casino," said Chakrit Ahmad, CEO of Wi Holding, the Thai-based company behind the blockchain technology. "You're basically becoming a shareholder in a junket, utilizing blockchain technology, getting revenues from that, and plugging that back into the token."

The offering comes as Beijing begins a crackdown on so-called cryptocurrencies.

Among those backing the coin offering, according to a Tuesday report in the South China Morning Post, is Wan Kuok-koi, a 61-year-old who served 14 years in jail for "an array of gangland crimes."

That alleged connection, which CNBC was unable to confirm independently, could increase regulatory interest in the deal. Ahmad of Wi Holding was not immediately available to comment on the South China Morning Post report.

Denarium Bitcoins.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Ahmad said the money raised from the sale of digital tokens would go in part, to fund construction of the Dragon Pearl Casino Hotel, an ambitious 16,000 square meter, floating structure, scheduled to be deployed from Norway, where it is currently being built, to Macau by 2019.

The group also plans to develop a debit card or "social wallet" that holds the digital currency, so players can withdraw fiat currency from an ATM, Ahmad said.

"We basically provide liquidity via our own exchange, and also major exchanges in the world for the digital currency, so that token will be listed in multiple exchanges," he said. "You can have a digital exchange in Hong Kong or in Thailand or elsewhere, and you can cash out."

While the digital tokens won't be issued until October 27, Ahmad said the group has already secured $265 million.

The use of cryptocurrencies in the gaming sector has largely been limited to online gambling until now. Dragon Corp. and Wi Holding are looking to bring the technology to casino floors, with junkets contributing more than half of Macau's total casino revenues.

ICOs have become a primary means of raising funds for projects built on blockchain technology, but they have faced increasing scrutiny from regulators amid concerns of fraudulent fundraising and speculative investment.

China crackdown

Earlier this month, the People's Bank of China banned the practice of creating and selling new digital currencies, and ordered the country's major cryptocurrency exchanges be shut down. ICOs have raised at least 2.62 billion (about $400 million) in China so far this year, according to a Reuters report, citing local media.

Ahmad said Dragon's ICO is not subject to the crackdown, because the tokens will be issued in Hong Kong, but he added the digital nature of the transactions would allow Chinese authorities to track illegal outflows through the casinos, which has been a key concern.

Digital tokens issued in ICOS are largely characterized as "a virtual commodity" under Hong Kong's Securities and Futures Commission and aren't subject to regulation. But tokens that offer buyers an equity stake are regarded as "shares" and subject to securities rules.

"(ICOs) should make a clear disclosure to the buyers out there, that they don't represent any equities in the companies themselves," said Henry Yu, partner at L & Y Law Office, who has worked with authorities on behalf of the Bitcoin community.

"I think that's the sort of clarity that the Hong Kong community, particularly the crypto or blockchain community requires."