Initial coin offerings are the 'Wild West' of start-up land — here's how one investor spots a scam

Key Points
  • Tech investor Jillian Manus of Structure Capital said intial coin offerings could be a "very dangerous" trend that begets fraud.
  • But some applications of cryptocurrency, and, especially, blockchain, are still innovative.
  • Healthcare is one area she's watching.
Cryptocurrencies are a tool rather than a currency: Venture capitalist
Cryptocurrencies are a tool rather than a currency: Venture capitalist

Unregulated investing opportunities, like initial coin offerings, may prove a risky prospect for entrepreneurs — but that doesn't mean that all bitcoin-related products are bad, tech investor Jillian Manus told CNBC's "Squawk Alley" on Tuesday.

"It's dangerous, it's very dangerous. On one hand, we want to be supportive of this, because this gives opportunities, definitely, to fuel new companies. But on the other hand, there's a lot of irresponsibilities that go with this. There's a lot of fraud that's being created," Manus said.

"I think this is the Wild West without a sheriff," she later added.

Initial coin offerings are just one of many applications being tested for cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. In an initial coin offering, investors are given a token of digital currency in exchange for their investment.

"ICOs — if they're based on just a white paper, and they're just raised on that — then that's a problem and that's a scam," Manus said. "But on the other hand, if they have SEC filings, if they have [due diligence] packages, if there's some product that we can invest in — then I think that's an interesting opportunity."

Manus is a general partner at Structure Capital and has made an impact in industries including venture capital, marketing, media and philanthropy. Structure Capital invests in start-ups that take advantage of wasted resources, and blockchain she said, has many "effective, efficient and legitimate" applications.

Blockchain — a technology that underlies many cryptocurrencies — is gaining popularity as a tool in the mainstream business community, thanks to its ability to create immutable ledgers.

For instance, Manus said, Kodak announced earlier this month it would release a new platform for digital photography bolstered by blockchain — solving the societal problem of dwindling payment opportunities for photographers. There could be "tremendous" potential for healthcare applications of blockchain, Manus said, pointing to the growing focus on health technology at Alphabet's Verily and Amazon.

But cryptocurrencies on the whole? Maybe not the most innovative application, she said.

Manus' comments come after an overnight plunge in the price of bitcoin future contracts. Cryptocurrency prices have exploded over the past year — but the decentralized digital cash is also volatile and subject to intense regulatory scrutiny.

Manus has become a well-known figure among start-ups in Silicon Valley, thanks to her coveted charity balls and her appearances on the podcast "The Pitch." She noted that companies like eBay, YouTube and Instagram were also tough sells to investors at the time.

"There's a danger in these young start-ups with no responsibility," Manus said. "Until we have some sort of understanding of the applications — of course there's going to be volatility. But coming from Silicon Valley, everything that's innovative is criticized at first."