Editor’s note: Sandrine Ayral has been involved in the Parisian startup ecosystem for a few years, working for startups, a VC fund and TheFamily, a startup accelerator. She joined the bitcoin sphere for good last February when she joined Coinbase‘s remote team for a few months, and is now working on a new cryptocurrency project.
In the past few months we’ve been hearing a lot about how bitcoin’s underlying technology is going to revolutionize not only our monetary system, but also notary services, DNS, authentication, intellectual property ownership and data storage.
While most of the products and services that were supposed to emerge on top of the bitcoin protocol have yet to see light, there’s actually one application of the bitcoin protocol that has been developed by several bitcoin 2.0 startups: decentralized crowdfunding.
Kickstarter, Indiegogo and all the other traditional platforms act as the trusted third party that enables a crowdfunding campaign. Thanks to them, a backer can feel confident that the money he sends to the platform for a specific project will be effectively sent to the selected project if the target amount of the campaign is reached – or that the money will actually be sent back if the campaign fails. In exchange for his money, the Kickstarter investor gets access to a pre-order or T-shirts and other various “goodies.”
Crowdfunding platforms powered by blockchain technology remove the need for this trusted third party. They allow startups to raise funds by creating their own digital currencies and selling “cryptographic shares” to early backers. In more intelligible words, this means that investors in a crowdfunding campaign get tokens that represent shares of the startup they support and can actually benefit from the token value appreciation. You would never see an Oculus Rift situation with such crowdfunding platforms.
This is why the bitcoin community refers to bitcoin-powered crowdfunding as real crowdfunding. Enthusiasm around these projects is also tied to the fact that these platforms would be a real source of investment for other types of blockchain-powered applications and would help with the funding of bitcoin infrastructure.
Swarm, Koinify and Lighthouse are three decentralized crowdfunding platforms that have generated quite a buzz in the bitcoin community and actually received funding for their development in various forms.
Swarm used its own crowdfunding platform to raise funds in July and received $1 million from backers. The platform focuses on projects based on blockchain technology for now. It provides crowdsourced due diligence on each entrepreneur and team its platform backs to eliminate potential scammers.
Swarm just opened applications for the first five projects its platform will support, which will be presented at a demo day on November 5 in Silicon Valley. The company also “soft-launched” an incubator in Palo Alto to host bitcoin 2.0 projects: just like startup accelerators or incubators are a source for quality deal flow for a VC fund, building a bitcoin 2.0 incubator for Swarm seems like a smart strategy for the platform to spot interesting projects and encourage them to use its blockchain technology.
Another decentralized crowdfunding platform, Koinify, has just raised $1 million from IDG Partners, Brock Pierce’s AngelList syndicate and zPark Ventures to fund its development and build an easy-to-use interface. Koinify is focused on funding very specific projects related to blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies: decentralized applications, smart corporations, crypto infrastructure to make access to cryptocurrency easier.
Mike Hearn, a BitcoinJ developer, developed Lighthouse, a crowdfunding application of the bitcoin blockchain that was more specifically built to fund bitcoin core development, lobbying and community involvement and — like Swarm and Koinify — next-generation bitcoin projects. Hearn won a $40,000 bounty offered by self-proclaimed bitcoin millionaire and entrepreneur Olivier Janssens.
True enough, for now most bitcoin-powered crowdfunding platforms don’t focus on consumer projects and are only going to appeal to bitcoin technology-savvy investors. Even if not mainstream, targeted projects by these platforms still deserve attention. They’re all based on one core principle and change of paradigm: switching from centralized to decentralized models and removing usually costly intermediaries and trusted third parties. A few examples of these projects are collaboratively owned IP and autonomous agents.
With collaboratively owned IP, instead of patents owned by huge corporations, patent pools can be owned by whomever holds a particular coin.
With autonomous agents, picture self-owned hardware and/or software that is able to survive by selling products and services for bitcoin or another cryptocurrency and using the proceeds to pay for their own costs. Based on this principle, you can imagine a delivery service via self-owned quadcopters – yep, just like in a sci-fi movie. The benefit of such a model is that resulting services are cheap because they don’t have many operating costs. Mike Hearn, who designed Lighthouse, presented this futuristic idea quite extensively in his speech about the Future of Money at the Turing Festival in 2013.
Crowdfunding powered by blockchain technology holds two promises: short term it’s an appropriate way for the decentralized bitcoin ecosystem — whether it being bitcoin as a currency or all the different applications based on its protocol – to fund its core development, and actually address a few scalability issues. In the long run, it will give the opportunity to individuals to take part in actual rounds of early-stage investment and to actually benefit from valuation appreciation.
A few issues need to be addressed around blockchain-powered crowdfunding, though: How will the different decentralized crowdfunding platforms deal with the SEC? There’s a real question around the legality of offering tokens of equity to individuals. For example, Swarm is exploring reciprocity licenses.
Another concern startups using decentralized crowdfunding might have revolves around later-stage investment rounds: Will more traditional VCs be deterred from investing in a company that has sold a share of its equity via a crypto-token mechanism? How will one actually manage corporate governance with thousands of investors in a privately held company?
Nevertheless, we’ll be hearing a lot more about equity tokens distributed via blockchain method. The above-mentioned regulatory questions don’t seem to scare at least one huge retail player: Overstock, the first big company to accept bitcoin thanks to Coinbase merchant tools, just announced it is working on building a whole new kind of stock market.
The e-commerce giant and other companies will be able to use the platform to offer ‘cryptosecurities’ to the investing public. And just a few weeks ago, investors in the last $50 million investment round of Reddit pledged to share 10 percent of the new equity with the website’s community. Using a blockchain method to distribute tokens of equity to Reddit users is an option that investors are clearly envisioning. In that sense, Reddit would be the first large-scale company to enter a new corporate governance model.