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Meet the entrepreneurs bringing bitcoin to institutions

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There’s a popular misconception that the cryptocurrency industry is a realm of rogue tech-bro cowboys. But the reality is many of the most ambitious entrepreneurs in fintech are betting big on institutional bitcoin adoption. 

Such is the case with Lebanese-American venture capitalist Soona Amhaz of Volt Capital, whom Forbes recently listed as one of the most influential people in Silicon Valley. She discovered bitcoin through Reddit, back when she was an engineering student at the University of Michigan. Now her firm has invested in 11 crypto startups and is working alongside institutional players like TD Ameritrade, Cumberland and CMT Digital as part of the Chicago DeFi Alliance (CDA). 

“Where institutions are at now is they’re looking to back quality founders in the space early on. They’re looking to be market makers for a lot of these [crypto] projects, and they’re looking to help with integrations and partnerships between decentralized finance [DeFi] projects and more established financial firms,” Amhaz said. “They see where the puck is going and the smart ones are getting ahead of the curve.” 

When it comes to “DeFi,” Amhaz said the term includes bitcoin and the variety of blockchain-based systems gaining popularity among day traders during the pandemic.

Specific DeFi projects that are gaining more traction now include automated market makers (AMMs), stablecoins and platforms for decentralized exchange (DEX) aggregation, lending and derivatives,” Amhaz said. “Recent DeFi projects simply offer more avenues to use bitcoin as a productive asset, not just a reserve asset.” 

Until now, most institutions have preferred indirect exposure to cryptocurrency. Goldman Sachs alum Juthica Chou, who co-founded the derivatives exchange LedgerX back in 2013, pioneered the physically settled bitcoin futures that are now mainstay offerings among firms like Bakkt and CME Group. Futures contracts and bitcoin options offer a way for institutions to bet on the price of bitcoin without actually owning bitcoin directly. A cash-settled product means the buyer is paid in dollars, such as getting $10,000 when the option to buy at $10,000 expires, instead of getting paid in bitcoin. Rumor has it the asset management giant BlackRock will soon become the next player offering bitcoin futures products. 

So far, many institutions are willing to forgo some profits in exchange for lower risk. One of the most popular institutional product providers, Grayscale’s Bitcoin Trust (GBTC), reportedly saw $1.2 billion in fresh investor funds in January 2021. 

“I’m still bullish on options and derivatives,” Chou said, adding there’s enough demand from institutions for trust shares like GBTC, bitcoin options and even prospective exchange-traded funds (ETFs) to all generate substantial wealth in 2021. 

“The environment has way more infrastructure than we had back in 2013,” Chou said. “There’s security infrastructure and best practices for custodians, auditing infrastructure … banking is another great example. Compared to 2013, the difference between where we were and where we are today is night and day.”

With regards to GBTC, in particular, insatiable demand for shares with lower risks than custodying bitcoin leads to sky-high premiums, sometimes up to 100% more expensive than buying cryptocurrency directly. That’s why Valkyrie CEO Leah Wald launched her own Texas-based asset management firm in 2020. According to Crunchbase, she was one of roughly 800 women founders who raised capital last year. 

“It was really difficult to raise during a pandemic… not being able to organically expand my network,” Wald said. “I couldn’t have a meeting with someone even if I wanted to. And so much of seed investing is trusting in the team; trust built through high-quality, in-person conversations.”

Yet by January 2021, her startup had raised an undisclosed seed round from angel investors like Coinbase alum Charlie Lee, then applied to the Securities and Exchange Commission for permission to launch a bitcoin ETF. Chou said such a bitcoin ETF would boost the whole ecosystem because it would “open access for people who are already users brokers or securities services.”

Several ETF proposals have been rejected over the years, starting with a proposal by Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss in 2013. However, Wald says now she believes there’s never been better timing for an ETF to get approved. Among futures and options, trust shares and ETFs, all these products have different regulatory shapes that allow them to be redeemed faster, or traded in different ways, than the underlying asset, bitcoin, could be at-scale. Generally speaking, institutions seek indirect ways to gain exposure to these nascent, and often lucrative, crypto markets. 

“Bitcoin’s market cap has grown large enough that it may have finally surpassed an important threshold in the minds of the regulators,” Wald said. I believe the biggest reason the regulators were nervous about approving a bitcoin ETF in 2017 was concerns around custodial solutions and security. And I agree with that. We’re much closer to better security and custody now with institutional-grade options.” 

Wald added that both Valkyrie’s bitcoin trust shares and prospective ETF are structured to reduce volatility and premiums.  

“We wanted to create a more transparent product. I wanted our product to trade closer to the net asset value [NAV],” Wald said. “We’re the only bitcoin trust launching an ETF fund so everyday investors can buy exposure to bitcoin.”  

This propensity among women entrepreneurs using cryptocurrency isn’t restricted to American tech bubbles. According to Toya Zhang, head of marketing at the Hong Kong-based crypto and futures exchange AAX, women make up 25% of her platform’s users and a third of the top users. 

“Our biggest market is in Russia. Other than Russia, our biggest markets are Hong Kong, Korea, Indonesia and India,” Zhang said. “Asian women are more often the one to take care of finances. If you look at stock investment user groups in China and Hong Kong, women are more than half of them.”

The highly specialized crypto landscape is quickly gaining diversity, compared to other financial sectors. At India’s Coinswitch.co exchange, women reportedly make up 50% of around 25,000 users, depending on the specific region. Women also make up at least 40% of British cryptocurrency users, according to a survey by the crypto exchange Gemini

Across borders, the clear gender disparity may be associated with net worth rather than any lack of interest. In 2018, the World Bank estimated women only held 38% of capital wealth. Plus, Crunchbase tallied just 15,379 companies, less than 20% of startups that raised capital, that had women founders from 2009-2019. 

Beyond startups, there are also several companies like the New York Digital Investments Group (NYDIG), where women executives took the helm in order to innovate on established brokerage models. 

In December 2020, the insurance company Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. purchased $100 million in bitcoin and acquired NYDIG equity, a move that signaled a bullish outlook on institutional demand for bitcoin exposure in 2021. Then, on February 8, 2021, Elon Musk’s publicly traded car company Tesla validated the institutional thesis by buying $1.5 billion worth of bitcoin. 

“In 2021, the greater acceptance of bitcoin by traditional investors and allocators is really exciting,” said NYDIG president Yan Zhao. “We’ll give banks and wealth managers the ability to offer bitcoin products and exposure. We’ll handle the back end.”

Zhao said her bitcoin-focused firm has roughly $4 billion under management, including derivatives, and is currently courting prospective clients like private banks and various asset managers. Her firm is open to exploring ideas like a bitcoin ETF or trust shares, she said, but isn’t interested in Ethereum-based DeFi products. 

“We’ve made a conscious decision to focus on bitcoin,” Zhao said.

Likewise, Chou was skeptical about many of the Ethereum-based DeFi options available today, while remaining cautiously optimistic about the future of DeFi derivative options.

“Crypto-native products are important because that’s how you can really harness the power of not having centralized authorities involved to facilitate the transaction,” Chou said.

In short, now traditional options offer indirect access to cryptocurrency gains. At the same time, cryptocurrency itself is experimentally being used to offer comparable, yet more accessible, financial products. These DeFi products are designed for new functionality, not just price exposure. 

Meanwhile in California, from network scaling crusader Elizabeth Stark, CEO of Lightning Labs, to Amhaz at Volt Capital, the next generation of bitcoin whales may look remarkably different from Silicon Valley’s past unicorn-building bros. 

“The face of our industry looks different than how the tech industry looked in the early 90s or how finance has looked since forever,” Amhaz said. “We’re starting at a higher, more informed baseline. So, although there’s still work to be done here, I’m optimistic.”

Disclosure: Together, Leah Wald and Leigh Cuen are volunteer co-founders of the Digital Salon Initiative.

 

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Tim Hortons marks two years in China with Tencent investment

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Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee and doughnut giant, has raised a new round of funding for its Chinese venture. The investment is led by Sequoia China with participation from Tencent, its digital partner in China, and Eastern Bell Capital. The round comes two years after Tim Hortons made its foray into China’s booming coffee industry.

Tim Hortons didn’t disclose the amount of its latest fundraise but noted in a social media post that the proceeds will be used for opening more stores, building its digital infrastructure, brand presence, and more.

Tencent, the Chinese social media and entertainment behemoth, first backed the 57-year-old Canadian coffee chain last May. At the time the tie-up was seen as Tencent’s move to counter archrival Alibaba’s alliance with Starbucks to deliver coffee and help the American coffee titan go digital in China.

Tim Horton’s collaboration with the WeChat parent is in a similar vein. It has so far accumulated three million members through its WeChat mini program, a type of lightweight app that runs within the instant messenger. To appeal to young Chinese consumers, Tim Hortons opened an esports-themed cafe with Tencent, China’s biggest gaming company.

Two years into operating in China, Tim Hortons says it has reached storefront-level profitability with a footprint of 150 locations across 10 major cities. It plans to add more than 200 locations in 2021 and reach 1,500 stores nationwide in the next few years.

The dramatic rise and fall of coffee delivery startup Luckin brought the prospects of China’s coffee market to the forefront. Despite the investment frenzy around Luckin and other coffee businesses, coffee drinking still has a relatively low penetration in China compared to countries like the United States and Germany. On the other hand, coffee consumption is growing at a much faster rate of 15% in China, well above the global average of 2%, and is projected to reach 1 trillion yuan ($150 million) in 2025, according to a 2020 report by Dongxing Securities.

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Bessemer Venture Partners closes on $3.3 billion across two funds

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Another major VC firm has closed two major rounds, underscoring the long-term confidence investors continue to have for backing privately-held companies in the tech sector.

Early-stage VC firm Bessemer Venture Partners announced Thursday the close of two new funds totaling $3.3 billion that it will be using both to back early-stage startups as well as growth rounds for more mature companies.

The Redwood City-based firm closed BVP XI with $2.475 billion and BVP Century II with $825 million in total commitments.

With BVP XI, it plans to focus on early-stage companies spanning across enterprise, consumer, healthcare, and frontier technologies. 

Its Century II fund is aimed at backing growth-stage companies that Bessemer believes “will define the next century,” and will include both follow-on rounds for existing portfolio companies or investments in new ones.

BVP XI marks Bessemer’s largest fund in its 110-year history. In October 2018, the firm brought in $1.85 billion for its tenth flagship VC fund. This latest fund is its fifth consecutive billion-dollar fund, based on PitchBook data. 

Despite being founded more than 100 years ago, Bessemer didn’t actually enter the venture business until 1965. It’s known for its investments in LinkedIn, Blue Apron and many others, with a current portfolio that includes PagerDuty, Shippo, Electric and DocuSign. Exits include Twitch and Shopify, among many others.

With more money than ever before available for backing startups, the challenge now for VCs is to see how and if they can find (and invest in) whatever will define the next generation of tech. 

“As venture capitalists, we pay too much attention to pattern recognition and matching when in reality, the biggest opportunities exist where those patterns break,” the firm wrote in a blog post today. “Our job is to make perceptive bets on the future, especially those that others will dismiss and ridicule. We are fundamental optimists and strong believers in the power of innovation; our life’s work is putting our reputation, time, and money to help entrepreneurs realize a different future. They’re the ones pioneering something entirely new and obscure – a technology, a business model, a category.

In addition to announcing the new funds, Bessemer also revealed today that it’s brought on five new partners including Jeff Blackburn, who joins after a 22-year career at Amazon, alongside the promotion of existing investors Mary D’Onofrio, Mike Droesch, Tess Hatch, and Andrew Hedin.

Most recently at Amazon, Blackburn served as senior vice president of worldwide business development where he oversaw dozens of Amazon’s minority investments and more than 100 acquisitions across all business lines – including retail, Kindle, Echo, Alexa, FireTV, advertising, music, streaming audio & video, and Amazon Web Services.  

“Having been part of Amazon for more than two decades, I’m excited to begin a new chapter helping customer-focused founders build breakthrough companies,” said Blackburn in a written statement.  “I’ve known the Bessemer team for many years and have long admired their strategic vision and success backing early-stage ventures.” 

With the latest changes, Bessemer now has 21 partners and over 45 investors, advisors, and platform “team members” located in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Boston, London, Tel Aviv, Bangalore, and Beijing. 

“At Bessemer, there’s no corner office or consensus; every partner has the choice, independently, to pen a check. This kind of accountability and autonomy means a founder is teaming up with a partner and board director who thoroughly understands your business and can respond quickly and decisively,” the firm’s blog post read.

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Daily Crunch: Twitter announces ‘Super Follow’ subscriptions

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Twitter reveals its move into paid subscriptions, Australia passes its media bargaining law and Coinbase files its S-1. This is your Daily Crunch for February 25, 2021.

The big story: Twitter announces ‘Super Follow’ subscriptions

Twitter announced its first paid product at an investor event today, showing off screenshots of a feature that will allow users to subscribe to their favorite creators in exchange for things like exclusive content, subscriber-only newsletters and a supporter badge.

The company also announced a feature called Communities, which could compete with Facebook Groups and enable Super Follow networks to interact, plus a Safety Mode for auto-blocking and muting abusive accounts. On top of all that, Twitter said it plans to double revenue by 2023.

Not announced: launch dates for any of these features.

The tech giants

After Facebook’s news flex, Australia passes bargaining code for platforms and publishers — This requires platform giants like Facebook and Google to negotiate to remunerate local news publishers for their content.

New Facebook ad campaign extols the benefits of personalized ads — The sentiments are similar to a campaign that Facebook launched last year in opposition to Apple’s upcoming App Tracking Transparency feature.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Sergey Brin’s airship aims to use world’s biggest mobile hydrogen fuel cell — The Google co-founder’s secretive airship company LTA Research and Exploration is planning to power a huge disaster relief airship with an equally record-breaking hydrogen fuel cell.

Coinbase files to go public in a key listing for the cryptocurrency category — Coinbase’s financials show a company that grew rapidly from 2019 to 2020 while also crossing the threshold into unadjusted profitability.

Boosted by the pandemic, meeting transcription service Otter.ai raises $50M — With convenient timing, Otter.ai added Zoom integration back in April 2020.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

DigitalOcean’s IPO filing shows a two-class cloud market — The company intends to list on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol “DOCN.”

Pilot CEO Waseem Daher tears down his company’s $60M Series C pitch deck — For founders aiming to entice investors, the pitch deck remains the best way to communicate their startup’s progress and potential.

Five takeaways from Coinbase’s S-1 — We dig into Coinbase’s user numbers, its asset mix, its growing subscription incomes, its competitive landscape and who owns what in the company.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Paramount+ will cost $4.99 per month with ads — The new streaming service launches on March 4.

Register for TC Sessions: Justice for a conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion in the startup world — This is just one week away!

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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