Was cryptocurrency a flash in the pan? Less than two years ago, Bitcoin’s skyrocketing price was making people crypto-millionaires overnight. Then coin prices crashed and never recovered. Projects have shuttered, jobs have been lost, and most of 2017’s feverish enthusiasm has worn off. Perhaps the technology isn’t all it was cracked up to be?
Nonsense, say venture capitalists. For them, the decade-old technology has always been a long-term bet on the future of finance; short-term fluctuations in cryptocurrency markets don’t matter. It’s a mistake to conflate the market for digital currencies with the market for investment in digital currency projects, says Meltem Demirors, chief strategy officer for CoinShares, a provider of crypto research and investment products. And the latter is still a “large and very active market,” she says.
Indeed, VCs continue to invest large sums in blockchain companies. According to PitchBook, a financial data and software company, VCs have invested around $334 million in blockchain projects in the first three months of this year. The biggest deal involved Figure, a startup that uses blockchain technology to provide home equity loans, which announced in late February that it had raised $65 million.
The total investment so far this year is well off the pace of last year, which saw a record $5.5 billion in venture capital flow into blockchain companies. But 2019’s total so far is in line to at least return to the funding level of 2017, when just over $1 billion was raised.
What happened in 2018? The massive influx of VC may reflect some of the same irrational exuberance that was so pervasive among speculative investors in late 2017 and early 2018, when coin prices were soaring. The difference is that these venture investments were long-term bets on companies, not short-term bets that a token’s price would increase. And some of them were very big bets. Eight of the top 10 biggest VC deals ever for blockchain companies happened in 2018, according to PitchBook. Chinese mining chipmaker Bitmain raised more than $1.3 billion by itself.
Crypto-focused VCs have seen coin prices collapse before. But now the industry is much more firmly established, says Niraj Pant, a partner at venture capital firm Polychain Capital. During the last downturn, in 2015, it “felt like everything was really dead, and we weren’t sure if the market would pick back up,” says Pant. “Now it still feels like there’s still a lot of stuff going on.”
One important difference is the widespread interest in crypto-assets among so-called institutional investors, like hedge funds and family offices. Advocates of the technology believe these investors will bring more credibility to the market and entice broader adoption of crypto-assets. Two exchanges with aggressive strategies to target institutional investors, Bakkt and Coinbase, have combined to raise nearly half a billion dollars since October.
But blockchain technology still faces fundamental technical obstacles that keep it from operating efficiently at a large scale. So VC firms have also bet big on several brand-new blockchain systems whose creators claim they can solve this problem. Last August, smart contract platforms Dfinity and Hedera Hashgraph each had funding rounds that surpassed $100 million. A blockchain system called Algorand, developed by MIT professor Silvio Micali, raised $62 million in October.
Perhaps no area is trendier among VCs, however, than so-called decentralized finance. The category is broad and includes any sort of financial service that doesn’t rely on traditional financial institutions to serve as trusted intermediaries. Lately we’ve seen a big uptick in interest thanks to the emergence of new lending services based on the Ethereum-based stablecoin Dai.
These applications don’t require high transaction volumes, so they could take off in the near term, Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures wrote recently. “I think we will see blockchains scale in the next few years to allow mainstream consumer applications to be built,” Wilson said. “But until then [decentralized finance] is a good place to hang out.”