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Intelligent Machines

Bitcoin Entrepreneurs Scramble to Appeal to the Masses

Uncertainty hangs over Bitcoin, but investors are betting hundreds of millions that it will change the world.

Currencies that are not controlled by any government could stimulate international commerce.

As the value of a bitcoin has plunged from more than $1,100 to around $200, the cryptographic currency’s image has been sullied. The most popular Bitcoin exchange has imploded, the currency has been used in high-profile scams and heists, and despite the fact that tens of thousands of merchants now accept bitcoins, it has failed to catch on widely as a way to buy things (see “Is Bitcoin Stalling?”). But in the eyes of the investors, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts who assembled for a conference in New York City this week, Bitcoin’s future might be brighter than ever.

The technology underlying the currency is still in its early days, they argue, and the potential to build compelling products and services on top of it is still being realized. A growing number of startups are scrambling to develop apps they believe will inspire mainstream use of money that isn’t backed by any government. “A billion dollars has been invested in this industry in the past 24 months,” said Barry Silbert, the founder of the financial technology firm SecondMarket and an investor in 48 Bitcoin-focused startups, to an audience at the Inside Bitcoins conference. “We’re just getting started.”

Silbert is betting that new services will help mainstream consumers learn to trust a form of money they can never touch and might not even fully understand (for a primer, see “What Bitcoin Is, and Why It Matters”). One of his 48 companies, Silicon Valley-based Xapo, is vying to be “Bitcoin’s leading bank” (though it is not technically a bank). To acquire and spend bitcoins, a user needs a digital “wallet,” which safeguards a string of numbers and letters called a private key—the only thing that can unlock and transfer bitcoins held in an individual account. Distrust of the security of wallet services, fueled by a long list of recent private key thefts and wallet scams, is one of the most important reasons Bitcoin is stuck.

There are other well-funded wallet services, including Coinbase and Circle, but Xapo may be unique in the elaborate measures it takes to ensure the security of its clients’ private keys. It stores them on servers that have never touched the Internet, locked away in a network of underground vaults distributed all over the world and watched by armed guards. It also offers insurance policies on Bitcoin deposits.

Most of Xapo’s business comes from institutional investors—hedge funds, venture capital funds, very rich people, and other businesses buying Bitcoin. When it comes to getting normal consumers to use Bitcoin and Xapo’s services, the biggest near-term opportunity is likely in certain developing countries where people are either “unbanked or underbanked,” or where the local currency is even more volatile or less reliable than Bitcoin is, said Xapo’s chief strategy officer, Ted Rogers, in an interview.

To attract customers in these countries, Xapo offers what Rogers called the only true Bitcoin debit card. Other so-called debit cards are actually prepaid cards that require the holder to sell his or her bitcoins and load the card, Rogers said. Xapo’s card draws directly from the Bitcoin wallet for every transaction, eliminating a layer of hassle that could turn off potential customers.

The potential benefits of Bitcoin include the ability to perform cross-border money transfers without the fees that come with exchanges of national currencies. Among the services that facilitate this is the remittance service Abra. It uses the ledger for Bitcoin transactions known as the blockchain, but all that happens behind the scenes, and consumers using Abra don’t have to buy or sell bitcoins or directly interact with them at all. “I think it’s really only a matter of time before you are, frankly, going to be using Bitcoin without even knowing you’re using Bitcoin,” Silbert said.

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