Cleaning up ICOs


This year has been the year of the ICO and whilst these have brought a breath of fresh air into the marketplace of funding startups and other ventures, the speed at which ICOs have gathered momentum has raised some eyebrows and some questions about just how ‘clean’ this new Fintech mechanism is.

There are two sides to the ICO debate: one the one hand it is positive for the innovators who can raise funds through fairly simple token sales and reach a global market. The popularity is clear for all to see, because the funds raised by ICOs grew from $200 million in 2016 to $2 billion in 2017.

On the negative side, there are those who are concerned about the lack of regulatory controls over these ICOs. That is one reason the mainstream financial authorities are reluctant to accept them as a legitimate method of capitalisation. Add some shady ICOs into the mix and their concerns are understandable.

There are some other issues around ICOs that need to be resolved as well and these involve the technology, which is still in its infancy. Some argue that there are insufficient reporting standards, no exchange regulation and little or no regulation in a number of countries. The result is a clash of standards when those entities using conventional financial systems start adopting the blockchain.

Resolving ICO problems

How can these issues be resolved? There are several ways to solve the transparency problem. One is to define standards of reporting for companies using ICOs and it easy for participants to view the internal workings of the ICO via the exchange interface. This will provide investors with more detailed information about the company behind the ICO.

Second, more due diligence by investors is needed. There needs to be a proper assessment of the proposed business models to ensure they are viable. Investors should also be provided with more information about the company’s legal status.

Greater understanding of the financial markets will also help. It is widely agreed that most financial instruments will migrate to the blockchain in the not too distant future and preference should be given to projects that are using time-tested instruments and are understood by conventional investors, over experimental utility token economy models.

A clean up of the ICO marketplace is needed, because they are not going to disappear. Governments may try to ban or restrict them, but decentralisation is the way forward and rather than ignore ICOs and pretend they are some kind of digital bubble, what is required is a “clean investment system.”

However, this cannot come from central authorities, because that would betray the whole basis of the blockchain, which is decentralisation. What is required is that the companies and investors involved in the ICO market “embrace systems that will promote credibility within the ecosystem,” as CoinTelegraph suggests. Transparency and openness from the company side, and more in-depth research by investors will greatly contribute to a more legitimate and trustworthy ICO marketplace.





A shift in the ICO landscape


There is no doubt that the ICO landscape is changing these days. As a Coin Telegraph writer pointed out, some 75% of recent ICOs have failed to reach their soft cap, which is indicative of an important turnaround in this sector. One of its effects is to squeeze out the scammers and introduce a new generation of ICOs that go way beyond the need to simply raise money for a startup.

According to Nick Ayton, a London-based Fintech journalist, there are “several forces shaping the ICO market.” He is right to point out that 2017 has been the year that the ICO really took off, but like many he is curious about what 2018 will bring. Will it be very different? For example, will ICOs get bigger in terms of the deal, but fewer in number? And, will the pre-ICO sale be a thing of the past?

There are lots of factors to consider. For a start, Bitcoin has had a rocky few months over the Segwit2X fork, now abandoned, and Ethereum seems to be still trying to work out how to handle scalability for all the ICOs that are using its network. But, crypto is still gaining ground and Ayton predicts that it will reach a $500 million market cap early on in 2018.

ICOs overtake venture capital

In October 2017, ICOs reached a peak number and overtook venture capital as a source of funding. However, just to put this into some perspective, it must also be remembered that some ICO funds were hacked and money stolen (CoinDash is one example) and some ICOs have had to return money to token buyers, because the project didn’t meet its soft cap. There has been a lot of discussion over just how many ICOs were scams, which has inevitably led to the arrival of regulation.

The arrival of regulations

It is fair to say that ICOs must now consider not only existing banking and payment regulations, they are aware that there are new ones coming down the pipeline, although quite what they will be nobody knows, which is another issue. Some governments, particularly in southeast Asia want to ban ICOs, whilst others are embracing them, like Russia and Japan.

Places like the UK are keeping their powder dry. We’re not sure how it will position itself on ICOs in 2018, although it already has a regulatory framework in place with its eMoney Laws and Collective Investment Scheme rules. We do know that the FCA has created a sandbox to test out various propositions, and that the USA would love to dictate what happens with crypto worldwide.

ICO costs will explode

One thing we can be fairly certain of is that the ‘bootstrapping’ ICO is coming to an end. In the future, launching an ICO is likely to cost in the region of $250k – $500k, which is a price that will

Estonia Embraces Blockchain


Estonia, one of the smaller countries in the European Union, is becoming one of its most fascinating for the Fintech entrepreneur, partly because there are so many innovative companies that have come out of Estonia – think Skype and Transferwise – and now because the government is digitising its services using blockchain technology.

One of its most sensational advances has been establishing the ‘e-residency programme’ that allows any person, anywhere in the world to simply make an online application and become a virtual Estonian citizen. This can prove extremely helpful for those who want to establish a business outside their usual country of residence, because once you’re an e-resident of Estonia, you can have a business address and bank account there. And, as a virtual citizen, that person can access the same online platforms that Estonia’s physical economy is based on, and the same online public services that native Estonians use. It is also working on bringing blockchain technology to a number of public services projects, such as its healthcare service, and there are plans for an Estonian digital currency.

Other countries competing with Estonia

It seems that if any country can make blockchain work on a bigger scale and showcase its potential, Estonia is the one most likely to do it first.  Fellow EU member country Slovenia is following in Estonia’s steps and hoping to outperform it. The UK is another country that is piloting blockchain in the public sector; in its case it is trialling a scheme to pay health benefits claimants. And Russia’s national bank has signed a deal to develop a national system called Ethereum Russia.

China will re-introduce ICOs

And where Russia goes, China is never far behind. It is looking at the prospects of developing a national crytpocurrency. Yes, China did ban ICOs, but that was only a temporary measure and not the absolute end of ICOs in China. Now it is looking at introducing a regulatory framework for ICOs that will prevent illegal activity in this massively growing method of fundraising for Fintech startups. It will be something like the licensing system called BitLicense, used in New York State, most experts suggest.

China should move quickly, because the countries that are showing support for ICOs and blockchain will take business away from the Chinese blockchain community and send it to Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Meanwhile in Europe, all eyes are still on Estonia, which has grasped the power of blockchain technology and is fast becoming the ‘Blockchain Valley’ of Europe.



FinTech is Growing Up

Wharton, one of the world’s most respected business schools, has recently published an article following a recent conference at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia on the topic of “Fintech: The Impact on Consumers, Banking, and Regulatory Policy” and it presents some very interesting views on where Fintech is at right now. It’s no longer seen as a fledgling disruptor that is working against the interests of the banking community; now bankers are seeing it as a potential partner when it comes to fintech startups.

Robert Nicholls, president of the American Banking Association said: “We are actively seeking startups to partner with,” and they are busy inviting fintech firms to present to the annual ABA convention. Collaboration is the word on these bankers’ lips and they have even developed a ‘fintech playbook’ for smaller banks. The way they see it is this: banks have trusted relationships, but fintech can enhance the customer experience.


Banks embrace Fintech startups

As a result of this willingness to embrace fintech, banks of all sizes are looking at ways to create innovations with these new partners. For example, Capital One has integrated its services with Amazon’s Alexa. Consumers can ask Alexa for their account balance, request that it track their spending or even make a payment. Bank of America is set to debut its chatbot Erica on the bank’s mobile app to help customers with personal finance decisions.

And, most importantly, numerous U.S. banks are using a fintech platform that allows customers to transfer money in minutes, rather than days. Zelle and Ripple are key players in this sector for the moment.

Another development to come out of a bank in North Carolina is cloud-based technology that streamlines the commercial lending process. And, Eastern Bank in Boston, has adopted Numerated, a startup that enables clients to apply for a small business loan in minutes and get funding within two days. The bank hired fintech entrepreneurs to work with traditional bankers and build an innovation lab that led to the launch of Numerated.

Governments look for cryptocurrency solutions

However, the banks are still quite nervous when you start talking about cryptocurrencies. It is a sector that is risk averse and the volatility in the digital coin market still makes them uneasy. Having said that, bankers at the conference believed that cryptocurrencies will become strong in economies where “people do not have confidence in their own currency or they are avoiding controls on their money,” as William Nelson at The Clearing House told the meeting. He thinks that developed economies with strong currencies will have less use for it, yet Singapore and England are looking at developing their own digital currencies, which means that world economic leaders have not written off Bitcoin and its peers; instead they are looking for solutions and want to be ready.

The blockchain must be trusted

But while there may be some doubts about cryptocurrencies, the blockchain is much more readily accepted. Gurwinder Ahluwalia  of Digital Twin Labs told Wharton attendees that he believed the flexibility and agility of the blockchain gave it more appeal than crypto coins. He said: “You could have warranty programs. You could have provenance of parts to the aircraft industry, provenance of luxury assets. You could have the tracking of transoceanic shipments. You could have the tracking of food for its various associated benefits.” He added that the last hurdle blockchain has to overcome in order to become widely accepted by the traditional financial world is “establishing trust in a decentralized platform and establishing governance.”

This is on the way as banks, governments and other businesses test blockchain technology. Ahluwahlia believes that blockchain will prove itself, because “It provides the trust. It provides the peer-to-peer. It provides the crytography. It provides the database.” It certainly looks like Fintech will show the ‘adults’ that it is grown-up enough to play a role in the world of global finance.