Initial coin offerings are very popular. Lots of companies have raised nearly $1.5 billion using the novel fundraising mechanism just this year. Celebrities from Floyd Mayweather to Paris Hilton have jumped on the hype train. But don’t feel bad if you’re still wondering: just what the hell is an ICO?
The acronym probably sounds familiar, and that’s on purpose-an ICO does indeed work similarly to a initial public offering. Instead of offering shares inside a company, though, a company is instead offering digital assets called “tokens.”
A token sale is like a crowdfunding campaign, except it uses the technology behind Bitcoin to make sure that transactions. Oh, and tokens aren’t just stand-ins for stock-they can be create so that instead of a share of your company, holders get services, like cloud space for storage, as an example. Below, we run across the ever more popular practice of launching an ICO along with its possibility to upset business as you may know it.
Let’s begin with VTC, typically the most popular token system. Bitcoin along with other digital currencies are based on blockchains-cryptographic ledgers that record every transaction conducted using Bitcoin tokens (see “Why Bitcoin Could Be Much Greater than a Currency”). Individual computers around the world, connected via the Internet, verify each transaction using open-source software. A few of those computers, called miners, compete to resolve a computationally intensive cryptographic puzzle and earn chances to add “blocks” of verified transactions to the chain. For his or her work, the miners get tokens-bitcoins-in exchange.
Blockchains need miners to perform, and tokens are the economic incentive to mine. Some tokens are constructed on the top of new versions of Bitcoin’s blockchain that have been modified somehow-examples include Litecoin and ZCash. Ethereum, a popular blockchain for companies launching ICOs, is really a newer, separate technology from Bitcoin, whose token is named Ether. It’s even easy to build completely new tokens on the top of Ethereum’s blockchain.
But advocates of blockchain technology say the power of tokens goes past merely inventing new currencies from thin air. Bitcoin eliminates the need for a reliable central authority to mediate the exchange of worth-a charge card company or even a central bank, say. In principle, that could be achieved for other things, too.
Take cloud storage, for instance. Several companies are building blockchains to facilitate the peer-to-peer buying and selling of space for storing, one which could challenge conventional providers like Dropbox and Amazon. The tokens in this case would be the means of payment for storage. A blockchain verifies the transactions between sellers and buyers and works as a record in their legitimacy. How exactly this works depends upon the project. In Filecoin, which broke records last month by raising a lot more than $250 million by using an ICO, miners would earn tokens by supplying storage or retrieving stored data for users.
One of the first ICOs to create a big splash happened in May 2016 with the Decentralized Autonomous Organization-aka, the DAO-which had been essentially a decentralized venture fund built on Ethereum. Investors could use the DAO’s tokens to cast votes on how to disburse funds, as well as profits were supposed to return on the stakeholders. Unfortunately for anyone involved, a hacker exploited a vulnerability in Ethereum’s design to steal tens of vast amounts of money in digital currency (see “$80 Million Hack Shows the risks of Programmable Money”).
Some individuals think ICOs might lead to new, exotic ways of creating a company. When a cloud storage outfit like Filecoin were to suddenly skyrocket in popularity, by way of example, it will enrich anybody who holds or mines the token, instead of a set selection of the company’s executives and employees. This may be a “decentralized” enterprise, says Peter Van Valkenburgh, director of research at Coin Center, a nonprofit research and advocacy group dedicated to policy issues surrounding blockchain technology.
Someone must build the blockchain, issue the tokens, and keep some software, though. So to kickstart a new operation, entrepreneurs can pre-allocate tokens for their own reasons in addition to their developers. Plus they can use ICOs to sell tokens to the people considering using the new service if it launches, or even in speculating as to the future value of the service. If the value of the tokens increases, everybody wins.
With the hype around Bitcoin and also other cryptocurrencies, demand has become very high for a number of the tokens showing up in the market lately. A compact sampling from the projects that vtco1n raised millions via ICOs recently includes a Browser aimed at eliminating intermediaries in digital advertising, a decentralized prediction market, and a blockchain-based marketplace for insurers and insurance brokers.
Still, the way forward for the token marketplace is very uncertain, because government regulators continue to be trying to puzzle out the best way to treat it. Complicating things is the fact some tokens are more just like the basis of traditional buyer-seller relationships, like Filecoin, and some, much like the DAO tokens, seem more like stocks. In July, the Usa Securities and Exchange Commission claimed that DAO tokens were indeed securities, and therefore any tokens that function like securities will probably be regulated therefore. A couple weeks ago, the SEC warned investors to watch out for ICO scams. This week, China went thus far as to ban ICOs, and other governments could follow suit.
The scene does seem ripe for swindles and vaporware. Most of the companies launching ICOs haven’t produced anything over a technical whitepaper describing a perception which may not pan out.
But Van Valkenburgh argues that it’s okay if the ICO boom can be a bubble. In spite of the silliness of the dot-com era, he says, out of it came “funding and excitement and human capital development that ultimately triggered the major wave of Internet innovation” we enjoy today.