What is an ICO?
ICO stands for Initial Coin Offering. An ICO typically involves selling a new digital currency at a discount — or a “token” — as part of a way for a company to raise money. If that cryptocurrency succeeds and appreciates in value — often based on speculation, just as stocks do in the public market — the investor has made a profit.
Regulators are scrutinizing the new red-hot fundraising trend in which start-ups and blockchain companies bring in millions of dollars by issuing virtual tokens to investors in exchange for money.
But one Japanese billionaire investor thinks that, with time, the so-called initial coin offerings (ICOs) will become one of the “greatest major methods” for start-ups to raise funds in the future.
Taizo Son is a serial entrepreneur and CEO at Mistletoe, which is a venture capital firm that is also part accelerator and part incubator. Son is the younger brother of SoftBank founder and Japan’s richest man Masayoshi Son.
He told CNBC at the sidelines of the Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology that ICOs are a new way for early-stage companies, and even some non-profit organizations, to get funded.
ICOs are “very good because they democratize venture financing for not only professionals like venture capitalists, but also individuals can participate in exciting projects from start-ups to support,” Son said.
That method of fundraising has increasingly caught the attention of regulators. Earlier this month, China brought the cryptocurrency market to a halt by banning new ICOs as a way for companies to raise capital. Meanwhile, regulators in the United States, Japan and Singapore are studying potential oversight.
The way ICOs work is fairly straightforward: Companies create and issue digital tokens that can be used to pay for goods and services on their platform or can be stashed away as an investment. They put out whitepapers describing the platform, software or product they’re trying to build, and then people buy those tokens using widely-accepted cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ether.
Start-ups have raised more than a billion dollars this yearin coin sales, and have surpassed early-stage VC funding. Some in the industry describe ICOs as uncontrolled experiments — they are necessary for innovation, but they need a lot of debugging to work properly.
Han Verstraete, founder and CEO at Singapore-based blockchain company Otonomos, told CNBC last month that the legality and the mechanics of doing an ICO need to be improved.
Verstraete explained that many in the latest cohort of digital tokens are basically securities offerings, despite the underlying technology. They are, however, not yet subjected to the same level of regulatory scrutiny as mainstream share offerings. Indeed, that is an area that regulators are currently studying.
The mechanics of an ICO also need improving to include some form of accountability for the start-ups, he said.
“We are debating, as part of the community, ways of significantly improving the actual model. If you’re going to offering securities through an ICO, do it perhaps in a number of successive capped rounds that are somehow linked or triggered by milestones that you commit to.”
Mistletoe’s Son also said that eventually ICOs will become more sophisticated, with new techniques and technologies and some regulation to protect investors from fraud.
Digital token sales are seen as a relatively easy way to raise capital, but many investors argue they do not offer the same kind of value as venture-backed money.
“A lot of the times, it’s not just about the money,” Michael Descheneaux, president at Silicon Valley Bank, told CNBC. “It’s about networking, it’s about the know-how, making connections, and making introductions and finding people for you.”
Descheneaux explained that VCs provide governance and oversight that are important in building successful start-ups, where advisers and board of directors can provide crucial guidance.
“Start-up companies are full of amazing minds and (they are) developing their products, but as you can imagine, not everybody’s equipped on governing a company,” he said.
Son added that companies that directly serve consumers would have an easier time to raise funds through ICOs because it’s easier to get people to understand and support a specific product or service.