Bitcoin-related businesses raised more venture capital money in 2015 than in any year before: $485 million, according to industry news site CoinDesk. And yet, even as they court more VC interest, these companies continue to deal with skepticism from the general public and from top executives of big financial institutions, like Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan (JPM).
So they’re turning to a non-profit advocacy group for help.
Coin Center, a 501(c)(4) lobbying group founded in 2014, calls itself the “leading non-profit research and advocacy center” for public policy on “cryptocurrency technologies such as Bitcoin.” Its supporters already included well-known venture firm, Andreessen Horowitz (Marc Andreessen is a vocal bitcoin believer), and some of the biggest companies in the industry, including Chain, Coinbase, and Xapo. Now Coin Center is about to get a lot louder: This month it has raised $1 million in new donations, Yahoo Finance has learned.
In an industry where the hottest companies have had recent fundraising rounds of $116 million (21 Inc.), $50 million (Circle) and $30 million (Chain), $1 million may sound like small potatoes—and it is, although Coin Center says it will help fund travel for its five staff members, who spend much of their time meeting with lawmakers to discuss policy.
But as some big banks have joined a consortium to explore the possibilities of the blockchain (the public, open ledger on which all bitcoin transactions are logged), what is significant here is that Coin Center’s extensive list of new supporters includes some of the most powerful people in the exploding fintech sector. Among those who donated are 21 Inc. (which last year released a small bitcoin-mining computer aimed at making it easier to develop bitcoin apps), BitStamp, Overstock.com (OSTK), which was one of the first major online retailers to accept bitcoin as payment, and Digital Currency Group.
That last firm is key: Led by SecondMarket founder Barry Silbert, DCG has invested in 65 different bitcoin companies, and the companies in its portfolio have raised 70% of all the venture capital in the space. DCG is to the bitcoin industry what Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) is to the beer market, or what IAC (IACI) has been to online-dating companies.
“Our mission is to accelerate the development of a better financial system,” Silbert tells Yahoo Finance, “and the way we will do that is investing in great companies, starting companies, buying companies, and helping organizations like Coin Center.” In other words: Silbert wants to have his hands in as many digital-currency entities as possible to ensure his influence, and he is quickly carrying out that strategy. It’s why DCG bought outright the industry’s leading news site, CoinDesk. “There are many ways lawmakers could stifle the bitcoin blockchain,” Silbert says, “so providing awareness and education is a very important part of what will make this industry sustainable.”
In short: Coin Center is getting more influential, and now it has people backing it who have deep pockets and major interest in keeping regulators from interfering too much in what bitcoin companies are doing. Coin Center is not a trade association—none of the companies in the bitcoin industry are members. But it certainly shares their interests.
Jerry Brito, Coin Center’s executive director, is a law professor who has testified before Congress about cryptocurrencies. He says Coin Center’s primary audience is policy-makers—and these people can often be confused about the industry. The fear of bitcoin businesses is that politicians will hastily regulate, or even shut down startups, before they understand the technology. (The tension is not unlike the battle raging in daily fantasy sports right now.) Coin Center can help, Brito says: “Policy makers hear about these negative aspects, whether it’s ransoms, or drug sales, or the like, and they will often contact law enforcement and say, ‘What’s up with this?’ This is a challenge just like all new technologies have been, from email to pagers, but we think that we can get a handle on this.”
To that end, Coin Center teamed with the Chamber of Digital Commerce in October to help create The Blockchain Alliance, a safe-space private forum in which law enforcement groups like the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice can pose questions to bitcoin startup executives and policy pundits. Think of the alliance like a Justice League for bitcoin. But it is unclear how frequently the forum is being used, since the media isn’t allowed in.
Last year, New York became the first state to release its own regulatory framework specifically devoted to digital currency businesses. Called the BitLicense, it was met with so much opposition from the bitcoin community that a slew of companies packed up and left New York, cutting off service to customers in the state. Other companies happily applied for a license, but bemoaned the high cost.
Coin Center makes its stance on legislation clear. “If you look back, [former New York Department of Financial Services superintent] Ben Lawsky said he didn’t want to interfere with innovation or hurt business. Ultimately, the BitLicense that we got did not succeed at that. It is not a good model for other states to follow,” he says. “I think the only solution is a light touch approach. If you go heavy-handed, as a regulator, you’ll do two things: not meet your goals, typically, becasuse you’ll make it so difficult that people can’t even comply with it, and not get the visibility that you want as a regulator.” Those in the bitcoin business, of course, like that argument quite a lot.
Marc Andreessen has been Coin Center’s biggest donor since the beginning, giving the lion’s share of help. But with Silbert flexing his muscle, Coin Center’s role in advocating for digital currency will strengthen. (Brito says donors “can give input,” but not dictate what Coin Center does.)
Coin Center has received $2 million in donations to date, and it now plans to seek $1 million every year. It won’t have much trouble getting it.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.
- Marc Andreessen