Headliners on the panel included Balaji Srinivasan, CEO and cofounder of 21.co, a cryptocurrency startup that has raised more in traditional VC funding than almost other one. Another was Peter Smith, CEO and cofounder of Blockchain, a U.K.-based cryptocurrency wallet company that recently raised $40 million from GV, the venture capital arm of Alphabet, parent company of Google. And Kathleen Breitman, CEO and cofounder of Tezos, a blockchain startup that this year raised more than $200 million in an initial coin offering, or ICO, and which counts celeb investors Tim Draper and Mark Cuban among its backers.
The crew of experts weighed in on everything from the longevity of Bitcoin, the original cryptocurrency and blockchain, or cryptographically secured public ledger, to the latest trend of hosting so-called token sales to fund projects, especially on Ethereum, a rival blockchain to Bitcoin’s, to the future of a decentralized web. Here are some of the predictions we heard.
1. Bitcoin and Ethereum are here to stay.
Most people who are enthusiastic about cryptocurrency appear to agree that Bitcoin and its newer rival Ethereum have staying power, though they may be more bullish on one versus the other. “In terms of 5 to 10 years, Bitcoin and Ether will be around I bet,” Balaji Srinivasan told the room of more than 70 people.
Peter Smith said his company, Blockchain, which was early to Bitcoin, has only just started to warm up to newcomer Ethereum. In contrast, Mike Cagney, CEO and cofounder of SoFi, a personal finance company, said during a separate session on the main stage that he was hotter on the latter technology.
Bitcoin “has some purpose but its application for commercial transaction is limited right now,” Cagney said. “The blockchain and Ethereum, on the other hand, have absolutely fascinating infrastructure applications,” he continued, mentioning the possibility to overhaul title insurance, which involves policies related to real estate, as one example.
2. As yet unknown coins will hit the big time.
Bitcoin and Ethereum may have stolen the show at this point, but the innovation won’t end there. Expect more winners on the horizon.
Kathleen Breitman is hopeful that Tezos, her own blockchain bet, will fill a niche that solves problems with extant blockchains. In particular, she and her project’s developers are designing Tezos to automatically push software updates out to the network, thus, in theory, avoiding the divisive feuding over upgrades that has wracked systems like Bitcoin over the past few years.
No one can say how many tokens and coins and blockchain protocols will eventually win out, but the experts seem to think there’s room for a multitude. “It’s likely that another one or two dominant ones we haven’t seen yet in the market,” Smith projected. “Another really dominant coin could come out this year or next year.”
3. Sure, people will get burned.
For the time being, token sales might seem like a fantastic way to raise a lot of money quickly and with few questions asked. Will this lead to riches for some? Undoubtedly—indeed, it already has. And rip-offs for others? Almost certainly.
Smith said he presumes that market manipulation and insider dealing is rampant among purveyors of initial coin offerings. “We’re cautious about it in the short term,” Smith said of his company. “But you have to temper that with the idea that every new technology is going to be like that in the beginning.”
Brad Garlinghouse, CEO of Ripple and a former executive at Yahoo, voiced his less forgiving concerns about the sector on a separate panel. “Heavily regulated markets are typically heavily regulated for a reason,” he said. “Frauds are happening, people are going to jail.”
4. ICOs will (eventually) give Silicon Valley and Wall Street a run for their money.
The days of making a pilgrimage to the homes of the holders of purse strings are coming to an end. In a world where anyone can participate as an investor online, physical location matters much less.
“It used to be you had to come to Silicon Valley, walk up Sand Hill Road, network with individuals,” Srinivasan said about entrepreneurs seeking funding, often strolling up a strip to the west of Palo Alto that long has been associated with venture capital firms. ICOs change all that.
Projects are already getting funded this Kickstarter-like new way. Breitman said she that when she set up Tezos’ token sale, she aimed to “get as many people who wanted to participate in the ecosystem to contribute.” The company raised more than $200 million to date and, according to her, more than 30,000 Tezos wallets have been opened.
5. Regulations will stick.
Elena Kvochko, chief information officer of the security division at Barclays, said that her bank has had many talks with regulators about Bitcoin and its ilk. The rule-sticklers actually don’t mind working with Bitcoin, she said. What they do care about is financial institutions obeying “know your customer” laws, which prevent terrorists and other sanctioned groups from getting financed.
Meanwhile, as governments settle on sets of rules of the road, countries like Switzerland, Singapore, and Estonia are jostling to develop frameworks that easily accommodate the new technology, Srinivasan said. They’re seeking to displace geographic incumbents and become hubs for a new wave of business financing. “If you’re a U.S. person or business, you have a good deal to be concerned about,” Smith said.
Breitman added that until the rules are agreed upon, it’s “best to be transparent” about what one is doing.
6. Speculation will subside as “killer apps” take hold.
As cryptocurrency prices fluctuate wildly, speculators have been having a field day. However, there’s reason to believe the markets will become more stable, as Bitcoin gradually has over the past couple of years (despite its still big price swings), Smith said.
In order for these computer coins to catch on big-time, they need a use-case that beats traditional money. Ideally, this ought to be better than merely “buying drugs,” as Jeff John Roberts, Fortune reporter and the session’s moderator, noted.
Srinivasan proposed one possible scenario. Imagine that “all your waking hours are spent in the Matrix,” he said, referring to a virtual reality in which everyone is enmeshed in the future. As people from all over the world meet and interact, they will need a medium of exchange. “To transact, you can’t just hand over a dollar bill,” Srinivasan said. “You need an international currency for that.”
“It might take a while but there’s going to be more of a need to transact across borders than there is today,” he said.
7. Cryptocurrencies will pressure incumbents to improve.
Whenever a consumer swipes or dips a credit card, payment processors charge a fee.
Nicko van Someren, chief technology officer of the Linux Foundation, pointed out that the fee companies like Visa or Mastercard charge exceeds the cost to clear or settle transactions. These businesses can potentially process transactions quicker and cheaper, he contended.
One potential outcome of the adoption of alternate systems, like Bitcoin, is to provide companies with the impetus to improve their services. “Bitcoin is good because it will make banks move toward the real cost of handling these transactions,” van Someren said. (By extension, in Ethereum’s case, one could imagine upstart companies built on it forcing giants like Amazon, Facebook, or Dropbox to reconsider or improve their respective offerings.)
Smith, meanwhile, was less optimistic about incumbents’ ability to adapt to such change. “I don’t think be lot of room for banks to simply adjust their price models,” he said.