You’ve recently written a research paper entitled ‘Cryptocurrencies & Initial Coin Offerings: Are they Scams? – An Empirical Study‘. This paper argues against the conventional wisdom that the bulk of ICOs launched in 2016 were scams and that in fact, most were legitimate initiatives. Do you believe that this would hold for the 2017/2018 ICO period?
Hello Antoine, Thanks for having me today. It’s a pleasure.
With regards to the “ICO Scam paper” that I have written together with my co-author Prof. Dr Patrick Schueffel I’d like to think about almost like a conversation starter. There are lots of opportunities to deepen our understanding of the topic. Running our research process on 2017 and 2018 ICO data is one of the recommendations we added towards the end of the paper. I am discussing with various universities, also with a prominent law school in Asia, to execute this.
Then we want to proceed with the development of the ‘Crypto Scam Probability Index’ that could give traditional financial services firms a tool to assess projects. It could be useful for custodians, asset managers and banks and their clients alike. At this stage all I can say that 2.2% of, say, 5000 ICOs is still 110 projects… a number high enough to build tools and processes to protect investors from scammers.
What’s your take on IEOs? Is this an improvement over ICOs?
Thank you for this great question. Mostly, utility token projects do not deliver a service to their stakeholders at present. Therefore there is no real demand for tokens. We have speculators trading against speculators. I think we need to watch what exchanges do carefully. Some of them have taken measures to implement control mechanisms, especially with regards to their listing governance. This is probably positive and adds to their maturity. At the same time, I am sceptical when I see that listings departments also have sales targets. Even more concerning is that in some cases IEOs have to be paired with the native exchange token.
I ask myself if this drives the demand for the exchange token artificially? I also wonder how exchanges manage conflicts of interest. For example, how can exchanges have VC funds that invest in projects that eventually list of their market? Again, I believe that over time, we will see a lot more mature operations succeed. In the traditional markets, not anyone can be the CEO of an exchange, and that is for a good reason. I look forward to trading platforms taking things like trade surveillance and governance a notch up from where we are now to impart investor confidence.
Lightbulb Capital has partnered with SMU (Singapore Management University) to offer an introductory course on digital assets and cryptocurrencies. In your opinion, what are the biggest takeaways that students should take from this course?
Thanks for bringing this up. First of all, I believe in experiential learning so that participants can expect loads of work and little one-way lecturing. I do like to invite industry-leading guest speakers, too. Three main points:
1) Utility Tokens are (ideally) not issued by a company but by a community or foundation.
2) Students learn the basics of blockchain technology, hashes, consensus algorithm, private/public key and the trilemma (scale, security, decentralization) and many more.
3) We aim to impart some confidence so that participants understand the risks and opportunities of this emerging field – critical thinking being essential.
We are also expanding the course from 1 to 2 days because it was simply not enough time to build a strong foundation.
You are involved in the world of academia, both teaching and research. Do you believe that most schools are adequately preparing the next generation for the current advancements in fintech? If not, what should be done differently?
There is always the opportunity to improve. I think one thing that universities are generally not so strong in is speed. SMU, where we started the first FinTech class more than three years ago, is part of a small group of institutions that represent the exceptions. Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University is very strong on the business administration research side as the latest Shanghai report confirms. The research process in general is too slow for our exponentially accelerating times.
Coming back to teaching: I think some topics can be taught very well using digital media. If you want to learn about data science, for example, explore the offering of the newly launched FDP Institute. Mehrzad and team provide a fantastic platform to learn more about how to use data science in finance. Some topics can only be taught in a classroom, mostly the ones that require teamwork. Take Service Design Thinking. We happily work with corporations and Universities to deliver such hands-on programs. There is always a focus on action to ensure people can immediately apply what they have learned in their own work environment. Unfortunately, some universities still focus on learning facts by hard to test them during exams. I feel that is probably antiquated.
Lightbulb Capital offers speaking engagements on AI, and you are personally well-read on the subject. Do you foresee a future where AI has more influence on fintech?
To clarify: I am at best a beginner level student of AI. It will take a few more years for me to have true in-depth understanding of this enormous field that goes way beyond Machine Learning. Machine Learning itself has become such a vast area itself. From what I can tell now, AI already has a substantial impact on the world of finance. This impact exists mostly due to easy access to enormous amounts of data and exponentially growing computing power. For example, look at what Marcos Lopez de Prado at True Positive Technologies and Cornell University does. It makes clear that plain vanilla statistics alone does not cut it in financial markets. Check out this latest paper if you are interested: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3365282. One topic that we will hear a lot about in the next 12 months is the ethical use of AI in Finance, especially in Financial Markets. Ethics is something regulators, CxO level folks and other market participants, as well as end clients, have to think about deeply. Exciting times and I am looking forward to contributing to the discussion.
Security tokens are currently popular with tokenizing venture funds and real estate. What are some use cases that you are personally seeing?
Security tokens – indeed a fascinating topic. I am currently working on a research project to explore this area more. It’s early days but a few takeaways. One of the leading digital asset databases compiled by the International Token Standard Association (ITSA), which we are a proud Associate Founding Member of, contains 600 tokens in total. Only 30 of them are classified as an investment or security token. Second, I do understand that due to fractional ownership assets that used to be difficult to access, such as fine art, are now more accessible. At the same time, with the well-known restriction to accredited investors who understand valuations, we really need to ask ourselves who will provide that liquidity? Who will buy these tokens? Until I see liquid STO markets on electronic exchanges, I dare to believe that there might be a wrong expectation in the market. The above does not mean that I do not think that this is a very inspiring space with much potential in the future. I am keen to see the opportunities in traditional, listed, equities, too. The instant settlement could free large amounts of capital that is “stuck” right now. Also creating diversified portfolios no matter how small your investment amount is, could be a massive step in terms of financial inclusion.
You’re based out of Singapore which is an influential hub for cryptocurrencies. Do you foresee Singapore taking the lead ahead of Switzerland or Malta? I am thinking in terms of adoption of crypto, and businesses being headquartered there?
It is hard for me to predict who is going to lead. I only have done minimal research on Malta. I do advise anyone who asks to think carefully and then chose a mature jurisdiction. In Switzerland, share registers are maintained by the issuers. So they can sit on the blockchain. This is key for the swift development of the security token ecosystem. In other countries, share registers are maintained by a government agency. Switzerland is also home to a number of exciting companies like Sygnum, Daura, MME and Metaco.
On the other hand, Singapore has arguably one of the most, if not the most, forward-looking Financial Services regulators in the world with MAS. It is exciting to watch how they combine sound risk management and investor protection with Innovation like few others in the world. In addition to that, Singapore’s other government agencies like, for example, IRAS, the tax authority also leads when it comes to utility token taxation. I might be biased, but Singapore is already in a dominant position. What excites me about Hong Kong are the execution-focused entrepreneurs like, for example, HEX Trust in the custody space.
What are you most excited about in this industry?
I am fascinated by the fact that everything moves so swiftly. I am by nature a curious person so the never-ending updates and developments globally I find superb. If I had to name one particular area, then it is that I see how more and more initiatives are now working on “how to get the rubber on the road”. Adoption and execution move to centre stage and unrealistic “getting rich quick” topics fade away. I think this is positive. Yesterday the German government announced a Blockchain strategy as a country. In The Netherlands, I am supporting the 2tokens project that looks at adoption through a financing lense. In Singapore, I look forward to helping the Blockchain Enterprises & Scalable Technologies Association. It is early days, but we are thinking about how to enable people to take full advantage of blockchain.
Is there anything else that you would like to share?
Thanks for this opportunity. Yes, I want to encourage everyone to read more academic research to complement the rare pearls of wisdom on Medium. Here are three relatively new journals to check out:
Passionate individuals who push for evidence-based research are running these up and coming publications.
Finally, thanks for having me Antoine and I hope we can stay in touch and talk again.
BIO: Daniel (Dan) is the Founder of Singapore based Lightbulb Capital. The firm was founded in 2014 in Hong Kong to help realize the potential of innovation and novel technologies to transform financial services. Today the company is a corporate finance boutique with a focus on FinTech and blockchain.
Dan is appointed affiliate faculty of Singapore Management University for Innovation in Finance, FinTech, Blockchain, and digital assets. He is also a visiting professor at IE business school in its top-ranked Master in Finance program. He is also a Review Editor for Frontiers Financial Blockchain academic journal and works on research projects. In addition, he is a frequent speaker at seminars on Blockchain and Innovation in Financial Services. Before starting the firm, Dan was Chief Operating Officer (COO) and an Executive Director of HSBC Securities (Singapore) Pte Limited. He was previously also the IT Head of HSBC’s Investment Bank in Singapore and Japan. Dan has over 19 years of Investment Banking Technology experience at UBS in both Germany and the UK, Barclays Capital in both Singapore and Tokyo, as well as Close Brothers in Frankfurt, his hometown.
He is also a Ph.D. Candidate within the Finance department of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University where he researches Blockchain and AI and it effects on Finance. Previously he graduated with a Master of Science in Innovation from Singapore Management University and holds a Master in Finance from IE business school in Madrid, Spain.
Andrew Adcock, CEO of Crowd for Angels – Interview Series
Andrew is the Chief Executive Officer at Crowd for Angels an equity crowdfunding platform. He often attends and speaks at events on Crowdfunding, Alternative Finance and Investment. Previously, he worked at NinetyTen, a web application developer and provider of Private Social Networks, whose clients included Nokia, Channel 4 and Shop Direct
You were one of the original Co-Founders of Crowd for Angels. Can you discuss the inspiration behind launching this business?
I was indeed one of the Founding team at Crowd for Angels, but the inspiration for launching the company comes from our Director Tony de Nazareth, who combined his decades of financial knowledge with the ‘social media’ approach. This was to get the community involved when funding and supporting a business, thereby creating brand advocates that not only financially supported the aspirations of a company but also became a voice and customer of the company.
How much do you involve yourself in the pitch decks and packaging the deals that are found on Crowd for Angels?
I am involved in most companies that seek to list on Crowd for Angels. I take a genuine fascination in the lives of start-ups and companies looking to expand. Each has its own story and passion, which I am enthused by. Having raised funds for my own company and invested in many others, I hope to provide insight for the company.
What type of due diligence is performed on the companies that are listed?
A lot! Crowd for Angels breaks due diligence down into 3 key areas, firstly, we conduct factual checks such as KYC, AML, PEP, Credit Checks on the directors, reviewing accounts produced by the company and verifying facts stated on their pitch. Secondly, we conduct market checks, for instance, is the product available and as described, is there an addressable market, is the valuation reasonable, what legal challenges the company might face and is it ethical. The final check is one of sanity, which is not only tested by Crowd for Angels, but also by our Angels, who will ask the company their own questions.
What are some of the main reasons behind companies being turned down for listing on the platform?
There can be a number of reasons but a few we find most common are as follows:
- The valuation is simply too high in comparison to the companies position
- The company does not provide documentation (business plan, management accounts, incorporation documents)
- The product is too early-stage or not yet developed
- The directors have no ‘Skin in the Game’
What are the biggest benefits of equity crowdfunding?
I personally believe the biggest benefit is the ability to create brand advocates, people who support your business financially and become active customers, drawing in others to check out your brand, whether that is through word of mouth or social media.
Could you give us a success story of a company that raised funds on the Crowd for Angels platform?
One of my favourites is a company called CNPPS. A young entrepreneur, who was studying engineering at university at the time had created a permeable pavement solution that used recycled aggregate. Now that might not sound as fascinating as an app, but our world is covered in roads and pavements. His solution, used 100% recycled aggregate and was carbon negative, furthermore, it allowed water to pass through. Working with the entrepreneur we were able to raise £100,000 for a phase of testing that has now led on to a commercial contract and further funding for the company.
What made it interesting was the ethical approach the company had took to change an old industry, the tenacity the entrepreneur showed never giving up and that a business can truly be grown from the ground up, out of university none-the-less. So far in a 2 year period, the company’s valuation has increased 4 fold, delivering a solid return for the Angels involved.
Crowd for Angels is one of the few crowdfunding platforms that accept bitcoin. How many investors use bitcoin, and where do most of these investors originate from?
Yes, we have been accepting cryptocurrency as a form of payment for investment since early 2016. At that time, we integrated this payment option to allow foreign investors to invest in UK companies without the costs and time associated with international bank transfers. Initially, we saw a number of Australians, Chinese and mainly Asian investors utilise this form of payment. However, as bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies gained in popularity, we did see growth in European investors utilising cryptocurrency. Partly this is due to the gains they might have experienced and I believe the convenience cryptos offered. Now, we have over 14,000 members registered with a cryptocurrency wallet on our platform, with many of them in Europe.
A few years ago, the ANGEL token was released. What are the use cases for this token?
The ANGEL token was released to drive down the user acquisition cost of investors whilst rewarding stakeholders for interacting with our platform. It is hoped that when users interact and share content in the network, say an investment they had just made in a fledgeling company, that they would be rewarded with ANGEL. Crowd for Angels has then committed to buy back and burn ANGEL linked to the revenue generated from our pitches, thus creating a virtuous circle. We hope in the future, our Angels will also be able to use the ANGEL token as a method of payment towards an investment.
Crowdfunding utilises technology to allow the masses to invest small amounts into pitches, but the shares are usually held with a nominee and should you wish to sell them or give them to someone else, it is difficult. Therefore, the integration of digitalised assets should be a no brainer, because it potentially gives the control of the asset back to the investor and follows a set of rules, that can’t be broken. In a utopian world, you would allow investors to purchase, hold and trade any assets that they wish. With the blockchain, you benefit from an immutable ledger that would record these transactions, giving you efficiency and transparency. I believe we are only a stones throw away from some big changes.
Is there anything else that you would like to share about Crowd for Angels?
We are always open to ideas, a conversation can go a long way.
Jim Dowd, Founder & Managing Director of North Capital – Interview Series
James Dowd is Founder and CEO of North Capital Private Securities (NCPS), a registered broker-dealer focused on origination, placement, and clearing of exempt securities; North Capital Investment Technology (NCIT), which provides technology for the exempt securities market; and North Capital Inc., a registered investment advisor. NCPS is the designated broker-dealer for many securities funding platforms in the early stage equity, real estate, private funds, and securities token markets.
North Capital recently completed the membership approval process with FINRA and achieved acceptance of Form ATS Initial Operations Report by the SEC. For those who are unfamiliar with this form, what makes it so important for North Capital and its clients?
Great question. Our customers and many other issuers, investors and intermediaries who are involved in private securities markets want to see more transparency and liquidity in private markets. Investing in private deals has traditionally involved a minimum 7 to 10 year capital commitment, since there is typically no interim liquidity and no definitive exit plan. I have one private investment that has been outstanding for 19 years, another that has been alive for 14 years, not to mention the many investments that did not work out. Once someone makes a private investment, if they have second thoughts or change their opinion, it’s too late. Almost every investor who allocates to private deals knows or should know this, and most would like to have liquidity and real price discovery for the private securities in their portfolios. We hope our ATS will help to realize this vision, at least for the issuers, investors and intermediaries who share it.
The launch of this ATS serves as a natural extension to North Capital’s existing private securities infrastructure, TransactCloud. What is TransactCloud?
TransactCloud is our API-first technology stack that facilitates primary offerings of exempt securities. We work with issuers and professional intermediaries — broker-dealers, RIAs, and funding platforms — to allow the offering, transaction, document processing, escrow, payments and clearing of exempt securities online.
To be clear on this point, we ourselves are not investing in digital assets; we are providing infrastructure to allow trading of digital asset securities through our regulated marketplace, the PPEX ATS. We will not be trading cryptocurrency or utility tokens. The SEC regulations related to alternative trading systems are very clear: ATSs are for the trading of securities only. We also will be listing and trading non-digital exempt securities.
North Capital also offers investment opportunities which are deemed as “frontier alternatives”. Could you share some details on what you would consider frontier alternatives?
“Frontier” in the context of investment management refers to the most emerging of emerging markets. We coined the term “frontier alternative” to convey the same idea ~ some examples would be investments in art, collectibles, fine wine, litigation pools, digital currency, race horses, athletes, etc. I fully expect that in ten years, some of these will have become mainstream alternatives. Private credit is a good example ~ ten years ago, private credit was considered exotic; today there are registered funds that invest in private credit and it’s considered a mainstream alternative asset class.
North Capital has been involved in over 1,000 primary offerings totaling $1.9 billion. What are some of these notable offerings?
It’s difficult to single out specific deals. We have so many great partners who are doing innovative work. Groups like Jamestown, Crowdstreet, RealtyMogul, RichUncles, Securitize, SportBLX, Exponential, Roofstock, Mythic Markets, Otis, Commonwealth, SeedInvest. Quadrant Biosciences has a Reg A+ offering that we’re working on right now ~ our first collaboration with WeFunder. Metaurus is one of our partners, run by a talented team led by Rick Sandulli and Jamie Greenwald, who I worked with 30 years ago at Bankers Trust. They have two listed ETF-style products that are patent-protected and could revolutionize the way equity investors take risk. I know I am leaving somebody out so I’ll apologize in advance.
Could you share some of the Broker/Dealer services that are offered by your firm?
We are a full-service broker-dealer for private and other exempt offerings, along with investment companies such as mutual funds and ETFs. We also are an escrow agent for private offerings including serving as a qualified third party for Reg CF offerings. Compliance support is integral to all of our activities — we help issuers and platforms to comply with securities laws. Last year we were approved to broker EB5 deals, but that market is shuttered for now, given the COVID-19 pandemic.
What type of custody services are offered?
Today we custody cash, private securities, and mutual fund shares. It’s still early days for our custody business, and we have deliberately limited our rollout to allow us to test systems and procedures. But this is a high growth segment of our business.
Could you also share some details regarding the advisory services that are offered?
The advisory part of our business is done through a separate, SEC-registered investment advisor. It’s a technology-enabled financial planning and wealth management business, along with a bespoke, consultative advisory practice for family offices and business owners.
The firm also offers technology-based investment solutions to broker-dealers, banks, fund managers, funding platforms, and private issuers. What are some of these solutions?
On the advisory side, the evisor platform is an online financial planning and wealth management platform. We’re currently working with one bank on a pilot program, and we’re integrating it into our broader advisory and 401k business. On the exempt offerings / broker-dealer side of our business, TransactCloud is a collection of products and services used by issuers and professional intermediaries for online securities offerings.
Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Readers who wish to learn more should visit of North Capital Private Securities.
Nick Bhargava, Co-Founder of GROUNDFLOOR – Interview Series
GROUNDFLOOR is an American real estate lending marketplace. It was the first real estate crowdfunding company to achieve SEC qualification utilizing Regulation A+ since the regulation became operable through the JOBS Act. GROUNDFLOOR was purposely built to serve self-directed investors instead of institutional ones
You’re both a director and one of the co-founders of GROUNDFLOOR. What was the inspiration behind launching this crowdfunding platform?
My co-founder, Brian Dally, had years of experience to make telecom services more accessible to everyday individuals. Meanwhile I had a lot of experience in the securities and regulatory industries. We wanted to combine our respective strengths in a way that opened up high yield investment opportunities for everyone, not just the 1 percent. We eventually started with single-family residential housing because most people are familiar with this kind of asset from being homeowners themselves.
When the idea was conceived, we had no idea if there would be a market for it. We needed to first find an accessible regulatory framework that would allow them to test the business concept. We discovered the Invest Georgia Exemption (IGE), created in 2011 to help small businesses access capital. Being an intrastate offering rule, it was only available for Georgia companies, so both of us picked up and moved to Atlanta to launch GROUNDFLOOR. Because of IGE, we were able to fund $2 million in loans in Georgia, clearly demonstrating the demand for GROUNDFLOOR’s platform.
Over time, GROUNDFLOOR has grown considerably and is now open to investors in all 50 states.
Can you explain how GROUNDFLOOR connects investors with real estate developers?
We are focused on providing retail investors with high yield investment opportunities. A real estate borrower, someone who develops real estate for a living, secures a loan through GROUNDFLOOR rather than a traditional bank or a hard money lender to finance a residential real estate project. That borrower submits a loan application, and we vet the individual and the project to determine if we should originate a loan. Our underwriting is based on past experiences, amount of skin in the game and many other factors. If approved, the loan is assigned a loan Grade of A through G and a corresponding rate where Grade A loans are the least risky, with the lowest rate of return and Grade G loans are most risky, with the highest rate of return.
We have filed an offering with the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) through which we sell securities. The proceeds of these securities are used to fund the loans we originate. The performance of these securities and corresponding rate of return is tied to the underlying loan. Investors can choose which securities, and therefore, which underlying loans, they wish to invest in.
Investors can choose to invest up to $10 increments to fund the loan. Once a loan is fully funded, the borrower draws money according to a draw schedule, and completes the new construction, renovation or rehab project. The property is then typically listed for sale. When the project sells or is refinanced, which is usually 6-12 months from the time the investor invested, the loan is repaid. The investor’s principal investment, plus all accrued interest, is deposited into the investor’s GROUNDFLOOR Investor Account. The cash balance in an individual’s GROUNDFLOOR Investor Account can be withdrawn or reinvested in other projects.
Are there any types of restrictions or quality controls in place to ensure that real estate developers can repay the loans?
When the borrower submits the loan application, our underwriting team works closely to vet the projects and the borrower. We also factor in the local real estate market. We don’t lend in markets we don’t like. When a loan is originated, we stay in regular contact with the borrower to ensure that the project is meeting deadlines, and we share regular updates with investors. Draws are not given out if the borrower is not making sufficient progress or has deviated from plan. If we think there could be delays or the borrower violates terms of the agreement, we can decide to step in and proactively put the loan in default, which can result in a stronger outcome for the investor because we pass through penalty interest. Most GROUNDFLOOR loans are first lien position, so the loan is backed by a physical asset, which is the land and structure.
What are some of the types of returns that can be expected by investors?
For the past six years, participants in GROUNDFLOOR real estate loans have earned annualized returns averaging 10 to 12 percent in a 6 to 12 month timeframe.
Are all investments currently in the United States? Is there a preference for certain cities or states? If yes, could you describe these.
While anyone in the country can invest in GROUNDFLOOR with only $10, the company focuses its lending in 30 states.
You were an early advocate for the JOBS Act, were you happy with how the JOBS Act was written? Was there anything that should have been left out?
I am generally happy with how the act turned out. The different provisions are designed to help companies of different sizes, and each provides value for companies in different situations. I don’t think any particular provision should have been left out.
What would you like to see changed in a future version of the JOBS Act?
We have seen Reg. A be used heavily by real estate issuances. I think there is value beyond this use case, particularly for mid-sized privately held companies that want to access public market capital. The cap for Regulation A will soon change to $75M, which will be more appealing to companies of that size. I think we could see some novel offerings in that space.
Is there anything else that you would like to share about GROUNDFLOOR?
There is no other company that offers what GROUNDFLOOR does for individual investors and borrowers. We’ve created a new category and offer completely new products.
Why hasn’t anyone copied us? One reason is because regulatory innovation. Providing investments directly tied to this type of high quality, high yield real estate credit is not something that has been done for the retail investor. GROUNDFLOOR was the very first company qualified by the Securities & Exchange Commission to offer this type of investment via Reg A for non-accredited and accredited investors alike, and because of the enormous amount of infrastructure we put into place, we can continue to iterate on our product where others cannot.
I really enjoyed learning about your company, readers and/or investors who wishes to learn more may visit GROUNDFLOOR.