Edmond Tuohy is the CEO of MERJ Exchange. MERJ Exchange is an innovative end to end, multi-market global financial exchange for equities, debt and derivatives.
MERJ is soon to launch its Digital Assets and Security Token markets along with the opportunity to invest in MERJ Exchange.
Antoine: MERJ Exchange is a securities exchange that currently offers an Equities, a Derivatives, and a Debt Market. What’s the inspiration with expanding to digital securities?
ED: We strongly believe in the potential of digitization to transform the capital markets. Quite simply we think it is the future. There are 3 headline reasons why we are moving in this direction:
1) This technology can streamline everything we do in the securities markets, from issuance, to shareholder registers, compliance, distributions, voting etc. The opportunity to streamline big chunks of this workstream is very attractive and would benefit everyone involved.
2) We can dramatically reduce frictions for people who may not have participated in the capital markets in the past. By frictions I mean you won’t need a computer, or a stock broking account, or even a bank account. Many emerging markets have been empowered by the “mobile first” revolution. We want to build an access point to the capital markets that integrates seamlessly with that ecosystem.
3) We are perfectly set up for it. We operate a Regulated Market with integrated post trade infrastructure, which is quite unusual If you look at other Regulated Markets around the world, they are tied into a central clearing / central depositary model. This means lots of disparate organisations are going to have to agree on exactly how to process digital assets. We have the infrastructure and regulatory approval to bring both institutional and retail investors into the world of digital assets in a way that is compliant from end to end.
Antoine: What does the name MERJ symbolize?
Ed: I’m glad you asked that. I love the name MERJ. As much as we strongly believe in tokenization, we also strongly believe in the principles of securities laws, investor protections and regulation. MERJ is a reference to the idea of combining the best of the old world and the new. The best of traditional market protections with all the potential benefits of this digital technology. It is also a reference to the idea of merging all the layers of the settlement and custody chain. Instead of multiple reconciliations taking a few days we can look forward to one almost instantaneous transaction.
Antoine: MERJ Exchange Limited is currently the only licensed securities exchange in the Republic of Seychelles. What made you choose this domicile versus other popular offshore jurisdictions?
Ed: We are a Regulated Market – in that we provide the same function in the Seychelles as the LSE in the UK and the NYSE in the US. It’s not so much that we chose the Seychelles, more that the Seychelles needed a stock exchange and we were the right people to do it. This story began post GFC, when the IMF and the World Bank sat down with the Seychelles government and encouraged them to develop the financial services sector here. Part of that was to establish a stock exchange. We put ourselves forward to do it and have been working hand in hand with regulators here since 2011 to build an international exchange. Our listings now account for more than 20% of the national GDP, which is a key metric in evaluating the maturity of an economy. The FSA Seychelles is now an associate member of IOSCO and MERJ is an affiliate member of the World Federation of Exchanges. These are not trivial achievements and are very important when it comes to institutional investment mandates, so we are able to open this market up to widest possible pool of global capital.
Antoine: How many securities are currently listed on the exchange?
Ed: 29 equity and 2 debt. We have issuers from 5 continents and investors from 7.
It takes time to build the kind of infrastructure and regulatory standing we have here – and there are no shortcuts. We now have a great foundation for a very exciting phase of growth.
Antoine: Most of the companies listed on the MERJ exchange are African, which makes complete sense since Seychelles is often portrayed as the Cayman Islands of the African continent. Most investors in Europe will be familiar with Seychelles, but the same cannot probably be said for North American and Asian investors. Do you believe that you will need to educate STOs on the benefits of being listed on an exchange in this jurisdiction?
Ed: We adhere to the standards of IOSCO and the WFE, international investors don’t mind whether we are in London or Seychelles. We already have issuers from North America, Asia, Australia, Europe and Africa. We are going to be providing something that isn’t available elsewhere and Issuers will go where the liquidity is.
Having said that the Seychelles is actually a great story of international cooperation. There are so many reasons why Seychelles is a good jurisdiction and any STO issuer that is serious will do their research and quickly realise that. In the last 10 years the Government and regulators have worked with international agencies like the OECD and FATF to bring the Seychelles up to the highest international standards. The OECD now ranks it with the UK, Japan, Germany, USA and Australia. Since the IMF and World Bank stepped in the country has gone from a B- rating to BB. That really underlines the trajectory of the economy. Our view is that the STO market is likely to be quite borderless, but issuers are not going to want to go to a jurisdiction that doesn’t meet these high international standards, because it will attract greater scrutiny from other regulators. In the securities markets there is no regulatory arbitrage, people want clarity and simplicity, not added hassle. The Seychelles offers that in abundance, as well as an advantageous tax regime, many double tax agreements, a thriving corporate services sector, competitive pricing. If all of that isn’t enough for you it’s not the worst place to have to visit for business.
Antoine: What will be the onboarding and listing requirements for new STOs?
Ed: Our onboarding procedure follows the same KYC/ AML process as for clients wishing to trade any listed securities. As for the listing requirements, the chosen token standard has to be to be compatible with our regulations but otherwise they are exactly the same as for our traditional securities. We have 3 equity boards, a main board, an SME board and a venture board. An STO would have to choose which board was most appropriate and then meet the listing requirements. We work on a sponsor advisor model, so STO’s will work with one of our global network of sponsors to prepare them for listing. The sponsor undertakes responsibility for due diligence and making all the relevant disclosures. This is the same process that an issuer would go through to list on AIM in the UK or the Toronto venture exchange in Canada. We think it’s a great model and will work well for STO issuers.
Antoine: You recently announced that you will be launching your own security token, which will then be traded on your own exchange. What’s the expected date of this STO launch? Also do we know the hardcap yet?
Ed: First we have to list our equity by introduction on the exchange. This is imminent, and when done it will be the first equity to be listed on a national stock exchange in tokenized form. It’s really quite a major watershed point for the digital asset community. The subsequent STO will be a public offering of ~15% of that tokenized stock. We don’t want to launch the STO into peak summer so we will probably wait a couple of months now. The funds are for growth capital, largely to bring more people on board. We are very confident of our pipeline and we need additional people in operational and compliance roles to service the demand.
Antoine: What benefits will investors receive from this investment?
Ed: The benefit is a stake in an exchange which we think is one of a kind. We have the flexibility to trade, clear, settle and register securities ourselves, or plug into any other global infrastructure if it makes better sense. This in itself is unusual, and a deliberate piece of Seychelles law, which was designed to be outward looking. Consider our regulatory status, licenses, permissions, the structure of our business, the combination of regulated exchange/clearing/depositary entities, the clarity provided by our regulator and the fact Seychelles is a well respected jurisdiction with a modern financial services industry. When you look at all these factors in combination, you realise it is a very compelling, and entirely unique proposition. We have an opportunity here to build a truly world class piece of infrastructure for the next generation of capital markets. Our competitors around the world are the likes of LSE and NYSE and they are not in a position to move so quickly and decisively. There are big fish and there are little fish, but we like to think we are a fast fish! Our investors will own an equity stake in a very exciting company that is spearheading the next generation of financial markets infrastructure.
Antoine: When do you expect your first security token offering to go live?
Ed: We have a number of issuers that are keen to push the button as soon as possible. I am quietly confident that we will have done a handful before the end of the year and a couple of dozen within the next twelve months.
Antoine: Is there anything else that you would like to share about MERJ Exchange?
Ed: We have a tremendous team based in the Seychelles, Cape Town, Johannesburg and London. We are looking for experienced market professionals to join us and help deliver on our vision. If anyone would like to work in the Seychelles or Cape Town, or represent us in another region then drop us a CV at email@example.com.
Antoine: Thank you for the great interview. Anyone who wishes to learn more should visit Merj Exchange.
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.