Japanese internet giant Recruit has a new $25M blockchain fund

Crypto market prices may be down significantly, but new investors continue to enter the blockchain space. The latest is Recruit Holdings, the $45 billion Japanese internet giant that owns Glassdoor among other things, which quietly launched a $25 million fund.

The fund is based out of Singapore and it closed in November 2018, but its existence was only made public this week following the announcement of its maiden deal, an undisclosed investment in Beam. Recruit has been very vocal about its intention to offer a crypto fund — I interviewed SVP Youngrok Kim at a Coindesk event in Singapore last year — while it has made equity investments in blockchain companies through its central corporate fund, Recruit Strategic Partners (RSP). The current RSP fund is $100 million and it is the company’s sixth.

Now, with the crypto fund, Kim — who operates within both RSP and the new fund — said that Recruit is free to do deals in both tokens and equity and generally dive deeper into blockchain.

“When we had an equity fund we weren’t as flexible as we wanted to be,” Kim told TechCrunch in a phone interview this week. “We weren’t in a position to buy tokens and assets. We will continue to have two vehicles, we will use the crypto fund and the RSP fund in tandem as needed.”

That’s all well and good but, with the bubble popped, the number of ICOs is down but not quite out. The dynamics have certainly changed, with token sales now almost universally conducted privately rather than publicly, and for full-time investors and professionals rather than anyone. Still, Kim still sees ample reasons to operate a token-based fund.

“We still see a lot of ICOs, the relative number is smaller but we still see a good amount of deal flow for token and equity raising. We are positive with the outlook,” he explained. “We’re a strong believer in blockchain and decentralized technology.”

Beyond direct investments, the fund will also invest in other funds as an LP to help spread its reach.

“Our investment area is broad, covering deep tech to the application layer too,” Kim explained. “We’re still conducting research to understand core technology and its potential.

“We’re going to very cautious spending the fund, we seek to discover companies that will have a real impact and society and where we can contribute as Recruit,” he added, claiming that there are a number of upcoming deals in the pipeline.

Recruit came on the radar for many in the U.S. through its acquisition of Glassdoor for $1.2 billion last year, but it is already a major name in digital space in Japan, as a recent Bloomberg profile story explained in some detail.

Founded in 1960, it is listed on the Toyko Stock Exchange and valued at over $45 billion. It isn’t just big in Japan, though, and Recruit has some 45,000 employees across 60 countries worldwide.

Its core services are recruitment and HR, but it also operates in the real estate, travel, dining and other segments. It has a history of acquisitions, some of which have included U.S-based Indeed.com (2012) and  Simply Hired (2016) as well as European services restaurant site Quandoo (2015)hair and beauty service Wahanda (2015) and education technology company Quipper (2015).

Despite that, Kim said that he doesn’t anticipate that Recruit will acquire blockchain companies that the fund invests in because it is still early days for the technology in terms of development, adoption and monetization. But, with the fund, Recruit is determined to keep an eye on developments to ensure it doesn’t miss out on potentially significant innovation.

Recruit isn’t the only corporate to start a crypto token fund. Line, another Japanese company that’s best known for its messaging app, launched a $10 million crypto fund last year while Korean rival Kakao has a blockchain consultancy and it is actively doing deals. Kakao made its first blockchain investment in December when it backed Israeli-based Orbs in an undisclosed deal.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Coinbase buys blockchain intelligence startup to boost security and new asset discovery

Coinbase, the world’s most valuable crypto company, is gearing up to add more cryptocurrencies to its exchange thanks to its latest acquisition.

We already know the firm wants to a glut of new crypto assets, but today it announced it has snapped up blockchain intelligence startup Neutrino in an undisclosed deal that seemed destined to help further that goal.

Based in Italy, Neutrino helps map blockchain networks, and in particular crypto token transactions, to pull in information and insight. With the rise of thefts, that includes a major focus on services for law enforcement agencies to track stolen digital assets while it also includes tracking ransomware and analyzing ‘darknets.’ Other solutions include tracking services for investment and finance companies to help find rising tokens and assets, an area Coinbase could clearly capitalize on.

The company and its eight staff will relocate to Coinbase’s London office from where they will continue to service clients whilst becoming part of the Coinbase business. Initially, the startup’s primary remit will be security and theft-prevention but further down the line its smarts and technology will put to discovering and analyzing new asset listings for Coinbase.

“By analyzing data on public blockchains, Neutrino will help us prevent theft of funds from peoples’ accounts, investigate ransomware attacks, and identify bad actors. It will also help us bring more cryptocurrencies and features to more people while helping ensure compliance with local laws and regulations,” Coinbase’s engineering director Varun Srinivasan wrote in a brief blog post announcing the deal.

Srinivasan added that Neutrino’s technology is “the best we’ve encountered in this space.”

Coinbase has raised more than $500 million from investors, including its most recent $300 million Series E round in October that gave it a valuation of $8 billion. The purchase of Neutrino is its eleventh acquisition to date, according to Crunchbase. Most of those deals have tended to be talent-led deals as Coinbase seeks to suck up more expertise and engineering skills to support its growing business.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Atrium, Justin Kan’s legal tech startup, launches a fintech and blockchain division

Atrium, the legal startup co-founder by Justin Kan of Twitch fame, is jumping into the blockchain space today.

The company has raised plenty of money — including $65 million from A16z last September — so rather than an ICO or token sale, this is a consultancy business. Atrium uses machine learning to digitize legal documents and develops applications for client use, and now it is officially applying that to fintech and blockchain businesses.

The division has been operating quietly for months and the scope of work that it covers includes the legality and regulatory concerns around tokens, but also business-focused areas including token utility, tokenomics and general blockchain tech.

“We have a bunch of clients wanting to do token offerings and looking into the legality,” Kan told TechCrunch in an interview. “A lot of our advisory work is around the token offering and how it operates.”

The commitment is such that the company is even accepting Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash for payments through crypto processing service BitPay.

While the ICO market has quietened over the past year following to huge valuation losses market-wide, up to 90 percent in some cases with many ICO tokens now effectively worthless, there’s a new anticipation around regulatory-friendly security token offering (STO) options. Coinbase, for one, has backed STO platforms and its CEO Brian Armstrong has spoken of his belief that the cap table of the future is tokenized, allowing company tokens to be freely traded worldwide.

According to Armstrong, Coinbase could potentially host “millions” of STOs in the future.

If even a fraction of that number is to exist, companies will need advisors to help with structure and regulatory compliance. Many legal firms are already making a proverbial killing and, just like its core business, Atrium wants to use its tech-centric platform to offer a more efficient and cheaper alternative to expensive legal firms.

“People are doing private offerings, but the number of ICOs has definitely dropped,” Kan admitted. “Interest, though, has continued to grow, as people try to navigate this new regulatory regime. We spend a lot of time trying to focus on only taking on high-quality clients.”

Atrium Fintech and Blockchain also includes fintech work — as the name implies — but blockchain is likely to account of the majority of client work, so said Ross Barbash, who leads the 10-person team.

“We currently work with a mix of companies across the U.S, with some in Asia and Europe,” he said.

Members of Atrium’s fintech and blockchain team

The fintech work has tended to be more U.S-centric at this point, Barbash said, because Atrium’s expertise is particular to licenses at federal and state level in America.

Regulation is, of course, far trickier when it comes to blockchain as it remains a work in progress. The SEC has made periodic statements, often taking legal action to establish expectations and boundaries as it decides exactly how to respond to the explosion of blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

“The level of challenge and regulatory frameworks have evaluated blockchain analysis to business level” work rather than simply legal counsel, Barbash explained. “We’re working closely with some regulators to better understand some elements of the ecosystem.”

“With the shift from HODL to BUIDL, we are finding it easier to identify and collaborate with the teams that both have the necessary dev chops and are committed to compliance,” he added via a statement.

Some of Atrium’s disclosed clients include credit card startup Final (which was bought by Goldman Sachs) and solar financial services firm Wunder Capital.

More generally, Kan said that the blockchain and fintech division serves as a blueprint for how Atrium will go after specific verticals. He said that the startup, which now has 150 staff, will spin out different units for specific legal practices.

Starting with data centers, Carbon Relay is slashing energy costs and emissions using AI

Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn International is backing Carbon Relay, a Boston-based startup emerging from stealth today, that’s harnessing the algorithms used by companies like Facebook and Google for artificial intelligence to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the technology industry’s own backyard — the datacenter.

Already, the computing demands of the technology industry are responsible for 3% of total energy consumption — and the addition of new technologies like Bitcoin to the mix could add another half a percent to that figure within the next few years, according to Carbon Relay’s chief executive, Matt Provo.

That’s $25 billion in spending on energy per year across the industry, Provo says.

A former Apple employee, Provo went to Harvard Business School because he knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur and start his own business — and he wanted that business to solve a meaningful problem, he said.

Variability and dynamic nature of the data center relating to thermodynamics and the makeup of  a facility or building is interesting for AI because humans can’t keep up..

“We knew what we wanted to focus on,” said Provo of himself and his two co-founders. “All three of us have an environmental sciences background as well… We were fired up about building something that was true AI that has positive value… the risk associated [with climate change] is going to hit in our lifetime we were very inspired to build a company whose technology would have an impact on that.”

Carbon Relay’s mission and founding team including Thibaut Perol and John Platt (two Harvard graduates with doctorates in applied mathematics) was able to attract some big backers.

The company has raised $6 million from industry giants like Foxconn and Boston-based angel investors including Dr. James Cash — a director on the boards of Walmart, Microsoft, GE, and State Street; Black Duck Software founder, Douglas Levin; Karim Lakhani, a director on the Mozilla Corporation board; and Paul Deninger, a director on the board of the building operations management company, Resideo (formerly Honeywell).

Provo and his team didn’t just raise the money to tackle data centers — and Foxconn’s involvement hints at the company’s broader goals. “My vision is that commercial HVAC systems or any machinery that operates in a business would not ship without our intelligence inside of it,” says Provo.

What’s more compelling is that the company’s technology works without exposing the underlying business to significant security risks, Provo says.

“In the end all we’re doing are sending these floats… these values. These values are mathematical directions for the actions that need to be taken,” he says. 

Carbon Relay is already profitable, generating $4 million in revenue last year and on track for another year of steady growth, according to Provo.

Carbon Relay offers two products: Optimize and Predict, that gather information from existing HVAC devices and then control those systems continuously and automatically with continuous decision making.

“Each data center is unique and enormously complex, requiring its own approach to managing energy use over time,” said Cash, who’s serving as the company’s chairman. “The Carbon Relay team is comprised of people who are passionate about creating a solution that will adapt to the needs of every large data center, creating a tangible and rapid impact on the way these organizations do business.”

Steemit, crypto’s answer to Reddit, gets a new boss to rebuild after widespread layoffs

Steemit, an early blockchain startup that’s developing an alternative to Reddit, has a new chief less than two months after laying off most of its staff as part of cost-cutting measures.

Celebrated as an early success story in the crypto world, the company shed 70 percent of its employees back in November on account of the ‘crypto winter’ which has seen the price of Bitcoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies plummet by 90 percent or so. Steemit is far from the only blockchain startup forced to restructure, and now its rebuilding plans rest in the hands of newly-appointed managing director Elizabeth Powell.

Formerly the company’s head of communications and advocacy, Powell has replaced former CEO Ned Scott — who is now executive chairman — at the helm of the business, which has 12 full-time staff.

“We recently published our updated Mission, Vision and Values, as well as its roadmap focusing on increasing ad revenues, protecting Steem assets’ value and cost reductions. My job is to execute the roadmap,” Powell said in a post introducing her to the community.

Founded in July 2016, Steemit was an early blockchain project that showed promise and, with over a million registered users, it has been one of the most successful in terms of adoption. The premise is a Reddit-like space that is supposedly decentralized — so not subject to removals — and where users are compensated in tokens for creating or curating popular content.

However, like many blockchain startups, it has so far failed to compete with existing services on the internet and offer a truly differentiated experience that appeals to users outside of the crypto community. 

Its ‘Steem’ token, meanwhile, has suffered as the market has crashed. Valued at $7.31 during its peak in January 2018, it is currently priced at $0.41, according to CoinMarketCap.com. Unlike others, the company didn’t hold an ICO, instead it opted to mine tokens, but still those falling prices mean loyalists and the company have lost the paper value of their investments.

One major positive to adopting tokens is that, when used to raise capital, they can alleviate financial concerns and allow companies and services to focus entirely on the user experience without prioritizing monetize. But, following its financial wobbles, Steemit is testing advertising “as part of our strategy for improving the economic sustainability and decentralization of Steem.” That’s certainly controversial but, as Powell wrote, it is now very much part of the roadmap.

Powell is a relative newcomer to Steemit, having only joined the company last year. In response to her appointment, some users raised concern at her relative inexperience on the site — she has published just one original post and shared a further two  — but others suggested that the appointment of an ‘outsider’ brings a new perspective that can help wider Steemit’s audience.

Either way, Powell certainly has a challenge on her hands if Steemit is to fulfill its early promise.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Digital Garage teams up with Blockstream to develop blockchain financial services in Japan

The global crypto market may have tanked last year, but notable names have joined forces to develop Bitcoin and blockchain financial services in Japan, which has emerged as one of the world’s most crypto-friendly markets.

Blockstream, a blockchain startup founded by Bitcoin contributors, announced this week that it has launched a joint venture in Japan alongside Digital Garage, an early-stage investor/incubator that’s backed local launches from Twitter, Square and others, and financial services firm Tokyo Tanshi.

Crypto Garage — as the new venture is called — is “is dedicated to building Bitcoin and blockchain solutions for the Japanese institutional market.” The venture was first unveiled last year, and it looks like Blockstream recently came onboard through an undisclosed investment. The startup said it is providing “technical expertise” for the effort.

That’s about all the color on the venture for now, although it has released its first product, “SETTLENET.” That is described as a platform that uses Liquid Network, Blockstream’s blockchain that is designed for exchanges and brokers with a focus on speed and security.

Settlenet — because nobody likes all-caps product names — is said to have already gotten clearance from the Japanese Financial Services Agency (FSA), which regulates exchanges and crypto projects, and its first launch will be a stablecoin for the Japanese Yen. The goal is very much to arm exchanges with liquidity and, as such, the stablecoin will be tradable for Bitcoin pegged to the Liquid sidechain using atomic swaps.

The companies have collaborated for some time already. An existing investor in Blockstream, Digital Garage has plowed a further $10 million into the business in what is its third investment since 2016. That deal takes Blockstream to around $110 million raised to date.

Tokyo Tanshi, meanwhile, is a brokerage firm that was founded over 100 years ago. It has worked with Digital Garage on crypto projects since last year, when the two companies first announced Crypto Garage and a broader goal to operate blockchain financial services in Japan.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Coinstar machines will start selling Bitcoin at the grocery store

You know those machines at the grocery store that transform your gallon jugs worth of change into more usable currency? They’re about to start selling Bitcoin .

To make this impulse shopping dream come true, Coinstar, the company behind those ubiquitous change-counting kiosks, has partnered with Coinme, a startup that operates a small network of cryptocurrency-dispensing ATMs around the country.

“Coinstar is always looking for new ways to offer value to our consumers when they visit our kiosks, and Coinme’s innovative delivery mechanism along with Coinstar’s flexible platform makes it possible for consumers to easily purchase Bitcoin with cash,” Coinstar CEO Jim Gaherity said in the announcement, first reported by GeekWire.

With 20,000 machines around the world, Coinstar operates a pretty huge network that could be enabled to dispense digital currency. As the company’s announcement states, there are “thousands in the U.S. market that can be enabled to accept Bitcoin transactions” though we’d guess it won’t hit those numbers for a while.

Coinme has digital currency ATMs in 11 states, including multiple locations in Texas, Washington and California, among others. While it’s not initially clear exactly how many machines will become Bitcoin-ready, Coinme’s site also states that the partnership will result in “thousands of places to buy Bitcoin.”

The Coinstar Bitcoin locator tool wouldn’t point us to any local kiosks when we tried, but if you can track one down, buying Bitcoin from the updated machines sounds pretty easy. It’s worth noting that you’ll need cash for the exchange — you won’t be able to trade digital money or credit for cryptocurrency here.

After sticking your paper money into one of the machines, the newfangled kiosk will dispense a voucher for a Bitcoin redemption code that points you to Coinme. The limit is $2500 and you’ll need to link a phone number to the transaction, though it’s not clear if you can just make one up to get around that kind of questionable requirement.

After last year’s wild highs and painful if inevitable lows, cryptocurrency’s cool off period might be here a while — particularly if the stock market keeps everyone battening down the hatches. Given that, the kiosks would have been met with more interest during the most feverish moments of early 2018 when everyone was trying to navigate the sometimes complex process of buying their first cryptocurrency. Still, given Coinstar’s ubiquity, the Bitcoin kiosks might pique the interest of some shoppers who just cashed out thirty bucks worth of nickels.

Coinbase acquihires San Francisco startup Blockspring

Coinbase is continuing its push to suck up talent after the $8 billion-valued crypto business snapped up Blockspring, a San Francisco-based startup that enables developers to collect and process data from APIs.

The undisclosed deal was announced by Blockspring on its blog, and confirmed to TechCrunch by a Coinbase representative. Coinbase declined to comment further.

Blockspring started out as a serverless data business, but it pivoted into a service that lets companies use API data. That includes purposes such as building list and repositories for recruitment, marketing sales, reporting and more. Pricing starts from $29 per month and Blockspring claims to work with “thousands” of companies.

That startup graduated Y Combinator and, according to Crunchbase, it had raised $3.5 million from investors that include SV Angel and A16z, both of which are Coinbase investors. Those common investors are likely a key reason for the deal, which appears to be a talent acquisition. The Blockspring team will join Coinbase, but it will continue to offer its existing products “for current and new customers as they always have.”

“Joining Coinbase was a no-brainer for a number reasons including its commitment to establishing an open financial system and the strength of its engineering team, led by Tim Wagner (formerly of AWS Lambda). Making the technical simple and accessible is what we’ve always been about at Blockspring. And now we’ll get to push these goals forward along with the talented folks at Coinbase to make something greater than we could on our own,” wrote CEO Paul Katsen.

Coinbase raised $300 million last October to take it to $525 million raised to date from investors. While it may not be a huge one, the Blockspring deal looks to be its eleventh acquisition, according to data from Crunchbase. Most of those have been talent grabs, but its more substantial pieces of M&A have included the $120 million-plus deal for Earn.com, which installed Balaji Srinivasan as the company’s first CTO, the acquisition of highly-rated blockchain browser Cipher, and the purchase of securities dealer Keystone Capital, which boosted its move into security tokens.

In addition to buying up companies, Coinbase also makes investments via its early-stage focused Coinbase Ventures fund.

Disclosure: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.