Why This Well-Funded Startup Just Gave Up on Bitcoin

December 7, 2016, 2:46 PM UTC
Jeremy Allaire
Jeremy Allaire, Founder and CEO of Circle Internet Financial, a Boston-based digital currency company, speaks at the Inside Bitcoins conference and trade show, Monday, April 7, 2014 in New York. Bitcoin users exchange cash for digital money using online exchanges, then store it in a computer program that serves as a wallet. The program can transfer payments directly to merchants or individuals around the world, eliminating transaction fees and the need for bank or credit card information. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Photograph by Mark Lennihan — AP

When it launched in 2013, Circle had serious ambitions to be a major player in the crypto-currency world. The Boston-based startup raised tens of millions from Goldman Sachs and other investors, and advertised its bitcoin business far and wide.

Now, Circle is bailing on bitcoin altogether. The company announced on Wednesday it is focusing on other things, and that its bitcoin customers can cash out or else transfer their accounts to another company, Coinbase, if they wish to keep buying and selling the cryptocurrency.

The move is not entirely surprising as the hype around bitcoin subsided long ago, and the digital currency remains a niche product for speculators or for clandestine online transactions. Meanwhile, the promise of rapid peer-to-peer consumer payments has instead been filled in North America by Venmo, the Paypal-owned startup hugely popular on college campuses.

This has led one-time bitcoin companies to focus on the blockchain, the underlying distributed ledger technology that powers bitcoin. Blockchain is valuable because it allows companies to use the Internet to create tamper-proof transaction records, and promises to reduce the cost of back-end financial services like foreign exchange swamps or settlement clearances.

Circle, like other companies, has been in the process of pivoting towards a blockchain business for some time. In its Wednesday news announcement, the company said its blockchain business is growing within the traditional financial industry.

“Over the past three years, Circle’s treasury operation has evolved into a major liquidity provider and trading counterparty in both the exchange-traded and OTC digital currency markets. We will continue to promote the growth and maturation of such markets as we empower consumers to use digital assets and public blockchains seamlessly as payment rails and not merely as speculative trading instruments,” the company said in a statement.

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Circle is positioned to carve out a role in the fast-evolving world of blockchain services, in part because it has spent millions investing in the legal and regulatory infrastructure companies need to operate in cross-border money transfers. But on the other hand, the company also faces stiff competition as banks develop their own blockchain systems and build partnerships with other fintech firms like Ripple to implement blockchain.

On Wednesday, Circle also announced the launch of an open source software project called Spark to promote payment technology related to the blockchain. The move comes after other companies, including Chain and the bank-backed consortium R3, announced similar measures in recent months.

Why banks should jump on board with blockchain.

As for bitcoin, its price is proving surprisingly resilient despite falling out of favor in venture capital circles. The cryptocurrency has sat at over $700 since the Presidential election (it’s currently around $765) and is enjoying an unprecedented period of price stability.

This stability has held up notwithstanding the news the IRS plans to conduct a sweeping probe of Coinbase accounts. The agency has yet to announce a similar probe of Circle.

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