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One day we’ll all yawn about blockchain

February 10, 2021, 11:14 PM UTC

In all the excitement of the latest cryptocurrency bull run—Tesla buying Bitcoin, Ethereum hitting all-time highs, Snoop Doge—it’s easy to overlook what makes the technology underpinning all this newfound loot so exciting. Mostly people just want to talk about the big price movements. And space shuttle cartoons. 🚀 🚀 🚀

(Not that I’m against price talk. Wheee!)

But real innovators are out there tackling hard problems using blockchain tech, even if their efforts are attracting less attention. One of those innovators is Celo, a four-year-old project that’s building a phone-based payments system primarily for “unbanked” people, those who don’t have easy access to the global financial system. Unlike many of the fly-by-night “coin offerings” that proliferated during the great ICO bubble of 2017, Celo has forged on and made inroads into a stubbornly knotty quandary: Cross-border remittances.

Even in normal times, sending money abroad poses a challenge. Non-profit groups often resort to mailing prepaid cards or cash-stuffed envelopes to people in need—a slow, wasteful, sometimes dangerous, and altogether inefficient status quo. During the pandemic, the problem has been further compounded by heightened economic need and, simultaneously, limited physical interaction.

Last year cLabs, the San Francisco-based company behind Celo, partnered with the Grameen Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based poverty-fighting group, to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars of COVID relief to thousands of women entrepreneurs in the Philippines. The pilot program taught people to receive and send money—for less than a penny per transaction—using a cellphone app called Valora. You wouldn’t even know that a blockchain, originally adapted from Ethereum’s software code, underpins the system.

(Valora became available for the broader public to download on Wednesday, though when I tried to sign up on my iPhone, the app got stuck on the phone number verification screen.)

Rene Reinsberg, Celo’s cofounder and a former GoDaddy exec and MIT researcher, tells me he has high expectations for the platform’s growth, even if it has little name recognition today. The project is “tapping into the largest social network out there, which is the collection of people’s contact lists right on their phones,” he says. The number of smartphone subscribers worldwide is expected to grow to 7.5 billion by 2025, covering much of the world, he notes.

Celo said Wednesday that it raised $20 million from the likes of Andreessen Horowitz and other venture capital firms who see the potential too. The cash injection boosts the project’s total funding to $65 million. Earlier raises included backers such as Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey, LinkedIn cofounder and PayPal mafioso Reid Hoffman, and Coinbase Ventures.

Morgan Beller, cofounder of Facebook’s embattled cryptocurrency project, formerly called Libra and since rebranded as Diem, recently joined Celo as an advisor. The appointment of Beller, who is now a partner at the early-stage venture capital firm NFX, is notable, not least because her earlier venture obviously competes with this one. (“I see them as an ‘and’ not an ‘or,’” Beller tells me, meaning she believes they can coexist.)

What does Beller see in Celo? For one thing, it’s the emphasis on problem-solving. “A lot of projects in the crypto world sometimes feel like crypto for crypto’s sake—running around with a hammer in search of a nail, or trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, or whatever analogy you want to use,” Beller says.

Celo is, on the other hand, “not necessarily a crypto company,” at least not for the end consumer, she says, “It’s like, we’re just gonna help you solve ‘X.’ You don’t really need to know how it’s happening. I think that that approach is right.”

The recently reignited crypto craze is exciting, sure; but what’s really exciting is what comes after the craze dies down. To quote another great innovator, “If you get it right, a few years after a surprising invention, the new thing has become normal. People yawn. And that yawn is the greatest compliment an inventor can receive.”

One day, we’ll all yawn about blockchain.

Robert Hackett

@rhhackett

robert.hackett@fortune.com

DECENTRALIZED NEWS

Credits

Tesla buys Bitcoin, joining a small list of public companies ... Mastercard will carry crypto transactions ... Jack Dorsey donates $1m to Coin Center ... Jim Cramer says "every" corporate treasurer should be thinking about Bitcoin ... Twitter's CFO is taking Cramer's advice ... L.L. Cool J joins Paul Tudor Jones to launch $72m Crypto VC fund ... PayPal to expand crypto services unit (report) ... Litecoin and other crypto 'altcoins' surge with BTC ... Deutsche Telekom is staking on DeFi networks.

Debits

"Tesla insider" who leaked Bitcoin buy wants SEC to know it was a drug-fueled hoax ... Robinhood sued by parents of teen trader who committed suicide ... FICO survey finds banks aren't meeting consumer needs ... Blockfolio suffers front-end hack (funds are reportedly safe) ... Only 15% of Robinhood investors have credit scores above 750 ... KISS' Gene Simmons shills Dogecoin ... Crypto scammers are hunting victims on Discord ...German police seize $60m in Bitcoin, can't get the password ... Congress seeks information on Capital riot streamers from Dlive and BitTorrent.

BALANCING THE LEDGER

No Balancing The Ledger this week. But here's a clip of The Ledger's Robert Hackett chatting about the latest Bitcoin bull run on CNBC's Worldwide Exchange Wednesday morning. Robert discussed why Bitcoin is soaring all of a sudden, how you price an asset that defies fundamental analysis, and why anyone should care about Ethereum.

BUBBLE-O-METER

$1.5 million

Price for a piece of blockchain-backed virtual land in the Axie Infinity game ecosystem. Launched in mid-2020, the Pokemon-like game uses crypto tokens to give players direct control over in-game assets. The sale reportedly sets a price record for virtual land on the blockchain, which digital property advocates argue will give it uniquely strong property protections.

But it's not clear that blockchain alone is a deciding factor in the value of virtual goods. A similar plot of digital real estate sold for a cool $1 million in Second Life back in 2006. Adjusted for inflation, that's $1.26 million today – no blockchain required.

FOMO NO MO

At a time when the SEC is seemingly doing the bidding of Wall Street titans—eager to punish the unwashed masses of day traders for scuttling banks’ and hedge funds’ trading positions on GameStop and other stocks—Hayes might just be patient zero when it comes to exposing the hypocrisy in high finance that is now coming into sharp relief.

From an encyclopedic new profile of BitMEX founder Arthur Hayes in Vanity Fair. Hayes grew up in Detroit, where his parents, GM employees, strove to get him into the exclusive Nichols School. That became his stepping stone to Wharton, then ETF desks at Deutsche and Citibank. After Hayes was let go from a bank job in 2013, he started exploring crypto, first by arbitraging cross-border Bitcoin prices in Asia. BitMEX was conceived in part with help from the collapse of the Mt.Gox crypto exchange, which Hayes reportedly barely got his money out of in 2013. Hayes soon pitched Sam Reed and Brian Delo on the idea of a crypto derivatives exchange, and they became BitMEX cofounders. The exchange stood out by offering traders a lot of leverage; one of Hayes' friends describes it as “if the NASDAQ was located in Las Vegas.” 

According to VF, Delo's "classmates at Oxford reportedly voted him the most likely to become a millionaire—and the second most likely to wind up in prison." Both prophecies may now come true, with all three BitMEX cofounders under indictment for allowing American customers to trade on the exchange. Seasoned financial hands find the targeted criminal charges unprecedented and hypocritical, given lighter treatment of mainstream banks like HSBC and JPMorgan. Hayes may have helped incite regulators with a public drumbeat of disdain for rules and appearances, part and parcel of his "arrogance ... disdain for authority, and ... tone-deafness that veered toward self-sabotage." Hayes is now effectively on the lam, possibly in Singapore, and it's unclear whether he will ever return to the U.S. for trial.

THE LEDGER'S LATEST

Is Dogecoin bad? - Robert Hackett

$3 billion in seized Bitcoin may connect to corrupt Feds - Jeff John Roberts

PayPal CEO recieved death threats from capital rioters - Jen Wieczner

One Bitcoin miner's journey from zealot to skeptic - Shawn Tully

Bitfinex says it repaid loan central to Tether fraud probe - Robert Hackett

$Gamestop helps Reddit double its valuation - Lucinda Shen

Will Apple buy Bitcoin next? - Robert Hackett

Elon Musk's plunge into Bitcoin is a dangerous bet - Shawn Tully

Meet the J.P. Morgan exec turned Hong Kong stock exchange CEO - Naomi Xu Elegant

The rise of Robinhood won't derail the stock market - C.J. MacDonald (Commentary)

MEMES AND MUMBLES

The meme crossover of our dreams - Sea Shanty TikTok X WallStreetBets. Click here to listen.

This edition of The Ledger was curated by David Z. Morris. Contact him at david.morris@fortune.com

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