Floyd Mayweather-backed Centra Tech ICO founders indicted for fraud

The founders of Centra Tech, a company that raised a $32 million ICO, have been indicted for wire fraud and securities fraud, charges that could lead to a minimum of five years in jail.

The founders, Raymond Trapani, Sohrab Sharma, and Robert Farkas, were found guilty of trying to defraud investors with their ICO. The primary fraudulent statement concerned Centra Tech’s fake partnerships with Visa and MasterCard to help sell tokens. The team, wrote Robert Khuzami, Attorney for the United States in the Southern District of New York, “purported to offer cryptocurrency-related financial products, with conspiring to commit, and the commission of, securities and wire fraud in connection with a scheme to induce victims to invest millions of dollars’ worth of digital funds for the purchase of unregistered securities, in the form of digital currency tokens issued by Centra Tech, through material misrepresentations and omissions.”

Floyd Mayweather and DJ Khaled posted support for Centra Tech on Instagram during the run-up to the token sale, writing that they were excited to use Centra Tech’s card to pay for things using Bitcoin, Ethereum, and “other coins.” Mayweather’s post appeared here but is now gone.

What the three partners allegedly did was especially egregious which is why the SEC was able to attack so forcefully. Khuzami alleges that the team made up a fake CEO to look more credible as well as a laundry list of other claims.

After SHARMA and TRAPANI worked together at a luxury car rental company in Florida called “Miami Exotics,” they and FARKAS co-founded a startup company called Centra Tech that claimed to offer cryptocurrency-related financial productions, including a purported debit card, the “Centra Card,” that supposedly allowed users to spend various types of cryptocurrency to make purchases at any establishment that accepts Visa or Mastercard payment cards. In approximately July 2017, SHARMA, TRAPANI, and FARKAS began soliciting investors to purchase unregistered securities, in the form of digital tokens issued by Centra Tech, through a so-called “initial coin offering” or “ICO.” As part of this effort, SHARMA, TRAPANI, and FARKAS, in oral and written offering materials that were disseminated via the internet, represented: (a) that Centra Tech had an experienced executive team with impressive credentials, including a purported CEO named “Michael Edwards” with more than 20 years of banking industry experience and a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University; (b) that Centra Tech had formed partnerships with Bancorp, Visa, and Mastercard to issue Centra Cards licensed by Visa or Mastercard; and (c) that Centra Tech had money transmitter and other licenses in 38 states, among other claims. Based in part on these claims, victims provided millions of dollars’ worth of digital funds in investments for the purchase of Centra Tech tokens. In or about October 2017, at the end of Centra Tech’s ICO, those digital funds raised from victims were worth more than $25 million. Due to appreciation in the value of those digital funds raised from victims, those digital funds are presently worth more than $60 million.

The FBI seized 91,000 Ether worth $90 million from the team. The team is facing “one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud, which carries a maximum potential sentence of five years in prison; one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, which carries a maximum potential sentence of 20 years in prison; one count of securities fraud, which carries a maximum potential sentence of 20 years in prison; and one count of wire fraud, which carries a maximum potential sentence of 20 years in prison.”

Coinbase’s first investment, Compound, earns you interest on crypto

Compound wants to let you borrow cryptocurrency, or lend it and earn an interest rate. Most cryptocurrency is shoved in a wallet or metaphorically hidden under a mattress, failing to generate interest the way traditionally banked assets do. But Compound wants to create liquid money markets for cryptocurrency by algorithmically setting interest rates, and letting you gamble by borrowing and then short-selling coins you think will sink. It plans to launch its first five for Ether, a stable coin, and a few others, by October.

Today, Compound is announcing some ridiculously powerful allies for that quest. It’s just become the first-ever investment by crypto exchange juggernaut Coinbase’s new venture fund. It’s part of an $8.2 million seed round led by top-tier VC Andreessen Horowitz, crypto hedge fund Polychain Capital and Bain Capital Ventures — the startup arm of the big investment bank.

While right now Compound deals in cryptocurrency through the Ethereum blockchain, co-founder and CEO Robert Leshner says that eventually he wants to carry tokenized versions of real-world assets like the dollar, yen, euro or Google stock. That’s because Leshner tells me “My thesis is that almost every crypto asset is bullshit and not worth anything.”

How to get Compound interest on your crypto

Here’s how Compound tells me it’s going to work. It’s an “overnight” market that permits super-short-term lending. While it’s not a bank, it is centralized, so you loan to and borrow from it directly instead of through peers, alleviating you from negotiation. If you loan, you can earn interest. If you borrow, you have to put up 100 percent of the value of your borrow in an asset Compound supports. If prices fluctuate and your borrow becomes worth more than your collateral, some of your collateral is liquidated through a repo agreement so they’re equal.

To set the interest rate, Compound acts kind of like the Fed. It analyzes supply and demand for a particular crypto asset to set a fluctuating interest rate that adjusts as market conditions change. You’ll earn that on what you lend constantly, and can pull out your assets at any time with just a 15-second lag. You’ll pay that rate when you borrow. And Compound takes a 10 percent cut of what lenders earn in interest. For crypto-haters, it offers a way to short coins you’re convinced are doomed.

“Eventually our goal is to hand-off responsibility [for setting the interest rate] to the community. In the short-term we’re forced to be responsible. Long-term we want the community to elect the Fed,” says Leshner. If it gets the interest rate wrong, an influx of lenders or borrowers will drive it back to where it’s supposed to be. Compound already has a user interface prototyped internally, and it looked slick and solid to me.

“We think it’s a game changer. Ninety percent of assets are sitting in people’s cold storage, or wallets, or exchanges. They aren’t being used or traded,” says Leshner. Compound could let people interact with crypto in a whole new way.

The Compound creation story

Compound is actually the third company Leshner and his co-founder and CTO Geoff Hayes have started together. They’ve been teamed up for 11 years since going to college at UPenn. One of their last companies, Britches, created an index of CPG inventory at local stores and eventually got acquired by Postmates. But before that Leshner got into the banking and wealth management business, becoming a certified public accountant. A true economics nerd, he’s the chair of the SF bond oversight committee, and got into crypto five years ago.

Compound co-founder and CEO Robert Leshner

Sitting on coins, Leshner wondered, “Why can’t I realize the time value of the cryptocurrency I possess?” Compound was born in mid-2017, and came out of stealth in January.

Now with $8.2 million in funding that also came from Transmedia Capital, Compound Ventures, Abstract Ventures and Danhua Capital, Compound is pushing to build out its product and partnerships, and “hire like crazy” beyond its seven current team members based in San Francisco’s Mission District. Partners will be crucial to solve the chicken-and-egg problem of getting its first lenders and borrowers. “We are planning to launch with great partners — token projects, hedge funds and dedicated users,” says Leshner. Having hedge funds like Polychain should help.

“We shunned an ICO. We said, ‘let’s raise venture capital.’ I’m a very skeptical person and I think most ICOs are illegal,” Leshner notes. The round was just about to close when Coinbase announced Coinbase Ventures. So Leshner fired off an email asking if it wanted to join. “In 12 hours they researched us, met our team, diligenced it and evaluated it more than almost any investor had to date,” Leshner recalls. Asked if there’s any conflict of interest given Coinbase’s grand ambitions, he said, “They’re probably our favorite company in the world. I hope they survive for 100 years. It’s too early to tell they overlap.”

Conquering the money markets

There are other crypto lending platforms, but none quite like Compound. Centralized exchanges like Bitfinex and Poloniex let people trade on margin and speculate more aggressively. But they’re off-chain, while Leshner says Compound is on-chain, transparent and can be built on top of. That could make it a more critical piece of the blockchain finance stack. There’s also a risk of these exchanges getting hacked and your coins getting stolen.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of peer-to-peer crypto lending protocols on the Ethereum blockchain, like ETHLend and Dharma. But interest rates, no need for slow matching, flexibility for withdrawing money and dealing with a centralized party could attract users to Compound.

Still, the biggest looming threat for Compound is regulation. But to date, the SEC and regulators have focused on ICOs and how people fundraise, not on what people are building. People aren’t filing lawsuits against actual products. “All the operations have flown beneath the radar and I think that’s going to change in the next 12 months,” Leshner predicts. How exactly they’ll treat Compound is up in the air.

One source in the crypto hedge fund space told me about forthcoming regulation: “You’re either going to get annihilated and have to disgorge profits or dissolve. Or you pay a fine and you’re among the first legal funds in the space. This is the gamble you take before asset classes get baptized.” As Leshner confirmed, “That’s the number one risk, period.”

Money markets are just one piece of the financial infrastructure puzzle that still needs to emerge around blockchain. Custodians, auditors, administrators and banks are still largely missing. When those get hammered out to make the space safer, the big money hedge funds and investment banks could join in. For Compound, getting the logistics right will require some serious legal ballet.

Yet Leshner is happy to dream big despite all of the crypto world’s volatility. He concludes, “We want to be like Black Rock with a trillion under management, and we want to have 25 employees when we do that. They probably have [tens of thousands] of employees. Our goal is to be like them with a skeleton team.”

Circle raises $110 million (or 13,300 BTC)

Cryptocurrency startup Circle has raised a $110 million funding round, which values the company near $3 billion. Cryptocurrency mining company Bitmain is leading the round.

Existing investors IDG Capital, Breyer Capital, General Catalyst, Accel, Digital Currency Group and Pantera are investing more money. Blockchain Capital and Tusk Ventures are investing in Circle for the first time. Goldman Sachs also invested in the company in a previous round.

It’s hard to describe Circle in a few words because the company has been active on all fronts. For a really long time, the company pitched itself as a social payment company, a Venmo and Square Cash competitor. But Circle is more focused than ever on cryptocurrencies.

The company has been operating one of the largest over-the-counter trading desk for big cryptocurrency investors and exchanges. Circle Trade manages more than $2 billion a month in transactions and is able to fulfill large orders and provide liquidity.

More recently, the company launched Circle Invest, a really simple mobile app for the U.S. market. It lets you buy and sell Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, Ethereum, Ethereum Classic, Litecoin, Zcash and Monero in just a few taps. It’s a good way to get started with cryptocurrencies without learning about exchanges and order types. It could become a good Coinbase competitor for small cryptocurrency investors.

And Circle also acquired Poloniex, one of the largest cryptocurrency exchanges in the U.S.

But the most interesting projects right now are probably CENTRE and a new tokenized USD coin. There are so many different cryptocurrencies, fiat currencies, exchanges and wallets that it has become hard to make everything work together. Cryptocurrencies still suffer from price volatility, so bitcoin can’t be the common denominator.

That’s why Circle is creating a token that is pegged to the U.S. dollar. The USD Coin is based on an open source framework developed by CENTRE and everything should be audited regularly.

CENTRE is a Circle initiative to create a common framework to connect all electronic wallets. This protocol could let you send money to an Alipay user with your Square Cash balance.

It’s clear that Circle wants to build the infrastructure of the cryptocurrency industry. The company will need to convince multiple industry players to work with Circle. But it could help the cryptocurrency ecosystem as a whole.

After math: Well, that’s one way to do it

It was a big week for interesting calls. Facebook is reportedly looking to hop on the cryptocurrency bandwagon, AT&T admitted that it hired Michael Cohen's firm for "insights" into the administration, and somehow enough folks watched the YouTube…

VC firm SparkLabs launches a security token to let anyone invest in its accelerator programs

Ardent crypto enthusiasts believe ICOs and cryptocurrencies will replace venture capital, but what if VC investors absorb crypto into their existing operations?

That’s the thesis that SparkLabs, a U.S.-Korean firm that runs multiple global funds and early-stage accelerator programs, is putting to the test with the introduction of a security token today. The firm said it is aiming to “democratize” investment opportunities by essentially allowing anyone to buy into two of their accelerator program via the token, which will essentially let them become LP-like investors.

SparkLabs’ team’s past successes include Siri (sold to Apple) and DeepMind (sold to Google), and it claims a portfolio of over 160 startups from more than 60 countries. Its accelerator program has graduated over 80 companies, 80 percent of which the firm said have gone on to raise funding at an average of $3.5 million.

The experiment covers two of SparkLab’s new accelerator programs: a six month IOT-focused initiative in Korean smart city Songdo and Cultiv8, an accelerator for agriculture and food tech in Australia.

The firm has already raised capital for both initiatives — $5.6 million for Cultiv8 and $500,000 for the IOT program — but it is aiming to bring in at least $6 million from the token. That’s the minimum sale, while the hard cap is $30 million.

SparkLabs is working with two crypto platforms to handle the token sale in terms of KYC, operations and tapping into audiences. They are Argon Group, which has a community of crypto investors, and Swarm, a platform that connects retail investors with crypto opportunities in PE and VC funds.

ICOs and tokens are in a precarious position in the U.S. while the SEC conducts an investigation into companies that raised money via ICOs and investors who backed them. Wary of that, SparkLabs is primarily targeted non-U.S.-based investors, but it said that the token is open to accredited investors in the U.S..

Unlike traditional LPs, who wait on the fund’s lifecycle to see financial returns unless they can sneak a secondary share sale, SparkLabs plans to introduce liquidity by listing the token on security exchanges in the future. That’ll make it tradeable. But the firm doesn’t advise U.S.-based investors to trade it since that is almost certain to violate the law.

Despite the legal grey areas, the firm is keen to experiment with a token, having backed a number of crypto-based companies via traditional equity investments since 2014 and also launched its SparkChain fund.

“We think the ICO market is here to stay, it’s an avenue for fundraising [that] we think will be complementary to Series B and Series C rounds,” SparkLabs co-founder and partner Jimmy Kim told TechCrunch in an interview. “As a fund, we believe in this space, and we thought we might as well dip our toes into the water and test it out.”

A number of 500 Startups’ recent batch of companies banded together to offer their own security token earlier this year, but SparkLabs may be the first established firm to adopt the strategy officially. Already it is seeing strong interest from crypto hedge funds and individuals who are looking to diversify their crypto assets, Kim said, but the theory is fairly untested so it will be interesting to see how it is received by the wider market.

Certainly, it could be the first of many.

“We’re opening the doors to investors that we wouldn’t usually reach out to,” Kim explained. “If it works out well, we’ll obviously do it with other funds in the future.”

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

A Modcloth cofounder just launched an invite-only cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrency is cool, but you know what’d be even cooler? If people used it to buy things.

That they don’t because it’s either not secure or hard to use is a problem that a growing number of founders is trying to tackle. Among them is Merit, a new digital currency that aims to be as simple to use as traditional payment apps like PayPal and Venmo and that officially launches today.

The idea is to make it easy enough for to use to split a bill, share the rent, or shop for clothing online, even for those who are completely crypto illiterate.

Naturally, Merit is facing a daunting uphill battle, but that isn’t dissuading its founder and CEO, Adil Wali, who previously cofounded the indie womenswear brand ModCloth. (To the chagrin of some of its customers, ModCloth sold to Walmart last year after several rounds of layoffs.) Wali has since started two more companies, and he’s clearly not afraid to see where an idea takes him.

This particular idea, which Wali and nine other full time employees are working on from Seattle, involves a few interesting facets that could potentially help the currency gain traction.

First and foremost, Merit says it’s removing barriers to entry to blockchain investments and payments by making the Merit cryptocurrency as easy to send as a tweet. Users can also sent the Merit cyptocurrency via different communication channels, whether SMS, WhatsApp, or email.

It’s invitation-only, which is a newer twist. How it will work: new Merits will  awarded based not only on proof-of-work, which is the norm more generally, but proof-of-growth, meaning that miners are increasing the size of the community. (In theory at least, this set-up encourages miners to both grow the network and keep it secure.)

Speaking of security, Wali says Merit is also creating a new kind of “vault” for users, one that eschews any kind of reliance on the kind of third parties that often centralizing users’ currencies today. (Hello, Coinbase.) A user could create a vault for his or her family, for example, one that only a family member could access through a passcode, and that has rate limits, so if anyone tries to hack into that account, that nefarious individual could only send, say, 100 Merit, before a family member was notified and able to reset the vault.

Also interesting, to us, is simply how Merit is structured, which is as a self-funded nonprofit. That’s partly so its currency can establish a value organically, versus through a valuation established by outside investors. In fact, Wali says he has personally invested $1 million into Merit to prove out that Merit’s software can work.

There are plenty of challenges it has to overcome if it hopes to see its software widely adopted — which is largely its reason for being.

At some point, for example, Merit will need to get listed on a cryptocurrency exchange (or many of them) in order to become truly liquid currency. Wali acknowledges that there’s no promise that that will happen, but sounds an optimistic tone, noting the “explosion in the number of exchanges” and offering that Merit will “work its way up that list, approaching the smaller exchanges first and, as the adoption of Merit grows, presenting a stronger case to go after bigger exchanges.”

Merit also needs retailers and other corporate partners to take it seriously enough to accept it, which will take time — perhaps a lot of it.

Wali acknowledges the issue, observing that “crypto has to go through this crawl-walk-run trajectory” as a way to explain why peer-to-peer transactions are the first way that people will use Merit. Assuming hat takes off, though, he believes that Merit will “talk more with merchants,” he says.

As Wali says he knows well from working in retail for more than a decade, “Retailers’ first question is always, ‘How many people use this?’ In this case they’ll want to know, ‘If I accept this payment method, what does this open up to me?’”

Says Wali, “I want to have a good answer for that.”

Sirin’s ‘blockchain smartphone’ will have flagship specs

Late last year, Sirin Labs launched a crowd-sale for what it is calling the "world's first blockchain smartphone." The Finney, named after the late Bitcoin developer Hal Finney, is due to arrive at some point this year. And when it does, it's likely…

BMW, Ford and GM want to bring blockchain to your car

Seemingly every company is determined to hop on the blockchain bandwagon, and that includes automakers. BMW, Ford, GM, Renault and and a string of tech partners (including Bosch and IBM) have formed the Mobility Open Blockchain Initiative, a group t…