Big brands move into tokenizing assets.
In January 2018, privacy-first messaging service Telegram surprised the cryptocurrency world by announcing that it would hold a token sale—also known as an Initial Coin Offering (ICO)—in order to launch a new platform. ICOs are the issue and allocation of Bitcoin-like cryptographic coins (or “tokens”) to raise money for a project; in recent months they have become an increasingly popular (if controversial) financing method for startups. ICOs are mostly fueled by speculation, as tokens are traded on online exchanges in the same way Bitcoin is traded. But Telegram’s move—and the fact that its ICO secured the backing of VC bigshots Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Benchmark and Sequoia Capital—shows that launching a new cryptocurrency could help small projects and incumbents alike to bypass institutional investors.
As Bitcoin’s price rollercoaster keeps stealing headlines, it is not only privacy-aware startups that are looking at cryptocurrency with keen interest. In August 2017, fast-food giant Burger King announced the WhopperCoin, a “blockchain fidelity programme” launched in Russia that rewards customers with cryptographic tokens that can be parlayed into free burgers.
More recently, erstwhile photography colossus Kodak declared it would launch its own ICO: its currency, KODAKCoin, will allow photographers to license their work and get paid for image rights.
While Burger King is not new to tech-based gimmicks, and Kodak’s project has been skewered as a dying company’s swan song, what is happening is not only about smoke and mirrors. According to Lex Sokolin, global director of fintech strategy at research institute Autonomous, we are likely going to see more and more tokens.
Sokolin says that there are “hundreds of things” companies like Burger King could tokenize: “I’d rather use dollars to buy a sandwich. But I may want to own and trade virtual reality burgers that have scarce value and are on a blockchain issued by Burger King. Or perhaps, if all burgers are made by robots, I may want to own tokens that pay for microservices provided by the robots, especially if the robots are from third party networks. How will a Deliveroo drone delivering a burger be paid?”
The current cryptocurrency craze might scare governments, but the technology itself is popular among companies. Microsoft accepts Bitcoin payments for online products. Amazon has been on a crypto-related domain-buying spree, snapping up websites such as amazonbitcoin.com, amazonethereum.com and amazoncryptocurrency.com—possibly to thwart scams, possibly due to genuine interest in the technology. Galleries in London’s Mayfair art district and Japanese airline Peach Aviation also accept cryptocurrencies.
“Today, the world is tokenizing currencies, debt, securities, virtual reality land and human attention,” Solokin says. “That means that anything physical or digital that can be exchanged will have a digital representation through a token. All assets are going to be tokenized in the future.”