Why digital currency exchange Coinbase eyes $1B valuation

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong recently declared that the digital currency industry was having "its Netscape moment."  Like the pioneering browser that helped trigger the Internet revolution, cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin are on the verge of wide-scale adaptation, he argued. 

So Coinbase, one of the leading online platforms to buy, sell and store digital currency, is benefiting mightily. The company is raising $100 million from outside investors, resulting in a $1 billion valuation, according to the Wall Street Journal. That makes Coinbase one of the so-called "unicorns" -- putting it in the realm of Uber, Airbnb, and Pinterest, new private businesses that are worth an estimated 10 digits. 

Coinbase has already raised $117 million from investors including the New York Stock Exchange, the Spanish bank Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria and USAA, a provider of financial services to members of the military and their families, the Journal reported. The company declined to comment on the Journal's claim.

Digital currency, led by bitcoin, is gaining increasing acceptance with merchants and others. Its appeal centers on its avoidance of the banking system, and privacy -- users need not give their names. Due to the anonymity feature, it also is used by criminals, such as the hackers who extorted money from hospitals last year by unlocking the institutions' computer systems in exchange for bitcoin payments. 

How these currencies work: A user installs an electronic wallet on either a computer or mobile device, thus creating an address that enables the transfer of money. There are three ways to get the cryptocurrency: buying them on an exchange, accepting them as payment or creating new coins, known as mining -- where you solve a math problem and get paid in these digital denominations. . 

Prices for bitcoin, the most widely used digital currency, have skyrocketed nearly 200 percent this year and now are trading at $2,896, according to CoinMarketCap. Success has spawned many imitators. CoinMarket tracks prices of more than 850 digital currencies. Many of them are worth fractions of a penny and experience dramatic prices swings, such a Victorious Coin, which reported a 92 percent jump in one hour recently.

"It is possible that Coinbase is worth $1 billion if they continue to be the regulatory compliant exchange people trust with a proven record of keeping bitcoin safe," said Tone Vays, a derivatives trader who hosts a podcast about bitcoin, in an email. Helping it is that some of the competition is questionable, he contended, saying, "However, the added revenue that comes with servicing alternatives to bitcoin is not worth the risk." 

By Vays' reckoning, many bitcoin rivals are risky because they use "questionable technology," which will place added pressure on Coinbase to prevent them from being hacked.  

Coinbase gained notice in 2012 when it launched a service to enable investors to buy bitcoins from their bank accounts.  A few years later, it launched a platform for professional traders, now called the Global Digital Asset Exchange. Bitcoin continues to be the most dominant cryptocurrency, although it has lost market share.

"It's under 50 percent now," said Anthem Blanchard, the chief executive officer of trading company Anthem Gold, who is developing a digital currency, in an interview. He added that many "fly-by-night" players are entering the market.  "We are used to that in the digital currency space."

Coinbase is making its services more accessible to mobile. It recently unveiled Token, a messaging app powered by the ethereum currency, a bitcoin rival. The app will allow users to trade digital currency and transfer it. A Coinbase spokeswoman declined to comment on why it chose ethereum, the second most widely used cryptocurrency. It has surged 2,000 percent since the start of the year. But it shows that the company is branching into other cyber-denominations other than bitcoin. 

Indeed, bitcoin is losing its previous dominance. Evidence of that: BitCart, which sells Amazon gift cards to digital currency holders at a discount, recently quit taking bitcoin because of concerns about its high fees and slow processing times. Fiver.com, an online marketplace for professional services, also stopped using bitcoin in January, and the currency is banned in China. Moreover, given bitcoin's sometime association with illegal activities such as narcotics and child pornography, many financial intuitions remain reluctant to embrace cryptocurrencies.

" The value of bitcoin continues to rise, while its percentage of the value of all cryptocurrencies decreases," said Jonathan Johnson, who runs Overstock.com (OSTK) Medici Ventures, which focuses on the blockchain technology behind cryptocurrencies, in an email. "That tells me that people are more comfortable investing in both bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies."

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.