Initial coin offerings have officially gone mainstream. The Asian fintech startup Omise announced Wednesday a plan to raise $19 million with a cryptocurrency sale, a move TechCrunch deemed the first ICO from a “major VC-backed startup.” This the second such Ethereum-based project announced within the past eight days. The messaging app Kik debuted the plan for its own ICO last Thursday. With 300 million registered users and an evaluation of around $1 billion, Bloomberg reported Kik is the most “well-established company” to try an ICO so far.   

Over the past few months, ICOs have become a popular way for blockchain startups to raise money without relying solely on venture capital. It’s quickly becoming clear that tokenized fundraising will have an enormous impact throughout the tech industry, beyond the tight-knit circle of bitcoin traders.

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Theoretically, anyone with a smartphone or computer can now become an investor by buying tokens in an ICO. These tokens represent a wide variety of values depending on the company. Sometimes the tokens represent equity or monetary value within the startup’s blockchain system. An Omise spokesperson told International Business Times that OmiseGO tokens, OMG, will go a completely different route. It will represent proof-of-stake, functioning more like a software license than a security.

OMG tokens represent the right to help facilitate the decentralized payments system Omise is building. “They are like buying a bit of code that lets the buyers participate in running the network,” the spokesperson said. “We don’t want to be the ones who own the infrastructure. We prefer that it remains open for the benefit of everyone.” The proof-of-stake can be revoked if the user is dishonest because Omise’s goal is to create a system for processing financial transactions without a centralized control, an influential elite or a corporate monopoly, aka a bank or credit card company.

Omise already has raised more than $20.4 million since the digital payment service was founded in 2013 and now claims to serve 8,000 merchants in Japan, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. Its executives are blockchain veterans devoted to the ideological vision of financial neutrality espoused by bitcoin inventor Satoshi Nakamoto. Wendell Davis,  Omise’s product development lead, was once part of the original team that invented Ethereum. Just as Ethereum's network had far-reaching consequences beyond its cryptocurrency, ether, OmiseGO aims to impact users beyond the company's clients. “There’s no restrictions on who can join the network. People can do things on the network that have nothing to do with Omise payments,” the spokesperson said.  

Decentralization is a familiar virtue among cryptocurrency advocates. The same way that net neutrality is the principle that all users deserve equal access to content, regardless of their internet provider, many blockchain innovators say people should have equal access to financial services regardless of which financial institutions they use — or if they use any at all.

The World Bank has said 2 billion working-age adults do not use any form of financial services — no bank accounts, no credit cards, nothing. A huge concentration of these people live in Southeast Asia. The majority come from low-income households, especially those led by women. A blockchain system could make virtual currencies accessible to them, which is precisely what Omise aims to do.

After launching OmiseGO in 2017 and getting it set up as a decentralized network, the Omise spokesperson said his company plans to develop its own digital wallet capable of cross network exchanges. That means using bitcoin to buy ether or Zcash, transferring cryptocurrencies into fiat currencies like American dollars, or even converting fiat currencies within the digital wallet. For example, if a Venezuelan was concerned about local inflation and wanted to have his savings in euros, stored in his digital wallet instead of a Venezuelan bank.

“By making the wallets available on low-end Androids, we hope to be able to include as much of the 73 percent of people that do not have access to any formal financial services as possible,” the Omise spokesperson said. “Including hopefully most low-income migrant workers who might want to use it to either store their wealth or for remittances.” But an ICO is not a guarantee of fair and equal access to cryptocurrency.

Coindesk reported Wednesday an Ethereum-based ICO for the new web browser Brave, created by Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich, raised $35 million in 30 seconds. Yet despite high-minded talk from bitcoin evangelists that ICOs are democratizing venture capital, it’s clear blockchain veterans still dominate the opportunities so far. Just five investors bought the bulk of Brave’s tokens, Coindesk said, including one buyer who paid more than $6,000 in Ethereum mining fees to secure his place at the top. Blockchain aficionados criticized the ICO on Twitter, mocking the discrepancy.  

Kik founder and CEO Ted Livingston said he watched the Brave ICO closely. “It’s definitely something we are talking about,” he told IBT. “How to set this up so people who want to participate will have the opportunity.” Kik plans to launch an ICO, with ether-based internal tokens called kin, later this summer. Kin could be redeemed for digital services like games, advertising and app purchases.

Teens make up the majority of Kik users, making kin the first digital currency designed with youth in mind. As such, kin won’t only be sold through the ICO. They also will be earned from beneficial content creation and helpful activities on the network. “It’s really hard for teenagers to earn spending power,” Livingston told IBT. “We didn’t want to take this community and sell them to advertisers or try to sell them things they don’t need.” Livingston said cryptocurrencies offer a new business model where bringing people together and fostering community can have monetary rewards in itself, rather than social media companies monopolizing exclusive profit from user content.

A huge part of that shift, Livingston said, is encouraging the exchange of services for cryptocurrency itself rather than exchanging tokens like bitcoin for American dollars to buy stuff or save. It’s not so farfetched to imagine digital payments replacing a cash-based system. A 2016 Pew Research Center report found nearly a quarter of Americans don’t use cash at all for their weekly purchases.

Livingston compared the current ICO boom to the dot-com era. “You had businesses saying, do I really need a website?” he recalled. “I think cryptocurrency will be very similar. The way every company now has a website, 10 years from now every tech company will have a cryptocurrency.”

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