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One of the remarkable – and perhaps most confusing – aspects of bitcoin is the fact that every bitcoin exchange seems to have a different price for the cryptocurrency.

Of course, no two exchanges are ever alike because they all serve different markets. When it comes to how much it costs to buy or sell bitcoin, this is especially true.

The reasoning for this has to do with bitcoin being a global and largely unregulated market. Because it is bought and sold all over the world, there are numerous prices for it – with no centralized entity dictating any one.

A new startup called San Francisco Open Exchange (SFOX) aims to fix that. Or, at the very least, its platform will allow users an opportunity to potentially capitalize on the spread across different bitcoin exchange markets.

Akbar Thobhani is the co-founder of SFOX. He told CoinDesk that his platform allows people to get the best price for bitcoin – a Kayak of sorts for the virtual currency – saying:

“What does Kayak do? It finds you the best liquidity across airlines. We do the same thing [with bitcoin]. We get you the best price and the best liquidity across multiple bitcoin exchanges.”

The idea

SFOX is essentially a platform for users to trade bitcoin and USD in both buy and sell mode. The goal is to provide users the very best price, similar to what an E*Trade or Scottrade offers with more traditional financial instruments like stocks and options.

Thobhani and co-founder George Melika started SFOX with entrepreneurial backgrounds and an understanding of the global payments market.

Thobhani previously worked at mobile payments company Boku before heading up growth at travel website Airbnb, where he said the lodging startup had to send money to over 190 countries, giving him key insight into what it takes to process payments on a global scale.

“I learned that moving money was so complicated and I had no idea about it,” said Thobhani. “I wanted to build technology to make that easy.”

Melika has experience building trading platforms for financial institutions.

Top ten USD/BTC exchanges. Notice the price is different on each one. Source: Bitcoin Charts
Top ten USD/BTC exchanges. Notice the price is different on each one. Source: Bitcoin Charts

Right now, bitcoin is not generally considered a traditional financial instrument because of regulatory concerns from banking institutions. Even so, SFOX does not believe that banks are the enemy of bitcoin.

“I wouldn’t define [banking] as a problem,” Thobhani said.

Bankers, he added, are just doing their jobs:

“I think banks – you just have to work with them. You have to understand what they are. Banks are responsible for following the compliance and the laws that are set in countries.”

It's possible that someday platforms like SFOX will be integrated into something like E-Trade, a financial services company with which investors can by and sell securities on an ETF or by phone.

But for the time being, startups like SFOX will build a place to be a sort of foreign exchange for decentralized currencies. This could eventually make it desirable to banks, because of its experience with bitcoin.

“Banks want to be involved [in bitcoin], they just have to be comfortable,” Thobhani said.

Algorithmic bitcoin trading 

SFOX sees its platform as becoming increasingly useful as cryptocurrencies grow as financial assets.

Despite bitcoin's $6bn market capitalization, Thobhani believes BTC has room to grow, bringing specialized algorithms for the financial markets into the cryptocurrency space.

“These algorithms are very special. They have to be rewritten for the world of cryptocurrency,“ said Thobhani.

Inside the interface for San Francisco Open Exchange. Source: SFOX
Inside the interface for San Francisco Open Exchange. Traders can use special algorithms in the platform. Source: SFOX

SFOX sees its main customers as traders who will need access to multiple exchanges at one time. While much there has been much talk about derivatives and options or futures  to provide liquidity, SFOX is just managing trading across exchanges as an easy starting point to integrating more complex instruments.

Said Thobhani:

“We [will be] the window into all of these instruments we can trade. We just want to make it super simple and easy for traders to manage that.”

For larger bitcoin deals on the exchange platforms it can be difficult to transact bitcoin in buy and sell orders because of a general lack of liquidity. SFOX offers itself to payment companies and perhaps bitcoin-accepting merchants as a broker of sorts.

“Payment companies [are] going to need a mechanism to trade in large numbers,” Thobhani told CoinDesk. “In a manner that doesn’t move the market – they need to buy or sell one currency or another. We offer liquidity.” 

Y Combinator and beyond 

SFOX was one of few bitcoin companies that were accepted into Y Combinator’s Summer 2014 class. Others, including Onename.io and card company Shift Payments were accepted with a more complete product to show YC's partners.

However, SFOX came through the renowned accelerator building its product; the founders only applied with the concept for the platform.

Said Thobhani:

“We applied to YC with an idea. Which is rare. Companies come to YC to accelerate growth; we were fortunate to join YC with an idea and leave with a growing company.”

There are a number of companies that are somewhat similar to SFOX – especially by offering a trading platform.

Thobhani argues the startup is doing something unique amongst the competition. The idea for SFOX, he says, is something many in the bitcoin community will need, similar to how the conventional currency markets operate right now, he said.

“There’s a lot of working with other partners in a currency market, and we don’t see how bitcoin is going to be any different. Bitcoin is an open technology, and we are an open platform. We see this as an opportunity to work with the community,” said Thobhani.

SFOX is currently in limited beta. Anyone can sign up but deposits and withdrawals are currently restricted. For full platform access, go to the SFOX deposit page and follow @sfoxtrading on Twitter.

Markets image via Shutterstock

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