It's an open secret that companies working with bitcoin funds have long faced challenges gaining access to banking services.
Though few are forthcoming about this business reality, the difficulties have affected startups around the globe – from the US to India and Argentina – resulting in business interruptions and attempts by industry firms to solve the problem through innovation.
A new partnership between compliance startup Chainalysis and UK financial services giant Barclays, however, could hold the keys to reversing this trend. Announced yesterday at an event celebrating the graduation of 11 startups in the most recent TechStars FinTech accelerator, the deal is an attempt by Barclays to arm its financial crime and transaction monitoring teams with the skills needed to onboard bitcoin clients.
In interview, Chainalysis co-founder and chief revenue officer (CRO) Jonathan Levin framed the deal as one that will help mark the first time that a major bank with clearing ability would be able to publicly open its business to bitcoin and blockchain industry clients.
Levin told CoinDesk:
"Barclays had a blanket no rule [for working with bitcoin companies], as do most of the banks in the UK. We're working with the compliance division to bring things into place so they can transact with companies in that space."
Levin said that Barclays will not be accepting bitcoin funds directly, but rather seeking to use the partnership as a way to capture the first-mover advantage inherent in marketing a bitcoin-friendly fiat banking service, while also bolstering the abilities of their tech team.
"It's a recognition that financial crimes divisions haven't seen that much innovation, to make it a competitive advantage by saying that they have a compliance department that can handle the latest trends in technology," he said.
Along with the deal, Chainalysis received an undisclosed amount of funding from startup accelerator TechStars in exchange for 6% equity and participation in the 13-week program. The company has said it plans to relocate to New York following the news.
Founded by former members of bitcoin exchange Kraken and bitcoin wallet provider Mycelium, Chainalysis offers web-based compliance tools alongside an API for transaction-based risk scoring and Reactor, a product it bills as an "enhanced due diligence and investigation tool".
Thought its products have proved controversial among more privacy-conscious bitcoin users, Levin framed Chainalysis's work as necessary to helping Barclays determine how industry startups can best meet bank-level compliance standards.
In this light, Levin indicated that the biggest challenge faced by institutions like Barclays isn't an inherent aversion to bitcoin as a payment method, but rather a lack of understanding about how the due diligence it needs to perform on these customers should be conducted.
Levin said that all payment methods have separate standards for different forms of value, comparing the transition as akin to defining best practices and thresholds for cash.
"Even cash has limits," Levin remarked. "If you're a bank, accepting cash that smells of marijuana is illegal under the law. You need to file a suspicious activity report (SAR), which is the case in places like Colorado. You can't walk into a bank branch and just deposit that cash into a bank account."
Here, Levin said, bitcoin has an advantage as there's a level of transparency the blockchain brings that, when paired with certain services, is sufficient to help banks ensure they aren't establishing relationships with firms conducting illegal activities.
"Everyone's going to have been exposed to crime, but it's about limiting abuse in the system," Levin continued.
This isn't to say Barclays is looking to develop a one-size-fits-all approach to banking bitcoin clients, as Levin indicated it also needs help identifying the kinds of industry companies that pose a risk from a regulatory perspective.
For example, he noted that most compliance teams at major banks aren't yet able to differentiate between companies that purely provide software, and those that custody customer funds directly.
"Banks haven't been able to understand the nuance of different business models in the space. People within the bank will now have that domain expertise to say this is a software business, this is not a money transmitter, this is something that is very important in developing that domain expertise," he said.
Though a time-intensive investment for Barclays, he framed the task as one that's in line with recent developments in financial innovation.
"This is a big trend, where cybersecurity and money laundering will be going hand in hand in the future," he remarked.
Levin further said that, while a big-name client for his startup, the company's relationship with Barclays would not be substantially different than those with other firms.
Chainalysis, he said, would not be consulting Barclays on its product use, nor would it be allocating daily resources to the effort.
"There are some elements that we have built specifically to suit their needs, but fundamentally, we're a product company," he said.
Speaking to the abilities of the firm's technology, he indicated he believes the products will help Barclays "know what bitcoin is down to the wallet implementation".
Ultimately, however, he positioned the process of bringing bitcoin firms into the banking community as one that will take more than a single partnership, concluding:
"What is the right level of compliance? We're working that out. Having a relationship with banks and regulators is key, so you can develop a standard of what's possible and put into practice what's possible."