7 Trends Shaping the Evolving ICO Economy

Regulators may be talking more about ICOs, but the technology is advancing anyway. Here's 7 ways it could change in the weeks and months ahead.

AccessTimeIconFeb 10, 2018 at 5:00 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 7:33 a.m. UTC

Sure, there were white papers, prototypes and theories, but in the land of ICOs, 2017 was largely about one thing – money – and lots of it.

Entering 2018, those closest to the sector, the area of the industry that's actively applying learnings from cryptocurrencies to startup models, see a bit of a different story. White papers, prototypes and conferences, they believe, will persist. But changes, too, are on the way.

Namely, insiders see a wave of testnets, betas and iterations as the signal and noise begin to separate, and projects begin to differentiate.

As the stakes get higher, CoinDesk broke out a list of trends we see coming for 2018 and reached out to entrepreneurs and investors for further findings:

1. Regulatory purgatory will continue

Despite the ongoing discussions globally, most experts surveyed seemed to think global governments will keep the crypto community waiting for what it wants most, regulatory clarity.

Look for the courts to provide most of this year's guidance, including further action against issuers.

"The real news will be actions against non-issuers," former Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) enforcement attorney Nicolas Morgan, now at Paul Hastings, told CoinDesk, indicating celebrities touting tokens without disclosure and brokers and exchanges that don't properly register could be targeted.

ICOs that want to play by the rules will need to get used to interpreting past rulings from other industries, another SEC alum, Timothy Peterson of Murphy and McGonigle told CoinDesk.

He said, "ICOs will need to be comfortable dealing with enforcement inquiries."

As with any complex financial product, it’s "part of doing business," he said. Still, even if the SEC or the CFTC did start circulating draft regulations, most seem to think it is unlikely they would be enforced this year.

2. The funding pipeline will grow

Notably, no one CoinDesk contacted seemed to think that the overall investment in tokens will shrink in 2018. Although, it appears the size of rounds may vary more.

"Both humongous deals and smaller, faster rounds [are happening now]," Wendy Schadek, a VC from Northzone pointed out.

She and many investors predict rounds will rather be broken up, into more complex deals, structured more like traditional venture capital.

"The action will continue to move increasingly to private sales and the tokens reserved for the public will be smaller or, in many cases, disappear entirely," MacLane Wilkison, co-founder of NuCypher, predicted.

3. Startups could seek ethereum alternatives

In order to serve the general public, ethereum needs to process vastly more transactions at faster speeds. Kik already gave up on it in December, and we even saw a $39 million ICO launch on Stellar. But generally, founders continue to bet that ethereum will scale successfully.

"Ethereum is still the clear winner today in terms of the community and developer tools that are available. We're rooting hard for Plasma and the team at OmiseGO as they try and build the first implementation of it," Josh Fraser of the Origin Protocol told CoinDesk.

Wilkinson agrees but predicts major ICOs on Stellar in 2018, as well as further development on other protocols. The chief scientist for one of those protocols, Dfinity, said on The Third Web podcast that the only real solution is unbounded transaction volume.

As long as it's got a max, entrepreneurs will hit it and clog the network.

However, multiple entrepreneurs CoinDesk confirm they have back-up plans in case ethereum's backlog issue isn't yet resolved.

4. Decentralized apps will deploy

Boost VC's Brayton Williams has already declared 2018 the year of "talent and shipping" on Medium.

"Boost VC has always been about backing the builders, but now we are altering that slightly and we are looking to back those who ship," Williams wrote.

As such, entrepreneurs will feel intense pressure to get products into the hands of the public so people can start using tokens for their intended use.

In fact, a $100 million ICO, Status, invested $5 million in New Vector, the company behind decentralized Slack alternative Riot.im, which could hint that we'll see the company integrating with a protocol already popular in the crypto community.

Alpha and beta releases should come fast and furious in 2018. It will be interesting to see what happens to token prices when users first touch them and find them to be (like most early iterations) buggy and slow.

"I think it's very likely that the prices have gotten ahead of the actual progress," Chris Dixon said on a recent episode of Andreessen Horowitz's podcast.

5. Beliefs about token economics will be tested

The big question for 2018 is this: how do utility tokens behave when they actually have utility? None of them really do yet.

Multicoin's Kyle Samani wrote a post about token velocity at the end of 2017, which argued that tokens need to give users a good reason to hold a certain amount or their value will inevitably go to zero.

A consensus seems to have formed around the idea, but it's yet to be tested in an environment where a new token is actively powering its intended use case.

We'll also get to test another widely held assumption in 2018: does wider initial token distribution foster faster adoption, as many founders believe it will, or are investors and users really two different groups?

Whether it works or not, multiple people told us to look for more airdrops as private sales crowd out public ones.

6. Consumer sophistication will increase

Terminology will grow as more people understand the token economy better.

As industries become more sophisticated, their vocabularies expand. Most discussions around ICOs divide their tokens into two categories (utility and security), informed by concerns about regulators.

"These seem to be traditional ideas that have been also invented based on collective fictions," Schadek told CoinDesk. We've even heard thought leaders float other categories.

cofounder Mason Borda has talked about "rewards tokens," designed for encouraging users to engage in a desirable behavior (like airliness miles). Also on the Andreesen Horowitz podcast, Nick Tomaino added the idea of "work tokens" as distinct from other utility tokens.

These tokens represent stakes that allow users to earn income on a protocol.

Filecoin, Augur and NuCypher all incorporate this feature into their tokens. "I think the most interesting work token will be when ethereum switches from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake," Tomaino said in the episode.

As entrepreneurs get better at describing and categorizing their creations, the whole community will understand the industry better.

7. Traditional tech companies will decentralize (or at least sell tokens)

This could either prove to be the most important theme of 2018 or a complete dud. Most people believe that familiar tech companies will come up with reasons to issue tokens and raise money.

Even Mark Zuckerberg says he's studying blockchain this year, and obviously Telegram is already reportedly seeking a billion dollars or more.

"I would guess most large tech giants have someone full time at the company experimenting or on research to make sure they don't miss an opportunity," Williams said, but he also expects they will move at roughly regulatory speed.

We have asked several large concerns if they have an ICO in the works, but the ones that reply all deny it. If tech companies genuinely pursue decentralization, Schadek said it would be "good because it democratizes value creation" and "grows the entire crypto pie."

However, Wilkinson contended, "Big tech companies pursuing ICOs won't have a valid need for decentralization."

Rather, in many cases he thinks tokens will prove antithetical to their existing business models.

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