Circle Becomes 'Bitcoin Unicorn' with Bitmain-Backed Mega-Round

Bitmain is investing big in blockchain firm Circle as part of an ambitious bid to clean up one of the more gray aspects of the crypto economy.

AccessTimeIconMay 15, 2018 at 7:39 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 7:57 a.m. UTC

The 'bitcoin unicorn' club now has another member.

Announced Tuesday, Circle has closed a $110 million Series E fundraising, a figure that effectively values the startup at nearly $3 billion, according to figures from the company. Led by China-based mining outfit Bitmain, the round includes support from Accel, Blockchain Capital, Breyer, Digital Currency Group, General Catalyst, IDG, Pantera and Tusk Ventures.

With the funding, the company is also revealing an ambitious plan to bolster its products and services by launching a "US dollar coin," or a blockchain native asset that would be both regulated and backed by real government currency, through its affiliate CENTRE project.

In this way, Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire framed the round as one that helps it position itself as a true conglomerate of cryptocurrency services, as opposed to just an exchange or payment startup, both characterizations having been given to the company in the past.

Allaire told CoinDesk:

"A core part of vision is open-protocols that would enable the free movement of value. A real critical piece is there has to be open, interoperable standards for our how fiat money can move over blockchains. That's where fiat stablecoins and payment protocols come into play."

More than a technical novelty, Allaire positioned the stablecoin project as essential to Circle's maturation and continued expansion, painting it as integral for its mobile payments application, its over-the-counter (OTC) trading business and its exchange service.

The launch also comes at a time when Silicon Valley investors have shown a preference for investments in such products, owing to the massive role stablecoins play in facilitating global cryptocurrency exchange and the perceived issues with today's market leaders.

It's this vision, Allaire said, that made Bitmain, the controversial cryptocurrency mining giant, a natural fit to lead the funding round.

As recently as March, Bitmain co-CEO Jihan Wu had made appearances at major U.S. conferences where he vowed to back high-tech alternatives to central banking.

"Jihan is a visionary and he is a visionary for changing the global financial order," Allaire said. "They believe in the long-term potential of Circle."

All told, the funding will also help boost staffing at Circle, which today employs more than 200 employees globally in locations including Boston, San Francisco, Dublin, London, Paris, Madrid, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shenzhen.

A new twist on stablecoins

But while Circle's funding round and valuation are likely to grab a majority of headlines, it's perhaps its launch of a US dollar cryptocurrency initiative with participation from Bitmain that may most impact the crypto market.

As noted by Allaire, the play is a strategic one that finds Circle taking aim at one of the most important elements of the crypto economy.

"It's a big piece, as we acquired Poloniex and Poloniex was a crypto-only exchange," Allaire explained. "The way people have handled fiat on an exchange like that has been through something like Tether, and we see a lot of weaknesses and challenges with Tether."

Indeed, Allaire isn't alone, as many commentators have sought to position Tether as a systemic weakness that, through its affiliation with the troubled exchange provider Bitfinex, a company that has struggled with regulatory issues, threatens the integrity of the market.

Yet, it's important to note that Circle will be seeking to take an open approach to its USD-C token, framing it as an open-source project with a more robust governance model.

The vision is that regulated financial institutions, whether they're a crypto exchange or a money transmitter, would be authorized by CENTRE to become issuers of stablecoins, and that many issuers could offer and manage different fiat-backed cryptocurrencies.

"Circle can be an issuer of US dollar coin, Square could be an issuer. If I got US dollar coins from Circle, I could transmit those to another digital wallet for an issuer," he explained.

A foundation for payments

But if all the conversation about exchanges and crypto-plumbing lead to perceptions that Circle is straying from its more consumer-focused products, Allaire was quick to push back.

Rather, Allaire suggested that bolstering the exchange and fiat cryptocurrency ecosystems globally only strengthens products like its original mobile money application, enabling that product to work more effectively at scale in accordance with its original vision.

"To realize the vision for ubiquitous payments, we need there to be currencies that can be stored, settled and used," Allaire continued.

With the funding, the company is also publishing a new white paper on its stablecoin work, as well as an FAQ that will seek to educate others on they can engage in this new market Circle hopes to steward.

Of note in these materials is that all USD-C tokens will be issued on ethereum, a notable detail given the platform's issues in scaling to support its current diversity of users. (The company said more announcements on the project are expected this summer).

Still, the overall message was that this is an effort to bring an opaque offshore market back into the regulated cryptocurrency economy, as Allaire said CENTRE will require members to undergo compliance and balance sheet audits to ensure assets are properly backed.

In this way, Allaire summed up his message succinctly, dismissing existing market alternatives as nothing more than clever "regulatory hacks."

He concluded:

"The CENTRE model is out in the open in a regulated context with real banking connectivity and that's really based on an open standard."

Circle image via Pete Rizzo for CoinDesk


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