Long known for backing exciting early-stage investments, the absence of 500 Startups from the nascent market for blockchain-based initial coin offerings (ICOs) is notable.
An early investor in bitcoin entrepreneurs, 500 Startups backed both ChangeCoin, which was acquired by Airbnb, and Gyft, which later sold to First Data. Yet, even as investors that frequently back similar startups – including Union Square Ventures, Boost VC and DFJ founder Tim Draper – embrace the new investment vehicle, 500 Startups has been on the sidelines.
But it's not for lack of interest that the venture fund and accelerator has so far side-stepped ICOs.
According to the company's newest fintech investor, Mike Sigal, not only is 500 Startups interested in ways to let retail investors back projects by buying digital tokens, he's even open to the idea of his own portfolio companies supplementing their cash flow by leveraging blockchain.
Still, it's Sigal's accountability to investors that he said is keeping him from participating in an ICO.
Speaking exclusively to CoinDesk at the Exponential Finance conference earlier this month, Sigal explained his hesitation:
"The idea of an ICO potentially changes the representations that I've made to my own investors. So, I am limited in some ways – and we've not really investigated it yet – but I'm limited in what I can invest in because I'm a custodian of other people’s money."
Since launching in 2010, 500 Startups has raised roughly $350m in funds from investors – capital it mostly invests in $150,000 seed rounds in cutting-edge technology startups in exchange for a 6% stake.
Each of the investors in a 500 Startups funds receives a prospectus from the venture capital firm, one that details what kinds of returns might be expected based on historic patterns and forecasts when private stocks might become liquid.
By contrast, Sigal, who was hired last year after helping launch interbank payment platform Swift's startup incubator, said many of even the most successful ICOs haven't achieved a product market fit, or even clearly identified what they will be selling or who are their customers.
"I feel sorry for those investors," he said, adding that, without that certainty, its more than just investors that could be harmed.
"I don’t know what impact on my investors, and my own compliance investing in ICOs would have."
But that doesn't mean the 500 Startups portfolio companies are going to sit and wait while others are making millions of dollars through the funding method – and Sigal it just fine with that.
For now, the potential for founders to easily fill out an investment round without diluting seed investment stakes is just too great to resist, he said.
And with over 2,000 companies in the 500 Startups portfolio, Sigal said it is nearly impossible to know for sure how many might be planning an ICO or preparing to release a token that incentivizes their network.
However, based on information provided by the firm, CoinDesk was able to independently confirm that at least one 500 Startups investment company is in the early stages of an ICO launch later this year.
"Should my companies use it after I invest as a way to make their lives easier, to reward their customers in different ways, I'm fascinated," said Sigal.
Watching and waiting
If 500 Startups starts were to make the move into ICOs, it would be a significant shift in the industry for another reason: it's been a while since 500 Startups put its money into a blockchain business.
In addition to the firm's two previously mentioned exits, Gyft and ChangeCoin, 500 Startups was an early investor in the now defunct bitcoin lending platform, BTCJam. Blockchain enterprise platform Chain is the only notable industry startup still on the 500 Startup portfolio. (CoinDesk was also an early portfolio entry before its sale to Digital Currency Group in 2015.)
However, Sigal acknowledges that he's a relatively new investor in the space, and that he is curious to learn how other venture capital firms who have backed ICOs represent the investment to their fund owners, among other regulatory considerations.
"You've seen at 500 Startups, we have a very diversified approach. We like to experiment," he said, concluding:
"So if there's a way we can do it, I imagine we'll end up doing something. I just don't know how yet."
Disclosure: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which has an ownership stake in Chain, and previously held stakes in Gyft and BTCJam.
500 Startups partners image courtesy of the company