And then the world turned upside down.
Crypto prices are near rock bottom prices, with Bitcoin hanging around $4,000 and Ethereum around $113, down from their highs earlier this year of around $16,600 and $1,400 respectively.
While that has put a dampener on the enthusiasm of a lot of cryptocurrency retail investors, the bigger question is how do institutional players work through this market? What’s the strategy for finding value in this technology sector long-term?
I chatted with Alexander Liegl, who may just have at least part of the answer. He’s the founder of Layer1, which announced a $2.1 million fundraise this week from Peter Thiel, Digital Currency Group, and Jeffrey Tarrant.
Liegl saw a huge challenge in the blockchain and cryptocurrency spaces: too many good ideas and not enough developers working on product development work. So he decided to create an “activist fund for cryptocurrencies” that would “take concentrated bets on protocols that we think have a need in this world.” Layer1 then supplies developers and other experts to provide “infrastructure and support,” he explained. “An operating entity like us can have a lot of influence in moving the needle.” He describes Layer1 as “a combination of Polychain and Blockstreet” and “the Rocket Internet of crypto.”
That might sound vaguely similar to ConsenSys, the loosely-coupled group of startups and infrastructure engineers trying to build out Ethereum which has run into very hard times recently. Unlike ConsenSys, which was founded by Ethereum co-founder Joe Lubin and is directly focused on that ecosystem, Layer1 isn’t wedded to one blockchain or ecosystem, and instead selects a single project at a time through a mix of financial analysis and thesis development.
With capital in the bank, Layer1 has backed Grin as its first cryptocurrency. Grin is designed to be a completely private and censorship-resistant transaction medium, and Liegl says that “conceptually it really reconciles with our view in the space.” He particularly liked that Grin has an anonymous founder like Bitcoin, since no founder controls the governance of the project. Grin is intending to publicly launch in mid-January.
I asked Liegl how he was responding to the crypto crunch this year in the markets, and he considered it far more of an opportunity than a detriment to his work. “I’m really pumped about all of this,” he explained. “a lot of the bad actors have to be flushed out.” He noted that the low of the bear market may not be reached yet, but that Layer1 was in a good position to take advantage of the timing. “We raised the newest dollars, so we are not suffering from any of these ICO-induced problems,” he said.
Liegl, who graduated from Stanford in 2015 and briefly worked at Stanford’s endowment, has certainly seen the vagaries of the cryptocurrency markets. He learned about Bitcoin during its first popular run-up in 2013, even convincing his parents to invest in the budding project.
Now, he has his eyes set on Grin, and then additional projects. He thinks Layer1 will invest in a new project roughly every 6-9 months, which will accelerate over time with additional capital.
While these “platform” models have struggled a bit in the venture world, I think it’s reasonable that blockchain projects, which often suffer from a lack of attention from developers and end uses, could use a strong engineering and popularization boost. Layer1 isn’t the first in the blockchain world to take this approach nor I am sure will it be the last, but it might be just the ticket forward for a world that has struggled to pay its employees and bills in a crash.