Dozens of blockchain startups have got off the ground in Switzerland using cryptoassets as their startup capital, circumnavigating banks. But the strategy is not without risk.
swissinfo.ch has traced 60 firms that have stumped up the new brand of digital money to either set up or inject fresh capital into their enterprise. It is a particularly attractive option for companies that raised high volumes of cryptocurrencies through initial coin offering (ICO) fundraising rounds.
For some firms, using cryptoassets rather than francs to cover the founding capital requirement is the perfect antidote to banks refusing to open business accounts. SwissCrypOne is a Zug-based trading platform that connects investors with a crypto mining operation in Finland.
“We spent days going around every bank in the region with a begging bowl, but were rejected by them all,” CEO Bing Voorham told swissinfo.ch. “Without the option of bitcoin, we were struggling to get established in Crypto Valley.”
Crypto investment advisory firm Bravisexternal link is the only company to have used bitcoin to establish in canton Zurich so far. If you have a stockpile of cryptocurrencies, why not vest them in your enterprise, says co-founder Simon Leuenberger.
“You can’t yet buy a coffee with bitcoin but you can use it to start up a company,” he said. “It’s also a question of credibility: as a supporter of the whole crypto ecosystem we need to walk the talk.”
“Obsolete” banking system
Companies in the French-speaking part of Switzerland are also using crypto to start up, including IndéNodes in canton Neuchâtel. Lionel Jeannerat, co-founder of the company that mines tokens on the Komodo blockchain system, said the decision had deeper reasons than mere expediency.
“In a few years from now the banking system will be obsolete. We need to create the tools and ecosystem to create a new financial economy. We want to build IndéNodes as a proof-of-concept to show that it’s possible to develop a business without the banking system.”
But tying up cryptoassets in enterprises also comes with perils. Top of the list is the highly volatile price of bitcoin, ether and other tokens. Bitcoin, the leading cryptocurrency, currently weighs in at $6,900 (CHF6,700) per coin, but that conversion rate is way off the highs of $20,000 last December.
Starting a company with crypto
Companies need to put up between CHF20,000 and CHF100,000 ($20,500-$103,000) to establish their enterprise in Switzerland, depending on the type of legal entity. Cantons routinely accept capital in kind such as property or cars, but the use of bitcoin or ether is becoming more popular.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most cases of crypto capital start-ups can be found in canton Zug, the home of Switzerland’s self-styled Crypto Valley. By September, 57 enterprises in the canton had pledged cryptocurrencies – up from the 17 that had made use of this facility by April.
Two more companies have been traced in canton Neuchatel, where the authorities say others are queuing up with their crypto, and another has registered using bitcoin in Zurich.end of infobox
This means that any company that staked bitcoin as starting capital in December would have seen the value of funds available for investment into their business shrink dramatically. Of course, this could reverse in future, but such volatility is hardly a solid foundation for keeping a company on an even keel, let alone planning for expansion.
It is also not uncommon for Swiss blockchain companies to pay their staff in cryptocurrencies. A dive in the value of cryptoassets could wipe out a company’s balance sheet in a short space of time. To cushion against this problem, Bravis’s Leuenberger recommends only paying a portion of employee salaries in cryptoassets.
For André Wolke, co-founder of the Zug-based blockchain consultancy company Validity Labs, the radical fall in the price of cryptoassets has been less of a problem. The ether sunk into the company as fresh capital last October was purchased years ago when the it was worth a fraction of the current dollar price.
He acknowledges that there is potential for others to get caught out if they buy cryptocurrencies at the wrong moment. But Wolke is convinced that it is only a matter of time before cryptocurrencies achieve price stability by becoming more widely accepted or with the evolution of so-called stable coins.
“When we see the first stable coins coming out, which are pegged to fiat currencies [such as dollars or francs] or other underlying stable assets [such as precious metals], then price volatility will decrease,” he said.
In a recent interview with swissinfo.ch, Niklas Nikolajsen, founder of Bitcoin Suisse, also feels the price of cryptocurrencies will rise again – perhaps even to $10,000 by the end of the year. “I feel the correction has reached its maximum and have seen support in building the market,” he said.
How to spend it
The other issue is for crypto-financed firms is working out what they can spend their capital on. There is no shortage of legal or consultancy firms in Switzerland that will accept cryptocurrencies as payments – or employees who will accept at least part of their pay in bitcoin, ether or other tokens.
Many blockchain companies would also accept cryptocurrencies when doing business with each other and the field is widening judging from the growing number of firms in this space. However, cross-pollination of crypto with the traditional economy, including banks, is still at a premium.
This means that blockchain start-ups, with their coffers chock full of cryptocurrencies, still need standard bank accounts to pay the rent for their office space – and for the coffee machine. As Swiss banks remain coy on doing business with the “funny money” scene, company executives are using their personal accounts or turning to Liechtenstein, which is fast developing as the banking centre for Crypto Valley.