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Fintech analysis

Matthew Allen takes a look at the issues and talking points surrounding the fintech frenzy in Switzerland.

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The following content on this topic was first reported or is still being reported live. You will find the latest stories first. Then follow the timeline backwards.

March 19, 2018Mapping out Fintech/Blockchain Switzerland

Fintech Switzerland

Fintech/Blockchain Switzerland has witnessed impressive growth

(Keystone)

Switzerland has made impressive strides towards accommodating innovation - both domestic and foreign - in the fields of fintech, blockchain and cryptocurrencies in the last few years. Thanks to some impressive recent research, it has now become easier to visualize this progress.

Let’s start with the new cryptovalley.directoryexternal link, an interactive map of 350 blockchain companies, educational institutes, legal, consulting and other services spread around Switzerland. Most of them are based in the Zug/Zurich region (the centre of the Crypto Valley universe), but the southern (Italian-speaking) and western (French-speaking) regions also feature entrants.

When Swiss Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann recently proclaimed that the world would soon be talking about “Crypto Nation Switzerlandexternal link”, perhaps he had this picture in mind. 

Map of Swiss blockchain players
(http://cryptovalley.directory/)

And there’s more to life than ‘just’ blockchain and crypto. Plenty of Swiss fintech players combine elements of these new technologies, but others can make an impact with other means of digital innovation (roboadvisory, software as a service, digital payments etc).

According to a mammoth 143-page report recently published by the Institute for Financial Services Zug (IFZ)external link - a department at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts - by the end of last year there were 220 pure-play fintech firms in Switzerland (up from 190 in 2016).

The authors are strict on how they classify fintech, meaning that some insurtech, proptech and regtech companies don’t even make the list. 

Perhaps the most startling data to come out of the IFZ report is the huge increase in funding for Swiss fintechs last year. The modest venture capital allocated to the sector in 2016 (well under CHF50 million) had swollen to CHF400 million at the end of last year.

Chart showing fintech funding
(Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts)

A large chunk of this could be put down to the initial coin offering (ICO) craze that swept the world last year. Some CHF850 million ICO capital was generated in Switzerland, with CHF276 being raised by fintechs (as defined by IFZ).

The global fintech hub ranking is sure to inspire some debate, though. IFZ rates Zurich and Geneva in second and third spots respectively, just behind Singapore. Other surveys are not so generous to Switzerland. I guess it depends on what comparative criteria you use.

Fintech hub global ranking graph
(HSLU IFZ)


March 12, 2018Central banks eye dangers of e-currencies

Bank for International Settlements sign

The central bankers' bank is cautious about national e-currencies

(Keystone)

Replacing cash with national digital currencies could threaten bank runs in times of economic stress, says the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). This is music to the ears of e-cash opponents, such as UBS chief economist Daniel Kalt.

BISexternal link, the Basel-based “bank of central banks” organisation, laid out its thoughts in a paperexternal link to be presented to next week’s G20 meeting of finance ministers in Buenos Aires.external link It refers to the theoretical concept of centrally produced digital cash as “central bank digital currencies” – or CBDC.

If CBDC were to be issued direct to the masses, it could encourage people to empty their bank accounts and jump into the new safe haven asset in the event of another financial crisis, the report states.

“A CBDC could allow for ‘digital runs’ towards the central bank with unprecedented speed and scale. Even in the presence of deposit insurance, the stability of retail funding could weaken because a risk-free CBDC provides a very safe alternative.”

Compare and not-so-contrast with a recent blog post (in German)external link from UBS’s Kalt, which predicts a similar bank run during a recession. 

“The public's reaction would be clear: everyone would immediately withdraw their bank savings and transfer them to the SNB's [Swiss National Bank] extremely secure e-franc accounts, with the result that the banking system would begin to shake. This would probably lead to a storm, as banks would not be able to lend to SMEs, which would further exacerbate the recession.”

Kalt’s blunt blog post was inspired by recent calls for an e-franc in Switzerland. 

But all is not lost for the champions of digital cash. BIS also points out some likely plus points for introducing central bank “printed” e-money, particularly for countries such as Sweden where cash is going out of style.

For a start, moving financial transactions to distributed ledgers, such as blockchain, could reduce costs and increase efficiencies, the report states. Such technology could also help the financial system track illicit money flows, it adds.

In addition, the report predicts minimal impact on monetary policy under most circumstances. But the key message from BIS to G20 ministers next week is “wait and see”.


March 7, 2018Fintech Association suffers bout of internal disruption

John Hucker

Hucker confirmed a rift with former board member Gaillard

(John Hucker)

The Swiss Finance and Technology Association (SFTA), set up to represent fintech players in Switzerland and lobby for better framework conditions, has confirmed that several board members have left the organisation following a rift.

A note sent out to SFTA members said that Alexandre Gaillard, Klaus Kummermehr, Boris Battistini, Christian Dreyer, and Daniel Diemers had “mutually agreed” to step down “to allow for a renewal process to begin”. A note sent by Gaillard on a meetup platform last week suggested that the split had been anything but harmonious.

Gaillard took issue with SFTA president John Hucker, whose actions were apparently “incompatible with the association purpose” and who had allegedly turned down demands for an emergency board meeting. The former head of the SFTA chapter in the French speaking part of Switzerland also accused the Zurich-headquartered organisation of failing to support Geneva operations.

In an email to swissinfo.ch on Wednesday, Hucker said that the SFTA had “provided thousands” to supporting Geneva area projects, including the Sibos event in 2016. He said he “regularly experienced conflicts” with Gaillard. “His actions now clearly do not contribute positively to SFTA members,” Hucker added.

Both Hucker and the SFTA note to members, sent on Wednesday, rebutted media reports that the association was planning to move away from its non-profit roots. 

An SFTA general assembly will be called once operational and board roles have been redefined, Hucker stated. There are plans to complement a slimmed down board of President, Vice-President, Treasurer and Secretary with a new advisory group to connect the roughly 600 fintech members with the board.

March 7, 2018"Law change would kill Swiss crypto industry"

Luzius Meisser holds up a bitcoin

Luzius Meisser is not impressed with both Swiss banks and the proposed law change

(Keystone)

Swiss crypto-asset companies have long complained that they are being frozen out by the established banking system. Getting a standard business bank account is a monumental task if you deal in cryptos. 

Swiss banks appear either afraid of reputational risks associated with the crypto world - or if you are inclined towards conspiracy theories – want to squeeze these new disruptors out by forbidding them basic financial services.

The established banking system appears to be working against the cryptocurrency market in Switzerland,” according to Alexis Roussel, founder of Swiss crypto brokerage Bity (which incidentally does have an account with Neuchatel Cantonal Bank).

So the Bitcoin Association of Switzerlandexternal link (BAS) was alarmed to see a proposed change to the Swiss lawexternal link that would require all businesses and associations to have a bank account in Switzerland. “Requiring crypto start-ups to have a bank account would kill the Swiss crypto start-up scene,” BAS president Lucas Betschart told swissinfo.ch.

BAS has therefore taken advantage of a consultation period to lodge an objection to the proposed law changes. 

In a written blog postexternal link, BAS board member Luzius Meisser said: “Getting a bank account sounds simple, but for crypto startups it is not. Most Swiss banks refuse to enter into a business relationship with any entity that has ‘Bitcoin’ in its name or is otherwise related to crypto currencies or blockchain technology.”

“This law threatens our very existence. If enacted, Bitcoin Association Switzerland would not be allowed to exist any longer as it is unlikely that we would find a Swiss bank that provides us with an account.”

So why does the Swiss government feel compelled to bring about such changes? It’s in response to pressure from the OECD’s Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposesexternal link. This is a body that polices all OECD member states to ensure that they do not encourage tax evasion, money laundering or corporate tax shenanigans.

In July 2016, the Global Forum recommended a number of changes to improve the transparency of Swiss legal entities and make tax dodging harder. Article 958g of the Swiss bill proposes that all companies, partnerships and legal entities with an annual turnover of at least CHF100,000 should be obliged to have a Swiss bank account.

It is not hard to see how this would make it easier to trace funds and prevent tax dodging. According to BAS, though, it is also easy to see how this would be the death knell for many crypto start-ups in Switzerland. This would hardly be in line with the stated aim of Swiss Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann to turn Switzerland into a “Crypto Nation”.

It is not so easy to see how this circle could be squared, unless crypto firms are exempt or banks are forced to provide them with services regardless of what their compliance officers say.

The Swiss State Secretariat for International Financial Mattersexternal link said it has received BAS’s objection, which will be considered during the consultation period lasting until April 24.

March 1, 2018ICO craze also benefits home-grown Swiss fintech firms

fintech hub sign

Switzerland is developing nicely as a fintech hub, according to funding figures

(Keystone)

Last year Switzerland made a name for itself as a global hub for the new craze of initial coin offerings (ICO) – a new means of raising cash for start-ups that involves selling tokens that can eventually be used to utilize (or take part in) the new technology (hence the term utility tokens).

Of the $5 billion raised worldwide, it is estimated that around a quarter of these funds ended up in purpose built Swiss foundations. But this can hardly be categorised as “Made in Switzerland”. These crypto piggy banks could best be summed up as “funds held in Switzerland until they leak out to coders developing the projects elsewhere in the world”.

But Swiss start-ups have also benefited from the craze, according to Lucerne’s University of Applied Sciences and Artsexternal link (HSLU). Researchers estimate that some CHF271 million of ICO funds actually ended up in home-grown Swiss fintech companies.

Chart showing fintech funding
(Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts)

That represents around 5% of the total ICO funds raised globally. Not quite as impressive as 25%, but still a useful new addition to start-up capital flowing into Swiss firms. On top of that, HSLU estimates that traditional venture capital investments in Swiss fintech went through the roof last year, adding an extra CHF130 million in funding.

That’s combined funding for Swiss fintech of CHF400 million, compared to well under CHF50 million in 2016. This created 16% more Swiss fintech firms, which now number 220, HSLU states.

In January, Startuptickerexternal link also noted a meteoric rise in fintech VC funding. In 2016, fintechs received a few crumbs from the VC table, but the CHF76 million last year put the fintech sector on a par with the established medtech start-up industry.

Obviously, there are some rather large discrepancies between the absolute figures measured by Startupticker and HSLU (perhaps due to different ways of categorising fintech). But they both show the same upward trend.

It will be interesting to see how the latest guidelinesexternal link issued by the Swiss financial market regulator FINMA impact on ICO funding in Switzerland this year. FINMA appears to have taken exception to start-ups raising ICO capital to fund their projects before anything concrete has even been produced.

As of this year, these tokens will be classified as securities, FINMA states. This could dampen the hundreds of millions rolling into Swiss foundations set up to fund nascent (virtually non-existent) overseas projects. But real enterprises, with concrete operational models, could still benefit - providing they clear regulatory hurdles first. 

February 26, 2018Crypto Nation Switzerland

JSA
(Keystone)

“In five or ten years’ time I don’t want people to be talking about Crypto Valley Zug. I want people to be talking about Crypto Nation Switzerland.” This is the quote from a speech by Swiss Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann that caused such waves in January.

Schneider-Ammann pitched his vision to entrepreneurs and financiers at the inaugural Crypto Finance Conference in St Moritz in January. His bold statement was greeted with much enthusiasm by the delegates at Switzerland’s “Crypto WEF”.

Now you can see the whole speech, including some off-script gags. If you didn’t believe what you were reading at the time, now you can hear it for yourself – from the horse’s mouth.

Johann Schneider Ammann speech

Johann Schneider Ammann speech

Johann Schneider Ammann speech


January 19, 2018Gevers stokes fires of Tezos Foundation dispute


Johann Gevers smiles as he sits at his desk

Gevers was in no mood to make peace at the Crypto Finance Conference

(Keystone)

Anyone who harboured hopes that the Tezos Foundation row might be thawing were disabused of this notion at a Cryto Finance Conference in St Moritz, Switzerland. Foundation president Johann Gevers used the platform to launch a thinly-veiled attack on Tezos founders Arthur and Kathleen Breitman.

While he refrained from mentioning anyone by name during his address on “ICO Best Practicesexternal link”, Gevers left little to the imagination with his message.

Johann Gevers on stage with a screen in background delivering slides
(Marc Bettinger)

“In its focus on creating a technology for governance the Tezosexternal link project overlooked the critical importance of people,” read one of his presentation slides, which went on to attack “all approaches that ignore the fundamentally complex, dynamic, holistic nature of reality, and use simplistic, static, reductionist methods.”

“Without maturity and impulse control, we cannot act wisely,” read another slogan.

Gevers has been embroiled in a bitter personal dispute with the Breitmans for most of the Tezos Foundation’s life span. The row went public in October with Arthur Breitman accusing Gevers of “an attempt at self-dealing, misrepresenting to the council the value of a bonus he attempted to grant himself” whilst slamming the foundation for falling behind in its mandate of funding the development of the project.

Multiple accusations

Gevers denies the charges and has in turn accused Breitman of spreading lies and conducting a smear compaign against his “impeccable integrity”.

External Content

Tweet

Tezos launched with much fanfare last summer, which ironically promised to produce a new system of democratic blockchain governance that would solve differences of opinion without the need for opposing sides to shear off into separate factions.

The idea persuaded people to contribute $232 million ($243 million) in the form of cryptocurrencies in the space of a few days. These funds were then transferred to the Zug-based Tezos Foundationexternal link, set up in July to continue funding the project whilst creating some distance between the Breitmans, their company Dynamic Ledger Solutions, and the assets raised from the public.

The dramatic rise in the value of cryptocurrencies since then has swelled that pot to more than $1 billion, but the row appears to have frozen the flow of funds to developers.

Gap to fill

The Tezos Foundation row has already claimed the scalp on one of its three directors, Guido Schmitz-Krummacher, who walked away in December. The Swiss Foundation Supervisory Authority has given the foundation until the end of the month to find a successor.

In theory, the supervisory authority has the power to revoke board decisions, issue criminal complaints, or in extreme cases, remove board members.

Kathleen Breitman also gave an earlier address at the same conference in St Moritz but did not refer specifically to the row other than to say the foundation is responsible for issuing “Tezzie” tokens to people who put their money into the project.

Investors and developers trying to create applications for the Tezos platform have increasingly expressed their anger on social media channels about the dispute and the delays it has caused. The platform was initially expected to be online by the end of last year, but this has been put back to next month. But with the row still in full swing, chat rooms have speculated that even this date looks in doubt.

In the meantime, lawyers in the United States have been sharpening their knives with a series of class-action lawsuits directed at several of the Tezos main players.

December 18, 2017Who goes down if the crypto bubble bursts?

A girl grimaces with her head in a bubble

Hold your breath and hope the bubble doesn't burst

(Keystone)

Is bitcoin a bubble waiting to burst? UBS chairman Axel Weber certainly thinks so, as he told NZZ am Sonntag at the weekend. The world’s most famous cryptocurrency is trading at close to $19,000 per token, up from $1,000 at the start of the year. The whole thing is “unstable”, according to Weber.

Others have also called a bubble, including Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam. So, what if they are right? What if the price of bitcoin pops, deflates and goes down like a lead balloon? Anyone who bought near the top of the market (or perhaps even the middle) is going to lose money.

And then what? Will this bring down banks and small businesses, cost jobs and squeeze credit to barely more than a trickle? It depends on who you ask. Patrick Schueffel, a former banking executive and now a professor at Fribourg’s School of Management, is convinced that cryptocurrencies represent “The Mother of All Pyramids”.

According to Schueffel, the exponential rise in the value of bitcoin and other digital tokens is fueled purely by the irrational exuberance of more speculators piling into the get rich quick scheme. Furthermore, he believes the bitcoin bubble is pushing up the value of other tokens. Added to that, a number of funds and derivatives are popping up on the market that soak up more investor cash.

How much?!

At the end of November, Schueffel expressed his alarm that the value of all bitcoins added together had reached $134 billion, while the top 20 cryptocurrencies were “worth” $222 billion. Bitcoin’s market cap was bigger than the governmental budget of Finland, he opined. And the top 20 cryptos put together outgunned the annual budget of the Kremlin. 

“If we bear in mind that at its height Lehman Brothers had a market capitalization of ‘only’ $60bn, its bankruptcy nevertheless marked a seminal event that intensified into what later on became known as the Global Financial crises. This string of events eventually wiped out assets of approximately $1,300bn,” he wrote.

Oh my! Just a few weeks later, all bitcoins thrown together are now worth $314 billion. All crypto tokens put together now add up to half a trillion dollarsexternal link

So could the shadow economy bring down the real economy? Rudolf Minsch, chief economist of the Swiss Business Federation (economiesuisse), is a bit more relaxed about the issue. Investors may get their fingers burned, but the world’s economies will carry on as normal. The real economy would hardly notice, he forecasts.

Bubble 'ouch' list

Minsch believes the rapid rise in crypto prices are also driven by pure speculation. The conditions of meeting the underlying goal of providing a faster, cheaper method of conducting financial transactions via blockchain have not even been met, he argues. “Transactions are too expensive and slow,” he told me. 

“The volume of bitcoin is not significant,” he adds. Surely not compared to the $7.6 trillion value of gold reserves at present, never mind fiat currency reserves or the value of derivatives. “History shows us that it is not uncommon for everyone to be eager to try their luck in the same investments at the same time,” says Minsch. “But if the bitcoin bubble does burst, it will not be translated to the real economy.”

Minsch is far more concerned about a potential stock market bubble, which if it bursts could dampen US consumer sentiment. Second on the “bubble ouch list” in Switzerland would be a rapid depression of real estate prices should interest rates rise too quickly.

So who is right? One thing Schueffel fails to mention is that the collapse of Lehman Brothers hardly happened in isolation. Most of the major banks in the world were chock full of worthless mortgage derivatives in 2008. Many were bailed out. Lehman was the only sacrificial lamb.

But he does raise one important point. Is anyone counting the real value of all investments in cryptocurrencies at the moment?

November 30, 2017Breitman gives nothing away as Tezos saga rumbles on

Arthur Breitman

Breitman said nothing about the foundation dispute, which is entering a critical phase

(swissinfo.ch)

Anyone expecting fire and brimstone from a Zurich address by Tezos founder Arthur Breitman on Thursday went home disappointed. Breitman flatly refused to speak about his public row with Johann Gevers at the Tezos Foundation.

Breitman gave the impression of ‘business as usual’ as he updated eager investors, packed in the city’s Volkshaus, about technical developments to the blockchain smart contract system. The message was clear: while the Zug-based foundation may be shaking under the weight of allegations of financial misconduct, the business end of Tezos - Dynamic Ledger Solutions (DLS), which is building the platform – is fully functioning.

As Breitman delivered his address on Thursday, foundation president Gevers may well have been perusing an audit into its financial conduct, due to be delivered around about now. From this evidence, Gevers and his two other board members must decide if there is anything amiss, and what to do about it.

The foundation is packed with investors’ assets now worth around $500 million. It is charged with spending it on marketing the Tezos technology, building up a team of developers, funding research projects and finding partners who will utilize Tezos in future.

Investors may like to learn the following from the ongoing investigation:

How long will the investigation process last given that the project has already been put back two months by the governance row?

What was the scope of the independent audit and did it cover allegations that Gevers tried to pass off a $1.5 million bonus as a mere $300,000?

What value of assets has already been syphoned off to hedge against cryptocurrency volatility?

How much has been spent actively pursuing the foundation’s goals?

Will the foundation’s board be expanded to five or seven members as suggested by the Breitmans?

Will the foundation set up a separate entity, Tezos AG, to help speed up their work, which would give the Breitmans a more hands-on role in the foundation’s work (again a Breitman suggestion)?

Will Gevers stay or go as president of the foundation?

This is all the more relevant as the foundation will assume a bigger role once Tezos has been rolled out. It will then incrementally buy out DLS and the intellectual property rights to the technology.

 

November 29, 2017Swiss political support for crypto confirmed

Johann Schneider-Ammann giving a thumbs up

Johann Schneider-Ammann points the way for cryptocurrencies in Switzerland

(Keystone)

Does Swiss Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann invest in bitcoin? If he does, he will have been very happy to see it break the $10,000 and $11,000 barriers in one day. Truth is, I don’t know if he dabbles. But he does support the growing crypto scene in Switzerland.

Schneider-Ammann will appear at the inaugural edition of the Crypto Finance Conferenceexternal link in St Moritz in January, which will match the most successful crypto financial services firms with the world’s richest investors – including at least 10 billionaires.

Timed to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos the following week, the three-day crypto event will provide a nice little diversion (and some juicy investment opportunities) for some of the most influential money-men on the planet. 

Schneider-Ammann will deliver a speech and host a round table conference that will allow investors to talk to the minister about crypto trading conditions in Switzerland. They even get to do a spot of skiing in between deal making. It all sounds a bit like WEF.

Venture capitalist Daniel Gutenberg, and one of the creators of Crypto Finance Conference, says the minister’s appearance “signals a welcoming political environment for actors involved in the Blockchain sphere. Eventually, this is also about creating a lot of new employment possibilities in Switzerland.”

The conference wants to establish itself as the key go-to summit for crypto in the world. By the sounds of things, it is positioning itself as the WEF of crypto – but for the moment with an exclusive invite policy. Some of the most promising latest ICOs have also been invited to pitch their wares.

Here are some of the themes that will be discussed between January 17-19:

ICO - What is it, how to invest in?
Regulatory, Tax, and Legal: A way through the jungle
Tax Environment for Crypto Investors
Crypto and Society; Use-Cases

All washed down with a nice claret.

This is not the first time Schneider-Ammann has shown his public support for the Swiss crypto industry. In August he made a personal appearance at Zug’s self-styled Crypto Valley. Zug has established itself as a global leader in attracting initial coin offerings, and its foundations are stuffed with hundreds of millions in assets raised by the crowdfunding phenomenon this year.

What price bitcoin in January? To the moon or in the suds of a burst bubble?

November 29, 2017Next steps in resolving the Tezos Foundation dispute

How will the Tezos Foundation dispute get resolved? What are the next stages in the process? What role will president Johann Gevers play? swissinfo.ch takes a look at the key questions.


November 28, 2017Switzerland’s global fintech test

Manuel Stagars

Stagars travelled the world to see what societies make of disruptive technologies

(Manuel Stagars)

“You cannot be a risk taker if you try to insure away the risk. Feeling too comfortable is itself a risk.”

Compared with other parts of the world, how well placed is Switzerland to steal a lead in the global fintech and digitisation revolution? Swiss film maker Manuel Stagars is in a decent position to offer an opinion, having interviewed business leaders and politicians in different continents for his previous movies on fintechexternal link and blockchainexternal link – and his current project Digital Transformationexternal link.

For his current film, released next Spring, Stagars travelled to Switzerland, the United States, China, Hong Kong, Britain and Japan to see how different societies are adapting to the disruptive forces of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. The results of his interviews are varied, with Switzerland living up to its conservative image of safety first.

For Stagars, this has worrying implications for entrepreneurship just as the fourth industrial revolution is gathering a head of steam. “People in Switzerland are afraid to give up their day jobs to start up their own companies,” he told swissinfo.ch in an interview from Hong Kong. “They seem to need funding guarantees, which is not very competitive.”

Perhaps the environment in Switzerland – where everything works and runs on time - is too cosy and unconducive to driving radical change, Stagars wonders. He recommends that, like himself, more Swiss get out into the world to experience life on the other side of the tracks. 

New breed of start-up

By comparison, the US is “bipolar”, according to the Stagars interviews. “People are either all in, saying that we need robots and AI or they are saying that the sky is about to fall on their heads and there will be no jobs.”

Asia is perhaps the most pragmatic region towards new technologies. The Chinese see digitisation as a means of improving their infrastructure, bringing reliable power and transportation systems, and getting access to the world economy. “Nobody is afraid of anything – they embrace change and want to shape a better future.”

Stagars has a sense of déjà vu. Two years ago, he shot the movie Fintech – Made in Switzerlandexternal link. He found the established financial players to be remarkably blasé about the new fintech start-ups that are threatening to disrupt their world.

Given that start-ups can now generate millions in seed capital through initial coin offerings - and need little infrastructure to get their ideas off the ground - Stagars thinks that Swiss banks are playing a dangerous game.

“Innovation has become very democratic.” He said. “The Amazons and Facebooks of this world were the last companies who could build monopolies in a centralized away. There is a new breed of company and a new way of doing business coming our way.”

Here’s a sample interview from Stagars’ new film: Digital Transformation: Visions of Nations, Companies and People.

External Content

Lino Guzzella, President of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

Stagars interviews Lino Guzzella, President of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

November 20, 2017Swiss crypto exchange nets big hitter CEO

arthur Vayloyan

Arthur Vayloyan has crypto experience in the mainstream banking sector

(Keystone)

Former Credit Suisse and Falcon Bank executive Arthur Vayloyan has been named co-CEO at Bitcoin Suisse, one of Switzerland’s oldest cryptocurrencies exchanges. Bitcoin Suisse has been at the forefront of the initial coin offering (ICO) boom in Switzerland in recent months.

Vayloyan landed the job just a few weeks after leaving his post as Global Head of Products & Services at Falcon. His departure followed a top-flight clear-out at Falcon that saw CEO Walter Berchtold and chairman Christian Wenger depart under a cloud in September.

Falcon has recently moved into the cryptocurrency space. In July, it became the first Swiss bank to offer customers crypto investments by teaming up with Bitcoin Suisse, which conducts transactions on behalf of Falcon.

Bitcoin Suisse founder and CEO Niklas Nikolajsen will now share operational duties with Vayloyan as co-CEO, combined with his role as chairman of the board at the exchange he set up in 2013. In a statement on Monday, Nikolajsen said he and Vayloyan “discovered our shared enthusiasm for the potential of blockchain technology” when setting up the Falcon project.  “I am very excited to work with Arthur on the future of our firm and to unleash the potential of crypto-asset-management.”

The crypto debate

Along with Bity in Neuchatel, Bitcoin Suisse has been a pioneer of the nascent, yet growing, cryptocurrency industry in Switzerland.

Falcon - along with Swissquote, Vontobel and Cornèr – have lately become among the few Swiss financial institutions to actively dabble in cryptocurrencies. Other established brands have left the new digital financial system well alone, and in some cases spoken out against potential bubble and fraud risks associated with cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.

However, Vayloyan disagrees. “Crypto-finance, crypto-assets and tokenization will most certainly have a great role to play in the future of finance, wealth management and private equity,” he said in the statement. For a short time, he also linked to the now-ailing Monetas blockchain payments project in an advisory capacity.

November 17, 2017Rival countries to test Swiss ICO dominance?

IOTA Foundation logo
(IOTA Foundation)

Has Germany emerged as a rival to the booming Swiss model of ICO foundations? The creation of the IOTA hybrid foundation in Berlin - the first such structure in Germany - appears just as things are looking shaky in Switzerland with the Tezos foundation governance row in full swing.

“It may seem counter-intuitive to go through the painful process of becoming a regulated non-profit entity in Germany, especially when considering ‘easier’ alternative options in other jurisdictions,” IOTA stated. “But subjecting ourselves to the onerous oversight of one of the world’s most respected governments, within the heart of the EU, will give IOTA an unparalleled legitimacy.”

“Standing on solid legal pillars” is considered by some to be crucial for persuading big hitters, in such fields as mobility, health, industry and energy, to incorporate IOTA technology into their future strategy - particularly with the EU’s financial regulator (ESMA) paying critical attention to the ICO scene.

“ESMA has observed a rapid growth in ICOs globally and in Europe and is concerned that investors may be unaware of the high risks that they are taking when investing in ICOs. Additionally, ESMA is concerned that firms involved in ICOs may conduct their activities without complying with relevant applicable EU legislation,” the regulator stated this month.

The IOTA Foundation fund will spend the “tens of millions of dollars” at its disposal developing the system further. The foundation will also award grants from a $10 million Ecosystem Fund to promising projects that use its technology.

IOTA’s open source technology is designed for secure communications and payments on the internet of things. The unique ‘Tangle’ distributed ledger system is already being used by some companies, including Bosch. 

Singapore ICO interest

Since the creation of the Ethereum Foundation in 2014, Switzerland (in particular canton Zug) has cornered the market in the ICO foundation ‘industry’ – thanks in large part to its low taxes and light touch regulations. Such entities – usually reserved for charities and NGOs – have absorbed around a quarter of the $3 billion+ raised globally by ICOs so far this year. Their popularity may even have been boosted by restrictive measures taken against ICOs in the US, China and South Korea.

But the success of Swiss ICO foundations has also raised eyebrows – and concerns in some quarters that using such structures to house stockpiles of crypto-tokens from start-ups may be circumventing their original intention. 

Such concerns have only been stoked by the Swiss regulator recently launching a probe into ICOs and a public bitter spat at the Tezos Foundation.

So could Germany offer a more legally robust foundation model than “other jurisdictions” – as suggested by IOTA? Singapore is also casting a somewhat cautious eye at encouraging “the right kind” of ICO to set up in its jurisdiction.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore financial regulator told the Financial Times this week that it will set up a regulatory sandbox to test out the viability of the new form of crowdfunding. Indeed, Singapore is “very keen” to attract such enterprise – providing such ventures play by the rules.

November 13, 2017Banking heavyweights jump ship to fintech

A hand using a tablet for online banking

Digital banking is providing a fertile ground for fintech start-ups

(Keystone)

Marco Abele is one of a growing number of finance professionals to leave a cushy job in the traditional banking world to try his hand at fintech. What makes him a bit different is the high-ranking role he left behind: Chief Digital Officer at Credit Suisse.

Abele has founded the Tend start-up to better allow passion investors to indulge in their luxury desires. 

He follows Oliver Bussmann, former Chief Information Officer at UBS and now head of his own consultancy and President of the Crypto Valley Association, as a big-name defection to the choppier waters of fintech.

“A lot of senior and very experienced banking managers are thinking: ‘Let me go out and try it’,” Abele told swissinfo.ch. “Ten years ago, that was unthinkable, but now we have a very nice environment where they can try their luck. They want to live a more purposeful life. They don’t want to work just for money anymore, they want more fulfilment.”

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Table showing bankers who have moved into fintech

From traditional banking to fintech

Part of the appeal of fintech is the feeling that a new idea could have a profound impact in a short period of time.

Another attraction is escaping the constraints of the slow-moving, highly structured environment of big banks – some of whom may be fearful of perceived negative regulatory consequences of moving outside their comfort zone. 

Hardly any Swiss bank will have anything to do with cryptocurrencies, for example. Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam recently called bitcoin the “very definition of a bubble”. He added: “Most banks in the current state of regulation have little or no appetite to get involved in a currency which has such anti-money laundering challenges.”

Fintechs are hiring from both the worlds of technology and finance at paceexternal link. And Abele thinks they will attract more big names from established banks: “There will be more to follow, I am sure.”

Financial complianceUS IT firm takes over Swiss regtech champion Qumram

A bank trading room

The rise of digital banking has led to compliance challenges that fintechs are solving

(Keystone)

Big news in the Swiss regtech universe. Qumram – one of the hottest names in this space – has been taken over by United States digital monitoring and diagnostics firm Dynatrace for an undisclosed amount.

Set up in 2011, Qumram specializes in monitoring digital traffic between financial services companies and their clients. Many banks have set up digital platforms that replace the paper trail of documents detailing the way they transact with their customers.

Qumram technology is able to trace digital interactions, including those conducted through social media channels, such as Whatsapp and Linkedin. This is an important requirement for banks to comply with customer protection regulations. Such rules are set to be enhanced in Switzerland, keeping in step with the European Union’s MIFID II legislation.

Regtech is one of the hottest areas in fintech, addressing the compliance needs of financial institutions in the new digital era. Several start-ups have sprung up in Switzerland combining artificial intelligence and big data capabilities to help banks negotiate customer protection, risk management, anti-money laundering and Know Your Customer (KYC) regulatory hurdles.

The Zurich-headquartered Qumram (now owned by the Boston-based Dynatrace) developes most of its IT in Barcelona. In a statement on Friday, Dynatrace said it plans to double that engineering team next year.

“Dynatrace is unique in its ability to not only monitor highly complex digital ecosystems, but see every user transaction. In addition, their AI-powered analytics is amazing,” former Qumram CEO Patrick Barnert said in the statement. 

Speaking to swissinfo.ch Barnert said he would assume a new role as head of a “Global Partner” group run from Switzerland. His Swiss-based team, which until now performed management and customer services functions for Qumram, will now re-focus on servicing and building up global partners within the Dynatrace group.

Dynatrace, which traces its roots to an Austrian firm set up in 2005, has a significant research and development unit in Linz, Austria.

Crypto cryptSwiss nuclear bunker stores bitcoin hoard

In the age of cyber attackers and digital fraud, where do you put your hard-earned bitcoins to keep them safe? In a nuclear bunker carved into the Swiss Alps it would seem.

A reporter from the US news portal Quartz shot this video of a bunker in canton Uri, run by Zug-based crypto firm Xapo.

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A former nuclear bunker that now houses cryptocurrencies

This might seem a bit overkill, but not if you consider the current global value of cryptocurrencies. That stands at around $172 billion (CHF171 billion) for the 100 top tokens, according to CoinMarketCap.comexternal link.

Bitcoin, the world's first cryptocurrency, is by far the most successful. A single bitcoin will currently set you back nearly $6,000. All combined, the total value of bitcoins in circulation is just shy of $100 billion.

Xapo's Uri bunker contains customer crypto assets worth "several million" according to the reporter.

Decommissioned Swiss nuclear bunkers, a relic from the Cold War, have been sold off for a variety of new uses - from tourism to data security.

Oct 2017

ICO rowTezos Foundation faces legal onslaught

In the latest twist to the Tezos Foundation spat, lawyers in the United States are putting together class-action lawsuits on behalf of disgruntled investors. The PR disaster for the crypto ICO continues.

Here is what one lawyer has to say...



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Governance rowTezos Foundation rift sends out seismic ripples

Fireworks over Zug

The Tezos Foundation fireworks are not as pretty as others to be seen in Zug

(Keystone)

The meteoric rise of Swiss involvement in the initial coin offering (ICO) boom has encountered further turbulence with a serious governance spat at the Tezos Foundationexternal link

The public fall-out between the Tezos project’s founders, Arthur and Kathleen Breitman, and Johann Gevers, the president of the foundation created to spend the vast sums raised from the public in the summer, will make some already wary people even more nervous.

On Wednesday, the Breitmans published a damning attack on a perceived lack of activity by the Tezos Foundation, accusing its managers of falling behind schedule in implementing the building blocks for the cryptocurrency.

But more damagingly, the statementexternal link accuses Gevers of “an attempt at self-dealing, misrepresenting to the council the value of a bonus he attempted to grant himself.” Gevers was threatened with suspension with the Breitmans baying for his permament removal from the foundation. In the statement, entitled “The Path Forward”, the Breitmans heavily hint at a more hands on role for themselves at the foundation.

Gevers has rejected the allegation, telling Reuters the attack is an “illegal coup” fuelled by “character assassination” and “outright lies”.

Scandal unwelcome

Whatever the outcome of the dispute, the Swiss crytptoasset community will be alarmed by more negative publicity. Last month, the Swiss financial regulator (Finma) closed down a crypto scam, whilst investigating 11 other cases, and soon after said it was probing the whole ICO business in Switzerland.

Organisations such as the Crypto Valley Associationexternal link have been working on a code of self-regulation for the ICO industry that has brought some $600 million into the coffers of Swiss-based foundations. “The rapid development of token launches has raised concerns around stability and security, and as a leader in this field, it’s our responsibility to support the industry,” statedexternal link president Oliver Bussmann.

The last thing the crypto community wants to see are the size 12 boots of regulators trampling all over the lawn. A potential legal and regulatory battle over the Tezos Foundation would hardly suit this purpose. 

Finma and the Swiss Foundation Supervisory Authority in Bern are remaining tight-lipped about their intentions towards the Tezos Foundation. But the sums involved are hardly trifling. In July, shortly after the ICO that raised $230 million in a matter of days, the foundation said it held $220 millionexternal link worth of cryptocurrencies. According to Reuters, that figure has swelled to more than $400 million as the value of bitcoin and ether soared in the intervening months.

Peace of mind?

The Tezos ICO specifically did not guarantee any financial return, but nevertheless, should the project collapse or become impaired as a result of the row, there could be a lot of angry investors. Bloomberg has reported that the value of the Tezos tokens (Tezzies) has slumped dramatically in the last couple of days.

And then there is a credibility issue that has been raised on social media platforms dedicated to the crypto crowd. The whole point of creating a foundation to spend funds raised from ICOs is to create a legal barrier the cash and the project founders. This is to give investors peace of mind that their investment will be spent on creating the technology rather than lining the pockets of individuals.

The Breitmans insist that their proposed new roles will not damage the independence of the foundation, nor enrich themselves. The reaction from investors may not be quite so assured.

Tezosexternal link bills itself as the next generation of cryptocurrency, able to perform self-amending smart contracts on blockchainexternal link.

Crypto learningUniversity 'walks the walk' with bitcoin payments

A student in robes and mortar board is thrown up in the air by colleagues

Students will be keen to learn how much higher cryptocurrencies can rise

(Keystone)

For students with a few bitcoin to rub together, Lucerne’s University of Applied Sciences and Arts might be the place to study. The university has started accepting the cryptocurrencyexternal link as a means of paying tuition fees.

The transactions will be handled by Zug-based crypto trading platform Bitcoin Suisseexternal link, which has agreed to absorb exchange rate losses and currency fluctuations. Students will pay a 1% transaction fee to further insulate the university form such losses.

Situated close to Zug’s Crypto Valley, the university is chiseling out a niche for fintech researchexternal link. It is also a member of the Crypto Valley Associationexternal link that is positioning the central Swiss region as a global hub for fintech and cryptocurrency activity.

Among other initiatives, the non-profit group is beating the drum for “initial coin offerings” (ICOs) in the region – plus a drive to self-regulateexternal link the sector.

Lucerne is not the first university in the world to accept bitcoin payments – there are others in the United States, Britain and Cyprus. Nor is it the first Swiss institution to open its arms to the cryptocurrency.

Zug council accepts some payments for services in bitcoin (more than 40 residents have taken advantage at the last count). The town of Chiasso, in canton Ticino, followed Zug’s example this year. Business services firm Ernst & Young also accepts some bitcoin payments in Switzerland, while Swiss Federal Railways allows customers to buy bitcoin from some ticket machines.

Such initiatives have been written off in certain quarters as gimmicks, designed purely to cash in on the current rampant publicity surrounding cryptocurrencies. But others argue that it makes complete sense for companies with an active interest in crypto not just to talk the talk but also walk the walk. It’s only by encouraging more use of crypto that it can get off the ground.

How far off the ground bitcoin will fly is also a matter of opinion. The value of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has soared in the last 12 months. Is this a sign that crypto has matured to point of mainstream acceptance or does it point to an empty bubble about the burst – a view espoused recently by JP Morgan boss Jamie Dimon and UBS chairman Axel Weber.

Like some other parties in Switzerland, Lucerne’s University of Applied Sciences and Arts appears to be hedging its bets a bit – engaging with bitcoin behind the protective screen of a third party. Crypto watchers, like myself, will be watching to see how that pans out.

Oct, 2017

Fintech hubConservative Swiss seek fintech niche

The town of Zug framed by mountains

The central Swiss town of Zug hosts Switzerland's Crypto Valley

(Keystone)

Having arrived to the party fashionably late (as per tradition), Switzerland is now positioning itself as a leading fintech hub. Welcome to the global party. 

There's certainly enough of the pie to go around and it makes perfect sense to have a range of interconnected jurisdictions driving forward the digital finance revolution. But what will differentiate fintech Switzerland from Singapore, London, Berlin or Silicon Valley?

To a large extent, Swiss firms will use fintech to both improve its strengths and tackle some ongoing challenges. There are already plenty of examples of start-ups - both cooperating with and disrupting - the wealth management, asset management and insurance sectors. Established companies in these industries are to a greater or lesser extent working out their own in-house fintech strategies. Regtech solutions also promise to save time and money for institutions bogged down in the regulatory red-tape of AML, KYC, 2B2F etc.

Beyond pure finance, blockchain also has potential to bring huge efficiencies to the commodities trading business (massive in Switzerland).

So who's the new kid on the Swiss block? Cryptocurrencies - not that Switzerland's inventing the stuff, but lawyers, accountants and consultants are cashing in on the crowdfunding ICO craze. Where do you put all the multi-millions you raise in an afternoon? A Swiss foundation, of course. Something like a quarter of the $1.5 billion+ raised by ICO globally this year is being shifted to foundations - mainly in canton Zug.

Mindset crucial

How can Switzerland extract more value from the fintech revolution? By attracting more basic research, according to Crypto Valley President Oliver Bussmann. In future, Crypto Valley will be inviting researchers and academics to conferences along with start-ups and money men. The theory goes that if the nucleus of the next big thing can be worked out in Switzerland then it increases the chances of the project staying here when it takes off.

But it might take more than that - something along the lines of a fundamental shift of conservative Swiss thinking, according to David Siegel, the driving force behind the Pillar Project. Siegel will shortly move Pillar Project to a London HQ, which is apparently better placed to host such a creative and ambitious disruptor. It seems the Swiss have trouble with a “company” that lacks shareholders, a board of directors and an obvious chairman.

Back to those ICO piggy banks in Zug, such as Ethereum Foundation, Bprotocol and Tezos Foundation. They are (or will soon be) distributing the funds to develop projects and turn dreams into reality. The fear is that precious little will stay in Switzerland – instead, being spent abroad.

Having arrived fashionably late to the party, is Switzerland wearing the right fancy dress costume?

Breadwallet seems to think so. It's setting up its global HQ here. “Switzerland has emerged as a hotbed of digital currency startup activity, and we were attracted by its leadership in conservative financial legislation,” says CEO Adam Traidman. “Its strong reputation for financial privacy for consumers is the ideal fit for our charter to empower individuals with the benefits of bitcoin.”

So for some, Swiss conservatism is an attraction, while it's a turn-off for others. Let's see where this leads us....

UPDATE: It looks like the Swiss government has taken noticeexternal link of this inflexible company regulation gripe. Interesting.

Sept, 2017

Global reachSwiss fintech spreads its wings

An antique large globe

Switzerland wants to join the dots with other global fintech hubs

(Keystone)

For a few years now, Switzerland has been establishing a domestic base for an expanding fintech scene. Now the alpine state wants to go global by forging key tie-ups with other global hubs.

A few days ago, Switzerland and Israel announced they wanted to deepen financial sector cooperationexternal link, including the fintech sector. The financial regulators of both countries will swap notes on emerging fintech trends and how these technologies affect regulation.

Swiss Finance Minister Ueli Maurer has previously stated his desire to share fintech know-how with Singapore, on a visit to the island state. The Swiss Finance + Technology Association followed this up by signing a memorandum of understanding with the Singapore Fintech Association to foster greater cooperationexternal link.

Swiss fintech has also been busy establishing collaboration with Russia. Crypto Valley co-founder Søren Fog - and founder of blockchain Company iprotus - is reportedly discussing the creation of a joint Swiss-Russian Center of Competences in Blockchainexternal link.

And having kicked off in Zug, Crypto Valley is also looking hard at establishing a global network of Labsexternal link - tailor made working spaces for fintech start-ups. London, Hong Kong, New York, Paris, Dubai, Singapore, Amsterdam, New York and Tokyo - the Crypto Valley community has been invited to vote on where new labs will be set up in the next two years.

July, 2017

Raising cashWho says ICOs will crowd out VC sugar daddies?

Uncle Scrooge McDuck jumps into a pile of money

It's not all about money, but also expertise, say venture capitalists

(Keystone)

Venture capitalism is dead. Long live initial coin offerings (ICOs)! In June, the crowdfunding phenomenon, for the first time, raised more cash for crypto and blockchain start-ups than VC seed capitalexternal link. So that proves it.

Hang on a minute, perhaps not so. A couple of crypto conferences in Zurich last week had the VCs fighting back. The smarter funds are determined not to be crowded out by ICOs that have raised more than $1.6 billion so far this year.

There is a general recognition that the standard VC model has to adapt, but a refusal to accept that it is irrevocably broken. Throw money at a start-up, sit back and wait for the returns to start flowing without offering anything else? That’s what ICOs do…

Here’s what a few prominent VCs had to say an ICO Summit in Zurichexternal link.

For a start, VCs are better placed than the person on the street to filter the few decent start-ups from the general detritus, said Miko Matsumura from Pantera Capital. Pantera has $100 million set aside to invest in the new wave of tech start-ups, making the fund “exceedingly bullish” on ICOs, Matsumura said.

But, he added: “At the moment ICOs seem to be an attempt to prematurely decentralize Silicon Valley venture capital without solving the problem of trust at a distance. With that problem we have a market that is probably about 90% bullshit and actually less than 10% quality. The deal flow has gone through the roof and it’s insane how many ICOs there are.”

Wild West

Matsumura is also among the VCs attempting to bring structure and order to the ICO Wild West – starting with a self-regulation projectexternal link designed to establish trust before things start breaking down and bringing state regulators crashing down China style on the sector’s head.

Jamie Burke, founder and CEO of Outlier Ventures, pointed out that there is more to venture capitalism than capital.

“People don’t come to us for money. They can raise more money than we have in our fund in 30 minutes. What they want is someone to help them navigate this space,” he said. “We are building the foundations for the next digital economy. What communities need is guidance on how to structure these things.”

And here’s what Richard Muirhead of Open Ocean had to say: “The art of great VC investing needs to be as finely tuned as possible for this next era, and not get distracted by the quick riches of early liquidity.” In other words, avoid the mistake being committed by Joe and Josephine Public right now.

IPO, ICO...now GPO

On Thursday, at yet another Zurich conference on ICOsexternal link, I spoke to Jeff Stewart of Urgent VC. Jeff has a bee in his bonnet. He is not specifically concerned about the state of venture capitalism, but he is miffed at the state of the capital markets in general – particularly in the United States. He contends that the US stock markets are no longer the place for tech companies to list and gain access to growth capital. That’s because they are broken, he insists.

So Urgent VC has an urgent mission – to invest in promising Silicon Valley tech start-ups and guide them towards global listings. Let’s get away from Nasdaq and find larger, more reliable and more flexible pools of capital in other parts of the world, particularly Asia, he says.

According to Jeff’s vision global IPOs will become the norm, coupled with global ICOs that break down the geographical walls fencing off capital pools. His vision comes in three stages: young tech companies will undertake global public offerings (GPOs), listing wherever there is willing capital. 

Many companies will also create tokens, so we will have IPOs and ICOs running side by side on a global scale. Eventually, the two means of raising capital will merge and become indistinguishable, creating a new means of capital raising that will work on a higher plane than jurisdictional stock exchanges.


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