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Secretive Bitcoin Startup 21 Reveals Record Funds with $116 Million Venture Capital Round, Hints at Mass Consumer Play

Secretive Bitcoin Startup 21 Reveals Record Funds Hints at Mass Consumer Play WSJ


Mr. Pauker said Qualcomm’s involvement is key. He hopes to exploit the Bridgewater, N.J., chipmaker’s mass-marketing and production capabilities in the development of a suite of consumer products that integrate with bitcoin’s core technology called the “blockchain.” This technology takes the form of a public, digital ledger that’s maintained by a decentralized network of thousands of independently owned computers.

Qualcomm’s involvement could spur speculation that 21 has its sights on the so-called “Internet of Things.” That’s the idea that a myriad of smart, Internet-connected appliances will in the future communicate with servers, networks and each other to optimize their operation, maintenance and energy usage without direct human involvement.

Some developers believe that bitcoin technology could play a key role in transparently managing the vast flow of information generated by these smart gadgets. The decentralized blockchain ledgers are free from the control of any one party, so smart appliances can in theory connect with computers built by other entities safely without worrying that the information was manipulated.

Starting out under the earlier name of 21e6, the company – which takes its name from the 21-million limit that bitcoin’s managing algorithm imposes on the total number of bitcoins to be released – spurred intense speculation in November 2013, when a regulatory filing revealed a $5 million fundraise.

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Investors include Vinod Khosla, Max Levchin, and Mark Pincus.

Now, that company, which bears the name 21 Inc., is emerging from stealth to announce it has raised $116 million in venture funding, the most ever by a startup in the digital-currency sector, based on data from bitcoin news service Coindesk.

What it’s not yet publicizing is the precise nature of its operations. Chief Executive and co-founder Matthew Pauker will only say there will be “several interesting developments over the next weeks and months” about software and hardware products designed “to drive mainstream adoption of bitcoin.”

Since its launch six years ago by a mysterious coder who used the presumed pseudonym of Satoshi Nakamoto, bitcoin has drawn media attention as a wildly volatile digital currency. But amid stories of scandal, theft and turbulent prices, the general public has largely ignored the arguments of vocal supporters, who tout the digital currency’s potential to cut costs by removing middlemen from finance and commerce.

According to Silicon Valley investors such as those taking stakes in 21, that failure to gain mass adoption is partly because the public’s attention has been misguidedly focused on bitcoin’s limited potential as a digital alternative to traditional currencies. In reality, they say, its underlying technology has far wider applications than that. Unlike the currency transactions that are generally associated with bitcoin, these new uses could range from lawyer-free smart contracts to tamper-proof online voting systems.

21’s lead investors include U.S. venture-capital heavyweights Andreessen Horowitz and RRE Ventures, along with Chinese private-equity firm Yuan Capital, with a strategic stake going to chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. through its venture-capital unit.

Additionally, Khosla Ventures and Data Collective have invested in 21, as well as chief executives and founders from various tech companies, including PayPal co-founders Peter Thiel and Max Levchin, eBay Inc. co-founder Jeff Skoll, Dropbox Inc. CEO Drew Houston, Expedia Inc. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and Zynga Inc. co-founder Mark Pincus.

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