Since writing about bitcoin rival Ethereum and its visionary creator Vitalik Buterin for Fortune’s 40 Under 40 issue last year, the market for alternative currencies, or digital tokens, has exploded. There’s arguably no hotter (and more bubbly) trend in all of financial technology than the ICO, or initial coin offering, which allows startups pushing blockchain tech, a promising innovation based on shared ledgers, to host crowdfunded sales of bespoke monies. (To learn more about ICOs, read this Q&A I did with my Fortune colleague Erin Griffith.)
On Friday, I spent the day at the Ethereal Summit in Brooklyn, which brought together a motley crew of blockchain acolytes to celebrate the cultural movement—and it is one—that surrounds Ethereum, a system that proponents hope will re-decentralize the Web, taking power away from present-day brokers like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. As I walked around, I stumbled into an art installation—a giant, undulating, plastic bubble heated by a cryptocurrency mining rig, basically a computer blowing off steam as it generates digital currency. The piece resembled a big tarp pillow that you could walk inside, and I learned it was built by an old high school friend. He’s working on a startup that correlates real estate properties and building spaces with these newfangled digital tokens. I’m still vague on the details; he’s mulling an ICO later this year.
Joseph Lubin, CEO of ConsenSys and co-founder of Ethereum, was, unsurprisingly, bullish about the ICO gold rush. “It will be responsible for a great thawing of capital,” he told me, referring to the liquidity of the tokens that fuel ICOs. Token holders can trade these assets online at any time, unlike traditional venture capital investments, which are often locked up until a company reaches an exit of some sort. Despite concerns over ICO legality (are tokens essentially unregistered securities? blockchain boosters say no), Lubin noted that U.S. regulators are hesitant to crack down on the nascent sector for fear of crippling its potential. “They’ve got one eye open,” he said of the regulators.