Custody solutions are the latest innovation to come out of the cryptocurrency ecosystem. Their introduction is expected to herald the entry of institutional capital into the industry. Here is a brief primer on why crypto needs custody solutions, and the types of custody solutions being offered in the market. 

Why Does Crypto Need Custody Solutions? 

The main utility of cryptocurrency custody solutions lies in the safeguarding of cryptocurrency assets. Private keys, which are used to conduct transactions or access crypto holdings, are a complex combination of alphanumerics. They are extremely difficult to remember and can be stolen or hacked. Online wallets are a potential solution but recent events have demonstrated their susceptibility to hacks. The same is true of cryptocurrency exchanges. 

Other solutions include storing private keys offline, on paper or a hard disk (or other electronic equipment) that is not connected to the internet. But losing physical custody (or either the paper or electronic equipment) is a real possibility. For individual holders of bitcoin, the possibility of losing private keys is a risk; for institutional investors, though, it represents an even more significant risk. The latter go to extreme lengths to guard against this danger. Consider, for example, the method that Winklevoss twins to safeguard their bitcoin stash. It includes holding distributing paper fragments of their private key across multiple storage boxes. (See also: Coinbase Tries To Reel In Institutional Investors). 

The other important reason for the existence of cryptocurrency custody solutions is regulation. According to SEC regulation promulgated as part of the Dodd Frank Act, institutional investors that have customer assets worth more $150,000 are required to store the holdings with a “qualified custodian”. (See also: Compliance And Custody Of Client Funds). The SEC’s definition of such entities includes banks and savings associations and registered broker-dealers. Futures commission merchants and foreign financial institutions are also included in this definition. Within the cryptocurrency ecosystem, very few mainstream banks offer custodian services. Kingdom Trust, a Kentucky-based custodian, was the largest such service for cryptocurrencies until it was purchased by BitGo, a San Francisco-based startup. 

What Are Cryptocurrency Custody Solutions? 

Put simply, cryptocurrency custody solutions are third party providers of storage and security services for cryptocurrencies. Their services are mainly aimed at institutional investors, such as hedge funds, who hold large amounts of bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. The solutions generally incorporate a combination of hot storage, or crypto custody with connection to the Internet, and cold storage, or crypto custody that is disconnected from the Internet. 

Both types of storage have benefits and drawbacks. For example, hot storage is connected to the internet and, hence, offers easier liquidity. But they may be prone to hacks due to online exposure. Cold storage solutions offer greater security. However, it may be difficult to generate liquidity from crypto holdings on short notice because of their offline nature. Vault storage is a combination of both types of cryptocurrency custody solutions in which the majority of funds are stored offline and can be accessed only using a private key. Modifications of the Glacier Protocol, which is high-security cold storage for bitcoin, is expected to further contribute to the evolution of cryptocurrency custody solutions. 

The Future Of Cryptocurrency Custody

Two developments are expected to affect the future of cryptocurrency custody. 

The first one is the entry of big players. Established names, such as Goldman Sachs (GS), are conspicuously absent from the list of names offering cryptocurrency solutions. Their entry could shake up the nascent market. Some of that is already happening with Coinbase and Fidelity Investments taking the lead in offering or designing cryptocurrency custody services. 

The second one is regulatory clarity. Security provisions pertaining to cryptocurrency storage is absent from current regulation. Not only that, businesses are still unclear about the regulations pertaining to cryptocurrencies themselves. The industry will evolve only after regulators step in and set rules for the playing field.

Investing in cryptocurrencies and other Initial Coin Offerings ("ICOs") is highly risky and speculative, and this article is not a recommendation by Investopedia or the writer to invest in cryptocurrencies or other ICOs. Since each individual's situation is unique, a qualified professional should always be consulted before making any financial decisions. Investopedia makes no representations or warranties as to the accuracy or timeliness of the information contained herein. As of the date this article was written, the author owns small amounts of bitcoin and litecoin.