DEFINITION of 'Initial Coin Offering (ICO)'

An unregulated means by which funds are raised for a new cryptocurrency venture. An Initial Coin Offering (ICO) is used by startups to bypass the rigorous and regulated capital-raising process required by venture capitalists or banks. In an ICO campaign, a percentage of the cryptocurrency is sold to early backers of the project in exchange for legal tender or other cryptocurrencies, but usually for Bitcoin.

Also called an Initial Public Coin Offering (IPCO).

BREAKING DOWN 'Initial Coin Offering (ICO)'

When a cryptocurrency startup firm wants to raise money through an Initial Coin Offering (ICO), it usually creates a plan on a whitepaper which states what the project is about, what need(s) the project will fulfill upon completion, how much money is needed to undertake the venture, how much of the virtual tokens the pioneers of the project will keep for themselves, what type of money is accepted, and how long the ICO campaign will run for. During the ICO campaign, enthusiasts and supporters of the firm’s initiative buy some of the distributed cryptocoins with fiat or virtual currency. These coins are referred to as tokens and are similar to shares of a company sold to investors in an Initial Public Offering (IPO) transaction. If the money raised does not meet the minimum funds required by the firm, the money is returned to the backers and the ICO is deemed to be unsuccessful. If the funds requirements are met within the specified timeframe, the money raised is used to either initiate the new scheme or to complete it.

Early investors in the operation are usually motivated to buy the cryptocoins in the hope that the plan becomes successful after it launches which could translate to a higher cryptocoin value than what they purchased it for before the project was initiated. An example of a successful ICO project that was profitable to early investors is the smart contracts platform called Ethereum which has Ethers as its coin tokens. In 2014, the Ethereum project was announced and its ICO raised $18 million in Bitcoins or $0.40 per Ether. The project went live in 2015 and in 2016 had an ether value that went up as high as $14 with a market capitalization of over $1 billion.

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ICOs are similar to IPOs and crowdfunding. Like IPOs, a stake of the startup or company is sold to raise money for the entity’s operations during an ICO operation. However, while IPOs deal with investors, ICOs deal with supporters that are keen to invest in a new project much like a crowdfunding event. But ICOs differ from crowdfunding in that the backers of the former are motivated by a prospective return in their investments, while the funds raised in the latter campaign are basically donations. For these reasons, ICOs are referred to as crowdsales.

Although there are successful ICO transactions on record and ICOs are poised to be disruptive innovative tools in the digital era, investors are cautioned to be wary as some ICO or crowdsale campaigns are actually fraudulent. Because these fund-raising operatives are not regulated by financial authorities such as the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), funds that are lost due to fraudulent initiatives may never be recovered.

In early September, 2017, the People's Bank of China officially banned ICOs, citing it as disruptive to economic and financial stability. The central bank said tokens cannot be used as currency on the market and banks cannot offer services relating to ICOs. As a result, both bitcoin and ethereum tumbled, and it was viewed as a sign that regulations of cryptocurrencies are coming. The ban also penalizes offerings already completed. 

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