Jan
16
2020
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Visa’s Plaid acquisition shows a shifting financial services landscape

When Visa bought Plaid this week for $5.3 billion, a figure that was twice its private valuation, it was a clear signal that traditional financial services companies are looking for ways to modernize their approach to business.

With Plaid, Visa picks up a modern set of developer APIs that work behind the scenes to facilitate the movement of money. Those APIs should help Visa create more streamlined experiences (both at home and inside other companies’ offerings), build on its existing strengths and allow it to do more than it could have before, alone.

But don’t take our word for it. To get under the hood of the Visa-Plaid deal and understand it from a number of perspectives, TechCrunch got in touch with analysts focused on the space and investors who had put money into the erstwhile startup.

Jan
15
2020
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The crypto rich find security in Anchorage

Not the city, the $57 million-funded cryptocurrency custodian startup. When someone wants to keep safe tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in Bitcoin, Ethereum or other coins, they put them in Anchorage’s vault. And now they can trade straight from custody so they never have to worry about getting robbed mid-transaction.

With backing from Visa, Andreessen Horowitz and Blockchain Capital, Anchorage has emerged as the darling of the cryptocurrency security startup scene. Today it’s flexing its muscle and war chest by announcing its first acquisition, crypto risk modeling company Merkle Data.

Anchorage Founders

Anchorage has already integrated Merkle’s technology and team to power today’s launch of its new trading feature. It eliminates the need for big crypto owners to manually move assets in and out of custody to buy or sell, or to set up their own in-house trading. Instead of grabbing some undisclosed spread between the spot price and the price Anchorage quotes its clients, it charges a transparent per transaction fee of a tenth of a percent.

It’s stressful enough trading around digital fortunes. Anchorage gives institutions and token moguls peace of mind throughout the process while letting them stake and vote while their riches are in custody. Anchorage CEO Nathan McCauley tells me, “Our clients want to be able to fund a bank account with USD and have it seamlessly converted into crypto, securely held in their custody accounts. Shockingly, that’s not yet the norm — but we’re changing that.”

Buy and sell safely

Founded in 2017 by leaders behind Docker and Square, Anchorage’s core business is its omnimetric security system that takes out of the equation passwords that can be lost or stolen. Instead, it uses humans and AI to review scans of your biometrics, nearby networks and other data for identity confirmation. Then it requires consensus approval for transactions from a set of trusted managers you’ve whitelisted.

With Anchorage Trading, the startup promises efficient order routing, transparent pricing and multi-venue liquidity from OTC desks, exchanges and market makers. “Because trading and custody are directly integrated, we’re able to buy and sell crypto from custody, without having to make risky external transfers or deal with multiple accounts from different providers,” says Bart Stephens, founder and managing partner of Blockchain Capital.

Trading isn’t Anchorage’s primary business, so it doesn’t have to squeeze clients on their transactions, and can instead try to keep them happy for the long-term. That also sets up Anchorage to be a foundational part of the cryptocurrency stack. It wouldn’t disclose the terms of the Merkle Data acquisition, but the Pantera Capital-backed company brings quantitative analysts to Anchorage to keep its trading safe and smart.

“Unlike most traditional financial assets, crypto assets are bearer assets: In order to do anything with them, you need to hold the underlying private keys. This means crypto custodians like Anchorage must play a much larger role than custodians do in traditional finance,” says McCauley. “Services like trading, settlement, posting collateral, lending and all other financial activities surrounding the assets rely on the custodian’s involvement, and in our view are best performed by the custodian directly.”

Anchorage will be competing with Coinbase, which offers integrated custody and institutional brokerage through its agency-only OTC desk. Fidelity Digital Assets combines trading and brokerage, but for Bitcoin only. BitGo offers brokerage from custody through a partnership with Genesis Global Trading. But Anchorage hopes its experience handling huge sums, clear pricing and credentials like membership in Facebook’s Libra Association will win it clients.

McCauley says the biggest threat to Anchorage isn’t competitors, though, but hazy regulation. Anchorage is building a core piece of the blockchain economy’s infrastructure. But for the biggest financial institutions to be comfortable getting involved, lawmakers need to make it clear what’s legal.

Jan
12
2020
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Samsung launches the rugged, enterprise-ready Galaxy XCover Pro

We got a bit of a surprise at the end of CES: some hands-on time with Samsung’s latest rugged phone for the enterprise, the Galaxy XCover Pro. The XCover Pro, which is officially launching today, is a mid-range $499 phone for first-line workers like flight attendants, construction workers or nurses.

It is meant to be very rugged but without the usual bulk that comes with that. With its IP68 rating, Military Standard 810 certification and the promise that it will survive a drop from 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) without a case, it should definitely be able to withstand quite a bit of abuse.

While Samsung is aiming this phone at the enterprise market, the company tells us that it will also sell it to individual customers.

As Samsung stressed during our briefing, the phone is meant for all-day use in the field, with a 4,050 mAh replaceable battery (yes, you read that right, you can replace the battery just like on phones from a few years ago). It’ll feature 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage space, but you can extend that up to 512GB thanks to the built-in microSD slot. The 6.3-inch FHD+ screen won’t wow you, but it seemed perfectly adequate for most of the use cases. That screen, the company says, should work even in rain or snow and features a glove mode, too.

And while this is obviously not a flagship phone, Samsung still decided to give it a dual rear camera setup, with a standard 25MP sensor and a wide-angle 8MP sensor for those times where you might want to get the full view of a construction site, for example. On the front, there is a small cutout for a 13MP camera, too.

All of this is powered by a 2GHz octa-core Exynos 9611 processor, as one would expect from a Samsung mid-range phone, as well as Android 10.

Traditionally, rugged phones came with large rubber edges (or users decided to put even larger cases around them). The XCover Pro, on the other hand, feels slimmer than most regular phones with a rugged case on them.

By default, the phone features NFC support for contactless payments (the phone has been approved to be part of Visa’s Tap to Phone pilot program) and two programmable buttons so that companies can customize their phones for their specific use cases. One of the first partners here is Microsoft, which lets you map a button to its recently announced walkie talkie feature in Microsoft Teams.

“Microsoft and Samsung have a deep history of bringing together the best hardware and software to help solve our customers’ challenges,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in today’s announcement. “The powerful combination of Microsoft Teams and the new Galaxy XCover Pro builds on this partnership and will provide frontline workers everywhere with the technology they need to be more collaborative, productive and secure.”

With its Pogo pin charging support and compatibility with third-party tools from a variety of partners for adding scanners, credit card readers and other peripherals from partners like Infinite Peripherals, KOAMTAC, Scandit and Visa.

No enterprise device is complete without security features and the XCover Pro obviously supports all of Samsungs various Knox enterprise security tools and access to the phone itself is controlled by both a facial recognition system and a fingerprint reader that’s built into the power button.

With the Tab Active Pro, Samsung has long offered a rugged tablet for first-line workers. Not everybody needs a full-sized tablet, though, so the XCover Pro fills what Samsung clearly believes is a gap in the market that offers always-on connectivity in a smaller package and in the form of a phone that doesn’t look unlike a consumer device.

I could actually imagine that there are quite a few consumers who may opt for this device. For a while, the company made phones like the Galaxy S8 Active that traded weight and size for larger batteries and ruggedness. the XCover Pro isn’t officially a replacement of this program, but it may just find its fans among former Galaxy Active users.

Jul
10
2019
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Visa funds $40M for no-password crypto vault Anchorage

Visa and Andreessen Horowitz are betting even bigger on cryptocurrency, funding a big round for fellow Facebook Libra Association member Anchorage’s omnimetric blockchain security system. Instead of using passwords that can be stolen, Anchorage requires cryptocurrency withdrawals to be approved by a client’s other employees. Then the company uses both human and AI review of biometrics and more to validate transactions before they’re executed, while offering end-to-end insurance coverage.

This new-age approach to cryptocurrency protection has attracted a $40 million Series B for Anchorage, led by Blockchain Capital and joined by Visa and Andreessen Horowitz. The round adds to Anchorage’s $17 million Series A that Andreessen led just six months ago, demonstrating extraordinary momentum for the security startup.

As a custodian, our work is focused on building financial plumbing that other companies depend on for their operations to run smoothly. In this regard we have always looked at Visa as a model,” Anchorage co-founder and president Diogo Mónica tells me.

“Visa was ‘fintech’ before the term existed, and has always been on the vanguard of financial infrastructure. Visa’s investment in Anchorage is helpful not only to our company but to our industry, as a validation of the entire ecosystem and a recognition that crypto will play a key role in the future of global finance.”

Anchorage Crypto 1

Cold-storage, where assets are held in computers not connected to the internet, has become a popular method of securing Bitcoin, Ether and other tokens. But the problem is that this can prevent owners from participating in governance of certain cryptocurrency where votes are based on their holdings, or earning dividends. Anchorage tells me it’s purposefully designed to permit this kind of participation, helping clients to get the most out of their assets like capturing returns from staking and inflation, or joining in on-chain governance.

As three of the 28 founding members of the Libra Association that will govern the new Facebook-incubated cryptocurrency, Anchorage, Visa and Andreessen Horowitz will be responsible for ensuring the stablecoin stays secure. While Facebook is building its own custodial wallet called Calibra for users, other Association members and companies hoping to dive into the ecosystem will need ways to protect their Libra stockpiles.

“Libra is exactly the kind of asset that Anchorage was created to hold,” Mónica wrote the day Libra was revealed. “Our custody solution , so that asset-holders don’t face a trade-off between security and usability.” The company believes that custodians shouldn’t dictate which coins their clients hold, so it’s working to support all types of digital assets. Anchorage tells me that will include support for securing Libra in the future.

Libra Association Founding Partners

You’ve probably already used technology secured by Anchorage’s founders, who engineered Docker’s containers that are used by Microsoft, and Square’s first encrypted card reader. Mónica was at Square when he met his future Anchorage co-founder Nathan McCauley, who’d been working on anti-reverse-engineering tech for the U.S. military. When a company that had lost the password to a $1 million cryptocurrency account asked for their help with security, they recognized the need for a more idiot-proof take on asset protection.

“Anchorage applies the best of modern security engineering for a more advanced approach: we generate and store private keys in secure hardware so they are never exposed at any point in their life cycle, and we eliminate human operations that expose assets to risk,” Mónica says. The startup competes with other crypto custody firms like Bitgo, Ledger, Coinbase and Gemini.

Anchorage CryptocurrencyLast time we spoke, Anchorage was cagey about what I could reveal regarding how its transaction validation system worked. With the new funding, it’s feeling a little more secure about its market position and was willing to share more.

Anchorage ditches usernames, passwords, email addresses and phone numbers completely. That way a hacker can’t just dump your coins into their account by stealing your private key or SIM-porting your number to their phone. Instead, clients whitelist devices held by their employees, who use the Anchorage app to submit transactions. You’d propose selling $10 million worth of Bitcoin or transferring it to someone else as payment, and a minimum of two-thirds of your designated co-workers would need to concur to form a quorum that approves the transfer.

But first, Anchorage’s artificial intelligence and human staff would check for any suspicious signals that might indicate a hack in progress. It uses behavioral analysis (do you act like a real human and similar to how you have before), biometric signals (do you look like you) and network signals (is your device what and where it should be) to confirm the transaction is legitimate. The same process goes down if you try to add a new whitelisted device or change who has permission to do what.

The challenge will be scaling security to an ever-broadening range of digital assets, each with their own blockchain quirks and complex smart contracts. Even if Anchorage keeps coins safely in custody, those variables could expose assets to risk while in transit. Now with deeper pockets and the Visa vote of confidence, Anchorage could solve those problems as clients line up.

While most blockchain attention has focused on the cryptocurrencies themselves and the exchanges where you can buy and sell them, a second order of critical infrastructure startups is emerging. Companies like Anchorage could make Bitcoin, Ether, Libra and more not just objects of speculation or the domain of experts, but safely functioning elements of the new world economy.

Jun
19
2018
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Brex picks up $57M to build an easy credit card for startups

While Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi were giving up on their augmented reality startup inside Y Combinator and figuring out what to do next, they saw their batch mates struggling to get even the most basic corporate credit cards — and in a lot of cases, having to guarantee those cards themselves.

Brex, their new startup,  aims to try to fix that by offering startups a way to quickly get what’s effectively a credit card that they can use without having to personally guarantee that card or wade through complex processes to finally get a charge card. It’s geared initially towards smaller companies, but Dubugras expects those startups to grow up with it over time — and that Brex is already picking up larger clients. The company, coming out of stealth, said it has raised a total of $57 million from investors including the Y Combinator Continuity fund, Peter Thiel, Max Levchin, Yuri Milner, financial services VC Ribbit Capital and former Visa CEO Carl Pascarella. Y Combinator Continuity fund partner Anu Hariharan and Ribbit Capital managing partner Meyer Malka are joining the company’s board of directors.

“We want to be the best corporate credit card for startups,” Dubugras said. “We’re don’t require a personal guarantee or deposit, and we can give people a credit limit that’s as much as ten times higher. We can get you a virtual credit card in literally 5 minutes, versus traditional banks, in which you’d have to personally guarantee the card and get a low limit and it takes weeks to approve.”

Startup executives go to Brex’s website, sign up, and then put in their bank account info. They then use that banking information to underwrite the card, with the idea being that the service can see that the start has raised millions of dollars and doesn’t have the kind of wild liability that those banks think they might have given how young they are. Once the application is done, companies get a virtual credit card, and they can start divvying up virtual cards with custom limits for their employees. The company says it has attracted more than 1,000 customers and is now opening up globally.

The cards are designed to have better spending limits, and also offer company executives more granular ways to assign those limits to employees. The cards have to be paid off by the end of the month, and the rolling balance for those cards is dependent on the amount of capital each startup has available. The total limit available is, instead, a percentage of the company’s cash balance available. So rather than having to go through the process of getting approved for a card, the service can look at how much money is in a startup’s bank account and adjust the spending limit for all those cards accordingly.

Another aspect is automating the whole expense and auditing process. Rather than just going through typical applications like Concur and inputting specifics, card users can send a text message of a receipt through Brex associated with each transaction. Users will just get a text message about a charge — like a cup of coffee for a meeting with a potential business partner — and reply to that text with a message of the receipt to log the whole process. Everything is geared toward simplifying the whole process for startups that have an opportunity to be a bit more nimble and aren’t bogged down with complex layers of enterprise software. Each expense is looped in with a vendor, so executives can see the total amount of spending that’s happening at that scale.

The ability to have those dynamic spending limits is just one example of what Dubugras hopes will make Brex competitive. Rather than slotting into existing systems, Brex has an opportunity to recreate the back-end processes that power those cards, which larger institutions might not be able to do as they’ve hit a massive scale and get less and less agile. Dubugras and Franceschi previously worked on and sold Pagar.me, a Brazilian payments processor, where they saw firsthand the complex nature of working with global financial institutions — and some of the holes they could exploit.

“It’s not like we’re two geniuses that came up with a lot of things that no one came up with,” Dubugras said. “Implementing them with third-party processors is hard, but we didn’t have any of [those integrations], so we can rebuild them from scratch. It’s hard for banks to throw money at a problem and build those tools. We’ve rebuilt the way that these things work internally — they’d have to change fundamentally how the system works.”

While there are plenty of startups looking to quickly offer virtual cards, like Revolut’s disposable virtual card service, Brex aims to be what’s effectively a corporate card — just one that’s easier to get and works basically the same as a normal card. Users still have to pay off the balance at the end of the month, but the idea there is that Brex can de-risk itself by doing that while still offering startups a way to get a card with a high limit to start paying for the services or tools they need to get started.

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