In the World of Cryptocurrency, Even Good Projects Can Go Bad

Posted May 31, 2018 6:31 p.m. EDT
Updated May 31, 2018 6:36 p.m. EDT

SAN FRANCISCO — While scams proliferated in the unregulated world of virtual currencies over the last year, a company in Switzerland seemed to be among the more legitimate outfits creating its own cryptocurrency.

The company, Envion, said it had collected $100 million from investors this year with a plan to bring clean energy to the computers that manage bitcoin. The project was reinforced by partnerships with German businesspeople and politicians and with a German academic institution, as well as by promises of compliance with Swiss and U.S. laws.

But like so many other projects that have pulled in millions of dollars through so-called initial coin offerings, or ICOs, Envion is now melting down, with its creators accusing one another of fraud. There is no functioning business in sight. And investors are bonding on social media about how much they figure they lost on the project.

Adam Elfarouq, a 29-year-old in Morocco, said he had put $3,000 into Envion and encouraged friends and relatives to invest their money. “I know most of the ICOs out there are either fraud or won’t deliver on their promises,” he said. Envion, he believed, was different.

The Envion experience is the latest reminder of how the sudden rise of virtual currencies has allowed entrepreneurs to have direct access to investors without regulatory oversight — often with financially disastrous consequences for investors.

Initial coin offerings came out of almost nowhere last year to become one of the most popular ways for startups to raise money. Investors threw more than $5 billion at coin offerings last year.

Most projects have raised money by selling custom cryptocurrencies — akin to bitcoin — that are designed to be used as a method of payment on software the startups are building. The hope is that the coins will become more valuable as the software becomes more useful.

But even for the people who work in the virtual currency world, the complex structure and speed of initial coin offerings make it difficult to separate the good from the bad.

Seif Shieshakly, an adviser to Envion who is based in the United Arab Emirates, said that the ICO structure had “cut out so many middlemen” and created new investment opportunities, but that “the lack of regulations, again because of the infancy of ICOs, carries risks that regulated environments would generally have far less of.”

Regulators around the world have scrambled to stay on top of ICOs. China banned coin offerings last year, and the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States has done a broad sweep of the industry, sending out dozens of subpoenas.

But so far, authorities have cracked down on only a few projects, and coin offerings have continued at a blazing pace, raising more money so far in 2018 than they did in all of 2017.

Envion tried to separate itself from the flood of scam offerings that have popped up over the last year.

A spokesman for Envion, Chris Pfaff, sent out emails last year saying it was closing deals with IBM and the ruler of Dubai. But Pfaff said last week that those deals never panned out.

Envion said it would use the money collected from investors to build mobile rigs, filled with computers designed to “mine” or digitally create new bitcoin. The rigs could be moved between sources of renewable electricity, which would power the mining computers. Envion said people who bought its new tokens would have a right to a share of the new bitcoins mined.

The founders of the company, about half a dozen programmers and marketers, set it up in Switzerland, and said they were compliant with all the necessary regulations. In one of its many promotional posts on Medium, the Envion team wrote: “As financial regulators across the globe look to regulate ICOs and protect investors, Envion serves as a model for a compliant crowdsale that operates with the same transparency and integrity of traditional financial markets.”

A current spokesman for the founders, Laurent Martin, said problems had begun even before the project started fundraising late last year, because of the chief executive the founders brought in, Matthias Woestmann.

According to Martin, the founders gave Woestmann what they thought was temporary control of their shares in the company. Woestmann later refused to give them back, and then diluted the shares of the other owners, providing him with control of the money that was raised. Martin said the problems that had come up since then were not caused by the ICO structure. Instead, he said, they are a result of Woestmann’s tactics and his refusal to give back ownership of the company.

“Envion did something truly unique in the way they protected investors,” Martin said. “It’s unfortunate that each of these bulwarks is being tested.”

In an interview, Woestmann said he had taken control of the company because the founders created extra Envion tokens to enrich themselves — a claim the founders deny. He has recently made efforts to sell the company to new owners.

Most of the investors on Envion’s channel on the messaging service Telegram have sided with the founders against Woestmann, who they say should either begin building the product that was promised or refund investors.

But large Envion investors who have organized a group online say they distrust the founders as well.

They note that the founders are now led by a man named Michael Luckow, who was never mentioned during the fundraising process. They complain that the founders let investors buy tokens without providing any information about the turmoil behind the scenes. The investors have also turned up evidence that some of the founders sold their own tokens before the current mess spilled into the public. “As an investor, this is a horrible situation to be in, as in my point of view both parties are to blame,” said Peter Kozak, a 47-year-old in Switzerland who put $55,000 into Envion. “So many questions and no answers.”

Martin said that the tokens had been sold to pay Envion expenses and that Luckow simply had not wanted to take on a more public role early on.

It is still possible that investors will get at least some of their money back. Woestmann said he still had control of most of the money in the bank, with the founders controlling another chunk.

But he said the funds added up to only $50 million at this point, not the $100 million that the founders had claimed. Woestmann said the founders had not raised as much money as they claimed. And the declining price of virtual currencies has dropped the value of the various digital tokens Envion is holding.

Jessica Smith, a 21-year-old in England, said she had put $28,000 into Envion — almost all of the money she had made over the last two years of trading cryptocurrencies nearly full time. She said she was now looking for new work.

“This has been very painful,” she said.