A Shanghai- and New York-based company led by a Chinese media mogul, and backed by a pro wrestling executive and prominent U.S. investment firms, has paid $8 million to become the lead investor in Delaware Board of Trade Holdings Inc. (DBOT), an upstart stock exchange based in Wilmington that says it plans to help small companies raise money using both cash and cryptocurrency.
Seven Stars Cloud Group Inc., led by billionaire TV network developer Bruno Wu, says it gave DBOT’s founders and investors 1.6 million shares on Dec. 20, worth $5 each on the Nasdaq Stock Market, for 27 percent of DBOT, which it says has built “the first and only blockchain-based Alternative Trading System fully licensed by the SEC.”
The price Seven Stars Cloud paid implies about a $30 million valuation for all of DBOT. That’s a strong vote of confidence for an exchange that was so broke before it opened last year that it had to beg a $3 million, five-year loan from New Castle County.
Seven Stars says it will use DBOT systems to help companies that want to raise money — and its own financial-products arm, NextGen X — to quickly raise capital using the blockchain electronic-records system developed for the fast-growing, volatile bitcoin cryptocurrency.
DBOT hasn’t closed any blockchain-tracked trades yet. “We hope to start within the next 90 days,” DBOT board member and cofounder Dennis Toner, a longtime senior adviser to former U.S. Sen. and Vice President Joe Biden, told me. Since opening last summer, the exchange handled a modest volume of traditional trades in small stocks specializing in bitcoin, marijuana, community banking, financial tech, and other trendy businesses.
“It’s interesting times. A lot of companies want to do crowdfunding on a blockchain, and these alternative-trading exchanges are moving quickly” to meet that demand, said Shawn Sloves, a DBOT director and the engineer who heads Fundamental Interactions Inc., a New York financial software firm that is building trading systems for DBOT.
Sloves said DBOT technology will be able to accommodate cryptocurrencies, but the SEC will have to approve any of those offerings for the sellers who sponsor them.
Seven Stars Cloud and other investment firms, he noted, aspire to be “like Vanguard Group, creating investment products” to sell using cryptocurrencies, crowdfunding and other emerging trading features. Under Presidents Trump and Barack Obama, Congress has pressured securities regulators to ease consumer-protection rules so more small companies find it easier to raise funds from the public.
Delaware passed a law last year recognizing transactions recorded through blockchain, whose proponents say it is a secure, decentralized, and convenient way to instantly update all users of a system and its data. The U.S. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) recognizes a total of 33 U.S. alternative-trading system operators, including DBOT, but doesn’t indicate which use blockchain. A unit of Overstock.com, tZero, says it is raising money for its own rival blockchain-based trading system.
In appealing for public aid, DBOT cofounder John Wallace, a former official and trader at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, and other backers had said the market would attract scores of wealthy traders to Wilmington. The city’s central business district has been left half-vacant by the departure of the DuPont Co., Hercules Inc., and most of Bank of America’s former credit card operations.
Toner acknowledged that traders haven’t followed DBOT to town yet, but added that a “rush” of interest in new digital trading arrangements has given DBOT an advantage over rival trading networks because it already has “systems in place.” DBOT occupies an office at the former Hercules tower, and a second office in New York.
Bitcoin-related funds and companies have attracted investments worth tens of billions despite warnings that the currency’s valuation has inflated like a classic investment bubble.
The Philadelphia area is a center for blockchain development. Vanguard Group is testing blockchain as a reliable way to update index-fund prices. Among those testing blockchain to settle claims are Nationwide and The Institutes, a Malvern consortium of insurance industry groups.
Besides chief executive Wu, a former China TV network owner who is married to Chinese television personality Yang Lan, top executives at Seven Stars Cloud, previously known as You on Demand Inc. and Wecast Holdings, also include Robert G. Benya, a former TimeWarner Cable executive who will represent the group on the DBOT board.
Not all of Wu’s ventures have yielded profits. In 2015 Wu came to Hollywood to announce a $1.6 billion fund to finance movies, in partnership with Yucheng Group, a Shanghai nail maker-turned-leasing company. But in 2016, Yucheng owners Ding Ning and Ding Dian were convicted of fraud for operating a multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme unrelated to the Hollywood fund, and sentenced to life in prison in China, Reuters reported. Wu was not accused of wrongdoing. He dropped the Hollywood plan.
Seven Stars’ top institutional shareholders include Fidelity International, the Boston investment group; Goldman Sachs, the global investment bank; and the Philadelphia brokerage Janney Montgomery Scott, among others. Its creditors include board member Shane McMahon, a member of the family that owns pro wrestling group WWE and son of Linda McMahon, whom President Trump named to head the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Before Seven Stars, DBOT had a tough time attracting investments from the prominent Wall Street figures it initially approached; last year, it announced an investment of undisclosed size from S.S. Lootah Holdings Group of Dubai.