Blockchain consortium R3 raises $107 million

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People may well remember 2017 as the year that blockchain broke.

After years of development and flickering just outside of mainstream consciousness and acceptance, record high prices for the most popular blockchain-based cryptocurrencies Bitcoin and newcomer Ethereum and an embrace of the technology’s core principles by some of the world’s largest institutions may mean that blockchain technology is ready for its close up.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the just-announced $107 million financing for R3, the blockchain consortium that includes some of the largest financial services firms and technology companies in the world.

Leading investors included SBI Group, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, HSBC, Intel and Temasek, the company said in a statement.

R3 represents the largest consortium of global financial institutions working on developing commercial applications for the distributed ledger technology that’s at the heart of blockchain technology.

In addition to the big names that committed the most capital, R3 pulled in additional commitments from ING, Banco Bradesco, Itaü Unibanco, Natixis, Barclays, UBS and Wells Fargo.

R3, which opened the first tranches of the company’s planned $200 million financing exclusively to members of the consortium, is one standard-bearer for the mainstreaming of blockchain technology.

Indeed, the company already counts among its customers the government of Singapore, the Bank of Canada and other national financial institutions.

The company said it will use the funds to accelerate technology development and grow strategic partnerships for project deployment. R3 has its own proprietary ledger that can be used to develop applications, and it also supports an infrastructure network for financial services firms and technology companies to build their own ledger-based applications and services.

“While still in its infancy stages, the emergence of distributed ledger technology comes at a time when the financial services industry is poised to further embrace technological change and efficiencies,” said C. Thomas Richardson, the managing director and head of market structure and electronic trading services at Wells Fargo Securities, in a statement. 

That sentiment was echoed by other financial services executives whose firms were members of the R3 consortium.

“Innovation in digital technologies is reshaping the banking industry, and this investment is reflective of our belief that distributed ledger technology and smart contracts have the potential to significantly enhance capital markets infrastructure. R3’s collaborative approach is key to the progress of this technology,” said Andrew Challis, managing director of strategic investments at Barclays.

Not all big banks and financial services firms have embraced R3. Goldman Sachs and Santander both dropped out of the consortium, perhaps figuring they’d be better off going their own way.

Where R3 has really shined has been in getting governments comfortable blockchain-based applications. Their approach of enlisting banks and financial services companies for projects is light years from the more subversive mindset of some of the developers of the original and the largest blockchain protocol, Bitcoin.

As some investors and entrepreneurs see it, there’s room in the market for both the private blockchains developed by communities around Bitcoin and Ethereum, and the sanctioned corporate ledgers that companies like R3 are developing.

For now, the technology that R3 is developing is focused on business applications like verifying transactions between banks, or automating the things like the establishment of the London Interbank Offer Rates.

In the future, the company’s technologies could touch consumers more directly — through the creation of a digital fiat currency.

While that may be somewhere far off down the horizon, with the company’s connections to the banking industry and to national governments, it’s not beyond the pale.