It is a frothy, sprawling and completely unregulated way of funding start-ups, leaving even veteran technology watchers scratching their heads.
“It’s kind of like when you are a little kid and you know you are getting away with something,” said Chris Burniske, an industry analyst at ARK Invest. “It’s not going to last forever, but it’s fun in the interim. The space is giddy right now.”
Last month, a small team of computer engineers in Lithuania raised $14 million in 45 minutes by selling a coin, known as Mysterium, that is intended to give access to an encrypted online data service that is still being built.
The next day, a group of coders in the Bay Area pulled in $35 million in under 30 seconds of online fund-raising. The coders were offering Basic Attention Tokens, which will one day work on a new kind of ad-free web browser.
Then this week, a team in Switzerland raised around $100 million for a coin that will be used on an online chat program that has not yet been released, known as Status.
Proponents of initial coin offerings hail them as a financial innovation that empowers developers and gives early investors a chance to share in the profits of a successful new enterprise. But where some see a new method of crowdfunding online projects, critics say the phenomenon is ripe for abuse and, in many cases, a violation of American securities law.
“It’s exploitative and abusive of the investing public,” Preston Byrne, a technology lawyer specializing in virtual currencies, said about the offerings.
Last year, the first blockbuster coin offering, the Decentralized Autonomous Organization, quickly raised more than $150 million. But the project blew up after a hacker manipulated the code and stole more than $50 million worth of digital currency. A number of other projects since then have been labeled scams.
Even among supporters, many say there has been too much money pouring into unproven projects i...