Metacert’ Cryptonite can catch phishing links in your email

Metacert, founded by Paul Walsh, originally began as a way to watch chat rooms for fake Ethereum scams. Walsh, who was an early experimenter in cryptocurrencies, grew frustrated when he saw hackers dumping fake links into chat rooms, resulting in users regularly losing cash to scammers.

Now Walsh has expanded his software to email. A new product built for email will show little green or red shields next to links, confirming that a link is what it appears to be. A fake link would appear red while a real PayPal link, say, would appear green. The plugin works with Apple’s Mail app on the iPhone and is called Cryptonite.

“The system utilizes the MetaCert Protocol infrastructure/registry,” said Walsh. “It contains 10 billion classified URLs. This is at the core of all of MetaCert’s products and services. It’s a single API that’s used to protect over 1 million crypto people on Telegram via a security bot and it’s the same API that powers the integration that turned off phishing for the crypto world in 2017. Even when links are shortened? MetaCert unfurls them until it finds the real destination site, and then checks the Protocol to see if it’s verified, unknown or classified as phishing. It does all this in less that 300ms.”

Walsh is also working on a system to scan for Fake News in the wild using a similar technology to his anti-phishing solution. The company is raising currently and is working on a utility token.

Walsh sees his first customers as enterprise and expects IT shops to implement the software to show employees which links are allowed, i.e. company or partner links, and which ones are bad.

“It’s likely we will approach this top down and bottom up, which is unusual for enterprise security solutions. But ours is an enterprise service that anyone can install on their phone in less than a minute,” he said. “SMEs isn’t typically a target market for email security companies but we believe we can address this massive market with a solution that’s not scary to setup and expensive to support. More research is required though, to see if our hypothesis is right.”

“With MetaCert’s security, training is reduced to a single sentence ‘if it doesn’t have a green shield, assume it’s not safe,” said Walsh.

Twitter, those ‘verified’ bitcoin-pushing pillocks are pissing everyone off

Elon Musk’s tweets piss me off for two reasons.

When he’s not accusing actual heroes of sex crimes or trolling the federal government, it’s what comes after that drives me batshit. The top reply to most of his tweets is some asshat impersonating him to try to trick his followers into falling for a bitcoin scam.

These “get rich quick” scams are fairly simple. A hacker hijacks a verified Twitter account using stolen or leaked passwords. Then, the hacker swaps the account’s name, bio and photo — almost always to mirror Elon Musk — and drops a reply with “here’s where to send your bitcoin,” or something similar.

The end result appears as though Musk is responding to his own tweet, and nudging hapless bitcoin owners to drop their coins into the scammer’s coffers.

One of the latest “victims” was @FarahMenswear. The clothing retailer — with some 15,500 followers — was hacked this morning to promote a “bitcoin giveaway.” In the short time the scam began, the bitcoin address already had more than 100 transactions and over 5.84 bitcoins — that’s $37,000 in just a few hours’ work. Many Twitter users said that the scammers “promoted” the tweet — amplifying the scam to reach many more people.

On one hand, this scam is depressingly easy to pull off that even I could’ve done it. Depressing on the other, because that’s half a year’s wages for the average reporter.

Still, that $37,000 is a drop in the ocean to some of the other successful scam artists out there. One scammer last week, this time using @PantheonBooks, made $180,000 in a single day by tricking people into turning over their bitcoin and promising great returns.

Another day, another Elon Musk-themed bitcoin scam. (Image: screenshot)

Why is the scam so easy?

Granted, it’s clever. But it’s a widespread problem that can be largely attributed to Twitter’s nonchalant, “laissez-faire” approach to account security.

The common thread to all of these cryptocurrency scams involve hijacking accounts. Often, hackers use credential stuffing — that’s using the same passwords stolen from other breaches on other sites and services — to break into Twitter accounts. In nearly all successful cases, the hacked Twitter accounts aren’t protected with two-factor authentication. Brand accounts shared by multiple social media users almost never use two-factor, because it’s hard to share access tokens.

For its part, a Twitter spokesperson said it’s improved how it handles cryptocurrency scams and has seen a significant reduction in the amount of users who see scammy tweets. The company also said that scammers are constantly changing their methods and Twitter is trying to stay one step ahead. In many cases, these scams are nuked from the site before they’re even reported.

And, Twitter said it regularly reminds account owners to switch on stronger security settings, like two-factor authentication.

Well, enough’s enough, Twitter. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. So maybe it’s about time you bring the water a little closer.

Until something better comes along, Twitter should make two-factor authentication mandatory for verified accounts, especially high-profile accounts — like politicians. It’s no more of an inconvenience than switching on two-factor for your email inbox or other social networking account. The settings are already there — it even rolled out the more secure app-based authentication a year ago to give users the option of switching from the less-secure text message system.

If the only other option is to stop Elon Musk from tweeting…

In venture capital, it’s still the age of the unicorn

This month marks the 5-year anniversary of Aileen Lee’s landmark article, “Welcome To The Unicorn Club”.

At the time, the piece defined a new breed of startup — the $1 billion privately held company. When Lee did her first count, there were 39 “unicorns”; an improbable, but not impossible number.. Today, the once-scarce unicorn has become a global herd with 376 companies on the roster and counting.

But the proliferation of unicorns begs raises certain questions. Is this new breed of unicorn artificially created? Could these magical companies see their valuations slip and fall out of the herd? Does this indicate an irrational exuberance where investors are engaging in wish fulfilment and creating magic where none actually existed?

List of “unicorn” companies worth more than $1 billion as of the third quarter of 2018

There’s a new “unicorn” born every four days

The first change has been to the geographic composition and private company requirement of the list. The original qualification for the unicorn study was “U.S.-based software companies started since 2003 and valued at over $1 billion by public or private market investors.” The unicorn definition has changed and here is the popular and wiki page definition we all use today: “A unicorn is a privately held startup company with a current valuation of US$1 billion or more.”

Beyond the expansion of the definition of terms to include a slew of companies from all over the globe, there’s been a concurrent expansion in the number of startup technology companies to achieve unicorn status. There is a tenfold increase in annual unicorn production.

Indeed, while the unicorn is still rare but not as rare as before. Five years ago, roughly ten unicorns were being created a year, but we are approaching one hundred new unicorns a year in 2018.

As of November 8, we have seen eighty one newly minted unicorns this year, which means we have one new unicorn every four days.

There are unicorn-sized rounds every day

These unicorns are also finding their horns thanks to the newly popularized phenomena of mega rounds which raise $100 million or more. These deals are ten times more common now, than they were only five years ago.   

Back in 2013, there were only about four mega rounds a month, but now there are forty mega rounds a month based on Crunchbase data. In fact, starting from 2015, public market IPO has for the first time no longer been the major funding source for unicorn size companies.

Unicorns have been raising money from both traditional venture capital but also more from the non-traditional venture capital such as SoftBank, sovereign wealth funds, private equity funds, and mutual funds.

Investors are chasing the value creation opportunity.   Most people probably did not realize that Amazon, Microsoft, Cisco, and Oracle all debuted on public markets for less than a $1 billion market cap (in fact only Microsoft topped $500 million), but today they together are worth more than $2 trillion dollars  

It means tremendous value was created after those companies came to the public market.  Today, investors are realizing the future giant’s value creation has been moved to the “pre-IPO” unicorn stage and investors don’t want to miss out.

To put things in perspective, investors globally deployed $13 billion in almost 20,000 seed & angel deals, and SoftBank was able to deploy the same $13 billion amount in just 2 deals (Uber and WeWork).  The SoftBank type of non-traditional venture world literally redefined “pre-IPO” and created a new category for venture capital investment.

Unicorns are staying private longer

That means the current herd of unicorns are choosing to stay private longer. Thanks to the expansion of shareholders private companies can rack up under the JOBS Act of 2012; the massive amount of funding available in the private market; and the desire of founders to work with investors who understand their reluctance to be beholden to public markets.

Elon Musk was thinking about taking Tesla private because he was concerned about optimizing for quarterly earning reports and having to deal with the overhead, distractions, and shorts in the public market.  Even though it did not happen in the end, it reflects the mentality of many entrepreneurs of the unicorn club. That said, most unicorn CEOs know the public market is still the destiny, as the pressure from investors to go IPO will kick in sooner or later, and investors expect more governance and financial transparency in the longer run.

Unicorns are breeding outside of the U.S. too

Finally, the current herd of unicorns now have a strong global presence, with Chinese companies leading the charge along with US unicorns. A recent Crunchbase graph indicated about 40% of unicorns are from China,, 40% from US, and the rest from other parts of the world.

Back in 2013, the “unicorn” is primarily a concept for US companies only, and there were only 3 unicorn size startups in China (Xiaomi, DJI, Vancl) anyways.  Another change in the unicorn landscape is that, China contributed predominantly consumer-oriented unicorns, while the US unicorns have always maintained a good balance between enterprise-oriented and consumer-oriented companies.  One of the stunning indications that China has thriving consumer-oriented unicorns is that China leads US in mobile payment volume by hundredfold.

The fundamentals of entrepreneurship remain the same

Despite the dramatic change of the capital market, a lot of the insights in Lee’s 5-year old blog are still very relevant to early stage entrepreneurs today.

For example, in her study, most unicorns had co-founders rather than a single founder, and many of the co-founders had a history of working together in the past.

This type of pattern continues to hold true for unicorns in the U.S. and in China. For instance, the co-founders of Meituan (a $50 billion market cap company on its IPO day in September 2018) went to school together and had co-founded a company before

There have been other changes. In the past three months alone, four new US enterprise-oriented unicorns have emerged by selling directly to developers instead of to the traditional IT or business buyers; three China enterprise-oriented SaaS companies were able to raise mega rounds.  These numbers were unheard of five years ago and show some interesting hints for entrepreneurs curious about how to breed their own unicorn.

The new normal is reshaping venture capital 

Once in a while, we see eye-catching headlines like “bubble is larger than it was in 2000.”   The reality is companies funded by venture capital increased by more than 100,000 in the past five years too. So the unicorn is still as rare as one in one thousand in the venture backed community.

What’s changing behind the increasing number of unicorns is the new normal for both investors and entrepreneurs. Mega rounds are the new normal; staying private longer is the new normal; and the global composition of the unicorn club is the new normal. 

Just look at the evidence in the venture industry itself. Sequoia Capital, the bellwether of venture capital, raised a whopping $8 billion global growth mega fund earlier this year under pressure from SoftBank and its $100 billion mega-fund. And Greylock Partners, known for its focus and success in leading early stage investment, recently led a unicorn round for the first time in its 53-year history.  

It’s proof that just as venture capitalists have created a new breed of startups, the new startups and their demands are reshaping venture capital to continue to support the the companies they’ve created.

Mexican venture firm ALL VP has a $73 million first close on its latest fund

Buoyed by international attention from U.S. and Chinese investors and technology companies, new financing keeps flowing into the coffers of Latin American venture capital firms.

One day after the Brazilian-based pan-Latin American announced the close of its $150 million latest fund comes word from our sources that ALL VP, the Mexico City-based, early stage technology investor, has held a first close of $73 million for its latest investment vehicle.

The firm launched its first $6 million investment vehicle in 2012, according to CrunchBase, just as Mexico’s former President Enrique Peña Nieto was coming to power with a pro-business platform. One which emphasized technology development as part of its strategy for encouraging economic growth.

ALL VP founding partner Fernando Lelo de Larrea said he could not speak about ongoing fundraising plans.

And while the broader economy has stumbled somewhat since Nieto took office, high technology businesses in Mexico are surging. In the first half of 2018, 82 Mexican startup companies raised $154 million in funding, according to data from the Latin American Venture Capital Association. It makes the nation the second most active market by number of deals — with a number of those deals occurring in later stage transactions.

In this, Mexico is something of a mirror for technology businesses across Latin America. While Brazilian startup companies have captured 73% of venture investment into Latin America — raising nearly $1.4 billion in financing — Peru, Chile, Colombia and Argentina are all showing significant growth. Indeed, some $188 million was invested into 23 startups in Colombia in the first half of the year. 

Overall, the region pulled in $780 million in financing in the first six months of 2018, besting the total amount of capital raised in all of 2016.

It’s against this backdrop of surging startup growth that funds like ALL VP are raising new cash.

Indeed, at $73 million the first close for the firm’s latest fund more than doubles the size of ALL VP’s capital under management.

ALL VP management team

But limited partners can also point to a burgeoning track record of success for the Mexican firm. ALL VP was one of the early investors in Cornershop — a delivery company acquired by Walmart for $225 million earlier this year. Cornershop had previously raised just $31.5 million and the bulk of that was a $21 million round from the Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, Accel.

International acquirers are making serious moves in the Latin American market, with Walmart only one example of the types of companies that are shopping for technology startups in the region. The starting gun for Latin American startups stellar year was actually the DiDi acquisition of the ride-hailing company 99 for $1 billion back in January.

That, in turn, is drawing the attention of early stage investors. In fact, it’s venture capital firms from the U.S. and international investors like Naspers (from South Africa) and Chinese technology giants that are fueling the sky-high valuations of some of the region’s most successful startups.

Loggi, a logistics company raised $100 million from SoftBank in October, while the delivery service, Rappi, raked in $200 million in August, in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital.

In a market so frothy, it’s no wonder that investment firms are bulking up and raising increasingly large funds. The risk is that the market could overheat and that, with a lot of capital going to a few marquee names, should those companies fail to deliver, the rising tide of capital that’s come in to the region could just as easily come back out.

 

Monashees raises $150 million for its eighth Brazilian fund

As technology investment and exits continue to rise across Brazil, early stage venture capital firm monashees today announced that it has closed on $150 million for its eighth investment fund.

Commitments came from Temasek, the sovereign wealth fund affiliated with the Singaporean government, China’s financial technology company, CreditEase; Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, the University of Minnesota endowment; and fund-of-funds investor Horsley Bridge Partners.

S-Cubed Capital, the family office of former Sequoia Capital partner, Mark Stevens, and fifteen high net worth Brazilian families and investment groups also invested in the firm’s latest fund.

As one of the largest venture capital firms in Latin America with over $430 million in capital under management, monashees has been involved in some of the most successful investments to come from the region. Altogether, monashees portfolio companies have gone on to raise roughly $2 billion from global investors after raising money from the Sao Paulo-based venture capital firm.

“We are excited to further advance our partnership with the monashees team,” said Du Chai, Managing Director at Horsley Bridge Partners . “Over the course of our partnership, we have continued to be impressed by monashees’ strong team, platform and their ability to attract the region’s leading entrepreneurs.”

In the past year, investment in Latin American startup companies has exploded.  The ride-hailing service 99 was acquired for $1 billion and Rappi, a delivery service, managed to raise $200 million at a $1 billion valuation. Another delivery service, Loggi, caught the attention of SoftBank, which invested $100 million into the Brazilian company.

Public markets are also rewarding Latin American startups with continued investment and high valuations. Stone Pagamentos, a provider of payment hardware technology, raised $1.1 billion in its public offering on the Nasdaq with an initial market capitalization of $6.6 billion.

“monashees brings a truly unique set of skills to the table, with a disciplined investment strategy, as well as the unmatched local expertise and knowledge that leads the team to identify and invest in the region’s best founders,” said Stuart Mason, Chief Investment Officer at the University of Minnesota . “The recent billion-dollar acquisition of 99 by DiDi is not only a milestone for the local ecosystem, but validation of this sentiment and suggests that there’s no liquidity hurdle for great companies in Latin America. We are excited to partner with monashees as it continues to find and nurture the best opportunities going forward.”

 

Africa Roundup: Local VC funds surge, Naspers ramps up and fintech diversifies

Africa’s VC landscape is becoming more African with an increasing number of investment funds headquartered on the continent and run by locals, according to Crunchbase data summarized in this TechCrunch feature.

Drawing on its database and primary source research, Crunchbase identified 51 “viable” Africa-focused VC funds globally—defining viable as formally established entities with 7-10 investments or more in African startups, from seed to series stage.

Of the 51 funds investing in African startups, 22 (or 43 percent) were headquartered in Africa and managed by Africans.

Of the 22 African managed and located funds, 9 (or 41 percent) were formed since 2016 and 9 are Nigerian.

Four of the 9 Nigeria located funds were formed within the last year: Microtraction, Neon Ventures, Beta.Ventures, and CcHub’s Growth Capital fund.

The Nigerian funds with the most investments were EchoVC (20) and Ventures Platform (27).

Notably active funds in the group of 51 included Singularity Investments (18 African startup investments) Ghana’s Golden Palm Investments (17) and Musha Ventures (36).

The Crunchbase study also tracked more Africans in top positions at outside funds and  the rise of homegrown corporate venture arms.

One of those entities with a corporate venture arm, Naspers, announced a massive $100 million fund named Naspers Foundry to support South African tech startups. This is part of a $300 million (1.4 billion Rand) commitment by the South African media and investment company to support South Africa’s tech sector overall. Naspers Foundry will launch in 2019.

The initiatives lend more weight to Naspers’ venture activities in Africa as the company has received greater attention for investments off the continent (namely Europe, India and China), as covered in this TechCrunch story.

“Naspers Foundry will help talented and ambitious South African technology entrepreneurs to develop and grow their businesses,” said a company release.

“Technology innovation is transforming the world,” said Naspers chief executive Bob van Dijk. “The Naspers Foundry aims to both encourage and back South African entrepreneurs to create businesses which ensure South Africa benefits from this technology innovation.”

After the $100 million earmarked for the Foundry, Naspers will invest ≈ $200 million over the next three years to “the development of its existing technology businesses, including OLX,  Takealot, and Mr D Food…” according to a release.

In context, the scale of this announcement is fairly massive for Africa. According to recently summarized Crunchbase data, the $100 million Naspers Foundry commitment dwarfs any known African corporate venture activity by roughly 95x.

The $300 million commitment to South Africa’s tech ecosystem signals a strong commitment by Naspers to its home market. Naspers wasn’t ready to comment on if or when it could extend this commitment outside of South Africa (TechCrunch did inquire).

If Naspers does increase its startup and ecosystem funding to wider Africa— given its size compared to others—that would be a primo development for the continent’s tech sector.

If mobile money was the first phase in the development of digital finance in Africa, the next phase is non-payment financial apps in agtech, insurance, mobile-lending, and investech, according to a report by Village Capital covered here at TechCrunch.

In “Beyond Payments: The Next Generation of Fintech Startups in Sub-Saharan Africa,” the venture capital firm and their reporting partner, PayPal, identify 12 companies it determined were “building solutions in fintech subsectors outside of payments.”

Village Capital’s work gives a snapshot of these four sub-sectors — agricultural finance, insurtech, alternative credit scoring and savings and wealth — including players, opportunities and challenges, recent raises and early-stage startups to watch.

The report highlights recent raises by savings startup PiggybankNG and Nigerian agtech firm FarmCrowdy. Village Capital sees the biggest opportunities for insurtech startups in five countries: South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Kenya and Nigeria.

In alternative credit scoring and lending it sees blockchain as a driver of innovation in reducing “both transaction costs and intermediation costs, helping entrepreneurs bypass expensive verification systems and third parties.”

The Founders Factory expanded its corporate-backed accelerator to Africa, opening an office in Johannesburg with the support of some global and local partners.

This is Founders Factory’s first international expansion and the goal is “to scale 100 startups across Sub-Saharan Africa in five years,” according the accelerator’s communications head, Amy Grimshaw.

Founders Fund co-founder Roo Rogers will lead the new Africa office. Standard Bank is the first backer, investing “several million funds over five years,” according to Grimshaw.

The Johannesburg accelerator will grow existing businesses through a bespoke six-month program, while an incubator will build completely new businesses focused on addressing key issues on the continent.

Founder Funds will hire over 40 full-time specialists locally, covering all aspects needed to scale its startups including product development, UX/UI, engineering, investment, business development and, growth marketing. This TechCrunch feature has more from Founders Fund management on the outlook for the new South Africa accelerator.

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

How a Ugandan prince and a crypto startup are planning an African revolution

Marieme Diop and Shikoh Gitau to speak at Startup Battlefield Africa

Flutterwave and Ventures Platform CEOs will join us at Startup Battlefield Africa

African Tech Around the Net

A lot is happening at Flutterwave right now—[E departs] 

Amazon Web Services to open data centres in Cape Town in 2020

Vodacom Business expands its fixed connectivity network in Africa

SA’s Sun Exchange raises $500k from Alphabit

IBM, AfriLabs partner to expand digital skills across 123 hubs in 34 countries

Victor Asemota to lead VC firm Alta Global Ventures’s business in Africa

Bank, local hub launch $1-million fund for Somali startups

Hong Kong says it may regulate crypto exchanges

Hong Kong may become the next country to regulate crypto exchanges after its securities regulator announced that it is exploring ways to apply quality control and protect consumers from the volatility and uncertainties of digital currencies.

The Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) said it is “setting out a conceptual framework” that could be used to regulate crypto exchanges since they currently operate outside of current regulation, which is focused on traditional investment.

“Some of the world’s largest virtual asset trading platforms have been seen operating in Hong Kong but they fall outside the regulatory remit of the SFC and any other regulators. Owing to the serious investor protection issues identified and having regard to international developments, the SFC considers it necessary to explore in earnest whether and if so, how it could regulate virtual asset trading platforms under its existing powers,” the SFC wrote.

The commission has said it intends to work with the industry itself to define what regulation should look like.

The SFC did hedge its move, however, by saying that there is no guarantee that it will introduce licenses at the end of its research period. In particular, it voiced concern as to whether exchanges “would satisfy the expected anti-money laundering standards, given that anonymity is the core feature of blockchain.”

There’s also no immediate sign that Hong Kong will be requiring exchanges to be licensed.

“Those exchanges that want to be regulated by us will be set apart from those that don’t,” SFC CEO Ashley Alder told a conference according to a report from Reuters.

Japan is best known in crypto circles for its introduction of exchange licensing. Some in the industry have criticized the Japanese regulations as being too tight. Those voices include Binance, the world’s largest trading of cryptocurrencies, which abandoned plans to seek regulation in Japan because it placed limits on which tokens can be offered to users, its CEO Changpeng Zhao previously told TechCrunch.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

One of crypto’s longest-running exchanges has been sold

One of the longest-standing crypto exchanges has new owners after Europe-based Bitstamp was sold to South Korea’s Nexon, marking the gaming firm’s second such acquisition.

The acquirer is NXMH, a Belgium-based PE and investment firm owned by NXC — the parent of Nexon — and it will take a majority 80 percent stake in the business for an unknown fee. The New York Times’ Nathaniel Popper suggested earlier this year that Bitstamp was in the process of being sold “to South Korean investors” for $400 million, but NXC declined to comment on the price when asked by TechCrunch.

NXC acquired 65 percent of Korea-based exchange Korbit one year ago for 91.3 billion KRW, or approximately $79.5 million at the time.

Bitstamp was founded in 2011 by Slovenian entrepreneur Nejc Kodrič with an initial €1,000 and it survived the heady early days of crypto, unlike a certain peer named Mt. Gox. Today, Bitstamp is ranked inside the world’s top 30 exchanges based on trading volume with more than 100 staff. Bitcoin and XRP are among its most traded tokens, according to data from Coinmarketcap.com.

The company has a license to do business across the EU but it also works with customers worldwide.

Bitstamp has been profitable since its early life, but Kodrič revealed the sale is down to the potential to work with NXC, which he sees as a like-minded partner.

Bitstamp has been regularly approached by suitors for quite some time. The reason why we finally decided to sell the company is a combination of the quality of the buyer, the quality of the offer and the fact that the industry is at a point where consolidation makes sense. A major factor in agreeing to the sale is that the mission, leadership and vision of the company remains the same.

We believe this acquisition is the logical next step in Bitstamp’s growth as a company and I look forward to the future with this team.

The Bitstamp CEO said business will continue as normal — he’ll retain his position as CEO and keep 10 percent of the company.

Interestingly, he told Fortune that regulatory compliance meant the deal took some ten months to close after first being agreed in December 2017 when crypto market valuations hit a peak — with Bitcoin, in particular, getting close to a record $20,000 valuation.

Bitstamp raised around $14 million in capital from investors along its journey, with U.S-based Pantera capital one of its major backers.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Silicon Valley’s sovereign wealth problem

It’s time to bring the conversation about where Silicon Valley gets its money from out into the open. Following recent revelations into Saudi Arabia’s extensive reach and influence in the US technology sector, the willful ignorance that has defined the relationship between venture capital firms and the limited partnerships (LPs) that fund them for years now isn’t going to cut it anymore.

According to the latest reports from the Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabia is now the single-largest source of funding for US-based tech companies. Since 2016, the Saudi royal family has invested at least $11 billion into US startups directly, and in August, the Saudi Arabian government committed $45 billion to Softbank’s $92 billion Vision Fund. To put that into context, the total amount of funding deployed across all VC deals so far in 2018 is $84.3 billion — a record for the industry, but a paltry sum relative to the wealth of the Saudi Kingdom.

Backlash is rising — and that’s a good thing. With tech companies now capturing the lion’s share of global wealth creation, we should absolutely want to know where that money is going. For one, it’s a matter of ethics. The US tech industry generates billions of dollars in returns annually for investors. When that money is being funneled into the coffers of a country with a total lack of respect for basic human rights, that’s a problem. It’s not good for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and it’s not good for the country as a whole.

That’s not to say all sovereign wealth is at issue. Not in the least bit. But when it comes to funds that support nation states with questionable track records on human rights, there’s no debate.

This is a critical moment for Silicon Valley. It’s a wake up call to venture capitalists and entrepreneurs alike to start being more mindful about their sources of funding. There are plenty of better institutions and more impactful causes you can be helping to enrich – research initiatives at top public children’s hospitals, financial aid programs at historically black colleges and universities, public pension funds, and the list goes on – you just have to make the effort and be intentional about it. As an industry, we can and should be doing more to support these groups. If fact, it’s one of the very reasons why Jyoti Bansal and I founded Unusual Ventures and raised our entire fund from a diverse set of LPs.

If history is any guide, however, it will take more than the better nature of entrepreneurs and their investors to make a real impact.

Gender parity in the tech industry is a fitting example: While advocates have been calling for greater gender diversity in senior leadership positions at tech companies for decades, gender inequality continues to pervade the entire sector. In September, California took steps to remedy the issue by passing a law requiring public companies to have at least two female directors on the executive board. Since then, we’ve seen some improvements – although there is still far, far more that needs to happen.

Similarly, what’s likely needed to move the needle on transparency in venture funding is common sense regulation. For instance, we should consider a law that requires – at a minimum – transparency around how much funding VC firms raise from foreign sources.

This already exists for VC funding raised from public US institutions. When VCs raise capital from public universities, endowments, pension funds and others, they are required to report it under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Ironically, this mandate has contributed to the rise of sovereign wealth funds in the tech sector. That is, the additional reporting requirements that come along with raising money from public institutions drives VCs to “easier” sources of funding, such as sovereign wealth and billionaire family offices. Translation: transparency isn’t just common sense – it’s effective too – so let’s level the playing field.

Just like with any society-level issue though, fixing Silicon Valley’s sovereign wealth problem won’t happen overnight. For one, drafting legislation and enacting it into law takes time. It’s also extremely difficult for VCs to make changes around their investment base in the short term. If change is going to take root, the big moments to watch will be the start of the next funding cycle (ie. when VCs are out raising their next fund) and future legislative sessions, especially in the California state legislature.

In the meantime, entrepreneurs need to start asking VCs about where their money comes from. Nothing is going to happen without the industry’s best entrepreneurs stepping up and putting the pressure on VCs. So long as they are willing to accept funding without asking where it comes from, there is little incentive for the VC industry to change.

But if the entrepreneur community in Silicon Valley takes a stand on transparency in VC and starts asking the right questions, there is nothing stopping this moment from becoming more than just another news cycle. It will become a movement the VC industry cannot ignore.

More than half of crypto news sites are pay-for-play

In a clever bit of sleuthing by Corin Faife at Breaker, we find that over half of the most popular crypto blogs offer pay-for-play posts including “CEO interviews” that are not labelled as sponsored. Further, many sites offer premium services in which blog writers will repost PR content without a sponsored tag.

As I noted a few weeks ago, the crypto industry is awash with money and “journalists” are taking advantage of the naivety and dishonesty of the marketers tasked with pushing another me-too crypto product in front of an unreceptive audience. Faife received multiple emails like this one asking him to accept payment for placing articles at the places he worked, including Motherboard and Coindesk:

“I know that I would never take money for coverage, nor would any serious journalist. But covering the cryptocurrency industry, I read content on a daily basis that comes from a large number of outlets that I can’t vouch for. If these offers of pay-for-post are out there, can we rely on all of the journalists and editors to turn them down? Can we believe in the objectivity of the coverage we see every day, or has it simply been paid for by a company flush with cash?” he wrote. “The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like there was a simple way to find out. As a BREAKER investigation, we’d ask to pay for coverage of an ICO, and see who said yes.”

Faife reached out to 28 cryptocurrency news sites and received 22 definitive responses. Posing as a Russian PR professional, Faife first asked for rates for posting information on the site. When he received a response, he asked if the posts would have a “sponsored” tag, a traditional signal that a post wasn’t explicitly written by the news organization’s reporters.

Of the 22 replies, he received 14 agreeable responses including an offer to remove the sponsored tag for $4,500. This helpful graph shows how quickly sites will abandon journalistic ethics to grab a little cash:

One site, NewsBTC, responded to Faife when pressed about payola:

Contacted about the story, Samuel Rae, CEO of NewsBTC, responded:

“It’s come to my attention that one of our sales team has mistakenly suggested that we could publish content without disclosure that it has been paid for (i.e. a sponsored article) to one of your undercover reporters posing as a PR agent. This is not our policy. The sales executive offering this has been removed from our company active immediately and won’t be dealing with/offering our advertising (or otherwise) services again, be it to a PR company, a reseller or anyone else.”

Pressed to offer evidence that the staff member had been removed, and to explain a second source quoting NewsBTC’s willingness to publish sponsored content without disclosure, Rae declined to give further comment.

The important thing to note here are the sums of money that many of these crypto and ICO organizations will raise thanks to a small investment in media. A solid blog post can move untrained “investors” to buy or sell crypto and tokens in an instant, creating situations ripe for pump and dump schemes where the actual level of interest in a company is clouded by payola. Most sane, mature news organizations see this problem and address it by refusing to accept paid content. That said, times are changing and the lines are blurring between paid and unpaid content. Ultimately, however, the behavior Faife uncovered is implicitly wrong.

There’s an old saying: fools and their money are soon parted. Uneducated and uninformed crypto investors are fools, but they visit crypto sites for a proper education. When news organizations create so-called fake news in order to drum up a little advertising cash, everyone loses.