Crypto and NFT unicorns are booming — laying foundations for the metaverse and the new digital economy

If the boom and accompanying volatility in cryptocurrencies and NFTs leaves you uncertain, and if you’re not sure yet what to make of the metaverse, there’s a good way to separate hype from reality: follow the money.


11 April 2022

Like the internet in the early 1990s, the crypto boom encompasses both transformative technologies and wild speculation. But some of the smartest money in the world — high tech venture capital — is flowing to some specific areas. These capital flows may hint at how the new, emerging digital economy will function.

Where the crypto unicorns are today

No boom is complete without turbulence along the way. Total cryptocurrency market cap reached almost $3 trillion by late 2021 — but market volatility at the start of 2022 wiped out nearly a third of this value. This drop, largely driven by macroeconomic and geopolitical concerns (rather than any problem with crypto technology or blockchain applications) may have given crypto speculators a rough ride. But it in no way interrupted the underlying innovation — and a crypto market gap of “just” $2 trillion is still about ten times larger than it was at the start of 2020.

The boom includes companies creating the foundation for Web 3.0 and the crypto economy. These investments began to scale in April 2021, when cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase held an Initial Public Offering (IPO). It resulted in a valuation of over $80 billion on the first day of trading. Following this success, capital began to pour into startups which, like Coinbase, are building the foundations of a new digital economy that runs on cryptocurrencies. Crypto M&A rose to $55 billion in 2021 compared to $1.1 billion in 2020 — an increase of nearly 5000% — according to PwC’s Global Cryptocurrency M&A and Fundraising Report. Fundraising rose 645% to $34.3 billion from $5.6 billion according to the report.

The result is a new crop of unicorns (VC-backed startups valued at $1 billion or more.) Our analysis, based on PitchBook Data, identified 48 unicorns focused on cryptocurrencies, NFTs and other foundations of a new, metaverse-based digital economy. Two of these unicorns (Coinbase in the US and OneConnect in China) have since held IPOs, leaving 46.

The US today is home to 24 of these 46, but since cryptocurrency (and the capital that backs it) has no boundaries, companies can easily change locations. China’s crypto crackdown last year led many crypto startups to move or found themselves elsewhere. There have been concerns that potentially onerous regulations in the US might also lead crypto companies here to consider relocating. But the recent Executive Order from the Biden Administration may have dispelled those fears for now. 

What the crypto unicorns are building

Today, crypto and NFT unicorns are largely focused on the nuts and bolts of a new digital economy: buying and selling, digital infrastructure and analytics, and supporting the creator economy and other new digital services. 

Many, for example, are offering financial services. Crypto exchanges help people and organizations buy and sell cryptocurrencies and tokens, store them (sometimes in interest paying accounts), and trade crypto options, futures and other derivatives. Crypto payments networks support more frictionless and trusted money transfers, while crypto financing startups help people and organizations use crypto as collateral for loans and other financial market operations.

Other unicorns are enabling other aspects of the new economy. They may offer hardware for cryptocurrency mining and operations, security and custody for digital assets, cross-blockchain transactions, support in building blockchain applications, blockchain-based data analytics, or blockchain-based smart contracts to help enforce contracts, automatically conduct transactions and more. Others help companies and consumers create, sell and invest in NFTs, purchase and develop digital real estate (such as digital storefronts), or invest in assets within one of the best places to reach Gen Z: gaming environments.

It’s not just crypto unicorns active here. Established financial services companies and fintech startups are also active in this rapidly accelerating effort: to build a trusted digital monetary system that is a critical building block of the metaverse

What to do right now

Even if you have no plans to make big crypto investments, you owe it to your company’s future to keep track of this new world for financial services, data analytics and virtual investments. Here are three steps every business leader can take today.

  1. Start learning. You don’t have to be a crypto expert, but someone in your company should be — and you and other key decision makers should understand the basics and keep an eye on the underlying technologies and economic forces.
  2. Get engaged. Cryptocurrency may feel chaotic at times, with volatility high and regulations still a work in progress. But given the speed at which investment is flowing and technology is maturing, if you wait until the dust settles, you may be left behind. Consider low-risk, low-cost investments (such as NFTs) to help build institutional familiarity. 
  3. Stay nimble. The speed of development means that you probably shouldn’t go all in on any one strategy — such as linking yourself too tightly with a single vendor, partner or strategy. Continue to monitor developments in technology, user preferences and the growth of related digital ecosystems.

With a cautious yet forward-looking approach, your company can avoid speculative bubbles and focus on the value that cryptocurrencies and related startups can provide.

Footnotes:

1. “Total Cryptocurrency Market Cap,” CoinMarketCap, https://coinmarketcap.com/charts/, accessed 23 March 2022
2. Ibid
3. “Coinbase IPO Exceeds All Expectations, Showing More Promise For Bitcoin,” Nasdaq.com, https://www.nasdaq.com/articles/coinbase-ipo-exceeds-all-expectations-showing-more-promise-for-bitcoin-2021-04-19, accessed 25 March 2022
4. PitchBook Data Inc. is the underlying data source for unicorn funding throughout this report. The analysis conducted by PwC has not been reviewed by PitchBook, and industry terminology used in this article may differ from PitchBook’s.
5. Source: PwC Analysis

Raj Mann

Author

Vicki Huff
Global New Ventures & Innovation, TMT Vice Chair, PwC United States

Matthew Blumenfeld

Author 

Matthew Blumenfeld
Digital Assets Strategy Leader, PwC United States

john-garvey

Author

John Garvey
Global Financial Services Leader Principal, PwC United States

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Vicki Huff Eckert

Vicki Huff Eckert

Global New Ventures & Innovation, TMT Vice Chair, PwC United States

Tel: +1 408 817 4136

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