With interest in cryptocurrency on the rise, the Coinhako co‑founder and CEO shares how the homegrown exchange is primed to be Asia’s gateway to the crypto economy
From Bitcoin reaching a new all-time high (or “going to the moon” in crypto speak, to describe a price increase of a digital asset) to China’s ban on cryptocurrency, the year 2021 was eventful for the crypto industry—and this is on top of rising global interest in DeFi (decentralised finance) systems, NFTs (non-fungible tokens), Web3 and the metaverse.
Homegrown crypto platform Coinhako, which is among the longest-standing platforms in the Asia-Pacific region, reported a stellar year of growth with a total trading volume of approximately $7 billion in 2021—a 1,200 per cent increase from the previous year. In the same period, the company saw a 522 per cent year-over-year growth when it comes to account openings, and by year-end its total registered users more than doubled to almost 400,000 as compared to the year before.
“It’s an industry that’s still evolving. The ecosystem is growing rapidly, especially in the past 12 to 24 months,” says Yusho Liu, Coinhako’s co-founder and CEO. “We are like a bridge operating between the world of crypto and fiat, and a gateway into the Web3 ecosystem.”
But with almost 600 cryptocurrency exchanges worldwide trading in various digital assets, why should investors go to a local crypto exchange?
For one, a good regulatory framework. Last month, Coinhako was granted the official approval for a major payment institution licence from the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). This means that the platform can now formally operate as a regulated provider of digital payment token, or DPT, services, further strengthening its position as Singapore’s leading provider of crypto-based solutions.
“A local exchange also means that investors are locally supported should they come across any issues, and I think that’s important because it builds trust,” says Liu. “Then there’s also the convenience of local transfers. With today’s consumer request for speed and convenience, you want the money to be transferred immediately. There are also different classifications of crypto exchanges: there are the non-regulated cloud-based exchanges, which creates more openness but also some form of risk, whereas we are the regulated platform serving the local market.”
Furthermore, “the fact that MAS has taken steps to regulate the sector simply means this is serious business and not some fly-by-night industry”. Liu adds, “When we first started, it obviously took some time for them to understand, but over the years you see that they are regulating the industry. So what does this mean? It means that this is a worthwhile industry and it’s only going to get bigger.”
Follow The Trail
Liu always had an entrepreneurial streak in him. Even in university, he had a couple of side gigs, including an Instagram printing business. He was in the final year of his mechanical engineering studies at the Nanyang Technological University when he first discovered cryptocurrency in 2013, through a chance encounter with a fellow student, who was mining Bitcoin in the school’s computer lab. He was immediately intrigued.
His army buddy Gerry Eng, Coinhako’s co-founder and CTO, mooted the idea of working together on a crypto exchange. Like many other startups, they started the business to address their own pain points. “We wanted to buy Bitcoin as an investment, but it was expensive and there were no good interface around, nothing that addresses Singapore as a market,” Liu says.
When they took the plunge with Coinhako in 2014, few people knew what cryptocurrency was, or even cared about it. While the initial demand was slow, with Coinhako’s early trading volumes “not even worth mentioning”, the duo stayed on track. “Technology takes time for adoption. I think we were a bit early in 2014, but we told ourselves that we had to commit to at least four years. You’re not going to see results in the first few years,” Liu explains.
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The numbers soon began to grow steadily—even though at one point the company was projected for closure—but it soon made a turnaround, increasing multiple folds. One of the reasons for this was “when the demand for Ethereum grew and ICO (initial coin offering) projects started to emerge on the blockchain, with more builders in the space trying to grow the ecosystem”.
Liu explains, “When we first started, Bitcoin was—and still is—the dominant crypto. At most there were hundreds of coins in the world then. Today, we are looking at tens of thousands.”
Coinhako currently supports over 40 digital assets, including Bitcoin, Ethereum, Solana and Cardano, and offers both fiat-to-crypto and crypto-to-crypto trading services on a multifunctional e-wallet. It has also entered into technological partnerships with the likes of Amazon Web Services and GrabPay to provide its users with seamless alternative payments.
The startup is backed by prominent investors, including American venture capitalist Tim Draper, as well as established venture capital firms including Boost VC, Jump Capital, SBI Holdings, Sygnum Bank and Azimut Investment Management.
Besides its mission to offer quick and secure access to cryptocurrency, Coinhako seeks to do more.
To further its mission to be the gateway to the crypto economy, it launched Singapore’s first large-scale NFT exhibition Right Click+Save, in collaboration with multi-concept space and research centre Appetite, in November last year.
“We want to find out what people want and the role we are going to play in the NFT world,” says Liu. “By organising a physical exhibition for people to experience and immerse themselves in, we get to see what works and what we can try to incorporate or make relevant to our business. So it was experimental, more like a fun project for us.”
His main takeaways from the experience: “First, conversion is very, very low. Everybody knows about NFTs, but very few people actually own them. That’s a good data point. Second, I think NFTs really speak to the younger generation and those who are interested in the culture associated with it. So in short, crypto is not just a tradeable asset, there’s an entire culture behind it. You can trade, you can game, you can even exercise and earn. There are also creators and brands who are trying to activate their fanbase or community via these mediums.”
When it comes to investing in cryptocurrency, Liu says the same applies to all investments. “Before you put your money, make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. Outside of our platform, crypto is uncharted waters, so always know and verify where you are sending your tokens to. The markets are volatile and you should understand the risks associated with it. As diversification is important to any investment portfolio, it’s quite common these days to see investors allocating a small percentage to crypto assets.”
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Risk management aside, Liu is excited about what the future may bring. “If you take the moneymaking aspect out and look at it from a technological perspective, the reason why many are interested in the crypto space is because it’s constantly evolving. There are a lot of intelligence coming in and building on top of the infrastructure and blockchains out there. I think this is exciting.”
He adds, “Singapore is always positioning itself as a hub, from banking and finance to digital innovation, whether it’s cybersecurity or e-commerce, and crypto is one of them. There’s a lot of global crypto companies based here, so it creates this whole ecosystem. Singapore provides the infrastructure and good regulatory framework for governance, so even the projects around the region have some sort of nexus here.”
On its part, Coinhako will continue to provide the rails for investors in the region to onboard into the crypto economy. Liu says, “We are an infrastructure-style business, we provide the gateway. We want to be like Grab, it’s all over Southeast Asia, think of us as that ecosystem, but for crypto.”
Darren Gabriel Leow