PayPal was the hot new thing in payments when it launched in 1998, but in the era of digital currency, crowdfunding, micro-crowdfunding, and peer-to-peer lending, most people no longer see the company that way. So its newest board appointment is an effort to embrace the new landscape in digital payments.
To that end, PayPal (PYPL) has named Wences Casares to its board of directors, the company announced on Wednesday. Casares is founder and CEO of Xapo, a wallet provider for the digital currency bitcoin, and before Xapo he founded Lemon, another digital wallet company. He is an unusual addition to a board that includes executives from AT&T (T), the American Red Cross, Enzon Pharmaceuticals (ENZN), and eBay (EBAY) cofounder Pierre Omidyar.
It's likely a sign that PayPal is ready to embrace bitcoin and its technology. That's especially interesting considering that it is a company some bitcoin entrepreneurs often point to as "Web 1.0" and too slow because of its transfer delays and fees. One of the biggest selling points of bitcoin is the ability to send money to another country with little or no delay, and a fractional fee.
"We’ve entered a period of unprecedented disruption in payments and financial services driven by the mass adoption of mobile technology and the digitization of cash," said PayPal CEO Dan Schulman in a statement. "Wences’ long and successful track record as international fintech entrepreneur with a focus on next-generation payment and crypto-currency is a perfect fit for PayPal at this time." PayPal declined to comment beyond the press release.
Casares does not come without controversy. He is a serial entrepreneur who founded an Argentinian brokerage in 1997 and sold it to Banco Santander in 2000 for $750 million. Then he founded a Chilean videogame developer in 2002 and sold it to Activision (ATVI) in 2006. But he is currently being sued by LifeLock (LOCK), a $1.3 billion public company that offers online-identity protection.
In December 2013 LifeLock acquired Casares's company Lemon for $42.6 million. In a lawsuit filed in August 2014, LifeLock says Casares built and launched Xapo, his current company, while working at Lemon, "developed by Lemon employees, in Lemon’s facilities, on Lemon’s computers, and on Lemon’s dime.” Casares and four Xapo employees (each of whom previously worked at Lemon) are named as defendants in LifeLock's suit. The company wants him to pay back “the value of the Xapo product attributable to Defendants’ misrepresentations, omissions, breaches of duty, and other wrongful conduct.” It does not specify an amount it is seeking, but assessing damages would involve placing a value on Xapo.
Meanwhile, Casares has fought back, filing a cross-complaint of his own this past July, alleging poor management by LifeLock. (And LifeLock itself was forced to pay a $12 million fine to the FTC this past summer for false advertising of its product.) Some in the bitcoin community believe that LifeLock is upset that it overpaid for Lemon, while Casares has moved on to Xapo, which has raised $40 million in venture capital and might have more promise than Lemon ever did.
What does all of this legal drama have to do with PayPal? Perhaps nothing—but if Casares is found guilty of the civil fraud that LifeLock alleges, it would be bad for not just Xapo, but now PayPal as well. Moreover, Fortune reported last year that some of Xapo's investors are angry that they were never made aware of the ongoing litigation against Casares.
So PayPal has taken a risk in appointing Casares to its board, not only because of his current legal situation, but on a broader scale it has more strongly associated itself with bitcoin, an industry that is not without its negative headlines. (Just this week, Ross Ulbricht, the mastermind of Silk Road, the online drug marketplace that used bitcoin as its form of payment, appealed his recent life sentence.) Just over one year ago, PayPal made partnerships with some prominent bitcoin startups, like BitPay and Coinbase, but the noise of that move has since died down.
PayPal now might want to explore a larger form of implementation around bitcoin, or it is intrigued by its underlying technology, the bitcoin blockchain, a public, decentralized ledger that records every single bitcoin transaction. Financial heavyweights like JPMorgan and Nasdaq have both expressed interest in harnessing the blockchain.
Or maybe PayPal wants to buy Xapo.