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MobileCoin, a cryptocurrency from the creator of Signal, just raised $30M for mobile payments

Taylor Hatmaker
A new privacy-centric cryptocurrency project with some big names on board just

A new privacy-centric cryptocurrency project with some big names on board just raised a round worth noting. On Tuesday, the team at MobileCoin announced that Binance Labs, the major blockchain incubator associated with the Binance exchange, led a $30 million round denominated in bitcoin and ether for the new cryptocurrency. MobileCoin will enjoy "priority consideration" for being listed on Binance as part of the relationship.

New cryptocurrency projects are a dime (or less) a dozen, but the legitimacy of an established name can make all the difference. Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of end-to-end encryption messaging app Signal and Open Whisper Systems, is one such name. As Wired reported in December, Marlinspike began working with MobileCoin as a technical advisor in August of 2017.

Marlinspike is joined by Joshua Goldbard, a general partner at hedge fund Crypto Lotus and MobileCoin technologist, and Shane Glynn, legal counsel, to help the company navigate the choppy waters of cryptocurrency regulation. Glynn has served since 2010 as senior product counsel at Google, though it's not clear if he is leaving his longtime role for the new project.

In the MobileCoin whitepaper, published in December, the project's creators describe its mission:

...Most attempts at building a compelling crypto-currency user experience unfortunately resort to trusting a third party service to manage keys and validate transactions. This largely sacrifices the primary benefits offered by crypto-currency to begin with.

MobileCoin is an effort to develop a fast, private, and easy-to-use cryptocurrency that can be deployed in resource constrained environments to users who aren't equipped to reliably maintain secret keys over a long period of time, all without giving up control of funds to a payment processing service.

MobileCoin transactions will synchronize to the coin's network using the Stellar Consensus Protocol for scalability and speed. The end product will emphasize user privacy and integration into mobile messaging apps, including WhatsApp and Signal — two apps that use Marlinspike's end-to-end encrypted Signal Protocol.

"MobileCoin is designed so that a mobile messaging application like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or Signal could integrate with a MobileCoin wallet," the team described in its whitepaper.

Marlinspike is a rare sort of reverse tech celebrity, a figure who eschews both spotlight and Silicon Valley-style excess and has instead cultivated quiet respect in digital privacy and cryptography circles. That makes him an odd fit for the fraud-laden universe of empty multi-million-dollar ICOs with no product to speak of, but it also means that MobileCoin is probably worth paying attention to. At the very least, the prominent cryptographer's new project should amuse anyone who's complained about the digital currency world's habit of using the term "crypto" as shorthand for "cryptocurrency."

MobileCoin has funding and talent, but it's still very early days for the nascent cryptocurrency. As an incubator, Binance Labs concentrates on pre-ICO projects and MobileCoin will use the funding to "build out [its] team and processes" as it develops its product.

"A mobile-first, user-friendly cryptocurrency, like MobileCoin, plays a critical role in driving mainstream cryptocurrency adoption," Binance Labs said of the funding. "The MobileCoin team and Binance Labs share a common vision and we are proud to be a supporter of what they are doing."

Along with the news, MobileCoin announced that it is recruiting a "core team" of engineers:

"Specifically, we are looking for those who have worked on large systems (greater than 10,000,000 daily active users) in a senior role who enjoy working on low-level code. Direct memory access is a critical part of our problem set."

Given the legitimacy of Marlinspike's best-known project and his reticence to attach his name to things, it's not unreasonable to give MobileCoin the benefit of the doubt, even if aspects of its raison d'être remain unarticulated. Beyond the core question of why a new cryptocurrency needs to exist at all, MobileCoin will need to position itself as a compelling alternative to existing mainstream mobile payment services like Venmo and PayPal for normal users.

MobileCoin will also face the full slate of regulatory challenges, including fraud prevention, that plague other digital currency projects, though given its stealthy behavior and the fact that one-third of the three-member team listed on its website represents legal counsel, its founders are don't appear to be charging in recklessly.

"This is a journey and we are excited to build a simple system for trusted payments," Goldbard wrote in the announcement.

In the digital currency realm, too much style — think celeb-endorsed ICOs and endless press release hype cycles — can signal a lack of substance. The reverse can be true too, and in MobileCoin's case, a modest mission could be a strong signal for a compelling product a bit further down the blockchain.