LONDON - A legal dispute between Zhao Changpeng, founder of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, and a unit of Sequoia Capital is offering a rare glimpse into one of the digital-asset industry’s fastest-growing startups.
Sequoia sued Zhao over a funding deal gone awry, according to Hong Kong court filings on March 26 and April 24. The filings shed light on Zhao’s interactions with big-name venture capital firms and reveal details about how they’ve valued Binance, the exchange that Zhao started just nine months ago.
The trading platform’s meteoric rise has been one of the virtual currency industry’s most remarkable growth stories, landing Zhao on the cover of Forbes magazine and helping him amass a personal fortune that he claims is worth as much as $2 billion. Binance has also attracted scrutiny from regulators, who’ve been clamping down on digital-asset exchanges around the world amid concern that the venues may be flouting securities laws.
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According to the Hong Kong court filings, Zhao and Sequoia began negotiating terms of an investment in Binance in August. The deal would have given Sequoia a nearly 11 percent stake and valued the exchange at about $80 million.
Talks continued over the next few months, the court documents show, a period in which cryptocurrency prices and transaction values soared to all-time highs. But in mid-December, as Bitcoin traded at a record near $20,000, the negotiations broke down.
On Dec. 14, Zhao’s team told Sequoia that Binance’s existing shareholders thought their proposed deal undervalued the exchange. Around the same time, Zhao was approached by another VC firm, IDG Capital, with an offer that would have injected two rounds of funding into Binance at vastly higher valuations: $400 million and $1 billion, respectively.
At issue is whether Zhao’s talks with IDG Capital violated his exclusivity agreements with Sequoia. While Sequoia and Zhao are planning to settle their dispute in arbitration, the disagreement became public after Sequoia turned to Hong Kong’s High Court and secured a temporary injunction barring Zhao from negotiating with other investors.
Zhao didn’t respond to requests for comment, while a spokeswoman for Binance said the firm couldn’t immediately comment. Menlo Park, California-based Sequoia, which has backed companies including Google, Airbnb Inc. and Dropbox Inc., declined to comment. IDG said in response to questions from Bloomberg News that it hasn’t invested in Binance and has no relationship with the firm.
Zhao has previously told Bloomberg News that Binance doesn’t need outside money and that he’s only interested in partnering with VC firms if they can help the exchange work with regulators to secure operating licenses.
He has said Binance is conservatively valued at about $3 billion and that the company earned $200 million in its second quarter of existence, while declining to share the exchange’s financial statements or provide proof of his personal wealth. Zhao keeps the locations of Binance’s offices and servers secret, though he has previously said that the exchange is based in Hong Kong. Last month, Zhao announced that Binance was setting up operations on the European island nation of Malta.
Binance hosted about $3.8 billion of cryptocurrency trades over the past 24 hours, according to Coinmarketcap.com. While that’s the most among fee-charging exchanges tracked by the data aggregation site, turnover on Binance has slumped about 70 percent from its peak amid a broad selloff in digital assets. Bitcoin, the world’s most popular cryptocurrency, has lost about half its value since hitting an all-time high in mid-December.