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China technology

Cryptocurrency mining giant Bitmain plans up to US$3 billion IPO

Beijing-based Bitmain is estimated to control as much as 80 per cent of the global market for cryptocurrency mining gear

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2018, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2018, 5:58pm

Bitmain Technologies, the world’s biggest producer of cryptocurrency mining chips, is planning a Hong Kong initial public offering (IPO) that could raise as much as US$3 billion, people with knowledge of the matter said.

The Beijing-based company, whose millennial co-founder Jihan Wu is one of the most powerful players in cryptocurrency, plans to file a listing application with the Hong Kong stock exchange as early as September, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the information is private.

If the share sale proceeds as planned, it would represent a major test of investor appetite for digital currency companies after the market value of bitcoin and its peers tumbled by more than 75 per cent since early January.

A successful listing would be a landmark event for the cryptocurrency industry, which is increasingly trying to move from the fringes of finance into the mainstream.

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Yet for Bitmain – which is estimated to control as much as 80 per cent of the market for cryptocurrency mining gear – an IPO may also represent a step toward a future beyond cryptocurrency.

Wu, who co-founded the company in 2013, has said he wants to branch out into areas such as artificial intelligence (AI). A listing could give Bitmain the extra funding and public profile it needs to pursue other businesses.

“The challenge is advancing our technology beyond what we’ve already achieved,” Wu, who was born in 1986, said in an interview with Bloomberg in May.

Bitmain’s bread and butter is designing custom chips known as application-specific integrated circuits, or ASICs. These are particularly good for the brute-force number crunching required by cryptocurrency miners, who verify virtual currency transactions and earn crypto-denominated rewards by solving complex maths problems. ASICs are also useful for the heavy workloads associated with some forms of AI, such as machine learning.

Wu said in the May interview that Bitmain booked US$2.5 billion of revenue last year, and that he and co-founder Micree Zhan together owned about 60 per cent of the business. Wu said at the time that he was open to a listing in Hong Kong – or in an overseas market with US dollar-denominated shares – in part because it would give early investors including Sequoia Capital and IDG Capital a chance to cash out.

Details of Bitmain’s listing have not been finalised, and its fundraising target could change, the people said.

Nishant Sharma, a Beijing-based spokesman for Bitmain, declined to comment.

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Speculation about Bitmain’s IPO plans and finances has intensified in recent days. The cryptocurrency news site CoinDesk reported on August 10 that Bitmain was seeking to raise as much as US$18 billion in an IPO, citing documents it had obtained.

Unverified investor presentations purporting to show details of Bitmain’s business have been circulating online, prompting discussions in cryptocurrency circles over the company’s exposure to falling virtual currency prices.

While Bitmain gets most of its revenue from mining equipment sales, it also runs some of the world’s biggest mining collectives, in which members combine their processing capacity and split the rewards.

The company’s outsize role has prompted a backlash from some virtual currency purists, who disdain anything that hints of a concentration of power in the cryptocurrency ecosystem. Wu’s support for bitcoin cash, an offshoot of bitcoin, has also stoked controversy.

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Despite its dominant position, Bitmain will face plenty of competition as it courts investors.

Canaan, a maker of cryptocurrency mining gear that is also working on AI applications, has already filed for a Hong Kong IPO. The company will aim to raise about US$1 billion, people with knowledge of the matter said in May.

Ebang International Holdings, another producer of cryptocurrency mining gear, has also disclosed its intention to list in the city.

There is no guarantee investors will pile in, especially given the recent weakness in Hong Kong’s stock market amid jitters over rising interest rates and a US-China trade war. The city’s benchmark Hang Seng Index has dropped 18 per cent from this year’s high in January, one of the biggest declines among major markets worldwide over the period.

“I don’t think people will be too interested,” said Alex Wong, Hong Kong-based director of asset management at Ample Capital, in reference to share sales by cryptocurrency mining companies. “When the demand for bitcoin diminishes, their revenue can drop very fast.”