Thousands of cryptocurrency enthusiasts are gathering in Miami as the city builds its reputation as one of the key locations to develop the blockchain technology despite its underdog status.
Dozens of companies are using the Bitcoin 2022 conference running Wednesday through Saturday as a venue to network, pitch ideas and share announcements.
New York City and Silicon Valley continued to lead in funding raised by blockchain startups in 2021, with $6.5 billion and $3.9 billion. But Miami is now tied with Los Angeles, where firms pulled in more than $760 million in funding, according to market research firm CB Insights.
Cryptocurrency exchange FTX bought the naming rights for the NBA arena in downtown Miami last year, replacing American Airlines. The largest crypto company to move to Miami so far, Blockchain.com, will house 200 employees at a location in the hip Wynwood district, where other tech firms are setting up shop as well.
"Wynwood just really has that sort of spirit that you are looking for when a new tech sector is built," said Blockchain.com CEO and co-founder Peter Smith, comparing it to San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood and New York City's Brooklyn.
Many cite a welcoming environment cultivated by local officials, mainly Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who has attracted national attention by luring tech investment and becoming one of America's crypto-friendly mayors.
Others note that both Miami and Florida are business-friendly and remained open during the pandemic, making it more attractive as a location.
"It's hard to deny this is an amazing opportunity for companies to come here and build out their project in crypto," said John Bartleman, CEO of a Plantation, Florida-based Trade Station, a multi-asset broker.
Bartleman's company commissioned an 11-foot (3-meter) robot-like statue of a bull meant to emulate Wall Street's "Charging Bull." The artwork was unveiled Wednesday by Mayor Suarez to a joyful crowd kicking off the conference in Miami Beach.
"Welcome to the future of finance," Suarez said.
All this enthusiasm strikes a sharp contrast with bitcoin's own rough year. On the financial side, the cryptocurrency hit a high of $67,553.95 back in November just before plunging by almost half as of late January; it remains down roughly 30% since that November high. Bitcoin is also largely absent from many of the hottest trends in crypto such as non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, which purportedly offer a way to auction off "unique" copies of digital art and other cyber objects.
More broadly, critics question the assumptions underlying the claimed value and utility of crypto technology, with some likening the hype and so-far unrealized promises of blockchain technologies to a Ponzi scheme that benefits early participants but leaves everyone else in the lurch.
Kathy Kraninger leads regulatory affairs for Solidus Labs, a company that monitors digital assets risks. The former director of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said the sector is "not the Wild West," but challenges persist.
"We believe many companies in the industry need to come forward and really think through the technical standards on how to protect investors and how to build smartly," she said, adding that 30 companies are joining an effort to train people on best practices, identify manipulatory activities and determine what measures could prevent crypto market abuse.
As Miami aims to attract more investment, Bitcoin 2022 organizers say at least 75 companies will be making announcements at the conference.
Last year, El Salvador President Nayib Bukele made international news at the event, unveiling by video that his country would be the first to make cryptocurrency legal tender. Bukele will be at the conference.
One of the most-anticipated announcements may come from 27-year-old Jack Mallers, CEO of bitcoin payment app Strike, who worked with Bukele's government on the nationwide bitcoin launch.
Mallers also partnered with Twitter to synchronize his app with the social network to make it possible to send digital money as "tips" without needing a bank like Cash App and PayPal, demonstrating on a video how he sent $10 to a man at a Salvadoran Starbucks.
It remains to be seen what the effort will yield in the future. South Florida saw its population decline by more than 18,000 people between July 2020 and July 2021. And critics worry the city does not have a high-ranking university that could build workforce to make companies thrive, the way the Bay Area and New York do.
But Miami businessman Josip Rupena, who will be speaking about his crypto mortgages startup at the conference, said to give the effort a few years.
Rupena's company, called Milo, has received $24 million in venture funding from investors to become a lender for people who have made considerable digital wealth.
"For the first time, I think we have a platform — and a national platform — to tell others that there are really a lot of smart and capable people here. It is great we can amplify that message," Rupena said.