The race among crypto custodians to secure high-end clients is growing fiercer by the day.
Ledger, the France-based wallet and custody startup, is ramping up the number of cryptocurrencies it supports to meet the demand for multi-coin solutions, particularly from institutional investors.
Revealed exclusively to CoinDesk, the company will add support for new crypto assets on the first Tuesday of each month, starting in August, with a goal of having more than 100 supported by the end of 2019. Currently, Ledger's products and services handle only about two dozen tokens, and this week it's adding support for tron (TRX) and zcoin (XZC).
The move is yet another sign of how the cryptocurrency industry is rapidly evolving, with an ever-widening array of assets to choose from and big-money players nosing around for investment opportunities and influencing companies' business decisions.
While Ledger, founded in 2014, is primarily known for its hardware wallet and corresponding app for individual bitcoin users, CEO Eric Larcheveque cited its newer business lines – which offer custody services to hedge funds and other big players – as the driver behind this "Token Tuesdays" initiative.
"If we want to sign those [institutional] customers, we don't have a choice," Larcheveque told CoinDesk. "We have to support the top 100 cryptos, minimum."
For similar reasons, BitGo recently added support for 57 ethereum-based assets to its custody services for institutions. Meanwhile, thousands of wealthy accredited investors are on a waiting list for the crypto key management startup Casa, which is scheduled to release its self-managed bitcoin solution in August and eventually add other tokens.
In turn, however, Larcheveque predicted offering custodial support for a wider range of tokens could bring would-be whales off the sidelines, saying:
"This will allow hundreds of hedge funds to deploy their capital into crypto, and enable all these other financial institutions to move billions into crypto."
Further, Ledger president Pascal Gauthier said bringing traditional players into the wider crypto ecosystem would bolster bitcoin's real-world value, even if these investors ultimately buy other crypto assets. After all, the world's largest cryptocurrency is still one of the largest liquidity conduits for cashing out tokens.
More broadly, "institutions coming into this industry means that there is even more trust and it brings more value to the industry," Gauthier said.
A rising tide...
As Ledger courts institutions, it aims to do so in a way that enhances the hardware wallet's utility for retail investors as well.
"I would say that the major drive for crypto integration, in the end, comes from the needs of our enterprise customers," said Larcheveque. "At the same time, it profits our hardware wallet users. It's a virtuous circle."
For example, this week the startup also unveiled an upgraded version of the hardware wallet's companion app. Unlike its predecessor, which was really several apps in one, the new Ledger Live automatically pushes updates to all parts of the app, so the company can add support for new tokens faster.
Now, it's much easier to imagine adding dozens of cryptos in just one year to meet Ledger's business goals. At the same time, individual users can now manage different assets in one place rather than switching from one app to another.
"We really want to cover the maximum amount of cryptocurrencies," said Larcheveque. "The Live [app] is the first step in this direction because it will give us a new foundation, a new platform, where we can add as much crypto as we want."
App usage is growing faster than demand for Ledger's hardware wallets, of which the company has sold over one million units. Larchevêque said the app, which can be used without the wallet, grew from 100,000 monthly users in November 2017 to 500,000 monthly users today.
Open-source tools for Ledger Live also allow external communities to build support features for their favorite crypto. "Then we can publish them [support features] after review," Larcheveque said. "Thanks to the community work by all these developers, we can scale much faster by adding new cryptos."
Indeed, according to Tron's head of engineering, Tian Han, Ledger's new tron support was spurred in part by user-submitted code, although his organization also provided financial assistance.
"Users got together to form a team to build the implementation. Tron employees weren't involved aside from giving a grant," Han told CoinDesk. "We also awarded an $80,000 grant to the Ledger Wallet integration team members, and have future grants planned for Trezor Integration as well."
To some, the rush to offer token custody solutions to Wall Street incumbents may seem hard to square with the crypto community's "be your own bank" philosophy.
But Ledger actually has two business lines targeting institutional investors. One is a series of partnerships with organizations such as Nomura Bank in Japan, which uses Ledger's tools for full-custody services, more akin to a traditional deposit.
The other is called the Vault, an enterprise-grade custody solution for teams at an institution, like traders at a hedge fund, to self-manage crypto assets, an arrangement that's more in line with the crypto community's ethos. This multi-signature wallet is connected to many individual hardware devices for each team member.
"They are being their own bank just like with the Nano S [Ledger's hardware wallet] you are being your own bank as an individual," Gauthier said. "The different managers that are signing off on the transactions will all have a device"
So far, this self-custody approach appears to be rare, though. Typically, institutions don't want to manage their own private keys, and even some that do so don't want to be completely self-reliant.
"The best solution is I have a key, my partner has a key, and some guy that I've never heard before has a key," said Travis Kling, co-founder of Ikigai Asset Management, a hedge fund that uses BitGo in this way.
In the view of Jameson Lopp, an infrastructure engineer at Casa, institutions are applying "old world" ideas about custody to these new digital assets.
Although full-custody services don't align with Lopp's philosophy of self-reliance, he acknowledged the need for a spectrum of services and healthy competition between companies like Casa, Ledger, and BitGo. He told CoinDesk:
"It's perfectly fine if people choose to trust a third party. But the whole reason we got into this system in the first place is that people don't have to do that if they don't want to."