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Calaxy, a Web3 social media app co-founded by NBA player Spencer Dinwiddie, has raised $26 million in new funding, the company announced Tuesday.
The HBAR Foundation and blockchain gaming company Animoca Brands co-led the raise, with participation from Ethereum scaling platform Polygon. The fresh funding brings Calaxy’s total raised to just shy of $34 million following a $7.5 million seed round last year.
Los Angeles-based Calaxy lets creators sell their own crypto tokens to fans, who can redeem the tokens for exclusive content, video messages and other forms of access to those creators. The company has essentially attached Web3 technology to validated creator economy models like Patreon, Cameo and OnlyFans, Calaxy co-founder and CEO Solo Ceesay told dot.LA, with the idea of getting people to use crypto in a way that’s familiar.
New Calaxy CEO Solo Ceesay.
Photo courtesy of Solo Ceesay
“It's meant to be quite intuitive,” Ceesay said. “It's meant to be something that doesn't feel like you're opening a brokerage account and investing in a creators’ cryptocurrency.”
For example, the creator tokens on Calaxy are initially priced one-to-one with U.S. currency—so buying 20 of Dinwiddie’s coins on the platform would cost a user $20. Eventually, the company will allow creators to opt into dynamic pricing, “but we want to make sure that journey is walked when the creator's fan base is ready,” Ceesay noted. Calaxy operates on Hedera Hashgraph, a distributed ledger technology that is an alternative to blockchain.
Dallas Mavericks guard Dinwiddie has established himself as one of the NBA’s earliest adopters of cryptocurrency—having notably converted a $34 million contract extension with the Brooklyn Nets in 2018 into a digital investment vehicle.
After initially serving as Calaxy’s CEO, Dinwiddie has now moved into an executive chair role at the startup; Ceesay, a former investment banker who became Calaxy’s chief operating officer in 2020, is succeeding Dinwiddie as CEO.
The 15-person company’s app is expected to emerge from beta testing this summer. Calaxy says it has lined up around 200 creators, celebrities and influencers for its platform, including Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot, Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard and singer Teyana Taylor.
If you need more proof that NFTs have officially invaded Hollywood, look no further than United Talent Agency’s client roster.
The Beverly Hills-based talent agency recently signed Deadfellaz, an NFT collection of 10,000 zombie portraits. UTA counts Larva Labs, the creators behind the CryptoPunks NFT project, as a client, too. Even Coinbase, the publicly traded cryptocurrency exchange, is now part of UTA’s portfolio.
The agency’s foray into the crypto world shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Digital artists are selling NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, for sky-high prices. NFT exchanges like NBA Top Shot have attracted large fan bases willing to shell out money for digital collectibles. And entertainment companies in the music, film and gaming industries have been quick to venture into NFTs—even if there’s still plenty of skepticism about the digital assets.
“At first, my instinct was that this would be disruptive of things like art,” Lesley Silverman, UTA’s head of Web3 and a former fine art agent, told dot.LA. “We as an agency quickly realized that there would be similar innovation around the way we think about the broader media landscape, and that NFTs, and Web3 more broadly, would impact all of them.”
Silverman was the first full-time digital assets agent at UTA, which claims to be the first major talent agency to launch a dedicated Web3 practice. Other Hollywood talent agencies have since entered the fray—including rival WME, which recently signed a pair of Bored Ape NFTs.
Lesley Silverman, UTA’s head of Web3.
Provided by UTA
Initially, UTA aimed to help its existing clients navigate the Web3 world and launch NFT projects, such as a collaboration between Oscar-winning film score composer Hans Zimmer and NFT artist ThankYouX. But the agency soon realized that crypto is blooding a new generation of creators, founders and influencers who could use representation, Silverman said. Her team now helps clients like Deadfellaz secure brand partnerships, merchandising deals and live events—just like how UTA helps build the careers of actors, musicians and other entertainers.
“Our role is really to sit at the intersection of our clients and the things that may seem out of reach,” she said. “Their big ideas, their exciting plans—and the folks who they want to be connected to in order to carry those plans out.”
UTA has four people across the agency who work closely within the Web3 space, with plans to grow the Web3 group in the coming months. The group has facilitated more than 30 NFT drops, partnerships and other initiatives since launching in early 2021, according to the agency. The division has also worked to build a diverse talent roster, adding female-led projects and creators of color, Silverman said.
With the Web3 landscape constantly evolving, UTA will “remain nimble” when it comes to its NFT strategy, Silverman noted. One approach that’s currently resonating with fans is tying digital assets to real-world goods and experiences; indeed, the agency brokered a deal last month that will let Deadfellaz NFT holders create custom Gilson skis or snowboards depicting their own NFT artwork.
“It’s measurable that consumers want those things, and we are certainly not going to take that information lightly,” Silverman said. “Those are two areas that we will definitely look to expand and advise our clients to pursue.”
UTA recently commissioned a survey which found that while only 6% of U.S. consumers aged 16-to-54 have owned an NFT, about 38% want to own one in the future. Though the study’s results were bullish about the Web3 space overall, they did identify some obstacles; for instance, many consumers remain concerned about crypto scams and market volatility, or simply don’t know how to buy an NFT or what to do with one.
If the crypto industry can reduce those friction points, Silverman believes more consumers will flock to digital assets.
“All of that will lead to just more and more consumers entering into the space and equating digital ownership with how they interact socially, how they participate in communities and how they participate in fandom,” she said.
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The U.S. is at risk of being left behind by the world of cryptocurrencies as other countries more quickly embrace digital assets, Coinbase co-founder and CEO Brian Armstrong said Monday.
Speaking at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Armstrong noted that China began working on a digital currency back in 2014. But as seen with its tight grip on the nation’s internet, the Chinese government has looked to deploy crypto as a means of control, he added—making it all the more important that democracies allow crypto to flourish freely.
“In the free world, this technology needs to be embraced,” Armstrong said. “It can be regulated to make it safe and trusted. But the democracies in the free world need to embrace this to have some kind of an answer to other countries trying to lock it down.”
The U.S. government’s slow pace in deciding how to regulate crypto was a major theme during Armstrong’s panel with Cathie Wood, the founder and CEO of asset management firm ARK Invest, and Michael Piwowar, executive director of Milken’s Center for Financial Markets. Wood said she “expected more clarity” from regulators by now; the only thing made clear from the federal government so far, she noted, is that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are not securities.
“We want our country to do the right thing from a regulatory point of view,” she said. “We enjoyed incredible benefits from the birthing of the internet here. This is just the next generation of the internet, so let's get with the program.”
Investment in the crypto and blockchain space skyrocketed last year to more than $30 billion, up from $5.4 billion in 2020, according to the consultancy KPMG. Myriad sectors have recently delved into crypto, from automakers to entertainment companies. But there’s still plenty of skepticism about the industry—from issues around the environmental cost of mining tokens to concerns about the criminal use of cryptocurrencies.
Although the U.S. has moved slowly, Armstrong said there are signs for optimism. He noted President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order directing federal agencies to come up with a plan to regulate cryptocurrencies. And when Armstrong—who heads one of the largest crypto exchange platforms in the world—heads to Capitol Hill, he’s seeing more “pro-crypto” lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, he said.
“It's actually getting harder and harder to meet a true crypto skeptic in D.C.,” Armstrong said.
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