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Roger is a former entrepreneur who is now a general partner at Battery Ventures focusing on consumer-marketplace and software companies.
Previously, I’ve explored the transformative effects of the blockchain, social tokens and NFTs. This post will explore decentralized finance (DeFi), with the challenges and opportunities I see as an investor.
What is DeFi?
DeFi is the bankless digitization of Wall Street. There are no intermediaries or excessive fees, just code. Transaction processing (settlement, payment and transfer of ownership) are all near-instantaneous. It’s accessible to anyone anywhere, so long as there’s an internet connection.
DeFi is built on blockchain technology and smart contracts, which I covered here. Simply put, smart contracts are programs stored on the blockchain and run automatically when predetermined conditions are met. Numerous innovative companies are applying smart contracts to categories like lending and borrowing (Aave, Maker, Compound), insurance (Nexus Mutual, Opyn, InsurAce), trading or exchanges (Uniswap) and investments (UMA, Synthetix and Market Protocol).
According to DeFi Llama, at the end of 2021, the total value locked (TVL) in the DeFi ecosystem reached $247.5 billion. Total value locked refers to the amount of capital in use or secured. While that number is tiny compared to the equities, commodities and derivatives markets, the industry’s growth rate is impressive—an extraordinary 13x lift since January 2021. The open and efficient nature of DeFi, in addition to high returns to retail investors, have spurred this growth. In time, I feel crypto alternatives will apply significant competitive pressure on incumbent financial services providers.
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What’s next in DeFi?
A general-purpose blockchain, ethereum is the dominant network of DeFi. As a first mover, ethereum has fostered a strong community of users, developers, nodes, tools and applications. However, ethereum charges gas, or fees, to prioritize transactions. The greater demand for usage, the higher the cost of gas. Ethereum has sustained such a prolonged period of high demand that “gas” costs have become preventative for many retail users. This runs counter to DeFi’s goals to lower costs and increase financial accessibility. Ethereum 2.0 should improve throughput and speed—but other smart contract platforms are making inroads. A key trend in DeFi is the rising popularity of other blockchain ecosystems beyond ethereum.
In early 2021, according to Coindesk, “97% of DeFi’s aggregate TVL belonged to Ethereum; today, Ethereum possesses only 63% of that TVL.” One fast-growing “ETH Killer” is Solana, with nearly $9.9 billion TVL. They’ve capitalized on high transaction speeds and low fees, although they also face criticism for network centralization and technical outages.
Other blockchains like Terra are successfully focusing on a primary use case, like algorithmic stablecoins. Currently, Terra has $18.46 billion in TVL with huge growth last year. Other Layer 1 (L1) blockchains that support DeFi include Avalanche, PolkaDot, Binance Smart Chain, Polygon and Harmony. Their TVL growth and developer popularity signal a diversifying DeFi landscape.
A major hurdle in DeFi is scalability. A “one blockchain fits all use cases” approach sounds good but clearly has limitations. Short- to mid-term, a sustainable DeFi ecosystem will likely consist of interoperable blockchains, each finding footholds among different market segments. I predict a multichain world enabled by bridges and cross-chain protocols will characterize the DeFi ecosystem over the next three to five years. Long-term, I would expect most protocols will again hit the upper limits of scalability and fail to keep up with consumer adoption. In the decades ahead, the DeFi market will consolidate down to a few “best of breed” players with the most sophisticated and robust infrastructure.
Another hurdle is regulatory. The SEC has concerns about the lack of equal informational access around DeFi. Technical and sophisticated investors maintain a significant advantage over the average user in their ability to extract and interpret complex data, but the same could be said about traditional finance. While the SEC holds authority over some segments of DeFi, in other areas it’s ambiguous. A clear regulatory framework will take time to emerge, but a forward-thinking directive will accelerate consumer and institutional adoption.
Other hurdles to institutional adoption include tools to assess counterparty risk, enterprise-grade data and analytics, and a standardized application layer for trade execution. An enterprise-grade trading platform must rationalize the fragmented nature of DeFi. Early institutional adoption will follow mass consumer adoption and be pushed by client demand, but only once the stage is set.
What does DeFi mean for finance’s future?
Interest in DeFi has risen with crypto’s boom and will likely persist. While cryptocurrencies and stablecoins are considered risky, DeFi offers token holders attractive returns compared to the sub-1% offered by major banks and geographies with negative interest rates.
In the near term, I expect more neobanks and fintech companies to expand their product offerings to include cryptocurrency and standardized DeFi products—a trend known as centralized finance, or CeFi. CeFi players like BlockFi, Celsius and Nexo act as an intermediary for consumers and reduce DeFi’s complexity. In my opinion, whoever increases DeFi consumer usability and access will onboard the next 100 million to 1 billion users.
I also expect DeFi to bridge the digital and physical worlds. DeFi will make alternative asset classes much more liquid and interchangeable. For example, tokenization has enabled fractionalization in real estate and other illiquid asset classes.
DeFi won’t replace our financial infrastructure entirely, the two will coexist, but traditional institutions will eventually have to navigate this complex landscape. That will mean expanding their offerings, acquiring crypto market leaders and/or reengineering traditional financial products to remain competitive.
Like the rest of Web3, DeFi is a nascent category demonstrating tremendous growth. Within the next decade, I believe DeFi will be a very competitive force in the finance industry, helping consumers improve choice, avoid inefficient “middlemen” and align financial incentives.
Battery Ventures provides investment advisory services solely to privately offered funds and neither solicits nor makes its services available to the public or other advisory clients. Nothing herein should be construed as investment advice. Content obtained from third-party sources, although believed reliable, has not been independently verified for accuracy or completeness and cannot be guaranteed. For a full list of all Battery investments, click here.