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These digital tokens are making bitcoin's huge rally look tame

A collection of bitcoin tokens stand in front of an illustration of binary code in this arranged photograph in London, U.K., on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Forget U.S. stocks and emerging-market assets, even ignore bitcoin. Those brave enough to invest in the Wild West of tech are the ones making a killing.

While the record-breaking rally in bitcoin has captivated markets, demand for other digital coins is surging as companies raise millions in minutes, or even seconds, from investors wanting in on the next big tech startup. Last week it took 30 seconds for Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich to issue about $35-million of basic attention token, the unit of exchange in a blockchain-based advertising platform built on top of the company's Brave browser.

Digital tokens tied to the blockchain platform issued this year have more than doubled in price on average since trading started, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Tech startups are increasingly selling coins that can be used on their projects instead of resorting to traditional financing methods such as venture capital.

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The sector isn't for the fainthearted. The apps and websites behind most of these tokens are still only in development stage. Most are sold for pennies on the dollar and volatility can be extreme. TaaS, a closed-end fund dedicated to blockchain markets, had the coins it sold this year double in price in five weeks, and then fall 35 percent in two days.

But if you can stomach the risk, the rewards have been substantial. Coins from the 15 ICOs this year for which data is available have risen by an average of over 100 percent, while shares sold in initial public offerings in the U.S. this year have gained 13 per cent on average since they started trading.

"There's been overwhelming demand for coins," said Ron Quaranta, chairman of the Wall Street Blockchain Alliance. "Sure, a lot of it is based on speculation and traders looking to make a quick gain, but there's also a fundamental driver, which is the anticipation that the digital-currency market is maturing."

Forty-four coins have been issued this year, according to blockchain research website Smith & Crown. Not all trade immediately after the auctions since some have vesting periods. The tokens with the biggest gain, a 500-per-cent jump since it started trading on March 30, was issued by Edgeless, which is building a decentralized gambling platform. That sale wasn't open to U.S.-based investors since the company isn't licensed to operate in the U.S.

Prediction market platform Gnosis sold the highest valued tokens this year. The GNO token started trading at $52 on May 1 and has more than quadrupled.

Even with growing acceptance of blockchain from companies ranging from Toyota Motor Corp. to JPMorgan Chase & Co., some advocates of the technology say they're cautious of the digital tokens because of the exuberance sweeping through the cryptocurrency world.

"It seems like a fad, and as a professional investor, it's not what we do," said David Dunn, president of Kingsbridge Wealth Management, who first bought bitcoin in 2014 and has invested in blockchain-related companies. "I'd rather invest in the companies using the technology themselves. The speculators might end up being right, and this becomes a solid investment because of the power of the technology, but we're not at that stage."

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Token sales like the one for Gnosis, which catapulted the company's market capitalization to over $300 million without it even having a product, or Eich's BAT coin, which was over in seconds, have raised some eyebrows. Still, the token market will probably continue to grow at least in the near future, said Nick Tomaino, principal at San Francisco-based venture-capital firm Runa Capital, who also runs The Control blog, which tracks digital currencies.

More than $100 million of coins has been raised this year, surpassing total sales last year, while total issuance is expected to jump to about $600 million, according to Tomaino.

"There's a lot of hype, and a lot of money being raised because it's so easy for anyone to create these coins without having to deal with any third parties, and it's so easy for people to buy them," Mr. Tomaino said. "It can't be stopped."

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