Crypto Interest Still Kicking at iConnections in Face of Bear
iConnections — historically for its annual Miami traditional finance get-together — has made a substantial push into digital assets over the last several years.
CEO Ron Biscardi founded the parent company of iConnections Global Alts in 2020, after he cut ties with Context Summits, a now-rival conference business that he co-founded.
At iConnection’s recent flagship conference in Miami, Biscardi — clad in the Wall Street-y business attire that is the get-together’s standard — Biscardi told Blockworks the expansion into digital assets has been bearing some fruit.
And doing so despite organizing a sprawling and in-person event in the midst of markets that have been difficult for institutional crypto traders and their traditional finance counterparts.
The basic idea behind iConnections Global Alts is to connect big-money allocators with portfolio managers and related opportunities to pull the trigger on a range of alternative strategies.
Incorporating digital assets, according to conference participants, has been quite the challenge. It’s not easy, sources said, to mesh Wall Street’s way of looking at things — not to mention due diligence processes — with all things Web3.
Still, there’s been a growing appetite in and around iConnections for digital asset plays.
Those have included, allocators and portfolio managers alike said, actively managed spot cryptoasset market neutral strategies and passive exposures with low fees, as well as fundamental and macro-informed approaches.
Biscardi said the “primary reason” behind his team’s initial expansion into cryptocurrencies was the “significant uptick in interest” from both limited and general partners. The trend really started with allocators, though, according to Biscardi.
At 2022’s iConnections Global Alts, there were (approximately) 17 firms that self-identified as having an affiliation with digital assets, the chief executive said. There were approximately 8,200 overall meetings between investors and their backers last year.
That handful of crypto participants accounted for about 750 meetings overall — equating to about 50 meetings per firm.
Biscardi, speaking from the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach, said he’s “never seen a concentration like that.” He was surrounded by a swirling sea of traditional finance types, clad in tailored business attire.
Deal flow murmurs filled the main iConnections atrium, where Biscardi had set up shop for the interview. Hush-hush conversations of business getting done and business getting lost flooded the surrounding hallways. That kind of thing is why the conference, and others like it, really matter to institutional investors, they say.
The programming itself is far from an iConnections afterthought, in the eyes of its attendees. It’s evolved into a go-to source for market observations from prominent players.
But participants said their observations of crypto interest is the most important thing.
The interest has certainly tailed off during digital assets’ extended bear market. Biscardi first added a dedicated digital assets conference track at an event in June 2022, which he said was prompted by the statistics he mentioned.
What follows is additional context from the interview about how that concentration came to be — and where Biscardi and his company sees the intersection of digital assets and Wall Street going.
Blockworks: How have digital assets shaped up in terms of interest this year?
Biscardi: That crypto winter that we’re in the midst of?
The expectation of the market is that crypto has really been put on pause by the institutional allocators. And I don’t really disagree with that. But there still is interest.
I frankly think — if we could get the regulatory infrastructure in place — I do believe there’s still legitimate interest in this.
Blockworks: What’s the institutional crypto opportunity set right now? What’re the challenges?
Biscardi: Starting something new right now, in anything, is difficult. Starting anything new in digital assets now is very, very difficult.
The challenge the category faced before FTX was already tough. Now, it’s incredibly tough. Post-FTX, the focus reminds me of what happened after the financial crisis.
Not only did investors just avoid risk at all costs, they were specifically avoiding business risk right after the crash. It didn’t really matter what your performance was. If you were a smaller fund, it was really difficult to raise assets as an emerging manager — because no one wanted the business risk that comes with how an emerging manager wants to operate.
Blockworks: There are also different buckets of risk, especially in crypto, that often get lost in translation.
Biscardi: At the moment, I just don’t think there’s much appetite at all for the business risk associated with emerging crypto managers. If there’s an opportunity to accumulate assets, it’s going to go to the larger firms, for sure.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
There were scores of large digital asset natives — depending on how you define “large” — at 2023’s conference. Biscardi, speaking generally and not specifically about the conference, cited Brevan Howard Digital’s emergence last year as a bellwether moment for the industry.
Even if things now are rocky.
Biscardi has orchestrated a conference specific to digital assets in the past. There are no plans to add a similar event at the moment, he said. Market conditions being what they are.
This time around, there were more than 300 allocators who checked off digital assets as one area of investment interest — good for about 30% or so.
There were more than 50 fund managers at the conference running a “primary strategy of crypto,” according to Biscardi. Up from just 17 last year.
Digital assets are now one of four main iConnections Global Alts tracks. The three other categories remain tied to Wall Street.