After becoming familiar with his various passions, Sunny Ray seems to have found an opportunity which combines them all.
Mr. Ray is the cofounder and president of Unocoin, a Bangalore, India-based startup that began in 2013.
In three years it has grown to operate India’s largest BTC-INR trading platform, enabling Indians to handle all aspects of bitcoin transactions. It processes more than INR 200 million for more than 110,000 customers and has attracted more than 30 investors from five countries.
Armed with electrical engineering degrees from the Universities of Toronto and Alberta, Mr. Ray began his career working in finance but switched to robotics just before last decade’s financial meltdown after becoming disillusioned with many of the factors which contributed to it.
He traveled to India and discovered bitcoin.
“I started bitcoin meet-up groups, where we discussed everything about it,” Mr. Ray recalled. “That was pivotal.”
Mr. Ray met his cofounders in those sessions and embarked on a steep learning curve he admits featured plenty of bumps along the way.
“But we loved it. We were iterating and failing, but they were learning experiences.”
Mr. Ray shared an interesting story that helped shape Unocoin. CEO Sathvik Vishwanath had built VentureNext, a successful company which provided scripting services and virtual products and games in virtual world SecondLife. The pain point came when it was time to get paid. Popular methods at the time time came with weeklong delays and significant fees.
“He lost eight percent a month,” Mr. Ray said.
Bitcoin was a godsend.
Fuelled by passion, the Unocoin team never gave up and in between those learning experiences they saw their share of early successes, including a successful conference that attracted both early adopters and the curious. The playbook was being written as they went but Mr. Ray knew they were on to something.
India is a cash-based society, which explains the panic resulting from the government’s recent decision to demonetize the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes (though Mr. Ray cautions those notes are being replaced by 500 and 2,000 rupee notes). The primary reason is to stamp out “black money” on which no tax is paid.
That means more money is finding its way into India’s banks, which is great for bitcoin businesses like Unocoin that deal with banks.
“We saw some of that residual impact,” Mr. Ray said.
After averaging around 5,000 sessions per day in the months before the demonetization, Unocoin saw a doubling in November. The activity has subsided somewhat but is higher overall.
Bitcoin should be a solid long-term play in India for several reasons, Mr. Ray said. Many Indians are very familiar with technology. Mobile penetration rates are strong and they have an educated workforce that is heavy on the sciences.
Indians also highly value gold, Mr. Ray added. Many will view bitcoin as a digital replacement. Because of that increased demand, bitcoin prices, like gold’s, are often higher in India than elsewhere.
Contrary to what is often said in the media, bitcoin is actually fairly traceable, Mr. Ray explained.
“The problem is that while there is a bitcoin protocol, there is no identity associated with that protocol.
“But there are a lot of ways for law enforcement to track it.”
Bangalore is the perfect place to host Unocoin for a variety or reasons, Mr. Ray said. The city boasts a highly educated and technologically-savvy workforce. Many people also have an entrepreneurial bent and are looking to do something big.
And the weather is a lot like Silicon Valley too.
“It couldn’t have been a better place,” Mr. Ray said.
Mr. Ray estimates that 40-50 percent of Unocoin users are treating the cryptocurrency like digital gold and are holding it as a long-term investment. Roughly 25 percent use it as a payment method.
Unocoin has also released a merchant point of sale app that converts bitcoin into rupees before depositing it into the merchant’s account.
“We are systematically taking away all the pain points that make bitcoin confusing for people,” Mr. Ray said, while estimating there have been close to 3,000 downloads in the first few weeks of availability.
Take the tally of the last three years and it shows plenty of positives, more than enough to validate the Unocoin team’s decision to move ahead back in 2013.
“We kept going just knowing that bitcoin was the future,” Mr. Ray recalled. “It’s amazing what is happening. Never before have we even had a chance to participate in the global financial system.”