11 July 2024

Once a troublemaking schoolboy with poor grades, Jirayut “Topp” Srupsrisopa has grown up to become Thailand’s cryptocurrency pioneer in charge of the country’s first licensed crypto exchange, Bitkub Online.

The company is part of Bitkub Capital Group Holdings, the largest blockchain and cryptocurrency corporation in Thailand.

Bitkub is now worth more than Bt35 billion, becoming the first Thai fintech firm to reach the status of “unicorn” – a startup valued at over US$1 billion – after Siam Commercial Bank last month bought a 51 per cent stake for Bt17.8 billion.

Like other Thai digital currencies, Bitkub Coin (aka KUB) saw dramatic price fluctuations over the past week – jumping from Bt180 on Nov 27 to a record high of Bt490 two days later before dropping below Bt200 last Saturday (Dec 4).

Ambitious target

Jirayut, Bitkub’s 31-year-old founder and chief executive officer, has announced an ambitious plan to turn the country’s largest cryptocurrency firm into a dominant crypto exchange platform in Southeast Asia.

“Our strategy is to expand in countries that have no clear [crypto] winners yet and are under-banked, with high social media usage and the potential to use cryptocurrency for remittances,” Jirayut was quoted as saying by Bloomberg in a December 1 article.

“The expansion will be achieved either through new ventures or acquisitions. The goal is to become the Coinbase of Southeast Asia.”
He was referring to Coinbase Global Inc, which has become the biggest crypto exchange in the US on a surge of investor interest that has pushed global cryptocurrency market capitalization to $3 trillion (Bt101.6 trillion).

Bitkub’s regional expansion follows its success in Thailand, where it commands a near-monopoly 92 per cent market share, with revenue growing more than 1,000 per cent annually since its formation in 2018.

A troubled beginning

Born on February 8, 1990, to a Bangkok family who ran a garment wholesale and export business, Jirayut admits to being a mischiefmaker during his school days.

After he broke a fellow student’s arm during a fight, his mother was summoned by the headmaster. “That’s the first time I saw my mom weep,” he recounted.

After completing his primary school education, his parents sent him to study in New Zealand. He left high school with a passing grade but failed to pass Thai university admission exams.

Fortunately, the University of Manchester in England accepted his application. There, aiming to reform himself, Jirayut said he read textbooks “like crazy” for up to 12 hours every day over three consecutive months.

His hard work was rewarded with a Bachelor’s in Economics with highest distinction honors in 2011. He went on to further his studies at the University of Oxford, where he graduated with a Master of Philosophy in Economics in 2013.

Getting to know bitcoin

After graduation, he travelled to Shanghai and worked at a small investment bank. He lasted little more than two months after his project ideas were repeatedly rejected by his manager.

However, his stint in Shanghai introduced him to the digital currency bitcoin. His interest in bitcoin grew after seeing its value jump 100 times in a short space of time.

Following Shanghai, Jirayut looked for a new job in San Francisco, seeking employment at a Silicon Valley tech giant such as Facebook or Google. However, he lacked the necessary degree in Computer Science and was instead employed by Bank of America as a financial consultant. However, he quit the job after realizing that doing research all day long was not for him.

Starting humble startup

After meeting several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and executives, Jirayut was inspired to set up his own startup trading in digital currency eight years ago.

His first company, Coins Thailand, operated from the mezzanine of his mother’s garment shop in Bangkok’s Pratunam area. He was the company’s only employee in the beginning, working on his laptop from an office desk donated by his mother’s younger sister – who also became his first client.

Initially, the young entrepreneur struggled to run his crypto-trading firm solo – enduring sleepless nights, borrowing from his parents, and saving every baht to keep his business going.

‘World-changing technology’

Less than a year after starting his business, Jirayut got a letter from the Bank of Thailand warning that bitcoin might be regarded as a pyramid scheme and its value could collapse to zero.

Alarmed, his parents asked him to quit the business. However, Jirayut was convinced that crypto was the future of money. For him, digital currencies represented a new technology that was changing the world’s monetary system.

As his business expanded, Jirayut later got another letter – this one from the Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO), summoning him for questioning. His father told him to “shut the company now”, but the young businessman remained firm in his conviction about the future of cryptocurrencies.

His explanation about bitcoin satisfied AMLO officials, but on returning to his office, the young CEO discovered that more than half of his employees had resigned, apparently over fear of possible legal action.

By 2016, his business had grown to become Thailand’s largest bitcoin trading company. As no Thai regulations on cryptocurrencies existed at that time, Jirayut decided to sell his business to Indonesian tech company Gojek.

Birth of Bitkub

When the Thai government finally decided it was time to regulate cryptocurrencies, the SEC invited Jirayut to lecture its executive board about bitcoin and other digital assets.

Then came the green light for licensing of privately-run digital asset exchanges.

Jirayut quickly began raising funds to set up a new company. He founded Bitkub in February 2018 with a starting capital of Bt50 million (its current registered capital is Bt290 million, according to the company’s website).

Bitkub earned Bt3 million in its first year of operations. That amount grew tenfold to Bt30 million the following year, Bt300 million in 2020, and soared to Bt800 million in the first quarter of this year.

The CEO told the popular Woody Exclusive Talk show in October that earnings will exceed Bt5 billion by year-end, with a profit of more than Bt2 billion. The SCB deal was unveiled a few weeks later, confirming Bitkub’s new unicorn status.

By Thai PBS World’s Business Desk