Crypto Tycoon Who Installed Cameras In SF Focuses On Solving Local And Global Problems


For a brief shining moment, Chris Larsen was the fifth richest man in the world – worth more than Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Larry Page or Sergey Brin.

Unlike these luminaries, the mild-mannered technical executive is not a household name. He dismisses questions about his temporary vault on the top rung of Forbes’ billionaire list, which happened in early 2018 via a huge increase in cryptocurrency backed by Ripple Labs, the company of San Francisco that he co-founded and owns a 17% stake. This year, he’s number 891 on the Forbes list, with an estimated value of $ 3.4 billion – nothing to sneeze at, but a far cry from the $ 59 billion the magazine estimated three years earlier.

In his professional life, Larsen, 60, is a serial entrepreneur who co-founded three companies that innovated to make financial services more accessible to ordinary people. In his philanthropic life, addressing civic issues is his passion. While he plays down his wealth, it has allowed him to support a myriad of projects to address local concerns in San Francisco and global issues such as climate change.

Born in San Francisco, Larsen grew up on a Cupertino ranch – his father was a United Airlines mechanic at the cemetery, his freelance artist mother was a German war refugee. He graduated from the State of San Francisco (and is one of its biggest donors) and earned an MBA from Stanford.

“My dad could get pretty angry with stuff that didn’t work, I probably got a small part of him,” he said. “We have solvable problems. The government must obviously be the leader, but sometimes private philanthropic dollars can accelerate the path to a solution. “

He channeled this energy to support practical solutions on everything from global warming and turning garbage into fuel to street crime in San Francisco through a network of cameras – although an approach that has annoyed advocates of private life.

Ripple, of which he is still the executive chairman, helps people send money online through blockchain technology at very low cost. He sees this as a transformer for remittances, the money immigrants send to loved ones in their home countries. “This should usher in the completion of globalization,” he said.

He also founded e-Loan, the leading online mortgage lender, in 1997 and Prosper Marketplace, the leading online peer-to-peer lender, in 2005.

E-Loan, the pioneer of online mortgages as the Internet became ubiquitous, was sold in 2005 to Banco Popular, a Puerto Rico-based commercial bank.

Chris Larsen, co-founder of Larsen and Lam Climate Initiative, outside the main gates of the US Steel plant in Pittsburg.

Léa Suzuki / The Chronicle

Prosper allows people who need cash for everything from renovating their home to opening a bakery to apply for loans from others. The idea was revolutionary, but also led to stumbling blocks, including a high default rate during Prosper’s early years and a regulatory shutdown of Prosper and its competitor Lending Club for several months in 2008 and 2009. The company claims facilitating $ 19 billion in loans to over 1.1 million people.

Globally, he and his wife, Lyna Lam, created the Larsen Lam Foundation for Climate Change to support promising companies, projects and technologies that are still so new that it is difficult for them to obtain traditional financing.

His first big project: Investing $ 35 million in a company called Omni Conversion Technologies that can turn solid waste – household garbage, plastic, wood chips and other things that would otherwise end up in landfills – into hydrogen to sell to oil refineries. to make their diesel production more environmentally friendly and eventually to fleets of hydrogen-powered buses and trucks.

“Every city in the United States has a recycling problem because China has stopped taking recyclable materials,” he said. “What an excellent solution to transform municipal waste into green hydrogen. “

He hopes to put a plan in place for this in Pittsburg, noting that the county town of Contra Costa had a lot of heavy industry like US Steel and could benefit from the jobs that would come to become a green tech hub.

Another big turning point: investing in Blue Planet, which has patented technology to combine carbon dioxide and waste concrete to make building materials, which permanently removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Blue Planet Subsidiary SF bay aggregates is currently building a facility in Pittsburg to do so as a proof of concept.

“It’s a perfect nut soup solution” for sequestering huge amounts of CO2, said Larsen, who recently visited the facility to see how the process works.

In San Francisco, where he lives on Russian Hill with Lam and their two sons, Larsen works on crime prevention and public safety programs in collaboration with the city’s Community Benefit Districts. Larsen contributed $ 1.7 million to launch Avenue Greenlight, which allocates $ 50,000 to business associations to beautify and protect their neighborhoods.

“A lot of people think the tech industry is coming to San Francisco and not providing enough,” said Ixchel Acosta, project manager for Avenue Greenlight. “Chris is originally from San Francisco and wants to support and give back to our city. “

Born in the city, Larsen grew up in Cupertino with a father who was a United Airlines mechanic at the cemetery and a freelance artist mother who went on to work for Lockheed Martin doing illustrations for the space shuttle program.

Avenue Greenlight has paid for ongoing replacements of Castro’s iconic rainbow flag, for example, while the Mission District is using the funds to add new murals. Other areas allocated the money to events: car-free weekends on Grant Avenue in Chinatown; a lighter Fillmore Jazz Festival; the Balboa Fright Fest.

“We are in a deep retail recession here in the city; we have to make sure these neighborhoods are still attractive so they can start to rebuild themselves and come back to more normalcy – or maybe something better like a roaring twenties kind of thing, ”Larsen said.

“Putting that money in the hands of people who know how to best use it,” Acosta said.

But it was a program with the innocuous name of SF Safe that sparked controversy. Larsen is paying for some neighborhoods to install security camera networks to deter and prosecute crime. The average installation costs $ 20,000 to $ 50,000 for multiple cameras and multiple views. The cameras have drawn the wrath of privacy advocates, although, ironically, Larsen has a long history of supporting consumer privacy, including work to help pass The California Financial Information Privacy Act of 2004, which requires banks and other financial institutions to obtain permission from customers before disclosing information about them to other companies.

“Privacy groups will never like what we do with cameras, but even the most progressive people in town hate car break-ins and want to do something about it,” Larsen said. He sees the cameras as a “neutral tool that can help communities ensure public safety and eliminate false accusations,” noting that they are supported by groups across the political spectrum: the San Francisco Police Department , public defenders and the ultraliberal district of San Francisco. Lawyer Chesa Boudin.

Simon Bertrang, executive director of the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, where the cameras are located at several intersections, said his group has worked with residents to ensure the network is not real-time surveillance as the system is London CCTV, which is continuously monitored.

Instead, “the network is there for after-the-fact footage requests,” he said. “If there is a crime, and it is often a violent crime, then the police, public prosecutor, public defender or private defense lawyers can request images to see an objective recording of what is happening. happened.”

Each request needs a file number. “It can’t just be someone on a fishing trip,” he said.

The district stores the images for 30 days and then erases them if there are no requests.

Bertrang credits the cameras with capturing several violent crimes, including anti-Asian attacks, one person kicking a sleeping person and kidnapping.

Larsen said his plans showed him acting on the saying, “If you’re going to bring the poo; bring the scoop.

“Don’t just complain about problems or swear your car has been broken into,” he said, explaining its meaning and adding that his cars had been broken into. “You can get angry and leave town or you can try to do something. We are fortunate to have the resources to do something.

Carolyn Said is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @csaid


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