ICO of the day: Synthetic rhino horn erection pills, on the Blockchain

To write an ICO white paper, you must: 1. State a problem. 2. Assert that ERC-20 tokens on the Ethereum blockchain will solve it. I don’t think there are any other steps.

Synthorn (archive, archive) is selling “Synthetic Rhino Horn Aphrodisiac, Tokenized on the Ethereum blockchain.” (The site is also available in Chinese and Vietnamese.) Here’s the abstract from the Synthorn white paper (archive), which they actually did the barely five pages of in LaTeX:

Rhino horn is much sought after for use as an aphrodisiac. However, poaching has had a devastating effect on rhino populations worldwide. To combat this, Synthorn proposes a synthetic rhino horn aphrodisiac, tokenized on the Ethereum Blockchain via an ERC20 token. This would allow pre-orders, trade and speculation. A separate sale of HORN tokens is being conducted to validate the proposed ICO.

The plan is to make synthetic rhino horn (which would just be rhino keratin), impregnated with Viagra. Or not. In any case, it should sell itself!

Rest assured they’ve accounted for the risks, i.e., that they have no idea how to make or buy synthetic rhino horn:


Although most of the inputs needed for Synthorn are easily sourced, there are few producers of biofabricated rhino horn.

Pembient, Inc. [1] is currently issuing an ICO, Pembicoin [2]. One Pembicoin token will eventually be redeemable for one gram of biofabricated rhino horn. We plan to purchase Pembicoin commensurate with the amount needed to manufacture Synthorn.

However, since our ability to produce Synthorn is predicated on success of Pembicoin, any and all risks inherent to the Pembicoin ICO also apply to the Synthorn ICO. Please see the Pembicoin ICO[2] for details.

Market risk

We expect Synthorn will sell itself. Market risk, although possible, is minimal.

Synthorn’s front page notes that you should “consider this a donation, as the product may not proceed to production.” There are no names or contact details for Synthorn, just an address to send ether to.

Pembient is a biotech startup that’s been trying for a while to drum up interest in synthetic rhino horn. Like many innovative entrepreneurs with a dream, they’ve noticed the ICO bubble, and Pembicoin (archive) is their contribution. “A PembiCoin is a blockchain-based token that allows its holder to take delivery of one gram of biofabricated horn in the year 2022. A PembiCoin does not represent or constitute an ownership interest or share in Pembient.”

What are the uses of rhino horn? Apparently, “Artisans, carvers, and designers want to turn biofabricated horn into durable goods.” And certainly not erection pills, no, no.

Pembient’s plan is to flood the rhino horn market with their synthetic product, crowding out real rhino horn. Actual conservation groups think this idea is terrible — it would expand consumer demand for what is already an aspirational product, it would lend credibility to the completely fraudulent claims that rhino horn has any medical effect and it would provide cover for trade in poached horns:

“Pembient is completely out of touch with the realities of wildlife trafficking, and has not once considered how harmful its product will be to law enforcement efforts on the front lines in Africa and Asia,” says Rhishja Cota-Larson, founder of the environmental pressure group Annamiticus.

Pembient’s business plan is not welcomed by Hanoi-based Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV). “Pembient risks undermining all the progress already undertaken in Vietnam by giving credibility to scientifically unproven medicinal beliefs, compromising enforcement, and potentially stimulating demand, while failing to address a key issue: status-driven rhino horn users want real horn from wild rhinos,” explains Doug Hendrie, Wildlife Crime and Investigations Unit Advisor at ENV.

Regulators aren’t happy with this either. Only Pembient and the other biotech companies who think they can make money from synthetic rhino horn think it’s in any way a good idea.

One Pembicoin will apparently deliver one gram of synthetic rhino horn in 2022, with one of the risks being “R&D problems.” Pembient were claiming in 2016 that they would have horns in two years (2018), though in 2015 they were already claiming that “Our horns are practically indistinguishable from wild horns.”

They hired a lawyer at least long enough to write something for the risks section detailing the ways in which all of this could be laughably illegal:

A PembiCoin is structured as a “prepaid forward contract” executed on an over-the-counter (OTC) basis. These facts, among others, place PembiCoins in an unclear regulatory environment. For instance, within the U.S.A., the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) could come to view a PembiCoin as a futures contract, while the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) might conclude it is a security. Moreover, because PembiCoins exists on a blockchain, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) could classify us as a money transmitter. Finally, depending on how we source the stem cells we use, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) might exercise control over the horn we deliver. Even if regulation is avoidable at the federal level, it may be unavoidable in various state, local, and foreign jurisdictions.

To recap: the substitute rhino horn aphrodisiac coin is actually a substitute coin for another substitute rhino horn coin, which may well be an actual product by 2022, if they can work out by then how to manufacture a rhino horn substitute and if current rhino horn users will accept it as a valid substitute, and which even if they did accept it as a valid substitute is considered by everyone else interested in the question to be an awful idea that will lead to more rhino poaching, not less. Assuming the whole plan isn’t trivially illegal in several ways.

So far Synthorn has taken 0.012 ETH to date from two addresses. Pembicoin itself has taken 10.509 ETH from seven addresses. Get your ether in now!

Hat-tip to Magrov for finding this one.

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8 Comments on “ICO of the day: Synthetic rhino horn erection pills, on the Blockchain”

  1. One should consider making synthetic rhino horn that only special equipment could distinguish between the real thing and using it to drive down the market price of the product to the point where hunting rhino horns was no longer profitable.

    It seems that banning rhino-horn is not having enough effect on its own. One can keep enforcing the rhinohorn ban with tough penalties on anyone caught with real rhino horn and only mild penalties for those selling the fake stuff. One can further make it the false advertising the fake stuff as real exempt from any fraud statutes so people getting the fake stuff would not be able to tell.

    1. I’d be inclined to take my cue from the rhino conservation charities: “status-driven rhino horn users want real horn from wild rhinos” – everyone except the prospective manufacturers of synthetic rhino horn considers that normalising pseudo-medical uses for rhino horn (which is nothing but keratin) would only make the problem worse.

      1. David,

        This is a fun parody, but regurgitating the “aphrodisiac” myth does a disservice to everyone [1]. Looking at the work of groups like the Wildlife Justice Commission [2] and the Elephant Action League [3] would give you a much better understanding of the horn market. Further, economists have started to study our proposed intervention, and find some promise in it [4]. Even South Africa has recently established a biosynthesis work stream “within the Biodiversity Research and Evidence Indaba to develop a framework for research on alternatives for rhino horn [5].” We hope you agree that taking your cue from the loudest special interests is no way to form an educated opinion.

        [1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-hard-truth-about-the-rhino-horn-aphrodisiac-market/
        [2] https://wildlifejustice.org/rhino-horn-demand-china-medicinal-investment/
        [3] https://elephantleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Grinding-Rhino-July2017-Elephant-Action-League.pdf
        [4] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2017.06.003
        [5] http://pmg.org.za/files/170829Rhino_Conservation.pptx

        1. Thanks for commenting 🙂 As far as I can see, your comment’s substantially answered by the response from Save the Rhino, which I linked above. Their reply is comprehensive and detailed, and everyone interested in this question should read through it.

          I note in particular: “More than 90% of “rhino horns” in circulation are fake (mostly carved from buffalo horn or wood), but poaching rates continue to rise annually.”

          I don’t doubt your sincerity, but I do wonder at everyone else involved in the question saying you’re wrong.

          1. Save the Rhino also says:

            “We are not, therefore, ethically opposed to the horn trade, as horns can be removed without harming rhinos (though this is not to say that dehorning is simple).”

            It buggers the mind that lab-grown horn is somehow bad but tranquilizing rhinos and harvesting their horn is good. We don’t get it.

            As for the 90% of horn that’s fake, well, Frédéric Bastiat wrote a great essay about what is seen and what is unseen. If horn powder or small horn chunks couldn’t be faked with the horn of a domesticated animal (e.g., a cow), the rhino poaching rates would be much higher. Additionally, note that those rates have mysteriously come down since Save the Rhino’s post.

            Currently, a large enough object made of horn is self-certifying. In the absence of lab-made counterfeits, where else could such an object come from but a rhino? Buffalo horn is hollow. Wood is wood. The fakes fail when it comes to the production of durable goods. It’s the difference between painting a lead bar gold and alchemy. With gold, it’s cheaper to mine it than to use a particle accelerator to make it. The opposite is true with horn. It is possible to make it in a lab at a price point that undercuts both farmers and poachers.

            Again, don’t trust us. Read what an economist has to say:

  2. Nice Synthetic Rhino Horn Aphrodisiac offering. Proving your own point by playing into the stereotype of the whole debate…

    You’d be wise not to paraphrase the groups on whose watch the rhino poaching problem has sky rocketed in the past nine years. Rhino horn has been illegal since 1977… laws and bad rap seems to only work on the white people who already agree with the idea that killing animals is bad. The fact that rhino horn is illegal at all is the very reason why it’s on the black market in the first place.

    By repeating the argument that customers always want wild betrays that you have no idea what the animal replacement technology is offering. Consumers want “wild” with NO place to guarantee their Providence. That is what a black market is called. It’s illegal and you can’t call the police if you get screwed. Biologically identical means that they ARE getting the wild thing…. wild with NO animals involved.

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