Crypto’s big year saw multiple record highs for BTC and ETH, the arrival of venture capital and a sovereign nation adopting the Bitcoin standard.

In terms of price action, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin (BTC) and Ether (ETH) are ending 2021 with a whimper, confounding expectations for an end-of-year blow-off top scenario. A six-figure Bitcoin by December became a consensus trade among many analysts, investors and market observers who were expecting the flagship cryptocurrency to replicate its previous four-year cycle. 

Although Bitcoin is still a long way off from that coveted milestone, exponential markets require a longer-term view. When we zoom out, we see that Bitcoin continues to print higher highs and higher lows on the yearly chart. We also see significant uptake from both retail and institutional investors who now consider crypto to be a legitimate asset class.

Despite the recent downward price action, 2021 was crypto’s big year. Amid all the positive developments we observed over the past 12 months, five stories, in particular, caught our eye as being the most bullish from a business and adoption perspective.

Tesla adds Bitcoin to its balance sheet

Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors sent shockwaves across the crypto community in February when it revealed that it had allocated a sizable portion of its balance sheet to Bitcoin. The company’s final Form 10-K filing for its 2020 fiscal year showed a $1.5 billion allocation to BTC, which represented roughly 7.7% of its gross cash position at the time.

In addition to buying Bitcoin, the company said it was accepting BTC payments for its vehicles, a move that gave crypto whales more reason to splurge on Tesla products. Tesla’s decision not only sent the Bitcoin price soaring but also signaled to other corporations that crypto is a strategic reserve asset.

After winning the hearts of crypto loyalists, Musk would later reveal that his company was halting BTC payments over concerns about the cryptocurrency’s energy usage. He also said Tesla sold roughly 10% of its BTC holdings, but only to demonstrate the coin’s liquidity.

Although these could be taken as negative developments — the crypto community sure thought so at the time — the billionaire also hinted that his company was closer to accepting Bitcoin payments again. Oh, and he says he never offloaded any of his personal BTC bags.

El Salvador declares Bitcoin legal tender

The tiny Central American nation of El Salvador made crypto history in June when it became the first country to declare Bitcoin legal tender.

Despite fierce opposition from the likes of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, El Salvador believes its Bitcoin gambit could help transform its economy by streamlining remittances, promoting financial digitization, and providing consumers with a new vehicle for transactions and savings.

El Salvador has issued its own state-backed Bitcoin wallet, dubbed Chivo, and installed hundreds of crypto ATMs across the country to make it easier for locals to begin transacting with BTC.

Since implementing the Bitcoin Law, El Salvador has been keenly buying the dips on all BTC major price corrections. After its most recent purchase, on Dec. 21, the country now holds 1,220 BTC on its books worth roughly $60 million at today’s prices.

El Salvador’s decision to adopt Bitcoin could have significant ramifications on a region that’s struggling with hyperinflation, fiscal pressures, and economic uncertainty. Although several other Latin American countries are reportedly considering adopting Bitcoin, no other government has followed in El Salvador’s lead yet.

Related: Bank of America outlines 4 potential benefits of El Salvador’s Bitcoin strategy

Crypto becomes a multi-trillion-dollar asset class

While cryptocurrencies are known for their volatility, a longer term view shows a steadily increasing market valuation. In 2021, the cryptocurrency market capitalization set multiple milestones, including crossing the $1 trillion value mark for the first time in early January. It took the crypto market roughly four months to double to $2 trillion before briefly surpassing $3 trillion in early November, according to Coingecko data.

It took the crypto market roughly four months to double to $2 trillion before briefly surpassing $3 trillion in early November, according to Coingecko data.

In 2021, crypto emerged as a multi-trillion-dollar asset class that’s too big to ignore. Source: CoinGecko

Crypto’s emergence as a multi-trillion-dollar asset class means more institutional investors are planning their entry into the market. Existing crypto-focused investment managers have also seen demand for their products surge, with net asset flows into digital asset products exceeding $9.3 billion for 2021, according to CoinShares data.

Financial institutions and other corporations are also transacting in crypto at a higher rate, with Europe emerging as the largest crypto economy and Asia also witnessing significant growth, according to blockchain analytics firm Chainalysis.

Related: Are institutional investors the key silent partners of crypto?

Bitcoin ETFs approved

The 2017 bull market culminated with the launch of Bitcoin futures contracts by CBOE and CME, which gave institutional investors new ways to gain exposure to the digital asset. Four years later, investors are now able to buy and hold Bitcoin through various exchange-traded funds, or ETFs.

In the first quarter, Canada saw the debut of two funds — the Purpose Bitcoin ETF and the Evolve Bitcoin ETF — that provide direct physical exposure to the digital asset.

The debuts were a resounding success, with the Purpose Bitcoin fund accumulating over $1.3 billion in assets in less than two months. Fast forward to the end of the year, Fidelity Canada launched a spot Bitcoin ETF that’s expected to bring more investors to the digital asset market.

Regulators in the United States have been much less progressive in their approach to digital assets. While the Securities and Exchange Commission refused to greenlight a spot Bitcoin ETF in 2021, regulators did approve two futures-linked Bitcoin products that many in the industry took as an important milestone.

The ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF became the first U.S.-approved BTC fund in October. Shortly thereafter, the Valkyrie Bitcoin Strategy ETF hit the market. Then, in November, VanEck launched its own Bitcoin Strategy ETF in the United States.

Related: Why now? SEC took eight years to authorize a Bitcoin ETF in the US

Venture capital arrives

Perhaps the most bullish indicator of all for crypto in 2021 was the tidal wave of venture capital flooding the market. Dozens of crypto unicorns were crowned this year as startup valuations soared above $1 billion.

Amber Group, Bitso, Blockchain.com Blockstream, BlockFi, CoinList, CoinSwitch Kuber, ConsenSys, Figure Technologies, Fireblocks, OpenSea, 2TM, and others all joined this exclusive list thanks to highly successful private funding rounds.

In the first ten months of 2021, venture capital had funded crypto- and blockchain-focused startups to the tune of $17 billion, more than three times the 2020 amount, according to data from PitchDeck.

Related: Unicorns in crypto: A growing herd of billion-dollar crypto companies

The arrival of venture capital means smart money has identified crypto and blockchain as major growth themes. Of course, if you’re Jack Dorsey, that’s not necessarily a good thing:

Nevertheless, VCs splurging on blockchain startups, regardless of where we are in the market cycle, is a sign that the industry is maturing. It’s also a gentle reminder to all those who survived ICO mania that their initial hunch to invest in crypto was probably correct. After all, you beat Silicon Valley to the punch.