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Originally published Friday, March 21, 2014 at 8:00 PM

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The baffling death in Singapore of young CEO with Bitcoin ties

Death of young CEO who grew up in Wisconsin became a global story because of her connections to Bitcoin, the much-discussed and controversial digital currency.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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Wherever she went — California, Asia; board meetings, sales calls — Autumn Radtke took a little bit of home with her.

“She had that quality from Wisconsin, an approachability and a warmth,” said Carey Radtke, her aunt. “It’s the truth. People who are from the Midwest, who are from Wisconsin, are like that and they don’t even know it, and that’s what drew people to her.”

She didn’t have prestigious educational credentials, but she impressed people who did. She believed strongly in personal responsibility and urged friends to do the same.

She grew up in Waukesha County, Wis., but wasn’t about to stay there. By 18, she was gone. A Facebook post shortly after her 27th birthday chronicled some of her travels: “I turned 23 in Los Angeles, 24 in San Francisco, 25 in Bali, 26 in Las Vegas and finally 27 in Singapore!”

Just a few months ago, she was brimming with optimism. “The feeling that I have right now,” she told a friend during a Skype conversation she included on her Facebook page, “is that I can go anywhere and do whatever I want.”

Then, on Feb. 26, she was dead. Her body was found about 7 a.m. near the foot of a high-rise apartment building in Singapore. Widely reported as an apparent suicide — something that remains unconfirmed — her death became a global story because of her connections to Bitcoin, the much discussed and controversial digital currency.

Whether Bitcoin figured in Radtke’s death is unknown, as indeed are the circumstances of her death itself. Singapore police have said only that they do not suspect foul play and that the death was “unnatural,” a classification that includes accidents as well as suicide.

What is clear is that Radtke, 28, had built a successful career working for early stage tech firms and was establishing expertise in the rapidly evolving world of virtual currencies.

“She really exceeded all expectations,” said Rahul Sonnad, who hired Radtke at age 23 to head business development for a company called Geodelic Systems that he had launched in Los Angeles. “Autumn had just an ability to connect with people.”

For Sonnad, the connection was tight enough that he flew to Milwaukee earlier this month for Radtke’s funeral. Others came from Asia and Europe, he said.

“Before that there were gatherings in Boston, Singapore and Venice Beach (Calif.) where lots of people showed up and shared their stories,” Sonnad said. “Just because, again, she touched so many people.”

Sonnad holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Washington. Radtke’s LinkedIn profile lists none. But she had a knack for cutting through tech jargon and explaining complicated and often slippery concepts.

“She was just really impressive in terms of abilities to speak and convey ideas,” Sonnad said.

Radtke spent 2½ years with Geodelic and a year with the Internet gaming company Xfire, and caught the attention of Douglas Abrams, who brought Radtke to Singapore to run his virtual-currency exchange, First Meta.

A former executive with JPMorgan, Abrams moved to Singapore early in the last decade. He teaches courses related to entrepreneurship at the National University of Singapore and has provided early-stage investment to more than 20 companies.

Like Sonnad, he has a degree from the University of Pennsylvania — an MBA from its highly regarded Wharton School. And like Sonnad, he cared not at all that Radtke lacked that sort of pedigree.

In the startup environment especially, Abrams said, that’s no big deal.

“I don’t put a lot of stock in that,” he said. “I look more at the person and their ability.”

Abrams had been introduced to Radtke through a mutual friend, and when he went hunting for a CEO at First Meta, he contacted her.

“We interviewed several candidates and she came out on top,” Abrams said. “She took the job in January of 2012.”

First Meta is a small firm that lets people trade virtual currencies such as those used in online-fantasy worlds Second Life and IMVU.

“Autumn did a great job in her two years as CEO of First Meta,” Abrams said. “She redesigned the product. ... She worked on several initiatives to take the business in a new direction. She did a lot of great work in streamlining and improving the operations.”

Radtke got First Meta ready to trade frequent-flier miles and loyalty points, something that hasn’t happened but holds potential, Abrams said.

“She was like a lot of smart entrepreneurs — she was a little ahead of the curve on that,” he said.

Overall, he estimated, First Meta’s revenue grew by 50 percent under her leadership.

First Meta isn’t a Bitcoin exchange, though it does accept Bitcoin as payment for other virtual currencies, Abrams said. Less than 2 percent of total payments come in Bitcoin, he said.

But while the business wasn’t making a market in the virtual currency, Radtke appeared to be quite interested in it.

Many of her more recent Facebook posts were about Bitcoin. She spoke at a Bitcoin conference in Singapore. And she was connected enough to virtual-currency pioneer Brock Pierce that he helped put together the memorial gathering for her in California.

“Autumn was a very active member of the Bitcoin community in Singapore,” Abrams said.

Bitcoin’s volatility has been volcanic. In January 2013, one unit of the virtual currency cost $14. Three months later, it topped $200, promptly dropped below $75, and generally hovered around $100 to $125 until early October.

Suddenly, it soared, plunged and rose again — hitting a high of more than $1,100 in early December, then shedding or gaining hundreds of dollars in price within as little as three days.

In early February, the troubles at Mt. Gox began to surface. Once the world’s largest Bitcoin exchange, Tokyo-based Mt. Gox froze withdrawals in early February, saying a technical problem had allowed fraudsters to invade with fake withdrawal requests.

Three weeks later, Mt. Gox suddenly shut down. Speculation spread rapidly that it had collapsed, which in fact it had. Within days, Mt. Gox filed for bankruptcy, and its founder said a weakness in the exchange’s systems was behind the loss of 750,000 bitcoins from users — worth more than $400 million.

Mt. Gox shut down Feb. 25, one day before Radtke’s death.

Steve Beauregard, who together with Pierce founded GoCoin, a payment service that lets merchants accept Bitcoin and Litecoin, another virtual currency, at checkout, said Radtke’s death had nothing to do with Bitcoin.

He criticized “the BS stories that are floating around,” and said that trying to connect her death and Bitcoin “is just absurd.”

Beauregard saw a lot of Radtke in her last months. First Meta used GoCoin’s service and Radtke was an adviser to Beauregard’s company. And, beginning in December, Beauregard rented space from Radtke in the three-story shophouse where she lived and where First Meta had its offices.

Radtke’s shophouse — a style of building originally constructed to include both living and business quarters — was in a historic area a couple of blocks from the apartment tower where her body was found.

Beauregard said Radtke felt First Meta hadn’t taken off the way she expected and that, “It wasn’t, professionally, where she wanted to be at this stage. She was definitely looking to transition to something else.”

Also saying that Radtke had been stressed about First Meta not growing as rapidly as she wanted was Wayne Soh. Soh is business-development manager at Plug and Play Singapore, a technology incubator that has invested in First Meta.

Beauregard said Radtke talked with him about entrepreneurial stress and about personal issues, which he wouldn’t describe.

“We talked about things that were troubling her, for sure, but among them was not the price of Bitcoin,” he said. “And it wasn’t Mt. Gox.”

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