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Prosus Ventures leads $30 million investment in Indian agritech startup DeHaat

Once overlooked, agritech startups are beginning to have a moment in India.

On Tuesday, DeHaat, an online platform that offers full-stack agricultural services to farmers, said it has raised $30 million in a new financing round as the Indian firm looks to maintain its accelerated growth despite the pandemic.

Prosus Ventures, formerly known as Naspers Ventures, led Patna and Gurgaon-based startup’s Series C financing round. RTP Global and existing investors Sequoia Capital India, FMO, Omnivore and AgFunder also participated in it, bringing the startup’s to-date raise to over $46 million. (Dexter Capital was the advisor for this funding round.)

One of the biggest challenges farmers in India face is securing agri-input items such as seeds and fertilizers and then finding buyers after producing the yields.

DeHaat, which is Hindi for village, is solving this by bringing brands, institutional financers and buyers to one platform, which is accessible through a helpline and an app in local languages.

Only about a third of the yields Indian farmers produce reaches the big markets, according to industry estimates. It’s traditionally proven immensely difficult for farmers to find buyers for their produce.

Once the season is over, DeHaat helps farmers sell their yields to bulk buyers such as business-to-business marketplace Udaan, Reliance Fresh, and food delivery firm Zomato.

The 10-year-old startup has also developed a database of crop tests and uses artificial intelligence to provide farmers with free-of-cost personalized advisory on what they should sow in a season. DeHaat also helps farmers secure working capital through partnership with hundreds of institutional firms.

We wrote about DeHaat last year, when it had raised a $12 million financing round. The past nine months has been the story of its accelerated growth despite the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted lockdowns across the nation for several months.

The startup, which today has presence in eastern part of India — states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal — serves close to 400,000 farmers, up from about 210,000 in April last year, Shashank Kumar, co-founder and chief executive of the startup, told TechCrunch in an interview.

How the startup is tackling these challenges is equally impressive. It works with nearly 1,400 micro-entrepreneurs, up from about 400 last year, in rural areas who distribute over 4,000 types of agri-input goods to farmers from their regional hubs and then bring back the output to the same hub. “They are the ones responsible for last-mile delivery and aggregation,” he said.

DeHaat has grown on every front, including the revenue it clocks, which is up 3X to 3.5X since last year, he said.

“At the end of March, our daily volume out was around 200 metric tonne. Now it’s over 600 metric tonne. Everyday we aggregate this much from farmers and supply to FMCG players and modern retails. Similarly on the agri-input side — seed, fertilizers, and pesticide — we are processing close to 10,000 orders everyday, compared to about 2,600 in March of last year,” he said.

“Prosus Ventures invests in industries around the world where innovation can significantly address big societal needs,” said Ashutosh Sharma, Head of India Investments at Prosus Ventures, in a statement.

“DeHaat is catering to a massive market in India with the agriculture sector worth more than $350 billion to the country’s economy and consisting of an estimated 140 million+ farmers. Through its end-to-end agricultural services offerings, DeHaat will have a major societal impact in India, improving the earning potential for Indian farmers and overall yield for the sector while also enabling microentrepreneurs all over the country, including in rural areas where there is often less income opportunity,” he added.

The startup plans to deploy the fresh capital to expand to more states in India including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra and eventually serve 10 million farmers.

And another area where it intends to focus is hiring top tech talent. The startup has doubled its workforce since the past year, with many high-profile hires from major firms. The startup, which recently made its second acquisition, is also open to exploring more M&A opportunities, said DeHaat’s Shashank Kumar.

Once ignored, scores of agritech startups have cropped up in India in recent years — and many old startups are beginning to receive large-sized checks from investors.

Around two dozen #agritech startups have raised funds this year (till date)

Ergos
Unnati
Bijak
DeHaat
Ninjacart
Gourmet Garden
Farmers Fresh Zone
Krishitantra
Kheyti
BigHaat
VeGrow
Procol
Agro2o
Waycool
Jai Kisan
Intello Labs
Crofarm
Eggoz
Aibono
Arya
Clover
Kisan Network

— Harsh Upadhyay (@upadhyay_harsh1) October 13, 2020

Further reading: Omnivore and Accel recently co-authored a report on India’s agritech landscape.

Yo-Kai Express introduces Takumi, a smart home cooking appliance

Yo-Kai Express is known for autonomous restaurant technology for venues like office campuses, malls and hotels. As people continue staying home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company is introducing a smart home cooking appliance with multiple functions. Called Takumi, it includes a coffee maker, high induction cooktop and a steamer for sanitizing utensils and baby bottles. Takumi is connected by RFID to an app with preprogrammed recipes, which also sends alert when its water container is running low.

The company is currently presenting Takumi at CES’ Taiwan Tech Arena.

Yo-Kai Express' smart home cooking appliance Takumi

Yo-Kai Express’ smart home cooking appliance Takumi

If you live in the Bay Area, you might have seen Yo-Kai Express’s Octo-Chef, a vending machine that serves hot noodle dishes (ramen, udon and pho), in venues like the San Francisco International Airport, the Metreon mall in San Francisco and corporate campuses. But the company is adapting as people stay home. In April, it launched a home meal kit delivery service that is now available in all states.

Created for people who want a home-cooked meal but are short on time (and space), the Takumi’s pre-programmed recipes have cooking times of just two to eight minutes. Yo-Kai Express is known for noodle dishes, but the Takumi’s menu will also include rice bowls, dim sum, dumplings and pasta.

Despite PR storm, Pinduoduo stock and downloads stay robust

Pinduoduo, a rapidly growing Chinese e-commerce company, is weathering its PR storm after the death of an employee sparked criticism against the firm’s grueling working hours.

The employee, 21 years old, collapsed on her way home from work on a late night before New Year. The cause of her death has not been disclosed but internet users speculated that she had died from exhaustion.

Posts with the hashtag #PinduoduoEmployeeSuddenDeath have accumulated 300 million views on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo. Separately, another Pinduoduo employee committed suicide on January 9 by jumping from his 27th-floor apartment. The local labor authorities are reported to be reviewing working conditions at Shanghai-based Pinduoduo.

On Sunday, a former Pinduoduo employee spoke out against the firm’s stressful work culture in a video that went viral, adding to the public outcry against Alibaba’s biggest rival. He alleged that employees at Pinduoduo’s headquarters are required to work at least 300 hours a month (about 75 hours a week), whereas staff in the newly established grocery delivery department have a 380-hour minimum. The employee who fell on her way home worked on Pinduoduo’s grocery business in the Western province of Xinjiang.

People with knowledge told TechCrunch that employees working on certain projects at Pinduoduo might work over 300 hours a month, though the hours aren’t mandatory. Companywide, staff are required to work from 11 AM to 8 PM.

Pinduoduo cannot be immediately be reached for comment.

Long working hours aren’t unique to Pinduoduo in China. The string of incidents is reviving the debate around “996”, a term that denotes employees working from 9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week, though it can refer to any other form of demanding work regime in China’s cutthroat internet industry.

Despite the public backlash and calls to boycott Pinduoduo, the company’s market position appears to remain firm. Its app downloads have remained stable since the first employee incident two weeks ago, with some days even seeing slight growth in installs, according to data analytics provider Jiguang. As of January 8, Pinduoduo had nearly 650 million installs.

Its shares, traded in New York, climbed from $144 on December 28 to $187 on January 5 and dropped slightly to $174 on January 11. A few venture capital investors of Pinduoduo contacted by TechCrunch declined to comment for this story.

The figures could be telling. Despite its efforts to attract more users in China’s wealthier cities, a substantial number of Pinduoduo users live in China’s low-tier cities and rural towns. The “996” culture of the megacity-based tech giants may be remote for them, while the deals on Pinduoduo, the e-commerce app famous for its “dirt cheap” goods, are tangible.

China’s search giant Baidu to set up an EV making venture

China’s search giant Baidu is extending its car ambitions from mere software to production. The company said Monday that it will set up a company to produce electric vehicles with the help of Chinese automaker Geely. Baidu, a dominant player in China’s internet search market for the last decade or so, will provide smart driving technologies while Geely, which has an impending merger with Sweden’s Volvo, will be in charge of car design and manufacturing.

The move marks the latest company in China’s internet industry to enter the EV space. In November, news arrived that Alibaba and Chinese state-owned carmaker SAIC Motor had joined hands to produce electric cars. Ride-share company Didi and EV maker BYD co-developed a model for ride-hailing, which is already attracting customers like Ideanomics. Meanwhile, the stocks of China’s Tesla challengers, such as Xpeng, Li Auto, and NIO, have been in a steady uptrend over the past year.

Baidu’s car push is part of its effort to diversify a business relying on search advertising revenue. New media platforms such as ByteDance’s Toutiao news aggregator and short-video app Douyin come with their own search feature and have gradually eroded the share of traditional search engines like Baidu. Short video services have emerged as the second-most popular channel for internet search in China, trailing after web search engines and coming ahead of social networks and e-commerce, data analytics firm Jiguang shows.

Baidu has been working aggressively on autonomous driving since 2017. Its Apollo ecosystem, which is billed as “an Android for smart driving,” has accumulated over a hundred manufacturing and supplier partners. Baidu has also been busy testing autonomous driving and recently rolled out a robotaxi fleet.

The new venture will operate as a Baidu subsidiary where Geely will serve as a strategic partner and Baidu units like Apollo and Baidu Maps will contribute capabilities. The firm will cover the entire industrial chain, including vehicle design, research and development, manufacturing, sales, and service.

It’s unclear how Baidu’s tie-up with Geely will affect Apollo’s operation, though Baidu promised in its announcement that it will “uphold its spirit of open collaboration across the AI technology industry, striving to work closely with its ecosystem partners to advance the new wave of intelligent transformation.”

“At Baidu, we have long believed in the future of intelligent driving and have over the past decade invested heavily in AI to build a portfolio of world-class self-driving services,” said Robin Li, co-founder and chief executive officer of Baidu.

“We believe that by combining Baidu’s expertise in smart transportation, connected vehicles and autonomous driving with Geely’s expertise as a leading automobile and EV manufacturer, the new partnership will pave the way for future passenger vehicles.”

Shares of Hyundai Motors Co. climb more than 20% on potential EV deal with Apple

Hyundai Motor Company is downplaying reports that it is in talks with Apple to produce an autonomous electric vehicle, stating that discussions are still in the “early stage” and still undecided. But the news of a potential tie-up (however tentative) with Apple, which is known for keeping a tight lid on deals before they are announced, was enough to send shares of Hyundai Motor Company up more than 20% on the Korea Exchange during trading on Friday.

The talks were first reported by the Korea Economic Daily and confirmed by Hyundai to Bloomberg in a statement that said “Apple and Hyundai are in discussion, but as it is at early stage, nothing has been decided.” The Korean auto giant also told CNBC that “we understand Apple is in discussion with a variety of global automakers, including Hyundai Motor. As the discussion is at its early stage, nothing has been decided.”

A Hyundai spokesperson declined to comment to TechCrunch. Apple has also been contacted for comment.

Last month, Reuters reported that Apple’s car initiative, called Project Titan, is still going on, with plans to develop an autonomous electric passenger vehicle. But the car is not expected to launch until 2024.

Hyundai launched its own electric vehicle brand, Ioniq, in August 2020, with plans to bring three all-electric vehicles to market over the next four years, as part of its strategy to sell one million battery electric vehicles and take a 10% share of the EV market by 2025. Hyundai also has a joint venture with autonomous driving technology company Aptiv to make Level 4 and Level 5 production-ready self-driving systems available to robotaxi, fleet operators and automakers by 2022. The Aptiv partnership was announced in 2019.

 

Sony to launch PlayStation 5 in India on February 2

Sony said on Friday that it will launch the PlayStation 5 in India on February 2, suggesting improvements in the supply chain network that has been severely throttled by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Japanese firm said it will begin taking pre-order requests for the new gaming console in India, the world’s second largest internet market, on January 12. The console will be available for pre-order from a number of retailers including Amazon India, Flipkart, Croma, Reliance Digital, Games the Shop, Sony Center, and Vijay Sales, the company said.

The PlayStation 5 is priced at Indian rupees 49,990 ($685), while the digital edition of the console will sell at Indian rupees 39,990 ($550). Xbox Series X is priced at $685 in India, and Xbox Series S sells at $480. Like elsewhere in the world, Microsoft has been struggling to meet the demand for the new Xbox consoles in India. The Xbox Series X is facing so much shortage in the country that it’s not even easy to locate its page on Amazon India.

The announcement today should allay concerns of loyal PlayStation fans, some of whom — including, of course, yours truly — secured a unit from the gray market at a premium in recent months after India was not included in the first wave of nations for the PS5. Fans have also been frustrated at Sony and its affiliated partners for not offering clarification or providing conflicting accounts about the probable launch of the new gaming console in recent months.

In November, Sony suggested that it had delayed the launch of the PS5 in India due to local import regulations. Game news site The Mako Reactor reported earlier this week that Sony is unlikely to offer warranty and after-sales support for PlayStation 5 accessories in India — as has been the case for several previous generations.

India is not yet a big market for full-fledged gaming consoles yet. According to industry estimates, Sony and Microsoft sold only a few hundred thousand units of their previous generation consoles in the country. Thanks to the proliferation of affordable Android smartphones and world’s cheapest mobile data tariffs, tens of millions of Indians have embraced mobile gaming in recent years.

Samsung vice chairman Jay Y. Lee faces nine-year sentence in bribery case

Samsung Electronics vice chairman Jay Y. Lee faces a nine-year prison term in the bribery case that contributed to the downfall of former president Park Guen-hye. Prosecutors argued that the length of the sentence is warranted because of Samsung’s power as the largest chaebol, or family-owned conglomerate, in South Korea.

“Samsung is a group with such overwhelming power that it is said Korean companies are divided into Samsung and non-Samsung,” they said during a final hearing on Wednesday, reports the Korea Herald. The final ruling is scheduled for January 18.

The bribery case is separate from another trial Lee is involved in, over alleged accounting fraud and stock-price manipulation. Hearings in that case began in October.

The bribery case dates back to 2017, when Lee was convicted of bribing Park and her close associate Choi Soon-sil and sentenced to five years in prison. Prosecutors allege the bribes were meant to secure government backing for Lee’s attempt to inherit control of Samsung from his father Lee Kun-hee, then its chairman. The illegal payments were a major part of the corruption scandal that led to Park’s impeachment, arrest and 25-year prison sentence.

Lee was freed in 2018 after the sentence was reduced and suspended on appeal, and returned to work as Samsung’s de facto head, a position he took after his father had a heart attack in 2014.

In August 2019, however, the Supreme Court overturned the appeals court, ruling that it was too lenient, and ordered that the case be retried in Seoul High Court.

The elder Lee, who was reportedly South Korea’s wealthiest citizen, died in October. He was worth an estimated $20.7 billion and under the country’s tax system, and his heirs could be liable for estate taxes of about $10 billion, reported Fortune.

TechCrunch has contacted Samsung for comment.

Tencent backs Chinese healthcare portal DXY in $500M round

DXY, a 20-year-old online healthcare community for Chinese consumers and healthcare organizations like Pfizer, announced this week that it has raised $500 million in its Series E round led by private equity firm Trustbridge Partners.

Existing backer Tencent and Hillhouse Capital’s early-stage focused GL Ventures also participated in the round, which lifted the firm’s total funding to over $680 million to date. DXY’s earlier investors include Xiaomi founder Lei Jun’s Shunwei Capital, Legend Capital and DCM.

The company started out as a knowledge-sharing platform for doctors and has over time added a consumer-facing aspect by bringing wellness advice and medical consultation services to the public, that is, steps that patients can take at home before having to go to the hospital.

As the pandemic took hold, hospitals and people around the world rushed to shift their activities online, spurring demand for healthcare apps. DXY responded swiftly and was among the first in China to introduce a real-time COVID-19 tracker at the beginning of the outbreak.

Today, healthcare organizations can also use DXY as an advertising channel, a learning platform as well as a recruiting site, ways for the company to generate revenue.

Since its inception, the site has attracted some 130 million consumers, more than 9,000 medical institutions, and 50,000 doctors who have provided online consultation. The platform has a current user base of 20 million and counts Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca among its major clients.

DXY plans to spend its new proceeds on buttressing the two pillars of its business — support for healthcare professionals and services for consumers. It will do so by strengthening cooperation with hospitals, consumer goods enterprises and pharmaceutical companies, including jointly funding R&D in products or new consumer applications.

On the consumer front, the company faces some strong opponents in China including the likes of SoftBank-backed Ping An Good Doctor, Alibaba Health, JD Health, and WeDoctor, which is also backed by Tencent.

The article is updated on December 29, 2020 with more details on the investment.

China’s e-commerce titan Alibaba hit with antitrust probe

China’s top market watchdog has begun a probe into Alibaba over alleged anti-competition practices at the e-commerce firm, the latest of Beijing’s efforts to curb the country’s ever-expanding internet titans.

The State Administration for Market Regulation said Thursday in a brief statement that it is investigating Alibaba over its “choosing one from two” policy, in which merchants are forced to sell exclusively on Alibaba and skip rivaling platforms JD.com and Pinduoduo.

“Today, Alibaba Group has received notification from the State Administration for Market Regulation that an investigation has been initiated into the Company pursuant to the Anti-Monopoly Law. Alibaba will actively cooperate with the regulators on the investigation,” Alibaba said in a statement.

“Company business operations remain normal.”

On the same day, state-backed Xinhua reported that Ant Group, Alibaba’s affiliate, has been summoned by a group of finance authorities to discuss its “compliance” work. Ant, which works as an intermediary for financial services and customers, has pledged to take measures to curb debt risks after Chinese authorities abruptly called off its colossal initial public offering last month.

“Today, Ant Group received a meeting notice from regulators. We will seriously study and strictly comply with all regulatory requirements and commit full efforts to fulfill all related work,” the firm said in a statement.

On-demand logistics company Lalamove gets $515 million Series E

Lalamove will extend its network to cover more small Chinese cities after raising $515 million in Series E funding, the on-demand logistics company announced on its site. The round was led by Sequoia Capital China, with participation from Hillhouse Capital and Shunwei Capital. All three are returning investors.

According to Crunchbase data, this brings Lalamove’s total raised so far to about $976.5 million. The company’s last funding announcement was in February 2019, when it hit unicorn status with a Series D of $300 million.

Bloomberg reported last week that Lalamove was seeking at least $500 million in new funding at $8 billion valuation, or four times what it raised at least year.

Founded in 2013 for on-demand deliveries within the same city, Lalamove has since grown its business to include freight services, enterprise logistics, moving and vehicle rental. In addition to 352 cities in mainland China, Lalamove also operates in Hong Kong (where it launched), Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand. The company entered the United States for the first time in October, and currently claims about 480,000 monthly active drivers and 7.2 million monthly active users.

Part of its Series D had been earmarked to expand into India, but Lalamove was among 43 apps that were banned by the government, citing cybersecurity concerns.

In its announcement, Lalamove CEO Shing Chow said its Series E will be used to enter more fourth- and fifth-tier Chinese cities, adding “we believe the mobile internet’s transformation of China’s logistics industry is far from over.”

Other companies that have recently raised significant funding rounds for their logistics operations in China include Manbang and YTO.

Lalamove’s (known in Chinese as Huolala) Series E announcement said the company experienced a 93% drop in shipment volume at the beginning of the year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but has experienced a strong rebound, with order volume up 82% year-over-year even before Double 11.

Indian court rejects retail giant Future Group’s plea against Amazon

An Indian court rejected Future Group’s plea that sought to prevent its partner Amazon from interfering in — and blocking — the Indian retail giant’s $3.4 billion asset sale deal to Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries, delivering a glimmer of hope to the American e-commerce firm that has invested more than $6.5 billion in the world’s second largest internet market.

Future Group was seeking an ad-interim injunction to restrain its partner Amazon from writing to regulators and other authorities to raise concerns over — and halt — the deal between the two Indian giants. The Delhi High Court ruled on Monday that Amazon cannot be barred from writing to regulators and authorities on account of “potentially irreparable damage.” The regulators will decide whether the deal should be approved in accordance with the law, the court said.

The court, however, also observed that the lawsuit filed by Future Retail, a unit of Future Group, was maintainable and its attempt to seek approval of the transaction with Reliance Industries was also valid.

The ruling is the latest episode in the high-stake battle between estranged partners Amazon and Future Group. Amazon bought 49% in one of Future’s unlisted firms last year in a deal that was valued at over $100 million. As part of that deal, Future could not have sold assets to rivals, Amazon said in court filings.

Things changed this year after the coronavirus pandemic starved the Indian firm of cash, Future Group chief executive and founder Kishore Biyani said at a recent virtual conference. In August, Future Group said that it had reached an agreement with Ambani’s Reliance Industries, which runs India’s largest retail chain, to sell its retail, wholesale, logistics, and warehousing businesses for $3.4 billion.

Months later, Amazon protested the deal by reaching an arbitrator in Singapore and asked the court to block the deal between the Indian retail giants. Amazon secured emergency relief from the arbitration court in Singapore in late October that temporarily halted Future Group from going ahead with the sale.

Until Monday, it remained unclear whether that ruling would hold any water in front of Indian courts. So much so that hours after the Singapore arbitration court announced its verdict, Future Group and Reliance said in a statement that will be going ahead with the deal “without any delay.”

Amazon had also reached out to the Competition Commission of India, the Indian watchdog, to block the deal. Competition Commission of India, however, approved the deal between the Indian firms. In earlier hearings, lawyers for Future Group likened Amazon’s effort to block Future Group’s deal to the East India Company, the British trading house whose arrival in India kicked off nearly 200 years of colonial rule.

At stake is India’s retail market that is estimated to balloon to $1.3 trillion by 2025, up from $700 billion last year, according to consultancy firm BCG and local trade group Retailers’ Association India. Online shopping accounts for about 3% of all retail in India.

Future Group and Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Alibaba ‘dismayed’ by its cloud unit’s ethnicity detection algorithm

Chinese tech giants have drawn international criticism after research showed they have technologies that enable the authorities to profile Muslim Uyghurs.

The cloud computing unit of Alibaba, Alibaba Cloud, developed a facial recognition algorithm that can identify a person’s ethnicity or whether a person is “Uyghur”, according to research from surveillance industry publication IPVM.

China has repeatedly defended its controversial “vocational training programs” imposed upon its Muslim ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others, as part of what the government calls counter-terrorism efforts.

Alibaba said in a statement that it is “dismayed” to learn that Alibaba Cloud tested a technology that included “ethnicity as an algorithm” and that “racial or ethnic discrimination or profiling in any form violates Alibaba’s policies and values.”

“We never intended our technology to be used for and will not permit it to be used for targeting specific ethnic groups, and we have eliminated any ethnic tag in our product offering. This trial technology was not deployed by any customer. We do not and will not permit our technology to be used to target or identify specific ethnic groups,” the company added.

A security breach from last year revealed that a “smart city” surveillance system hosted on Alibaba Cloud could detect people’s ethnicity or label them Uyghur Muslim, TechCrunch reported earlier. At the time, Alibaba said as a public cloud provider, it “does not have the right to access the content in the customer database.”

IPVM also found earlier this month that Huawei and artificial intelligence unicorn Megvii, known for its facial recognition product Face++, jointly developed a technology that could alert the Chinese government when the system detected the face of a member from the Uyghur community.

As China’s tech upstarts seek overseas growth, they increasingly find themselves stuck between the demands of Beijing and international scrutiny over their stance on human rights issues.

Cloud computing is one of Alibaba’s fastest-growing segments and the giant is eyeing to attract more international customers. Last year, Alibaba Cloud was the biggest player in the Asia Pacific region and the third-largest Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) provider globally, according to research firm Gartner.

Alibaba’s cloud unit grew 60% year-over-year to account for nearly 10% of the firm’s revenues in the three months ended September. As of the quarter, approximately 60% of A-share listed companies, those that are based in mainland China and trade in RMB, are customers of Alibaba Cloud, the company claimed.

Google expands languages push in India to serve non-English speakers

There are over 600 million internet users in India, but only a fraction of this population is fluent in English. Most online services and much of the content on the web currently, however, are available exclusively in English.

This language barrier continues to contribute to a digital divide in the world’s second largest internet market that has limited hundreds of millions of users’ rendition of the world wide web to a select few websites and services.

So it comes as no surprise that American tech giants, which are counting on emerging markets such as India to continue their growth. are increasingly attempting to make the web and their services accessible to more people.

Google, which has so far led this effort, on Thursday announced a range of changes it is rolling out across some of its services to make them speak more local languages and unveiled a whole new approach it’s taking to translate languages.

Additionally, Google said it plans to invest in machine learning and AI efforts at Google’s research center in India and make its AI models accessible to everyone across the ecosystem. The company — which counts India as its biggest market by users, and this year committed to invest more than $10 billion in the country over the coming years — also plans to partner with local startups that are serving users in local languages, and “drastically” improve the experience of Google products and services for Indian language users.

Product changes

Users will now be able to see search results to their queries in Tamil, Telugu, Bangla, and Marathi, in addition to English and Hindi that are currently available. The addition comes four years after Google added the Hindi tab to the search page in India. The company said the volume of search queries in Hindi grew more than 10 times after the introduction of this tab. If someone prefers to see their query in Tamil, for instance, now they will be able to set Tamil tab next to English and quickly toggle between the two.

Getting search results in a local language is helpful, but often people want to make their queries in those languages as well. Google says it has found that typing in non-English language is another challenge users face today. “As a result, many users search in English even if they really would prefer to see results in a local language they understand,” the company said.

To address this challenge, Search will start to show relevant content in supported Indian languages where appropriate even if the local language query is typed in English. The feature, which the company plans to roll out over the next month, supports five Indian languages: Hindi, Bangla, Marathi, Tamil, and Telugu.

Google is also making it easier for users to quickly change the preferred language in which they see results in an app without altering the device’s language settings. The feature, which is currently available in Discover and Google Assistant, will now roll out in Maps. Similarly, Google Lens’s Homework feature, which allows users to take a picture of a math or science problem and then delivers its answer, now supports Hindi language.

MuRIL

Google executives also detailed a new language AI model, which they are calling Multilingual Representations for Indian Languages (MuRIL), that delivers more efficiency and accuracy in handling transliteration, spelling variations and mixed languages. MuRIL provides support for transliterated text such as when writing Hindi using Roman script, which was something missing from previous models of its kind, said Partha Talukdar, Research Scientist at Google Research India, at a virtual event Thursday.

The company said it trained the new model with articles on Wikipedia and texts from a dataset called Common Crawl. It also trained it on transliterated text from, among other sources, Wikipedia (fed through Google’s existing neural machine translation models). The result is that MuRIL handles Indian languages better than previous, more general language models and can contend with letters and words that have been transliterated — that is, Google is using the closest corresponding letters of a different alphabet or script.

Additionally, the new model allows Google to “transfer knowledge and training from one language to another,” said Talukdar, who noted that the previous model Google relied on proved unscalable. MuRIL significantly outperforms the earlier model — by 10% on native text and 27% on transliterated text. MuRIL, which was developed by executives in India, is open source.

MuRIL supports 16 Indian languages and English.

One of the many tasks MuRIL is good at, is determining the sentiment of the sentence. For example, “Achha hua account bandh nahi hua” would previously be interpreted as having a negative meaning, but MuRIL correctly identifies this as a positive statement. Or take the ability to classify a person versus a place: ‘Shirdi ke sai baba’ would previously be interpreted as a place, which is wrong, but MuRIL correctly interprets it as a person.

More to follow…

Seoul-based payment tech startup CHAI gets $60 million from Hanhwa, SoftBank Ventures Asia

Demand for contactless payments and e-commerce has grown in South Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is good news for payment service operators, but the market is very fragmented, so adding payment options is a time-consuming process for many merchants. CHAI wants to fix this with an API that enables companies to accept over 20 payment systems. The Seoul-based startup announced today it has raised a $60 million Series B.

The round was led by Hanhwa Investment & Securities, with participation from SoftBank Ventures Asia (the early-stage venture capital arm of SoftBank Group), SK Networks, Aarden Partners and other strategic partners. It brings CHAI’s total funding to $75 million, including a $15 million Series A in February.

Last month, the Bank of Korea, South Korea’s central bank, released a report showing that contactless payments increased 17% year-over-year since the start of COVID-19.

CHAI serves e-commerce companies with an API called I’mport, that allows them to accept payments from over 20 options, including debit and credit cards through local payment gateways, digital wallets, wire transfers, carrier billings and PayPal. It is now used by 2,200 merchants, including Nike Korea and Philip Morris Korea.

CHAI chief executive officer Daniel Shin told TechCrunch that businesses would usually have to integrate each kind of online payment type separately, so I’mport saves its clients a lot of time.

The company also offers its own digital wallet and debit card called the CHAI Card, which launched in June 2019 and now has 2.5 million users, a small number compared with South Korea’s leading digital wallets, which include Samsung Pay, Naver Pay, Kakao Pay and Toss.

“CHAI is a late comer to Korea’s digital payments market, but we saw a unique opportunity to offer value,” said Shin. The CHAI Card offers merchants a lower transaction fee than other cards and users typically check its app about 20 times to see new cashback offers and other rewards based on how often they pay with their cards or digital wallet.

“We’ve digitized the plastic card experience, and this is the first step towards creating a robust online rewards platform,” Shin added.

In press statement, Hanhwa Investment & Securities director SeungYoung Oh director said, “I’mport has reduced what once took e-commerce businesses weeks to complete into a simple copy-and-paste task, radically reducing costs. It is a first-of-its-kind business model in Korea, and I have no doubt that CHAI will continue to grow this service into an essential infrastructure of the global fintech landscape.”

TripAdvisor shares drop following China app ban

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced it has banned 105 mobile apps for violating Chinese internet regulations. While almost all of the apps are made by Chinese developers, American travel booking and review site TripAdvisor is also on the list.

TripAdvisor shares dipped on Nasdaq after the CAC’s announcement, but began recovering in after-hours trading.

While TripAdvisor is based in the United States, like other foreign tech companies, it struck a partnership with a local tech company for its Chinese operations. In TripAdvisor’s case, it entered into an agreement with Trip.com — the Nasdaq-listed Chinese travel titan formerly known as Ctrip — in November 2019 to operate a joint venture called TripAdvisor China. The deal made Trip.com subsidiary Ctrip Investment a majority shareholder in the JV, with TripAdvisor owning 40%.

As part of the deal, TripAdvisor agreed to share content with Trip.com brands, including Chinese travel platforms Ctrip and Qunar, which gained access to the American firm’s abundant overseas travel reviews. That put TripAdvisor in a race with regional players, including Alibaba-backed Qyer and Hong Kong-based Klook, to capture China’s increasingly affluent and savvy outbound tourists.

The CAC is the government agency in charge of overseeing internet regulations and censorship. In a brief statement, the bureau said it began taking action on November 5 to “clean up” China’s internet by removing apps that broke regulations. The 105 apps constituted the first group to be banned, and were targeted after users reported illegal activity or content, the agency said.

Though the CAC did not specify exactly what each app was banned for, the list of illegal activities included spreading pornography, incitements to violence or terrorism, fraud or gambling and prostitution.

In addition, eight app stores were taken down for not complying with review regulations or allowing the download of illegal content.

Such “app cleansing” takes place periodically in China where the government has a stranglehold on information flows. Internet services in China, especially those involving user-generated content, normally rely on armies of censors or filtering software to ensure their content is in line with government guidelines.

The Chinese internet is evolving so rapidly that regulations sometimes fall behind the development of industry players, so the authorities are constantly closing gaps. Apps and services could be pulled because regulators realize they are lacking essential government permits, or they might have published illegal or politically sensitive information.

Foreign tech firms operating in China often find themselves walking a fine line between the “internet freedom” celebrated in the West and adherence to Beijing’s requirements. The likes of Bing.com, LinkedIn, and Apple — the few remaining Western tech giants in China — have all drawn criticism for caving to China’s censorship pressure in the past.

How Alibaba and JD.com compare in their healthcare endeavors

China’s tech circle is shifting its attention to online healthcare this week as JD Health is set to go public in one of Hong Kong’s largest IPOs this year.

Like Amazon, China’s e-commerce firms Alibaba and JD.com have been working to conquer the massive healthcare industry. The offerings are wide-ranging, reaching everything from around-the-clock delivery of medicines, sale of consumer health services like plastic surgery, online diagnosis for patients, to digital solutions for hospitals (like appointment-booking) and advertising services for drugmakers.

Alibaba Health began as an investment portfolio of the e-commerce firm and grew into a subsidiary through episodes of consolidations over the years. JD Health, on the other hand, was spun out from JD.com in 2019 and quickly began to attract flows of large investments.

The move into healthcare is part of the behemoths’ goal to be a one-stop-shop for everything. Here are some numbers for gauging how the digital health giants compare with each other:

Revenue

In terms of revenue sources, both companies rely mostly on the sales of medicines (both over-the-counter and prescription) and other healthcare products like vitamin supplements. Both have a direct-to-consumer drug business, whereby they are more involved in the supply chains, but they also serve as a marketplace for third-party suppliers, in which case they monetize by charging commission fees. They each have a smaller but growing services segment targeting consumers, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.

Alibaba Health – 7 billion yuan or $1.07 billion (six months ended September)

JD Health – 8.8 billion yuan or $1.35 billion (six months ended June)

Profitability

Alibaba Health posted its first profitable earnings this year, pocketing 278.6 million yuan in the six months ended September, up from a loss of 7.6 million yuan from the same period last year.

In the six months ended June, JD Health incurred a loss of 5.4 billion yuan, compared to a profit of 236.3 million yuan in the same period of 2019. The loss was mainly due to fair value changes after issuing additional convertible preferred shares.

Active users

Though Alibaba Health generated less revenue, the platform enjoys a larger user base, thanks to Alibaba’s sprawling ecosystem. In the year ended June, a total of 250 million users made purchases through the online pharmacy of Tmall, Alibaba’s business-to-consumer marketplace. Meanwhile, Alibaba Health’s direct-to-consumer drugstore saw 65 million annual active users.

In comparison, 72.5 million people had at least made one purchase through JD Health’s platform in the past year.

Doctor resources

Both companies provide online health consultation services, which saw a surge in demand during the COVID-19 outbreak. Alibaba Health had a network of over 39,000 doctors by September, compared to JD Health’s pool of over 65,000 doctors, both in-house and third-party.

PhonePe raises $700 million, becomes a separate entity

PhonePe, the crown jewel in Flipkart’s acquisition by Walmart, is “partially” spinning off, the Bangalore-based financial services firm said on Thursday. To kick off its new journey, the firm said it has secured $700 million in a new financing round.

This round, the name of which was not disclosed, was led by Walmart with participation from some existing investors, PhonePe said. The new round gave PhonePe, which was founded by a former Flipkart employee, a post-money valuation of $5.5 billion.

Today’s announcement is a big boost to the confidence investors have on PhonePe. The startup has been engaging with investors for new capital for several quarters and had struggled to raise capital at a $3 valuation earlier this year, TechCrunch reported earlier.

The partial spin-off means that Flipkart’s stake in PhonePe will reduce from a 100% to 87%. “This partial spin-off gives PhonePe access to dedicated long-term capital to pursue our vision of providing financial inclusion to a billion Indians,” said Sameer Nigam, founder and chief executive of PhonePe, in a statement.

PhonePe currently leads the mobile payments market in India, by some metrics. In October, it surpassed Google Pay to become the top UPI payments app. UPI is a four-year-old payments infrastructure built by India’s largest banks. It is the most popular way people transact money digitally in India. PhonePe reported 835 million UPI transactions in October, ahead of Google Pay, which processed about 820 million transactions that month.

“As Flipkart Commerce continues to grow strongly serving the needs of Indian customers, we are excited at the future prospects of the group. This move will help PhonePe maximize its potential as it moves to the next phase of its development, and it will also maximize value creation for Flipkart and our shareholders,” said Kalyan Krishnamurthy, CEO of Flipkart Group, in a statement.

More to follow…

Eat Just to sell lab-grown meat in Singapore after gaining “world first” regulatory approval

Eat Just will start offering lab-grown chicken meat in Singapore after gaining regulatory approval from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA). The cell-cultured chicken will eventually be produced under Eat Just’s new GOOD Meat brand through partnerships with local manufacturers and go on sale to restaurants before it is available to consumers.

While there are plenty of other companies working on lab-grown meats using various techniques, Eat Just describes the Singapore government’s review and regulatory approval as a “world first.”

No chickens were killed to obtain the cell line used to produce Eat Just’s cultured meat, global head of communications Andrew Noyes told TechCrunch. Instead, the process starts with cell isolation, where cells are sourced through methods that can include a biopsy from a live animal. After the cells are cultured, they are transferred into a bioreactor, fed with a proprietary mix of proteins, amino acids, minerals, sugars, salts and other nutrients and then harvested after they achieve enough density.

The company said it went through 20 productions runs of cell-cultured chicken in 1,200-liter bioreactors to prove the consistency of its manufacturing process. Eat Just also said no antibiotics were used and that its cultured chicken has an “extremely low and significantly cleaner microbiological content than conventional chicken.”

Noyes said the company is already working with a restaurant to add its GOOD Meat chicken to their menu, and hopes to announce a launch date soon.

In Eat Just’s announcement today, chief executive officer Josh Tetrick said, “Singapore has long been a leader in innovation of all kinds, from information technology to biologics to now leading the world in building a healthier, safer food system.”

The government is currently engaged in an initiative, called “30 by 30,” to produce 30% of the country’s food supply locally by 2030. Spearheaded by the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), the initiative was prompted because Singapore currently imports over 90% of its food, which makes it vulnerable to export bans or the logistics issues highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact. As part of “30 by 30,” the SFA and Agency for Science, Technology and Research has made $144 million SGD in research funding available.

Eat Just, whose other products include a plant-based egg substitute, announced last month it is partnering with Proterra Investment Partners Asia to launch a new Asian subsidiary. The partnership includes a factory in Singapore that received support from the government’s Economic Development board.

There are several factors driving demand for cultured meat and plant-based protein in Asian markets. The first is concerns about the safety of meat from slaughterhouses that gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic also highlighted vulnerabilities in the production and supply chain that can be potentially be avoided with lab-produced meat and meat alternatives.

Singapore-based mental health app Intellect reaches one million users, closes seed funding

Theodoric Chew, co-founder and chief executive officer of mental health app Intellect

Theodoric Chew, co-founder and chief executive officer of mental health app Intellect

Intellect, a Singapore-based startup that wants to lower barriers to mental health care in Asia, says it has reached more than one million users just six months after launching. Google also announced today that the startup’s consumer app, also called Intellect, is one of its picks for best personal growth apps of 2020.

The company recently closed an undisclosed seed round led by Insignia Ventures Partners. Angel investors including e-commerce platform Carousell co-founder and chief executive officer Quek Siu Rui; former Sequoia partner Tim Lee; and startup consultancy xto10x’s Southeast Asia CEO J.J. Chai also participated.

In a statement, Insignia Ventures Partners principal Samir Chaibi said, “In Intellect, we see a fast-scaling platform addressing a pain that has become very obvious amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe that pairing clinically-backed protocols with an efficient mobile-first delivery is the key to break down the barriers to access for millions of patients globally.”

Co-founder and chief executive officer Theodoric Chew launched Intellect earlier this year because while there is a growing pool of mental wellness apps in the United States and Europe that have attracted more funding during the COVID-19 pandemic, the space is still very young in Asia. Intellect’s goal is encourage more people to incorporate mental health care into their daily routines by lowering barriers like high costs and social stigma.

Intellect offers two products. One is a consumer app with self-guided programs based on cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that center on issues like anxiety, self-esteem or relationship issues.

The other is a mental health platform for employers to offer as a benefit and includes a recently launched telehealth service called Behavioural Health Coaching that connects users with mental health professionals. The service, which includes one-on-one video sessions and unlimited text messaging, is now a core part of Intellect’s services, Chew told TechCrunch.

Intellect’s enterprise product now reaches 10,000 employees, and its clients include tech companies, regional operations for multinational corporations and hospitals. Most are located in Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia and India, and range in size from 100 to more than 3,000 employees.

For many small- to mid-sized employers, Intellect is often the first mental health benefit they have offered. Larger clients may already have EAP (employee assistance programs), but Chew said those are often underutilized, with an average adoption rate of 1% to 2%. On the other hand, he said Intellect’s employee benefit program sees an average adoption rate of 30% in the first month after it is rolled out at a company.

Chew added that the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted more companies to address burnout and other mental health issues.

“In terms of larger trends, we’ve seen a huge spike in companies across the region having mental health and wellbeing of their employees being prioritized on their agenda,” said Chew. “In terms of user trends, we see a significantly higher utilization in work stress and burnout, anxiety and relationship-related programs.”

Intellect’s seed round will be used to expand in Asian markets and to help fund clinical research studies it is currently conducting with universities and organizations in Singapore, Australia and the United Kingdom.

The Trump administration will add SMIC, China’s largest chipmaker, to its defense blacklist: report

SMIC, one of largest chip makers in the world, is among several companies that the Department of Defense plans to designate as being owned or controlled by the Chinese military, reports Reuters. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order, set to go into effect on January 11, that would bar U.S. investors from buying securities from companies on the defense blacklist.

In a statement to Reuters, SMIC said it continues “to engage constructively and openly with the U.S. government” and that it “has no relationship with the Chinese military and does not manufacture for military end-users or end-uses.”

The largest semiconductor maker in China, SMIC holds about 4% of the worldwide foundry market, estimates market research firm TrendForce. Its U.S. customers have included Qualcomm, Broadcom and Texas Instruments.

There are currently 31 companies on the defense blacklist. SMIC is one of four new companies that the Department of Defense plans to add, according to Reuters. The others are China Construction Technology, China International Engineering Consulting Corp and China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC).

The company delisted from NYSE in May 2019, but it said that the decision was prompted by the limited trading volume and high administrative costs, not the U.S.-China trade war or the U.S. government’s blacklisting of Huawei and other Chinese tech companies.

SMIC has already been impacted by export restrictions that prevent them from purchasing key equipment from American suppliers. At the beginning of October, it told shareholders that export restrictions set by the U.S. Bureau of Industry and Security could have “material adverse effects” on its production.

The executive order, and the possible addition of new companies to the defense blacklist, is in-line with the Trump administration’s hard stance against Chinese tech companies, including Huawei, ZTE and ByteDance, that it claims are a potential national security threat through their alleged ties to the Chinese government and military. But the future of a lot of the current administration’s policies after the Joe Biden assumes the presidency on January 20 is uncertain.

TechCrunch has contacted SMIC for comment.

Alibaba vies for a piece of China’s booming EV market

There’s no lack of news these days on China’s tech giants teaming up with traditional carmakers. Companies from Alibaba to Huawei are striving to become relevant in the trillion-dollar auto industry, which itself is seeking an electric transition and intelligent upgrade as 5G comes of age.

State-owned automaker SAIC Motor, a major player in China, unveiled this week a new electric vehicle arm called Zhiji, in which Alibaba and a Shanghai government-backed entity are minority shareholders. The tie-up comes as Chinese EV startups like Xpeng and Nio and their predecessor Tesla see their stocks soaring in recent months.

Alibaba’s ties with SAIC can be traced back to 2015 when they jointly announced a $160 million investment in internet-connected cars. The partners moved on to form a joint venture called Banma (or ‘Zebra’) and Alibaba has since developed a slew of auto solutions for the Banma platform to enable everything from voice-activated navigation to voice ordering coffee, which is, of course, linked to the Alipay e-wallet.

Alibaba is certainly not SAIC’s exclusive supplier, as it’s also worked closely with the likes of BMW and Audi as well over the years.

For SAIC’s new EV brand, Alibaba will continue to be its “technology solution provider,” an Alibaba spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The other tech giant making big moves in auto is Huawei. Just this week, the telecoms equipment and smartphone maker announced it would fold its smart car unit into its consumer business group, which previously focused on handsets. The expanded group will continue to be steered by Richard Yu, regarded as the man who helped grow Huawei from an underdog in the mobile industry to a leading global player.

Huawei’s ambition in auto is “not to manufacture cars but to focus on developing ICT [information and communications technology] to assist automakers in producing cars,” the firm asserts in the statement, addressing rumors that it wants to encroach on traditional carmakers’ turf.

Huawei’s phone business has taken a hit since U.S. sanctions hobbled its supply chain. It sold its budget phone brand Honor recently in the hope that the spinoff, independent from Huawei, will be free from trade curbs.

The FCC rejects ZTE’s petition to stop designating it a “national security threat”

The Federal Communications Commission has rejected ZTE’s petition to remove its designation as a “national security threat.” This means that American companies will continue to be barred from using the FCC’s $8.3 billion Universal Service Fund to buy equipment and services from ZTE .

The Universal Service Fund includes subsidies to build telecommunication infrastructure across the United States, especially for low-income or high-cost areas, rural telehealth services, and schools and libraries. The FCC issued an order on June 30 banning U.S. companies from using the fund to buy technology from Huawei and ZTE, claiming that both companies have close ties with the Chinese Communist Party and military.

Many smaller carriers rely on Huawei and ZTE, two of the world’s biggest telecom equipment providers, for cost-efficient technology. After surveying carriers, the FCC estimated in September that replacing Huawei and ZTE equipment would cost more than $1.8 billion.

Under the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act, passed by Congress this year, most of that amount would be eligible for reimbursements under a program referred to as “rip and replace.” But the program has not been funded by Congress yet, despite bipartisan support.

In today’s announcement about ZTE, chairman Ajit Pai also said the FCC will vote on rules to implement the reimbursement program at its next Open Meeting, scheduled to take place on December 10.

The FCC passed its order barring companies deemed national security threats from receiving money from the Universal Service Fund in November 2019. Huawei fought back by suing the FCC over the ban, claiming it exceeded the agency’s authority and violated the Constitution.

TechCrunch has contacted ZTE for comment.

The promise and challenge of Roblox’s future in China

In a much-anticipated move, California-based gaming firm Roblox filed to go public last week. One aspect driving the future growth of the children- and community-focused gaming platform is its China entry, which it fleshes out in detail for the first time in its IPO prospectus.

Like all gaming companies entering China, Roblox must work with a local publishing and operations partner. And like Riot Games, Supercell, Epic Games, Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft, Nintendo and many more, Roblox chose Tencent, the world’s largest gaming firm by revenue, according to Newzoo.

The partnership, which began in 2019, revolves around a joint venture in which Roblox holds a 51% controlling stake and a Tencent affiliate called Songhua owns a 49% interest. The prospectus notes that Tencent currently intends to publish and operate a localized version of the Roblox Platform (罗布乐思), which allows people to create games and play those programmed by others.

User-generated content is in part what makes Roblox popular amongst young gamers, but that social aspect almost certainly makes its China entry trickier. It’s widely understood that the Chinese government is asserting more control over what gets published on the internet, and in recent times its scrutiny over gaming content has heightened. Industry veteran Wenfeng Yang went as far as speculating that games with user-generated content will “never made [their] path to China,” citing the example of Animal Crossing.

Roblox says it believes it’s “uniquely positioned” to grow its penetration in China but its “performance will be dependent on” Tencent’s ability to clear regulatory hurdles. It’s unclear what measures Roblox will take to prevent its user-generated content from running afoul of the Chinese authorities, whose appetite for what is permitted can be volatile. Tencent itself has been in the crosshairs of regulators over allegedly “addictive” and “harmful” gaming content. It also remains to be seen how Roblox ensures its user experience won’t be compromised by whatever censorship system that gets implemented.

Roblox chose Tencent as its Chinese partner. / Image: Roblox

At the most basic level, Roblox claims it works to ensure user safety through measures designed “to enforce real-world laws,” including text-filtering, content moderation, automated systems to identify behaviors in violation of platform policies, and a review team. The company expresses in its filing optimism about getting China’s regulatory greenlight:

While Tencent is still working to obtain the required regulatory license to publish and operate Luobulesi [Roblox’s local name] in China, we believe the regulatory requirements specific to China will be met. In the meantime, Luobu is working towards creating a robust developer community in China.”

The company is rightfully optimistic. China is the world’s largest gaming market and Tencent has a proven history of converting its social network users into gamers. Roblox’s marketing focus on encouraging “creativity” might also sit well with Beijing’s call for tech companies to “do good,” an order Tencent has answered. Roblox’s Chinese website suggests it’s touting part of its business as a learning and STEM tool and shows it’s seeking collaborations with local schools and educators.

Nonetheless, the involvement of Tencent is the elephant in the room in times of uncertain U.S.-China relations. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. or CFIUS, which is chaired by the Treasury Department, was inquiring about data practices by Tencent-backed gaming studios in the U.S. including Epic and Riot, Bloomberg reported in September.

Roblox isn’t exempt. It notes in the prospectus that CFIUS has “made inquiries to us with respect to Tencent’s equity investment in us and involvement in the China JV.” It further warns that it “cannot predict what effect any further inquiry by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. into our relationship with Tencent or changes in China-U.S. relations overall may have on our ability to effectively support the China JV or on the operations or success of the China JV.”

The other obstacle faced by all foreign companies entering China is local clones. Reworld, backed by prominent Chinese venture firms such as Northern Light Venture Capital and Joy Capital, is one. The game is unabashed about its origin. In a Reddit post responding to the accusation of it being “a ripoff of Roblox,” Reworld pays its tribute to Roblox and admits its product is “built on the shoulders of Roblox,” while claiming “it did not take any code from Roblox Studio.”

The Beijing-based startup behind Reworld has so far raised more than $50 million and had about 100 developers working on Reworld’s editing tool and 50 other operational staff, its co-founder said in a June interview. In comparison, Roblox had 38 employees in China by September, 38 of whom were in product and engineering functions. It’s actively hiring in China.

Roblox cannot comment for the story as it’s in the IPO quiet period.

Reliance Retail buys Urban Ladder for $24.4 million

Reliance Retail has acquired a majority stake in furniture and decor platform Urban Ladder, making a broader push into e-commerce as the largest retail chain in India gears up to fight Amazon and Flipkart.

In a filing to the local stock exchange, Reliance Retail said it had acquired a 96% stake in Urban Ladder for about $24.43 million. The Indian retail giant, which retains the option to acquire the remainder stake in the seven-and-a-half-years-old startup, said it has proposed to invest up to $10.06 million more in Urban Ladder by December 2023.

Founded in early 2012, Urban Ladder sells home furniture and decor products online. It also operates a chain of physical retail stores in several Indian cities. The deal size suggests that it was a fire sale.

The startup had raised about $115 million from Sequoia Capital, SAIF Partners, Steadview Capital, and MIT and other investors, according to Crunchbase and Tracxn. In the financial year that ended in March, the Indian startup reported a loss of $6.63 million on a turnover of $58.2 million.

Reliance Retail said (PDF) the investment “will further enable the group’s digital and new commerce initiatives and widen the bouquet of consumer products provided by the group, while enhancing user engagement and experience across its retail offerings.”

Urban Ladder is the latest acquisition for Reliance Retail, which earlier this year said it had entered into a $3.4 billion deal with Future Group to buy several of India’s second largest retail chain’s businesses. In August, Reliance acquired a 60% stake in pharma marketplace Netmeds’ parent firm Vitalic for about $83.2 million.

Reliance Retail, which is part of Reliance Industries (India’s most valued firm), has raised about $6.4 billion in recent months after its sister subsidiary, Jio Platforms, secured over $20 billion this year from Facebook and Google among other high-profile investors.

Reliance Retail, which serves more than 3.5 million customers each week through its nearly 10,000 physical stores in more than 6,500 cities and towns in the country, entered the e-commerce space with JioMart through a joint venture with Jio Platforms. JioMart now has a presence in over 200 Indian cities and towns, and it also maintains a partnership with Facebook for WhatsApp integration.

China to ship 3 billion parcels during post-COVID Singles’ Day

China’s e-commerce behemoths Alibaba and JD.com again claimed to have set records during the world’s largest shopping event, Singles’ Day. The figures can often be gamed to paint a rosy picture of perpetual growth, journalists and analysts have long observed, so they are limited metrics for measuring the firms’ performance or Chinese consumers’ purchasing power in times of COVID-19.

Nonetheless, the heavy workload for express couriers is indisputably real and visible.

Starting the second week of November, I noticed parcels beginning to pile up outside my apartment compound in downtown Shenzhen, awaiting their final doorstep delivery. Courier workers dashed in and out of elevators, hurling boxes of items that shoppers bought at discounts or after being tricked by elaborate sales formula into thinking they got good deals.

Singles’ Day will see 2.97 billion packages delivered across China between November 11-16, the period when merchants begin shipping after a pre-sale period, according to a notice from the State Post Bureau. That marks a 28% increase from the year before and doubles the normal daily volume.

It also means that, on average, every person in China is set to get more than two parcels during the shopping spree. They will also receive plenty of e-commerce waste, from cardboard, tape, to wrapping bubble. Both JD.com and Alibaba’s Cainiao logistics arm have rolled out programs aiming to make online shopping more sustainable.

While coronavirus infections continue to climb in many countries, China has had few local transmissions for months. As such the pandemic has had a limited impact on delivery speed during Singles’ Day this year, both JD.com and Alibaba told TechCrunch.

Still, the companies have deployed new rules to ensure safety and speed. JD.com, for instance, claimed that it sanitizes its delivery stations and trucks and requires workers to wear masks and take the temperature on a daily basis, practices that are now standard in the country’s logistics sector. Pre-sale also allowed it to allocate inventory closer to consumers in advance. It said that 93% of the shipment orders fulfilled by its own logistics system was completed under 24 hours.

ByteDance asks federal appeals court to vacate U.S. order forcing it to sell TikTok

In a new filing, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance asked the federal appeals court to vacate the United States government order forcing it to sell the app’s American operations.

President Donald Trump issued an order in August requiring ByteDance to sell TikTok’s U.S. business by November 12, unless it was granted a 30-day extension by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). In today’s filing (embedded below) with the federal appeals court in Washington D.C., ByteDance said it asked the CFIUS for an extension on November 6, but the order hasn’t been granted yet.

It added it remains committed to “reaching a negotiated mitigation solution with CFIUS satisfying its national security concerns” and will only file a motion to stay enforcement of the divestment order “if discussions reach an impasse.”

Security concerns about TikTok’s ownership by a Chinese company were at the center of the executive order Trump signed in August, banning transactions with Beijing-headquartered ByteDance.

The executive order claimed that TikTok posed a threat to national security, though ByteDance maintains that it does not. But in order to prevent the app, which has about 100 million users in the U.S., from being banned, ByteDance reached a deal in September to sell 20% of its stake in TikTok to Oracle and Walmart. With the Biden administration set to take office in January and ByteDance’s ongoing legal challenge against the divestment order, however, the future of the deal is now uncertain.

The new filing is part of a lawsuit TikTok filed against the Trump administration on September 18. It won an early victory when the court stopped the U.S. government’s ban from going into effect on its original deadline that month.

In a statement emailed to TechCrunch, a TikTok spokesperson said it has been working with the CFIUS for a year to address its national security concerns “even as we disagree with its assessment.”

Facing continual new requests and no clarity on whether our proposed solutions would be accepted, we requested the 30-day extension that is expressly permitted in the August 14 order,” the statement continued.

“Today, with the November 12 CFIUS deadline imminent and without an extension in hand, we have no choice but to file a petition in court to defend our rights and those of our more than 1,500 employees in the US.” 

TikTok asks U.S. federal appeals court to vacate U.S. divestment order by TechCrunch on Scribd

PUBG Mobile plots return to India following ban

PUBG Mobile, the sleeper hit title that was banned in India two months ago over cybersecurity concerns, is plotting to make a return in the world’s second largest internet market, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The South Korean firm has engaged with global cloud service providers in recent weeks to store Indian users’ data within the country to allay New Delhi’s concerns about user data residency and security, one of the sources said.

The gaming giant has privately informed some high-profile streamers in the country that it expects to resume the service in India before the end of this year, the other source said. Both the sources requested anonymity as they are not authorized to speak to the press. PUBG Corporation did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The company could make an announcement about its future plans for India as soon as this week. It also plans to run a marketing campaign in the country during the festival of Diwali next week, one of the sources said.

In recent weeks, PUBG has also engaged with a number of local firms including SoftBank-backed Paytm and telecom giant Airtel to explore whether they would be interested in publishing the popular mobile game in the country, an industry executive said. A Paytm spokesperson declined to comment.

Chinese giant Tencent initially published PUBG Mobile apps in India. After New Delhi banned PUBG Mobile, the gaming firm cut publishing ties with Tencent in the country. Prior to the ban, PUBG Mobile’s content was hosted on Tencent Cloud.

Late last month, two months after the ban order, PUBG Mobile terminated its service for Indian users. “Protecting user data has always been a top priority and we have always complied with applicable data protection laws and regulations in India. All users’ gameplay information is processed in a transparent manner as disclosed in our privacy policy,” it said at the time.

With more than 50 million monthly active users in India, PUBG Mobile was by far the most popular mobile game in the country before it was banned. It helped establish an entire ecosystem of  esports organisations to teams and even a cottage industry of streamers that made the most of its spectator sport-friendly gameplay, said Rishi Alwani, a long-time analyst of Indian gaming market and publisher of news outlet The Mako Reactor.

PUBG Mobile’s return, however, could complicate matters for several industry players, including some that are currently building similar games to cash in on its absence and their conversations with venture capital firms over ongoing financing rounds.

It would also suggest that more than 200 other Chinese apps that India has banned in recent months could hope to allay New Delhi’s concerns by making some changes to where they store their users data. (That was also the understanding between TikTok and Reliance when they engaged in investment opportunities earlier this year.)

Warren gets $1.4 million to help local cloud infrastructure providers compete against Amazon and other giants

Started as a side project by its founders, Warren is now helping regional cloud infrastructure service providers compete against Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Google and other tech giants. Based in Tallinn, Estonia, Warren’s self-service distributed cloud platform is gaining traction in Southeast Asia, one of the world’s fastest-growing cloud service markets, and Europe. It recently closed a $1.4 million seed round led by Passion Capital, with plans to expand in South America, where it recently launched in Brazil.

Warren’s seed funding also included participation from Lemonade Stand and angel investors like former Nokia vice president Paul Melin and Marek Kiisa, co-founder of funds Superangel and NordicNinja.

The leading global cloud providers are aggressively expanding their international businesses by growing their marketing teams and data centers around the world (for example, over the past few months, Microsoft has launched a new data center region in Austria, expanded in Brazil and announced it will build a new region in Taiwan as it competes against Amazon Web Services).

But demand for customized service and control over data still prompt many companies, especially smaller ones, to pick local cloud infrastructure providers instead, Warren co-founder and chief executive officer Tarmo Tael told TechCrunch.

“Local providers pay more attention to personal sales and support, in local language, to all clients in general, and more importantly, take the time to focus on SME clients to provide flexibility and address their custom needs,” he said. “Whereas global providers give a personal touch maybe only to a few big clients in the enterprise sectors.” Many local providers also offer lower prices and give a large amount of bandwidth for free, attracting SMEs.

He added that “the data sovereignty aspect that plays an important role in choosing their cloud platform for many of the clients.”

In 2015, Tael and co-founder Henry Vaaderpass began working on the project that eventually became Warren while running a development agency for e-commerce sites. From the beginning, the two wanted to develop a product of their own and tested several ideas out, but weren’t really excited by any of them, he said. At the same time, the agency’s e-commerce clients were running into challenges as their businesses grew.

Tael and Vaaderpass’s clients tended to pick local cloud infrastructure providers because of lower costs and more personalized support. But setting up new e-commerce projects with scalable infrastructure was costly because many local cloud infrastructure providers use different platforms.

“So we started looking for tools to use for managing our e-commerce projects better and more efficiently,” Tael said. “As we didn’t find what we were looking for, we saw this as an opportunity to build our own.”

After creating their first prototype, Tael and Vaaderpass realized that it could be used by other development teams, and decided to seek angel funding from investors, like Kiisa, who have experience working with cloud data centers or infrastructure providers.

Southeast Asia, one of the world’s fastest-growing cloud markets, is an important part of Warren’s business. Warren will continue to expand in Southeast Asia, while focusing on other developing regions with large domestic markets, like South America (starting with Brazil). Tael said the startup is also in discussion with potential partners in other markets, including Russia, Turkey and China.

Warren’s current clients include Estonian cloud provider Pilw.io and Indonesian cloud provider IdCloudHost. Tael said working with Warren means its customers spend less time dealing with technical issues related to infrastructure software, so their teams, including developers, can instead focus on supporting clients and managing other services they sell.

The company’s goal is to give local cloud infrastructure providers the ability to meet increasing demand, and eventually expand internationally, with tools to handle more installations and end users. These include features like automated maintenance and DevOps processes that streamline feature testing and handling different platforms.

Ultimately, Warren wants to connect providers in a network that end users can access through a single API and user interface. It also envisions the network as a community where Warren’s clients can share resources and, eventually, have a marketplace for their apps and services.

In terms of competition, Tael said local cloud infrastructure providers often turn to OpenStack, Virtuozzo, Stratoscale or Mirantis. The advantage these companies currently have over Warren is a wider network, but Warren is busy building out its own. The company will be able to connect several locations to one provider by the first quarter of 2021. After that, Tael said, it will “gradually connect providers to each other, upgrading our user management and billing services to handle all that complexity.”

Marriott International announces partnership with Grab in six Southeast Asian countries

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the hospitality industry especially hard, and hotels around the world are looking for ways to regain revenue. Today, Marriott International and Grab announced a partnership that will cover the hospitality giant’s dining businesses in six Southeast Asian countries: Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.

Instead of room bookings, Marriott International deal with Grab focuses on about 600 restaurants and bars at its properties in the six Southeast Asian countries, which will start being added to GrabFood’s on-demand delivery platform in November. A joint announcement from the companies said the deal represents Marriott International’s “first extensive integration with a super app platform in Southeast Asia and Grab’s most comprehensive agreement with a hospitality group to date.”

Marriott International is the world’s largest hotel company. During the second quarter, as the pandemic curtailed travel and in-person events, it reported a loss of $234 million, compared to the profit of $232 million it had recorded a year earlier. Chief executive Arne Sorenson called it “the worst quarter we have ever seen,” even though business is gradually recovering in China.

The Marriott-Grab integration means the two companies will link their loyalty programs, so GrabRewards points can be converted to Marriott Bonvoy points, or vice versa. Marriott International’s restaurants and bars that accept GrabPay will also have access to Grab’s Merchant Discovery platform, which will allow them to ping users about local deals and includes a marketing campaign platform called GrabAds.

Other hospitality businesses that Grab already partners with include Booking.com and Klook. Klook is among several travel-related companies that have recalibrated to focus on “staycations,” or services for people who can’t travel during the pandemic, but still want a break from their regular routines.

Esports pioneer Dino Ying talks to TechCrunch about the next phase of VSPN

Following the news that China’s esport giant VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has raised close to $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings, TechCrunch interviewed founder and CEO Dino Ying via email about his strategy for the company.

Founded in 2016 and headquartered in Shanghai, VSPN was one of the early pioneer in esports tournament organization and content creation out of Asia. It has since expanded into other businesses including offline venue operation.

VSPN began hosting the first large-scale esport event with offline audiences in August, although tournaments now operate under strict COVID-19 prevention measures.

TechCrunch: VSPN has a large content production ecosystem surrounding its esports activity. Can you expand on the detail behind your stated short-form video strategy? Will this involve TikTok?

Ying: VSPN intends to use our world-class video production capabilities and industry insights to create different forms of content. We will give our existing fans and a wider audience a new and vivid esports experience. Kuaishou, as our investors and a strategic partner, will support in all ways as a media platform to help our content reach more users. Short-form video is an important part of our future strategy and we look forward to working with platforms all over the world in this regard.

TC: What is VSPN’s share of the eSports market?

Ying: There is no official estimation of the size of the esports market but VSPN is far the largest esports organization in China, with over 1000+ employees and covering every major esports tournament you’ve ever heard of. By many measures, we are the largest esports organization in the world and will continue to expand.

TC: Why do you think Shanghai has become a center for esports?

Ying: As the biggest and perhaps most international city in China, it has a vibrant and increasingly sophisticated economy. Tech innovation and new industries are actively encouraged to grow here.

The Shanghai government has implemented supportive measures and policies to encourage the growth of esports both domestically and internationally. Thanks to these measures Shanghai has become an international hub for the biggest and best tournaments in the world

VSPN events have returned, despite COVID-19

VSPN events have returned, despite COVID-19

TC: How important is research into eSports for VSPN and why?

Ying: It is vital for VSPN. As an esports total solutions provider aiming to build a sustainable global esports ecosystem, data and R&D allows us to give our fans a richer experience. The research center will allow us to continually improve as a company and develop the industry.

TC: You are the cofounder and chairman and CEO by title. What is the role of cofounder Ethan Teng?

Ying: Ethan Teng is Co-founder and president of VSPN. Ethan as one of the most important partners of VSPN, with his dedicated esports industry experience, he plays a vital role in leading and managing the company’s strategic goal setting and day to day management.

TC: What is the nature of the strategic relationship with Tencent?

Ying: VSPN is a key partner of Tencent in the esports industry. With Tencent’s support, VSPN has built a leading position in esports tournament content production. Since the emergence of esports in China, our deep-rooted industry expertise has helped further develop the esports ecosystem to grow and mature. Alongside Tencent we will continue to generate new opportunities within the industry.

TC: What made you choose these partners and why? What was the strategic thinking behind these decisions?

Ying: Together with Kuaishou, VSPN aims to establish an esports short-form video ecosystem to diversify existing content, and to build the connections between top quality creators and channels. With an extensive portfolio in the consumer and TMT sectors, both Tiantu Capital and SIG will utilize their industry insights and expertise to aid VSPN’s strategic development. With our investors, we will empower esports to be the new sports for the next generation.

TC: In addition to the core esports tournament and content production business, VSPN has branded esports venues. How important are these other businesses – like the venues – to the core offering of VSPN? What sort of growth do you expect in the next few years?

Ying: Regardless of business lines, VSPN’s core mission is to provide the best eSports experiences for our fans. And these experiences include not just online viewing experiences, but also offline ones where fans physically attend. We see our offline business as a natural way to extend our services to our fans; it is an important supplement to our overall offerings. We expect to grow it per our fans’ and partner’s demands.

TC: Mobile esports, especially the KPL and PUBG MOBILE (or Peacekeeper Elite in China), have attracted more and more female audiences. What is the future of eSports among women / girls?
Ying: Mobile gaming has really helped extend eSports’ reach to female participants and audiences. Rightfully so, we see a future of eSports where female participants take a more prominent role than they have done. Not just on stage as athletes, but also off stage as fans and more importantly backstage as top quality producers and decision-makers in the industry. The impact of having more female fans, athletes and professionals is exciting and will be hugely beneficial to the wider industry.

TC: What is the future of esports in Augmented Reality?

Ying: We think eSports in its full form will look and feel a lot different from what we’ve seen so far in sports and entertainment. The possibility of integrating real world gaming and virtual competitions is fascinating. VSPN is only beginning to test the boundaries of new technologies such as AR, VR. The emergence of these technologies will help us create fresher experiences, and the possibilities are endless.

VSPN headquarters

VSPN headquarters

TC: Please tell us more about your personal history?

Ying: Firstly, thank you for having me – it is a real pleasure to speak to TechCrunch and be able to announce our fundraise to the world. I have been working in the gaming and esports industry all my life and I’m excited about the future. With the team at VSPN we are proud to be pioneers in the esports industry.

I live between Beijing and Shanghai, but I spend a lot of my time travelling to other Chinese cities like Xi’an, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Shenzhen where we have esports arenas and business interests. Usually I travel internationally to some of our overseas operations and competitions, so I look forward to that when travel becomes easier.

I am a fan of traditional sports too and an avid football fan. I follow some of the European leagues – whenever I can, I go to matches to enjoy the atmosphere; I went to Stamford Bridge early this year and loved it, but seeing the AC vs Inter Derby live is hard to beat…

TC: Why did you get into this business and how?

Ying: Mostly because I am a HUGE gaming fan! I’ve been playing computer games since I was a teenager and enjoy playing all types. Earlier this year I played COD Warzone as soon as it came out and often play PUBG Mobile; I’m extremely lucky to be in an industry which I’ve loved since I was very young. It’s a great way to connect with friends and I am proud to have worked in game development and publishing for my whole career. 5 years ago, esports seemed like the obvious next step because of the competitive element. We saw the beginnings of a trend and founded VSPN with a world-class team to make that potential a reality.

VSPN is very proud to be leading the world in a relatively new industry. We think esports will continue to grow exponentially and will be an incredibly important part of the entertainment industry in years to come. To lead a Chinese company with a global future is really exciting.

TC: What motivates you as a businessman?

Ying: Bringing new forms of entertainment to millions of people around the world and building a global business.

TC: Who inspires you most in the business world?

There are so many fantastic businessmen in China who are doing some really innovative things at the moment. For example, the live-streaming industry has become enormous in 2020 due to the pandemic and has offered entrepreneurs a new way to sell products and engage with new audiences.

If I had to name one it would be Mark Ren (COO at Tencent Holdings) – he is an exceptional businessman. The way he has helped create sustainable ecosystems in the entertainment space and captured trends is something every businessman should aspire to. This is something VSPN works hard at and we are very proud to be such close partners of Tencent.

TC: What is your opinion of Silicon Valley?

Ying: It’s an amazing place and has shown the world how technology can improve lives all over the world. For many years it has led the world as a centre for creativity and innovation and continues to be an inspiration to entrepreneurs around the world. In China, we have lots of Silicon Valleys!

TC: Is there anything else you’d like to say to TechCrunch readers?

Ying: This has been a challenging year for many businesses and the esports industry has had to adapt, but I think the world has seen how big esports is and how it can bring communities and cultures together. As the industry grows there will bigger and bigger online and offline tournaments across the world, especially with 5G and mobile gaming becoming even more popular. We look forward to being at the forefront of esports for competitors all over the world and hopefully some of your readers will enjoy watching our original content and tournaments.

Finally, with celebrities and big brands seeing live streaming and casual gaming as a new way to engage with a wider audience, the future for VSPN is very, very bright.

Samsung chairman dies at age 78

Lee Kun-hee, the long-time chairman of Samsung Group who transformed the conglomerate into one of the world’s largest business empires, died today at the age of 78, according to reports from South Korean leading news agency Yonhap.

The story of Samsung is deeply intertwined with the history of its home country, which is sometimes dubbed “The Republic of Samsung.” Lee, the son of Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul, came to power in the late 1980s just as South Korea transitioned from dictatorship to democracy with the political handover from military strongman Chun Doo-hwan to Roh Tae-woo. Under his management, Samsung spearheaded initiatives across a number of areas in electronics, including semiconductors, memory chips, displays, and other components that are the backbone of today’s digital devices.

Lee navigated the challenging economic troubles of the 1990s, including the 1998 Asian financial crisis, which saw a near collapse of the economies of South Korea and several other so-called Asian Tigers, as well as the Dot-Com bubble, which saw the collapse of internet stocks globally.

Coming out of those challenging years, Lee invested in and is probably most famous today for building up the conglomerate’s Galaxy consumer smartphone line, which evolved Samsung from an industrial powerhouse to a worldwide consumer brand. Samsung Electronics, which is just one of a spider web of Samsung companies, is today worth approximately $350 billion, making it among the most valuable companies in the world.

While his business acumen and strategic insights handling Samsung were lauded, he faced troubles in recent years. He was convicted of tax evasion in the late 2000s, but was ultimately pardoned by the country’s then president Lee Myung-bak (no relation).

Samsung has also been under fire from groups including Elliott Management over chairman Lee’s attempts to secure the financial future of Samsung for his son, Lee Jae-yong, who took over effective leadership of the conglomerate following the elder Lee’s heart attack in 2014. Lee Jae-yong has suffered his own run-ins with the law, having been found guilty of bribery and sentenced to five years in prison, which was ultimately suspended by a judge.

After his heart attack, Lee Kun-hee remained hospitalized in stable condition according to Yonhap. Rumors of his condition have percolated in the six years since.

According to Bloomberg, Lee leaves behind roughly $20 billion in wealth, and he is the wealthiest South Korean citizen. He is survived by his wife as well as four children.

India’s Flipkart buys over $200 million stake in Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail

Flipkart is acquiring a 7.8% stake in Aditya Birla Fashion as the Walmart-owned Indian e-commerce firm makes further push into the fashion category in one of the world’s largest retail markets.

The e-commerce group will pay $203.8 million for its stake in Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail, a conglomerate that operates over 3,000 stores including the Pantaloons brand. As part of the “landmark partnership,” Flipkart will also sell and distribute various Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail’s brands products.

“This partnership is an emphatic endorsement of the growth potential of India,” said Kumar Mangalam Birla, Chairman of Aditya Birla Group, which operates the fashion retail firm in a filing to the stock exchange. “It also reflects our strong conviction in the future of the apparel industry in India, which is poised to touch $100 billion in the next 5 years.”

Kalyan Krishnamurthy, CEO of Flipkart Group, said the two companies will work toward “making available a wide range of products for fashion-conscious consumers across different retail formats across the country. We look forward to working with ABFRL and its well established and comprehensive fashion and retail infrastructure as we address the promising opportunity of the apparel industry in India.”

In July, Flipkart also invested $35 million in $35 million in Arvind Fashions, one of the decades-old Indian firm’s subsidiaries.

More to follow…

Intel agrees to sell its NAND business to SK Hynix for $9 billion

SK Hynix, one of the world’s largest chip makers, announced today it will pay $9 billion for Intel’s flash memory business. Intel said it will use proceeds from the deal to focus on artificial intelligence, 5G and edge computing.

“For Intel, this transaction will allow us to to further prioritize our investments in differentiated technology where we can play a bigger role in the success of our customers and deliver attractive returns to our stockholders,” said Intel chief executive officer Bob Swan in the announcement.

The Wall Street Journal first reported earlier this week that the two companies were nearing an agreement, which will turn SK Hynix into one of the world’s largest NAND memory makers, second only to Samsung Electronics.

The deal with SK Hynix is the latest one Intel has made so it can double down on developing technology for 5G network infrastructure. Last year, Intel sold the majority of its modem business to Apple for about $1 billion, with Swan saying that the time that the deal would allow Intel to “[put] our full effort into 5G where it most closely aligns with the needs of our global customer base.”

Once the deal is approved and closes, Seoul-based SK Hynix will take over Intel’s NAND SSD and NAND component and wafer businesses, and its NAND foundry in Dalian, China. Intel will hold onto its Optane business, which makes SSD memory modules. The companies said regulatory approval is expected by late 2021, and a final closing of all assets, including Intel’s NAND-related intellectual property, will take place in March 2025.

Until the final closing takes places, Intel will continue to manufacture NAND wafers at the Dalian foundry and retain all IP related to the manufacturing and design of its NAND flash wafers.

As the Wall Street Journal noted, the Dalian facility is Intel’s only major foundry in China, which means selling it to SK Hynix will dramatically reduce its presence there as the United States government puts trade restrictions on Chinese technology.

In the announcement, Intel said it plans to use proceeds from the sale to “advance its long-term growth priorities, including artificial intelligence, 5G networking and the intelligent, autonomous edge.”

During the six-month period ending on June 27, 2020, NAND business represented about $2.8 billion of revenue for its Non-volatile Memory Solutions Group (NSG), and contributed about $600 million to the division’s operating income. According to the Wall Street Journal, this made up the majority of Intel’s total memory sales during that period, which was about $3 billion.

SK Hynix CEO Seok-Hee Lee said the deal will allow the South Korean company to “optimize our business structure, expanding our innovative portfolio in the NAND flash market segment, which will be comparable with what we achieved in DRAM.”

Gogoro’s Eeyo 1s e-bike goes on sale in France, its first European market

Gogoro announced today that its Eeyo 1s is now available for sale in France, the smart electric bike’s first European market. Another model, the Eeyo 1, will launch over the next few months in France, Belgium, Monaco, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic.

In France, the Eeyo 1s can be purchased through Fnac, Darty or, in Paris, Les Cyclistes Branchés. The Eeyo 1s is priced at €4699 including VAT, while the the Eeyo 1 will be priced at €4599, also including VAT.

The weight of Eeyo bikes is one of their key selling points and Gogoro says they are about half the weight of most other e-bikes. The Eeyo 1s weighs 11.9 kg and the Eeyo 1 clocks in at 12.4 kg.  Both have carbon fiber frames and forks, but the Eeyo 1s’ seat post, handlebars and rims are also carbon fiber, while on the Eeyo 1 they are made with an alloy.

Based in Taiwan, Gogoro first introduced its Eeyo lineup in May, making them available for sale in the U.S. first. The e-bikes are the company’s second type of vehicle after its SmartScooters, electric scooters that are powered by swappable batteries. The Eeyo bike’s key technology is the SmartWheel, a self-contained hub that integrates its motor, battery, sensor and smart connectivity technology so it can be paired with a smartphone app.

In an interview for the Eeyo’s launch, Gogoro co-founder and chief executive Horace Luke said the company began planning for Eeyo’s launch in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. While sale of e-bikes were already growing steadily before COVID-19, the pandemic has accelerated sales of e-bikes as people avoid public transportation and stay closer to home. Several cities have also closed some streets to car traffic, making riders more willing to use bikes for short commutes and exercise.

Founded in 2011 and backed by investors including Temasek, Sumitomo Corporation, Panasonic, the National Development Fund of Taiwan and Generation (the sustainable tech fund led by former vice president Al Gore), Gogoro is best known for its electric scooters, but it is also working on a turnkey solution for energy-efficient vehicles to license to other companies, with the goal of reducing carbon emissions in cities around the world.

China’s digital yuan tests leap forward in Shenzhen

Shenzhen, known for its maker community and manufacturing resources, is taking the lead in trialing China’s digital yuan.

Last week, the city issued 10 million yuan worth of digital currency to 50,000 randomly selected residents. The government doled out the money through mobile “red envelopes,” a tool designed to digitize the custom of gifting money in red packets and first popularized by WeChat’s e-wallet.

The digital yuan is not to be mistaken as a form of cryptocurrency. Rather, it is issued and managed by the central bank, serving as the statutory, digital version of China’s physical currency and giving Beijing a better grasp of its currency circulation. It’s meant to supplement, not replace, third-party payments apps like WeChat Pay and Alipay in a country where cash is dying out.

For example, the central government may in the future issue subsidies to local offices by sending digital yuan, which can help tackle issues like corruption.

Shenzhen is one of the four Chinese cities to begin internal testing of the digital yuan, announced a government notice in August without going into the specifics. The latest distribution to consumers is seen as the country’s first large-scale, public test of the centrally issued virtual currency.

Nearly 2 million individuals in Shenzhen signed up for the lottery, according to a post from the local government. Winners could redeem the 200 yuan red envelope within the official digital yuan app and spend the virtual money at over 3,000 retail outlets in the city.

As its next step, Shenzhen will launch a (vaguely defined) “fintech innovation platform” through its official digital currency institute, said a new central government document detailing the city’s five-year development measures, including attracting more foreign investment in cutting-edge technologies. The city will also play a key role in furthering the digital yuan’s research and development, application and international collaboration.

In April, the city’s digital currency vehicle launched a wave of recruiting for technical positions like mobile app architects and Android developers.

Shenzhen was established in 1980 as China’s first special economic zones and is now home to tech behemoths like Tencent, Huawei and DJI and innovation hubs like HAX and Trouble Maker. President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit the city this week to commemorate the city’s 40th anniversary.

While the central bank provides logic and infrastructure undergirding the digital yuan, there’s much room for commercial banks and private firms to innovate on the application level. Both ride-hailing platform Didi and JD’s fintech arm have recently unveiled steps to help accelerate the digital yuan’s real-life implementation.

Hong Kong logistics unicorn Lalamove unveils foray into the US

Lalamove, an on-demand logistics service active in China, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, has officially entered the U.S. seven years after launch.

As the COVID-19 pandemic keeps millions of Americans home, Hong Kong-based Lalamove believes it can seize the growing demand for delivery services in the country. It makes its debut in the Dallas Fort-Worth area, a major hub for distribution and logistics in the U.S. In days the service will launch in Chicago and Houston.

The startup was one of the first in Hong Kong to hit the $1 billion unicorn valuation mark alongside its archrival GoGoVan. Its business is multifold and highly localized, but essentially it works as an Uber for businesses and individuals that need to move goods within the city.

In China, where it’s known as Huolala (货拉拉), it primarily serves as a broker between shippers who need to send cargo and a network of truck drivers. In Southeast Asia, the business functions similarly with the addition of food delivery for restaurants, a crowded and cash-burning space. In the U.S., its fleet of sedans, SUVs and pickup trucks are available 24/7, allowing it to target customers spanning catering, retail, e-commerce, manufacturing and construction, with fees starting at $8.90.

“Delivery is essential, especially during the pandemic. But many local businesses don’t have or cannot afford in-house fleets, so we’re excited to work with businesses in the Dallas Fort-Worth area to provide same-day, on-demand delivery services to their customers,” said Blake Larson, international managing director at Lalamove and formerly co-founder of Rocket Internet’s Asia-focused e-hailing startup Easy Taxi.

Like GoGoVan, Lalamove was founded by a Hong Kong entrepreneur who was educated in the U.S. Both companies have scored fundings from heavyweight institutions from China and elsewhere.

Lalamove’s investors included Hillhouse Capital, Sequoia Capital China and Xiaomi founder’s Shunwei Capital. Through a merger with China’s 58 Suyun, GoGoVan counts Tencent, Alibaba, KKR and New Horizon Capital amongst its backers.

The Hong Kong startup’s global expansion comes at a time when TikTok stumbles in the U.S. due to its links to China. In the logistics startup’s case, a Chinese team operates the Chinese division Huolala, while separate international teams manage the overseas segments of Lalamove, TechCrunch understands. The core of TikTok’s challenge in the U.S. is the video app’s dependence on its Chinese parent ByteDance’s technological capabilities.

To date, Lalamove has verified and onboarded more than 500 partner drivers in Dallas Fort-Worth, with plans to add another 500 in the area by the end of this year. It’s also hiring for its regional operational office at a time when the U.S. is struck by widespread virus-induced layoffs, furloughs and slowdown in hiring.

Lalamove claims it has to date matched more than 7 million users with a pool of over 700,000 delivery partners in 22 markets around the world.

Google delays mandating Play Store’s 30% cut in India to April 2022

Google is postponing the enforcement of its new Play Store billing policy in India to April 2022, days after more than 150 startups in the world’s second largest internet market forged an informal coalition to express concerns over the 30% charge the Android-maker plans to mandate on its store and started to explore an alternative marketplace for their apps.

The company, which is going live globally with the new Play Store rule in September 2021, is deferring the enforcement of the policy only in India, it said. It is also listening to developers and willing to engage to allay their concerns, it said.

“We are setting up listening sessions with leading Indian startups to understand their concerns more deeply. We will be setting up Policy Workshops to help clear any additional questions about our Play Store policies. And we’re also extending the time for developers in India to integrate with the Play billing system, to ensure they have enough time to implement the UPI for subscription payment option that will be made available on Google Play — for all apps that currently use an alternative payment system we set a timeline of 31st March 2022,” said Purnima Kochikar, Director of Business Development of Games & Applications at Google Play, in a statement.

“We have always said developers should have a choice in how they distribute their apps, and that stores should compete for consumers’ and developers’ business,” she added.

Last week, Google said it would no longer allow any apps to circumvent its payment system within the Play Store. The move, pitched by Google as a “clarification” of its existing policy, would allow the company to ensure it gets as high as a 30% cut on in-app purchases made through Android apps operating in a range of a categories.

Google’s announcement today is a direct response to the loudest scrutiny it has received in a decade in India — its biggest market by users but also a place where, compared to Western markets, it generates little revenue. More than 150 startups in India last week formed an informal coalition to fight the company’s strong hold on Indian app ecosystem. Google commands 99% of the smartphone market in India, according to research firm Counterpoint.

Among the startups that have expressed concerns over Google’s new policy are Paytm, India’s most valuable startup, payments processor Razorpay, fantasy sports firm Dream11, social network ShareChat, and business e-commerce IndiaMART.

More than 50 Indian executives relayed these concerns to India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology over a video call on Saturday, according to three people who attended the call.

Several businesses in India have long expressed concerns with the way Google has enforced its policies in India, but the matter escalated last month after the company temporarily pulled Paytm app from the Play Store for promoting gambling.

Google said Paytm had repeatedly violated its policies, and the company’s Play Store has long prohibited apps that promote gambling in India. Google has sent notices about warnings over gambling to several more firms in India in recent weeks.

A senior industry executive told TechCrunch that the company should have expressed these concerns months before the popular cricket tournament IPL was scheduled to commence. Fantasy sports apps allow users to pick their favorite players and teams. These players stand to win real money or points that they can redeem for physical goods purchase based on the real-world performance of their preferred teams and players. IPL season sees a huge surge in popularity of such fantasy sports apps.

“The IPL even got delayed by months. Why did Google wait for so long? And why does the company have a problem with so-called gambling in India, when it permits such activities in other markets? The Indian government has no problem with it,” the executive said, requesting anonymity.

Paytm mini app store

Paytm on Monday announced its own mini-app store featuring several popular services including ride-hailing firm Ola, health care provides 1mg and Practo, fitness startup Cure.fit, music-streaming service Gaana, car-rental provider Zoomcar, Booking.com, and eateries Faasos, Domino’s Pizza, and McDonald’s. The startup claimed that more than 300 firms have signed up for its mini store and that its app reaches more than 150 million users each month. (In a written statement to TechCrunch, Paytm said in June its app reached more than 50 million users in India each month.

Paytm, which says its mini-app store is open to any developer, will provide a range of features including the ability to support subscriptions and one-step login. The startup, which claims  said it will not charge any commission to developers for using its payments system or UPI payments infrastructure, but will levy a 2% charge on “other instruments such as credit cards.”

“There are many challenges with traditional mobile apps such as maintaining multiple codebases across platforms (iOS, Android or Web), costly user acquisition and requirement of app release and then a waiting period for user adoption for any change made in the app. Launching as a Mini Apps gives you freedom from all these hassles: implying lesser development/testing and maintenance costs which help you reach millions of Paytm users in a Jiffy,” the Indian firm said in its pitch.

The launch of a mini-store further cements Alibaba-backed Paytm’s push into turning itself into a super-app. Its chief rivals, Walmart-backed PhonePe and Google Pay, also operate similar mini stores on their apps.

Whether Paytm’s own mini app store and postponement of Google’s new Play Store policy are enough to calm other startups’ complaints remain to be seen. PhonePe is not one of the mini apps on Paytm’s store, a Paytm spokesperson told TechCrunch.

“I am proud that we are today launching something that creates an opportunity for every Indian app developer. Paytm mini app store empowers our young Indian developers to leverage our reach and payments to build new innovative services,” said Vijay Shekhar Sharma, co-founder and chief executive of Paytm, in a statement.

E-scooter startup Neuron Mobility adds $12M to its Series A for expansion in Australia and New Zealand

Neuron Mobility, a Singapore-based e-scooter rental startup, announced today that it has added $12 million to its Series A. Led by Square Peg, an Australian venture capital firm and GSR Ventures, this increases the round’s new total to $30.5 million. The company, which operates in Australia and New Zealand in addition to Southeast Asian markets, first announced its Series A in December 2019.

Part of Neuron Mobility’s growth plans hinges on the increased adoption of electric scooters and bikes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people are using their cars less frequently because they are working remotely or there are movement restrictions where they live. When they do go out, electric bikes and scooters offer an alternative to public transportation and ride-hailing services for short trips.

Neuron Mobility’s chief executive Zachary Wang said the company raised a Series A+ instead of moving onto a Series B because more cities are “opening up to the possibility of micromobility, particularly rental e-scooters as they present an individual transport option that takes pressure off public transport and allows people to continue social distancing.”

“We’ve been experiencing tremendous growth in ANZ and the pandemic has made us fast track our plans,” he added.

Though Neuron Mobility currently does not operate in other Southeast Asian countries besides Singapore, Wang said it is “constantly evaluating opportunities across APAC.”

The new funding will be used to speed up Neuron Mobility’s expansion plans in Australia and New Zealand, where it claims to be the leading electric scooter rental operator. The company is currently present in nine locations, including Auckland, New Zealand, and Australian cities Adelaide, Brisbane, Darwin, Canberra and Townsville. Neuron Mobility plans to expand into five new cities over the next two months and part of that involves hiring 400 more people in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. In addition to the Asia-Pacific, Neuron Mobility will also launch in Slough, it’s first location in the United Kingdom, by the end of this year.

Neuron Mobility’s research found that before the COVID-19 lockdowns in Australia, one in five of its users had never used an e-scooter before. But now Australian and New Zealand users have increased their average e-scooter trip distances by 23% to 2.6 kilometers, with the average duration of rides rising by 10% to more than 14 minutes. Neuron Mobility’s pricing is meant to be affordable depending on different markets. For example, in Brisbane, users pay one Australian dollar (about 68 U.S. cents) to begin a trip and then 38 Australian cents for each minute of the ride. Its e-scooters can go up to speeds of about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) per hour.

Other “micromobility” companies, including Ofo, Reddy Go, Obike and Lime, have also offered rental services in Australia and New Zealand, but ran into trouble. Bike-sharing startups Ofo, Reddy Go and Obike withdrew from Australia in part because city councils were frustrated by bikes were being abandoned on sidewalks and in parks. Lime still operates in Australian cities, but in June, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission found that the company failed to disclose safety issues with its Generation 2 scooters (in response, Lime said it would implement new compliance procedures and upgrade to its new Generation 3 scooter).

Wang said Neuron Mobility avoids those issues by strategically planning which cities it will launch in, instead of focusing on rapid expansion, partnering with city councils and “continually shifting and adapting to meet their needs.” Several of Neuron Mobility’s features, including geofencing to control where and how fast e-scooters can be ridden, and a “Helmet Lock” to make helmets available for all scooters, were developed after discussions with city councils. Neuron Mobility’s scooters, designed by the company specifically for renting, also use swappable batteries to decrease pollution.

After launching in Singapore, Neuron Mobility decided to focus on Australia and New Zealand because “both countries have cities that are highly suitable for micromobility in terms of infrastructure and regulations,” Wang said. City councils have also “been keen to push the boundaries of what can be done with technology to make programs better and safer and that really suits our way of thinking.”

 

Philippines payment processing startup PayMongo lands $12 million Series A led by Stripe

Stripe has led a $12 million Series A round in Manila-based online payment platform PayMongo, the startup announced today.

PayMongo, which offers an online payments API for businesses in the Philippines, was the first Filipino-owned financial tech startup to take part in Y Combinator’s accelerator program. Y Combinator and Global Founders Capital, another previous investor, both returned for the Series A, which also included participation from new backer BedRock Capital.

PayMongo partners with financial institutions, and its products include a payments API that can be integrated into websites and apps, allowing them to accept payments from bank cards and digital wallets like GrabPay and GCash. For social commerce sellers and other people who sell mostly through messaging apps, the startup offers PayMongo Links, which buyers can click on to send money. PayMongo’s platform also includes features like a fraud and risk detection system.

In a statement, Stripe’s APAC business lead Noah Pepper said it invested in PayMongo because “we’ve been impressed with the PayMongo team and the speed at which they’ve made digital payments more accessible to so many businesses across the Philippines.”

The startup launched in June 2019 with $2.7 million in seed funding, which the founders said was one of the largest seed rounds ever raised by a Philippines-based fintech startup. PayMongo has now raised a total of almost $15 million in funding.

Co-founder and chief executive Francis Plaza said PayMongo has processed a total of almost $20 million in payments since launching, and grown at an average of 60% since the start of the year, with a surge after lockdowns began in March.

He added that the company originally planned to start raising its Series A in in the first half of next year, but the growth in demand for its services during COVID-19 prompted it to start the round earlier so it could hire for its product, design and engineering teams and speed up the release of new features. These will include more online payment options; features for invoicing and marketplaces; support for business models like subscriptions; and faster payout cycles.

PayMongo also plans to add more partnerships with financial service providers, improve its fraud and risk detection systems and secure more licenses from the central bank so it can start working on other types of financial products.

The startup is among fintech companies in Southeast Asia that have seen accelerated growth as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many businesses to digitize more of their operations. Plaza said that overall digital transactions in the Philippines grew 42% between January and April because of the country’s lockdowns.

PayMongo is currently the only payments company in the Philippines with an onboarding process that was developed to be completely online, he added, which makes it attractive to merchants who are accepting online payments for the first time. “We have a more efficient review of compliance requirements for the expeditious approval of applications so that our merchants can use our platform right away and we make sure we have a fast payout to our merchants,” said Plaza.

If the momentum continues even as lockdowns are lifted in different cities, that means the Philippine’s central bank is on track to reach its goal of increasing the volume of e-payment transactions to 20% of total transactions in the country this year. The government began setting policies in 2015 to encourage more online payments, in a bid to bolster economic growth and financial inclusion, since smartphone penetration in the Philippines is high, but many people don’t have a traditional bank account, which often charge high fees.

Though lockdown restrictions in the Philippines have eased, Plaza said PayMongo is still seeing strong traction. “We believe the digital shift by Filipino businesses will continue, largely because both merchants and customers continue to practice safety measures such as staying at home and choosing online shopping despite the more lenient quarantine levels. Online will be the new normal for commerce.”

Indonesian cloud kitchen startup Yummy gets $12 million Series B led by SoftBank Ventures Asia

Yummy Corporation, which claims to be the largest cloud kitchen management company in Indonesia, has raised $12 million in Series B funding, led by SoftBank Ventures Asia. Co-founder and chief executive officer Mario Suntanu told TechCrunch that the capital will be used to expand into more major cities and on developing its tech platform, including data analytics.

Other participants in the round included returning investors Intudo Ventures and Sovereign’s Capital, and new backers Vectr Ventures, AppWorks, Quest Ventures, Coca Cola Amatil X and Palm Drive Capital. The Series B brings Yummy Corporation’s total raised so far to $19.5 million.

Launched in June 2019, Yummy Corporation’s network of cloud kitchens, called Yummykitchen, now includes more than 70 HACCP-certified facilities in Jakarta, Bandung and Medan. It partners with more than 50 food and beverage (F&B) companies, including major brands like Ismaya Group and Sour Sally Group.

During COVID-19 movement restrictions, Suntanu said Yummykitchen’s business showed “healthy growth” as people, confined mostly to their homes, ordered food for delivery. Funding will be used to get more partners, especially brands that want to digitize their operations and expand deliveries to cope with the continuing impact of COVID-19.

The number of cloud kitchens in Southeast Asia has grown quickly over the past year, driven by demand for food deliveries that began increasing even before the pandemic. But for F&B brands that rely on deliveries for a good part of their revenue, running their own kitchens and staff can be cost-prohibitive. Sharing cloud kitchens with other businesses can help increase their margins.

Other cloud kitchen startups serving Indonesia include Hangry and Everplate, but these companies and Yummy Corporation are all up against two major players: “super apps” Grab and Gojek, which both operate large networks of cloud kitchens that have the advantage of being integrated with their on-demand delivery services.

Suntanu said Yummy’s main edge compared to other cloud kitchens is that it also offers fully-managed location and kitchen operation services, in addition to kitchen facilities. This means Yummy’s partners, including restaurants and and F&B brands, don’t need to hire their own teams. Instead, food preparation and delivery is handled by Yummy’s workers. The company also provides its clients with a data analytics platform to help them with targeted ad campaigns and making their listings more visible on food delivery apps.

In a statement, Harris Yang, Souteast Asia associate at SoftBank Ventures Asia, said the firm invested in Yummy because “given the company’s strong expertise in the F&B industry and unique value proposition to brands, we believe that Yummy will continue to be the leader in this space. We are excited to support the team and help them scale their business in this emerging sector.”

WeWork sells majority stake in Chinese entity, seeks localization

Four years after its foray into the Chinese market followed by rapid and cash-hemorrhaging expansion, WeWork decided to wind down its involvement in the country.

WeWork’s Chinese unit has secured a $200 million investment led by Shanghai-based equity firm Trustbridge Partners, which first backed WeWork China in its Series B round in 2018, the American co-working giant announced. What the release didn’t emphasize is that the latest financing effectively makes Trustbridge Partners the controlling shareholder, leaving WeWork with a minority stake in its Chinese entity.

The investment marks WeWork China’s transition from a subsidiary of a multinational into a Chinese-owned company — with a globally recognized brand, sort of like franchising.

WeWork China will continue its close cooperation with WeWork’s global headquarters to “ensure the consistency of the WeWork brand and satisfication of global members and employees,” a spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch.

Other changes are already underway, though. There have been layoffs as part of the sale and “many things remain uncertain,” said the person with knowledge of the matter. WeWork China declined to comment on the matter.

WeWork arrived in China at the height of the country’s co-working boom. Its brand, service and chic design have long attracted well-financed startups and open-minded big corps. Since 2016, more than 100 WeWork spaces have sprung up across 12 cities in China, including dozens it acquired from local rival Naked Hub. It now claims 65,000 members in the country.

It’s also launched a range of initiatives in China, including an on-demand service for customers who don’t want to commit to long-term leases, which could help drive in more revenue.

Globally, WeWork serves 612,000 members in 843 offices across 38 countries. China accounts for roughly one-eight of its locations, down from a share of one-sixth in 2018.

WeWork China is not only competing with cheaper, home-grown alternatives — both private and government-subsidized — but also dealing with a weakening economy in COVID-19 times and uncertain U.S.-China relations. Relinquishing operational control in a cash-burning market seems logical, given all the troubles it already faces back home.

Ahead of its planned initial public offering, which was later postponed, WeWork said trade policy uncertainty could have an adverse impact on its business. It also highlighted China, a lower-priced market, as a drag on its profit margin.

Following the investment, Trustbridge Partners will launch an extensive localization makeover for WeWork China, from “decision-making and management, product and business, through to operations and productivity,” said the WeWork China representative. The new owner will also seek partnerships with local communities, real estate firms and Chinese enterprises during the process.

WeWork China gets a new boss as a result of the sale. Michael Jiang, ann operating partner at Trustbridge Partners, will serve as the acting chief executive. Jiang was previously a senior vice presidnet at Meituan, China’s food delivery and on-demand services giant.

Apple launches its online store in India

For the first time in more than 20 years since Apple began its operations in India, the iPhone-maker has started selling its products directly to consumers in the world’s second largest smartphone market.

Apple launched its online store in India on Wednesday, which in addition to offering nearly the entire line-up of its products, also brings a range of services for the first time to consumers in the country. India is the 38th market for Apple where it has launched its online store.

Consumers in India can now purchase AppleCare+, which extends warranty on products, and access the trade-in program to get a discount on new hardware purchases. The company said it will also offer customers support through chat or telephone, and let users consult its team of specialists before they make a purchase. The company is also letting customers order customized versions of iMac, MacBook Air, Mac Mini and other Mac computers — something it started offline through its authorized partners only in late May in India.

The company is also offering customers the ability to pay for their purchases in monthly instalments. TechCrunch reported in January that the company was planning to open its online store in India in the quarter that ends in September. The company plans to open its first physical retail store in the country next year, it has said.

Jayanth Kolla, chief analyst at consultancy firm Convergence Catalyst, argued that the launch of the Apple’s online store in India is a bigger deal for the company than consumers in the country.

Apple typically starts investing in marketing, brand building and other investments in a market only after it launches a store there, he told TechCrunch.

Apple does oversee billboards and ads of iPhones and other products that are displayed in India, but it’s the third-party partners that are running and bankrolling them, said Kolla. “Apple might provide some marketing dollars, but those efforts are always led by their partners,” he said.

In recent years, Apple has visibly grown more interested in India, one of the world’s fastest growing smartphones markets. The company’s contract manufacturers today locally assemble the latest generation of iPhone models and some accessories — an effort the company kickstarted two years ago.

The move has allowed Apple to lower prices of some iPhone models in India, where for years the company has passed custom duty charges to customers. The starting price of iPhone 11 Pro Max is $1,487 in India, compared to $1,099 in the U.S. (It started to assemble some iPhone 11 models in India only recently.) The AirPods Pro, which sells at $249 in the U.S., was made available in India at $341 at the time of launch.

Apple has also been trying to open its store in India for several years, but local regulations made it difficult for the company to expand in the country. But in recent quarters, India has eased many of its regulations. Last year, New Delhi eased sourcing norms for single-brand retailers, paving the way for companies like Apple to open online stores before they set up presence in the brick-and-mortar market.

This year, India also launched a $6.6 billion incentive program aimed at boosting the local smartphone manufacturing. South Korean giant Samsung, and Apple’s contract manufacturing partners Foxconn, Wistron and Pegatron among others have applied for the incentive program.

Unlike most foreign firms that offer their products and services for free in India or at some of the world’s cheapest prices, Apple has focused entirely on a small fraction of the population that can afford to pay big bucks, Kolla said. And that strategy has worked fine for the company, Kolla argued. Apple commands the segment of premium smartphones in India.

That’s not to say that Apple has not made some changes to its price strategy for India. The monthly cost of Apple Music is $1.35 in India, compared to $9.99 in the U.S. Its Apple One bundle, which includes Apple Music, TV+, Arcade, and iCloud, costs $2.65 a month in India.

Some Apple customers say that even as they prefer the iPhone-maker’s ecosystem of products over Android makers’ offerings, they wish Apple made more of its services available in the country. A range of Apple services including Apple News and Apple Pay are still not available in India.

The launch of Apple’s online store in India comes weeks before the company is expected to unveil the new-generation iPhone models and a month before the festival of Diwali, which sees hundreds of millions of Indians spend lavishly.

China’s electric carmaker WM Motor pulls in $1.47 billion Series D

Chinese electric vehicle startup WM Motor just pocketed an outsize investment to fuel growth in a competitive landscape increasingly coveted by foreign rival Tesla. The five-year-old company raised 10 billion yuan ($1.47 billion) in a Series D round, it announced on Tuesday, which will pay for research and development, branding, marketing and expansion of sales channel.

WM Motor, backed by Baidu and Tencent, is one of the highest funded EV startups in China alongside NIO, Xpeng and Li Auto, all of which have gone public in New York. With its latest capital boost, WM Motor could be gearing up for an initial public offering. As Bloomberg’s sources in July said, the company was weighing a listing on China’s Nasdaq-style STAR board as soon as this year.

Days before its funding news, WM Motor unveiled its key partners and suppliers: Qualcomm Snapdragon’s cockpit chips will power the startup’s in-cabin experience; Baidu’s Apollo autonomous driving system will give WM vehicles self-parking capability; Unisplendour, rooted in China’s Tsinghua University, will take care of the hardware side of autonomous driving; and lastly, integrated circuit company Sino IC Leasing will work on “car connectivity” for WM Motor, whatever that term entails.

It’s not uncommon to see the new generation of EV makers seeking external partnerships given their limited experience in manufacturing. WM Motor’s rival Xpeng similarly works with Blackberry, Desay EV and Nvidia to deliver its smart EVs.

WM Motor was founded by automotive veteran Freeman Shen, who previously held executive positions at Volvo, Fiat and Geely in China.

The startup recently announced an ambitious plan for the next 3-5 years to allocate 20 billion yuan ($2.95 billion) and 3,000 engineers to work on 5G-powered smart cockpits, Level-4 driving and other futuristic auto technologies. That’s a big chunk of the startup’s total raise, which is estimated to be north of $3 billion, based on Crunchbase data and its latest funding figure.

Regional governments are often seen rooting for companies partaking in China’s strategic industries such as semiconductors and electric cars. WM Motor’s latest round, for instance, is led by a state-owned investment platform and state-owned carmaker SAIC Motor, both based in Shanghai where the startup’s headquarters resides. The city is also home to Tesla’s Gigafactory where the American giant churns out made-in-China vehicles.

In July, the Chinese EV upstart delivered its 30,000th EX5 SUV vehicle, which comes at about $22,000 with state subsidy and features the likes of in-car video streaming and air purification. The company claimed that parents of young children account for nearly 70% of its customers.

The TikTok deal solves quite literally nothing

Well… that was pointless.

After debasing the idea of free commerce in the U.S in the name of a misplaced security concern, stringing along several multi-billion dollar companies that embarrassed themselves in the interest of naked greed, and demanding that the U.S. government get a cut of the profits, the TikTok saga we’ve been watching the past few weeks finally appears to be over.

A flurry of announcement late Saturday night indicate that the TikTok deal was actually a politically-oriented shakedown to boost the cloud infrastructure business of key supporters of the President of the United States.

Oracle, whose cloud infrastructure services run a laughable fourth to AWS, Alphabet*, and Microsoft, will be taking a 20 percent stake in TikTok alongside partner Walmart in what will be an investment round before TikTok Global (as the new entity will be called) goes public on an American stock exchange.

According to a statement from TikTok, Oracle will become TikTok’s “trusted technology partner” and will be responsible for hosting all U.S. user data and securing associated computer systems to ensure U.S. national security requirements are fully satisfied. “We are currently working with Walmart on a commercial partnership as well,” according to the statement from TikTok.

pic.twitter.com/jWxjnAIwZQ

— TikTok_Comms (@tiktok_comms) September 19, 2020

Meanwhile, Oracle indicated that all the concerns from the White House, U.S. Treasury, and Congress over TikTok had nothing to do with the service’s selection of Oracle as its cloud provider. In its statement, Oracle said that “This technical decision by TikTok was heavily influenced by Zoom’s recent success in moving a large portion of its video conferencing capacity to the Oracle Public Cloud.”

Here’s how CNBC reporter Alex Sherman has the ownership structure breaking down, per “a person familiar with the matter. Oracle gets 12.5%, Walmart gets 7.5% and ByteDance gets the remaining 80%. The Trump administration is claiming that US investors will own 53% of TikTok because ByteDance (TikTok’s parent) is backed by venture capital investors that hold a 40% stake in the parent company.

So the ownership of TikTok Global will be, according to a person familiar with the matter:
Oracle – 12.5%
Walmart – 7.5%
ByteDance – 80% …

But 40% of ByteDance’s ownership is US venture capital funding. That’s how the Trump admin is calculating this deal as “majority US $”

— Alex Sherman (@sherman4949) September 20, 2020

 

The deal benefits everyone except U.S. consumers and people who have actual security concerns about TikTok’s algorithms and the ways they can be used to influence opinion in the U.S.

TikTok’s parent company ByteDance gets to maintain ownership of the U.S. entity, Oracle gets a huge new cloud customer to boost its ailing business, Walmart gets access to teens to sell stuff, and U.S. customer data is no safer (it’s just now in the hands of U.S. predators instead of foreign ones).

To be clear, data privacy and security is a major concern, but it’s not one that’s a concern when it comes to TikTok necessarily (and besides, the Chinese government has likely already acquired whatever data they want to on U.S. customers).

For many observers, the real concern with TikTok was that the company’s Chinese owners may be pressured by Beijing to manipulate its algorithm to promote or suppress content. Companies in China — including its internet giants — are required to follow the country’s intelligence and cloud security law mandating complete adherence with all government orders for data.

The Commerce Department in its statement said that “In light of recent positive developments, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, at the direction of President Trump, will delay the prohibition of identified transactions pursuant to Executive Order 13942, related to the TikTok mobile application that would have been effective on Sunday, September 20, 2020, until September 27, 2020 at 11:59 p.m.” So that’s a week reprieve.

So all this sound and fury … for what? The best investment return in all of these shenanigans is almost certainly Oracle co-CEO Safra Catz’ investment into Trump, who in addition to being a heavy donor to the Trump administration, also joined the presidential transition committee back in 2016. Thank god the U.S. saved TikTok from the crony capitalism of China. Let’s just hope they enjoy the crony capitalism of Washington DC.

*An earlier version of this article referred to AWS, Amazon and Microsoft. AWS and Amazon are the same company. I was typing fast. I’ve corrected the error.

Apple will launch its online store in India next week

Apple will launch its online store in India on September 23, bringing a range of services directly to customers in the world’s second largest smartphone market for the first time in over 20 years since it began operations in the country.

The company, which currently relies on third-party online and offline retailers to sell its products in India, said its online store will offer AppleCare+, which extends the warranty on its hardware products by up to two years, as well as a trade-in program to let customers access discounts on purchase of new iPhones by returning previous models. These programs were previously not available in India. Customers will also be able to buy Macs with custom configuration

“We know our users are relying on technology to stay connected, engage in learning, and tap into their creativity, and by bringing the Apple Store online to India, we are offering our customers the very best of Apple at this important time,” said Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s senior vice president of Retail + People, in a statement.

TechCrunch reported in January that the iPhone-maker was planning to launch its online store in India in Q3 this year. A month later, Apple CEO Tim Cook confirmed the development, adding that Apple will also launch its first physical store in the country next year.

On its website, Apple says it also plans to offer financing options to customers in India, and students will receive additional discounts on Apple products and accessories. Starting next month, it will also let customers check out free online sessions on music and photography from professional creatives. And if they wish, they can engrave emoji or text on their AirPods in several Indian languages.

The launch of the online store will mark a new chapter in Apple’s business in India, where about 99% of the market is commanded by Android smartphones. The iPhone-maker has become visibly more aggressive in India in recent years. In July, the company’s contract manufacturing partner (Foxconn) began assembling the iPhone 11 in India. This was the first time the company was locally assembling a current-generation iPhone model in the country.

Assembling handsets in India enables smartphone vendors — including Apple — to avoid roughly 20% import duty that the Indian government levies on imported electronics products. Lowering the cost of its products is crucial for Apple in India, which already sells several of its services including Apple Music and TV+ at record-low price in the country.

The starting price of iPhone 11 Pro Max is $1,487 in India, compared to $1,099 in the U.S. The AirPods Pro, which sells at $249 in the U.S., was made available in India at $341 at the time of launch.

We know how important it is for our customers to stay in touch with those they love and the world around them. We can’t wait to connect with our customers and expand support in India with the Apple Store online on September 23! 🇮🇳https://t.co/UjR31jzEaY

— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) September 18, 2020

Homage announces strategic partnership with Infocom, one of Japan’s largest healthcare IT providers

Homage, a Singapore-based caregiving and telehealth company, has taken a major step in its global expansion plan. The startup announced today that it has received strategic investment from Infocom, the Japanese information and communications technology company that runs one of the largest healthcare IT businesses in the country. Infocom’s solutions are used by more than 13,000 healthcare facilities in Japan.

During an interview with TechCrunch that will air as part of Disrupt tomorrow, Homage co-founder and chief executive Gillian Tee said “Japan has one of the most ageing populations in the world, and the problem is that we need to start building infrastructure to enable people to be able to access the kind of care services that they need.” She added that Homage and Infocom’s missions align because the latter is also building a platform for caregivers in Japan, in a bid to help solve the shortage of carers in the country.

Homage raised a Series B earlier this year with the goal of entering new Asian markets. The company, which currently operates in Singapore and Malaysia, focuses on patients who need long-term rehabilitation or care services, especially elderly people. This makes it a good match for Japan, where more than one in five of its population is currently aged 65 or over. In the next decade, that number is expected to increase to about one in three, making the need for caregiving services especially acute.

The deal includes a regional partnership that will enable Homage to launch its services into Japan, and Infocom to expand its reach in Southeast Asia. Homage’s services include a caregiver-client matching platform and a home medical service that includes online consultations and house calls, while Infocom’s technology covers a wide range of verticals, including digital healthcare, radiology, pharmaceuticals, medical imaging and hospital information management.

In a statement about the strategic investment, Mototaka Kuboi, Infocom’s managing executive officer and head of its healthcare business division, said, “We see Homage as an ideal partner given the company’s unique cutting-edge technology and market leadership in the long-term care segment, and we aim to drive business growth not only in Homage’s core and rapidly growing market in Southeast Asia, but also regionally.”

Times Internet is growing despite influx of US tech firms in India

Times Internet said on Thursday it reaches more than 557 million active users in India each month and over 111 million users a day as several of its digital offerings demonstrated strong growth in the past year.

The Indian conglomerate — which operates over three-dozen properties, including on-demand streaming services MX Player and Gaana, and newspapers Times of India and Economic Times — added 107 million monthly active users in the financial year that ended in March, it said.

Its platform clocked over 67 billion page views in FY 2020, up from 47 billion from the year prior.

MX Player, which has now amassed over 200 million monthly active users, and Gaana, which now reaches 185 million monthly active users, grew 75% in the year, Satyan Gajwani, vice chairman of Times Internet told TechCrunch in an interview.

These figures put Times Internet, a subsidiary of 182-year-old Bennett Coleman and Company Limited (BCCL), at the centre of the world’s largest open battleground (well, almost), which is otherwise dominated by Google, Facebook and Amazon.

According to analytics firm Comscore, Google reached 98% of the digital population in India on web (desktop as well as mobile) in the month of June. During the same month, Facebook reached 94.9% of the population, Times Internet 77.7% and Amazon settled at fourth place with 76%. (The figures do not include app usage data.)

Founded over 20 years ago, Times Internet had a huge headstart over nearly every firm that dominates the digital landscape today. But it largely failed to cash in on that for several years, critics say. Under the current leadership, however, the firm has followed a steady path and grown.

Comscore data for the month of May (Image credit: Times Internet)

Gajwani acknowledged that some of Times Internet’s offerings weren’t in great shape at the beginning of the last decade. “So we put a lot more emphasis on just product quality during 2013 to 2016. The next few years after that we also bought and built good products.”

“We’ve sold products or exited products where we didn’t think we could be competitive. We’ve got a reasonably strong portfolio now,” he added.

The most recent phase of Times Internet’s growth, said Gajwani, is the push to find revenue channels beyond ads. Gaana, MX Player, ET Prime (ad-free tier for Economic Times) and Times Prime (which bundles and resells a range of third-party subscription offerings) are helping it find subscribers, while MensXP’s e-commerce section, ETMoney, MagicBricks, GradeUp and Dineout are driving transactions.

Overall, Times Internet said its revenue grew 24% to $221.5 million in FY20. The firm did not disclose how much revenue it clocked from subscriptions, but said it had over 2 million paying subscribers and its transacting businesses grew 68%. Its ad business was also up 22%.

But its heavy reliance on ads means it has also been hit by the coronavirus, which slashed consumers’ spendings across the industry, resulting in advertisers cutting their budget.

Gajwani said the month of March saw a “big drop” in ad revenue for the firm, but the next three months were “soft” and July and August delivered a big rebound. “The gains of July and August have now made up for the losses of April, May, June in terms of our net year over year,” he added.

The virus and New Delhi’s ban on Chinese apps in recent months haven’t been a complete downer. Both MX Player and Gaana are attempting to fill the void left by the ban on TikTok in India and have received better traction than some of the more heavily-funded firms such as Twitter-backed ShareChat, according to mobile insight firm App Annie, data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch.

MX TakaTak, the short-video app from MX Player, has amassed over 10 million daily active users and 45 million monthly active users, it claimed earlier this week. Users have uploaded more than 15 million videos on the app and clocked over a billion views within a month, it said.

Moving forward, Gajwani said the firm will also continue to try to deepen its relationship with users. “The number of people who consumed two or more of our businesses grew 48%. And the number of people who consumed three or more of our businesses, grew 120%,” he said, without disclosing the number of users.

BCCL has engaged in conversations with investors in recent months to sell stake in Times Internet, a person familiar with the matter said. The deal, if secured, would make Times Internet — which employs more than 6,000 people, up from 5,000 last year — financially stronger to explore more acquisition opportunities, the person said. Gajwani declined to comment. Bloomberg first reported about the talks.

Do Ventures launches $50 million fund for Vietnamese startups, backed by Naver, Vertex and other notable LPs

Vy Le and Dzung Nguyen, the founders and general partners of Do Ventures, an investment firm focused on early-stage Vietnamese startups

Vy Le and Dzung Nguyen, the founders and general partners of Do Ventures, an investment firm focused on early-stage Vietnamese startups

New investment firm Do Ventures announced today the first closing of its fund for Vietnamese startups, which is backed by several of Asia’s most notable institutional investors. Called Do Ventures Fund I, the investment vehicle has hit more than half of its $50 million target, with limited partners including Korean internet giant Naver; Sea, whose businesses include Garena and Shopee; Singapore-based venture capital firm Vertex Holdings; and Korean app developer Woowa Brothers.

Do Ventures was founded by general partners Nguyen Manh Dung, former CEO of CyberAgent Ventures Vietnam and Thailand, and Vy Hoang Uyen Le, previously a general partner at ESP Capital. Its first fund will focus on early-stage companies and invest in seed to Series B rounds.

Both of its founders have a long track record of working with Vietnamese startups. Nguyen was an early investor in companies including Tiki.vn, one of Vietnam’s largest online marketplaces; food delivery platform Foody.vn; and digital marketing company CleverAds. Before she became an investor, Le was a serial entrepreneur and served as chief executive officer at fashion e-commerce company Chon.vn and VinEcom, the e-commerce project launched by Vietnamese real estate conglomerate Vingroup.

In an email, Le told TechCrunch that Do Ventures Fund I is industry agnostic, but will structure its investments into two tiers. The first will consist of B2C platforms, including education, healthcare and social commerce, that serve younger users, and are addressing changes in consumer behavior caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The second tier will include B2B platforms that can provide services for companies in the first tier, and allow them to expand regionally with SaaS solutions for data and e-commerce services.

Do Ventures’ founders say that between 2016 and 2019, the amount of startup funding in Vietnam grew eight-fold to $861 million last year. But there are still only a few funds that focus specifically on the country, which means early-stage Vietnamese startups often run into funding gaps.

One of the firm’s goals is to help founders weather the impact of COVID-19, so their companies can continue growing in spite of the pandemic.

“We hope tech startups can enable traditional businesses to digitize faster and better adapt to the new normal,” Le said. “For consumers, we hope tech startups can transform customer experience in all aspects of daily life, and bring more accessibility to consumers in remote areas.”

The firm will take a hands-on approach to its investments, helping companies develop new business models. Do Ventures plans to set up an automatic reporting system that collects data about how its portfolio companies are performing, which its general partners say will enable them support startups’ operations, including product development, business organization, supply chain development, and overseas expansion.

Facebook bans politician of India’s ruling party for violating hate speech

Facebook has banned a politician from India’s ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party, for violating its policies against hate speech on its platform, the company said today, weeks after inaction on the politician’s posts landed the social giant in hot water in its biggest market by users.

The company said it had removed profiles of T. Raja Singh, who had posted about Rohingya Muslim immigrants to be shot among other anti-Muslim sentiments. Singh will no longer be allowed to create profiles across Facebook services and unofficial groups and posts affiliated to him will also be nuked.

Singh, termed as a “dangerous individual” by Facebook, has a history of voicing problematic and hateful views on social platforms and in public appearances. Several of those posts, for which Facebook has banned him, remain online on Twitter and YouTube.

Today’s move comes weeks after the Wall Street Journal reported that a top Facebook executive in India had chosen to not take any actions on Singh’s posts because she was afraid it could hurt the company’s business prospects in the country.

A person familiar with the matter and local media reports claim that Facebook had removed some of Singh’s posts in the past. The Wall Street Journal also reported that the aforementioned Facebook executive — Ankhi Das — also showed support to BJP’s Narendra Modi before he was elected as Prime Minister in 2014 and disparaged the opposition party, Indian National Congress.

In a statement today, a Facebook spokesperson said, “the process for evaluating potential violators is extensive and it is what led us to our decision to remove his account.” 

In the last few weeks, Facebook has received some of the harshest criticism to date in India, where it reaches more than 400 million users. Politicians from both sides — the opposition and ruling party — have accused the company of having political biases.

In a letter to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, India’s IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad earlier this month expressed concerns about the alleged political leanings of the company’s staff and accused them of suppressing pages that support right-wing views.

Apple alum’s jobs app for India’s workers secures $8 million

Javed, a middle-aged man, worked as a driver before losing that job earlier this year as coronavirus spread across India, prompting New Delhi to enforce a nationwide lockdown and temporarily curb several business activities.

There are millions of people like Javed in India today who have lost their livelihood in recent months. They are low-skilled workers and are currently struggling to secure another job.

An Apple alum thinks he can help. Through his app startup Apna, Nirmit Parikh is helping India’s workers learn new skills, connect with one another, and find jobs.

Parikh’s app is already changing lives. Javed, who could barely speak a few words in English before, recently posted a video on Apna app where he talked about his new job — processing raisins — in English.

In less than one year of its existence, Apna app — available on Android — has amassed over 1.2 million users.

The startup announced on Tuesday it has raised $8 million in its Series A financing round led by Lightspeed India and Sequoia Capital India . Greenoaks Capital and Rocketship VC also participated in the round.

In an interview with TechCrunch last week, Parikh said that these workers lack an organized community. “They are daily-wage workers. They rely on their friends to find jobs. This makes the prospects of them finding a job very difficult,” he said.

Apna app comprises of vertical communities for skilled professionals like carpenters, painters, field sales agents and many others.

“The most powerful thing for me about Apna is its communities — I’ve seen people help each other start a business, learn a new language or find a gig! Communities harbinger trust and make the model infinitely scalable,” said Vaibhav Agrawal, a Partner at Lightspeed India, in a statement.

The other issue they struggle with is their skillset. “An electrician would end up working decades doing the same job. If only they had access to upskilling courses — and just knew how beneficial it could be to them — they would stand to broaden their scope of work and significantly increase their earnings,” said Parikh.

Apna is addressing this gap in multiple ways. In addition to establishing a community, and rolling out upskilling courses, the startup allows users — most of whom are first time internet users — easily generate a virtual business card. The startup then shares these profiles with prospective employers. (Some of the firms that have hired from Apna app in recent weeks include Amazon, Big Basket, and HDFC Bank.)

In the last one month, Parikh said Apna has facilitated more than 1 million job interviews — up more than 3X month-on-month. During the same period, more than 3 million professional conversations occurred on the platform.

Parikh said he plans to use the fresh capital to expand Apna’s offerings, and help users launch their own businesses. He also plans to expand Apna, currently available in five Indian cities, outside of India in the future.

There are over 250 million blue and grey collar workers in India and providing them meaningful employment opportunities is one of the biggest challenges in our country, said Harshjit Sethi, Principal at Sequoia Capital India, in a statement.

“With internet usage in this demographic growing rapidly, further catalysed by the Jio effect, apps such as Apna can play a meaningful role in democratizing access to employment and skilling. Apna has built a unique product where users quickly come together in professional communities, an unmet need so far,” he added.

A handful of other players are also looking for ways to help. Last month, Google rolled out a feature in its search engine in India that allows users to create their virtual business card. The Android-maker also launched its jobs app Kormo in the country.