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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.

BlackBerry makes China push as the OS for Xpeng smart cars

The once-pioneering BlackBerry is pretty much out of the smartphone manufacturing game, but the Canadian company has been busy transitioning to providing software for connected devices, including smart cars. Now it’s brought that section of its business to China.

This week, BlackBerry announced that it will be powering the Level 3 driving domain controller of Xpeng, one of the most-funded electric vehicle startups in China and Tesla’s local challenger. Baked in Xpeng’s intelligent cockpit is BlackBerry’s operating system called QNX, which competes with the likes of Android and Linux to enter automakers’ next-gen models.

Sitting between BlackBerry and Xpeng’s tie-up is middleman Desay SV, which specializes in automotive system integrators like Aptiv. Desay SV, founded in 1986, has an illustrious past as a previously Sino-German joint venture that involved Siemens. The Huizhou-based company today supplies to Tier 1 automotive brands and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in China and around the world.

The kernel of Xpeng’s domain controller is NVIDIA’s Xavier cockpit chip for automated cars, so a good amount of software and hardware in Xpeng’s new car is based on foreign technologies.

The mass-produced Xpeng model in the spotlight is an electric sports sedan numbered P7. It features a processing unit that can calculate “the vehicle’s driving status and provides 360-degree omnidirectional perception with real-time monitoring of the surrounding environment to make safe driving decisions,” according to the announcement.

“Desay SV Automotive has extensive experience in intelligent cockpits, smart driving and connected services. Augmented with the safety expertise of BlackBerry QNX, together we can address the diverse needs of an auto industry that is undergoing meaningful transformation,” said John Wall, senior vice president and co-head of BlackBerry Technology Solutions, in a statement.

“To that end, it’s a real privilege to have BlackBerry technology powering the intelligent driving system within Xpeng Motors innovative new P7 system.”

The partnership arrives as Alibaba and Xiaomi backed-Xpeng is looking to raise up to $1.1 billion from its initial public offering in New York. Its Chinese rivals Li Auto and NIO raised similar amounts from their U.S. IPOs.

Taiwan set to bar Chinese streaming services like iQiyi and Tencent’s WeTV

iQiyi and Tencent’s WeTV, two of China’s most popular streaming services, may be banned in Taiwan next month as the government prepares to close regulatory loopholes that enabled them to operate through local partnerships.

In an announcement posted this week, Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs said Taiwanese companies and individuals will be prohibited from providing services for OTT firms based in mainland China. The proposed regulation will be open to public comment for two weeks before it takes effect on Sept. 3.

Though Taiwan, which has a population of about 24 million people, is self-governed, the Chinese government claims it as a territory. The proposed regulations means Taiwan is joining other countries, including India and the United States, in taking a harsher stance against Chinese tech companies.

iQiyi and Tencent’s WeTV set up operations in Taiwan through “illegal” partnerships, the Ministry of Economic Affairs said in its announcement, working through their Hong Kong subsidiaries to strike agreements with Taiwanese companies.

In April, the NCC declared that mainland Chinese OTT firms are not allowed to operate in Taiwan under the Act Governing Relations between People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area. Cabinet spokesperson Kolas Yotaka said at the time that Chinese firms and their Taiwanese partners were operating at “the edges of the law.”

But NCC spokesperson Wong Po-Tsung said the proposed regulation isn’t targeted solely at Chinese OTT operators. According to the Taipei Times, he stated “the act was necessary because the cable television service operators have asked that the commission apply across-the-board standards to regulate all audiovisual service platforms, which should include OTT services. It was not stipulated just to address the problems caused by iQiyi and other Chinese OTT operators.”

Wong added that Taiwan is a democratic country and its government would not block people from watching content from iQiyi and other Chinese streaming services.

Once the act is passed, Taiwanese companies that break it will face fines of NTD $50,000 to NTD $5 million [about USD $1,700 to USD $170,000].

TechCrunch has contacted iQiyi and Tencent for comment.

InfraDigital helps Indonesian schools digitize tuition and enrollment

In Indonesia, about half of adults are “underbanked,” meaning they don’t have access to bank accounts, credit cards and other traditional financial services. A growing list of tech companies are working on solutions, from Payfazz, which operates a network of financial agents in small towns, to digital payment services from GoJek and Grab. As a result, financial inclusion is increasing for consumers and small businesses in Southeast Asia’s largest country, but one group remains underserved: schools.

InfraDigital was founded in 2018 by chief executive officer Ian McKenna and chief operating officer Indah Maryani. Both have backgrounds in financial tech, and their platform enables parents to pay school tuition with the same digital services they use for electricity bills or online shopping. The startup currently serves about 400 schools and recently raised a Series A led by AppWorks.

Many Indonesian schools still rely on cash payments, which are often delivered by kids to their teachers.

“My kid had just started school, and one day I spotted my wife giving him an envelope full of cash for tuition. He was only three years old,” McKenna said. “That triggered my curiosity about how these financial systems work.”

To give parents an easier alternative, InfraDigital, which is registered with Indonesia’s central bank, partners with banks, convenience store chains like Indomaret, online wallets and digital payment services like GoPay to allow them to send tuition money online.

“The way you pay your electricity bill, it’s likely that your school is already there, regardless of whether you have a bank account or live in a really remote place” where many people make cash payments for services at convenience stores, McKenna said. The startup is now working on a system for schools in areas that don’t have access to convenience store chains and banks.

Before building InfraDigital’s network, McKenna and Maryani had to understand why many schools still rely on cash payments and paper ledgers to manage tuition.

“Banks have been trying to tap into the education market for a long time, 12 to 15 years probably, but no one has become the biggest bank for schools,” said Maryani. “The reason behind that is because they come in with their own products and they don’t try to resolve the issues schools are facing. Since they are focused on the consumer side, they don’t really see schools or other offline businesses as their customers, and there is a lot of customization that they need to do.”

For example, a school might have 2,000 students and charge each of them about USD $10 a month in school fees. But they also collect separate payments for books, uniforms, and building fees. InfraDigital’s founders say schools typically send out an average of about 2.5 invoices a month.

Digitizing payments also makes it easier for schools to track their finances. InfraDigital provides its clients with a backend application for accounting and enrollment management. It automatically tracks tuition payments as they come in.

“People don’t get paid that much and they are ridiculously busy taking care of thousands of kids. It’s really, really tough,” McKenna said. “When you’re giving them a solution, it’s not about features, it’s not about tools, it’s about the practicalities of their day-to-day life and how we are going to assist them with it. So you remove that burden from them.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in movement restriction orders in different areas of Indonesia, InfraDigital’s founders say the platform was able to forecast trends even before schools officially closed. They started surveying schools in their client base, and sent back data to help them forecast how school closures would affect their income.

“From the school’s perspective, it’s a really damaging situation, with 30% to 60% income drops. Teachers don’t get paid. If the economy goes down, parents at lower-income schools, which are a big part of our client base, won’t be able to pay,” McKenna said. “It’s built into the model, and we’ll continue seeing that however long the economic impact of COVID-19 lasts.”

Lightspeed raises $275 million fund for India

Lightspeed India Partners on Tuesday announced it has closed $275 million from LPs for its third fund as the top American venture firm looks to ramp up its investments in the world’s second-largest internet market.

The new fund, its biggest for India, will enable Lightspeed India Partners to make early stage bets on more than two dozen startups in the region, said Hemant Mohapatra, a partner at the firm, in an interview with TechCrunch.

The announcement comes as the firm, which began investing in India in 2007, has made two high-profile partial exits in the past year from budget-lodging startup Oyo and edtech giant Byju’s that together delivered cash returns of more than $900 million.

Some of its other major bets including backing business-to-business marketplace Udaan, which was valued at more than $2.75 billion last year, local social media platform ShareChat, which is in advanced stages of discussions to raise capital at more than $1 billion valuation, and SaaS startups DarwinBox, Yellow Messenger, and OkCredit.

The firm, which has six partners in the region, closed its first dedicated fund for India, of $135 million, in 2015. In 2018, it closed its second fund for the region, which was $175 million in size. But the venture firm has invested more than $750 million to date.

The Indian arm, which typically invests at early stages of a startup, continues to work with its global mothership for writing bigger checks to support some portfolio startups at later phases. (More than 80% of its investments have been committed to firms at Seed or Series A stages in India.)

“That’s one of the strongest points of differentiation we have. There are not many venture firms that have such a global presence. Our synergy with the global fund will continue,” said Mohapatra. (Lightspeed also has a big presence in China. Last year, its China arm announced a $560 million fund.)

Lightspeed partners in India. From left: Bejul Somaia, Akshay Bhushan, Harsha Kumar, Dev Khare, Vaibhav Agrawal, and Hemant Mohapatra. (Photo credit: Lightspeed)

Lightspeed, which earlier this year closed a $4 billion fund globally, is one of the handful of American venture firms that aggressively scouts for deals in India. Sequoia, its global peer, announced two venture funds, of $1.35 billion in size, last month for India and Southeast Asia. 11 of its early-stage bets have grown to become unicorns in the last 14 years in this region.

Mohapatra said the Indian startup ecosystem has matured in recent years, demonstrating high-scale growth and delivering big outcomes. It’s also seeing more exits than ever before. Earlier this month, Byju’s acquired WhiteHat Jr., an 18-month-old startup that teaches coding to children, for $300 million in an all-cash deal.

Indian startups raised more than $14.5 billion last year — a record for the local community. The coronavirus has decelerated the funding spree in India, like in any other market.

Mohapatra said a fraction of the firm’s portfolio startups has been disrupted by the virus, but noted that most startups are marching ahead unfazed and some have accelerated in recent months.

“Lightspeed believes this is when the best entrepreneurs and companies of the future will emerge. Strong founders are utilizing the tailwinds of India’s digital ecosystem growth to build out a new future and Lightspeed is strongly committed to backing these founders,” the firm said in a statement.

Singapore’s trade finance startup Incomlend raises $20M led by Sequoia Capital India

Incomlend, a Singapore-headquartered startup that operates a trading platform to connect exporters and importers with investors, has raised $20 million in a new financing round, it said on Tuesday.

Sequoia India, the India and SEA investment arm of the storied U.S. headquartered venture firm, led the Series A round in four-year-old Incomlend. The CMA CGM Group, one of the world’s largest shipping and logistics firms, also participated in the round.

Incomlend’s invoice trading platform is solving three pain points. Exporters typically get paid weeks or months after shipping goods and lack working capital to move to service other orders until they have received the due. Incomlend says its platform employs AI-powered underwriting technology to enable exporters to receive early payment.

Similarly, the startup says importers on its platform are able to minimize the risk of supply chain disruption and set more favorable payment terms. And investors have found a new alternative asset class to invest in through Incomlend that offers returns in shorter durations.

These roadblocks have prompted traditional banks to pull back from financing such deals, creating a cash crunch among cross-border trading firms worldwide. “This has led to a $1.5 trillion trade finance gap, hitting mid-cap companies hard. This gap has worsened with Covid-19,” the startup said, citing its own research.

“The impact is acute in high-growth Asia where SMEs — which account for more than 95% of all businesses and provide two out of three private-sector jobs in the region — need more financing options to meet their growing demand. Further, low-interest rates in Asia — and negative rates in Europe — are prompting many global investors to seek alternative asset classes,” the startup said.

Morgan Terigi, co-founder and chief executive of Incomlend, said the startup’s trading platform is able to onboard clients and process deals in a more timely fashion with higher flexibility. Incomlend has facilitated over $330 million in financing and covered invoice finance trades across 50 countries to date.

“The massive trade finance gap, combined with declining global interest rates and the high credit quality of Incomlend’s customers, has helped them create a compelling business that helps solve one of the most important challenges faced by global SMEs,” said Abheek Anand, Managing Director at Sequoia Capital India, in a statement.

Terigi said the startup will deploy the fresh capital to expand into Europe, Southeast Asia, and North Asia and bulk up its technology stack.

YC-backed Statiq wants to bootstrap India’s EV charging network

Electric vehicles (EVs) are spreading throughout the world. While Tesla has drawn the most attention in the United States with its luxurious and cutting-edge cars, EVs are becoming a mainstay in markets far away from the environs of California.

Take India for instance. In the local mobility market, two- and three-wheel vehicles are starting to emerge as a popular option for a rapidly expanding middle class looking for more affordable options. EV versions are popular thanks to their reduced maintenance costs and higher reliability compared to gasoline alternatives.

Two-wheeled electric scooters are a fast-growing segment of India’s mobility market.

There’s just one problem, and it’s the same one faced by every country which has attempted to convert from gasoline to electric: how do you build out the charging station network to make these vehicles usable outside a small range from their garage?

It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem. You need EVs in order to make money on charging stations, but you can’t afford to build charging stations until EVs are popular. Some startups have attempted to build out these networks themselves first. Perhaps the most famous example was Better Place, an Israeli startup that raised $800 million in venture capital before dying from negative cash flow back in 2013. Tesla has attempted to solve the problem by being both the chicken and egg by creating a network of Superchargers.

That’s what makes Statiq so interesting. The company, based in the New Delhi suburb of Gurugram, is bootstrapping an EV charging network using a multi-revenue model that it hopes will allow it to avoid the financial challenges that other charging networks have faced. It’s in the current Y Combinator batch and will be presenting at Demo Day later this month.

Akshit Bansal and Raghav Arora, the company’s co-founders, worked together previously as consultants and built a company for buying photos online, eventually reaching 50,000 monthly actives. They decided to make a pivot — a hard pivot really — into EVs and specifically charging equipment.

Statiq founders Raghav Arora and Akshit Bansal. Photos via Statiq

“We felt the need to do something about the climate because we were living in Delhi and Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world, and India is home to a lot of the polluted cities in the world. So we wanted to do something about it,” Bansal said. As they researched the causes of pollution, they learned that automobile exhaust represented a large part of the problem locally. They looked at alternatives, but EV charging stations remain basically non-existent across the country.

Thus, they founded Statiq in October 2019 and officially launched this past May. They have installed more than 150 charging stations in Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai and the surrounding environs.

Let’s get to the economics though, since that to me is the most fascinating part of their story. Statiq as I noted has a multi-revenue model. First, end users buy a subscription from Statiq to use the network, and then users pay a fee per charging session. That session fee is split between Statiq and the property owner, giving landlords who install the stations an incremental revenue boost.

A Statiq charging station. Photo via Statiq

When it comes to installation, Statiq has a couple of tricks up its sleeves. First, the company’s charging equipment — according to Bansal — costs roughly a third of the equivalent cost of U.S. equipment. That makes the base technology cheaper to acquire. From there, the company negotiates installations with landlords where the landlords will pay the fixed costs of installation in exchange for that continuing session charge fee.

On top of all that, the charging stations have advertising on them, offering another income stream particularly in high-visibility locations like shopping malls which are critical for a successful EV charging network.

In short, Statiq hasn’t had to outlay capital in order to put in place their charging equipment — and they were able to bootstrap before applying to YC earlier this year. Bansal said the company had dozens of charging stations and thousands of paid sessions on its platform before joining their YC batch, and “we are now growing 20% week-over-week.”

What’s next? It’s all about deliberate scaling. The EV market is turning on in India, and Statiq wants to be where those cars are. Bansal and his co-founder are hoping to ride the wave, continuing to build out critical infrastructure along the way. India’s government will likely continue to help: its approved billions of dollars in incentives for EVs and for charging stations, tipping the economics even further in the direction of a clean car future.

Tencent wants to take full control of long-time search ally Sogou

It’s been seven years since Tencent picked up a 36.5% stake in Sogou to fend off rival Baidu in the online search market. The social and gaming giant is now offering to buy out and take private its long-time ally.

NYSE-listed Sogou said this week it has received a preliminary non-binding proposal from Tencent to acquire its remaining shares for $9 each American depositary share (ADS) it doesn’t already own. That means Sohu, a leading web portal in the Chinese desktop era and the controlling shareholder in Sogou, will no longer hold an interest in the search firm.

Sohu’s board of directors has not yet had an opportunity to review the proposal or determine whether or not to take the offer, the company stated. Sogou’s shares leaped 48% on the news to $8.51 on Monday, yet still far below its all-time high at $13.85 at the time of its initial public offering.

Founded in 2005, Sogou went public in late 2017 billing itself as a challenger to China’s biggest search service Baidu, though it has long been a distant second. The company also operates the top Chinese input software, which is used by 482 million people every day to type and convert voice to text, according to its Q1 earnings report.

Ever since the strategic partnership with Tencent kicked off, Sogou, which means “Search Dog” in Chinese, has been the default search engine for WeChat and benefited immensely from the giant’s traffic, though WeChat has also developed its own search feature.

The potential buyout will add Sogou to a list of Chinese companies to delist from the U.S. as tensions between the countries heighten in recent times. It will also allay concerns amongst investors who worry WeChat Search would make Sogou redundant. So far WeChat’s proprietary search function appears to be gleaning data mainly within the app’s enclave, from users’ news feed, user-generated articles, e-commerce stores, through to lite apps integrated into WeChat.

That’s a whole lot of content and services targeted at WeChat’s 1.2 billion active users. Many people need not look beyond the chat app to consumer news, order food, play games, or purchase groceries. But there remains information outside the enormous ecosystem, and that’s Sogou’s turf — to bring what’s available on the open web (of course, subject to government censorship like all Chinese services) to WeChat users.

The arrangement reflects an endemic practice on the Chinese internet — giants blocking each other or making it hard for rivals to access their content. The goal is to lock in traffic and user insights. For instance, articles published on WeChat can’t be searched on Baidu. Consumers can’t open Alibaba shopping links without leaving WeChat.

Sogou is hardly WeChat’s sole search ally. To capture a full range of information needs, the messenger has also struck deals to co-opt fellow microblogging platform Weibo, Quora-like Zhihu, and social commerce service Xiaohongshu into its search pool.

Singaporean startup Partipost gets $3.5 million to let anyone become an influencer

Partipost, a Singapore-based marketing startup that lets anyone with a social media profile sign up for influencer campaigns, has raised $3.5 million in new funding. The round was led by SPH Ventures, the investment arm of publisher Singapore Press Holdings, with participation from Quest Ventures and other investors.

The funding will be used to grow Partipost’s current operations in Singapore, Indonesia and Taiwan, and expand into Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, other Southeast Asian markets with heavy social media usage. Since launching its mobile app in 2018, Partipost says it has added about 200,000 influencers to its platform, and that over the past 12 months, it has helped conduct 2,500 social media marketing campaigns for more than 850 brands, including Adidas, Arnott’s, Red Bull, Chope and Gojek.

According to benchmark report released in March by Influencer Marketing Hub, the influencer marketing industry is expected to be worth about $9.7 billion in 2020, with companies spending increasing amounts on social media campaigns and working with more “micro-influencers.” To serve them, the report said that more than 380 new influencer marketing agencies and platforms were launched last year, joining a roster of companies that already include AspireIQ, Upfluence, BuzzSumo, SparkToro and Inzpsire.me, to name just a few examples.

While most of these companies focus on helping brands identify the influencers with the widest social media reach, Partipost lets anyone sign up to take part in a campaign.

“Partipost’s main difference is that we believe that everyone can be an influencer,” founder and chief executive officer Jonathan Eg told TechCrunch. “Even if you have 200 followers, you can be one. We want to create a new market that we believe will be the future. Everyone can post on social media, write a review or give some feedback and be paid for it.”

“We want to empower everyone to monetize off their own data and influence and not just allow the big tech companies to do so,” he added.

Aspiring influencers browse brand campaigns on Partipost’s app and apply to take part by submitting a post draft. If the brand approves it, the user can then go ahead and post it on their social media profiles.

The amount of cash they earn is based on how much engagement each post receives. According to the company’s website, most campaigns require a minimum of 200 followers or more, and successful users can earn an average of $5 to $150 per campaign, depending on the brand’s payout structure.

One of Partipost’s selling points for brands is that it enables them to sign up thousands of influencers for a campaign in a single day, help them react quickly to online trends. Part of the funding will also be used to build data tools to help brands match campaigns with Partipost users more efficiently. The company says it expects to increase its base of aspiring influencers to one million within the next 18 months.

As part of the funding, SPH Ventures chief executive officer Chua Boon Ping will join Partipost’s board, while Quest Ventures partner Jeffrey Seah will become an observer.

In a media statement, Chua said, “Social influencer marketing is one of the fastest growing segments within Digital marketing. Hence, we are very excited to lead Partipost’s Series A round to further accelerate its growth. We are impressed by Partipost’s strong traction in Singapore, Indonesia and Taiwan as a young startup and look forward to partnering it to scale to new markets.”

Jack Ma’s fintech giant tops 1.3 billion users globally

The speculation that Alibaba’s fintech affiliate Ant Group will go public has been swirling around for years. New details came to light recently. Reuters reported last week that the fintech giant could float as soon as this year in an initial public offering that values it at $200 billion. As a private firm, details of the payments and financial services firm remain sparse, but a new filing by Alibaba, which holds a 33% stake in Ant, provides a rare glimpse into its performance.

Alipay, the brand of Ant’s consumer finance app, claims to earmark 1.3 billion annual active users as of March. The majority of its users came from China, while the rest were brought by its nine e-wallet partners in India, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

In recent years Ant has been striving to scale back its reliance on in-house financial products in response to Beijing’s tightening grip on China’s fledgling fintech industry. Tencent, Alibaba’s nemesis, is considered a lot more reserved in the financial space but its WeChat Pay app has been slowly eating away at Alipay’s share of the payments market.

In a symbolic move in May, the Alibaba affiliate changed its name from Ant Financial to Ant Group. Even prior to that, Ant had been actively publicizing itself as a “technology” company that offers payments gateways and sells digital infrastructure to banks, insurance groups, and other traditional financial institutions — rather than being a direct competitor to them. On the Alipay app, users can browse and access a raft of third-party financial services including wealth management, microloans, and insurance.

As of March, Ant’s wealth management unit facilitated 4 trillion yuan ($570 billion) of assets under management for its partners offering money market funds, fixed income products, and equity investment services. During the same period, total insurance premiums facilitated by Ant more than doubled from the year before.

In June, Ant’s new boss Hu Xiaoming set the goal for the firm to generate 80% of total revenues from technology service fees, up from about 50% in 2019. He anticipated the monetary contribution of Ant’s own proprietary financial services to shrink as a result.

Ant grew out of Alipay, the payments service launched by Alibaba as an escrow service to ensure trust between e-commerce buyers and sellers. In 2011, Alibaba spun off Ant, allegedly to comply with local regulations governing third-party payments services. Ant has since taken on several rounds of equity financing. Today, Alibaba founder Jack Ma still controls a majority of Ant’s voting interests.

Huawei posts revenue growth in H1 despite sanctions and pandemic

Huawei reported a 13.1% year-over-year revenue growth in the first half of 2020, even if countries around the world continued to weigh up bans on its equipment and smartphone sales shrink amid the pandemic, the telecom giant said in a brief on Monday.

The firm’s revenue reached 454 billion yuan ($64.88 billion) in the period, with its carrier, enterprise, and consumer businesses accounting for 35%, 8% and 56% of total revenue, respectively. It finished with a net profit margin of 9.2%, a slight increase from 8.7% in the same period last year.

The privately-owned company did not specify what contributed to its H1 growth, but said in the release that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, “information and communications technologies” — the main focus of its business — “have become not only a crucial tool for combatting the virus, but also an engine for economic recovery.”

The growth came amid the U.S.’s ongoing campaign urging allies to remove Huawei from their network infrastructure. The U.K. is reportedly scheduled to phase out Huawei gear in its 5G network as soon as this year, a plan that critics warn could cause network outages and other security risks.

Though Huawei does not break down its regional sales, it’s reasonable to expect China to be its bedrock of growth as it stumbles abroad. The company and its local competitor ZTE — which is also on the U.S. trade blacklistdivide up the bulk of 5G base station contracts from China’s main carriers. The network operators have also agreed to procure 5G phones from Huawei, which would naturally give the company a boost in sales.

Microsoft spins out 5-year-old Chinese chatbot Xiaoice

Microsoft is shedding its empathetic chatbot Xiaoice into an independent entity, the U.S. software behemoth said (in Chinese) Monday, confirming an earlier report by the Chinese news site Chuhaipost in June.

The announcement came several months after Microsoft announced it would close down its voice assistant app Cortana in China among other countries late last year.

Xiaoice has over the years enlisted some of the best minds in artificial intelligence and ventured beyond China into countries like Japan and Indonesia. Microsoft said it called the shots to accelerate Xiaoice’s “localized innovation” and buildout of the chatbot’s “commercial ecosystem.”

The spinoff will see the new entity license technologies from Microsoft for subsequent research and development in Xiaoice and continue to use the Xiaoice brand (and Rinna in Japanese), while Microsoft will retain its stakes in the new company.

In 2014, a small team of Microsoft’s Bing researchers unveiled Xiaoice, which means “Little Bing” in Chinese. The bot immediately created a sensation in China and was regarded by many as their virtual girlfriend. The chatbot came just a few weeks after Microsoft rolled out Cortana in the country. Modeled on the personality of a teenage girl, Xiaoice aims to add a more human and social element to chatbots. In Microsoft’s own words, she wants to be a user’s friend.

Like all foreign companies, Microsoft has to grapple with China’s censorship. In 2017, Xiaoice was removed by Tencent’s instant messenger QQ over suspicions of politically sensitive speech.

The project has involved some of the most prestigious scientists in the AI land, ranging from Lu Qi, who went on to join Baidu as its chief operating officer and brought Y Combinator to China; Jing Kun, who took up a post at Baidu to head the search giant’s smart devices; and Harry Shum, a former executive at Microsoft’s storied Artificial Intelligence and Research unit and now sits on the board of fledgling news app News Break.

Shum will serve as chairman at Xiaoice’s new standalone entity. Li Di, general manager of Xiaoice, will serve as chief executive officer. Chen Zhan, a developer of the Japanese chatbot Rinna, is appointed general manager of the Japanese office.

The new company will retain the right to use the “Xiaoice” and “Rinna” brands, with a mission to further develop its client base across the Greater China region, Japan and Indonesia.

Microsoft claimed that Xiaoice has a reach of 660 million users and 450 million third-party smart devices globally at the last count. The chatbot has found applications in such areas as finance, retail, auto, real estate and fashion, in which it claimed it can “mine context, tonality and emotions from text to create unique patterns within seconds.”

Intel to invest $253.5 million in India’s Reliance Jio Platforms

Intel said on Friday it will invest $253.5 million in Jio Platforms, joining a roster of high-profile investors including Facebook, General Atlantic, and Silver Lake that have backed India’s top telecom operator in recent months.

The American chipmaker’s investment arm said it is acquiring a 0.39% stake in Jio Platforms, giving the Indian firm a valuation of $65 billion. Intel Capital is the 12th investor to buy a stake in Jio Platforms, which has raised more than $15.5 billion by selling a 25% stake since April this year.

“Jio Platforms’ focus on applying its impressive engineering capabilities to bring the power of low-cost digital services to India aligns with Intel’s purpose of delivering breakthrough technology that enriches lives. We believe digital access and data can transform business and society for the better,” said Wendell Brooks, Intel Capital President, in a statement.

The announcement today comes weeks after Mukesh Ambani, who controls Reliance Industries — the parent firm of Jio Platforms — suggested that Saudi Arabia’s PIF $1.5 billion investment on June 18 in his digital unit had marked the “end of Jio Platforms’ current phase of induction of financial partners.”

Ambani, who is India’s richest man, said on Friday that he was excited to “work together with Intel to advance India’s capabilities in cutting-edge technologies that will empower all sectors of our economy and improve the quality of life of 1.3 billion Indians.”

The new deal further illustrates the opportunities foreign investors see in Jio, a four-year-old subsidiary of Reliance Industries (India’s most valuable firm) that has upended the telecommunications market in India with cut-rate voice calls and mobile data tariffs. Jio has about 400 million subscribers.

Analysts at Bernstein said last month that they expect Jio Platforms to reach 500 million customers by 2023, and control half of the market by 2025. Jio Platforms competes with Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, a joint venture between British giant Vodafone and Indian tycoon Kumar Mangalam Birla’s Aditya Birla Group.

Jio Platforms also operates a bevy of digital apps and services, including music streaming service JioSaavn (which it says it will take public), on-demand live television service JioTV and payments app JioMoney, as well as smartphones and broadband business. These services are available to Jio subscribers at no additional charge.

On Thursday evening, Jio Platforms launched JioMeet, a video-conferencing service that offers unlimited calls with “up to 24 hours” time limit on each session. The service, which currently has no paid plans, looks uncannily like Zoom.

Good artists borrow, great artists steal 😂pic.twitter.com/r7KpIfwIFC

— Avinash Raghava (@avinashraghava) July 3, 2020

Last month, Ambani said the funds in Jio Platforms had helped him clear oil-to-retail giant Reliance Industries’ net debt of about $21 billion. Ambani had originally pledged to clear Reliance’s debt due by early 2021.

Indian startups diversify their businesses to offset COVID-19 induced losses

E-commerce giant Flipkart is planning to launch a hyperlocal service that would enable customers to buy items from local stores and have those delivered to them in an hour and a half or less. Yatra, an online travel and hotel ticketing service, is exploring a new business line altogether: Supplying office accessories.

Flipkart and Yatra are not the only firms eyeing new business categories. Dozens of firms in the country have branched out by launching new services in recent weeks, in part to offset the disruption the COVID-19 epidemic has caused to their core offerings.

Swiggy and Zomato, the nation’s largest food delivery startups, began delivering alcohol in select parts of the country last month. The move came weeks after the two firms, both of which are seeing fewer orders and had to let go hundreds of employees, started accepting orders for grocery items in a move that challenged existing online market leaders BigBasket and Grofers.

Udaan, a business-to-business marketplace, recently started to accept bulk orders from some housing societies and is exploring more opportunities in the business-to-commerce space, the startup told TechCrunch.

These shifts came shortly after New Delhi announced a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The lockdown meant that all public places including movie theaters, shopping malls, schools, and public transport were suspended.

Instead of temporarily halting their businesses altogether, as many have done in other markets, scores of startups in India have explored ways to make the most out of the current unfortunate spell.

“This pandemic has given an opportunity to the Indian tech startup ecosystem to have a harder look at the unit-economics of their businesses and become more capital efficient in the shorter and longer-term,” Puneet Kumar, a growth investor in Indian startup ecosystem, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Of the few things most Indian state governments have agreed should remain open include grocery shops, and online delivery services for grocery and food.

People buy groceries at a supermarket during the first day of the 21-day government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Bangalore on March 25, 2020. (Photo by MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images)

E-commerce firms Snapdeal and DealShare began grocery delivery service in late March. The move was soon followed by social-commerce startup Meesho, fitness startup Curefit, and BharatPe, which is best known for facilitating mobile payments between merchants and users.

Meesho’s attempt is still in the pilot stage, said Vidit Aatrey, the Facebook-backed startup’s co-founder and chief executive. “We started grocery during the lockdown to give some income opportunities to our sellers and so far it has shown good response. So we are continuing the pilot even after lockdown has lifted,” he said.

ClubFactory, best known for selling low-cost beauty items, has also started to deliver grocery products, and so has NoBroker, a Bangalore-based startup that connects apartment seekers with property owners. And MakeMyTrip, a giant that provides solutions to book flight and hotel tickets, has entered the food delivery market.

Another such giant, BookMyShow, which sells movie tickets, has in recent weeks rushed to support online events, helping comedians and other artists sell tickets online. The Mumbai-headquartered firm plans to make further inroads around this business idea in the coming days.

For some startups, the pandemic has resulted in accelerating the launch of their product cycles. CRED, a Bangalore-based startup that is attempting to help Indians improve their financial behavior by paying their credit card bill on time, launched an instant credit line and apartment rental services.

Kunal Shah, the founder and chief executive of CRED, said the startup “fast-tracked the launch” of these two products as they could prove immensely useful in the current environment.

For a handful of startups, the pandemic has meant accelerated growth. Unacademy, a Facebook-backed online learning startup, has seen its user base and subscribers count surge in recent months and told TechCrunch that it is in the process of more than doubling the number of exam preparation courses it offers on its platform in the next two months.

Since March, the number of users who access the online learning service each day has surged to 700,000. “We have also seen a 200% increase in viewers per week for the free live classes offered on the platform. Additionally there has been a 50% increase in paid subscribers and over 50% increase in average watchtime per day among our subscribers,” a spokesperson said.

As with online learning firms, firms operating on-demand video streaming services have also seen a significant rise in the number of users they serve. Zee5, which has amassed over 80 million users, told TechCrunch last week that in a month it will introduce a new category in its app that would curate short-form videos produced and submitted by users. The firm said the feature would look very similar to TikTok.

The pandemic “has also accelerated the adoption of online services in India across all demographics. Many who would not have considered buying goods and services online are starting to adopt the online platforms for basic necessities at a faster pace,” said venture capitalist Kumar.

“As far as expansion into adjacent categories is concerned, some of this was a natural progression and startups were slowly moving in that direction anyway. The pandemic has forced people to get there faster.”

Roosh, a Mumbai-based game developing firm founded by several industry veterans, launched a new app ahead of schedule that allows social influencers to promote games on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, Deepak Ail, co-founder and chief executive of Roosh, told TechCrunch.

ShareChat, a Twitter-backed social network, recently acquired a startup called Elanic to explore opportunities in social-commerce. OkCredit, a bookkeeping service for merchants, has been exploring ways to allow users to purchase items from neighborhood stores.

And NowFloats, a Mumbai-based SaaS startup that helps businesses and individuals build an online presence without any web developing skills, is on-boarding doctors to help people consult with medical professionals.

Startups are not the only businesses that have scrambled to eye new categories. Established firms such as Carnival Group, which is India’s third-largest multiplex theatre chain, said it is foraying into cloud kitchen business.

Amazon, which competes with Walmart’s Flipkart in India, has also secured approval from West Bengal to deliver alcohol in the nation’s fourth most populated state. The e-commerce giant is also exploring ways to work with mom and pop stores that dot tens of thousands of cities and towns of India.

Last week, the American giant launched “Smart Stores” that allows shoppers to walk to a participating physical store, scan a QR code, and pick and purchase items through the Amazon app. The firm, which is supplying these mom and pop stores with software and QR code, said more than 10,000 shops are participating in the Smart Stores program.

Masayoshi Son resigns from board of Alibaba; defends SoftBank Group’s investment strategy

SoftBank Group founder Masayoshi Son said on Thursday he is leaving the board of Jack Ma’s Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group today, a month after Ma left the board of Son’s technology group.

Son said he sees the move as “graduating” from Alibaba Group’s board, his most successful investment to date, as he swiftly moved to defend the Japanese group’s investment strategy, which has been the subject of scrutiny and public mockery in recent quarters.

Son said his conglomerate’s holding has recovered to the pre-coronavirus outbreak levels. The firm has benefited from the rising value of Alibaba Group and its stake in Sprint, following the telecom operator’s merger with T-Mobile. Son said his firm has seen an internet rate of return (or IRR, a popular metric used by VC funds to demonstrate their performance) of 25%.

In a shareholder meeting today, he said he was worried that many people think that SoftBank is “finished” and are calling it “SoftPunku,” a colloquial used in Japan which means a broken thing. All combined, SoftBank’s shareholder value now stands at $218 billion, he said.

Son insisted that he was leaving the board of Alibaba Group, a position he has held since 2005, on good terms and that there hadn’t been any disagreements between him and Ma.

Son’s move follows Jack Ma, who co-founded Alibaba Group, leaving the board of SoftBank last month after assuming the position for 13 years. Son famously invested $20 million in Alibaba 20 years ago. Early this year, SoftBank still owned shares worth $100 billion in Alibaba.

A range of SoftBank’s recent investments has spooked the investment world. The firm, known for writing big checks, has publicly stated that its investment in ride-hailing giant Uber, office space manager WeWork, and a range of other startups has not provided the return it had hoped.

Several of these firms, including Oyo, a budget-lodging Indian startup, has moreover been hit hard by the pandemic.

Son, who has raised $20 billion by selling T-Mobile stake, said after factoring in other of his recent deals SoftBank had accumulated $35 billion or 80% of the total planned unloading of investments.

ByteDance to shut down Vigo apps in India

Chinese internet giant ByteDance has announced plans to discontinue two of its apps in India, its biggest overseas market, and urged users to move to TikTok.

Vigo Video and Vigo Lite, two apps that allow users to create and share short-form sketches and lip-syncing to Bollywood songs, posted a message early Monday (local time) to announce that they would be discontinued at the end of October this year.

In its post, titled “a farewell letter,” ByteDance said it was saddened to shut down the apps but did not offer an explanation for the decision. Indian news outlet Entrackr first spotted the letter.

Unlike TikTok, ByteDance’s most popular app, Vigo Video and Vigo Lite have struggled to make inroads in the world’s second largest internet market. While TikTok has more than 200 million users in India, Vigo Video had about 4 million monthly active users last month and Vigo Lite could only amass 1.5 million users, according to one of the top mobile insight firms — data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch.

While Vigo Video gained fewer than 1 million users in a year, Vigo Lite shredded just as many in the same period, the data showed.

Both the apps counted India as their biggest market but have been available in several other markets, including neighboring nation Bangladesh, for instance. It’s unclear whether ByteDance is discontinuing the apps in every market. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The move, despite the apps’ poor reception in India, comes as a surprise. Recruitment posts submitted by ByteDance as late as last month described Vigo as one of the company’s biggest businesses in India.

ByteDance also operates Helo app, which enables users to share their thoughts with friends, and Lark, a productivity suite similar to Google Drive. The company recently stopped charging Lark customers in India for the foreseeable future in response to the coronavirus crises.

Other recent job recruitment posts reveal that the company is looking to hire executives to aggressively explore ways to monetize its services in the country.

ByteDance’s TikTok app has been scrutinized in India in recent weeks for failing to actively remove videos that promoted violence, animal cruelty, racism, child abuse, and objectification of women.

In its message to users on Vigo apps today, ByteDance said it will help them migrate their videos to TikTok. On TikTok, “you will be able to show your talent to a larger group of friends. We are eager to see you [there]!” the message reads.

India’s Reliance Jio Platforms to sell $1.2 billion stake to Mubadala

Abu Dhabi-based sovereign firm Mubadala has become the latest investor in Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio Platforms, joining five American firms including Facebook and Silver Lake that have secured stakes in India’s biggest telecom operator at the height of a once-in-a-century global pandemic.

Mubadala said it had agreed to invest $1.2 billion in Reliance Jio Platforms for a 1.85% stake in the firm. The deal valued the Indian telecom operator, which launched in the second half of 2016, at $65 billion.

A subsidiary of Reliance Industries, the most valued firm in India whose core businesses are in oil refining and petrochemicals, Reliance Jio Platforms has raised $11.5 billion by selling 19% stake in the last seven weeks.

“Through my longstanding ties with Abu Dhabi, I have personally seen the impact of Mubadala’s work in diversifying and globally connecting the UAE’s knowledge-based economy. We look forward to benefitting from Mubadala’s experience and insights from supporting growth journeys across the world,” Mukesh Ambani, the chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries, said in a statement.

The announcement today further shows the appeal of Jio Platforms to foreign investors that are looking for a slice of the world’s second-largest internet market. Media reports have claimed in recent weeks that Amazon is considering buying stakes worth at least $2 billion in Bharti Airtel, India’s third-largest telecom operator, while Google has held talks for a similar deal in Vodafone Idea, the second largest telecom operator.

India has emerged as one of the biggest global battlegrounds for Silicon Valley and Chinese firms that are looking to win the nation’s 1.3 billion people, most of whom remain without a smartphone and internet connection.

Khaldoon Al Mubarak, managing director and group chief executive of Mubadala Investment Company, said, “We have seen how Jio has already transformed communications and connectivity in India, and as an investor and partner, we are committed to supporting India’s digital growth journey. With Jio’s network of investors and partners, we believe that the platform company will further the development of the digital economy.”

Mubadala, which has more than $229 billion in assets, is also an investor in AMD and Alphabet’s Waymo, and SoftBank.

The new capital should help Ambani, India’s richest man, further solidify his commitment to investors when he pledged to cut Reliance’s net debt of about $21 billion to zero by early 2021 — in part because of the investments it has made to build Jio Platforms, said Mahesh Uppal, director of Com First, a communications consultancy.

Its core business — oil refining and petrochemicals — has been hard hit by the coronavirus outbreak. Its net profit in the quarter that ended on March 31 fell by 37%.

Singapore-based caregiving startup launches Homage Health for online and home medical consultations

Homage, the Singapore-based startup that matches families and caregivers, has launched a new service that provides home medical visits, telehealth consultations and medication delivery. Called Homage Health, the service was already being developed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but co-founder and CEO Gillian Tee told TechCrunch that its launch was accelerated because many of the company’s caregiving recipients are elderly or have long-term health conditions, and are at higher risk for the disease.

Backed by investors including HealthXCapital, Alternate Ventures and KDV Capital, Homage launched in 2016 with a caregiving program that focuses on people who need long-term assisted living and rehabilitation care. This integrates with Homage Health because the platform’s caregivers, including nurses, are able to provide in-person support for online consultations with doctors and help followup on recommended healthcare regimens.

Before launching Homage Health, the startup worked with healthcare organizations to deliver mobile medical services, including doctor house calls, for its clients, and telehealth consultations as part of its COVID-19 response. Even before the pandemic, however, there was demand because many clients need regular health screenings.

“Particularly with COVID-19, as an essential service, we felt a higher impetus to ensure our care recipients can continue to gain access to in-home and caregiving services,” she said.

“A key example would be where our care recipients can receive speech therapy through teleconsultations,” she added. “For specific hallmark assessment sessions where a therapy care plan is defined, or where subsequent delivery is adjusted due to progressional improvements made, in-person sessions can be conducted, leading to best health, accessibility and cost outcomes.”

Having caregivers, medical sessions and prescriptions records on one platform also makes long-term healthcare management easier. For example, Homage can provide baseline medical assessment reports for medical and care providers.

Homage prescreens doctors before adding them to the platform. All of them are registered with the Singapore Medical Council, have a minimum of five years practicing medicine and receive medical teleconsultation training. The service can be used to diagnose common conditions, like the cold or allergies, or when prescriptions need to be refilled. It can also provide the follow-up consultations needed by people recovering from strokes or with chronic conditions like Parkinson’s disease and hypertension.

Homage Health will expand to include more rehabilitation and therapy categories. Basic teleconsultations have a flat fee of SGD $20, excluding prescriptions and delivery fees. Mobile medical services, which start at SGD $180, include at-home blood tests, home visits by doctors and minor surgery like wound care and drainage.

India rejects Walmart-owned Flipkart’s proposed foray into food retail business

The Indian government has rejected Flipkart’s proposal to enter the food retail business in a setback for Walmart, which owns majority of the Indian e-commerce firm and which recently counted its business in Asia’s third-largest economy as one of the worst impacted by the global coronavirus pandemic.

The Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), a wing of the nation’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry, told Flipkart, which competes with Amazon India, that its proposed plan to enter the food retail business violates regulatory guidelines.

Flipkart’s proposed food retail business, called Flipkart FarmerMart, cannot be structured on a 100% foreign direct investment, the Indian agency said. Rajneesh Kumar, chief corporate affairs officer at Flipkart, told TechCrunch that the company was evaluating the agency’s response and intended to re-apply.

“At Flipkart, we believe that technology and innovation driven marketplace can add significant value to our country’s farmers and food processing sector by bringing value chain efficiency and transparency. This will further aid boosting farmers’ income & transform Indian agriculture,” he added.

While announcing the plan to enter the nation’s growing food retail market, Kalyan Krishnamurthy, Flipkart Group CEO, said in October last year that the company planned to invest $258 million in the new venture.

Flipkart planned to invest deeply in the local agriculture-ecosystem, supply chain, and work with tens of thousands of small farmers, their associations, and the nation’s food processing industry, Krishnamurthy said. The food retail unit would help “multiply farmers’ income and bring affordable, quality food for millions of customers across the country.”

Several e-commerce and grocery firms in India, including Amazon, Zomato, and Grofers, have previously secured approval from New Delhi, which earlier permitted 100% foreign direct investment in food and a handful of other sectors, for entering the food retail business.

The Indian government has since revisited the guidelines to clarify that food retail, like any other e-commerce sector, can only operate as a marketplace that allows third-party sellers to engage with buyers — and not offer their own inventories, nor have equity in any of the players who sell on the platform.

Food and grocery are compelling categories for e-commerce businesses in India as it enables them to engage with their customers more frequently. According to research firm Forrester, India’s online food and grocery market remain significantly tiny, accounting for just 1% of the overall sales.

In the most recent quarterly earnings call, Walmart said limited operations at Flipkart had negatively affected the group’s overall growth. New Delhi announced one of the world’s stringent lockdowns across the nation in late March that restricted Amazon and Flipkart from delivering in many states and only sell “essential items” such as grocery and hygienic products.

India maintains the stay-at-home orders for its 1.3 billion citizens, though it has eased some restrictions in recent weeks to resuscitate the economy.

Ola Electric acquires Etergo, to launch own line of electric two wheelers this year

Ola Electric, the EV business that spun out of the ride-hailing giant Ola last year, has acquired an Amsterdam-based electric scooter startup as the Indian firm looks to locally produce and launch its own line of two wheelers as soon as this year.

The Indian firm said Wednesday it had acquired Etergo, a Dutch firm that has built a scooter that uses swappable, high energy battery that delivers a range of up to 240 km (149 miles).

Ola did not reveal the terms of the deal, but Etergo was valued at around $90 million in its previous financing round, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The six-year-old startup had raised €20.3 million from the market before its acquisition today, according to Crunchbase.

Etergo’s electric-powered two wheeler

The Indian firm, which gained the unicorn status last year when it raised $300 million, said it plans to launch its electric two wheeler in India next year, though TechCrunch understands that the company is internally hoping to reach the milestone by end of this year.

“This acquisition will further bolster Ola Electric’s strong engineering and design capabilities with the Etergo team’s extensive vehicle development experience with leading automotive companies like Tesla, General Motors, Ferrari, Jaguar, and BMW. Etergo’s team will continue to be based out of Amsterdam as they join Ola Electric,” it said in a statement.

More to follow…

China’s food delivery giant Meituan hits $100B valuation amid pandemic

Meituan’s shares hit a record high on Tuesday, bringing its valuation to over $100 billion.

The Hong Kong-listed giant, which focuses on food delivery with smaller segments in travel and transportation, is the third Chinese firm to reach the landmark valuation. Tencent and Alibaba respectively topped the number back in 2013 and 2014.

Tencent-backed Meituan saw shares rally to HK$138 ($17.8) on Tuesday after it earmarked a smaller-than-projected decrease in revenue during Q1 and a net loss of 1.58 billion yuan ($220 million) after three consecutive profitable quarters.

While nationwide lockdowns might have increased the need for food delivery, Chinese consumers have been tightening their belt amid a worsening economy triggered by COVID-19. Overall food delivery transactions slid as a result. Meituan also had to pay incentives to delivery riders who work during the pandemic and subsidies to merchants to keep their heads above the water.

There’s one silver lining: While Meituan’s daily average number of transactions dropped by 18.2% to 15.1 million, the average value per order jumped by 14.4% as delivered meals, which were conventionally seen as a habit for office workers, became normalized among families that stayed at home. In the first quarter, a large number of premium restaurants joined Meituan’s food delivery services, and they could continue to attract bigger ticket purchases in the post-pandemic era.

All in all, though, Meituan executives warned of the uncertainties brought by COVID-19. “Moving on to the remaining of 2020, we expect that factors including the ongoing pandemic precautions, consumers’ insufficient confidence in offline consumption activities and the risk of merchants’ closure would continue to have a potential impact on our business performance.”

Work collaboration unicorn Notion is blocked in China

Notion, the fast-growing work collaboration tool that recently hit a $2 billion valuation, said on Twitter Monday that its service is blocked in China.

The productivity app has attracted waves of startups and tech workers around the world — including those in China — to adopt its all-in-one platform that blends notes, wikis, to-dos, and team collaboration. The four-year-old San Francisco-based app is widely seen as a serious rival to Evernote, which started out in 2004.

Notion said it is “monitoring the situation and will continue to post updates,” but the timing of the ban noticeably coincides with China’s annual parliament meeting, which began last week after a two-month delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Internet regulation and censorship normally toughen around key political meetings in the country.

Notion could not be immediately reached for comment.

For Notion and other apps that have entered the public eye in China but remained beyond the arm of local laws, a looming crackdown is almost certain. The country’s cybersecurity watchdog could find Notion’s free flow of note-sharing problematic. Some users have even conveniently turned the tool’s friendly desktop version into personal websites. If Notion were to keep its China presence, it would have to bow to the same set of regulations that rule all content creation platforms in China.

Its predecessor Evernote, for example, established a Chinese joint venture in 2018 and released a local edition under the brand Yinxiang Biji, which comes with compromised features and stores user data within China.

Rivalry in work collaboration

Just before its ban in China, Notion surged on May 21 to become the most-downloaded productivity app in the domestic Android stores, according to third-party data from App Annie. The sudden rise appears to be linked to its Chinese copycat Hanzhou (寒舟), which stirred up controversy within the developer community over its striking resemblance to Notion.

In an apologetic post published on May 22, Xu Haihao, the brain behind Hanzhou and a former employee of ByteDance-backed document collaboration app Shimo, admitted to “developing the project based on Notion.”

“We are wrong from the beginning,” wrote Xu. “But I intended to offend nobody. My intention was to learn from [Notion’s] technology.” As a resolution, the developer said he would suspend Hanzou’s development and user registration.

Some of the largest tech firms in China are gunning for the workplace productivity industry, which received a recent boost during the coronavirus crisis. Alibaba’s Dingtalk claimed last August that more than 10 million enterprises and over 200 million individual users had registered on its platform. By comparison, Tencent’s WeChat Work said it had logged more than 2.5 million enterprises and some 60 million active users by December.

Samsung expects COVID-19 to hurt smartphone and TV sales, but increase demand for memory

In its first-quarter earnings report today, Samsung said it expects the COVID-19 pandemic to continue impacting its business for the rest of the year, cutting into sales for smartphones and TVs, but increasing demand for PCs, servers and memory chips as people continue to work or study from home.

Samsung’s results for the first-quarter of 2020 was in line with the guidance it released earlier this month. Operating profit was 6.45 trillion Korean won (about $5.3 billion). Revenue fell about 7.6% from the previous quarter to 55.33 trillion won, due to a seasonal drop in demand for displays and consumer electronics, and the impact of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused more than 3 million confirmed cases around the world and more than 217,000 deaths, and resulted in shelter-in-place orders in countries around the world and a global recession.

Samsung said that because the pandemic’s impact through the second half of 2020 remains uncertain, it plans to make flexible investments and adjust its product mix to adapt. Because it expects competition among manufacturers to increase as they try to recover from a weak first half, Samsung said it will continue to launch premium products like a new foldable and Note devices, and expand 5G to more mass-market smartphones.

Samsung’s display panel business saw a decline in earnings during the first quarter due to weak seasonality and lower sales in China during COVID-19 shutdowns, and it expects demand to continue being impacted by the pandemic and postponement of major sporting events like the Summer Olympics.

On the other hand, Samsung expects to see solid performance in its memory business as remote work, online education, online shopping and streaming entertainment services continue putting more demands on cloud providers and data centers. As a result, Samsung will speed up its transition to 1Z-nm DRAM and 6th-generation V-NAND flash memory.

Samsung also said it plans to offset store and plant closures around the world through flexible supply networks, improving its online sales capabilities, and tailoring promotions and logistics for different market.

Vietnamese online pharmaceutical marketplace BuyMed raises $2.5 million

BuyMed, a Vietnamese startup that wants to fix Southeast Asia’s complex pharmaceutical distribution networks, announced today it has raised $2.5 million in pre-Series A funding. Investors include Sequoia Capital India’s Surge early-stage accelerator program, and Genesia Ventures. Returning investor Cocoon Capital also participated.

Founded in 2018, BuyMed operates Thuocsi.vn, a pharmaceutical distribution platform in Vietnam. Over the past 12 months, the company says it has tripled its annual revenue, and now plans to add new product lines, including cosmetics, medical devices, supplements and medical services, with the goal of becoming a “one-stop marketplace” for supplies needed by healthcare providers in Southeast Asia.

BuyMed verifies suppliers on its platform, improving safety and reducing the risk of medications making its way into the grey market (or unofficial distribution channels). The startup currently has 700 verified suppliers, distributors and manufacturers on its platform, who serve over 7,000 healthcare providers.

In a press statement, Genesia Ventures general partner Takahiro Suzuki, said, “There is still a tremendous opportunity for growth and improvement in Vietnam’s pharmaceutical supply chain and we believe that BuyMed’s founders have the experience, execution and operational management necessary to tackle this problem.”

BuyMed Co-founder and CEO Peter Nguyen formerly served as a consultant for companies like Eli Lilly, Roche and Siemens, helping them create more efficient operations and supply chains.

Nguyen told TechCrunch that there are no major multi-brand distributors in Vietnam, so most pharmaceutical manufacturers and brands need to set up their own networks. This means the process of getting medications and other pharmaceutical supplies to healthcare providers is highly-fragmented.

There are roughly 200 domestic manufacturers in Vietnam, in addition to imported brands, and their products are handled by over 3,000 distributors. While about 2% of pharmacies in Vietnam are part of a franchise or chain, the vast majority are independent. This means distributors need to serve over 40,000 independent pharmacies and about 5,000 independent clinics.

Nguyen added that fragmentation is similar in many other Southeast Asian markets, giving BuyMed an opportunity to expand across the region.

Thuocsi.vn’s usage has grown over the last 60 days, as more Vietnamese pharmacies source from online channels. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, BuyMed has expanded its platform so more of its partners can sell online, and added safety measures like frequent warehouse and office sanitization and a no-contact drop-off and cash collection system.

Igloo raises $8.2M to bring insurance to more people in Southeast Asia

Singapore-based Igloo, formerly known as Axinan, has raised $8.2 million as the insurance-tech startup looks to broaden its foothold in half a dozen Southeast Asian markets and Australia.

InVent, a corporate venture capital arm of telecommunications firm Intouch Holdings, led Igloo’s extended Series A round, the startup told TechCrunch. Existing investors Openspace Ventures, a venture capital fund that invests in Southeast Asia, and Linear Capital, a Shanghai-based early-stage venture capital firm focusing on tech-driven startups, participated in this round, which makes four-year-old Igloo’s to-date raise to $16 million. It raised about $1 million in its Seed financing round.

Igloo — founded by Wei Zhu, who previously served as Chief Technology Officer at Grab — works with e-commerce and travel firms such as Lazada, RedDoorz, and Shopee in Southeast Asia to offer their customers insurance products that provide protection on electronics, and coverage on accidents and travel.

The startup, which also operates in Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia, said more than 15 million users have benefitted from its insurance products to date, and in the last one year it has processed more than 50 million transactions.

Igloo, which rebranded from Axinan this month, said insurance products are proving especially useful to — and popular among — people during the coronavirus outbreak.

Raunak Mehta, Chief Commercial Officer at Igloo, told TechCrunch that the startup has seen a surge in transactions and customer acquisitions in the last 45 days. “While some travel related business have seen a dip, the larger e-commerce business continues to see a surge,” he added.

“With COVID-19 impacting every facet of personal life and business, digitisation can help the world adjust to the new normal. This is especially apparent in insurance, where we can tap on digital channels for distribution and also for creating awareness,” said Zhu.

“We see that digital insurance is on the rise in Southeast Asia, and we believe that Igloo, with our digital-first approach and expansion of our product portfolio into personal health, accident and other related products can help fill those gaps and address consumers’ needs for personal well-being,” he added.

He said the digital insurance penetration remains low in Southeast Asia, and Igloo sees massive opportunity in the space. According to one estimate (PDF), Southeast Asia’s digital insurance market is currently valued at $2 billion and is expected to grow to $8 billion by 2025.

The startup, which competes with a handful of startups including Singapore Life and Saphron, will use the fresh capital to expand its business development and engineering teams and broaden its presence in the half-dozen markets. It is already engaging with telecom operators, banks, non-banking financial firms, and travel agencies, it said.

6 investment trends that could emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic

Rocio Wu
Contributor

Rocio Wu is a venture partner at F-Prime Capital who focuses on early-stage investments in software/applied AI, fintech and frontier tech investments.

While some U.S. investors might have taken comfort from China’s rebound, we still find ourselves in the early innings of this period of uncertainty.

Some epidemiologists have estimated that COVID-19 cases will peak in April, but PitchBook reports that dealmaking was down -26% in March, compared to February’s weekly average. The decline is likely to continue in coming weeks — many of the deals that closed last month were initiated before the pandemic, and there is a lag between when deals are made and when they are announced.

However, there’s still hope. A recent report concluded that because valuations are lower and there’s less competition for deals, “the best-performing vintages tend to be those that invest at the nadir of a downturn and into the early stage of recovery.” There are countless examples from the 2008 recession, including many highly valued VC-backed businesses such as WhatsApp, Venmo, Groupon, Uber, Slack and Square. Other early-stage VCs seem to have arrived at a similar conclusion.

Also, early-stage investing seems more resilient. During the last recession, angel and seed activity increased 34% as interest in the stage boomed during a period of prolonged growth.

Furthermore, there is still capital to be deployed in categories that interested investors before the pandemic, which may set the new order in a post-COVID-19 world. According to data provider Preqin Ltd., VC dry powder rose for a seventh consecutive year to roughly $276 billion in 2019, and another $21 billion were raised last quarter. And looking at the deals on the early-stage side that were made year to date, especially in March, the vertical categories that garnered the most funding were enterprise SaaS, fintech, life sciences, healthcare IT, edtech and cybersecurity.

Image Credits: PitchBook

That said, if VCs have the capital to deploy and are able to overcome the obstacle of “having never met in person,” here are six investment trends that could emerge when the pandemic is over.

1. Future of work: promoting intimacy and trust

India’s FarEye raises $25M to grow its logistics SaaS startup in international markets

More than 150 e-commerce and delivery companies globally use an Indian logistics startup’s service to work out the optimum way before they ship items to their customers. That startup, Noida-based FarEye, has raised $25 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand its footprint in international markets.

M12, Microsoft’s venture fund, led the seven-year-old startup’s Series D financing round. Eight Roads Ventures, Honeywell Ventures, and existing investor SAIF Partners participated in the round, which pushes FarEye’s total raise-to-date to $40 million.

FarEye helps companies orchestrate, track, and optimize their logistics operations. Say you order a pizza from Domino’s, the eatery uses FarEye’s service, which integrates into the system it is using, to quickly inform the customer how long they need to wait for the food to reach them.

Behind the scenes, FarEye is helping Domino’s evaluate a plethora of moving pieces. How many delivery people are in the vicinity? Can it bundle a few orders? What’s the maximum number of items one can carry? How experienced is the delivery person? What’s the best route to reach the customer? And, would the restaurant need the same number of delivery people the following day?, explained Kushal Nahata, co-founder and chief executive of FarEye, in an interview with TechCrunch .

Gautam Kumar (left), Gaurav Srivastava (centre), and Kushal Nahata co-founded FarEye in 2013

“The level of digitization that logistics firms have made over the years remains minimal. The amount of visibility they have over their own delivery network is minimal. Forget what a customer should expect,” said Nahata, explaining the challenges the industry faces.

FarEye is addressing this by using AI to parse through more than a billion data points to identify the optimum solution. In the past one year, it has fine-tuned its algorithm to handle last-mile and long-haul deliveries to offer a full-suite of services to its clients.

The startup, which employs about 350 people, said it is already handling more than 10 million transactions a day. The more transactions it processes, the better its algorithm becomes, he said.

FarEye today has clients across several categories including transportation and logistics, retail (which includes grocery, furniture, and fashion), and FMCG in 20 nations. Some of these clients include Walmart, FedEx, DHL, Amway, Domino’s, Bluedart, Future Group, and J&J. Nahata said the startup will use the fresh capital to improve its predictive tech and grow its footprint in the United States, Europe, and Asia-Pacific region.

“We are solving certain problems for our customers today, but I feel we can solve much larger problems and help digitize the entire supply chain network,” he said.

As the coronavirus pandemic jeopardises grocery and e-commerce firms’ ability to timely deliver items to customers, FarEye said it is making Serve, one of its services that focuses on enabling movement of everyday essentials, free for any firm to use for more than a year.

“The global pandemic has accelerated the need for enterprises to scale their supply chain operations efficiently to meet the rising share of online deliveries. FarEye’s highly configurable last-mile and long-haul logistics platform has been validated by leading global enterprises across the 3PL, retail and manufacturing categories,” said Shweta Bhatia, a partner at Eight Roads Ventures, in a statement.

FarEye has been making money since day one, but Nahata said an IPO is not something on the table for the foreseeable future. “Our biggest focus right now is to grow,” he said.

India’s lockdown is making life hard for its most popular apps

The coronavirus pandemic, which has forced billions of people to stay home, has led to a surge in new downloads of several consumer and enterprise focused apps in the west. But in India, the biggest open market globally, things have taken a slightly different turn.

Daily downloads for several popular apps including TikTok, WhatsApp, Truecaller, Helo, Vmate, Facebook, Google Pay, and Paytm have either remained unchanged in the last three months or taken a dip, according to a TechCrunch analysis of figures provided by research firm Apptopia.

Additionally, several popular apps that offer in-app purchases have seen their revenue dramatically drop in the last four weeks as most companies in India recommended employees to work from home and New Delhi imposed a 21-day nationwide lockdown — now extended to May 3.

TikTok was downloaded 20.2 million times in India in a 31-day period ending April 12, down from 21.6 million times it was downloaded in the month of January, for instance. During the same period, WhatsApp’s download plummeted to 12 million from 17 million; Hotstar fell from 9.8 million to 3 million; and ByteDance’s Helo dropped from 10.5 million to 7.5 million.

For most of February, TikTok saw more than 700,000 downloads a day in India, peaking at 891,000. In the last one week, volume of daily downloads of the app has fallen below 450,000. WhatsApp’s figure has dropped from about 650,000 to below 250,000, according to Apptopia .

Aarogya Setu, an app launched by the Indian government to help people know if they have been in the vicinity of someone who has tested positive for coronavirus, is currently topping the chart in India with more than 780,000 downloads a day.

Tinder clocked $319,102 in in-app revenue on the App Store and Google Play Store in India between March 13 to April 12, down from $547,103 in January. Netflix’s in-app revenue fell from $285,562 to $192,154 during the same period. LinkedIn and YouTube also observed a decline.

One app that has seen its in-app revenue improve noticeably is Hotstar, which went from $173,253 to $329,675. Disney launched Disney+ atop Hotstar in India earlier this month.

Grocery delivery apps BigBasket, which raised $60 million last week, and Grofers have surged considerably, while Amazon, Flipkart, and Snapdeal that have halted taking non-essential orders in recent weeks have seen a decline in volume of daily downloads and active users on Android in India, according to marketing research firm SimilarWeb.

Zoom, a popular video chat app, has seen its daily downloads surge to over 500,000 in recent weeks, up from about 9,000 in early February. Ludo King, a popular game in Asian markets, has seen its daily download figure jump from about 150,000 in early February to over 450,000 in India in recent days.

As people stay at home, desktop usage has also increased in India, a mobile-first nation with nearly half a billion smartphone users.

“India has consistently seen mobile web browsing account for the heavy majority compared to the desktop, however from February to March, desktop usage increased its share of total visits to the top 100 sites by 1.6%. While this may seem small, it is 1.6% of 31.32 billion visits, so it is still rather significant,” a SimilarWeb representative told TechCrunch.

Investors tell Indian startups to ‘prepare for the worst’ as Covid-19 uncertainty continues

Just three months after capping what was the best year for Indian startups, having raised a record $14.5 billion in 2019, they are beginning to struggle to raise new capital as prominent investors urge them to “prepare for the worst”, cut spending and warn that it could be challenging to secure additional money for the next few months.

In an open letter to startup founders in India, ten global and local private equity and venture capitalist firms including Accel, Lightspeed, Sequoia Capital, and Matrix Partners cautioned that the current changes to the macro environment could make it difficult for a startup to close their next fundraising deal.

The firms, which included Kalaari Capital, SAIF Partners, and Nexus Venture Partners — some of the prominent names in India to back early-stage startups — asked founders to be prepared to not see their startups’ jump in the coming rounds and have a 12-18 month runway with what they raise.

“Assumptions from bull market financings or even from a few weeks ago do not apply. Many investors will move away from thinking about ‘growth at all costs’ to ‘reasonable growth with a path to profitability.’ Adjust your business plan and messaging accordingly,” they added.

Signs are beginning to emerge that investors are losing appetite to invest in the current scenario.

Indian startups participated in 79 deals to raise $496 million in March, down from $2.86 billion that they raised across 104 deals in February and $1.24 billion they raised from 93 deals in January this year, research firm Tracxn told TechCrunch. In March last year, Indian startups had raised $2.1 billion across 153 deals, the firm said.

New Delhi ordered a complete nation-wide lockdown for its 1.3 billion people for three weeks earlier this month in a bid to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

The lockdown, as you can imagine, has severely disrupted businesses of many startups, several founders told TechCrunch.

Vivekananda Hallekere, co-founder and chief executive of mobility firm Bounce, said he is prepared for a 90-day slowdown in the business.

Founder of a Bangalore-based startup, which was in advanced stages to raise more than $100 million, said investors have called off the deal for now. He requested anonymity.

Food delivery firm Zomato, which raised $150 million in January, said it would secure an additional $450 million by the end of the month. Two months later, that money is yet to arrive.

Many startups are already beginning to cut salaries of their employees and let go of some people to survive an environment that aforementioned VC firms have described as “uncharted territory.”

Travel and hotel booking service Ixigo said it had cut the pay of its top management team by 60% and rest of the employees by up to 30%. MakeMyTrip, the giant in this category, also cut salaries of its top management team.

Beauty products and cosmetics retailer Nykaa on Tuesday suspended operations and informed its partners that it would not be able to pay their dues on time.

Investors cautioned startup founders to not take a “wait and watch” approach and assume that there will be a delay in their “receivables,” customers would likely ask for price cuts for services, and contracts would not close at the last minute.

“Through the lockdown most businesses could see revenues going down to almost zero and even post that the recovery curve may be a ‘U’ shaped one vs a ‘V’ shaped one,” they said.

Salesforce hires former banker Arundhati Bhattacharya as chairperson and CEO of India business

Salesforce, the global giant in CRM, said on Wednesday that former banker Arundhati Bhattacharya will be joining the company on April 20 as chairperson and chief executive of its India division.

The San Francisco-headquartered firm said Bhattacharya, who served as the chairperson of the state-run State Bank of India for nearly four decades and oversees financial services group SWIFT India, will be tasked with helping the global giant scale rapidly in India, one of its fastest growing overseas markets.

Arundhati will report to Ulrik Nehammer, General Manager of Salesforce in the APAC region. “Arundhati is an incredible business leader and we are delighted to welcome her to Salesforce as chairperson and CEO India,” said Gavin Patterson, President and CEO of Salesforce International, in a statement.

“India is an important growth market for Salesforce and a world-class innovation and talent hub and Arundhati’s leadership will guide our next phase of growth, customer success and investment in the region,” he said.

Salesforce offers a range of cloud services to customers in India, where it has over 1 million developers and more Trailhead users than in any other market outside of the U.S. The company, which competes with local players Zoho and Freshworks, counts Indian firms redBus, Franklin Templeton, and CEAT as some of its clients.

The company said it expects to add 3,000 jobs in India in the next three years and turn the nation into a “leading global talent and innovation hub” for the company. Sunil Jose, who joined the firm in 2017, oversaw some of the company’s India operations previously.

“I could not be more excited to join the Salesforce team to ensure we capture this tremendous opportunity and contribute to India’s development and growth story in a meaningful way,” said Bhattacharya in a statement.

According to research firm IDC, Salesforce and its ecosystem of customers and partners in India are expected to create over $67 billion in business revenues and create more than 540,000 jobs by 2024.

Asian stock markets fall as COVID-19 is declared a pandemic

American stock markets plunged on Wednesday, after the World Health Organization officially declared the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic. In Asia, meanwhile, almost all the major stock indexes were also trading lower the morning after the WHO’s announcement, with the Asia Dow Index down 4% by midday.

Morning trading in East Asian markets was ongoing by the time President Donald Trump made an address in which he announced a 30-day travel ban from the European Union to the United States.

In Japan, the benchmark index, the Nikkei 225, had fallen 3.6% as of mid-afternoon. The Nikkei Jasdaq, seen as an index for smaller companies and startups, was down 3.4%. Both recovered slightly in the afternoon after a morning drop.

The Hong Kong Stock Exchange fell 3.6% by early afternoon, while the Shanghai Stock Exchange composite index was down 1.6%.

The FTSE Straits Times Index, the benchmark index for Singapore, fell 3.7% by early afternoon, while Taiwan’s TSEC was down 4%.

The Mumbai Sensex was down 6.8% as of late morning trading in India.

India lifts ban on cryptocurrency trading

India’s Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned central bank’s two-year-old ban on cryptocurrency trading in the country in what many said was a “historic” verdict.

The Reserve Bank of India had imposed a ban on cryptocurrency trading in April 2018 that barred banks and other financial institutions from facilitating “any service in relation to virtual currencies.”

At the time, RBI said the move was necessary to curb “ring-fencing” of the country’s financial system. It had also argued that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies cannot be treated as currencies as they are not made of metal or exist in physical form, nor were they stamped by the government.

The 2018 notice from the central bank sent a panic to several local startups and companies offering services to trade in cryptocurrency. Nearly all of them have since shut shop.

In the ruling today, the bench, headed by Justice Rohinton F Nariman, overruled central bank’s circular on the grounds of disproportionality.

A group of petitioners including trade body the Internet and Mobile Association of India had challenged central bank’s circular, in part, arguing that India should look at most other nations that are not only allowing cryptocurrency trading, but have moved to launch their own virtual currencies.

Nitin Sharma, a tech investor, said the top court’s ruling was “historic” as it finally brought some clarity to the matter.

“Historic day for Crypto in India. We can now innovate. The entire country can participate in the Blockchain revolution,” said Nischal Shetty, founder and chief executive of Bitcoin exchange platform WazirX.

Dahmakan, a Malaysian “full-stack” food delivery startup, raises $18 million Series B

Dahmakan, a full-stack food delivery startup based in Malaysia, announced today that it has closed a $18 million Series B. Investors include Rakuten Capital, White Star Capital, JAFCO Asia and GEC-KIP Fund, along with participation from South Korean food delivery app Woowa Brothers, and returning investors Partech Partners and Y Combinator.

This brings Dahmakan’s total funding to about $28 million. Its previous round of financing was announced last May.

Launched by former executives from FoodPanda, Dahmakan was the first Malaysian startup to participate in Y Combinator’s startup accelerator program. Operational costs for food delivery companies are notoriously high, and eat away at their profitability, but Dahmakan is among several startups that use “cloud” kitchens, located closer to customers, in order to reduce delivery costs.

The foundation of the startup’s full-stack platform is an operating system that controls nearly every step of its operations, from recipe development to last-mile delivery, and its cloud kitchens are part of “satellite” hubs placed around different cities to be closer to customers.

Instead of delivering from restaurants, Dahmakan creates its own meals, offering about 40 options each week from a database of 2,000 dishes. It selects its weekly menu based on customer data, including food preferences and spending habits, along with market research.

Then customers are given a menu and pick from a schedule of delivery times. Other startups trying to make food delivery more efficient in Southeast Asia by using a vertically-integrated model and cloud kitchens include Grain, which s backed by investors including Openspace Ventures, First Gourmet and Singha Ventures.

In a press statement about Dahmakan’s funding, White Star Capital managing partner Eric Martineau-Fortin said “Dahmakan is well-positioned to serve the growing demand for food delivery services in Southeast Asia with its unique, technology-forward approach of taking control of the entire value chain to provide affordable delivery options to SEA’s rising middle class.”

On-demand tutoring app Snapask gets $35 million to expand in Southeast Asia

Snapask, an on-demand tutoring app, announced today that it has raised $35 million in Series B funding. Earmarked for the startup’s expansion in Southeast Asia, the round was led by Asia Partners and Intervest.

Launched in Hong Kong five years ago, Snapask has now raised a total of $50 million and operates in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and South Korea. Its other investors have included Kejora Ventures, Ondine Capital and SOSV Chinaccelerator (Snapask participated in its accelerator program).

Founder and CEO Timothy Yu said Snapask will expand into Vietnam and focus on markets in Southeast Asia where there is a high demand for tutoring and other private education services. It will also open a regional headquarter in Singapore and develop video content and analytics products for its platform.

The company now has a total of 3 million students, with 1.3 million who registered over the past twelve months (including a recent surge that Yu attributes to students studying at home after COVID-19 related school cancellations). Over the past year, 100,000 tutors have applied, taking Snapask’s current total to 350,000 applicants.

Yu says that over 2 million questions are asked by students each month on the platform, with each subscriber typically asking about 60 questions a month, during tutoring sessions that last between 15 to 20 minutes. The majority, or about two-thirds, of the questions are about math and science-related topics.

One thing all of Snapask’s markets have in common are highly-competitive public exams to enter top universities, says Yu. The exams have both a positive and negative effect on education, he adds.

“Students have a very clear objective about what topics they need to study, so that is driving a very lucrative market in the tutoring industry. But I think what Snapask focuses on is that exams are important, but you should do it the right way. We’re about self-directed learning. It’s not necessary to go to three-hour classes every day after school. If you need specific help on a question, you can ask for it immediately.”

While at university, Yu worked as a math tutor, and sometimes spent a total of two hours commuting to sessions that lasted the same amount of time. In markets like Malaysia or Indonesia, many educators chose to work in major cities, leaving students in rural areas with less options. The goal of Snapask is to help solve those issues and connect tutors with more students.

Yu says the average time for students to connect with a tutor after asking a question is about 15 to 20 minutes, which it is able to do because of machine learning-based technology that matches them based on educational styles, subject and availability. Snapask’s matching algorithms are also based on how students engage with tutors (for example, if they respond better to concise or longer, more elaborate answers). Students can also pick up to 15 to 20 tutors for their favorites list, who are prioritized when matching.

Yu says Snapask screens tutors by looking at their university transcripts and public exam results. Then they go through a probation period on the platform to assess how they interact with students. The platform also tracks how many messages are sent during a tutoring session and response times to make sure that tutors are explaining students’ questions instead of just giving them the answers.

Tutors can talk to up to 10 students at a time through Snapask’s platform. Yu says Snapask tutors in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea who spend about two hours per day answering questions usually make about $1,200 a month, while those who work about four to five hours a day can make about $4,000 to $5,000 a month. The company uses different pricing models in Southeast Asian markets, and Yu says tutors there can make about 50% to 60% more than they would at traditional tutoring jobs.

Other study apps focused on students some of the same markets as Snapask include ManyTutors and Mathpresso, whose products combine tutoring services with tools that let students upload math questions, which are then scanned with optical character recognition to provide instant answers. Yu says Snapask is focusing on one-on-one tutoring because it wants to differentiate by creating a “holistic experience.”

“A lot of students come to Snapask after using OCR tools, which we know that user surveys, but they can’t get to certain steps. They still need someone to help them understand what is happening,” he says. “So we try not to use technology for every component in teaching, but to make it more efficient and scalable, and we’re creating a holistic experience to differentiate us.”

Oyo’s revenue surged in FY19, but loss widened, too

Budget-lodging startup Oyo reported a loss of $335 million on $951 million revenue globally for the financial year ending March 31, 2019, and pledged to cut down on its spending as the India-headquartered startup grows more cautious about its aggressive expansion.

The six-year-old startup’s growing revenue, up from $211 million in financial year ending March 31, 2018, is in line with the company’s ambitions to be in a clear path to profitability this year, said Abhishek Gupta, Global CFO of OYO Hotels & Homes, in a statement.

But the startup’s loss has widened, too. Its consolidated loss increased from 25% in FY18 to 35% in FY19, it said. In India, where Oyo clocked $604 million in revenue in FY19, it was able to reduce its loss to 14% (from 24%) of revenue in FY19 to $83 million.

The startup, which today operates more than 43,000 hotels with over a million rooms in 800 cities in 80 nations, said its expansion to China and other international markets contributed to the loss.

“These markets constituted 36.5% of the global revenues. While consistently improving operating economics in mature markets like India where it’s already seeing an improvement in gross margins, the company is determined to bring in the same fiscal discipline in emerging markets in the coming financial year,” the startup said in a statement.

Oyo has come under scrutiny in recent months for its aggressive expansion in a manner that some analysts have said is not sustainable. The startup, which rebrands and renovates independent budget hotels, has also engaged in sketchy ways to sign up new hotels, as documented by the New York Times earlier this year.

In recent months, Oyo executives have acknowledged that the startup grew too fast and is confronting a number of “teething issues.” Oyo has laid off at least 3,000 employees, mostly in India, in last three months.

Local Indian laws require every startup to disclose their annual financials. Most of them filed their financials in early October.

More to follow shortly…

Instamojo acquires Times Internet’s GetMeAShop to serve more small businesses in India

Instamojo, a Bangalore-based startup that helps merchants and small businesses accept digital payments, establish presence and sell on the web, has acquired Times Internet-owned Gurgaon-based startup GetMeAShop.

The deal is worth $5 million and includes conglomerate Times Internet making an investment in Instamojo, Sampad Swain, co-founder and chief executive of the Bangalore-based startup, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Hundreds of millions of people have come online in India in the last decade thanks to proliferation of low-cost Android smartphones and availability to some of the world’s cheapest mobile data plans. But most small businesses, especially neighbourhood stores and merchants, remain offline.

A wave of startups in the country today are trying to make it easier for these merchants and businesses to come online. GetMeAShop is one such startup. It runs a platform that allows businesses to set up their website, build an online store, and make it easier for merchants or individuals to engage with — and sell to — their customers through social apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook.

For Instamojo, this acquisition is not surprising. The seven-year-old startup began its journey as a payments provider for small businesses. Over the years, it has launched an online store, an app store, and a lending service to serve more needs of a business. “This acquisition will allow us to become a full-fledged operating system for businesses,” said Swain.

Instamojo has amassed 1.2 million merchants on its platform. “It took us seven years to get a million merchants on the platform. Now we are adding more than 2,000 a day. We are on track to hit 2 million merchants by the end of this year,” he said.

More to follow shortly…

Truecaller hits 200 million users

Truecaller, one of the world’s largest caller-identification service providers, has amassed 200 million monthly active users and is increasingly proving that it can turn a profit, it said Tuesday.

In India, Truecaller’s largest market, the service now has 150 million monthly active users, it said.

Reaching the 200 million milestone gives the Swedish firm a significant lead over its Seattle-based chief rival Hiya, which as of October last year had about 100 million users.

But unlike its rivals, Truecaller has expanded beyond its caller ID and spam monitoring service. In recent years, it has added messaging and payments services in some markets. Both of these are gaining adoption, said Truecaller co-founder and chief executive Alan Mamedi (pictured above) in an interview with TechCrunch.

The payments service, currently available only in India, would soon be expanded to some African markets, said Mamedi. In India, Truecaller plans to offer lending service in a few weeks, he said.

Finances

There are scores of startups in India today that are offering payments service to users. Dozens of firms, including Truecaller and giants such as Alibaba-backed Paytm, and Walmart’s PhonePe have rolled out payments service in the country that is built atop of UPI, an infrastructure developed by a coalition of banks — and backed by the government.

What makes Truecaller unique is that it is not burning so much money.

Mamedi said Truecaller was profitable in the quarter that ended in December. “It’s been a very proud moment for us, especially in an industry where most companies spend a lot of money to onboard users,” he said. Truecaller has raised about $99 million to date, per Crunchbase, and counts Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins among its investors.

Truecaller generates more than half of its revenue from ads that it serves to its users. But Mamedi said the firm’s subscription service, which offers a range of additional features including stripping of ads, is gaining traction. Today, it accounts for about 30% of all revenue Truecaller clocks, he said.

The startup will attempt to maintain this momentum — and it did so in January — but Mamedi cautioned that things may change based on immediate business decisions such as potential acquisition of startups. What happens next? IPO is on the cards, but he said the startup will take three years to be ready for that phase of its journey.

InterviewBit secures $20M to grow its advanced online computer science program in India

InterviewBit, a Bangalore-based startup that runs an advanced online computer science program for college graduates and young professional engineers, has raised $20 million in one of the largest Series A financing rounds in the education sector.

The nine-month-old startup’s Series A round was led by Sequoia India, Tiger Global and Global Founders Capital among others, it said. The startup said it is also rebranding its online coding program, earlier called InterviewBit Academy, to Scaler Academy.

InterviewBit operates on an income-sharing model, where students have the option to pay after they have landed a job. The concept, also known as human capital contract, has been around for decades but is beginning to see some traction now.

The startup said more than 2,000 students have enrolled in its six-month program to date. It had received over 200,000 applications. And “several hundred” of those who enrolled in the program have landed jobs at tech companies such Google, Amazon, and Microsoft.

Students enrolled in Scaler Academy are mentored and taught by tech leaders and subject matter experts working with organisations including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix.

The startup, which is part of Sequoia India’s Surge accelerator program, will use the new fund to scale up its enrollment and launch in new markets. It also plans to invest in its curriculum and in live teaching product.

Indian newspaper Times of India first reported about the financing round last year, and said the round would value InterviewBit at over $100 million.

“Within a short period of time, Scaler Academy has made a huge impact on the capabilities of our students, who spend, on average 4-5 hours/day on our online and live learning platform,” said Abhimanyu Saxena, co-founder of InterviewBit. “We are very excited that our work results in a step function change in the careers of our students — and so we have rebranded it to Scaler Academy, a platform for pursuing excellence in software programming.”

A recent National Employability Report Engineers 2019 report highlighted that the employability of Indian engineers continues to be as low as 20%. “With that in mind, Scaler Academy’s meticulously structured 6-month online program effectively enhances the coding skills of professionals by creating a modern curriculum with exposure to the latest technologies,” the startup said.

Opera and the firm short-selling its stock (alleging Africa fintech abuses) weigh in

Internet services company Opera has come under a short-sell assault based on allegations of predatory lending practices by its fintech products in Africa.

Hindenburg Research issued a report claiming (among other things) that Opera’s finance products in Nigeria and Kenya have run afoul of prudent consumer practices and Google Play Store rules for lending apps.

Hindenburg — which is based in NYC and managed by financial analyst Nate Anderson — went on to suggest Opera’s U.S. listed stock was grossly overvalued.

That’s a primer on the key info, though there are several additional shades of the who, why, and where of this story to break down, before getting to what Opera and Hindenburg had to say.

A good start is Opera’s ownership and scope. Founded in Norway, the company is an internet services provider, largely centered around its Opera browser.

Opera was acquired in 2016 for $600 million by a consortium of Chinese investors, led by current Opera CEO Yahui Zhou.

Two years later, Opera went public in an IPO on NASDAQ, where its shares currently trade.

Web Broswers Africa 2019 Opera

Though Opera’s web platform isn’t widely used in the U.S. — where it has less than 1% of the browser market — it has been number-one in Africa, and more recently a distant second to Chrome, according to StatCounter.

On the back of its browser popularity, Opera went on an African venture-spree in 2019, introducing a suite of products and startup verticals in Nigeria and Kenya, with intent to scale more broadly across the continent.

In Nigeria these include motorcycle ride-hail service ORide and delivery app OFood.

Central to these services are Opera’s fintech apps: OPay in Nigeria and OKash and Opesa in Kenya — which offer payment and lending options.

Fintech focused VC and startups have been at the center of a decade long tech-boom in several core economies in Africa, namely Kenya and Nigeria.

In 2019 Opera led a wave of Chinese VC in African fintech, including $170 million in two rounds to its OPay payments service in Nigeria.

Opera’s fintech products in Africa (as well as Opera’s Cashbean in India) are at the core of Hindenburg Research’s brief and short-sell position. 

The crux of the Hindenburg report is that due to the declining market-share of its browser business, Opera has pivoted to products generating revenue from predatory short-term loans in Africa and India at interest rates of 365 to 876%, so Hindenburg claims.

The firm’s reporting goes on to claim Opera’s payment products in Nigeria and Kenya are afoul of Google rules.

“Opera’s short-term loan business appears to be…in violation of the Google Play Store’s policies on short-term and misleading lending apps…we think this entire line of business is at risk of…being severely curtailed when Google notices and ultimately takes corrective action,” the report says.

Based on this, Hindenburg suggested Opera’s stock should trade at around $2.50, around a 70% discount to Opera’s $9 share-price before the report was released on January 16.

Hindenburg also disclosed the firm would short Opera.

Founder Nate Anderson confirmed to TechCrunch Hindenburg continues to hold short positions in Opera’s stock — which means the firm could benefit financially from declines in Opera’s share value. The company’s stock dropped some 18% the day the report was published.

On motivations for the brief, “Technology has catalyzed numerous positive changes in Africa, but we do not think this is one of them,” he said.

“This report identified issues relating to one company, but what we think will soon become apparent is that in the absence of effective local regulation, predatory lending is becoming pervasive across Africa and Asia…proliferated via mobile apps,” Anderson added.

While the bulk of Hindenburg’s critique was centered on Opera, Anderson also took aim at Google.

“Google has become the primary facilitator of these predatory lending apps by virtue of Android’s dominance in these markets. Ultimately, our hope is that Google steps up and addresses the bigger issue here,” he said.

TechCrunch has an open inquiry into Google on the matter. In the meantime, Opera’s apps in Nigeria and Kenya are still available on GooglePlay, according to Opera and a cursory browse of the site.

For its part, Opera issued a rebuttal to Hindenburg and offered some input to TechCrunch through a spokesperson.

In a company statement opera said, “We have carefully reviewed the report published by the short seller and the accusations it put forward, and our conclusion is very clear: the report contains unsubstantiated statements, numerous errors, and misleading conclusions regarding our business and events related to Opera.”

Opera added it had proper banking licenses in Kenyan or Nigeria. “We believe we are in compliance with all local regulations,” said a spokesperson.

TechCrunch asked Hindenburg’s Nate Anderson if the firm had contacted local regulators related to its allegations. “We reached out to the Kenyan DCI three times before publication and have not heard back,” he said.

As it pertains to Africa’s startup scene, there’ll be several things to follow surrounding the Opera, Hindenburg affair.

The first is how it may impact Opera’s business moves in Africa. The company is engaged in competition with other startups across payments, ride-hail, and several other verticals in Nigeria and Kenya. Being accused of predatory lending, depending on where things go (or don’t) with the Hindenburg allegations, could put a dent in brand-equity.

There’s also the open question of if/how Google and regulators in Kenya and Nigeria could respond. Contrary to some perceptions, fintech regulation isn’t non-existent in both countries, neither are regulators totally ineffective.

Kenya passed a new data-privacy law in November and Nigeria recently established guidelines for mobile-money banking licenses in the country, after a lengthy Central Bank review of best digital finance practices.

Nigerian regulators demonstrated they are no pushovers with foreign entities, when they slapped a $3.9 billion fine on MTN over a regulatory breach in 2015 and threatened to eject the South African mobile-operator from the country.

As for short-sellers in African tech, they are a relatively new thing, largely because there are so few startups that have gone on to IPO.

In 2019, Citron Research head and activist short-seller Andrew Left — notable for shorting Lyft and Tesla — took short positions in African e-commerce company Jumia, after dropping a report accusing the company of securities fraud. Jumia’s share-price plummeted over 50% and has only recently begun to recover.

As of Wednesday, there were signs Opera may be shaking off Hindenburg’s report — at least in the market — as the company’s shares had rebounded to $7.35.