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China gets serious about antitrust, fines Alibaba $2.75B

Chinese regulators have hit Alibaba with a record fine of 18 billion yuan (about $2.75 billion) for violating anti-monopoly rules as the country seeks to rein in the power of its largest internet conglomerates.

In November, China proposed sweeping antitrust regulations targeting its interent economy. In late December, the State Administration for Market Regulation said it had launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba, weeks after the authorities called off the initial public offering of Ant Group, the financial affiliate of Alibaba.

SAMR, the country’s top market regulator, said on Saturday it had determined that Alibaba had been “abusing market dominance” since 2015 by forcing its Chinese merchants to sell exclusively on one e-commerce platform instead of letting them choose freely among different services, such as Pinduoduo and JD.com. Vendors are often pressured to side with Alibaba to take advantage of its enormous user base.

Since late 2020, a clutch of internet giants including Tencent and Alibaba have been hit with various fines for violating anti-competition practices, for instance, failing to clear past acquisitions with regulators. The meager sums of these penalties were symbolic at best compared to the benefits the tech firms reap from their market concentration. No companies have been told to break up their empires and users still have to hop between different super-apps that block each other off.

In recent weeks, however, there are signs that China’s antitrust authorities are getting more serious. The latest fine on Alibaba is equivalent to 4% of the company’s revenue generated in the calendar year of 2019 in China.

“Today, we received the Administrative Penalty Decision issued by the State Administration for Market Regulation of the People’s Republic of China,” Alibaba said in a statement. “We accept the penalty with sincerity and will ensure our compliance with determination. To serve our responsibility to society, we will operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence, continue to strengthen our compliance systems and build on growth through innovation.”

The thick walls that tech companies build against each other are starting to break down, too. Alibaba has submitted an application to have its shopping deals app run on WeChat’s mini program platform, Wang Hai, an Alibaba executive, recently confirmed.

For years, Alibaba services have been absent from Tencent’s sprawling lite app ecosystem, which now features millions of third-party services. Vice versa, WeChat is notably missing from Alibaba’s online marketplaces as a payment method. If approved, the WeChat-powered Alibaba mini app would break with precedent of the pair’s long stand-off.

Taiwan-based MLOps startup InfuseAI raises $4.3M Series A led by Wistron Corporation

AI models not only take time to build and train, but also to deploy in an organization’s workflow. That’s where MLOps (machine learning operations) companies come in, helping clients scale their AI technology. InfuseAI, a MLOps startup based in Taiwan, announced today it has raised a $4.3 million Series A, led by original design manufacturer Wistron Corporation, with participation from Hive Ventures, Top Taiwan Venture Capital Group and Silicon Valley Taiwan Investments.

Founded in 2018, InfuseAI says the market for MLOps solutions is worth $30 million a year in Taiwan, with the global market expected to reach about $4 billion by 2025, according to research firm Cognilytica. Its clients include E.SUN, one of Taiwan’s largest banks, SinoPac Holdings and Chimei.

InfuseAI helps companies deploy and manage machine learning models with turnkey solutions like PrimeHub, a platform that includes a model training environment, cloud or on-premise cluster computing (including container orchestration with Kubernetes) and collaboration tools for teams. Another product, called PrimeHub Deploy, lets clients train, deploy, update and monitor AI models.

In a press statement, Hive Ventures founder and managing partner Yan Lee said, “As enterprises from manufacturing, healthcare, finance and other sectors seek to scale their AI operations and model deployments, they will require a platform like InfuseAI to allow seamless collaboration between developers and data scientists. InfuseAI fits perfectly into our investment thesis which is focused on platforms and software in the enterprise adoption cycle.”

Indian social commerce Meesho valued at $2.1 billion in new $300 million fundraise

Meesho said on Monday it has raised $300 million in a new financing round led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2 as the Indian social commerce startup works to become the “single ecosystem that will enable all small businesses to succeed online.”

The new round — a Series E — gives the five-year-old startup a valuation of $2.1 billion, up from about $600 million – $700 million in the 2019 Series D investment. The Indian startup, which has raised about $490 million to date, said existing investors Facebook, Prosus Ventures, Shunwei Capital, Venture Highway, and Knollwood Investment also participated in the new round.

This appears to be Shunwei Capital’s first investment in an Indian startup in nearly a year. New Delhi last year introduced a rule to require its approval before a Chinese investor could write a check to an Indian firm.

Bangalore-based Meesho operates an eponymous online marketplace that connects sellers with customers on social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram. Its offerings include order management, taking care of logistics, online payments, real-time shop updates, and allowing businesses to get their customers to subscribe.

The startup claims to have a network of more than 13 million entrepreneurs, a majority of whom are women, from hundreds of Indians towns who largely deal with apparel, home appliances and electronics items.

If Meesho’s mission has to be put in a short phrase, it’d be: “financial independence of women”.

So, it’s only apt that @meeshoapp has first been featured in Play Store on Women’s Day by Google India, and now in Independence Day spotlight.

Recognition of real impact at scale! pic.twitter.com/jcFz2ZOrDA

— Sudhanshu Shekhar (@sdhskr) August 10, 2019

Meesho said it will deploy the fresh capital to help 100 million individuals and small businesses in the country to sell online. “In the last one year, we have seen tremendous growth across small businesses and entrepreneurs seeking to move their businesses online,” said Vidit Aatrey, co-founder and chief executive of Meesho, in a statement.

“We have been closely tracking Meesho for the last 18 months and have been impressed by their growth, daily engagement metrics, focus on unit economics and ability to create a strong team. We believe Meesho provides an efficient platform for SME suppliers and social resellers to onboard the e-commerce revolution in India and help them provide personalized experience to consumers,” said Sumer Juneja, partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement.

In a recent report, UBS analysts identified social commerce and business-to-business marketplaces as potential sources of competition to e-commerce firms such as Amazon and Flipkart in India.

Social commerce is one prominent bets to take on modern e-commerce that has struggled to make inroads in India, despite billions of dollars ploughed by Amazon and Flipkart. Another bet is digitizing neighborhood stores in the country — without so much of the social element — that dot tens of thousands of towns, cities and villages in India. Global giants Facebook and Google are backing both the horses.

“Globally, SoftBank has always been excited to back founders that provide unique solutions for the local market. By using the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning, Meesho has created a platform for many small business owners to sell to the next cohort of internet users. We look forward to being a part of this journey,” said Munish Varma, Managing Partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement.

Hong Kong-based viAct raises $2M for its automated construction monitoring platform

Hong Kong-based viAct helps construction sites perform around-the-clock monitoring with an AI-based cloud platform that combines computer vision, edge devices and a mobile app. The startup announced today it has raised a $2 million seed round, co-led by SOSV and Vectr Ventures. The funding included participation from Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund, Artesian Ventures and ParticleX.

Founded in 2016, viAct currently serves more than 30 construction industry clients in Asia and Europe. Its new funding will be used on research and development, product development and expanding into Southeast Asian countries.

The platform uses computer vision to detect potential safety hazards, construction progress and the location of machinery and materials. Real-time alerts are sent to a mobile app with a simple interface, designed for engineers who are often “working in a noisy and dynamic environment that makes it hard to look at detailed dashboards,” co-founder and chief operating officer Hugo Cheuk told TechCrunch.

As companies signed up for viAct to monitor sites while complying with COVID-19 social distancing measures, the company provided training over Zoom to help teams onboard more quickly.

Cheuk said the company’s initial markets in Southeast Asia will include Indonesia and Vietnam because government planning for smart cities and new infrastructure means new construction projects there will increase over the next five to 10 years. It will also enter Singapore because developers are willing to adopt AI-based technology.

In a press statement, SOSV partner and Chinaccelerator managing director Oscar Ramos said, “COVID has accelerated digital transformation and traditional industries like construction are going through an even faster process of transformation that is critical for survival. The viAct team has not only created a product that drives value for the industry but has also been able to earn the trust of their customers and accelerate adoption.”

Indian social network Public App raises $41 million

Public App, a location-based social network that connects individuals to people in their vicinity, has raised $41 million in a new round, just six months after securing $35 million as the hyper-local Indian startup looks to expand its presence in the world’s second largest internet market.

A91 Partners led the new round in Public App, valuing the Indian startup at over $250 million (more than double since its last fundraise). The Indian startup, which also operates popular news aggregator app InShorts, said some of its existing investors also participated in the round but did not identify them. Public App counts Lee Fixel’s Addition, SIG, and Tanglin Venture Partners among its investors. (The startup didn’t specify the name of the new round.)

Azhar Iqubal, founder and chief executive of Public App, said the new social network has amassed over 50 million users already and he aims to expand it outside the country eventually. The app, launched in April 2019, has already attracted individuals such as politicians and several major firms such as Amazon, HDFC Bank, and GSK that are using Public App to reach their audience.

“Public has continued to maintain best in class retention and engagement metrics while scaling. We look forward to working closely with the founders to help build an outstanding company,” said Gautam Mago, General Partner at A91 Partners, in a statement.

Public App, which is available in several major Indian languages (including Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Odia, Assamese, Gujarati and Marathi), allows shop owners and other local businesses to drive e-commerce and hire local talent, and political leaders, government authorities, and media houses to reach local audiences.

“The app is already being used by over 50,000 elected officials, government authorities and citizen journalists to connect with their locality. Additionally, many local businesses have also started to use the app to reach their customers in the locality,” the startup said.

The app, which also provides entertainment and news services, sees more than 1 million videos being created on the platform each month.

The startup plans to deploy the new capital to expand its tech infrastructure, broaden its content offerings, and hire more talent.

Once thought of a crowded space, several Indian startups have launched their social networks in recent years. Kutumb, an eight-month-old startup, is in talks with Tiger Global to raise funds in a round that values it about $170 million, TechCrunch reported earlier this month.

China to ban apps from collecting excessive user data starting May

Starting May 1, apps in China can no longer force users into providing excessive personal data, according to a document jointly released by a group of the country’s top regulators, the Cyberspace Administration, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Public Security and the State Administration for Market Regulation.

It’s a common practice in China where apps ask users to provide sensitive personal information and those who decline to share are often denied access. While some of the requests are justifiable, such as one’s location information to use a navigation map, many others are unnecessary, such as one’s biometrics to make mobile payments.

In December, Chinese authorities lay out the acceptable range of data that different apps are entitled to collect, as TechCrunch reported

All forms of apps are subject to the requirements, including the increasingly popular “mini programs,” which are lite apps accessed through an all-encompassing native app such as WeChat and Alipay without the need for an app store install, said the new document.

For now, the document appears to be a guideline at best as it does not specify how the rules should be enforced and how offenders will be punished. While it marks China’s incremental progress on data protection, regulators will have to keep updating the rules as people’s daily lives are becoming more linked to digital devices at a rapid rate.

In recent months, China has been clamping down on the technological darlings that it used to pride itself on. It introduced a sweeping antitrust law to rein in its “platform economy” and slammed anti-competition fines on Alibaba and Tencent, following Ant Group’s IPO fiasco.

Indonesian savings and investment app Pluang gets $20M in pre-Series B funding

Indonesia-based fintech Pluang announced today it has raised $20 million in a pre-Series B round led by Openspace Ventures, with participation from Go Ventures and other returning investors. The company offers proprietary savings and investment products that allow users to make contributions starting from 50 cents USD.

Go Ventures, the investment arm of Gojek, also participated in Pluang’s $3 million Series A, which closed in March 2019. Pluang is available through partnerships with “super apps” like Gojek, Dana and Bukalapak, and currently claims more than one million users.

The company says it is able to maintain a low customer acquisition cost of $2 per transacting customer because it creates its own products, including investment accounts for gold, U.S equity indices and cryptocurrencies, instead of working with third-party financial service providers.

Pluang’s latest round will be used to develop proprietary financial products to cover more asset classes, including government bonds.

“Previously, these assets classes were only available to the wealthy in Indonesia,” said Pluang founder Claudia Kolonas in a statement. “However, we believe that everyone should have the opportunity to grow their savings, and our new products will reflect that.”

Pluang is among several Indonesian financial apps, including Ajaib and Bibit, that have recently raised funding. All focus on making investing accessible to more people by giving them an alternative to traditional brokerage firms that typically charge high fees.

In Indonesia, less than percent of the country’s population are retail investors, but that number is growing, especially among people aged 18 to 30. This is due to a combination of factors, including increased interest in financial planning during the pandemic and the rise of stock influencers.

In a statement, Openspace Ventures founding partner Shane Chesson said, “Pluang has demonstrated tremendous growth over the last 12 months with industry leading unit economics. We’re excited to continue supporting the team, as they sustainably accelerate their ambitions to help every Indonesian grow their savings.”

Betting on China’s driverless future, Toyota, Bosch, Daimler jump on board Momenta’s $500M round

Across the street from Suzhou North, a high-speed railway station in a historic city near Shanghai, a futuristic M-shaped building easily catches the eye of anyone passing by. It houses the headquarters of the five-year-old Chinese autonomous driving startup, Momenta.

Like other major Chinese cities, Suzhou, which is famous for its serene canals and classical gardens, offers subsidized offices and policy support to attract high-tech firms. It seems to have chosen well. Momenta exceeded $1 billion in valuation in two years and became one of the most-funded driving companies in China. The startup has a dazzling list of investors, from Kai-Fu Lee’s Sinovation Ventures, the government of Suzhou, to Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler.

Momenta recently closed another massive round, which nears $500 million and lifts its total funding to over $700 million. The investment marks an important step towards the firm’s international expansion, its chief of business development Sun Huan told TechCrunch. In a few months’ time, Sun will head to Stuttgart, the German hometown of Mercedes-Benz, and open Momenta’s first European office.

The new funding, a Series C round, was led by Chinese state-backed automaker SAIC Motor, Toyota and Bosch, an indication of the traditional auto monoliths’ conviction to smart driving.

“The auto industry needs to develop more advantages when confronting Tesla’s marketing today, so they are paying more attention to autonomous driving,” Momenta’s founder and CEO Cao Xudong told TechCrunch.

Financial investors leading the round were the Singaporean sovereign fund Temasek and Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s Yunfeng Capital. Other participants included Mercedes-Benz AG, Xiaomi founder Lei Jun’s Shunwei Capital, Tencent, Cathay Capital and a few undisclosed institutions. It’s rare to see Tencent and Alibaba (or their affiliates) co-invest.

Be pragmatic

Despite the sizable financial injection, Cao said that “autonomous driving companies can no longer rely solely on fundraising to burn cash.”

Mega-fundraising has become common in the capital-intensive autonomous vehicle world. Momenta’s Chinese rivals Pony.ai has amassed over $1 billion within five years and four-year-old WeRide.ai has raised over $500 million. Like Momenta, the two firms have nabbed investments from big automakers. Pony.ai also counts Toyota as an investor, and WeRide is backed by Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi.

Momenta declined to disclose its latest valuation. For reference, Pony.ai hit $5.3 billion in its November fundraising round.

TechCrunch went on a test ride with Momenta / TechCrunch

Momenta prides itself on what it calls a “two-legged” business model. Unlike some peers that concentrate resources on ‘Level 4,’ or real driverless passenger cars, Momenta is selling semi-automated driving software to carmakers while investing in more advanced tech that is years from mass adoption.

It also tries to cap expenses by crowdsourcing data from auto partners instead of building its own car fleets, which helps save billions of dollars, the company has reiterated. By accumulating driving data at scale, Momenta gets to finetune its algorithms through a self-correcting system. The more data it has, the better its machine becomes at driving.

“It works like a flywheel,” Cao said, using a tech industry jargon first popularized by Jeff Bezos to explain Amazon’s growth.

Driver’s habit

During a test ride TechCrunch went on, where a safety driver was present but did not intervene, a Momenta-powered Lincoln maneuvered through a neighborhood of Suzhou dotted by jaywalkers, unleashed dogs, speeding scooters and reckless truck drivers. When the sedan slowed down at a highway entrance ramp, other cars zipped past us. It felt as if we were going too slowly, but in fact all the human-steered cars were going well above the 40km/h speed limit.

“Some drivers may want the autonomous driving car to be more aggressive, so we are also exploring a system that learns from individual style,” said Jiang Yunfei, an R&D engineer at Momenta who went on the ride. “Of course, on the condition that the car is obeying traffic rules.”

A tablet next to the dashboard showed what our car was capable of seeing and predicting on the road with a set of mass-produced sensors. “Prediction relies on data,” noted Sun. “If we build our own car fleets, it will be very costly to keep the data-driven approach.”

Momenta has joined in the ranks of companies piloting robotaxis on China’s urban roads. It aims to remove some safety drivers from its robotaxis, which it jointly operates with auto partners, in 2022 and expects all of its vehicles to go driverless in 2024. By then, the company will have significantly reduced labor costs and reach a positive operating margin per vehicle.

Automate globally

Momenta has kept a quiet public profile since its inception and rarely talked about its customers except for its partnership with Toyota on high-definition maps, which predated the investment. What Cao could say was the company has fostered “deep collaborations” with carmakers and Tier-1 suppliers across China, Germany and Japan.

By the end of 2021, multiple customers will start mass-producing mid-to-high-end cars equipped with Momenta’s software. And by 2024 or 2025, Momenta’s solutions could be powering millions of vehicles, which should provide a steady stream of driving data to the startup.

“Electrification is no longer enough to differentiate one high-end car brand from another because the motors and batteries they used are quite similar. The key differentiator now is intelligence,” said the founder.

When asked whether Momenta worries about challenges faced by Chinese firms amid geopolitical tensions and continuing U.S.-China technological decoupling, Jijay Shen, who recently joined Momenta as vice president of sales and marketing, said such situations are “uncontrollable” and “regulatory compliance” is the priority for entering any new market.

“The human race was able to achieve significant technological progress in the last ten years exactly because tech companies from different countries are building on top of each other,” said Shen, who spent over a decade at Huawei and was formerly CEO of the telecoms giant’s Ireland business.

“But because of geopolitical factors, many markets will begin to consider self-subsistence in the short term… I can’t conclude what is better, but I think the whole ecosystem and supply chain need to think what’s better — self-subsistence or interdependence.”

Tiger Global in talks to invest in young Indian social network at $170M valuation

Who says there is no room for a new social network?

Tiger Global is in advanced stages of talks to lead a round of $15 million to $20 million in seven-month-old Kutumb that values the Indian startup at about $170 million, four people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The American investment firm has offered a termsheet to the Indian startup but the deal — a Series A — has not closed yet, some of the people said on the condition of anonymity as the talks are private. Usual caveat: Terms may change, or the deal may not materialize.

Kutumb, which means family in Hindi, has built a “private social network like Reddit” that connects communities based on “culture, creed, beliefs, interests, [and] professions.”

The startup’s eponymous six-month-old app has amassed over 11 million monthly active users, up from about 550,000 in December last year, according to mobile insight firm App Annie (data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch).

Kutumb was valued at about $15 million late last year when it raised funds from Sequoia Capital India’s Surge accelerator. It raised about $2.5 million in its seed financing round, according to insight firm Tracxn.

Tiger Global declined to comment. One of the co-founders of Kutumb didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Apple starts assembling iPhone 12 in India

Apple is beginning to assemble the iPhone 12 in India as it ramps up its production capacity in the world’s second largest smartphone market. Foxconn, a contract manufacturing partner of Apple, is assembling the iPhone 12 model — though currently no other iPhone 12 model — Pro and Pro Max, and Mini — in the country.

The move underscores how India is emerging as a big production hub for global smartphone makers. Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, and OnePlus have been assembling their smartphone models in India for more than half a decade and have increased their production capacities in recent years.

To attract global giants, New Delhi has been offering tax benefits to firms that locally produce in India and in recent quarters has significantly increased the perks.

“We are optimistic and looking forward to building a strong ecosystem across the value chain and integrating with the global value chains, thereby strengthening electronics manufacturing ecosystem in the country,” said India’s IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad last year.

Apple began locally assembling select iPhone models in India in 2017 — beginning with the iPhone SE — though for the initial years the company’s contract partners locally produced only older iPhone models in the country.

Analysts have estimated that Apple, which launched its online store in India last year and is working to set up its first physical retail store in the country this year, plans to move between seven to 10% of its iPhone production to India as it looks to cut reliance on China. TechCrunch understands the figure is “wild speculation.”

The iPhone maker suffered a setback in India late last year after a violent protest broke at a facility in Wistron, one of its key manufacturing partners of Apple, near Bangalore last year. But the Taiwanese firm appears to have resolved the issues. It said last month that it was rehiring workers and will soon be resuming production at its facility.

“Apple is dedicated to making the best products and services in the world to delight our customers. We are proud to be starting production of iPhone 12 in India for our local customers,” said an Apple spokesperson in India in a statement.

Apple assumes just 2% of the Indian smartphone market, but it has grown in recent quarters. Apple shipped more than 1.5 million iPhone units in India in the quarter that ended in December, up 100% year-on-year, making this its best quarter in the world’s largest smartphone market to date, according to research firms Counterpoint and CyberMedia Research.

Unlike several foreign firms that offer their products and services at low prices in India, Apple has focused entirely on a small fraction of the population that can afford to pay big bucks, said Jayanth Kolla, chief analyst at Convergence Catalyst. And while it took several years, Apple has carved out a slice of the market that is growing, he said.

Taipei-based Influenxio gets $2M from DCM Ventures for its “microinfluencer” marketing platform

Influencer marketing startup Influenxio's team, with founder and CEO Allan Ko in the center

Influenxio’s team, with founder and chief executive officer Allan Ko in the center

“Microinfluencers” are gaining clout among marketers. Though they may have as little as a thousand followers, microinfluencers tend to focus on specific content and be seen as more engaging and trustworthy by their audience, said Allan Ko, founder and chief executive officer of Influenxio. The Taipei-based startup, which connects brands with Instagram microinfluencers through its online platform, announced today that it has closed $2 million in pre-Series A funding led by DCM Ventures, and is launching a new subscription plan.

Founded in 2018, Influenxio has now raised over $3 million in total, including from seed investor SparkLabs Taipei. It currently operates in Taiwan and Japan, where it has databases of 100,000 and 250,000 Instagram creators, respectively. So far, over 6,000 brands have registered on Influenxio’s platform, and it has been used to run over 1,000 campaigns.

Influenxio plans to use its new funding for hiring and product development. Influenxio’s new subscription plan is a relatively novel model for the field, so one of the startup’s goals is to prove that it works, Ko told TechCrunch. The company also plans to build out its Japanese platform and expand into more countries.

A screenshot of Influenxio's platform

A screenshot of Influenxio’s platform

Influenxio analyzes past campaigns, performance data and client reviews to improve its algorithms. Since the entire campaign creation process–from finding influencers to paying them–is performed through Influenxio, this allows it to gather a wide range of data to refine its technology, Ko told TechCrunch.

Influencers typically make about $35 to $40 USD for each campaign they participate in, and most of the brands the company works with focus on food (like restaurants), fashion, beauty or lifestyle services.

Before launching Influenxio, Ko spent 15 years working in the digital marketing field, serving as an account manager at Yahoo! and Microsoft, and then head of Hong Kong and Taiwan for Google’s online partnerships group. He wanted to create a startup that would combine what he had learned about digital marketing and make accessible to more businesses.

Large brands have used Influenxio to quickly generate marketing campaigns for special occasions like Mother’s Day or Christmas. For example, one advertiser in Taiwan used Influenxio to hire almost 200 influencers in one week, who were asked to test and post about their products, and some of Influenxio’s highest profile clients include Shiseido, Shopee, iHerb and KKBox.

But the majority of Influenxio’s clients (about 80% to 90%) are small- to medium-sized businesses, and Ko said they usually create multiple campaigns to build brand awareness over time, working with a few influencers a month.

Influenxio’s new subscription plan, which costs less than $100 USD a month and is launching first in Taiwan before rolling out to other markets, was created for them. “The first year we launched the platform, we found small businesses want experts and advice,” said Ko. Many don’t have marketing managers, so Influenxio’s subscription plan automatically matches them with new influencers each month and provides them with analytics so they can see how well campaigns are performing.

Influenxio is among a growing number of startups that are tapping into the “microinfluencer economy,” with others including AspireIQ, Upfluence and Grin.

Ko said Influenxio’s biggest difference is its focus on small businesses, and serving as a one-stop marketplace for influencer campaigns. “The important thing for our platform is that it needs to be very easy and simple,” he added. “We spent a lot of time on the execution and details to make it smoother on the advertiser side. For the influencer side, we try to make it more convenient. For example, the way they receive money, our goal is to also make it easy.”

Indonesian logistics startup SiCepat raises $170 million Series B

SiCepat, an end-to-end logistics startup in Indonesia, announced today it has raised a $170 million Series B funding round. Founded in 2014 to provide last-mile deliveries for small merchants, the company has since expanded to serve large e-commerce platforms, too. Its services now also cover warehousing and fulfillment, middle-mile logistics and online distribution.

Investors in SiCepat’s Series B include Falcon House Partners; Kejora Capital; DEG (the German Development Finance Institution); Telkom Indonesia’s investment arm MDI Ventures; Indies Capital; Temasek Holdings subsidiary Pavilion Capital; Tri Hill; and Daiwa Securities. The company’s last funding announcement was a $50 million Series A in April 2019.

In a press statement, The Kim Hai, founder and chief executive officer of SiCepat’s parent company Onstar Express, said the funding will be used to “further fortify SiCepat’s position as the leading end-to-end logistics service provider in the Indonesian market and potentially to explore expansion to other markets in Southeast Asia.” SiCepat claims to be profitable already and that it was able to fulfill more than 1.4 million packages per day in 2020.

The logistics industry in Indonesia is highly fragmented, which means higher costs for businesses. At the same time, demand for deliveries is increasing thanks to the growth of e-commerce, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

SiCepat is one of several Indonesian startups that have raised funding recently to make the supply chain and logistics infrastructure more efficient. For example, earlier this week, supply chain SaaS provider Advotics announced a $2.75 million round. Other notable startups in the space include Kargo, founded by a former Uber Asia executive, and Waresix.

SiCepat focuses in particular on e-commerce and social commerce, or people who sell goods through their social media networks. In statement, Kejora Capital managing partner Sebastian Togelang, said the Indonesian e-commerce market is expected to grow at five-year compounded annual growth rate of 21%, reaching $82 billion by 2025.

“We believe SiCepat is ideally positioned to serve customers from e-commerce giants to uprising social commerce players which contribute an estimated 25% to the total digital commerce economy,” he added.

Indonesian supply chain startup Advotics raises $2.75M led by East Ventures

The rapid growth of e-commerce in Indonesia, especially during the pandemic, is placing increasing demands on its supply chain infrastructure. But the country’s logistics industry is highly fragmented, with companies usually relying on multiple providers for one shipment, and many warehouses are still concentrated around major cities. Advotics wants to help with software to make the whole supply chain easier to track, and recently closed a $2.75 million funding round led by East Ventures.

Founded in 2016 by Boris Sanjaya, Hendi Chandi and Jeffry Tani, Advotics currently counts more than 70 clients, ranging from individual resellers to large corporations like Exxonmobil, Danone, Reckitt Benckiser, Sampoerna, Kalbe and Mulia Group.

According to research institution Statistics Indonesia, there are about 5 million small and medium-sized manufacturers in Indonesia. They use a supply chain with 15 million small to mid-sized distributors and about 288,000 large distribution companies. This fragmentation means higher expenses, with Report Linker estimating that logistics costs range between 25% to 30% of Indonesia’s gross domestic product.

To help make logistics more efficient for its clients, Advotics offers SaaS solutions to monitor almost their entire supply and logistics chain, from warehouse inventory to generating delivery routes for drivers. It includes a product digitalization feature that uses QR codes to track products and prevent counterfeiting. The company’s new funding will be used to launch a online-to-offline system for SMEs and grow its sales team.

Advotics is among several tech startups that are taking different approaches to tackle Indonesia’s logistics infrastructure. For example, Shipper wants to give sellers access to “Amazon-level logistics,” while Logisly is focused on digitizing truck shipments. Waresix recently acquired Trukita to connect businesses to shippers and truck shipment platform Kargo’s backers include Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick.

Coupang may raise up to $3.6 billion in its IPO, at a potential valuation of $51 billion

According to an amended S-1 filing, South Korean e-commerce leader Coupang expects to price its initial public offering between $27 to $30 per share, potentially raising up to $3.6 billion. After the IPO, Coupang will have a total of 1.7 billion shares outstanding, including Class A and Class B. This means the means the pricing would give Coupang a potential market capitalization between $46 billion to $51 billion, a huge increase over the $9 billion valuation it reached after its last funding round in 2018, led by SoftBank Vision Fund.

Coupang and some of its existing shareholders will offer a total of 120 million shares during the IPO.

If Coupang’s IPO is successful, it would be a huge win for SoftBank Vision Fund, which will own 36.8% of its Class A shares after the listing.

Founded in 2010 by Bom Kim, Coupang is known for its ultra-speedy deliveries and is now the largest e-commerce company in South Korea, according to Euromonitor. According to the filing, Kim will hold 76.7% of voting power after the listing, while SoftBank Vision Fund will hold about 8.6%. Other investors that currently own 5% or more of Coupang’s shares include Greenoaks Capital Partners, Maverick Holdings, Rose Park Advisors, BlackRock and Ridd Investments.

Coupang filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange last month, under the symbol CPNG. Based on Bloomberg data, Coupang’s listing will be the fourth-biggest by an Asian company on a U.S. exchange, and the largest since Alibaba’s $25 billion IPO in 2014.

Qualcomm veteran to replace Alain Crozier as Microsoft Greater China boss

Microsoft is getting a new leader for its Greater China business. Yang Hou, a former senior vice president at Qualcomm, will take over Alain Crozier as the chairman and chief executive officer for Microsoft Greater China Region, says a company announcement released Monday.

After eight years at Qualcomm where he led sales and business development, Hou will spearhead strategy, sales and operation for Microsoft in the Greater China region. Hou was credited for achieving 3X revenue growth for Qualcomm’s semiconductor business and fostering partnerships in the smartphone, industrial and automotive industries in China, according to the announcement.

A native of northeast China, Hou had a five-year stint at McKinsey & Company after he graduated from the University of Michigan and Peking University.

Crozier joined Microsoft back in 1994 and will officially pass the torch to Hou in July. His next step is yet to be announced.

Crozier is resigning at a time when China is racing to outrace the U.S. as the global technology leader. The ongoing U.S.-China trade dispute has shaken the global supply chain, jacking up manufacturing costs for American hardware makers. Meanwhile, a number of legacy U.S. tech giants are scaling back their presence in China, where historically they have maintained research teams to better grasp the flourishing Chinese market.

In 2019, Oracle laid off hundreds of staff at its R&D center in China. Last year, IBM closed its R&D center in China after 25 years in part due to increased labor costs, former employees told TechCrunch.

The Microsoft counterpart, Microsoft Research Asia, is widely respected and regarded as the “West Point” for China’s artificial intelligence scientists. Famed alumni include ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming and the founder of autonomous driving unicorn Momenta.

Compared to its fame in China’s tech industry, Microsoft’s revenue in China is modest as a result of rampant piracy and competition. In a 2018 interview, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said 90% of companies in China were using the Microsoft operating system but only 1% were paying for it.

On the new business front, Microsoft has tried to peddle its Azure cloud computing product to Chinese enterprises but has so far been dwarfed by domestic players Alibaba, Tencent and Huawei.

China contributed less than 2% of Microsoft’s annual revenue, or around $2 billion, president Brad Smith said in January 2020.

Like other foreign tech firms operating in China, Microsoft is often caught in the middle between local authorities and speech advocates. Its professional social network LinkedIn and search engine Bing have both been criticized for censoring content considered sensitive by the Chinese government.

Singapore-based Raena gets $9M Series A for its pivot to skincare and beauty-focused social commerce

A photo of social commerce startup Raena’s team. From left to right: chief operating officer Guo Xing Lim, chief executive officer Sreejita Deb and chief commercial officer Widelia Liu

Raena’s team, from left to right: chief operating officer Guo Xing Lim, chief executive officer Sreejita Deb and chief commercial officer Widelia Liu

Raena was founded in 2019 to create personal care brands with top social media influencers. After several launches, however, the Singapore-based startup quickly noticed an interesting trend: customers were ordering batches of products from Raena every week and reselling them on social media and e-commerce platforms like Shopee and Tokopedia. Last year, the company decided to focus on those sellers, and pivoted to social commerce.

Today Raena announced it has raised a Series A of $9 million, co-led by Alpha Wave Incubation and Alpha JWC Ventures, with participation from AC Ventures and returning investors Beenext, Beenos and Strive. Its last funding announcement was a $1.82 million seed round announced in July 2019.

After interviewing people who were setting up online stores with products from Raena, the company’s team realized that sellers’ earnings potential was capped because they were paying retail prices for their inventory.

They also saw that the even though new C2C retail models, like social commerce, are gaining popularity, the beauty industry’s supply chain hasn’t kept up. Sellers usually need to order minimum quantities, which makes it harder for people to start their own businesses, Raena co-founder Sreejita Deb told TechCrunch,

“Basically, you have to block your capital upfront. It’s difficult for individual sellers or micro-enterpreneurs to work with the old supply chain and categories like beauty,” she said.

Raena decided to pivot to serve those entrepreneurs. The company provides a catalog that includes mostly Japanese and Korean skincare and beauty brands. For those brands, Raena represents a way to enter new markets like Indonesia, which the startup estimates has $20 billion market opportunity.

Raena resellers, who are mostly women between 18 to 34-years-old in Indonesia and Malaysia, pick what items they want to feature on their social media accounts. Most use TikTok or Instagram for promotion, and set up online stores on Shopee or Tokopedia. But they don’t have to carry inventory. When somebody buys a product from a Raena reseller, the reseller orders it from Raena, which ships it directly to the customer.

This drop-shipping model means resellers make higher margins. Since they don’t have to carry inventory, it also dramatically lowers the barrier to launching a small business. Even though Raena’s pivot to social commerce coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, Deb said it grew its revenue 50 times between January and December 2020. The platform now has more than 1,500 resellers, and claims a 60% seller retention rate after six months on the platform.

She attributes Raena’s growth to several factors, including the increase in online shopping during lockdowns and people looking for ways to earn additional income during the pandemic. While forced to stay at home, many people also began spending more time online, especially on the social media platforms that Raena resellers use.

Raena also benefited from its focus on skincare. Even though many retail categories, including color cosmetics, took a hit, skincare products proved resilient.

“We saw skincare had higher margins, and there are certain markets that are experts at formulating and producing skincare products, and demand for those products in other parts of the world,” she said, adding, “we’ve continued being a skincare company and because that is a category we had insight into, it was our first entry point into this social selling model as well. 90% of our sales are skincare. Our top-selling products are serums, toners, essences, which makes a lot of sense because people are in their homes and have more time to dedicate to their skincare routines.”

Social commerce, which allows people to earn a side income (or even a full-time income), by promoting products through social media, has taken off in several Asian markets. In China, for example, Pinduoduo has become a formidable rival to Alibaba through its group-selling model and focus on fresh produce. In India, Meesho resellers promote products through social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram.

Social commerce is also gaining traction in Southeast Asia, with gross merchandise value growing threefold during the first half of 2020, according to iKala.

Deb said one of the ways Raena is different from other social commerce companies is that most of its resellers are selling to customers they don’t know, instead of focusing on family and friends. Many already had TikTok or Instagram profiles focused on beauty and skincare, and had developed reputations for being knowledgeable about products.

As Raena develops, it plans to hire a tech team to build tools that will simplify the process of managing orders and also strike deals directly with manufacturers to increase profit margins for resellers. The funding will be used to increase its team from 15 to over 100 over the next three months, and it plans to enter more Southeast Asian markets.

Rainmaking launches Motion Ventures to boost innovation in the maritime industry

A new fund has launched, with backing from the Singaporean government, to support tech innovation for the maritime industry. Called Motion Ventures, it is targeting $30 million SGD (about $22.8 million USD) and has completed its first close, with Wilhelmsen, one of the world’s largest maritime networks, and logistics company HHLA as anchor investors.

Motion Ventures was launched by Rainmaking, the venture building and investment firm that runs accelerator program Startupbootcamp, and will jointly invest in startups with SEEDS Capital, the investment arm of government agency Enterprise Singapore.

SEEDS Capital announced in June 2020 that it plans to invest $50 million SGD in maritime startups, with the goal of creating more resilient supply chains and fixing issues underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shaun Hon, general partner at Motion Ventures and director at Rainmaking, told TechCrunch that the fund plans to invest in around 20 early-stage startups focused on AI, machine learning and automation, with check sizes ranging between $500,000 SGD to $2 million SGD.

“We’ve got our eyes on some of the maritime value chain’s biggest challenges including decarbonization, supply chain resilience and improving safety. In most cases, the technology to address the industry’s issues already exists, but the missing link is figuring out how to apply these solutions in the corporate context,” Hon said.

“That’s what Motion Ventures aims to address,” he added. “If we can bring a consortium of industry adopters together to connect with entrepreneurs early in the process, we’re setting everyone up with the best chance to succeed.”

In addition to capital, Motion Ventures plans to partner startups with well-established maritime firms like Wilhelmsen to help them commercialize and integrate their technology into supply chains. For mentorship, Motion Ventures’ startups will also have access to Ocean Ventures Alliance, which was launched by Rainmaking in November 2020, and now includes more than 40 maritime value chain industry leaders.

Twitter explored buying India’s ShareChat and turning Moj into a global TikTok rival

Twitter recently held talks to acquire Indian social media startup ShareChat as the company explored ways to expand its presence in the world’s second largest internet market and build a global rival to TikTok, three sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The American firm, which is already an investor in Bangalore-based ShareChat, offered to buy the Indian startup for $1.1 billion and had committed an additional investment of $900 million, two of the sources said.

The talks are no longer ongoing, two sources said, requesting anonymity as the matter is private. TechCrunch could not determine why the talks did not materialize into a deal.

Two sources said Twitter had expressed intention to take Moj, a short-form video app that ShareChat owns, to international markets and position it as a rival to Chinese app TikTok.

Twitter declined to comment and ShareChat did not respond to a request for comment.

India’s ban on TikTok last year prompted scores of local startups and international giants to try their hands at short-form video format.

Moj, with over 80 million users already, has emerged as one of the largest players in the category. Earlier this month, Snap inked a deal with ShareChat to integrate its Camera Kit into the Indian short video app. This is the first time Snap had formed a partnership of this kind with a firm in India.

With the buyout offer no longer being entertained, ShareChat has resumed talks with other investors for its new financing round. These investors include Google, Snap, the sources said.

TechCrunch reported in January that the Indian startup was talking to Google and Snap as well as some existing investors including Twitter to raise over $200 million. A potential acquisition by Twitter prolonged the investment talks.

ShareChat, which claims to have over 160 million users, offers its social network app in 15 Indian languages and has a large following in small Indian cities and towns, or what venture capitalist Sajith Pai of Blume Ventures refer as “India 2.” Very few players in the Indian startup ecosystem have a reach to this segment of this population, which thanks to users from even smaller towns and villages — called “India 3” — getting online has expanded in recent years.

In an interview with TechCrunch last year, Ankush Sachdeva, co-founder and chief executive of ShareChat, said the startup’s marquee app was growing “exponentially” and that users were spending, on an average, more than 30 minutes a day on the service.

Twitter, itself, has struggled to make inroads outside of bigger cities and towns in India. Its app reached about 75 million users in the country in the month of January, according to mobile insight firm AppAnnie, data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch. It inked a deal with news and social app Dailyhunt to bring Moments — curated tweets pertaining to news and other local events — to the Google-backed Indian app.

The American social network has broadened its product offering in the past year amid pressure from activist investors to accelerate growth.

India’s BharatPe valued at $900 million in new $108 million fundraise

India may soon have another fintech unicorn. BharatPe said on Thursday it has raised $108 million in a financing round that valued the New Delhi-based financial services startup at $900 million.

Coatue Management led the three-year-old startup’s Series D round. Other six existing institutional investors — Ribbit Capital, Insight Partners, Steadview Capital, Beenext, Amplo and Sequoia Capital — also participated in the round, which brings BharatPe’s total to-date raise to $233 million in equity and $35 million in debt.

The startup said as part of the new financing round it returned $17.17 million to its angel investors and employees with stock option.

“With the balance sheet well capitalized (more than US$ 200M in bank), we are now going to keep our heads down and deliver US$30B TPV and build a loan book of US$ 700mn with small merchants by March 2023,” said Ashneer Grover, co-founder and chief executive of BharatPe.

BharatPe operates an eponymous service to help offline merchants accept digital payments and secure working capital. Even as India has already emerged as the second largest internet market, with more than 600 million users, much of the country remains offline.

Among those outside of the reach of the internet are merchants running small businesses, such as roadside tea stalls and neighborhood stores. To make these merchants comfortable with accepting digital payments, BharatPe relies on QR codes and point of sale machines that support government-backed UPI payments infrastructure.

Scores of giants and startups are attempting to serve neighborhood stores in India.

The startup said it had deployed over 50,000 PoS machines by November of last year, and enables monthly transactions worth more than $123 million. It does not charge merchants for universal QR code access, but is looking to make money by lending. Grover said the startup’s lending business grew by 10x in 2020.

“This growth reiterates the trust that the small merchants and kirana store owners have showed in us. This is just the beginning of our journey and we are committed to build India’s largest B2B financial services company that can serve as one-stop destination for small merchants. For BharatPe, merchants will always be at the core of everything we build,” he said.

BharatPe’s growth is impressive especially because it was not the first startup to help merchants. In a recent report to clients, analysts at Bank of America said BharatPe has proven that fintech is not the winner takes all market.

“BharatPe perhaps has the late mover advantages in the space. It was one of the first companies to act as a universal consolidator of QR codes on UPI, giving the merchant the advantage to have one QR code (eventually others like Paytm followed). Unlike its Fintech peers, BharatPe is not educating the merchants but instead following its larger peers who have already educated the merchants,” they wrote in the report, reviewed by TechCrunch.

The startup, which has presence in 75 cities today, plans to further expand its network in the nation with the new fund.

Google-backed Dailyhunt and Josh’s parent firm raises over $100 million

VerSe Innovation, the parent firm of popular news and entertainment app Dailyhunt and short video app Josh, said on Monday it has raised over $100 million as part of a Series H financing round from Qatar Investment Authority and Glade Brook Capital Partners.

The announcement follows another $100 million+ investment the startup secured from Google, AlphaWave, and Microsoft in December last year. That tranche of investment, also part of Series H, had turned Dailyhunt into a unicorn (giving it a valuation of $1 billion or higher). The startup has to-date raised about $430 million.

Dailyhunt, co-run by Virendra Gupta and former Facebook India head Umang Bedi, is a popular news and entertainment app that serves more than 285 million users each day in 14 local languages in India. Its reach in India, the world’s second largest internet market, would explain why Twitter last month partnered with the Indian firm to bring Moments to Dailyhunt.

VerSe Innovation expanded to short form videos last year, with Josh, after New Delhi banned TikTok and created a theoretical void for snacking content in the country. Scores of large giants and startups — including MX Player and ShareChat — have attempted to try their hand at short form videos in the recent quarters.

Facebook launched Instagram Reels in India last year, and YouTube launched Shorts, which is already garnering over 3.5 billion daily views in India, it said last month. (With over 450 million users in India, YouTube is closing in on WhatsApp’s market lead in India.)

Josh appears to have emerged as one of the leading players: The startup says Josh has amassed over 85 million monthly active users — 40 million of whom check the app each day — and the app sees more than 1.5 billion video plays everyday.

Now the startup says it is exploring expansion into more categories and like with Dailyhunt and Josh, cater users in smaller cities and towns and eventually replicate this model in international markets.

India’s internet economy is expected to be worth $639 billion by 2030, analysts at Citi wrote in a report to clients late last month. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated digital adoption and users’ appetite to transact online, a report from analysts at UBS said last week.

India leads with Tier 2 cities comparable to Tier 1. Biggest catch up opportunity in Philippines and Vietnam (UBS)

“Josh represents a confluence of India’s top 200+ best creators, the 10 biggest music labels, 15+ million UGC creators, best in class content creation tools, the hottest entertainment formats, and formidable user demographics. Josh has been consistently rated as the leading Indian short-video app in India on the Play store,” the startup said in a statement.

The startup said it will deploy the fresh capital to broaden its local languages content offering, and expand its creators ecosystem and AI and ML tech stacks.

PayPal is shutting down domestic payments business in India

PayPal is shutting down its domestic business in India, less than four years after the American giant kickstarted local operations in the world’s second largest internet market.

“From 1 April 2021, we will focus all our attention on enabling more international sales for Indian businesses, and shift focus away from our domestic products in India. This means we will no longer offer domestic payment services within India from 1 April,” said a company spokesperson.

In a long statement, PayPal did not say why it was winding down its India business, but a report recently said the company, which has amassed over 360,000 merchants in the country, had failed to make inroads in India.

Indian news outlet The Morning Context reported in December that PayPal was abandoning its local payments business in India, a claim the company had refuted at the time.

Nonetheless, the move comes as a surprise. The company said last year that it was building a payments service powered by India’s UPI railroad, suggesting the level of investments it was making in the country.

PayPal had also partnered with a range of popular Indian businesses such as ticketing services BookMyShow and MakeMyTrip and food delivery platform Swiggy to offer a faster check out experience. At the time of writing, PayPal website in India appears to have removed all such references.

India has emerged as one of the world’s largest battlegrounds for mobile payments firms in recent years. Scores of heavily-backed firms including Paytm, PhonePe, Google, Amazon, and Facebook are competing among one another to increase their share in India, where the market is estimated to be worth $1 trillion by 2023. Several of these firms also offer a range of payments services for merchants.

The company, which says it processed $1.4 billion worth of international sales for merchants in India last year, added that it will continue to invest in “product development that enables Indian businesses to reach nearly 350 million PayPal consumers worldwide, increase their sales internationally, and help the Indian economy return to growth.” PayPal has been offering cross-border payments support in India for more than a decade.

As contactless menu ordering becomes the norm amid COVID, China pushes back

Digital ordering and paying at restaurants was already gaining much ground in China before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The tap-to-order method on a smartphone is part of the greater development in China where cash and physical documentation is increasingly being phased out. Many restaurants across large cities go as far as making digital menus mandatory, cutting staff costs.

Meanwhile, there has been pushback from the public and the authorities over aggressive digitization. An article published this week by People’s Daily, an official paper of the Chinese Communist Party, was titled: “Scan-to-order shouldn’t be the only option.”

Aside from harming consumers’ freedom of choice and removing the human interaction that diners might appreciate, mandatory smartphone use also raises concerns over data privacy. Ordering on a phone often requires access to a person’s profile on WeChat, Alipay, Meituan or other internet platforms enabling restaurants’ digital services. With that trove of data, businesses will go on to span users with ads.

“These approaches harm consumers’ data protection rights,” the People’s Daily quotes a senior personnel at the consumer rights unit of China Law Society, China’s official organization of legal academic professionals, as saying.

China has similarly targeted the ubiquity of cashless payments. In 2018, China’s central bank called rejecting cash as a form of payment “illegal” and “unfair” to those not accustomed to electronic payments, such as senior citizens.

The elderly also face a dilemma as digital health codes, which are normally generated by tracking people’s movement history using location data from SIM cards, becomes a norm amid the pandemic. Without a smartphone-enabled health pass, senior citizens could be turned away by bus drivers, subway station guards, restaurant staff and gatekeepers at other public venues.

To bridge the digital divide, the southern province of Guangdong recently began allowing citizens to check their health status by tapping their physical ID cards on designated scanners.

Cashless payment is an irreversible trend though. Between 2015 and 2020, the digital payments penetration rate amongst China’s mobile internet users went from less than 60% to over 85%, according to official data. Moreover, the government is hastening the pace to roll out digital yuan, which, unlike third-party payments methods, is issued and managed by the central bank and serves as the statutory, digital version of China’s physical currency.

English learning app ELSA lands $15 million Series B for international growth and its B2B platform

Speaking is one of the hardest parts of learning a new language, especially if you don’t have someone to practice with regularly. ELSA is an app that helps by using speech recognition technology to correct pronunciation. Based in San Francisco and Ho Chi Minh City, ELSA announced today it has raised a $15 million Series B, led by VI (Vietnam Investments) Group and SIG. Other participants included returning investors Google’s AI-focused fund Gradient Ventures, SOSV and Monk’s Hill Ventures, along with Endeavor Catalyst and Globant Ventures.

The capital will be used to expand ELSA’s operations in Latin America and build a scalable B2B platform, allowing companies and educational organizations to offers the app’s coaching services to employees or students. Founded in 2015, ELSA, which stands for English Language Speech Assistant, now claims more than 13 million users. Its last round of funding was a $7 million Series A announced in 2019.

In addition to Latin America, ELSA will also focus on expanding in Vietnam, India and Japan, where it saw high demand last year. The company recently formed a partnership with IDP and British Council, which owns the widely-used IELTS English language test and now recommends ELSA to for test preparation. ELSA is also working with language schools in Vietnam like IMAP and Speak Up, online learning platform YOLA and corporate clients including Kimberly Clark, Intel and ATAD.

ELSA co-founder and chief executive officer Vu Van told TechCrunch that many users want to improve their English speaking proficiency for job opportunities and to increase their earning potential. In Vietnam, India and Brazil, people with higher English speaking proficiency can earn about two to three times more than their colleagues, she said.

“This motivation drives a lot of demand for our English learner community in Vietnam, India and Brazil, especially during COVID-19 when we’ve seen enormous interest from the LatAm region as well,” Van added.

Smartphone with English pronunciation app ELSA open on it

ELSA’s English pronunciation feedback

In Vietnam, where Van is from, English learners spend a lot of their disposable income on online or offline English training. “However, the majority of English learners still struggle to improve their speaking skill because other people don’t understand them or they’re afraid to speak it,” she said. ELSA was designed to give them an accessible resource to help improve their pronunciation and confidence when speaking English.

Other apps focused on English pronunciation include FluentU and Say It. Van said one of ELSA’s main advantages is its proprietary voice recognition AI tech.

“What’s unique about our AI is that we’ve collected the largest amount of accented English voice data from millions of users that we have used to train our AI model over the last few years, which gives us a higher accuracy in recognizing and understanding non-native English speakers around the world,” she said. “The other existing voice recognition technologies available, by comparison, might understand native speakers well but have a hard time understanding non-native accented English learner communities.”

Instead of providing feedback about individual words, ELSA’s app also corrects individual sounds and gives users detailed information on how to improve their pronunciation, including “very advanced prosodic speaking features like intonation, rhythm and fluency to help them speak English more naturally, something that our competitors don’t offer,” Van added.

Huawei’s struggles hurt overall smartphone shipments in China, but rivals like Apple found new opportunities

The impact of United States government sanctions on Huawei is continuing to hurt the company and dampen overall smartphone shipments in China, where it is largest smartphone vendor, according to a new report by Canalys. But Huawei’s decline also opens new opportunities for its main rivals, including Apple.

Canalys says Apple’s performance in China during the fourth-quarter of 2020 was its best in years, thanks to the iPhone 11 and 12. Its full-year shipments returned to its 2018 levels, and it reached its highest quarterly shipments in China since the end of 2015, when the iPhone 6s was launched.

Overall, smartphone shipments in China fell 11% to about 330 million units in 2020, with market recovery hindered by Huawei’s inability to ship new units. Even though demand in China for Huawei devices remains high, the company has struggled to cope with sanctions imposed by the U.S. government under the Trump administration that banned it from doing business with American companies and drastically curtailed its ability to procure new chips.

In May 2020, Huawei rotating chairman Guo Ping said even though the firm can design some semiconductor components, like integrated circuits, it is “incapable of doing a lot of other things.”

This left Huawei unable to meet demand for its devices, but gives its main rivals new opportunities, wrote Canalys vice president of mobility Nicole Peng. “Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi are fighting to win over Huawei’s offline channel partners across the country, including small rural ones, backed by huge investments in store expansion and marketing support. These commitments brought immediate results, and market share improved within mere months.”

Apple benefited from Huawei’s decline because the company’s Mate series is the iPhone’s main rival in the high-end category, and only 4 million Mate units were shipped in the fourth quarter. “However, Apple has not relaxed its market promotions for iPhone 12,” wrote Canalys research analyst Amber Liu. “Aggressive online promotions across ecommerce players, coupled with widely available trade-in plans and interest-free installments with major banks, drove Apple to its stellar performance.”

During the fourth-quarter of 2020, smartphone shipments in mainland China fell 4% year-over-year to a total of 84 million units. Even though it held onto its number one position in terms of shipments, Huawei’s total market share plummeted to 22% from 41% a year earlier, and it shipped just 18.8 million smartphones, including units from budget brand Honor, which it agreed to sell in November.

Canalys' graph showing shipments by the top five smartphone vendors in China

Canalys’ graph showing shipments by the top five smartphone vendors in China

Huawei’s main competitors, on the other hand, all increased their shipments at the end of 2020. Oppo took second place, shipping 17.2 million smartphones, a 23% increase year-over-year. Oppo’s closest competitor Vivo increased its quarterly shipment to 15.7 million units. Apple shipped more than 15.3 million units, putting its market share at 18%, up from 15% a year ago. Xiaomi rounded out the top five vendors, shipping 12.2 million units, a 52% year-over-year increase.

Huawei’s decision to sell Honor means the brand may rapidly gain market share in 2021, since it already has brand recognition, wrote Peng. 5G is also expected to help smartphone shipments in China, especially for premium models.

ByteDance is cutting jobs in India amid prolonged TikTok ban

Chinese internet giant ByteDance has told employees in India that it is reducing the size of its team in the country after New Delhi retained ban on TikTok and other Chinese apps last week, a source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The company, which employs more than 2,000 people in India, shared the news with employees in the country at 10am local time and said only critical jobs will be retained in the country, the source, company, and an internal memo obtained by TechCrunch said. ByteDance said it was left with no choice after the Indian government, which banned its marquee app late June last year, had offered no clear direction on when TikTok could make return in the nation, the source said on the condition of anonymity.

“It is deeply regretful that after supporting our 2000+ employees in India for more than half a year, we have no choice but to scale back the size of our workforce. We look forward to receiving the opportunity to relaunch TikTok and support the hundreds of millions of users, artists, story-tellers, educators and performers in India,” a TikTok spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Prior to the ban, India was the biggest international market for TikTok.

TikTok CEO Vanessa Pappas and VP of Global Business Blake Chandlee shared more context about the move in a memo to India employees today. “We initially hoped that this situation would be short-lived, and that we would be able to resolve this quickly. Seven months later, we find that has not been the case. Many of you have patiently waited to hear how this would play out, which has been very stressful. Thank you for your continued belief and trust in us,” they wrote.

“As you can imagine, a decision of this magnitude is not easy. For the last several months, our management team has worked tirelessly to avoid having to separate anyone from the company. We’ve cut expenses, while still paying benefits. However, we simply cannot responsibly stay fully staffed while our apps remain un-operational. We are fully aware of the impact that this decision has for all of our employees in India, and we empathize with our team.”

Today’s move caps some of the strangest and confusing months for ByteDance employees in India. Following the ban, the employees were told to focus on developing a range of other apps from the Chinese giant such as the productivity suite Lark that had not been blocked in India.

But they were asked to not talk about these apps in the public to avoid putting risk of other ByteDance properties also getting the limelight. The source said ByteDance also stopped all marketing efforts in India to promote its other services in the country.

“While we don’t know when we will make a comeback in India, we are confident in our resilience, and desire to do so in times to come,” Pappas and Chandlee wrote in the memo.

This is breaking news. Check back for more information.

JustKitchen is using cloud kitchens to create the next generation of restaurant franchising

JustKitchen operates cloud kitchens, but the company goes beyond providing cooking facilities for delivery meals. Instead, it sees food as a content play, with recipes and branding instead of music or shows as the content, and wants to create the next iteration of food franchises. JustKitchen currently operates its “hub and spoke” model in Taiwan, with plans to expand four other Asian markets, including Hong Kong and Singapore, and the United States this year.

Launched last year, JustKitchen currently offers 14 brands in Taiwan, including Smith & Wollensky and TGI Fridays. Ingredients are first prepped in a “hub” kitchen, before being sent to smaller “spokes” for final assembly and pickup by delivery partners, including Uber Eats and FoodPanda. To reduce operational costs, spokes are spread throughout cities for quicker deliveries and the brands each prepares is based on what is ordered most frequently in the area.

In addition to licensing deals, JustKitchen also develops its own brands and performs research and development for its partners. To enable that, chief operating officer Kenneth Wu told TechCrunch that JustKitchen is moving to a more decentralized model, which means its hub kitchens will be used primarily for R&D, and production at some of its spoke kitchens will be outsourced to other food vendors and manufacturers. The company’s long-term plan is to license spoke operation to franchisees, while providing order management software and content (i.e. recipes, packaging and branding) to maintain consistent quality.

Demand for meal and grocery deliveries increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, this means food deliveries made up about 13% of the restaurant market in 2020, compared to the 9% forecast before the pandemic, according to research firm Statista, and may rise to 21% by 2025.

But on-demand food delivery businesses are notoriously expensive to operate, with low margins despite markups and fees. By centralizing food preparation and pickup, cloud kitchens (also called ghost kitchens or dark kitchens) are supposed to increase profitability while ensuring standardized quality. Not surprisingly, companies in the space have received significant attention, including former Uber chief executive officer Travis Kalanick’s CloudKitchens, Kitchen United and REEF, which recently raised $1 billion led by SoftBank.

Wu, whose food delivery startup Milk and Eggs was acquired by GrubHub in 2019, said one of the main ways JustKitchen differentiates is by focusing on operations and content in addition to kitchen infrastructure. Before partnering with restaurants and other brands, JustKitchen meets with them to design a menu specifically for takeout and delivery. Once a menu is launched, it is produced by JustKitchen instead of the brands, who are paid royalties. For restaurants that operate only one brick-and-mortar location, this gives them an opportunity to expand into multiple neighborhoods and cities (or countries, when JustKitchen begins its international expansion) simultaneously, a new take on the franchising model for the on-demand delivery era.

One of JustKitchen's delivery meals, with roast chicken and vegetables

One of JustKitchen’s delivery meals

Each spoke kitchen puts the final touches on meal before handing them to delivery partners. Spoke kitchens are smaller than hubs, closer to customers, and the goal is to have a high revenue to square footage ratio.

“The thesis in general is how do you get economies of scale or a large volume at the hub, or the central kitchen where you’re making it, and then send it out deep into the community from the spokes, where they can do a short last-mile delivery,” said Wu.

JustKitchen says it can cut industry standard delivery times by half, and that its restaurant partners have seen 40% month on month growth. It also makes it easier for delivery providers like Uber Eats to stack orders, which means having a driver pick up three or four orders at a time for separate addresses. This reduces costs, but is usually only possible at high-volume restaurants, like fast food chain locations. Since JustKitchen offers several brands in one spoke, this gives delivery platforms more opportunities to stack orders from different brands.

In addition to partnerships, JustKitchen also develops its own food brands, using data analytics from several sources to predict demand. The first source is its own platform, since customers can order directly from Just Kitchen. It also gets high-level data from delivery partners that lets them see food preferences and cart sizes in different regions, and uses general demographic data from governments and third-party providers with information about population density, age groups, average income and spending. This allows it to plan what brands to launch in different locations and during different times of the day, since JustKitchen offers breakfast, lunch and dinner.

JustKitchen is incorporated in Canada, but launched in Taiwan first because of its population density and food delivery’s popularity. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, food delivery penetration in the U.S. and Europe was below 20%, but in Taiwan, it was already around 30% to 40%, Wu said. The new demand for food delivery in the U.S. “is part of the new norm and we believe that is not going away,” he added. JustKitchen is preparing to launch in Seattle and several Californian cities, where it already has partners and kitchen infrastructure.

“Our goal is to focus on software and content, and give franchisees operations so they have a turnkey franchise to launch immediately,” said Wu. “We have the content and they can pick whatever they want. They have software to integrate, recipes and we do the food manufacturing and sourcing to control quality, and ultimately they will operate the single location.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Harsh Upadhyay (@upadhyay_harsh1) October 13, 2020

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

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

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

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

Yo-Kai Express' smart home cooking appliance Takumi

Yo-Kai Express’ smart home cooking appliance Takumi

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

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

Despite PR storm, Pinduoduo stock and downloads stay robust

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

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

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

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

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

Pinduoduo cannot be immediately be reached for comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sony to launch PlayStation 5 in India on February 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TechCrunch has contacted Samsung for comment.

Tencent backs Chinese healthcare portal DXY in $500M round

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Company business operations remain normal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Product changes

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

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

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

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

MuRIL

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

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

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

MuRIL supports 16 Indian languages and English.

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

More to follow…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TripAdvisor shares drop following China app ban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Alibaba and JD.com compare in their healthcare endeavors

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

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

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

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

Revenue

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

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

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

Profitability

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

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

Active users

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

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

Doctor resources

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

PhonePe raises $700 million, becomes a separate entity

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to follow…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TechCrunch has contacted SMIC for comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TechCrunch has contacted ZTE for comment.

The promise and challenge of Roblox’s future in China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reliance Retail buys Urban Ladder for $24.4 million

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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