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Alibaba acquires NetEase Kaola in deal worth $2 billion

Alibaba Group has acquired NetEase Kaola for $2 billion, the two companies said today, and will integrate it into Tmall, creating the largest cross-border e-commerce platform in China. The announcement follows weeks of media reports about a potential deal, which was said to have stalled in the middle of August after the companies reportedly disagreed on transaction details.

Tmall Import and Export general manager Alvin Liu has been named as Kaola’s new CEO, replacing Zhang Lei, but Kaola will continue to operate independently under its own brand.

Tmall Global and Kaola are China’s largest and second-largest cross-border e-commerce platforms, respectively, holding 31.7% and 24.5% of the market, and their union means they will create a business that will far outstrip in size rivals like JD Worldwide, VIP International and Amazon China. (Earlier this year, NetEase was reportedly in talks to merge Kaola with Amazon China).

Alibaba and Yunfeng, the investment firm launched by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, also agreed to invest $700 million into NetEase Cloud Music’s latest funding round. This will give Alibaba a minority stake in the streaming music service, with NetEase remaining its controlling shareholder.

In a press release, NetEase CEO William Ding said “We are pleased to have found a strategic fit for Kaola within Alibaba’s extensive ecosystem, where Kaola will continue to provide Chinese consumers with high-quality import products and services. At the same time, the completion of this strategic transaction will allow NetEase to focus on its growth strategy, investing in markets that allow us to best leverage our competitive advantages.”

Daniel Zhang, Alibaba Group’s CEO, said “Alibaba is confidence about the future of China’s import e-commerce market, which we believe remains in its infancy with great growth potential.”

WeChat restricts controversial video face-swapping app Zao, citing “security risks”

Zao went viral in China this weekend for its realistic face-swapping videos, but after controversy about its policies, WeChat restricted access to the app on its messaging platform.

Developed by a unit of Momo, one of China’s most popular dating apps, Zao creates videos that replace the faces of celebrities in scenes from popular movies, shows and music videos with a selfie uploaded by the user.

The app, currently available only in China, went viral as users shared their videos through WeChat and other social media platforms in China. But concerns about the potential misuse of deepfake technology coupled with a clause (now deleted) in Zao’s terms of use that gave it full ownership and copyright to content uploaded or created on it, in addition to “completely free, irrevocable, perpetual, transferrable, and re-licensable rights,” caused controversy.

In case you haven’t heard, #ZAO is a Chinese app which completely blew up since Friday. Best application of ‘Deepfake’-style AI facial replacement I’ve ever seen.

Here’s an example of me as DiCaprio (generated in under 8 secs from that one photo in the thumbnail) 🤯pic.twitter.com/1RpnJJ3wgT

— Allan Xia (@AllanXia) September 1, 2019

By going viral quickly and being very easy to use (Zao’s videos can be generated from a single selfie, though it suggests that users upload photos from several angles for better results), the app has also focused more attention on deepfake technology and how it can potentially be used to spread misinformation or harass people.

Users can still upload videos they created with Zao to WeChat, but if they try to download the app or send an invite link to another WeChat user, a message is displayed that says “this web page has been reported multiple times and contains security risks. To maintain a safe online environment, access to this page has been blocked.”23011567479434 .pic

Zao was released last Friday and quickly became the top free iOS app in China, according to App Annie. A statement posted on Sept. 1 to Zao’s Weibo account says “we completely understand everybody’s concerns about the privacy issue. We are aware of the issue and we are thinking about how to fix the problems, we need a little time.” Its terms and conditions now say user-generated content will only be used by the company to improve the app and that all deleted content will be removed from its servers.

TechCrunch has contacted Zao for comment.

The Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association warns that restricting online access would be ruinous for the region

After Hong Kong’s leader suggested she may invoke emergency powers that could potentially include limiting Internet access, one of city’s biggest industry groups warned that “any such restrictions, however slight originally, would start the end of the open Internet of Hong Kong.”

While talking to reporters on Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam suggested the government may use the Emergency Regulations Ordinance in response to ongoing anti-government demonstrations. The law, which has not been used in more than half a century, would give the government a sweeping array of powers, including the ability to restrict or censor publications and communications. In contrast to China’s “Great Firewall” and routine government censorship of internet services, Hong Kong’s internet is currently open and mostly unrestricted, with the exception of laws to prevent online crime, copyright infringements and the spread of obscene material like child pornography.

In an “urgent statement” addressed to Hong Kong’s Executive Council, the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association (HKISPA) said that because of technology like VPNs, the cloud and cryptographies, the only way to “effectively and meaningfully block any services” would entail putting all of Hong Kong’s internet behind a large-scale surveillance firewall. The association added that this would have huge economic and social consequences and deter international organizations from doing business in Hong Kong.

Furthermore, restricting the internet in Hong Kong would also have implications in the rest of the region, including in mainland China, the HKISPA added. There are currently 18 international cable systems that land, or will land, in Hong Kong, making it a major telecommunications hub. Blocking one application means users will move onto another application, creating a cascading effect that will continue until all of Hong Kong is behind a firewall, the association warned.

In its statement, the HKISPA wrote that “the lifeline of Hong Kong’s Internet industry relies in large part on the open network,” adding “Hong Kong is the largest core node of Asia’s optical fiber network and hosts the biggest Internet exchange in the region, and it is now home to 100+ data centers operated by local and international companies, and it transits 80%+ of traffic for mainland China.”

“All these successes rely on the openness of Hong Kong’s network,” the HKISPA continued. “Such restrictions imposed by executive orders would completely ruin the uniqueness and value of Hong Kong as a telecommunications hub, a pillar of success as an international financial centre.”

The HKISPA urged the government to consult the industry and “society at large” before placing any restrictions in place. “The HKISPA strongly opposes selective blocking of Internet Services without consensus of the community,” it said.

More than 130 U.S. companies have reportedly applied to sell to Huawei, but the Commerce Department has approved none of them

Trump said in July that some U.S. suppliers would be allowed to sell to Huawei while it remains blacklisted, but so far no vendors have been allowed to do so. Reuters reports that more than 130 applications have been submitted by companies that want to do business with Huawei, but the U.S. Commerce Department has not approved any of them yet.

Huawei has served as a bargaining chip in the U.S.-China trade war, which escalated again last week when Trump said he would adds tariffs to $550 billion worth of Chinese imports, after China said it would impose duties of $75 billions on U.S. goods. Trump’s mixed signals during this weekend’s G7 summit also created confusion on Wall Street.

When both presidents met at the G20 Summit in June, Donald Trump told Chinese leader Xi Jinping that he would allow some American companies to sell to Huawei, even though it remains on the Commerce Department’s Entity List. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said the Commerce Department would begin accepting applications again, requiring companies to prove that the tech they sell to Huawei would not pose a national security risk.

But one of the reasons no licenses have been granted yet is because the Commerce Department is unclear about what it is supposed to do. Former Commerce department official William Reinsch told Reuters that “nobody in the executive branch knows what [Trump] wants and they’re all afraid to make a decision without knowing that.”

In addition to providing telecom equipment, Huawei is an important customer for many U.S. tech firms, including Qualcomm, Intel and Micron. Out of the $70 billion in parts it bought last year, $11 billion of that went to U.S. suppliers. The U.S. claims Huawei is a national security risk, a charge the company has repeatedly denied.

China’s Transsion and Kenya’s Wapi Capital partner on Africa fund

Chinese mobile-phone and device maker Transsion is teaming up with Kenya’s Wapi Capital to source and fund early-stage African fintech startups.

Headquartered in Shenzhen, Transsion is a top-seller of smartphones in Africa that recently confirmed its imminent IPO.

Wapi Capital is the venture fund of Kenyan fintech startup Wapi Pay—a Nairobi based company that facilitates digital payments between African and Asia via mobile money or bank accounts.

Investments for the new partnership will come from Transsion’s Future Hub, an incubator and seed fund for African startups opened by Transsion in 2019.

Starting September 2019, Transsion will work with Wapi Capital to select early-stage African fintech companies for equity-based investments of up to $100,000, Transsion Future Hub Senior Investor Laura Li told TechCrunch via email.

Wapi Capital won’t contribute funds to Transsion’s Africa investments, but will help determine the viability and scale of the startups, including due diligence and deal flow, according to Wapi Pay co-founder Eddie Ndichu.

Wapi Pay and Transsion Future Hub will consider ventures from all 54 African countries and interested startups can reach out directly to either organization, Ndichu and Li confirmed.

The Wapi Capital fintech partnership is not Transsion’s sole VC focus in Africa. Though an exact fund size hasn’t been disclosed, the Transsion Future Hub will also make startup investments on the continent in adtech, fintech, e-commerce, logistics, and media and entertainment, according to Li.

Transsion Future Hub’s existing portfolio includes Africa focused browser company Phoenix, content aggregator Scoop, and music service Boomplay.

Wapi Capital adds to the list of African located and run venture funds—which have been growing in recent years—according to a 2018 study by TechCrunch and Crunchbase. Wapi Capital will also start making its own investments and is looking to raise $1 million this year and $10 million over the next three years, according to Ndichu, who co-founded the fund and Wapi Pay with his twin brother Paul.

Transsion’s commitment to African startup investments comes as the company is on the verge of listing on China’s new Nasdaq-style STAR Market tech exchange. Transsion confirmed to TechCrunch this month the IPO is in process and that it could raise up to 3 billion yuan (or $426 million).

Transsion sold 124 million phones globally in 2018, per company data. In Africa, Transsion holds 54% of the feature phone market — through its brands Tecno, Infinix and Itel — and in smartphone sales is second to Samsung and before Huawei, according to International Data Corporation stats.

Transsion has R&D centers in Nigeria and Kenya and its sales network in Africa includes retail shops in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Egypt. The company also has a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia.

Transsion’s move into venture investing tracks greater influence from China in African tech.

China’s engagement with African startups has been light compared to China’s deal-making on infrastructure and commodities.

Transsion’s Wapi Pay partnership is the second recent event — after Chinese owned Opera’s big venture spending in Nigeria — to reflect greater Chinese influence and investment in the continent’s digital scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Through a new partnership and $72 million in funding, LanzaTech expands its carbon capture tech

For nearly fifteen years LanzaTech has been developing a carbon capture technology that can turn waste streams into ethanol that can be used for chemicals and fuel.

Now, with $72 million in fresh funding at a nearly $1 billion valuation and a newly inked partnership with biotechnology giant, Novo Holdings, the company is looking to expand its suite of products beyond ethanol manufacturing, thanks, in part, to the intellectual property held by Novozymes (a Novo Holdings subsidiary).

“We are learning how to modify our organisms so they can make things other than ethanol directly,” said LanzaTech chief executive officer, Jennifer Holmgren.

From its headquarters in Skokie, Ill., where LanzaTech relocated in 2014 from New Zealand, the biotechnology company has been plotting ways to reduce carbon emissions and create a more circular manufacturing system. That’s one where waste gases and solid waste sources that were previously considered to be un-recyclable are converted into chemicals by LanzaTech’s genetically modified microbes.

The company already has a commercial manufacturing facility in China, attached to a steel plant operated by the Shougang Group, which produces 16 million gallons of ethanol per-year. LanzaTech’s technology pipes the waste gas into a fermenter, which is filled with genetically modified yeast that uses the carbon dioxide to produce ethanol. Another plant, using a similar technology is under construction in Europe.

Through a partnership with Indian Oil, LanzaTech is working on a third waste gas to ethanol using a different waste gas taken from a Hydrogen plant.

The company has also inked early deals with airlines like Virgin in the UK and ANA in Japan to make an ethanol-based jet fuel for commercial flight. And a third application of the technology is being explored in Japan which takes previously un-recyclable waste streams from consumer products and converts that into ethanol and polyethylene that can be used to make bio-plastics or bio-based nylon fabrics.

Through the partnership with Novo Holdings, LanzaTech will be able to use the company’s technology to expand its work into other chemicals, according to chief executive Jennifer Holmgren. “We are making product to sell into that [chemicals market] right now. We are taking ethanol and making products out of it. Taking ethylene and we will make polyethylene and we will make PET to substitute for fiber.”

Holmgren said that LanzaTech’s operations were currently reducing carbon dioxide emissions by the equivalent of taking 70,000 cars off the road.

“LanzaTech is addressing our collective need for sustainable fuels and materials, enabling industrial players to be part of building a truly circular economy,” said Anders Bendsen Spohr, Senior Director at Novo Holdings, in a statement. “Novo Holdings’ investment underlines our commitment to supporting the bio-industrials sector and, in particular, companies that are developing cutting-edge technology platforms. We are excited to work with the LanzaTech team and look forward to supporting the company in its next phase of growth.”

Holmgren said that the push into new chemicals by LanzaTech is symbolic of a resurgence of industrial biotechnology as one of the critical pathways to reducing carbon emissions and setting industry on a more sustainable production pathway.

“Industrial biotechnology ca unlock the utility of a lot of waste carbon emissions. ” said Holmgren. “[Municipal solid waste] is an urban oil field. And we are working to find new sources of sustainable carbon.”

LanzaTech isn’t alone in its quest to create sustainable pathways for chemical manufacturing. Solugen, an upstart biotechnology company out of Houston, is looking to commercialize the bio-production of hydrogen peroxide. It’s another chemical that’s at the heart of modern industrial processes — and is incredibly hazardous to make using traditional methods.

As the world warms, and carbon emissions continue to rise, it’s important that both companies find pathways to commercial success, according to Holmgren.

“It’s going to get much much worse if we don’t do anything,” she said.

Didi Chuxing and oil giant BP team up to build electric vehicle charging infrastructure in China

Ride-sharing and transportation platform Didi Chuxing announced today that it has formed a joint venture with BP, the British gas, oil and energy supermajor. to build electric vehicle charging infrastructure in China. The charging stations will be available to Didi and non-Didi drivers.

The news of Didi and BP’s joint venture comes one week after Didi announced that it had received funding totaling $600 million from Toyota Motor Corporation. As part of that deal, Didi and Toyota Motor set up a joint venture with GAC Toyota Motor to provide vehicle-related services to Didi drivers.

BP’s first charging site in Guangzhou has already been connected to XAS (Xiaoju Automobile Solutions), which Didi spun out in April 2018 to put all its vehicle-related services into one platform.

XAS is part of Didi Chuxing’s evolution from a ride-sharing company to a mobility services platform, with its services available to other car, transportation and logistics companies. In June, Didi also opened its ride-sharing platform to other companies, enabling its users to request rides from third-party providers in a bid to better compete with apps like Meituan Dianping and AutoNavi, which aggregate several ride-hailing services on their platforms.

Didi says it now offers ride-sharing, vehicle rental and delivery services to 550 million users and covers 1,000 cities through partnerships with Grab, Lyft, Ola, 99 and Bolt (Taxify). The company also claims to be the world’s largest electric vehicle operator with more than 600,000 EVs on its platform.

It also has partnerships with automakers and other car-related companies like Toyota, FAW, Dongfeng, GAC, Volkswagen and Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi to collaborate on a platform that uses new energy, AI-based and mobility technologies.

In a press statement, Tufan Erginbilgic, the CEO of BP’s Downstream business, said “As the world’s largest EV market, China offers extraordinary opportunities to develop innovative new businesses at scale and we see this as the perfect partnership for such a fast-evolving environment. The lessons we learn here will help us further expand BP’s advanced mobility business worldwide, helping drive the energy transition and develop solutions for a low carbon world.”

Joy Capital closes $700M for early-stage investments in China

Joy Capital, the venture capital firm that’s backed Luckin, NIO, Mobike and other investor darlings in China, just raised $700 million for a new fund focusing on early-to-growth stage startups.

Launched in 2015 by a team of former investors at Legend Capital, the investment arm of PC maker Lenovo’s parent company, Joy Capital made the news official (in Chinese) on Monday. It didn’t identify the limited partners in this new corpus of funding but said they include “top” public pension funds and insurance companies. Its existing pool of investors counts those from sovereign wealth funds, education-focused endowment funds, family funds and parent funds.

The fresh money boosted Joy’s total tally to over 10 billion yuan ($1.45 billion) under management, with a focus on backing cutting edge technologies and companies involved in the digital upgrade of China’s traditional sectors, or what Joy’s founding partner Liu Erhai (pictured above) dubbed the “new infrastructure” in an op-ed for the China Securities Journal. Targets can include the likes of logistics companies, online car rental platforms or bike-sharing apps.

As a relatively young fund, Joy Capital has so far achieved a few large outcomes. One of its portfolio companies NIO became China’s first electric vehicle startup to go public in the U.S. as a rival to Tesla. It’s also funded Luckin, the Starbucks nemesis from China that floated in the U.S. only 18 months after inception. The fund’s other big wins include Mobike, the bike-sharing pioneer that was sold to Meituan Dianping for $2.7 billion and fast-growing house-sharing unicorn Danke Apartment.

Joy Capital’s new raise arrived at a time when Chinese venture investors are coping with a cash crunch amid a cooling economy exacerbated by the expansion of U.S. tariffs. We reported that private equity and venture capital firms in the country raised 30% less in the first six months of 2019 compared to a year earlier, and the number of investors that managed to attract fundings was down 52% in the same period.

Alibaba to help Salesforce localize and sell in China

Salesforce, the 20-year-old leader in customer relationship management (CRM) tools, is making a foray into Asia by working with one of the country’s largest tech firms, Alibaba.

Alibaba will be the exclusive provider of Salesforce to enterprise customers in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, and Salesforce will become the exclusive enterprise CRM software suite sold by Alibaba, the companies announced on Thursday.

The Chinese internet has for years been dominated by consumer-facing services such as Tencent’s WeChat messenger and Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace, but enterprise software is starting to garner strong interest from businesses and investors. Workflow automation startup Laiye, for example, recently closed a $35 million funding round led by Cathay Innovation, a growth-stage fund that believes “enterprise software is about to grow rapidly” in China.

The partners have something to gain from each other. Alibaba does not have a Salesforce equivalent serving the raft of small-and-medium businesses selling through its e-commerce marketplaces or using its cloud computing services, so the alliance with the American cloud behemoth will fill that gap.

On the other hand, Salesforce will gain sales avenues in China through Alibaba, whose cloud infrastructure and data platform will help the American firm “offer localized solutions and better serve its multinational customers,” said Ken Shen, vice president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence, in a statement.

“More and more of our multinational customers are asking us to support them wherever they do business around the world. That’s why today Salesforce announced a strategic partnership with Alibaba,” said Salesforce in a statement.

Overall, only about 10% of Salesforce revenues in the three months ended April 30 originated from Asia, compared to 20% from Europe and 70% from the Americas.

Besides gaining client acquisition channels, the tie-up also enables Salesforce to store its China-based data at Alibaba Cloud. China requires all overseas companies to work with a domestic firm in processing and storing data sourced from Chinese users.

“The partnership ensures that customers of Salesforce that have operations in the Greater China area will have exclusive access to a locally-hosted version of Salesforce from Alibaba Cloud, who understands local business, culture and regulations,” an Alibaba spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Cloud has been an important growth vertical at Alibaba and nabbing a heavyweight ally will only strengthen its foothold as China’s biggest cloud service provider. Salesforce made some headway in Asia last December when it set up a $100 million fund to invest in Japanese enterprise startups and the latest partnership with Alibaba will see the San Francisco-based firm actually go after customers in Asia.

China plans e-cigarette regulation as industry booms

China is taking steps to regulate its blossoming vaping market as health concerns over electronic cigarettes increase in recent times.

China’s National Health Commission has begun research into e-cigarettes and plans to issue legislation for the industry, said the head of the health authority Mao Qunan at a press conference this week. The attempt came as Chinese e-cigarette startups raised loads of venture capital over the past year in their fight to vie for attention in the world’s largest market of smokers.

Vaping suppliers in China range from little-known workshops that have come under legal attack from industry giant Juul, which is reportedly mulling a China entry itself, to venture-backed startups operating out of manufacturing hub Shenzhen. At least 20 e-cigarette companies in China have raised fundings since the beginning of 2019, according to data collected by Crunchbase.

These players are in effect up against state monopoly China Tobacco, which is the world’s biggest cigarette maker and provides the government with colossal tax revenues.

Some researchers support the use of vaping to help adults quit smoking while others have shown that e-cigarettes are just as addictive as traditional ones. The other major controversy is the growing use of e-cigarettes among teenagers, which has led to California’s plan to ban vaping product sales.

China is also applying more scrutiny to the new smoking technology. Research shows that the aerosol produced by heating up e-cigarettes can contain “a lot of harmful substances” and additives in e-cigarettes can “pose health risks,” said Mao. He also noted that equivocal labeling of nicotine level can misguide smokers and sloppy device standards can result in battery explosion and other safety incidents.

Like the U.S., China has seen a worryingly high vaping rate among young people, which is another reason that urges Beijing to hold the industry in check. The use of e-cigarettes by kids, teens and young adults has been proven unsafe because nicotine, which is highly addictive, can harm brain development.

In May, China drew up a set of standards (in Chinese) for e-cigarettes that specify the level of nicotine, the type of additives and other components and designs allowed in battery-powered cigarette devices.

China’s new Nasdaq-style board for tech shares starts trading with 25 companies listed

Trading on China’s new Nasdaq-style stock market began today, with 25 tech companies listed on the Science and Technology Innovation Board, operated by the Shanghai Stock Market. Called the STAR Market, the board is an initiative by the government to encourage more Chinese tech companies to list domestically by addressing concerns about governance.

Traders cautioned that initial trading may be volatile as investors buy and trade stocks, however, and that warning was borne out today with trading by several companies paused after a surge of buying triggered their circuit breakers, or measures put into place that temporarily halt buying and selling to prevent stock crashes.

Plans for the STAR Market were announced in November as part of the Chinese government’s efforts to launch capital market reforms and make listing in mainland China more appealing to tech companies by easing profitability requirements. Some of the highest-profile Chinese tech IPOs, including Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi, JD.com and Pinduoduo, have taken place in New York City or Hong Kong, and the STAR Market may encourage more local stock debuts and investment—a goal that holds especially high stakes as China’s trade war with the U.S. continues.

But CNBC notes that the success of the STAR Market is far from a sure thing, since China has launched two other equity markets (the ChiNext in 009 and the New Third Board in 2013) that still receive far less attention than its two primary stock exchanges in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Hellobike, survivor of China’s bike-sharing craze, goes electric

Just two years ago, investors were heavily pouring money into China’s dockless bike-sharing startups. Now that boom has busted with derelict bikes littering the streets of cities.

Meanwhile, a new race has started for two-wheelers with motors — and one of the main players is a survivor from the bike-sharing craze. Blessed with fundings from the world’s most valuable fintech company Ant Financial through its Series D to F funding rounds, Hellobike provides a range of mobility services such as shared e-bikes and rented electric scooters to its 230 million registered users.

Electric push

Hellobike first launched in 2016 by deploying shared bikes in smaller cities and towns — where Ofo and Mobike were largely absent early on — rather than large urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai. This allowed Hellobike to largely avoid the cash splurging competition against Ofo and Mobike.

Ofo is now battling a major financial crisis as it struggles to repay user deposits. Its archrival Mobike has slowed down expansion since it was sold to Hong Kong-listed local services giant Meituan. And Hellobike, which boasts about its operational efficiency, has begun an electric push.

“When the two major powers were at war, neither of them went after electric bikes. They were fighting over bicycles,” Hellobike’s chief financial officer Fischer Chen (pictured above) recently told TechCrunch at Rise conference in Hong Kong, referring to the feud between Mobike and Ofo. “As such, there was no price war for e-bikes from the outset. The competition is rational.”

Electric two-wheeled vehicles are in high demand in the country where nearly 1.4 billion people live. According to data collected by Hellobike, nearly 300 million rides are completed on analog bikes every day in China. What many don’t realize is that pedal-assist electric bikes and pedal-free scooters together more than double that number, generating 700 million rides per day.

As with bicycles, there are benefits to rent rather than buy an electric bike in China. For one, users don’t need to worry about getting their assets stolen. Second — and, this is specific to electric vehicles — finding a safe, convenient charging spot can be a challenge in China.

That’s why Hellobike put up charging stations as it went about offering shared ebikes in 2017. At these kiosks, riders swap their battery out for a new one without having to plug in and wait. They then have the option to pay with Alipay, Ant’s mobile wallet with a one-billion user base.

hellobike

Hellobike’s bike (left and middle) and e-bike (right) models / Photo: Hellobike via Weibo

Of all the monthly two-wheeler electric bikes activity in China, Hellobike has captured 80% of the market share, Chen claims. For bike-sharing, it accounts for 60-70%. It’s hard to verify the share by looking at data compiled by third-party app trackers, for they don’t usually break out the user number for individual features. The Hellobike app is a one-stop-shop for bicycles, e-bikes, e-scooters as well as carpooling, a service complementary to its main two-wheeler business intended to “capture price-sensitive small-town consumers” according to Chen.

Similarly, Mobike has been folded into Meituan’s all-in-one service app. What further complicates the inquiry is some of Hellobike’s rides are accessed directly on Alipay rather than its own app.

When it comes to competition in electric two-wheelers, Chen maintained that other challengers are “relatively small” and that acquiring online users has become “very difficult.” For Hellobike, getting existing customers to try out new features takes as much effort as “adding a new tab to its app,” Chen suggested.

But other internet giants have also set their sight on plugged-in micromobility. Both Mobike and ride-sharing leader Didi Chuxing have their own e-bike sharing programs. It won’t be an easy game, as all contenders need to cope with China’s increasingly strict rules for electric bicycles.

Scooter rental is next

What’s for certain is that Hellobike has big ambitions for electric micromobility. While shared bikes and e-bikes are meant for one-off uses, Hellobike plans to rent out e-scooters for longer swathes of time as many people might want the powered-up vehicles for their daily commute.

hellobike

Hellobike’s electric scooter. Caption: “App-enabled lock. Smart anti-theft. Real-time location tracking for checking the vehicle’s status.” / Photo: Hellobike homepage  

Hellobike founded a new joint venture last month to fulfill that demand. Joining forces with Ant — which is controlled by Alibaba founder Jack Ma — and China’s top battery manufacturer CATL, Hellobike is launching a rental marketplace for its 25 km/h e-scooters targeted at millions of migrant workers in Chinese cities.

“People might be able to afford an e-scooter that costs several thousand yuan [$1 = 6.88yuan], but they might be leaving the city after a year, so why would they buy it? So we come in as a third-party partner with a new rental model through which people pay about 200 yuan a month to use the scooter,” explained Chen. “By doing so, we convert people from buying vehicles to paying for services, renting the vehicles.”

The three shareholders will also work to install more battery-swapping stations nationwide that not only recharge Hellobike’s shared e-bikes but also its e-scooters, that will be made by manufacturing partners.

“We function as a platform and won’t compete with traditional scooter manufacturers,” suggested Chen. “They still get to use their own designs and SKUs [stock keeping units], but we will put smart hardware into their models… so users know where their vehicles are… and they can unlock the scooters with a QR code just like they do with a shared bike or e-bike.”

Hellboke has raised at least $1.8 billion to date, according to public data compiled by Crunchbase. Bloomberg reported in April that it was seeking to raise at least $500 million in a new funding round. The company declined to comment on its fundraising progress.

When it comes to financial metrics, Chen, a veteran investment banker, declined to disclose whether Hellobike overall is profitable but said the company “performs much better than its competitors” financially. The most profitable segment, according to the executive, is the electric bike business.

As for bicycles, Chen noted that China’s main bike-sharing companies are “no longer burning money” since they’ve raised prices in recent times. Hellobike’s bike unit has achieved cash-flow positive during the warmer, peak seasons, Chen added.

The Commerce Department will accept applications from companies that want to supply Huawei, but it remains blacklisted

About two months after Huawei was placed on the Commerce Department’s Entity List, the Chinese telecom equipment and smartphone giant will be able to do business with American suppliers again–but only if they get a license from the U.S. government. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross made the announcement during a department conference, adding that companies must first demonstrate that the technology they sell to Huawei will not put national security at risk.

Huawei will remain on the entity list, however, and license applications will be reviewed under a “presumption of denial,” making it likely that most will not be approved.

Last month while both presidents were in Japan for the G20 Summit, Donald Trump told Chinese leader Xi Jinping that he would allow U.S. companies to sell equipment to Huawei again, but the promise created confusion about how it would be carried out, with the Commerce Department instructing staff to continue acting as if the blacklist is still in place. Huawei, the world’s largest telecom equipment maker and second-largest smartphone vendor, is a major bargaining chip in the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China.

The blacklist has had a major impact on Huawei, with important suppliers like Qualcomm, Intel and Google severing ties after it was placed on the entity list. Huawei, which has repeatedly denied being a threat to U.S. national security, said that being blacklisted would cost the company about $30 billion in revenue, though founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei later downplayed the impact in an interview with CNBC. It also means U.S. companies have lost an important customer. Out of the $70 billion Huawei spent buying components last year, $11 billion went to American companies like Qualcomm, Intel and Micron.

Despite Trump’s promised reprieve, Commerce Department tells staff to continue treating Huawei as blacklisted

President Donald Trump recently promised to ease the ban on American companies doing business with Huawei, but the Commerce Department is requiring its staff to treat Huawei as if the blacklist is still in place, reports Reuters.

Enforcement staff were sent an internal letter this week by John Sonderman, the Deputy Director of the Office of Export Enforcement, to continue treating Huawei as blacklisted. The letter, viewed by Reuters, said applications from companies that want to sell to Huawei should be considered on merit and flagged with language that notes Huawei is on the entity list. The applications should also still be viewed under a “presumption of denial” policy that applies to companies on the blacklist. This means license applications are scrutinized more closely and most of them are rejected.

Along with 70 other companies, Huawei was added in May to an “entity list” of companies that U.S. companies are forbidden to do business with. As a result, many of Huawei’s most important component suppliers, including Qualcomm and Intel, severed ties with Huawei, while Google cut off its access to Android--a major headache for Huawei, which is the third-largest smartphone maker in the world. Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei said the ban would result in $30 billion in lost revenue.

According to Reuters, this is the only guidance enforcement officials have received since Trump’s surprise announcement, made after he met with Chinese premier Xi Jinping at the G20 summit. In an apparent concession to China, which sees Huawei as major sticking point in the U.S.-China trade war, Trump suggested that the U.S. will allow American companies to resume selling hardware to Huawei as long as it doesn’t pose a “great national emergency problem,” and would hold meetings about Huawei’s trade status.

After Trump’s announcement, Ren downplayed the effect of the promised partial reprieve, telling the Financial Times that the ban has helped the company “become more united than ever.” He added “if we aren’t allowed to use U.S. components, we are very confident in our ability to use components made in China and other countries.”

India reportedly wants to build its own WhatsApp for government communications

India may have plans to follow France’s footsteps in building a chat app and requiring government employees to use it for official communications.

The New Delhi government is said to be pondering about the need to have homegrown email and chat apps, local news outlet Economic Times reported on Thursday.

The rationale behind the move is to cut reliance on foreign entities, the report said, a concern that has somehow manifested amid U.S.’s ongoing tussle with Huawei and China.

“We need to make our communication insular,” an unnamed top government official was quoted as saying by the paper. The person suggested that by putting Chinese giant Huawei on the entity list, the U.S. has “set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi.”

India has its own ongoing trade tension with the U.S. Donald Trump earlier this month removed the South Asian nation from a special trade program after India did not assure him that it will “provide equitable and reasonable access to its markets.” India called the move “unfortunate”, and weeks later, increased tariffs on some U.S. exports.

The move to step away from foreign communication apps, if it comes to fruition, won’t be the first time a nation has attempted to cautiously restrict usage of popular messaging apps run by foreign players in government offices.

France launched an encrypted chat app — called Tchap — for use in government offices earlier this year. Only those employed by the French government offices can sign up to use the service, though the nation has open sourced the app’s code for the world to see and audit.

Of course, a security flaw in Tchap came into light within the first 24 hours of its release. Security is a real challenge that the government would have to tackle and it might not have the best resources — talent, budget, and expertise — to deal with it.

China, which has restricted many foreign companies from operating in the nation, also maintains customized versions of popular operating systems for use in government offices. So does North Korea.

It won’t be an unprecedented step for India, either. The nation has been trying to build and scale its own Linux-based desktop operating system called BOSS for several years with little success as most government agencies continue to use Microsoft’s Windows operating system.

Even as India has emerged as the third-largest startup hub in the world, the country has failed to build local alternatives for many popular services. Facebook’s WhatsApp has become ubiquitous for communication in India, while Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows power most smartphones and computers in the nation.

Semiconductor startup CNEX Labs alleged Huawei’s deputy chairman conspired to steal its intellectual property

A San Jose-based semiconductor startup being sued by Huawei for stealing trade secrets has hit back in court documents, accusing the Chinese firm’s deputy chairman of conspiring to steal its intellectual property, reports the Wall Street Journal. In court filings, CNEX Labs, which is backed by the investment arms of Dell and Microsoft, alleges that Eric Xu, who is also one of Huawei’s rotating CEOs, worked with other Huawei employees to steal its proprietary technology.

The lawsuit, set for trial on June 3 in federal court in the Eastern District of Texas, started in 2017 when Huawei sued CNEX and one of its founders, Yiren “Ronnie” Huang, a former employee at Huawei’s Santa Clara office, for stealing its technology and using unlawful means to poach 14 other Huawei employees. CNEX filed a countersuit the following year. Huawei has denied the startup’s allegations in court filings.

The lawsuit is happening at a fraught time for Huawei. Last week, the Chinese telecom equipment maker (and the world’s second-largest smartphone brand), was placed on a trade blacklist by the Trump administration, which also signed an executive order that would make it possible to block American companies from doing business with Huawei and other companies it deems a national security threat. As a result, several companies have suspended business with Huawei, including Google, Qualcomm, Intel and ARM.

Court filings said that after being directed by Xu to analyze CNEX’s technical information, a Huawei engineer met with the startup’s officials in June 2016, pretending to be a potential customer. But then the engineer produced a report about CNEX’s tech and put it into a database of information about competitors run by Huawei’s chip development unit.

CNEX’s lawyers also say that Xu knew about a partnership between Huawei and Xiamen University that was allegedly part of plan to steal the startup’s trade secrets. They claim Xiamen obtained a memory board from CNEX in 2017 under a licensing agreement, saying it would be used for academic research. But CNEX lawyer Eugene Mar said that “what was hidden from CNEX was that Xiamen was working with Huawei and had entered into an agreement separately with Huawei to provide them with all of their research test reports,” according to court transcripts viewed by the Wall Street Journal.

Information from the university’s study was then allegedly used for Huawei chip projects, including one that is expected to be released this year. Huawei’s lawyers refuted CNEX’s charges, claiming that the partnership between Huawei and the university did not involve reverse engineering or CNEX’s trade secrets and was meant to design database software instead of developing chips. A Huawei lawyer said that Xu was part of “the chain of command that had requested” information about CNEX and that a CNEX document had been placed into its chip development unit’s database, but denied allegations that anything was stolen.

CNEX co-founder Huang claimed in court filings that he offered to sell his intellectual property to Huawei when he started working at Futurewei, its research and development unit. Huawei refused his offer, but then later tried to get Huang to give them his IP under an employee agreement, which Huang refused to sign, he claims. Huang left Futurewei in 2013 and founded CNEX Labs soon after.

TikTok owner ByteDance’s long-awaited chat app is here

In WeChat -dominated China, there’s no shortage of challengers out there claiming to create an alternative social experience. The latest creation comes from ByteDance, the world’s most valuable startup and the operator behind TikTok, the video app that has consistently topped the iOS App Store over the last few quarters.

The new offer is called Feiliao (飞聊), or Flipchat in English, a hybrid of an instant messenger plus interest-based forums, and it’s currently available for both iOS and Android. It arrived only four months after Bytedance unveiled its video-focused chatting app Duoshan at a buzzy press event.

Screenshots of Feiliao / Image source: Feiliao

Some are already calling Feiliao a WeChat challenger, but a closer look shows it’s targeting a more niche need. WeChat, in its own right, is the go-to place for daily communication in addition to facilitating payments, car-hailing, food delivery and other forms of convenience.

Feiliao, which literally translates to ‘fly chat’, encourages users to create forums and chat groups centered around their penchants and hobbies. As its app description writes:

Feiliao is an interest-based social app. Here you will find the familiar [features of] chats and video calls. In addition, you will discover new friends and share what’s fun; as well as share your daily life on your feed and interact with close friends.

Feiliao “is an open social product,” said ByteDance in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “We hope Feiliao will connect people of the same interests, making people’s life more diverse and interesting.”

It’s unclear what Feiliao means by claiming to be ‘open’, but one door is already shut. As expected, there’s no direct way to transfer people’s WeChat profiles and friend connections to Feiliao, and there’s no option to log in via the Tencent app. As of Monday morning, links to Feiliao can’t be opened on WeChat, which recently crossed 1.1 billion monthly active users.

On the other side, Alibaba, Tencent’s long-time nemesis, is enabling Feiliao’s payments function through the Alipay digital wallet. Alibaba has also partnered with Bytedance elsewhere, most notably on TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin where certain users can sell goods via Taobao stores.

In all, Flipchat is more reminiscent of another blossoming social app — Tencent-backed Jike — than WeChat. Jike (pronounced ‘gee-keh’) lets people discover content and connect with each other based on various topics, making it one of the closest counterparts to Reddit in China.

Jike’s CEO Wa Nen has taken noticed of Feiliao, commenting with the 👌 emoji on his Jike feed, saying no more.

Screenshot of Jike CEO Wa Ren commenting on Feiliao

“I think [Feiliao] is a product anchored in ‘communities’, such as groups for hobbies, key opinion leaders/celebrities, people from the same city, and alumni,” a product manager for a Chinese enterprise software startup told TechCrunch after trying out the app.

Though Feiliao isn’t a direct take on WeChat, there’s little doubt that the fight between Bytedance and Tencent has heated up tremendously as the former’s army of apps captures more user attention.

According to a new report published by research firm Questmobile, ByteDance accounted for 11.3 percent of Chinese users’ total time spent on ‘giant apps’ — those that surpassed 100 million MAUs — in March, compared to 8.2 percent a year earlier. The percentage controlled by Tencent was 43.8 percent in March, down from 47.5 percent, while the remaining share, divided between Alibaba, Baidu and others, grew only slightly from 44.3 percent to 44.9 percent over the past year.

Tech stocks slide on US decision to blacklist Huawei and 70 affiliates

The United States has been lobbying for months to prevent its western allies from using Huawei equipment in their 5G deployment, and on Wednesday, Washington made it more difficult for the Chinese telecom titan to churn out those next-gen products.

The U.S. Department of Commerce announced that it will add Huawei and its 70 affiliates to the so-called ‘Entity List,’ a move that will prevent the telecom giant from buying parts and components from U.S. companies without approval from Washington. That confirms reports of the potential ban a day before.

Despite being the largest telecom equipment maker around the world, Huawei relies heavily on its American suppliers, giving the U.S. much leeway to hobble the Chinese firm’s production.

Following the dramatic move, shares of a gauge of Huawei affiliates slumped on Wednesday. Tatfook Technology, which sells to Huawei as well as Ericsson and Bosch, dropped 2.84 percent in Shenzhen in morning trading. New Sea Union Telecom, a supplier to China’s ‘big three’ telecom network operators and Huawei, slid 4.88 percent. Another Huawei key partner Chunxing Precision Mechanical dropped as much as 5.37 percent.

Huawei did not comment directly on the Commerce Department’s blacklist when reached out by TechCrunch, but said it’s “ready and willing to engage with the U.S. government and come up with effective measures to ensure product security.”

“Restricting Huawei from doing business in the U.S. will not make the U.S. more secure or stronger; instead, this will only serve to limit the U.S. to inferior yet more expensive alternatives, leaving the U.S. lagging behind in 5G deployment, and eventually harming the interests of U.S. companies and consumers,” Huawei hit back in the statement.

This view is congruent with some of the harshest criticisms of Washington’s backlash against Huawei. Scholars and industry observers warn that Chinese tech firms have become such an integral part to the global economy that severing ties with Huawei will do ham to 5G advancement worldwide.

In addition, the Chinese company said the U.S.’s “unreasonable restrictions will infringe upon Huawei’s rights and raise other serious legal issues,” though it did not spell out what those rights and legal concerns are.

The announcement dropped on the same day U.S. President Donald Trump declared “a national emergency” over technology supply chain threats from the country’s “foreign adversaries”.

The Commerce Department said it has a reasonable basis to conclude that “Huawei is engaged in activities that are contrary to U.S. national security or foreign policy interest.”

Some of the U.S’s allies including the U.K. are still investigating Huawei’s possible security threat and deciding how close a link they should keep with Huawei, but the Shenzhen-based company has already taken a bold step to give its potential clients some assurance.

Just this Tuesday, Huawei told reporters in London that it’s “willing to sign no-spy agreements with governments, including the U.K. government,” and commit itself to making its equipment “meet the no-spy, no-backdoors standard.”

The U.S.’s tit-for-tat with Huawei also includes the push to arrest the company’s CFO Meng Wanzhou on charges that Huawei did business in Iran in breach of U.S. sanctions.

Huawei launches AI-backed database to target enterprise customers

China’s Huawei is making a serious foray into the enterprise business market after it unveiled a new database management product on Wednesday, putting it in direct competition with entrenched vendors like IBM, Oracle and Microsoft.

The Shenzhen-based company, best known for making smartphones and telecom equipment, claims its newly minted database uses artificial intelligence capabilities to improve tuning performance, a process that traditionally involves human administrators, by over 60 percent.

Called the GaussDB, the database works both locally as well as on public and private clouds. When running on Huawei’s own cloud, GaussDB provides data warehouse services for customers across the board, from the financial, logistics, education to automotive industries.

The database launch was first reported by The Information on Tuesday citing sources saying it is designed by the company’s secretive database research group called Gauss and will initially focus on the Chinese market.

The announcement comes at a time when Huawei’s core telecom business is drawing scrutiny in the West over the company’s alleged ties to the Chinese government. That segment accounted for 40.8 percent of Huawei’s total revenues in 2018, according to financial details released by the privately-held firm.

Huawei’s consumer unit, which is driven by its fast-growing smartphone and device sales, made up almost a half of the company’s annual revenues. Enterprise businesses made up less than a quarter of earnings, but Huawei’s new push into database management is set to add new fuel to the segment.

Meanwhile, at Oracle, more than 900 employees, most of whom worked for its 1,600-staff research and development center in China, were recently let go amid a major company restructuring, multiple media outlets reported earlier this month.

Data provided to TechCrunch by Boss Zhipin offers clues to the layoff: The Chinese recruiting platform has recently seen a surge in newly registered users who work at Oracle China. But the door is still open for new candidates as the American giant is currently recruiting for more than 100 positions through Boss, including many related to cloud computing.

U.S. slams Alibaba and its challenger Pinduoduo for selling fakes

China’s biggest ecommerce company Alibaba was again on the U.S. Trade Representative’s blacklist over suspected counterfeits sold on its popular Taobao marketplace that connects small merchants to consumers.

Nestling with Alibaba on the U.S.’s annual “notorious” list that reviews trading partners’ intellectual property practice is its fast-rising competitor Pinduoduo . Just this week, Pinduoduo founder Colin Huang, a former Google engineer, wrote in his first shareholder letter since listing the company that his startup is now China’s second-biggest ecommerce player by the number of “e-way bills”, or electronic records tracking the movement of goods. That officially unseats JD.com as the runner-up to Alibaba.

This is the third year in a row that Taobao has been called out by the U.S. government over IP theft, despite measures the company claims it has taken to root out fakes, including the arrest of 1,752 suspects and closure of 1,282 manufacturing and distribution centers.

“Although Alibaba has taken some steps to curb the offer and sale of infringing products, right holders, particularly SMEs, continue to report high volumes of infringing products and problems with using takedown procedures,” noted the USTR in its report.

In a statement provided to TechCrunch, Alibaba said it does “not agree with” the USTR’s decision. “Our results and practices have been acknowledged as best-in-class by leading industry associations, brands and SMEs in the United States and around the world. In fact, zero industry associations called for our inclusion in the report this year.”

Pinduoduo is a new addition to the annual blacklist. The Shanghai-based startup has over the course of three years rose to fame among China’s emerging online shoppers in smaller cities and rural regions, thanks to the flurry of super-cheap goods on its platform. While affluent consumers may disdain Pinduodou products’ low quality, price-sensitive users are hooked to bargains even when items are subpar.

“Many of these price-conscious shoppers are reportedly aware of the proliferation of counterfeit products on pinduoduo.com but are nevertheless attracted to the low-priced goods on the platform,” the USTR pointed out, adding that Pinduoduo’s measures to up the ante in anti-piracy technologies failed to fully address the issue.

Pinduoduo, too, rebutted the USTR’s decision. “We do not fully understand why we are listed on the USTR report, and we disagree with the report,” a Pinduoduo spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We will focus our energy to upgrade the e-shopping experience for our users. We have introduced strict penalties for counterfeit merchants, collaborated closely with law enforcement and employed technologies to proactively take down suspicious products.”

The attacks on two of China’s most promising ecommerce businesses came as China and the U.S. are embroiled in on-going trade negotiations, which have seen the Trump administration repeatedly accused China of IP theft. Tmall, which is Alibaba’s online retailer that brings branded goods to shoppers, was immune from the blacklist, and so was Tmall’s direct rival JD.com.

Taobao has spent over a decade trying to revive its old image of an online bazaar teeming with fakes and “shanzhai” items, which are not outright pirated goods but whose names or designs intimate those of legitimate brands. Pinduoduo is now asked to do the same after a few years of growth frenzy. On the one hand, listing publicly in the U.S. subjects the Chinese startup to more scrutiny. On the other, small-town users may soon demand higher quality as their purchasing power improves. And when the countryside market becomes saturated, Pinduoduo will need to more aggressively upgrade its product selection to court the more sophisticated consumers from Chinese megacities.

Douyu, China’s Twitch backed by Tencent, files for a $500M U.S. IPO

Douyu, a Chinese live streaming service focused on video games, has filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission as it prepares to raise up to $500 million on the NYSE less than a year after its archrival floated on the same stock market.

Wuhan-based Douyu, whose name translates as “fighting fish”, is the second Twitch -like service backed by Tencent to go public in the United States. Its direct competitor Huya, who has a similarly fierce name “tiger’s teeth” and also counts Tencent as a major investor, raised $180 million from its NYSE listing last May.

It’s not surprising for Tencent to hedge its bets in esports streaming, given the giant relies heavily on video games to make money. For example, Tencent can use some of its portfolio companies’ ad slots to get the word out about its new releases. Indeed, Douyu’s filing shows it received a hefty 27.48 million yuan ($4.09 million) in advertising fees from Tencent last year.

As Douyu warns in its prospectus, its alliance with Tencent can be tenuous.

“Tencent may devote resources or attention to the other companies it has an interest in, including our direct or indirect competitors. As a result, we may not fully realize the benefits we expect from the strategic cooperation with Tencent. Failure to realize the intended benefits from the strategic cooperation with Tencent, or potential restrictions on our collaboration with other parties, could materially and adversely affect our business and results of operations.”

But there are nuances in the giant’s ties to China’s top two live streaming services that could mean more affinity between Tencent and Douyu. The social media and gaming behemoth is currently Douyu’s largest shareholder with a 40.1 percent stake owned through its wholly-owned subsidiary Nectarine. Over at Huya, Tencent is the second-largest stakeholder behind YY, the pioneer in China’s live streaming sector that had spun off Huya.

When it comes to the financial terms, the rivaling pair is in a head-on race. In 2018, Douyu doubled its net revenues to $531.5 million. Huya held an edge as it earned $678.3 million in the same period, also doubling the amount from a year ago.

Huya may have learned a few things about monetizing live streaming from 14-year-old YY as it managed to pull in more revenues despite owning a smaller user base. While Douyu claimed 153.5 million monthly active users in the fourth quarter, Huya had 116.6 million.

How the two make money also diverge slightly. In the fourth quarter, 86 percent of Douyu’s revenues originated from virtual items that users tipped to their favorite streaming hosts, with the remaining earnings derived from advertising and more. By contrast, Huya relied almost exclusively on live streaming gifts, which made up 95.3 percent of total revenues.

douyu

Screenshot of a Douyu live streaming session 

As Douyu grows its coffers to spend on content as well as technologies following the impending IPO, competition in China’s live streaming landscape is set to heat up. Just earlier this month, Huya raised $327 million in a secondary offering to invest in content and R&D. Like many other businesses anchored in content, Huya and Douyu depend tremendously on quality creators to keep users loyal. Both have offered sizable checks to live streaming hosts, promising to grow the internet celebrities into bigger stars.

And they’ve extended the battlefield outside China as emerging media forms, most exemplified by short video services Douyin (TikTok’s China version) and Kuaishou, threaten to steal people’s eyeball time away. Both bite-size video apps now enjoy a much bigger user base than their live streaming counterparts.

“We intend to further explore overseas markets to expand our user base through both organic expansion and selective investments,” noted Douyu in its IPO filing.

In a similar move, Huya’s overseas expansion is also well underway. “In addition to our vigorous domestic growth, we have successfully leveraged our unique business model to enter new overseas markets. We believe we are delivering long-term value through strategic investments in overseas markets in 2019 and beyond,” said Huya chief executive Rongjie Dong in the company’s Q4 earnings report.

Hong Kong-based fintech startup Qupital raises $15M Series A to expand in mainland China

Qupital, a fintech startup that bills itself as Hong Kong’s largest trade financing platform for SMEs, has closed a $15 million Series A led by CreditEase FinTech Investment Fund (CEFIF), with participation from returning investors Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund and MindWorks Ventures, both participants in its seed round. To date, Qupital has raised $17 million, including a seed round two years ago, and will use its latest funding to expand its supply chain financing products, launch in mainland Chinese cities and hire more people for its tech development and risk management teams.

CreditEase, which provides loans and other financial services for SMEs in China, will act as a strategic investor, aiding with Qupital’s geographic expansion. Existing investor Alibaba has already helped Qupital reach small businesses on its platform. Qupital will open branches in Chinese cities including Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, along with setting up a new technology center in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area for talent and tech development. In total, it will hire about 100 people for its Hong Kong office this year.

Founded in 2016, Qupital offers lending for SMEs that frequently have cash flow issues because they are in a cycle of waiting for invoices to be paid. Qupital’s loans cover most of the value of an invoice, then matches that with investors and funders who cover the cash with the expectation of a return. The company makes money by charging SMEs a service fee that is a fixed percentage of the total invoice value and then a discount fee, and taking a percentage of net gains made by investors.

Qupital has now processed 8,000 trades, totaling HKD $2 billion in value. It won’t disclose how many SMEs it has worked with, but co-founder and chairman Andy Chan says that number is in the hundreds.

Chan tells TechCrunch that in China, Qupital will not compete directly against traditional financial institutions, because it focuses on financing the Hong Kong business entities of Chinese companies in U.S. and Hong Kong currency, instead of onshore renminbi. It will also target SMEs underserved by traditional lenders, by using alternative data sources to determine their creditworthiness.

In a prepared statement, CEFIF managing director Dennis Cong said “The growing volume of SME and cross-border trading drives a huge demand for alternative financing for SME’s who are underserved in the market and opportunities for investors to earn a decent risk-adjusted return. We look forward to working with Qupital to broaden its source of capital base and create unparalleled investment opportunities for CreditEase.”

Alibaba acquires Israeli VR startup Infinity Augmented Reality

Infinity Augmented Reality, an Israeli virtual reality startup, has been acquired by Alibaba, the companies announced this weekend. The deal’s terms were not disclosed. Alibaba and InfinityAR have had a strategic partnership since 2016, when Alibaba Group led InfinityAR’s Series C. Since then, the two have collaborated on augmented reality, computer vision and artificial intelligence projects.

Founded in 2013, the startup’s augmented glasses platform enables developers in a wide range of industries (retail, gaming, medical, etc.) to integrate AR into their apps. InfinityAR’s products include software for ODMs and OEMs and a SDK plug-in for 3D engines.

Alibaba’s foray into virtual reality started three years ago, when it invested in Magic Leap and then announced a new research lab in China to develop ways of incorporating virtual reality into its e-commerce platform.

InfinityAR’s research and development team will begin working out of Alibaba’s Israel Machine Laboratory, part of Alibaba DAMO Academy, the R&D initiative it is pouring $15 billion into with the goal of eventually serving two billion customers and creating 100 million jobs by 2036. DAMO Academy collaborates with universities around the world and Alibaba’s Israel Machine Laboratory has a partnership with Tel Aviv University focused on video analysis and machine learning.

In a press statement, the laboratory’s head, Lihi Zelnik-Manor, said “Alibaba is delighted to be working with InfinityAR as one team after three years of partnership. The talented team brings unique knowhow in sensor fusion, computer vision and navigation technologies. We look forward to exploring these leading technologies and offering additional benefits to customers, partners and developers.”

PicsArt hits 130 million MAUs as Chinese flock to its photo editing app

If you’re like me, who isn’t big on social media, you’d think that the image filters that come inside most apps will do the job. But for many others, especially the younger crowd, making their photos stand out is a huge deal.

The demand is big enough that PicsArt, a rival to filtering companies VSCO and Snapseed, recently hit 130 million monthly active users worldwide, roughly a year after it amassed 100 million MAUs. Like VSCO, PicsArt now offers video overlays though images are still its focus.

Nearly 80 percent of PicsArt’s users are under the age of 35 and those under 18 are driving most of its growth. The “Gen Z” (the generation after millennials) users aren’t obsessed with the next big, big thing. Rather, they pride themselves on having niche interests, be it K-pop, celebrities, anime, sci-fi or space science, topics that come in the form of filters, effects, stickers and GIFs in PicsArt’s content library.

“PicsArt is helping to drive a trend I call visual storytelling. There’s a generation of young people who communicate through memes, short-form videos, images and stickers, and they rarely use words,” Tammy Nam, who joined PicsArt as its chief operating officer in July, told TechCrunch in an interview.

PicsArt has so far raised $45 million, according to data collected by Crunchbase. It picked up $20 million from a Series B round in 2016 to grow its Asia focus and told TechCrunch that it’s “actively considering fundraising to fuel [its] rapid growth even more.”

picsart

PicsArt wants to help users stand out on social media, for instance, by virtually applying this rainbow makeup look on them. / Image: PicsArt via Weibo

The app doubles as a social platform, although the use case is much smaller compared to the size of Instagram, Facebook and other mainstream social media products. About 40 percent of PicsArt’s users post on the app, putting it in a unique position where it competes with the social media juggernauts on one hand, and serving as a platform-agnostic app to facilitate content creation for its rivals on the other.

What separates PicsArt from the giants, according to Nam, is that people who do share there tend to be content creators rather than passive consumers.

“On TikTok and Instagram, the majority of the people there are consumers. Almost 100 percent of the people on PicsArt are creating or editing something. For many users, coming on PicsArt is a built-in habit. They come in every week, and find the editing process Zen-like and peaceful.”

Trending in China

Most of PicsArt’s users live in the United States, but the app owes much of its recent success to China, its fastest growing market with more than 15 million MAUs. The regional growth, which has been 10-30 percent month-over-month recently, appears more remarkable when factoring in PicsArt’s zero user acquisition expense in a crowded market where pay-to-play is a norm for emerging startups.

“Many larger companies [in China] are spending a lot of money on advertising to gain market share. PicsArt has done zero paid marketing in China,” noted Nam.

Screenshot: TikTok-related stickers from PicsArt’s library

When people catch sight of an impressive image filtering effect online, many will inquire about the toolset behind it. Chinese users find out about the Armenian startup from photos and videos hashtagged #PicsArt, not different from how VSCO gets discovered from #vscocam on Instagram. It’s through such word of mouth that PicsArt broke into China, where users flocked to its Avengers-inspired disappearing superhero effect last May when the film was screening. China is now the company’s second largest market by revenue after the U.S.

Screenshot: PicsArts lets users easily apply the Avengers dispersion effect to their own photos

A hurdle that all media apps see in China is the country’s opaque guidelines on digital content. Companies in the business of disseminating information, from WeChat to TikTok, hire armies of content moderators to root out what the government deems inappropriate or illegal. PicsArt says it uses artificial intelligence to sterilize content and keeps a global moderator team that also keeps an eye on its China content.

Despite being headquartered in Silicon Valley, PicsArt has placed its research and development center in Armenia, home to founder Hovhannes Avoyan. This gives the startup access to much cheaper engineering talents in the country and neighboring Russia compared to what it can hire in the U.S. To date, 70 percent of the company’s 360 employees are working in engineering and product development (50 percent of whom are female), an investment it believes helps keep its creative tools up to date.

Most of PicsArt’s features are free to use, but the firm has also looked into getting paid. It rolled out a premium program last March that gives users more sophisticated functions and exclusive content. This segment has already leapfrogged advertising to be PicsArt’s largest revenue source, although in China, its budding market, paid subscriptions have been slow to come.

picsart 1

PicsArt lets users do all sorts of creative work, including virtually posing with their idol. / Image: PicsArt via Weibo

“In China, people don’t want to pay because they don’t believe in the products. But if they understand your value, they are willing to pay, for example, they pay a lot for mobile games,” said Jennifer Liu, PicsArt China’s country manager.

And Nam is positive that Chinese users will come to appreciate the app’s value. “In order for this new generation to create really differentiated content, become influencers, or be more relevant on social media, they have to do edit their content. It’s just a natural way for them to do that.”

Grab launches SME loans and micro-insurance in Southeast Asia

In its latest move beyond ride-hailing, Southeast Asia’s Grab has started to offer financing to SMEs and micro-insurance to its drivers.

The launch comes just weeks after Grab raised $1.5 billion from the Vision Fund as part of a larger $5 billion Series H funding round that’ll be used to battle rival Go-Jek, which is vying with Grab to become the top on-demand app for Southeast Asia’s 600 million-plus consumers.

Grab acquired Uber’s Southeast Asia business in 2018 and it has spent the past year or so pushing a ‘super app’ strategy. That’s essentially an effort to become a daily app for Southeast Asia and, beyond rides, it entails food delivery, payments and other services on demand. Financial services are also a significant chunk of that focus, and now Grab is switching on loans and micro-insurance for the first time.

Initially, the first market is Singapore, but the plan is to expand to Southeast Asia’s five other major markets, Reuben Lai,  who is senior managing director and co-head of Grab Financial, told TechCrunch on the sidelines of the Money20/20 conference in Singapore. Lai declined to provide a timeframe for the expansion.

The company announced its launch into financial services last year and that, Lai confirmed, was a purely offline effort. Now the new financial products announced today will be available from within the Grab app itself.

Grab is also planning to develop a ‘marketplace’ of financial products that will allow other financial organizations to promote services to its 130 million registered users. Grab doesn’t provide figures for its active user base.

Grab announced a platform play last summer that allows selected partners to develop services that sit within its app. Some services have included grocery delivers from Happy Fresh, video streaming service Hooq, and health services from China’s Ping An.

The Khashoggi murder isn’t stopping SoftBank’s Vision Fund

Money talks in the startup community, especially when SoftBank comes knocking with the megabucks of its Vision Fund.

Despite the public outcry around the firm’s dependence on money from Saudi Arabia in the wake of that country’s assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, deal flow for Softbank’s Vision Fund appears to be back to normal.

The $100 billion megafund has done 21 deals over the last two quarters, that’s as more than in the other quarters of the previous year combined, according to data from Crunchbase, thanks to an uptick from Asia. Since the October 2 murder, there have been 11 investments in U.S. companies, seven in Asia, two in Europe and one in Latin America. Just this week, the fund completed a near $1.5 billion investment in Southeast Asia-based ride-hailing company Grab.

While U.S. and European firms have more options, and therefore, perhaps deserve more scrutiny, Softbank’s cash is increasingly the only game in town for startups in Asia, where there are fewer alternatives for later stage capital outside of large Chinese private equity firms or tech giants — which come with their own risks.

The Vision Fund is seen by some critics as tainted money for its links to the Saudi Royal family. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is the fund’s anchor investor and it is controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been strongly linked with the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the regime.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was murdered on October 2 after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. His visit was part of an effort to obtain divorce documents in order to marry his fiancée, but it ended with his apparently gruesome death. Audio clips suggest he was beheaded, dismembered, and had his fingers severed before his body was dissolved in acid, although new reports suggest it may have been burned.

Jamal Khashoggi — pictured in 2014 — was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year [Photographer: Ohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images]

The Vision Fund is designed to finance ‘global winners’ which, like all investment funds, is set up to provide ‘unfair advantages’ to help its companies grow into hugely important businesses. On the financial end, as is the norm, it is built to provide handsome returns to the LPs, thus directly boosting the coffers of the PIF, the Saudi kingdom, and by extension the Saudi prince himself.

An investigation is going, but there’s already plenty of evidence to suggest that the murder happened at the request of the prince.

Sources within the U.S. State Department have reportedly said it is “blindingly obvious” that the Crown Prince ordered the killing — he reportedly threatened to shoot Khashoggi one year before. But, now that the apparent period of outrage is over, SoftBank has reverted back to writing checks and companies are taking them in spite of the links to Saudi Arabia.

For startups, the money flow means that a major source of capital for growth or subsidies for customers comes from the Saudi royal family’s pockets — a regime that would reportedly not hesitate to murder a critical voice.

SoftBank’s Vision Fund has ramped up its deals over the past six months, according to data from Crunchbase

What are the companies saying?

SoftBank itself said it has a commitment to “the people” of Saudi Arabia that will see it deploy its capital unchanged, although Chairman Masayoshi Son did concede that he will wait on the findings of the investigation into the murder before deciding on whether PIF will be involved in a second Vision Fund.

The founders taking the capital have been more cautious. When questioned, executives talk about the specifics of their deal and their growth plans, most defer issues on the management of LPs, like PIF, to SoftBank. While offering words in support of the ongoing murder investigation, they manage to say little about the ethics of taking money from the Saudi regime.

Bom Kim, CEO of Korean e-commerce company Coupang — which raised $2 billion from the Vision Fund — told TechCrunch in November that the allegations around the murder “don’t represent us and don’t represent [Vision Fund] companies.”

“We are deeply concerned by the reported events and alongside SoftBank are monitoring the situation closely until the full facts are known,” Tokopedia CEO William Tanuwijaya told TechCrunch in December after the Vision Fund co-led a $1.1 billion round.

William Tanuwijaya is the co-founder and CEO of Tokopedia [Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg]

OYO, the budget hotel network based out of India, did not respond to a request comment sent the day before this story was published. The startup raised $1 billion led by the Vision Fund in September.

TechCrunch was also unable to get a response to questions sent to Chehaoduo, the Vision Fund’s first China-based startup which raised $1.5 billion in February. The company is notable for being the only one of this group that didn’t count SoftBank as an existing investor prior to its Vision Fund deal.

The latest addition to the collection is Grab, the ride-hailing company in Southeast Asia that’s led by CEO Anthony Tan, who is very publicly a devout Christian. In a statement sent to TechCrunch this week, Grab defended its relationship with SoftBank, which first invested in Grab back in 2014:

What happened to Jamal Khashoggi was obviously horrible. We hope whoever is responsible is held accountable. We are not in a position to comment on behalf of SoftBank but from our perspective Son-san and the entire SoftBank team have brought so much value to the table for Grab – beyond just financing. They have brought advice, mentorship and potential business opportunities. The Vision Fund is about investing for the next 100 or 200 years and investing in trends that will move the needle for humanity in positive ways. This is a lofty and ultimately positive goal.

Anthony Tan is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Grab [Photographer: Ore Huiying/Bloomberg/Getty Images]

The Vision Fund is just getting started in Asia, however, with rumors suggesting it is planning to open offices in China and India. Singapore is presumably on that list, too, while the fund has been busy hiring a general team that will operate globally out of the U.S.

To date, the fund’s focus in Asia has been on some of the region’s largest (highest-valued) companies, but as it develops a local presence it is likely to seek out less obvious deals to grow its portfolio. That’s going to mean this question of ethics and conscience around the Vision Fund’s capital will present itself to more founders in Asia. Going on what we’ve seen so far, most will have no problem taking the money and issuing platitudinous statements.

Privately, VCs in the region who I have canvassed have told me that founders have little choice but to take the Vision Fund’s money. They explain that nobody else can offer billion-dollar-sized checks, while SoftBank is an existing investor in many of them already which gives it additional leverage. The fund also takes the aggressive approach of threatening to back rival companies if it doesn’t get the deals it wants, as we saw when Son said he’d consider a deal with Lyft when its Uber investment was uncertain.

That reality may be true — finding an alternative to a hypothetical $1 billion Vision Fund check is a daunting challenge — but we’ve reached a very sad time and place when the sheer size of an investment overrides important concerns about where that money came from.

5G phones are here but there’s no rush to upgrade

This year’s Mobile World Congress — the CES for Android device makers — was awash with 5G handsets.

The world’s No.1 smartphone seller by marketshare, Samsung, got out ahead with a standalone launch event in San Francisco, showing off two 5G devices, just before fast-following Android rivals popped out their own 5G phones at launch events across Barcelona this week.

We’ve rounded up all these 5G handset launches here. Prices range from an eye-popping $2,600 for Huawei’s foldable phabet-to-tablet Mate X — and an equally eye-watering $1,980 for Samsung’s Galaxy Fold; another 5G handset that bends — to a rather more reasonable $680 for Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 3 5G, albeit the device is otherwise mid-tier. Other prices for 5G phones announced this week remain tbc.

Android OEMs are clearly hoping the hype around next-gen mobile networks can work a little marketing magic and kick-start stalled smartphone growth. Especially with reports suggesting Apple won’t launch a 5G iPhone until at least next year. So 5G is a space Android OEMs alone get to own for a while.

Chipmaker Qualcomm, which is embroiled in a bitter patent battle with Apple, was also on stage in Barcelona to support Xiaomi’s 5G phone launch — loudly claiming the next-gen tech is coming fast and will enhance “everything”.

“We like to work with companies like Xiaomi to take risks,” lavished Qualcomm’s president Cristiano Amon upon his hosts, using 5G uptake to jibe at Apple by implication. “When we look at the opportunity ahead of us for 5G we see an opportunity to create winners.”

Despite the heavy hype, Xiaomi’s on stage demo — which it claimed was the first live 5G video call outside China — seemed oddly staged and was not exactly lacking in latency.

“Real 5G — not fake 5G!” finished Donovan Sung, the Chinese OEM’s director of product management. As a 5G sales pitch it was all very underwhelming. Much more ‘so what’ than ‘must have’.

Whether 5G marketing hype alone will convince consumers it’s past time to upgrade seems highly unlikely.

Phones sell on features rather than connectivity per se, and — whatever Qualcomm claims — 5G is being soft-launched into the market by cash-constrained carriers whose boom times lie behind them, i.e. before over-the-top players had gobbled their messaging revenues and monopolized consumer eyeballs.

All of which makes 5G an incremental consumer upgrade proposition in the near to medium term.

Use-cases for the next-gen network tech, which is touted as able to support speeds up to 100x faster than LTE and deliver latency of just a few milliseconds (as well as connecting many more devices per cell site), are also still being formulated, let alone apps and services created to leverage 5G.

But selling a network upgrade to consumers by claiming the killer apps are going to be amazing but you just can’t show them any yet is as tough as trying to make theatre out of a marginally less janky video call.

“5G could potentially help [spark smartphone growth] in a couple of years as price points lower, and availability expands, but even that might not see growth rates similar to the transition to 3G and 4G,” suggests Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, writing in a blog post discussing Samsung’s strategy with its latest device launches.

“This is not because 5G is not important, but because it is incremental when it comes to phones and it will be other devices that will deliver on experiences, we did not even think were possible. Consumers might end up, therefore, sharing their budget more than they did during the rise of smartphones.”

The ‘problem’ for 5G — if we can call it that — is that 4G/LTE networks are capably delivering all the stuff consumers love right now: Games, apps and video. Which means that for the vast majority of consumers there’s simply no reason to rush to shell out for a ‘5G-ready’ handset. Not if 5G is all the innovation it’s got going for it.

LG V50 ThinQ 5G with a dual screen accessory for gaming

Use cases such as better AR/VR are also a tough sell given how weak consumer demand has generally been on those fronts (with the odd branded exception).

The barebones reality is that commercial 5G networks are as rare as hen’s teeth right now, outside a few limited geographical locations in the U.S. and Asia. And 5G will remain a very patchy patchwork for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, it may take a very long time indeed to achieve nationwide coverage in many countries, if 5G even ends up stretching right to all those edges. (Alternative technologies do also exist which could help fill in gaps where the ROI just isn’t there for 5G.)

So again consumers buying phones with the puffed up idea of being able to tap into 5G right here, right now (Qualcomm claimed 2019 is going to be “the year of 5G!”) will find themselves limited to just a handful of urban locations around the world.

Analysts are clear that 5G rollouts, while coming, are going to be measured and targeted as carriers approach what’s touted as a multi-industry-transforming wireless technology cautiously, with an eye on their capex and while simultaneously trying to figure out how best to restructure their businesses to engage with all the partners they’ll need to forge business relations with, across industries, in order to successfully sell 5G’s transformative potential to all sorts of enterprises — and lock onto “the sweep spot where 5G makes sense”.

Enterprise rollouts therefore look likely to be prioritized over consumer 5G — as was the case for 5G launches in South Korea at the back end of last year.

“4G was a lot more driven by the consumer side and there was an understanding that you were going for national coverage that was never really a question and you were delivering on the data promise that 3G never really delivered… so there was a gap of technology that needed to be filled. With 5G it’s much less clear,” says Gartner’s Sylvain Fabre, discussing the tech’s hype and the reality with TechCrunch ahead of MWC.

“4G’s very good, you have multiple networks that are Gbps or more and that’s continuing to increase on the downlink with multiple carrier aggregation… and other densification schemes. So 5G doesn’t… have as gap as big to fill. It’s great but again it’s applicability of where it’s uniquely positioned is kind of like a very narrow niche at the moment.”

“It’s such a step change that the real power of 5G is actually in creating new business models using network slicing — allocation of particular aspects of the network to a particular use-case,” Forrester analyst Dan Bieler also tells us. “All of this requires some rethinking of what connectivity means for an enterprise customer or for the consumer.

“And telco sales people, the telco go-to-market approach is not based on selling use-cases, mostly — it’s selling technologies. So this is a significant shift for the average telco distribution channel to go through. And I would believe this will hold back a lot of the 5G ambitions for the medium term.”

To be clear, carriers are now actively kicking the tyres of 5G, after years of lead-in hype, and grappling with technical challenges around how best to upgrade their existing networks to add in and build out 5G.

Many are running pilots and testing what works and what doesn’t, such as where to place antennas to get the most reliable signal and so on. And a few have put a toe in the water with commercial launches (globally there are 23 networks with “some form of live 5G in their commercial networks” at this point, according to Fabre.)

But at the same time 5G network standards are yet to be fully finalized so the core technology is not 100% fully baked. And with it being early days “there’s still a long way to go before we have a real significant impact of 5G type of services”, as Bieler puts it. 

There’s also spectrum availability to factor in and the cost of acquiring the necessary spectrum. As well as the time required to clear and prepare it for commercial use. (On spectrum, government policy is critical to making things happen quickly (or not). So that’s yet another factor moderating how quickly 5G networks can be built out.)

And despite some wishful thinking industry noises at MWC this week — calling for governments to ‘support digitization at scale’ by handing out spectrum for free (uhhhh, yeah right) — that’s really just whistling into the wind.

Rolling out 5G networks is undoubtedly going to be very expensive, at a time when carriers’ businesses are already faced with rising costs (from increasing data consumption) and subdued revenue growth forecasts.

“The world now works on data” and telcos are “at core of this change”, as one carrier CEO — Singtel’s Chua Sock Koong — put it in an MWC keynote in which she delved into the opportunities and challenges for operators “as we go from traditional connectivity to a new age of intelligent connectivity”.

Chua argued it will be difficult for carriers to compete “on the basis of connectivity alone” — suggesting operators will have to pivot their businesses to build out standalone business offerings selling all sorts of b2b services to support the digital transformations of other industries as part of the 5G promise — and that’s clearly going to suck up a lot of their time and mind for the foreseeable future.

In Europe alone estimates for the cost of rolling out 5G range between €300BN and €500BN (~$340BN-$570BN), according to Bieler. Figures that underline why 5G is going to grow slowly, and networks be built out thoughtfully; in the b2b space this means essentially on a case-by-case basis.

Simply put carriers must make the economics stack up. Which means no “huge enormous gambles with 5G”. And omnipresent ROI pressure pushing them to try to eke out a premium.

“A lot of the network equipment vendors have turned down the hype quite a bit,” Bieler continues. “If you compare this to the hype around 3G many years ago or 4G a couple of years ago 5G definitely comes across as a soft launch. Sort of an evolutionary type of technology. I have not come across a network equipment vendors these days who will say there will be a complete change in everything by 2020.”

On the consumer pricing front, carriers have also only just started to grapple with 5G business models. One early example is TC parent Verizon’s 5G home service — which positions the next-gen wireless tech as an alternative to fixed line broadband with discounts if you opt for a wireless smartphone data plan as well as 5G broadband.

From the consumer point of view, the carrier 5G business model conundrum boils down to: What is my carrier going to charge me for 5G? And early adopters of any technology tend to get stung on that front.

Although, in mobile, price premiums rarely stick around for long as carriers inexorably find they must ditch premiums to unlock scale — via consumer-friendly ‘all you can eat’ price plans.

Still, in the short term, carriers look likely to experiment with 5G pricing and bundles — basically seeing what they can make early adopters pay. But it’s still far from clear that people will pay a premium for better connectivity alone. And that again necessitates caution. 

5G bundled with exclusive content might be one way carriers try to extract a premium from consumers. But without huge and/or compelling branded content inventory that risks being a too niche proposition too. And the more carriers split their 5G offers the more consumers might feel they don’t need to bother, and end up sticking with 4G for longer.

It’ll also clearly take time for a 5G ‘killer app’ to emerge in the consumer space. And such an app would likely need to still be able to fallback on 4G, again to ensure scale. So the 5G experience will really need to be compellingly different in order for the tech to sell itself.

On the handset side, 5G chipset hardware is also still in its first wave. At MWC this week Qualcomm announced a next-gen 5G modem, stepping up from last year’s Snapdragon 855 chipset — which it heavily touted as architected for 5G (though it doesn’t natively support 5G).

If you’re intending to buy and hold on to a 5G handset for a few years there’s thus a risk of early adopter burn at the chipset level — i.e. if you end up with a device with a suckier battery life vs later iterations of 5G hardware where more performance kinks have been ironed out.

Intel has warned its 5G modems won’t be in phones until next year — so, again, that suggests no 5G iPhones before 2020. And Apple is of course a great bellwether for mainstream consumer tech; the company only jumps in when it believes a technology is ready for prime time, rarely sooner. And if Cupertino feels 5G can wait, that’s going to be equally true for most consumers.

Zooming out, the specter of network security (and potential regulation) now looms very large indeed where 5G is concerned, thanks to East-West trade tensions injecting a strange new world of geopolitical uncertainty into an industry that’s never really had to grapple with this kind of business risk before.

Chinese kit maker Huawei’s rotating chairman, Guo Ping, used the opportunity of an MWC keynote to defend the company and its 5G solutions against U.S. claims its network tech could be repurposed by the Chinese state as a high tech conduit to spy on the West — literally telling delegates: “We don’t do bad things” and appealing to them to plainly to: “Please choose Huawei!”

Huawei rotating resident, Guo Ping, defends the security of its network kit on stage at MWC 2019

When established technology vendors are having to use a high profile industry conference to plead for trust it’s strange and uncertain times indeed.

In Europe it’s possible carriers’ 5G network kit choices could soon be regulated as a result of security concerns attached to Chinese suppliers. The European Commission suggested as much this week, saying in another MWC keynote that it’s preparing to step in try to prevent security concerns at the EU Member State level from fragmenting 5G rollouts across the bloc.

In an on stage Q&A Orange’s chairman and CEO, Stéphane Richard, couched the risk of destabilization of the 5G global supply chain as a “big concern”, adding: “It’s the first time we have such an important risk in our industry.”

Geopolitical security is thus another issue carriers are having to factor in as they make decisions about how quickly to make the leap to 5G. And holding off on upgrades, while regulators and other standards bodies try to figure out a trusted way forward, might seem the more sensible thing to do — potentially stalling 5G upgrades in the meanwhile.

Given all the uncertainties there’s certainly no reason for consumers to rush in.

Smartphone upgrade cycles have slowed globally for a reason. Mobile hardware is mature because it’s serving consumers very well. Handsets are both powerful and capable enough to last for years.

And while there’s no doubt 5G will change things radically in future, including for consumers — enabling many more devices to be connected and feeding back data, with the potential to deliver on the (much hyped but also still pretty nascent) ‘smart home’ concept — the early 5G sales pitch for consumers essentially boils down to more of the same.

“Over the next ten years 4G will phase out. The question is how fast that happens in the meantime and again I think that will happen slower than in early times because [with 5G] you don’t come into a vacuum, you don’t fill a big gap,” suggests Gartner’s Fabre. “4G’s great, it’s getting better, wi’fi’s getting better… The story of let’s build a big national network to do 5G at scale [for all] that’s just not happening.”

“I think we’ll start very, very simple,” he adds of the 5G consumer proposition. “Things like caching data or simply doing more broadband faster. So more of the same.

“It’ll be great though. But you’ll still be watching Netflix and maybe there’ll be a couple of apps that come up… Maybe some more interactive collaboration or what have you. But we know these things are being used today by enterprises and consumers and they’ll continue to be used.”

So — in sum — the 5G mantra for the sensible consumer is really ‘wait and see’.

Korean conglomerate SK leads $600M round for Chinese chipmaker Horizon Robotics

Horizon Robotics, a three-year-old Chinese startup backed by Intel Capital, just raised a mega-round of fundings from domestic and overseas backers as it competes for global supremacy in developing AI solutions and chips aimed at autonomous vehicles, smart retail stores, surveillance equipment and other devices for everyday scenarios.

The Beijing-based company announced Wednesday in a statement that it’s hauled in $600 million in a Series B funding round led by SK China, the China subsidiary of South Korean conglomerate SK Group; SK Hynix, SK’s semiconductor unit; and a number of undisclosed Chinese automakers along with their funds.

The fresh capital drove Horizon’s valuation to at least $3 billion, the company claims. The Financial Times previously reported that the chipmaker was raising up to $1 billion in a funding round that could value it at as much as $4 billion. Such a price tag could perhaps be justified by the vast amount of resources China has poured into the red-hot sector as part of a national push to shed dependency on imported chips and work towards what analysts call “semiconductor sovereignty.”

Horizon did not specify how the proceeds will be used. The company could not be immediately reached for comments.

In 2015, Yu Kai left Baidu as the Chinese search engine giant’s deep learning executive and founded Horizon to make the “brains” for a broad spectrum of connected devices. In doing so Yu essentially set himself up for a race against industry veterans like Intel and Nvidia. To date, the startup has managed to make a dent by securing government contracts, which provide a stable source of income for China’s AI upstarts including SenseTime, and several big-name clients like SK’s telecommunication unit, which is already leveraging Horizon’s algorithms to develop smart retail solutions. Like many of its peers who are at the forefront of the AI race, Horizon has set up an office in Silicon Valley and hiring local talents for its lab.

Other investors who joined the round included several of Horizon’s returning investors such as Hillhouse Capital and Morningside Venture Capital . There were also some heavyweight new backers, such as a fund run by conglomerate China Oceanwide Holdings as well as the CSOBOR Fund, a private equity entity set up by China’s state-owned CITIC to back projects pertaining to China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” modern Silk Road initiative.

Xiaomi-backed electric toothbrush Soocas raises $30 million Series C

China’s Soocas continues to jostle with global toothbrush giants as it raises 200 million yuan ($30 million) in a series C funding round. The Shenzhen-based oral care manufacturer has secured the new capital from lead investor Vision Knight Capital, with Kinzon Capital, Greenwoods Investment, Yunmu Capital and Cathay Capital also participating in the round.

The new proceeds arrived less than a year after Soocas, one of Xiaomi’s home appliance portfolio startups, snapped up close to 100 million yuan in a Series B round last March. Best known for its budget smartphones, Xiaomi has a grand plan to construct an Internet of Things empire that encompasses smart TVs to electric toothbrushes, and it has been gearing up by shelling out strategic investments for consumer goods makers such as Soocas.

Founded in 2015, Soocas’s rise reflects a growing demand for personal care accessories as people’s disposable income increases. Electric toothbrushes are a relatively new concept to most Chinese consumers but the category is picking up steam fast. According to data compiled by Alibaba’s advertising service Alimama, gross merchandise volume sales of electric toothbrushes grew 97 percent between 2015 and 2017. Multinational brands still dominate the oral care space in China, with Procter & Gamble, Colgate and Hawley & Hazel Chemical occupying the top three spots as of 2017, a report from Euromonitor International shows, but local players are rapidly catching up.

Soocas faces some serious competition from its Chinese peers Usmile and Roaman. Like Soocas, the two rivals have also placed their offices in southern China for proximity to the region’s robust supply chain resources. Part of Soocas’s strength comes from its tie-up with Xiaomi, which gives its portfolio companies access to a massive online and offline distribution network worldwide. That comes at a cost, however, as Xiaomi is known to impose razor-thin margins on the companies it backs and controls.

According to a statement from Soocas’s founder Meng Fandi, the company has achieved profitability since its launch and has seen its margin increase over the years. It plans to spend its fresh proceeds on marketing in a race to lure China’s increasingly sophisticated young consumers with toothbrushes and its new lines of hair dryers, nasal trimmers and other tools that make you squeaky-clean.

Tesla to recall 14,000 Model S cars in China over faulty Takata airbags

China’s top market regulator said on Friday that Tesla will recall a total of 14,123 imported Model S vehicles in the country over potentially deadly airbags.

The recall is part of an industry-wide crackdown on Takata-made front passenger airbags, which involves roughly 37 million vehicles including more mainstream brands such as Toyota and Ford, as noted by the United States Department of Transportation. These defective airbags use a propellant that might rupture the airbag and cause serious injuries, or even deaths.

Tesla has begun a worldwide recall of its sedans that use Takata airbags, the firm said on its Support blog. It noted that the airbags only become defective based on certain factors, such as age. The recall does not affect later Model S vehicles, Roadster, Model X, or its more affordable Model 3.

The China recall involves Model S cars manufactured between February 2014 to December 2016, shows a notice posted on the website of China’s State Administration for Market Regulation. TechCrunch has reached out to Tesla for comments and will update the article once more information is available.

The setback comes as Tesla is making a big push into the world’s largest auto market and tapping on Beijing’s effort to phase out fossil-fuel cars for China. The company recently reached an agreement with the Shanghai government to build its first Gigafactory outside the US, which will focus on making Model 3 cars for Chinese consumers. There is no target date for the factory to become fully operational yet.

Despite being an alluring market, China has been a major source of Tesla’s concerns over the past months due to escalating trade tensions and the rollback of government subsidies for green vehicles. Tesla responded by slashing its Model 3 price by 7.6 percent for China to neutralize heavy tariffs on imported cars.

The Palo Alto-based company previously recalled 8,898 Model S vehicles in China over corroding bolts, which it claimed at the time had not led to any accidents or injuries.

Grab moves to offer digital insurance services in Southeast Asia

Grab is Southeast Asia’s top ride-hailing firm, thanks in no small part to its acquisition of Uber’s local business last year, but the company also houses an ambitious fintech arm, too. That just added another vertical to its business after Grab announced it is teaming up with China’s ZhongAn to introduce insurance.

Grab and ZhongAn International, the international arm of the Chinese insurance giant, said today they will create a joint venture that will provide digital insurance services across Southeast Asia. Grab said the new business will partner with insurance companies to offer the services via its mobile app. Chubb — a company that already works with Grab to offer micro-loans to its drivers — is the first partner to commit, it’ll offer insurance for Grab drivers starting in Singapore.

ZhongAn is widely-lauded for being China’s first digital-only insurance platform. It’s backed by traditional insurance giant PingAn and Chinese internet giants Tencent and Alibaba.

Grab’s move into digital insurance comes a day after Singapore Life, an online insurer in Singapore, closed the second part of a $33 million funding round aimed at expanding its business in Southeast Asia.

This ZhongAn partnership adds another layer to Grab’s services and fintech business, which already includes payments — both offline and online — and is scheduled to move into cross-border remittance and online healthcare, the latter being a deal with ZhongAn sibling PingAn Good Doctor.

The push is also part of a wider strategy from Grab, which was last valued at over $11 billion and is aiming to turn its app from merely ride-hailing to an everyday needs app, in the style of Chinese ‘super apps’ like Meituan and WeChat.

Indeed, Grab President Ming Ma referenced that very ambitious calling the insurance products “part of our commitment to becoming the leading everyday super app in the region.”

Last summer, Grab opened its platform to third-parties which can lean on its considerable userbase — currently at 130 million downloads — to reach consumers in Southeast Asia, where the fast-growing ‘digital economy’ is tipped to triple to reach $240 billion by 2025. Grab’s platform has welcomed services like e-grocer HappyFresh, deals from travel giant Booking and more.

Grab has also made efforts to develop the local ecosystem with its own accelerator program — called ‘Velocity’ — which, rather than providing equity, helps young companies to leverage its platform. It has also made investments, including a deal with budget hotel brand OYO in India, a fellow SoftBank portfolio company that has designs on expansion in Southeast Asia.

Grab itself operates across eight markets in Southeast Asia, where it claims to have completed more than two billion rides to date. The company is currently raising a massive Series H fund which has already passed $3 billion in capital raised but has a loftier goal of reaching $5 billion, as we reported recently.

Go-Jek, Grab’s chief rival, is expanding its business outside of Indonesia after launching in Vietnam, Thailand and Vietnam. Like Grab, it, too, offers services beyond ride-hailing and the company — which is backed by the likes of Meituan, Google and Tencent — is close to finalizing a new $2 billion funding round for its battle with Grab.

China’s lunar probe makes history by successfully soft-landing on the far side of the moon

It’s not Lunar New Year yet, but there is something new on the moon. In a major milestone for space exploration, China announced that its lunar program has successfully soft-landed a probe on the far side of the moon, making it the first one to do so. The historic landing was reported by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, earlier today.

According to the China National Space Administration, the probe, consisting of a lander and rover, touched down at about 10:26AM Beijing time. This is the first ever soft-landing (meaning a landing without damage or destruction to the space vehicle) on the far side of the moon, which is never visible from Earth. Named after the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e-4 launched on Dec. 8 from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province.

China’s Chang’e-4 probe softlands on Moon’s far side pic.twitter.com/Z1R6tbpBMI

— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) January 3, 2019

The South China Morning Post reported earlier this week that the Chang’e-4 will be used for “astronomical observation using low-frequency radio, surveying the terrain and landforms, detecting the mineral composition and shallow lunar surface structure, and measuring neutron radiation and neutral atoms.” The successful soft-landing is important for space exploration because there is relatively little information about the far side of the moon compared to the side visible from Earth, which has been explored and surveyed by previous missions.

Photographs taken by earlier spacecraft, including the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 and Zond 3 (launched in 1959 and 1965, respectively) and NASA’s Lunar Orbiter program (launched in 1966), found significant differences between the far side’s terrain and the surface of the moon visible from Earth. In 1962, NASA’s Ranger 4 probe became the first spacecraft to impact on the moon, but was unable to send back data after landing.

Since direct communication between Chang’e-4 and Earth is blocked because of the probe’s position, China also launched a relay satellite called Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, that is currently 400,000 km above Earth, positioned between it and the moon.

Chang’e-4’s successful landing concludes the second phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). The first phase was the launch of Yutu, the lunar rover of Chang’e-3, which landed on the moon in December 2013, but stopped moving after 40 days due to a mechanical problem (it is still able to transmit data and photos, including true color high-definition photos). The successful landing of Chang’e-3 was another a significant milestone for China’s space program, making it only the third country after the U.S. and Soviet Union to soft-land on the moon. After Chang’e-4, the third and final phase of CLEP will be a returnable spacecraft called Chang’e-5. Set to launch by 2020, Chang’e-5 will be used to collect samples.

Tencent left out as China approves the release of 80 new video games

Chinese internet giant Tencent has been excluded from the first batch of video game license approvals issued by the state-run government since March.

China regulators approved Saturday the released of 80 online video games after a months-long freeze, Reuters first reported. None of the approved titles listed on the approval list were from Tencent Holdings, the world’s largest gaming company.

Licenses are usually granted on a first come, first serve basis in order of when studios file their applications, several game developers told TechCrunch. There are at least 7,000 titles in the waiting list, among which only 3,000 may receive the official licenses in 2019, China’s 21st Century Business Herald reported citing experts. Given the small chance of making it to the first batch, it’s unsurprising the country’s two largest game publishers Tencent and NetEase were absent.

The controlled and gradual unfreezing process is in line with a senior official’s announcement on December 21. While the Chinese gaming regulator is trying its best to greenlight titles as soon as possible, there is a huge number of applications in the pipeline, the official said. Without licenses, studios cannot legally monetize their titles in China. The hiatus in approval has slashed earnings in the world’s largest gaming market, which posted a 5.4 percent year-over-year growth in the first half of 2018, the slowest rate in the last ten years according to a report by Beijing-based research firm GPC and China’s official gaming association CNG.

Tencent is best known as the company behind WeChat, a popular messaging platform in China. But much of its revenue comes from gaming. Even with a recent decline in gaming revenue, the company has a thriving business that is majority owner of several companies including Activision, Grinding Gears Games, Riot and Supercell. In 2012, the company took a 40 percent stake in Epic Games, maker of Fortnite. Tencent also has alliances or publishing deals with other video gaming companies such as Square Enix, makers of Tomb Raider. 

The ban on new video game titles in China has affected Tencent’s bottom line. The company reported revenue from gaming fell 4 percent in the third quarter due to the prolonged freeze on licenses. At the time, Tencent claimed it had 15 games with monetization approval in its pipeline. To combat pressure in its consumer-facing gaming business, the Chinese giant launched a major reorganization in October to focus more on enterprise-related initiatives such as cloud services and maps. Founder and CEO Pony Ma said at the time the strategic repositioning would prepare Tencent for the next 20 years of operation.

“In the second stage, we aspire to enable our partners in different industries to better connect with consumers via an expanding, open and connected ecosystem,” stated Ma.

China tightened restrictions in 2018 to combat games that are deemed illegal, immoral, low-quality or have a negative social impact such as those that make children addicted or near-sighted. This means studios, regardless of size, need to weigh new guidelines in their production and user interaction. Tencent placed its own restrictions on gaming in what appeared to be an attempt to assuage regulators. The company has expanded its age verification system, an effort aimed at curbing use of young players, and placed limits on daily play.

Update (December 30, 10:00 am, GMT+8): Adds context on China’s gaming industry and Tencent.

Alibaba-backed Hellobike bags new funds as it marches into ride-hailing

2018 has been a rough year for China’s bike-sharing giants. Alibaba-backed Ofo pulled out of dozens of international cities as it fought with a severe cash crunch. Tencent-backed Mobike puts a brake on expansion after it was sold to neighborhood services provider Meituan Dianping. But one newcomer is pedaling against the wind.

Hellobike, currently the country’s third-largest bike-sharing app according to Analysys data, announced this week that it raised “billions of yuan” ($1 = 6.88 yuan) in a new round. The company declined to reveal details on the funding amount and use of the proceeds when inquired by TechCrunch.

Leading the round were Ant Financial, the financial affiliate of Alibaba and maker behind digital wallet Alipay, and Primavera Capital, a Chinese investment firm that’s backed other mobility startups including electric automaker Xpeng and car trading platform Souche. The fledgling startup also got SoftBank interested in shelling out an investment, The Information reported in November. The fresh capital arrived about a year after it secured $350 million from investors including Ant Financial.

As China’s bicycle giants burn through billions of dollars to tout subsidized rides, they’ve gotten caught up in financial troubles. Ten months after Ofo raised $866 million, the startup is reportedly mulling bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Mobike is downsizing its fleet to “avoid an oversupply,” a Meituan executive recently said.

It’s interesting to note that while both Ofo and Hellobike fall under the Alibaba camp, they began with different geographic targets. By May, only 5 percent of Hellobike’s users were in China’s Tier 1 cities, while that ratio was over 30 percent for both Mobike and Ofo, a report by Trustdata shows.

This small-town strategy gives Hellobike an edge. As the bike-sharing markets in China’s major cities become crowded, operators began turning to lower-tier cities in 2017, a report from the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology points out.

The new contender is still dwarfed by its larger competitors in terms of user number. Ofo and Mobike command 43 million and 38 million unique monthly mobile installs, respectively, while Hellobike stands at 8 million, accroding to iResearch.

Hellobike’s ambition doesn’t stop at two-wheelers. In September, it rebranded its Chinese name to HelloTransTech to signify an extension into other transportation means. Aside from bikes, the startup also offers shared electric bikes, ride-hailing and carpooling, a category that became much contested following high-profile passenger murders on Didi Chuxing .

In May and August, two female customers were killed separately when they used the Hitch service on Didi, China’s biggest ride-hailing platform that took over Uber’s China business. The incidents sparked a huge public and regulatory backlash, forcing Didi to suspend its carpooling service up to this day. But this week, its newly minted rival Hellobike decides to forge ahead with a campaign to recruit carpooling drivers. Time will tell whether the latecomer can grapple with heightened security measures and fading customer confidence in riding with strangers.

Tesla shares fall 7.6% following price cuts in China and Elon Musk’s promise to reimburse missed tax credits

Monday was a tough day for the U.S. stock market, but Tesla shares were hit especially hard. The stock fell by 7.6 percent after Tesla cut the Model 3’s price in China and CEO Elon Musk promised to reimburse U.S. customers if they miss a tax credit deadline due to Model 3 shipment delays.

Reuters reported this weekend that the Model 3’s prices on Tesla’s China website had been reduced by up to 7.6 percent, with the starting price now at 499,000 RMB (about $72,000). This is the third time since November that Tesla has lowered the price of its vehicles in China.

The first was in November, when it slashed the price of Model X and Model S vehicles by 12 to 26 percent, stating that it was “absorbing a significant part of the tariff to help make cars more affordable for customers in China.” Then this month, Tesla cut Model X and Model S prices again, citing China’s decision to temporarily suspend a new 25 percent tariff on American-produced vehicles and auto parts as the two countries reached a ceasefire in the trade war.

In October, Tesla announced on its site that if U.S. customers needed to order a Model S, Model X, or Model 3 before October 15 if they wanted the full $7,500 federal tax credit, which begins to phase out once a manufacturer sells 200,000 qualifying vehicles in the U.S. (Tesla hit that milestone earlier this year). As a result, the federal tax vehicle will be cut 50 percent to $3,750 for vehicles delivered January 1 to June 30, 2019, before behing halved again on July 1.

On Sunday, Musk tweeted in response to a question that if a customer’s pre-December order isn’t delivered before the end of the year, Tesla will reimburse the tax credits they missed out on.

If Tesla committed delivery & customer made good faith efforts to receive before year end, Tesla will cover the tax credit difference

Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 22, 2018

After months of production and delivery delays, Tesla ramped up fulfillment of Model 3 orders in the third quarter of this year, when it delivered a total of 83,500 vehicles, including 55,840 Model 3 units.

China’s Tencent Music raises $1.1 billion in downsized US IPO

Tencent Music, China’s largest streaming company, has raised $1.1 billion in a U.S. IPO after it priced its shares at $13 a piece ahead of a listing on the Nasdaq.

That makes it one of the largest tech listings of the year, but the pricing is at the bottom end of its $13-$15 range indicating that the much-anticipated IPO has felt the effects of an uncertain market. Indeed, the company is said to have paused the listing process, which it started in early October, for a time so choppy are the waters right now — and that’s not even mentioning a shareholder-led lawsuit that was filed last week.

Still, this listing gives TME — Tencent Music Entertainment, a spin-out of Tencent — an impressive $21.3 billion valuation which is just below the $30 billion that Spotify commanded when it went public earlier this year via an unconventional direct listing. TME was valued at $12 billion at the time of Spotify’s listing in Q1 of this year so this is also a big jump. (Meanwhile, Spotify’s present market cap is around $24 billion.)

The company operates a constellation of music streaming services in China which span orthodox Spotify-style streaming as well as karaoke and live-streaming services. Altogether, TME claims 800 million registered users — although there’s likely a little creative accounting or double counting across apps involved since the Chinese government itself says there are 800 million internet users in the entire country.

Notably, though, TME is profitable. The same can’t be said for Spotify and likely Apple Music — although we don’t have financials for the latter. That’s down to the unique business model that the Chinese firm operates, with subscription and virtual goods a major driver for its businesses, while Tencent’s ubiquitous WeChat messaging app helps it reach users and gain virality.

Tidy though the numbers are, its revenues are dwarfed by those of Spotify, which grossed €1.4 billion ($1.59 billion) in sales in its last quarter. For comparison, TME did RMB 8.6 billion ($1.3 billion) in revenue for the first six months of this year.

TME executives are taking that as a sign that there’s ample scope to grow their business, although it seems unlikely that will ever be as global as Spotify. The two companies might yet collaborate in the future though, since they are both mutual shareholders via a share swap deal that concluded one year ago.

You can read more about TME in our deep dive below.

We also wrote about the lessons Western services like Spotify and Apple Music can learn from TME.

Apple says iPhones remain on sale in China following court injunction

Apple has filed an appeal to overturn a court decision that could ban iPhone sales in China, the company said on Monday, adding that all of its models remain available in its third-largest market.

The American giant is locked in a legal battle in the world’s biggest smartphone market. On Monday, Qualcomm announced that a court in Fujian Province has granted a preliminary injunction banning the import and sales of old iPhone models in China because they violated two patents owned by the American chipmaker.

The patents in question relate to features enabling consumers to edit photos and manage apps on smartphone touchscreens, according to Qualcomm.

“Apple continues to benefit from our intellectual property while refusing to compensate us. These Court orders are further confirmation of the strength of Qualcomm’s vast patent portfolio,” said Don Rosenberg, executive vice president and general counsel of Qualcomm, in a statement.

Apple fought back in a statement calling Qualcomm’s effort to ban its products “another desperate move by a company whose illegal practices are under investigation by regulators around the world.” It also claimed that Qualcomm is asserting three patents they had never raised before, including one which has already been invalidated.

It is unclear at this point what final effects the court injunction will have on Apple’s sales in China.

The case is part of an ongoing global patent dispute between Qualcomm and Apple, which saw the former seek to block the manufacturing and sale of iPhones in China over patent issues pertaining to payments last year.

Qualcomm shares were up 3 percent on Monday. Apple opened down more than 2 percent before closing up 0.7 percent. Citi lowered its Apple price target to $200 a share from $240 a share, saying in a note to investors that while it does not expect China to ban or impose additional tariffs on Apple, “should this occur Apple has material exposure to China.”

The Apple case comes as the tech giant faces intensifying competition in China, which represented 18 percent of its total sales from the third quarter. The American company’s market share in China shrunk from 7.2 percent to 6.7 percent year-over-year in the second quarter as local competitors Huawei and Oppo gained more ground, according to market research firm IDC.

The annual drop is due to Apple’s high prices, IDC suggests, but its name “is still very strong in China” and “the company will fare well should it release slightly cheaper options later in the year.”

CRISPR scientist in China claims his team’s research has resulted in the world’s first gene-edited babies

In what represents a dramatic and ethically fraught escalation of CRISPR research, a Chinese scientist from a university in Shenzhen claims he has succeeded in helping create the world’s first genetically-edited babies. Dr. Jiankui He told the Associated Press that twin girls were born earlier this month after he edited their embryos using CRISPR technology to remove the CCR5 gene, which plays a critical role in enabling many forms of the HIV virus to infect cells.

The AP’s interview was published after a report by the MIT Technology Review earlier today that He’s team at the Southern University of Science and Technology wants to use CRISPR technology to eliminate the CCR5 gene and create children with resistance to HIV.

He’s claims are certain to cause a huge stir at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, set to begin in Hong Kong on Tuesday. According to the Technology Review, the summit’s organizers were apparently not notified of He’s plans for the study, though the AP says He informed them today. (It is important to note that there is still no independent confirmation of He’s claim and that it has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.)

During his interview with the AP, He, who studied at Rice and Stanford before returning to China, said he felt “a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example” and that “society will decide what to do next.”

According to documents linked by the Technology Review, the study was approved by the Medical Ethics Committee of Shenzhen HOME Women’s and Children’s Hospital. The summary on the Chinese Clinical Trial Registry also said the study’s execution time is between March 7, 2017 to March 7, 2019, and that it sought married couples living in China who met its health and age requirements and are willing to undergo IVF therapy. The research team wrote that their goal is to “obtain healthy children to avoid HIV providing new insights for the future elimination of major genetic diseases in early human embryos.”

A table attached to the trial’s listing on the Chinese Clinical Trial Registry said genetic tests have already been carried out on fetuses of 12, 19, and 24 weeks of gestational age, though it is unclear if those pregnancies included the one that resulted in the birth of the twin girls, whose parents wish to remain anonymous.

“I believe this is going to help the families and their children,” He told the AP, adding that if the study causes harm, “I would feel the same pain as they do and it’s going to be my own responsibility.”

Chinese scientists at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou first edited the genes of a human embryo using CRISPR technology (the acronym stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), which enables the removal of specific genes by acting as a very precise pair of “genetic scissors,” in 2015. Though other scientists, including in the United States, have conducted similar research since then, the Southern University of Science and Technology’s study is considered especially radical because of the ethical implications of CRISPR, which many scientists fear may be used to perpetuate eugenics or create “designer babies” if carried out on embryos meant to be carried to term.

As in the United States and many European countries, using a genetically-engineered embryo in a pregnancy is already prohibited in China, though the Technology Review points out that this guideline, which was issued to IVF clinics in 2003, may not carry the weight of the law.

In 2015, shortly after the Sun Yat-sen University experiment (which was conducted on embryos that were unviable because of chromosomal effects) became known, a meeting called by several groups, including the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, the Institute of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London, called for a moratorium on making inheritable changes to the human genome.

In addition to ethical concerns, Fyodor Urnov, a gene-editing scientist and associate director of the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences, a nonprofit in Seattle, told the Technology Review that He’s study is cause for “regret and concern” because it may also overshadow progress in gene-editing research currently being carried out on adults with HIV.

TechCrunch has contacted He for comment at his university email.

China’s NIO invests in LiDAR startup Innovusion

Innovusion, a two-year-old startup developing LiDAR sensor technology for autonomous vehicles, has raised $30 million in a Series A funding round co-led by Chinese firms Nio Capital and Eight Roads Ventures along with U.S.-based F-Prime Capital.

Other seed round and strategic investors joined the round, the startup said.

Nio Capital is the venture arm of Nio, the Chinese electric automaker aiming to compete with Tesla. Nio, which raised $1 billion when it debuted on the New York Stock Exchange in September, has operations in the U.S., U.K. and Germany, although it only sells its ES8 vehicle in China.

Innovusion, which was founded in November 2016, says it will use the funding to scale up its operations, specifically to ramp up production of its light detection and ranging sensor system called Innovusion Cheetah. The company began shipping samples of the system in the second quarter of 2018 and is beginning to take customer orders.

The round of funding will allow the Los Altos, California-based company to expand its R&D team and manufacturing facilities to more quickly develop, market and deliver Innovusion Cheetah LiDAR to customers around the world, according to Junwei Bao, the company’s co-founder and CEO. The company primarily is targeting customers in China and the U.S.

LiDAR is used by companies developing autonomous vehicles to detect and measure objects on the road around them. Most of the companies testing AVs believe LiDAR is an essential sensor required to deploy self-driving vehicles safely on public roads. It’s what has propelled demand for LiDAR and, in turn, an array of startups to pop up and try capture market share away from Velodyne, the long-time dominant leader in the space.

Tesla to bring portion of Model 3 production to China next year

Tesla, which reported its first quarterly profits in two years Wednesday, is looking to extend its earnings streak by bringing its new Model 3 to customers beyond North America. And part of that plan involves accelerating its manufacturing plans in China.

Tesla saw its revenue skyrocket to $6.8 billion in the third quarter (and a $312 million profit) thanks to sales of its new Model 3 vehicle, despite production bottlenecks and more recent issues with delivery logistics. The company was able to achieve that profitability milestone just through sales in the U.S. and Canada. That leaves two other massive markets on the table. Cue Europe and China.

Tesla said Wednesday it will start to take orders for the Model 3 in Europe and China before the end of 2018. Tesla said it will begin deliveries of the Model 3 to Europe early next year.

“The mid-sized premium sedan market in Europe is more than twice as big as the same segment in the U.S.,” Tesla said in its shareholder letter released Wednesday. “This is why we are excited to bring Model 3 to Europe early next year.”

Notably, the company is further accelerating its timeline for China and said it will bring portions of Model 3 production to the country next year.

“We are aiming to bring portions of Model 3 production to China during 2019 and to progressively increase the level of localization through local sourcing and manufacturing,” Tesla said in its earnings report. “Production in China will be designated only for local customers.”

Tesla said earlier this month it plans for as rapid build out of a factory in China. But there’s something new here. The term “portions of Model 3 production” is the important phrase. This could be referring to a term used in the manufacturing world known as a complete knock down. CKD is basically a kit of non-assembled parts of a product, like say a Model 3. It’s a strategy used to avoid tariffs when shipping to foreign countries.

Tesla has plans to build a factory in Shanghai, but construction hasn’t even begun yet.

The company secured in October rights to about 210 acres of land in Lingang, Shanghai, the site of the electric automaker’s planned factory and its first outside of the U.S.

Tesla warned in its production and delivery report in early October that tariffs, combined with the cost of shipping its vehicles via ocean carrier and the lack of access to cash incentives available to locally produced electric vehicles, has put the company at a disadvantage in China. Tesla reiterated those cost constraints in its third-quarter earnings report.

Tesla reached a deal in July with the Shanghai government to build a factory that it says will be capable of producing 500,000 electric vehicles a year. Once construction begins, it will take about two years until Tesla can produce vehicles. It will be another “two to three years before the factory is fully ramped up to produce around 500,000 vehicles per year for Chinese customers,” a Tesla spokesman said at the time.

Cryptocurrency wallet startup Cobo raises $13M Series A to enter the U.S. and Southeast Asia

Cobo, a cryptocurrency wallet startup headquartered in Beijing, has raised a $13 million Series A to enter new international markets. The round was led by DHVC and Wu Capital, a family office based in China. Cobo plans to expand in the United States and Southeast Asia, in particular Vietnam and Indonesia. Cobo is also now taking pre-orders for Cobo Vault, a hardware wallet (pictured above) that it claims is military grade. Cobo’s Series A brings its total funding to $20 million so far.

Cobo Wallet allows users to store both proof-of-stake and proof-of-work coins. One incentive for people to pick the app over its competitors is the ability to pool proof-of-stake assets with other users so they can increase their chances of mining and validating new blocks on the blockchain. Since launching earlier this year, Cobo says its digital wallet has gained more than 500,000 users.

The startup was founded last year by CEO Shixing Mao, who is known as Discus Fish in the crypto community, and CTO Changhao Jiang, a former platform engineer at Facebook and Google who co-founded Bihang, a cryptocurrency wallet acquired by OKCoin in 2013. Discus Fish, meanwhile, is known for launching F2Pool, China’s first mining pool.

Cobo Vault, which will retail for $479, meets the MIL-STD-810G U.S. military standard for equipment, Cobo’s head of hardware Lixin Liu said in an email, adding that it was built with proprietary firmware created especially for the device, a bank-grade encryption chip and military-grade aluminum.

Cobo Vault’s creation was prompted by an August 2017 incident in which F2Pool was hacked and more than 8,000 ETH was stolen from Discus Fish’s account. Fish also refunded customers’ lost ETH from his own assets. “As a result, Discus Fish was resolute on the fact that for crypto to gain mass market adoption, products had to be made to be hacker-resistant and truly safe,” said Liu.

Meituan-Dianping’s IPO off to a good start as shares climb 7% on debut

Meituan-Dianping (3690.HK) enjoyed a strong debut today in Hong Kong, a sign that investors are confident in the Tencent-backed company’s prospects despite its cash-burning growth strategy, heavy competition and a sluggish Hong Kong stock market.

During morning trading, Meituan’s shares reached a high of HKD$73.85 (about $9.41), a 7% increase over its initial public offering price of HKD$69. When Meituan reportedly set a target valuation of $55 billion for its debut, it triggered concerns that the company, which bills itself a “one-stop super app” for everything from food delivery to ticket bookings, as overconfident.

While Meituan, the owner of Mobile, is the leading online marketplace for services in China, it faces formidable competition from Alibaba’s Ele.me and operating on tight margins and heavy losses as it spends money on marketing and user acquisition costs. As it prepared for its IPO, Meituan was also under the shadow of underwhelming Hong Kong debuts by Xiaomi and China Tower. Like Xiaomi, Meituan is listed under a new dual-class share structure designed to attract tech companies by allowing them to give weighted voting rights to founders.

The sponsors of Meituan’s IPO are Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

North Korea skirts US sanctions by secretly selling software around the globe

Fake social media profiles are useful for more than just sowing political discord among foreign adversaries, as it turns out. A group linked to the North Korean government has been able to duck existing sanctions on the country by concealing its true identity and developing software for clients abroad.

This week, the US Treasury issued sanctions against two tech companies accused of running cash-generating front operations for North Korea: Yanbian Silverstar Network Technology or “China Silver Star,” based near Shenyang, China, and a Russian sister company called Volasys Silver Star. The Treasury also sanctioned China Silver Star’s North Korean CEO Jong Song Hwa.

“These actions are intended to stop the flow of illicit revenue to North Korea from overseas information technology workers disguising their true identities and hiding behind front companies, aliases, and third-party nationals,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said of the sanctions.

As the Wall Street Journal reported in a follow-up story, North Korean operatives advertised with Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, solicited business with Freelance.com and Upwork, crafted software using Github, communicated over Slack and accepted compensation with Paypal. The country appears to be encountering little resistance putting tech platforms built by US companies to work building software including “mobile games, apps, [and] bots” for unwitting clients abroad.

The US Treasury issued its first warnings of secret North Korean software development scheme in July, though did not provide many details at the time. The Wall Street Journal was able to identify “tens of thousands” of dollars stemming from the Chinese front company, though that’s only a representative sample. The company worked as a middleman, contracting its work out to software developers around the globe and then denying payment for their services.

Facebook suspended many suspicious accounts linked to the scheme after they were identified by the Wall Street Journal, including one for “Everyday-Dude.com”:

“A Facebook page for Everyday-Dude.com, showing packages with hundreds of programs, was taken down minutes later as a reporter was viewing it. Pages of some of the account’s more than 1,000 Facebook friends also subsequently disappeared…

“[Facebook] suspended numerous North Korea-linked accounts identified by the Journal, including one that Facebook said appeared not to belong to a real person. After it closed that account, another profile, with identical friends and photos, soon popped up.”

Linkedin and Upwork similarly removed accounts linked to the North Korean operations.

Beyond the consequences for international relations, software surreptitiously sold by the North Korean government poses considerable security risks. According to the Treasury, the North Korean government makes money off of a “range of IT services and products abroad” including “website and app development, security software, and biometric identification software that have military and law enforcement applications.” For companies unwittingly buying North Korea-made software, the potential for malware that could give the isolated nation eyes and ears beyond its borders is high, particularly given that the country has already demonstrated its offensive cyber capabilities.

Between that and sanctions against doing business with the country, Mnuchin urges the information technology industry and other businesses to exercise awareness of the ongoing scheme to avoid accidentally contracting with North Korea on tech-related projects.

Alibaba announces CEO Daniel Zhang will succeed Jack Ma as chairman next year

Following speculation about Jack Ma’s imminent retirement, Alibaba Group announced today that its CEO, Daniel Zhang, will succeed Ma as chairman next year. After stepping down as chairman on September 10, 2019 (exactly a year from now), Ma will continue serving as a board member until its annual general shareholders’ meeting in 2020.

After that, Ma will remain a lifetime partner of the Alibaba Partnership, or a group of 36 partners drawn from the senior management ranks of Alibaba Group companies and affiliates. They hold a considerable amount of sway over the company because they have the right to nominate, or in certain situations, appoint up to a simple majority of its board of directors.

Alibaba’s announcement follows reports that Ma’s retirement from the company he co-founded in 1999 as an online marketplace was imminent, with Ma, a former English teacher, planning to dedicate his time to philanthropy in education. Ma downplayed those reports, however, telling the South China Morning Post (which is owned by Alibaba) that instead he will gradually reduce his role in the company through a succession plan.

Ma stepped down as CEO in 2013, handing the position over to Jonathan Lu. Lu was replaced in 2015 by Zhang, Alibaba’s former COO, after Ma reportedly told employees that it’s time for the company to be run by people born in the 1970s and after (Zhang was born in 1972, three years after Lu).

In a letter sent to media outlets today, Ma wrote that Zhang has “demonstrated his superb talent, business acumen and determined leadership” since taking over as CEO. Under his stewardship, Alibaba has seen consistent and sustainable growth for 13 consecutive quarters. His analytical mind is unparalleled, he holds dear our mission and vision, he embraces responsibility with passion, and he has the guts to innovate and test creative business models.”

Ma added that “this transition demonstrates that Alibaba has stepped up to the next level of corporate governance from a company that relies on individuals, to one built on systems of organizational excellence and a culture of talent development.”

Ma also re-emphasized his narrative that his departure from Alibaba Group will be very gradual. “I have put a lot of thought and preparation into this succession plan for 10 years. I am delighted to announce the plan today thanks to the support of the Alibaba Partnership and our board of directors,” he wrote. “I also want to offer special thanks to all Alibaba colleagues and your families, because your trust, support and our joint enterprise over the past 19 years have prepared us for this day with confidence and strength.”

Of his plans after Zhang takes over as chairman next year, Ma said he will continue contributing to the Alibaba Partnership, before adding “I also want to return to education, which excites me with so much blessing because this is what I love to do. The world is big, and I am still young, so I want to try new things – because what if new dreams can be realized?! The one thing I can promise everyone is this: Alibaba was never about Jack Ma, but Jack Ma will forever belong to Alibaba.”

China announces transportation industry reform, days after murder of Didi carpooling passenger

The Chinese government announced it will reform the transportation industry to safeguard passengers, three days after a female passenger was allegedly raped and murdered by a Didi Chuxing driver last Friday. Provinces and autonomous regions are now tasked with setting up passenger safety committees by the end of this month and ensuring that incidents are investigated promptly.

The crime led to the suspension of Hitch, Didi Chuxing’s carpooling service, and the firing of two executives: Hitch’s general manager and Didi’s vice president of customer services. This is not the first time, however, that Didi has been forced pull back on Hitch. Earlier this year, it suspended night operations after a female passenger was allegedly murdered by an unregistered driver who had accessed the service using his father’s account. Nighttime Hitch rides then resumed in June after Didi put new safety measures in place, including a rule that prohibited drivers from accepting ride requests by passengers of the opposite sex during certain hours.

The latest incident took place on Friday in the eastern province of Zhejiang and is especially concerning because the driver had been flagged just one day before the murder by another female passenger who complained that he followed her after she left his vehicle. In a statement, Didi said a safety center representative failed to follow corporate policy and initiate an investigation within two hours. The company also admitted that its customer service procedures has “many deficiencies” and said it will “plead for law enforcement and the public to work with us in developing more efficient and practical collaborative solutions to fight criminals and protect user personal and property safety.”

China’s police and transport ministries have already said that Didi bears “unshirkable responsibility” for Friday’s murder. The company has already been accused of being too lax with passenger safety, leaving its users–particularly women–vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault.

What stunned me while reporting this was the numbers. According to Southern Weekly, at least 53 women have been raped or sexually harassed by Didi drivers in the past 4 yrs?! Caixin says there are 14 rapes linked to Didi drivers, citing court docs. https://t.co/Me0oBXRyxo

— Sui-Lee Wee 黄瑞黎 (@suilee) August 27, 2018

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the agency that enacts strategies for China’s economic and social development, posted its announcement, titled “Concerning untrustworthy behavior in the emerging transportation sector,” online on Monday morning.

In it, the NDRC said it will put measures into place to root out untrustworthy and dishonest operators in China’s transportation industry, which has grown dramatically over the past two decades. Provinces and autonomous regions must form committees and procedures to ensure passenger safety by August 31 and share information about violations and offenders with other municipalities.

While the NDRC mentioned all transportation sectors, including railways, airplanes and ships, it singled out passenger vehicles, including buses, shuttles and cabs, in one passage and ordered municipalities to investigate offenses in a timely manner. Operators that don’t take action quickly to fix “untrustworthy behavior” risk being placed on a blacklist and having their names published on government websites.

Australia bans Huawei and ZTE from supplying technology for its 5G network

Australia has blocked Huawei and ZTE from providing equipment for its 5G network, which is set to launch commercially next year. In a tweet, Huawei stated that the Australian government told the company that both it and ZTE are banned from supplying 5G technology to the country, despite Huawei’s assurances that it does not pose a threat to national security.

We have been informed by the Govt that Huawei & ZTE have been banned from providing 5G technology to Australia. This is a extremely disappointing result for consumers. Huawei is a world leader in 5G. Has safely & securely delivered wireless technology in Aust for close to 15 yrs

— Huawei Australia (@HuaweiOZ) August 22, 2018

Earlier today, the Australian government issued new security guidelines for 5G carriers. Although it did not mention Huawei, ZTE or China specifically, it did strongly hint at them by stating “the Government considers that the involvement of vendors who are likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from foreign government that conflict with Australian law, may risk failure by the carrier to adequately protect a 5G network from unauthorized access or interference.”

Concerns that Huawei, ZTE and other Chinese tech companies will be forced to comply with a new law, passed last year, that obligates all Chinese organizations and citizens to provide information to national intelligence agencies when asked have made several countries wary of using their technology. Earlier this month, the United States banned the use of most Huawei and ZTE technology by government agencies and contractors, six years after a Congressional report first cited the two companies as security threats.

In its new security guidelines, the Australian government stated that differences in the way 5G operates compared to previous network generations introduces new risks to national security. In particular, it noted the diminishing distinctions between the core network, where more sensitive functions like access control and data routing occur, and the edge, or radios that connect customer equipment, like laptops and mobile phones, to the core.

“This new architecture provides a way to circumvent traditional security controls by exploiting equipment in the edge of the network – exploitation which may affect overall network integrity and availability, as well as the confidentiality of customer data. A long history of cyber incidents shows cyber actors target Australia and Australians,” the guidelines stated. “Government has found no combination of technical security controls that sufficiently mitigate the risks.”

Last year, Australia introduced the Telecommunications Sector Security Reforms (TSSR), which takes effect next month and directs carriers and telecommunication service providers to protect their networks and infrastructure from national security threats and also notify the government of any proposed changes that may compromise the security of their network. It also gives the government the power to “intervene and issue directions in cases where there are significant national security concerns that cannot be addressed through other means.”

Huawei’s Australian chairman John Lord said in June that the company had received legal advice that its Australian operations are not bound to Chinese laws and he would refuse to hand over any data to the Chinese government in breach of Australian law. Lord also argued that banning Huawei could hurt local businesses and customers by raising prices and limiting access to technology.

TechCrunch has contacted ZTE and Huawei for comment.

LinkedIn’s China rival Maimai raises $200M ahead of planned US IPO

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on TechNode, an editorial partner of TechCrunch based in China.

Maimai, China’s biggest rival to LinkedIn, has revealed today that it received a $200 million D Series investment back in April in what the company claims to be the largest investment in the professional networking market. That’s surprising but correct: LinkedIn went public in 2011 and was bought by Microsoft for $26 million in 2016, but it raised just over $150 million from investors as a private company.

Global venture capital DST led the round for Maimai which include participation from existing investors of IDG, Morningside Venture Capital, and DCM.

The new capital takes Maimai to $300 million raised from investors, according to CrunchbaseCaixin reports that the valuation of the company is more than $1 billion which would see the firm enter the global unicorn club.

Beyond the fundraising, the firm said it plans to invest RMB 1 billion (around $150 million) over the next three years in a career planning program that it launched in partnership with over 1,000 companies. Those partners include global top-500 firm Cisco and Chinese companies such as Fashion Group and Focus Media.

This investment could be the last time Maimai taps the private market for cash. That’s because the company is gearing up for a U.S. IPO and overseas expansion in the second half of 2019, according to the company founder and CEO Lin Fan.

Launched in the fall of 2013, Maimai aims particularly at business people as a platform to connect professional workers and offer employment opportunities. The service now claims over 50 million users. As a Chinese counterpart of LinkedIn, Maimai has competed head-on with Chinese arm of the U.S. professional networking giant since its establishment and gradually gained an upper hand with features tailored to local tastes.

maimai

It can be hard to gauge the population of social networks, but Chinese market research firm iResearch ranked Maimai ahead of LinkedIn for the first time in the rankings of China’s most popular social networking apps in April last year. The firm further gained ground this year as its user penetration rate reaching 83.8 percent in June, far higher than LinkedIn China’s 11.8 percent, according to data from research institute Analysys.

As a China-born company, Maimai gained momentum over the past two years with localized features, such as anonymous chat, mobile-first design, real-name registration, and partnerships with Chinese corporations. But like all Chinese tech services, it is subject to the state’s tight online regulation. The government watchdog has ordered Maimai to remove the anonymous posting section on its platform last month. The same issue applies to LinkedIn, which has been criticized for allowing its Chinese censorship to spill over and impact global users.

With assistance from Jon Russell

Cootek, the Chinese maker of TouchPal keyboard, files for $100M US IPO

Cootek, the Chinese mobile internet company best known for keyboard app TouchPal, has filed for a public offering in the United States. In its F-1 form, submitted last week to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Cootek said it wants to raise up to $100 million.

The Shanghai-based company began operating in 2008, when TouchPal was launched, and incorporated as CooTek in March 2012. In its SEC filing, Cootek said it currently has 132 million daily active users, with average DAUs increasing 75% year-over-year as of June. It also said it achieved 453% total ad revenue growth in the six month period before June.

While AI-based TouchPal, which offers glide typing and predictive text, is Cootek’s most popular product, it also has 15 other apps in its portfolio, including fitness apps HiFit and ManFIT and a virtual assistant called Talia. The company uses its proprietary AI and big data technology to analyze language data collected from users and the Internet. Then it uses those insights to develop lifestyle, healthcare and entertainment apps. Together, those 15 apps reached an average of 22.2 million monthly average users and 7.3 million daily average users in June.

TouchPal itself had 125.4 million daily average users in June 2018, with active users launching the app an average of 72 times a day. It currently supports 110 languages.

Most of Cootek’s revenue comes from mobile advertising. It says net revenue grew from $11 million in 2016 to $37.3 million in 2017, or 238.5% year-over-year, while its net loss dropped from $30.7 million in 2016 to $23.7 million in 2017. It achieved net income of $3.5 million for the six months ending in June, compared to a net loss of $16.2 million in the same period a year ago.

Cootek plans to be listed under the ticker symbol CTK on the New York Stock Exchange and will use the IPO’s proceeds to grow its user base, invest in AI and natural language processing tech and improve advertising performance. The offering will be underwritten by underwritten by Credit Suisse, BofA Merrill Lync and Citi.

Walmart co-leads $500M investment in Chinese online grocery service Dada-JD Daojia

Walmart sold its China-based e-commerce business in 2016, but the U.S. retail giant is very much involved in the Chinese internet market through a partnership with e-commerce firm JD.com. Alibaba’s most serious rival, JD scooped up Walmart’s Yihaodian business and offered its own online retail platform to help enable Walmart to products in China, both on and offline.

Now that relationship is developing further after Walmart and JD jointly invested $500 million into Dada-JD Daojia, an online-to-offline grocery business which is part owned by JD, according to a CNBC report.

Unlike most grocery delivery services, though, Dada-JD Daojia stands apart because it includes a crowdsourced element.

The business was formed following a merger between JD Daojia, JD’s platform for order from supermarkets online which has 20 million monthly users, and Daojia, which uses crowdsourcing to fulfill deliveries and counts 10 million daily deliveries. JD Daojia claims over 100,000 retail stores and its signature is one-hour deliveries for a range of products, which include fruit, vegetables and groceries.

Walmart is already part of the service — it has 200 stores across 30 Chinese cities on the Dada-JD Daojia service; as well as five online stores on the core JD.com platform — and now it is getting into the business itself via this investment.

JD.com said the deal is part of its ‘Borderless Retail’ strategy, which includes staff-less stores and retail outlets that mix e-commerce with physical sales.

“The future of global retail is boundaryless. There will be no separation between online and offline shopping, only greater convenience, quality and selection to consumers. JD was an early investor in Dada-JD Daojia, and continues its support, because we believe that its innovations will be an important part of realizing that vision,” said Jianwen Liao, Chief Strategy Officer of JD.com, in a statement.

Alibaba, of course, has a similar hybrid strategy with its Hema stores and food delivery service Ele.me, all of which links up with its Taobao and T-Mall online shopping platforms. The company recently scored a major coup when it landed a tie-in with Starbucks, which is looking to rediscover growth in China through an alliance that will see Ele.me deliver coffee to customers and make use of Hema stores.

Away from the new retail experience, JD.com has been doing more to expand its overseas presence lately.

The company landed a $550 million investment from Google this summer which will see the duo team up to offer JD.com products for sale on the Google Shopping platform across the world. Separately, JD.com has voiced intention to expand into Europe, starting in Germany, and that’s where the Google deal and a relationship with Walmart could be hugely helpful.

Another strategic JD investor is Tencent, and that relationship has helped the e-commerce firm sell direct to customers through Tencent’s WeChat app, which is China’s most popular messaging service. Tencent and JD have co-invested in a range of companies in China, such as discount marketplace Vipshop and retail group Better Life. Their collaboration has also extended to Southeast Asia, where they are both investors in ride-hailing unicorn Go-Jek, which is aiming to rival Grab, the startup that bought out Uber’s local business.

Starbucks partners with Alibaba on coffee delivery to boost China business

Starbucks is palling up with Alibaba as it seeks to rediscover growth for its business in China.

China has been a bright spot for some time for the U.S. coffee giant, but lately it has struggled to maintain growth — its China business dragged on its Q3 financials — and it is up against some ambitious new rivals, including billion-dollar startup Luckin Coffee.

One-year-old Luckin recently raised $200 million from investors and it has already built quite a presence. It claims over 500 outlets across China and it taps into the country’s mobile trends, with mobile payments and orders and delivery, too. Then there are some deep discounts aimed at getting new users, as is common with food, cars and other on-demand services.

In response, Starbucks is injecting some of that ‘New Retail’ strategy into its own China presence — and it is doing so with none other than Alibaba, the company that coined the phrase, which signifies a marriage between online and offline commerce.

The partnership between Alibaba and Starbucks is wide-ranging and it will cover delivery, a virtual store and collaboration on Alibaba’s “new retail” Hema stores.

The delivery piece is perhaps most obvious, and it’ll see Starbucks work with Ele.me, the $9.5 billion food delivery platform owned by Alibaba, to allow customers to order and receive coffee without visiting a store. The service will start in September in Beijing and Shanghai, with plans to expand to 30 cities and over 2,000 stores by the end of this year.

Starbucks is also building its app into Alibaba’s array of e-commerce sites, including its Tmall brand e-mall and Taobao marketplace. That’s a move that Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson told CNBC would operate “similar to the mobile app embedded right into that experience” and open Starbucks up to Alibaba’s 500 million-plus users.

Finally, Starbucks is bringing its own “Starbucks Delivery Kitchens” to Alibaba’s Hema stores, which feature robots and mobile-based orders, that will combine Starbucks stores to boost its delivery capacity and speed.

Starbucks, as mentioned, needed a boost in China but the deal is also a major coup for Alibaba, which is battling JD.com on the new retail front as well as ambitious on-demand service Meituan. The latter is reported to have recently filed for an IPO in Hong Kong that could raise it $4 billion.