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China lays out ‘rectification’ plan for Jack Ma’s fintech empire Ant

What a whirlwind holiday for Jack Ma and his fintech empire. The People’s Bank of China, the country’s central bank, summoned Ant Group for regulatory talks on December 26th, announcing a sweeping plan for the fintech firm to “rectify” its regulatory violations.

The meeting came less than two months after China’s financial authorities abruptly halted what could have been a record-setting initial public offering of Ant over the firm’s regulatory compliance issues. The company, which started out as a payments processor for Alibaba’s online marketplaces and spun out in 2011, lacked a sound governance structure, defied regulatory requirements, illegally engaged in arbitrage, excluded competitors using its market advantage and hurt consumer rights, said the central bank.

Concurrently, Jack Ma’s e-commerce giant Alibaba is under investigation by China’s top market regulator over alleged monopolistic behavior.

The banking authority laid out a five-point compliance agenda for Ant, which is controlled by Alibaba’s billionaire founder Jack Ma. The fintech company should return to its roots in payments and bring more transparency to transactions; obtain the necessary licenses for its credit businesses and protect user data privacy; establish a financial holding company and ensure it holds sufficient capital; revamp its credit, insurance, wealth management and other financial businesses according to the law; and step up compliance for its securities business.

Following the closed-door meeting, Ant said it has established an internal “rectification workforce” to work on all the regulatory requirements.

The shakeup could take months to carry out and likely dent Ant’s valuation, which surpassed $300 billion around the time it was scheduled to go public. For instance, the government recently announced plans to raise the bar for third-party technology platforms like Ant to provide loans to consumers, a segment that made up about 35% of Ant’s annual revenue. The proposed change, which is part of Beijing’s effort to control the country’s debt risks, also sets a new requirement for online microlenders to provide at least 30% of the loan they fund jointly with banks, which could put pressure on Ant’s cash flow.

Some remain optimistic about Ant’s future. “[Ant] creates a lot of value. If you take the long view, the temporary suspension of its IPO has a limited impact on its business,” Bill Deng, founder of cross-border payments operator XTransfer and a former executive at Ant, said to TechCrunch.

“From the regulator’s standpoint, [Ant’s] lending size is getting so big that it has extended beyond the old regulatory perimeters. To some extent, it has also encroached on the core interests of traditional financial players,” he added.

The clampdown on Ant has no doubt sent a warning to the rest of the industry. In a surprising move, JD.com’s fintech unit, a challenger to Ant, appointed its former chief compliance officer to steer the fintech firm as the new chief executive officer.

Tencent also has a sprawling fintech business, but it may not receive the same level of scrutiny because the social and gaming giant is “not nearly as aggressive” as Ant in its fintech push, said a partner of Tencent’s overseas fintech business who asked not to be named.

N26 launches mid-tier subscription plan for €4.90 per month

Challenger bank N26 is adding a third subscription product called N26 Smart. N26 Smart is designed to be a mid-tier subscription plan with advanced banking features but without a travel insurance package.

In Europe, in addition to the free plan, N26 already provides two subscription tiers called N26 You and N26 Metal. N26 You costs €9.90 per month and comes with higher limits, such as five free ATM withdrawals instead of three and free withdrawals in foreign currencies.

With an N26 You account, you can create sub-accounts (N26 Spaces), share them with other N26 users or use them to save money. As an N26 You subscriber, you also get a travel insurance package with medical travel insurance, trip and flight insurance and more. You can also access some partner offers.

N26 Metal is the most expensive plan and costs €16.90 per month. In addition to everything in N26 You, you get car rental insurance when you’re abroad and phone insurance. As the name suggests, you also get a metal card.

The new N26 Smart subscription costs €4.90 and works well for people who don’t need travel insurance. With an N26 Smart subscription, you can create up to ten sub-accounts. You get five free ATM withdrawals per month. You can also call N26 support directly in addition to in-app support chat.

N26 is launching a new round-up feature for N26 Smart users. It lets you round each purchase up to the nearest Europe and save it in a separate sub-account. N26 Smart account also access colorful debit cards — the same colors as N26 You.

This is just a first step as N26 plans to revamp its subscription products altogether. In the near future, N26 You will become N26 International. There will be more features focused on borderless banking. N26 Metal will become N26 Unlimited.

As for the free N26 Standard account, the company wants to focus on digital cards. Some users are going to switch to the N26 Smart plan to keep some of the features that they’ve been using with a free account. That move should help the company’s bottom line.

Image Credits: N26

10 Zurich-area investors on Switzerland’s 2020 startup outlook

European entrepreneurs who want to launch startups could do worse than Switzerland.

In a report analyzing Europe’s general economic health, cost of doing business, business environment and labor force quality, analysts looked for highly educated populations, strong economies, healthy business environments and relatively low costs for conducting business. Switzerland ended up ranking third out of 31 European nations, according to Nimblefins. (Germany and the UK came out first and second, respectively).

According to official estimates, the number of new Swiss startups has skyrocketed by 700% since 1996. Zurich tends to take the lion’s share, as the city’s embrace of startups has jump-started development, although Geneva and Lausanne are also hotspots.

As well as traditional software engineering startups, Switzerland’s largest city boasts a startup culture that emphasizes life sciences, mechanical engineering and robotics. Compared to other European countries, Switzerland has a low regulatory burden and a well-educated, highly qualified workforce. Google’s largest R&D center outside of the United States is in Zurich.

But it’s also one of the more expensive places to start a business, due to its high cost of living, salary expectations and relatively small labor market. Native startups will need 25,000 Swiss Francs to open an LLC and 50,000 more to incorporate. While they can withdraw those funds from the business the next day, local founders must still secure decent backing to even begin the work.

This means Switzerland has gained a reputation as a place to startup — and a place to relocate, which is something quite different. It’s one reason why the region is home to many fintech businesses born elsewhere that need proximity to a large banking ecosystem, as well as the blockchain/crypto crowd, which have found a highly amenable regulatory environment in Zug, right next door to Zurich. Zurich/Zug’s “Crypto Valley” is a global blockchain hotspot and is home to, among others, the Ethereum Foundation.

Lawyers and accountants tend to err on the conservative side, leading to a low failure rate of businesses but less “moonshot innovation,” shall we say.

But in recent years, corporate docs are being drawn up in English to facilitate communication both inside Switzerland’s various language regions and foreign capital, and investment documentation is modeled after the U.S.

Ten years ago startups were unusual. Today, pitch competitions, incubators, accelerators, VCs and angel groups proliferate.

The country’s Federal Commission for Technology and Innovation (KTI) supports CTI-Startup and CTI-Invest, providing startups with investment and support. Venture Kick was launched in 2007 with the vision to double the number of spin-offs from Swiss universities and draws from a jury of more than 150 leading startup experts in Switzerland. It grants up to CHF 130,000 per company. Fundraising platforms such as Investiere have boosted the angel community support of early funding rounds.

Swiss companies, like almost all European companies, tend to raise lower early-stage rounds than U.S. ones. A CHF 1-2 million Series A or a CHF 5 million Series B investment is common. This has meant smaller exits, and thus less development for the ecosystem.

These are the investors we interviewed:

 

Jasmin Heimann, partner, Ringier Digital Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Consumer-facing startups with first revenues.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
AirConsole — a cloud-gaming platform where you don’t need a console and can play with all your friends and family.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I really wish that the business case for social and ecological startups will finally be proven (kind of like Oatly showed with the Blackstone investment). I also think that femtech is a hyped category but funding as well as renown exits are still missing.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
I am looking for easy, scalable solutions with a great team.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
I think the whole scooter/mobility space is super hyped but also super capital intensive so I think to compete in this market at this stage is hard. I also think that the whole edtech space is an important area of investment, but there are already quite a lot of players and it oftentimes requires cooperation with governments and schools, which makes it much more difficult to operate in. Lastly, I don’t get why people still start fitness startups as I feel like the market has reached its limits.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Switzerland makes — maximum — half of our investments. We are also interested in Germany and Austria as well as the Nordics.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Zurich and Lausanne are for sure the most exciting cities, just because they host great engineering universities. Berne is still lagging behind but I am hoping to see some more startups emerging from there, especially in the medtech industry.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Overall, Switzerland is a great market for a startup to be in — although small, buying power is huge! So investors should always keep this in mind when thinking about coming to Switzerland. The startup scene is pretty small and well connected, so it helps to get access through somebody already familiar with the space. Unfortunately for us, typical B2C cases are rather scarce.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I think it is hard to make any kind of predictions. But on the one hand, I could see this happening. On the other hand, I also think that the magic of cities is that there are serendipity moments where you can find your co-founder at a random networking dinner or come across an idea for a new venture while talking to a stranger. These moments will most likely be much harder to encounter now and in the next couple of months.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
I think travel is a big question mark still. The same goes for luxury goods, as people are more worried about the economic situation they are in. On the other hand, remote work has seen a surge in investments. Also sustainability will hopefully be put back on the agenda.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Not much. I think we allocated a bit more for the existing portfolio but otherwise we continue to look at and discuss the best cases. The biggest worries are the uncertainties about [what] the future might look like and the related planning. We tell them to first and foremost secure cash flow.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Totally! Some portfolio companies have really profited from the crisis, especially our subscription-based models that offer a variety of different options to spend time at home. The challenge now is to keep up the momentum after the lockdown.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
What gives me hope is to see that people find ways to still work together — the amount of online events, office hours, etc. is incredible. I see the pandemic also as a big opportunity to make changes in the way we worked and the way things were without ever questioning them.

 

Katrin Siebenbuerger Hacki, founder, Medows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

InfraDigital helps Indonesian schools digitize tuition and enrollment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenger business bank Qonto raises $115 million round led by Tencent and DST Global

French startup Qonto has raised a $115 million Series C funding round led by Tencent and DST Global. Today’s news comes a few days after another French fintech startup Lydia raised some money from Tencent.

Existing investors Valar and Alven are also participating in today’s funding round. TransferWise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus and Adyen CFO Ingo Uytdehaage are also joining the round. Qonto says that it represents the largest funding round for a French fintech company.

Qonto is a challenger bank, or a neobank, but for B2B use cases. Instead of attracting millions of customers like N26 or Monzo, Qonto is serving small and medium companies as well as freelancers in Europe.

According to the startup, business banking in Europe is broken. The company thinks it can provide a much better user experience with an online- and mobile-first product.

The company has managed to attract 65,000 companies over the past two years and a half. The product is currently live in France, Italy, Spain and Germany. In 2019 alone, Qonto has managed €10 billion in transaction volume.

With today’s funding round, the company plans to double down on its existing markets, develop new features that make the platform works better in each country based on local needs and hire more people. The team should grow from 200 to 300 employees within a year.

Qonto obtained a payment institution license in June 2018 and has developed its own core banking infrastructure. Around 50% of the company’s user base is currently using Qonto’s own core banking system. Others are still relying on a third-party partner.

Moving from one back end to another requires some input from customers, which explains why there are still some customers using the legacy infrastructure. Over the coming months, Qonto plans to launch new payment features that should convince more users to switch to Qonto’s back end.

Even more important, Qonto plans to obtain a credit institution license, which could open up a ton of possibilities when it comes to features and revenue streams. The company says that it should have its new license by the end of the year.

For instance, you could imagine being able to get a credit card, apply for an overdraft and get a small loan with Qonto.

Compared to traditional banks, Qonto lets you open a bank account more easily. After signing up, Qonto offers a modern interface with your activity. You can export your transactions in no time, manage your expenses and get real-time notifications. Qonto also integrates with popular accounting tools.

When it comes to payment methods, Qonto gives you a French IBAN as well as debit cards. You can order physical or virtual cards whenever you want, customize limits and freeze a card. Qonto also supports direct debit and checks. Like many software-as-a-service products, you can also manage multiple user accounts and customize permission levels.

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.”

Grab, the Uber rival in Southeast Asia, is now officially also a digital payments company

 Grab is best known for rivaling Uber in Southeast Asia, but today the company took a major step into becoming a fintech player, too.
That’s because the ride-sharing firm, which recently raised $2 billion from SoftBank and China’s Didi Chuxing, rolled out support for its GrabPay service among third-party merchants for the first time today.
Grab is present in seven markets across… Read More

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Airwallex raises $13M led by Tencent to bring its cross-border payment service to Europe

 Australia-based cross-border payments startup Airwallex has closed a $13 million Series A round to expand its reach across Asia Pacific and into Europe. The deal was led by Chinese internet giant Tencent — marking its first investment in an Australian startup — with participation from Sequoia China, Mastercard and other undisclosed investors. Airwallex was founded last year… Read More

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SoFi raises $500 million to expand beyond student loans

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Student loans make for big business, but the rest of finance is even bigger. 

SoFi, the company that started by refinancing student loans, will raise a whopping $500 million, it announced on Friday. The Series F funding round values SoFi at $4.3 billion and brings the company’s total equity funding to $1.9 billionBloomberg and the Wall Street Journal both reported SoFi’s huge fundraising plans before the company confirmed the raise. 

With this huge influx of funding, SoFi plans to go global — or “take on new areas of personal finance and new geographies,” the company said. 

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Korea’s AIM raises $1.6M for its mobile trading service

stock trading Seoul-based startup AIM has closed $1.6 million in seed funding to bring its artificial intelligence-powered app for financial investments to market in Korea, and potentially other parts of Asia. The fintech company has developed a system which works alongside existing investment institutions to allow users in Korea to make trades and investments via their smartphone. So rather than a… Read More

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