Fundings & Exits

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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.

Samsung acquires network analytics startup Zhilabs to help its transition to 5G

Samsung Electronics is betting that acquiring Zhilabs, a real-time networks analytics startup based in Barcelona, will ease its transition from 4G to 5G technologies. Financial details of the deal, which was announced today, have not been disclosed. Zhilabs will be fully owned by Samsung, but it will continue to operate independently under its own management.

The acquisition of Zhilabs is part of Samsung’s initiative, announced in August, to invest 25 trillion won (about $22 billion) in businesses working on AI, 5G, components for self-driving vehicles, and biopharmaceutical technologies.

In a statement, Youngky Kim, Samsung Electronic’s president and head of networks business, said “5G will enable unprecedented services attributed to the generation of exponential data traffic, for which automated and intelligent network analytics tools are vital. The acquisition of Zhilabs will help Samsung meet these demands to assure each subscriber receives the best possible service.”

Founded in 2008, Zhilabs’ products are used by customers including Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Vodafone, and Telefonica to analyze and test network performance in real-time. Because its solutions allow service issues to be automatically detected and fixed, Zhilabs’ AI-based automation will help Samsung launch new services related to the industrial Internet of Things and smart cars.

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign fund will also invest $45B in SoftBank’s second Vision Fund

The sovereign fund of Saudi Arabia plans to invest $45 billion into the second SoftBank Vision Fund, two years after putting the same amount into the original $100 billion Vision Fund, Saudi Arabia Crown Price Mohammed bin Salman told Bloomberg in an interview on Friday.

When the first Vision Fund was announced, it was by far the biggest private equity fund ever created, but if SoftBank Group CEO Masayoshi Son’s plans come to fruition, it will not be the last. Son told Bloomberg Businessweek last month that he wants to raise a new $100 billion fund every two or three years.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is anticipating a fresh influx of $170 billion over the next three to four years after selling its stake in Saudi Basic Industries, as well as the upcoming IPO of state-owned Saudi Aramco, said Prince Mohammed, who is also the PIF’s chairman. The PIF, which has also made investments in Uber, Tesla and Lucid, has enjoyed a “huge benefit” from the first Vision Fund, he told Bloomberg.

“We would not put, as PIF, another $45 billion if we didn’t see huge income in the first year with the first $45 billion,” Bin Salman said. He added that its investment in the first Vision Fund will help PIF achieve its new target of $600 billion in assets by 2020, up from the almost $400 billion it currently holds.

SoftBank Group has been contacted for comment.

SoftBank Group and Saudi Arabia’s other partnerships include a deal to build the world’s biggest solar plant for $200 billion. The PIF said earlier this month the plant is still going ahead despite a Wall Street Journal report that it had been shelved.

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.

Ola raises $50M at a $4.3B valuation from two Chinese funds

Ola, the arch-rival of Uber in India, has raised $50 million at a valuation of about $4.3 billion from Sailing Capital, a Hong Kong-based private equity firm, and the China-Eurasian Economic Cooperation Fund (CEECF), a state-backed Chinese fund. The funding was disclosed in regulatory documents sourced by Paper.vc and reviewed by Indian financial publication Mint.

According to Mint, Sailing Capital and CEECF will hold a combined stake of more than 1% in Ola . An Ola spokesperson said the company has no comment.

Ola’s last funding announcement was in October, when it raised $1.1 billion (its largest funding round to date) from Tencent and returning investor SoftBank Group. Ola also said it planned to raise an additional $1 billion from other investors that would take the round’s final amount to about $2.1 billion.

At the time, a source with knowledge of the deal told TechCrunch that Ola was headed toward a post-money valuation of $7 billion once the $2.1 bllion raise was finalized. So while the funding from Sailing Capital and CEECF brings it closer to its funding goal, the latest valuation of $4.3 billion is still lower than the projected amount.

Ola needs plenty of cash to fuel its ambitious expansion both within and outside of India. In addition to ride hailing, Ola got back into the food delivery game at the end of last year by acquiring Foodpanda’s Indian operations to compete with UberEats, Swiggy, Zomato and Google’s Areo. It was a bold move to make as India’s food delivery industry consolidated, especially since Ola had previously launched a food delivery service that shut down after less than one year. To ensure the survival of Foodpanda, Ola poured $200 million into its new acquisition.

A few months later after buying Foodpanda, Ola announced the acquisition of public transportation ticketing startup Ridlr in an all-stock deal. Outside of India, Ola has been focused on a series of international launches. It announced today that it will begin operating in New Zealand, fast on the heels of launches in the United Kingdom and Australia (its first country outside of India) this year.

Marc and Lynne Benioff will buy Times magazine from Meredith for $190M

Another tech billionaire will scoop up a major news outlet. Meredith Corporation, which acquired Time Inc. in January, announced today that it has agreed to sell its eponymous magazine to Salesforce.com co-founder Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne Benioff for $190 million in cash.

Meredith said in March that it planned to sell Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune and Money as part of its goal to save $400 million to $500 million over the next two years and increase the profitability of its remaining portfolio of publications. In its announcement today, the company said it will use proceeds from the sale of Times magazine to pay off debt and expects to reduce its debt by $1 billion during fiscal 2019.

Meredith’s acquisition of Time Inc. was controversial because it received financial support from Koch Equity Development, the private equity fund run by Charles and David Koch, known for backing conservative causes.

The Benioffs, who are on the other side of the spectrum as supporters of progressive politics, are purchasing Time magazine as individuals. In other words, Salesforce.com, where Benioff serves as chairman and co-CEO, and other companies are not involved with the deal. Marc Benioff told the Wall Street Journal that he and his wife will not be involved in Time magazine’s daily operations or editorial decisions and added that “we’re investing in a company with tremendous impact on the world, one that is also an incredibly strong business. That’s what we’re looking for when we invest as a family.”

Other tech billionaires who have purchased major publications include Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who bought the Washington Post in a personal capacity five years ago and Laurene Powell Jobs, whose philanthropic organization, Emerson Collective, acquired a majority stake in The Atlantic last year. (While Jack Ma was a driving force behind Alibaba Group’s acquisition of the South China Morning Post in 2016, that acquisition was made by the company, not Ma.)

Despite being one of the most famous and iconic news brands in the U.S., Times magazine has (like other print publications) struggled to cope with falling circulation and revenue as it invests digital properties.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the magazine’s editor in chief, Edward Felsenthal, said “we’ve done a lot to transform this brand over the last few years so that it is far beyond a weekly magazine” and added that its business is “solidly profitable.”

Golden Gate Ventures closes new $100M fund for Southeast Asia

Singapore’s Golden Gate Ventures has announced the close of its newest (and third) fund for Southeast Asia at a total of $100 million.

The fund hit a first close in the summer, as TechCrunch reported at the time, and now it has reached full capacity. Seven-year-old Golden Gate said its LPs include existing backers Singapore sovereign fund Temasek, Korea’s Hanwha, Naver — the owner of messaging app Line — and EE Capital. Investors backing the firm for the first time through this fund include Mistletoe — the fund from Taizo Son, brother of SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son — Mitsui Fudosan, IDO Investments, CTBC Group, Korea Venture Investment Corporation (KVIC), and Ion Pacific.

Golden Gate was founded by former Silicon Valley-based trio Vinnie Lauria, Jeffrey Paine and Paul Bragiel . It has investments across five markets in Southeast Asia — with a particular focus on Indonesia and Singapore — and that portfolio includes Singapore’s Carousell, automotive marketplace Carro, P2P lending startup Funding Societies, payment enabler Omise and health tech startup AlodokterGolden Gate’s previous fund was $60 million and it closed in 2016.

Some of the firm’s exits so far include the sale of Redmart to Lazada (although not a blockbuster), Priceline’s acquisition of WoomooLine’s acquisition of Temanjalan and the sale of Mapan (formerly Ruma) to Go-Jek. It claims that its first two funds have had distributions of cash (DPI) of 1.56x and 0.13x, and IRRs of 48 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

“When I compare the tech ecosystem of Southeast Asia (SEA) to other markets, it’s really hit an inflection point — annual investment is now measured in the billions. That puts SEA on a global stage with the US, China, and India. Yet there is a youthfulness that reminds me of Silicon Valley circa 2005, shortly before social media and the iPhone took off,” Lauria said in a statement.

A report from Google and Temasek forecasts that Southeast Asia’s digital economy will grow from $50 billion in 2017 to over $200 billion by 2025 as internet penetration continues to grow across the region thanks to increased ownership of smartphones. That opportunity to reach a cumulative population of over 600 million consumers — more of whom are online today than the entire U.S. population — is feeding optimism around startups and tech companies.

Golden Gate isn’t alone in developing a fund to explore those possibilities, there’s plenty of VC activity in the region.

Some of those include Openspace, which was formerly known as NSI Ventures and just closed a $135 million fund, Qualgro, which is raising a $100 million vehicle and Golden Equator, which paired up with Korea Investment Partners on a joint $88 million fund. Temasek-affiliated Vertex closed a $210 million fund last year and that remains a record for Southeast Asia.

Golden Gate also has a dedicated crypto fund, LuneX, which is in the process of raising $10 million.

Job Today gets a $16M top up as it preps for Brexit bump

Accel-backed mobile-first jobs app Job Today has pulled in another $16M — an expansion to its November 2016 $20M Series B round. It raised a $10M Series A in January of the same year.

The 2015 founded startup offers a mobile app for job seekers that does away with the need for a CV.

Instead job seekers create a profile in the app and can apply to relevant jobs. Employers can then triage potential applicants via the app and chat to any they like the look of via its messaging platform.

The approach has been especially popular with fast turnover jobs in the service industry, such as hospitality and retail.

Job Today says it has more than five million job seekers registered on its platform, and claims to have delivered more than 100 million candidate applications to the 400,000+ predominantly small businesses posting jobs via the app to date (with 1M+ jobs posted). It currently operates in two markets: Spain and the UK.

The additional funding will be put towards expanding its presence in the UK market — where it says it’s seen “significant growth” in both job postings and candidate applications.

It says the overall volume of applications has increased by 46% year-on-year in the market, with the number of applications per candidate growing by 32% in the same period. The likes of Costa Coffee, Pret A Manger and Eat are named as among its “regular hirers”.

It’s also envisaging a Brexit bump for the local casual job market, as the UK’s decision to leave the European Union looks set to impact the supply of labor for employers…

Commenting in a statement, CEO Eugene Mizin, said: “The casual job market is often the first to experience the effects from macro-economic forces and Brexit will mean that many non-skilled and non-British workers will leave the UK. This will create a demand to fill casual jobs and create new opportunities for the less-skilled school, college and university leavers entering the workforce for the first time in 2019.”

The Series B expansion funds are coming from New York based investor 14W.

Job Today says it got additional growth uplift after integrating with Google Jobs — aka Google search’s built in AI-powered jobs engine. This launched in the UK in July 2018, and Job Today said it saw 101% growth in users in the first month of integration.

Twilio’s contact center products just got more analytical with Ytica acquisition

Twilio, a company best known for supplying a communications APIs for developers has a product called Twilio Flex for building sophisticated customer service applications on top of Twilio’s APIs. Today, it announced it was acquiring Ytica (pronounced Why-tica) to provide an operational and analytical layer on top of the customer service solution.

The companies would not discuss the purchase price, but Twilio indicated it does not expect the acquisition to have a material impact on its “results, operations or financial condition.” In other words, it probably didn’t cost much.

Ytica, which is based in Prague, has actually been a partner with Twilio for some time, so coming together in this fashion really made a lot of sense, especially as Twilio has been developing Flex.

Twilio Flex is an app platform for contact centers, which offers a full stack of applications and allows users to deliver customer support over multiple channels, Al Cook, general manager of Twilio Flex explained. “Flex deploys like SaaS, but because it’s built on top of APIs, you can reach in and change how Flex works,” he said. That is very appealing, especially for larger operations looking for a flexible, cloud-based solution without the baggage of on-prem legacy products.

What the product was lacking, however, was a native way to manage customer service representatives from within the application, and understand through analytics and dashboards, how well or poorly the team was doing. Having that ability to measure the effectiveness of the team becomes even more critical the larger the group becomes, and Cook indicated some Flex users are managing enormous groups with 10,000-20,000 employees.

Ytica provides a way to measure the performance of customer service staff, allowing management to monitor and intervene and coach when necessary. “It made so much sense to join together as one team. They have huge experience in the contact center, and a similar philosophy to build something customizable and programmable in the cloud,” Cook said.

While Ytica works with other vendors beyond Twilio, CEO Simon Vostrý says that they will continue to support those customers, even as they join the Twilio family. “We can run Flex and can continue to run this separately. We have customers running on other SaaS platforms, and we will continue to support them,” he said.

The company will remain in Prague and become a Twilio satellite office. All 14 employees are expected to join the Twilio team and Cook says plans are already in the works to expand the Prague team.

WSJ reports that Theranos will finally dissolve

Theranos is reportedly finally closing down for good, nearly three years after a Wall Street Journal investigation called its blood testing technology into question. The WSJ said the company, whose dramatic downfall spawned a best-selling book that’s set to be filmed with Jennifer Lawrence starring as Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes, sent shareholders an email saying it will formally dissolve and seek to pay unsecured creditors its remaining cash in the coming months.

Holmes resigned as CEO in June after she and Theranos’ former president, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, were charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and nine counts of wire fraud in June.

Both Holmes and Balwani had already been charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission (the criminal charges are separate from the civil ones filed by the SEC). In its complaint, the SEC said the two engaged in “an elaborate, years-long fraud in which they exaggerated or made false statements about the company’s technology, business and financial performance,” which ultimately enabled them to raise more than $700 million from investors.

Holmes and the SEC settled the charges by having Holmes agree to pay a $500,000 penalty and be barred from serving as an officer or director of a public company for 10 years. She was also required to return the remaining 18.9 million shares she obtained while engaging in fraud and relinquish voting control of Theranos.

TechCrunch has sent an email to Theranos’ public relations address asking for comment.

Shine grabs $9.3 million to build a bank for freelancers

French startup Shine is raising a $9.3 million (€8 million) Series A round. The company is building an alternative to traditional bank accounts for freelancers working in France.

XAnge is leading today’s round with existing investor Daphni also participating, as well as business angels Gilles Samoun and Ed Zimmerman. The company previously raised $3.3 million (€2.8 million) from Daphni, Kima Ventures and various business angels.

While it’s pretty easy to get started as a freelancer in many countries, France is not one of them. You need to register a “micro-company”, report your earnings for corporate taxes, report sales tax collection in some cases and more.

Arguably, it has gotten much easier recently with a ton of resources to get started. But Shine wants to go one step further and package everything you need in an app.

Shine starts by helping you register your company. After downloading the app, the company will guide you through the process — you need to take a photo of your ID and fill out a form. It feels like signing up to a social network. Compared to the official process, Shine’s process is less intimidating and easier to understand.

You can send and receive money from your Shine account just like in any banking app. Shine gives you your own banking information (IBAN) to receive payments and pay using direct debit. A few days later, you receive a debit card. You can temporarily lock the card or disable some features in the app, such as ATM withdrawals and online payments.

Shine doesn’t handle IBAN and cards directly. The company partners with Treezor for those banking features.

If you’re a rider on Deliveroo and UberEats, or if you work with a freelancer marketplace, such as Malt, Side, Upwork and Brigad, all you need to do is enter your Shine IBAN on those platforms. If you work with clients directly, Shine has an integrated invoicing system. It generates a web page and a PDF that you can send to your clients. When a client opens the page, you get a notification. They can pay with a card.

Finally, Shine reminds you when you have to pay your taxes and has a customer support team that can help you figure out what you need to do. They’re slowly building a comprehensive knowledge base on being a freelancer in France.

Shine is free for everything I just described except if you choose to accept card payments on your invoices. But even for that feature, it remains quite cheap.

The company plans to launch a premium plan in the coming months with advanced accounting features. So far, 25,000 freelancers are using Shine in France. And 10 percent of new freelancers (“micro-entrepreneurs”) register their company through Shine.

While challenger banks, such as N26 and Revolut are widely successful, it’s great to see some companies focus on niche markets with the same approach. Shine is a breath of fresh air for freelancers in France. The company is making the process so much easier for newcomers.

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.

Blockchain media project Civil turns to Asia with fund to kickstart 100 new media ventures

Civil, the blockchain-based journalism organization, is casting its eye to Asia after it set up a $1 million fund that’s aimed at seeding 100 new media projects across the continent over the next three years. The organization has teamed up with Splice, a Singapore-based media startup which will manage the fund, according to an announcement.

There’s been a lot of attention lavished on Civil for its promise to make media work more efficiently using blockchain technology and its upcoming crypto token, CVL. The organization has raised $5 million in financing from ConsenSys, the blockchain corporation led by Ethereum co-creator Joe Lubin, and its ICO takes place next month with the goal of raising around $32 million to launch its network and actively onboard new media companies worldwide.

But the company is waiting around. Civil has already actively jumped into the media space — providing financial backing to the newly-formed The Colorado Sun — but the scope of the project in Asia is different in trying to kickstart a wave of new media organizations by giving them money to get off the ground.

Alan Soon, co-founder and CEO of Splice, told TechCrunch that it hasn’t been decided whether the financing will be in the form of grants or equity-based investments. Despite that, he said deals will be “pre-seed, micro-investments to help entrepreneurs take their ideas to prototype stage.”

Soon said that all kinds of media are in play, ranging from the more obvious suspects such as publishers, reporting websites and podcasts to behind-the-scenes tech like automation, bots and adtech.

Notably, though, he clarified that the beneficiaries of the fund will be under no obligation to adopt Civil’s protocol, the technology that will be funded by the upcoming ICO. Splice itself, however, has committed to doing so which will mean it gains access to the network’s content, licensing opportunities and more.

“I’m with Civil because I really believe in their values,” Soon added. “They want to do the right thing for this space.”

WeWork China raises $500M to triple the number of cities it covers

WeWork’s China business is getting a fresh injection of capital after it raised $500 million.

The company entered China two years ago and today it covers Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu with nearly 40 locations. It claims 20,000 members, and it is also active in Hong Kong, which technically falls under ‘Greater China.’

The new capital comes from Trustbridge Partners, Singapore’s Temasek, SoftBank, SoftBank’s Vision Fund and Hony Capital. WeWork said it’ll be used for expansion into six new cities: those are Shenzhen, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Nanjing, and Wuhan. This new raise is a Series B, WeWork China previously scored a $500 million Series A last year, which was also when the Chinese entity was founded.

The company has been pretty busy over that 12-month period, most notably it scooped up its largest rival, Naked Hub, in an acquisition deal that is worth a reported $400 million and massively grew its reach.

Naked Hub builds on WeWork’s presence in Greater China by adding 24 office locations and a further 10,000 members. That’s why WeWork China’s figures are so impressive for just two years of operations. Now, this new capital will put WeWork’s own DNA into that network through this planned expansion spree.

“This investment will help WeWork fuel our mission to support creators, small businesses, and large companies across China,” WeWork CEO and co-founder Adam Neumann said in a statement. “WeWork has built an incredible team in China that supports our members every day, serving as a bridge for local companies who want to reach the world as well as for global companies that want to enter the Chinese market.”

Outside of China, WeWork is also making inroads in India — where it launched in 2017 — Korea, Japan (where it operates a joint venture with SoftBank) and Southeast Asia, where it made an acquisition to kick-start its presence. Indeed, WeWork has a float of around $500 million for its operations in Southeast Asia and Korea, although the total pot for India is unknown at this point.

WeWork China’s big raise comes days after Hong Kong’s Campfire pulled in $18 million and Awfis in India raised $20 million.

Korean hotel firm Yanolja moves into Southeast Asia with $15M investment in Zen Rooms

Zen Rooms, the budget hotel network startup founded by Rocket Internet, had faced the deadpool earlier this year after a prospective funding deal collapsed, but now the business appears to have found a home. Korea’s Yanolja, a popular motel brand that has branched out into app-based hotel bookings, has made a strategic investment that could see it fully acquire the business.

Ten-year-old Yanolja is initially paying $15 million for an undisclosed “strategic non-controlling stake,” but it will retain the rights to buy 100 percent of the Zen Rooms business. Zen Rooms clarified that the acquisition is an option and not based on performance or financial metrics.

Founded by a former hotel worker, Lee Su-jin, Yanolja is best known for its lovel hotels although it is trying to clean up the general image of short-stay hotels by promoting them as destinations for business travelers, tourists and families, as noted by a Bloomberg profile story. The company has also grown its own app-based booking service which among the most used in its homeland with 20,000 rooms.

The company is reportedly planning an IPO, so expansion is on its mind.

For those reasons, Zen Rooms fits that new focus. The company borrowed the budget hotel model, first pioneered by SoftBank-backed Oyo in India, and brought it to Southeast Asia when it launched three years ago. The concept is simple, Zen Rooms guarantees minimum standards at all hotels including free WiFi, fresh towels and bedding, hot showers, etc all of which is controlled via a mobile app. Those standards are normal to most hotel stayers, but when traveling in the East, standards can vary wildly especially at budget hotels, which Zen Rooms is focused on.

For hotels, Zen Rooms manages the brand — and sometimes more — and it allows helps them tap the internet to find customers and bookings.

Today, Zen Rooms is active in six cities in Southeast Asia — it had previously also run operations in Brazil, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka — across which it claims to operate 1,000 hotel franchisees with an inventory of more than 7,000 rooms. Its rivals in Southeast Asia include Red Doorz, which raised $11 million earlier this year.

The startup has raised $8 million from investors to date, including a $4.1 million Series A last April that was led by Korea’s Redbadge Pacific and SBI Investment Korea with participation Asia Pacific Internet Group (APACIG), the joint venture fund in Asia between Rocket Internet and Qatari operator Ooredoo.

However, TechCrunch understands that a major funding deal of over $10 million fell apart in Q1 2018 which left the company with a rapidly depleting runway. As a result and as TechCrunch reported in March, the company was aggressively shopped to potential buyers, investors and rival companies in order to keep the business afloat.

Yanolja has come to the rescue but a full buy-out looks like it will be dependent on the company’s future performance, such is often the arrangement with strategic deals made with a view to full ownership. Rocket Internet, which remains a major investor in Zen Rooms, will hope that the deal goes as smoothly as Lazada, its e-commerce service that is now owned by Alibaba.

Lazada ran out of capital in similar circumstances in early 2016 and Alibaba, the Chinese internet giant, came to its aid with a $1 billion investment. Although that was a majority investment it wasn’t a full-on buyoutAlibaba later increased its holdings until it fully owned the business, and today it is a key part of the firm’s overseas expansion strategy.

Already, TechCrunch understands from one source that Zen Rooms has gone on a hiring spree in recent weeks after it closed the deal. It had earlier been forced to make cutbacks to its team as a result of cost-cutting following the collapse of the funding deal earlier in the year.

“We now have the capital to invest,” ZenRooms co-founder Kiren Tanna told TechCrunch. “The deal has been in discussion since earlier this year…. we are treating like an acquisition but this is step one.”

Tanna added that the company plans to focus on five markets in Southeast Asia, and an expansion to Vietnam may be in the pipeline soon.

ezCater acquires GoCater to expand beyond the US

Catering marketplace company ezCater is already putting its big $100 million funding round to good use. The company is acquiring GoCater, a European marketplace that operates in the same field. This is ezCater’s first international expansion move.

If you’re in charge of ordering catered lunch at your office, you probably have heard about ezCater . The company lets you order breakfast, lunch or dinner for 10, 30 or maybe 100 people at once. This service could be particularly useful to impress a client, throw an office party, get lunch together during an off-site and more.

But ezCater doesn’t cook anything itself. The company is a marketplace and connects you with catering companies and big restaurants around you. In other words, ezCater lets you browse the menu of dozens of restaurants around you from the same website and place an order without picking up the phone.

Of course, ezCater didn’t invent catering. But catering is a fragmented industry with a lot of friction. It’s hard to know how much you’re going to pay in advance, it takes a lot of effort to find a new restaurant outside of your usual list. And restaurants could use a new way to promote their offering. Those are the perfect ingredients to create an online marketplace.

You may already know all the options around your office, but ordering through ezCater provides additional benefits. For instance, all your receipts are centralized in the same interface, which lets you get a clear overview of your spendings on catering.

You can also let other people order food for their clients and events. ezCater lets you set maximum amounts, tipping policies and more.

GoCater offers more or less the same thing, but in France and Germany. The company started as a spinoff from French startup La Belle Assiette. GoCater lets you create a whitelist of catering options. You can also set up an approval system so that the intern doesn’t order ice creams for everyone. Finally, GoCater clients only get billed once per month, even if companies order multiple times.

You pay the same price if you order through GoCater or the catering company directly. Catering companies end up paying a cut on GoCater orders. But the startup takes care of billing, accounting and accounts receivable. This way, you can focus on your core business instead of chasing money from past clients.

ezCater is an order of magnitude bigger than GoCater. ezCater works with 60,000 restaurants, while GoCater only has a few hundred restaurants on its platform. It’s worth noting that ezCater has been around for much longer.

But GoCater has one big advantage over ezCater — they have a team on the ground in Europe, ready to attract new restaurants and corporate clients. It’s clear that ezCater was looking for a way to get started in Europe, and GoCater seems like the right fit.

For now, the company will keep both brands after the acquisition. The teams will slowly merge the platforms into a single product.

“The entire GoCater team is staying, and we’re now going to rapidly expand the European team of the company — both the sales team for Europe and the tech and product team for the group,” GoCater founder and CEO Stephen Leguillon told me.

Cogito scores $37M as AI-driven sentiment analysis biz grows

Cogito announced a $37 million Series C investment today led by Goldman Sachs Growth Equity. Previous investors Salesforce Ventures and OpenView also chipped in. Mark Midle of Goldman Sachs’ Merchant Banking Division, has joined Cogito’s Board of Directors

The company has raised over $64 million since it emerged from the MIT Human Dynamics Lab back in 2007 trying to use the artificial intelligence technology available at the time to understand sentiment and apply it in a business context.

While it took some time for the technology to catch up with the vision, and find the right use case, company CEO and founder Joshua Feast says today they are helping customer service representatives understand the sentiment and emotional context of the person on the line and give them behavioral cues on how to proceed.

“We sell software to very large software, premium brands with many thousands of people in contact centers. The purpose of our solution is to help provide a really wonderful service experience in moments of truth,” he explained. Anyone who deals with a large company’s customer service has likely felt there is sometimes a disconnect between the person on the phone and their ability to understand your predicament and solve your problem.

Cogito in action giving customer service reps real-time feedback.

He says using his company’s solution, which analyzes the contents of the call in real time, and provides relevant feedback, the goal is to not just complete the service call, but to leave the customer feeling good about the brand and the experience. Certainly a bad experience can have the opposite effect.

He wants to use technology to make the experience a more human interaction and he recognizes that as an organization grows, layers of business process make it harder for the customer service representative to convey that humanity. Feast believes that technology has helped create this problem and it can help solve it too.

While the company is not talking about valuation or specific revenue at this point, Feast reports that revenue has grown 3X over the last year. Among their customers are Humana and Metlife, two large insurance companies, each with thousands of customer service agents.

Cogito is based in downtown Boston with 117 employees at last count, and of course they hope to use the money to add on to that number and help scale this vision further.

“This is about scaling our organization to meet client’s needs. It’s also about deepening what we do. In a lot of ways, we are only scratching the surface [of the underlying technology] in terms of how we can use AI to support emotional connections and help organizations be more human,” Feast said.

Online learning platform Unacademy gets $21M Series C from Sequoia India, SAIF and Nexus

Unacademy founders Roman Saini, Gaurav Munjal and Hemesh Singh

Bangalore-based Unacademy will add more educators to its online learning platform, which claims to be India’s largest, after closing a $21 million Series C. The funding comes from Sequoia India, SAIF Partners and Nexus Venture Partners, with participation from Blume Ventures (all four firms are returning from Unacademy’s Series B last year).

Originally a YouTube channel created in 2010 by Gaurav Munjal, Unacademy was officially launched as a startup in 2015 by founders Munjal, Roman Saini and Hemesh Singh. It has now raised $38.6 million in total.

While Unacademy offers a wide range of courses, its most popular offerings include preparation for important exams in India. Its platform includes two apps: one that lets educators create lessons and another that allows users to access them. Unacademy says it has 10,000 registered educators and three million users. Last month, the startup claims 3,000 educators were active on the platform and lessons were watched more than 40 million times.

Many lessons are available for free, though last year Unacademy launched a paid service called Plus that gives users access to features like private discussion forums and live video classes for a per-course fee. Unacademy claims it has achieved six times growth in monthly revenue since launching Plus. The premium classes also help it differentiate from other online learning platforms like Mrunal, a popular site that provides free test preparation for Indian students.

In addition to bringing on more teachers, Unacademy will use its new funding to expand key categories like pre-med, the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) and the Common Admission Test (CAT), which are required by many post-graduate programs.

In a media statement, SAIF partner Alok Goel said “Unacademy has demonstrated tremendous progress towards their goal of delivering personalized learning by connecting great quality educators and students on their platform. The company has diversified across several new domains and has achieved amazing word of mouth among learners.”

Aspire Capital offers fast finance for SMEs in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia’s digital economy is tipped to grow more than six-fold to reach more than $200 billion per year, according to a report co-authored by Google, with e-commerce accounting for the dominant share. The emergence of e-commerce platforms like Alibaba’s Lazada and U.S.-listed Shopee have enabled online entrepreneurship across the region, but still financial support for online sellers, who are basically SMEs, is lagging.

That’s where Singapore-based Aspire Capital, a six-month-old organization focused on speedy SME lending, is hoping to make a difference.

The company certainly has opportunity. With a cumulative population of over 600 million consumers and a rising middle class, Southeast Asia is increasingly an attractive market for businesses of all kind, and online companies in particular. Chinese giants Alibaba and Tencent have long devoted significant resources to the region where, like India, they see significant growth potential. E-commerce is the clear winner, in terms of size, with the e-Conomy SEA report — a joint research project between Google and Singapore sovereign fund Temasek — forecasting e-commerce revenue will hit $88 billion by 2025 from $10.9 billion in 2017.

Data from the e-Conomy SEA report

The crux of its problem is that online sellers who use Lazada, Shopee or other platforms that are forgoing profit in order to grow, are ironically less able to scale their business since there are few ‘e-commerce friendly’ financing options.

That problem became apparent to Aspire founder and CEO Andrea Baronchelli during a four-year stint with Lazada Singapore where, as CMO, he identified a financing disconnect for Lazada merchants.

“I saw the problem while trying to rally small businesses trying to grow in the digital economy,” Baronchelli told TechCrunch in an interview.

“The problem is really about providing working capital to small business owners. We started with online sellers, but we have expanded a bit as we see demand. There are 65 million small businesses in Southeast Asia, that’s ten times more than the U.S. so we see so much potential,” he added.

Aspire founder and CEO Andrea Baronchelli pictured while at Lazada

Today, Aspire Capital covers Singapore where it has expanded beyond e-commerce merchants to cover other things of SMEs who seek loans, primarily for working capital as Baronchelli explains. So far, he added, it has served loans to over 100 businesses. Typically, its spread goes from as low as SG$5,000 to up to SG$100,000, that’s around $3,600-$73,500 in U.S. terms.

The company was founded in early 2018 and already it has done plenty. It was part of the Y Combinator Winter 2018 cohort and it has closed a $9 million seed round to kick its business off with the working capital that it needs itself.

That round included a range of investors such as Europe-based Hummingbird, New York’s Mark II Capital, ex-Sequoia partner Yinglan Tan’s Insignia Ventures Partners and Y Combinator.

The principle behind the business is to make business financing quick and simple, Baronchelli said.

So rather than stacks of paperwork, SME owners fill out online forms and get a response the same day. Large parts of the application and review process are automated using a proprietary risk assessment engine, but Baronchelli said that ultimately a human makes the final call on whether to accept the application or not.

“We want to really be fast,” Baronchelli explained. “SMEs need quick decisions, they cannot wait three months for a bank. They need super quick, fast and no paperwork.”

The application process for companies seeking loans from Aspire Capital

He paints an example of online merchants who typically buy inventory from China which is sold customers within three to six months. If the business has a track record, it can take a loan to increase its stock and grow its revenues and profit, he explained.

Singapore may be a key market in Southeast Asia, but with a population of just over five million expansion is top of mind for Aspire. Baronchelli said he is doing due diligence on the first market expansion which he expects will happen before the end of this year. He expects that the business will raise further capital, perhaps towards the tail end of this year, which would be used to expand more aggressively across Southeast Asia in 2019.

He is also occupied building out the team. Right now, Aspire has ten people but he is keen to bring in ten to fifteen more staff, particularly on the tech side of the business.

Singapore-based game studio Mighty Bear raises $2.5M ahead of debut release

Mighty Bear, a game studio startup that grew out of King.com’s former office in Singapore, has landed new funding as it readies its debut title for smartphones.

The startup was founded by four former King.com staffers — Simon Davis, Fadzuli Said, Benjamin Chevalier and Saurabh Shukul — after the gaming giant closed its Singapore office — inherited via the acquisition of Non Stop Games — following its $5.9 billion acquisition by Activision. Today, Mighty Bear’s team of 18 counts experience working with Ubisoft, EA, Lucasarts, Disney, Gameloft and others.

The startup previously raised $775,000 in a pre-seed round in early 2017, and this time around it has pulled in a seven-figure USD investment. The deal is officially undisclosed, but a source with knowledge of discussions told TechCrunch it is worth around $2.5 million.

The deal was led by U.S.-based Skycatcher, New York hedge fund banker Eric Mindich’s Everblue fund, and M Ventures from Los Angeles. Others in the round include Singapore’s Atlas Ventures, Lev Leviev — who is co-founder of VK.com among other things — and existing backer Global Founders Capital, which is affiliated with Rocket Internet.

“We’ve already got a good set of investors from Europe and Asia so we realized we needed networks in North America, too,” Mighty Bear CEO Simon Davis told TechCrunch in an interview.

Davis added that, beyond extending their reach for purposes like hiring, partnerships and more, they open up the potential for IP and media deals further down the road.

First thing first though: Mighty Bear is working to launch its first title, which Davis said will be an MMORPG. Right now, it is being secretly tested for scalability and technical capabilities among users in India and the Philippines with a view to a full launch on iOS and Android later this year. Davis said the company plans to launch another title, too, with both games managed concurrently.

“We’ve basically taken a genre that we know is monetized and engaged with hardcore users and tried to bring it to a large audience. Our goal is to take big desktop experiences and streamline them into five-minute bursts,” he told TechCrunch in an interview.

You may not know it, but you may have run into Mighty Bear’s concepts already even though it hasn’t fully launched a title yet. That’s because part of the research and development process includes creating and disseminating videos and advertising for mock games through channels like Facebook.

That, Davis explained, can help Mighty Bear in all manner of ways, from basics such as figuring out what kind of visuals or advertising approach gets engagement from users, to broader purposes such as understanding the types of games that people want to play.

“The process helps witter down ideas to those that will get traction with users. If a game makes it through the various internal gates we have, and to soft launch, then we have the best potential for it to perform well,” Davis said.

Developing artwork and advertising for ‘fake’ games isn’t as obscure as it may sound. While it isn’t usual for smaller studios, it’s a practice that Davis said is common at huge game development companies — that in turn is a reflection in the experience that the team at Mighty Bear has under its belt.

Google makes $550M strategic investment in Chinese e-commerce firm JD.com

Google has been increasing its presence in China in recent times, and today it has continued that push by agreeing to a strategic partnership with e-commerce firm JD.com which will see Google purchase $550 million of shares in the Chinese firm.

Google has made investments in China, released products there and opened up offices that include an AI hub, but now it is working with JD.com largely outside of China. In a joint release, the companies said they would “collaborate on a range of strategic initiatives, including joint development of retail solutions” in Europe, the U.S. and Southeast Asia.

The goal here is to merge JD.com’s experience and technology in supply chain and logistics — in China, it has opened warehouses that use robots rather than workers — with Google’s customer reach, data and marketing to produce new kinds of online retail.

Initially, that will see the duo team up to offer JD.com products for sale on the Google Shopping platform across the word, but it seems clear that the companies have other collaborations in mind for the future.

JD.com is valued at around $60 billion, based on its NASDAQ share price, and the company has partnerships with the likes of Walmart and it has invested heavily in automated warehouse technology, drones and other ‘next-generation’ retail and logisitics.

The move for a distribution platform like Google to back a service provider like JD.com is interesting since the company, through search and advertising, has relationships with a range of e-commerce firms including JD.com’s arch rival Alibaba.

But it is a sign of the times for Google, which has already developed relationships with JD.com and its biggest backer Tencent, the $500 billion Chinese internet giant. All three companies have backed Go-Jek, the ride-hailing challenger in Southeast Asia, while Tencent and Google previously inked a patent sharing partnership and have co-invested in startups such as Chinese AI startup XtalPi.

Alibaba’s Ant Financial fintech affiliate raises $14 billion to continue its global expansion

Ant Financial, the financial services affiliate connected to Alibaba which operates the Alipay mobile payment service, has confirmed that it has closed a Series C funding round that totals an enormous $14 billion.

The rumors have been flying about this huge financing deal for the past month or so, with multiple publications reporting that Ant — which has been strongly linked with an IPO — was in the market to raise at least $9 billion at a valuation of upwards of $100 billion. That turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg here.

The money comes via a tranche of U.S. dollar financing and Chinese RMB from local investors. Those names include Singapore-based sovereign funds GIC and Temasek, Malaysian sovereign fund Khazanah Nasional Berhad, Warburg Pincus, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Silver Lake and General Atlantic.

Ant said that the money will go towards extending its global expansion (and deepening its presence in non-China markets it has already entered), developing technology and hiring.

“We are pleased to welcome these investors as partners, who share our vision and mission, to embark on our journey to further promote inclusive finance globally and bring equal opportunities to the world. We are proud of, and inspired by, the transformation we have affected in the lives of ordinary people and small businesses over the past 14 years,” Ant Financial CEO and executive chairman Eric Jing said in a statement.

Alibaba itself doesn’t invest in Ant, which it span off shortly before its mega-IPO in the U.S. in 2014, but the company did recently take up an option to own 33 percent of Ant’s shares.

Ant has long been tipped to go public. Back in 2016 when it raised a then blockbuster $4.5 billionlittle did we know it would pull in many multiples more — the company has been reportedly considering a public listing, but it instead opted to raise new capital at a valuation of $60 billion.

It looks like the same again, but with higher stakes. This new Series C round pushes that valuation up to $100 billion, according to Bloomberg. (Ant didn’t comment on its valuation.) So what has Ant done over the past two years to justify that jump?

It has long been a key fintech company in China, where it claims to serve offer 500 million consumers and offers Alipay, digital banking and investment services, but it has begun to replicate that business overseas in recent years. In particular, it has made investments and set up joint-ventures and new businesses in a slew of Asian countries that include India, Thailand, Korea, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The company was, however, unsuccessful in its effort to buy MoneyGram after the U.S. government blocked the $1.2 billion deal.

On the business-side, Ant is said to have posted a $1.4 billion profit over the last year, suggesting it is more than ready to make the leap to being a public firm.

Despite that U.S. deal setback, Ant said today that its global footprint extends to 870 million consumers. I’d take that with a pinch of salt at this point since its business outside of China is in its early stages, but there seems little doubt that it is on the road to replicating its scale in its homeland in many parts of Asia. Raising this huge round only solidifies those plans by providing the kind of capital infusion that tops most of the world’s IPOs in one fell swoop.

“Social selling” startup Meesho lands $11.5M Series B led by Sequoia India

Y Combinator alum Meesho, one of several “social selling” startups gaining speed in India, will add more features to its e-commerce platform after closing a $11.5 million Series B led by Sequoia India. Existing investors SAIF Partners, Y Combinator and Venture Highway also returned for the round, which brings the Bangalore-based startup’s total funding so far to $15 million. Its last round of funding, a $3.4 million Series A, was announced last October.

Like social selling competitors including GlowRoad and Zepo, Meesho’s model combines dropshipping from its wholesale partners with a comprehensive suite of e-commerce tools and services. This reduces overhead while making it easy for sellers, who Meesho says includes many housewives, students and retirees, to set up an online business through WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media.

Meesho’s tools include an online platform that allows sellers to manage purchases and process payments, as well as a network of wholesale suppliers (its main categories are currently fashion and lifestyle items) and logistics providers. In other words, it offers almost everything its vendors need to start selling online. This leaves vendors responsible for customer acquisition, picking what items they want to include in their online shops and marketing them.

This reselling model appeals to small stores, as well as individuals, who want to make more money but don’t want the expense of setting up an e-commerce business from scratch and carrying inventory. Meesho’s rivals include e-commerce startups like GlowRoad, Shopmatic and Zepo, which have also recently raised large funding rounds. All of these companies attract sellers by offering a significant amount of help with order management, payment processing, fulfillment and logistics.

In order to differentiate, chief executive officer Vidit Aatrey, who co-founded Meesho in 2015 with Sanjeev Barnwal, its chief technology officer, tells TechCrunch it focuses on product quality, pricing and personalization to help resellers improve their sales and customer service. Meesho claims that more than 800,000 resellers have used its platform and that a “typical” reseller earns between 20,000 to 25,000 rupees per month (about $298 to $373).

In a press statement about the funding, Sequoia India managing director Mohit Bhatnagar said “Social commerce is the future of e-commerce in India. People buy from people they trust, and that’s what Meesho enables.  Entrepreneurs, many of them women, use the Meesho platform to recommend, customize and sell to their family and friends. Social selling is a huge trend and Sequoia India is excited to partner with Meesho, which is the early leader in this space.”

Aatrey says Meesho’s Series B capital will be used to hire more people for its tech and product teams in order to build a suite of new customer acquisition and selling tools. The startup also plans to add more personalization options for its resellers and product categories.

Microsoft acquires conversational AI startup Semantic Machines to help bots sound more lifelike

Microsoft announced today that it has acquired Semantic Machines, a Berkeley-based startup that wants to solve one of the biggest challenges in conversational AI: making chatbots sound more human and less like, well, bots.

In a blog post, Microsoft AI & Research chief technology officer David Ku wrote that “with the acquisition of Semantic Machines, we will establish a conversational AI center of excellence in Berkeley to push forward the boundaries of what is possible in language interfaces.”

According to Crunchbase, Semantic Machines was founded in 2014 and raised about $20.9 million in funding from investors including General Catalyst and Bain Capital Ventures.

In a 2016 profile, co-founder and chief scientist Dan Klein told TechCrunch that “today’s dialog technology is mostly orthogonal. You want a conversational system to be contextual so when you interpret a sentence things don’t stand in isolation.” By focusing on memory, Semantic Machines’ AI can produce conversations that not only answer or predict questions more accurately, but also flow naturally.

Instead of building its own consumer products, Semantic Machines focused on enterprise customers. This means it will fit in well with Microsoft’s conversational AI-based products, including Microsoft Cognitive Services and Azure Bot Service, which are used by one million and 300,000 developers, respectively, and virtual assistants Cortana and Xiaolce.

Pluralsight prices its IPO at $15 per share, raising over $300M

Pluralsight priced the shares in its IPO at $15 this afternoon, above its previously set target range of between $12 and $14, and will raise as much as $357 million ahead of its public debut tomorrow morning.

Pluralsight offers software development courses, specifically ones targeting employees that are looking to advance in their careers by acquiring new skills in order to transition to higher-level roles. As knowledge workers become increasingly valuable, especially in larger enterprises with sprawling workforces, companies like Pluralsight have found a sweet spot in building tools that enable companies to help identify talent in their own workforce and train them, rather than have to aggressively search outside the company to satisfy their needs. The company has raised $310.5 million in its IPO, with underwriters having the option to purchase an additional 3.1 million shares and bring that up to $357 million.

The company is one of a continuing wave of enterprise IPOs this year, including multiple successful ones like zScalar and Dropbox — the latter of which was more of a flagship as both a hotly-anticipated one and as a company that possesses a unique business model. But nonetheless, it’s shown that there’s an appetite for enterprise startups looking to go public, which offers those companies a way to raise capital in addition to offering their employees liquidity.

Pluralsight will be another of an increasing pack of unicorns in the Utah tech scene that are on their way to going public. Founded in 2004, Pluralsight was largely bootstrapped until its first financing round in 2013 where it raised $27.5 million from Insight Venture Partners. That firm is the company’s largest shareholder, and since then Pluralsight has raised nearly $200 million in financing.

Its The company’s IPO tomorrow will once again test the appetite for fresh IPOs among public investors. Enterprise companies generally offer a more stable batch for venture portfolios, with predictable and reliable growth that eventually carries it to an IPO with varying levels of success. They’re smaller than blockbuster consumer-ish IPOs, but they are the ones that can provide a stable return for funds like IVP.

Southeast Asia’s Carro raises $60M for its automotive classifieds and car financing service

Carro, an automotive classifieds service and car financing startup based in Singapore, has closed a $60 million Series B round to scale its business in Southeast Asia.

The deal was co-led by SoftBank Ventures Korea, Insignia Ventures — the firm from ex-Sequoia Asia partner Yinglan Tan — and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s B Capital Group. Other participants include IDG Ventures India founder Manika Arora (via his family fund) and existing Carro backers Venturra,
Singtel Innov8, Golden Gate Ventures and Alpha JWC.

Carro raised a $12 million Series A round in March 2017. This latest capital takes it to $78 million from investors to date, according to Crunchbase.

The 2.5-year-old company said in an announcement that $250 million of vehicles were sold last year across its three markets: Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore. That’s more than double the $120 million it claimed in 2016. Last March, Carro introduced its Genie Finance underwriting business, and over its first year, it claims to have originated over $100 million in loans while amassing a loan book of nearly $40 million.

Carro CEO Aaron Tan previously spent time at Singtel Innov8 and is one of a trio of co-founders. Tan told TechCrunch that the capital will initially be spent growing Carro’s business in Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore, but further down the line, there’s a plan for expansion.

“The exact markets are still to be determined but it may be a small setup in Japan and other sources of cars,” he added.

Carro has already expanded in terms of services. Initially a vehicle marketplace, it launched Genie Finance and has also forayed into insurance brokerage and road-side assistance. It recently introduced a service that completes vehicle sales in 60 minutes — Carro Express — which it said is now available in 30 locations across Southeast Asia.

“We will double down on our online marketplaces and financing in emerging markets this year. Ultimately, we want to improve the experience of selling and buying a car, as well as provide access to capital to the next billion people, which will improve the quality of lives,” Tan said in a statement.

Carro is rivaled by a number of startups, including BeliMobilGue in Indonesia, Carsome, iCar Asia and Rocket Internet’s Carmudi, although with its new raise in the bank Carro is the best-funded by some margin.

iCar Asia, which is managed by Malaysian venture builder Catcha, raised $19 million last November. This year has seen Carsome — which covers Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand — raise a $19 million Series B, BeliMobilGue — Indonesia-only — raise $3.7 million and Carmudi land $10 million.

In the case of Carmudi, the business has retrenched itself. At its peak it covered over 20 markets worldwide across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, but today its focus is on Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Carro’s monster raise follows another notable deal in Southeast Asia today which saw Carousell close a Series C round worth $85 million. The firm added backing from new investors DBS, Southeast Asia’s largest bank, and EDBI, the corporate investment arm of Singapore’s Economic Development Board.

Job hunting service Glassdoor sold to Japan’s Recruit for $1.2 billion

U.S. job hunting service Glassdoor, which is best known for providing insight into company working cultures, has been acquired for $1.2 billion in cash by Recruit, a $39 billion Japanese corporate that specializes in HR and recruitment services.

The all-cash acquisition will see Glassdoor continue to maintain its brand, CEO Robert Hohman explained in a blog post.

“Our mission has been the same since day one: to help people everywhere find a job and company they love. That mission will not change as part of Recruit. Glassdoor will continue to operate as a distinct brand to fulfill this mission — and will be able to do so with greater speed and impact than we could achieve alone,” Hohman wrote.

Glassdoor raised a total of just over $200 million from investors, with its most recent round a $40 million Series H in March 2016. That last investment gave Glassdoor a valuation of around $1 billion. That’s not a huge amount more than what Recruit is paying, which suggests that the last couple of years haven’t been so spectacular for Glassdoor in terms of growth.

Nonetheless, this deal looks like a win for those backers, particularly the earlier stage investors such as Benchmark and Battery Ventures .

Ten-year-old Glassdoor says it is used by 59 million people each month, many of whom come to the service to read about how companies are rated by the people who work, or worked there. While it is headquartered in the U.S., Glassdoor says it has information on more than 770,000 companies across 190 countries worldwide, including 40 million reviews covering company culture, CEO ratings, salary information and more.

Glassdoor’s revenue comes from recruitment services, and it claims to work with some 7,000 employees and 40 percent of the Fortune 500.

Recruit may not be a well-known name in the U.S. but the Japanese firm is huge, and it is history as a purchaser of overseas businesses.

The firm — which was founded in 1960 — is listed on the Toyko Stock Exchange and it has 45,000 employees across 60 countries.

Beyond recruitment and HR services, it also operates in real estates, travel, dining and other segments. That’s reflected in its past acquisitions, which have included U.S. job sites Indeed.com (2012), Simply Hired (2016) and, in Europe, restaurant site Quandoo (2015)hair and beauty service Wahanda (2015) and education technology company Quipper (2015).

Southeast Asia’s ShopBack moves into personal finance with its first acquisition

Singapore-based e-commerce startup ShopBack came on the radar when it raised $25 million last November, and now the company is making its first acquisition.

ShopBack said today it has picked up Seedly, a fellow Singaporean startup that offers a personal finance service, in an undisclosed deal. The entire team will move over and Seedly will continue as a business under ShopBack’s management.

The ShopBack service is an e-commerce aggregator that helps online sellers reach customers and incentivizes consumers with cash-back rewards. Seedly, meanwhile, is designed to simplify finance for millennials and young people across Southeast Asia. It was founded two years ago and raised seed funding from East Ventures (also a ShopBack investor) and NUS Enterprise in 2016, it also graduated Singapore bank DBS’s “hotspot” pre-accelerator program.

The deal is a fairly rare example of a smaller startup in Southeast Asia being acquired by a larger one for more than just talent, and there seems to be plenty of potential synergies between the two services.

ShopBack aspires to have close touchpoints with how young consumers in Southeast Asia spend their money online, so helping them to manage it plays into that focus. Meanwhile, Southeast Asia isn’t blessed with many local consumer finance services — despite more than 330 million internet users — so the Seedly business can benefit from ShopBack’s regional presence for expansion.

The announcement of the deal comes 24 hours after ShopBack rival iPrice, which aggregates e-commerce in Southeast Asia, picked up a $4 million investment led by chat app company Line’s VC arm.

ShopBack has raised over $40 million to date from investors that include Credit Saison, AppWorks, Intouch, SoftBank Ventures Korea and Singtel Innov8.

Southeast Asia e-commerce startup iPrice raises $4M led by chat app Line’s VC arm

iPrice, a service that aggregates Southeast Asia’s e-commerce websites in a single destination, has pulled in new funding led by messaging app Line’s VC arm, Line Ventures.

The round is officially undisclosed, but TechCrunch understands from a source close to negotiations that it is worth around $4 million. Existing iPrice backers Cento Ventures (formerly known as Digital Media Partners) and Venturra Capital also took part in this round.

iPrice, which has its HQ in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, previously raised a $4 million Series A in late 2016. Today’s investment takes the startup to $9.7 million raised overall.

The company was started in 2015 in response to the growing number of e-commerce companies in Southeast Asia, and in particular the increasing number of vertical-specific options. Even though there are some giants, such as Alibaba’s Lazada, the region has a number of smaller players that can struggle for visibility. iPrice was initially a coupon site, before pivoting into an aggregation model which essentially acts as a destination for shoppers to then go on and purchase items from e-commerce retailers.

In a way, it is much like flight booking sites — such as Skyscanner — which ask a customer where they want to go before scouring the web for the best travel deals. iPrice does this for e-commerce in Southeast Asia. It hopes that simplifying things through a single destination portal can make it the go-to online buying site for the region, which now has over 330 million internet users — more than the population of the U.S. — according to a recent report co-authored by Google.

iPrice on the web, although its mobile app and mobile browser version are more used

Today, iPrice claims to offer over 500 million SKUs across Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. The company said that over 50 million people visited its site since December 2016, and this year alone it is aiming to grow to 150 million visitors.

The company said electronics has been a particular driver while, outside of working with e-commerce firms to drive business, it has developed a B2B business with media groups and brands, including Mediacorp in Singapore and Samsung in Indonesia, who pay to tailor its service. Last year, it developed an insightful report on the state of e-commerce in Southeast Asia.

The deal makes sense for Line Ventures because of the unique vantage point that iPrice occupies, while it also ties into parent company Line’s desire to go beyond being a messaging app and build out a mobile ecosystem. That’s seen it develop services such as food delivery, ride-hailing, payments and e-commerce, although it has struggled in the latter category. A relationship with iPrice might give it greater insight for future e-commerce ventures in Southeast Asia.

Xiaomi officially files for Hong Kong IPO to raise a reported $10 billion

Xiaomi’s much-speculated IPO process has kicked off officially after the Chinese smartphone giant filed to go public on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

The first draft of its filing does not include proposed financial details of its listing, but the South China Morning Post reports that the eight-year-old company is shooting to raise $10 billion at a valuation of $100 billion. Beyond the year’s largest IPO — and the world’s largest raise since Alibaba in New York in 2014 — the listing could make Xiaomi China’s third largest technology company based on market cap.

Xiaomi operates differently to most companies in that it sells smartphones and smart devices at waiver thin margins, relying on services and efficient use of components to pull in profit. Beyond phones, it operates its own retail business and internet services such as payments and streaming. That strategy — which CEO Lei Jun calls a “triathlon” — is focused on services for growth since Xiaomi has capped its maximum net profit for hardware at five percent.

Xiaomi said in its filing that it has over 190 million people using its MIUI version of Android — that’s a good insight into how many of its devices are in the market — while it has sold over 100 million connected devices, which include smartwatches, fitness bands, smart scales and more. The company claims its users are active on their phones for 4.5 hours per day, and that there are 1.4 million customers who own five or more connected devices.

The company is ranked fourth based on global smartphone shipments, according to analyst firm IDC, and it is one of the few OEMs to buck slowing sales in China.

The company’s financials are impressive.

The company booked sales of 114.6 billion RMB ($18 billion) in 2017, up from 68.4 billion RMB in 2016 and 66.8 billion in 2015.

Xiaomi posted a 43.9 billion RMB ($6.9 billion) loss in 2017 on account of issuing preferred shares to investors (54 billion RMB) but the growth story is healthy. Operating profit jumped to 12.2 billion RMB ($1.92 billion), up more than three-fold on the previous year.

Smartphones continue to represent the bulk of sales at 70 percent, with smart devices pulling in 20 percent more and services responsible for the remainder.

China is, as you’d expect, the primary revenue market but Xiaomi is increasingly less dependent on its homeland. For 2017 sales, China represented 72 percent, but it had been 94 percent and 87 percent, respectively, in 2015 and 2016. India is Xiaomi’s most successful overseas venture, having built the business to the number one smartphone firm based on market share, and Xiaomi is pledging to double down on other global areas.

Interestingly there’s no mention of expanding phone sales to the U.S., but Xiaomi has pledged to put 30 percent of its IPO towards growing its presence in Southeast Asia, Europe, Russia “other regions.” Currently, it said it sells products in 74 countries, that does include the U.S. where Xiaomi sells accessories and non-phone items.

Another 30 percent is earmarked for R&D and product development, while a further 30 percent will be invested in Xiaomi’s internet of things and smart product ecosystem. The remaining 10 percent is down for working capital.

Xiaomi isn’t disclosing the exact percentage stakes that its major investors hold, but CEO Lei Jun is believed to be one of the most significant shareholders. The IPO could make him China’s richest man, according to reports which suggest he controls a stake of over 75 percent.

DocuSign raises $629 million after pricing IPO

DocuSign priced its IPO Thursday evening at $29 per share, netting the company $629 million.

It was a better price than the e-signature company had been expecting. The initially proposed price range was $24 to $26 and then that was raised to $26 to $28.

The price gives the company a valuation of $4.4 billion on the eve of its public debut, above the $3 billion the company had raised for its last private round.

The IPO has been a long-time coming. Founded in 2003, DocuSign had raised over $500 million over the course of 15 years.

The company brought in $518.5 million in revenue for its fiscal year ending in 2018. This is up from $381.5 million last year and $250.5 million the year before. Losses for this year were $52.3 million, down from $115.4 million last year and, $122.6 million for 2016.

“We have a history of operating losses and may not achieve or sustain profitability in the future,” the company warned in the requisite “risk factors” section of the prospectus.

The filing reveals that Sigma Partners is the largest shareholder, owning 12.9% of the company. Ignition Partners owns 11.7% and Frazier Technology Ventures owns 7.2%.

DocuSign, competes HelloSign and Adobe Sign, among others, but has managed to sign up many of the largest enterprises. T-Mobile, Salesforce, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America are amongst its clients. It has a tiered business model, with companies paying more for added services.

HelloSign COO Whitney Bouck said that “this space is changing the way business is done at its foundation — we are finally realizing the future of digital business and exactly how much more profitable it can be by removing the friction caused by outdated technology and processes.” But she said that DocuSign should be wary of competitive “more nimble vendors that can provide more innovative, faster, and more user-friendly solutions at a cheaper price.”

DocuSign has gone through several management changes over the years.  Dan Springer took over as CEO in early 2017, after running Responsys, which went public and then was later bought by Oracle for $1.5 billion. Chairman Keith Krach had been running the company since 2011. He was previously CEO of Ariba, which was acquired by SAP for $4.3 billion.

Pivotal CEO talks IPO and balancing life in Dell family of companies

Pivotal has kind of a strange role for a company. On one hand its part of the EMC federation companies that Dell acquired in 2016 for a cool $67 billion, but it’s also an independently operated entity within that broader Dell family of companies — and that has to be a fine line to walk.

Whatever the challenges, the company went public yesterday and joined VMware as a  separately traded company within Dell. CEO Rob Mee says the company took the step of IPOing because it wanted additional capital.

“I think we can definitely use the capital to invest in marketing and R&D. The wider technology ecosystem is moving quickly. It does take additional investment to keep up,” Mee told TechCrunch just a few hours after his company rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

As for that relationship of being a Dell company, he said that Michael Dell let him know early on after the EMC acquisition that he understood the company’s position. “From the time Dell acquired EMC, Michael was clear with me: You run the company. I’m just here to help. Dell is our largest shareholder, but we run independently. There have been opportunities to test that [since the acquisition] and it has held true,” Mee said.

Mee says that independence is essential because Pivotal has to remain technology-agnostic and it can’t favor Dell products and services over that mission. “It’s necessary because our core product is a cloud-agnostic platform. Our core value proposition is independence from any provider — and Dell and VMware are infrastructure providers,” he said.

That said, Mee also can play both sides because he can build products and services that do align with Dell and VMware offerings. “Certainly the companies inside the Dell family are customers of ours. Michael Dell has encouraged the IT group to adopt our methods and they are doing so,” he said. They have also started working more closely with VMware, announcing a container partnership last year.

Photo: Ron Miller

Overall though he sees his company’s mission in much broader terms, doing nothing less than helping the world’s largest companies transform their organizations. “Our mission is to transform how the world builds software. We are focused on the largest organizations in the world. What is a tailwind for us is that the reality is these large companies are at a tipping point of adopting how they digitize and develop software for strategic advantage,” Mee said.

The stock closed up 5 percent last night, but Mee says this isn’t about a single day. “We do very much focus on the long term. We have been executing to a quarterly cadence and have behaved like a public company inside Pivotal [even before the IPO]. We know how to do that while keeping an eye on the long term,” he said.

WeWork confirms deal to buy Naked Hub, one of its main competitors in China

WeWork is buying up one of its largest competitors in China after it announced a deal to acquire Naked Hub.

The deal was widely reported by Chinese media yesterday, but WeWork has now confirmed it through a blog post from its CEO Adam Neumann. Terms of the transaction are not disclosed but Bloomberg reported that it is worth around $400 million.

Naked Hub is an offshoot of China-based luxury resort company Naked Group that was started in 2015 by Grant Horsfield and Delphine Yip-Horsfield. The company is primarily anchored in China, with most of its locations in Beijing and Shanghai, but it has expanded into Australia, Hong Kong and Vietnam. All told, it claims to have 10,000 members across its 24 office locations.

Even though a deal to merge with Singapore-based JustCo was called off, Naked Hub had emerged as one of WeWork’s fiercest competitors in China with the ambition to continue that battle in Southeast Asia and other markets, as I wrote last year.

WeWork isn’t commenting at this point about how it plans to integrate the two brands, but its CEO Neumann paid tribute to the Naked Hub business.

“We have found an equal who shares our thinking about the importance of space, community, design, culture, and technology. Together, I believe we will have a profound impact in helping businesses across China grow, scale, and succeed,” he wrote.

“China-born naked Hub and WeWork may come from vastly different backgrounds, but there is more that binds us than separates us. The values we share toward creating a vibrant community for our members by using design, technology, and hospitality are core to how both companies are successful,” said Horsfield, Naked Group’s founder and chairman.

Naked Hub may be a growing threat to WeWork China, but it is far from the only major competitor. Unicorn Ucommune — which changed its name from URwork following a lawsuit from WeWork — is perhaps the largest profile Chinese challenger.

WeWork launched in China in 2016 via Shanghai. Today it said it has 13 locations in Greater China with plans to increase that to more than 40 by the end of this year. That’s a move that it said will quadruple its membership numbers in China from 10,000 to 40,000.

The deal is WeWork’s second acquisition of a competitor in Asia, its first being a deal to buy SpaceMob, a then 1.5-year-old company in Singapore, last year.

The company has been lining its pockets to fuel a big push into Asia.

Last year, the firm span out a WeWork China entity backed by $500 million from investors, while capital also went to WeWork Japan — a unit that investor SoftBank owns half of — and WeWork Pacific, its business focused on Southeast Asia and other parts of the region which also got a $500 million to spend. All of that capital was part of a $4.4 billion investment round in WeWork from SoftBank.

China’s SenseTime, the world’s highest valued AI startup, raises $600M

The future of artificial intelligence (AI), the technology that is seen as potentially impacting almost every industry on the planet, is widely acknowledged to be a war between tech firms in America and China.

In a notable side-note to that battle, China now has the world’s highest-valued AI startup after SenseTime, a company founded in 2014, announced a $600 million Series C investment round. A source with knowledge of discussions told TechCrunch that the round values the company at over $4.5 billion, while it is also raising an extension to this round. That marks a hefty increase on the company’s most recent $1.5 billion valuation when it raised a $410 million Series B last year.

SenseTime CEO Li Xu said the company plans to use the capital to expand its presence overseas and “widen the scope for more industrial application of AI.”

Beyond the high figures involved — the round is a record fundraising for an AI company worldwide — SenseTime’s investment efforts are notable because of the names that have backed it.

Principally that’s Alibaba, the $429 billion e-commerce giant, which led this Series C round and is reportedly now SenseTime’s largest single investor, according to Bloomberg.

Beyond that, U.S. chipmaker giant Qualcomm signed up last year — seemingly as an early participant in this round — while Singapore’s sovereign fund Temasek and China’s largest electronics retailer Suning, which has taken investment from Alibaba, entered the round as new backers. Indeed, Suning’s push to for its store of the future, which was started by that Alibaba investment, uses SenseTime to power its facial recognition payment at staff-less checkouts and also for customer analysis using big data systems.

“SenseTime is doing pioneering work in artificial intelligence. We are especially impressed by their R&D capabilities in deep learning and visual computing. Our business at Alibaba is already seeing tangible benefits from our investments in AI and we are committed to further investment,” said Joe Tsai, Alibaba’s executive vice chairman.

SenseTime said it has more than 400 customers across a range of verticals including fintech, automotive, fintech, smartphones, smart city development and more that include Honda, Nvidia, China’s UnionPay, Weibo, China Merchants Bank, Huawei, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi.

Perhaps its most visible partner is the Chinese government, which uses its systems for its national surveillance system. SenseTime process data captured by China’s 170 million CCTV cameras and newer systems which include smart glasses worn by police offers on the street.

China has placed vast emphasis on tech development, with AI one of its key flagposts.

A government program aims to make the country the world leader in AI technology by 2030, the New York Times reported, by which time it is estimated that the industry could be worth some $150 billion per year. SenseTime’s continued development fees directly into that ambition.

“AI is really changing every profession and every industry. There’s almost nothing that won’t be touched by AI,” investor Kai-Fu Lee, formerly the head of Google in China, said at a TechCrunch event back in 2016.

Even two years ago, the potential was evident, with Lee explaining that teaching, medicine and healthcare were obvious areas for disruption.

Perhaps the main difference between the state of AI development in the U.S. and China is that, in America, much of the technology is being developed in big tech firms like Amazon and Google. In China, however, companies like SenseTime and its rival Megvii (which develops the Face++ platform) are independent entities that operate with the financial backing of giants like Alibaba.

Crypto exchange Coincheck, still recovering from $400M hack, sold to online brokerage

Japanese crypto exchange Coincheck, made famously after hackers made off with more than $400 million in digital token NEM, has been acquired.

The company announced today (in Japanese) that Tokyo-based online brokerage Monex Group will buy it in full. The transaction will see Coincheck become a wholly owned subsidiary of Monex.

The deal is a reaction of the NEM hack, with Coincheck recognizing that it needs to strengthen its management system and organization as a whole. That’s in direct response to Japan’s Financial Services Agency, which requested that the exchange make changes in the wake of the January hack — which saw Coincheck reimburse affected users.

Japan is the world’s first market to regulate cryptocurrencies, and the country has given its approval to over 26 exchanges that operate there, both locally and international. The Coincheck incident seems to serve as a wakeup call, however, and authorities clamped down on six others who were told to beef up their organizations to prevent more scandals or security issues. Added that, a number of regulated exchanges have announced plans to team up to create a self-regulatory body to add further scrutiny.

Editor’s note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Chinese bike-sharing pioneer Mobike sold to ambitious Meituan Dianping for $2.7B

Meituan Dianping, the fast-growing Chinese firm valued at $30 billion, is buying Mobike, a Chinese startup that helped pioneer bike-sharing services worldwide, in a major piece of consolidation.

The deal was heavy rumored yesterday and TechCrunch has today confirmed with two sources that it has been concluded at a price of $2.7 billion.

TechCrunch understands that the deal will be officially announced today, but already key personnel have let the cat out of the bag on social media. Mobike President and co-founder Hu Weiwei posted a cryptic WeChat message about “a new beginning,” as our Chinese partner Technode noted, while SCMP reported that Meituan CEO Wang Xing said the company will “build a new future with Mobike.”

Representatives from Meituan Dianping and Mobike did not respond to requests for comment.

Meituan Dianping is best known for food deliveries via electric bike, but that is just one part of its platform which connects local retailers to consumers via a so-called offline to online, or O2O, platform. The company was formed through a multi-billion dollar merger between China’s largest group buying services in 2015 and it has since raised boat-loads of capital from investors, including $4 billion last October, to expand into new areas.

Transportation is a major focus for Meituan Dianping. The firm began offering ride-hailing services earlier this year and it has invested in Go-Jek in Southeast Asia, so adding Mobike to its stables makes perfect sense on that front, not to mention potential synergies with its core delivery business, too.

These new forays might lead to an IPO. A host of Chinese firms have jumped into the public markets lately, and Bloomberg recently reported that Meituan Dianping hopes to join them with a listing that could value it as high as $60 billion.

The deal will also be a major win for Tencent against its long-time foe Alibaba.

Tencent is an investor in Meituan Dianping and Mobike, and unifying the two could help Meituan Dianping battle Ele.me, the $9.6 billion delivery service that Alibaba just bought in full last week. Indeed, Caixin reports that Tencent CEO Pony Ma himself brokered the deal.

Mobike and Ofo pioneered bike-sharing in China and the rest of the world. Mobike raised nearly $1 billion from investors that, Tencent aside, include Temasek, Foxconn, Hillhouse Capital and Vertex Ventures.

Mobike has been an investment and acquisition target for many.

Last year, a deal to merge with close rival Ofo was widely speculated. Ultimately, reports suggest that it fell through out of fear that Didi Chuxing, the ride-hailing giant that invested in Ofo, would become too powerful if the two bike-sharing firms tied up. That theory seemed to have its merits after Didi rolled out a hostile bike-sharing platform that sits inside its hugely popular ride-hailing app and is aimed at extinguishing the threat of Ofo, Mobike and others by simply turning them into features rather than fully-fledged rivals.

Insider raises $11M to help internet marketers do better internet marketing

Insider, a service that aims to help brands go about their internet marketing with greater efficiency and success, has landed an $11 million investment led by Sequoia India.

The startup is originally from Turkey where it began life in 2012 as a platform that helped optimize online marketing campaigns. Now at 240 staff across 16 markets, it recently moved HQ to Singapore and today it launches its new ‘Growth Management Platform.’

Those three words together don’t really tell much about Insider’s new product, the aim of which is to help brands, marketers and website owners generally serve dynamic content that is tailored to their visitors. The idea according to Insider CEO Hande Cilingir — who is one of six co-founders of the business — is to give a visitor the most optimized version of the site based on who they are. In many ways, it is similar to LiftIgniter, the U.S. startup that raised $6.4 million last year and was a finalist at TechCrunch Disrupt London 2016.

Insider goes about that task by collecting pieces of data about the visitor — the 90-odd parameters include obvious things include location, the website they are visiting from, the device they are on, etc — all of which is used to showcase the most relevant content or information to ensure that this visitor gets the best experience. Insider said it uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to boost its model, too, helping match potential similarities between users to build a wider and more intelligent picture about the type of people visiting a website.

The goal is really quite simple: keep people more engaged on a website and help website owners with their call to action, whatever that may be. Insider believes it can help lower customer acquisition costs through increased efficiency, while also boost existing conversion rates through customization.

Insider’s six co-founders

In the case of internet marketing, it is most often to e-commerce or other types of purchases.

That’s strongly reflected in the customer base that Insider claims. The company has put a big focus on Asia’s growing internet market — hence the move to Singapore — and publicly-announced clients for the startup include Singapore Airlines, Indonesian e-commerce firm Tokopedia, UNIQLO, Samsung, McDonald’s, Nissan and CNN.

Sequoia could help open doors, too, since the firm has invested in major consumer names in Asia such as Go-Jek, Carousell and Zomato.

“We were impressed with Insider’s AI platform, and the profound impact on their customer’s key metrics: lower customer acquisition costs, higher retention, faster growth. These customers quickly started to use more and more products from the Insider platform. That has put Insider on a fast growth trajectory, especially in Asia,” said Pieter Kemps, principal at Sequoia India.

Cilingir said the new funds will go towards expanding Insider’s sales team and hiring data scientists and machine learning engineers to develop the platform. The headquarters may be in Singapore now, but Istanbul remains the base for product development while the company’s core tech team is located in Ukraine.

The team is firmly focused on developing its business in Southeast Asia, she added, but it is also eying potential expansions with China and the U.S. among the more audacious new markets that it is considering at this point.

Already, Cilingir said the startup is on track to hit $100 million in annual recurring revenue by the end of 2018 while it is bullish that there’s more to come. Marketing giant Group M predicts that this is the year that online advertising spend overtakes TV for the first time in 17 countries worldwide and she’s optimistic that there will be a greater need for Insider’s products among brands and major consumer names worldwide.

Alongside Sequoia, Insider said that its existing investors Wamda Capital and Dogan Group also took part in the newest round, which is its Series B. The company previously raised a $2.2 million Series A in September 2016 to fund its initial foray into emerging markets.

Alibaba to buy all remaining outstanding shares of local delivery service Ele.me

As expected since February, Alibaba will buy all outstanding shares of Ele.me that it doesn’t already own. Best-known for food deliveries, Ele.me claims to be China’s biggest online delivery and local services platform. In an announcement, Alibaba said the deal values Ele.me at $9.5 billion. Alibaba, which first invested in Ele.me two years ago, and its affiliate Ant Small and Micro Financial Services Group currently hold about 43% of the company’s outstanding voting shares.

This is the latest in a string of investments and acquisitions by Alibaba to expand its physical retail presence as part of its so-called “new retail” strategy to combine e-commerce and offline retail. The company’s goal is to make it easier for users to move (and spend money) between brick-and-mortar stores and Alibaba businesses like Tmall and Taobao. For example, they may view products at pop-up stores and then order them on their smartphones for almost-immediate home delivery.

Ele.me, which will continue to operate under its own brand, is at its heart a logistics technology company. Founded in 2008, it utilizes its logistics system to provide services like Fengniao, an express courier for local deliveries. After the deal is finalized, Alibaba said that founder and chief executive officer Zhang Zhuhao (also known as Mark Zhang) will become chairman of Ele.me and special advisor to Alibaba Group CEO Daniel Zhang on its new retail strategy. Wang Lei, currently vice president of Alibaba Group, will take over as Ele.me’s CEO.

In a press release, Zhang said “Under the leadership of its founder and management team, Ele.me has achieved leading market share in China’s online food delivery and local services sector. Our shared belief that New Retail will create more value for customers and merchants has brought us together. Looking forward, Ele.me can leverage Alibaba’s infrastructure in commerce and
find new synergies with Alibaba’s diverse businesses to add further momentum to the New Retail initiative.”

Bloomberg reported at the end of February that Alibaba planned to buy the rest of Ele.me’s shares from its other investors, including Baidu.

The deal deepens Alibaba’s competition with Tencent, in particular its own local services and delivery platform, Meituan Dianping, which was formed by a merger in 2015. Alibaba previously owned shares in Meituan Dianping, thanks to its investment in Meituan, but began offloading them soon after the merger with Dianping.

In a statement, Alibaba said Ele.me complements its affiliate Koubei, a platform that gives restaurants and stores a way to go online and reach more local customers.

“By combining Ele.me’s online home delivery services with Koubei’s consumer acquisition and engagement capability for a range of restaurants and service establishments, Alibaba will be able to offer an integrated experiences to customers both online and offline,” said the company.

Kyklo is bringing the billion-dollar electromechanical industry into digital sales

The electromechanical industry may not be the kind of sexy tech that you’ll regularly read about in TechCrunch, but we like solutions to problems, and that is why I am about to write about a company in the aforementioned industry. Add in that the startup is based in Asia — Thailand, to be precise — and we have the recipe for a young company to keep an eye on.

Kyklo is the company and it is aimed at bringing the electromechanical space, which is worth over $1 trillion per year across 100,000s of distributors and retailers worldwide, into the digital era. The company operates a service that brings sales channels, inventory and networks online to replace the existing system, which is largely offline.

As of now, for example, if an OEM is selling air conditioning units for a new building development — the industry touches 5-20 percent of every new building via electrical equipment — the process will typically be handled by a reseller who presents a paper-based inventory to the buyer. Kyklo is proposing to take things online by allowing OEMs to lay out their inventory in a web-based shop — like Shopify — which can then be used by the reseller to solicit sales.

The idea may seem elementary, but the benefits go beyond ease of use — a website obviously has plenty of benefits over a physical sales catalog — including increased visibility to the OEM, who previously relied on the reseller for sales data. Resellers themselves also have a more dynamic catalog of products to share with prospective sales leads, which is also designed to feature highly in search engine rankings to help bring in inbound sales leads.

Kyklo began as a Shopify-like solution when it was founded in 2015 by two former employees of Schneider Electric, the $50-billion electric and energy company that is listed in Paris, France. Over the past year, however, the startup refocused into a sales lead and management tool for both OEMs and resellers.

CEO Remi Ducrocq — who started Kyklo with fellow co-founder and CTO Fabien Legouic — told TechCrunch that there was an expectation that simply by launching a store sales leads would land. While Kyklo does optimize search ranking, it works best as an aid for teams by helping coordinate sales leads, giving greater transparency on data — for future sales predictions — making it easy to add new products quickly, and automating much of the process for repeat customers.

Kyklo CEO Remi Ducrocq and CTO Fabien Legouic (left and right) both formerly worked for Schneider Electric

Rather than spending time requests from existing customers with phone calls and emails, resellers can simply provide a link to the catalog and enable customers to handle the re-purchasing process by themselves. That frees up resources to chase new sales and more.

“When we pitch distributors on why they should digitize their sales operations, it is first about how you get your existing customers online. So you shift your business from offline to online and by doing so you’ll get better satisfaction and you’ll be able to saturate your customer base,” Ducrocq said, pointing out that the service has helped some customers add 20 percent more sales from existing customers.

“Considering a distributor has 10 sales guys covering 1,000 customers, the truth is they only spend time with 50 guys who do 80 percent of the orders,” Ducrocq added. “On existing customers, a lot of the work is really admin [so] that’s something you can take off by making it digital.”

Kyklo’s customer base includes Schneider Electric and Thailand-based Interlink, the latter of which told TechCrunch in a statement that it grew revenue from its online business five-fold “in a matter of months” after coming on the Kyklo platform.

The benefit for OEMs is obvious, but initially some resellers were initially unsure of allowing a third-party into the relationship with their supplier (OEM). Kyklo CEO Ducrocq said his company has no interest in entering the reseller space. In fact, it has field agents who accompany resellers to meetings with their major buyers to help them come aboard while it jointly works on data and statistics to help reseller teams target new sales opportunities.

While it is sticking firmly to its position in the sales cycle, the startup does, however, have designs on international expansion. Right now, has customers in seven markets in Asia — Ducrocq is half-French, half-Thai hence the initial location in Bangkok — but already it is casting eyes on the European and North American markets.

U.S.-based Handshake, a B2B sales platform that has raised over $20 million from investors, is perhaps one of the most notable competitors it would come up against, but Kyklo believes its focus on the electromechanical space can help it conquer its niche. The startup is also looking to expand its relationship with existing global customers who it services in Asia to cover new markets that will give it a rolling start to its expansions.

“Right now we’re looking at which two countries we will do in Europe, and where we will go in the U.S.,” Ducrocq said.

In order to aid that expansion, Kyklo has raised funding from investors that include Singapore-based duo SeedPlus and Wavemaker Partners. Ducrocq declined to provide financial details of the round, while he also declined to give financial details on Kyklo’s business.

The company currently has 40 staff in its Bangkok HQ, with a number of remote business development and sales executives. While it plans to increase the number of staff it has outside of Thailand, there is no plan to relocate its main office from Bangkok.

The Kyklo office in Bangkok

Alibaba doubles down on Lazada with fresh $2B investment and new CEO

Alibaba is increasing its control of Lazada, its e-commerce marketplace in Southeast Asia it acquired control of in 2016, after it injected another $2 billion into the business and replaced its CEO with a long-standing Alibaba executive.

Alibaba’s first investment came in April 2016 when it bought 51 percent of Lazada for $1 billion, and it added another $1 billion last summer to increase its equity to around 83 percent. With today’s news, Alibaba has invested $4 billion to date which it said will “accelerate the growth plans” and help further tie the Lazada business into Alibaba’s core e-commerce service.

There’s already been plenty of evidence of increased ties between Alibaba and Lazada. The latter began offering products from Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace across Southeast Asia last year, and Alibaba has replaced Lazada’s tech team leadership with executives of its own. The latest shakeup is the appointment of Lucy Peng as Lazada’s new CEO to replace Max Bittner, who was installed by former owner Rocket Internet back in 2012.

Peng, who is one of Alibaba’s original 12 founders, has been Chairwoman of Lazada and is executive chairman of Ant Financial, Alibaba’s fintech affiliate company. Bittner will remain involved as “senior advisor to Alibaba Group” and apparently involved in future strategy, including further international expansion opportunities.

Lazada has progressed significantly since Alibaba’s first investment — which came at a time when the business had been close to running out of money — but the reality in Southeast Asia is that e-commerce in the region is a loss-making industry with plenty of competition.

Amazon entered the foray last year, but it remains only in Singapore, while Shopee is a two-year-old entrant bankrolled by Sea, formerly Garena, which raised over $1 billion in a U.S. IPO last year.

Alibaba hasn’t just limited its Southeast Asia approach to backing Lazada. The firm also invested $1.1 billion in Tokopedia which competes with Lazada in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy and the world’s fourth most populous country.

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