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Penta, the digital SME banking upstart, appoints co-founder of solarisBank as new CEO

Hon on the heels of being acquired by company builder Finleap, German SME banking upstart Penta has appointed a new CEO.

Marko Wenthin, who previously co-founded solarisBank (the banking-as-a-service used by Penta), is now heading up the company, having replaced outgoing CEO and Penta co-founder Lav Odorović.

I understand Odorović left Penta last month after it was mutually agreed with new owner Finleap that a CEO with more experience scaling should be brought in. The Penta co-founder remains a shareholder in the SME banking fintech and is thought to be eyeing up his next venture.

Wenthin, who remains on the board of solarisBank according to LinkedIn, stepped down from the banking-as-a-service’s executive team in late 2018 citing “health reasons” and saying that he needed to focus on his recovery. It’s not known what those health issues were, although, regardless, it’s good to see that he’s well-enough to take up a new role as Penta CEO.

Asked to comment on Odorović’s departure, Penta issued the following statement:

“Lav is still part of the shareholders at Penta. His step back from the operational management team was a decision taken by mutual agreement. Lav was the right fit during the building phase of Penta, but by entering a new step of growth, the company faces bigger challenges and needs therefore to position itself differently”.

Penta says that in his new leadership role, Wenthin, who previously spent 16 years at Deutsche Bank, will lead international expansion — next stop Italy — and begin to market the fintech to larger SMEs in addition to its original focus on early-stage startups and other small digital companies. “In the future, the focus will be also on traditional medium-sized companies,” says Penta.

Adds Wenthin in a statement: “I am very much looking forward to my new role at Penta. On the one hand, digital banking for small and medium-sized companies is very important to me, as they are the driver of the economy and I have spent most of my career in this segment. On the other hand, I have known Penta and the team for a long time as successful partners of solarisBank. Penta is the best example of how a very focused banking provider can create real, digital added value for an entire customer segment in cooperation with a banking-as-a-service platform”.

Meanwhile, TechCrunch understands that Odorović’s departure and the appointment of Wenthin isn’t the only recent personnel change within Penta’s leadership team. According to LinkedIn, Aleksandar Orlic, who held the position of CTO, departed the company last month. “We are searching for a new CTO,” said a Penta spokesperson.

Alongside Wenthin, that leaves Penta’s current management team as Jessica Holzbach (Chief Customer Officer), Luka Ivicevic (Chief of Staff), Lukas Zörner (Chief Product Officer (CPO) and Matteo Concas (Chief Marketing Officer).

Shares of SoftBank Group, Uber’s biggest stakeholder, slide after its disappointing IPO

As Uber’s biggest shareholder, SoftBank Group had high hopes for the ride-sharing company’s stock market debut last week. Instead, the Japanese conglomerate’s shares have been sliding along with Uber’s following its disappointing initial public offering. SoftBank shares began sliding at the end of last week after Uber set its IPO price at the low end of its planned range. Since the start of trading on Friday morning, SoftBank Group shares have fallen 14.4 percent in value from 11,700 yen (about $106.69) to 10,020 yen (about $91.37)

On paper, SoftBank Group, which became an investor in Uber in early 2018, had expected to make a profit of $3 billion from its debut. According to its IPO filing, SoftBank Group is Uber’s largest shareholder, owning 16.3 percent of pre-IPO shares through its Vision Fund.

After shares continued falling on their second day of trading, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told employees in a memo that “like all periods of transition, there are ups and downs. Obviously, our stock did not trade as well as we had hoped post-IPO. Today is another tough day in the market, and I expect the same as it relates to our stock.”

All major market indexes fell on Monday as the China-U.S. trade war continued to escalate, with China planning to raise customs on American imports after the U.S.increased tariffs on Chinese goods last week.

Singapore’s Grain, a profitable food delivery startup, pulls in $10M for expansion

Cloud kitchens are the big thing in food delivery, with ex-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s new business one contender in that space, with Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia, a major focus. Despite the newcomers, a more established startup from Singapore has raised a large bowl of cash to go after regional expansion.

Founded in 2014, Grain specializes in clean food while it takes a different approach to Kalanick’s CloudKitchens or food delivery services like Deliveroo, FoodPanda or GrabFood.

It adopted a cloud kitchen model — utilizing unwanted real estate as kitchens, with delivery services for output — but used it for its own operations. So while CloudKitchens and others rent their space to F&B companies as a cheaper way to make food for their on-demand delivery customers, Grain works with its own chefs, menu and delivery team. A so-called ‘full stack’ model if you can stand the cliched tech phrase.

Finally, Grain is also profitable. The new round has it shooting for growth — more on that below — but the startup was profitable last year, CEO and co-founder Yi Sung Yong told TechCrunch.

Now it is reaping the rewards of a model that keeps it in control of its product, unlike others that are complicated by a chain that includes the restaurant and a delivery person.

We previously wrote about Grain when it raised a $1.7 million Series A back in 2016 and today it announced a $10 million Series B which is led by Thailand’s Singha Ventures, the VC arm of the beer brand. A bevy of other investors took part, including Genesis Alternative Ventures, Sass Corp, K2 Global — run by serial investor Ozi Amanat who has backed Impossible Foods, Spotify and Uber among others — FoodXervices and Majuven. Existing investors Openspace Ventures, Raging Bull — from Thai Express founder Ivan Lee — and Cento Ventures participated.

The round includes venture debt, as well as equity, and it is worth noting that the family office of the owners of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf — Sassoon Investment Corporation — was involved.

Grain covers individual food as well as buffets in Singapore

Three years is a long gap between the two deals — Openspace and Cento have even rebranded during the intervening period — and the ride has been an eventful one. During those years, Sung said the business had come close to running out of capital before it doubled down on the fundamentals before the precarious runway capital ran out.

In fact, he said, the company — which now has over 100 staff — was fully prepared to self-sustain.

“We didn’t think of raising a Series B,” he explained in an interview. “Instead, we focused on the business and getting profitable… we thought that we can’t depend entirely on investors.”

And, ladies and gentleman, the irony of that is that VCs very much like a business that can self-sustain — it shows a model is proven — and investing in a startup that doesn’t need capital can be attractive.

Ultimately, though, profitability is seen as sexy today — particularly in the meal space where countless U.S. startups has shuttered including Munchery and Sprig — but the focus meant that Grain had to shelve its expansion plans. It then went through soul-searching times in 2017 when a spoilt curry saw 20 customers get food poisoning.

Sung declined to comment directly on that incident, but he said that company today has developed the “infrastructure” to scale its business across the board, and that very much includes quality control.

Grain co-founder and CEO Yi Sung Yong [Image via LinkedIn]

Grain currently delivers “thousands” of meals per day in Singapore, its sole market, with eight-figures in sales per year, he said. Last year, growth was 200 percent, Sung continued, and now is the time to look overseas. With Singha, the Grain CEO said the company has “everything we need to launch in Bangkok.”

Thailand — which Malaysia-based rival Dahamakan picked for its first expansion — is the only new launch on the table, but Sung said that could change.

“If things move faster, we’ll expand to more cities, maybe one per year,” he said. “But we need to get our brand, our food and our service right first.”

One part of that may be securing better deals for raw ingredients and food from suppliers. Grain is expanding its ‘hub’ kitchens — outposts placed strategically around town to serve customers faster — and growing its fleet of trucks, which are retrofitted with warmers and chillers for deliveries to customers.

Grain’s journey is proof that startups in the region will go through trials and tribulations, but being able to bolt down the fundamentals and reduce burn rate is crucial in the event that things go awry. Just look to grocery startup Honestbee, also based in Singapore, for evidence of what happens when costs are allowed to pile up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alibaba acquires Israeli VR startup Infinity Augmented Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the companies saying?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equity Shot: Lyft files to go public and we’re stoked

Hello and welcome to an Equity Shot, a short-form episode of the show where we dive into a single breaking news story. Guess what we’re talking about today?! It’s Lyft . You guessed correctly.

The Lyft S-1 is the very first major S-1 event of 2019. As you might recall, the government shutdown gummed the IPO process by halting the Securities and Exchange Commission, an agency that plays the most active role in helping a company go public. Now the government is open, and Lyft’s formerly private filing is now a public filing.

You can read Kate’s deep dive here or mine here, but what follows is an overview of what we chatted about on the show. Here’s the SEC filing if you want to follow along.

Up top are revenue and growth. Lyft’s revenue grew from $1.06 billion to nearly $2.2 billion from 2017 to 2018. That’s impressive.

Next is costs. Lyft’s costs rose dramatically during 2018, compared to the year prior. In fact, Lyft’s total cost profile rose from $1.77 billion in 2017 to a staggering $3.13 billion in 2018. That’s a lot, and each figure is far higher than its revenue.

Which lead us to losses. Sure those revenue numbers look hot, but Lyft, at the same time, lost $911 million on 2018 revenue and $688 million the previous year. Though, as Alex points out, that ratio is improving, pointing to a positive (maybe even profitable???) future for Lyft.

However, while the S-1 had its ups and downs, two data points stood out that weren’t GAAP, but did make us appreciate Lyft’s work a bit more. As we explain, Lyft’s share of bookings (total value of services) from its platform is rising as is its revenue-per-rider. Those bode well for the future, too.

We closed the episode with some chatter on Lyft’s plan to reward its drivers. The business is helping drivers — the core of its business — earn a piece of that tasty IPO pie with a $10,000 bonus. TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey has more on that here. Plus, we’d have been remiss not to discuss Lyft’s scooter play, which it apparently spent $60 million on last year.

All that and we got an S-1 done. Let’s have a few more, and quickly.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercast, Pocket Casts, Downcast and all the casts.

India’s Ola spins out a dedicated EV business — and it just raised $56M from investors

Ola, Uber’s key rival in India, is doubling down on electric vehicles after it span out a dedicated business, which has pulled in $56 million in early funding.

The unit is named Ola Electric Mobility and it is described as being an independent business that’s backed by Ola. TechCrunch understands Ola provided founding capital, and it has now been joined by a series of investors who have pumped Rs. 400 crore ($56 million) into Ola Electric. Notably, those backers include Tiger Global and Matrix India — two firms that were early investors in Ola itself.

While automotive companies and ride-hailing services in the U.S. are focused on bringing autonomous vehicles to the streets, India — like other parts of Asia — is more challenging thanks to diverse geographies, more sparse mapping and other factors. In India, companies have instead flocked to electric. The government had previously voiced its intention to make 30 percent of vehicles electric by 2030, but it has not formally introduced a policy to guide that initiative.

Ola has taken steps to electrify its fleet — it pledged last year to add 10,000 electric rickshaws to its fleet and has conducted other pilots with the goal of offering one million EVs by 2022 — but the challenge is such that it has spun out Ola Electric to go deeper into EVs.

That means that Ola Electric won’t just be concerned with vehicles, it has a far wider remit.

The new company has pledged to focus on areas that include charging solutions, EV batteries, and developing viable infrastructure that allows commercial EVs to operate at scale, according to an announcement. In other words, the challenge of developing electric vehicles goes beyond being a ‘ride-hailing problem’ and that is why Ola Electric has been formed and is being capitalized independently of Ola.

An electric rickshaw from Ola

Its leadership is also wholly separate.

Ola Electric is led by Ola executives Anand Shah and Ankit Jain — who led Ola’s connected car platform strategy — and the team includes former executives from carmakers such as BMW.

Already, it said it has partnered with “several” OEMs and battery makers and it “intends to work closely with the automotive industry to create seamless solutions for electric vehicle operations.” Indeed, that connected car play — Ola Play — likely already gives it warm leads to chase.

“At Ola Electric, our mission is to enable sustainable mobility for everyone. India can leapfrog problems of pollution and energy security by moving to electric mobility, create millions of new jobs and economic opportunity, and lead the world,” Ola CEO and co-founder Bhavish Aggarwal said in a statement.

“The first problem to solve in electric mobility is charging: users need a dependable, convenient, and affordable replacement for the petrol pump. By making electric easy for commercial vehicles that deliver a disproportionate share of kilometers traveled, we can jumpstart the electric vehicle revolution,” added Anand Shah, whose job title is listed as head of Ola Electric Mobility.

The new business spinout comes as Ola continues to raise new capital from investors.

Last month, Flipkart co-founder Sachin Bansal invested $92 million into the ongoing Series J round that is likely to exceed $1 billion and would value Ola at around $6 billion. Existing backer Steadview Capital earlier committed $75 million but there’s plenty more in development.

A filing — first noted by paper.vc — shows that India’s Competition Commission approved a request for a Temasek-affiliated investment vehicle’s proposed acquisition of seven percent of Ola. In addition, SoftBank offered a term sheet for a prospective $1 billion investment last month, TechCrunch understands from an industry source.

Ola is backed by the likes of SoftBank, Tencent, Sequoia India, Matrix, DST Global and Didi Chuxing. It has raised some $3.5 billion to date, according to data from Crunchbase.

Image recognition startup ViSenze raises $20M Series C

ViSenze, a startup that provides visual search tools for online retailers like Rakuten and ASOS, announced today that it has raised a $20 million Series C. The round was co-led by Gobi Ventures and Sonae IM, with participation from other backers including returning investors Rakuten and WI Harper.

Founded in 2012, ViSenze has now raised a total of $34.5 million (its last round was a Series B announced in September 2016). The Singapore-based company, whose clients also include Urban Outfitters, Zalora, and Uniqlo, bills its software portfolio as a “personal shopping concierge” that allows shoppers to find or discover new products based on visual search, automatic photo tagging, and recommendations based on their browsing history. ViSenze’s verticals include fashion, jewelry, furniture, and intellectual property.

ViSenze’s latest funding will be used to develop its software through partnerships with smartphone makers including Samsung, LG, and Huawei. The company has offices in Asia, Europe, and the United States, and claims an annual revenue growth rate of more than 200 percent. Other startups in the same space include Syte.ai, Slyce, Clarifai, and Imagga.

In a statement, Rakuten Ventures partner Adit Swarup said “When we first invested in ViSenze in 2014, retailers had just started seeing the benefits of powering product recommendations with image data. Today, ViSenze not only powers recommendations for the largest brands in the world, but has helped pioneer a paradigm shift in e-commerce; helping consumers find products inside their favorite social media videos and images, as well as initiate a search directly from their camera app.”

Other participants in the round included returning investors Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) Ventures, Raffles Venture Partners, Enspire Capital, and UOB Venture Management, as well as new investors Tembusu ICT Fund, 31Ventures Global Innovation Fund, and Jonathan Coon’s Impossible Ventures.

Car rental startup Virtuo picks up €20M Series B

Virtuo, the Paris-headquartered car rentals startup, has raised €20 million in Series B funding. The round is backed by Iris Capital, Balderton Capital and Raise Ventures, and will be used to continue expanding across the U.K. and other European countries.

Originally founded in France and available in 19 French and 2 Belgium locations, Virtuo launched in London last Summer, and says it plans to bring the service to U.K. cities Manchester, Bristol and Edinburgh later this year.

The company will also expand to Spain and Germany in 2019, creating what Virtuo claims will be a “truly pan-European rental option,” for drivers who are seeking an alternative to the big five incumbent car rental companies.

Designed to bring car rentals into the mobile age and in turn improve the user experience, the Virtuo app lets you book and unlock a Mercedes A-Class or GLA “in minutes,” at stations across the various cities the company operates, eradicating long wait times and arduous paperwork often associated with renting a car.

Like a plethora of mobility startups, the idea is to provide more options to a generation of non-car owners and in turn help creative a longer-term alternative to car ownership more generally.

“From the outset, we have been new challengers in an industry that has long-been dominated by 5 key players, whose bricks and mortar approach is deeply ingrained, not just in terms of market coverage, but also consumer rental habits,” Virtuo co-founder Karim Kaddoura tells me.

“We were the first to come into this industry with the fundamental belief that a 100 percent mobile approach is the only way to rebuild and re-think how car rental can be delivered from the ground up… From an operational perspective, by not being tied to bricks and mortar, we are able to launch stations, markets and services at a pace that has not been seen in the industry before”.

Kaddoura says Virtuo is also taking a data-driven and customer centric approach to building out its product, helping the company to innovate and improve every facet of renting a car. This has seen Virtuo garner 500,000 downloads of its app, which is popular with drivers between the age of 25 and 35.

I’m also told the average number of days of each rental is 4, averaging 325 miles per rental. Meanwhile, 80 percent of customers go for the compact A Class, while 20 percent take SUV.

“By continually listening to customer pain-points around booking processes, damage reporting, refuelling, communication and transparency, we can tackle these long-standing issues in new ways with technology as the solution,” he says. “The series B will play a key role in being able to provide greater availability across Europe and our existing markets”.

Adds Bernard Liautaud, managing partner of Balderton Capital: “Technology in cars and other areas of mobility is evolving rapidly, due to concerns over the environment and congestion. Given these shifts, renting a car as and when you need it is becoming a viable alternative to buying, particularly for younger people who have come of age as the sharing economy took off”.

Musiio raises $1M to let digital music services use AI for curation

Musiio, a Singapore-based startup that uses AI to help digital music companies with discovery and creation, has pulled in a $1 million seed round.

The capital comes from Singapore’s Wavemaker Partners, U.S. investor Exponential Creativity Ventures and undisclosed angels. The deal represents the first outside round for Musiio, which was founded at the Entrepreneur First program in Singapore where CEO Hazel Savage, a former streaming exec, met CEO Aron Pettersson. It also makes Musiio the first venture capital-backed music AI startup in Southeast Asia and one of the most notable EF graduates from its Asian cohorts.

We first wrote about Musiio last April when it had raised SG$75,000 ($57,000) as part of its involvement in EF, the London-based accelerator that has big ambitions in Asia. Since then, it has increased its team to seven full-time staff.

The company is focused on reducing inefficiencies for music curation using artificial intelligence by augmenting the important work of human curators. In short, it aims to give those without the spending power of Spotify the opportunity to automate or partially automate a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to scouring through music.

“Musiio won’t replace the need to have people listening to music,” Savage told TechCrunch last year. “But we can delete the inefficiencies.”

The Musiio team at its office in Singapore

The company’s first public client is Free Music Archive (FMA), a Creative Commons-like free music site developed by independent U.S. radio station WFMU. Musiio developed a curated playlist which raised the profile of a number of songs that had become ‘lost’ in the catalog. In particular, it helped one track double the number of plays it had received over eight years within just two days.

The FMA deal was really a proof of concept for Musiio, and Savage said that the company is getting close to announcing deals.

“Over the next month or two, there will be two or three commercial announcements,” Savage said this week. “We’re working with streaming companies and sync companies.”

Singapore’s Credit Culture raises $29.5M for its soon-to-launch digital loan business

Singapore’s digital fintech companies are attracting investor attention and dollars in 2019. Fresh from Singapore Life — a digital-only insurer — raising $33 million across two recently closed rounds, so Credit Culture, a digital loan specialist — has banked SG$40 million ($29.5 million) ahead of its imminent launch.

Credit Culture has raised its capital from Malaysia’s RCE Capital Berhad in a deal that allows the investor to potentially take a stake of up 30 percent in the startup. Its investment is via five-year bonds that are secured with the loan receivables from Credit Culture and include granted call options for taking that stake — in other words: this isn’t your regular startup deal.

RCE Capital Berhad said in a filing that Credit Culture has already raised SG$4 million ($2.9 million) via a seed investment, and it appears that it is financially set ahead of its launch.

“We are currently well-positioned with the recent injection of funds. That being said, we are always open to exploring various options to grow especially for regional expansion,” Credit Culture a representative told TechCrunch in an emailed response.

Founded by former bankers, Credit Culture is set to become one of Singapore’s first digital financial service startups after its parent company, DEY, secured approval to operate a moneylending business as part of a pilot to test online fintech services.

Since it hasn’t launched yet, there’s not a huge amount to say about the business, but its goal is to offer personal loans to Singapore-based customers using digital channels, so its website and mobile apps. The company plans to vet applicants using a mixture of existing platforms for data, including government initiative like MyInfo, and its own credit-scoring engine for creditworthiness assessment. It will also require face-to-face verification for loans to be granted, it confirmed.

Like Singapore Life and other digital-only ventures, including Hong Kong’s Bowtie, the objective is to pass on cost savings from being a purely online player — i.e. not operating branches and other physical consumer-facing outlets — and make prices fully transparent to applicants.

As you’d expect, Singapore is the initial focus for the company but it is already eying potential market expansions.

“We do have plans to expand to other Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Indonesia,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch. “There is a large potential given the need for personal financing and the large unbanked population segments.”

VCs give us their predictions for startups and tech in Southeast Asia in 2019

The new year is well underway and, before January is out, we polled VCs in Southeast Asia to get their thoughts on what to expect in 2019.

The number of VCs in the region has increased massively in recent years, in no small part due to forecasts of growth in the tech space as internet access continues to shoot up among Southeast Asia’s cumulative population of more than 600 million consumers.

There are other factors, including economic growth and emerging middle classes, but with more than 3.8 million people becoming first-time internet users each month — thanks to smartphones — Southeast Asia’s ‘digital economy’ is tipped to more than triple to reach $240 billion by 2025. That leaves plenty of opportunity for tech and online businesses and, by extension, venture capitalists.

With a VC corpus that now numbers dozens of investment firms, TechCrunch asked the people who write the checks what is on the horizon for 2019.

The only rule was no more than three predictions — below, in no particular order, is what they told us.


Albert Shyy, Burda

Funds will continue to invest aggressively in Southeast Asia in the first half of this year but capital will tighten up by Q4 as funds and companies prepare for a possible recession. I think we will see a lot of companies opportunistically go out to fundraise in Q1/Q2 to take advantage of a bull market.

We will see two to three newly-minted unicorns from the region this year, after a relative lull last year.

This will (finally) be the year that we start to see some consolidation in the e-commerce scene


Dmitry Levit, Cento

A significant portion of capital returned by upcoming U.S. IPOs to institutional investors will be directed to growth markets outside of China, with India and Southeast Asia being the likeliest beneficiaries. Alternative assets such as venture and subsets of private equity in emerging markets will enter their golden age.

The withdrawal of Chinese strategic players held back by weakened domestic economy, prudent M&A by local strategics and ongoing caution among Japanese, Korean and global corporates, combined with ongoing valuations exuberance by late-stage investors allocating funds to Southeast Asia, will continue holding back large liquidity events. Save perhaps for a roll-up of a local champion or two into a global IPO. Fundraising will get more troublesome for some of Southeast Asia’s larger unprofitable market leaders. Lack of marquee liquidity events and curtailed access to late-stage capital for some will lead to a few visible failures (our money is on the subsidy-heavy wallets!) and a temporary burst of short-term skepticism around Southeast Asia as an investment destination towards the end of 2019.

The trend towards the emergence of value-chain specific funds and fund managers will continue, as digitalization is reaching ever further into numerous industry sectors and as Southeast Asia hosts an increasing portion of global supply chains. We foresee at least dozen new venture firms and vehicles emerging in 2019 with clear sector-led investment thesis around the place of Southeast Asian economies in the global value chains of fashion industry, agriculture and food; labour, healthcare services; manufacturing, construction tech and so on, with investment teams that have the necessary expertise to unravel this increasing complexity.


Willson Cuaca, East Ventures

Jakarta becomes Southeast Asia’s startup capital surpassing Singapore in terms of the number of deals and investment amount.

As Indonesia’s startup scene heats up, regional seed and series A funds move away from Indonesia and target Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines (in market priority order).

Southeast gets two new unicorns.


Rachel Lau, RHL Ventures

North Asian companies will provide well-needed liquidity as they withdraw capital from developed American and European markets due to the Federal Reserve’s actions. The FED raised interest rates and reduced the size of its balance sheet (by not replacing the bonds that were maturing at a rate of $50 billion a month). This has been seen in the recent fundraising exercise by Southeast Asian unicorns. Grab has recently seen an impressive list of North Asian investors such as Mirae, Toyota and Yamaha . A recent stat stated that 85 percent of the funding of Southeast Asia startups have gone to billion dollar unicorn such as Grab and Gojek, bypassing the early stage startups that are more in need for funding, this trend is expected to continue. Therefore, we will see early-stage companies and venture capitalists becoming more focused on generating cash flow from operating operations instead as fundraising activities become more difficult.

A growth in urbanization in Southeast will create new job opportunities in small/medium businesses, as evident in China. Currently, only 12 percent of Asia’s urban population live in megacities, while four percent live in towns of fewer than 300,000 inhabitants. New companies will see the blurred lines between brick and mortar businesses vs pure online businesses. In the past year or so, we have seen more and more offline businesses going online and more online businesses going offline.

Fertility rates in the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam exceed 2.1 births per woman — the level that sustains a population — but rates below 1.5 in Singapore and Thailand mean their populations will decline without immigration. As we see more startup activities coming to Southeast Asian countries, we expect to see more qualified foreign talent moving to the region vs staying in low growth American and European countries.


Kay-Mok Ku, Gobi Ventures

First Chinese “Seaward” Unicorn in Southeast Asia. In recent years, a growing number of Chinese startups are targeting overseas markets from the get go (known as Chuhai 出海 or “Seaward”). These Chinese entrepreneurs typically bring with them best practices in consumer marketing and product development honed by a hyper-competitive home market, supported by strong, dedicated technical team based out of China and increasingly capitalized by Chinese VCs which have raised billion-dollar funds.

Consolidation among ASEAN Unicorns. While ASEAN now boasts 10 unicorns, they are duplicative in the sense that more than one exists in a particular category, which is unsustainable for winner-takes-all markets. For example, in the ASEAN ride-hailing space, while one unicorn is busy with regional geographic expansion, the other simply co-exists by staying focused on scope expansion within its home market. This will never happen in a single country market like China but now that the ASEAN ride hailing unicorns are finally locking horns, the stage may be set for a Didi-Kuadi like scenario to unfold.

ASEAN jumps on Chinese 5G bandwagon. The tech world in the future will likely bifurcate into American and Chinese-led platforms. As it is, emerging markets are adopting Chinese business models based on bite-sized payment and have embraced Chinese mobile apps often bundled with cheap Chinese smartphones. Looking ahead, 5G will be a game changer as its impact goes beyond smartphones to generic IoT devices, having strategic implications for industries such as autonomous driving. As a result, the US-China Trade War will likely evolve into a Tech War and ASEAN will be forced to choose side.


Daren Tan, Golden Equator Capital

We are excited by growth in the AI and deep tech sectors. The focus has generally been on consumer-focused tech in Southeast Asia as an emerging market, but we are starting to see proprietary solutions emerge for industries such as medtech and fintech. AI also has great applicability across a wide range of consumer sectors in reducing reliance on manpower and creating cost savings.

Data analytics to uncover organizational efficiencies and customer trends will continue to be even more widely used, but there will also be greater emphasis on securing such data especially confidential information in light of multiple high-profile data breaches in 2018. Tools enabling the collection, storage, safe-keeping and analysis of data will be essential.

We are seeing the emergence of more institutional funds from North Asia. So far it has predominantly been Chinese tech giants like Tencent and Alibaba, now we are starting to see Korean and Japanese institutions placing greater emphasis on investment in the Southeast Asian region.


Vinnie Lauria, Golden Gate Ventures

Even more capital flowing from U.S. and China into Southeast Asia, with VCs from both locations soon to open offices in the region

A fresh wave of Series A investments into Vietnam.

Ten exits over $100 million.

 


Amit Anand, Jungle Ventures

The emergence of a financial services super app, think the Meituan or WeChat but only for financial services: The Southeast Asian millennial is one of the most underserved customer from a financial services perspective whether it is payments, consumer goods loans, personal loans, personal finance management, investments or other financial services. We will see the emergence of digital platforms that will aggregate all these related services and provide a one stop financial services shop for this digitally native consumer.

Digitisation of SMEs will be new fintech: Southeast Asia is home to over 100 million SMEs that are at the cusp of digital transformation. Generational change in ownership, local governments push for digitization and increased globalization have created a perfect storm for these SMEs to adopt cloud and other digital technologies at neck-breaking pace. Startups focussing on this segment will get mainstream attention from the venture community over the next few years as they look for new industries that are getting enabled or disrupted by technology.


Kuo-Yi Lim and Peng Ong, Monk’s Hill Ventures

Lyft and Uber go public and show the path to profitability for other rideshare businesses. This has positive effect for the regional rideshare players but also puts pressure on them to demonstrate the same economics in ridesharing. Regional rideshare players double down on super-app positioning instead, to demonstrate value in other ways as rideshare business alone may not reach profitability — ever.

The trade war between China and the US reaches a truce, but a general sense of uncertainty lingers. This is now the new norm — things are less certain and companies have to plan for more adverse scenarios. In the short term, Southeast Asia benefits. Companies — Chinese, American etc — see Southeast Asia as the neutral ground. Investment pours in, creating jobs across industries. Acquisition of local champions intensifies as foreign players jostle for the lead positions.

“Solve the problem” – tech companies will become more prominent… tech companies that are real-estate brokers, recruiters, healthcare providers, food suppliers, logistics… why: many industries are very inefficient.


Hian Goh, Openspace Ventures

Fight to quality will happen. Fundraising across all stages from seed to Series C and beyond will be challenging if you don’t have the metrics. Investors will want to see a path to profitability, or an ability to turn profitable if the environment becomes worse. This will mean Saas companies with stable cash flows, vertical e-commerce with strong metrics will be attractive investment opportunities.

Investor selection will become critical, as investors take a wait and see approach. Existing or new investors into companies will be judged upon their dry powder in their funds and their ability to fund further rounds

The regulatory risk for fintech lenders will be higher this year, rising compliance cost and uncertainty on licensing, which would lead to consolidation in the market.


Heang Chhor, Qualgro

Southeast Asia: an intensifying battlefield for tech investments

There has never been so much VC money in Southeast Asia chasing interesting startups, at all life cycle stages. The 10 most active local and regional VCs have raised their second or third funds recently, amassing at least two times more money than a few years ago, probably reaching a total amount close to $1 billion. In addition, international VCs have also doubled down on their allocation into the region, while top Chinese VCs have visibly stated their intent not to miss the dynamic momentum. Several growth funds have recently built a local presence in order to target Southeast Asia tech companies at Series C and beyond. Not counting the amount going to the unicorns, there might be now more than $3-4 billion available for seed to growth stages, which may be 3-4 times the amount of three years ago. There are, of course, many more good startups coming up to invest into. But the most promising startups will be in a very favorable position to negotiate higher valuation and better terms. However, they should not forget that, eventually, what creates value is how they make a difference with their tech capabilities or their business model, how they acquire and retain the best talent, with the funds raised, not only how much money they will be able to raise. Most local and regional corporate VCs are likely to lose in this more intense investment game.

Significant VC money investing into so-called ‘AI-based startups’, but are there really much (deep) Artificial Intelligence capabilities around?

A good portion of the SEA startups claim they have ‘something-AI’. Investors are overwhelmed, if not confused, by the ‘AI claim’ that they find in most startup pitches. While there is no doubt that Southeast Asia will grow its own strong AI-competence pool in the future, unfortunately today most ‘AI-based’ business models from the region would still be just ‘good algorithms or machine learning’ that can process some amount of data to come up with good-enough outcomes, that do not always generate substantial business value to users/customers. The significant budget that some of the very-well-funded Southeast Asia unicorns are putting into their ‘AI-based apps’ or ‘AI platform’ is unlikely to make a real difference for the consumers, for lack of deep AI competences in the region. 2019 may be another year of AI-promise, not realized. Hopefully, public and private research labs, universities and startups will continue to be (much more) strongly supported (especially by governments) to significantly build bigger AI talent pool, which means growing and attracting AI talent into the region.

Bigger Series A and Series B rounds to fuel more convincing growth trajectory, towards growth-stage fundraising.

Although situations vary a lot: typical Series A in Southeast Asia used to be around $5 million, and Series B around $10-15 million. Investors tended to accept that normally companies would raise money after 18 months or so, between A and B, and between B and C. There has been an increasing number of larger raises at A and B recently, and very likely this trend will accelerate. The fact that VCs now have much more money to deploy into each investment will contribute to this trend. However, the required milestones for raising Series C have become much more around: minimum scale and very solid growth (and profit) drivers. Therefore, entrepreneurs will have to look for getting as much funding reserve as possible, irrespective of time between raises, to build growth engines that take their companies past the milestones of the next Series, be it B or C. In the future, we will see more Series A of $10 million and more Series B of well-above $20 million. Compelling businesses will not have too much difficulties for doing so, but most Southeast Asia entrepreneurs would be wise to learn to more effectively master fundraising skills for capturing much bigger amounts than in the past. Of course, this assumes that their businesses are compelling enough in the eyes of investors.


Vicknesh R Pillay, TNB Aura

Out-sized valuations will be less commonplace in 2019 as Southeast Asian investors learn from experience and become more sophisticated. Therefore, we do see opportunities at Series A/B for undervalued deals due to lack of early-stage funding while we expect to continue to see the trend of the majority of venture capital investments going into later stage companies (Series C and beyond) due to lower risk appetite and ‘herd’ mentality.

2018 has also seen the rapid emergence of many corporate venture capital funds and innovation programs. But, 2019 will see large corporations cutting back on their allocation towards startup investing which would be the easiest option for them in case of adverse news to the jittery public markets in 2019.

With the growth of AI, the need for API connections and increased thought leadership to embrace tech, Southeast Asia is going to see an upsurge in SaaS startups and existing startups moving to a Saas business model. Hence, we expect increased investments into Saas companies focused on IoT and cybersecurity as hardware data and software are moved onto the cloud.


Chua Kee Lock, Vertex Ventures

Southeast Asia VC investment pace has grown steadily and significantly since 2010 where it started from less than $100 million in VC investment in the region. For the first eight months of 2018, the region’s VC investment was over $5.4 billion. For the whole of 2018, it will likely end around $8 billion. For 2019, we expect the VC investment pace to surpass 2018 level and record between $9-10 billion. Southeast Asia will continue to attract more VC investments because:

(1) Governments in Southeast Asia, especially ASEAN, continue their support policy to encourage startups.

(2) young demographics and the fast technology adoption in Southeast Asia give rise to more innovative and disruptive ideas.

(3) global investors looking for a better return and will naturally focus on growing emerging market like Southeast Asia.

The trend towards gig economy will begin to have an impact in the region. In developed economies like the U.S, gig economy is expected to reach over 40 percent by 2020. The young population will look for more freelance opportunities as a way to increase income levels while still maintaining flexibility. This will include white-collar work like computer programming, accounting, customer service, etc. and also blue-collar work like delivery services, ride-sharing, home services, etc. We believe that the gig economy will grow to over 15 percent in Southeast Asia by 2019.

AI-heavy or -driven startups will begin to make inroads into Southeast Asia.


Victor Chua, Vynn Capital

The BIG convergence — there will more integration between industries and sectors. Traveloka went into car rental, Blibli went into travel business and these are only some examples. There is a lot of synergistic value between travel startups and food startups or between property startups and automotive startups. Imagine a future where you travel to a city where you stay in an apartment you rented through a marketplace (like Travelio, my portfolio company), and when you need to book a restaurant you can make the reservation through a platform that is integrated with the property manager, and when you need to move around you go down to the car park to drive a car you rent from an automotive marketplace. There is clear synergy between selective industries and this leads to an overall convergence between companies, between industries.

More channels to raise Series B/C, early-stage companies find fundraising more challenging — We have seen a number of VC funds raising or already raised growth funds, this means that there are now more channels for Series A or B companies to raise growth rounds. As the market matures, there will be more competition for investments amongst growth funds as there is considerably more growth in the number of growth funds than companies that are raising at growth-stage. On the flip side, the feel is that there is a consistent growth in the number of early-stage companies, yet the amount of capital in early-stage funds is not growing as much as more VCs prefer bigger and later stages, due to the maturity of their existing portfolio companies.

Newcomers gaining weight — there will be at least 10 companies that will hit a valuation of at least $100 million. These valuations will not be based on a single market exposure. Companies that raise larger rounds will need to show that they are regional.


Thanks to all the VCs who took part, I certainly felt like the class teacher collecting assignments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Korean AI startup Skelter Labs lands strategic investment to expand to Southeast Asia

Korean AI startup Skelter Labs is expanding to Southeast Asia after it pulled in undisclosed funding from Singapore-based VC firm Golden Gate Ventures.

Skelter Labs was founded in 2015 by founded by Ted Cho, the former engineering site director at Google Korea. It started out developing apps and services that made use of AI but then it pivoted to focus fully on AI tech, which it licenses out to companies and corporations that it works with. Now it is eying opportunities in  Japan and parts of Southeast Asia — which has a cumulative population of over 600 million — with Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia specifically mentioned.

The startup raised a $9 million seed round earlier this year, and Golden Gate has added an additional check to that round which came from KakaoBrain — the AI unit of Korean messaging giant Kakao — Kakao’s K-Cute venture arm, Stonebridge Ventures and Lotte Homeshopping, the TV and internet shopping business owned by multi-billion dollar retail giant Lotte.

More specifically, Seoul-based Skelter Labs works on AI in the context of vision and speech, conversation, and context recognition, while it goes after customers in areas that include manufacturing, customer operations, device interaction, and consumer marketing.

The startup doesn’t disclose customers, but it previously told TechCrunch that its vision is to bring its machine learning technology to daily life and schedules. Possible examples of that might be could include “intelligent virtual assistant technology that can be widely applied to various areas including smart speakers, smartphones, home appliances, automobiles and wearable devices.”

Golden Gate is one of Southeast Asia’s longest running tech VC firms. This deal is part of its recently announced third fund, which is $100 million in size.

In a statement, Skelter Labs CEO Cho paid tribute to the VC’s strong footprint in Southeast Asia that he said could open doors for the company. Startups in Golden Gate’s portfolio that might be of particular interest could include mobile listings startup Carousell, auto portal Carro, fashion commerce site Grana and online furnishings seller Hipvan.

Note: The original version of this article has been corrected. Skelter Labs has announced an extension to its previous round not a new round. Apologies for any confusion caused.

Edo raises $12M to measure TV ad effectiveness

Edo, an ad analytics startup founded by Daniel Nadler and actor Edward Norton, announced today that it has raised $12 million in Series A funding.

Nadler and Norton have both had startup success before — Nadler co-founded and led Kensho, which S&P Global acquired for $550 million. Norton invested in Kensho and co-founded CrowdRise, which was acquired by GoFundMe.

Even so, ad analytics might seem like an arcane industry for an actor/filmmaker to want to tackle. However, Norton said he was actually the one to convince Nadler that it was worth starting the company, and he argued that this is an important topic to both of them as creators. (Nadler’s a poet.)

“Movie studios and publishers, they take risks on talent, on creative people like us,” Norton said. “We want them to do well … The better they do with the dollars they spend, the less risk averse they become.”

Nadler and Norton recruited Kevin Krim, the former head of digital at CNBC, to serve as Edo’s CEO.

Krim explained that while linear TV advertising still accounts for the majority of ad budgets, the effectiveness of those ads is still measured using old-fashioned “survey-based methodologies.” There are other measurement companies looking online; Norton said they’re focused on social media sentiment and other “weak proxies” for consumer behavior.

Edo screenshot

In contrast, Edo pulls data from sources like search engines and content sites where people are doing research before making a purchase. By applying data science, Krim said, “We basically can measure the change in consumer engagement, the behaviors that are indicative of intent. We can measure the change in consumer behavior for every ad.”

In fact, Edo says that since its founding in 2015, it has created a database of 47 million ad airings, so advertisers can see not just their own ad performance, but also that of their competitors. This allows advertisers to adjust their campaigns based on consumer engagement — Krim said that in some cases, advertisers will receive the overnight data and then adjust their ad rotation for that very night.

As for the Series A, it was led by Breyer Capital. (Jim Breyer has backed everything from Facebook to Etsy to Marvel.) Vista Equity co-founders Robert Smith and Brian Sheth participated in the round, as did WGI Group.

“For more than a decade I’ve watched the data science talent arbitrage transform industries from finance to defense, from transportation to commerce,” Breyer said in the funding announcement. “We needed someone to bring these capabilities to bear on the systemic inefficiencies and methodological shortcomings of measurement and analytics in media and advertising.”

On the customer side, Edo is already working with ESPN, Turner, NBCUniversal and Warner Bros. I wondered whether some of the TV networks might have been worried about what Edo would reveal about their ads, but Norton said the opposite was true.

“I don’t sense that they in any way have trepidation that we’re going to pull their pants down — quite the opposite,” he said. “They are absolutely thrilled with our ability to help burnish and validate their assertions about the strength of what they’re offering.”

Oracle acquires DataFox, a developer of ‘predictive intelligence as a service’ across millions of company records

Oracle today announced that it has made another acquisition, this time to enhance both the kind of data that it can provide to its business customers, and its artificial intelligence capabilities: it is buying DataFox, a startup that has amassed a huge company database — currently covering 2.8 million public and private businesses, adding 1.2 million each year — and uses AI to analyse that to make larger business predictions. The business intelligence resulting from that service can in turn be used for a range of CRM-related services: prioritising sales accounts, finding leads, and so on.

“The combination of Oracle and DataFox will enhance Oracle Cloud Applications with an extensive set of AI-derived company-level data and signals, enabling customers to reach even better decisions and business outcomes,” noted Steve Miranda, EVP of applications development at Oracle, in a note to DataFox customers announcing the deal. He said that DataFox will sit among Oracle’s existing portfolio of business planning services like ERP, CX, HCM and SCM. “Together, Oracle and DataFox will enrich cloud applications with AI-driven company-level data, powering recommendations to elevate business performance across the enterprise.”

Terms of the deal do not appear to have been disclosed but we are trying to find out. DataFox — which launched in 2014 as a contender in the TC Battlefield at Disrupt — had raised just under $19 million and was last valued at $33 million back in January 2017, according to PitchBook. Investors in the company included Slack, GV, Howard Linzon, and strategic investor Goldman Sachs among others.

Oracle said that it is not committing to a specific product roadmap for DataFox longer term, but for now it will be keeping the product going as is for those who are already customers. The startup counted Goldman Sachs, Bain & Company and Twilio among those using its services. 

The deal is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it shows that larger platform providers are on the hunt for more AI-driven tools to provide an increasingly sophisticated level of service to customers. Second, in this case, it’s a sign of how content remains a compelling proposition, when it is presented and able to be manipulated for specific ends. Many customer databases can get old and out of date, so the idea of constantly trawling information sources in order to create the most accurate record of businesses possible is a very compelling idea to anyone who has faced the alternative, and that goes even more so in sales environments when people are trying to look their sharpest.

It also shows that, although both companies have evolved quite a lot, and there are many other alternatives on the market, Oracle remains in hot competition with Salesforce for customers and are hoping to woo and keep more of them with the better, integrated innovations. That also points to Oracle potentially cross and up-selling people who come to them by way of DataFox, which is an SaaS that pitches itself very much as something anyone can subscribe to online.

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.