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

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

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

Screenshots of Feiliao / Image source: Feiliao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot of Jike CEO Wa Ren commenting on Feiliao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

douyu

Screenshot of a Douyu live streaming session 

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Grab moves to offer digital insurance services in Southeast Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

What Spotify can learn from Tencent Music

On Tuesday, Tencent Music Entertainment filed for an IPO in the US that is expected to value it in the $25-30 billion range, on par with Spotify’s IPO in April. The filing highlights just how different its social interaction and digital goods business is from the subscription models of leading music streaming services in Western countries.

That divergence suggests an opportunity for Spotify or one of its rivals to gain a competitive advantage.

Tencent Music is no small player: As the music arm of Chinese digital media giant Tencent, its four apps have several hundred million monthly active users, $1.3 billion in revenue for the first half of 2018, and roughly 75 percent market share in China’s rapidly growing music streaming market. Unlike Spotify and Apple Music, however, almost none of its users pay for the service, and those who do are mostly not paying in the form of a streaming subscription.

Its SEC filing shows that 70 percent of revenue is from the 4.2 percent of its overall users who pay to give virtual gifts to other users (and music stars) who sing karaoke or live stream a concert and/or who paid for access to premium tools for karaoke; the other 30 percent is the combination of streaming subscriptions, music downloads, and ad revenue.

At its heart, Tencent Music is an interactive media company. Its business isn’t merely providing music, it’s getting people to engage around music. Given its parent company Tencent has become the leading force in global gaming—with control of League of Legends maker Riot Games and Clash of Clans maker Supercell, plus a 40 percent stake in Fortnite creator Epic Games, and role as the top mobile games publisher in China—its team is well-versed in the dynamics of in-game purchasing.

At first glance, the fact that Tencent Music has a lower subscriber rate than its Western rivals (3.6 percent of users paying for a subscription or digital downloads vs. 46 percent paying for a premium subscription on Spotify) is shocking given it has the key ingredient they each crave: exclusive content. Whereas subscription video streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video have anchored themselves in exclusive ownership of must-see shows in order to attract subscribers, the music streaming platforms suffer from commodity content. Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, YouTube Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Deezer… they all have the same core library of music licensed from the major labels. There’s no reason for any consumer to pay for more than one music streaming subscription in the way they do for video streaming services.

In China, however, Tencent Music has exclusive rights to the most popular Western music from the major labels. The natural strategy to leverage this asset would be to charge a subscription to access it. But the reality is that piracy is still enough of a challenge in China that access to that music isn’t truly “exclusive.” Plus while incomes are rising, there’s extraordinary variance in what price point the population can afford for a music subscription. As a result, Tencent Music can’t rely on a subscription for exclusive content; it sublicenses that content to other Chinese music services as an additional revenue stream instead.

“Online music services in China have experienced intense competition with limited ability to differentiate by content due to the widespread piracy.” Tencent Music, SEC Form F-1

This puts it in a position like that of the Western music streaming services—fighting to differentiate and build a moat against competitors—but unlike them it has successfully done so. By integrating live streams and social functionality as core to the user experience, it’s gaining exclusive content in another form (user-generated content) and the network effects of a social media platform.

Some elements of this are distinct to Tencent’s core market—the broader popularity of karaoke, for instance—but the strategy of gaining competitive advantage through interactive and live content is one Spotify and its rivals would be wise to pursue more aggressively. It is unlikely that the major record labels will agree to any meaningful degree of exclusivity for one of the big streaming services here, and so these platforms need to make unique experiences core to their offering.

Online social activities like singing with friends or singing a karaoke duet with a favorite musician do in fact have a solid base of participants around the world: San Francisco-based startup Smule (backed by Shasta Ventures and Tencent itself) has 50 million monthly active users on its apps for that very purpose. There is a large minority of people who care a lot about singing songs as a social experience, both with friends and strangers.

Spotify and Apple Music have experimented with video, messaging, and social streams (of what friends are listening to). But these have been bonus features and none of them were so integrated into the core product offering as to create serious switching costs that would stop a user from jumping to the other.

The ability to give tips or buy digital goods makes it easier to monetize a platform’s most engaged and enthusiastic users. This is the business model of the mobile gaming sector: A minority percentage of users get emotionally invested enough to pay real money for digital goods that enhance their experience, currency to tip other members of the community, or access to additional gameplay.

As the leading music platform, it is surprising that Spotify hasn’t created a pathway for superfans of music to engage deeper with artists or each other. Spotify makes referrals to buy concert tickets or merchandise —a very traditional sense of what the music fan wants—but hasn’t deepened the online music experience for the segment of its user base that would happily pay more for music-related experiences online (whether in the form of tipping, digital goods, special digital access to live shows, etc.) or for deeper exposure to the process (and people) behind their favorite songs.

Tencent Music has an advantage in creating social music experiences because it is part of the same company that owns the country’s leading social apps and is integrated into them. It has been able to build off the social graph of WeChat and QQ rather than building a siloed social network for music. Even Spotify’s main corporate rivals, Apple Music and Amazon Music, aren’t attached to leading social platforms. (Another competitor, YouTube Music, is tied to YouTube but the video service’s social features are secondary aspects of the product compared to the primary role of social interaction on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp).

Spotify could build out more interactive products itself or could buy social-music startups like Smule, but Tencent Music’s success also suggests the benefits of a deal that’s sometimes speculated about by VCs and music industry observers: a Facebook acquisition of Spotify. As one, the leading social media company and the leading music streaming company could build out more valuable video live streaming, group music sharing, karaoke, and other social interactions around music that tap Facebook’s 2 billion users to use Spotify as their default streaming service and lock existing Spotify subscribers into the service that integrates with their go-to social apps.

Deeper social functionality doesn’t seem to be the path Spotify is prioritizing, though. It has removed several social features over the years and is anchoring itself in professional content distribution (rather than user-generated content creation), becoming the new pipes for professional musicians to put their songs out to the world (and likely aiming to disrupt the role of labels and publishers more than they will publicly admit). To that point, the company’s acquisitions—of startups like Loudr, Mediachain, and Soundtrap—have focused on content analytics, content recommendation, royalty tracking, and tools for professional creators.

This is the same race its more deep-pocketed competitors are running, however, and it doesn’t lock consumers into the platform like the network effects of a social app or the exclusivity of a mobile game do. It recently began opening its platform for musicians to add their songs directly—something Tencent Music has allowed for years—but this seems less like a move to a YouTube or SoundCloud-style user-generated content platform and more like a chess move in the game of eventually displacing labels. Ultimately, though, building out more social interaction around music will be critical to it in escaping the race with Apple Music and the rest by achieving more defensibility.

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.

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.

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.

Google brings its ARCore technology to China in partnership with Xiaomi

Google is ramping up its efforts to return to China. Earlier this year, the search giant detailed plans to bring its ARCore technology — which enables augmented reality and virtual reality — to phones in China and this week that effort went live with its first partner, Xiaomi.

Initially the technology will be available for Xiaomi’s Mix 2S devices via an app in the Xiaomi App Store, but Google has plans to add more partners in Mainland China over time. Huawei and Samsung are two confirmed names that have signed up to distribute ARCore apps on Chinese soil, Google said previously.

Starting today, #ARCore apps are available on Mix 2S devices from the Xiaomi App Store in China. More partners coming soon → https://t.co/16QoOTgqve pic.twitter.com/lT4TYXrzwF

— Google AR & VR (@GoogleARVR) May 28, 2018

Google’s core services remain blocked in China but ARCore apps are able to work there because the technology itself works on device without the cloud, which means that once apps are downloaded to a phone there’s nothing that China’s internet censors can do to disrupt them.

Rather than software, the main challenge is distribution. The Google Play Store is restricted in China, and in its place China has a fragmented landscape that consists of more than a dozen major third-party Android app stores. That explains why Google has struck deals with the likes of Xiaomi and Huawei, which operate their own app stores which — pre-loaded on their devices — can help Google reach consumers.

ARCore in action

The ARCore strategy for China, while subtle, is part of a sustained push to grow Google’s presence in China. While that hasn’t meant reviving the Google Play Store — despite plenty of speculation in the media — Google has ramped up in other areas.

In recent months, the company has struck a partnership with Tencent, agreed to invest in a number of China-based startups — including biotech-focused XtalPi and live-streaming service Chushou — and announced an AI lab in Beijing. Added to that, Google gained a large tech presence in Taiwan via the completion of its acquisition of a chunk of HTC, and it opened a presence in Shenzhen, the Chinese city known as ‘the Silicon Valley of hardware.’

Finally, it is also hosting its first ‘Demo Day’ program for startups in Asia with an event planned for Shanghai, China, this coming September. Applications to take part in the initiative opened last week.

Chinese authorities dish out $5M in fines for developers of PUBG hack software

There has long been speculation and evidence of cheating software for PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), but action is being taken to stamp it out. The makers of the smash-hit game have confirmed that they have worked with authorities in China who have dished out over $5 million in fines to at least 15 people caught developing hacks that help players cheat.

PUBG, in case you missed it, is one of the top-grossing games in the world this year. A shoot-up battle royale game that sees players battle to survive to the end, PUBG grossed $700 million in revenue via PC sales last year and that’s only increased in 2018 as the title landed on mobile. It’s particularly big in China where internet giant Tencent is the publishing partner.

That Tencent link might have proved useful, as Bluehole — the company behind PUBG — revealed in a statement that Chinese authorities have helped it clamp down on hacking programs, handing out the huge number of fines in the process:

Here’s some translated information from the local authorities we worked with on this case:

“15 major suspects including “OMG”, “FL”, “火狐”, “须弥” and “炎黄” were arrested for developing hack programs, hosting marketplaces for hack programs, and brokering transactions. Currently the suspects have been fined approximately 30mil RNB ($5.1mil USD). Other suspects related to this case are still being investigated.

While the programs were being developed in China and there were users there too, it isn’t clear whether that reach extended to gamers in the U.S. and other countries.

Beyond just cheating, there is also a significant risk for those who use the hacked software.

Bluehole said it found evidence that the programs were used by their developers to infect host PCs in order to “control users’ PC, scan their data, and extract information illegally.” Some, it is said, used Trojan Horse software to steal user information — that could mean information from when they shop online (like credit card numbers), the content of emails, and more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobike has been an investment and acquisition target for many.

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

Baidu’s streaming video service iQiyi falls 13.6% in Nasdaq debut

The streaming video service iQiyi, a business owned by China’s online search giant Baidu, dropped 13.6% in its first day of trading on the Nasdaq — closing at $15.55, or down $2.45 from its opening price of $18.

The company still managed to pull off one of the largest public offerings by a Chinese tech company in the past two years raising $2.25 billion — the only Chinese technology company to make a larger splash in U.S. markets is Alibaba — the commercial technology juggernaut which raised $21.5 billion in its public offering on the New York Stock Exchange in 2014.

“It’s a special day and an exciting day for iQiyi, and I will say it’s also an exciting day for the Chinese internet,” said Baidu chief executive Robin Li of the iQiyi public offering.”Eight years ago, when we got started, we were not the first one, we were not the largest one, but we gradually worked our way up, and caught up and surpassed everyone. It has been not an easy journey, but finally we are public. We surpassed everyone. That’s because we have a very strong team. I have a full confidence on Gong Yu and on the whole iQiyi Team.”

Over its eight year history there’s no doubt that iQiyi has gone from laggardly to lustrous in the Chinese streaming video market. Baidu’s offering and Tencent’s video service have both managed to overtake the previous market leader Youku Tudou, which was acquired by Alibaba in 2016.

Tencent leveraged its 980 million monthly active users on the WeChat mobile messaging app, the 653 million monthly active users on its older QQ messaging platform and the company’s attendant social network (think Facebook) to juice growth of its video streaming offering, according to analysis from The Motley Fool.

For Baidu, the company’s pole position for online search became critical to the growth of iQiyi — along with a partnership to China’s ubiquitous hardware manufacturer and technology developer Xiaomi . The company also locked in early content licensing deals with big Hollywood studios like Lions Gate and Paramount — and a deal with Netflix to juice its subscriber base in China. By the end of 2017, Baidu was claiming more than 487 million monthly active users for the service.

The former leader in China’s video streaming market, Youku Tudou, seems to have wilted under the weight of its acquirer’s platform. Alibaba’s ecommerce was never a natural fit with online video streaming.

For all of their massive user bases each of China’s leading video streaming services face a profitability problem. For its part, iQiyi went to market with substantial losses of $574.4 million for the last fiscal year.

 

 

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