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Chat app Line is adding Snap-style disappearing stories

Facebook cloning Snap to death may be old news, but others are only just following suit. Line, the Japanese messaging app that’s popular in Asia, just became the latest to clone Snap’s ephemeral story concept.

The company announced today that it is adding stories that disappear after 24-hours to its timeline feature, a social network like feed that sits in its app, and user profiles. The update is rolling out to users now and the concept is very much identical to Snap, Instagram and others that have embraced time-limited content.

“As posts vanish after 24 hours, there is no need to worry about overposting or having posts remain in the feed,” Line, which is listed in the U.S. and Japan, wrote in an update. “Stories allows friends to discover real-time information on Timeline that is available only for that moment.”

Snap pioneered self-destructed content in its app, and the concept has now become present across most of the most popular internet services in the world.

In particular, Facebook added stories to across the board: to its core app, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, the world’s most popular chat app with over 1.5 billion monthly users. Indeed, Facebook claims that WhatsApp stories are used by 500 million people, while the company has built Instagram into a service that has long had more users than Snap — currently over one billion.

The approach doesn’t always work, though — Facebook is shuttering its most brazen Snap copy, a camera app built around Instagram direct messages.

China’s top chat app WeChat added its own version earlier this year, and while it said in its earnings this week that users upload “hundreds of millions of videos each day” to its social platforms, it didn’t give numbers on its Snap-inspired feature.

Line doesn’t have anything like the reach of Facebook’s constellation of social apps or WeChat, but it is Japan’s dominant messaging platform and is popular in Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia.

The Japanese company doesn’t give out global user numbers but it reported 164 million monthly users in its four key markets as of Q1 2019, that’s down one million year-on-year. Japan accounts for 80 million of that figure, ahead of Thailand (44 million), Taiwan (21 million) and Indonesia (19 million.)

While user growth has stagnated, Line has been able to extract increase revenue. In addition to a foray into services — in Japan its range covers ride-hailing, food delivery, music streaming and payments — it has increased advertising in the app’s timeline tab, and that is likely a big reason for the release of stories. The new feature may help timeline get more eyeballs, while the company could follow the lead of Snap and Instagram to monetize stories by allowing businesses in.

In Line’s case, that could work reasonably well — for advertising — since users can opt to follow business accounts already. It would make sense, then, to let companies push stories to users that opted in follow their account. But that’s a long way in the future and it will depend on how the new feature is received by users.

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.

Go-Jek’s Get app officially launches in Thailand as Southeast Asia expansion continues

Go-Jek is extending its reach in Southeast Asia after its Thailand-based unit made its official launch, which included the addition of a new food delivery service.

Get, which is the name for Go-Jek business in Thailand, started out last year offering motorbike taxi on-demand services to a limited part of Thai capital city Bangkok, now the company said it has expanded the bikes across the city and added food and delivery options. Get’s management team is composed of former Uber staffers while CEO Pinya Nittayakasetwat was recruited from chat app Line’s food delivery business.

Over the last two months, Get claims to have completed two million trips in the past two months. There’s no word on when Get will add four-wheeled transport options, however. On the food side, Get is claiming to have 20,000 merchants on its platform but there are some issues. Rumming through the app, I found a number of listed restaurants that didn’t include menus. In those instances, customers have to input their dish and price which makes it pretty hard to use.

Go-Jek’s Get app in Thailand doesn’t include menus for a number of restaurants, making it nearly impossible to order

Grab is the dominant player in Thailand, where it offers taxis, private cars, motorbikes, delivery and food across eight markets in Southeast Asia. Go-Jek rose to success in its native Indonesia, where it began offering motorbikes on demand but has expanded to cover taxi, cars, food, general services on-demand and fintech. Its investors include Google, Tencent, Meituan and Sequoia India.

That’s the same playbook Grab is using, but Go-Jek is taking its time with its market expansions. Thailand represents its third new market beyond Indonesia, following launches in Vietnam and Singapore. The Philippines is another market where Go-Jek has voiced a desire to be present — it has even made an acquisition there — but regulatory issues are holding up a launch.

Regional expansion doesn’t come cheap and Go-Jek is in the midst of raising $2 billion to finance these moves. It recently closed $1 billion from existing investors, and Deal Street Asia reports that it could raise as much as $3 billion for the entire Series F round. That’s likely in response to Grab’s own fundraising plans. The Singapore-based company closed $2 billion last year, but it is looking to increase that total to $5 billion with a major injection from SoftBank’s Vision Fund a key piece of that puzzle.

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.

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.

Elon Musk is building a ‘kid-size submarine’ to rescue Thai kids trapped in cave

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Elon Musk is coming to the rescue.

The tech leader, along with SpaceX and Boring Company engineers, have been working with cave experts in Thailand to rescue the boys’ soccer team of 12 that’s been stuck in a cave system since June 23.

On Saturday, Musk tweeted an updated rescue plan, which essentially involves constructing “a tiny, kid-size submarine” that he plans to fly to Thailand.

Musk began his Saturday updates by discussing an “escape pod design” and “an inflatable tube with airlocks.” But as the day progressed, he settled on the idea of a mini-submarine. Read more…

More about Tech, Thailand, Elon Musk, Spacex, and Submarine

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.

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.

Battered by tourists, the Thai beach from ‘The Beach’ to close temporarily

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Thailand’s natural wonders are feeling the force of tourism, forcing one to close temporarily.

Maya Bay, a great beach on Phi Phi Leh island made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio in the not-so-great movie The Beach, will be temporarily closed for four months a year from June, as reported by the Associated Press.

Thailand’s National Parks and Wildlife Department made the decision on Wednesday to allow the island’s coral reefs and sea life to recover. The beach is open all-year round, in contrast to the many Thai marine parks closed between mid-May to mid-October. Read more…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kyklo office in Bangkok

Thailand’s Kasikorn Bank backs cloud accounting startup in first deal for $30M fund

 Thailand’s banks have stepped up to chase the startup dream over the past year. Following on from SCB’s Digital Ventures, which has backed blockchain startup Ripple among others, Kasikorn Bank (KBank) has made the first investment from its $30 million fund — a $1.15 million round for Bangkok-based FlowAccount. KBank announced its Beacon fund this summer. It has made… Read More

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Those food stalls you love about Bangkok are about to disappear from Bangkok

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Bangkok’s iconic bustling streets, lined with food vendors may soon vanish.

The government is moving to ban these food carts and makeshift clothing stalls from the capital’s main roads, as part of a campaign to clean up the city.

“All types of stalls including clothes, counterfeit goods and food stalls will be banned from main city roads,” Walop Suwandee, chief adviser to Bangkok’s governor, told news agency AFP.

“They will not be allowed for order and hygiene reasons.”

Officials have for weeks been forcing vendors out of Thonglor, one of the city’s popular tourist districts, but the latest announcement confirms that the ban is city-wide.  Read more…

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BBC's shortwave transmissions from Thailand go dark, after talks fail

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The British Broadcasting Corporation announced Wednesday it is ending its shortwave transmissions from Thailand after 20 years of operation, because it failed to reach agreement with Thailand’s military government on a renewal of its operating permit.

Shortwave transmissions are radio broadcasts in the AM band. Demand for AM receivers has dropped steeply over the years, but the BBC had still employed 45 staff members, who may lose their jobs with the decision.

Its Thai transmitters were serving the East Asia region. The BBC moved its East Asia relay station to Thailand from Hong Kong after the handover of the British colony to China in 1997. Read more…

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Turtle living in wishing pond gets surgery after years of eating of coins left by tourists

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The Thai sea turtle that spent years eating coins off the bottom of a wishing pond has undergone a successful surgery.

The 25-year-old, nicknamed Omsin (Thai for “piggy bank”), was found with an engorged stomach full of heavy coins, and she made headlines as a warning to people casting coins into ponds for good luck.

The coins, found in her stomach and intestines, were pressing on her other organs, and preventing her from diving, breathing or eating properly.

Vets operated on Omsin on Monday, removing removed some 915 coins weighing nearly 5 kg, according to Nantarika Chansue, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University who has been spearheading the turtle’s recovery. Read more…

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Stop throwing coins into ponds, this sea turtle ate a whole bunch and needs surgery

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Years of eating coins dropped at the bottom of a pond has rendered a sea turtle in pain, and headed to the surgery ward.

The 25-year-old Thai sea turtle was discovered living in a pond in Si Racha, a town on the east coast of Thailand, according to the Bangkok Post

Vets conducted a CT scan and discovered a lump of coins measuring an alarming 20 x 23 x 30 cm (7.8 x 9 x 11 in.) in the turtle’s body, pressing down on its ventral shell (or the turtle’s belly), causing it to be cracked, swollen and infected. Scans also showed a fish hook in her intestine.  Read more…

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Asia's best restaurant has a frustratingly confusing menu of only 22 emojis

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Gaggan is a posh restaurant that’s been crowned Asia’s best for the third year in a row.

So imagine going there and having to order off an all-emoji menu

Gaggan’s menu is a minimalist one-pager of just 22 emojis, each representing one dish. 

The emojis provide a clue as to what each dish is, although if you ask us, it’s still some pretty tough guesswork.

Image: live from a lounge

However, some of the dishes look pretty true to their emoji counterparts.

Take for example the first course, “Kiss Me”, which is represented by a kissing emoji. Read more…

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Rocket Internet’s Zalora is retreating from two more countries in Asia

zalora Zalora, the Rocket Internet-backed online fashion store, is continuing its retreat from Asia. The firm sold off its businesses in Vietnam and Thailand last year, and now it is withdrawing from the Philippines and Indonesia.
Yesterday it transpired that Zalora sold 49 percent of its Philippines-based operations to local real estate firm Ayala, as E27 reported, but it is in the process of… Read More

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