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Facebook rolls out vaccine finder tool in India, donates $10 million

By Manish Singh

Facebook has announced a $10 million grant to support emergency response efforts in India and has rolled out its Vaccine Finder tool in the country as the South Asian nation grapples with the latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

The American social network said that it has partnered with a number of organizations including United Way, Swasth, Hemkunt Foundation, I Am Gurgaon, Project Mumbai and US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) to help augment critical medical supplies with over 5,000 oxygen concentrators and other life-saving equipments such as ventilators, BiPAP machines and to increase hospital bed capacity.

Facebook also said it has partnered with the Government of India to roll out a Vaccine Finder tool on the company’s marquee app. The tool, available in 17 languages, is designed to help people identify and spot vaccine centres in their vicinity.

Last week, India opened vaccination to people aged between 18 to 45, though its website quickly crashed and wasn’t immediately accepting appointment requests from most people in that age group.

Also worth checking out: Folks over at WiFi Dabba, a Bangalore-based startup that is working to build a low-cost ISP, have also developed a tool to help people easily find vaccination slots.

A bigger challenge confronting India currently, however, is the shortage of vaccine.

Facebook said it is also supporting non-government organizations and United Nation agencies in India with ad credits to reach the majority of people on Facebook with Covid-19 vaccine and preventive health information.

Additionally, the company said it is providing health resources to people from UNICEF India about when to seek emergency care and how to manage mild Covid-19 symptoms at home.

I am thinking of our friends in India going through such a difficult time with COVID and grateful for all the work people are doing to help one another.  We're working with health partners to support helplines on WA like this one from @mygovindia https://t.co/pqE0VGHQbK https://t.co/uhmyEN5U7f

— Will Cathcart (@wcathcart) May 1, 2021

Scores of firms, startups, entrepreneurs, and investors have stepped up their efforts in recent weeks to help India, the world’s second most populous country, fight the pandemic after the federal and state governments were caught ill-prepared to handle it.

On Monday, Pfizer said it was sending medicines worth $70 million to India. “We are committed to being a partner in India’s fight against this disease and are quickly working to mobilize the largest humanitarian relief effort in our company’s history,” said company’s chairman and chief executive Albert Bourla.

Hangry, an Indonesian cloud kitchen startup with plans to become a global F&B company, closes $13M Series A

By Catherine Shu

Hangry, an Indonesian cloud kitchen startup that wants to become a global food and beverage company, has raised a $13 million Series A. The round was led by returning investor Alpha JWC Ventures, and included participation from Atlas Pacific Capital, Salt Ventures and Heyokha Brothers. It will be used to increase the number of Hangry’s outlets in Indonesia, including launching its first dine-in restaurants, over the next two years before it enters other countries.

Along with a previous round of $3 million from Alpha JWC and Sequoia Capital’s Surge program, Hangry’s Series A brings its total funding to $16 million. It currently operates about 40 cloud kitchens in Greater Jakarta and Bandung, 34 of which launched in 2020. Hangry plans to expand its total outlets to more than 120 this year, including dine-in restaurants.

Founded in 2019 by Abraham Viktor, Robin Tan and Andreas Resha, Hangry is part of Indonesia’s burgeoning cloud kitchen industry. Tech giants Grab and Gojek both operate networks of cloud kitchens that are integrated with their food delivery services, while other startups in the space include Everplate and Yummy.

One of the main ways Hangry sets itself apart is by focusing on its own brands, instead of providing kitchen facilities and services to restaurants and other third-party clients. Hangry currently has four brands, including Indonesian chicken dishes (Ayam Koplo) and Japanese food (San Gyu), that cost about 15,000 to 70,000 IDR per portion (or about $1 to $6 USD). Its food can be ordered through Hangry’s own app, plus GrabFood, GoFood and ShopeeFood.

“Given that Hangry has developed an extensive cloud kitchen network across Indonesia, we naturally would have interest from other brands to leverage our networks,” chief executive officer Viktor told TechCrunch. “However, our focus is to grow our brands since our brands are rapidly growing in popularity in Indonesia and require all kitchen resources that they need to realize their full potential.”

Providing food deliveries helped Hangry grow during COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing, but in order to become a global brand within a decade, it needs to operate in multiple channels, he added.

“We knew that we will one day have to serve customers in all channels, including dine in,” said Viktor. “We started the hard way, doing delivery-first business, where we faced the challenges surrounding making sure our food still tastes good when it reaches customers’ homes. Now we feel ready to serve our customers in our restaurant premises. Our dine-in concept is an expansion of everything we’ve done in delivery channels.”

In a press statement, Alpha JWC Ventures partner Eko Kurniadi said, “In the span of 1.5 years, [Hangry] launched multiple brands across myriad tastes and categories, and almost all of them are amongst the best sellers list with superior ratings in multiple platforms, tangible examples of product-market fit. This is only the beginning and we can already foresee their growth to be a top local F&B brand in the country.”

Bibit raises another growth round led by Sequoia Capital India, this time for $65M

By Catherine Shu

Four months after leading a $30 million growth round in Bibit, Sequoia Capital India has doubled down on its investment in the Indonesian robo-advisor app. Bibit announced today that the firm led a new $65 million growth round that also included participation from Prosus Ventures, Tencent, Harvard Management Company and returning investors AC Ventures and East Ventures.

This brings Bibit’s total funding to $110 million, including a Series A announced in May 2019. Its latest round will be used on developing and launching new products, hiring and increasing Bibit’s financial education services.

Bibit was launched in 2019 by Stockbit, a stock investing platform and community, and is part of a crop of Indonesian investment apps focused on new investors. Others include SoftBank Ventures-backed Ajaib, Bareksa, Pluang and FUNDtastic. Bibit runs robo-advisor services for mutual funds, investing users’ money based on their risk profiles, and claims that 90% of its users are millennials and first-time investors.

According to Indonesia’s Financial Services Authority (Otoritas Jasa Keuangan), the number of retail investors grew 56% year-over-year in 2020. For mutual funds in particular, Bibit said investors grew 78% year-over-year to 3.2 million, based on data from the Indonesia Stock Exchange and Central Securities Custodian.

Despite the economic impact of COVID-19, interest in stock investing grew as people took advantage of market dips (the Jakara Composite Index fell in the first quarter of 2020, but is now recovering steadily). Apps like Bibit and its competitors want to make capital investing more accessible with lower fees and minimum investment amounts than traditional brokerages like Mandiri Sekuritas, which also saw an increase in new retail investors and average transaction value last year.

But the percentage of retail investors in Indonesia is still very low, especially compared to markets like Singapore or Malaysia, presenting growth opportunities for investment services.

Apps like Bibit focus on content that helps make capital investing less intimidating to first-time investors. For example, Ajaib also presents its financial educational features as a selling point.

In press statement, Sequoia Capital India vice president Rohit Agarwal said, “Indonesian mutual fund customers have grown almost 10x in the past five years. Savings via mutual funds is the first step towards investing and Bibit has helped millions of consumers start their investing journey in a responsible manner. Sequoia Capital India is excited to double down on the partnership as the company brings the same customer focus to stock investing with Stockbit.”

 

Is Washington prepared for a geopolitical ‘tech race’?

By Danny Crichton

When Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan sat down with Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska for the first high-level bilateral summit of the new administration, it was not a typical diplomatic meeting. Instead of a polite but restrained diplomatic exchange, the two sides traded pointed barbs for almost two hours. “There is growing consensus that the era of engagement with China has come to an unceremonious close,” wrote Sullivan and Kurt Campbell, the Administration’s Asia czar also in attendance, back in 2019. How apt that they were present for that moment’s arrival.

A little more than one hundred days into the Biden Administration, there is no shortage of views on how it should handle this new era of Sino-American relations. From a blue-ribbon panel assembled by former Google Chairman Eric Schmidt to a Politico essay from an anonymous former Trump Administration official that consciously echoes (in both its name and its author’s anonymity) George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” laying out the theory of Cold War containment, to countless think tank reports, it seems everyone is having their say.

What is largely uncontroversial though is that technology is at the center of U.S.-China relations, and any competition with China will be won or lost in the digital and cyber spheres. “Part of the goal of the Alaska meeting was to convince the Chinese that the Biden administration is determined to compete with Beijing across the board to offer competitive technology,” wrote David Sanger in the New York Times shortly afterward.

But what, exactly, does a tech-centered China strategy look like? And what would it take for one to succeed?

Tech has brought Republicans and Democrats uneasily together

One encouraging sign is that China has emerged as one of the few issues on which even Democrats agree that President Trump had some valid points. “Trump really was the spark that reframed the entire debate around U.S.-China relations in DC,” says Jordan Schneider, a China analyst at the Rhodium Group and the host of the ChinaTalk podcast and newsletter.

While many in the foreign policy community favored some degree of cooperation with China before the Trump presidency, now competition – if not outright rivalry – is widely assumed. “Democrats, even those who served in the Obama Administration, have become much more hawkish,” says Erik Brattberg of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Trump has caused “the Overton Window on China [to become] a lot narrower than it was before,” adds Schneider.

The US delegation led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken face their Chinese counterparts at the opening session of US-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska on March 18, 2021. Image Credits: FREDERIC J. BROWN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

As the U.S.-China rivalry has evolved, it has become more and more centered around competing philosophies on the use of technology. “At their core, democracies are open systems that believe in the free flow of information, whereas for autocrats, information is something to be weaponized and stifled in the service of the regime,” says Lindsay Gorman, Fellow for Emerging Technologies at the German Marshall Fund. “So it’s not too surprising that technology, so much of which is about how we store and process and leverage information, has become such a focus of the U.S.-China relationship and of the [broader] democratic-autocratic competition around the world.”

Tech touches everything now – and the stakes could not be higher. “Tech and the business models around tech are really ‘embedded ideology,’’ says Tyson Barker of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “So what tech is and how it is used is a form of governance.”

What does that mean in practice? When Chinese firms expand around the world, Barker tells me, they bring their norms with them. So when Huawei builds a 5G network in Latin America, or Alipay is adopted for digital payments in Central Europe, or Xiaomi takes more market share in Southeast Asia, they are helping digitize those economies on Chinese terms using Chinese norms (as opposed to American ones). The implication is clear: whoever defines the future of technology will determine the rest of the twenty-first century.

That shifting balance has focused minds in Washington. “I think there is a strong bipartisan consensus that technology is at the core of U.S.-China competition,” says Brattberg. But, adds Gorman, “there’s less agreement on what the prescription should be.” While the Democratic experts now ascendant in Washington agree with Trump’s diagnosis of the China challenge, they believe in a vastly different approach from their Trump Administration predecessors.

Out, for instance, are restrictions on Chinese firms just for being Chinese. “That was one of the problems with Trump,” says Walter Kerr, a former U.S. diplomat who publishes the China Journal Review. “Trump cast broad strokes, targeting firms whether it was merited or not. Sticking it to the Chinese is not a good policy.”

Instead the focus is on inward investment – and outward cooperation.

Foreign policy is domestic policy

Democrats are first shoring up America’s economic challenges – in short, be strong at home to be strong abroad. “There’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy,” President Biden said in his first major foreign policy speech. “Every action we take in our conduct abroad, we must take with American working families in mind. Advancing a foreign policy for the middle class demands urgent focus on our domestic economic renewal.”

This is a particular passion of Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, who immersed himself in domestic policy while he was Hillary Clinton’s chief policy aide during her 2016 presidential campaign. “We’ve reached a point where foreign policy is domestic policy, and domestic policy is foreign policy,” he told NPR during the transition.

Jake Sullivan, White House national security adviser, speaks during a news conference Image Credits: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This is increasingly important for technology, as concern grows that America is lagging behind on research and development. “We’re realizing that we’ve underinvested in the government grants and research and development projects that American companies [need] to become highly innovative in fields like quantum computing, AI, biotechnology, etc,” says Kerr.

“Rebuilding” or “sustaining” America’s “technological leadership” is a major theme of the Longer Telegram and is the very operating premise of the report of the China Strategy Group assembled by Eric Schmidt, former executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and the first chair of the Department of Defense’s Innovation Advisory Board. Those priorities have only become more important during the pandemic. It’s a question of “how do we orient the research system to fill in the industrial gaps that have been made very clear by the COVID crisis?” says Schneider of Rhodium.

How UK-based Lendable is powering fintechs across emerging markets

By Tage Kene-Okafor

What moves the needle for digital lenders is serving loans to their respective customers. But where does this money come from? The pool is usually equity or debt. While some lenders use the former, it can be seen as folly because, over time, the founders tend to lose ownership of their businesses after giving out too much equity to raise capital for loans. Hence the reason why most lending companies secure debt facilities. 

TechCrunch has recently reported on two prominent digital lenders (also digital banks in their own rights) gaining steam in Africa — Carbon and FairMoney. In 2019, Carbon secured $5 million in debt financing and the following year, FairMoney did the same but raised a higher sum, $13 million.

Enter Lendable, the UK-based firm responsible for supplying both lenders with debt finance.

The company with offices in Nairobi, New York, and Singapore advances loans to fintechs across eight markets in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Since launching in 2014, the company has disbursed over $125 million to these fintechs — SME lenders, payment platforms, asset lenders, marketplaces, and consumer lenders.

In a phone conversation with TechCrunch, Samuel Eyob, a principal at the firm, said the company is raising almost $180 million to continue its investment efforts across the three continents.

“We want to raise more than $180 million and we have investors that have committed cash to us,” he said. “Right now, we’re already investing out of that amount because we’ve already closed on a bunch of it. Ideally, the goal is to invest that amount over this year.”

Lendable was founded by Daniel Goldfarb and Dylan Friend. It was based on an insight that they had while Daniel was a partner at Greenstart, a venture capital firm focused on data, finance and energy. That insight was that the poorest people in the world pay the most for goods and services, so if capital markets could provide a path to ownership, that could help individuals build assets. So the pair set out to solve this by providing capital to fintechs catering to the needs of these people.

Eyob, a first-generation American from Ethiopia, knows what a lack of access to fair finance does to people and countries. Given the millions of people and businesses not effectively served by banks and MFIs, Eyob joined the team to drive financial inclusion in these markets

“Over a billion people still lack access to financial services and multiple reports indicate that the financing gap for micro and small businesses is trillions of dollars and growing. We believe this is a massive opportunity. So, whilst we started in Africa, the lack of access to fair financing solutions is a problem across all emerging markets, which we want to address,” he said.

Samuel Eyob

Samuel Eyob (Principal, Lendable)

So in 2014, Lendable started as a SaaS platform to democratize access to African capital markets by providing risk and analytics software. “We hoped to do this by bringing the securitization market from the Global North into Africa,” Eyob added

The company built an analytics platform to analyze loans and used machine learning to predict loan portfolio cashflows. In addition to that, they created an automated investment platform helping ventures to raise nondilutive (not equity) capital to help scale their businesses.

After sufficiently proving out its tech, the firm made a pivot. According to Eyob, the previous model wasn’t experiencing enough growth and was incurring unsustainable costs. So the company began raising capital based on its own analytics in 2016. It had only raised $600,000 and was focused on East African startups with SME financing and Pay-Go solar home models. That number has since increased to over $125 million across Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

So why do these companies actually need debt financing? Here’s a clearer picture of the instance used at the beginning of this piece.

Imagine a VC-backed startup whose ultimate goal is to help scale up female-founded SMEs with one-year loans. The startup could easily use its equity to provide the capital for all the one-year loans. The payoff from the loans, after one year, would be the interest due to them. Or, it could put that capital into hiring developers, build a go-to-market strategy, hire a CTO, all of which would likely have payoffs that are up to a 100x multiple of the interest they would have made on the single SME loan that is tied up for an entire year.

So ultimately, debt would be an ideal source of nondilutive capital for the startup as they wouldn’t have to tie up equity for one year. Therefore, debt would be a much cheaper source of capital to scale up their operations, especially if it has scaled up to having tens of thousands of one-year loans. If it were equity, they would have to raise an endless amount with constant dilution as they scale.

In its five years of official operations, Lendable has given debt facilities to more than 20 startups. While the stage at which Lendable gives money differs, it is particular about startups that are post Series A. 

Apart from Carbon and FairMoney, some startups to have raised debt from Lendable include Tugende, Uploan, KoinWorks, Planet42, TerraPay, Watu Credit, Trella, Amartha, Payjoy, Solar Panda, Cars45 and MFS Africa. Collectively, Eyob said, Lendable has reached 1.2 million end borrowers through its partners and helped finance up to 290,000 SMEs.

Of the $125 million disbursed so far as debt, Eyob said the company has a default rate of about 0.01%. The reason behind this low number, Eyob reckons, is because Lendable ensures to be in constant conversation with the companies offering help, advice or connections when necessary.

“We view lending as a partnership and typically when both parties act in good faith, there are ways to solve problems,” Eyob said

The debt facilities start at $2 million but can go up to over $15 million, Eyob said. But while the global standard at which lenders pay back their debt investments is typically 4 to 6 years, Lendable expects the companies it gives cash to do so in 3 to 4 years

Eyob pushes that founders in emerging markets should be willing to take more debt financing to scale their startups. These days, startups tend to be high on giving out equity instead of weighing options on effectively using debt in critical points when scaling.

Equity could be used to help attract the best talent or expand into new markets. Still, debt proves essential when scaling up capital-intensive operations like working capital or pre-funding activities. More often than not, debt and equity are complementary to one another, and Lendable is hoping to use the new funds it’s raising to push that notion

I think, just like everywhere else in the world, debt and equity are tools that should be used to support one another, supporting the venture’s ultimate mission. We have lasting relationships with multiple VC teams across emerging markets that we work with to ultimately support one another’s partner investees.”

 

EU-based digital assets platform Finoa inks $22M Series A funding led by Balderton Capital

By Mike Butcher

Institutions need to keep their crypto assets somewhere. And they aren’t going to keep it on some random, or consumer-grade crypto operation. This requires more sophisticated technology. Furthermore, being in the EU is going to be a key barrier to entry for many US or Asia-based operations.

Thus it is that Berlin-based digital asset custody and financial services platform
Finoa, has closed a $22 million Series A funding round, to do just that.

The round was led by Balderton Capital, alongside existing investors Coparion, Venture Stars and Signature Ventures, as well as an undisclosed investor.

Crucially, the Berlin-based startup works with Dapper Lab’s FLOW protocol, NEAR, and Mina, which are fast becoming standards for crypto assets. They are going up against large players such as Anchorage, Coinbase Custody, Bitgo, exchanges like Binance and Kraken, and self-custody solutions like Ledger.

Finoa says it now has over 250 customers, including T-Systems, DeFi-natives like CoinList and financial institutions like Bankhaus Scheich.

The company says its plan is to become a regulated platform for institutional investors and corporations to manage their digital assets and it has received a preliminary crypto custody license and is supervised by the German Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin).

The company was founded in 2018 by Christopher May and Henrik Ebbing, but both had previously worked together at McKinsey and started working in blockchain in 2017.

May commented: “We are proud to have established Finoa as Europe’s leading gateway for institutional participation and incredibly excited to accelerate our growth even further. We look forward to supporting new exciting protocols and projects, empowering innovative corporate use cases, and adding additional (decentralized) financial products and services to our platform.”

Colin Hanna, Principal at Balderton Capital, who leads most of Balderton’s Crypto investments, said: “Chris, Henrik, and the entire Finoa team have built a deeply impressive business which bridges the highest levels of professionalism with radical innovation. As custodians of digital asset private keys, Finoa needs to be trusted both with the secure management of those keys and with the products and services that allow their clients to fully leverage the power of native digital assets. The team they have assembled is uniquely positioned to do just that.” 

May added: “We identified a lack of sophisticated custody and asset servicing solutions for safeguarding and managing blockchain-based digital assets that successfully cover the needs of institutional investors. Finoa is bridging this gap by providing seamless, safe, and regulated access to the world of digital assets.”

“Being in the European Union requires a fundamentally different organizational setup, and poses a very high entry to new incumbents and other players overseas. There are few that have managed to do what Finoa has done in a European context and hence why we now see ourselves in a leading position.”

Apple sales bounce back in China as Huawei loses smartphone crown

By Rita Liao

Huawei’s smartphone rivals in China are quickly divvying up the market share it has lost over the past year.

92.4 million units of smartphones were shipped in China during the first quarter, with Vivo claiming the crown with a 23% share and its sister company Oppo following closely behind with 22%, according to market research firm Canalys. Huawei, of which smartphone sales took a hit after U.S. sanctions cut key chip parts off its supply chain, came in third at 16%. Xiaomi and Apple took the fourth and fifth spot respectively.

All major smartphone brands but Huawei saw a jump in their market share in China from Q1 2020. Apple’s net sales in Greater China nearly doubled year-over-year to $17.7 billion in the three months ended March, a quarter of all-time record revenue for the American giant, according to its latest financial results.

“We’ve been especially pleased by the customer response in China to the iPhone 12 family,”
said Tim Cook during an earnings call this week. “You have to remember that China entered the shutdown phase earlier in Q2 of last year than other countries. And so they were relatively more affected in that quarter, and that has to be taken into account as you look at the results.”

Huawei’s share shrunk from a dominant 41% to 16% in a year’s time, though the telecom equipment giant managed to increase its profit margin partly thanks to slashed costs. In November, it sold off its budget phone line Honor.

This quarter is also the first time China’s smartphone market has grown in four years, with a growth rate of 27%, according to Canalys.

“Leading vendors are racing to the top of the market, and there was an unusually high number of smartphone launches this quarter compared with Q1 2020 or even Q4 2020,” said Canalys analyst Amber Liu.

“Huawei’s sanctions and Honor’s divestiture have been hallmarks of this new market growth, as consumers and channels become more open to alternative brands.”

Indonesian consumer research startup Populix gets $1.2M in pre-Series A funding

By Catherine Shu

Indonesia is one of the fastest-growing consumer markets in the world, but consumer data is still hard to find for many businesses, especially smaller ones. Populix wants to make research easier for companies, through a respondent app that now has 250,000 users in 300 Indonesian cities. The startup announced today it has raised $1.2 million in an oversubscribed pre-Series A round led by returning investor Intudo Ventures, with participation from Quest Ventures.

Populix has now raised a total of $2.3 million since it was founded in January 2018, including a $1 million seed round also led by Intudo. The company’s revenue grew five times in 2020 and it signed up 52 new enterprise clients in 10 countries, as the COVID-19 pandemic limited traditional forms of consumer surveys, like in-person questionnaires. Its customers range in size from tech startups to multinational conglomerates.

The new capital will be used for product launches, marketing and hiring. Populix is currently in the process of launching a self-service product called Paket Hemat Populix (PHP) for clients like SMEs or university researchers that want to conduct their own surveys and monitor results in real time.

A Zoom group photo of Populix's co-founders: chief executive officer Timothy Astandu, chief operating officer Eileen Kamtawijoyo and chief technical officer Jonathan Benhi

Populix’s founding team

The company’s co-founders are chief executive officer Timothy Astandu, chief operating officer Eileen Kamtawijoyo and chief technical officer Jonathan Benhi. Astandu and Kamtawijoyo met while both were graduate students in business management at the University of Cambridge.

“When we were studying, we looked at developed markets, and in developed markets, consumer insights is such a big thing that all the brands are using it already,” said Astandu. “But it’s something that’s not available in developing countries like Indonesia,” where many companies still conduct research offline despite its very high smartphone engagement rates. For example, if a coffee brand wants to understand consumer sentiment, it will send people with surveys into a cafe or grocery store and ask customers to fill them out in return for a small gift.

“We felt it was important to do consumer sentiment in Indonesia, because it’s going to be a big market and Indonesia has seen very little innovation so far,” Astandu added. “That gives us a chance to disrupt it, in the sense that it has always catered to the big clients. It’s always the multinationals in Indonesia that buy it, but you are seeing an emerging middle class, a lot of SMEs and perhaps they actually need research and data more than big companies.”

After returning to Indonesia, Astandu and Kamtawijoyo began working on a more accurate and accessible alternative to traditional surveys, developing Populix while part of Gojek’s Xcelerate program. Then they met Benhi, who was previously an engineer at Discuss.io, a Seattle-based video platform for consumer research.

Populix’s clients conduct research through its respondent app, also called Populix, which keeps users engaged through daily polls, games and news, in return for incentives like cash offers or rebate programs. Populix can be customized for a wide range of research, ranging from short surveys to longitudinal studies that take place over a period of time, and is used to track brand health, prepare for product launches or gauge customer satisfaction. For example, a coffee brand used Populix to see how it was doing compared to competitors on a monthly basis and study consumer reactions before launching a ready-to-drink coffee. E-commerce companies have also used it to ask people where they shop online, what they look for and how they feel about the customer experience on different platforms.

“We can speed up the recruitment process, because we already have respondents available in our database for practically any kind of study,” said Kamtawijoyo.

Populix is currently developing new products to track market movements, using data collection tech like optical character recognition to scan invoices from major e-commerce platforms. It says its data classification system can recognize over 73% of all items on invoices.

Other companies in the same space include established players like YouGov and Kantar, and Singapore-based Milieu Insight, a market research and data platform that operates in several Southeast Asian countries. Astandu said one of the main ways Populix differentiates is by focusing on mobile surveys, since Indonesia is the fourth-largest smartphone market in the world (after China, India and the United States) and the penetration rate is still growing.

The founders said Populix will continue focusing on Indonesia with its pre-Series A funding, but plans to look at other developing markets with fragmented consumer data, like the Philippines and Vietnam, after raising its Series A round.

In a press statement, Intudo Ventures founding partner Patrick Yip said, “With consumer habits undergoing dramatic changes in recent years due to rising incomes and widespread embrace of digital commerce, Populix is providing clients with actionable insights into the latest consumption characteristics and trends of Indonesians. We are excited to double down on our support for Populix as it continues to roll out new technology-driven consumer insights products and solutions to meet the needs of clients both big and small.”

Super, an Indonesian hyperlocal social commerce startup, raises $28M led by SoftBank Ventures Asia

By Catherine Shu

Super's founding team on Mount Bromo in East Java

Super’s founding team on Mount Bromo in East Java

In Indonesia, daily necessities often cost more in smaller cities and rural areas. Super co-founder and chief executive officer Steven Wongsoredjo said the price difference can vary from about 10% to 20% in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, to nearly 200% in eastern provinces. Super uses social commerce and a streamlined logistics chain to lower the cost of goods. The startup announced today it has raised an oversubscribed $28 million Series B led by SoftBank Ventures Asia.

Other participants included returning backers Amasia, Insignia Ventures Partners, Y-Combinator Continuity Fund and Bain Capital co-chairman Stephen Pagliuca, while partners from DST Global and TNB Aura invested for the first time in this round.

The funding brings Super’s total raised so far to more than $36 million, which the company says is the most funding an Indonesian social commerce startup has raised so far.

Super, which took part in Y Combinator’s winter 2018 batch, focuses mainly on cities or towns with a gross domestic product per capita of $5,000 USD or lower. It currently operates in 17 cities in East Java, and has a network of thousands of agents, or resellers, and hundreds of thousands of end buyers. The company will use its new funding to double its presence in the region and launch in other Indonesian provinces this year. It will also expand its product categories beyond fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and develop its recently-launched white label brand, SuperEats.

Wongsoredjo told TechCrunch that Super’s ultimate goal is to “build the Walmart Group of Indonesia without having a retail store and utilizing the social commerce aspect to build a sustainable model,” similar to the way Pinduoduo became one of China’s biggest e-commerce companies by focusing on smaller cities.

Prices for consumer goods are higher in small cities and rural areas because of two reasons, Wongsoredjo said. The first is that orders from smaller cities cost more to fulfill, with supply chain costs adding up, than larger orders, and the second is infrastructure that makes it harder for manufacturers and FMCG brands to truck goods into rural areas, so supply does not meet demand.

Super operates a central warehouse, along with smaller hubs closer to buyers. Most of Super’s products are supplied by regional FMCG brands, and group orders are delivered to agents, who in turn perform last-mile deliveries to their buyers. This keeps prices down by making its supply chain more efficient and enabling it to fulfill orders within 24 hours without relying on third-party logistics providers.

Other social commerce companies in Indonesia include KitaBeli, ChiliBeli and Woobiz. Wongsoredjo said Super had a headstart to serve smaller cities and rural areas because it does not focus on Jabodetabek, or the greater Jakarta region. Its headquarters and core operations teams are also all outside of major cities.

“We believe that by not having Jabodetabek’s presence in our DNA, we can build unique social commerce products with the hyperlocal touch to serve rural communities much better,” Wongsoredjo added. “We want to go after the rest of 90% of the market that is still under-penetrated.”

In statement, SoftBank Ventures Asia partner Cindy Jin said, “We have been impressed by the Super team’s deep knowledge and commitment to Indonesia’s underserved regions, and believe that a truly local team like theirs will be well equipped to navigate and build out a platform in this hyperlocal market.”

 

India’s ElasticRun raises $75 million to grow its commerce platform for neighborhood stores

By Manish Singh

A startup that is helping over 125,000 neighborhood stores in India secure working capital, inventory from top brands, and work with e-commerce firms to boost revenues said on Thursday it has raised a new financing round as it looks to further its reach in the world’s second largest internet market.

Pune-based ElasticRun said it has raised $75 million in its Series D financing round co-led by existing investors Avataar Ventures and Prosus Ventures. Existing investor Kalaari Capital also participated in the round, which takes the four-year-old startup’s to-date raise to $130.5 million.

Millions of neighborhood stores that dot large and small cities, towns and villages in India and have proven tough to beat for e-commerce giants and super-chain retailers are at the center of a new play in the country.

A score of e-commerce companies, offline retail chains and fintech startups are now racing to work with these mom and pop stores as they look to tap a massive untapped opportunity.

Screen Shot 2019 10 30 at 2.18.53 PM

Sandeep Deshmukh, co-founder and CEO of ElasticRun, talking about the startup’s business at a conference in 2019.

ElasticRun helps merchants operating these stores, who typically have to spend a few days a month visiting bigger cities to secure inventory, get reliable and more affordable goods directly from big brands. (Big brands love this because this enables them to significantly expand their reach.)

These store owners also spend a number of hours a day not doing much when the business is slow. ElasticRun is also addressing this by partnering with some of the biggest e-commerce firms including Amazon and Flipkart to utilize this workforce to make deliveries to customers. (E-commerce firms find value in this because neighborhood stores have a larger presence in the country, can reach a customer much faster, and also often have their own inventory.)

Ashutosh Sharma, Head of Investments for India at Prosus Ventures, told TechCrunch that ElasticRun has built a variable capacity, crowdsourced delivery model, which distinguishes the startup from other players in the market that have a fixed number of people on payrolls making these deliveries. He said as the startup has developed the railroads, a number of new opportunities has unlocked.

One such opportunity is providing working capital to these neighborhood stores. Their operators typically don’t have savings, and need to sell the existing inventory to secure funds to refill the stock. In recent years, ElasticRun has struck partnerships with banks and NBFCs to provide credit to these merchants.

ElasticRun today operates in over 300 cities in nearly all Indian states. The startup works with over 125,000 neighborhood stores, and plans to expand to reach 1 million in 18 to 24 months, said Shitiz Bansal, co-founder and chief technology officer of ElasticRun, in an interview with TechCrunch.

The startup’s current run rate is about $350 million, a figure it plans to grow to over $1 billion in the next 12 months, he said.

Saurabh Nigam, co-founder and chief operating officer, said the new financing round has also enabled the startup to offer early employees access to “tangible benefits” of the firm’s growth over the last five years.

Facebook hid posts calling for PM Modi’s resignation in India ‘by mistake’

By Manish Singh

Updated at 1.17am IST, Thursday: Facebook comms Andy Stone said the company has restored the posts and is “looking into what happened.”

Updated at 5.50am IST, Thursday: Facebook says it temporarily blocked the hashtag by “mistake” and “not because the Indian government asked us to, and have since restored it.”

Original story follows.

Facebook has temporarily hidden all posts with the hashtag “ResignModi” in India, days after the U.S. social juggernaut — along with Twitter — complied with an order from New Delhi to censor some posts critical of Indian government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

On its website, Facebook said it had hidden posts with the “ResignModi” hashtag because some of those violated its community standards — and not because of any legal order. (A search for “ResignModi” is currently returning some results for users in the U.S.)

Tweets with “#ResignModi”, at the time of publication, were visible in India. With over 450 million WhatsApp users and nearly 400 million Facebook users, India is the largest market for the social company by the size of userbase.

COVID cases have surged in the South Asian nation in recent days, prompting many citizens to air their frustrations at the government on social channels as they struggle to find empty beds, oxygen supplies and medicines in hospitals. India reported over 360,000 new infection cases on Wednesday.

Image Credits: Screengrab by TechCrunch

Facebook, which didn’t respond to a request for comment over censorship of posts in India over the weekend, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

China’s e-commerce giant JD.com starts paying some staff in digital yuan

By Rita Liao

China’s plan to introduce its digital currency is getting a lot of help from its tech conglomerates. JD.com, a major Chinese online retailer that competes with Alibaba, said Monday that it has started paying some staff in digital yuan (since January), the virtual version of the country’s physical currency.

China has been busy experimenting with digital currency over the past few months. In October, Shenzhen, a southern city known for its progressive economic policies, doled out 10 million yuan worth of digital currency to 500,000 residents, who could then use the money to shop at certain online and offline retailers.

Several other large Chinese cities have followed Shenzhen’s suit. The residents in these regions must apply through selected banks to start receiving and paying by digital yuan.

The electronic yuan initiative is a collective effort involving China’s regulators, commercial banks and technology solution providers. At first glance, the scheme still mimics how physical yuan is circulating at the moment; under the direction of the central bank, the six major commercial banks in China, including ICBC, distribute the digital yuan to smaller banks and a web of tech solution providers, which could help bring more use cases to the new electronic money.

For example, JD.com partnered with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) to deposit the digital income. The online retailer has become one of the first organizations in China to pay wages in electronic yuan; in August, some government workers in the eastern city of Suzhou also began getting paid in the digital money.

Across the board, China’s major tech companies have actively participated in the buildout of the digital yuan ecosystem, which will help the central government better track money flows.

Aside from JD.com, video streaming platform Bilibili, on-demand services provider Meituan and ride-hailing app Didi have also begun accepting digital yuan for user purchases. Gaming and social networking giant Tencent became one of the “digital yuan operators” and will take part in the design, R&D and operational work of the electronic money. Jack Ma’s Ant Group, which is undergoing a major overhaul following a stalled IPO, has also joined hands with the central bank to work on building out the infrastructure to move money digitally. Huawei, the telecom equipment titan debuted a wallet on one of its smartphone models that allows users to spend digital yuan instantaneously even if the device is offline.

Updated the article to clarify the timeline of the digital salary rollout.

 

India’s LEAD School raises $30 million to reach more students

By Manish Singh

An Indian startup that is helping digitize and transform affordable private schools to better serve students from middle and low-income groups of families said on Monday it has raised $30 million in a new financing round as it looks to scale its efforts in the world’s second most populous nation.

GSV Ventures and WestBridge led the Series D financing round of the Indian startup, which has raised over $69 million to date.

LEAD School, founded by couple Sumeet Mehta and Smita Deorah in 2012, has developed an integrated system to help K-12 schools with the curriculum they teach, how they teach them, secure books and other resources, and better evaluate the learning outcome.

The startup began its journey by setting up its own schools in rural areas in India to identify the challenges that students and teachers faced. A key insight it found was that students struggled with english and needed years-worth of learning to be able to just fully understand any other subject, most of which were taught in english.

“We were always data centric. We measured our performance based on student data. How well our classes looked was not a criteria for success,” said Deorah in an interview with TechCrunch.

“Schools and educators have always known how to measure learning outcome. It’s not new and fairly researched. Whether that’s the core of what you are gunning for, or if it is the scale that you are going after is an organizational choice.”

And that bet is paying off. Even an average student in a LEAD School-powered institution today has over 75% mastery on all subjects and attains over 1.5-year of English learning, said Deorah. “This is not a small cohort data,” she added. (Even since the pandemic, the figure has only changed to 70%.)

Over the years, LEAD School has started to work with affordable private schools. Deorah said the startup’s original mission statement — to work with schools to empower students from low-income families — remains intact even as it scales and that its strategy to partner with schools has helped it serve more students.

Amid the global pandemic, which prompted New Delhi to shut schools last year, LEAD School’s offering has proven even more useful to schools. The startup, which today caters to over 2,000 schools and 800,000 students, grew by 3X last year, it said.

“LEAD School is rapidly emerging as a paradigm for transforming K-12 education. Based in India and partnered with affordable school owners (a segment that is larger than the entire US K-12 system), LEAD serves over 800,000 students today,” said Deborah Quazzo, Managing Partner at GSV Ventures, in a statement.

“LEAD has experienced tremendous growth because of its consistent delivery of high academic outcomes to students and high ‘return on education’ to teachers, school owners and parents. GSV is honored to be investing in an organization that is changing the life trajectory of so many students.”

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Alleged records of 20 million BigBasket users published online

By Manish Singh

An alleged database of about 20 million BigBasket users has leaked on a well-known cybercrime forum, months after the Indian grocery delivery startup confirmed it had faced a data breach.

The database includes users’ email address, phone number, address, scrambled password, date of birth, and scores of interactions they had with the service. TechCrunch confirmed details of some customers listed in the database — including those of the author.

BigBasket co-founders did not respond to texts requesting comment.

Infamous threat actor "ShinyHunters" just leaked the database of "BigBasket, a famous Indian 🇮🇳 online grocery delivery service. (@bigbasket_com)

20,000,000+ clients affected and information such as emails, names, hashed passwords, birthdates and phone numbers were leaked. pic.twitter.com/tD5TMxNkH7

— Alon Gal (Under the Breach) (@UnderTheBreach) April 25, 2021

The startup confirmed in November last year that it had suffered a data breach after reports emerged that hackers had siphoned off information of 20 million customers from the platform.

TechCrunch has asked one BigBasket co-founder whether the startup ever disclosed the data breach to customers.

A hacker who goes by the name ShinyHunters published the alleged BigBasket database — and made it available for anyone to download — on a popular cybercrime forum over the weekend. In newer posts on the forum, several threat actors claimed that they had decoded the hashed passwords and were selling it. ShinyHunters didn’t immediately respond to a text requesting comment.

The incident comes weeks after Indian conglomerate Tata Group agreed to acquire BigBasket, valuing the Indian startup at over $1.8 billion. The acquisition proposal is currently awaiting approval by the Indian regulator.

Robo-advisor StashAway gets $25M Series D led by Sequoia Capital India

By Catherine Shu

Investment app StashAway has raised a $25 million Series D led by Sequoia Capital India, with participation from returning investors Eight Roads Ventures and Square Peg. After regulatory approvals for the funding are completed, Sequoia Capital India managing director Abheek Anand will join StashAway’s board of directors as part of the round.

StashAway does not disclose how many investors use its robo-advisor app, but it surpassed $1 billion assets under management in January. It currently has operations in in five markets: Singapore, Malayasia, the United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong, and is preparing to launch in Thailand.

Its Series D brings StashAway’s total paid-up capital to about $61.4 million. The new funding will be used on expanding StashAway’s product and engineering teams to continue feature and product development. Founded in September 2016, the company will also offer to buy back up to $3 million in stock options from its employees. Co-founder and chief executive officer Michele Ferrario told TechCrunch that many of StashAway’s employees have been with the company since the start, so this gives its team members a chance to cash out stock options that have vested while creating a more compelling compensation package for recruiting talent.

StashAway’s products include services for retail investors that focus on wealth-building or specific goals like retirement or buying a house and StashAway Simple, a cash account that can earn a projected rate of 1.2% per annum and allows funds be withdrawn within one to three business days. Its management fees are between 0.2% to 0.8% a year.

Ferrario said that StashAway’s core market is people aged 30 to 45, who are earning enough money to save or invest, but also have obligations like saving for retirement or their childrens’ education. People under 30 account for a smaller portion of StashAway’s assets under management, but are still a significant part of its user base because the app doesn’t require minimum investments, making it accessible to people who recently graduated or are just starting their careers. While StashAway has built an reputation for attracting first-time investors, about 20% of its assets under management come from high-net-worth individuals.

“This is something we didn’t think would happen at the beginning, but then we realized that some of the problems we’re solving are also significant problems for high-net-worth individuals as well,” said Ferrario. “If you have less than $10 million to $15 million in wealth, the services you receive from private banks are not particularly sophisticated or personalized. So we offer a more sophisticated investment at a lower cost.”

At the end of last year, the company launched StashAway WorkPlace, a platform for employers to provide benefits like pensions and vesting schedules. StashAway WorkPlace grew out of the Financial Wellness Program, a set of seminars and workshops on financial planning and investing that has been used in Singapore by about 200 companies, including Salesforce, Twitter, Netflix and LinkedIn.

Since StashAway launched its app in 2017, more robo-advisors have emerged in the same markets it serves. For example, Syfe also caters to new investors. Other investment apps in Singapore include Endowus, Kristal.AI and AutoWealth.

 

One of the main ways StashAway differentiates is its proprietary asset allocation framework, which looks at how each asset class performs under specific economic conditions, measures uncertainty with leading indicators and patterns in economic data, and adjustments to expected returns based on an asset’s valuation relative to its economic fair value. The company says it has outperformed benchmarks since launching in 2017. At the end of March, its portfolios outperformed their same-risk benchmarks (proxied by MSCI World Equity Index and FTSE World Government Bond Index), with annualized returns ranging from 16.5% (for the highest-risk portfolio) to 4% (the lowest-risk portfolio).

Ferrario said the app also emphasizes customer service, with phone calls typically answered in less than eight seconds, and an in-app WhatsApp link that connects users to a human service representative instead of sending them through a chatbot first.

But StashAway’s main competitor is still traditional banks instead of other investment apps. “In the five countries we are in, there is approximately $5 trillion of personal financial wealth. In Singapore alone, it is around $1.1 trillion,” Ferrario said. A large portion of that cash, or about $400 billion, sits in savings accounts. “That’s money that’s not working for whoever owns it,” he added.

In a press statement, Anand said, “StashAway is growing rapidly as it fulfills an obvious gap in the digital wealth management space, especially in areas where its competitors may be lacking: an easy-to-use platform, robust client relationships and a very sophisticated investing framework. StashAway has built trust with its client base by navigating them through market volatility while providing strong returns.”

India orders Twitter and Facebook to take down posts critical of its coronavirus handling

By Manish Singh

Twitter and Facebook have taken down about 100 posts in India, some of which were critical of New Delhi’s handling of the coronavirus, to comply with an emergency order from the Indian government at a time when South Asian nation is grappling with a globally unprecedented surge in Covid cases.

New Delhi made an emergency order to Twitter and Facebook to censor over 100 posts in the country. Twitter disclosed the government order on Lumen database, a Harvard University project. The microblogging network and Facebook complied with the request, and withheld those posts from users in India.

TechCrunch reported on Saturday that Twitter was not the only platform affected by the new order. Facebook, which identifies India as its largest market by users, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

The Indian government confirmed on Sunday that it ordered Facebook and Instagram and Twitter to take down posts that it deemed posed potential to incite panic among the public, hinder its efforts to contain the pandemic, or were simply misleading.

(Credit where it’s due: Twitter is one of the handful of companies that timely discloses takedown actions and also shares who made those requests.)

The world’s second largest nation — which has also previously ordered Twitter to block some tweets and accounts critical of its policies and threatened jail time to employees in the event of non-compliance — comes as the country reports a record of over 330,000 new Covid cases a day, the worst by any country. Multiple news reports, doctors, and academicians say that even these Covid figures, as alarmingly high as they are, are underreported.

Amid an unprecedented collapse of the nation’s health infrastructure, Twitter has become a rare beam of hope in what it describes as one of its “priority markets” as people crowdsource data to help one another find medicines and availability of beds and oxygen supplies.

A copy of one of Indian government’s orders disclosed by Twitter. (Lumen database)

Policy-focused Indian news outlet Medianama, which first reported on New Delhi’s new order Friday, said among those whose tweets have been censored in India include high profile public figures such as Revanth Reddy (a Member of Parliament), Moloy Ghatak (a minister in West Bengal), Vineet Kumar Singh (actor) filmmakers Vinod Kapri and Avinash Das.

In a statement, a Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch, “When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law. If the content violates Twitter’s Rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter Rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only. In all cases, we notify the account holder directly so they’re aware that we’ve received a legal order pertaining to the account.”

“We notify the user(s) by sending a message to the email address associated with the account(s), if available. Read more about our Legal request FAQs.  The legal requests that we receive are detailed in the bianual Twitter Transparency Report, and requests to withhold content are published on Lumen.”

India has become one of the key markets for several global technology giants as they look to accelerate their userbase growth and make long-term bets. But India, once the example of an ideal open market, has also proposed or enforced several rules in the country in recent years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership that in some ways arguably makes it difficult for American firms to keep expanding in the South Asian market without compromising on some of the values that users in their home market take for granted.

The story and the headline were updated to incorporate details from the Indian government’s statement.

India restricts American Express from adding new customers for violating data storage rules

By Manish Singh

India’s central bank has restricted American Express and Diners Club from adding new customers starting next month, it said Friday citing violation of local data-storage rules.

In a statement, the Reserve Bank of India said existing customers of either of the two card companies will not be impacted by the new order, which goes into effect May 1.

This is the first time India’s central bank has penalized any firm for non-compliance with local data storage rules, which was unveiled in 2018. The rules require payments firms to store all Indian transaction data within servers in the country.

Visa, Mastercard, and several other firms, as well as the U.S. government, have previously requested New Delhi to reconsider its rules, which is designed to allow the regulator “unfettered supervisory access.”

Visa, Mastercard, and American Express had also lobbied to either significantly change the rules or completely discard it. But after none of those efforts worked, most firms began to comply.

In a statement Friday evening (local time), an Amex spokesperson said the company was “disappointed that the RBI has this course of action,” but said was working with the authority to resolve the concerns “as quickly as possible.”

With about 1.5 million customers, American Express has amassed the highest number of customers among foreign banks in India.

“We have been in regular dialogue with the Reserve Bank of India about data localization requirements and have demonstrated our progress towards complying with the regulation. […] This does not impact the services that we offer to our existing customers in India, and our customers can continue to use and accept our cards as normal.”

Diners Club, which is owned by Discover Financial Services and offers credit cards in India through a partnership with the nation’s largest private sector bank (HDFC), said in a statement that India remains an important market for the firm and it is working with the central bank to reach a resolution so that it can “continue to grow in the country.”

Last year, India’s central bank ordered HDFC Bank to not add new credit customers or launch digital businesses after the bank’s services were hit by a power outage.

Friday’s order comes as Citigroup, another key foreign bank in India, has announced plans to exit most of its Asian consumer business as it looks to boost its profitability. The consumer operations of the bank in 13 countries is up for sale.

E-commerce tracking platform AfterShip raises $66M led by Tiger Global

By Catherine Shu

AfterShip launched in 2012 to help online sellers track packages across different carriers, but since then it has built a suite of data analytics tools covering almost every step of the shopping experience, from email marketing to customer retention. The Hong Kong-headquartered startup announced today it has raised a $66 million Series B led by Tiger Global, with participation from Hillhouse Capital’s GL Ventures.

AfterShip’s last round of funding was a $1 million Series A in 2014. Co-founder Andrew Chan told TechCrunch that the company has been profitable since its launch and grew mainly through word-of-mouth referrals and partnerships, like a Shopify integration, that boosted its profile. But the company recently added a sales team and will use its latest capital on international hiring for sales and customer support. It also plans to launch new products and expand further in the United States, where about 70% of AfterShip’s customers are located.

The company’s software enables sellers to track shipments made through more than 740 carriers and handles more than 6 billion shipments each year. AfterShip’s partners with about10,000 companies, including some of the biggest names in e-commerce: Shopify (where it is used by 50,000 merchants), Magento, Squarespace, Amazon, eBay, Etsy, Groupon, Rakuten, Wish and retail brands like Dyson and Inditex.

A branded shipment tracking page and email created with AfterShip's software

A branded shipment tracking page and email created with AfterShip’s software

AfterShip’s core product is its shipment tracking platform, but it also makes apps for shoppers, including self-service returns and package tracking, and sales and marketing tools for merchants that let them get more use out of data from shipments. Chan explained that package tracking is also a user engagement tool for sellers that lets them show more product recommendations and promotions to shoppers. AfterShip’s tools enables merchants to create their own branded tracking pages and notifications. Other features allow them to track the performance of different carriers, create email marketing campaigns and increase customer retention.

Its CRM capabilities help AfterShip differentiate from other shipment tracking aggregator providers.

“When we think of our vision, we look at what Salesforce is doing, but is there an e-commerce Salesforce that can cover more topics for sales people to use,” Chan said.

In press statement, Pangfei Wang, global partner at Tiger Global, said, “AfterShip leads the charge in making the shipping process more transparent and reliable for consumers and companies alike. As growth in e-commerce spirals ever upward, we are excited to partner with AfterShip and its leadership team as they continue to advance technology in this critical and expanding industry.”

Westward plans a $30M debut fund to take Chinese indie games global

By Rita Liao

In Hefei, a Chinese city known for its relics from the Three Kingdoms period and its manufacturing industry today, Maxim Rate was thrilled to find a small studio crafting a Western role-playing game, a genre that attracts lovers of gritty aesthetics and dark storylines.

“The design and computer graphics are really good. You can’t tell they are a Chinese team,” said Rate.

Rate’s mission is to find Chinese studios like the bootstrapped Hefei team and help them woo international players. As Chinese regulators tighten rules on game publishing and make licenses hard to obtain in recent years, small studios find themselves struggling. Since last year, Apple has pulled thousands of unlicensed games from its Chinese App Store at the behest of local authorities. Small-time developers begin to look beyond their home turf.

“The problem is these startups have no experience in overseas expansion,” said Rate.

An avid gamer himself, Rate quit his job at a Chinese cross-border payment firm last year and launched a part-incubator, part-investment vehicle to take Chinese games abroad. The firm, called Westward Gaming Ventures, took inspiration from Zheng He, a Chinese diplomat and explorer who embarked on state-sponsored naval expeditions to the “Western Oceans” during the Ming Dynasty.

Westward plans to raise 200 million yuan ($30 million) for its debut fund, Rate told TechCrunch in an interview. It plans to deploy the capital over the next three years with an intended check size of 2-4 million yuan per studio. It’s currently in talks with 20-30 teams that span a wide range of genres.

The Chinese fund being established is a so-called Qualified Foreign Limited Partners Fund, which, for the first time, will enable foreign investors (USD and EUR) to invest directly in Chinese gaming firms. Only a few institutions own a license for QFLP, and while Westward itself doesn’t hold one, it gains legitimacy for direct foreign investment by partnering with the private equity arm of a major Chinese financial conglomerate, which declined to be named at this stage.

To navigate such regulatory complications, Westward also seeks help from its advisors, including one that oversaw the legal and financial process of one of the largest joint ventures established between Chinese and foreign gaming firms in recent years. The partnership, which can’t be named, was also the first time a foreign entity has become the majority shareholder in a gaming joint venture in China.

China limits foreign investments in areas it considers sensitive, such as value-added services, so many companies resort to setting up elaborate offshore entities to receive overseas funding. The restriction makes it difficult for resource-strapped studios to land foreign investors, who could help them venture into global markets. They are left with the option of getting backed or bought by Chinese giants like Tencent or ByteDance.

Rise of Chinese plays

The idea of Westward is not just to lower the barriers for independent Chinese games to secure foreign capital but also better prepare them for overseas expansion.

“Chinese gaming studios, big or small, used to rely heavily on ads for user acquisition when they went abroad,” said Rate. “Sometimes a game would take off, but the team had no idea why, so they continued to test. Those who failed may just give up.”

But taking a game abroad is not as simple as translating it, hitting the publish button and launching an ad campaign on Facebook.

Westward’s plan is to get involved in a game’s early development phase and help them position: Is it an RPG? Is the targeted user a casual or serious player? What’s the graphic style? In addition, the firm also plans to supply developers with workspace, technical assistance, marketing and localization expertise, connection to publishers, and overseas operation help.

Image Credits: Westward Gaming Ventures

To provide post-investment support, Westward has partnered up with V+ Gaming Society, an incubator for games headquartered Shenzhen, which Westward also calls home.

Chinese tech companies are facing mounting challenges in the West as geopolitical tensions rise. Many now prefer calling themselves “global firms” and even deny their Chinese roots outright.

But for Westward, the games it helps doesn’t need to pretend they are non-Chinese. “Most players don’t consider where a game is from if it is a really good game,” said Rate.

“We actually hope to see elements of Chinese culture in these games that can be understood by overseas players.”

Amy Ho, a partner at Westward along with Rate and Edward He, said one of the few Chinese games that have managed to be both “Chinese” and transcend cultural boundaries is Chinese Parents. The simulation game became a global hit by letting users experience what it is like to raise a child in China.

The benchmark Rate gave was the generation of Japanese games that began exporting 20-30 years ago, which he described as “Japanese” in spirit but “globalized” in graphics and game design.

There have already been globally successful titles from Chinese makers like Tencent and rising studios Lilith and Mihoyo. In the past, many Chinese users on Steam would be asking foreign titles to rush out Chinese versions. Now, it’s not uncommon to see Western users demanding English editions of Chinese games, Rate observed.

Rather than politics, the bigger challenge, especially for small studios, is how to “collect key data for product iteration while complying with local privacy laws,” said Ho.

50-70% of Westward’s capital will come from Chinese institutions. The presence of Chinese investments inevitably leads to questions around censorship. Ho said while Westward provides resources and capital to studios, it will work to ensure their independence from investor influence.

If things go well, Westward could help facilitate cultural exchange between China and the rest of the world. Beijing has been trying to export the country’s soft power, and games may be a suitable conduit, suggested Rate. Amid the ongoing trade war, having foreign fundings in Chinese companies may also do good to China’s “brand”, he said.

Tiger Global backs Indian crypto startup at over $500M valuation

By Manish Singh

Coinswitch Kuber, a startup that allows young users in India to invest in cryptocurrencies, said on Thursday it has raised $25 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand its reach in India, the world’s second largest internet market and also the place where the future of private cryptocurrencies remains uncertain for now.

Tiger Global financed the entire Series B funding round of Coinswitch Kuber and valued the three-year-old Indian startup at over $500 million. The announcement of Series B comes just three months after Coinswitch closed its $15 million Series A round from Ribbit Capital, Sequoia Capital India, and Kunal Shah. The Bangalore-based startup has raised $41.5 million to date.

TechCrunch reported earlier this month that the New York-headquartered technology hedge fund had led or was in advanced stages of talks to lead investments in many Indian startups including Coinswitch.

Coinswitch Kuber is one of the handful of startups operating in the cryptocurrency space today. The crypto exchange allows users to buy slivers of several popular cryptocurrencies. A user on Coinswitch, for instance, can buy small sachets of bitcoin and other currencies for as low as 100 Indian rupees ($1.3)-worth.

The startup said it has amassed over 4.5 million users, more than half of whom are aged 25 or younger. In the past 11 months, Coinswitch Kuber said it processed transactions over $5 billion.

But how the startup, which aims to add 5.5 million by the end of this year, performs in the future is not entire in its hand.

While trading of private cryptocurrency such as bitcoin is currently legal in India, New Delhi is widely expected to introduce a law that bans all private cryptocurrency.

Ashish Singhal, co-founder and chief executive of Coinswitch Kuber, said he is optimistic that India will not ban private cryptocurrencies, but said the startup closed the financing round with Tiger Global before New Delhi’s indication to formulate a law.

“This investment round brings us at par with some of the most sought after cryptocurrency companies in the world and sets us up for the long run,” said Singhal.

In recent months, some crypto startups in India have started to explore a contingency plan in the event the nation does end up banning cryptocurrency trading in the country. Many startups are today building in India, but focusing on serving customers overseas.

“As they build India’s leading cryptocurrency platform, CoinSwitch is well positioned to capture the tremendous growing interest in crypto among retail investors. We are excited to partner with CoinSwitch as they innovate in this emerging asset class,” said Scott Shleifer, Partner at Tiger Global, in a statement.

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