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Today — April 2nd 2020Your RSS feeds

Disney debuts its streaming service in India

By Manish Singh

Disney+ has arrived in the land of Bollywood. The company on Friday (local time) rolled out its eponymous streaming service in India through Hotstar, a popular on-demand video streamer it picked up as part of the Fox deal.

To court users in India, the largest open entertainment market in Asia, Disney is charging users 1,499 Indian rupees (about $20) for a year, the most affordable plan in any of the more than a dozen markets where Disney+ is currently available.

Subscribers of the revamped streaming service, now called Disney+ Hotstar, will get access to Disney Originals in English as well as several local languages, live sporting events, thousands of movies and shows, including some sourced from HBO, Showtime, ABC, and Fox that maintain syndication partnerships with the Indian streaming service. It also maintains partnership with Hooq — at least for now.

Disney+Hostar is also offering a cheaper yearly premium tier, priced at Rs 399 (about $5.3), that will offer subscribers access to movies, shows (but not those sourced from aforementioned U.S. networks and studios), and live sporting events. But it won’t include Disney Originals.

Access to streaming of sporting events, especially of cricket matches, has helped five-year-old Hotstar become the most popular on-demand video streaming in India. During the cricket tournament Indian Premier League last year, the service had amassed over 300 million monthly active users and more than 100 million daily active users.

It also holds the global record for most simultaneous views on a live stream, about 25 million — more than thrice of its nearest competitor.

Prior to today’s launch, Hotstar offered its premium plans at 999 Indian rupees, and 365 Indian rupees. Existing subscribers won’t be affected by the price revision until the duration of their current subscription.

The service, run by Indian conglomerate Star India, offers access to about 80% of its catalog at no cost to users. The company monetizes these viewers through ads.

But in recent years, the company has begun to explore ways to turn its users into subscribers. Two years ago, Hotstar restricted cricket match streaming to non-paying users.

People familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that Hotstar has about 1.5 million paying subscribers, lower than what most industry firms estimate. But that figure is still higher than most of its competitors.

And there are many.

Disney+ will compete with more than three dozen international and local players in India, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Times Internet’s MX Player, which has over 175 million monthly active users, Zee5, Apple TV+, and Alt Balaji, which has amassed over 27 million subscribers.

“The arrival of Disney+ in India is another case study in the globalization of entertainment in the digital era. For decades, the biggest companies in the world have expanded their reach into different markets. But it’s new, and actually quite profound, that everyone on earth receives the very same version of such a specific cultural product,” Matthew Ball, former head of strategic planning for Amazon Studios, told TechCrunch.

As in some other markets, including the U.S., streaming services have leveraged on partnerships with telecom networks, TV vendors, cable TV operators, and satellite TV players in India.

Most of these streaming services monetize their viewers by selling ads, and those who do charge have kept their premium plans below $3.

Why that figure? That’s the number most industry executives think — by spending years in the Indian market — that people in the country are willing to pay. The average of how much an individual pays for cable TV, for instance, in India is also about $3.

“I think everyone is still trying to sort out the right pricing. It’s true the average Indian consumer is used to far lower prices and can’t afford more. However, we need to focus on the consumers likely to buy this, who have the requisite broadband access and income, etc,” said Ball.

At stake is India’s booming on-demand video streaming market that, according to Boston Consulting Group, is estimated to grow to $5 billion from half a billion two years ago.

Hotstar’s hold on India could make it easier for Disney+, which has launched in more than a dozen markets and has amassed over 28 million subscribers.

As the country spends about two more weeks in lockdown that New Delhi ordered last month to curtail the spread of coronavirus, this could also compel many to give Disney+ a try.

On the flip side, if the lockdown is extended, the current season of Indian Premier League, which has been postponed until mid-April, might be further delayed or cancelled altogether. Either of those scenarios could hurt the reach of Hotstar, which sees a massive drop in its user base after conclusion of each cricket tournament.

More to follow…

Virgin Orbit announces new plans for first Asian spaceport in Oita, Japan

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit may be focusing its production efforts right now on making ventilators to support healthcare workers battling COVID-19, but it’s also still making moves to build out the infrastructure that will underpin its small satellite launch business. To that end, the new space company unveiled a new partnership with Oita Prefecture in Japan to build a new spaceport there from which to launch and land its horizontal take-off launch vehicle carrier aircraft.

Working in collaboration with ANA Holdings and the Space Port Japan Association, Virgin Orbit says it is currently targeting Oita Airport as the site for its next launch site – the first in Asia – with a plan to start flying missions from the new location as early as 2022.

There are still a number of steps that have to take place before the Oita airport becomes official – including performing a technical study in partnership with local government to determine the feasibility of using the proposed site. Already, Oita is home to facilities from a number of corporations including Toshiba, Nippon Steel, Canon, Sony, Daihatsu and more, but this would marks its first entry into the space industry, an area where Oita is hoping to encourage in future.

“We are eager to host the first horizontal takeoff and landing spaceport in Japan. We are also honored to be able to collaborate with brave technology companies solving global-level problems through their small satellites,” said Katsusada Hirose, Governor for the Oita Prefectural Government, in a press release. “We hope to foster a cluster of space industry in our prefecture, starting with our collaboration with Virgin Orbit.”

Virgin Orbit is looking to scale its efforts globally in a number of ways, even as it gears up for a first demonstration launch of its orbital small satellite delivery capabilities sometime later this year. The company announced plans to provide launch services from a forthcoming spaceport facility in Cornwall for the UK market, and it’s also looking at standing up a site in Guam.

The horizontal launch model that Virgin Orbit uses means that it can much more easily leverage traditional airport infrastructure and processes to set up launch sites, and doing so can provide domestic launch capabilities essentially on-demand for countries looking to add small satellite flight to their in-country housed services. That’s a big selling point, and Oita securing should be a considerable win and for Japan as the site of a first Virgin Orbit port across the whole continent.

Luckin Coffee’s board initiates investigation into $300M potential fraud

By Danny Crichton

China-based Luckin Coffee, the fastest growing growing coffee brand in the world, has dazzled VCs, public market investors and frankly us over the years with its dizzyingly high growth, expanding from a handful of stores and delivery kiosks to tens of thousands in a just a few years, quickly outpacing Starbucks’ aggressive expansion in the world’s second largest economy.

All those numbers though may not be what they seem.

In a filing with the SEC this morning, the company’s board announced that it has initiated an internal investigation into the activities of its former COO Jian Liu, who may have inflated revenues by the company by an early estimate of more than $300 million (RMB2.2 billion). Expenses are believed by the board to be similarly inflated. Legal firm Kirkland & Ellis is the board’s counsel in its internal investigation.

Contact details for Jian Liu could not be located.

The alleged fraud is believed to have begun in the second quarter of 2019, although further details will have to come as the company conducts its investigation. The company told investors in its filing that they shouldn’t rely on the company’s recent financial statements, which are now believed to be inaccurate given the surfacing of this information.

Luckin shares, which trade as American Depositary Receipts, are down 70% right now according to Yahoo Finance.

The announcement of the investigation comes just days after the company appointed two new independent directors to its board. Last week, the company announced that Tianruo Pu, a seasoned accounting executive who was CFO of Zhaopin and UTStarcom, and Wai Yuen Chong, a supply chain executive who had stints at Charoen Pokphand Group and Luckin competitor Starbucks, had joined as independent directors and joined the company’s audit committee.

Luckin Coffee debuted in its IPO in May 2019 with a hot $650.8 million offering on Nasdaq, just a few weeks after raising a private round of funding from Blackrock. The company was notorious for both its stratospheric growth and also for its ample losses, with its 2018 numbers (before the alleged fraud detailed by the company) showing $125 million in revenue and $475 million in losses.

Google to shut down its India-focused Q&A app Neighbourly

By Manish Singh

Google is shutting down Neighbourly, a Q&A social app that it launched in Mumbai two years ago, the company has informed users.

The app, developed by company’s Next Billion Initiative, aimed to give local communities an outlet to seek answers to practical questions about life, routine and more.

At the time of the app’s launch, Google told TechCrunch that it believed that an increase in urban migration, short-term leasing and busy lives had changed the dynamic of local communities and made it harder to share information quite so easily.

The app supported voice-based entry for questions and a range of local languages.

In an email, Google said Neighbourly helped users find answers to over a million questions, but it did not get the traction the company was hoping for. The app will shut down on May 12, but users have another six months to download their data.

“We launched Neighbourly as a Beta app to connect you with your neighbors and make sharing local information more human and helpful. As a community, you’ve come together to celebrate local festivals, shared crucial information during floods, and answered over a million questions,” the company wrote to users.

“But Neighbourly hasn’t grown as we had hoped. In these difficult times, we believe that we can help more people by focusing on other Google apps that are already serving millions of people everyday,” it added, pointing users to explore Google Maps’ Local Guide, which also allows sharing of knowledge with local communities.

The app had such low-traction that third-party intelligence services such as App Annie and Sensor Tower don’t have any substantial data about it. But on Play Store, Neighbourly is listed to have more than 10 million downloads.

Yesterday — April 1st 2020Your RSS feeds

Mobile payments firms in India are now scrambling to make money

By Manish Singh

Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and chief executive of India’s most valuable startup, Paytm, posed an existential question in a recent press conference.

“What do you think of the commercial model for digital mobile payments. How do we make money?” Sharma asked Nandan Nilekani, one of the key architects of the Universal Payments Infrastructure that created a digital payments revolution in the country.

It’s the multi-billion-dollar question that scores of local startups and international giants have been scrambling to answer as many of them aggressively shift their focus to serving merchants and building lending products and other financial services .

New Delhi’s abrupt move to invalidate much of the paper bills in the cash-dominated nation in late 2016 sent hundreds of millions of people to cash machines for months to follow.

For a handful of startups such as Paytm and MobiKwik, this cash crunch meant netting tens of millions of new users in a span of a few months.

India then moved to work with a coalition of banks to develop the payments infrastructure that, unlike Paytm and MobiKwik’s earlier system, did not act as an intermediary “mobile wallet” to serve as an intermediary between users and their banks, but facilitated direct transaction between two users’ bank accounts.

Silicon Valley companies quickly took notice. For years, Google and the likes have attempted to change the purchasing behavior of people in many Asian and African markets, where they have amassed hundreds of millions of users.

In Pakistan, for instance, most people still run errands to neighborhood stores when they want to top up credit to make phone calls and access the internet.

With China keeping its doors largely closed for foreign firms, India, where many American giants have already poured billions of dollars to find their next billion users, it was a no-brainer call.

“Unlike China, we have given equal opportunities to both small and large domestic and foreign companies,” said Dilip Asbe, chief executive of NPCI, the payments body behind UPI.

And thus began the race to participate in the grand Indian experiment. Investors have followed suit as well. Indian fintech startups raised $2.74 billion last year, compared to 3.66 billion that their counterparts in China secured, according to research firm CBInsights.

And that bet in a market with more than half a billion internet users has already started to pay off.

“If you look at UPI as a platform, we have never seen growth of this kind before,” Nikhil Kumar, who volunteered at a nonprofit organization to help develop the payments infrastructure, said in an interview.

In October, just three years after its inception, UPI had amassed 100 million users and processed over a billion transactions. It has sustained its growth since, clocking 1.25 billion transactions in March — despite one of the nation’s largest banks going through a meltdown last month.

“It all comes down to the problem it is solving. If you look at the western markets, digital payments have largely been focused on a person sending money to a merchant. UPI does that, but it also enables peer-to-peer payments and across a wide-range of apps. It’s interoperable,” said Kumar, who is now working at a startup called Setu to develop APIs to help small businesses easily accept digital payments.

Vice-president of Google’s Next Billion Users Caesar Sengupta speaks during the launch of the Google “Tez” mobile app for digital payments in New Delhi on September 18, 2017 (Photo: Getty Images via AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN)

The Google Pay app has amassed over 67 million monthly active users. And the company has found the UPI pipeline so fascinating that it has recommended similar infrastructure to be built in the U.S.

In August, the Federal Reserve proposed to develop a new inter-bank 24×7 real-time gross settlement service that would support faster payments in the country. In November, Google recommended (PDF) that the U.S. Federal Reserve implement a real-time payments platform such as UPI.

“After just three years, the annual run rate of transactions flowing through UPI is about 19% of India’s Gross Domestic Product, including 800 million monthly transactions valued at approximately $19 billion,” wrote Mark Isakowitz, Google’s vice president of Government Affairs and Public Policy.

Paytm itself has amassed more than 150 million users who use it every year to make transactions. Overall, the platform has 300 million mobile wallet accounts and 55 million bank accounts, said Sharma.

Search for a business model

But despite on-boarding more than a hundred million users on their platform, payment firms are struggling to cut their losses — let alone turn a profit.

At an event in Bangalore late last year, Sajith Sivanandan, managing director and business head of Google Pay and Next Billion User Initiatives, said current local rules have forced Google Pay to operate in India without a clear business model.

Mobile payment firms never levied any fee to users as a strategy to expand their reach in the country. A recent directive from the government has now put an end to the cut they were receiving to facilitate UPI transactions between users and merchants.

Google’s Sivanandan urged the local payment bodies to “find ways for payment players to make money” to ensure every stakeholder had incentives to operate.

Paytm, which has raised more than $3 billion to date, reported a loss of $549 million in the financial year ending in March 2019.

The firm, backed by SoftBank and Alibaba, has expanded to several new businesses in recent years, including Paytm Mall, an e-commerce venture, social commerce, financial services arm Paytm Money and a movies and ticketing category.

This year, Paytm has expanded to serve merchants, launching new gadgets such as a stand that displays QR check-out codes that comes with a calculator and a battery pack, a portable speaker that provides voice confirmations of transactions and a point-of-sale machine with built-in scanner and printer.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Sharma said these devices are already garnering impressive demand from merchants. The company is offering these gadgets to them as part of a subscription service that helps it establish a steady flow of revenue.

The firm’s Money arm, which offers lending, insurance and investing services, has amassed over 3 million users. The head of Paytm Money, Pravin Jadhav, resigned from the company this week, a person familiar with the matter said. A Paytm spokeswoman declined to comment. (Indian news outlet Entrackr first reported the development.)

Flipkart’s PhonePe, another major player in India’s payments market, today serves more than 175 million users, and over 8 million merchants. Its app serves as a platform for other businesses to reach users, explained Rahul Chari, co-founder and CTO of the firm, in an interview with TechCrunch. The company is currently not taking a cut for the real estate on its app, he added.

But these startups’ expansion into new categories means that they now have to face off even more rivals, and spend more money to gain a foothold. In the social commerce category, for instance, Paytm is competing with Naspers-backed Meesho and a handful of new entrants; and heavily-backed OkCredit and KhataBook today lead the bookkeeping market.

BharatPe, which raised $75 million two months ago, is digitizing mom and pop stores and granting them working capital. And PineLabs, which has already become a unicorn, and MSwipe have flooded the market with their point-of-sale machines.

A vendor holds an Mswipe terminal, operated by M-Swipe Technologies Pvt Ltd., in an arranged photograph at a roadside stall in Bengaluru, India, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“They have no choice. Payment is the gateway to businesses such as e-commerce and lending that you can monetize. In Paytm’s case, their earlier bet was Paytm Mall,” said Jayanth Kolla, founder and chief analyst at research firm Convergence Catalyst.

But Paytm Mall has struggled to compete with giants Amazon India and Walmart’s Flipkart. Last year, Mall pivoted to offline-to-online and online-to-offline models, wherein orders placed by customers are serviced from local stores. The company also secured about $160 million from eBay last year.

An executive who previously worked at Paytm Mall said the venture has struggled to grow because its goal-post has constantly shifted over the years. It has recently started to focus on selling fastags, a system that allows vehicle owners to swiftly pay toll fees. At least two more executives at the firm are on their way out, a person familiar with the matter said.

Kolla said the current dynamics of India’s mobile payments market, where more than 100 firms are chasing the same set of audience, is reminiscent of the telecom market in the country from more than a decade ago.

“When there were just four to five players in the telecom market, the prospect of them becoming profitable was much higher. They were scaling like crazy. They grew with the lowest ARPU in the world (at about $2) and were still profitable.

“But the moment that number grew to more than a dozen overnight, and the new players started offering more affordable plans to subscribers, that’s when profitability started to become elusive,” he said.

To top that off, the arrival of Reliance Jio, a telecom operator run by India’s richest man, in 2016 in the country with the cheapest tariff plans in the world, upended the market once again, forcing several players to leave the market, or declare bankruptcies, or consolidate.

India’s mobile payments market is now heading to a similar path, said Kolla.

If there were not enough players fighting for a slice of India’s mobile payments market that Credit Suisse estimate could reach $1 trillion by 2023, WhatsApp, the most popular app in the country with more that 400 million users, is set to roll out its mobile payments service in the country in a couple of months.

At the aforementioned press conference, Nilekani advised Sharma and other players to focus on financial services such as lending.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus outbreak that promoted New Delhi to order a three-week lockdown last month is likely going to impact the ability of millions of people to use such services.

“India has more than 100 million microfinance accounts, serviced in cash every week by gig-economy workers, who hawk vegetables on street corners or embroider saris sold in malls, among other things. Three out of four workers make a living by working casually for others or at their family firms and farms. Prolonged shutdowns will impair their ability to repay loans of 2.1 trillion rupees ($28.5 billion), putting the world’s largest microfinance industry at risk,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Andy Mukherjee.

Spotify and Warner Music Group renew their global licensing deal, resolve issue in India

By Manish Singh

Spotify and Warner Music Group have renewed their global licensing partnership, the two said on Wednesday, confirming that Warner Music Group’s songs will now be available on the Sweden-headquartered firm’s platform in India. 

In a joint statement, the two giants said, “The two companies look forward to collaborating on impactful global initiatives for Warner artists and songwriters, and working together to grow the music industry over the long term.”

A Spotify spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that the two companies have renewed their global licensing deal.

More to follow…

 

Grab hires Peter Oey as its chief financial officer

By Catherine Shu

Grab announced today that it has hired Peter Oey as its new chief financial officer. Prior to joining Grab, Oey was the chief financial officer at LegalZoom, an online legal services company based near Los Angeles.

Before that, he served the same role at Mylife.com, an online platform that aggregates information about people based on public records. Oey also held financial leadership positions at Activision for twelve years, including corporate controller.

In a statement, Grab said Oey will be based in Singapore and report to co-founder and CEO Anthony Tan. He will also work with Grab president Ming Maa, who took over many responsibilities from Grab’s last CFO, Linda Hoglund, when she left in 2016. Grab said Maa will continue to lead its strategic business planning.

Grab, which acquired Uber’s Southeast Asia business in March 2018, has reportedly been in discussions to merge with merge with rival GoJek.

Grab, whose services include ride-sharing, food delivery and online financial services provider GrabPay, also announced in February that it had raised a total of $856 million from Japanese investors Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group and TIS INTEC, to grow its financial services and digital payments infrastructure.

In a press statement, the company said that in 2019, GrabFood’s gross merchandise volume grew by over 400%, while GrabPay increased payment volume by 170%, thanks to strong performance in Indonesia.

Tan said “Last year, we made tremendous progress in growing our food delivery, payments and financial services business. The growth of these businesses give us a good foundation for achieving long-term sustainable growth for our company. I’m excited to welcome Peter to the Grab family where his extensive experience scaling rapidly growing technology companies makes him a valuable addition to our business.”

Grab has raised a total of about $9.9 billion from investors including SoftBank Vision Fund, which invested $1.46 billion into the company last year. Tan told CNBC last November that the company will not go public until its entire business is profitable.

Investors tell Indian startups to ‘prepare for the worst’ as COVID-19 uncertainty continues

By Manish Singh

Just three months after capping what was the best year for Indian startups, having raised a record $14.5 billion in 2019, they are beginning to struggle to raise new capital as prominent investors urge them to “prepare for the worst” and cut spending.

In an open letter to startup founders in India, ten global and local private equity and venture capitalist firms including Accel, Lightspeed, Sequoia Capital and Matrix Partners cautioned that the current changes to the macro environment could make it difficult for a startup to close their next fundraising deal.

The firms, which included Kalaari Capital, SAIF Partners, and Nexus Venture Partners — some of the prominent names in India to back early-stage startups — asked founders to be prepared to not see their startups’ jump in the coming rounds and have a 12-18 month runway with what they raise.

“Assumptions from bull market financings or even from a few weeks ago do not apply. Many investors will move away from thinking about ‘growth at all costs’ to ‘reasonable growth with a path to profitability.’ Adjust your business plan and messaging accordingly,” they added.

Signs are beginning to emerge that investors are losing appetite to invest in the current scenario.

Indian startups participated in 79 deals to raise $496 million in March, down from $2.86 billion that they raised across 104 deals in February and $1.24 billion they raised from 93 deals in January this year, research firm Tracxn told TechCrunch. In March last year, Indian startups had raised $2.1 billion across 153 deals, the firm said.

New Delhi ordered a complete nation-wide lockdown for its 1.3 billion people for three weeks earlier this month in a bid to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

The lockdown, as you can imagine, has severely disrupted businesses of many startups, several founders told TechCrunch.

Vivekananda Hallekere, co-founder and chief executive of mobility firm Bounce, said the firm had cut salary across the board — except for those who make less than $3,950 a year. “Founders would take a 100% pay cut. This will give us run-way of beyond 30 months. Glad we raised money when we didn’t need,” he said.

Founder of a Bangalore-based startup, which was in advanced stages to raise more than $100 million, said investors have called off the deal for now. He requested anonymity.

Food delivery firm Zomato, which raised $150 million in January, said it would secure an additional $450 million by the end of the month. Two months later, that money is yet to arrive.

Many startups are already beginning to cut salaries of their employees and let go of some people to survive an environment that aforementioned VC firms have described as “uncharted territory.”

Travel and hotel booking service Ixigo said it had cut the pay of its top management team by 60% and rest of the employees by up to 30%. MakeMyTrip, the giant in this category, also cut salaries of its top management team.

Beauty products and cosmetics retailer Nykaa on Tuesday suspended operations and informed its partners that it would not be able to pay their dues on time.

Investors cautioned startup founders to not take a “wait and watch” approach and assume that there will be a delay in their “receivables,” customers would likely ask for price cuts for services, and contracts would not close at the last minute.

“Through the lockdown most businesses could see revenues going down to almost zero and even post that the recovery curve may be a ‘U’ shaped one vs a ‘V’ shaped one,” they said.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Streaming service Hooq files for liquidation

By Manish Singh

On-demand video streaming service Hooq said on Friday it has filed for liquidation after it failed to grow rapidly and cover its increasing operating costs.

Hooq Digital, a joint venture between Singapore telecom group Singtel (majority owner), Sony Pictures, and Warner Bros Entertainment, said the company sailed through “significant structural changes” in the on-demand video streaming market for five years but is now struggling to provide sustainable returns to investors.

“Global and local content providers are increasingly going direct, the cost of content remains high, and emerging-market consumers’ willingness to pay has increased only gradually amid an increasing array of choices,” a Hooq spokesperson said in a statement.

The Singapore-headquartered firm will hold a meeting with its shareholders and creditors on April 13. In an exchange filing, Singtel said Hooq’s liquidation won’t have any material impact on its business.

HOOQ has amassed 80 million users in India, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines. The company counted India, where it entered into a partnership with Disney’s Hotstar in 2018, as its biggest market. The company also maintains a partnership with ride-hailing giant Grab to supply content in its cab.

More to follow…

Inside Udaan’s push to digitize India’s B2B retail market

By Manish Singh

During a recent visit, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella reiterated his company’s commitment to India and revealed a new fund to help SaaS startups in the country.

And then Nadella and Anant Maheshwari, president of Microsoft India, discussed the success story of B2B platform Udaan in three separate onstage public appearances.

Headquartered in Bangalore, Udaan is a business-to-business e-commerce marketplace founded by former Flipkart executives Amod Malviya, Vaibhav Gupta and Sujeet Kumar. The startup used Microsoft’s free Azure credits to scale in its early days; as in some other markets, Microsoft, Amazon and Google offer free cloud credits in bulk to early, promising Indian startups in a bid to onboard them and see if their solutions could be relevant to other clients down the road.

More often than not, these bets don’t work, but sometimes they pay off. Udaan, valued at about $2.7 billion after raising nearly $900 million from investors like Lightspeed Venture Partners, Tencent Holdings, GGV Capital and Hillhouse Capital, has become one of Microsoft India’s biggest clients in the last three years.

Udaan was founded in 2016 at the tail end of India’s e-commerce frenzy, when scores of startups that had attempted to build business-to-consumer online shopping platforms were conceding defeat.

At the time, very few players — like Power2SME and Moglix (industrial products) and Bizongo (packaging for businesses) — were looking at the business-to-business market in India.

Udaan is valued at about $2.7B after raising nearly $900M from investors like Lightspeed Venture Partners, Tencent Holdings, GGV Capital and Hillhouse Capital and has become one of Microsoft India’s biggest clients.

But despite venturing into a road less traveled, Udaan had ambitious dreams. The startup was building its own logistics network, a herculean task that even Flipkart and Amazon avoided to a certain measure for years, yet it was reaching an audience that had never sold online.

Delivery Hero urges users to go cashless, no contact for food deliveries

By Natasha Lomas

Delivery Hero has switched to cash-less, non-contact for deliveries in areas it defines as “high risk” for the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to reduce personal contact between couriers and customers during the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s encouraging all customers to make the switch.

“By introducing contactless delivery, we can ensure that our service is safe and convenient for customers, riders and restaurants,” said CEO, Niklas Östberg, in a press release. “We now encourage customers to pay without cash everywhere, and decide when and how they want their order to be delivered. These are options designed to reduce interpersonal contact and make our customer journey even more secure.”

It has also implemented no-contact drop-offs in high risk areas and is asking restaurants to sanitize packages to further shrink the risk of spreading the virus.

While there is no evidence that people have become infected by eating food contaminated with the microscopic agent — SARS-CoV-2 is a respiratory virus; the primary transition route for infection appears to be via close contact with an infected person, when you might be more likely to breathe in tiny droplets that contain the virus, such as those expelled when someone coughs or sneezes — there could be a small risk posed by contaminated food packaging.

If, for example, an infected person, who had coughed into their hand, then touched a package which they gave to an uninfected person — who then touched their face without first washing their hands. Studies suggest the virus that causes COVID-19 can remain infectious for between several hours or days on certain surfaces.

To shrink the risk of such a scenario, Delivery Hero said it’s working closely with restaurant partners to ensure “the highest hygiene standards”.

The risk of infection via contaminated surfaces is reduced by everyone observing good hand hygiene — i.e. washing hands regularly and directly after touching things others may have touched — and by not touching their own face with unclean hands.

“Official health authorities around the world agree that there is a very limited chance of contracting COVID-19 through food,” said Delivery Hero today. “Neither the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), nor the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have any reports of Coronavirus COVID-19 transmitted via food or food packaging. However, we are working closely with our restaurant partners to ensure that they continue to operate in a secure kitchen environment and carry out food preparation and packaging according to the highest hygiene standards.”

The company is also providing riders in “high risk” zones with hand sanitisers, masks and other safety materials — “where and when it is locally and culturally accepted”.

The Berlin -based takeaway platform operates across 44 markets in Europe, Asia, LatAm and the Middle East, operating under a variety of brand names.

We’ve asked which areas it’s defining as “high risk”.

In recent weeks a number of US and European food delivery startups have turned on a contactless delivery option to shrink the risks around COVID-19 during the epidemic. Delivery Hero said it started taking precautionary measures “as soon as the situation started to evolve in January”.

The company is using its rider app to communicate updates and “instruct on hygiene requirements, especially for pick-up and drop-off”. “By having direct access to new information, our riders can make informed decisions when on the road,” it added.

While many startups face a demand crunch during the epidemic as people dial back some of their regular activities, the opposite looks to be true for food delivery — as large-scale quarantine measures mean many people are eating more meals at home. Food delivery is also being actively being encouraged by some governments, such as the UK, as a convenient lever to keep more citizens locked down at home where they can’t spread the virus or increase their chance of exposure.

Delivery Hero said it’s responded to growing demand by implementing free delivery options in the majority of its markets — “to make online ordering accessible to as many people as possible”, as it puts it.

It said “several” of these options are “focused on when ordering from restaurants nearby” — in what looks like an attempt to streamline demand for restaurants and delivery workers by incentivizing local food orders.

In another support step for restaurants it’s offering more frequent payment cycles for some partners — “according to local need”. “For new restaurants joining our platform, we aim to onboard as fast as possible, in order to support them in maintaining order levels as well as provide more choice for our customers,” it added.

Zooming out, Delivery Hero said it’s closely liaising with local governments — and continuing to follow official health and safety guidelines provided in its different markets. And it gave examples of how some of its different brands are working on relief efforts related to COVID-19 around the world.

“Our brand HungerStation in Saudi Arabia is partnering with the Saudi Ministry of Health and Saudi Food & Drug Authority to provide hand sanitizers for people in need,” it said. “In the Czech Republic, our brand Damejidlo has also been selected as one of the Red Cross’ official partners, bringing food to senior citizens. As a part of a broader initiative to support their communities, our Latin American brand PedidosYa is giving up to 1,000 free lunches per day to people who are at the forefront of fighting the virus, such as employees in the health sector.”

Another area the company is ramping up to meet demand for food delivery in the time of the coronavirus is grocery store onboarding. Currently, customers across 21 markets in the MENA region, Asia-Pacific and Latin America can order groceries from supermarkets via the company’s local delivery apps, in addition to takeout meals.

“We have seen an increase in demand from our global customer community and to meet the growing need, we have accelerated the onboarding of grocery stores,” Delivery Hero said. “We have also increased delivery through our cloud stores, another way to secure that our customers have access to everyday necessities.”

It’s not clear what — if any — financial provision the company is making to support delivery riders who do not have a contract that includes sick pay.

We’ve asked and will update this report with any response.

“During these turbulent times, our immediate efforts go into securing the wellbeing of all Delivery Hero customers, riders and employees,” the company said. “We are monitoring the development of COVID-19 minute by minute and will implement further measures as necessary. Our thoughts are with everyone who has been affected by the spread of the virus and to all who go the extra mile to keep our communities safe, healthy and fed.”

India’s MX Player expands to US, UK and other markets in international push

By Manish Singh

MX Player, the on-demand video streaming service owned by India’s conglomerate Times Internet, is expanding to more than half a dozen new international markets including the U.S. and the UK to supply more entertainment content to millions of people trapped in their homes.

The Singapore-headquartered on-demand video streaming service, which raised $111 million in a round led by Tencent last year, said it has expanded to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, and Nepal in addition to the U.S. and the UK.

Like in India, MX Player will offer its catalog at no charge to users in the international markets and monetize through ads, Karan Bedi, chief executive of the service, told TechCrunch in an interview.

The streaming service, which has amassed over 175 million monthly active users, is offering locally relevant content in each market, Bedi said. This is notably different from Disney’s Hotstar expansion into international markets, where it has largely aimed to cater to the Indian diaspora.

MX Player is not currently offering any originally produced titles in any international markets — instead offering movies and shows it has licensed from global and local studios — but the streamer plans to change that in the coming future, said Bedi.

Even as the expansion comes at a time when the world is grappling with containing and fighting the coronavirus outbreak, Bedi said MX Player had been testing the service in several markets for a few months.

“We believe in meeting this rapidly rising demand from discerning entertainment lovers with stories that strike a chord. To that end, we have collaborated with some of the best talent and content partners globally who will help bring us a step closer to becoming the go-to destination for entertainment across the world,” said Nakul Kapur, Business Head for International markets at MX Player, in a statement.

In India, MX Player has also bundled free music streaming (through Gaana, another property owned by Times Internet) and has introduced in-app casual games. Bedi said the company is working on bringing these additional services to international markets.

More to follow…

Qatar Airways adds 10K seats while other airlines draw down their schedules

By Frederic Lardinois

While most domestic and international airlines are cutting thousands of flights from their schedules due to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, Qatar Airways is taking another route. The airline is actually stepping up some of its flying again, after also announcing some cuts in the last few days, by adding 10,000 extra seats back to its network.

It’s doing so by adding extra flights to Paris, Perth and Dublin from its hub in Doha, and by using its A380 fleet for flights to Frankfurt, London Heathrow and Perth. In addition, it’s adding charter service to Europe from the U.S. and Asia.

Unlike other airlines, Qatar still serves 75 destinations, including to the U.S., though the airline acknowledges that this could quickly change as some countries adopt tighter restrictions.

In many ways, Qatar’s decision seems counterintuitive, especially given that even its local competitors like Emirates have cut most of their schedules and many U.S. airlines now only serve a handful of international destinations. But Qatar argues that its mission right now is to “reunite stranded passengers with their loved ones.” The company’s data backs this up, with planes to the U.K., France and Germany leaving with about 80% of their seats sold, but outbound flights only being 36% full. The airline says it flew about 100,000 passengers in the last seven days.

The demand here clearly is from passengers trying to get home. That likely won’t last and Qatar, too, will end up shutting down more of its routes. But for the time being, it’s one of the few airlines still offering flights on many of these routes, something it can do because its hub in Doha also remains open for transit passengers. Emirates and Etihad, for example, would likely keep some of its flights going, too, but their hub airports are now closed and other major hubs like Singapore and Hong Kong have banned all transit passengers.

Facebook in talks to acquire stake in top Indian telco Reliance Jio, report says

By Manish Singh

Reliance Jio, a three-and-a-half-year-old subsidiary of India’s most valued firm Reliance Industries, may have attracted the attention of an American giant: Facebook.

The social conglomerate is in talks to acquire a 10% stake in the Indian telecom operator, the Financial Times reported Tuesday. The size of the deal, the paper said, was in “multi-billion dollars.”

Analysts at Bernstein value Jio at more than $60 billion. Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man who runs Reliance Industries, has poured over $25 billion into Reliance Jio over the years.

Reliance Jio, which began its commercial operation in the second half of 2016, upended the local telecom market by offering bulk of 4G data and free voice calls for six months.

The telco kickstarted a price war that saw local network providers Vodafone and Airtel quickly move to revise their data plans and mobile tariffs. But they struggled to match the offerings of Jio, which has amassed over 370 million subscribers to become the top telecom operator in the country.

Reaching those users might interest Facebook, which attempted and failed to expand its free internet initiative, Free Basics, in India. (The company has since expanded Express Wi-Fi to India — though its potential and scale remains comparatively small.)

Reliance Jio also owns a suite of services including music streaming service JioSaavn, on-demand live television service JioTV and payments service JioPay.

Earlier this year, Reliance Industries announced JioMart, a joint venture between Reliance Jio and Reliance Retail, the nation’s largest retail chain, to soft-launch an e-commerce business.

In recent quarters, Facebook, which is beginning to see competition from ByteDance’s TikTok in India, has started to take interest in local startups. Last year, the firm made an investment in social commerce Meesho; and last month, it wrote a check to edtech startup Unacademy.

Ajit Mohan, VP and managing director of Facebook India, told TechCrunch in an interview last year that the company was open to engaging with startups that are building solutions for the Indian market for more investing opportunities. “Wherever we believe there is opportunity beyond the work we do today, we are open to exploring further investment deals,” he said.

Facebook and Reliance Jio did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Amazon prioritizes essential products in India, temporarily discontinues ‘lower-priority’ items

By Manish Singh

Amazon said on Tuesday that it is temporarily discontinuing accepting orders for “lower-priority” products in India and prioritizing urgent items such as household staples, healthcare, and personal safety products as the company grapples with coronavirus outbreak in one of its key overseas markets.

“To serve our customers’ most urgent needs while also ensuring safety of our employees, we are temporarily prioritizing our available fulfilment and logistics capacity to serve products that are currently critical for our customers such as Household Staples, Packaged Food, Health Care, Hygiene, Personal safety and other high priority products. This also means that we have to temporarily stop taking orders and disable shipments for lower-priority products,” the American e-commerce giant said in a statement.

More to follow…

Netflix is reducing its traffic on ISPs by 25% in India

By Manish Singh

Netflix said on Tuesday that it is lowering its traffic on network providers by 25% in India for a period of 30 days, following a similar move in Europe in a bid to reduce the congestion on internet pipelines.

The American giant said that despite lowering the strain it puts on internet service providers, it will “maintain the quality” of its service. Amazon Prime Video said it has also started to lower the data consumption that streaming takes up on its platform, while local services Disney’s Hotstar, Times Internet’s MX Player and Zee5 say they are working to enforce similar measures.

Vijay Venkataramanan, Director of Post-Production at Netflix India, offers clarity on how reducing the traffic would impact the quality of video streams.

“Given the crisis, we’ve developed a way to reduce Netflix’s traffic on telecommunications networks by 25% while also maintaining the quality of our service. So consumers should continue to get the quality that comes with their plan – whether it’s Ultra-High, High or Standard Definition. We believe that this will provide significant relief to congested networks and will be deploying it in India for the next 30 days,” Ken Florance, VP Content Delivery of Netflix, said in a statement to TechCrunch.

TechCrunch understands that Netflix, which maintains several different streams for a single title, is removing the highest bandwidth streams as part of this move. For most Netflix subscribers in India, this wouldn’t affect them.

The mobile-only plan that Netflix introduced in India last year is its most popular tier in the country, a person familiar with the matter said. Both mobile-only plan and the basic plan, the immediate advanced tier above it, offer limit streaming in standard definition.

Netflix’s announcement follows a local telecom group’s (Cellular Operators Association of India) appeal to on-demand video streaming services to put less burden on internet pipelines that are facing surge in usage as more people stay and work from home in the wake of coronavirus outbreak.

A report by Bank of America, obtained by TechCrunch, said this week that internet service providers in India were witnessing a 10% surge in the volume of daily traffic and data consumption. The firm analyzed traffic at internet exchanges and spoke with internet service providers to reach that conclusion, it said in the report.

More to follow…

Uber, Ola suspend all rides in India’s capital

By Manish Singh

Uber and Ola have suspended all ride options in Delhi till March 31 and the Indian ride-hailing firm is restricting ride options across the country in a bid to slow the coronavirus pandemic.

The firms said the suspension of their services in India’s capital was in compliance with the local state government’s lockdown order that went into effect earlier Monday.

“In compliance with the government guidelines, we are temporarily suspending all Uber services in your city. This means that Uber rides services will not be available until further notice,” Uber told customers in New Delhi.

A spokesperson for Uber, which suspended shared ride options across in India on Saturday, confirmed the move.

Ola, which rivals Uber in India, said it was additionally also restricting ride options across the country but would offer a “minimal network of vehicles to support essential services.”

“Ola will continue to encourage citizens to limit travel only for essential emergency needs as per the Government’s directive. We will enable a minimal network of vehicles to support essential services in cities, wherever applicable, as part of this national effort to reduce the contagion of COVID-19,” an Ola spokesperson said.

TechCrunch understands that Ola is offering very few cabs across the country only to support healthcare workers and others who need to work from outside their homes to support public services.

According to estimates, more than 150,000 Uber and Ola cabs roam around the National Capital Region (which includes adjacent cities Gurgaon and Noida).

New Delhi has ordered a city-wide lockdown till the end of the month. “No public transportation, including operation of private buses, taxis, autorickshaws, and e-rickshaws shall be permitted,” it said.

Several other states have also announced similar curbs that went into effect earlier Monday, hours after the nation exercised a voluntary lockdown at the request of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The curbs will prohibit all but essential services from operating. Inter-city and long-distance trains and other public networks have also been halted.

The restrictions come as the number of coronavirus-affected patients surged to 350 over the weekend in India, with seven deaths. Until last week, health authorities maintained that India, a nation of 1.3 billion people, was still at stage two of the outbreak, but a handful of cases in small towns across the country have emerged since.

Governments across the world have moved to enforce restrictions on travel and public gatherings to prevent the spread of the infectious disease. Earlier this month, Uber and Lyft suspended some of their rides in the U.S.

India launches WhatsApp chatbot to create awareness about coronavirus, asks social media services to curb spread of misinformation

By Manish Singh

India is turning to WhatsApp, the most popular app in the country, to create awareness about the coronavirus pandemic and has urged social media services to tackle the spread of misinformation on their platforms.

Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, said on Saturday that citizens in the country can text a WhatsApp bot — called MyGov Corona Helpdesk — to get instant authoritative answers to their coronavirus queries such as the symptoms of the viral disease and how they could seek help.

Sharing correct information, avoiding incorrect panic.

Here is an effort by WhatsApp and @mygovindia to ensure you receive accurate and verified information on Coronavirus.

Please click on this link https://t.co/REabfIp5QT or send Hi on +919013151515. #IndiaFightsCorona pic.twitter.com/0maqUE3PvG

— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 21, 2020

An individual is required to text +919013151515 (or click on this shortcut link) to connect to the bot.

The bot was built by Mumbai-based firm Haptik Technologies, which local telecom giant Reliance Jio acquired last year, and the information is being provided by the nation’s Ministry of Health.

“The ‘MyGov Corona Helpdesk’ has been engineered to fight rumors, educate the masses and bring a sense of calm to the current chaos-like situation. We are committed to assisting the government with all our possible strengths and resources and hope that this chatbot can help the GoI spread the right information across the nation,” Aakrit Vaish, co-founder and chief executive of Haptik, told TechCrunch.

A screenshot of New Delhi’s WhatsApp bot

On Thursday, Modi urged the nation’s 1.3 billion citizens to stay at home as much as possible for the next few days to prevent any “explosion” of coronavirus cases.

“For the last few days we have seen that people think we are safe from coronavirus. This is not right. It’s not okay to get complacent,” he said in a nationwide televised appearance.

More than 250 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 in India so far.

On Friday, India’s IT ministry issued an advisory to social media giants including Facebook, ByteDance, Twitter, and Sharechat, to take immediate actions to remove or disable fake content around coronavirus.

“Intermediaries are urged to initiate awareness campaign on their platforms for the users not to upload/ circulate any false news/misinformation concerning coronavirus which are likely to create panic among public and disturb the public order and social tranquility,” it said.

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization partnered with WhatsApp to create a helpline to provide people with accurate health information related to the coronavirus.

The WHO Health Alert provides tips on how people could protect themselves, the latest news updates and findings on the pandemic, and answers to some of the frequently asked questions. People can sign up to this bot by clicking here.

In a statement, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, said, “digital technology gives us an unprecedented opportunity for vital health information to go viral and spread faster than the pandemic, helping us save lives and protect the vulnerable. We are proud to have partners like Facebook and Whatsapp, that are supporting us in reaching billions of people with important health information.”

WhatsApp, which has been grappling with spread of rumors about the pandemic, began reaching out to dozens of governments last month to assist in their efforts to provide accurate information to the general public, it said.

“As part of our effort to make sure everyone has accurate and timely information about coronavirus, we’re working with the Indian government and national governments around the world,” said Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook.

Tesla gets OK to produce long-range Model 3 at China factory

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla has received government approval to produce the long-range rear-wheel-drive version of its Model 3 vehicle at its Chinese factory, according to documents posted Friday on the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology website.

Reuters was the first to report the story.

Tesla started producing a standard-range-plus rear-whee-drive version of the Model 3 at its Shanghai factory late last year. The first deliveries began in early January. This approval allows Tesla to add another variant to its Chinese portfolio. Eventually, Tesla plans to manufacture the Model Y electric vehicle at the China factory.

The move is notable because Tesla discontinued production of the long-range RWD Model 3 in the U.S. and now only offers that variant as a dual-motor all-wheel drive. It also appears to be a shift from Tesla’s initial plan to sell a more basic version of the Model 3 in China.

The standard-range-plus Model 3 can travel 276 miles on a single charge, according to Tesla’s China website. The company hasn’t posted a range on its Chinese website for the longer-range variant.

Tesla struck a deal with the Chinese government in July 2018 to build a factory in Shanghai. It was a milestone for Tesla and CEO Elon Musk, who has long viewed China as a crucial market. And it was particularly notable because China agreed for this to be a wholly owned Tesla factory, not a traditional joint venture with the government. Foreign companies have historically had to form a 50-50 joint venture with a local partner to build a factory in China.

India’s Yes Bank breakdown disrupts Walmart’s PhonePe among a dozen other services

By Manish Singh

Tens of millions of merchants and users in India are struggling to make online transactions and use some of their popular services after the nation’s central bank seized control of Yes Bank, the fourth largest lender in the country.

The emergency takeover of the private sector bank has disrupted several financial startups that rely on it for facilitating services such as processing QR codes, and their point-of-sale terminals as well as transactions of UPI-based payments.

Bangalore-based PhonePe, owned by e-commerce giant Walmart, has been inaccessible to tens of millions of its customers since Thursday evening (local time). The startup said in a statement that it was working to restore its services, and has solved some of the issues for its merchant partners.

“We sincerely regret the long outage. Our partner bank Yes Bank was placed under moratorium by RBI. Entire team’s been working all night to get services back up as soon as possible,” said Sameer Nigam, founder and chief executive officer of PhonePe, which is used by more than 175 million users.

In a tweet, Nigam said the startup had multiple redundancies in place, but “never imagined [that] the bank itself would go totally dark like this. Lesson learnt in the hardest possible way. But we’ll come out stronger and more robust.”

BharatPe, a startup that helps merchants, was also facing outage, some merchants said. Its problems were limited, however, as it also relies on ICICI Bank, another large private sector bank in the country.

Udaan, a Bangalore-headquartered business-to-business e-commerce platform, said it had asked buyers and sellers on its platform to not use the startup’s QR code service, which is powered by Yes Bank.

Tens of thousands of users in India have reported issues accessing another dozen of popular services.

New Delhi took over Yes Bank midnight on Thursday, after the Reserve Bank of India said it had no alternative but to implement measures to replace the private sector firm’s board and temporarily restrict withdrawals and suspend all other transactions for the next 30 days. Yes Bank has struggled for months to raise capital to improve its financials.

According to NPCI, Yes Bank is the technology banking partner for ticketing platforms Cleartrip, MakeMyTrip, and RedBus, telecom operator Airtel, food-delivery startup Swiggy, movie ticketing business BookMyShow and PVR, Microsoft’s chat service Kaizala, as well as several other Flipkart properties including the marquee service, fashion platforms Jabong, and Myntra.

Some of these aforementioned services are only partially impacted as they work with a range of partners to support many payment options for their customers. Most impacted customers are those who are attempting to use UPI payments option, an infrastructure built by a collation of banks and used by more than 100 million users, on these platforms are hitting the wall.

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