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China roundup: Beijing wants tech giants to shoulder more social responsibilities

By Rita Liao

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

This week, the gaming industry again became a target of Beijing, which imposed arguably the world’s strictest limits on underage players. On the other hand, China’s tech titans are hastily answering Beijing’s call for them to take on more social responsibilities and take a break from unfettered expansion.

Gaming curfew

China dropped a bombshell on the country’s young gamers. As of September 1, users under the age of 18 are limited to only one hour of online gaming time: on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between 8-9 p.m.

The stringent rule adds to already tightening gaming policies for minors, as the government blames video games for causing myopia, as well as deteriorating mental and physical health. Remember China recently announced a suite of restrictions on after-school tutoring? The joke going around is that working parents will have an even harder time keeping their kids occupied.

A few aspects of the new regulation are worth unpacking. For one, the new rule was instituted by the National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA), the regulatory body that approves gaming titles in China and that in 2019 froze the approval process for nine months, which led to plunges in gaming stocks like Tencent.

It’s curious that the directive on playtime came from the NPPA, which reviews gaming content and issues publishing licenses. Like other industries in China, video games are subject to regulations by multiple authorities: NPPA; the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s top internet watchdog; and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which oversees the country’s industrial standards and telecommunications infrastructure.

As analysts long observe, the mighty CAC, which sits under the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission chaired by President Xi Jinping, has run into “bureaucratic struggles” with other ministries unwilling to relinquish power. This may well be the case for regulating the lucrative gaming industry.

For Tencent and other major gaming companies, the impact of the new rule on their balance sheet may be trifling. Following the news, several listed Chinese gaming firms, including NetEase and 37 Games, hurried to announce that underage players made up less than 1% of their gaming revenues.

Tencent saw the change coming and disclosed in its Q2 earnings that “under-16-year-olds accounted for only 2.6% of its China-based grossing receipts for games and under-12-year-olds accounted for just 0.3%.”

These numbers may not reflect the reality, as minors have long found ways around gaming restrictions, such as using an adult’s ID for user registration (just as the previous generation borrowed IDs from adult friends to sneak into internet cafes). Tencent and other gaming firms have vowed to clamp down on these workarounds, forcing kids to seek even more sophisticated tricks, including using VPNs to access foreign versions of gaming titles. The cat and mouse game continues. 

Prosper together

While China curtails the power of its tech behemoths, it has also pressured them to take on more social responsibilities, which include respecting the worker’s rights in the gig economy.

Last week, the Supreme People’s Court of China declared the “996” schedule, working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, illegal. The declaration followed years of worker resistance against the tech industry’s burnout culture, which has manifested in actions like a GitHub project listing companies practicing “996.”

Meanwhile, hardworking and compliant employees have often been cited as a competitive advantage of China’s tech industry. It’s in part why some Silicon Valley companies, especially those run by people familiar with China, often set up branches in the country to tap its pool of tech talent.

The days when overworking is glorified and tolerated seem to be drawing to an end. Both ByteDance and its short video rival Kuaishou recently scrapped their weekend overtime policies.

Similarly, Meituan announced that it will introduce compulsory break time for its food delivery riders. The on-demand services giant has been slammed for “inhumane” algorithms that force riders into brutal hours or dangerous driving.

In groundbreaking moves, ride-hailing giant Didi and Alibaba’s e-commerce rival JD.com have set up unions for their staff, though it’s still unclear what tangible impact the organizations will have on safeguarding employee rights.

Tencent and Alibaba have also acted. On August 17, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech calling for “common prosperity,” which caught widespread attention from the country’s ultra-rich.

“As China marches towards its second centenary goal, the focus of promoting people’s well-being should be put on boosting common prosperity to strengthen the foundation for the Party’s long-term governance.”

This week, both Tencent and Alibaba pledged to invest 100 billion yuan ($15.5 billion) in support of “common prosperity.” The purposes of their funds are similar and align neatly with Beijing’s national development goals, from growing the rural economy to improving the healthcare system.

Apple’s dangerous path

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.

Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


the big thing

In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.

In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.

This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.

Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”

(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)

The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.

A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”

Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.

illustration of key over cloud icon

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /

Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.

You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.

Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.

** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.

Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.


other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.

FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.

Apple buys a classical music streaming service
While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.

TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.

Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.


extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1 
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”

…Part 2
“…Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go ‘oh wait, what’s this?’

All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”


Thanks for reading, and again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny

Lucas Matney

FBI says Chinese authorities are hacking US-based Uyghurs

By Carly Page

The FBI has warned that the Chinese government is using both in-person and digital techniques to intimidate, silence and harass U.S.-based Uyghur Muslims. 

The Chinese government has long been accused of human rights abuses over its treatment of the Uyghur population and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in China’s Xinjiang region. More than a million Uyghurs have been detained in internment camps, according to a United Nations human rights committee, and many other Uyghurs have been targeted and hacked by state-backed cyberattacks. China has repeatedly denied the claims.

In recent months, the Chinese government has become increasingly aggressive in its efforts to shut down foreign critics, including those based in the United States and other Western democracies. These efforts have now caught the attention of the FBI.

In an unclassified bulletin, the FBI warned that officials are using transnational repression — a term that refers to foreign government transgression of national borders through physical and digital means to intimidate or silence members of diaspora and exile communities — in an attempt to compel compliance from U.S.-based Uyghurs and other Chinese refugees and dissidents, including Tibetans, Falun Gong members, and Taiwan and Hong Kong activists.

“Threatened consequences for non-compliance routinely include detainment of a U.S.-based person’s family or friends in China, seizure of China-based assets, sustained digital and in-person harassment, Chinese government attempts to force repatriation, computer hacking and digital attacks, and false representation online,” the FBI bulletin warns. 

The bulletin was reported by video surveillance news site IPVM.

The FBI highlighted four instances of U.S.-based individuals facing harassment. In one case from June, the Chinese government imprisoned dozens of family members of six U.S.-based Uyghur journalists in retaliation for their continued reporting on China and its repression of Uyghurs for the U.S. government-funded news service Radio Free Asia. The bulletin said that between 2019 and March 2021, Chinese officials used WeChat to call and text a U.S.-based Uyghur to discourage her from publicly discussing Uyghur mistreatment. Members of this person’s family were later detained in Xinjiang detention camps. 

“The Chinese government continues to conduct this activity, even as the U.S. government has sanctioned Chinese officials and increased public and diplomatic messaging to counter China’s human rights and democratic abuses in Xinjiang over the past year,” the FBI states. “This transnational repression activity violates US laws and individual rights.

The FBI has urged U.S. law enforcement personnel, as well as members of the public, to report any suspected incidents of Chinese government harassment.

Read more:

China roundup: Beijing takes aim at algorithms, Xiaomi automates electric cars

By Rita Liao

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

The biggest news of the week again comes from Beijing’s ongoing effort to dampen the influence of the country’s tech giants. Regulators are now going after the exploitative use of algorithm-powered user recommendations. We also saw a few major acquisitions this week. Xiaomi is acquiring an autonomous vehicle startup called Deepmotion, and ByteDance is said to be buying virtual reality hardware startup Pico.

Algorithmic regulation

Beijing has unveiled the draft of a sweeping regulation to rein in how tech companies operating in China utilize algorithms, the engine of virtually all lucrative tech businesses today from short videos and news aggregation to ride-hailing, food delivery and e-commerce. My colleague Manish Singh wrote an overview of the policy, and here’s a closer look at the 30-point document proposed by China’s top cyberspace watchdog.

Beijing is clearly wary of how purely machine-recommended content can stray away from values propagated by the Communist Party and even lead to the detriment of national interests. In its mind, algorithms should strictly align with the interest of the nation:

Algorithmic recommendations should uphold mainstream values… and should not be used for endangering national security (Point 6).

Regulators want more transparency on companies’ algorithmic black boxes and are making them accountable for the consequences of their programming codes. For example:

Service providers should be responsible for the security of algorithms, create a system for… the review of published information, algorithmic mechanisms, security oversight… enact and publish relevant rules for algorithmic recommendations (Point 7).

Service providers… should not create algorithmic models that entice users into addiction, high-value consumption, or other behavior that disrupts public orders (Point 8).

The government is also clamping down on discriminative algorithms and putting some autonomy back in the hands of consumers:

Service providers… should not use illegal or harmful information as user interests to recommend content or create sexist or biased user tags (Point 10).

Service providers should inform users of the logic, purpose, and mechanisms of the algorithms in use (Point 14).

Service providers… should allow users to turn off algorithmic features (Point 15).

The regulators don’t want internet giants to influence public thinking or opinions. Though not laid out in the document, censorship control will no doubt remain in the hands of the authorities.

Service providers should not… use algorithms to censor information, make excessive recommendations, manipulate rankings or search results that lead to preferential treatment and unfair competition, influence online opinions, or shun regulatory oversight (Point 13).

Like many other aspects of the tech business, certain algorithms are to obtain approval from the government. Tech firms must also hand over their algorithms to the police in case of investigations.

Service providers should file with the government if their recommendation algorithms can affect public opinions or mobilize civilians (Point 20).  

Service providers… should keep a record of their recommendation algorithms for at least six months and provide them to law enforcement departments for investigation purposes (Point 23).

If passed, the law will shake up the fundamental business logic of Chinese tech companies that rely on algorithms to make money. Programmers need to pore over these rules and be able to parse their codes for regulators. The proposed law seems to have even gone beyond the scope of the European Union’s data rules, but how the Chinese one will be enforced remains to be seen.

Lei Jun bets on autonomous cars

In Xiaomi’s latest earnings call, the smartphone maker said it will acquire DeepMotion, a Beijing-based autonomous driving startup, to aid its autonomous driving endeavor. The deal will cost Xiaomi about $77.3 million, and “a lot of that will be in terms of stock” and “a lot of these payments will be deferred until certain milestones are hit,” said Wang Xiang, Xiaomi president on the call.

Xiaomi’s founder Lei Jun earlier hinted at the firm’s plan to enter the crowded space. On July 28, Lei announced on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, that the company is recruiting 500 autonomous driving experts across China.

Automation has become a selling point for China’s new generation of electric vehicle makers, often with companies conflating advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) with Level 4 autonomous driving. Such overstatements in marketing material mislead consumers and make one question the real technical capability of these nascent EV players.

Xiaomi has similarly unveiled plans to manufacture electric cars through a separate car-making subsidiary. The ADAS capabilities brought by DeepMotion are naturally a nice complement to Xiaomi’s future cars. As Wang explained:

We believe that there’s a lot of synergies with [DeepMotion’s ADAS] technology with our EV initiatives. So I think it tells you a couple of points. Number one is, we will roll out EV business. And I said in our prepared remarks, we’ve been very focused on hiring the right team for the EV business at this point in time, formulating our strategy, formulating our product strategy, et cetera, et cetera. But at the same time, we are not afraid to apply it and integrate other teams if we find that those will help us accelerate our plan right.

It’s noteworthy that DeepMotion, founded by Microsoft veterans, specializes in perception technologies and high-precision mapping, which puts it in the vision-driven autonomous driving camp. A number of major Chinese EV makers rely on consumer-grade lidar to automate their cars.

ByteDance goes virtual

ByteDance is said to be buying Beijing-based VR hardware maker Pico for 5 billion yuan ($770 million), according to Chinese VR news site Vrtuoluo. ByteDance could not be immediately reached for comment.

Advanced VR headsets are often expensive due to the cost of high-end processors. Experts observe that most VR hardware makers are yet to enter the mass consumer market. They are hemorrhaging cash and living off generous venture money and corporate deals.

ByteDance might be buying a money-losing business, but Pico, one of the major VR makers in China, provides a fast track for the TikTok parent to enter VR manufacturing. As the world’s largest short video distributor and an aggressive newcomer to video games, ByteDance has no shortage of creative talent. We will see how it works on producing virtual content if the Pico deal goes through.

China proposes strict control of algorithms

By Manish Singh

China is not done with curbing the influence local internet services have assumed in the world’s largest populous market. Following a widening series of regulatory crackdowns in recent months, the nation on Friday issued draft guidelines on regulating the algorithms firms run to make recommendations to users.

In a 30-point draft guidelines published on Friday, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) proposed forbidding companies from deploying algorithms that “encourage addiction or high consumption” and endanger national security or disrupt the public order.

The services must abide by business ethics and principles of fairness and their algorithms must not be used to create fake user accounts or create other false impressions, said the guidelines from the internet watchdog, which reports to a central leadership group chaired by President Xi Jinping. The watchdog said it will be taking public feedback on the new guidelines for a month (until September 26).

The guidelines also propose that users should be provided with the ability to easily turn off algorithm recommendations. Algorithm providers who have the power to influence public opinion or mobilize the citizens need to get an approval from the CAC.

Friday’s proposal comes at a time when Beijing is increasingly targeting companies for the way they have handled consumer data and the monopolistic positions they have assumed in the nation.

Earlier this year, Beijing-backed China Consumers Association said local internet companies had been “bullying” users into purchases and promotions and undermining their privacy rights.

Beijing’s recent data-security crackdown and tightening regulations around tutor services have spooked investors and wiped hundreds of billions of dollars.

Friday’s guidelines appear to target ByteDance, Alibaba Group, Tencent, and Didi and other companies whose services are built on top of proprietary algorithms. Shares of Alibaba and Tencent fell slightly on the news.

In recent years, several governments including those in the U.S. and India have attempted — to little to no success — to get better clarity on how these big tech companies’ algorithms work and put checks in place to prevent misuse.

Jolla hits profitability ahead of turning ten, eyes growth beyond mobile

By Natasha Lomas

A milestone for Jolla, the Finnish startup behind the Sailfish OS — which formed, almost a decade ago, when a band of Nokia staffers left to keep the torch burning for a mobile linux-based alternative to Google’s Android — today it’s announcing hitting profitability.

The mobile OS licensing startup describes 2020 as a “turning point” for the business — reporting revenues that grew 53% YoY, and EBITDA (which provides a snapshot of operational efficiency) standing at 34%.

It has a new iron in the fire too now — having recently started offering a new licensing product (called AppSupport for Linux Platforms) which, as the name suggests, can provide linux platforms with standalone compatibility with general Android applications — without a customer needing to licence the full Sailfish OS (the latter has of course baked in Android app compatibility since 2013).

Jolla says AppSupport has had some “strong” early interest from automotive companies looking for solutions to develop their in-case infotainment systems — as it offers a way for embedded Linux-compatible platform the capability to run Android apps without needing to opt for Google’s automotive offerings. And while plenty of car makers have opted for Android, there are still players Jolla could net for its ‘Google-free’ alternative.

Embedded linux systems also run in plenty of other places, too, so it’s hopeful of wider demand. The software could be used to enable an IoT device to run a particularly popular app, for example, as a value add for customers.

“Jolla is doing fine,” says CEO and co-founder Sami Pienimäki. “I’m happy to see the company turning profitable last year officially.

“In general it’s the overall maturity of the asset and the company that we start to have customers here and there — and it’s been honestly a while that we’ve been pushing this,” he goes, fleshing out the reasons behind the positive numbers with trademark understatement. “The company is turning ten years in October so it’s been a long journey. And because of that we’ve been steadily improving our efficiency and our revenue.

“Our revenue grew over 50% since 2019 to 2020 and we made €5.4M revenue. At the same time the cost base of the operation has stablized quite well so the sum of those resulted to nice profitability.”

While the consumer mobile OS market has — for years — been almost entirely sewn up by Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, Jolla licenses its open source Sailfish OS to governments and business as an alternative platform they can shape to their needs — without requiring any involvement of Google.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Russia was one of the early markets that tapped in.

The case for digital sovereignty in general — and an independent (non-US-based) mobile OS platform provider, specifically — has been strengthened in recent years as geopolitical tensions have played out via the medium of tech platforms; leading to, in some cases, infamous bans on foreign companies being able to access US-based technologies.

In a related development this summer, China’s Huawei launched its own Android alternative for smartphones, which it’s called HarmonyOS.

Pienimäki is welcoming of that specific development — couching it as a validation of the market in which Sailfish plays.

“I wouldn’t necessarily see Huawei coming out with the HarmonyOS value proposition and the technology as a competitor to us — I think it’s more proving the point that there is appetite in the market for something else than Android itself,” he says when we ask whether HarmonyOS risks eating Sailfish’s lunch.

“They are tapping into that market and we are tapping into that market. And I think both of our strategies and messages support each other very firmly.”

Jolla has been working on selling Sailfish into the Chinese market for several years — and that sought for business remains a work in progress at this stage. But, again, Pienimäki says Jolla doesn’t see Huawei’s move as any kind of blocker to its ambitions of licensing its Android alternative in the Far East.

“The way we see the Chinese market in general is that it’s been always open to healthy competition and there is always competing solutions — actually heavily competing solutions — in the Chinese market. And Huawei’s offering one and we are happy to offer Sailfish OS for this very big, challenging market as well.”

“We do have good relationships there and we are building a case together with our local partners also to access the China market,” he adds. “I think in general it’s also very good that big corporations like Huawei really recognize this opportunity in general — and this shapes the overall industry so that you don’t need to, by default, opt into Android always. There are other alternatives around.”

On AppSupport, Jolla says the automative sector is “actively looking for such solutions”, noting that the “digital cockpit is a key differentiator for car markers — and arguing that makes it a strategically important piece for them to own and control.

“There’s been a lot of, let’s say, positive vibes in that sector in the past few years — new comers on the block like Tesla have really shaken the industry so that the traditional vendors need to think differently about how and what kind of user experience they provide in the cockpit,” he suggests.

“That’s been heavily invested and rapidly developing in the past years but I’m going to emphasize that at the same time, with our limited resources, we’re just learning where the opportunities for this technology are. Automative seems to have a lot of appetite but then [we also see potential in] other sectors — IoT… heavy industry as well… we are openly exploring opportunities… but as we know automotive is very hot at the moment.”

“There is plenty of general linux OS base in the world for which we are offering a good additional piece of technology so that those operating solutions can actually also tap into — for example — selected applications. You can think of like running the likes of Spotify or Netflix or some communications solutions specific for a certain sector,” he goes on.

“Most of those applications are naturally available both for iOS and Android platforms. And those applications as they simply exist the capability to run those applications independently on top of a linux platform — that creates a lot of interest.”

In another development, Jolla is in the process of raising a new growth financing round — it’s targeting €20M — to support its push to market AppSupport and also to put towards further growing its Sailfish licensing business.

It sees growth potential for Sailfish in Europe, which remains the biggest market for licensing the mobile OS. Pienimäki also says it’s seeing “good development” in certain parts of Africa. Nor has it given up on its ambitions to crack into China.

The growth round was opened to investors in the summer and hasn’t yet closed — but Jolla is confident of nailing the raise.

“We are really turning a next chapter in the Jolla story so exploring to new emerging opportunities — that requires capital and that’s what are looking for. There’s plenty of money available these days, in the investor front, and we are seeing good traction there together with the investment bank with whom we are working,” says Pienimäki.

“There’s definitely an appetite for this and that will definitely put us in a better position to invest further — both to Sailfish OS and the AppSupport technology. And in particular to the go-to market operation — to make this technology available for more people out there in the market.”

 

Europe’s quick-commerce startups are overhyped: Lessons from China

By Annie Siebert
Alexander Kremer Contributor
Alexander Kremer is partner and head of China at venture capital firm Picus Capital.

More than 10 companies currently compete across Europe with an instant grocery delivery business model. Half of them were established in 2020, the year of the pandemic. These companies have raised more than $2 billion to date.

Existing and well-funded online food-delivery service players like Delivery Hero are also joining the race by launching dedicated grocery offerings. However, if lessons from the world’s largest online grocery market, China ($400 billion), matter, then it’s clear that instant delivery is not the magic bullet to crack the dominance of Europe’s incumbent supermarket chains in the overall $2 trillion-plus flat market.

Instead, China’s quick-commerce equivalents (like Dingdong Maicai, Miss Fresh and Meituan Maicai) compete alongside a wealth of other online grocery models (such as Pinduoduo, JD’s Super and Alibaba’s Taoxianda), which have helped bring total market penetration to 20% and beyond.

Quick commerce suffers from narrower profit margins compared to competing models and is addressing lower consumer demand in China than anyone in the West is expecting it to achieve in Europe and the U.S. If the performance of online grocery platforms in China (a market five to seven years ahead of Europe in terms of online retail) is anything to go by, a range of B2C business models would be more likely to displace the traditional grocery retailers.

Third-time luck for quick commerce?

The idea of ordering groceries online and having them delivered to consumers in less than an hour is nothing new. Back in the heyday of the dot-com bubble, a company attempted to do just that: Kozmo.com. Founded in 1998, it raised more than $250 million (around $400 million in today’s dollars) from investors, promising to deliver food, among other items, to consumers within an hour, while charging no delivery fees.

In 1999, it had revenues of $3.5 million and a loss of $1.8 million. However, in 2001, the business was shut down by its board after the company could not make the business model work at scale.

Some 15 years later, another company had a go. Gopuff was established in Philadelphia in 2013 and originally targeted students. What started out as a hookah delivery service soon expanded into a much broader convenience store offering and delivered to customers in approximately 30 minutes.

Gopuff was most recently valued at $15 billion after raising a total of $3.4 billion — 75% of which occurred in the past 12 months. Last year, Gopuff grew revenues from around $100 million to $340 million.

Kozmo.com went out of business after just three years. Meanwhile, Gopuff was turned down by several VCs in its early days, and it wasn’t until the pandemic that it saw a rapid acceleration in fundraising. Little did teams at either company know that they would later become the inspiration for a whole generation of founders in Europe.

Europe’s $2B instant-grocery gamble

Has anything fundamentally changed in the 20 years since Kozmo.com? Indeed, we’ve seen little technological progress that would hugely affect the operations of an instant commerce business. However, there have been much larger shifts in consumer habits.

Firstly, the number of global internet users has skyrocketed (from below 500 million to beyond 4 billion), and mobile internet has taken over. Secondly, demand for online grocery delivery has grown significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as consumers have preferred to make retail purchases from home for safety reasons. Thirdly, consumers are now accustomed to paying fees for delivery services, typically around $2 per order, which Kozmo notoriously did not do.

While many online grocery business models exist, the instant grocery, quick-commerce approach has been the favorite of European entrepreneurs and VCs over the past 18 months. The model itself, also referred to as q-commerce, is not that hard to understand.

Companies maintain a small product offering of around 1,000–2,000 SKUs that consumers would otherwise find in convenience or drug stores. These products are purchased directly from brands or through distributors and are stored in self-operated microwarehouses close to customers’ locations.

Marketing tactics are aggressive, often employing vouchers for first-time users of up to $12 (50% of an average shopping basket), and many startups offer their products at supermarket price or even at a discount of 10%–15%. Delivery usually happens by bicycle, e-bike or scooter, within 10-30 minutes of an order being placed, for a fee of around $2 with no minimum order value.

Companies like Getir from Istanbul (total funding: $1 billion, last valuation: $7.5 billion) and Gorillas from Berlin (total funding: $335 million, last valuation: $1 billion) are leading the way. When Gorillas announced its $290 million Series B in March 2021, it became the fastest European startup to achieve unicorn status (nine months after launch). The company is already rumored to be seeking Series C financing at a $2.5 billion valuation.

There are more than 10 companies across Europe with more or less the same business model. Those include the 2020-established Flink (Germany-based, $300 million raised), Zapp (U.K.-based, $100 million raised), Dija (U.K.-based, $20 million raised and just acquired by Gopuff), Jiffy (U.K.-based, $7 million raised) and Cajoo (France-based, $6 million raised).

There is also JOKR, which was started by the founder of Foodpanda. JOKR was only established in Q1 2021, but right after incorporation raised one of the largest ever initial seed rounds (rumored to be $100 million) and subsequently a $170 million Series A in July to bring the model to Europe, Latin America and the U.S.

Likewise, companies coming from food delivery have pushed further into this space and received additional funding in recent months, notably Delivery Hero through Dmart and Glovo through SuperGlovo, following role models in the U.S., such as DoorDash.

Does instant grocery stand a chance of becoming profitable?

As these companies approach later-stage financing sometime in the future, questions will be asked about the path to profitability in an industry of notoriously thin margins. Indeed, this is an uncomfortable truth that hasn’t changed since the early days of Kozmo.com.

The available figures show that old patterns are repeating. Gopuff recently reported an EBITDA of negative $150 million on $340 million in revenue (EBITDA margin: -45%). Furthermore, an analysis by the German business monthly Manager Magazine concluded that Gorillas was operating at negative unit economics of -6%. Additional costs, such as overhead and technology, might push this number up significantly further.

Xiaomi reports record 64% revenue growth, acquires Deepmotion for $77.3 million

By Manish Singh

Xiaomi reported a second-quarter net income of $1.28 billion on revenue of $13.56 billion following the Chinese technology giant’s strong surge in smartphone market share globally.

During the quarter that ended in June, Xiaomi said it saw a 64% year-on-year growth in revenue, and its net income surged over 80% from the same time a year ago.

The Hong Kong-listed firm said its smartphone revenue grew to $9.1 billion, thanks to a just as impressive jump in its smartphone shipment to 52.9 million units in the quarter, in which it topped Apple to become the world’s second-largest smartphone vendor, according to market intelligence firm Canalys.

The U.S. government’s sanctions against Huawei, Xiaomi’s chief domestic rival, has helped the younger firm — along with some other manufacturers — gain market share domestically as well as globally.

Xiaomi’s revenue from Internet of Things and lifestyle products category also saw a 36% jump in revenue to $3.2 billion.

Shortly after reporting its earnings results, the company said it will buy the four-year-old autonomous driving technology startup Deepmotion for about $77.3 million. The investment follows Xiaomi’s bold plan to invest $10 billion over the next decade in the electric vehicles space.

Xiaomi is the latest Chinese tech company to enter the EV industry. Chinese search engine giant Baidu earlier this year announced that it would be making EVs with the help of automaker Geely. In November, Alibaba and Chinese state-owned carmaker SAIC Motor said they had joined hands to produce electric cars. Ride-share leader Didi and EV maker BYD are also co-designing a model for ride-hailing.

As my colleague Rita Liao reported earlier:

The internet behemoths are competing with a raft of more specialized EV startups such as Xpeng, Nio and Li Auto, which have already debuted multiple models and are often compared to Tesla. They strive to differentiate from each other by investing in functions from in-car entertainment to autonomous driving.

For Xiaomi, the obvious advantage in making cars is its vast retail network and international brand recognition. Some of its smart devices, such as smart speakers and air purifiers, could be easily incorporated into its vehicles as selling points. The real challenge, of course, is in manufacturing. Compared to phone making, the automotive industry is more capital-intensive with a long and complex supply chain. We will see if Xiaomi will pull it off.

Xiaomi said Wednesday its investment in Deepmotion will help the giant shorten the time to market for its products.

Equity Monday: Stocks up, cryptos up, regulation up

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here. I also tweet.

Today’s show was good fun to put together. Here’s what we got to:

Woo! And that’s the start to the week. Hugs from here, and we’ll chat you on Wednesday!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 a.m. PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

African fintech OPay valued at $2B in SoftBank Vision Fund 2-led $400M funding

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Chinese-backed and Africa-focused fintech company OPay raised $400 million in new financing led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2, Bloomberg reported Monday, valuing the company at $2 billion.

The round, which marks the fund’s first investment in an African startup, drew participation from existing investors like Sequoia Capital China, Redpoint China, Source Code Capital, and Softbank Ventures Asia. Other investors, including DragonBall Capital and 3W Capital, also took part in the new financing round.

This news comes three months after The Information reported that the company was in talks to raise “up to $400 million at a $1.5 billion valuation” from a group of Chinese investors. The new financing also comes two years after OPay announced two funding rounds in 2019 — $50 million in June and a $120 million Series B in November.

In an emailed statement, OPay CEO Yahui Zhou said OPay “wants to be the power that helps emerging markets reach a faster economic development.” The company, founded in 2018, had an exclusive presence in Nigeria before last year.

While the company started with providing customers with digital services in their everyday life from mobility and logistics to e-commerce and fintech at cheap rates, those super app plans have been largely underwhelming.

Right now, it’s the company’s mobile money and payment arm that thrives the most. By simply allowing unbanked and underbanked users in Nigeria to send and receive money and pay bills through a network of thousands of agents, OPay has grown at an exponential rate.

The company plays in an extremely competitive fintech market. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, and with a large share of its people underbanked and unbanked, fintech is the most promising digital sector in the country. The same can be said for the continent as a whole. Mobile money services have long catered to the needs of the underbanked. Per GSMA, Africa had more than 160 million active mobile money users generating over $495 billion in transaction value last year.

Parent company Opera reported that OPay’s monthly transactions grew 4.5x to over $2 billion in December last year. OPay also claims to process about 80% of bank transfers among mobile money operators in Nigeria and 20% of the country’s non-merchant point of sales transactions. Last year, the company also said it acquired an international money transfer license with a WorldRemit partnership also in the works.

Per Bloomberg, the company’s monthly transaction volumes exceed $3 billion at the moment.

Last year, OPay expanded to Egypt, and according to the company, that’s an entry point to the Middle East market.

In a statement, Kentaro Matsui, a managing director at SoftBank Group Corp, said, “We believe our investment will help the company extend its offering to adjacent markets and replicate its successful business model in Egypt and other countries in the region.”

SoftBank joins a growing list of high-flying investors (Dragoneer, Sequoia, SVB Capital, among others) that have cut their first checks in African ventures this year. As the continent continues to show promise, fintech remains its poster child. This year up to half of the total investments raised have emerged from the sector; it contributed to more than 25% last year.

In addition, fintech has produced the most mega-rounds so far. TymeBank raised $109 million in February, Flutterwave bagged a $170 million round in March, while Chipper Cash secured $100 million in May.

OPay’s fundraise is the largest of the lot in terms of size and value, making it the second African fintech unicorn after Flutterwave and the third African unicorn after e-commerce giant Jumia. The three make up the five billion-dollar tech companies on the continent, which includes Interswitch and Fawry.

China roundup: Beijing takes stake in ByteDance, Amazon continues China crackdown

By Rita Liao

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

This week, investors’ concerns mount as news came that the Chinese government has taken a stake ByteDance, TikTok’s parent and one of the world’s largest private internet firms. Meanwhile, Amazon’s crackdown on Chinese sellers continues and is forcing many traders in southern China out of business, and the government passed a sweeping data protection law that will take effect in November.

A state stake

The Chinese government’s grand plan to assert more control over the country’s internet behemoths continues. This week, The Information reported that a domestic entity of ByteDance sold a 1% stake to a government affiliate in April. The deal was also recorded on Tianyancha, a database of publicly available corporate information, as well as the official enterprise registration index.

The move didn’t come abruptly. Beijing was mulling over small shares in private tech firms as early as 2017. The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that internet regulators discussed taking 1% stakes in companies including WeChat operator Tencent, Twitter-like Weibo and YouTube-like Youku.

In April 2020, WangTouTongDa, a subsidiary of China Internet Investment Fund, which is in turn controlled by China’s top internet watchdog, acquired a 1% stake in Weibo for 10 million yuan, according to Weibo’s filing to the U.S. securities regulator. Weibo did not mention WangTouTongDa’s relationship with the state in its filing.

Similarly, ByteDance sold a 1% stake to three entities set up by top regulatory bodies: China Internet Investment Fund; China Media Group, controlled by the Communist Party’s propaganda department; and the Beijing municipal government’s investment arm.

In response to Beijing’s move on ByteDance, Republican senator Marco Rubio urged President Joe Biden this week to block TikTok in the U.S.

Exactly how much power Beijing gains over ByteDance from taking the small stake remains fuzzy, but Weibo’s disclosure to investors offers some clues.

It’s critical to note that the government holds stakes in the domestic operating entity of both Weibo and ByteDance. Internet companies in China often set up offshore entities that are entitled to the financial benefits of their mainland Chinese operations through contractual agreements. The framework is called a variable interest entity or VIE. While the structure allows Chinese firms to seek overseas funding due to China’s restrictions on foreign investments, it has come under increasing scrutiny by Beijing.

Weibo said in the filing that WangTouTongda, its state-owned investor, will be able to appoint a director to the three-member board of its Chinese entity and veto certain matters related to content and future financings.

ByteDance likely has a similar arrangement with its state investor. The government did not obtain a stake in TikTok, which is a subsidiary of a separate offshore entity incorporated in the Cayman Islands, The Information pointed out. This should provide some reassurance to U.S. regulators, though concerns about Beijing’s sway in Chinese companies abroad probably won’t go away.

Indeed, the Biden administration in June replaced the Trump-era orders to ban ByteDance and WeChat with a more measured policy requiring the Commerce Department to review apps with ties to “jurisdiction of foreign adversaries” that may pose national security risks.

TikTok has been fighting accusations that it hands over user data to Beijing. ByteDance is the fourth-largest lobbying spender in the U.S. so far this year, just after Amazon, Facebook and Alphabet. Beijing’s investment is going to cost it more campaign efforts.

Beleaguered Amazon sellers

In May, I reported that Amazon shuttered some of its largest sellers from China over violations of platform rules, including using fake reviews and incentives to solicit positive reviews from customers. The crackdown drove China’s online exporters into a panic, and as it turned out, it wasn’t a one-off ambush from Amazon but a prolonged war. While the exact number of Chinese stores affected is not disclosed, industry observers such as Marketplace Pulse said “hundreds of” top Chinese sellers had been suspended as of early July.

Punished accounts are suspended, with their goods withheld and deposits frozen by Amazon. Companies in Shenzhen, home to the majority of the world’s Amazon sellers, laid off thousands of staff in recent months. The owner of a sizable seller in Shenzhen recently died by suicide due to the debacle, according to an acquaintance of the owner.

To sellers that have survived the crackdown, the attack by Amazon “would have happened sooner or later.” Most of the exporters I talked to came to the same conclusion: The Seattle-based titan now wants quality and design over generic products that compete solely on price and manipulation of ranking.

The Chinese government has taken note of the incidents. An official from the Ministry of Commerce compared the wave of store closures as Chinese exporters being “fish out of water” during a press conference in July.

“Due to differences in laws, culture and business practices around the world, [Chinese] companies are facing risks and challenges as they go overseas,” said Li Xingqian, director of foreign trade at the Commerce Ministry.

“We will help companies improve their risk control and comply with international trade standards.” Meanwhile, the official called for “the platform/platforms to cherish the important contribution from various companies and fully respect different trade entities.”

Data protection

And finally, China passed a sweeping data protection law this week that will strictly limit how tech companies collect user information, but the rules won’t likely have an impact on state surveillance. The regulation, which was proposed last year, will take effect on November 1. Read more about the rules here:

China passes data protection law

By Natasha Lomas

China has passed a personal data protection law, state media Xinhua reports (via Reuters).

The law, called the Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL), is set to take effect on November 1.

It was proposed last year — signalling an intent by China’s communist leaders to crack down on unscrupulous data collection in the commercial sphere by putting legal restrictions on user data collection.

The new law requires app makers to offer users options over how their information is or isn’t used, such as the ability not to be targeted for marketing purposes or to have marketing based on personal characteristics, according to Xinhua.

It also places requirements on data processors to obtain consent from individuals in order to be able to process sensitive types of data such as biometrics, medical and health data, financial information and location data.

While apps that illegally process user data risk having their service suspended or terminated.

Any Western companies doing business in China which involves processing citizens’ personal data must grapple with the law’s extraterritorial jurisdiction — meaning foreign companies will face regulatory requirements such as the need to assign local representatives and report to supervisory agencies in China.

On the surface, core elements of China’s new data protection regime mirror requirements long baked into European Union law — where the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provides citizens with a comprehensive set of rights wrapping their personal data, including putting a similarly high bar on consent to process what EU law refers to as ‘special category data’, such as health data (although elsewhere there are differences in what personal information is considered the most sensitive by the respective data laws).

The GDPR is also extraterritorial in scope.

But the context in which China’s data protection law will operate is also of course very different — not least given how the Chinese state uses a vast data-gathering operation to keep tabs on and police the behavior of its own citizens.

Any limits the PIPL might place on Chinese government departments’ ability to collect data on citizens — state organs were covered in draft versions of the law — may be little more than window-dressing to provide a foil for continued data collection by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s state security apparatus while further consolidating its centralized control over government.

It also remains to be seen how the CCP could use the new data protection rules to further regulate — some might say tame — the power of the domestic tech sector.

It has been cracking down on the sector in a number of ways, using regulatory changes as leverage over giants like Tencent. Earlier this month, for example, Beijing filed a civil suit against the tech giant — citing claims that its messaging-app WeChat’s youth mode does not comply with laws protecting minors.

The PIPL provides the Chinese regime with plenty more attack surface to put strictures on local tech companies.

Nor is it wasting any time in attacking data-mining practices that are common place among Western tech giants but now look likely to face growing friction if deployed by companies within China.

Reuters notes that the National People’s Congress marked the passage of the law today by publishing an op-ed from state media outlet People’s Court Daily which lauds the legislation and calls for entities that use algorithms for “personalized decision making” — such as recommendation engines — to obtain user consent first.

Quoting the op-ed, it writes: “Personalization is the result of a user’s choice, and true personalized recommendations must ensure the user’s freedom to choose, without compulsion. Therefore, users must be given the right to not make use of personalized recommendation functions.”

There is growing concern over algorithmic targeting outside China, too, of course.

In Europe, lawmaker and regulators have been calling for tighter restrictions on behavioral advertising — as the bloc is in the process of negotiating a swathe of new digital regulations that will expand its power to regulate the sector, such as the proposed Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act.

Regulating the Internet is clearly the new geopolitical battleground as regions compete to shape the future of data flows to suit their respective economic, political and social goals.

China roundup: Alibaba’s sexual assault scandal and more delayed IPOs

By Rita Liao

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

A sexual assault case at Alibaba has sparked a new round of #MeToo reckoning in China. Industry observers believe this is a watershed moment for the fight against China’s allegedly misogynist tech industry. Meanwhile, social media operators are still undecided on how to deal with the unprecedented public uproar against the powerful internet giant.

In other news, more Chinese tech companies have delayed plans to go public overseas after Didi’s fallout with Chinese regulators over its rushed IPO, including Tencent’s music streaming empire and one of China’s highest-valued autonomous driving startups.

Call for justice

Just past midnight last Sunday, an Alibaba employee posted on the company’s internal forum a detailed account saying her manager and a client had sexually assaulted her on a business trip. She took the case public after failing to obtain support from her superiors and human resources.

The post quickly made its rounds through China’s social media platforms. People stayed up blasting Alibaba’s ignorance, toxic business drinking, and the pervasive objectification of women in the Chinese “tech industry,” which has grown so far-reaching that it’s just the contemporary corporate world.

A day later, on August 9, Alibaba swiftly fired the alleged perpetrator. Two managers resigned and the firm’s head of HR was given a “disciplinary warning.” Alibaba’s CEO Daniel Zhang said he felt “shocked, angry and ashamed” about the incident and called on the company to work with the police to investigate the case.

This is arguably the most high-profile #MeToo case embroiling a major Chinese tech company by far and one that seems to have beckoned the toughest response from the company involved. Alibaba is formulating company policies to prevent sexual assaults, which surprises many that the global tech behemoth didn’t already have those in place.

The case managed to garner widespread public attention in China thanks to social media. Within the first few hours, it seemed as though discussion around the incident was propagating organically and uncensored on microblogging platform Weibo, in which Alibaba owns a majority stake.

But people soon noticed that despite the severity of the event, it took days before the case climbed to the top of Weibo’s trending chart, a bellwether for the most talked about topic on the Chinese internet. The perceived delay recalls Weibo’s censorship of an extramarital affair involving Alibaba executive Jiang Fan last year.

Talang Qingnian, roughly “Surfing Youth,” a social media column under state paper People’s Daily, blasted in an article:

The slow buildup of discussion again raised suspicion over whether Alibaba has manipulated public discourse.

Ever since the Jiang Fan case, the country’s attitude has been very clear that capital must not control the media.

As the basic infrastructure for truthful news in China, Weibo should not be a tool for any stakeholder to manipulate public opinion.

The article fanned up more public outrage but was soon taken down, likely because its wording was too strong. The Chinese state media apparatus is vast and only a few outlets, such as Xinhua, consistently convey top-level leaders’ official opinions. It’s not uncommon to see the less authoritative state-affiliated publications back down on reports that have cause backlashes. Last week, an article from a state-affiliated economic paper removed a piece calling video games “spiritual opium,” a loaded description that had earlier tanked the stocks of Tencent and NetEase, and republished the article with a softer tone.

Smaller war chests

Regulatory uncertainties have always been flagged as a risk by Chinese companies seeking overseas listings, but it was largely up to foreign investors to decide whether they were worthwhile investments. China’s recent regulatory onslaught on its tech darlings, however, has become a real deterrent for Chinese firms’ IPO dream.

This week, reports arrived that NetEase Music, a popular music streaming service, and Pony.ai, an autonomous vehicle startup last valued at $5.3 billion, have respectively postponed their plans to list in Hong Kong and New York.

Beijing has become warier of its data-rich companies getting scrutinized by U.S. regulators. Last month, the U.S. securities regulator said Chinese companies that want to raise capital in the U.S. must provide information about their legal structure and disclose the risk of Beijing’s interference in their business.

Many Chinese tech firms have learned from Didi’s fallout with the government, which had reportedly told the ride-sharing company to hold off on its listing until it sorted out a data protection framework. Didi went ahead regardless, triggering a government probe into its data practice and tanking its shares, which now stand at $8 apiece compared to $16 around its debut in early July.

Beijing’s crackdown has affected every major player in China’s consumer tech sector, wiping as much as $87 billion off the net worth of the country’s tech billionaires, including Pony Ma of Tencent and Colin Huang of Pinduoduo, according to Financial Times. The government wants “hard tech” like semiconductors and clean energy, so it has made it clear to future entrepreneurs where they should allocate their energy. The new generation of startups is listening now.

A close look at Singapore’s thriving startup ecosystem

By Ram Iyer
Toni Eliasz Contributor
Toni Eliasz is the program manager of the Disruptive Technologies for Development Program (DT4D) that supports the innovation and adoption of technology-driven solutions in World Bank Group operations. In addition, Toni works on several digital-economy-related initiatives that support the scaling of digital businesses, stimulate startup ecosystems and accelerate the digital transformation of key industries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East.
Jamil Wyne Contributor
Jamil Wyne is a co-author of the World Bank report “The Evolution and State of Singapore’s Start-up Ecosystem: Lessons for Emerging Market Economies.” He is an adviser and investor focusing on high-impact entrepreneurship in emerging markets and has worked with the World Bank, International Finance Corporation, as well as numerous funds and startups focusing on developing countries.

Singapore is home to fewer than six million people, making it one of the smallest ASEAN countries, in terms of population. It is a young country as well — having gained independence in 1963 — and resides in a neighborhood with far larger economies, including China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. When the country first became independent, its mandate was to simply survive rather than thrive.

So how does a country evolve from a position of relative uncertainty, with comparatively few resources, to one that leads the ASEAN region in venture capital investment and has been home to 10 unicorns?

Countries around the world examine Singapore’s ecosystem from a distance, hoping to learn from, and emulate, its story. The World Bank Group recently published a report, The Evolution and State of Singapore’s Start-up Ecosystem, documenting the country’s experience in building its startup ecosystem and the challenges facing it.

This article presents an overview of the report’s key findings and offers a few key recommendations on what other countries can learn from Singapore’s experience, as well as what Singapore itself can do to maintain progress.

A glimpse into Singapore’s current startup ecosystem

As of 2019, Singapore had over $19 billion in PE and VC assets under management, more than twice that of neighboring Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand combined. In that same year, the country was home to an estimated 3,600 tech startups and nearly 200 different intermediary and supporting organizations (accelerators, co-working spaces, coding academies, etc.) – some which have a multinational presence, such as Blk71, whose Singapore headquarters has been referred to as “the world’s most tightly packed entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

While assessing the size and strength of startup ecosystems is an evolving method, Start-up Genome priced Singapore’s ecosystem at over $25 billion, five times the global median.

Arguably, the most eye-catching hallmark of this ecosystem is its population of current and former unicorns. Collectively, Singapore has been home to ten unicorns, three of which have offered an IPO (Nanofilm, Razer and Sea) and two of which have been acquired – one by giant Alibaba (Lazada) and one by Chinese streaming powerhouse YY (Bigo Live). The remaining five are Trax, Acronis, JustCo, PatSnap, and Grab – the ASEAN region’s largest unicorn to date.

 

The education sector is also prominent in Singapore’s ecosystem. Universities like the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are deeply embedded into this ecosystem, helping with R&D commercialization linkages, incubation, talent/knowledge transfer, and other areas.

So, how did Singapore’s startup ecosystem come to be?

Numerous factors have contributed to building Singapore’s startup ecosystem, with government intervention and leadership being the dominant driving forces. The government has spent more than USD60 billion over the past several decades to enhance the country’s R&D infrastructure, create VC funds, and launch accelerators and other support organizations.

VCs unfazed by Chinese regulatory shakeups (so far)

By Anna Heim

China’s technology scene has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent months. In the wake of the scuttling of Ant Group’s IPO, the Chinese government has gone on a regulatory offensive against a host of technology companies. Edtech got hit. On-demand companies took incoming fire. Ride-hailing? Check. Gaming? You bet.

The result of the government fusillade against some of the best-known companies in China was falling share prices. The damage topped $1 trillion among just public Chinese companies listed abroad.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.

Read it every morning on Extra Crunch or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


What about startups in sectors that were reformed overnight? If their public comps are any indication, even more wealth was deleted in the recent wave of crackdowns.

The Exchange was curious about the impact of the Chinese government’s actions on the venture capital market. The Chinese startup economy has produced a number of world-leading companies. Tencent and Alibaba, yes, and even Baidu have become well-known for a reason. Could regulatory changes shake up the venture model that helped grow the country’s largest tech concerns?

After we checked in on the same question this Monday, SoftBank provided a partial answer, noting yesterday that it is pausing investments in China. The Japanese teleco, conglomerate and investing powerhouse has been deploying capital at a rapid pace in recent weeks. That will slow, at least in China. Here’s the WSJ:

The regulatory initiative in China has become so unpredictable and widespread that SoftBank and its funds are planning to hold off on investing much more there until the risks become clearer, [SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son] said at an earnings press conference in Tokyo.

Is SoftBank early to its decision to shake up its investing strategy, missing Chinese deals for some time? Or is it late? We secured data from PitchBook and Traxcn that paints a somewhat surprising picture of venture capital activity at least thus far in Q3 2021.

But first, a reminder of how well China’s venture capital market was performing as 2020 eased its way into 2021.

Before the shakeup

China had a reasonably good Q2 2021 despite the turmoil.

Sure, funding flowing into Chinese startups was down 18% compared to Q4 2020, per CB Insights, but that quarter had recorded an all-time high of $27.7 billion. With $22.8 billion raised, Q2 2021 still did better than every other quarter since Q2 2016 with the exception of Q2 2018, Q4 2020 and Q1 2021. Indeed, the ecosystem had started to cool down in late 2018 before picking up pace again at the end of 2020.

However, that’s only one way to look at the numbers. If you compare recent Chinese venture results with other regions, it underperformed. During Q2 2021, U.S. funding reached a new high of $70.4 billion, with places like Latin America, Canada and India also establishing new records.

This also means that China lost ground as to its share of global startup dealmaking, and the same goes for unicorn creation. According to Tech Buzz China’s summary of CB Insights data, the U.S. accounted for 132 unicorn births between January 1 and June 16, 2021, compared with just three in China.

Slightly falling quarterly venture capital totals and a notable decline in unicorn formation does not a startup winter make. So let’s look at what’s happened more recently.

So, what about Q3?

The thesis that there would be an instantly obvious slowdown in Chinese venture capital activity is not supported by the data we secured.

5 lessons from Duolingo’s bellwether edtech IPO of the year

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Duolingo landed onto the public markets this week, rallying excitement and attention for the edtech sector and its founder cohort. The language learning business’ stock price soared when it began to trade, even after the unicorn raised its IPO price range, and priced above the raised interval.

Duolingo’s IPO proves that public market investors can see the long-term value in a mission-driven, technology-powered education concern; the company’s IPO carries extra weight considering the historically few edtech companies that have listed.

Duolingo’s IPO proves that public market investors can see the long-term value in a mission-driven, technology-powered education concern; the company’s IPO carries extra weight considering the historically few edtech companies that have listed.

For those that want the entire story of Duolingo, from origin to messy monetization to historical IPO, check out our EC-1. It has dozens of interviews from executives, investors, linguists and competitors.

For today, though, we have fresh additions. We sat down with Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn earlier in the week to discuss not only his company’s IPO, but also what impact the listing may have on startups. Duolingo’s IPO can be looked at as a case study into consumer startups, mission-driven companies that monetize a small base of users, or education companies that recently hit scale. Paraphrasing from von Ahn, Duolingo doesn’t see itself as just an edtech company with fresh branding. Instead, it believes its growth comes from being an engineering-first startup.

Selling motivation, it seems, versus selling the fluency in a language is a proposition that international consumers are willing to pay for, and an idea that investors think can continue to scale to software-like margins.

1. The IPO event will bring “more sophistication” to Duolingo’s core service

Duolingo has gone through three distinct phases: Growth, in which it prioritized getting as many users as it could to its app; monetization, in which it introduced a subscription tier for survival; and now, education, in which it is focusing on tacking on more sophisticated, smarter technology to its service.

China roundup: Keep down internet upstarts, cultivate hard tech

By Rita Liao

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

The tech industry in China has had quite a turbulent week. The government is upending its $100 billion private education sector, wiping billions from the market cap of the industry’s most lucrative players. Meanwhile, the assault on Chinese internet giants continued. Tech stocks tumbled after Tencent suspended user registration, sparking fears over who will be the next target of Beijing’s wrath.

Incisive observers point out that the new wave of stringent regulations against China’s internet and education firms has long been on Beijing’s agenda and there’s nothing surprising. Indeed, the central government has been unabashed about its desires to boost manufacturing and contain the unchecked powers of its service industry, which can include everything from internet platforms, film studios to after-school centers.

A few weeks ago I had an informative conversation with a Chinese venture capitalist who has been investing in industrial robots for over a decade, so I’m including it in this issue as it provides useful context for what’s going on in the consumer tech industry this week.

Automate the factories

China is putting robots into factories at an aggressive pace. Huang He, a partner at Northern Light Venture Capital, sees three forces spurring the demand for industrial robots — particularly ones that are made in China.

Over the years, Beijing has advocated for “localization” in a broad range of technology sectors, from enterprise software to production line automation. One may start to see Chinese robots that can rival those of Schneider and Panasonic a few years down the road. CRP, an NLVC-backed industrial robot maker, is already selling across Southeast Asia, Russia and East Europe.

On top of tech localization, it’s also well acknowledged that China is facing a severe demographic crisis. The labor shortage in its manufacturing sector is further compounded by the reluctance of young people to do menial factory work. Factory robots could offer a hand.

“Youngsters these days would rather become food delivery riders than work in a factory. The work that robots replace is the low-skilled type, and those that still can’t be taken up by robots pay well and come with great benefits,” Huang observed.

Large corporations in China still lean toward imported robots due to the products’ proven stability. The problem is that imported robots are not only expensive but also selective about their users.

“Companies need to have deep technical capabilities to be able to operate these [Western] robots, but such companies are rare in China,” said Huang, adding that the overwhelming majority of Chinese enterprises are small and medium size.

With the exceptions of the automotive and semiconductor industries, which still largely rely on sophisticated, imported robots, affordable, easy-to-use Chinese robots can already meet most of the local demand for industrial automation, Huang said.

China currently uses nearly one million six-axis robots a year but only manufactures 20% of them itself. The gap, coupled with a national plan for localization, has led to a frenzy of investments in industrial robotics startups.

The rush isn’t necessarily a good thing, said Huang. “There’s this bizarre phenomenon in China, where the most funded and valuable industrial robotic firms are generating less than 30 million yuan in annual revenue and not really heard of by real users in the industry.”

“This isn’t an industry where giants can be created by burning through cash. It’s not the internet sector.”

Small-and-medium-size businesses are happily welcoming robots onto factory floors. Take welding for example. An average welder costs about 150,000 yuan ($23,200) a year. A typical welding robot, which is sold for 120,000 yuan, can replace up to three workers a year and “doesn’t complain at work,” said the investor. A quality robot can work continuously for six to eight years, so the financial incentive to automate is obvious.

Advanced manufacturing is not just helping local bosses. It will eventually increase foreign enterprises’ dependence on China for its efficiency, making it hard to cut off Chinese supply chains despite efforts to avoid the geopolitical risks of manufacturing in China.

“In electronics, for example, most of the supply chains are in China, so factories outside China end up spending more on logistics to move parts around. Much of the 3C manufacturing is already highly automated, which relies heavily on electricity, but in most emerging economies, the power supply is still quite unstable, which disrupts production,” said Huang.

War on internet titans

The shock of antitrust regulations against Alibaba from last year is still reverberating, but another wave of scrutiny has already begun. Shortly after Didi’s blockbuster IPO in New York, the ride-hailing giant was asked to cease user registration and work on protecting user information critical to national security.

On Tuesday, Tencent stocks fell the most in a decade after it halted user signups on its WeChat messenger as it “upgrades” its security technology to align with relevant laws and regulations. The gaming and social media giant is just the latest in a growing list of companies hit by Beijing’s tightening grip on the internet sector, which had been flourishing for two decades under laissez-faire policies.

Underlying the clampdowns is Beijing’s growing unease with the service industry’s unscrutinized accumulation of wealth and power. China is unequivocally determined to advance its tech sector, but the types of tech that Beijing wants are not so much the video games that bring myopia to children and algorithms that get adults hooked to their screens. China makes it clear in its five-year plan, a series of social and economic initiatives, that it will go all-in on “hard tech” like semiconductors, renewable energy, agritech, biotech and industrial automation like factory robotics.

China has also vowed to fight inequality in education and wealth. In the authorities’ eyes, expensive, for-profit after-schools dotting big cities are hindering education attainment for children from poorer areas, which eventually exacerbates the wealth gap. The new regulatory measures have restricted the hours, content, profits and financing of private tutoring institutions, tanking stocks of the industry’s top companies. Again, there have been clear indications from President Xi Jinping’s writings to bring off-campus tutoring “back on the educational track.” All China-focused investors and analysts are now poring over Xi’s thoughts and directives.

Livestream e-commerce: Why companies and brands need to tune in

By Ram Iyer
Alanna Gregory Contributor
Alanna Gregory is a marketing executive and is currently senior global director at Afterpay. Previously, she was VP at Hairstory, the founder and CEO of VIVE Lifestyle, and was an AVP at Barclays.

What comes to mind when you think of livestreaming? In the U.S., most people would name their favorite celebrity leading a Q&A on Instagram or a gamer doing a speedrun on Twitch.

In China, it’s shopping, streamed live.

Livestream e-commerce has taken off in China in the last few years and is expected to yield more than $60 billion this year. In 2019, 37% of online shoppers in China (a cool 265 million people) made purchases on livestreams — and that was well before quarantine. In 2020, it’s estimated to have reached around 560 million people.

During Taobao’s annual Single’s Day Global Shopping Festival in 2020 (China’s Black Friday), livestreams accounted for $6 billion in sales — nearly doubled from a year earlier.

Starting to see a trend? The big U.S. companies have noticed, and they’re jumping on the bandwagon faster than you can say, “Swipe up to buy now!”

Last December, Walmart livestreamed shopping events on TikTok. Amazon released a live platform where influencers promote items and chat with customers. Instagram launched a Shop feature that encourages users to browse and buy within the app. Facebook also kicked off Live Shopping Fridays for the beauty and fashion categories.

“It’s an entertaining way for shops to tell the story behind their products. It brings buyers closer than ever to their favorite creators and allows them to have a voice in the conversation.”

Startups are growing fast to keep up with the heavy hitters — PopShop.Live raised $20 million to let people buy everything from books and toys to jewelry from sellers who livestream their offerings, and Whatnot raised a $50 million Series B, largely to expand its livestream commerce infrastructure. There’s also a burgeoning category of SaaS tools such as Bambuser, which is working with brands like Klarna to test native livestream shopping directly within branded apps.

At this pace, retailers will all welcome livestream commerce teams like they have influencer partnerships in recent years. It’ll just be part of the digital equation to stay competitive and relevant in the future of marketplaces and e-commerce.

From B.C. to 5G: The evolution of shopping

What is old is new again. Your grandparents spent years watching QVC because it balanced the experience of speaking with an associate with the convenience of their retirement community’s TV room. Livestream is today’s version of “shoptainment,” where hosts showcase products dynamically, interact with their audiences and build urgency with short-term offers, giveaways and limited-edition items.

Now, with livestream commerce, hosts can form deeper customer connections and answer questions in real time. It’s a new standard of communication that holds a longstanding truth from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar to smartphones: People shop to kill time and are more likely to buy when they feel connected with a salesperson.

Colombia’s Merqueo bags $50M to expand its online grocery delivery service across Latin America

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Merqueo, which operates a full-stack, on-demand delivery service in Latin America, has landed $50 million in a Series C round of funding.

IDC Ventures, Digital Bridge and IDB Invest co-led the round, which also included participation from MGM Innova Group, Celtic House Venture Partners, Palm Drive Capital and previous shareholders. The financing brings the Bogota, Colombia-based startup’s total raised to $85 million since its 2017 inception.

Merqueo CEO and co-founder Miguel McAllister knows a thing or two about the delivery space in Latin America, having also co-founded Domicilios.com, a Latin American food delivery company that was bought by Berlin-based Delivery Hero and later merged with Brazil’s iFood.

McAllister describes Merqueo as a “pure-play online supermarket with a fully integrated grocery delivery service” that sources directly from large brands and local suppliers, bypassing intermediaries and “delivering directly from its dark store network.” (Dark stores are traditional retail stores that have been converted to local fulfillment centers.”

Merqueo offers more than 8,000 products, including fresh foods, packaged goods, home essentials, beverages and frozen products. It currently operates in more than 25 cities in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil and has over 600,000 users.

Image Credits: Merqueo

It must be doing something right. The startup is close to $100 million in “run-rate revenue,” according to McAllister, having grown more than 2.5x in 2020. Merqueo also reached positive cash flow in Colombia, its most mature market. Over the last year, large Latin American retail chains and retailers have approached the company about potentially acquiring it, McAllister said.

Part of the company’s success might be attributed to the speed and flexibility it offers. Users can choose how and when to receive their groceries according to their needs, with the startup offering delivery in as little as 10 minutes or three to four hours. Users can also schedule delivery of their groceries in two-hour intervals for the same day or the next day.

Also, owning and controlling the “entire” vertical supply chain gives it the ability to obtain better margins, offer competitive pricing and achieve healthy unit economics, according to McAllister.

Merqueo plans to use its new capital in part to expand geographically. The company is currently in phase one of its expansion to Brazil, entering initially in Sao Paulo later this month. Next year, it expects to launch in other Brazilian cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Fortaleza and Salvador de Bahia.

The market opportunity in Latin America is massive considering that online grocery sales only represent just 1% of the market –– far lower than in the U.S., EU or China, for example. Other players in the increasingly crowded space include GoPuff in the U.S., Getir out of Turkey and Mexico-based Jüsto, which raised $65 million in a Series A led by General Atlantic earlier this year.

“The pandemic accelerated the adoption of online grocery shopping in LatAm,” McAllister told TechCrunch. “The region went from 0.3% share of online groceries to 1%. And after the pandemic, we are seeing a 50% increase in the pace of user adoption.” Overall, the $85 billion e-commerce market in Latin America is growing rapidly, with projections of it reaching $116.2 billion in 2023.

Currently, Merqueo has over 1,300 employees in LatAm, up 60% from last year. It plans to continue hiring with the proceeds from the Series C round as well work “to become the largest and most ambitious dark stores network of Latin America.”

Alejandro Rodríguez, managing partner at IDC Ventures, is naturally bullish on Merqueo’s potential.

“From all the opportunities we looked into, Merqueo is undoubtedly the most advanced in the region. … The Merqueo team has proved they know how to scale the business and how to get to profitability,” Rodríguez told TechCrunch.

Online grocery delivery is a business with many technical and operational complexities, he said. In his view, Merqueo’s technology and operational expertise allow it to tackle those issues in a way that has led to “the best customer experience that we have seen in a scalable way.”

“They have the best combination of both great service metrics and healthy unit economics,” Rodríguez added.

European Investment Fund puts $30M in Fabric Ventures’ new $130M digital assets fund

By Mike Butcher

Despite their rich engineering talent, Blockchain entrepreneurs in the EU often struggle to find backing due to the dearth of large funds and investment expertise in the space. But a big move takes place at an EU level today, as the European Investment Fund makes a significant investment into a blockchain and digital assets venture fund.

Fabric Ventures, a Luxembourg-based VC billed as backing the “Open Economy” has closed $130 million for its 2021 fund, $30 million of which is coming from the European Investment Fund (EIF). Other backers of the new fund include 33 founders, partners, and executives from Ethereum, (Transfer)Wise, PayPal, Square, Google, PayU, Ledger, Raisin, Ebury, PPRO, NEAR, Felix Capital, LocalGlobe, Earlybird, Accelerator Ventures, Aztec Protocol, Raisin, Aragon, Orchid, MySQL, Verifone, OpenOcean, Claret Capital, and more. 

This makes it the first EIF-backed fund mandated to invest in digital assets and blockchain technology.

EIF Chief Executive Alain Godard said:  “We are very pleased to be partnering with Fabric Ventures to bring to the European market this fund specializing in Blockchain technologies… This partnership seeks to address the need [in Europe] and unlock financing opportunities for entrepreneurs active in the field of blockchain technologies – a field of particular strategic importance for the EU and our competitiveness on the global stage.”

The subtext here is that the EIF wants some exposure to these new, decentralized platforms, potentially as a bulwark against the centralized platforms coming out of the US and China.

And yes, while the price of Bitcoin has yo-yo’d, there is now $100 billion invested in the decentralized finance sector and $1.5 billion market in the NFT market. This technology is going nowhere.

Fabric hasn’t just come from nowhere, either. Various Fabric Ventures team members have been involved in Orchestream, the Honeycomb Project at Sun Microsystems, Tideway, RPX, Automic, Yoyo Wallet, and Orchid.

Richard Muirhead is Managing Partner, and is joined by partners Max Mersch and Anil Hansjee. Hansjee becomes General Partner after leaving PayPal’s Venture Fund, which he led for EMEA. The team has experience in token design, market infrastructure, and community governance.

The same team started the Firestartr fund in 2012, backing Tray.io, Verse, Railsbank, Wagestream, Bitstamp, and others.

Muirhead said: “It is now well acknowledged that there is a need for a web that is user-owned and, consequently, more human-centric. There are astonishing people crafting this digital fabric for the benefit of all. We are excited to support those people with our latest fund.”

On a call with TechCrunch Muirhead added: “The thing to note here is that there’s a recognition at European Commission level, that this area is one of geopolitical significance for the EU bloc. On the one hand, you have the ‘wild west’ approach of North America, and, arguably, on the other is the surveillance state of the Chinese Communist Party.”

He said: “The European Commission, I think, believes that there is a third way for the individual, and to use this new wave of technology for the individual. Also for businesses. So we can have networks and marketplaces of individuals sharing their data for their own benefit, and businesses in supply chains sharing data for their own mutual benefits. So that’s the driving view.”

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