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

By Manish Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Will Cathcart (@wcathcart) May 1, 2021

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

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

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

By Catherine Shu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Emotional marketing and an e-mail titan walk into a bar

By Natasha Mascarenhas

My mom cuts to the chase when she is describing my beat to others. In her words, I cover companies like Uber before they become companies like Uber. And honestly? I can’t exactly disagree with the description. The best feeling in tech journalism is telling a story about a startup before it becomes a household name. As an early-stage reporter, I honestly bet a lot on the potential of a savvy edtech founder or creative marketplace play. And when I’m doing my job right, I point to the unique insight that will make the startup successful or challenged in the future.

On that note, one of my favorite renewed series at TechCrunch is an EC-1 (Extra Crunch subscription required), a story series that goes through the nitty-gritty of a startup’s story, from its original days to its pivots along the way. I’ve spent the past few months on one of these projects — and mine is coming out next week! In the meantime, you’ve read packages about StockX and Tonal, and our latest just came out: the Klaviyo EC-1:

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Enjoy this long-form read and big thanks to Danny Crichton, my Equity co-host and managing editor here at TechCrunch, who has been managing and editing all of these projects.

In the rest of this newsletter we’ll get into All Raise data, the new Miami and a new lineup you don’t want to miss. Follow me on Twitter @nmasc_ for updates throughout the week.

All (aren’t) Raise(d)

All Raise, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the footprint of women founders and funders, has released its annual report for 2020. The whole thing is honestly worth a read, but we especially paid attention to how funding has dropped for female founders:

  • Round sizes for women + non-binary founders were up to 49% lower than males
  • 85% of venture funding goes to all-male teams
  • 64% of VC firms still don’t have a single female partner
  • Black + Latinx female founders receive only 0.64% of VC funding, a slight uptick from the year prior.

Here’s what to know: On Equity, we talked about how these abysmal metrics were both a predicted but still surprising effect of Zoom investing. This disconnect is the conversation no one has during an upmarket — and metrics are one way we can benchmark progress.

Internet is the new Miami

To quote Winnie CEO and co-founder Sara Mauskopf, “Internet is the new Miami.” The networks made online — either through the rise of meme culture or Substack spice — can be a competitive advantage in the world of investment, as two new funds this week showed us.

Here’s what to know: Ryan Hoover and Vedika Jain announced Weekend Fund 3, which will include a $1 million community raise. And Chief Meme Officer Turner Novak finally debuted Banana Capital’s debut fund launched with $9.99 million in funding.

Novak explained how being internet-first impacts his investments:

“It just kind of happens where [my investments] are people who understand the culture of the internet, to understand memes and understand wit and humor and appreciate that a little bit more,” he said. “Those are probably the people that are more naturally intuitive investments, so it definitely does skew that direction.”

While Novak didn’t share explicit targets or mandates around investment in diverse founders, he pointed to his track record at Gelt VC, in which 41% of capital went to woman CEOs. To date, 65% of Banana Capital’s portfolio founding teams include non-white founders and 50% of the teams include more than one gender.

Around TechCrunch

Across the week

Seen on TechCrunch

The AWS for blockchain

Atlassian launches a Jira for every team

CES will return to Las Vegas in 2022

Microsoft’s new default font options, rated

Seen on Extra Crunch

Hacking my way into analytics: A creative’s journey to design with data

How Brex more than doubled its valuation in a year

And finally

India is in crisis. It is devastating and heartbreaking to watch this unfold and impact our family and friends and colleagues and people. My colleague Manish Singh, who is based there, wrote up the different ways you can donate to help out.

I’ll end by quoting Singh:

With several major industries, including film and sports, going about their lives pretending there is no crisis, entrepreneurs and startups have emerged as a rare beam of hope in recent days, springing to action to help the nation navigate its darkest hours.

It’s a refreshing change from last year, when thousands of Indian startups themselves were struggling to survive. And while some startups are still severely disrupted, offering a helping hand to the nation has become the priority for most.

Until next week,

N

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

By Manish Singh

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2019 10 30 at 2.18.53 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Manish Singh

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

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

Original story follows.

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Screengrab by TechCrunch

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

Equity Monday: Social media crackdowns, earnings and a funding deluge

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 and myself here.

This weekend had a key story, earnings are on the way and there is a huge number of funding rounds to talk about. Ready?

  • The Indian government’s move to remove a number of social media posts critical of its handling of COVID-19 was the key news item this weekend. As the country’s healthcare system buckles, and deaths spike, the move by the current administration to censor the internet was just about as bad a look you could imagine. At least in terms of a tech response.
  • Also this weekend conversation continued about Substack’s recent push to hire away well-known writers from traditionally respected publications continued, with Insider reporting that six-figure offers to join the paid newsletter platform are the norm.
  • This morning we’re focused on the impending earnings deluge. Major American tech companies, along with some key social media and e-commerce names, will report, giving us a look into how tech companies performed in the first quarter of 2021. We already know that the venture market was hot during the period. How business fared, however, is less clear.
  • On the funding round beat, Mighty Networks raised $50 million, LEAD School raised $30 million, Kidato raised $1.4 million, StashAway stashed away $25 million and Kyligence put together a $70 million Series D of its own.

The Honest Company also set an early IPO price range after we stopped recording. More to come on the IPO front. Chat Wednesday!

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

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

By Manish Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Alleged records of 20 million BigBasket users published online

By Manish Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Manish Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Manish Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Manish Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon announces $250 million venture fund for Indian startups

By Manish Singh

Amazon on Thursday announced a $250 million venture fund to invest in Indian startups and entrepreneurs focusing on digitization of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) in the key overseas market.

The announcement comes at a time when the American e-commerce group, which has previously invested over $6.5 billion in its India business, faces heat from government bodies, and the small and medium-sized businesses that it purports to serve.

Through the new venture fund, called Amazon Smbhav Venture Fund, Amazon said it wants to invest in startups that focus on helping small businesses come online, sell online, automate and digitize their operations, and expand to customers worldwide.

Agriculture and healthcare are two additional areas Amazon is focusing on with its new venture fund, but it said it is open to looking at tech startups from other sectors if their work intersects with SMBs.

In the agri-tech sector, Amazon is looking to invest in Indian startups that are using technology to make agri-inputs more accessible to farmers, provide credit and insurance to farmers, reduce food wastage, and improve the quality of produce to consumers. In the healthcare sector, Amazon said it will invest in startups that are enabling healthcare providers to leverage telemedicine, e-diagnosis, AI powered treatment recommendations.

The announcement was made at Amazon’s annual event, called Sambhav, that focuses on India-based SMBs. At the virtual event, Amazon also unveiled ‘Spotlight North East’, an initiative to bring 50,000 artisans, weavers and small businesses online from the eight states in the North East region of India by 2025 and to boost exports of key commodities like tea, spices and honey from the region.

In the first edition of Sambhav last year, Amazon announced it would be investing $1 billion to help digitize 10 million small and medium sized businesses. Amazon said earlier this month that it had created 300,000 jobs in India since January 2020, and enabled exports for Indian-made goods worth $3 billion.

The company said more than 50,000 offline retailers and neighborhood stores — called kirana locally — are using Amazon marketplace and about 250,000 new sellers have also joined the platform. The company said today it aims to onboard 1 million offline retailers and neighbourhood stores by 2025 through the Local Shops on Amazon program.

Not far from Sambhav’s first event last year, which was attended by Amazon chief executive and founder Jeff Bezos, tens of thousands of protesters marched on the street and expressed their concerns about what they alleged was unfair practices employed by Amazon to crush them.

A similar protest was seen today. You can hear some of their stories here. It’s an ongoing challenge for Amazon, which has long struggled to stay out of controversy in India.

An influential India trader group that represents tens of millions of brick-and-mortar retailers called New Delhi to ban Amazon in the country in February this year after a report claimed that the American e-commerce group had given preferential treatment to a small group of sellers in India, publicly misrepresented its ties with those sellers and used them to circumvent foreign investment rules in the country.

The Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) “demanded” serious action from the Indian government against Amazon following revelations made in a Reuters story. “For years, CAIT has been maintaining that Amazon has been circumventing FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] laws of India to conduct unfair and unethical trade,” it said.

Several international technology giants including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have invested in Indian startups in recent years. Amazon, too, has backed a number of firms including ride-hailing startup Shuttl, and consumer brand MyGlamm. Last month, it acquired retail startup Perpule for about $20 million.

SoftBank in talks to invest up to $500 million in Swiggy

By Manish Singh

SoftBank Vision Fund 2 is in advanced stages of talks to invest up to half a billion dollars into food delivery startup Swiggy, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The new investment values the Indian startup at about $5.5 billion, the sources said.

The new investment would add to the $800 million fundraise Swiggy unveiled earlier this month. SoftBank began exploring investment in India’s food delivery space earlier this year, and also looked at Swiggy’s rival Zomato. But the investment firm picked Swiggy earlier this week, a person familiar with the matter said.

Swiggy and SoftBank declined to comment.

The new investment talks come amid Zomato raising $910 million in recent months as the Gurgaon-headquartered firm prepares for an IPO this year. The last tranche of investment valued Zomato at $5.4 billion. During its fundraise, Zomato said it was raising money partially to fight off “any mischief or price wars from our competition in various areas of our business.”

A third player, Amazon, also entered the food delivery market in India last year, though its operations are still limited to parts of Bangalore.

At stake is India’s food delivery market, which analysts at Bernstein expect to balloon to be worth $12 billion by 2022, they wrote in a report to clients earlier this year.

After raising $800 million, Swiggy co-founder and chief executive Sriharsha Majety told employees in a memo that the new fundraise “gives us a lot more firepower than the planned investments for our current business lines. Given our unfettered ambition though, we will continue to seed/experiment new offerings for the future that may be ready for investment later. We will just need to now relentlessly invent and execute over the next few years to build an enduring iconic company out of India.”

He added in that memo that the long-term goal for the startup is to serve 500 million users in the next 10-15 years, pointing to Chinese food giant Meituan, which had 500 million transacting users last year and is valued at over $100 billion.

“We’re coming out of a very hard phase during the last year given Covid and have weathered the storm, but everything we do from here on needs to maximise the chances of our succeeding in the long-term,” he wrote.

Swiggy, which counts Prosus Ventures among its largest investors, last year eliminated some jobs — so did Zomato — and scaled down its cloud kitchen efforts as it attempted to stay afloat during the pandemic, which had prompted New Delhi to enforce a months-long lockdown.

Swiggy's performance this year, per Prosus Ventures. pic.twitter.com/AqcKYQ8ml1

— Manish Singh (@refsrc) December 23, 2020

TechCrunch reported on Wednesday that SoftBank Vision Fund 2 is also in talks to invest in Zeta. The investment firm, which has also written checks to e-commerce giant Flipkart, ride-hailing firm Ola, and budget hospitality startup Oyo, earlier this month backed social commerce Meesho.

Zeta in talks with SoftBank to raise at over $1 billion valuation

By Manish Singh

Banking tech startup Zeta is inching closer to the much sought-after unicorn status as it talks to investors to finalize a new round, sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

SoftBank Vision Fund 2 is in talks to lead a ~$250 million Series D round in the five-year-old startup, the sources said. The new round would value the Indian startup, co-founded by high-profile entrepreneur Bhavin Turakhia, at over $1 billion, up from $300 million in its maiden external funding (Series C) in 2019. The round has yet to close, a third person said.

A SoftBank spokesperson declined to comment.

Five-year-old Zeta helps banks launch modern retail and fintech products. The thesis is that banks — largely operating on antiquated technologies — today don’t have the time and expertise to offer the best experience to hundreds of millions of customers and fintech firms they serve.

Zeta is attempting to help banks either use the startup’s cloud-native, API-first banking stack as its core framework or build services atop it to offer better a experience to all customers — think of improved mobile app and debit and credit features. It also offers API, SDKs and payment gateways to banks to work more efficiently with fintech firms.

The startup has amassed clients in several Asian and Latin American markets.

Turakhia, with his brother Divyank, started his first venture in 1998. Along the way, they sold four web companies to Endurance for $160 million. Zeta is the third startup Bhavin has co-founded since then — the other being business messaging platform Flock and Radix.

If finalized, Zeta could become the seventh Indian startup to turn a unicorn this month. Last week, social commerce Meesho — also backed by SoftBank Vision Fund 2 — fintech firm CRED, e-pharmacy firm PharmEasy, millennials-focused Groww, business messaging platform Gupshup and social network ShareChat attained the unicorn status.

The story was updated to note that the round hasn’t closed.

Temasek and BlackRock form Decarbonization Partners with $600 million to create a zero-emission economy

By Jonathan Shieber

The $9 trillion financial management firm Blackrock is collaborating with the $313 billion Singapore investment firm Temasek to back companies developing technologies and services to help create a zero emission economy by 2050.

The two mega-investment firms will invest an initial $600 million to launch Decarbonization Partners, and look to raise money from investors committing to achieving a net zero world and long-term sustainable finacnial returns. The two partners have set themselves a goal to raise $1 billion for their first fund, including capital from Temasek and BlackRock.

The partnership, coming during Earth month, is one of several big multi-billion dollar initiatives that are underway to prevent global climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed, BlackRock is somewhat tardy to the party. Temasek, for its part, has already made a number of high-profile bets in the alternative meat market — namely in companies like Impossible Foods — and in alternative energy technology developers including Eavor, a geothermal company, and a $500 million bet on a renewable power developer in India.

Meanwhile, a coalition of billionaires led by Bill Gates are already on their second billion dollar investment vehicle through Breakthrough Energy, a multi-stage, multi-strategy initiative that includes a venture capital arm as well as other types of financing on the way.

“The world cannot meet its net zero ambitions without transformational innovation,” said Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, in a statement. “For decarbonization solutions and technologies to transform our economy, they need to be scaled. To do that, they need patient, well-managed capital to support their vital goals. This partnership will help define climate solutions as a standalone asset class that is both essential to our collective mission and a historic investment opportunity created by the net zero transition.”

To get a sense of what Decarbonization Partners might back, companies should probably look to the Breakthrough Energy portfolio — the firms share similar interests in new sources of energy, technologies to distribute that energy, building and manufacturing technologies, and material science and process innovations.

It’s a big swing that the firms are taking, but the flood of capital coming into the sustainability sector is commensurate with both the size of the problem, and the potential opportunity in returns generated by solving it.

A report from Morgan Stanley estimated that solving climate change would be a $50 trillion problem, according to a 2019 report from Forbes.

“Bold, aggressive actions are needed to make the global net zero ambition a reality. Decarbonization Partners represents one of several steps we are taking to follow through on our commitment to halve the emissions from our portfolio by 2030, and ultimately move to net zero emissions by 2050,” said Dilhan Pillay, Chief Executive Officer of Temasek International. “Through collective efforts with like-minded partners, we will be able to create sustainable value for all of our stakeholders over the long term, and investors will have the opportunity to help deliver innovative solutions at scale to address climate challenges.”

Pine Labs acquires Southeast Asian startup Fave for $45 million

By Manish Singh

Pine Labs said on Tuesday it has acquired Southeast Asian startup Fave in a deal valued at $45 million as the Indian firm looks to strengthen its offerings in the domestic and international markets.

Fave helps an offline merchant connect and retain customers by using gift cards and vouchers. The startup allows merchants to accept digital payments by having a customer scan a QR code. Once the payment is made, the customer automatically receives a cashback / loyalty point through the Fave app that can only be redeemed at that specific business during future transactions.

“Customers love us because they get safe money, cashback and rewards for being on the platform. And merchants love us because they get a lot of new and repeat customers,” explained Joel Neoh, co-founder and chief executive of Fave.

This offering has especially proven useful to merchants in the pandemic as they scramble for ways to drive sales from existing customers, said Amrish Rao, chief executive of Pine Labs, in an interview. “Consumers, too, were looking for ways of cost-savings or ways to optimize their purchases.”

Pine Labs, which acquired a gift cards solution provider Qwikcilver in 2019, made its first investment in Fave last year.

Rao drew comparisons between Fave and Honey, saying the Southeast Asian startup is doing to offline businesses what Honey has achieved in the online world. “For the first time with QR, what I realized was you can do a wonderful job when it comes to loyalty, rewards, and the redemption in the offline world,” said Rao.

Leadership of Fave will continue to work at the startup post-acquisition and Rao said the team is working to bring Fave’s offering to customers in 3,700 Indian cities. (This is one of the rare times when a Southeast Asian startup is launching its offering in India.)

Neoh said in an interview that Fave also plans to launch a pay now later product in the next one to two months.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Equity Monday: Microsoft buys Nuance, Uber isn’t dead, and Austin has a new unicorn

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 and myself here. It is good to be back!

There was a lot to get through, so, in order that we discussed the topics on the show, here’s our rundown:

Don’t forget that Coinbase is listing this week, yeah? Chat soon!

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

Tiger Global goes super aggressive in India

By Manish Singh

Recent roars from an investment firm, credited to put Indian startups on the global map in the past decade and a half, are turning local young firms into unicorns at a pace never seen before in the world’s second largest internet market.

Tiger Global has written — or is in late stages of writing — more than 25 checks, spanning from a few million dollars to over $100 million, this year alone. About 10 of its investments have been unveiled so far with the rest still in the pipeline for the coming weeks and months.

The New York-headquartered firm, which recently closed a $6.7 billion fund, last week led investments in social network ShareChat, business messaging platform Gupshup, and investment app Groww, and participated in fintech app CRED’s round, helping all of these startups attain the much sought after unicorn status.

(A report in India speculated that Tiger Global plans to invest $3 billion of its new fund in Indian startups. TechCrunch understands the $3 billion figure is way off the mark.)

Tiger Global also invested in Infra.Market and Innovaccer, two other Indian startups that turned unicorn earlier this year. (India has delivered 10 unicorns this year already, up from seven last year and six in 2019.)

Tiger Global is currently in advanced stages to back epharmacy firm PharmEasy, which also turned into a unicorn last week, fintech firm ClearTax (at possibly $1 billion valuation), crypto exchange CoinSwitch, insurer Plum, B2B marketplace Moglix (at over $1 billion valuation), social firms Kutumb and Koo (at over $100 million valuation, per the CapTable), healthtech firm Pristyn Care, and Reshamandi, according to people familiar with the matter.

No other investment firm has written checks of this magnitude to Indian firms this year, and the frenzy has reached a point where dozens of startup founders are scrambling to get an intro with Tiger Global partners.

Every Indian startups' 1 year strategy in 8 words:

👇👇

"Whatever I need to get funded by Tiger"

— arnav (@arnav_kumar) April 10, 2021

Tiger Global’s confidence in young Indian firms isn’t newly found. Its investment in Flipkart in 2009 and Ola in 2012 showed the opportunities and level of risk-appetite the U.S. firm was prepared to operate with in India, at a time when both the firms were struggling to raise money from some Indian investors.

Under its former partner Lee Fixel, the investment firm backed several young firms including online grocer Grofers, logistics startup Delivery, fashion e-commerce Myntra, news aggregator InShorts, electric scooter maker Ather Energy, music streaming service Saavn, fintech Razorpay, and web producer TVF.

A handful of startup founders, on the condition of anonymity, recalled their investments from Tiger Global, which they all said concluded within two to three weeks after the first call from the investment firm.

But the firm slowed down its investment pace when Fixel departed in 2019, and for nearly a year focused largely on backing SaaS startups.

Things have changed in recent quarters and Tiger Global has become more aggressive than ever before, said a venture capitalist, who has invested alongside Tiger Global in a few startups, on the condition of anonymity to be able to speak candidly.

The firm is now also exploring investment opportunities in months-old startups. Reshamandi, for instance, is still in its ideation phase.

The investor quoted above pointed to Infra.Market as another example of Tiger Global’s new strategy. It wrote its first check to Infra.Market in 2019, when the B2B startup was just two years old.

“Tiger then wanted to see if the startup can grow and convince other investors to back them. So in December, Infra.Market raised money at about $250 million valuation. Two months later, Tiger Global closed the new round at $1 billion valuation,” the investor said.

While great for startups, it creates a challenge for some investors, another investor said.

When Tiger Global values a startup at a level that much of the industry can’t match, and tends to not lead the subsequent round, there are very few firms that can invest in the following financing round, the investor said.

On private forums and in recent weeks, Clubhouse, a number of investors have cautioned that the recent optimism shared by some investors could prove challenging to materialize. “Tiger Global has traditionally got very optimistic in India every two to three years. The problem is that when it’s not optimistic, we are supposed to pick the tab,” one investor said.

“Under Scott Shleifer [MD at Tiger Global and pictured above], things may be different,” the investor added. Looking at Tiger Global’s recent activities elsewhere in the world, things sure look consistent — and India is positioned to be a key global playground for the firm — and several others — in the next few years.

India, the world’s third largest startup hub, is poised to produce 100 unicorns in the coming years, analysts at Credit Suisse wrote in a report for clients last month. “India’s corporate landscape is undergoing a radical change due to a remarkable confluence of changes in the funding, regulatory and business environment in the country over the past two decades. An unprecedented pace of new-company formation and innovation in a variety of sectors has meant a surge in the number of highly-valued, as-yet unlisted companies,” they wrote.

“The growth in highly valued companies has been enabled by a range of factors: (1) the natural shortage of risk capital in an economy with low per capita wealth has been addressed by a surge in (mostly foreign) private equity: these flows have exceeded public market transactions in each year of the last decade; (2) increase in teledensity and smartphone and internet penetration. Till 2005 less than 15% of Indians had a phone, versus 85% now; 700 mn-plus people have internet access now due to cheap data and falling smartphone prices (40% penetration now).”

“(3) deep-rooted physical infrastructure changes: nearly all habitations are now connected by all-weather roads compared to only half in 2000, and all households are electrified now vs. just 54% in 2001; (4) financial innovation is accelerating, courtesy the world-leading “India stack”, which has innovative applications like UPI built on a base of universal bank account access, mobiles, and the biometric-ID (Aadhaar), helped by greater data availability; and (5) development of ecosystems in several sectors that now provides a competitive advantage versus global peers; for example in technology (4.5 mn IT professionals) and pharma/biotech (several Indian firms can now afford US$200-300 mn of annual R&D).”

Messaging platform Gupshup raises $100 million at $1.4 billion valuation

By Manish Singh

A startup that began its journey in India 15 years ago, helping businesses reach and engage with users through texts said on Thursday it has attained the unicorn status and is also profitable.

San Francisco-headquartered Gupshup has raised $100 million in its Series F financing round from Tiger Global Management, which valued the 15-year-old startup at $1.4 billion.

The startup operates a conversational messaging platform, which is used by over 100,000 businesses and developers today to build their own messaging and conversational experiences to serve their users and customers.

Gupshup says each month its clients send over 6 billion messages.

“The growth in business use of messaging and conversational experiences, transforming virtually every customer touchpoint, is nothing short of extraordinary,” said John Curtius, a partner at Tiger Global Management, in a statement.

“Gupshup is uniquely positioned to win in this market with an advanced product, a differentiated strategy with substantial barriers, significant scale with growth, profitability with expanding margins and an experienced team with a proven track record.”

Tens of millions of users in India, including yours truly, remember Gupshup for a different reason, however. For the first six years of its existence, Gupshup was best known for enabling users in India to send group messages to friends.

That model eventually became unfeasible to continue, Beerud Sheth, co-founder and chief executive of Gupshup, told TechCrunch in an interview.

“For that service to work, Gupshup was subsidizing the messages. We were paying the cost to the mobile operators. The idea was that once we scale up, we will put advertisements in those messages. Long story short, we thought as the volume of messages increases, operators will lower their prices, but they didn’t. And also the regulator said we can’t put ads in the messages,” he recalled.

That’s when Gupshup decided to pivot. “We were neither able to subsidize the messages, nor monetize our user base. But we had all of this advanced technology for high-performance messaging. So we switched from consumer model to enterprise model. So we started to serve banks, e-commerce firms, and airlines that need to send high-level messages and can afford to pay for it,” he said.

Over the years, Gupshup has expanded to newer messaging channels, including conversational bots and it also helps businesses set up and run their WhatsApp channels to engage with customers.

Sheth said scores of major firms worldwide in banking, e-commerce, travel and hospitality and other sectors are among the clients of Gupshup. These firms are using Gupshup to send their customers with transaction information, and authentication codes among other use cases. “These are not advertising messages or promotional messages. These are core service information,” he said.

The startup, which had an annual run rate of $150 million, will use the fresh capital to broaden its product offering and court clients in more markets.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Investment app for millennials, Groww, raises $83 million at over $1 billion valuation

By Manish Singh

More than 200 million people in India transact money digitally, but fewer than 30 million invest in mutual funds and stocks.

An Indian startup that is attempting to change this figure by courting millennials announced a new financing round on Wednesday and turned into the newest unicorn in the world’s second largest internet market.

Bangalore-based Groww has raised $83 million in its Series D financing round, which valued the Indian startup at more than $1 billion, up from $250 million in $30 million Series C in September last year.

Tiger Global led the new round, and existing investors Sequoia Capital India, Ribbit Capital, YC Continuity and Propel Venture Partners participated in it, said the four-year-old Indian startup, which has raised $142 million to date.

On a side note, Groww is the eighth Indian startup to attain the unicorn status this year — and fourth this week. Social commerce Meesho turned a unicorn on Monday, fintech firm CRED on Tuesday, and earlier today epharmacy firm PharmEasy announced a new financing round that valued the firm at about $1.5 billion.

Groww allows users to invest in mutual funds, including systematic investment planning (SIP) and equity-linked savings, gold, as well as stocks, including those listed at U.S. exchanges. The app offers every fund that is currently available in India.

The startup has amassed over 15 million registered users, two-thirds of whom are first-time investors, Lalit Keshre, co-founder and chief executive of Groww, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Keshre said the startup — — co-founded by four former Flipkart executives including Harsh Jain, Neeraj Singh and Ishan Bansal — will deploy the fresh funds to accelerate its growth, and hire more talent. “We now have the fuel for longer-term thinking and faster growth,” he said.

More than 60% of Groww users come from smaller cities and towns of India and 60% of these have never made such investments before, said Keshre. The startup said it has conducted workshops in several small cities to educate people about the investment world.

Comparison of fintech market share in brokerage (BCG)

The coronavirus pandemic has also accelerated the startup’s growth as youngsters explore new hobbies. The startup competes with a handful of firms including Zerodha, Paytm Money, Upstox, ET Money, Smallcase, and traditional firms.

“We started Groww almost five years back to make investing accessible and transparent to everyone in India. We have made good progress, but it feels we have just got started,” said Keshre.

❌