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US regulators need to catch up with Europe on fintech innovation 

By Walter Thompson
Alastair Mitchell Contributor
Alastair Mitchell is a partner at multi-stage VC fund EQT Ventures and the fund's B2B sales, marketing and SaaS expert. Ali also focuses on helping US companies scale into Europe and vice versa.
More posts by this contributor

Fintech companies are fundamentally changing how the financial services ecosystem operates, giving consumers powerful tools to help with savings, budgeting, investing, insurance, electronic payments and many other offerings. This industry is growing rapidly, filling gaps where traditional banks and financial institutions have failed to meet customer needs.

Yet progress has been uneven. Notably, consumer fintech adoption in the United States lags well behind much of Europe, where forward-thinking regulation has sparked an outpouring of innovation in digital banking services — as well as the backend infrastructure onto which products are built and operated.

That might seem counterintuitive, as regulation is often blamed for stifling innovation. Instead, European regulators have focused on reducing barriers to fintech growth rather than protecting the status quo. For example, the U.K.’s Open Banking regulation requires the country’s nine big high-street banks to share customer data with authorized fintech providers.

The EU’s PSD2 (Payment Services Directive 2) obliges banks to create application programming interfaces (APIs) and related tools that let customers share data with third parties. This creates standards that level the playing field and nurture fintech innovation. And the U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority supports new fintech entrants by running a “sandbox” for software testing that helps speed new products into service.

Regulations, if implemented effectively as demonstrated by those in Europe, will lead to a net positive to consumers. While it is inevitable that regulations will come, if fintech entrepreneurs take the action to engage early and often with regulators, it will ensure that the regulations put in place support innovation and ultimately benefit the consumer.

Nigeria’s Paga acquires Apposit, confirms Mexico and Ethiopia expansion

By Jake Bright

Nigerian digital payments startup Paga has acquired Apposit, a software development company based in Ethiopia, for an undisclosed amount.

That’s just part of Paga’s news. The Lagos based startup will also launch its payment products in Mexico this year and in Ethiopia imminently, CEO Tayo Oviosu told TechCrunch

The moves come a little over a year after Paga raised a $10 million Series B round and Oviosu announced the company’s intent to expand globally, while speaking at Disrupt San Francisco.

Paga will leverage Apposit — which is U.S. incorporated but operates in Addis Ababa — to support that expansion into East Africa and Latin America.

Repat founders

Behind the acquisition is a story threaded with serendipity, return, and collaboration.

Both Paga and Apposit were founded by repatriate entrepreneurs. Oviosu did his MBA at Stanford University and worked at Cisco Systems before returning to Nigeria.

Apposit CEO Adam Abate moved back to Ethiopia 17 years ago for an assignment in the country’s Ministry of Finance, after studying at Brown University and working in fintech in New York. 

“I put together a team…to build…public financial management systems for the country. And during the process…brought in my best friend Eric Chijioke…to be a technical engineer,” said Abate.

The two teamed up with Simon Solomon in 2007 to co-found Apposit, with a focus on building large-scale enterprise software for Africa.

Apposit partners (L-R) Adam Abate, Simon Solomon, Eric Chijioke, Gideon Abate

A year later, Oviosu met Chijioke when he crashed at his house while visiting Ethiopia for a wedding. It just so happened Chijioke’s brother was his roommate at Stanford.

That meeting began an extended conversation between the two on digital-finance innovation in Africa and eventually led to a Paga partnership with Apposit in 2010.

Apposit dedicated an engineering team to build Paga’s payment platform, Eric Chijioke became Paga’s CTO (while maintaining his Apposit role) and Apposit backed Paga.

“We aligned ourselves as African entrepreneurs…which then developed into a close relationship where we became…investors in Paga and strategically aligned,” said Abate.

African roots, global ambitions

Fast forward a decade, and the two companies have come pretty far. Apposit has grown its business into a team of 63 engineers and technicians and has racked up a list of client partnerships. The company helped digitize the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange and has contracted on IT and software solutions with banks non-profits and brick and mortar companies.

For a decade, Apposit has also supported Paga’s payment product development.

Paga Interfaces

Over that period, Oviosu and team went to work building Paga’s platform and driving digital payment adoption in Nigeria, home to Africa’s largest economy and population of 200 million.

That’s been no small task considering Nigeria’s percentage of unbanked was pegged as high as at 70% in 2011 and still lingers around 60% in 2017 by, according to The Global Findex database.

Paga has created a multi-channel network to transfer money, pay-bills, and buy things digitally. The company has 14 million customers in Nigeria who can transfer funds from one of Paga’s 24,411 agents or through the startup’s mobile apps.

Paga products work on iOS, Android, and basic USSD phones using a star, hashtag option. The company has remittance partnerships with the likes of Western Union and allows for third-party integration of its app.

Since inception, the startup has processed 104 million transactions worth $6.6 billion, according to Oviosu.

With the acquisition, Paga absorbs Apposit’s tech capabilities and team of 63 engineers.  The company will direct its boosted capabilities and total workforce of 530 to support expansion.

Paga plans its Mexico launch in 2020, according to Oviosu.

Adam Abate is now CEO of Paga Ethiopia, where Paga plans to go live as soon as it gains a local banking license. The East African nation of 100 million, with the continent’s seventh largest economy, is bidding to become Africa’s next startup hub, though it still lags the continent’s tech standouts — like Nigeria and Kenya — in startup formation, ISP options and VC.

Ethiopia has also been slow to adopt digital finance, with less than 1% of the population using mobile-money, compared to 73% for Kenya, Africa’s mobile-payments leader.

Paga aims to shift the financial needle in the country. “The goal is straight-forward. We want Ethiopians to use the Paga wallet as their payment account. So it’s about digitizing cash transactions and driving financial services,” said Oviosu.

Paga CEO Tayo Oviosu

With the Apposit acquisition and country expansion, he also looks to grow Paga’s model in Africa and beyond, as an emerging markets fintech solution.

“There are several very large countries around the world in Africa, Latin America, Asia where these [financial inclusion] problems still exist. So our strategy is not an African strategy…We want to go where these problems exist in a large way and build a global payments business,” Oviosu said.

Fintech competition in Nigeria

As it grows abroad, Paga faces greater competition in Nigeria. For the last decade, South Africa and Kenya — with the success of Safaricom’s  M-Pesa product — have been Africa’s standouts in digital payments.

But over the last several years, Nigeria has become a magnet for VC and fintech startups. This trend reached a high-point in 2019 when Chinese investors put $220 million into Opera owned OPay and Transsion backed PalmPay — two fledgling startups with plans to scale in Nigeria and broader Africa.

That’s a hefty war chest compared to Paga’s total VC haul of $34 million, according to Crunchbase.

Oviosu names product market fit and benefits from the company’s expansion as factors that will keep it ahead of these well-funded new entrants.

“That’s where the world-class technology comes in,” he said.

“We also take a perspective that we cannot build every use-case,” he said — contrasting Paga’s model to Opera in Africa, which has launched multiple startup verticals around its OPay product, from ride-hailing to food-delivery.

Oviosu compares Paga’s approach to PayPal, which allows third-party developers to shape businesses around PayPal as the payment solution.

With its Apposit acquisition and plans for continued expansion, PayPal may become more than a model for Paga.

Founder Tayo Oviosu sees big fintech players, such as PayPal and Alipay, as future competitors with Paga’s planned expansion into more emerging markets.

African fintech firm Flutterwave raises $35M, partners with Worldpay

By Jake Bright

San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave has raised a $35 million Series B round and announced a partnership with Worldpay FIS for payments in Africa.

With the funding, Flutterwave will invest in technology and business development to grow market share in existing operating countries, CEO Olugbenga Agboola — aka GB — told TechCrunch.

The company will also expand capabilities to offer more services around its payment products.

More than payments

“We don’t just want to be a payment technology company, we have sector expertise around education, travel, gaming, e-commerce, fintech companies. They all use our expertise,” said GB.

That means Flutterwave will provide more solutions around the broader needs of its clients.

The Nigerian-founded startup’s main business is providing B2B payments services for companies operating in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad.

Launched in 2016, Flutterwave allows clients to tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber, Booking.com and e-commerce company Jumia.

In 2019, Flutterwave processed 107 million transactions worth $5.4 billion, according to company data.

Flutterwave did the payment integration for U.S. pop-star Cardi B’s 2019 performances in Nigeria and Ghana. Those are two of the countries in which the startup operates, in addition to South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, the U.K. and Rwanda.

Flutterwave Cardi B Nigeria“We want to scale in all those markets and be the payment processor of choice,” GB said.

The company will hire more business development staff and expand its developer team to create more sector expertise, according to GB.

“Our business goes beyond payments. People don’t want to just make payments, they want to do something,” he said. And Fluterwave aims to offer more capabilities toward what those clients want to do in Africa.

GB Flutterwave disrupt

Olugbenga Agboola, aka GB

“If you are a charity that wants to raise money for cancer research in Ghana, or you want to sell online, or you’re Cardi B…who wants to do concerts in Africa…we want to be able to set up payments, write the code and create the platform for those needs,” GB explained.

That also means Flutterwave, which built its early client base across global companies, aims to serve smaller African businesses, including startups. Current customers include African-founded tech companies, such as moto ride-hail venture Max.ng.

Worldpay partnership

The new round makes Flutterwave the payment provider for Worldpay in Africa.

“With this partnership, any Worldpay merchant in Europe or the U.S. can accept any African payment. If someone goes to pay Netflix with an African card, it just works,” GB said.

In 2019, Worldpay was acquired for a reported $35 billion by FIS, a U.S. financial services provider. At the time of the purchase, it was projected the two companies would generate revenues of $12 billion annually, yet neither has notable presence in Africa.

Therein lies the benefit of collaborating with Flutterwave.

FIS’s Head of Ventures Joon Cho confirmed the partnership with TechCrunch. FIS also backed Flutterwave’s $35 million Series B. US VC firms Greycroft and eVentures led the round, with participation of Visa, Green Visor and African fund CRE Venture Capital.

Flutterwave’s latest funding brings the company’s total investment to $55 million and follows a year in which the fintech venture announced a series of weighty partnerships.

In July 2019, the startup joined forces with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.

The Alipay collaboration followed one between Flutterwave and Visa to launch a consumer payment product for Africa, called GetBarter.

Flutterwave and African fintech

Flutterwave’s $35 million round and latest partnership are among the reasons the startup has become a standout in Africa’s digital-finance landscape.

As a sector, fintech gains the bulk of dealflow and the majority of startup capital flowing to African startups annually. VC to Africa totaled $1.35 billion in 2019, according to WeeTracker’s latest stats.

While a number of payment startups and products have scaled — see Paga in Nigeria and M-Pesa in Kenya — the majority of the continent’s fintech companies are P2P in focus and segregated to one or two markets.

Flutterwave’s platform has served the increased B2B business payment needs spurred by the decade of growth and reform that has occurred in Africa’s core economies.

The value the startup has created is underscored not just by transactional volume the company generates, but the partnerships it has attracted.

A growing list of the masters of the payment universe — Visa, Alipay, Worldpay — have shown they need Flutterwave to do finance in Africa.

Catalyst Fund gets $15M from JP Morgan, UK Aid to back 30 EM fintech startups

By Jake Bright

The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.

The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.

That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.

Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.

“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.

Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.

Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.

Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.

African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s startups, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.

That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.

The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.

By several estimates, Africa is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale finance solutions on the continent.

Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech related startups on the continent.

This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.

For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation

“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.

This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.

More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts any of its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets like Nigeria, India and Mexico.

Grab and Singtel team up to apply for a digital full bank license in Singapore

By Catherine Shu

Grab and Singtel, one of the largest telecoms in Singapore, announced today that they are applying for a digital full bank license together. If approved, the license will allow them to offer simple credit and investment products, before progressing to a full-functioning bank if they meet the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s (MAS) criteria.

Grab will hold a 60% stake in the consortium, with Singtel holding the other 40%. A joint statement said the companies are “committed to contributing to the financial services sector with a differentiated offering that addresses the unmet and underserved needs of consumer and enterprise segments in Singapore,” including SMEs that need access to credit. Securing working capital is a major pain point across Southeast Asia, with several startup and financial institutions working on new tools to gauge creditworthiness and manage loans.

Grab launched in 2012 as a ride-sharing company, but now bills itself as “Southeast Asia’s leading super app,” with app that provides a wide array of service, including transportation, logistics, food delivery, ticket and hotel booking and financial services, through one portal.

It entered financial services in 2016 with the introduction of GrabPay Wallet, a digital wallet, before launching Grab Financial Group in 2019. Grab Financial Group’s services include online payments, lending and insurance products that it says reaches 100 million users across Southeast Asia.

In a press statement, Grab Financial Group senior managing director Reuben Lai said the consortium’s plan is to “build a truly customer-centric digital bank that will deliver a variety of banking and financial services that are accessible, transparent and affordable.”

MAS announced in June that it will issue up to two digital full bank licenses and three digital wholesale bank licenses, as part of a bid to to liberalize Singapore’s banking sector.

Chatbots spotlight machine learning’s trillion-dollar potential

By Walter Thompson
Gustavo Parés Contributor
Gustavo Parés is CEO of NDS Cognitive Labs, a leader in cognitive computing and AI business solutions. A Professor at Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM), he's partnered with Microsoft, IBM and Google to deliver digital transformation and cognitive technology services.

The global industry potential of artificial intelligence is well-documented, yet the vision of this AI future is uncertain.

AI and automation trends are generating significant debate among economists and governments, particularly around employment impact and uncertain social outcomes. The mainstream attention is warranted. According to PwC, AI “could contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy in 2030, more than the current output of China and India combined.”

AI is at a crossroads, and its long-term outlook is still hotly debated. Despite social media giants, automotive companies and numerous other industries investing hundreds of billions of dollars in AI, many automation technologies are not yet directly generating revenue and instead are forecasted to become profitable in the coming decades. This creates additional uncertainty of AI’s true market potential. The realistic potential value of AI is unknown, yet, as the technology advances, the ultimate impact could be of great consequence to virtually every economy.

There are many reasons to view AI’s future from an optimistic lens, however: chatbots provide significant evidence for AI’s positive impact on both business growth and employment markets. Today, chatbots are increasingly capable of mimicking human interactions and conversations to assist business-to-business, business-to-consumer, business-to-government, advertising audiences and other diverse groups. The evolution of the cognitive computer science behind conversational chatbots is perhaps one of the best examples of AI technologies driving revenue. Further, chatbot technology shows some of the greatest promise for augmenting, rather than replacing human workers.

AI is driving value while augmenting human workers

Chatbots are delivering real revenue today for some of the world’s leading financial services (Bank of America), retail (Levi’s), and technology companies (Zendesk) . We’re seeing more consumers taking the next step in a transaction or even making a purchase decision based off conversations with chatbots. Beyond driving sales, chatbots have numerous applications to a wide range of organizations. Nonprofits, NGOs, and even political campaigns find value in deploying chatbots to help handle the influx of inquiries from stakeholders and relevant audiences.

Rather than these chatbots replacing human workers, organizations are finding chatbots to be a helpful and value-creating opportunity that frees employees to focus on more strategic tasks. Apple’s Siri, Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana aren’t replacing executive assistants today, but these technologies are all capable of supporting the executive assistant function in the workplace.

Gartner predicts AI augmentation, defined as a “human-centered partnership model of people and AI working together to enhance cognitive performance,” could generate $2.9 trillion of business value by 2021. Many industries see potential for chatbots to augment functions like sales, customer support and IT, enabling workers to create value in more strategic ways. Bain & Company finds chatbots to be among the most notable examples of artificial intelligence and automation in practice: “Companies use AI applications to understand industry trends, manage their workforce, address problems, power chatbots and personalize content to enable self-service.”

Clearly, the implications of scaled, human-like engagement are stunning in their capacity to carry out tasks. A chatbot’s ability to simultaneously hold tens of thousands of conversations — pulling from many millions of data points — is comparable to what a human customer service rep could accomplish in more than 1,000 years of nonstop work. Scaling customer service via AI allows service professionals to focus on big picture and more complex issues, and it provides rich data on customer interactions. We anticipate seeing more companies look to build better customer service experiences through chatbots, as Google and Salesforce announced in April.

The transformative impact of chatbots across industries

From our research and work with leading global companies, it’s clear that enterprises are finding that chatbots bring about tremendous value while supporting both people employment and long-term business growth opportunities today. Ultimately, chatbots are on track to showcase some of the most optimistic examples of AI augmentation. Consider three examples:

Inside Prosus Ventures’ $4.5 billion bet on India

By Manish Singh

Prosus Ventures last week filed a hostile offer for British food delivery startup Just Eat, an attempt to defeat a unanimous rejection from its board and simultaneously fend off a bid from rival Takeaway.

The giant Naspers spinoff said it was willing to pay as much as $6.3 billion in cash to lure Just Eat, one of Europe’s largest foodtech players.

Prosus’ major bet on online food startups shouldn’t come as a surprise; the recently-listed subsidiary, whose parent firm has invested in companies in more than 90 nations, has shown a great appetite for food delivery startups globally.

How deeply Prosus believes in foodtech is perhaps on display in emerging markets such as India, one of the most buzziest nations for the investment firm, where the unit economics doesn’t work yet for almost any internet startup and probably won’t for another few years.

Prosus Ventures’ investments in food delivery startups globally

Last year, South Africa-based Naspers led a $1 billion financing round for Indian food delivery startup Swiggy. The investment firm contributed $716 million to the round, just shy of the roughly $750 million that Swiggy’s chief rival, Zomato, has raised in its 11 years of existence.

TechCrunch spoke with Larry Illg, CEO of Prosus Ventures and Food, and Ashutosh Sharma, head of investments for India at the venture firm, to understand how significant foodtech is for the investment firm and the bets it is making in India.

Swiggy

“We had a thesis on food delivery globally,” said Illg, describing the company’s first search for a food delivery company in India. “We knew that at least one big player will be there in India in the future. We went around the town and spoke to a lot of startups.”

And then they found Swiggy. But, Illg said, it was a very different Swiggy from the one that currently dominates the Indian market. “So here was a food delivery startup that was already profitable. The only challenge was that it was operational in just six cities in India.”

And thus began Naspers’ journey to convince Swiggy to expand its service nationwide. Now operational in more than 130 cities around the country, Swiggy today competes with Zomato, UberEats, and Ola-owned FoodPanda (now known as Ola Foods).

Prosus Ventures’ Sharma, who heads India business, cautioned that it is early for food startups in India. “I want to say we are on day one, but it might as well be day zero. The number of smartphone users in India who are ordering food online is still less than 2%,” he said.

But even this nascent category has attracted some tough competitors. While UberEats and Ola’s Foods are struggling to make a significant dent, Swiggy and Ant Financial-backed Zomato are locked in an intense battle.

Both companies, according to industry reports, are losing more than $20 million each month. Zomato was burning about $45 million each month a year ago, Info Edge, a publicly-listed investor in the startup revealed in its recent earnings call with analysts.

Illg is not really bothered with the frenzy cash burn in India’s food delivery market, and said Prosus has no shortage of cash, either.

That cash might come in handy very soon. A source at Zomato told TechCrunch that the company is in talks to raise as much as $550 million in a round led by Ant Financial .

TechCrunch reported earlier this year that Zomato is quietly setting up its own supply chain to control the raw material its restaurant partners use. Two sources familiar with Zomato say the food delivery startup is thinking of expanding beyond delivering food items.

Earlier this year, Swiggy announced that its delivery fleet can now move just about anything from one part of the city to another. The service, called Swiggy Go, is currently limited to select cities. Zomato plans to replicate this, sources say. Neither of these developments have been previously reported.

Additionally, cloud kitchens are current area of focus for Swiggy. This week, the company announced it has established more than 1,000 cloud kitchens in the country, more so than any of its rivals.

Illg said cloud kitchens are crucial for a country like India, which has a low density of restaurants. “We have the visibility of all the market dynamics,” he said. “We can look at a location, comb through the data and know what kind of restaurants and food supplies would work there.”

Opera’s Africa fintech startup OPay gains $120M from Chinese investors

By Jake Bright

Africa-focused fintech startup OPay has raised a $120 million Series B round backed by Chinese investors.

Located in Lagos and founded by consumer internet company Opera, OPay will use the funds to scale in Nigeria and expand its payments product to Kenya, Ghana and South Africa — Opera’s CFO Frode Jacobsen confirmed to TechCrunch.

Series B investors included Meituan-Dianping, GaoRong, Source Code Capital, Softbank Asia, BAI, Redpoint, IDG Capital, Sequoia China and GSR Ventures.

OPay’s $120 million round comes after the startup raised $50 million in June. It also follows Visa’s $200 million investment in Nigerian fintech company Interswitch and a $40 million raise by Lagos-based payments startup PalmPay — led by China’s Transsion.

There are a couple of quick takeaways. Nigeria has become the epicenter for fintech VC and expansion in Africa. And Chinese investors have made an unmistakable pivot to African tech.

Opera’s activity on the continent represents both trends. The Norway-based, Chinese-owned (majority) company founded OPay in 2018 on the popularity of its internet search engine.

Opera’s web-browser has ranked No. 2 in usage in Africa, after Chrome, the last four years.

The company has built a hefty suite of internet-based commercial products in Nigeria around OPay’s financial utility. These include motorcycle ride-hail app ORide, OFood delivery service and OLeads SME marketing and advertising vertical.

“OPay will facilitate the people in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya and other African countries with the best fintech ecosystem. We see ourselves as a key contributor to…helping local businesses…thrive from…digital business models,” Opera CEO and OPay Chairman Yahui Zhou, said in a statement.

Opera CFO Frode Jacobsen shed additional light on how OPay will deploy the $120 million across Opera’s Africa network. OPay looks to capture volume around bill payments and airtime purchases, but not necessarily as priority.  “That’s not something you do every day. We want to focus our services on things that have high-frequency usage,” said Jacobsen.

Those include transportation services, food services and other types of daily activities, he explained. Jacobsen also noted OPay will use the $120 million to enter more countries in Africa than those disclosed.

Since its Series A raise, OPay in Nigeria has scaled to 140,000 active agents and $10 million in daily transaction volume, according to company stats.

Beyond standing out as another huge funding round, OPay’s $120 million VC raise has significance for Africa’s tech ecosystem on multiple levels.

It marks 2019 as the year Chinese investors went all in on the continent’s startup scene. OPay, PalmPay and East African trucking logistics company Lori Systems have raised a combined $240 million from 15 different Chinese actors in a span of months.

OPay’s funding and expansion plans are also a harbinger for fierce, cross-border fintech competition in Africa’s digital finance space. Parallel events to watch for include Interswitch’s imminent IPO, e-commerce venture Jumia’s shift to digital finance and WhatsApp’s likely entry in African payments.

The continent’s 1.2 billion people represent the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population — which makes fintech Africa’s most promising digital sector. But it’s becoming a notably crowded sector, where startup attrition and failure will certainly come into play.

And not to be overlooked is how OPay’s capital raise moves Opera toward becoming a multi-service commercial internet platform in Africa.

This places OPay and its Opera-supported suite of products on a competitive footing with other ride-hail, food delivery and payments startups across the continent. That means inevitable competition between Opera and Africa’s largest multi-service internet company, Jumia.

 

China Roundup: Alibaba’s Hong Kong listing and Tencent’s new fuel

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 earnings season is here. This week, long-time archrivals in the Chinese internet battlefield — Alibaba and Tencent — made some big revelations about their future. First off, let’s look at Alibaba’s long-awaited secondary listing and annual shopping bonanza.

Forget about the number

It’s that time of year. On November 11, Alibaba announced it generated $38.4 billion worth of gross merchandise value during the annual Single’s Day shopping festival, otherwise known as Double 11. It smashed the record and grabbed local headlines again, but the event means little other than a big publicity win for the company and showcasing the art of drumming up sales.

GMV is often used interchangeably with sales in e-commerce. That’s problematic because the number takes into account all transactions, including refunded items, and it’s by no means reflective of a company’s actual revenue. There are numerous ways to juice the figure, too, as I wrote last year. Presales began days in advance, incentives were doled out to spur last-minute orders and no refunds could be processed until November 12.

Don’t be fooled by the big numbers (yes, $38B GMV is BIG), the major growth times are over for Alibaba’s Singles’ Day

Today it functions as a massive marketing/user-acquisition event with generous subsidies — in other words: loss-making not profitable pic.twitter.com/S4Wzmudgkz

— Jon Russell (@jonrussell) November 12, 2019

Even Jiang Fan, the boss of Alibaba’s e-commerce business and the youngest among Alibaba’s 38 most important decision-makers, downplayed the number: “I never worry about transaction volumes. Numbers don’t matter. What’s most important is making Single’s Day fun and turning it into a real festival.”

Indeed, Alibaba put together another year of what’s equivalent to the Super Bowl halftime show. Taylor Swift and other international big names graced the stage as the evening gala was live-streamed and watched by millions across the globe.

.@taylorswift13 performing at the 11.11 Global Shopping Festival Countdown Gala last night in Shanghai. The gala was produced by Youku, Alibaba’s video streaming platform. For more coverage on 11.11, check out our dedicated #Double11 page: https://t.co/VeupwMr5WT pic.twitter.com/suLvCd4Y3m

Alibaba Group (@AlibabaGroup) November 11, 2019

Returning home

Alibaba is going ahead with its secondary listing in Hong Kong on the heels of reports that it could delay the sale due to ongoing political unrest in the city-state. The company is cash-rich, but listing closer to its customers can potentially ease some of the pressure arising from a new era of volatile U.S.-China relationships.

Alibaba is issuing 500 million new shares with an additional over-allotment option of 75 million shares for international underwriters, it said in a company blog. Reports have put the size of its offering between $10 billion and $15 billion, down from the earlier rumored $20 billion.

The giant has long expressed it intends to come home. In 2014, the e-commerce behemoth missed out on Hong Kong because the local exchange didn’t allow dual-class structures, a type of organization common in technology companies that grants different voting rights for different stocks. The giant instead went public in New York and raised the largest initial public offering in history at $25 billion.

“When Alibaba Group went public in 2014, we missed out on Hong Kong with regret. Hong Kong is one of the world’s most important financial centers. Over the last few years, there have been many encouraging reforms in Hong Kong’s capital market. During this time of ongoing change, we continue to believe that the future of Hong Kong remains bright. We hope we can contribute, in our small way, and participate in the future of Hong Kong,” said chairman and chief executive Daniel Zhang in a statement.

Missing out on Alibaba had also been a source of remorse for the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong. Charles Li, chief executive of the HKEX, admitted that losing Alibaba to New York had compelled the bourse to reform. The HKEX has since added dual-class shares and attracted Chinese tech upstarts such as smartphone maker Xiaomi and local services platform Meituan Dianping.

Tencent’s new fuel

Content and social networks have been the major revenue drivers for Tencent since its early years, but new initiatives are starting to gain ground. In the third quarter ended September 30, Tencent’s “fintech and business services” unit, which includes its payments and cloud services, became the firm’s second-largest sales avenue trailing the long-time cash cow of value-added services, essentially virtual items sold in games and social networks.

Payments, in particular, accounted for much of the quarterly growth thanks to increased daily active consumers and number of transactions per user. That’s good news for the company, which said back in 2016 that financial services would be its new focus (in Chinese) alongside content and social. The need to diversify became more salient in recent times as Tencent faces stricter government controls over the gaming sector and intense rivalry from ByteDance, the new darling of advertisers and owner of TikTok and Douyin.

Tencent also broke out revenue for cloud services for the first time. The unit grew 80% year-on-year to rake in 4.7 billion yuan ($670 million) and received a great push as the company pivoted to serve more industrial players and enterprises. Alibaba’s cloud business still leads the Chinese market by a huge margin, with revenue topping $1.3 billion during the September quarter.

Also worth your attention…

Luckin Coffee, the Chinese startup that began as a Starbucks challenger, is starting to look more like a convenient store chain with delivery capacities as it continues to increase store density (a combination of seated cafes, pickup stands and delivery kitchens) and widen product offerings to include a growing snack selection. Though bottom-line loss continued in the quarter, store-level operating profit swung to $26.1 million from a loss in the prior-year quarter. 30 million customers have purchased from Luckin, marking an increase of 413.4% from 6 million a year ago.

Minecraft is on the brink of 300 million registered users in China, its local publisher Netease announced at an event this week. That’s a lot of players, but not totally unreasonable given the game is free-to-play in the country with in-game purchases, so users can easily own multiple accounts. Outside China, the game has sold over 180 million paid copies, according to gaming analyst Daniel Ahmed from Niko Partners.

Xiaomi founder Lei Jun is returning a huge favor by backing a long-time friend. Xpeng Motors, the Chinese electric vehicle startup financed by Alibaba and Foxconn, has received $400 million in capital from a group of backers who weren’t identified except Xiaomi, which became its strategic investor. The marriage would allow Xpeng cars to tap Xiaomi’s growing ecosystem of smart devices, but the relationship dates further back. Lei was an early investor in UCWeb, a browser company founded by He and acquired by Alibaba in 2014. A day after Xiaomi’s began trading in Hong Kong in mid-2018, He wrote on his WeChat feed that he had bought $100 million worth of Xiaomi shares (in Chinese) in support of his old friend.

Eigen nabs $37M to help banks and others parse huge documents using natural language and ‘small data’

By Ingrid Lunden

One of the bigger trends in enterprise software has been the emergence of startups building tools to make the benefits of artificial intelligence technology more accessible to non-tech companies. Today, one that has built a platform to apply power of machine learning and natural language processing to massive documents of unstructured data has closed a round of funding as it finds strong demand for its approach.

Eigen Technologies, a London-based startup whose machine learning engine helps banks and other businesses that need to extract information and insights from large and complex documents like contracts, is today announcing that it has raised $37 million in funding, a Series B that values the company at around $150 million – $180 million.

The round was led by Lakestar and Dawn Capital, with Temasek and Goldman Sachs Growth Equity (which co-led its Series A) also participating. Eigen has now raised $55 million in total.

Eigen today is working primarily in the financial sector — its offices are smack in the middle of The City, London’s financial center — but the plan is to use the funding to continue expanding the scope of the platform to cover other verticals such as insurance and healthcare, two other big areas that deal in large, wordy documentation that is often inconsistent in how its presented, full of essential fine print, and is typically a strain on an organisation’s resources to be handled correctly, and is often a disaster if it is not.

The focus up to now on banks and other financial businesses has had a lot of traction. It says its customer base now includes 25% of the world’s G-SIB institutions (that is, the world’s biggest banks), along with others who work closely with them like Allen & Overy and Deloitte. Since June 2018 (when it closed its Series A round), Eigen has seen recurring revenues grow sixfold with headcount — mostly data scientists and engineers — double. While Eigen doesn’t disclose specific financials, you can the growth direction that contributed to the company’s valuation.

The basic idea behind Eigen is that it focuses what co-founder and CEO Lewis Liu describes as “small data”. The company has devised a way to “teach” an AI to read a specific kind of document — say, a loan contract — by looking at a couple of examples and training on these. The whole process is relatively easy to do for a non-technical person: you figure out what you want to look for and analyse, find the examples using basic search in two or three documents, and create the template which can then be used across hundreds or thousands of the same kind of documents (in this case, a loan contract).

Eigen’s work is notable for two reasons. First, typically machine learning and training and AI requires hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of examples to “teach” a system before it can make decisions that you hope will mimic those of a human. Eigen requires a couple of examples (hence the “small data” approach).

Second, an industry like finance has many pieces of sensitive data (either because its personal data, or because it’s proprietary to a company and its business), and so there is an ongoing issue of working with AI companies that want to “anonymise” and ingest that data. Companies simply don’t want to do that. Eigen’s system essentially only works on what a company provides, and that stays with the company.

Eigen was founded in 2014 by Dr. Lewis Z. Liu (CEO) and Jonathan Feuer (a managing partner at CVC Capital technologies who is the company’s chairman), but its earliest origins go back 15 years earlier, when Liu — a first-generation immigrant who grew up in the US — was working as a “data entry monkey” (his words) at a tire manufacturing plant in New Jersey, where he lived, ahead of starting university at Harvard.

A natural computing whizz who found himself building his own games when his parents refused to buy him a games console, he figured out that the many pages of printouts that he was reading and re-entering into a different computing system could be sped up with a computer program linking up the two. “I put myself out of a job,” he joked.

His educational life epitomises the kind of lateral thinking that often produces the most interesting ideas. Liu went on to Harvard to study not computer science, but physics and art. Doing a double major required working on a thesis that merged the two disciplines together, and Liu built “electrodynamic equations that composed graphical structures on the fly” — basically generating art using algorithms — which he then turned into a “Turing test” to see if people could detect pixelated actual work with that of his program. Distil this, and Liu was still thinking about patterns in analog material that could be re-created using math.

Then came years at McKinsey in London (how he arrived on these shores) during the financial crisis where the results of people either intentionally or mistakenly overlooking crucial text-based data produced stark and catastrophic results. “I would say the problem that we eventually started to solve for at Eigen became for tangible,” Liu said.

Then came a physics PhD at Oxford where Liu worked on X-ray lasers that could be used to bring down the complexity and cost of making microchips, cancer treatments and other applications.

While Eigen doesn’t actually use lasers, some of the mathematical equations that Liu came up with for these have also become a part of Eigen’s approach.

“The whole idea [for my PhD] was, ‘how do we make this cheeper and more scalable?'” he said. “We built a new class of X-ray laser apparatus, and we realised the same equations could be used in pattern matching algorithms, specifically around sequential patterns. And out of that, and my existing corporate relationships, that’s how Eigen started.”

Five years on, Eigen has added a lot more into the platform beyond what came from Liu’s original ideas. There are more data scientists and engineers building the engine around the basic idea, and customising it to work with more sectors beyond finance. 

There are a number of AI companies building tools for non-technical business end-users, and one of the areas that comes close to what Eigen is doing is robotic process automation, or RPA. Liu notes that while this is an important area, it’s more about reading forms more readily and providing insights to those. The focus of Eigen in more on unstructured data, and the ability to parse it quickly and securely using just a few samples.

Liu points to companies like IBM (with Watson) as general competitors, while startups like Luminance is another taking a similar approach to Eigen by addressing the issue of parsing unstructured data in a specific sector (in its case, currently, the legal profession).

Stephen Nundy, a partner and the CTO of Lakestar, said that he first came into contact with Eigen when he was at Goldman Sachs, where he was a managing director overseeing technology, and the bank engaged it for work.

“To see what these guys can deliver, it’s to be applauded,” he said. “They’re not just picking out names and addresses. We’re talking deep, semantic understanding. Other vendors are trying to be everything to everybody, but Eigen has found market fit in financial services use cases, and it stands up against the competition. You can see when a winner is breaking away from the pack and it’s a great signal for the future.”

Google to offer checking accounts in partnership with banks starting next year

By Darrell Etherington

Google is the latest big tech company to make a move into banking and personal financial services: The company is gearing up to offer checking accounts to consumers, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal, starting as early as next year. Google is calling the project “Cache,” and it’ll partner with banks and credit unions to offer the checking accounts, with the banks handling all financial and compliance activities related to the accounts.

Google’s Caesar Sengupta spoke to the WSJ about the new initiative, and Sengupta made clear that Google will be seeking to put its financial institution partners much more front-and-center for its customers than other tech companies have perhaps done with their financial products. Apple works with Goldman Sachs on its Apple Card credit product, for instance, but the credit card is definitely pretend primarily as an Apple product.

So why even bother getting into this game if it’s leaving a lot of the actual banking to traditional financial institutions? Well, Google obviously stands to gain a lot of valuable information and insight on customer behavior with access to their checking account, which for many is a good picture of overall day-to-day financial life. Google says it’s also intending to offer product advantages for both consumers and banks, including things like loyalty programs, on top of the basic financial services. It’s also still considering whether or not it’ll charge service fees, per Segupta – not doing so would definitely be and advantage over most existing checking accounts available.

Google already offers Google Pay, and its Google Wallet product has hosted some features beyond simple payments tracking, including the ability to send money between individuals. Meanwhile, rivals including Apple have also introducing payment products, and Apple of course recently expanded into the credit market with Apple Card. Facebook also introduced its own digital payment product earlier this week, and earlier this year announced its intent to build its own digital currency called ‘Libra’ along with partners.

The initial financial partners that Google is working with include Citigroup and Stanford Federal Credit Union, and their motivation per the WSJ piece appears to be seeking out and attracting younger and more digital-savvy customers who are increasingly looking to handle more of their lives through online tools. Per Sengupta’s comments, they’ll also benefit from Google’s ability to work with large sets of data and turn those into value-add products, but the Google exec also said the tech company doesn’t sue Google Pay data for advertising, nor does it share that data with advertisers. Still, convincing people to give Google access to this potentially sensitive area of their lives might be an uphill battle, especially given the current political and social climate around big tech.

PalmPay launches in Nigeria on $40M round led by China’s Transsion

By Jake Bright

Africa focused payment startup PalmPay has launched in Nigeria after raising a $40 million seed-round led by Chinese mobile-phone maker Transsion.

The investment came via Transsion’s Tecno subsidiary, with participation from China’s NetEase and Taiwanese wireless comms hardware firm Mediatek a Transsion spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch.

PalmPay had piloted its mobile fintech offering in Nigeria since July, before going live today at a launch in Lagos.

The startup aims to become Africa’s largest financial services platform, according to a statement. 

As part of the investment, PalmPay enters a strategic partnership with mobile brands Tecno, Infinix, and Itel that includes pre-installation of the startup’s app on 20 million phones in 2020.

The UK headquartered venture — that was also founded with Chinese seed investment — offers a package of mobile based financial services, including no fee payment options, bill pay, rewards programs, and discounted airtime.

In Nigeria, PalmPay will offer 10% cashback on airtime purchases and bank transfer rates as low as 10 Naira ($.02).

In addition to Nigeria, PalmPay will use the $40 million seed funding to grow its financial services business in Ghana. The payments startup has plans to expand to additional countries in 2020, PalmPay CEO Greg Reeve told TechCrunch on a call.

PalmPay received its approval from the Nigerian Central Bank as a licensed mobile money operator in July. During its pilot phase, the payments venture registered 100,000 users and processed 1 million transactions, according to a company spokesperson.

With its payments focus, the startup enters Africa’s most promising digital sector, but also one that has become notably competitive and crowded  — particularly in the continent’s largest economy and most populous nation of Nigeria. 

By a number of estimates, Africa’s 1.2 billion people represent the largest share of the world’s unbanked and underbanked population.

An improving smartphone and mobile-connectivity profile for Africa (see GSMA) turns this scenario into an opportunity for mobile-based financial products.

That’s why hundreds of startups are descending on Africa’s fintech space, looking to offer scalable solutions for the continent’s financial needs. By stats offered WeeTracker, fintech now receives the bulk of VC capital and deal-flow to African startups.

Nigeria has multiple new digital-payments entrants — see Chippercash — and several firmly rooted later stage fintech players, such as Paga and recently confirmed unicorn Interswitch.

PalmPay CEO Greg Reeves believes the company can compete in Nigeria and across Africa based on several strategic advantages. A big one is the startup’s support from Transsion and partnership with Tecno.

Transsion Tecno Store Africa“On channel and access, we’re going to be pre-installed on all Tecno phones. Your’e gonna find us in the Tecno stores and outlets. So we get an immediate channel and leg up in any market we operate in,” said Reeve.

Tecno’s owner and PalmPay’s lead investor, Transsion, is the largest seller of smartphones in Africa and maintains a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia. The company raised nearly $400 million in a Shanghai IPO in September and plans to spend roughly $300 million of that on new R&D and manufacturing capabilities in Africa and globally.

In addition to Transsion’s support and network, Reeves names PalmPay’s partnership with Visa . “We signed a strategic alliance with Visa so now I can deliver Visa products on top of my wallet, link my wallet to Visa products and give access to someone who’s completely unbanked to the whole of the Visa network,” he said.

Another strategic advantage PalmPay may have as a newcomer in Africa’s fintech space is Reeve’s leadership experience. He comes to the CEO position after serving as Vodaphone’s global head of M-Pesa — one of the world’s most recognized mobile-money products. Reeve was also a GM for Millicom‘s fintech products across Africa and Latin America.

“I’ve had my fingers in mobile financial services for the last 10 years,” he said.

Reeve confirmed that PalmPay has local teams (and is hiring) in Nigeria and Ghana.

With the company’s launch and $40 million raise — which is potentially the largest seed-round for an Africa focused startup in 2019 — PalmPay’s bid to gain digital payment market share is on.

The Transsion led investment also serves as a big bold marker for China’s pivot to African tech in 2019. It follows several big moves by Chinese actors in the continent’s digital space.

These include Opera’s $50 million investment in multiple online verticals in Nigeria and a major investment by Chinese investors in trucking logistics startup Lori Systems this week.

Chaka opens up global investing to Africa’s most populous nation

By Jake Bright

Fintech startup Chaka aims to open up online investing to Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria.

The seed-stage company recently went live with its mobile-based platform that offers Nigerians stock trading in more than 40 countries.

Chaka positions itself as a passport to local and global investing. The startup has created an API and interface that allows Nigerians with a bank account (and who meet KYC requirements) to create trading accounts to purchase global blue chip and local Nigerian stocks.

Investors can get started with as little as 1,000 Naira, or $10, to create a local and global wallet to trade, according to Chaka founder and CEO Tosin Osibodu.

The platform has partnerships with two brokers to facilitate stock purchases: Citi Investment Capital and U.S.-based DriveWealth.

“Embedded in our offer is the ability to buy on the local stock market…we make it more seamless than usual, and assets…from this whole universe outside the continent,” said Osibodu.

The Nigerian Stock Exchange has been upgrading its platform to digitize and accommodate more listings. It has a five-year partnership with NASDAQ and Airtel Africa listed on the NSE in July. 

On the Chaka’s addressable market, “Our outlook is that within Nigeria…between one and two million people are strongly in the market for this product,” Osibodu said.

Tosin Osibodu

Chaka looks to offer more than stocks. “Our product road-map includes not just equities, but other investment products people are interested in — mutual funds, fixed income products, and eventually even cryptocurrencies — so that really expands our bounds,” said Osibodu.

Chaka’s fee structure is 100 Naira (or 3%) for local trades and $4.00 for global trades.

To mitigate the FX risk of the often volatile Nigerian Naira, the startup converts locally to dollars and funds client trades in USD. Chaka agrees to intra-day forward rates at 9am each day and locks them in until 2pm for transactional activity on its platform, according to Osibodu

Chaka hasn’t disclosed amounts, but confirms its has received pre-seed funding from Nigerian founder and investor Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, aka E.

The startup is in a unique position in African fintech. The sector receives the bulk of the continent’s VC (according WeeTracker), but most of it is directed toward P2P payments startups — versus personal investment platforms.

An alum of U-Penn and Dartmouth, Chaka’s founder got the idea to form the venture, in part, due to challenges attempting to access well-known trading platforms, such as E-Trade.

“I tried to open these accounts and whenever I…disclosed I was Nigerian very shortly after those accounts were closed or denied,” said Osibodu. 

For decades, Nigeria has been known as an originating country for online fraud, commonly referred to as 419 scams. This is something for which the country’s legitimate business operators pay an undue reputational cost, according to Osibodu. 

In recent years, Nigeria has also become a magnet for legitimate business in Africa. The country has the continent’s leading movie and entertainment industry and has emerged as a hotspot for startup formation and VC activity.

Chaka backer Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, who confirmed his investment in the company to TechCrunch, believes progressive trends in Nigeria will open up a new investor class.

In addition to Aboyeji, Chaka has also received seed-funds from Microtraction, a Lagos-located early-stage investment shop founded by Yele Bademosi and supported by Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel.

Chaka allows for API integrations and has a developer team. The company has created an automated customer verification process. “It sounds trivial compared to the American market, but it’s a bit of a first in Nigeria,” said CEO Tosin Osibodu.

On Chaka’s long-game, “The grand mission of the company is to reduce capital market access barriers,” according to Osibodu.

“With a two to five million customer base — and a $40 to $200 ARPU — on the really conservative end that’s a $100 million revenue opportunity,” he said.

 

China’s news and data site 36Kr tumbles in its stock market debut

By Manish Singh

36Kr, a Chinese news and data website that tracks startups, fell 10% in its Nasdaq debut on Friday.

The disappointing debut followed 36Kr’s decision to slash the size of its offering from 3.6 million shares to 1.4 million and pricing its shares at $14.5, the bottom of marketed range. This meant that the firm, which had initially aimed to raise as much as $100 million, settled for $20 million. A company top executive said that even as the offering is smaller, it has great confidence in its stock’s future performance.

The nine-year-old Chinese company’s decision to list in the U.S., instead of Hong Kong especially considering the ongoing trade war between the two nations also surprised many.

In an interview with Yahoo Finance on Friday, 36Kr founder and co-chairman Cheng-Cheng Liu said the company decided to go public on Nasdaq because “our team thinks the U.S. stock market is one of the most matured markets in the world. Also, we have business outside of China.”

36Kr provides financials on companies, market updates, and commentaries. It maintains an English website as well and makes money through ads and multiple subscription offerings. The company could look to expand its business in North America in the future, said Liu. He also said that the company is betting that “the U.S. and China will be friends again.”

Liu said the recent instances such disappointing debut of Uber and tremendous fall of We, which postponed its public debut, should not affect 36Kr’s performance because unlike other companies 36Kr is “not cash burning” and has been profitable. In the first half of 2019, 36Kr generated a revenue of $29.4 million, a 179% year-over-year increase

The company, often called “Crunchbase* of China,” counts Ant Financial, Matrix Partners China, e.ventures, and Infinity Ventures among its investors and has raised over $100 million in venture fund. Crunchbase, which late last month raised $30 million, started as part of TechCrunch and has since spun out.

African logistics startup Lori Systems raises Series A led by Chinese investors

By Jake Bright

African on-demand trucking logistics company Lori Systems has raised a Series A round led by Chinese investors Hillhouse Capital and Crystal Stream Capital.

Other participating investors included Nigeria and U.S.-based EchoVC, Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen and Nigerian founder Iyinoluwa Aboyeji.

Lori Systems is not disclosing the amount of the Series A. DealStreet Asia reported the round amount at $30 million earlier Friday, but Lori Systems’ CEO Josh Sandler would not confirm that. That figure was “something lost in translation” and “a mischaracterization of the raise,” he told TecCrunch on a call.

The company issued a clarification to initial reporting in a Medium post. On the reason for the non-disclosure, “Lori has never released fundraising details as we feel it is a vanity metric that distracts from what matters most: our mission of lowering the goods in frontier markets,” Lori Systems co-founder Jean-Claude Homawoo told TechCrunch.

A recent Financial Times piece pegged Lori’s total funding raise at $20 million.

disruptsf18_battlefield_lori-1284

Founded in Kenya in 2016, the company provides mobile-based on-demand trucking logistics services through an Uber -like network of drivers and merchant partners. Lori Systems has operations in East Africa in Kenya and Uganda.

The company expanded to Nigeria in September 2019, where it faces a competitor in trucking logistics company Kobo360.

“We are using the round to ramp up operations, build up our technology, and hire a best in class team…that can drive a global revolutions in logistics,” Lori Systems CEO Josh Sandler said.

The company recently hired Nigerian Uche Ogboi from EchoVC to become its CFO and former Quona Capital associate Efayomi Carr.

Lori Systems won Startup Battlefield Africa in 2017.

Every startup is a bank — or wants to be

By Kate Clark

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

This week we did something just a little bit new. Kate was in studio at TechCrunch’s SF HQ. Alex was in his dork cave in Providence. And we had a guest in the studio as well. We’ve done similar setups before, but never with video all around. So, welcome to a slightly new chapter in Equity’s production history (all praise to Chris for making it work, video will be out today on TechCrunch’s YouTube page).

Our guest this week was the excellent Sarah Smith from Bain Capital Ventures. Before she turned to writing checks, Smith worked for both Quora and Facebook. Her fun fact? She’s an avid and competitive player of board games.

First up we dug into one of Kate’s latest, a piece looking at the influencer space, venture investments into it and what’s next for the power of the Instagram-famous. She highlights startups like Influence, Cameo, Karat and more.

Next up, Deserve raised $50 million from Goldman Sachs, making the round something that was worth touching on. Later, Alex spoke with the company’s CEO and picked up more context, but what matters for today is that Deserve is doubling-down on its credit card fintech service, not doing what other companies that handle money are up to — namely, trying to become neobanks at high speed.

Speaking of which, why is every fintech or finservices startup becoming a bank? Partially because they can, partially because it can be lucrative and partially because, we found out, it’s a way to juice customers that they’ve already paid to acquire. Want to make your CAC expenses look more efficient? Stretch out that LTV!

And then we spent a minute on Uber’s results, which proved better than expected but wound up being poorly received.

Glad you guys came back for another episode, we’ll see you soon.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Where top VCs are investing in fintech

By Arman Tabatabai

Over the past several years, ‘fintech’ has quietly become the unsung darling of venture.

A rapidly swelling pool of new startups is taking aim at the large incumbent institutions, complex processes and outdated unfriendly interfaces that mar billion dollar financial services verticals, such as insurtech, consumer lending, personal finance, or otherwise.  

In just the past summer, the startup community saw a multitude of hundred-million dollar fintech fundraises. In 2018, fintech companies were the source of close to 1,300 venture deals worth over $15 billion in North America and Europe alone according to data from Pitchbook. Over the same period, KPMG estimates that over $52 billion in investment pour into fintech initiatives globally. 

With the non-stop stream of venture capital flowing into the never-ending list of spaces that fall under the ‘fintech’ umbrella, we asked 12 leading fintech VCs who work at firms that span early to growth stages to share where they see the most opportunity and how they see the market evolving over the long-term.

The participants touched on a number of key trends in the space, including rapid innovation in fintech infrastructure, fintech companies embedding themselves in specific verticals and platforms, rebundling and unbundling of financial services offerings, the rise of challenger banks and the state of fintech valuations into 2020.

Charles Birnbaum, Partner, Bessemer Venture Partners

The great ‘rebundling’ of fintech innovation is in full swing. The emerging consumer leaders in fintech — Chime, SoFi, Robinhood, Credit Karma, and Bessemer portfolio company Betterment — are moving quickly to increase their share of wallet with their valuable customers and become a one-stop-shop for people’s financial lives.

In 2020, we anticipate continued entrepreneurial activity and investor enthusiasm around the infrastructure and middleware layers within the fintech ecosystem that are enabling further rebundling and a rapid convergence of product themes and business models across the consumer fintech landscape.

Many players now look like potential challenger bank models more akin to what we have seen unfold in Europe the past few years. Within consumer fintech, we at Bessemer are more focused on demographically-specific product offerings that tap into underserved themes, whether that be the financial problems facing the aging population in the US or new models to serve the underbanked or underserved population of consumers and small businesses.

Ian Sigalow, Co-founder & Partner, Greycroft

What trends are you most excited in fintech from an investing perspective? 

I suspect that many enterprise software companies become fintech companies over time — collecting payments on behalf of customers and growing revenues as your customers grow. We have seen this trend in many industries over the past few years. Business owners generally prefer a model that moves IT expenditures from Operating Expenses into Cost of Goods Sold, because they can increase prices and pass their entire budget onto the customer.

On the consumer side, we have already made investments in branchless banking, insurance (auto, home, health, workers comp), cross-border payments, alternative investments, loyalty cards/services, and roboadvisor services. The companies we funded are already a few years old, and I think we will have some interesting follow-on activity there over the next few years. We have been picking spots where we think we have an unfair competitive advantage.

Our fintech portfolio is also more global than other sectors we invest in. This is because there are opportunities to achieve billion dollar outcomes in fintech, even in countries that are much smaller than the United States. That is not true in many other sectors.

We have also seen trends emerge in the US and move abroad. As an example we seeded Flutterwave, which is similar to Stripe, and they have expanded across Africa. We were also the lead investor in Yeahka, which is similar to Square in China. These products are heavily localized —tin for instance Yeahka is the largest processor of QR code payments in the world, but QR code payments are not popular in the US yet.

How much time are you spending on fintech right now? Is the market under-heated, over-heated, or just right?

Fintech is about a quarter of my time right now. We continue to see interesting new ideas and the valuations have been more or less consistent over time. The broader market doesn’t impact us very much because we tend to have a 10 year holding period.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t?

China Roundup: TikTok stumbles in the US and Huawei shipments continue to surge

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. It’s been a very busy last week of October for China’s tech bosses, but first, let’s take a look at what some of them are doing in the neck of your woods.

TikTok’s troubles in the U.S.

The challenge facing TikTok, a burgeoning Chinese video-sharing app, continues to deepen in the U.S. Lawmakers have recently called for an investigation into the social network, which is operated by Beijing-based internet upstart ByteDance, over concerns that it could censor politically sensitive content and be compelled to turn American users’ data over to the Chinese government.

TikTok is arguably the first Chinese consumer app to have achieved international scale — more than 1 billion installs by February. It’s done so with a community of creators good at churning out snappy, light-hearted videos, highly localized operations and its acquisition of rival Musical.ly, which took American teens by storm. In contrast, WeChat has struggled to build up a significant overseas presence and Alibaba’s fintech affiliate Ant Financial has mostly ventured abroad through savvy investments.

TikTok denied the American lawmakers’ allegations in a statement last week, claiming that it stores all U.S. user data locally with backup redundancy in Singapore and that none of its data is subject to Chinese law. Shortly after, on November 1, Reuters reported citing sources that the U.S. government has begun to probe into ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly and is in talks with the firm about measures it could take to avoid selling Musical.ly . ByteDance had no further comment to add beyond the issued statement when contacted by TechCrunch.

The new media company must have seen the heat coming as U.S.-China tensions escalate in recent times. In the long term, TikTok might have better luck expanding in developing countries along China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s ambitious global infrastructure and investment strategy. The app already has a footprint in some 150 countries with a concentration in Asia. India accounted for 44% of its total installs as of September, followed by the U.S. at 8%, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower.

lark

ByteDance is also hedging its bets by introducing a Slack-like workplace app and is reportedly marketing it to enterprises in the U.S. and other foreign countries. The question is, will ByteDance continue its heavy ad spending for TikTok in the U.S., which amounted to as much as $3 million a day according to a Wall Street Journal report, or will it throttle back as it’s said to go public anytime soon? Or rather, will it bow to U.S. pressure, much like Chinese internet firm Kunlun selling LGBTQ dating app Grindr (Kunlun confirmed this in a May filing), to offload Musical.ly?

Huawei is still selling a lot of phones

The other Chinese company that’s been taking the heat around the world appears to be faring better. Huawei clung on to the second spot in global smartphone shipments during the third quarter and recorded the highest annual growth out of the top-5 players at 29%, according to market analytics firm Canalys. Samsung, which came in first, rose 11%. Apple, in third place, fell 7%. Despite a U.S. ban on Huawei’s use of Android, the phone maker’s Q3 shipments consisted mostly of models already in development before the restriction was instated, said Canalys. It remains to be seen how distributors around the world will respond to Huawei’s post-ban smartphones.

Another interesting snippet of Huawei handset news is that it’s teamed up with a Beijing-based startup named ACRCloud to add audio recognition capabilities to its native music app. It’s a reminder that the company not only builds devices but has also been beefing up software development. Huawei Music has a content licensing deal with Tencent’s music arm and claims some 150 million monthly active users, both free and paid subscribers.

Co-living IPOs

danke apartment

China’s modern-day nomads want flexible and cost-saving housing as much as their American counterparts do. The demand has given rise to apartment-rental services like Danke, which is sometimes compared to WeLive, a residential offering from the now besieged WeWork that provides fully-furnished, shared apartments on a flexible schedule.

Four-year-old Danke has filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and listed its offering size at $100 million, typically a placeholder to calculate registration fees. Backed by Jack Ma-controlled Ant Financial, the loss-making startup is now leasing in 13 Chinese cities, aggressively growing the number of apartments it operated to 406,746 since 2015. Its smaller rival Qingke has also filed to go public in the U.S. this week. Also operating in the red, Qingke has expanded its available rental units to 91,234 since 2012.

Apartment rental is a capital-intensive game. Services like Danke don’t normally own property but instead lease from third-party apartment owners. That means they are tied to paying rents to the landlords irrespective of whether the apartments are ultimately subleased. They also bear large overhead costs from renovation and maintenance. Ultimately, it comes down to which player can arrange the most favorable terms with landlords and retain tenants by offering quality service and competitive rent.

Also worth your attention

  • WeChat has been quite restrained in monetization but seems to be recently lifting its commercial ambitions. The social networking giant, which already sells in-feed ads, is expanding its inventory by showing users geotargeted ads as they scroll through friends’ updates, Tencent announced (in Chinese) in a company post this week.
  • Alibaba reported a 40% revenue jump in its September quarter, beating analysts’ estimates despite a cooling domestic economy. Its ecommerce segment saw strong user growth in less developed areas where it’s fighting a fierce war with rival Pinduoduo to capture the next online opportunity. Users from these regions spent about 2,000 yuan ($284) in their first year on Alibaba platforms, said CEO Daniel Zhang in the earnings call.
  • Walmart’s digital integration is gaining ground in China as it announced that online-to-offline commerce now contributes 30% sales to its neighboorhood stores. Last November, the American retail behemoth began testing same-day delivery in China through a partnership with WeChat.

Startups Weekly: Understanding Uber’s latest fintech play

By Kate Clark

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about how SoftBank is screwing up. Before that, I noted All Raise’s expansion, Uber the TV show and the unicorn from down under.

Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to kate.clark@techcrunch.com or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets. If you don’t subscribe to Startups Weekly yet, you can do that here.


Uber Head of Payments Peter Hazlehurst addresses the audience during an Uber products launch event in San Francisco, California, on September 26, 2019. (Photo by Philip Pacheco / AFP) (Photo credit should read PHILIP PACHECO/AFP/Getty Images)

The sheer number of startup players moving into banking services is staggering,” writes my Crunchbase News friends in a piece titled “Why Is Every Startup A Bank These Days.”

I’ve been asking myself the same question this year, as financial services business like Brex, Chime, Robinhood, Wealthfront, Betterment and more raise big rounds to build upstart digital banks. North of $13 billion venture capital dollars have been invested in U.S. fintech companies so far in 2019, up from $12 billion invested in 2018.

This week, one of the largest companies to ever emerge from the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem, Uber, introduced its team focused on developing new financial products and technologies. In a vacuum, a multibillion-dollar public company with more than 22,000 employees launching one new team is not big news. Considering investment and innovation in fintech this year, Uber’s now well-documented struggles to reach profitability and the company’s hiring efforts in New York, a hotbed for financial aficionados, the “Uber Money” team could indicate much larger fintech ambitions for the ride-hailing giant.

As it stands, the Uber Money team will be focused on developing real-time earnings for drivers accessed through the Uber debit account and debit card, which will itself see new features, like 3% or more cash back on gas. Uber Wallet, a digital wallet where drivers can more easily track their earnings, will launch in the coming weeks too, writes Peter Hazlehurst, the head of Uber Money.

This is hardly Uber’s first major foray into financial services. The company’s greatest feature has always been its frictionless payments capabilities that encourage riders and eaters to make purchases without thinking. Uber’s even launched its own consumer credit card to get riders cash back on rides. It’s no secret the company has larger goals in the fintech sphere, and with 100 million “monthly active platform consumers” via Uber, Uber Eats and more, a dedicated path toward new and better financial products may not only lead to happier, more loyal drivers but a company that’s actually, one day, able to post a profit.


VC deals


Meet me in Berlin

The TechCrunch team is heading to Berlin again this year for our annual event, TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin, which brings together entrepreneurs and investors from across the globe. We announced the agenda this week, with leading founders including Away’s Jen Rubio and UiPath’s Daniel Dines. Take a look at the full agenda.

I will be there to interview a bunch of venture capitalists, who will give tips on how to raise your first euros. Buy tickets to the event here.


Listen to Equity

This week on Equity, I was in studio while Alex was remote. We talked about a number of companies and deals, including a new startup taking on Slack, Wag’s woes and a small upstart disrupting the $8 billion nail services industry. Listen to the episode here.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on iTunesOvercast and all the casts.

Japanese instant-credit provider Paidy raises $143 million from investors, including PayPal Ventures

By Catherine Shu

Paidy, a Japanese financial tech startup that provides instant credit to consumers in Japan, announced today that it has raised a total of $143 million in new financing. This includes an $83 million Series C extension from investors, including PayPal Ventures, and debt financing of $60 million. The funding will be used to advance Paidy’s goals of signing large-scale merchants, offering new financial services and growing its user base to 11 million accounts by the end of 2020.

In addition to PayPal Ventures, investors in the Series C extension include Soros Capital Management, JS Capital Management and Tybourne Capital Management, along with another undisclosed investor. The debt financing is from Goldman Sachs Japan, Mizuho Bank, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation and Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank. Earlier this month, Paidy and Goldman Sachs Japan established a warehouse facility valued at $52 million. Paidy also established credit facility worth $8 million with the three banks.

This is the largest investment to date in the Japanese financial tech industry, according to data cited by Paidy, and brings the total investment the company has raised so far to $163 million. A representative for the startup says it decided to extend its Series C (announced last year) instead of moving on to a D round to preserve the equity ratio for existing investors and issue the same preferred shares as its previous funding rounds.

Launched in 2014, Paidy was created because many Japanese consumers don’t use credit cards for e-commerce purchases, even though the credit card penetration rate there is relatively high. Instead, many prefer to pay cash on delivery or at convenience stores and other pickup locations. While this makes online shopping easier for consumers, it presents several challenges for sellers, because they need to cover the cost of merchandise that hasn’t been paid for yet or deal with uncompleted deliveries.

Paidy’s solution is to make it possible for people to pay for merchandise online without needing to create an account first or use their credit cards. If a seller offers Paidy as a payment method, customers can check out by entering their mobile phone numbers and email addresses, which are then authenticated with code sent through SMS or voice. Paidy covers the cost of the items and bills customers monthly. Paidy uses proprietary machine learning models to score the creditworthiness of users, and says its service can help reduce incomplete transactions (or items that buyers ultimately don’t pick up and pay for), increase conversion rates, average order values and repeat purchases.

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