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Apple’s dangerous path

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.

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

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


the big thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

illustration of key over cloud icon

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /

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

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

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

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

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


other things

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

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

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

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

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

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


extra things

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

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

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

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


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

Lucas Matney

Customer experience startup Clootrack raises $4M, helps brands see through their customers’ eyes

By Christine Hall

Getting inside the mind of customers is a challenge as behaviors and demands shift, but Clootrack believes it has cracked the code in helping brands figure out how to do that.

It announced $4 million in Series A funding, led by Inventus Capital India, and included existing investors Unicorn India Ventures, IAN Fund and Salamander Excubator Angel Fund, as well as individual investment from Jiffy.ai CEO Babu Sivadasan. In total, the company raised $4.6 million, co-founder Shameel Abdulla told TechCrunch.

Clootrack is a real-time customer experience analytics platform that helps brands understand why customers stay or churn. Shameel Abdulla and Subbakrishna Rao, who both come from IT backgrounds, founded the company in 2017 after meeting years prior at Jiffstore, Abdulla’s second company that was acquired in 2015.

Clootrack team. Image Credits: Clootrack

Business-to-consumer and consumer brands often use customer satisfaction metrics like Net Promoter Score to understand the customer experience, but Abdulla said current methods don’t provide the “why” of those experiences and are slow, expensive and error-prone.

“The number of channels has increased, which means customers are talking to you, expressing their feedback and what they think in multiple places,” he added. “Word of mouth has gone digital, and you basically have to master the art of selling online.”

Clootrack turns the customer experience data from all of those first-party and third-party touchpoints — website feedback, chat bots, etc. — into granular, qualitative insights that give brands a look at drivers of the experience in hours rather than months so that they can stay on top of fast-moving trends.

Abdulla points to data that show a customer’s biggest driver of brand switch is the experience they receive. And, that if brands can reduce churns by 5%, they could be looking at an increase in profits of between 25% and 95%.

Most of the new funding will go to product development so that all data aggregations are gathered from all possible touchpoints. His ultimate goal is to be “the single platform for B2C firms.”

The company is currently working with over 150 customers in the areas of retail, direct-to-consumer, banking, automotive, travel and mobile app-based services. It is growing nine times year over year in revenue. It is mainly operating in India, but Clootrack is also onboarding companies in the U.S. and Europe.

Parag Dhol, managing director of Inventus, said he has known Abdulla for over five years. He had looked at one of Abdulla’s companies for investment, but had decided against it due to his firm being a Series A investor.

Dhol said market research needs an overhaul in India, where this type of technology is lagging behind the U.S.

“Clootrack has a very complementary team with Shameel being a complete CEO in terms of being a sales guy and serial entrepreneur who has learned his lessons, and Subbu, who is good at technology,” he added. “As CMOs realize the value in their unstructured data inside of their own database of the customer reviews and move to real-time feedback, these guys could make a serious dent in the space.”

 

India launches Account Aggregator to extend financial services to millions

By Manish Singh

India’s top banks five years ago built the interoperable UPI railroads and enabled over 150 million people in the South Asian market to pay digitally. Scores of firms — including local firms Paytm, PhonePe, CRED and international giants Google and Facebook — in India today support the UPI infrastructure, which is now reporting 3 billion transactions each month.

Banks are now ready for their second act.

On Thursday, eight Indian banks announced that they are rolling out — or about to roll out — a system called Account Aggregator to enable consumers to consolidate all their financial data in one place. (Participants banks are HDFC, Kotak, ICICI, Axis, SBI, IndusInd, IDFC, and Federal Bank. Four of them are rolling out the system Thursday, others say they will roll out the new system soon.)

The objective of Account Aggregator (AA) is to aggregate all financial information of an individual, said M Rajeshwar Rao, Deputy Governor of India’s central bank — Reserve Bank of India — at a virtual event Thursday.

The new system makes it possible for banks, tax authorities, insurers, and other finance firms to aggregate data of customers — who have provided their consent — to get better understanding about their potential customers, make informed decisions and ensure smoother transactions.

Users who provide consent — and it only takes a few taps to do so — will be able to share their financial information from one Account Aggregator participant to another through a centralized API-based repository. Users get to decide for how long they wish their data to be shared with a particular Account Aggregator participant.

“For retail loan underwriting (“eligibility check”), rather than submitting previous 3 years bank statements, I can simply authenticate a data transfer via AA (and revoke the data transfer AFTER the loan is approved or sanctioned). For self-employed or freelance professionals, getting Term Insurance has always been difficult since they cannot prove their income – AA lets you provide an audit trail of past income to underwrite the Term Insurance application,” Rahul Mathur, founder and chief executive of insurance aggregator startup BimaPe, told TechCrunch.

An illustration of how the AA system works.

Most countries globally already have privacy laws that recognize the rights of individuals. But even as individuals and businesses have the right to exercise their control over their data, the current system has made it difficult for consumers to operationalize how they provide consent.

“They face this difficult for two reasons,” explained Siddharth Tiwari, head of the Bank for International Settlements in Asia and Pacific. “Firstly, a service provider usually seeks consent to use and transfer data at time when consumers [are] agreeing to participate in an activity with the service provider. Since this consent is granted for a wide variety of possibilities, it is broad and sweeping in nature,” he said.

“Secondly, newly created data are often gathered and retained in proprietary silos and stored in various institutions in incompatible formats. Consumers can find it difficult to share their data as they have only limited options. […] Thus, service providers who are custodians of data effectively act as defacto owner of the data,” he said, adding that Account Aggregator is designed to potentially address these challenges. “A robust consent-based data sharing system has the potential for consumers derive value from their data while maintaining control.”

Account Aggregator is built in part to help consumers and businesses access financial services such as loans. Existing credit bureaus in India have data of only a fraction of the nation’s 1.4 billion population, which makes it very difficult for most in the country to access working capital, explained Infosys chairman Nandan Nilekani, who’s been an adviser to the initiative, at the event Thursday.

“Talks are on to onboard telecom operators as well,” he said, adding that the system has already achieved the sophistication that it could be extended to other industries.

“It’s an architecture that can now be applied to several additional industries,” he said, pointing to healthcare, fitness, testing labs as examples. “We can confidently say that there is no other country in the world that has built a robust infrastructure of this kind and at scale where its people can leverage their data. This approach is now getting global recognition.”

The Account Aggregator system is also positioned to dramatically increase the addressable market for online insurers, lenders, and players in several other industries.

“This is a big step towards a connected financial ecosystem, and will be very significant in Fi’s journey to help working millennials get better with their money. With the successful demonstration of the framework today we are excited to have all our users experience the power and convenience of the AA integration once it’s rolled out to all users,” said Sumit Gwalani, co-founder of Fi.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Report: India may be next in line to mandate changes to Apple’s in-app payment rules

By Ingrid Lunden

Summer is still technically in session, but a snowball is slowly developing in the world of apps, and specifically the world of in-app payments. A report in Reuters today says that the Competition Commission of India, the country’s monopoly regulator, will soon be looking at an antitrust suit filed against Apple over how it mandates that app developers use Apple’s own in-app payment system — thereby giving Apple a cut of those payments — when publishers charge users for subscriptions and other items in their apps.

The suit, filed by an Indian non-profit called “Together We Fight Society”, said in a statement to Reuters that it was representing consumer and startup interests in its complaint.

The move would be the latest in what has become a string of challenges from national regulators against app store operators — specifically Apple but also others like Google and WeChat — over how they wield their positions to enforce market practices that critics have argued are anti-competitive. Other countries that have in recent weeks reached settlements, passed laws, or are about to introduce laws include Japan, South Korea, Australia, the U.S. and the European Union.

And in India specifically, the regulator is currently working through a similar investigation as it relates to in-app payments in Android apps, which Google mandates use its proprietary payment system. Google and Android dominate the Indian smartphone market, with the operating system active on 98% of the 520 million devices in use in the country as of the end of 2020.

It will be interesting to watch whether more countries wade in as a result of these developments. Ultimately, it could force app store operators, to avoid further and deeper regulatory scrutiny, to adopt new and more flexible universal policies.

In the meantime, we are seeing changes happen on a country-by-country basis.

Just yesterday, Apple reached a settlement in Japan that will let publishers of “reader” apps (those for using or consuming media like books and news, music, files in the cloud and more) to redirect users to external sites to provide alternatives to Apple’s proprietary in-app payment provision. Although it’s not as seamless as paying within the app, redirecting previously was typically not allowed, and in doing so the publishers can avoid Apple’s cut.

South Korean legislators earlier this week approved a measure that will make it illegal for Apple and Google to make a commission by forcing developers to use their proprietary payment systems.

And last week, Apple also made some movements in the U.S. around allowing alternative forms of payments, but relatively speaking the concessions were somewhat indirect: app publishers can refer to alternative, direct payment options in apps now, but not actually offer them. (Not yet at least.)

Some developers and consumers have been arguing for years that Apple’s strict policies should open up more. Apple however has long said in its defense that it mandates certain developer policies to build better overall user experiences, and for reasons of security. But, as app technology has evolved, and consumer habits have changed, critics believe that this position needs to be reconsidered.

One factor in Apple’s defense in India specifically might be the company’s position in the market. Android absolutely dominates India when it comes to smartphones and mobile services, with Apple actually a very small part of the ecosystem.

As of the end of 2020, it accounted for just 2% of the 520 million smartphones in use in the country, according to figures from Counterpoint Research quoted by Reuters. That figure had doubled in the last five years, but it’s a long way from a majority, or even significant minority.

The antitrust filing in India has yet to be filed formally, but Reuters notes that the wording leans on the fact that anti-competitive practices in payments systems make it less viable for many publishers to exist at all, since the economics simply do not add up:

“The existence of the 30% commission means that some app developers will never make it to the market,” Reuters noted from the filing. “This could also result in consumer harm.”

Reuters notes that the CCI will be reviewing the case in the coming weeks before deciding whether it should run a deeper investigation or dismiss it. It typically does not publish filings during this period.

Top Indian payments app PhonePe opens its data firehose to everyone

By Manish Singh

PhonePe, one of the largest digital payments services in India, on Thursday launched Pulse, a free product to offer insights into how people in the world’s second largest internet market are paying digitally.

And PhonePe would know: the Flipkart-backed five-year-old startup said its insights are based on over 22 billion transactions it has processed over the years.

Pulse offers an unprecedented level of understanding of the inroads digital payments and various financial services have made across Indian states, districts and over 19,000 zip codes. The new product offers a range of granular data including how many of its transactions in a state were made between users, to merchants, and to pay utility bills.

The startup, which has anonymized users’ data, will publish new data and analysis periodically and one major report each year, it said. The startup also published its maiden report (PDF) Thursday.

A look at PhonePe’s Pulse product (Screengrab)

PhonePe co-founder and chief executive Sameer Nigam said at a virtual conference that PhonePe is also making its insights available through an API for academics, analysts and other players to use at no charge.

More than 100 million Indians have started to transact digitally in the past five years buoyed by New Delhi’s move to invalidate much of the cash in circulation in 2016 and establishment of UPI railroads by retail banks in India that offers interoperability across apps. UPI has emerged as the most popular way Indians pay digitally today and PhonePe commands more than 40% of its market share.

The sudden surge in the adoption of mobile payments has also attracted several international giants — including Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Samsung — to launch their payment offerings in the South Asian nation. India’s mobile payments market is estimated to be worth $1 trillion by 2023, according to Credit Suisse.

The rationale behind launching Pulse, an effort that was initially conceptualized by the startup’s communications team, is to offer clarity to people on the digital payments behavior as there have been too much unverified noise in the industry, PhonePe executives said at a virtual event Thursday.

When asked about potentially losing the competitive advantage, Nigam said PhonePe is publishing the data for the greater good and he encouraged other players in the industry to also take similar steps. The data could help businesses better inform their decisions, he said.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Skit raises $23M Series B round led by WestBridge Capital to accelerate its growth

By Kate Park

“Traditional voice-based call center service is difficult and costly. This is where artificial intelligence and voice technology have presented an opportunity for enterprises to overcome the challenges of scale and engagement at their customer contact centers,” co-founder and CEO Skit Sourabh Gupta told TechCrunch.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented increase in call volumes at bank call centers as customers tried to manage their portfolios amid the chaos of work from home policy and financial instability, Gupta said. And that presented an opportunity for companies like Skit.

“Customers have a natural tendency to prefer voice call support over other self-service channels and this has led to the increase in pressure on the traditional interactive voice responses (IVR) systems and support agents to respond to all incoming queries,” he said.

Bengaluru-based artificial intelligence SaaS voice automation company Skit, formerly known as Vernacular.ai, developed its AI-based voice automation platform VIVA, short for Vernacular Intelligent Voice Assistant, which enables corporations to automate 90% of their call center operations powered by Natural Language Understanding (NLU) technology.  Its product VIVA covers more than 16 languages and 160 dialects.

Skit announced today it has closed $23 million Series B round to accelerate its growth in domestic and global markets including the US and South East Asia and enhance its voice automation platform.

The company was founded in 2016 by two co-founders, Indian Institute of Technology alumni, Roorkee alumnus, Sourabh Gupta and Akshay Deshraj.

The latest funding was led by WestBridge Capital along with existing investors Kalaari Capital and Exfinity Ventures, IAN Fund, LetsVenture and Sense AI. Angel investors including Prophetic Ventures’ Aaryaman Vir Shah also participated the round. The Series B round brings Skit’s total funding to $30 million.

Skit will use the fresh funding for sales, marketing, further R&D to strengthen its personalized solutions and voice products, as well as its global expansion.

“We want to double down and scale operations in both Indian and global markets. We are also planning on increasing our employee headcount. Through our new headquarters in New York, we want to build a strong customer base in North America by our product available to US enterprises,” Gupta told TechCrunch.

The company said it has quadrupled its amount of revenue and numbers of customers in 2020-2021 since its previous fundraising, $5.1 million Series A, in May 2020. Its average order book has also been growing in CAGR 200-300% every year, Gupta added. It currently has 150 employees.

Skit recently expanded into the US and South East Asia market.

“We noticed that there (South East Asia) is a high potential market for the adoption of conversational AI. Most importantly, these markets are home to a multitude of languages and dialects,” Gupta said in an exclusive interview with TechCrunch.

Given that language and hyper-personalization are Skit’s strongest suit, the company is witnessing increase adoption in South East Asia market, where is easier for the company to expand with similar demographics and business challenges as in India, Gupta explained.

It also opened headquarters in NYC, “It is a mature market, ahead in technology adoption with a level-playing for strong competition,” he said.

Venture advisor at WestBridge Capital Sashi Reddi said in a statement: “Skit’s success in helping India’s largest companies, positions them well to enter the US market where there is a massive need for voice AI solutions.”

The global contact center market size is expected to increase steadily and reach $496 billion by 2027. Skit will potentially address the $300 billion voice customer service market with its voice AI platform VIVA, Gupta said.

Its B2B and B2C clients are in diverse industries including banking, insurance, finance, securities, non-banking finance companies, travels, logistics, food & beverage, e-commerce. It has more than 25 B2B clients including Axis Bank, Hathway, Porter and Barbeque Nation, according to Gupta.

Call centers are traditionally places where there are high costs and high attrition rates, and for the end-users the traditional interactive voice responses (IVRs) and the wait times are irritating. There were longer than usual wait-times, call drops and going through extensive IVR menus and frequent agent transfers which increase customer frustration.

With over 10 million hour of training data, Skit’s VIVA replicates human-like conversation and understands speaker’s intent and can translate other unique speech characteristics that enable more efficient query resolutions, Gupta said.

Skit has been listed in Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia start-ups 2021.

Reframe your Metaphors, and other lessons from Y Combinator S21 Day 1

By Natasha Mascarenhas

After a 17-hour marathon through nearly 200 startup pitches, the Equity team was fired up to get back on Twitter and chat through some early trends and favorites from the first day of Y Combinator’s demo party. We’ll be back on the air tomorrow, so make sure you’re following the show on Twitter so you don’t miss out.

What did Natasha and Alex chat about? The following:

  • First impressions: We started by going through top-line numbers, geographic breakdown, and how the accelerator is doing when it comes to the representation of diverse founders. The last bit had a tiny bit of progress, but diversity continues to be an issue in YC’s batches — even as cohort size grows. We also chatted about what startups pitching can work on: like better mics, which are cheap and good.
  • Our early favorites: Metaphor, Lumify, Alex’s favorite duo Indian real estate plays, Akudo, Reframe and Playhouse.
  • And some hmmm moments, including our thoughts on Writesonic, which Natasha has a potentially paranoid theory on.

TechCrunch has extensive coverage of the day on the site, so there’s lots to dig into if you are in the mood. More tomorrow!

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

Tribe and Arkam back Jar app to help millions in India start their savings journey

By Manish Singh

Even as hundreds of millions of people in India have a bank account, only a tiny fraction of this population invests in any financial instrument.

Fewer than 30 million people invest in mutual funds or stocks, for instance. In recent years, a handful of startups have made it easier for users — especially the millennials — to invest, but the figure has largely remained stagnant.

Now, an Indian startup believes that it has found the solution to tackle this challenge — and is already seeing good early traction.

Nishchay AG, former director of mobility startup Bounce, and Misbah Ashraf, co-founder of MarsPlay (sold to Foxy), founded Jar earlier this year.

The startup’s eponymous six-month-old Android app enables users to start their savings journey for as little as 1 Indian rupee.

Users on Jar can invest in multiple ways and get started within seconds. The app works with Paytm (PhonePe support is in the works) to set up a recurring payment. (The startup is the first to use UPI 2.0’s recurring payment support.) They can set up any amount between 1 Indian rupee to 500 for daily investments.

The Jar app can also glean users’ text messages and save a tiny amount based on each monetary transaction they do. So, for instance, if a user has spent 31 rupees in a transaction, the Jar app rounds that up to the nearest tenth figure (40, in this case) and saves nine rupees. Users can also manually open the app and spend any amount they wish to invest.

Once users have saved some money in Jar, the app then invests that into digital gold.

The startup is using gold investment because people in the South Asian market already have an immense trust in this asset class.

India has a unique fascination for gold. From rural farmers to urban working class, nearly everyone stashes the yellow metal and flaunts jewelry at weddings.

Indian households are estimated to have a stash of over 25,000 tons of the precious metal whose value today is about half of the country’s nominal GDP. Such is the demand for gold in India that the South Asian nation is also one of the world’s largest importers of this precious metal.

Jar’s Android app (Image Credits: Jar)

“When you’re thinking about bringing the next 500 million people to institutional savings and investments, the onus is on us to educate them on the efficacies of the other instruments that are in the market,” said Nishchay.

“We want to give them the instrument they trust the most, which is gold,” he said. The startup plans to eventually offer several more investment opportunities, he said.

The founders met several years ago when they were exploring if MarsPlay and Bounce could have any synergies. They stayed in touch and, last year during one of their many conversations, realized that neither of them knew much about investments.

“That’s when the dots started to connect,” said Ashraf, drawing stories from his childhood. “I come from a small town in Bihar called Bihar Sharif. During my childhood days, I saw my family deeply troubled with debt because of poor financial decisions and no savings,” he said.

“We both understand what a typical middle class family goes through. Someone who comes from this background never had any means in the past but their aspirations are never-ending. So when you start earning, you immediately start to spend it all,” said Nishchay.

“The market needs products that will help them get started,” he said.

That idea, which is similar to Acorn and Stash’s play in the U.S. market, is beginning to make inroads. The app has already amassed about half a million downloads, the founders said. Investors have taken notice, too.

On Wednesday, Jar announced it has raised $4.5 million from a clutch of high-profile investors, including Arkam Ventures, Tribe Capital, WEH Ventures, and angels including Kunal Shah (founder of CRED), Shaan Puri (formerly with Twitch), Ali Moiz (founder of Stonks), Howard Lindzon (founder of Social Leverage), Vivekananda Hallekere (co-founder of Bounce), Alvin Tse (of Xiaomi) and Kunal Khattar (managing partner at AdvantEdge).

“Over 400 million Indians are about to embrace digital financial services for the first time in their lives. Jar has built an app that is poised to help them — with several intuitive ways including gamification — start their investment journey. We love the speed at which the team has been executing and how fast they are growing each week,” said Arjun Sethi, co-founder of Tribe Capital, in a statement.

Transactions and AUM on the Jar app are surging 350% each month, said Nishchay. The startup plans to broaden its product offerings in the coming days, he said.

Tiger Global in talks to make Apna India’s fastest unicorn

By Manish Singh

Apna, a 21-month-old startup that is helping millions of blue- and gray-collar workers in India upskill themselves, find communities and land jobs, is inching closer to becoming the fastest tech firm in the world’s second-largest internet market to become a unicorn.

Tiger Global is in advanced stages of talks to lead a $100 million round in Apna, according to four sources familiar with the matter. The proposed terms value the startup at over $1 billion, the sources said.

The round hasn’t closed yet, so terms of the deal may change, some of the sources cautioned.

If the round materializes, Apna will become the youngest Indian startup to attain the much-coveted unicorn status. The startup, which launched its app in December 2019, was valued at $570 million in its Series B financing round in June this year. It will also be the third financing round Apna would have secured in a span of less than seven months.

Tiger Global, an existing investor in Apna, didn’t respond to a request for comment earlier this month. Apna founder and chief executive Nirmit Parikh, an Apple alum, declined to comment on Tuesday.

Indian cities are home to hundreds of millions of low-skilled workers who hail from villages in search of work. Many of them have lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic that has slowed several economic activities in the world’s second-largest internet market.

Apna, whose name is inspired from a 2019 Bollywood song, is building a scalable networking infrastructure so that these workers can connect to the right employers and secure jobs. On its eponymous Android app, users also upskill themselves, review their interview skills and become eligible for more jobs.

As of June this year, Apna had amassed over 10 million users and was facilitating more than 15 million job interviews each month. All jobs listed on the Apna platform are verified by the startup and free of cost for the candidates.

The startup has also partnered with some of India’s leading public and private organizations and is providing support to the Ministry of Minority Affairs of India, National Skill Development Corporation and UNICEF YuWaah to provide better skilling and job opportunities to candidates.

The investment talks further illustrate Tiger Global’s growing interest in India. The New York-headquartered firm has made several high-profile investments in India this year, including in BharatPe, Gupshup, DealShare, Classplus, Urban Company, CoinSwitch Kuber and Groww.

More than two dozen Indian startups have become a unicorn this year, up from 11 last year, as several high-profile investors, including Tiger Global, SoftBank and Falcon Edge, have increased the pace of their investments in the world’s second most populous nation.

Apna also counts Insight Partners, Lightspeed and Sequoia Capital among its existing investors.

Indiagold raises $12 million for its gold-focused digital alternative credit platform

By Manish Singh

India has a fascination for gold. The households in the South Asian market are estimated to have a stash of over 25,000 tons of the precious metal, whose value today is about half of the country’s nominal GDP. But much of this gold has been sitting idly in lockers in big metal wardrobes for generations.

For generations, Indians across the socio-economic spectrum have preferred to stash their savings — or at least a part of it — in the form of gold. In fact, such is the demand for gold in India — Indians stockpile more gold than citizens in any other country — that the South Asian nation is also one of the world’s largest importers of this precious metal.

They use this gold not only as a savings instrument, which protects them from the ups-and-downs of the financial market, but also as an asset against which they could get credit. However, selling off your gold in the form of jewelry or otherwise has a stigma attached to it — one is so broke that they had to pawn off their last asset of financial security.

The other challenge with keeping gold in the house is that it’s not safe.

Indiagold, a young startup that is attempting to help people put this gold to use, said on Friday it has raised $12 million in its Series A funding. The new financing round was led by Prosus’ PayU — which typically only backs later stage deals — and Falcon’s Alpha Wave Incubation (AWI) fund. Better Tomorrow Ventures, 3one4 Capital, Rainmatter Capital and existing investor Leo Capital also participated in the round.

Indiagold, founded by Nitin Misra and Deepak Abbot — two former executives of Paytm — is building a gold-focused digital alternative credit platform.

The startup today has two major offerings: It has made it very easy and affordable for people to keep their gold in a safe locker; and it’s enabled them the option to take a loan against their gold reserves.

Once a user has signed about Indiagold, the startup’s agents come to their house, inspect and weigh the gold and put it in a tamper-proof bag, which also has a RFID sticker attached to it. Then they put the bag in a steel box, which the customer locks with their fingerprint, and the agent livestreams their journey as they leave the premises to the designated vault location.

The idea is to make it very simple for customers to put their gold in a locker. Traditionally, because of the emotional stigma attached to the yellow metal, most people have hesitated to do anything with the gold jewelry they own. When they engage with the agent who is locking the gold with their biometric in front of them and showing them the live feed of the journey to the safe locker, a trust is established.

“This whole business is built around trust,” said Gupta in an interview with TechCrunch. “Unless a norm in some circles of the startup ecosystem where you are expected to break things and move fast, we have to spend as much time with customers to build that trust,” he said.

Indiagold also offers their locker at a much affordable price — just a few dollars a year, as opposed to hundreds taken by banks. And unlike banks, Indiagold backs the customers’ gold by insurance.

Customers have access to Indiagold app where they can see realtime value of the gold items they have put in the locker. This is when the startup’s second offering kicks in. In the event these customers need to take a loan, the startup facilitates a line of credit to them within 30 seconds.

Tapping on gold as a loan collateral is a very large market in India. “Despite the large gold reserves held by Indian household, the gold loan market has barely scratched the surface. The gold collateral (166 tons) held by Muthoot Finance is less than 1% of the estimated gold reserves in Indian households (~25k tons). This is because gold is seen as a family heirloom and passed along generations,” analysts at Bernstein wrote in a report to clients earlier this year.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

UK names John Edwards as its choice for next data protection chief as gov’t eyes watering down privacy standards

By Natasha Lomas

The UK government has named the person it wants to take over as its chief data protection watchdog, with sitting commissioner Elizabeth Denham overdue to vacate the post: The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) today said its preferred replacement is New Zealand’s privacy commissioner, John Edwards.

Edwards, who has a legal background, has spent more than seven years heading up the Office of the Privacy Commissioner In New Zealand — in addition to other roles with public bodies in his home country.

He is perhaps best known to the wider world for his verbose Twitter presence and for taking a public dislike to Facebook: In the wake of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal Edwards publicly announced that he was deleting his account with the social media — accusing Facebook of not complying with the country’s privacy laws.

An anti-‘Big Tech’ stance aligns with the UK government’s agenda to tame the tech giants as it works to bring in safety-focused legislation for digital platforms and reforms of competition rules that take account of platform power.

Official announcement

Government announces preferred candidate for Information Commissioner – https://t.co/2fri3ROyhm https://t.co/i8b4OBcwzC

— John Edwards (@JCE_PC) August 26, 2021

If confirmed in the role — the DCMS committee has to approve Edwards’ appointment; plus there’s a ceremonial nod needed from the Queen — he will be joining the regulatory body at a crucial moment as digital minister Oliver Dowden has signalled the beginnings of a planned divergence from the European Union’s data protection regime, post-Brexit, by Boris Johnson’s government.

Dial back the clock five years and prior digital minister, Matt Hancock, was defending the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as a “decent piece of legislation” — and suggesting to parliament that there would be little room for the UK to diverge in data protection post-Brexit.

But Hancock is now out of government (aptly enough after a data leak showed him breaching social distancing rules by kissing his aide inside a government building), and the government mood music around data has changed key to something far more brash — with sitting digital minister Dowden framing unfettered (i.e. deregulated) data-mining as “a great opportunity” for the post-Brexit UK.

For months, now, ministers have been eyeing how to rework the UK’s current (legascy) EU-based data protection framework — to, essentially, reduce user rights in favor of soundbites heavy on claims of slashing ‘red tape’ and turbocharging data-driven ‘innovation’. Of course the government isn’t saying the quiet part out loud; its press releases talk about using “the power of data to drive growth and create jobs while keeping high data protection standards”. But those standards are being reframed as a fig leaf to enable a new era of data capture and sharing by default.

Dowden has said that the emergency data-sharing which was waived through during the pandemic — when the government used the pressing public health emergency to justify handing NHS data to a raft of tech giantsshould be the ‘new normal’ for a post-Brexit UK. So, tl;dr, get used to living in a regulatory crisis.

A special taskforce, which was commissioned by the prime minister to investigate how the UK could reshape its data policies outside the EU, also issued a report this summer — in which it recommended scrapping some elements of the UK’s GDPR altogether — branding the regime “prescriptive and inflexible”; and advocating for changes to “free up data for innovation and in the public interest”, as it put it, including pushing for revisions related to AI and “growth sectors”.

The government is now preparing to reveal how it intends to act on its appetite to ‘reform’ (read: reduce) domestic privacy standards — with proposals for overhauling the data protection regime incoming next month.

Speaking to the Telegraph for a paywalled article published yesterday, Dowden trailed one change that he said he wants to make which appears to target consent requirements — with the minister suggesting the government will remove the legal requirement to gain consent to, for example, track and profile website visitors — all the while framing it as a pro-consumer move; a way to do away with “endless” cookie banners.

Only cookies that pose a ‘high risk’ to privacy would still require consent notices, per the report — whatever that means.

Oliver Dowden, the UK Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, says that the UK will break away from GDPR, and will no longer require cookie warnings, other than those posing a 'high risk'.https://t.co/2ucnppHrIm pic.twitter.com/RRUdpJumYa

— dan barker (@danbarker) August 25, 2021

“There’s an awful lot of needless bureaucracy and box ticking and actually we should be looking at how we can focus on protecting people’s privacy but in as light a touch way as possible,” the digital minister also told the Telegraph.

The draft of this Great British ‘light touch’ data protection framework will emerge next month, so all the detail is still to be set out. But the overarching point is that the government intends to redefine UK citizens’ privacy rights, using meaningless soundbites — with Dowden touting a plan for “common sense” privacy rules — to cover up the fact that it intends to reduce the UK’s currently world class privacy standards and replace them with worse protections for data.

If you live in the UK, how much privacy and data protection you get will depend upon how much ‘innovation’ ministers want to ‘turbocharge’ today — so, yes, be afraid.

It will then fall to Edwards — once/if approved in post as head of the ICO — to nod any deregulation through in his capacity as the post-Brexit information commissioner.

We can speculate that the government hopes to slip through the devilish detail of how it will torch citizens’ privacy rights behind flashy, distraction rhetoric about ‘taking action against Big Tech’. But time will tell.

Data protection experts are already warning of a regulatory stooge.

While the Telegraph suggests Edwards is seen by government as an ideal candidate to ensure the ICO takes a “more open and transparent and collaborative approach” in its future dealings with business.

In a particularly eyebrow raising detail, the newspaper goes on to report that government is exploring the idea of requiring the ICO to carry out “economic impact assessments” — to, in the words of Dowden, ensure that “it understands what the cost is on business” before introducing new guidance or codes of practice.

All too soon, UK citizens may find that — in the ‘sunny post-Brexit uplands’ — they are afforded exactly as much privacy as the market deems acceptable to give them. And that Brexit actually means watching your fundamental rights being traded away.

In a statement responding to Edwards’ nomination, Denham, the outgoing information commissioner, appeared to offer some lightly coded words of warning for government, writing [emphasis ours]: “Data driven innovation stands to bring enormous benefits to the UK economy and to our society, but the digital opportunity before us today will only be realised where people continue to trust their data will be used fairly and transparently, both here in the UK and when shared overseas.”

The lurking iceberg for government is of course that if wades in and rips up a carefully balanced, gold standard privacy regime on a soundbite-centric whim — replacing a pan-European standard with ‘anything goes’ rules of its/the market’s choosing — it’s setting the UK up for a post-Brexit future of domestic data misuse scandals.

You only have to look at the dire parade of data breaches over in the US to glimpse what’s coming down the pipe if data protection standards are allowed to slip. The government publicly bashing the privacy sector for adhering to lax standards it deregulated could soon be the new ‘get popcorn’ moment for UK policy watchers…

UK citizens will surely soon learn of unfair and unethical uses of their data under the ‘light touch’ data protection regime — i.e. when they read about it in the newspaper.

Such an approach will indeed be setting the country on a path where mistrust of digital services becomes the new normal. And that of course will be horrible for digital business over the longer run. But Dowden appears to lack even a surface understanding of Internet basics.

The UK is also of course setting itself on a direct collision course with the EU if it goes ahead and lowers data protection standards.

This is because its current data adequacy deal with the bloc — which allows for EU citizens’ data to continue flowing freely to the UK is precariously placed — was granted only on the basis that the UK was, at the time it was inked, still aligned with the GDPR.

So Dowden’s rush to rip up protections for people’s data presents a clear risk to the “significant safeguards” needed to maintain EU adequacy.

Back in June, when the Commission signed off on the UK’s adequacy deal, it clearly warned that “if anything changes on the UK side, we will intervene”. Moreover, the adequacy deal is also the first with a baked in sunset clause — meaning it will automatically expire in four years.

So even if the Commission avoids taking proactive action over slipping privacy standards in the UK there is a hard deadline — in 2025 — when the EU’s executive will be bound to look again in detail at exactly what Dowden & Co. have wrought. And it probably won’t be pretty.

The longer term UK ‘plan’ (if we can put it that way) appears to be to replace domestic economic reliance on EU data flows — by seeking out other jurisdictions that may be friendly to a privacy-light regime governing what can be done with people’s information.

Hence — also today — DCMS trumpeted an intention to secure what it billed as “new multi-billion pound global data partnerships” — saying it will prioritize striking ‘data adequacy’ “partnerships” with the US, Australia, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, and the Dubai International Finance Centre and Colombia.

Future partnerships with India, Brazil, Kenya and Indonesia will also be prioritized, it added — with the government department cheerfully glossing over the fact it’s UK citizens’ own privacy that is being deprioritized here.

“Estimates suggest there is as much as £11 billion worth of trade that goes unrealised around the world due to barriers associated with data transfers,” DCMS writes in an ebullient press release.

As it stands, the EU is of course the UK’s largest trading partner. And statistics from the House of Commons library on the UK’s trade with the EU — which you won’t find cited in the DCMS release — underline quite how tiny this potential Brexit ‘data bonanza’ is, given that UK exports to the EU stood at £294 billion in 2019 (43% of all UK exports).

So even the government’s ‘economic’ case to water down citizens’ privacy rights looks to be puffed up with the same kind of misleadingly vacuous nonsense as ministers’ reframing of a post-Brexit UK as ‘Global Britain’.

Everyone hates cookies banners, sure, but that’s a case for strengthening not weakening people’s privacy — for making non-tracking the default setting online and outlawing manipulative dark patterns so that Internet users don’t constantly have to affirm they want their information protected. Instead the UK may be poised to get rid of annoying cookie consent ‘friction’ by allowing a free for all on people’s data.

 

Extra Crunch roundup: Zūm CEO interview, Cisco’s M&A ethos, neoinsurance bad romance

By Annie Siebert

It was once common practice for doctors to visit sick patients in their homes: In 1930, 40% of all consultations were house calls. By 1980, that figure was less than 1%.

Today, urgent care centers occupy Main Street storefronts and 33% of all medical expenditures occur in hospitals. It’s clear that the additional overhead is generating higher prices, but not necessarily better results, according to Sumi Das and Nina Gerson, who lead healthcare investments at Capital G.

“We can improve both outcomes and costs by moving care from the hospital back to the place it started — at home,” they write in a post that explores five innovations enabling at-home care and identifies investment opportunities like acute care and infrastructure development.

Today, in-home care comprises just 3% of overall healthcare spending, but Gerson and Das estimate that will expand to 10% in the next 10 years.

“To make these improvements, in-home healthcare strategies will need to leverage next-generation technology and value-based care strategies. Fortunately, the window of opportunity for change is open right now.”


Full Extra Crunch articles are only available to members.
Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription.


Image Credits: Cowboy Ventures / Guild Education

Tomorrow’s episode of Extra Crunch Live will feature guests VC Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures and Rachel Carlson, CEO and co-founder of Guild Education.

Among other topics, Lee will talk about how Guild Education met her criteria for investment before the duo offer feedback on startup pitches submitted by audience members.

Register now to join the free chat on Hopin on Wednesday, August 25, at 11:30 a.m. PDT/2:30 p.m. EDT.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch; have a great week!

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

Zūm CEO Ritu Narayan explains why equity and accessibility works for mobility services

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Ritu Narayan founded Zūm with her two brothers in 2016 to disrupt student transportation, a space that hasn’t seen much innovation since pupils began finding their way to and from little red schoolhouses.

Since then, Zūm has inked partnerships with school districts around the country to create more efficient routes and reduce vehicle emissions.

By 2025, Narayan says her company will have 10,000 electric school buses and plans to put the fleet into service to generate power and feed it back to the grid.

To learn more about the company’s development, its immediate plans for the future and how the pandemic impacted operations, read on.

Bird shows improving scooter economics, long march to profitability

For The Exchange, Alex Wilhelm looked at recent financial data from scooter sharing service Bird, which — like Lyft, Uber, Airbnb and others — took a beating during the pandemic as potential riders stayed home.

Bird flipped its business model and its results improved, but it still has a ways to go. “In the bull case, Bird can get rid of its adjusted losses in a few years,” Alex writes.

“If any issues arise at the top of the company’s table — say, for example, that rides per scooter do not scale as the company rolls out more hardware, or merely slower than expected — the anticipated profitability results could evaporate or be pushed into the future.”

India’s path to SaaS leadership is clear, but challenges remain

Image Credits: Thitima Thongkham / Getty Images

By 2030, India’s SaaS industry is estimated to comprise 4%-6% of the global market and generate between $50 billion and $70 billion in yearly revenue, according to a SaaSBOOMi/McKinsey report.

“With the right approach, it won’t be long before the Indian SaaS community becomes a large-scale employer of talent, a significant contributor to India’s GDP and a creator of unmatched products,” says Manav Garg, CEO and founder of Eka Software Solutions.

In a guest post, he lays out several key growth drivers, which include “the largest concentration of developers in the world” and the fact that “SaaS is not a winner-take-all market.”

Even so, the region still faces challenges, since “growth requires a growth mindset.”

Why have the markets spurned public neoinsurance startups?

As Alex Wilhelm has repeatedly noted in The Exchange, neoinsurance companies, from healthcare to auto to home and rental, have taken a whacking by the market.

But he hadn’t quite figured out why until he chatted with Pie Insurance co-founder and CEO John Swigart, who had an interesting hypothesis.

Summing up their conversation in a single sentence: “From the public markets’ perspective, it’s the results, stupid.”

How Cisco keeps its startup acquisition engine humming

The Cisco Systems logo is displayed at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona on February 25, 2019. - Phone makers will focus on foldable screens and the introduction of blazing fast 5G wireless networks at the world's biggest mobile fair starting February 25 in Spain as they try to reverse a decline in sales of smartphones. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images)

Image Credits: Josep LAGO /AFP/ Getty Images

Ron Miller interviewed three Cisco executives to learn more about the company’s “rich history of buying its way to global success”:

  • CFO Scott Herren
  • Derek Idemoto, SVP for corporate development and Cisco investments
  • Jeetu Patel, EVP and GM, Security and Collaboration

Since its founding, Cisco has acquired 229 companies, buying more than 30 startups in the last four years that focus on everything from edtech to event management.

“Indeed, one of the big reasons for all these acquisitions could be about maintaining growth,” writes Ron.

Future tech exits have a lot to live up to

Image Credits: Sam Salek/EyeEm (opens in a new window) / Getty Images (Image has been modified)

“Inflation may or may not prove transitory when it comes to consumer prices, but startup valuations are definitely rising — and noticeably so — in recent quarters.”

That’s Alex Wilhelm’s summation of a recent PitchBook report rounding up valuation data from U.S. startup funding events.

He dug into the report and analyzed what the numbers mean for startup valuations and potential exits.

Bankers chase Byju’s for IPO, valuation pegged up to $50 billion

By Manish Singh

Nearly every top investment bank is chasing Byju’s and nudging the most valuable Indian startup to seriously explore the public markets as soon as next year.

Most banks have given Byju’s a proposed valuation in the range of $40 billion to $45 billion, but some including Morgan Stanley have pitched a $50 billion valuation if the startup lists next year, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

The startup, which has raised $1.5 billion since the beginning of the pandemic last year, was most recently valued at $16.5 billion.

The banks’ excitement comes as the Indian public market has shown a glimpse of strong appetite for consumer tech stocks. Food delivery Zomato had a stellar $1.3 billion debut on Indian stock exchanges last month. Scores of other top startups including Paytm, PolicyBazaar, Nykaa, Ixigo and MobiKwik have also filed paperworks for their IPOs.

Byju Raveendran (pictured above), the founder and chief executive of the eponymous startup, has publicly suggested in the past that he may list the firm in two to three years. According to a senior executive, who wishes to not be named as the matter is private, and an investor, the startup has not set a concrete timeline for an IPO.

In the immediate future, odds of Byju’s raising again is high. The startup has received several inbound requests from investors to raise at a valuation of about $21.5 billion, the people said.

The startup has used a significant portion of its recent fundraises to acquire firms. Earlier this year, it acquired Indian physical coaching institute Aakash for nearly $1 billion. It has also acquired Great Learning, and U.S.-based Epic, among others, for over $1 billion in cash and stock deals.

Byju’s prepares students pursuing undergraduate and graduate-level courses, and in recent years it has also expanded its catalog to serve all school-going students. Tutors on the Byju’s app tackle complex subjects using real-life objects such as pizza and cake.

The pandemic, which prompted New Delhi to enforce a months-long nationwide lockdown and close schools, accelerated its growth, and those of several other online learning startups including Unacademy and Vedantu.

As of early this year, Byju’s said it had amassed over 80 million users, 5.5 million of whom are paying subscribers. Byju’s, which is profitable, is on track to generate revenue of $300 million in the U.S. this year (per Raveendran), and as high as $1.1 billion in revenue overall by the end of the calendar year, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Byju’s declined to comment.

Equity Monday: Stocks up, cryptos up, regulation up

By Alex Wilhelm

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

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

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

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

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

India’s Zetwerk valued at $1.33 billion in new funding

By Manish Singh

An Indian startup that operates a business-to-business marketplace for manufacturing items is the latest to attain the coveted unicorn status in the South Asian market.

Bangalore-based Zetwerk said on Monday it has raised $150 million in a Series E financing round led by New York based D1 Capital Partners. New investors Avenir and IIFL also participated in the round, along with existing investors Greenoaks Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Sequoia Capital and Accel Partners.

The new investment values Zetwerk at $1.33 billion, twice of $600 million-$700 million it was valued at in its Series D round in February this year. The round also included several high-profile angel investors including Kunal Shah of CRED and Ritesh Aggarwal of OYO.

The four-year-old startup runs a business-to-business marketplace for manufacturing items that connects OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and EPC (engineering procurement construction) customers with manufacturing small-businesses and enterprises.

All the products it sells today are custom-made. “Nobody has a stock of such inventories. You get the order, you find manufacturers and workshops that make them,” explained Amrit Acharya, co-founder and chief executive of Zetwerk, in an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year.
The startup said its revenue grew approximately three times in 2020-21, but didn’t disclose figures.

“In a short period of time, we believe Zetwerk has become a leader in delivering fast and cost-effective manufacturing solutions to companies globally and accelerating the pace of digital transformation of a very traditional industry,” said Jeremy Goldstein of D1 Capital Partners.

The startup plans to deploy the fresh capital to broaden its technology stack and expand to more international markets.

“Zetwerk is helping enterprises navigate the shift to digital manufacturing amidst rapidly changing global supply chains,” said Amrit Acharya, CEO of Zetwerk. “Over the last year, more than 100 western companies have moved their supply chains to India via Zetwerk, across industrial and consumer products.”

Tencent in talks to lead funding in India’s Pocket FM

By Manish Singh

Tencent is in advanced stages of talks to lead an investment round in Gurgaon-headquartered Pocket FM, the latest in the Chinese giant’s push to broaden its consumer internet portfolio in the Indian market.

The Chinese firm, which is already an investor in Pocket FM, is in talks to lead a ~20-25 million round in Pocket FM, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. The proposed term values the three-year-old startup between $75 million to $100 million, two people said. Existing investors Times Internet’s Brand Capital and Lightspeed are also participating in the round.

Tencent and Pocket FM declined to comment.

Pocket FM operates an eponymous app that offers users podcasts and audiobooks in English and several Indian languages. On its website, the service says its catalog is over 10,000 hours. The startup works with several creators to produce audiobooks.

The app is available in a freemium model. It has a paid subscription as well as an ad-supported free version.

The investment talks come at a time when a range of Indian startups are beginning to launch in — or expand to — audio category. Indian social network ShareChat, for instance, launched a Clubhouse-like feature earlier this year.

Pocket FM will be Tencent’s latest bet in India’s consumer internet space. The Chinese giant is also an investor in music streaming service Gaana and on-demand video streaming player MX Player.

Tencent slowed its the pace of investments in India last year after New Delhi amended a rule to require Chinese companies to take its approval before backing Indian firms. It has become more active in recent quarters, investing through debt instead of equity with a convertible note.

India’s path to SaaS leadership is clear, but challenges remain

By Ram Iyer
Manav Garg Contributor
Manav Garg is CEO and founder of Eka Software Solutions and is founding partner of SaaSboomi and Together Fund.

Software as a service is one of the most important sectors in tech today. While its transformative potential was quite clear before the pandemic, the sudden pivot to distributed workforces caused interest in SaaS products to skyrocket as medium and large enterprises embraced digital and remote sales processes, significantly expanding their utility.

This phenomenon is global, but India in particular has the opportunity to take its SaaS momentum to the next level. The Indian SaaS industry is projected to generate revenue of $50 billion to $70 billion and win 4%-6% of the global SaaS market by 2030, creating as much as $1 trillion in value, according to a report by SaaSBOOMi and McKinsey.

The Indian SaaS industry is projected to generate revenue of $50 billion to $70 billion and win 4%-6% of the global SaaS market by 2030.

There are certain important long-term trends that are fueling this expansion.

The rise of Indian SaaS unicorns

The Indian SaaS community has seen a flurry of innovation and success. Entrepreneurs in India have founded about a thousand funded SaaS companies in the last few years, doubling the rate from five years ago and creating several unicorns in the process. Together, these companies generate $2 billion to $3 billion in total revenues and represent approximately 1% of the global SaaS market, according to SaaSBOOMi and McKinsey.

These firms are diverse in terms of the clients they serve and the problems they solve, but several garnered global attention during the pandemic by enabling flexibility for newly remote workers. Zoho helped streamline this pivot by providing sales teams with apps for collateral, videos and demos; Freshworks offered businesses a seamless customer experience platform, and Eka extended its cloud platform to unify workflows from procurement to payments for the CFO office.

Other SaaS firms stayed busy in other ways. Over the course of the pandemic, 10 new unicorns emerged: Postman, Zenoti, Innovacer, Highradius, Chargebee and Browserstack, Mindtickle, Byju, UpGrad and Unacademy. There were also several instances of substantial venture funding, including a $150 million deal for Postman, bringing the total amount raised by the Indian SaaS community in 2020 to around $1.5 billion, four times the investment in 2018.

India’s path to leadership

While the Indian SaaS community has made admirable progress in recent years, there are several key growth drivers that could lead to as much as $1 trillion in revenue by 2030. They include:

The global pivot to digital go-to-market

The number of enterprises that are comfortable with assessing products and making business decisions via Zoom is increasing rapidly. This embrace of digital go-to-market fundamentally levels the playing field for Indian companies in terms of access to customers and end markets.

Apple launches a new iOS app, ‘Siri Speech Study,’ to gather feedback for Siri improvements

By Sarah Perez

Apple recently began a research study designed to collect speech data from study participants. Earlier this month, the company launched a new iOS app called “Siri Speech Study” on the App Store, which allows participants who have opted in to share their voice requests and other feedback with Apple. The app is available in a number of worldwide markets but does not register on the App Store’s charts, including under the “Utilities” category where it’s published.

According to data from Sensor Tower, the iOS app first launched on August 9 and was updated to a new version on August 18. It’s currently available in the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Taiwan — an indication of the study’s global reach. However, the app will not appear when searching the App Store by keyword or when browsing through the list of Apple’s published apps.

The Siri Speech Study app itself offers little information about the study’s specific goals, nor does it explain how someone could become a participant. Instead, it only provides a link to a fairly standard license agreement and a screen where a participant would enter their ID number to get started.

Reached for comment, Apple told TechCrunch the app is only being used for Siri product improvements, by offering a way for participants to share feedback directly with Apple. The company also explained people have to be invited to the study — there’s not a way for consumers to sign up to join.

Image Credits: App Store screenshot

The app is only one of many ways Apple is working to improve Siri.

In the past, Apple had tried to learn more about Siri’s mistakes by sending some small portion of consumers’ voice recordings to contractors for manual grading and review. But a whistleblower alerted media outlet The Guardian that the process had allowed them to listen in on confidential details at times. Apple shortly thereafter made manual review an opt-in process and brought audio grading in-house. This type of consumer data collection continues, but has a different aim that what a research study would involve.

Unlike this broader, more generalized data collection, a focus group-like study allows Apple to better understand Siri’s mistakes because it combines the collected data with human feedback. With the Siri Speech Study app, participants provide explicit feedback on per request basis, Apple said. For instance, if Siri misheard a question, users could explain what they were trying to ask. If Siri was triggered when the user hadn’t said “Hey Siri,” that could be noted. Or if Siri on HomePod misidentified the speaker in a multi-person household, the participant could note that, too.

Another differentiator is that none of the participants’ data is being automatically shared with Apple. Rather, users can see a list of the Siri requests they’ve made and then select which to send to Apple with their feedback. Apple also noted no user information is collected or used in the app, except the data directly provided by participants.

WWDC 2021 on device privacy

Image Credits: Apple WWDC 2021

Apple understands that an intelligent virtual assistant that understands you is a competitive advantage.

This year, the company scooped up ex-Google AI scientist Samy Bengio to help make Siri a stronger rival to Google Assistant, whose advanced capabilities are often a key selling point for Android devices. In the home, meanwhile, Alexa-powered smart speakers are dominating the U.S. market and compete with Google in the global landscape, outside China. Apple’s HomePod has a long way to go to catch up.

But despite the rapid progress in voice-based computing in recent years, virtual assistants can still have a hard time understanding certain types of speech. Earlier this year, for example, Apple said it would use a bank of audio clips from podcasts where users had stuttered to help it improve its understanding of this kind of speech pattern. Assistants can also stumble when there are multiple devices in a home that are listening for voice commands from across several rooms. And assistants can mess up when trying to differentiate between different family members’ voices or when trying to understand a child’s voice.

In other words, there are still many avenues a speech study could pursue over time, even if these aren’t its current focus.

That Apple is running a Siri speech study isn’t necessarily new. The company has historically run evaluations and studies like this in some form. But it’s less common to find Apple’s studies published directly on the App Store.

Though Apple could have published the app through the enterprise distribution process to keep it more under wraps, it chose to use its public marketplace. This more closely follows the App Store’s rules, as the research study is not an internally-facing app meant only for Apple employees.

Still, it’s not likely consumers will stumble across the app and be confused — the Siri Speech Study app is hidden from discovery. You have to have the app’s direct link to find it. (Good thing we’re nosy!)

Facebook launches program to help small Indian businesses secure loans

By Manish Singh

Facebook is launching a new program in India to help small and medium-sized businesses secure loans in the South Asian market as the company makes further push to expand its presence among merchants.

The social conglomerate said its new program, called Small Business Loans Initiative, addresses some of the biggest pain points small businesses face when securing loans.

The company, which last year announced a $4.3 million grant for small businesses in India, said the new program will allow its lending partners to grant small ticket loans — ranging between 500,000 Indian rupees ($6,720) to 50,00,000 ($67,200) — at a predefined interest rate of 17%-20% per annum and won’t require the businesses to provide any collateral or joining fee, the firm told TechCrunch.

At the time of launch, company’s pilot lending partner is CDC Group-backed Gurgaon-headquartered Indifi, which will disburse the loan amount within five working days of the borrower completing all documentation formalities after acceptance of the offer by Indifi. The company expects more partners to join the program.

Facebook said it’s working in “arm’s length” with its lending partners, but those partners will be handling all the risks of loan payments and determining the eligibility criteria. (On Facebook website, the company says a business must have advertised on the Facebook family of apps for at least 180 days at the time of application as one of the factors for eligibility.)

Facebook, on its part, is making businesses aware of the lending program and has worked to improve the underlying lending framework such as boundaries for interest rate, engagement responsiveness between the lending partner and businesses (there will be an on-call support system within one day of applying) and ticket size of the credit amount.

In a call with reporters on Friday, Facebook India head Ajit Mohan said that small businesses in 200 Indian cities can apply for the loan starting today.

Businesses wholly or partially run by women will additionally be able to secure the loan at a special 0.2% reduction rates per annum.

This is the first time Facebook has launched a program of this kind in any market, the company told TechCrunch.

According to a survey conducted by Facebook in collaboration with OECD and the World Bank last year, almost a third of operational small and medium-sized businesses on Facebook in 2020 said that they expected cash flow to be one of their primary challenges.

No monetization

The company is not monetizing this program. “We believe it is in our self-interest for there to be a massive growth in the small business ecosystem in India because as a company we are playing this for the long term. We will disproportionately benefit because a lot of these small business activity happens on our apps as they grow,” said Mohan at the briefing.

“We are not looking to make money from this program. We don’t have any revenue sharing agreement. We are not putting any constraint on how this money is spent,” he said. “Frankly, we are also hoping that on the back of a program like this other companies will also create programs so that there is more access to credit in the market. That will be good for us all. There is no transactional objective here.”

For Facebook, Friday’s announcement is the latest in a series of efforts it has made to tap the South Asian nation’s small and medium-sized businesses. The firm, which identifies India as its largest market by users, last year invested $5.7 billion in Indian tech giant Jio Platforms to work on, among other things, digitizing small businesses in the country.

“MSMEs will play a significant role in reviving India’s economic growth and achieving its vision of becoming more self-reliant. Digital transformation will act as a catalyst for India’s development story going forward, and access to finances will be crucial to this transformation,” said Amitabh Kant, chief executive of government-backed highly influential think tank Niti Aayog, at a virtual conference Friday.

“In this context, Facebook’s Small Business Loans initiative is a big step in the right direction and I’m happy to note that India is the first country where the company is launching such an initiative.”

Microsoft backs India’s Oyo ahead of IPO

By Manish Singh

Microsoft has invested $5 million in Indian budget hotel chain Oyo, according to a regulatory filing this week. The investment confirms a TechCrunch scoop from last month.

The new investment values Oyo at $9.6 billion, only slightly below the $10 billion implied valuation from the Indian startup’s previous financing round in 2019. The startup, which lost significant business to the pandemic, was valued at just $3 billion in recent quarters by SoftBank, one of its largest investors.

TechCrunch reported earlier that this strategic investment may also involve Oyo shifting to use Microsoft’s cloud services. The company is planning to file for an IPO later this year, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Oyo, which is one of India’s most valuable startups, has aggressively expanded to many markets including Southeast Asia, Europe and the U.S. in recent years.  But some of its missteps — “toxic culture,” lapse in governance, and relationship with many hotel owners — have scarred its growth.

Just as the startup was pledging to improve its relationship with hotel owners, the pandemic arrived. In response, Oyo slowed its growth and laid off thousands of employees globally earlier this year as nations across the world enforced lockdowns.

The pandemic hit the seven-year-old startup like a “cyclone,” Agarwal told Bloomberg TV last month. “We built something for so many years and it took just 30 days for it drop by over 60%,” he said, adding that the firm had not made any decision on exploring the public markets.

Airbnb-backed Oyo had between $780 million to $800 million in its bank, Agarwal said at a virtual conference recently and had pared its “monthly burn” across all businesses to $4 million to $5 million. (The startup had about $1 billion in the bank in December 2020.)

Last month — after Agarwal’s remarks at the aforementioned conference — Oyo said it had raised $660 million in debt. That debt was used to pay off the previous debt, according to a person familiar with the matter.

If the deal between the two firms materializes, it will be Microsoft’s latest investment in an Indian startup. The firm has backed a handful of startups in the South Asian market, including news aggregator and short-video platform DailyHunt, e-commerce giant Flipkart, and logistics SaaS firm FarEye.

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