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Bangkok-based insurtech Sunday banks $45M Series B from investors like Tencent

By Catherine Shu

Sunday, an insurtech startup based in Bangkok, announced it has raised a $45 million Series B. Investors include Tencent, SCB 10X, Vertex Growth, Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia & India, Quona Capital, Aflac Ventures and Z Venture Capital. The company says the round was oversubscribed, and that it doubled its revenue growth in 2020.

Founded in 2017, Sunday describes itself as a “full-stack” insurtech, which means it handles everything from underwriting to distribution of its policies. Its products currently include motor and travel insurance policies that can be purchased online, and Sunday Health for Business, a healthcare coverage program for employers. Sunday also offers subscription-based smartphone plans through partners.

The company uses AI and machine learning-based technology underwrite its motor insurance and employee health benefits products, and says its data models also allow it to automate pricing and scale its underwriting process for complex risks. Sunday says it currently serves 1.6 million customers.

The new funding will be used to expand in Indonesia and develop new distribution channels, including insurance agents and SMEs.

Insurance penetration is still relatively low in many Southeast Asian markets, including Indonesia, but the industry is gaining traction thanks to increasing consumer awareness. The COVID-19 pandemic also drove interest in financial planning, including investment and insurance, especially health coverage.

Other insurtech startups in Indonesia that have recently raised funding include Lifepal, PasarPolis, Qoala and Fuse.

In a statement, Sunday co-founder and chief executive officer Cindy Kuo said, “Awareness for health insurance will continue to increase and we believe more consumers would be open to shop for insurance online. We plan to expand our platform architecture to offer retail insurance to our health members and partners while we continue to grow our portfolio in Thailand and Indonesia.”

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.

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.

Korean 3D spatial data tool startup Urbanbase closes $11.1M Series B+ round

By Kate Park

Urbanbase, a Seoul-based company that develops a 3D spatial data platform for interior planning and design, announced today it has raised $11.1 million (13 billion won) in a Series B+ round as it scales up.

This round of funding was led by Hanwha Hotel & Resort, which is a subsidiary of South Korean conglomerate Hanwha Corporation.

Urbanbase, founded in 2013 by chief executive officer and a former architect Jinu Ha, has now raised $20 million (approximately 23 billion won) in total.

Existing investors did not join this round. The company had raised Series A funding of $1.8 million and an additional $1.2 million in 2017 and its first Series B round in April 2020, from backers that included South Korea-based Shinsegae Information & Communication, Woomi Construction, SL Investment, KDB Capital, Shinhan Capital, Enlight Ventures, CKD Venture Capital, and Breeze Investment, Ha said.

The latest funding will be used for enhancing its B2B SaaS, investing in R&D for advanced virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and 3D tools, which are considered core technologies of metaverse that is its new business Urbanbase plans to enter, according to Ha. Global metaverse market size is projected to increase $280 billion by 2025 from $30.7 billion in 2021, based on Strategy Analytics’ report.

Companies that focus on opportunities in the so-called “metaverse” have been growing as part of a next-generation approach to building viable business models in areas like virtual and augmented reality, and all the hardware and software and new tech that are being built for them. Big tech corporations, ranging from Facebook, Intel to Microsoft, are targeting to move in the area. Apple also waded into the area of virtual reality, working on developing a high-end VR headset.

Urbanbase also plans to upgrade its home interior software platform, Urbanbase Studio, that has functions to transform 2D indoor space images into 3D displays via Urbanbase’s patented algorithm, visualize interior products in augmented reality and analyze spatial images based on the AI technology.

Urbanbase claims 50,000 monthly active users with 70,000 registered B2C users. The company has about 50 B2B customers.

“Most of our B2B clients are large conglomerates in South Korea and Japan, for example, LG Electronics, Japan-based Mitsubishi Real Estate Service, Nitori Holdings, Dentsu Group and SoftBank, but we would like to extend our B2B clients base to small, midsized companies and bring more B2C users after closing the Series B+ funding,” Ha mentioned.

Urbanbase is seeking an acquisition target in prop-tech and construction technology sectors, Ha told TechCrunch. Urbanbase currently focuses on developing the interior tools for apartment buildings because about 70-80 percent of total households in South Korea and Japan live in apartments, Ha said, adding that it will diversify its portfolio by acquiring a startup that covers different types of residence.

It currently operates the platform in Korean and Japanese, but it will add English language service prior to entering in Singapore in the end of 2021, Ha said.

Stipop offers developers and creators instant access to a huge global sticker library

By Taylor Hatmaker

With more than 270,000 stickers, Stipop’s library of colorful, character-driven expressions has a little something for everyone.

The company offers keyboard and social app stickers through ad-supported mobile apps on iOS and Android, but it’s recently focused more on providing stickers to developers, creators and other online businesses.

“We were able to gather so many artists because we actually began as our own app that provided stickers,” Stipop co-founder Tony Park told TechCrunch. The team took what they learned from running their own consumer-facing app — namely that collecting and licensing hundreds of thousands of stickers from artists around the world is hard work — and adapted their business to help solve that problem for others.

Stipop was the first Korean company to go through Yellow, Snapchat’s exclusive accelerator. The company is also part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 cohort.

Stipop’s sticker library is accessible through an SDK and an API, letting developers slot the searchable sticker library into their existing software. The company already has more than 200 companies that tap into its huge sticker trove, which offers a “single-day solution” for a process that would otherwise necessitate a lot more legwork. Stipop launched a website recently that helps developers integrate its SDK and API through quick installs.

“They can just add a single line of code inside their product and will have a fully customized sticker feature [so] users will be able to spice up their chats,” Park said.

Park points out that stickers encourage engagement — and for social software, engagement means growth. Stickers are a playful way to send characters back and forth in chat, but they also pop up in a number of other less obvious spots, from dating apps to ecommerce and ridesharing apps. Stipop even drives the sticker search in work collaboration software Microsoft Teams.

The company has already partnered with Google, which uses Stipop’s sticker library in Gboard, Android Messages and Tenor, a GIF keyboard platform that Google bought in 2018. That partnership drove 600 million sticker views within the first month. A new partnership between Stipop and Coca-Cola on the near horizon will add Coke-branded stickers to its sticker library and the company is opening its doors to more brands that understand the unique appeal of stickers in messaging apps.

Park says that people tend to compare stickers and gifs, two ways of wordlessly expressing emotion and social nuance, but stickers are a world unto themselves. Stickers exist in their own creative universe, with star artists, regional themes and original casts of characters that take on a life of their own among fans. “Sticker creators have their own profession,” Park said.

Visual artists can also find a lot of traction releasing stickers, even without sophisticated illustrations. And since they’re all about meaning rather than refinement, non-designers and less skilled artists can craft hit stickers too.

“Stickers are great for them because it [is] so easy to go viral,” Park said. The company has partnered with 8,000 sticker creators across 25 languages, helping those artists monetize their creations and generate income based on how many times a sticker is shared.

Stickers command their own visual language around the world, and Park has observed interesting cultural differences in how people use them to communicate. In the West, stickers are often used in place of text, but in Asia, where they’re used much more frequently, people usually send stickers to enhance rather than replace the meaning of text.

In East Asia, users tend to prefer simple black and white stickers, but in India and Saudi Arabia, bright, golden stickers top the trends. In South America, popular stickers take on a more pixelated, unique quality that resonates culturally there.

“With stickers, you fall in love with [the] characters you send… that becomes you,” Park said.

Apple lowers commissions on in-app purchases for news publishers who participate in Apple News

By Sarah Perez

Apple today is launching a new program that will allow subscription news organizations that participate in the Apple News app and meet certain requirements to lower their commission rate to 15% on qualifying in-app purchases taking place inside their apps on the App Store. Typically, Apple’s model for subscription-based apps involves a standard 30% commission during their first year on the App Store, which then drops to 15% in year two. But the new Apple News Partner Program, announced today, will now make 15% the commission rate for participants starting on day one.

There are a few caveats to this condition, and they benefit Apple. To qualify, the news publisher must maintain a presence on Apple News and they have to provide their content in the Apple News Format (ANF). The latter is the JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) format that’s used to create articles for Apple News which are optimized for Mac, iPhone and other Apple mobile devices. Typically, this involves a bit of setup to translate news articles from a publisher’s website or from their CMS (content management system) to the supported JSON format. For WordPress and other popular CMS’s, there are also plugins available to make this process easier.

Meanwhile, for publishers headquartered outside one of the four existing Apple News markets — the U.S., U.K., Australia or Canada — they can instead satisfy the program’s obligations by providing Apple with an RSS feed.

On the App Store, the partner app qualifying for the 15% commission must be used to deliver “original, professionally authored” news content, and they must offer their auto-renewable subscriptions using Apple’s in-app purchase system.

Image Credits: Apple

While there is some initial work involved in establishing the publisher’s connection to Apple News, it’s worth noting that most major publishers already participate on Apple’s platform. That means they won’t have to do any additional work beyond what they’re already doing in order to transition over to the reduced commission for their apps. However, the program also serves as a way to push news organizations to continue to participate in the Apple News ecosystem, as it will make more financial sense to do so across their broader business.

That will likely be an area of contention for publishers, who would probably prefer that the reduced App Store commission didn’t come with strings attached.

Some publishers already worry that they’re giving up too much control over their business by tying themselves to the Apple News ecosystem. Last year, for example, The New York Times announced it would exit its partnership with Apple News, saying that Apple didn’t allow it to have as direct a relationship with readers as it wanted, and it would rather drive readers to its own app and website.

Apple, however, would argue that it doesn’t stand in the way of publishers’ businesses — it lets them paywall their content and keep 100% of the ad revenue from the ads they sell. (If they can’t sell it all or would prefer Apple to do so on their behalf, they then split the commission with Apple, keeping 70% of revenues instead.) In addition, for the company’s Apple News+ subscription service — where the subscription revenue split is much higher — it could be argued that it’s “found money.” That is, Apple markets the service to customers the publisher hadn’t been able to attract on its own anyway.

The launch of the new Apple News Partner program comes amid regulatory scrutiny over how Apple manages its App Store business and more recently, proposed legislation aiming to address alleged anticompetitive issues both in the U.S. and in major App Store markets, like South Korea.

Sensing this shift in the market, Apple had already been working to provide itself cover from antitrust complaints and lawsuits — like the one underway now with Epic Games — by adjusting its App Store commissions. Last year, it launched the App Store Small Business Program, which also lowered commissions on in-app purchases from 30% to 15% — but only for developers earning up to $1 million in revenues.

This program may have helped smaller publishers, but it was clear some major publishers still weren’t satisfied. After the reduced commissions for small businesses were announced in November, the publisher trade organization Digital Content Next (DCN) — a representative for the AP, The New York Times, NPR, ESPN, Vox, The Washington Post, Meredith, Bloomberg, NBCU, The Financial Times, and others — joined the advocacy group and lobbying organization the Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) the very next month.

These publishers, who had previously written to Apple CEO Tim Cook to demand lower commissions — had other complaints about the revenue share beyond just the size of the split. They also didn’t want to be required to use Apple’s services for in-app purchases for their subscriptions, saying this “Apple tax” forces them to raise their prices for consumers.

It remains to be seen how these publishers will now react to the launch of the Apple News Partner program.

While it gives them a way to lower their App Store fees, it doesn’t address their broader complaints against Apple’s platform and its rules. If anything, it ties the lower fees to a program that locks them in further to the Apple ecosystem.

Apple, in a gesture of goodwill, also said today it would recommit support to three leading media non-profits, Common Sense Media, the News Literacy Project, and Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori. These non-profits offer nonpartisan, independent media literacy programs, which Apple views as key to its larger mission to empower people to become smart and active news readers. Apple also said it would later announce further media literacy projects from other organizations. The company would not disclose the size of its commitment from a financial standpoint however, or discuss how much it has sent such organizations in the past.

“Providing Apple News customers with access to trusted information from our publishing partners has been our priority from day one,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Services, in a statement. “For more than a decade, Apple has offered our customers many ways to access and enjoy news content across our products and services. We have hundreds of news apps from dozens of countries around the world available in the App Store, and created Apple News Format to offer publishers a tool to showcase their content and provide a great experience for millions of Apple News users,” he added.

More details about the program and the application form will be available at the News Partner Program website.

Mental health startup Intellect gets $2.2M to expand across Asia

By Catherine Shu

Intellect, a Singapore-based startup that wants to make mental health care more accessible in Asia, announced it has raised $2.2 million in pre-Series A funding. It is taking part in Y Combinator’s current batch, which will hold its Demo Day at the end of this month.

The round was led by returning investor Insignia Venture Partners and included participation from Y Combinator, XA Network and angel investors like Rainforest co-founder J.J. Chai; Prenetics and CircleDNA founder Danny Yeung; and Gilberto Gaeta, Google’s director of global HR operations.

This brings Intellect’s total funding since it launched a year ago to $3 million, including a seed round announced in December 2020 that was also led by Insignia.

Intellect offered two main product suites: a consumer app with self-guided programs based on cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, and a mental health benefits solution for employers with online therapy programs and telehealth services. The startup now claims more than 2.5 million app users, and 20 enterprise clients, including FoodPanda, Shopback, Carousell, Avery Dennison, Schroders and government agencies.

Founder and chief executive officer Theodoric Chew told TechCrunch that Intellect’s usage rate is higher than traditional EAP helpline solutions. On average, its mental health benefits solution sees about 20% to 45% engagement within three months after being adopted by companies with more than 5,000 employees.

In many Asian cultures, there is still a lot of stigma around mental health issues, but that has changed over the last year and a half as people continue to cope with the emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chew said. “From individuals, to companies, insurers and governments, all these different types of people and organizations are today prioritizing mental healthcare on an individual and organizational level in an extremely rapid manner.”

Intellect protects user privacy with zero-knowledge encryption, so the startup and employers don’t have access to people’s records or communications with their coaches and counsellors. Any insights shared with employers are aggregated and anonymized. Chew said the company is also compliant with major data privacy regulations like ISO, HIPAA and GDPR.

Intellect is currently collaborating in 10 studies with institutions like the National University of Singapore, King’s College London, University of Queensland and the Singapore General Hospital. It says studies so far have demonstrated improvements in mental well-being, stress levels and anxiety among its users.

The new funding will be used to expand into more Asian markets. Intellect currently covers 12 countries and 11 languages.

 

Final vote delayed for Korea’s plan to ban Google and Apple in-app payment rules

By Kate Park

As Apple and Google continue to face increasing scrutiny over the rules they set for how third-party apps in their app stores charge for services, a significant development in that story is going down in South Korea.

South Korea’s parliamentary committee passed on Wednesday (25 August) a landmark bill to prevent Google and Apple from charging software developers’ commissions on in-app purchases, the first of its kind in the world. The final vote by all members of the National Assembly – required to pass and activate the proposal – which was expected to be held in a plenary session on the same day, was delayed until further notice.

The plenary session was tentatively delayed to 30 August, according to a media.

South Korea will be the first country to prohibit such global tech giants from imposing billing systems on in-app purchases if voted into law.

The bill, dubbed the “Anti-Google Law”, was approved by the legislation and judiciary committee of the National Assembly to revise the Telecommunication Business Act, seeking to restrict Google and Apple from requiring app developers to use their billing system.

Google said in September 2020 it would impose its billing system on all app developers, collecting up to 30 percent commission for all in-app purchases.

In July 2021, Google decided to defer its new billing policy to the end of March 2022 upon request by app developers and lowered its play store commission to 15 percent, based on local media reports.

Apple said in its statement, “The proposed Telecommunications Business Act will put users who purchase digital goods from other sources at risk of fraud, undermine their privacy protections, make it difficult to manage their purchases, and features like ‘Ask to Buy’ and Parental Controls will become less effective. We believe user trust in App Store purchases will decrease as a result of this proposal—leading to fewer opportunities for the over 482,000 registered developers in Korea who have earned more than KRW8.55 trillion to date with Apple.”

Apple and Google of course argue that there are bigger issues around better and safer user experience that come with mandating their own in-app payment systems. And this is the argument that it falls on here too.

Google did not immediately respond.

Ai Palette raises $4.4M to help companies react faster to consumer trends

By Catherine Shu

Developing new packaged foods and consumer goods can take a couple years as companies research, prototype and test products. In a society that runs on social media, however, people expect to see trends land on store shelves much more quickly. Founded in 2018, Ai Palette uses machine learning to help companies spot trends in real time and get them retail-ready, often within a few months. The startup, whose clients include Danone, Kellogg’s, Cargill and Dole, announced today it has raised an oversubscribed $4.4 million Series A co-led by pi Ventures and Exfinity Venture Partners. Both will join Ai Palette’s board.

The round also included participation from returning backers food tech venture firm AgFunder and Decacorn Capital, and new investor Anthill Ventures. It brings Ai Palette’s total raised to $5.5 million, including a seed round announced in 2019.

Ai Palette is based in Singapore, with an engineering hub in Bangalore. Its customer base started in Southeast Asia, before expanding into China, Japan, the United States and Europe.

Its customer base started in Southeast Asia and India, and expanded to China, Japan, the United States and Europe. Ai Palette supports 15 languages, which the company claims is the most of any AI-based tool for predicting consumer packaged goods (CPG) trends. Its funding will be used to expand into more markets and fill engineering and data science roles.

Ai Palette was founded in 2018 by chief executive officer Somsubhra GanChoudhuri and chief technology officer Himanshu Upreti, who met through Entrepreneur First, the “talent investor” that recruits and teams up potential founders.

Before Ai Palette, GanChoudhuri worked in sales and marketing at Givaudan, the world’s largest manufacturer of fragrances and flavors. This allowed him to see how product innovation is done for many types of consumer products, ranging from snacks and fast food to packaged goods. Many of the companies he worked with were beginning to realize that a two-year product innovation cycle could no longer meet demand. Upreti, an advanced machine learning and big data analysis expert, previously worked at companies including Visa, where he built models that can handle petabytes of data.

Ai Palette’s first product is Foresight Engine, which tracks trends like ingredients or flavors, analyzes why they are popular and predicts how long demand will last. It also identifies “white space opportunities,” or situations where there is unmet demand. For example, GanChoudhuri said the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way people eat — they are now eating health snacks up to six times a day in front of screens — so companies have the chance to release new kinds of products.

Foresight Engine gives contextual information, said Upreti. “For example, is a food item eaten on the go, or at a café. Is a product consumed socially or individually? What’s trending at kids’ birthday parties? For a specific product or ingredient, images provide information on product pairings and product format.”

The platform uses data from sources like social media, search, blogs, recipes, menus and company data. “Data sets popular to each market are prioritized, like a local recipe or a food delivery app,” said GanChoudhuri. “And they are tracked over the years to determine growth trajectory with a strong degree of confidence.”

Some specific examples of how Ai Palette’s tech has translated into new products include brands that want to launch a new flavor, like for a potato chip or soda, in a specific country. They can use the Foresight Engine to not only see what trends are rising, but which ones have the potential to become long-term favorites, so they don’t invest in a product that will almost instantly lose its popularity.

Many of Ai Palette’s clients have used it to react to new trends and consumer behavior patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not surprisingly, people in many markets are interested in healthy food or ones that are supposed to boost immunity. For example, in Southeast Asia there is more demand for lemon and garlic, while acerola and yerba mate are trending in the United States.

On the other hand, “in China, taste is paramount, even over health, because people are looking for food that brings back a sense of normalcy,” said GanChoudhuri. Meanwhile in India, there is demand for products with longer shelf life as people continue to cope with the pandemic, but many consumers are also seeking interesting snacks to ease the boredom of lockdown, with kimchi and other Korean flavors becoming especially popular.

Ai Palette’s ability to work with many languages is one of the ways it differentiates from other machine learning-based trend-prediction platforms. It currently supports English, simplified Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Bahasa Indonesian, Bahasa Melayu, Tagalog, Spanish, French and German, with plans to add more as it targets new European countries, Mexico, Latin America and the Middle East.

 

Japan’s B2B ordering and supply platform CADDi raises $73 million Series B funding

By Kate Park

With COVID-19 disrupting the entire manufacturing supply chain including semiconductor shortages, companies across multiple industries have been struggling to seek a procurement solution that can rebalance the gap between supply and demand.

CADDi, a Tokyo-based B2B ordering and supply platform in the manufacturing and procurement industry, helps both procurement (demand side) and manufacturing facilities (supply side) by aggregating and rebalancing supply and demand via its automated calculation system for manufacturing costs and databases of fabrication facilities across Japan.

The company announced this morning a $73 million Series B round co-led by Globis Capital Partners and World Innovation Lab (WiL), with participation from existing investors DCM and Global Brain. Six new investors also have joined the round including Arena Holdings, DST Global, Minerva Growth Partners, Tybourne Capital Management, JAFCO Group and SBI Investment.

CADDi was founded by CEO Yushiro Kato and CTO Aki Kobashi in November 2017.

The post-money valuation is estimated at $450 million, according to sources close to the deal.

The new funding brings CADDi’s total raised so far to $90.5 million. In December 2018, the company closed a $9 million Series A round led by DCM and followed by Globis Capital Partners and WiL and Global Brain.

The funding proceeds will be used for accelerating digital transformation of the platform, hiring and expanding to global markets.

“We enable integrated production of complete sets of equipment consisting of custom-made parts such as sheet metal, machined parts and structural frames. Using an automatic quotation system based on a proprietary cost calculation algorithm, we select the processing company that best matches the quality, delivery date and price of the order and build an optimal supply chain,” CEO and co-founder Yushiro Kato said.

The goal of CADDi’s ordering platform is to transform the manufacturing industry from a multiple subcontractor pyramid structure to a flat, connected structure based on each manufacturers’ individual strengths, thus creating a world where those on the front lines of manufacturing can spend more time on essential and creative work, Kato said.

CADDi’s ordering platform, backed by its unique technology including automatic cost calculation system, optimal ordering and production management system, and drawing management system, offers a 10%-15% cost reduction, stable capacity and balanced order placement to its more than 600 Japanese supply partners spanning a multitude of industries.

“The demand for CADDi’s services has seen significant acceleration. Our business has been growing very fast, and our latest orders have grown more than six times compared to the previous year, leading to the company’s expanded presence into both eastern and western Japan in order to meet this increase in demand,” Kato said.

“Going forward, in addition to continuously expanding our ordering platform, we will also start to provide purchases (manufacturers) and supply partners with our technology directly to promote digital transformation of their operations, for example, the production management system and drawing management system,” Kato continued.

“As a start point, in the near future, we are thinking about selling ‘Drawing Management SaaS,’” which has been used internally for CADDi’s ordering operation, to help customers solve operational pains in handling piles of drawings. “Our ‘Drawing Management SaaS’ technology will not only help manage drawings as documents properly but also allow utilization of data of drawings in a practical way for future decision-making and action in their procurement process.”

CADDi’s next axis of growth will be other growing markets, especially in Southeast Asia, Kato pointed out. “Many of our Japanese customers have subsidiaries and branches in these countries, so it’s a natural expansion opportunity for us to strengthen our value proposition and provide more continuity and seamless service to our customers,” Kato added.

Kato also said it wants to continue investing in hiring, especially engineers, to further the development of its platform CADDi and new business. It plans to hire 1,000 employees in the next three years. CADDi had 102 employees as of March 2021.

The company aims to become a global platform with sales of USD 9.1 billion (that is 1 trillion YEN) by 2030, Kato said.

COVID-19 had a different impact on different industries in the procurement and manufacturing sector, with “the automobile and machine tool industries were negatively affected by the pandemic and experienced an up to 90% temporary drop in sales, while other industries such as the medical and semiconductor industries have experienced explosive growth in demand. The overall result of COVID-19 is that the company has captured more demand because CADDi’s system rebalances receipts across multiple industries,” according to Kato.

Masaya Kubota, partner at World Innovation Lab, told TechCrunch, “CADDi’s solution of aggregating and rebalancing supply and demand has once again proven to be indispensable to both purchasers and manufacturers, with the pandemic disrupting the entire supply chain in manufacturing. We first invested in CADDi in 2018, because we strongly believed in their mission of digitally transforming one of the most analog industries, the $1 trillion procurement market.”

Another investor principal at DCM, Kenichiro Hara, also said in an email interview with TechCrunch, “The pandemic made the manufacturing industry’s supply chain vulnerabilities quite clear early on. For example, if a country is on lockdown or a factory stalls the operations, their customers cannot procure necessary parts to produce their products. This impact amplifies, and the entire supply chain is affected. Therefore, the demand for finding new, available and accessible suppliers in a timely manner increased in importance, which is CADDi’s primary value-add.”

This Week in Apps: OnlyFans bans sexual content, SharePlay delayed, TikTok questioned over biometric data collection

By Sarah Perez

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Top Stories

OnlyFans to ban sexually explicit content

OnlyFans logo displayed on a phone screen and a website

(Photo Illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Creator platform OnlyFans is getting out of the porn business. The company announced this week it will begin to prohibit any “sexually explicit” content starting on October 1, 2021 — a decision it claimed would ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform. The news angered a number of impacted creators who weren’t notified ahead of time and who’ve come to rely on OnlyFans as their main source of income.

However, word is that OnlyFans was struggling to find outside investors, despite its sizable user base, due to the adult content it hosts. Some VC firms are prohibited from investing in adult content businesses, while others may be concerned over other matters — like how NSFW content could have limited interest from advertisers and brand partners. They may have also worried about OnlyFans’ ability to successfully restrict minors from using the app, in light of what appears to be soon-to-come increased regulations for online businesses. Plus, porn companies face a number of other issues, too. They have to continually ensure they’re not hosting illegal content like child sex abuse material, revenge porn or content from sex trafficking victims — the latter which has led to lawsuits at other large porn companies.

The news followed a big marketing push for OnlyFans’ porn-free (SFW) app, OFTV, which circulated alongside reports that the company was looking to raise funds at a $1 billion+ valuation. OnlyFans may not have technically needed the funding to operate its current business — it handled more than $2 billion in sales in 2020 and keeps 20%. Rather, the company may have seen there’s more opportunity to cater to the “SFW” creator community, now that it has big names like Bella Thorne, Cardi B, Tyga, Tyler Posey, Blac Chyna, Bhad Bhabie and others on board.

U.S. lawmakers demand info on TikTok’s plans for biometric data collection

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max

The TikTok logo is seen on an iPhone 11 Pro max. Image Credits: Nur Photo/Getty Images

U.S. lawmakers are challenging TikTok on its plans to collect biometric data from its users. TechCrunch first reported on TikTok’s updated privacy policy in June, where the company gave itself permission to collect biometric data in the U.S., including users’ “faceprints and voiceprints.” When reached for comment, TikTok could not confirm what product developments necessitated the addition of biometric data to its list of disclosures about the information it automatically collects from users, but said it would ask for consent in the case such data collection practices began.

Earlier this month, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, which said they were “alarmed” by the change, and demanded to know what information TikTok will be collecting and what it plans to do with the data. This wouldn’t be the first time TikTok got in trouble for excessive data collection. Earlier this year, the company paid out $92 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that claimed TikTok had unlawfully collected users’ biometric data and shared it with third parties.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Image Credits: Apple

  • ⭐ Apple told developers that some of the features it announced as coming in iOS 15 won’t be available at launch. This includes one of the highlights of the new OS, SharePlay, a feature that lets people share music, videos and their screen over FaceTime calls. Other features that will come in later releases include Wallet’s support for ID cards, the App Privacy report and others that have yet to make it to beta releases.
  • Apple walked back its controversial Safari changes with the iOS 15 beta 6 update. Apple’s original redesign had shown the address bar at the bottom of the screen, floating atop the page’s content. Now the tab bar will appear below the page’s content, offering access to its usual set of buttons as when it was at the top. Users can also turn off the bottom tab bar now and revert to the old, Single Tab option that puts the address bar back at the top as before.
  • In response to criticism over its new CSAM detection technology, Apple said the version of NeuralHash that was reverse-engineered by a developer, Asuhariet Ygvar, was a generic version, and not the complete version that will roll out later this year.
  • The Verge dug through over 800 documents from the Apple-Epic trial to find the best emails, which included dirt on a number of other companies like Netflix, Hulu, Sony, Google, Nintendo, Valve, Microsoft, Amazon and more. These offered details on things like Netflix’s secret arrangement to pay only 15% of revenue, how Microsoft also quietly offers a way for some companies to bypass its full cut, how Apple initially saw the Amazon Appstore as a threat and more.

Platforms: Google

  • A beta version of the Android Accessibility Suite app (12.0.0) which rolled out with the fourth Android beta release added something called “Camera Switches” to Switch Access, a toolset that lets you interact with your device without using the touchscreen. Camera Switches allows users to navigate their phone and use its features by making face gestures, like a smile, open mouth, raised eyebrows and more.
  • Google announced its Pixel 5a with 5G, the latest A-series Pixel phone, will arrive on August 27, offering IP67 water resistance, long-lasting Adaptive Battery, Pixel’s dual-camera system and more, for $449. The phone makes Google’s default Android experience available at a lower price point than the soon to arrive Pixel 6.
  • An unredacted complaint from the Apple-Epic trial revealed that Google had quietly paid developers hundreds of millions of dollars via a program known as “Project Hug,” (later “Apps and Games Velocity Program”) to keep their games on the Play Store. Epic alleges Google launched the program to keep developers from following its lead by moving their games outside the store.

Augmented Reality

  • Snap on Thursday announced it hired its first VP of Platform Partnerships to lead AR, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis (“KP”). The new exec will lead Snap’s efforts to onboard partners, including individual AR creators building via Lens Studio as well as large companies that incorporate Snapchat’s camera and AR technology (Camera Kit) into their apps. KP will join in September, and report to Ben Schwerin, SVP of Content and Partnerships.

Fintech

  • Crypto exchange Coinbase will enter the Japanese market through a new partnership with Japanese financial giant Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG). The company said it plans to launch other localized versions of its existing global services in the future.

Social

Image Credits: Facebook

  • Facebook launched a “test” of Facebook Reels in the U.S. on iOS and Android. The new feature brings the Reels experience to Facebook, allowing users to create and share short-form video content directly within the News Feed or within Facebook Groups. Instagram Reels creators can also now opt in to have their Reels featured on users’ News Feed. The company is heavily investing its its battle with TikTok, even pledging that some portion of its $1 billion creator fund will go toward Facebook Reels.
  • Twitter’s redesign of its website and app was met with a lot of backlash from users and accessibility experts alike. The company choices add more visual contrast between various elements and may have helped those with low vision. But for others, the contrast is causing strain and headaches. Experts believe accessibility isn’t a one-size fits all situation, and Twitter should have introduced tools that allowed people to adjust their settings to their own needs.
  • The pro-Trump Twitter alternative Gettr’s lack of moderation has allowed users to share child exploitation images, according to research from the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Cyber Policy Center.
  • Pinterest rolled out a new set of more inclusive search filters that allow people to find styles for different types of hair textures — like coily, curly, wavy, straight, as well as shaved or bald and protective styles. 

Photos

  • Photoshop for iPad gained new image correction tools, including the Healing Brush and Magic Wand, and added support for connecting an iPad to external monitors via HDMI or USB-C. The company also launched a Photoshop Beta program on the desktop.

Messaging

  • WhatsApp is being adopted by the Taliban to spread its message across Afghanistan, despite being on Facebook’s list of banned organizations. The company says it’s proactively removing Taliban content — but that may be difficult to do since WhatsApp’s E2E encryption means it can’t read people’s texts. This week, Facebook shut down a Taliban helpline in Kabul, which allowed civilians to report violence and looting, but some critics said this wasn’t actually helping local Afghans, as the group was now in effect governing the region.
  • WhatsApp is also testing a new feature that will show a large preview when sharing links, which some suspect may launch around the time when the app adds the ability to have the same account running on multiple devices.

Streaming & Entertainment

  • Netflix announced it’s adding spatial audio support on iPhone and iPad on iOS 14, joining other streamers like HBO Max, Disney+ and Peacock that have already pledged to support the new technology. The feature will be available to toggle on and off in the Control Center, when it arrives.
  • Blockchain-powered streaming music service Audius partnered with TikTok to allow artists to upload their songs using TikTok’s new SoundKit in just one click.
  • YouTube’s mobile app added new functionality that allows users to browse a video’s chapters, and jump into the chapter they want directly from the search page.
  • Spotify’s Anchor app now allows users in global markets to record “Music + Talk” podcasts, where users can combine spoken word recordings with any track from Spotify’s library of 70 million songs for a radio DJ-like experience.
  • Podcasters are complaining that Apple’s revamped Podcasts platform is not working well, reports The Verge. Podcasts Connect has been buggy, and sports a confusing interface that has led to serious user errors (like entire shows being archived). And listeners have complained about syncing problems and podcasts they already heard flooding their libraries.

Dating

  • Tinder announced a new feature that will allow users to voluntarily verify their identity on the platform, which will allow the company to cross-reference sex offender registry data. Previously, Tinder would only check this database when a user signed up for a paid subscription with a credit card.

Gaming

Image Source: The Pokémon Company

  • Pokémon Unite will come to iOS and Android on September 22, The Pokémon Company announced during a livestream this week. The strategic battle game first launched on Nintendo Switch in late July.
  • Developer Konami announced a new game, Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls, which will come exclusively to Apple Arcade. The game is described as a “full-fledged side-scrolling action game,” featuring a roster of iconic characters from the classic game series. The company last year released another version of Castelvania on the App Store and Google Play.
  • Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle has now surpassed $3 billion in player spending since its 2015 debut, reported Sensor Tower. The game from Bandai Namco took 20 months to reach the figure after hitting the $2 billion milestone in 2019. The new landmark sees the game joining other top-grossers, including Clash Royale, Lineage M and others.
  • Sensor Tower’s mobile gaming advertising report revealed data on top ad networks in the mobile gaming market, and their market share. It also found puzzle games were among the top advertisers on gaming-focused networks like Chartboost, Unity, IronSource and Vungle. On less game-focused networks, mid-core games were top titles, like Call of Duty: Mobile and Top War. 

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Health & Fitness

  • Apple is reportedly scaling back HealthHabit, an internal app for Apple employees that allowed them to track fitness goals, talk to clinicians and coaches at AC Wellness (a doctors’ group Apple works with) and manage hypertension. According to Insider, 50 employees had been tasked to work on the project.
  • Samsung launched a new product for Galaxy smartphones in partnership with healthcare nonprofit The Commons Project, that allows U.S. users to save a verifiable copy of their vaccination card in the Samsung Pay digital wallet.

Image Credits: Samsung

Adtech

Government & Policy

  • China cited 43 apps, including Tencent’s WeChat and an e-reader from Alibaba, for illegally transferring user data. The regulator said the apps had transferred users location data and contact list and harassed them with pop-up windows. The apps have until August 25 to make changes before being punished.

Security & Privacy

  • A VICE report reveals a fascinating story about a jailbreaking community member who had served as a double agent by spying for Apple’s security team. Andrey Shumeyko, whose online handles included JVHResearch and YRH04E, would advertise leaked apps, manuals and stolen devices on Twitter and Discord. He would then tell Apple things like which Apple employees were leaking confidential info, which reporters would talk to leakers, who sold stolen iPhone prototypes and more. Shumeyko decided to share his story because he felt Apple took advantage of him and didn’t compensate him for the work.

Funding and M&A

💰 South Korea’s GS Retail Co. Ltd will buy Delivery Hero’s food delivery app Yogiyo in a deal valued at 800 billion won ($685 million USD). Yogiyo is the second-largest food delivery app in South Korea, with a 25% market share.

💰 Gaming platform Roblox acquired a Discord rival, Guilded, which allows users to have text and voice conversations, organize communities around events and calendars and more. Deal terms were not disclosed. Guilded raised $10.2 million in venture funding. Roblox’s stock fell by 7% after the company reported earnings this week, after failing to meet Wall Street expectations.

💰 Travel app Hopper raised $175 million in a Series G round of funding led by GPI Capital, valuing the business at over $3.5 billion. The company raised a similar amount just last year, but is now benefiting from renewed growth in travel following COVID-19 vaccinations and lifting restrictions.

💰 Indian quiz app maker Zupee raised $30 million in a Series B round of funding led by Silicon Valley-based WestCap Group and Tomales Bay Capital. The round values the company at $500 million, up 5x from last year.

💰 Danggeun Market, the publisher of South Korea’s hyperlocal community app Karrot, raised $162 million in a Series D round of funding led by DST Global. The round values the business at $2.7 billion and will be used to help the company launch its own payments platform, Karrot Pay.

💰 Bangalore-based fintech app Smallcase raised $40 million in Series C funding round led by Faering Capital and Premji Invest, with participation from existing investors, as well as Amazon. The Robinhood-like app has over 3 million users who are transacting about $2.5 billion per year.

💰 Social listening app Earbuds raised $3 million in Series A funding led by Ecliptic Capital. Founded by NFL star Jason Fox, the app lets anyone share their favorite playlists, livestream music like a DJ or comment on others’ music picks.

💰 U.S. neobank app One raised $40 million in Series B funding led by Progressive Investment Company (the insurance giant’s investment arm), bringing its total raise to date to $66 million. The app offers all-in-one banking services and budgeting tools aimed at middle-income households who manage their finances on a weekly basis.

Public Markets

📈Indian travel booking app ixigo is looking to raise Rs 1,600 crore in its initial public offering, The Economic Times reported this week.

📉Trading app Robinhood disappointed in its first quarterly earnings as a publicly traded company, when it posted a net loss of $502 million, or $2.16 per share, larger than Wall Street forecasts. This overshadowed its beat on revenue ($565 million versus $521.8 million expected) and its more than doubling of MAUs to 21.3 million in Q2.  Also of note, the company said dogecoin made up 62% of its crypto revenue in Q2.

Downloads

Polycam (update)

Image Credits: Polycam

3D scanning software maker Polycam launched a new 3D capture tool, Photo Mode, that allows iPhone and iPad users to capture professional-quality 3D models with just an iPhone. While the app’s scanner before had required the use of the lidar sensor built into newer devices like the iPhone 12 Pro and iPad Pro models, the new Photo Mode feature uses just an iPhone’s camera. The resulting 3D assets are ready to use in a variety of applications, including 3D art, gaming, AR/VR and e-commerce. Data export is available in over a dozen file formats, including .obj, .gtlf, .usdz and others. The app is a free download on the App Store, with in-app purchases available.

Jiobit (update)

Jiobit, the tracking dongle acquired by family safety and communication app Life360, this week partnered with emergency response service Noonlight to offer Jiobit Protect, a premium add-on that offers Jiobit users access to an SOS Mode and Alert Button that work with the Jiobit mobile app. SOS Mode can be triggered by a child’s caregiver when they detect — through notifications from the Jiobit app — that a loved one may be in danger. They can then reach Noonlight’s dispatcher who can facilitate a call to 911 and provide the exact location of the person wearing the Jiobit device, as well as share other details, like allergies or special needs, for example.

Tweets

When your app redesign goes wrong…

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Prominent App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou shut down his FlickType iOS app this week after too many frustrations with App Review. He cited rejections that incorrectly argued that his app required more access than it did — something he had successfully appealed and overturned years ago. Attempted follow-ups with Apple were ignored, he said. 

Image Credits: Twitter.com

Anyone have app ideas?

Indonesian D2C insurance marketplace Lifepal raises $9M Series A

By Catherine Shu

Choosing an insurance policy is one of the most complicated financial decisions a person can make. Jakarta-based Lifepal wants to simplify the process for Indonesians with a marketplace that lets users compare policies from more than 50 providers, get help from licensed agents and file claims. The startup, which says it is the country’s largest direct-to-consumer insurance marketplace, announced today it has raised a $9 million Series A. The round was led by ProBatus Capital, a venture firm backed by Prudential Financial, with participation from Cathay Innovation and returning investors Insignia Venture Partners, ATM Capital and Hustle Fund.

Lifepal was founded in 2019 by former Lazada executives Giacomo Ficari and Nicolo Robba, along with Benny Fajarai and Reza Muhammed. The new funding brings its total raised to $12 million.

The marketplace’s partners currently offer about 300 policies for life, health, automotive, property and travel coverage. Ficari, who also co-founded neobank Aspire, told TechCrunch that Lifepal was created to make comparing, buying and claiming insurance as simple as shopping online.

“The same kind of experience a customer has today on a marketplace like Lazada—the convenience, all digital, fast delivery—we saw was lacking in insurance, which is still operating with offline, face-to-face agents like 20 to 30 years ago,” he said.

Indonesia’s insurance penetration rate is only about 3%, but the market is growing along with the country’s gross domestic product thanks to a larger middle-class. “We are really at a tipping point for GDP per capita and a lot of insurance carriers are focusing more on Indonesia,” said Ficari.

Other venture-backed insurtech startups tapping into this demand include Fuse, PasarPolis and Qoala. Both Qoala and PasarPolis focus on “micro-policies,” or inexpensive coverage for things like damaged devices. PasarPolis also partners with Gojek to offer health and accident insurance to drivers. Fuse, meanwhile, insurance specialists an online platform to run their businesses.

Lifepal takes a different approach because it doesn’t sell micro-policies, and its marketplace is for customers to purchase directly from providers, not through agents.
Based on Lifepal’s data, about 60% of its health and life insurance customers are buying coverage for the first time. On the other hand, many automotive insurance shoppers had policies before, but their coverage expired and they decided to shop online instead of going to an agent to get a new one.

Ficari said Lifepal’s target customers overlap with the investment apps that are gaining traction among Indonesia’s growing middle class (like Ajaib, Pluang and Pintu). Many of these apps provide educational content, since their customers are usually millennials investing for the first time, and Lifepal takes a similar approach. Its content side, called Lifepal Media, focuses on articles for people who are researching insurance policies and related topics like personal financial planning. The company says its site, including its blog, now has about 4 million monthly visitors, creating a funnel for its marketplace.

While one of Lifepal’s benefits is enabling people to compare policies on their own, many also rely on its customer support line, which is staffed by licensed insurance agents. In fact, Ficari said about 90% of its customers use it.

“What we realize is that insurance is complicated and it’s expensive,” said Ficari. “People want to take their time to think and they have a lot of questions, so we introduced good customer support.” He added Lifepal’s combination of enabling self-research while providing support is similar to the approach taken by PolicyBazaar in India, one of the country’s largest insurance aggregators.

To keep its business model scalable, Lifepal uses a recommendation engine that matches potential customers with policies and customer support representatives. It considers data points like budget (based on Lifepal’s research, its customers usually spend about 3% to 5% of their yearly income on insurance), age, gender, family composition and if they have purchased insurance before.

Lifepal’s investment from ProBatus will allow it to work with Assurance IQ, the insurance sales automation platform acquired by Prudential Financial two years ago.

In a statement, ProBatus Capital founder and managing partner Ramneek Gupta said Lifepal’s “three-pronged approach” (its educational content, online marketplace and live agents for customer support) has the “potential to change the way the Indonesian consumer buys insurance.”

Part of Lifepal’s funding will be used to build products to make it easier to claim policies. Upcoming products include Insurance Wallet, which will include an application process with support on how to claim a policy—for example, what car repair shop or hospital a customer should go to—and escalation if a claim is rejected. Another product, called Easy Claim, will automate the claim process.

“The goal is to stay end-to-end with the customer, from reading content, comparing policies, buying and then renewing and using them, so you really see people sticking around,” said Ficari.

Lifepal is Cathay Innovation’s third insurtech investment in the past 12 months. Investment director Rajive Keshup told TechCrunch in an email that it backed Lifepal because “the company grew phenomenally last year (12X) and is poised to beat its aggressive 2021 plan despite the proliferation of the COVID delta variant, accentuating the fact that Lifepal is very much on track to replicate the success of similar global models such as Assurance IQ (US) and PolicyBazaar (India).”

YC-backed Tablevibe’s customer surveys help restaurants reduce their reliance on delivery apps

By Catherine Shu

Food delivery apps offer convenience for customers, but a host of headaches for restaurants, like commissions as high as 40% and very few tools to build customer loyalty. Based in Singapore, Tablevibe wants to help restaurants reduce their reliance on third-party delivery apps and help them get more direct orders and returning customers. The startup is part of Y Combinator’s current batch, which will hold its Demo Day at the end of this month.

Tablevibe’s founding team includes two former Googlers: Jeroen Rutten, formerly head of Google Search’s product strategy in APAC and Sneep, who was responsible for its app development go-to-market strategy and led large sales teams. They are joined by Guido Caldara, a lead teacher at coding bootcamp Le Wagon and Tablevibe’s chief technology officer.

The idea for Tablevibe came after Rutten, its chief executive officer, visited a restaurant in Singapore that used paper feedback forms.

“We thought, if they use a paper feedback form, it actually creates a lot of hassle, like entering all the data into an Excel spreadsheet,” he told TechCrunch. “How’s the restaurant owner going to get actionable feedback based on data in an Excel spreadsheet?”

The team began working on the first version of Tablevibe, with simple Google Forms for dine-in customers and Google Data Studio dashboards, and tested it with three restaurants a few months before COVID-19 emerged. They found that using Tablevibe instead of paper forms increased response rates by up to 26x and also had the benefit of creating more repeat customers, since they are given an incentive for filling out surveys.

Then the pandemic hit and restaurants had to suddenly pivot to deliveries. The team kept the same idea behind their feedback forms, but started using QR codes affixed to takeout packaging. The QR codes (usually in the form of stickers so food and beverage businesses don’t need to order new packaging) also offer an incentive if customers scan it and fill out a survey—but the discount or free item can’t be redeemed through third-party delivery apps, only through direct orders with the restaurant.

Restaurants can customize surveys, but about 80% use Tablevibe’s templates, which are quick to fill out, since most questions just ask for a rating from one to five stars (there’s also an optional form for customers to write their opinions). Customers fill out their name, email addresses, and then rank the food and atmosphere (for dine-in). For delivery, customers are also asked what app they used.

Tablevibe is integrated with Google Reviews, so if someone gives the restaurant a high rating, they are asked if they want to make it public. They also have the option to follow its Facebook or Instagram profile.

For dine-in customers, Tablevibe primarily works with F&B businesses that have multiple venues, including Merci Marcel and Lo and Behold Group. For its delivery survey, most users are smaller restaurants that have one location. It also serves cloud kitchens, like CloudEats in the Philippines.

“As a restaurant, you want to own and grow your customer relationships,” said Sneep, Tablevibe’s chief operating officer. “The first part is actually knowing who your customers are, what they experienced and how you can contact them, which is how we can help. The second piece is growing a customer relationship, which we do by giving a reward, but only if a customer reorders directly with a restaurant.”

Customers have generated over 25,000 reviews through Tablevibe so far, which gives the company data to help determine what kind of incentives will convince someone to scan a restaurant’s QR code and take a survey.

Tablevibe’s founders say it can deliver more than 100x return on investment to its clients. For example, Merci Marcel did an evaluation and determined that it got a 103x ROI, based on the number of customers who claimed incentives, average order value, how many people left a five-star Google Review and how much more business those reviews drove to their venues.

The startup plans to expand into other English-speaking markets, focusing first on Northern Europe and then North America later this year. Aside from Singapore, it’s already used by customers in the Philippines, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Portugal.

Rutten said that Tablevibe plans to build its development team, with the goal of becoming a “Salesforce for restaurants” that can help them build engagement through delivery or dine-ins, capture data and turn them into useful insights.

“Our roadmap has two levers—one is to get more data and the other is to provide more intelligence,” he said. “We’re working on API integrations so Tablevibe can integrate with point-of-sale systems. The second thing is to pull in more publicly available data from sources like Google Reviews. We will also build out more marketing features to leverage customer databases so businesses can send out emails about new restaurant launches, etc.” Eventually, Tablevibe also plans to use AI to help restaurants determine exactly what they need to do to improve customer experience, like change a menu item.

AppWorks closes third fund with $150M for Taiwan and Southeast Asia startups

By Catherine Shu

AppWorks, the Taipei-based venture capital firm focused on Taiwan and Southeast Asia, announced today it has closed its oversubscribed third fund, raising $150 million. AppWorks Fund III’s limited partners include Taiwan Mobile, Axiom Asia Private Capital, Fubon Life, TransGlobe Life, Hongtai Group, Wistron, Cathay Life, Phison Electronics and Taiwan’s National Development Fund. Many of these LPs also participated in AppWorks’ $50 million second fund in 2014.

AppWorks’ total assets under management (AUM) is now $212 million. As part of Fund III’s close, AppWorks is recruiting new investment associates and analysts, especially ones who will focus on sourcing deals throughout Southeast Asia.

Jamie Lin, the firm’s chairman and founding partner, told TechCrunch that Fund III had an initial target of $100 million, but surpassed it because of the strong performance of AppWorks’ second fund.

Fund II’s portfolio includes Lalamove and 91APP, and at the end of July 2021, its total value to paid-in (TVPI), or the return multiple net of fees, reached 3.3x. By comparison, the top quartile of global VC and private equity funds launched around the same time have a TVPI of 2.4x, according to data from Cambridge Associates. Fund II also achieved internal rate of return (IRR) of 34.7%, compared to 26.1% for the other funds.

Founded in 2009, AppWorks started its accelerator program before launching a $11 million debut fund in 2012. AppWorks’ ecosystem now includes 414 active startups that have collectively raised $4.3 billion, and have an aggregate valuation of $17.4 billion. Over the next 10 years, AppWorks’ goal is to increase that to 1,000 active startups with a collective value of more than $100 billion.

Lin said AppWorks has a strong incoming pipeline because many startups in its ecosystem, including ones run by accelerator alumni and its mentor network of about 100 seasoned entrepreneurs, have reached product-market fit, are scalable and need to raise funding to accelerate growth.

Fund III is earmarked for a portfolio of about 40 startups, split evenly between investments starting at $2 million in Series A to Series C rounds, and seed-stage investments. Seed-stage checks can range in size from about $50,000 to $200,000, depending on a startup’s needs. Part of the fund’s capital will also go toward AppWorks’ current portfolio companies as they reach maturation.

AppWorks’ three main investment themes are Southeast Asia, blockchain and artificial intelligence.

Lin said that many of AppWorks accelerator graduates over the past three to five years are from Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and, increasingly, Indonesia and the Philippines. (AppWorks also serves as an LP in about 15 seed funds across Southeast Asia, which helped it maintain strong deal flow despite pandemic travel restrictions).

AppWorks’ current blockchain investments include Dapper Labs, Animoca Brands and Splinterlands. Lin is especially keen on NFTs and their “ability to bridge the physical world and digital world,” plus blockchain’s potential to change how people game (for example, the play-to-earn model Splinterlands is known for).

Investing in a mix of seed- and growth-stage deals means Fund III’s schedule will be more evenly spread out. The approach is “better for LPs, but also mostly comes from our philosophy of putting founders front and center,” Lin said. “A lot of our accelerator alumni startups are by first-time founders, so they need help all the way from seed stage. Many of our mentors have already raised seed or Series A rounds, and they come to us when they need someone to lead a Series B of $10, $15 or $20 million. It stems from our particular deal flow, since we’re mainly supporting our alumni founders and mentors, so we have two very different types of deal flows.”

Fund III has already backed AppWorks accelerator alumni like Pickone, WeMo Scooter, Omnichat, XREX, Blocto, SoopahGenius and Docosan. Investments from its mentor network include Carousell, Dapper Labs, Tiki, Dcard, Yummy Corp and Animoca Brands.

 

A close look at Singapore’s thriving startup ecosystem

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

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

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

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

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

A glimpse into Singapore’s current startup ecosystem

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

What’s driving the global surge in retail media spending?

By Ram Iyer
Cynthia Luo Contributor
Cynthia Luo is the head of Marketing at Epsilo, an all-in-one e-commerce SaaS solution for marketplace sellers in Southeast Asia. Cynthia also runs CAOSE, a boutique e-commerce and digital consulting firm working with clients such as ExxonMobil, Criteo and Shippit.

Most businesses by now are well versed with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic: Faltering offline sales, flexible work-from-anywhere options, fluctuating foot traffic with lockdown mandates and e-commerce becoming a channel many brands wished they had built infrastructure for earlier.

As a record number of consumers in Southeast Asia move from shopping malls to online platforms like Shopee, Lazada, Tiki and Tokopedia, the advertising dollars are naturally flowing in. Emerging markets are witnessing the advent of retail media right now.

Amazon paved the way in North America in 2018 by launching Amazon Advertising to become the first bid-and-buy marketplace. BCG now estimates retailers have a $100 billion business opportunity to capture, if they can keep up.

The money is where the consumer is

To understand why retailers will capture more ad spend, it’s important to evaluate what modern day marketing has become.

Is it bus stop advertisements? Bidding on Google keywords or a Clubhouse session? Or is it a viral TikTok video? As the world becomes more connected and the lines between offline and online blur even more, modern day marketing is a mix of all the channels tied to key performance metrics.

The main goal of marketing, no matter the medium, is to highlight a business or product to the right consumers to score a potential sale. And like most things, there is a bad, a good and a much better way of doing things.

E-commerce as an advertising channel is unique, because it encapsulates the entire consumer journey from start to finish, especially as marketplaces continue to steal the share of search from search engines.

Traditional marketing channels were primarily linear TV, radio and print, because the mediums were highly popular at the time. However, with the birth of the internet newer platforms emerged such as email, websites and streaming. Then came the rise of social media and apps that shook up the advertising landscape. But regardless of these shifts, there has always been one constant: The business went where the consumer was.

So when sources of traffic and revenue once again change, let’s say due to a pandemic, the marketing mix follows. In the next 12 months alone, many marketers are planning to decrease spending in cinema, print and out of home (OOH), while the majority will increase budgets in social and search, according to Nielsen.

The search for superior advertising channels

So which channels will benefit as money flows out of outdated buckets? A good indicator is ad revenue trends in mature markets like the U.S. While Google and Facebook remain the dominant advertising players, Amazon has eaten into the duopoly’s ad revenue pie in the U.S., growing its share from 7.8% to 10.3% in 2020 alone, according to eMarketer.

How? Because the most valuable advertising channel is the one that has the most measurable touch points with the consumer.

Singapore-based Nektar.ai gets $6M to help B2B sales team collaborate more effectively

By Catherine Shu

A photo of Nektar.ai founders Aravind Ravi Sulekha and Abhijeet Vijayvergiya

Nektar.ai founders Aravind Ravi Sulekha and Abhijeet Vijayvergiya

Organizing information about prospective deals is a challenging task for B2B sales teams, since salespeople usually rely on multiple tools (email, Zoom, WhatsApp, etc) to talk with buyer committees. It becomes even more unwieldy when sales teams work remotely. Nektar.ai is a B2B sales productivity startup that wants to help sales team by reducing the amount of time they spend on manual data entry and providing analytics that can increase their revenue. The Singapore-based company announced today it has raised $6 million in seed funding, led by B Capital Group.

3One4 Capital and returning investor Nexus Venture Partners also participated, along with angel investors like Amit Midha, president of Asia Pacific and Japan at Dell; Ritesh Agarwal the founder and CEO of OYO Hotels;, Kevin Merritt, former president of Tyler Technologies’ data and insights division; Evan Davidson, SentinelOne’s vice president of Asia Pacific and Japan; Deep Nishar, senior managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers; and Tom Donlea, Ekata’s vice president and general manager of APAC.

Combined with its previous round, $2.15 million led by Nexus Venture Partners and announced in November 2020, the new funding brings Nektar.ai’s total seed capital to $8.1 million. The company says this is one of the largest seed rounds ever for a SaaS company based in Asia. Nektar.ai’s workforce is remote-first and the company says half of its team are women.

Nektar.ai has been in stealth mode since it was founded in 2020 by Abhijeet Vijayvergiya and Aravind Ravi Sulekha, working with hundreds of clients in private beta mode. Its waitlist is currently open for sign-ups, with plans to launch publicly in the first half of 2022. Part of Nektar.ai’s seed funding will be used to build a go-to-market team focused on the United States.

Nektar.ai was designed for SaaS revenue teams who have to manage information across many channels, including email, calendars, web conferences, Slack, CRM tools, LinkedIn and WhatsApp. This makes it hard for them to collaborate, follow playbooks (or sets of best practices) and get a full understanding of their deals pipeline and revenue. Nektar.ai integrates with different apps, surfaces key data and delivers it to the most convenient collaboration tool for a team, like Slack.

Vijayvergiya told TechCrunch that over the last six months, Nektar.ai accelerated product development because “we saw a strong demand for a guided selling solution in the market,” onboarding more than 200 prospects from its waitlist.

Nektar.ai launched a web console for managers, a Chrome extension and integrations with Salesforce, Google Workspace and Slack. It also added a new feature called Capture Bot, an AI-based system that automatically extracts important information from salespeople’ online interactions with buyer committees, surfacing data that would otherwise be tucked away in different inboxes and calendars. This increases the accuracy of their CRM tools and allows sales managers to see how engaged their teams are with potential customers and how prospective deals are progressing.

For individual representatives, Nektar.ai’s tools let them spend less time on manual data entry. They also get analytics like multithreading scores that help them identify how deals were won or lost. For example, Vijayvergiya said one client found they won deals if they had at least four contacts with a buyer committee after the demo stage. As a result, its sales representatives began engaging with more than four members of the buyer committee on all potential deals.

Another way Nektar.ai helps SaaS sales teams save money and time is building databases of first-party contacts from their inboxes. Vijayvergiya said one client was able to save $50,000 by organizing their existing contacts instead of purchasing third-party contact data.

In a statement, B Capital Group general partner Gabe Greenbaum said, “Nektar.ai’s solutions provide great value to distributed revenue teams, which is even more important as enterprises conduct further business across global markets. B Capital is always eager to work with experienced and knowledgeable founders, and we’re confident that Abhijeet, Aravind and the Nektar.ai team will continue their strong momentum on the path to becoming the industry-leading tool for enterprise sales productivity.”

China roundup: Keep down internet upstarts, cultivate hard tech

By Rita Liao

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

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

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

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

Automate the factories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War on internet titans

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

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

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

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

INKR draws in $3.1M to make more comics accessible to worldwide audiences

By Catherine Shu

A photo of digital comics platform INKR's team

Digital comics platform INKR’s team

INKR is a digital comics platform that crosses cultural and language divides, enabling creators to reach global audiences with its proprietary localization technology. Previously bootstrapped, the company announced today that it has raised $3.1 million in pre-Series A funding led by Monk’s Hill Ventures, with participation from manga distributor TokyoPop founder and chief executive Stu Levy and VI Management managing director David Do.

Headquartered in Singapore with an office in Ho Chi Minh City, INKR was founded in 2019 by Ken Luong, Khoa Nguyen and Hieu Tran. The company says that since it launched in October 2020, its monthly average users have grown 200%. It currently partners with more than 70 content creators and publishers, including FanFan, Image Comics, Kodansha USA, Kuaikan, Mr. Blue, SB Creative, TokyoPop and Toons Family, and has more than 800 titles so far, including manga, webtoons and graphic novels.

Luong, INKR’s CEO, told TechCrunch that the platform will focus first on translated comics from top global publishers, but plans to open to small and indie creators in 2022.

At the heart of INKR’s platform is its localization technology, which the company says reduces the time spent on preparing comics for different markets from days to just hours.

“Comics localization is more than just translation. It is a time-consuming process with many steps involving many people—file handling, transcription, translation, typesetting, sound effects, quality control, etc,” Luong said.

A screenshot with some of the titles on digital comics platform INKR

Some of the titles on INKR

In addition to language, publishers also have to take into account the differences between comic styles around the world, including Japanese manga, Chinese manhua, Korean manhwa, American comics. For example, comics can be laid out page-by-page or use vertical scrolling. Some languages read from left to right, while others go from right to left.

Luong says INKR’s proprietary AI engine, called INKR Comics Vision, is able to recognize different formats and elements on a comic page, including text, dialogue, characters, facial expressions, backgrounds and panels. INKR Localize, its tool for human translators, helps them deliver accurate translations more quickly by automating tasks like text transcription, vocabulary suggestions and typesetting.

Since localization is performed by teams, including people in different locations, INKR provides them with browser-based collaboration software. The platform supports Japanese-English, Korean-English and Chinese-English translations, with plans to add more languages. Some publishers, like Kuaikan Manhua and Mr. Blue, have used INKR to translate thousands of comic chapters from Chinese and Korean into English.

INKR provides content creators with a choice of monetization models, including ad-supported, subscription fees or pay-per-chapter. Luong says the platform analyzes content to tell publishers which model will maximize their earnings, and shares a percentage of the revenue generated.

INKR is vying for attention with other digital comics platforms like Amazon-owned Comixology and Webtoon, the publishing portal operated by Naver Corporation.

Luong said INKR’s competitive advantages include the the diversity of comics is offers and the affordability of its pricing. Before launching, it also invested in data and AI-based technology for both readers and publishers. For example, users get personalized recommendation based on their reading activity, while publishers can access analytics to track title performance based on consumption trends.

In a statement, Monk’s Hill Ventures general partner Justin Nguyen said INKR’s “proprietary AI-driven platform is addressing pain points for creators and publishers who need to go digital and global—localizing for many languages quickly and cost-effectively while also helping them improve reach and readership through analytics and intelligent personalized feeds. We look forward to partnering with them to quench the huge demand for translated comics globally.”

Indonesian B2B marketplace GudangAda raises more than $100M in new funding

By Catherine Shu

A photo of GudangAda founder and chief executive officer Stevensang

GudangAda founder and chief executive officer Stevensang

GudangAda, a Jakarta-based marketplace that brings wholesalers closer to retail stores and other buyers, announced it has closed a Series B of more than $100 million. The company says the round was oversubscribed, passing its initial target of $75 million. The funding was led by Asia Partners and Falcon Edge, with participation from Sequoia Capital India, Alpha JWC and Wavemaker Partners.

This brings GudangAda’s total raised so far to about $135 million. Its last funding was a $25.4 million Series A last year, led by Sequoia Capital India and JWC Alpha Ventures.

Founded in January 2019, GudangAda is now used by half a million SMEs and covers 500 cities in Indonesia. Before raising its Series B, it had already grown to $6 billion in net merchandise value on $35 million of funding. Principal manufacturers and distributors on the platform range include food products company Sido Muncul, seasoning maker Sasa and British multinational consumer goods group Reckitt Benckiser.

Founder and chief executive officer Stevensang spent more than 25 years in Indonesia’s fast-moving consumer goods and retail industries before starting GudangAda. Over the past 10 years, Stevensang told TechCrunch that logistics costs in Indonesia have increased to among the highest in the world, impacting the whole supply chain, especially SME buyers.

GudangAda helps lower operational costs by connecting principal manufacturers, distributors and retailers, and handling almost all aspects of B2B buying, including deliveries. Its mobile app includes a point-of-sale system and it can also be used to manage orders, track logistics and make payments.

Stevensang said GudangAda focuses on several things to make buying inventory easier for SMEs. One is optimizing inventory turnover to increase working capital for businesses on the platform. The company also provides market research and data for products and gives retailers a large selection of goods. Being connected to multiple suppliers on the same platform also lets small retail stores that sell a large selection of items, but don’t have the buying volume to order directly from distributors, to purchase inventory at competitive costs.

To keep logistics costs down, GudangAda partners with third-party vehicle and warehouse providers to build its coverage throughout Indonesia. For its logistics partners, it provides transportation and warehouse management systems to help them digitize their operations.

GudangAda also partners with banks to provide working capital for SMEs, enabling them to apply for loans using their data on the platform.

The funding will be used to expand GudangAda’s product categories, which now include fast-moving consumer goods, pharmaceuticals, packaging, homeware and stationery. It also plans to develop AI-based tools that can provide personalized recommendations for merchant customers. For example, during COVID-19, the platform suggested how much disinfectants a store should stock.

In a statement, Falcon Edge co-founder Navroz D. Udwadia said, “GudangAda is definitively the largest SME e-commerce marketplace in Indonesia with best-in-class metrics. Our research and conversations with stakeholders (principals, wholesalers and retailers) has given us confidence on GudangAda’s distinctive ROI and value addition to the entire ecosystem.”

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