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Indian edtech Unacademy valued at $3.44 billion in $440 million fundraise

By Manish Singh

Unacademy has raised $440 million in a new financing round as the Indian online learning startup looks to expand into multiple additional categories.

Temasek led the Bangalore-based startup’s new financing round while Mirae Asset and existing investors including SoftBank Vision Fund 2, General Atlantic, Tiger Global as well as Zomato co-founder and chief executive Deepinder Goyal and Oyo founder Ritesh Agarwal participated in it, the startup said without disclosing the name of the new round (which should be Series G).

The new round values the six-year-old startup at $3.44 billion, up from $2 billion in November last year. The investment brings Unacademy’s to-date raise to about $860 million.

The online learning platform, which began its journey on YouTube and still uses Google’s video platform to on-board educators, helps students prepare for competitive exams to get into college, as well as those who are pursuing graduate-level courses.

On its app, students watch live classes from educators and later engage in sessions to review topics in more detail. The startup has over 50,000 educators on its platform, many of whom are very popular on YouTube. These educators help Unacademy sell more subscriptions and in return get a commission, according to industry executives familiar with the business arrangement.

Unacademy has amassed over 6 million monthly active users (over 600,000 of whom pay for the service) in over 10,000 cities in India.

Gaurav Munjal, Unacademy co-founder and chief executive, said the startup will deploy the fresh capital to broaden its bets on new categories such as upskilling, jobs and hiring.

Relevel is “giving people a path to get their dream job irrespective of their educational background, while Graphy is “empowering creators to build their online businesses to sell digital goods including NFTs,” he said in a tweet.

In a recent conversation with TechCrunch, Munjal said he wants Unacademy to become the “Tencent of India.”

The startup competes with scores of firms including Byju’s, which is India’s most valuable startup (at $16.5 billion valuation), GGV-backed Vedantu, Tiger Global-backed Classplus, and Lightspeed Venture-backed Teachmint.

All these startups have reported growth in the past year as India — like most other countries — enforced lockdowns and closed schools to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

At stake is India’s online education market, which is estimated to grow to be worth about $20 billion by 2030 (up from about $1 billion last year), according to Bernstein.

As of last year, there were about 6 million students in India who were paying for an online learning app, a figure Bernstein analysts expect to reach about 70 million by the end of the decade.

Spendings on education in India is among the highest globally (Source: A report from analysts at Goldman Sachs to clients last year.)

Unacademy said last week it was creating a $40 million fund for educators on its platform. “On Day One (which is today) we already have more than 300 Educators eligible for the Grant which they will get immediately. Over the next few years we will give Grants of over $40M to our Educators,” said Munjal in a tweet.

The new investment comes at a time when Indian startups are raising record capital and a handful of mature firms are beginning to explore the public markets. Business-to-business commerce and financing startup Ofbusiness said over the weekend it had raised $160 million in a new financing round (led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2) at a valuation of $1.5 billion, becoming the 18th Indian startup to attain the unicorn status, up from 11 last year.

How AI Will Help Keep Time at the Tokyo Olympics

By Jeremy White
Omega, the official timekeeper of the Games, is now using computer vision and motion sensors for events like swimming, gymnastics, and beach volleyball.

VOCHI raises additional $2.4 million for its computer vision-powered video editing app

By Sarah Perez

VOCHI, a Belarus-based startup behind a clever computer vision-based video editing app used by online creators, has raised an additional $2.4 million in a “late-seed” round that follows the company’s initial $1.5 million round led by Ukraine-based Genesis Investments last year. The new funds follow a period of significant growth for the mobile tool, which is now used by over 500,000 people per month and has achieved a $4 million-plus annual run rate in a year’s time.

Investors in the most recent round include TA Ventures, Angelsdeck, A.Partners, Startup Wise Guys, Kolos VC, and angels from other Belarus-based companies like Verv and Bolt. Along with the fundraise, VOCHI is elevating the company’s first employee, Anna Bulgakova, who began as head of marketing, to the position of co-founder and Chief Product Officer.

According to VOCHI co-founder and CEO lya Lesun, the company’s idea was to provide an easy way for people to create professional edits that could help them produce unique and trendy content for social media that could help them stand out and become more popular. To do so, VOCHI leverages a proprietary computer-vision-based video segmentation algorithm that applies various effects to specific moving objects in a video or to images in static photos.

“To get this result, there are two trained [convolutional neural networks] to perform semi-supervised Video Object Segmentation and Instance Segmentation,” explains Lesun, of VOCHI’s technology. “Our team also developed a custom rendering engine for video effects that enables instant application in 4K on mobile devices. And it works perfectly without quality loss,” he adds. It works pretty fast, too — effects are applied in just seconds.

The company used the initial seed funding to invest in marketing and product development, growing its catalog to over 80 unique effects and more than 30 filters.

Image Credits: VOCHI

Today, the app offers a number of tools that let you give a video a particular aesthetic (like a dreamy vibe, artistic feel, or 8-bit look, for example). It can also highlight the moving content with glowing lines, add blurs or motion, apply different filters, insert 3D objects into the video, add glitter or sparkles, and much more.

In addition to editing their content directly, users can swipe through a vertical home feed in the app where they can view the video edits others have applied to their own content for inspiration. When they see something they like, they can then tap a button to use the same effect on their own video. The finished results can then be shared out to other platforms, like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.

Though based in Belarus, most of VOCHI’s users are young adults from the U.S. Others hail from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and parts of Europe, Lesun says.

Unlike some of its video editor rivals, VOCHI offers a robust free experience where around 60% of the effects and filters are available without having to pay, along with other basic editing tools and content. More advanced features, like effect settings, unique presents and various special effects require a subscription. This subscription, however, isn’t cheap — it’s either $7.99 per week or $39.99 for 12 weeks. This seemingly aims the subscription more at professional content creators rather than a casual user just looking to have fun with their videos from time to time. (A one-time purchase of $150 is also available, if you prefer.)

To date, around 20,000 of VOCHI’s 500,000 monthly active users have committed to a paid subscription, and that number is growing at a rate of 20% month-over-month, the company says.

Image Credits: VOCHI

The numbers VOCHI has delivered, however, aren’t as important as what the startup has been through to get there.

The company has been growing its business at a time when a dictatorial regime has been cracking down on opposition, leading to arrests and violence in the country. Last year, employees from U.S.-headquartered enterprise startup PandaDoc were arrested in Minsk by the Belarus police, in an act of state-led retaliation for their protests against President Alexander Lukashenko. In April, Imaguru, the country’s main startup hub, event and co-working space in Minsk — and birthplace of a number of startups, including MSQRD, which was acquired by Facebook — was also shut down by the Lukashenko regime.

Meanwhile, VOCHI was being featured as App of the Day in the App Store across 126 countries worldwide, and growing revenues to around $300,000 per month.

“Personal videos take an increasingly important place in our lives and for many has become a method of self-expression. VOCHI helps to follow the path of inspiration, education and provides tools for creativity through video,” said Andrei Avsievich, General Partner at Bulba Ventures, where VOCHI was incubated. “I am happy that users and investors love VOCHI, which is reflected both in the revenue and the oversubscribed round.”

The additional funds will put VOCHI on the path to a Series A as it continues to work to attract more creators, improve user engagement, and add more tools to the app, says Lesun.

Indian food delivery startup Swiggy raises $1.25 billion led by SoftBank and Prosus

By Manish Singh

It took SoftBank several years, but finally the Japanese investment giant is ready to bet on India’s food delivery market. Swiggy said on Tuesday it has closed a $1.25 billion financing round led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2 and Prosus Ventures.

The new financing round, a Series J, includes the $800 million investment the Bangalore-based startup had disclosed to employees earlier this year. (SoftBank alone invested $450 million in the new round.) The new round, which Swiggy says was “heavily oversubscribed,” gives the food delivery startup a post-money valuation of $5.5 billion.

TechCrunch had first reported about Swiggy’s engagement with SoftBank and the proposed valuation of $5.5 billion. Qatar Investment Authority, Falcon Edge Capital, Amansa Capital, Goldman Sachs, Think Investments and Carmignac and existing investors Accel Partners and Wellington Management also participated in the new round.

Swiggy said the new financing round shows the turnaround it has demonstrated in the past few quarters. Like many other startups, Swiggy was severely hit with the pandemic. The startup said its recent bet to expand into grocery delivery, and pick-up and drop service has paid off.

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

— Manish Singh (@refsrc) December 23, 2020

“The participation of some of the most visionary global investors is a huge vote of confidence in Swiggy’s mission and ability to build an enduring and iconic company out of India. The scope of food delivery in India is massive and over the next few years, we will continue to invest aggressively into growing this category,” said Sriharsha Majety, chief executive of Swiggy, in a statement.

“Our biggest investments will be in our non-food businesses that have witnessed tremendous consumer love and growth in a short span, especially in the past 15 months of the pandemic. I believe the next 10-15 years offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for companies like Swiggy as the Indian middle class expands and our target segment for convenience grows to 500 million users.”

The new investment comes at a time when Indian startups are raising record capital and a handful of mature firms are beginning to explore the public markets. Zomato, Swiggy’s chief rival in India, raised $1.3 billion in its initial public offering and financial services startups Paytm and MobiKwik have also filed for their initial public offerings.

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

For SoftBank, a regular fixture of India’s startup, this is the first time it has bet on the food delivery market. The Japanese conglomerate has backed Indian startups in multiple categories including e-commerce (Flipkart, Snapdeal, and Meesho), ride-hailing (Uber and Ola), and edtech (Unacademy). SoftBank has invested in several food delivery startups globally including DoorDash and Uber Eats. Prosus Ventures, an early investor in Swiggy, has also backed several food delivery startups globally.

“From its early days, I have had the privilege to watch Swiggy execute on their vision to become the leader in the convenience economy. Their focus on consumer delight, product innovation, and ecosystem support has made Swiggy a compelling digital experience in India. They have the railroads in place to empower multiple businesses to reach the new age consumer on a daily basis, and food delivery is just the beginning,” said Sumer Juneja, Partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement.

LG's C1 OLED Is a Game-Changing TV

By Parker Hall
This flatscreen blurs the line between TV and high-end gaming monitor.

WebOps platform Pantheon raises $100M from SoftBank Vision Fund

By Frederic Lardinois

WebOps SaaS platform Pantheon, which started out as a Drupal and WordPress hosting service many years ago, today announced that it has raised a $100 million Series E round solely funded by the Softbank Vision Fund. With this round, Pantheon has now reached unicorn status, with a valuation of over $1 billion.

Pantheon co-founder and CEO Zack Rosen told me that the company wasn’t under any pressure to raise. “It really just helps us accelerate everything that we’re doing,” he said. “We didn’t need the funding. We had plenty of cash in the bank. We were planning to raise in a year or two years down the road. But we have a lot of conviction in and where this industry is going and our customers’ needs are pretty apparent, so we just used this as an opportunity to pull things in by six months to a year and accelerate all the things that were already on our operational plans for the company.”

Image Credits: Pantheon

As Rosen noted, the role of company websites has changed quite a bit since Pantheon launched almost a dozen years ago. While originally, they were mostly about brand building and having a publishing channel, these days, they are directly tied to revenue. “The majority of buying decisions get made before anyone talks to a customer these days,” Rosen said. “All the research is getting done — hopefully — on your company’s website. Any link in an advertisement or link in an email is going to route that customer back to the website. That’s your most important digital product. And so marketers are really starting to think about it like that.”

So while hosting and publishing may be solved problems, driving revenue through a company’s website — and measuring that — is where Pantheon sees a lot of opportunities going forward. Though at the core of the company’s offering, of course, is still its serverless hosting platform and developers remain its core audience. But it’s the collaboration between the marketing teams and developers that is driving a lot of what the company is now investing in. “In order to deliver a best-in-class digital experience — and be able to iterate it every single day and work with designers and developers and website owners and project managers — you need a system of record for that work. You need a solid workflow for those teams,” Rosen noted.

Companies, he argues, are looking for a solid SaaS platform that provides them with those workflows, in addition to the high-performance hosting, CDNs and everything else that is now table stakes for hosting websites. “[Teams] want to stop thinking about this stuff,” he said. “They just want a partner — like any other SaaS application, whether it’s Stripe, Twilio or Salesforce. They just want it to work and not to worry about it. And then, once you have that taken care of, then you can move up into the things that really drive the outcomes these teams care about.”

As for raising from the SoftBank Vision Fund, which features the likes of ByteDance, Perch, Redis Labs, Slack and Arm among its investments (and, infamously, WeWork), Rosen said that Pantheon had its choice of firms, but at the end of the day, SoftBank’s team turned out to be “huge believers in this category,” he said, and could help Pantheon reach the scale it needs to define the WebOps category.

“Digital transformation has accelerated the movement to the cloud for essential business infrastructure. By automating workflows and do-it-yourself with its SaaS offering, we believe Pantheon’s leading platform is transforming how modern website experiences are created,” said Vikas Parekh, Partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers. “We are excited to partner with Zack and the Pantheon team to support their ambition of helping organizations embrace a new and better way of building websites that deliver results.”

Mmhmm, it’s the most ridiculous story we’ve ever heard

By Alex Wilhelm

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

Danny and Alex were on deck this week, with Grace on the recording and edit. Natasha will be back with us starting next week. So, it was old times on the show with just two of our team to vamp on the news. And oh boy was there a lot of news to get into. Like, loads.

  • What’s going on with Didi? Didi’s woes have continued this week, with the company seeing its share price continue to fall. The Equity team’s view is that the era of Chinese companies listing in the United States is over.
  • What’s going on with facial recognition tech? With AnyVision raising a $235 million round, Danny and Alex tangled over the future of privacy, and what counts as good enough when it comes to keeping ourselves to ourselves.
  • Nextdoor is going public: Via a SPAC, mind, but the transaction had our tongues wagging about its history, growth, and how hard it can be to build a social network.
  • Dataminr buys WatchKeeper: In its first-ever acquisition, Dataminr bought a smaller company to help it better visualize the data it collects. It’s a neat deal, and especially fun given taht Dataminr should go public sooner rather than later.
  • Planet and Satellogic are going public: One week, two satellite SPACs. You can read more about Planet here, and Satellogic here.
  • FabricNano and Cloverly raise capital: Satellites had us into the concept of climate change, so we also dug into recent funding rounds from FabricNano and Cloverly. It’s beyond neat to see for-profit companies tackle our warming planet.
  • Two new venture capital funds: Acrylic has put together a $55 million fund for moonshot crypto work, while Renegade Partners has a $100 million fund for early-and-mid-stage generalist investments.
  • Mmhmm is big time: And then there was mmhmm. Which now has $100 million more, and some big plans. Our question is what it will do with the money. We’ll have to wait and find out, we suppose.

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

A Global Smart-City Competition Highlights China’s Rise in AI

By Khari Johnson
Chinese entrants swept all five categories, featuring technologies to improve civic life. But the advances could also be tools for surveillance.

Electronic Arts buys mobile game studio Playdemic for $1.4 billion

By Lucas Matney

Video game giant Electronic Arts is continuing to make M&A moves as it looks to bulk up its presence in the mobile gaming world.

Fresh off the $2.4 billion acquisition of Glu Mobile this past April, their biggest purchase to date, Electronic Arts announced Wednesday that they are buying Warner Bros. Games’ mobile gaming studio Playdemic for $1.4 billion in an all-cash deal. The Manchester studio is best known for its release “Golf Clash” which the studio boasts has more than 80 million downloads globally.

The rather ominously-named startup is being jettisoned to its new home ahead of the $43 billion WarnerMedia-Discovery deal where the rest of the Warner Bros. Games division will live post-merger.

Electronic Arts is the second-largest Western video games company with a market cap around $40 billion. Their success has largely come from desktop and console titles including titles in their most popular franchises like Battlefield, Star Wars and Titanfall. Mobile dominance hasn’t come easy to the company which has spent much of the past decade or so trying to keep pace with competitors like Activision Blizzard which struck gold with its 2016 King acquisition. 

Electronic Arts has been on a studio buying spree as of late — in 2021 they’ve announced three major acquisitions worth some $5 billion combined.

Forto raises $240M in funding round led by Softbank, taking its valuation to $1.2Bn

By Mike Butcher

Freight technology startup, Forto, which we most recently covered when it raised $50 million late last year, is upping the stakes.

It’s now raised $240 million in a round led by Softbank Vision Fund 2 to expand its trade shipments between China and Europe. Forto manages shipping containers from origin to destination. Softbank is also hedging its bets after investing in China’s Full Truck Alliance (YMM.N), which plans a $20 billion IPO.

That means Forto’s valuation close to $1.2 billion, after it’s raised a total of $360 million. Also participating in the round were new investors Citi Ventures and G Squared. Existing investors including Northzone, Cherry Ventures and Unbound also took part, Forto said.

German logistics startups are proliferating. Trucking specialist Sennder, a digital road freight forwarder, raised $160 million in Series D financing earlier this year.

Forto says it has 2,500 clients, including Home 24 and German supermarket chain Edeka, and ships up to 10,000 containers a year by sea, rail and air.

Equity Monday: China hates crypto, and the Vision Fund’s vision lives on

By Alex Wilhelm

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

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

Our live show is this week! And we’re very excited about it! Details here, and you can register here. It’s free, of course, so swing by and hang with us.

Back on theme, we had a lot to get through this morning, so inside the show you can find the following and more:

  • The Chinese cryptocurrency clampdown is a big damn deal: With lots of the nation’s mining capacity heading offline, there’s a scramble to relocate rigs and generally figure out what a crypto market sans China might look like.
  • In the wake of the news, the value of cryptocurrencies fell. As did shares of Coinbase this morning in pre-market trading.
  • Facebook’s Clubhouse rival is out. The American social giant follows Spotify into the live-audio market. You have to give it to modern software companies, who thought that they could be both leading tech shops and Kinko’s clones at the same time?
  • Revolut is unprofitable as hell but increasingly less so. That could be good news for fintech as a whole.
  • Amber Group raised $100 million; Forto raised $240 million.

See you this Thursday at the live show!

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

SoftBank Vision Fund 2 leads $140M funding in Vishal Sikka’s Vianai

By Manish Singh

Vianai Systems, an AI startup founded by former chief executive of Indian IT services giant Infosys, said on Wednesday it has raised $140 million in a round led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2.

The two-year-old startup said a number of industry luminaries also participated in the new round, which brings its total to-date raise to at least $190 million. The startup raised $50 million in its Seed financing round, but there’s no word on the size of its Series A round.

Details about what exactly the Palo Alto-headquartered startup does is unclear. In a press statement, Dr. Vishal Sikka said the startup is building a “better AI platform, one that puts human judgment at the center of systems that bring vast AI capabilities to amplify human potential.” Sikka, 54, resigned from the top role at Infosys in 2017 after months of acrimony between the board and a cohort of founders.

Vianai helps its customers amplify the transformation potential within their organizations using a variety of advanced AI and ML tools with a distinct approach in how it thoughtfully brings together humans with technology. This human-centered approach differentiates Vianai from other platform and product companies and enables its customers to fulfill AI’s true promise,” the startup said.

The startup claims it has already amassed many of the world’s largest and most respected businesses including insurance giant Munich Re as its customers.

Its investors include Jim Davidson (co-founder of Silver Lake), Henry Kravis and George Roberts (co-founders of KKR), and Jerry Yang (founding partner of AME and co-founder of Yahoo). Dr. Fei-Fei Li (co-director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI), has joined Vianai Systems’ advisory board.

“With the AI revolution underway, we believe Vianai’s human-centered AI platform and products provide global enterprises with operational and customer intelligence to make better business decisions,” said Deep Nishar, Senior Managing Partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “We are pleased to partner with Dr. Sikka and the Vianai team to support their ambition to fulfill AI’s promise to drive fundamental digital transformations.”

Trigo bags $10M for computer-vision based checkout tech to rival Amazon’s ‘Just Walk Out’

By Ingrid Lunden

While Amazon continues to expand its self-service, computer-vision-based grocery checkout technology by bringing it to bigger stores, an AI startup out of Israel that’s built something to rival it has picked up funding and a new strategic investor as a customer.

Trigo, which has produced a computer vision system that includes both camera hardware and encrypted, privacy-compliant software to enable “grab and go” shopping — where customers can pick up items that get automatically detected and billed before they leave the store — has bagged $10 million in funding from German supermarket chain REWE Group and Viola Growth.

The exact amount of the investment was not being disclosed (perhaps because $10 million, in these crazy times, suddenly sounds like a modest amount?), but Pitchbook notes that Trigo had up to now raised $87 million, and Trigo has confirmed that it has now raised “over $100 million,” including a Series A in 2019, and a Series B of $60 million that it raised in December of last year. The company has confirmed that the amount raised is $10 million today, and $104 million in total.

The company is not disclosing its valuation. We have asked and will update as we learn more.

“Trigo is immensely proud and honored to be deepening its strategic partnership with REWE Group, one of Europe’s biggest and most innovative grocery retailers,” said Michael Gabay, Trigo co-founder and CEO, in a statement. “REWE have placed their trust in Trigo’s privacy-by-design architecture, and we look forward to bringing this exciting technology to German grocery shoppers. We are also looking forward to working with Viola Growth, an iconic investment firm backing some of Israel’s top startups.”

The REWE investment is part of a bigger partnership between the two companies, which will begin with a new “grab and go” REWE store in Cologne. REWE has 3,700 stores across Germany, so there is a lot of scope there for expansion. REWE is Trigo’s second strategic investor: Tesco has also backed the startup and has been trialling its technology in the U.K.. Trigo’s also being used by Shufersal, a grocery chain in Israel.

REWE’s investment comes amid a spate of tech engagements by the grocery giant, which recently also announced a partnership with Flink, a new grocery delivery startup out of Germany that recently raised a big round of funding to expand. It’s also working with Yamo, a healthy eating startup; and Whisk, an AI powered buy-to-cook startup.

“With today’s rapid technological developments, it is crucial to find the right partners,” said Christoph Eltze, Executive Board Member Digital, Customer & Analytics REWE Group. “REWE Group is investing in its strategic partnership with Trigo, who we believe is one of the leading companies in computer vision technologies for smart stores.”

More generally, consumer habits are changing, fast. Whether we are talking about the average family, or the average individual, people are simply not shopping, cooking and eating in the same way that they were even 10 years ago, let alone 20 or 30 years ago.

And so like many others in the very established brick-and-mortar grocery business, REWE — founded in 1927 — is hoping to tie up with some of the more interesting innovators to better keep ahead in the game.

“I don’t actually think people really want grocery e-commerce,” Ran Peled, Trigo’s VP of marketing, told me back in 2019. “They do that because the supermarket experience has become worse with the years. We are very much committed to helping brick and mortar stores return to the time of a few decades ago, when it was fun to go to the supermarket. What would happen if a store could have an entirely new OS that is based on computer vision?”

It will be interesting to see how widely used and “fun” smart checkout services will become in that context, and whether it will be a winner-takes-all market, or whether we’ll see a proliferation of others emerge to provide similar tools.

In addition to Amazon and Trigo, there is also Standard Cognition, which earlier this year raised money at a $1 billion valuation, among others and other approaches. One thing that more competition could mean is also more competitive pricing for systems that otherwise could prove costly to implement and run except for in the busiest locations.

There is also a bigger question over what the optimal size will be for cashierless, grab-and-go technology. Trigo cites data from Juniper Research that forecasts $400 billion in smart checkout transactions annually by 2025, but it seems that the focus in that market will likely be, in Juniper’s view, on smaller grocery and convenience stores rather than the cavernous cathedrals to consumerism that many of these chains operate. In that category, the market size is 500,000 stores globally, 120,000 of them in Europe.

Paramount+ will launch a $4.99 monthly ad-supported subscription

By Amanda Silberling

If you didn’t want to shell out $9.99 per month to watch the meme-worthy iCarly reboot, now you won’t have to. On Monday, Paramount+ will launch its ad-supported Essential Plan, priced at $4.99 per month.

This less-expensive plan will replace the CBS All Access plan, which included commercials, but also granted access to local CBS stations. If you’re currently subscribed to that $5.99 per month plan, you can keep it. But starting Monday, it won’t be around anymore for new subscribers. 

What makes the Essential Plan different from CBS All Access? Subscribers on the new tier will get access to Marquee Sports (including games in the NFL, UEFA Champions, and Europa Leagues), breaking news on CBSN, and all of Paramount’s on-demand shows and movies. This includes offerings from ViacomCBS-owned channels like BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, the Smithsonian Channel, and more. But, local live CBS station programming will no longer be included. So, if that’s a deal-breaker, you might want to subscribe to CBS All Access this weekend. 

The existing Premium Plan ($9.99 per month) removes commercials and adds support for 4K, HDR, and Dolby Vision. Like other streaming services, only Premium subscribers will have access to mobile downloads. 

Both plans include access to parental controls and up to six individual profiles. The service doesn’t have a watch list at this time. But that has become a baseline feature for being competitive in this space, so it’s not a matter of if, but when. 

For comparison, the basic Netflix plan costs $8.99 per month, but only lets you watch on one screen at a time. That makes it harder to share an account with family or friends. Their standard tier is $13.99, making it a bit pricier than Paramount+.

Earlier this week, HBO Max unveiled their own lower-cost, ad-supported subscription tier, priced at $9.99 per month. The WarnerMedia-Discovery merger could also have major implications for the popular streaming service, though how that shakes out in terms of content libraries, or even possibly a combined streaming app, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately, consumers will make their decisions about which services to pay for based on a variety of key factors including content, pricing, and user experience. On the content front, Paramount+ plans to announce a slate of big-name titles when the new plan goes live on Monday, in hopes of wooing new subscribers. But the low-cost plan may also appeal to those who don’t necessarily care about top movies – they just want an affordable add-on to their current streaming lineup that provides them with access to some of the programs Netflix lacks. 

Paramount+ owner ViacomCBS said it added 6 million global streaming subscribers across their Paramount+, Showtime OTT, and BET+ services in Q1, to end the quarter with 36 million global users. Most of those come from Paramount+.

Roku debuts a 15-minute weekly series that recommends what to watch next

By Sarah Perez

Roku is expanding its programming for its free content hub, The Roku Channel, with today’s launch of its own weekly entertainment program called “Roku Recommends.” The 15-minute show will leverage Roku’s data to highlight the Top 5 titles for viewers to stream that week. While not exactly “original programming” the way that Roku’s recent additions of its acquired Quibi content is, the series will run only on Roku, where it can be found in The Roku Channel and Featured Free, with new episodes every Thursday.

The series is the first production to emerge from the new Roku Brand Studio — a studio that aims to produce video ads and other custom branded content for ad partners. The show is produced by Funny Or Die, and Mike Farah, Beth Belew and Jim Ziegler serve as executive producers.

The show’s co-hosts include entertainment reporter and AfterBuzz TV co-founder Maria Menounos and former NFL player Andrew “Hawk” Hawkins. The duo will present the Top 5 titles to viewers. These recommended shows or movies may come from any of the thousands of channels across the Roku platform, based on data exclusive to the platform.

“According to Nielsen data, the average streamer spends more than seven minutes searching for what to watch next,” said Chris Bruss, head of Roku Brand Studio, in a statement. “We are uniquely positioned to use our trending data both to help consumers find incredible movies and shows and to help advertisers go beyond the traditional 30-second ad to entertain streamers who otherwise spend time in ad-free, subscription-only environments,” he added.

The series will also allow for ad sponsors. The company says it has already signed on several national advertisers, starting with Walmart, to sponsor the program. Advertisers will have access to Roku’s Measurement Partner Program to determine whether or not their integration reaches subscription video on-demand (SVOD)-only streaming users, as well as view other metrics about their video ad campaign’s reach, brand perception and impact.

The series comes at a time when the streaming landscape is shifting. Today’s streaming services regularly serve up recommended content based on what their customers are watching — Netflix, for example, shows rows of popular and trending content, as well as a Top 10 list of newly popular titles. But as the number of available streaming services grows, larger entities merge, and content jumps around as licensing agreements end and start, consumers may be more in need of a set of current recommendations from across channels and services, not just those isolated inside one service.

Amazon Fire TV’s update recently addressed this need with the introduction of a new “Find” feature that aims to make it easier for users to search and browse movies, shows and free content across its platform. Roku, however, didn’t have a recommendation system of its own.

It’s also interesting to see that Roku is willing to use its proprietary streaming data in this way — something it could choose to do more with further down the road to help build out a broader set of recommendations.

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