Amazon adds support for Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu in local Indian languages push ahead of Diwali

More than seven years after Amazon began its e-commerce operations in India, and two years after its shopping service added support for Hindi, the most popular language in the country, the American giant is embracing more local languages to court hundreds of millions of new users.

Amazon announced on Tuesday its website and apps now support Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu in a move that it said would help it reach an additional 200-300 million users in the country.

Localization is one of the most crucial — and popular — steps for companies to expand their potential reach in India. Netflix added support for Hindi last month, and Amazon’s Alexa started conversing in the Indian language last year. (Amazon’s on-demand video streaming service, Prime Video, also supports Hindi, in addition to Tamil and Telugu.)

The company said the usage of Hindi, which it rolled out on its website and apps in India in 2018, has grown by three times in the past five months, and “hundreds of thousands” of Amazon customers have switched to Hindi shopping experience.

Amazon’s further language push comes months after its chief rival in India, Walmart -owned Flipkart, added support for Tamil, Telugu and Kannada, three languages that are spoken by roughly 200 million people in India.

Like Flipkart, Amazon worked with expert linguists to develop an accurate and comprehensible experience in each of the languages, the American e-commerce firm said.

But simple translation is not enough to make inroads with users in India. YouTube and YouTube Music, for instance, understand when Bollywood fans in India search for music by the name of the movie character or actor who played the part instead of the actual musician or song title — a phenomenon unique among Indian users.

Amazon appears to have incorporated similar learnings into its shopping experience. The company said for translations it preferred using commonly used terms from daily life over perfectly translated words.

Kishore Thota, Director of Customer Experience and Marketing at Amazon India, termed the availability of Amazon India shopping experience in four new languages a “major milestone.”

The move comes weeks ahead of Diwali, the biggest festival in India that sees hundreds of millions of Indians spend lavishly. “We are super excited to do this ahead of the upcoming festive season,” said Thota.

#amazon, #amazon-india, #apps, #asia, #ecommerce, #flipkart, #walmart

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China’s electric carmaker WM Motor pulls in $1.47 billion Series D

Chinese electric vehicle startup WM Motor just pocketed an outsize investment to fuel growth in a competitive landscape increasingly coveted by foreign rival Tesla. The five-year-old company raised 10 billion yuan ($1.47 billion) in a Series D round, it announced on Tuesday, which will pay for research and development, branding, marketing and expansion of sales channel.

WM Motor, backed by Baidu and Tencent, is one of the highest funded EV startups in China alongside NIO, Xpeng and Li Auto, all of which have gone public in New York. With its latest capital boost, WM Motor could be gearing up for an initial public offering. As Bloomberg’s sources in July said, the company was weighing a listing on China’s Nasdaq-style STAR board as soon as this year.

Days before its funding news, WM Motor unveiled its key partners and suppliers: Qualcomm Snapdragon’s cockpit chips will power the startup’s in-cabin experience; Baidu’s Apollo autonomous driving system will give WM vehicles self-parking capability; Unisplendour, rooted in China’s Tsinghua University, will take care of the hardware side of autonomous driving; and lastly, integrated circuit company Sino IC Leasing will work on “car connectivity” for WM Motor, whatever that term entails.

It’s not uncommon to see the new generation of EV makers seeking external partnerships given their limited experience in manufacturing. WM Motor’s rival Xpeng similarly works with Blackberry, Desay EV and Nvidia to deliver its smart EVs.

WM Motor was founded by automotive veteran Freeman Shen, who previously held executive positions at Volvo, Fiat and Geely in China.

The startup recently announced an ambitious plan for the next 3-5 years to allocate 20 billion yuan ($2.95 billion) and 3,000 engineers to work on 5G-powered smart cockpits, Level-4 driving and other futuristic auto technologies. That’s a big chunk of the startup’s total raise, which is estimated to be north of $3 billion, based on Crunchbase data and its latest funding figure.

Regional governments are often seen rooting for companies partaking in China’s strategic industries such as semiconductors and electric cars. WM Motor’s latest round, for instance, is led by a state-owned investment platform and state-owned carmaker SAIC Motor, both based in Shanghai where the startup’s headquarters resides. The city is also home to Tesla’s Gigafactory where the American giant churns out made-in-China vehicles.

In July, the Chinese EV upstart delivered its 30,000th EX5 SUV vehicle, which comes at about $22,000 with state subsidy and features the likes of in-car video streaming and air purification. The company claimed that parents of young children account for nearly 70% of its customers.

#asia, #automotive, #china, #electric-vehicle, #ev, #funding, #fundings-exits, #wm-motor

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Impossible Foods nabs some Canadian fast food franchises as it expands in North America

After rolling out in some of Canada’s most high-falutin burger bistros, Impossible Foods is hitting Canada’s fast casual market with new menu items at national chains like White Spot and Triple O’s, Cactus Club Cafe, and Burger Priest.

While none of those names mean anything to yours truly, they may mean something to our friendly readers to the North. However, I have heard of Qdoba, Wahlburgers and Red Robin. And Canadian customers can also pick up Impossible Foods -based menu items at those chains too.

Since its debut at Momofuku Nishi in New York in 2016, the Impossible Burger is now served in 30,000 restaurants across the U.S. and is available in 11,000 grocery stores across America.

The Silicon Valley manufacturer of meat substitutes expects that Canada, the company’s first market outside of Asia, may become its largest market — second only to the U.S.

#asia, #canada, #food-and-drink, #impossible-foods, #meat-substitutes, #menu, #momofuku, #new-york, #restaurants, #tc, #united-states

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Despite slowdowns, pandemic accelerates shifts in hardware manufacturing

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t hit every factory in China at once.

The initial impact to China’s electronics industry arrived around the time the nation was celebrating its new year. Two weeks after announcing 59 known cases of a new form of coronavirus, the national government put Wuhan — a city of 11 million — under strict lockdown.

As with most of the rest of the word, the manufacturing sector was caught somewhat flat-footed. according to Anker founder and CEO Steven Yang .

“Nobody had a great reaction,” said Yang, whose electronics company is based in Shenzhen. “I think this all caught us by surprise. In our China office, everybody was prepared to go on vacation for the Chinese New Year. I think the first reaction was that vacation was prolonged the first week and then another several days.

People were just off work. There wasn’t a determined date for when they could come back to work. That period was the most concerning because we didn’t have an outlook. They had to find certainties. People had to work from home and contact supplies and so forth. That first three to four weeks was the most chaotic.”

Numbers from early 2020 certainly reflect the accompanying slowdown in the manufacturing sector. In February, the Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) — a metric used to gauge the health of manufacturing and service sectors — hit a record low.

These bottlenecks resulted in product shortages — a fact that was rendered relatively moot in some sectors as demand for nonessentials dropped, many small businesses shuttered and COVID-19-related layoffs began. The U.S. lost 20.5 million jobs in April alone, hitting a record high 14.7% unemployment. (When you suddenly find yourself indefinitely unemployed, a smartphone upgrade seems much less pressing.) Such events only served to compound existing mobile trends and has delayed the adoption of 5G and other technologies.

It seems likely, too, that COVID-19 will accelerate other trends within manufacturing — notably, the shift toward diversifying manufacturing sites. China continues to be the dominant global force in electronics manufacturing, but the price of labor and political uncertainty has led many companies to begin looking beyond the world’s largest workforce.

#anker, #asia, #automation, #disrupt-2020, #eric-migicovsky, #hardware, #health, #kate-whitcomb, #rob-playter, #robotics, #sonny-vu, #steven-yang, #y-combinator

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TikTok fact-checks: US IPO, Chinese ownership, $5B in taxes

There is no shortage of speculations and reports around TikTok’s future in the U.S. Amid a swirl of rumors, TikTok’s Chinese parent ByteDance issued a statement (in Chinese) on Monday morning, bringing clarity to its ongoing deal that has captured global attention over the past few weeks.

ByteDance is still the owner

China’s ByteDance confirms it will retain an 80% stake in TikTok after selling a total of 20% to Oracle, its “trusted technology partner,” and Walmart, its “commercial partner.”

But the arrangement doesn’t address the core of many observers’ worries, as my colleague Jonathan Shieber argued: “The deal benefits everyone except U.S. consumers and people who have actual security concerns about TikTok’s algorithms and the ways they can be used to influence opinion in the U.S.”

Sitting on TikTok’s board are ByteDance’s current members, all non-Chinese except ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon is the latest addition to the board.

TikTok seeks US IPO

TikTok confirms it’s seeking an initial public offering in the U.S. in an effort to “further enhance corporate governance and transparency.”

Clearly, the video app hopes an IPO, which will expose it to more public scrutiny, could ally fears over the alleged national security threat attached to its Chinese origin.

Notably, ByteDance refers to the video app as “TikTok Global” in the statement, suggesting the app won’t be split into a U.S. unit and the rest of the world. TikTok claims nearly 700 million monthly users around the globe, as revealed in a court document. 100 million of the users are based in the U.S., where its current headquarters is.

No algorithm transfer

In line with previous reports, ByteDance won’t be handing over TikTok’s algorithms or technologies to Oracle. Instead, the American database giant will gain the authority to perform security checks on “TikTok’s U.S. source codes.”

“Revealing source codes is a universal solution to data security challenges posed to multinational corporations,” ByteDance said, attempting to equate its decision to Microsoft’s Transparency Center in China as well as a similar facility Cisco set up in Bonn, Germany.

It’s still unclear how Oracle’s role as a code inspector and user data host will resolve concerns around Beijing’s possible tinkering of TikTok’s content black box.

$5 billion tax dollars

ByteDance estimates that TikTok will pay a total of $5 billion in income tax and other tax dollars incurred in business to the U.S. Treasury in the coming years. Nonetheless, the final figure is contingent on TikTok’s “actual business performance and the U.S. tax structure,” the parent said, stressing that the tax money has “nothing to do with the ongoing deal.”

Educational commitment

In response to reports claiming TikTok will be setting up a $5 billion education fund in the U.S., ByteDance said it was not aware of such a plan but has consistently devoted effort to education, including working with its “partners and shareholders” to design online classes powered by artificial intelligence and videos.

In China, ByteDance’s incursion into education has been widely reported. Asides from proprietary products like the English-learning platform Gogokid, the company also invested in a range of outside players including Minerva, the venture-backed institution challenging traditional higher education.

#asia, #bytedance, #tiktok

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Indian mobile gaming platform Mobile Premier League raises $90 million

Mobile Premier League (MPL) has raised $90 million in a new financing round as the two-year-old Bangalore-based esports and mobile gaming platform grows its user base and looks to expand outside of India.

SIG, early-stage tech investor RTP Global, and MDI Ventures led MPL’s $90 million Series C financing round, with participation from existing investors Sequoia India, Go-Ventures, and Base Partners. The new investment brings MPL’s to-date raise to $130.5 million.

MPL operates a pure-play gaming platform that hosts a range of tournaments. The app, which has amassed over 60 million users and hosts about 70 games, also serves as a publishing platform for other gaming firms.

The Bangalore-based startup also offers fantasy sports, a segment that has taken off in many parts of India in recent years.

Because fantasy sports is only one part of the business, the coronavirus outbreak that has shut most real-world matches has not impeded the startup’s growth in recent months. The startup claimed it has grown four times since March this year and more than 2 billion cash transactions have been recorded on the app to date.

“Even in an environment as challenging as the current one, we are impressed with the success and accessibility of the platform concept – giving users a unique variety of experiences and social interaction. MPL’s track record speaks for itself, so we’re excited to support the team as they grow and expand,” said Galina Chifina, Managing Partner at RTP Global, in a statement.

But since an aspect of MPL is about fantasy sports, its app is not available on the Google Play Store. Google Play Store prohibits online casino, and other kinds of betting, a guideline Google reiterated last week as it pulled Indian financial services platform Paytm from the app store for eight hours. Sai Srinivas, co-founder and chief executive of Mobile Premier League, declined to comment on Google and Paytm’s episode. 

In an interview with TechCrunch, he said the startup plans to expand outside of India in the following months. He did not name the new markets, but suggested that India’s neighboring countries will likely be part of it. 

More to follow…

#apps, #asia, #dream-sports, #funding, #india, #paytm, #sports

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Thanks to Google, app store monopoly concerns have now reached India

Last week, as Epic Games, Facebook, and Microsoft continued to express concerns about Apple’s “monopolistic” hold over what a billion people can download on their iPhones, a similar story unfolded in India, the world’s second largest internet market, between a giant developer and the operator of the only other large mobile app store.

Google pulled Paytm, the app from India’s most valuable startup, off of the Play Store on Friday. The app returned to the store eight hours later, but the controversy and acrimony Google has stirred up in the country will linger for years.

TechCrunch reported on Friday that Google pulled Paytm app from its app store after a repeat pattern of violations of Google Play Store guidelines by the Indian firm.

Paytm, which is locked in a battle against Google to win India’s payments market, has been frustrated at Google’s policies — which it argues gives Google an unfair advantage — for several past quarters over how the Android-maker is limiting its marketing campaigns to acquire new users, sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The explanation provided by Google to Paytm for why it pulled the Indian firm’s app this week from its app store is the latest attempt by the company to thwart the Noida-headquartered firm’s ability to acquire new users, Paytm executives said.

In a blog post Paytm posted Sunday evening (local India time), the Indian firm said Google took issue with the company for giving customers cashbacks and scratch cards for initiating transactions over UPI, a government-backed payments infrastructure in India that has become the most popular way for people to exchange money digitally in the country.

Paytm said it rolled out this new version of scratch cards that are linked to cricket on September 11. Users collected these cricket-themed stickers for sending money to others, or making transactions such as topping up credit on their phone or paying their broadband or electricity bill.

In a statement on Sunday evening, a Google spokesperson said, “offering cashbacks and vouchers alone do not constitute a violation of our Google Play gambling policies” and that Play Store “policies are applied and enforced on all developers consistently.”

But it’s arguably anything but consistent.

On September 18, Google told Paytm that it had pulled its app for not complying with Play Store’s “gambling policy” as it offered games with “loyalty points.” Paytm said that Google had not expressed any concerns over Paytm’s new marketing campaign prior to its notice on Friday, in which it revealed that Paytm app had been temporarily removed from the Play Store.

But Google itself is running a similar campaign linked to cricket in India, Paytm argues. (Why cricket? Cricket is immensely popular in India and one of the biggest cricket tournaments globally, Indian Premier League, kicked off its latest season on Saturday.)

Cricket-themed cashback offered by Paytm (left) and Google Pay (right) in India

Google Play Store in India has long prohibited apps that promote gambling such as betting on sporting events, and Google has raised concerns about Paytm’s marquee app promoting Paytm First Games, a fantasy sports app run by Paytm, in the past.

Paytm executives argued that PhonePe, a Walmart-owned payments app in India, also promoted Dream11, the most popular fantasy sports app in the country, and got away without any action.

Google also permits fantasy sports app operators — including Paytm — to advertise on Search in India.

“This is bullshit of a different degree,” Paytm chief executive Vijay Shekhar Sharma said of Google’s objection to Paytm offering cashback in a televised interview Friday. The removal of Paytm app was only on the grounds of Paytm offering cricket-themed cashback, he claimed. “Google is not allowing us to acquire new customers right now. That’s all what this is,” he added.

Google’s payments app, Google Pay, competes with Paytm in India. In fact, Google Pay is the largest payments app for peer-to-peer transaction between users in India and holds the largest market share in UPI.

Without identifying any names, Sharma, the poster child of Indian startup ecosystem, claimed that many founders in India have just accepted that it is Google that has the final say on any matter in India — and not the country’s regulatory agencies.

For Google, which reaches more users than any other company in India and whose Android operating system commands 99% of the local smartphone market, this kind of accusation is exactly what it needs to avoid in the country. The Silicon Valley search and advertising giant has launched a charm offensive in India, including a recently commitment to invest $10 billion — more than any other American or Chinese technology firm.

The timing for Google’s parent company, Alphabet, couldn’t be worse. Google is currently the subject of an antitrust complaint in India over an allegation that it has abused its market position to unfairly promote its mobile payments app in the country; and in the U.S., Congress has intimidated that it may pursue antitrust regulatory action against Alphabet and Apple over app store concerns.

In India, Google’s moves could have a devastating impact on businesses and everyday consumers.

Paytm is not just a payments app. It is also a fully licensed digital bank. And just an eight-hour of absence from the Play Store created a panic among a portion of its users. A source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that Paytm saw several people withdraw their fixed deposit in Paytm Payments Bank on Friday.

Anecdotally, TechCrunch heard of instances where vendors who previously preferred Paytm for accepting money digitally asked their customers to use a different payments method as they had heard that Paytm was “banned” in India.

Sharma said Google’s monopoly on Indian app ecosystem is of a magnitude unparalleled elsewhere in the world.

“If paying someone and getting a cashback is gambling, then the same rule should be applied to everyone,” said Sharma. “It’s disgraceful that we are standing here at the cusp of an internet revolution in India and we are being sanctioned by companies that are not governed by the law of this country.”

If this sentiment gained traction in India it could create challenges for Google’s future in the world’s second largest internet market.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is forcing a Chinese company to sell stakes to local firms to continue operations in the country. In a recent episode of Dithering podcast, Ben Thompson cautioned that Trump administration’s move — which some have argued is a long due tit for tat against Chinese companies (as China has long prevented U.S. firms from meaningfully operating in the world’s largest  internet market) — might encourage other open markets to do to American firms what it is doing to TikTok.

Several U.S. tech executives share these concerns.

“I’ve said this before, but a US TikTok ban would be quite bad for Instagram, Facebook, and the internet more broadly,” Instagram chief executive Adam Mosseri tweeted earlier this week. “If you’re skeptical keep in mind that most of the people who use Instagram are outside the US, as is most of our potential growth. The long term costs of moods countries making aggressive demands and banning us over the next decade outweigh slowing down one competitor today.”

India, which Google, Facebook, and many other tech giants count as their biggest market by users, has made several proposals in the past three years — including mandates that foreign firms store payments information of users locally in India and companies help local enforcement agencies identify the originator of questionable messages circulating on their platforms — that are widely seen as protectionist moves.

And India is not even that open anymore. New Delhi has also banned more than 200 Chinese apps including TikTok, UC Browser, and PUBG Mobile citing cybersecurity concerns in recent months. India has not made public what those cybersecurity concerns are and in its orders acknowledged that users had expressed concerns.

Enough noise against a foreign firm might just be enough to face an avalanche of serious troubles in India.

#apps, #asia, #dream-sports, #dream11, #google, #google-play-store, #india, #paytm, #phonepe

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Gangster capitalism and the American theft of Chinese innovation

It used to be “easy” to tell the American and Chinese economies apart. One was innovative, one made clones. One was a free market while the other demanded payments to a political party and its leadership, a corrupt wealth generating scam that by some estimates has netted top leaders billions of dollars. One kept the talent borders porous acting as a magnet for the world’s top brains while the other interviewed you in a backroom at the airport before imprisoning you on sedition charges (okay, that might have been both).

The comparison was always facile yes, but it was easy and at least directionally accurate if failing on the specifics.

Now though, the country that exported exploding batteries is pioneering quantum computing, while the country that pioneered the internet now builds planes that fall out of the sky (and good news, we’ve identified even more planes that might fall out of the sky at an airport near you!)

TikTok’s success is many things, but it is quite frankly just an embarrassment for the United States. There are thousands of entrepreneurs and hundreds of venture capitalists swarming Silicon Valley and the other American innovation hubs looking for the next great social app or building it themselves. But the power law of user growth and investor returns happens to reside in Haidian, Beijing. ByteDance through its local apps in China and overseas apps like TikTok is the consumer investor return of the past decade (there’s a reason why all the IPOs this seasons are enterprise SaaS).

It’s a win that you can’t chalk up just to industrial policy. Unlike in semiconductors or other capital-intensive industries where Beijing can offer billions in incentives to spur development, ByteDance builds apps. It distributes them on app stores across the world. It has exactly the same tools available to it that every entrepreneur with an Apple Developer account has access to. There is no Made in China 2025 plan to build and popularize a consumer app like TikTok (you literally can’t plan for consumer success like that). Instead, it’s a well-executed product that’s addictive to hundreds of millions of people.

So much as China protected its industry from overseas competitors like Google and Amazon through market-entry barriers, America is now protecting its entrenched incumbents from overseas competitors like TikTok. We’re demanding joint ventures and local cloud data sovereignty just as the Communist Party has demanded for years.

Hell, we’re apparently demanding a $5 billion tax payment from ByteDance, which the president says will fund patriotic education for youth. The president says a lot of things of course, but at least the $5 billion price point has been confirmed by Oracle in its press release over night (what the tax revenue will actually be used for is anyone’s guess). If you followed the recent Hong Kong protests for a long time, you will remember that patriotic youth education was some of the original tinder for those demonstrations back in 2012. What comes around, goes around, I guess.

Development economists like to talk about “catch-up” strategies, tactics that countries can take to avoid the middle income trap and cut the gap between the West and the rest. But what we need now are developed economists to explain America’s “fall behind” strategy. Because we are falling behind, in pretty much everything.

As the TikTok process and the earlier Huawei imbroglio show, America is no longer on the leading edge of technology in many key strategic markets. Mainland Chinese companies are globally winning in areas as diverse as 5G and social networks, and without direct government intervention to kill that innovation, American and European tech purveyors would have lost those markets entirely (and even with those interventions, they may still lose them). In Taiwan, TSMC has come from behind Intel to take a year or two lead in the fabrication of the most advanced semiconductors.

I mean, we can’t even pilfer Chinese history and mythology and turn it into a decent god damn film these days.

And the fall-behind strategy continues. Immigration restrictions from an administration hell-bent on destroying the single greatest source of American innovation, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, have fused into the largest single drop in international student migration in American history.

Why does that matter? In the U.S. according to relatively recent data, 81% of electrical engineering grad students are international, 79% in computer science are, and in most engineering and technical fields, the number hovers above a majority.

It’s great to believe the fantasy that if only these international grad students would stay home, then “real” Americans would somehow take these slots. But what’s true of the strawberry pickers and food service workers is also true for EE grad students: proverbial “Americans” don’t want these jobs. They are hard jobs, thankless jobs, and require a ridiculous tenacity that American workers and students by and large don’t have. These industries have huge contingents of foreign workers precisely because no one domestic wants to take these roles.

So goes the talent, so goes the innovation. Without this wellspring of brainpower lodging itself in America’s top innovation hubs, where exactly do we think it will go? That former aspiring Stanford or MIT computer scientist with ideas in his or her brain isn’t just going to sit by the window gazing at the horizon waiting for the moment when they can enter the gilded halls of the U.S. of A. It’s the internet era, and they are just going to get started on their dreams wherever they are, using whatever tools and resources they have available to them.

All you have to do is look at the recent YC batches and realize that the future cohorts of great startups are going to increasingly come from outside the continental 48. Dozens of smart, brilliant entrepreneurs aren’t even trying to migrate, instead rightfully seeing their home markets as more open to innovation and technological progress than the vaunted superpower. The frontier is closed here, and it has moved elsewhere.

So what are we left with here in the U.S. and increasingly Europe? A narrow-minded policy of blocking external tech innovation to ensure that our sclerotic and entrenched incumbents don’t have to compete with the best in the world. If that isn’t a recipe for economic disaster, I don’t know what is.

But hey: at least the youth will be patriotic.

#apps, #asia, #bytedance, #government, #policy, #tiktok

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The TikTok deal solves quite literally nothing

Well… that was pointless.

After debasing the idea of free commerce in the U.S in the name of a misplaced security concern, stringing along several multi-billion dollar companies that embarrassed themselves in the interest of naked greed, and demanding that the U.S. government get a cut of the profits, the TikTok saga we’ve been watching the past few weeks finally appears to be over.

A flurry of announcement late Saturday night indicate that the TikTok deal was actually a politically-oriented shakedown to boost the cloud infrastructure business of key supporters of the President of the United States.

Oracle, whose cloud infrastructure services run a laughable fourth to AWS, Alphabet*, and Microsoft, will be taking a 20 percent stake in TikTok alongside partner Walmart in what will be an investment round before TikTok Global (as the new entity will be called) goes public on an American stock exchange.

According to a statement from TikTok, Oracle will become TikTok’s “trusted technology partner” and will be responsible for hosting all U.S. user data and securing associated computer systems to ensure U.S. national security requirements are fully satisfied. “We are currently working with Walmart on a commercial partnership as well,” according to the statement from TikTok.

Meanwhile, Oracle indicated that all the concerns from the White House, U.S. Treasury, and Congress over TikTok had nothing to do with the service’s selection of Oracle as its cloud provider. In its statement, Oracle said that “This technical decision by TikTok was heavily influenced by Zoom’s recent success in moving a large portion of its video conferencing capacity to the Oracle Public Cloud.”

Here’s how CNBC reporter Alex Sherman has the ownership structure breaking down, per “a person familiar with the matter. Oracle gets 12.5%, Walmart gets 7.5% and ByteDance gets the remaining 80%. The Trump administration is claiming that US investors will own 53% of TikTok because ByteDance (TikTok’s parent) is backed by venture capital investors that hold a 40% stake in the parent company.

 

The deal benefits everyone except U.S. consumers and people who have actual security concerns about TikTok’s algorithms and the ways they can be used to influence opinion in the U.S.

TikTok’s parent company ByteDance gets to maintain ownership of the U.S. entity, Oracle gets a huge new cloud customer to boost its ailing business, Walmart gets access to teens to sell stuff, and U.S. customer data is no safer (it’s just now in the hands of U.S. predators instead of foreign ones).

To be clear, data privacy and security is a major concern, but it’s not one that’s a concern when it comes to TikTok necessarily (and besides, the Chinese government has likely already acquired whatever data they want to on U.S. customers).

For many observers, the real concern with TikTok was that the company’s Chinese owners may be pressured by Beijing to manipulate its algorithm to promote or suppress content. Companies in China — including its internet giants — are required to follow the country’s intelligence and cloud security law mandating complete adherence with all government orders for data.

The Commerce Department in its statement said that “In light of recent positive developments, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, at the direction of President Trump, will delay the prohibition of identified transactions pursuant to Executive Order 13942, related to the TikTok mobile application that would have been effective on Sunday, September 20, 2020, until September 27, 2020 at 11:59 p.m.” So that’s a week reprieve.

So all this sound and fury … for what? The best investment return in all of these shenanigans is almost certainly Oracle co-CEO Safra Catz’ investment into Trump, who in addition to being a heavy donor to the Trump administration, also joined the presidential transition committee back in 2016. Thank god the U.S. saved TikTok from the crony capitalism of China. Let’s just hope they enjoy the crony capitalism of Washington DC.

*An earlier version of this article referred to AWS, Amazon and Microsoft. AWS and Amazon are the same company. I was typing fast. I’ve corrected the error.

#asia, #bytedance, #donald-trump, #government, #oracle, #policy, #safra-catz, #tc, #tiktok

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China’s vaping giant Relx gears up for US entry

The backlash against vaping in the United States has not deterred a Chinese challenger from entering the world’s largest vaping market.

Relx, one of China’s largest e-cigarette companies, is seeking to submit its Premarket Tobacco Product Application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by the end of 2021. Upon completion of a review process that will take no longer than 180 days, the FDA will take “action”, which could be marketing authorization, a request for more information, or denial.

The vaping startup has requested a pre-submission meeting with the FDA and is expected to meet with the regulator in October, said Donald Graff, the two-year-old startup’s head of scientific affairs for North America, appearing in a video during a press event this week in Shenzhen.

Graff had a brief stint at Juuls Labs as its principal scientist after a 13-year streak at clinical research company Celerion where he oversaw tobacco studies. He’s now spearheading PMTA for Relx. Another scientist from Juuls, Xing Chengyue, who helped invent the nicotine salts critical to e-cigarettes, also joined in China’s vaping industry and founded her own startup Myst.

PMTA is an extensive, meticulous, costly bureaucratic process for vaping products to establish that they are “appropriate for the protection of public health” before being marketed in the U.S. Relx, headquartered in the world’s e-cigarette manufacturing hub Shenzhen, has set up a team to work on the application process, including hiring third-party consulting services and clinical partners to generate data from tests that are necessary for the submission.

All e-cigarette companies currently on the U.S. market needed to submit their PMTA by September 10 this year. To date, no products have received marketing authorization by the FDA.

The high costs of PMTA keep many small players from entering the U.S., but Relx has the financial prowess to bear the expense — it estimates the entire process will cost it more than $20 million. A Nielson survey Relx commissioned showed that the company had a nearly 70% share of China’s pod vape market as of April.

As the risks associated with e-cigarettes continue to draw attention from regulators around the world, Relx has ramped up its research investments to examine vaping’s impact on public health. At this week’s event, its chief executive Kate Wang, a rare female founder of a major tech company in China, and previously the general manager of Uber China, repeatedly highlighted “science” as a key focus at her startup.

Recently unveiled is the company’s Shenzhen-based bioscience lab, which is measuring the effects of Relx vapors through in vivo and in vitro tests, as well as conducting pre-clinical safety assessments.

Despite its ongoing efforts to prove the benefit of switching from smoking to vaping, Relx alongside its rivals faces regulatory uncertainties across various markets. The Trump administration banned flavored vape products last year (Relx plans to submit unflavored products for FDA review) and India banned e-cigarettes citing adverse health impacts on youth.

When asked how the startup plans to cope with changing policies, a Relx executive said at the event that “the company keeps a good relationship with regulators from various countries.”

“You can’t make conclusions on something that is still in the process,” said the executive, referring to the early stage of the vaping industry.

#asia, #hardware, #juuls, #relx

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Google pulls India’s Paytm app from Play Store for repeat policy violations

Google has pulled popular Indian financial services app Paytm from the Play Store for violating its gambling policies. Paytm is India’s most valuable startup and claims over 50 million monthly active users. Its marquee app, which competes with Google Pay in India, disappeared from the Play Store in the country earlier Friday.

Google said that Play Store prohibits online casinos and other unregulated gambling apps that facilitate sports betting in India. Paytm, which promotes fantasy sports service within its marquee app, repeatedly violated Play Store’s policies, two people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. Paytm’s fantasy sports service Paytm First Games, which is also available as a standalone app, was also pulled from the Play Store.

The Android-maker, which maintains similar guidelines in most other markets, additionally noted that if an app leads consumers to an external website that allows them to participate in paid tournaments to win real money or cash prizes is also in violation of its Play Store policies.

TechCrunch has reached out to Paytm for comment but has yet to hear back. Google’s Pay app currently dominates the payments market in India.

The announcement today from Google is also a preemptive attempt from the company to remind other developers about its gambling policies a day before the popular cricket tournament Indian Premier League is scheduled to kick off.

Previous seasons of IPL, which last for nearly two months and attract the attention of hundreds of millions of Indians, have seen a surge in apps that look to promote or participate in sports betting.

Sports betting is banned in India, but fantasy sports where users select their favorite players and win if their preferred team or players play well is not illegal in most Indian states.

A person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch that Google has also asked Disney+ Hotstar, one of the most popular on-demand video streaming services in India, to display a warning before running ads about fantasy sports apps.

“We have these policies to protect users from potential harm. When an app violates these policies, we notify the developer of the violation and remove the app from Google Play until the developer brings the app into compliance,” wrote Suzanne Frey, Vice President, Product, Android Security and Privacy, in a blog post.

“And in the case where there are repeated policy violations, we may take more serious action which may include terminating Google Play Developer accounts. Our policies are applied and enforced on all developers consistently,” she added.

#apps, #asia, #google, #paytm, #play-store

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Ride-hailing was hit hard by COVID-19. Grab’s Russell Cohen on how the company adapted.

A contactless delivery performed by a Grab delivery driver

A contactless Grab delivery

Ride-hailing services around the world have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Grab was no exception. The company is one of the most highly-valued tech startups in Southeast Asia, where it operates in eight countries. Its transport business suffered a sharp decline in March and April, as movement restriction orders were implemented.

But the company had the advantage of already operating several on-demand logistics services. During Disrupt, Russell Cohen, Grab’s group managing director of operations, talked about how the company adapted its technology for an unprecedented crisis (the video is embedded below).

“We sat down as a leadership group at the start of the crisis and we could see, particularly in Southeast Asia, that the scale of the challenge was so immense,” said Cohen.

Grab’s driver app already allowed them to toggle between ride-hailing and on-demand delivery requests. As a result of COVID-19, over 149,000 drivers began performing on-demand deliveries for the first time, with Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand seeing the most conversions. That number included tens of thousands of new drivers who joined the platform to make up for lost earnings during the pandemic.

The challenge was scaling up its delivery services to meet the dramatic increase in demand by consumers, and also merchants who needed a new way to reach customers. In March and April, Cohen said just under 80,000 small businesses joined its platform. Many had never sold online before, so Grab expedited the release of a self-service feature, making it easier for merchants to on-board themselves.

“This is a massive sector of the Southeast Asian economy that effectively digitized within a matter of weeks,” said Cohen.

A lot of the new merchants had previously taken only cash payments, so Grab had to set them up for digital payments, a process made simpler because the company’s financial unit, Grab Financial, already offers services like Grab Pay for cashless payments, mobile wallets and remittance services.

Grab also released a new package of tools called Grab Merchant, which enabled merchants to set-up online businesses by submitting licenses and certification online, and includes features like data analytics.

Modeling for uncertainty in the “new normal”

Part of Grab’s COVID-19 strategy involved collaborating with local municipalities and governments in different countries to make deliveries more efficient. For example, it worked with the Singaporean government to expand a pilot program, called GrabExpress Car, originally launched in September, that enabled more of Grab’s ride-hailing vehicles to be used for food and grocery deliveries. Previously, many of those deliveries were handled only by motorbikes.

The situation in each of Grab’s markets–Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam—is still evolving. Some markets have lifted lockdown orders, while others continue to cope with new outbreaks.

Cohen said ride-hailing is gradually recovering in many of Grab’s markets. But the company is preparing for an uncertain future by modeling different scenarios, taking into account potential re-closings, and long-lasting changes in both consumer and merchant behavior.

“Unpredictability is something we think a lot about,” Cohen said. Its models include ones where deliveries are a significantly larger part of its business, because even in countries where movement restrictions have been lifted, customers still prefer to shop online.

COVID-19 has also accelerated the adoption of digital payments in several of Grab’s markets. For example, Grab launched its GrabPay Card in the Philippines three months ago, because more people are beginning to use contactless payments in response to COVID-19 concerns.

In terms of on-demand deliveries, the company is expanding GrabExpress, its same-day courier service, and adapting technology originally created for ride-pooling to help drivers plan pickups and deliveries more efficiently. This will help decrease the cost of delivery services as consumers remain price-conscious because of the pandemic’s economic impact.

“Purchasing behaviors have changed, so for us, when we think about the supply side, the drivers’ side, that means we’ve got to make sure our fleet is flexible,” he said.

#asia, #disrupt-2020, #grab, #on-demand-delivery, #ride-hailing, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt

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Apple will launch its online store in India next week

Apple will launch its online store in India on September 23, bringing a range of services directly to customers in the world’s second largest smartphone market for the first time in over 20 years since it began operations in the country.

The company, which currently relies on third-party online and offline retailers to sell its products in India, said its online store will offer AppleCare+, which extends the warranty on its hardware products by up to two years, as well as a trade-in program to let customers access discounts on purchase of new iPhones by returning previous models. These programs were previously not available in India. Customers will also be able to buy Macs with custom configuration

“We know our users are relying on technology to stay connected, engage in learning, and tap into their creativity, and by bringing the Apple Store online to India, we are offering our customers the very best of Apple at this important time,” said Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s senior vice president of Retail + People, in a statement.

TechCrunch reported in January that the iPhone-maker was planning to launch its online store in India in Q3 this year. A month later, Apple CEO Tim Cook confirmed the development, adding that Apple will also launch its first physical store in the country next year.

On its website, Apple says it also plans to offer financing options to customers in India, and students will receive additional discounts on Apple products and accessories. Starting next month, it will also let customers check out free online sessions on music and photography from professional creatives. And if they wish, they can engrave emoji or text on their AirPods in several Indian languages.

The launch of the online store will mark a new chapter in Apple’s business in India, where about 99% of the market is commanded by Android smartphones. The iPhone-maker has become visibly more aggressive in India in recent years. In July, the company’s contract manufacturing partner (Foxconn) began assembling the iPhone 11 in India. This was the first time the company was locally assembling a current-generation iPhone model in the country.

Assembling handsets in India enables smartphone vendors — including Apple — to avoid roughly 20% import duty that the Indian government levies on imported electronics products. Lowering the cost of its products is crucial for Apple in India, which already sells several of its services including Apple Music and TV+ at record-low price in the country.

The starting price of iPhone 11 Pro Max is $1,487 in India, compared to $1,099 in the U.S. The AirPods Pro, which sells at $249 in the U.S., was made available in India at $341 at the time of launch.

#android, #apple, #apple-india, #asia, #india

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TikTok’s Chinese rival Kuaishou becomes a popular online bazaar

In China, short video apps aren’t just for mindless time killing. These services are becoming online bazaars where users can examine products, see how they are grown and made, and ask sellers questions during live sessions.

Kuaishou, the main rival of TikTok’s Chinese version (Douyin), announced that it accumulated 500 million e-commerce orders in August, a strong sign for the app’s monetization effort — and probably a conducive condition for its upcoming public listing.

On the heels of the announcement, Reuters reported that Kuaishou, a Tencent-backed company behind TikTok clone Zynn, is looking to raise up to $5 billion from an initial public offering in Hong Kong as early as January. The company declined to comment, but a source with knowledge of the matter confirmed the details with TechCrunch.

There are intricacies in the claim of “500 million orders.” It doesn’t exclude canceled orders or refunds, and Kuaishou won’t reveal what its actual sales were. The company also said the number made it China’s fourth-largest e-commerce player following Alibaba, JD.com and Pinduoduo.

It’s hard to verify the claim as there are no comparable figures from these firms during the period, but let’s work with what’s available. Pinduoduo previously said it logged over 7 billion orders in the first six months of 2019. That means it averaged 1.16 billion orders per month, more than doubling Kuaishou’s volume.

Kuaishou’s figure, however, does indicate that many users have bought or at least considered buying through its video platform.

The app, known for its celebration of vernacular and even mundane user content, boasts 300 million daily active users at the latest, which suggests on average its users made at least one order during the month. Many of the products sold were produce grown by its large base of rural users. The app gained ground in small towns and far-flung regions early on exactly because its content algorithms didn’t intend to favor the “glamorous”.

Over time, it gathered pace among Chinese urbanites who found themselves enjoying others’ candid filming of country life and happily ordering their farm products. The focus on bringing rural produce to urban areas also squares nicely with China’s push to invigorate its rural economy, and it’s not rare to see Kuaishou using terms like “poverty-alleviation” in its social media campaign.

Douyin, which leans towards polished videos from “influencers”, also enables its content creators to monetize — through both sharing ad revenue and hawking products. With a DAU twice as big as Kuaishou’s at 600 million, the app vows to bring 80 billion yuan ($11.8 billion) of income to creators in the coming year, the chief executive of ByteDance China, Kelly Zhang, said recently at Douyin’s creator conference.

#asia, #ecommerce, #tc

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UrbanKisaan is betting on vertical farming to bring pesticide-free vegetables to consumers and fight India’s water crisis

Severe droughts have drained rivers and reservoirs across parts of India, and more than half a billion people in the world’s second-most populous nation are estimated to run out of drinking water by 2030.

Signs of this are apparent in farms, which consume the vast majority of total water supplies. Farmers have been struggling in India to grow crops, as they are still heavily reliant on rainwater. Those with means have shifted to grow crops such as pearl millet, cow peas, bottle gourd and corn — essentially anything but rice — that use a fraction of the water. But most don’t have this luxury.

If that wasn’t enough, Indian cities are facing another challenge: The level of harmful chemicals used in vegetables has gone up significantly over the years.

A Hyderabad-headquartered startup, which is competing in the TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield this week, thinks it has found a way to address both of these challenges.

Across many of its centres in Hyderabad and Bangalore that look like spaceships from the inside, UrbanKisaan is growing crops, stacked one on top of another.

Vertical farming, a concept that has gained momentum in some Western markets, is still very new in India.

The model brings with it a range of benefits. Vihari Kanukollu, the co-founder and chief executive of UrbanKisaan, told TechCrunch in an interview that the startup does not use any soil or harmful chemicals to grow crops and uses 95% less water compared to traditional farms.

“We have built a hydroponic system that allows water to keep flowing and get recycled again and again,” he said. Despite using less water, UrbanKisaan says it produces 30% more crops. “We grow to at least 30-40 feet of height. And it has an infinite loop there,” he said.

Kanukollu, 26, said that unlike other vertical farming models, which only grow lettuce and basil, UrbanKisaan has devised technology to grow over 50 varieties of vegetables.

The bigger challenge for UrbanKisaan was just convincing businesses like restaurant chains to buy from it. “Despite us offering much healthier vegetables, businesses still prefer to go with traditionally grown crops and save a few bucks,” he said.

So to counter it, UrbanKisaan sells directly to consumers. Visitors can check in to centres of UrbanKisaan in Hyderabad and Bangalore and buy a range of vegetables.

The startup, backed by Y Combinator and recently by popular South Indian actress Samantha Akkineni, also sells kits for about $200 that anyone can buy and grow vegetables in their own home.

Kanukollu, who has a background in commerce, started to explore the idea about UrbanKisaan in 2018 after being frustrated with not being able to buy fresh, pesticide-free vegetables for his mother, he said.

Luckily for him, he found Sairam Palicherla, a scientist who has spent more than two decades studying farming. The duo spent the first year in research and engaging with farmers.

Today, UrbanKisaan has more than 30 farms. All of these farms turned profitable in their first month, said Kanukollu.

“We are currently growing at 110% average month on month in sales and our average bill value has gone up by 10 times in the last 6 months,” he said.

The startup is also working on reaching a point within the next three months to achieve $150,000 in monthly recurring revenue.

The startup has spent the last few quarters further improving its technology stack. Kanukollu said they have cut down on power consumption from the LED lights by 50% and reduced the cost of manufacturing by 60% per tube.

Kanukollu said the startup works with five farmers currently and is working out ways to find a viable model to bring it to every farmer.

It is also developing a centralized intelligence atop convolutional neural networks to achieve real-time detection to find more harvestable produce, and detect deficiencies in the farm.

UrbanKisaan, which has raised about $1.5 million to date, plans to expand to more metro cities in the country in the coming quarters.

#agriculture, #asia, #battlefield, #biotech, #disrupt-2020, #india, #startup-battlefield-at-disrupt-2020, #startups, #techcrunch-disrupt

0

SmartNews’ Kaisei Hamamoto on how the app deals with media polarization

Six years ago, SmartNews took on a major challenge. After launching in Japan in 2012, the news discovery app decided that its first international market would be the United States. During Disrupt, co-founder Kaisei Hamamoto talked about how SmartNews adapts its app for two very different markets (the video is embedded below). Hamamoto, who is also chief operating officer and chief engineer of the startup, which hit unicorn status last year, also dove into how the company deals with media polarization, especially in the United States.

At Disrupt, SmartNews announced a roster of major new features for the U.S. version of the app, including sections dedicated to voting information and articles related to local and national elections. Hamamoto said the SmartNews’ goal is to make the app a “one-stop solution for users’ participation in the election process.”

The media landscape has changed a lot since SmartNews was founded in 2012. In the U.S., SmartNews is tackling the same issues as many journalists are: increasing polarization, especially along political lines, and monetization (SmartNews currently has more than 3,000 publishing partners around the world and splits ad revenue with them). And, of course, it’s up against a host of new competitors, including Apple News and Google News.

While many Japanese startups focus on other Asian markets when expanding internationally, SmartNews decided to enter the United States because it is home to some of the most influential media companies in the world. On the engineering side, Hamamoto said the company also wanted to tap into the country’s AI and machine learning talent pool.

“The U.S. is not only an attractive market, but also an important development center for SmartNews,” he said.

The Japanese and American versions of SmartNews share the same code base and its offices in both countries work closely together. While the company’s machine learning-based algorithms drive the bulk of news discovery and personalized recommendations, publishers are first screened by SmartNews’ content team before being added to its platform. The company’s vice president of content is Rich Jaroslovsky, a veteran journalist who wrote for publications like Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal.

While AI-based algorithms can perform tasks like filtering out obscene images, “it does not have the ability to evaluate how each publisher meets certain standards,” Hamamoto said. “We are doing everything we can to ensure that our users can read the news with trust every day thanks to efforts led by our team of journalism experts.”

Breaking readers out of information bubbles

In addition to their code base, the two versions of the app share some of the same features. For example, each has SmartNews’ COVID-19 channel, with continuous updates about the pandemic. In the States, this includes visualizations of confirmed cases by county or state, and information about local closing or reopening orders.

In terms of adapting the apps’ user experience, Hamamoto said Japanese readers prefer to have a lot of news displayed on one screen, so it uses a layout algorithm that deliberately increases the density of information presented in its Japanese app. But testing showed Americans prefer a simpler, cleaner layout with more white space.

But the differences go beyond the apps’ user interface. In 2016, members of the U.S. and Japanese team spent three weeks traveling across 13 states, including Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas, to talk to people they met through Craiglist postings or in diners and cafes. SmartNews’ leaders decided to do this after the Japan team realized that most of their U.S. trips were to their offices in New York and the Bay Area.

“We knew we couldn’t get a get a true sense of America by only visiting the East Coast and West Coast,” he said.

Hamamato said one of his biggest takeaways from the 2016 trip was that “we tend to categorize people into just two segments, our side or the other side, and we tend to think of the other side as the enemy, but in reality the world is not that simple.”

In a bid to tackle political polarization in American media, the company launched a “News from All Sides” feature last year, that displays articles about one topic from publications displayed on a slider from “most conservative” to “most liberal.” The U.S. app also has a stronger emphasis on local news. Based on users’ locations, this can be as specific as information from county or even city news outlets.

Hamamoto added that one of SmartNews’ guiding principles is a belief that “having a willingness to listen to other people and not easily label them will help solve the division of our society.”

#apps, #asia, #disrupt-2020, #japan, #media, #news-discovery, #smartnews, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt

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Blume Ventures’ Karthik Reddy on Indian startup ecosystem, geo-political tension with China and coronavirus

Despite the coronavirus outbreak, which has slowed down deal-making across the world, dozens of startups in India have raised considerable amounts in recent months. Unacademy, which raised $110 million in February, closed a new round of $150 million this month.

These large check sizes, and the frequency at which they are being bandied out, were almost unheard of in India just 10 years ago. The list of problems these local startups were solving then was also quite smaller back in the day.

Karthik Reddy has seen this change very closely.

He co-founded venture capital firm Blume Ventures, where he also serves as a partner, 10 years ago. Blume Ventures is the largest Indian venture capital firm. In a wide-ranging interview at Disrupt 2020, Reddy talked about the state of the startup ecosystem in India, some of the challenges it is confronting today and what lies ahead for the market.

“Fifteen years is what you should consider the active VC build-out in India. For the first five to seven years, we were kind of faking it till we make it. We sold the idea that we can replicate what the U.S. and China have done,” he said.

The breakout moment in India happened when low-cost Android smartphones flooded the market. A handful of startups with consumer-facing services such as Flipkart, Paytm and Zomato emerged to serve the first tens of millions of smartphone users in the country.

“The Hail Mary moment there was Reliance Jio’s arrival in the market,” he said. India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, entered the telecommunications market in the second half of 2016 with the world’s cheapest mobile tariff.

Moreover, for several months, Ambani simply did not charge Jio subscribers anything for access to 4G data. So India at large, once conscious about each megabyte it spent on the internet, suddenly started consuming gigabytes of content everyday. “It democratized data and smartphones at a scale that we have not seen in countries other than China,” said Reddy.

Karthik Reddy is the co-founder of Blume Ventures, the largest Indian venture capital firm

As hundreds of millions of users in India arrived on the internet, scores of startups in the country started to solve more complex problems: Bangalore-based startup Meesho today is helping millions of women sell products digitally; Classplus, a Blume Ventures-backed startup, has built a Shopify-like platform for teachers and coaching centres to serve students directly.

As India grew into the world’s second largest internet consumer, it has also attracted American and Chinese technology groups, all of which are looking for their next billion users. Several major investment firms, including Silver Lake, Alibaba Group, Tencent, GGV Capital, Tiger Global, General Atlantic, KKR, Vista, and Owl Ventures have also arrived and become aggressive in their investments in recent years.

But the geo-political tension between India and China have slightly complicated matters. In April this year, India amended its foreign direct investment policy to China to seek approval from New Delhi for their future deals in the country. Chinese investors have ploughed billions of dollars into the Indian startup ecosystem in recent years.

It’s a sensitive topic, given the involvement of the government, that most VCs in India are not comfortable addressing it even off the record. But Reddy weighed in.

“If not an arm or limb, it cuts off a finger or two for your choices. You are a little handicapped,” he said. “But there’s a caveat to that. It’s limited to certain segments of the market. I don’t think China and Hong Kong investors, even though they were very familiar with Chinese VC success story, were really interested in India’s deep tech and cross-border tech,” he said.

Today those areas account for more than a third of the robust ecosystem in India, Reddy argued. “If you look at the entire ecosystem collectively, there’s a single-digit influence of Chinese capital. […] If you ask me personally, 40% of my portfolio is not even remotely affected by it,” he said.

But several large consumer-facing Indian startups, such as Paytm, Zomato and Udaan, do have Chinese investors on their cap tables. Reddy said they would be impacted as uncertainty looms over when — and if — India would offer any relaxation to its current stand.

He said he is hopeful that the government would provide some distinction to VC-managed fund money that is not necessarily Chinese just because it’s run by someone who originated there.

Reddy also spoke about why he thinks early-stage startups, despite the proliferation of VC firms in India focusing on young firms, continue to receive less attention. We also spoke about how the coronavirus is impacting his portfolio startups and the industry at large and what advice he has for startup founders to navigate the turbulence times. You can watch this and much more in the interview below.

#alibaba-group, #asia, #blume-ventures, #china, #disrupt, #disrupt-2020, #india, #karthik-reddy, #startups, #techcrunch-disrupt, #unacademy, #venture-capital, #zomato

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Southeast Asia’s East Ventures on female VCs, foreign investment, consolidation

Melisa Irene‘s path to becoming a partner at one of Southeast Asia’s most esteemed venture capital firms is an unconventional one.

“I always consider myself to be quite lucky,” said Irene, who was promoted to be a partner at East Ventures in January 2019. At 25 years old, she was the Jakarta-based investment firm’s first female partner.

During TechCrunch Disrupt’s first online conference, I spoke to Irene about what she humbly described as a “lucky” career, her experience as a young, female investor, the rush of American and Chinese VC money into Southeast Asia, and what the COVID-19 pandemic means to East Ventures . A video recording of the conversation is at the bottom of the article.

Partner at 25

Irene admitted that timing played a big part in her ascension in the VC world. The development of Indonesia’s internet infrastructure came around relatively late — around 2010 — compared to more developed markets, but growth happened rapidly. In 2015, five years after East Ventures backed the Series A of Tokopedia, now an e-commerce leader in Southeast Asia, Irene joined the firm.

In those days, “I didn’t compete with a lot of investment bankers,” said Irene, who majored in accounting in university and began as an intern at East Ventures. “The capability that they looked for was how fast you can immerse in the ecosystem.”

Contrary to popular belief, the Southeast Asian investment ecosystem is “quite friendly” towards women. “People rejoice the promotion of female professionals in this industry. It’s not a rare circumstance to see females becoming a vice principal or principle in Southeast Asia,” the investor said.

The support goes beyond simply checking the gender-diversity box and reflects a real demand for more empathetic investors in the tech industry.

“Sometimes people like to talk as a business partner and sometimes as a friend. [Empathy] is something that can be seen as natural coming from females,” she added.

However, the investor cautioned that “the number of [female] decision-makers definitely needs to improve,” though she foresees the local ecosystem “is supportive of that.”

SEA gold rush

In recent years tech giants from both the U.S. and China have been clamoring to get into Southeast Asia, a region home to about 670 million people and a fledgling internet market. They often begin by financing local upstarts, which, beholden to the investment, will provide directional advice to their foreign corporate investors.

Indeed, the familiar names have all bet on the region’s rising stars. Alibaba invested in Tokopedia and its rival JD.com backed travel portal Traveloka, which is also in the East Ventures portfolio. Tencent, Google, Facebook and Paypal are all investors of Gojek, the Indonesian ride-hailing titan going neck and neck with SoftBank-funded Grab.

When offered big checks, startups must stay level-headed and think what’s best for them, Irene advised. “The thing is everyone has money. Companies need to decide which side to be on, what companies they want on board, and what companies are able to give them strategic advice.”

It’s not uncommon to see investors and founders clash over priorities. Some investors want a quick exit, while the entrepreneurial mentality is to build a business in the long run. “That’s why alignment is important,” asserted the investor.

The future of tech in SEA

As unicorns and “super apps” like Grab and Gojek emerge in Southeast Asia, concerns that incumbents can kill off competition grow. East Ventures has a unique insight into the region’s competitive dynamics as an early-stage investor that has seen some of its startups like Tokopedia and Traveloa grow into behemoths.

Irene believed as Southeast Asia’s internet ecosystem matures, there are actually a lot of opportunities for startups in “upcoming sectors.”

“If you look at the unicorns, you see a lot of younger and smaller companies supporting them,” she said. The point is that giants can’t accomplish everything by themselves, and some of the more niche functions can best be tackled by smaller players with specialized focuses.

On the other hand, the investor believed consolidation is possible — and should happen — in areas that can benefit from scale and network effects.

“People think of Indonesia as one country. We are not. We are the largest archipelago, which means there are very different infrastructures within different provinces. For example, it’s expensive to set up a bank branch in a small island… That means a lot of things need to come into a collective effort and one big ecosystem to offer the consumers with different kinds of offerings.”

Lastly, there’s the inevitable question of COVID-19. Like many investors, Irene saw a silver lining during the dark times.

“Before COVID, it was very difficult to assess the quality of companies. They all had a lot of money and the infrastructure was actually good… Now we suddenly can tell who makes good decisions, who makes it at what speed, and what is the outcome of those decisions. The way entrepreneurs respond to COVID can tell us a lot about their enterprises.”

#asia, #east-ventures, #gojek, #grab, #melisa-irene, #southeast-asia, #tc, #tokopedia, #traveloka

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Lightspeed announces the launch of its Southeast Asia operations

A group photo of Lightspeed Venture Capital's Southeast Asia team

Lightspeed’s Southeast Asia team: Akshay Bhushan, Marsha Sugana, Pinn Lawjindakul and Bejul Somaia

Lightspeed Venture Partners announced the launch of its Southeast Asia operations today. Based out of the firm’s new regional headquarters in Singapore, Lightspeed’s team there will invest in startups throughout Southeast Asia from the three global funds it closed earlier this year, which total about $4 billion.

The Southeast Asia team consists of partner Akshay Bhushan, who was a founding member of Flipkart’s corporate development team before joining Lightspeed five years ago; partner Bejul Somaia, who helped set up Lightspeed India; vice president Pinn Lawjindakul, a veteran of Grab and Tiger Global Management; and senior investment associate Marsha Sugana, who previously worked at L Catterton and Goldman Sachs.

Bhushan told TechCrunch that Lightspeed opened its Singapore office in January to serve as a base for its team as they met with entrepreneurs throughout the region. Obviously, the onset of COVID-19 curtailed travel, but they continued talking to startups through video calls and emails.

Lightspeed focuses on early-stage investments and has already invested in some of the most prolific startups in Southeast Asia, including Grab. Its other portfolio companies in the region are Indonesian startups Chilibeli, a social commerce platform, B2B wholesale marketplace Ula and e-commerce logistics platform Shipper, as well as Singaporean software developer NextBillion.AI.

Some of Lightspeed’s investments in other countries have also taken a keen interest in Southeast Asia as a key market for global expansion, including Indian startups OYO Rooms, Darwinbox and Yellow Messenger.

Having regional operations will allow Lightspeed to work more closely with its portfolio companies and make deeper connections with entrepreneurs, Bhushan said.

He added that the pandemic has prompted the rapid adoption of technologies, including platforms that help small businesses digitize their operations or sell online, supply chain solutions and remote working or online education-related services.

In sectors like fintech or logistics, there is also a lot of opportunity in several Southeast Asian countries to build transformative platforms and services. For example, Bhushan said, Shipper is focused on solving some of the biggest supply chain and logistics challenges facing e-commerce sellers in Indonesia, while Grab has made digital payments and other financial services like insurance easier to access.

“The big opportunity in most emerging markets, and this applies to most of the markets in Southeast Asia, is that we generally find that a lot of the fundamental infrastructure is broken, and founders can leverage technology to fill those gaps,” he said. “What excites us are founders who are solving those infrastructural problems, and a lot of our investments are to that effect.”

#asia, #lightspeed, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #tc, #venture-capital

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Making sense of 3 edtech extension rounds

While venture capitalists are pouring funding into edtech startups, the surge of interest isn’t coming without pressure.

Edtech companies are searching for new ways to tap into a booming market. As Course Hero co-founder Andrew Graeur put it, the goal for his Q&A platform went from reaching a million subscribers to “many millions” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One way edtech companies are approaching these unprecedented times is by raising extension rounds that are earmarked specifically to bring on strategic partners from around the world. The approach of trading equity for a chance at globalization is neither rare nor cheap, but comes with new weight given the sector’s boom.

Today, ApplyBoard closed a $55 million extension round for its Series C, which now totals $130 million. ApplyBoard helps international students search and apply to universities and colleges across the world. It wants users to think of it as a Common App for international students, serving as a college undergrad application.

A spokesperson for the startup — which became a unicorn valued at over $1.4 billion in May — says the round did not change its valuation. Instead, the financing was “less about funding, and more about the partners that we were able to bring on board as a result.”

#andrew-grauer, #applyboard, #asia, #course-hero, #covid-19, #duolingo, #edtech, #education, #ggv, #jenny-lee, #labster, #tc, #venture-capital

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Facebook addresses political controversy in India, monetization opportunities, startup investments

At the beginning of the previous decade, Facebook had a tiny presence in India. It had just started to slowly expand its team in the country and was inking deals with telecom operators to make access to its service free to users and even offer incentives such as free voice credit.

India’s internet population, now the second largest with more than 500 million connected users, itself was very small. In early 2011, the country had fewer than 100 million internet users.

But Facebook ended up playing a crucial role in the last decade. So much so that by the end of it, the social juggernaut was reaching nearly every internet user in the country. WhatsApp alone reaches more than 400 million internet users in India, more than any other app in the country, according to mobile insight firm App Annie.

This reach of Facebook in India didn’t go unnoticed. Politicians in the country today heavily rely on Facebook services, including WhatsApp, to get their message out. But it has also complicated things.

Rumors have spread on WhatsApp that cost lives, and politicians from both the large political parties in India in recent weeks have accused the company of showing favoritism to the other side.

To address these issues, and the role Facebook wishes to play in India, Ajit Mohan, the head of the company’s business in the country, joined us at Disrupt 2020. Following are some of the highlights.

On controversy

A recent report in WSJ claimed that Ankhi Das, one of Facebook’s top executives in India, decided against taking down a post from a politician from the ruling party. She did so, the report claimed, because she feared it could hurt the company’s business prospects in India.

In Mohan’s first interview since the controversy broke, he refuted the claims that any executive in the country holds power to influence how Facebook enforces its content policy.

“We believe that it’s important for us to be open and neutral and non-partisan,” he said. “We have deep belief and conviction that our enabling role is as a neutral party that allows speech of all kinds, that allows expression of all kinds, including political expression, and a lot of the guidelines that we have developed are to make sure that we really enable our diversity of expression and opinion so long as we’re able to make sure that the safety and security of people are protected.”

Mohan said the internal processes and systems inside Facebook are designed to ensure that any opinion and preference of an employee or a group of employees is “quite separate from the company and the company’s objective enforcement of its own policies.”

He said individuals can offer input on decisions, but nobody — including Ankhi Das — can unilaterally influence the decision Facebook takes on content enforcement.

“We do allow free expression inside the company as well. We don’t have any constraints on people expressing their point of view, but we see that separate from the enforcement of our content policy. […] The content policy itself, in the context of India, is a team that stands separate from the public policy team that is led by Ankhi,” he added.

This photo illustration shows an Indian newspaper vendor reading a newspaper with a full back page advertisement from WhatsApp intended to counter fake information, in New Delhi on July 10, 2018. (Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP)

On India and monetization

Even as Facebook has amassed hundreds of millions of users in India, the world’s second largest market contributes little to its bottom line. So why does Facebook care so much about the country?

“India is in the middle of a very exciting economic and social transformation where digital has a massive role to play. In just the last four years, more than 500 million users have come online. The pace of this transformation probably has no parallel in either human history or even in the digital transformation happening in countries around the world,” he said.

“For a company like ours, if you look at the family of apps across WhatsApp and Instagram, we believe we have a useful role to play in fueling this transformation,” he said.

Even as Facebook does not generate a lot of revenue from India, Mohan said the company has established itself as one of the most trusted platforms for marketers. “They look to us as a material partner in their marketing agenda,” he said.

He said the company is hopeful that advertising as a GDP will go up in India. “Therefore ad-revenue will become substantial over time,” he said.

For Facebook, India is also crucial because it allows the company to build some unique products that solve issues for India but could be replicated in other markets. The company is currently testing an integration of WhatsApp, which currently does not have a business model despite having over 2 billion users, with new Indian e-commerce JioMart, to allow users to easily track their orders.

“We think there is opportunity to build India-first models, experiment at scale, and in a world where we succeed, we see huge opportunity in taking some of these models global,” he said.

Facebook as a VC

Facebook does not usually invest in startups. But in India, the company has invested in social-commerce firm Meesho, online learning platform Unacademy — it even participated in its follow-up round — and it wrote a $5.7 billion check to Jio Platforms earlier this year. So why is Facebook taking this investment route in India?

“We wanted to create a program for taking minority investments in early-stage startups to figure out how we could be helpful to startup founders and the ecosystem as a whole. The starting point was backing teams that were building models that in some ways were unique to India and could go global. Since we made an investment in Meesho, they have made a strong thrust in Indonesia. These are the kind of companies where we feel we can add value as well as we can learn from these startups,” he said.

The partnership with Jio Platforms follows a different rationale. “The transformation we talked about in India in the last few years, Jio triggered it,” he said. Other than that, Facebook is exploring ways to work with Jio, such as with its partnership with Jio’s venture JioMart. “It can really fuel the small and medium business that is good for the Indian economy,” he said.

Mohan said the company continues to explore more opportunities in Indian startups, especially with those where the teams think Facebook can add value, but he said there is no mandate of any kind that Facebook has to invest in, say dozens of startups in three to four years. “It’s not a volume play,” he said.

But would these firms, including Reliance Industries, which operates Jio Platforms and Reliance Retail, will receive any special access on Facebook’s services. What if Amazon, BigBasket, Grofers, or Flipkart want to integrate with WhatsApp, too? Mohan said Facebook platform is open for every firm and everyone will receive the same level of access and opportunities.

In the interview, Mohan, who ran the Disney-run Hotstar on-demand streaming service in India, also talked about the growing usage of video in India, the state of WhatsApp Pay’s rollout in the country, what Facebook thinks of India’s ban on Chinese apps, and much more. You can watch the full interview below.

#ajit-mohan, #apps, #asia, #disrupt, #disrupt-2020, #facebook, #facebook-india, #hotstar, #meesho, #social, #techcrunch-disrupt, #unacademy, #venture-capital, #whatsapp, #whatsapp-pay

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China tops 110 million 5G users in less than a year

Over 110 million users in China have signed up for 5G plans, announced president of the China Academy for Information and Communications Technology (CAICT), a think tank under the telecoms watchdog Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, at an industry event on Wednesday.

That makes China the largest 5G market in terms of user size, the think tank president said. The milestone came in less than a year after China’s top carriers rolled out  5G plans for consumers, and just over a year after the authority began issuing 5G licenses for commercial use.

The number is still a small fraction of the overall subscription. In June, China’s three state-run carriers collectively commanded some 1.6 billion mobile subscribers (suggesting China’s 1.4 billion population owned over one mobile device per capita).

China’s 5G ambition is a multi-pronged effort among the government, network carriers, telecoms equipment makers, device makers, and software developers. Policymakers need to show consumers visible improvement on network speed, and as such the carriers have been aggressively setting up 5G base stations across the country — more than 460,000 towers by July.

China was adding an average of 15,000 new 5G base stations every week, said an official in July. The government has plans to raise that number to 600,000 by the end of 2020, covering all prefectural-level cities nationwide. A clear winner in China’s 5G push is Huawei, which makes both 5G devices and the infrastructure that undergirds the next-gen network.

In the meantime, Huawei, Oppo, Xiaomi and their rivals are rushing to launch 5G compatible handsets. China has sold over 93 million units of 5G mobile phones this year so far, according to recent data released by CAICT. 5G phones accounted for 60% of total shipments in August.

China’s rapid shift to 5G is also driving the need for new hardware parts like integrated circuits. The country produced over 100 billion units of ICs during the first half of 2020, representing a 16.4% year-over-year gain, said an industry official in July, adding that much of the demand came from 5G-related projects.

#5g, #asia, #china, #tc

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Homage’s Gillian Tee on how technology can serve the world’s aging population

It’s always a pleasure to chat with Homage co-founder and chief executive Gillian Tee because of her nuanced take on how technology can help elderly and other vulnerable people.  According to the United Nations, people 65-years-old and over is the fastest-growing age group worldwide. At the same time, there is also an acute shortage of caregivers in many countries, complicated by high rates of burnout in the profession.

“It’s absolutely one of the most important social topics and global issues,” Tee said during her Disrupt session (the video is embedded at the bottom of this article).

Launched in Singapore four years ago, Homage’s platform uses a matchmaking engine to help families find the best caregivers, while its telehealth platform provides services like online medical consultations and screenings. It has since expanded in Malaysia and yesterday announced a new strategic investment from Infocom, one of the largest healthcare technology companies in Japan. The partnership will enable Homage to accelerate its Asia-Pacific expansion.

Before launching Homage, Tee was co-founder of New York-based Rocketrip. A ticket-booking platform created to reduce work travel-related costs for companies, Rocketrip attracted investors like Google Ventures, Y Combinator and Bessemer Ventures, and raised more than $30 million. But in 2016, Tee decided to return to Singapore, her home country, after living abroad for about 15 years. In her Disrupt session, Tee said this was to be closer to her mother, and because she felt that her startup experience could also be applied to Southeast Asia.

Tee knew that she wanted to launch another company, but she didn’t decide to tackle the caregiving space immediately. That idea materialized when several of her close relatives were diagnosed with chronic conditions that needed specialized care.

“We didn’t know how to cope or how even to start thinking about what was required, and that was when I realized, wow, I needed to get myself schooled in many ways,” Tee said.

Many families around the world are dealing with the same challenges as their populations age and social dynamics shift. Family members who traditionally would have been carers for relatives are unable to do so because they have moved away or need to work.

Families often rely on word-of-mouth or agencies to find caregivers, a complicated, time-intensive and often emotionally difficult process. Homage uses matching algorithms to make it easier. One of the most unique things about the platform is how much detail it goes into. Providers are not only screened based on their certifications and the kind of care they provide (for example, long-term care, respite care, physical therapy or rehabilitation), but specific skills. For example, many patients need mobility assistance, so Homage assesses what kind of transfers they are able to safely perform.

Then its matching technology decides which caregivers are best suited for a patient, and final assignments are made by Homage’s staff. By making the process more efficient, Homage also lowers its costs, making its services accessible to more people while increasing pay rates for providers.

This taps into another one of Homage’s goals: expanding the caregiving pool in its markets and retaining talent. Other ways it addresses the issue is by placing caregivers on its platform into the jobs they are best suited for, organizing continuing education programs and making sure they are not over-scheduled. Some caregivers on the platform have long-term contracts, while others work with Homage clients only a few days a week.

A holistic approach to “age-tech”

In June, Homage launched its telehealth service. Called Homage Health, the platform has been in development for a while, but its launch was accelerated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote consultations fit into the “high-touch,” or in-person, care side of the company’s business because many patients need regular screenings or consultations with doctors and specialists. For patients who have limited mobility or are immunocompromised, this makes it easier for them to make routine consults.

Hardware, including wearable sensors, also show promise to identify any potential health issues, like heart conditions, before they require acute care, but one challenge is making them easy for patients to integrate into their daily routines or remember to wear, Tee said.

Overall, Homage’s mission is to create a holistic platform that covers many caregiving needs. Its new partnership with strategic investor Infocom will help bring that forward because the company, which Tee said Homage has been talking to for several years, works with about 13,000 facilities in Japan, including senior residences and hospitals. Infocom develops software for a wide range of verticals, including drug, hospital and medical record management, and medical imaging.

Infocom also runs its own caregiving platform, and its partnership with Homage will enable the two companies to collaborate and reach more patients. Japan has one of the largest populations of elderly people in the world. Tee said at minimum, half a million caregivers need to be mobilized within the next five to ten years in Japan in order to meet demand.

“We need to start building infrastructure to enable people to be able to access the kind of care services that they need, and so we really align in terms of that mission with Infocom,” said Tee. “They also have a platform that engages caregivers to apply for jobs in Japan and they see the Homage model as being particularly applicable because it’s curated as well.”

#asia, #caregiving, #disrupt-2020, #gillian-tee, #homage, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt

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Twitter flags Indian politician’s years-old tweet for violating its policy

Twitter has flagged a post from Indian politician T. Raja Singh for violating its policy days after TechCrunch asked the social giant about the three-year-old questionable tweet.

In a video tweet, Singh urged India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and others citizens in the country to move Rohingya Muslim immigrants, including those “who supported terrorism,” out of the nation as he feared that they would become a “headache for the nation” in the future. “#Deport RohingyaMuslims,” he tweeted.

Singh, who belongs to India’s ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party and has made hateful speeches in public appearances in the past, also urged his followers to make his tweet “viral” on the platform so that every “Hindu and [other] Indians” see it. He did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s a similar message that Singh had also posted on Facebook, which ultimately led the Menlo Park-headquartered firm to permanently ban him from the platform.

Facebook has received some of the harshest backlash it has seen to date in the country in part for its initial inaction on Singh’s posts. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that a top Facebook executive in India had decided to not take action on Singh’s posts as she feared it could hurt the company’s business prospects in the country.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Twitter spokesperson said that Singh’s tweet was “actioned” for violating its hateful conduct policy.

“Twitter has zero-tolerance policies in place to address threats of violence, abuse and harassment, and hateful conduct. If we identify accounts that violate these rules, we’ll take enforcement action,” the spokesperson added.

A September 13 tweet, which Singh has retweeted from his account, shows a warning message from Twitter that says his account was locked for the aforementioned tweet. Singh has posted several tweets since September 13, suggesting the matter has been resolved. The aforementioned tweet still shows it is in violation of Twitter rules.

The slow reactions from Twitter and Facebook, both of which count India as an important market, illustrates lapses in their content moderation efforts in the world’s second largest market.

Twitter, which had about 70 million monthly active users on its official app in India last month (according to mobile insights firm App Annie, data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch), has been particularly slow — or unresponsive — in the country in taking actions despite reports from users.

In January, India’s ruling party was accused of running a deceptive Twitter campaign to gain support for a controversial lawnothing new for Twitter in India — but the company never responded to questions. A month before that, snowfall in Kashmir, a highly sensitive region that hasn’t had internet connection for months, began trending on Twitter in the U.S. It mysteriously disappeared after many journalists questioned how it made it to the list.

A Twitter spokesperson in India pointed TechCrunch to an FAQ article at the time that explained how Trending Topics work. Nothing in the FAQ article addressed the question.

#apps, #asia, #facebook, #india, #social, #twitter

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Amazon-backed Indian insurtech startup Acko raises $60 million

A young Indian startup that is taking on the country’s antiquated insurance industry with a digital-first product — and which has already received backing from global giant Amazon — today announced a new financing round.

Bangalore-based Acko said on Tuesday it has raised $60 million in its Series D financing round. Germany-based Munich Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurers, led the financing round, while existing investors Amazon, RPS Ventures and Intact Ventures, corporate venture arm of Canada’s largest property and casualty insurer, participated in it.

The new round, which brings Acko’s to-date raise to $200 million, valued the three-year-old startup at about $500 million (up from about $300 million last year), a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

Acko develops and sells bite-sized auto insurance products (aimed at drivers and others in transportation-related scenarios). The startup expanded its catalog six months ago to provide healthcare protections that it sells to businesses and employers. More than 150,000 employees are already covered by Acko’s healthcare protection, the startup said.

Acko founder and chief executive Varun Dua told TechCrunch in an interview that the startup has amassed over 60 million customers and has issued over 650 million policies to date.

Offering a large catalog of bite-sized insurance policies is crucial for firms in India. Only a fraction of the nation’s 1.3 billion people currently have access to insurance and most can’t afford sizeable policies.

According to rating agency ICRA, insurance products had reached less than 3% of the population as of 2017. An average Indian makes about $2,100 a year, according to the World Bank. ICRA estimated that of those Indians who had purchased an insurance product, they were spending less than $50 on it in 2017.

“We’re excited to join forces with one of the leading digital insurers in India, as well as other investment partners, to help support Varun and his impressive team as they continue their journey,” said Oshri Kaplan, Director at Munich Re Ventures, in a statement.

“As Munich Re Ventures’ first investment in India, we look forward to the positive impact that digitally native insurance solutions will have on the country with Acko leading the way.”

Acko sells insurance policies directly to customers or through partners such as Amazon, which entered the insurance space in the country earlier this year in collaboration with Acko. (Amazon currently accounts for only a fraction of the insurance Acko sells, people familiar with the matter said.)

Acko’s products have quickly gained popularity in India for three reasons. It does not rely on middlemen, who have proven to slow down innovation for the insurance industry at large, Dua explained. Having direct engagement with a customer allows Acko to offer more competitive and personalized policies, he said.

The second is Acko’s underwriting technology, for which it comb through a range of data points to assess whether someone is eligible for a policy, he said.

Acko has also made it easier for people to access policies and then claim them. As everything is digital, sign-up does not require any paperwork and making a claim is quick, too — factors that keep existing customers happy, Dua said.

Scores of startups and established banks in India have launched products to win this market. Paytm (India’s most valuable startup) and its co-founder and chief executive, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, announced in July they were acquiring insurance firm Raheja QBE for a sum of $76 million.

Dua, who has spent more than a decade in the insurance business, said he was not worried about the competition as the market is large enough.

The startup plans to use the fresh capital to scale its technology and data teams by at least 30 to 40%, Dua said. It also plans to use portion of the capital to invest in branding to reach more customers, especially those living in smaller cities and towns in India.

And rest of the money will be used to finance the insurance policies. Unlike several fintech startups in India that work with banking partners to finance loans, current regulatory rules require insurance firms to underwrite risks themselves.

“We would love to be in a position where we always have a strong balance sheet,” Dua said.

#acko, #amazon, #apps, #asia, #finance, #funding, #india, #munich-re, #paytm

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Virtual events platform Airmeet raises $12M

Airmeet, a startup that offers a platform to host virtual events, said on Tuesday it has raised $12 million in a new financing round as the Bangalore-headquartered firm demonstrates accelerating growth in its user base.

Sequoia Capital India led the $12 million Series A financing round in one-year-old Airmeet. Redpoint Ventures and existing investors Accel India, Venture Highway, Global Founders Capital (GFC), and Gokul Rajaram (Caviar Lead at Doordash) also participated in the round.

Airmeet allows users and businesses to host interactive virtual events. Its platform intuitively replicates aspects of a physical event, offering a backstage, clubbing people to a table, allowing participants to network with each other, and even enable event organizers to work with sponsors.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Lalit Mangal, co-founder of Airmeet, said the startup’s today hosts more than 1,000 events a day. The platform’s usage has grown 2,000% over the last quarter without any investment in advertisement, he said.

In recent months, Airmeet has worked to expand the use cases of the platform. In addition to hosting large conferences, Airmeet is now also being used for professional meetups at large film festivals, he said. Recently it held university resource fairs and technical industry summits.

“Covid-19 has accelerated a permanent behavioral shift across many industries. With digitization of largely traditional spaces leapfrogging by years, the $800+ billion global offline events space is up for grabs. There is massive potential for players who drive the industry’s transition towards online-events,” said Abhishek Mohan, VP at Sequoia Capital India, in a statement.

Airmeet is built on top of WebRTC, a standard that most modern browsers follow. This has enabled Airmeet to be fully accessible through Chrome and Firefox. All the sessions are also end-to-end encrypted, said Mangal. It does not have a mobile app. Mangal said people tend to use their laptop or desktop or their iPads for professional events. (Users can consume a session through their mobile browser, however.)

The startup, which is in the same space as Hopin and Andreessen Horowitz-backed Run the World, will use the fresh capital to add new features to Airmeet and also scale globally, said Mangal.

“Airmeet’s mission is to create a global platform to enable millions of community managers and event organizers across the world to engage with and expand their audience. And with Lalit and team’s focus, execution and innovative thinking, they are strongly placed to achieve their goal,” said Mohan.

#accel-india, #airmeet, #apps, #asia, #funding, #global-founders-capital, #redpoint-ventures, #sequoia-capital-india, #venture-highway

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Facebook announces $4.3 million grant for small businesses in India, introduces support for gift cards

More than a third of small and medium-sized businesses on Facebook in India expect cash flow to be a challenge for them as they navigate through the coronavirus pandemic in the next few months, according to a report by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank.

Facebook, which reaches nearly every internet users in India and which collaborated with OECD and World Bank on the report, wants to help. The social giant today announced a grant of $4.3 million for more than 3,000 small businesses across Delhi, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Bangalore (Indian cities where the company has its offices).

In an interview with TechCrunch, Ajit Mohan, head of Facebook India, said the grant includes both cash and ad credits, with cash constituting the larger share. These businesses don’t have to advertise on Facebook to be eligible for the grant, he said. Businesses can apply for the grant starting today.

The India grant is part of the company’s $100 million global grant for small businesses that it announced in March.

Gift Cards on Facebook and Instagram

Additionally, Facebook and Instagram have also launched capabilities for businesses in India to sell gift cards. “During the pandemic, it’s been inspiring to see how people and businesses have come together on the Facebook family of apps to support their local communities,” said Mohan.

These gift cards, which will be issued by startups Quiksilver and PayU, are designed to help businesses get the immediate cash flow to stay afloat. Users can redeem these gift cards at these businesses later on.

The announcement today comes as Facebook begins to engage deeply with small businesses in the country. The company invested $5.7 billion in Jio Platforms earlier this year and said it would work with the Indian giant to explore ways to serve the nation’s 60 million businesses.

“The recovery of small businesses from the pandemic will be critical to the recovery of Indian economy, and we want to do everything we can to help. Today we’re building on our commitment by announcing the small business grant for India,” said Mohan.

Scores of businesses in India already use Facebook to reach potential customers. WhiteHat Jr., an 18-month-old startup that teaches coding to kids, is one of the businesses that has used Facebook extensively in recent quarters. The startup was acquired by Indian decacorn Byju’s for $300 million last month.

More on Facebook’s business in India tomorrow. Mohan will be joining us at Disrupt conference.

#apps, #asia, #coronavirus, #facebook, #india, #social

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Indian decacorn Byju’s CEO talks about future acquisitions, coronavirus, and international expansion

Since India enforced a lockdown across the country in late March, shutting schools and other public places, Bangalore-headquartered startup Byju’s has emerged as one of the quintessential platforms for school-going students in the world’s second largest internet market.

It took the startup about four and a half years to amass 40 million students. Since the lockdown, its user base has ballooned to 65 million, its co-founder and chief executive Byju Raveendran said at Disrupt 2020 conference Tuesday.

Students say they were attracted to Byju’s platform because of the way it taught them subjects. Byju, who is a teacher himself, found intuitive ways like using real-life objects such as a pizza to teach complex math problems.

Today, his startup is valued at nearly $11 billion (which makes it India’s second most valuable startup), and has presence across several international markets. Late last year, Byju’s announced it has also turned profitable. It’s not everyday that we see an Indian startup with any of these three characteristics — let alone all three in one.

In a wide-ranging interview at Disrupt 2020, Raveendran shared the journey of Byju’s, which started as an offline platform that taught students at classrooms, auditoriums, and stadiums; the startup’s plans for further expansion in international markets; his views on merger and acquisition opportunities; and how the coronavirus pandemic has affected his business and the education landscape at large in India, among a number of other things.

“Unfortunately it took a pandemic for most stakeholders to try out digital learning. Parents are now accepting the online segment more than before. This sector is clearly at an inflexion point,” said Raveendran.

To make online learning more accessible to students, Byju’s made all of its offerings free during the pandemic. But the platform’s paying subscribers, now at more than 4 million, remains on a steady path of growth, he said.

The startup expects to generate more than $1 billion in revenue this year from India itself and take home profits between $150 million to $180 million, he said.

“I would still call it a relative success. What we consider as the target audience, we have less than 4% of penetration in that segment,” he said. “More than one-third of school-going students don’t have a smartphone. There’s still a lot of catch up to do.”

Another phenomenon that the pandemic has kickstarted in India is some consolidation in the edtech startup space. Byju’s itself acquired WhiteHat Jr., an 18-month-old startup that teaches coding skills to students, for $300 million.

TechCrunch has reported that the startup is engaging with several more startups including Indian firm Doubtnut, which through its app allows students to take a picture of a math problem and delivers step-by-step solution.

Here’s what Byju’s had to say about that: “The long-term potential of the sector is at an all-time high. […] We are looking for companies that can add strong product components to either our existing userbase or potential new customers in new markets, or companies that can give us some kind of distribution so that we get a headstart to launch in a new market — especially English speaking markets.”

“You will hear of a few more acquisitions from us. We are exploring some of them very seriously,” he added. The future acquisitions will again be all-cash deals, Byju said, as he “values equity more than others.”

On IPO, fundraise, and international expansion

Byju’s isn’t looking to go public for at least two years, the chief executive said. “We have strong business fundamentals; we have been able to find the right balance between high-growth and sustainable growth and created a very profitable model in such a short period of time. But we have not seriously thought about the public listing,” he added.

And it appears that investors in Byju’s are also not in a hurry. “We don’t need to do public listing to give exit to some of the early investors because the business itself will generate enough cash. A good number of them have already taken the money they invested out in the last few rounds,” he said.

Byju’s has raised more than $700 million this year. We asked Byju why is the startup raising capital. “We have been very capital efficient in terms of how we have used the primary capital we have raised. In the first five years, we have utilized less than $350 million of the primary capital — which shows how we have efficiently scaled the model,” he said.

“Most of the recent fundraising is to finance inorganic growth like full-cash acquisitions. We are utilizing it to add some strong business models. We never raised money because we needed it. It was always to add the right partner. In recent times, we have added long-term, patient investors,” he said. Byju’s is likely not done with its fundraising spree yet as the startup is currently engaging with at least two more investment firms.

For expansion in international markets, Byju said it plans to launch a digital learning app aimed at kids in several English-speaking markets. He said WhiteHat Jr., will introduce math subject to its offering to serve customers in several markets including Australia, New Zealand.

We also talked about what he thinks of other giant startups in India that are not profitable today, the kind of message that sends to international investors, and whether there is room for any new player in the education market in India, and much more. You can watch the full-interview below.

#apps, #asia, #byju, #byjus, #disrupt, #disrupt-2020, #edtech, #education, #india

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Homage announces strategic partnership with Infocom, one of Japan’s largest healthcare IT providers

Homage, a Singapore-based caregiving and telehealth company, has taken a major step in its global expansion plan. The startup announced today that it has received strategic investment from Infocom, the Japanese information and communications technology company that runs one of the largest healthcare IT businesses in the country. Infocom’s solutions are used by more than 13,000 healthcare facilities in Japan.

During an interview with TechCrunch that will air as part of Disrupt tomorrow, Homage co-founder and chief executive Gillian Tee said “Japan has one of the most ageing populations in the world, and the problem is that we need to start building infrastructure to enable people to be able to access the kind of care services that they need.” She added that Homage and Infocom’s missions align because the latter is also building a platform for caregivers in Japan, in a bid to help solve the shortage of carers in the country.

Homage raised a Series B earlier this year with the goal of entering new Asian markets. The company, which currently operates in Singapore and Malaysia, focuses on patients who need long-term rehabilitation or care services, especially elderly people. This makes it a good match for Japan, where more than one in five of its population is currently aged 65 or over. In the next decade, that number is expected to increase to about one in three, making the need for caregiving services especially acute.

The deal includes a regional partnership that will enable Homage to launch its services into Japan, and Infocom to expand its reach in Southeast Asia. Homage’s services include a caregiver-client matching platform and a home medical service that includes online consultations and house calls, while Infocom’s technology covers a wide range of verticals, including digital healthcare, radiology, pharmaceuticals, medical imaging and hospital information management.

In a statement about the strategic investment, Mototaka Kuboi, Infocom’s managing executive officer and head of its healthcare business division, said, “We see Homage as an ideal partner given the company’s unique cutting-edge technology and market leadership in the long-term care segment, and we aim to drive business growth not only in Homage’s core and rapidly growing market in Southeast Asia, but also regionally.”

#asia, #caregiving, #digital-health, #elderly, #fundings-exits, #healthcare, #homage, #infocom, #japan, #malaysia, #seniors, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc, #telehealth

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Indian e-commerce deals site CashKaro gets $10 million Series B led by Korea Investment Partners

CashKaro co-founders Rohan and Swati Bhargava

CashKaro co-founders Rohan and Swati Bhargava

CashKaro, one of the leading cashback and coupon sites in India, will expand its range of services for e-commerce after raising $10 million in Series B funding, the New Delhi-based startup announced today. The round was led by Korea Investment Partners, with participation from returning investor Kalaari Capital.

TechCrunch last covered CashKaro five years ago when it raised a $3.8 million Series A. The latest round brings the company’s total funding so far to $15 million.

Over the past five years, the company has introduced new products, including a price comparison service, and EarnKaro, a social commerce cashback app that launched about 18 months ago. Part of the Series B will be used to expand EarnKaro, which has about one million registered users. It allows social commerce sellers, or people who use social media platform and messaging apps like WhatsApp to sell items, make extra cash by creating affiliate links to major e-commerce sites like Amazon and Flipkart. The launch of EarnKaro also allowed CashKaro to reach into smaller cities and rural areas, where shoppers often prefer to order from people whose recommendations they trust (i.e. “micro-influencers”) instead of e-commerce sites.

Founded in 2013 by husband-and-wife team Swati and Rohan Bhargava, CashKaro currently claims about five million users and has partnerships with more than 1,500 e-commerce sites, including some of the biggest players in India, like Amazon, Flipkart, Myntra and Ajio. The company monetizes by charging brands a commission for transactions made through CashKaro links. The commissions are also how CashKaro is able to give cash back to shoppers, which can be deposited into their bank accounts or redeemed as gift vouchers for Flipkart and Amazon. CashKaro’s founders says it currently processes more than one million monthly transactions.

CashKaro competes for the attention of online shoppers with a bevy of other coupon and cashback services in India. Some of its rivals include CouponDunia, GrabOn and GoPaisa.

“We are the only VC-funded cashback site in India. While capital itself is not the differentiator, it is what we have been able to do with that capital which sets us apart,” Bhargava told TechCrunch, adding that CashKaro’s cashback rates are among the highest in the market.

“Given that we now drive close to a half a billion dollars in GMV through CashKaro and EarnKaro to our partner sites, we are able to get higher commission rates from partner sites, which in turn helps us pass the most benefit to our members.”

While COVID-19 has affected e-commerce businesses around the world because of sudden changes in consumer habits, the situation in India was particularly complicated in April and May because there were containment zones throughout the country, and in some zones, deliveries of non-essential items was not allowed until May.

“COVID-19 caught us by surprise and Indian e-commerce was neither prepared to handle the surge in demand, nor did we expect so many supply side and delivery issues,” said Bhargava. “Given CashKaro works with all e-commerce sites, we saw these trends as well.”

Since June, however, sales have started to recover and is seeing growth as people continue to stay home and shop online.

“Our business is growing month on month and, in fact, the pandemic spurred our expansion into new digital categories, like education, gaming and online video streaming, which have seen exponential growth,” Bhargava added. Sales of electronics, home and kitchen items, personal care and beauty have also increased over the past few months.

At the same time, the economic impact of the pandemic has prompted more people to seek cashback offers and other money-saving deals.

“We are seeing that saving consciousness has gone up amongst online shoppers and people are finding services like CashKaro and EarnKaro more useful than ever before,” Bhargava said. “On the client side, our partners, such as Amazon, Myntra and Ajio, are also working with us more closely because they are seeing that our performance marketing model is the perfect way to scale while keeping profitability in mind amidst these tough times.”

The new round of capital will be used for CashKaro’s goal of doubling its registered member base over the next 12 months from the current 5 million. Bhargava told TechCrunch that it will expand cashback offers into categories like credit cards and education, and launch new marketing campaigns focused around events like upcoming festivals and the Indian Premier League season, which starts this weekend.

The company is also “chasing aggressive growth for EarnKaro and reaching out to more influencers, resellers, housewives and students who are our primary target market for this product,” she added. Finally, part of the Series B will be used for hiring, including leadership positions.

For Korea Investment Partners, one of the largest South Korean venture capital firms, CashKaro represents a chance to tap into India’s fast-growing e-commerce market. In a statement, managing partner Hudson Kyung-sik Ho said, “We believe this is a highly scalable opportunity and both Swati and Rohan have set it on a truly exciting growth trajectory. CashKaro and EarnKaro together have shown exceptional unit metrics and we are really excited to be a part of India’s affiliate story.”

#affiliate-marketing, #asia, #cashback, #cashkaro, #e-commerce, #earnkaro, #fundings-exits, #india, #social-commerce, #startups, #tc

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Indian fantasy sports app Dream11’s parent firm raises $225M at over $2.5B valuation

Dream Sports, the parent firm of fantasy sports app Dream11, has secured $225 million in a new financing round as the Mumbai-headquartered firm builds what it calls “end-to-end sports tech company” in the cricket-loving nation, which is also the world’s second largest internet market.

Tiger Global Management, TPG Tech Adjacencies (TTAD), ChrysCapital and Footpath Ventures financed $225 million in Dream Sports through primary and secondary investments, the 12-year-old Indian firm said.

The new round values Dream Sports at over $2.5 billion, two people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. Dream11 has raised about $325 million to date.

Dream11 has cashed in on the popularity of cricket — a game that has attracted serious attention from several major firms including Disney and Facebook. Dream11 explores the fantasy part of it, allowing gamers to pick their choice of best players for an upcoming match. They can win cash prizes depending on how their selected team performs.

This year, Dream11 is also the title sponsor for the 2020 season of Indian Premier League cricket tournament, one of the most popular sporting events in the world. The startup won the rights, which was previously held by Chinese smartphone vendor Vivo, by bidding $30 million for it. Vivo had to abruptly back out of the sponsorship amid geo-political tension between the two nuclear-armed nations.

The new season of IPL kickstarts later this week after months of delay due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“The sports sector has high growth potential in India. There is a significant opportunity to enhance the fan experience and we are excited to partner with Dream Sports to leverage technology in ways that will deepen the connection between Indian fans and the sports they love,” said Akshay Tanna, Managing Director at TPG, in a statement.

In recent years, Dream Sports has expanded into additional categories such as merchandize. Harsh Jain, chief executive and co-founder of Dream Sports, claimed in a statement today that the startup had amassed over 100 million users. (Dream11 app is not on the Google Play Store and the startup relies on people either using its mobile web or sideload its Android app on to their phones.)

“As a homegrown Indian company, we are proud to continue adding value to our 10 crore Indian sports fans, investors, employees and the overall sports ecosystem in India. In the last two years, we have grown beyond fantasy sports to sports content, merchandise, streaming, experiences, and there is much more to come. Our vision is to ‘Make Sports Better’ for India and Indian fans through sports technology and innovation,” he added.

Avendus Capital was the financial advisor to Dream Sports on the transaction.

Dream11 isn’t the only firm building a niche in the fantasy sports space in India. Sequoia Capital India and Times Internet-backed Mobile Premier League is also a major player, which has expanded to traditional mobile games in recent months. Twitter-backed ShareChat also quietly began experimenting with fantasy sports earlier this year.

But fantasy sports is still facing some regulatory hurdles in parts of India. Several Indian states, including Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Sikkim and Telangana, have banned fantasy sports betting.

“It doesn’t help matters either that the fantasy sports business’ attempts at legitimacy involve trying to be seen as video games — a cursory glance at a speakers panel for any Indian video game developer event is evidence of this — rather than riding on its own merits,” said Rishi Alwani, a long-time analyst of Indian gaming market and publisher of news outlet the Mako Reactor, in an earlier interview with TechCrunch.

#apps, #asia, #chryscapital, #cricket, #dream11, #funding, #hotstar, #india, #ipl, #sports, #tpg

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India’s Zomato raises $100M from Tiger Global, says it is planning to file for IPO next year

Zomato has raised $100 million from Tiger Global and said it plans to file for an IPO next year.

Tiger Global financed the capital through its investment vehicle Internet Fund VI, according to a regulatory filing. Infoedge, a major investor in Zomato, confirmed the development Thursday evening, adding that the new round valued Zomato at $3.3 billion post-money.

In an email to employees earlier today, Zomato co-founder and chief executive Deepinder Goyal said the startup had about $250 million cash in the bank and several more “big names” investors would be joining the current round, increasing its cash reserve to about $600 million “very soon.”

“Important note — we have no immediate plans on how to spend this money. We are treating this cash as a ‘war-chest’ for future M&A, and fighting off any mischief or price wars from our competition in various areas of our business,” he added in the letter, reviewed by TechCrunch.

Zomato, which acquired the Indian food delivery business of Uber early this year, competes with Prosus Ventures-backed Swiggy in India. A third player, Amazon, has also emerged in the market, though it is currently servicing food delivery in only select suburbs of Bangalore.

Goyal told employees that the 12-year-old startup is also working for its IPO for “sometime in the first half of next year.” (It’s unclear how Zomato plans to achieve this target, but it is likely looking at listing in the U.S. or some other market. Current Indian law requires a startup to be profitable for at least three years before they could publicly list in India — though there has been some proposal to relax this requirement.)

The new pledge from Zomato is the result of a major economic improvements in its business in recent quarters. Until mid-last year, Zomato was losing more than $50 million a month to win and sustain customers by offering heavy discounts.

The Gurgaon-headquartered firm, which like Swiggy eliminated hundreds of jobs in recent months as coronavirus ruined the appetite of Indians ordering food online, said in July that its losses for the month would be less than $1 million.

The startup also faced obstacles in raising new capital. It kickstarted its financing round a year ago, but had secured only $50 million as of a month ago. The startup had originally anticipated closing this round, at about $600 million, in January this year.

In an emailed response to TechCrunch queries in April, Goyal had attributed the delays to the spread of coronavirus and said he expected to close the round by mid-May. He wrote to employees today that Tiger Global, Temasek, Baillie Gifford, and Ant Financial had already participated in the current round.

#apps, #asia, #finance, #india, #info-edge, #tiger-global, #zomato

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Huawei phones will start running on HarmonyOS in 2021

Huawei is planning to launch its proprietary Harmony operating system on smartphones in 2021, the firm announced at its annual developer conference in Dongguan on Thursday.

The readiness of HarmonyOS handsets will largely be contingent on the number of apps Huawei can attract within a short window. HMS Core, Huawei’s counterpart to Google Play Services and the toolkit helping developers build and manage apps, now includes 96,000 apps, the company said today. That’s up from 81,000 in July and 60,000 in March.

In comparison, both Google Play and Apple App Store have accumulated apps numbered in the millions.

To lure more apps into its ecosystem, Huawei announced that a beta version of its second-generation operating system — HarmonyOS 2.0 — for mobile developers will launch by the end of this year. Meanwhile, the beta version of HarmonyOS will go open-source for tablets, smartwatches, and in-car systems starting this week.

Huawei’s operating system has a current reach of 490 million users through the company’s family of hardware products.

The telecoms giant shipped 105 million handsets in the first half of 2020, down from 118 million in the same period of 2019 as consumers respond to Huawei phones’ loss of key Android features and a global economic downturn. Huawei’s consumer business, consisting mainly of smartphone sales, pulled in 255.8 billion yuan ($37.4 billion) in H1, up from 220.8 billion yuan the year before.

More updates to follow…

#asia, #china, #hardware, #harmonyos, #huawei

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