Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
This is Equity Monday Tuesday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here.
We are back from a long weekend here in America. But not break here in the States can stop the flow of global tech news. So, here’s the rundown:
The Weekend: Tata bought BigBasket, setting up a fascinating ecommerce war in India. China is cracking down on edtech companies, leading to an IPO freeze. And Wejo is going public via a SPAC. You can read its investor deck here.
This Morning: The are a zillion funding rounds in Europe and globally this morning, the start of what could be a super busy week’s cycle. Private Equity is buying Cloudera, which is a surprise. Nio had chip shortage issues that impacted its delivery cadence. The Chinese EV company does expect to meet its Q2 delivery goal, however.
The handling of user data in China has become a delicate matter for American tech companies operating in the country. Apple’s move to store the data of its Chinese customers in servers managed by a Chinese state-owned cloud service has stoked controversy in the West over the years. A recent New York Times investigation found that the setup could give the Chinese government easy access to Apple’s user data in China, compromising”, but Apple said it “never compromised the security” of its customers or their data.
Tesla, one of the few U.S. tech heavyweights that generate substantial revenues from China, is working out a similar data plan. The electric carmaker said it has established a data center in China to carry out the “localization of data storage,” with more data facilities incoming, the company announced through its account on microblogging platform Weibo. All data generated by Tesla vehicles sold in mainland China will be stored domestically.
Tesla is acting in response to new requirements drafted by the Chinese government to regulate how cameras- and sensors-enabled carmakers collect and utilized information. One of the requirements states that “personal or important data should be stored within the [Chinese] territory.”
It’s unclear what level of access Chinese authorities have to Tesla’s China-based data. In the case of Apple, the phone maker said it controlled the keys that protect the data of its Chinese customers.
Tesla recently fell out of favor with Chinese media and the public after a customer protested the carmaker’s faulted parts at an auto show in Shanghai, earning her widespread sympathy. Tesla also faces fierce competition from Chinese rivals like Nio and Xpeng, which are investing heavily in world-class designs and autonomous driving technology.
The American firm clearly wants the government’s good graces in its second-largest market. It appeared a few days ago at an industry symposium along with Baidu, Alibaba, research institutions, and think tanks to discuss the new vehicle policy proposed by the country’s cybersecurity watchdog.
“Important data” generated by vehicles as defined by the Chinese internet regulator include traffic conditions in military and government compounds; surveying and mapping data beyond what the government discloses; status of electric charging grids; face, voice, and car plate information; and any data deemed as affecting national security and public interest.
The regulations also urge car service providers to not track users by default, as well as inform them of the kinds of and reasons for data collection. If gathered, information should be anonymized and stored for only “the minimum period of time.”
More investors are joining the wave to bet on lidar, the remote sensing method that uses laser light to measure distances and has garnered ample interest from automakers in recent times. But it’s also a technology that has long been scorned by Elon Musk partly due to its once exorbitant costs.
Innovusion, a five-year-old lidar company and a supplier to Chinese electric car upstart Nio, just landed a Series B funding round of $64 million. The new proceeds boost its total investment to over $100 million, not a small amount but the startup is in a race crowded with much bigger players that have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, like Velodyne and Luminar.
Temasek, the Singaporean government’s sovereign wealth fund, led Innovusion’s latest financing round. Other investors included Bertelsmann Asia Investment Fund, Joy Capital, Nio Capital, Eight Roads Ventures, and F-Prime Capital.
Innovusion runs core development teams out of Sunnyvale, California and Suzhou, an eastern Chinese city near Shanghai that the robotaxi unicorn Momenta also calls home.
“They were designing things more like a college student designing in their labs,” Bao said of Velodyne.
Lidar was a niche market up until about five years ago, the founder explained, for the technology was mostly used by a small community of amateurs and areas such as military, surveying and mapping. These were relatively small markets in terms of shipping volume and Velodyne filled the demand.
“They were not thinking about industrialization, volume manufacturing, or roadmap extensibility. They were a pioneer and we [Baidu] recognized their value… but we also knew their weakness.”
In fairness, Silicon Valley-based Velodyne today is a $2.2 billion company supplying to some of the world’s largest automakers, including Toyota and Volkswagen. It also pocketed a hefty sum of cash after going public via a SPAC merger last year. Innovusion’s strategy is to make sensors for automakers that are “good enough for the next five years,” according to Bao. The startup chooses “mature components” so it can quickly ramp up production to 100,000 units a year.
Its biggest customer at the moment is Nio, a Chinese challenger to Tesla which has backed Innovusion through its corporate venture fund Nio Capital. For mass production of its auto-grade lidar, Innovusion is partnering with Joynext, a smart vehicle arm of the Chinese auto component supplier, Joyson Electronics.
For now, China is the largest market for Innovusion. The startup is scheduled to ship a few thousand units this year, mainly for smart transportation and industrial use. Next year, it has a target to deliver several tens of thousands of units to Nio’s luxury sedan, ET7, which is said to have a scanning range of up to 500 meters, an ambitious number, and a standard 120-degree field of view.
Price is similarly important to Innovusion, which sells lidars to automakers for about $1,000 apiece at the volume of 100,000 per year.
“Adding a $1,000 upfront cost plus another couple thousand dollars for a car that’s selling for $30,000 or $50,000 is affordable,” Bao suggested.
With the fresh capital, Innovusion plans to increase the production volume of its auto-grade lidar and put more R&D efforts into smart cities and vehicles. The company has over 100 employees and plans to expand its headcount to over 200 this year.
Chinese electric vehicle maker NIO has chosen a Norway — an EV hotspot — for its first foray into international markets. NIO Norway will offer a European version of ES8, NIO’s flagship electric SUV, to Norwegian customers from September this year. The ET7 sedan will follow in 2022.
“The decision to have Norway as our first destination overseas is backed by long-term thinking,” NIO founder William Li explained at an event Thursday. “Norway is the most EV-friendly company.” Among the European countries, Norway is the biggest adopter of battery electric vehicles. The company’s relationship with Norway stretches back to 2018 when Norges Bank, the country’s sovereign fund, gave the automaker “critical support” during its initial public offering, Li said at the event. Nio signed a strategic partnership agreement with the Norwegian EV Association, also in 2018.
That high EV adoption rate also means Nio will be making its pitch to a growing consumer base of savvy EV owners. In Norway, Nio will face competition from Chinese automakers like XPeng, international rivals Tesla and European automakers such as Volkswagen and Audi.
In addition to vehicle sales, the company also detailed plans to open dedicated service centers, vehicle charging stations and its Nio Power Swap battery swapping stations to Norway. The company aims to build four battery swapping stations around Oslo by the end of 2021, with additional swapping stations coming to the Norwegian cities Bergen, Trondheim, Stavanger and Kristiansand in 2022. Nio’s Norway team is composed of around 15 people, but that number is expected to grow to around 50 by the end of 2021, according to the company.
The Chinese automaker has had a slow start since its founding in 2014, but started gaining ground in the second half of 2020 through the latest quarter. Nio reported deliveries of 20,060 vehicles in the first quarter, a 422.7% jump from the same period last year when COVID-19 was busy upending the economy on a global scale. Sales in the first quarter of 2021 were also 15.6% higher from the fourth quarter. It has delivered 102,000 vehicles to date. These deliveries helped the company increase its vehicle sales by 489% compared to the first quarter of 2019.
Still, Nio is losing money, albeit the gap between revenues and net loss continues to narrow.
The boost in sales was likely due in part to the January debut of the ET7, its flagship electric sedan and the first vehicle model to be fitted with its so-called “NIO Autonomous Driving” software. The company has been an outlier when it comes to charging, adopting a battery swap option in addition to traditional plug and charge stations. Nio has already completed more than 2.4 million swaps for Chinese users, Li said – a number that’s growing by 10,000 every day. Last August, the company also debuted its “battery-as-a-service” purchasing option, which allows drivers to lease the battery from the company and only purchase the vehicle.
Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.
Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.
“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.
“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”
Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.
The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.
“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.
By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.
“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”
The lidar camp
Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.
“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.
“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.
The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.
Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.
Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.
In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.
While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.
Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.
Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”
Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.
“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.
“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.
“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”
Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.
“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”
5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.
I wanted to write an essay about Microsoft and TikTok today, because I was effectively a full-time reporter covering the software giant when it hired Satya Nadella in 2014. But, everyone else has already done that and, frankly, there’s a more pressing financial topic for us to parse.
Let’s take a minute to take stock of SPAC (special purpose acquisition companies) which have risen sharply to fresh prominence in recent months. Also known as blank-check companies, SPACS are firms that are sent public with a bunch of cash and the reputation of their backers. Then, they combine with a private company, effectively allowing yet-private firms to go public with far less hassle than with a traditional IPO.
And less scrutiny, which is why historically SPACs haven’t been the path forward for companies of the highest-quality; a look at the historical data doesn’t paint a great picture of post-IPO performance.
But that historical stigma isn’t stopping a flow of SPACs taking private companies public this year. A host of SPACs have already happened, something we should have remarked on more in Q1 and Q2.
Still, better late than never. This morning, let’s peek at two new pieces of SPAC news: electric truck company Lordstown Motors merging with a SPAC to go public, and fintech company Paya going public via FinTech III, another SPAC.
We’ll see that in hot sectors there’s ample capital hunting for deals of any stripe. How the boom in alt-liquidity will fare long-term isn’t clear, but what is plain today is that where caution is lacking, yield-hunting is more than willing to step in.
Electric vehicles as SPAC nirvana
The boom in the value of Tesla shares has lifted all electric vehicle (EV) boats. The value of historically-struggling public EV companies like NIO have come back, and private companies in the space have been hot for SPACs as a way to go public in a hurry and cash in on investor interest.
Trade tensions between China and the U.S. have not stopped Chinese companies from eyeing to list on American stock exchanges. Li Auto, a five-year-old Chinese electric vehicle startup, raised $1.1 billion through its debut on Nasdaq on Thursday.
The Beijing-based company is targeting a growing Chinese middle class who aspire to drive cleaner, smarter, and larger vehicles. Its first model, sold at a subsidized price of 328,000 yuan or $46,800, is a six-seat electric SUV that began shipping end of last year.
Li Auto priced its IPO north of its targeted range at $11.5 per share, giving it a fully diluted market value of $10 billion. It also raised an additional $380 million in a concurrent private placement of shares to existing investors.
The IPO arrived amid a surge of investor interest in EV makers. Tesla’s shares have skyrocketed in the last few quarters. Li Auto’s domestic rival Nio, which raised a similar amount in a $1 billion float in New York back in 2018, also saw its stock price rally in recent months.
Li Auto is one step ahead of its Chinese peer Xpeng in planning its first-time sale. The six-year-old competitor said last year it may consider an IPO. Last month, a source told South China Morning Post that Xpeng was getting ready for the listing.
Founders of China’s emergent EV startups are often shrewd internet veterans who are well-connected in the venture capital and marketing world, attracting investment dollars in the billions. Li Auto, for instance, counts China’s food delivery mogul Wang Xing, boss of Meituan Dianping, as its second-largest shareholder after its CEO Li Xiang. TikTok parent ByteDance shelled out $30 million in its Series C round.
Investors are in part emboldened by Beijing’s national push to electrify China’s auto industry. The question, then, is whether these startups have the right talent and resources to pull things off in an industry that traditionally demands a much longer development cycle.
Wallace Guo, a managing partner at Li Auto’s Series B investor Taihecap, admitted that “the nature of auto consumption, unlike internet products evolving through trial and error, manufacturing a car, is a strategic move with sophisticated system, very long value chain, requiring huge investment and resources and any error can be fatal.”
Mingming Huang, chief executive of Future Capital, said that “it was a no brainer in 2015 to be the first investor” in Li Auto. The venture capitalist said Li, who ran a popular car-buying online portal before getting into manufacturing, “has the rare combination of being a relentless talent as well as a top-notch product manager that excels in creating value for all stakeholders.”
Customers testing Li Auto’s SUV in China. Photo: Li Auto
Both investors believed Li Auto has picked the right path of zeroing in on extended-range electric vehicles. EREVs come with an auxiliary power unit, often a small combustion engine, that ensures cars can still operate even when a charging station is not immediately available, a shortage yet to be solved in China.
As my colleague Alex pointed out, Li Auto is on a trajectory similar to that of its peer Nio, going public after a short history of delivering to customers. The startup only began shipping its first model last December and delivered just over 10,000 units as of June, its prospectus showed.
The startup is still deep in the red, losing 2.44 billion yuan ($350 million) in 2019, up from a net loss of 1.53 billion yuan in 2018. It did finish the first quarter of 2020 with a gross profit of $9.6 million after it began monetization.
Its annual revenue — which comprised mostly of car sales and a small portion from services like charging stalls — stood at 284 million yuan ($40.4 million) in 2019, a tiny fraction of Nio’s $1.12 billion. But Nio also amassed a greater net loss of $1.62 billion in the same year. In contrast, Tesla has been profitable for four straight quarters.
Li Auto’s investors are clearly bullish that the Chinese startup can one day match Tesla’s commercial success.
“Xiang has a deep understanding of the preferences and pain points of car owners and drivers in China. Li Auto is the first in China, to successfully commercialize extended-range electric vehicles, solving the challenges of inadequate charging infrastructure and battery technologies constraints,” Huang asserted.
“The company is able to get positive gross margin when selling the first batch of vehicles and thus with its growth in sales volume, its gross margin was well above competitors and can live long enough to become a ten billion-dollar company with this healthy business model,” said Guo.
Xpeng’s huge fundraise comes on the heels of a recent boom in the value of some public EV companies, including Tesla, Nio and Nikola. Speculation into the future value (and therefore present-day worth) of EV companies has led to their ranking on lists of most-popular stocks with some retail investors, underscoring their popularity.
You might anticipate that the public-market enthusiasm is helping drive outsized private investment into global EV startups. After all, it’s often true that public market activity has an impact on private market enterprise; if shares of a particular industry rise sharply, the value of their private cognates can similarly rise, and investment in the sector can pick up tempo.
Upon reading about the Xpeng round this morning, that the event was likely part-and-parcel of rising deal volume for private EV companies was our first hunch. In honor of scratching our own itches with data whenever possible, TechCrunch decided to dig and find out.
So, is public market optimism in EV companies driving more investment into private EV companies?
What the data say
To test whether EV investment is rising or falling amongst private companies, The Exchange ran a range of queries today against Crunchbase data, looking at rounds for companies marked as “electric vehicle” firms in its data, discounting crowdfunding, secondary market activity, all post-IPO rounds and any other nonequity rounds.
Chinese electric vehicle startup Nio has secured a $1 billion investment from several state-owned companies in Hefei in return for agreeing to establish headquarters in the city’s economic development hotspot and giving up a stake in one of its business units.
The injection of capital comes from several investors, including Hefei City Construction and Investment Holding Group, CMG-SDIC Capital and Anhui Provincial Emerging Industry Investment Co.
Nio’s factory is already in Hefei, which it operates with Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Group. However, the company’s headquarters and other operations are in Shanghai about 300 miles from the Anhui provincial city. Under this agreement, Nio will locate all of its Chinese operations, including R&D, sales, service and supply chain, in the Hefei Economic and Technological Development Area.
The investment is another important milestone of NIO for its long-term growth, Nio said in a statement Wednesday.
“After receiving the investments from the strategic investors, Nio will have more sufficient funds to support its business development, to enhance its leadership in the products and technologies of smart electric vehicles and to offer services exceeding users’ expectation,” the company said, adding that the launch of Nio China headquarters in Hefei enables NIO to improve its operational efficiency and to sustain its growth and competitiveness in the long run.
Despite the new capital, Nio faces a series of challenges, including a downturn in the Chinese automotive market. Electric vehicle sales in China declined 4% to 1.21 million vehicles in 2019 from the previous year. The company’s ES8 and ES6 vehicles haven’t generated the same demand as Tesla’s Model 3. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is dampening demand further as customers stayed home.
Structuring the deal requires some asset shuffling. The investment is targeted towards Nio China, a recently established business unit under Nio Inc.
Investors will put 7 billion yuan, or $1 billion, into Nio’s holding company. Nio will put its core China businesses and assets — which include vehicle research and development, supply chain and its power division — into Nio China, a subsidiary of the holding company. Nio’s parent company will also invest into Nio China.
At the end, investors will hold a 24.1% stake in Nio China while Nio will have a 75.9% controlling equity interesting into the unit.
The company expects the closing of the investments to take place in the second quarter of 2020, subject to the satisfaction of customary closing conditions.