Cyber security training platform Immersive Labs closes $75M Series C led by Insight Partners

Immersive Labs, a platform which teaches cyber security skills corporate employees by using real, up-to-date threat intelligence in a “gamified” way, has closed a $75 million Series C funding round led by new investors Insight Partners alongside Menlo Ventures, Citi Ventures and existing investor Goldman Sachs Asset Management.

The investment will be used to scale Immersive’s offering in the US and take advantage of the new wave of interest in cyber threats caused by so many people working remotely, post-pandemic. Founded in 2017, Immersive Labs now has 200 people, with joint operations HQs in Bristol, UK, and Boston, US. It plans to raise headcount to over 600 in the next two years and establish operations in new regions throughout APAC and Europe. Immersive’s ‘Cyber Workforce Optimization’ platform claims to offer board-level metrics and benchmarking to gauge how the skills inside organizations are coping.

Immersive has now raised a total of $123m in venture funding and counts HSBC, Vodafone, and the NHS as customers. The company says it is growing at “over 100% year-on-year”.

James Hadley, CEO and founder of Immersive Labs, said: “With cyber risk becoming a problem for a growing number of business functions, cybersecurity knowledge and skills should no longer be the preserve of a few technical people hidden away in a back office. Everyone from the teams who build software, to the CEO, now need to play their part in addressing a pervasive company issue. This requires unlocking and evidencing skills in a much broader group of people.”

Ryan Hinkle, managing director at Insight Partners, said: “With significant global customer and revenue growth over the last few years, Immersive Labs has established a strong position in the fast-developing cyber skills space. With influential leadership, an innovative product in a growing market, and strong user engagement, the company is in a position to continue to lead the cyber readiness market.”

Speaking to me over an interview, Hadley added: “We chose Insight Partners because they’ve got a real strength in enterprise B2B which is where we sell to CIOs and CEOs… We want to be the next Darktrace in terms of a successful UK cybersecurity company.”

The comparison might not be that fanciful. Immersive Labs came out of the CYLON cyber accelerator, similar to Darktrace, has the same investors as Darktrace, but has in fact attracted $75m for its Series C, whereas Darktrace didn’t manage that level until Series D. Darktrace has now IPO’d in the London for £1.7bn.

Hadley, a former GCHQ security researcher and trainer, came up with the idea for the cyber skills platform while leading cyber training himself. I asked him why he thinks Immersive has managed to come up with a ‘flywheel effect’ with its platform.

“People always talk about all the cyber threats getting worse, but it really is now and it’s in the public domain. We’ve got a strong belief that cybersecurity is no longer the responsibility of the geeks in the basement. Actually, it’s business-wide. And now the tidal wave is coming. Cybercrime is going to go off the scale this year and next because companies are paying the ransoms. And as a result of that, we’re putting in analytics to measure decision-making in a crisis. It’s just resonating really well with every company regardless of CIO or vertical,” he told me.

#boston, #bristol, #ceo, #cio, #citi-ventures, #computer-security, #crime, #cybercrime, #darktrace, #data-security, #europe, #gchq, #hsbc, #immersive, #immersive-labs, #london, #menlo-ventures, #nhs, #series-c, #tc, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #vodafone

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SoftBank pours up to $150M into GBM, a Mexico City-based investment platform

Grupo Bursátil Mexicano (GBM) is a 35-year-old investment platform in the Mexican stock market. In its first three decades of life, GBM was focused on providing investment services to high net worth individuals and local and global institutions.

Over the past decade, the Mexico City-based brokerage has ramped up its digital efforts, and, in the past five years, has evolved its business model to offer services to all Mexicans with the same products and services it offers large estates.

Today, GBM is announcing it has received an investment of “up to” $150 million from SoftBank via the Japanese conglomerate’s Latin America Fund at a valuation of “over $1 billion.” The investment is being made through one of GBM’s subsidiaries and is not contingent on anything, according to the company.

Co-CEO Pedro de Garay Montero told TechCrunch that GBM has built an app, GBM+, that organizes and invests clients’ money through three different tools: Wealth Management, Trading and Smart Cash.

Last year was a “historic” one for the company, he said, and GBM went from having 38,000 investment accounts in January 2020 to more than 650,000 by year’s end. In the first quarter of 2021, that number had grown to over 1 million — representing more than 30x growth from the beginning of 2020.

For some context, according to the National Banking and Securities Commission (CNBV), there were only 298,000 brokerage accounts in Mexico at the end of 2019, and that number climbed to 940,000 by the end of 2020 — with GBM holding a large share of them.

Most of GBM’s clients are retail clients, but the company also caters to “most of the largest investment managers worldwide,” as well as global companies such as Netflix, Google and BlackRock. Specifically, it services 40% of the largest public corporations in Mexico and a large base of ultra high net worth individuals.

The company is planning to use its new capital in part to invest “heavily” in customer acquisition.

Montero said that half of its team of 450 are tech professionals, and that the company plans to also continue hiring as it focuses on growth in its B2C and B2B offerings and expanding into new verticals.

“We are improving our already robust financial education offering,” he added, “so that Mexicans can take control of their finances. GBM’s mission is to transform Mexico into a country of investors.”

Because Mexico is such a huge market — with a population of over 120 million and a GDP of more than $1 trillion — GBM is laser-focused on growing its presence in the country.

“The financial services industry is dominated by big banks and is inefficient, expensive and provides a poor client experience. This has resulted in less than 1% of individuals having an investment account,” Montero told TechCrunch. “We will be targeting clients through our own platform and internal advisors, as well as growing our base of external advisors to reach as many people as possible with the best investment products and user experience.”

When it comes to institutional clients, he believes there is “enormous potential” in serving both the large corporations and the SMEs “who have received limited services from banks.”

Juan Franck, investment lead for SoftBank Latin America Fund in Mexico, believes the retail investment space in Mexico is at an inflection point.

“The investing culture in Mexico has historically been low compared to the rest of the world, even when specifically compared to other countries in Latin America, like Brazil,” he added. “However, the landscape is quickly changing as, through technology, Mexicans are being provided more education around investing and more investment alternatives.”

In the midst of this shift, SoftBank was impressed by GBM’s “clear vision and playbook,” Franck said.

So, despite being a decades-old company, SoftBank sees big potential in the strength of the digital platform that GBM has built out.

“GBM is the leading broker in Mexico in terms of trading activity and broker accounts,” he said. “The company combines decades of industry know-how with an entrepreneurial drive to revolutionize the wealth management space in the country.”

#apps, #blackrock, #brazil, #broker, #finance, #financial-services, #funding, #fundings-exits, #google, #laser, #latin-america, #mexico, #mexico-city, #money, #netflix, #softbank, #softbank-group, #tc, #ubs, #venture-capital, #vodafone

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SoftBank-backed construction giant Katerra said to be shutting down after raising billions

After burning through more than $2 billion in funding, SoftBank-backed construction startup Katerra has told employees that it will be shutting down operations, according to a report in The Information.

Last year, the company claimed it had more than 8,000 employees globally.

Menlo Park-based Katerra had already been struggling to find a viable business in cheaply building apartments properties for real estate developers when it was pushed to the edge of bankruptcy late last year, with the company blaming its latest struggles on climbing labor and material costs associated with the pandemic. The company was given one last chance after receiving a $200 million bailout from SoftBank, which reportedly bought up a majority stake after already having invested billions in the effort.

Katerra’s fall marks the most high-profile failure for SoftBank since the failed 2019 WeWork IPO. The firm has largely been seeing gains among its Vision Fund portfolio in the past year amid a larger tech stock rally, though some of those gains have receded in recent months.

In an interview with Barron’s last month, CEO Masayoshi Son highlighted Katerra as well as SoftBank’s investment in Greensill as “regrets” of his. Katerra’s other backers included Khosla Ventures, DFJ Growth, Greenoaks Capital and Celesta Capital.

TechCrunch has reached out to Katerra for comment.

 

#ceo, #companies, #dfj-growth, #greenoaks-capital, #katerra, #khosla-ventures, #masayoshi-son, #menlo-park, #softbank, #softbank-group, #tc, #vision-fund, #vodafone, #wework

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India grants approval for 5G trials, avoids Chinese firms

Indian telecom ministry on Tuesday said it has granted several telecom service providers permission to conduct a six-month trial for the use and application of 5G technology in the country. New Delhi has granted approval to over a dozen firm spanning multiple nationalities — excluding China.

Among the telecom operators that have received the grant include Jio Platforms, Airtel, Vodafone Idea, and MTNL. These firms, the ministry said, will work with original equipment manufacturers and tech providers Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, and C-Dot. Jio Platforms, additionally, has been granted permission to conduct trials using its own homegrown technology.

In a press note, the Department of Telecommunications didn’t specify anything about China, but a person familiar with the matter confirmed that Chinese giants Huawei and ZTE aren’t among those who have received the approval.

The Indian government branch said it gave permission to telecom service providers, who chose their own priorities and technology partners. The experimental spectrum is being given in various bands which include the mid-band (3.2 GHz to 3.67 GHz), millimeter wave band (24.25 GHz to 28.5 GHz) and in Sub-Gigahertz band (700 GHz). Technology service providers will also be permitted to use their existing spectrum owned by them (800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2500 MHz) to conduct of 5G trials.

“The permission letters specify that each TSP will have to conduct trials in rural and semi-urban settings also in addition to urban settings so that the benefit of 5G Technology proliferates across the country and is not confined only tourban areas. The TSPs are encouraged to conduct trials using 5Gi technology in addition to the already known 5G Technology,” the ministry said in a statement.

“The objectives of conducting 5G trials include testing 5G spectrum propagation characteristics especially in the Indian context; model tuning and evaluation of chosen equipment andvendors; testing of indigenous technology; testing of applications (such as tele-medicine, tele-education, augmented/ virtual reality, drone-based agricultural monitoring, etc.); and to test 5G phones and devices.”

Last year, Airtel had said that it was open to the idea of collaborating with global firms for components. “Huawei, over the last 10 or 12 years, has become extremely good with their products to a point where I can safely today say their products at least in 3G, 4G that we have experienced is significantly superior to Ericsson and Nokia without a doubt. And I use all three of them,” Sunil Mittal, the founder of Airtel, said at a conference last year. In the same panel, then U.S. commerce secretary Wilbur Ross had urged India and other allies of the U.S. to avoid Huawei.

The geo-political tension between India and China escalated later in the year with skirmishes at the shared border. India, which early last year amended a rule to make it difficult for Chinese firms to invest in Indian companies, has since banned over 200 apps including TikTok, UC Browser, and PUBG Mobile that have affiliation with China.

#airtel, #asia, #china, #huawei, #india, #jio-platforms, #vodafone, #vodafone-idea, #zte

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SoftBank bets big on a ‘digital Ellis Island’

Welcome Tech, which has built a digital platform aimed at immigrants and their families, has raised $35 million in a Series B funding round co-led by TTV Capital, Owl Ventures and SoftBank Group Corp.’s SB Opportunity Fund.

Crosscut Ventures, Mubadala Capital, Next Play Capital and Owl Capital also participated in the financing, which brings the Los Angeles-based company’s total raised to $50 million since its 2010 inception. Welcome Tech, which has an office in San Antonio, Texas, raised an $8 million Series A in March of 2020.

Built by immigrants for immigrants, Welcome Tech aims to do just what its name indicates — help immigrants feel more welcome, have an easier transition and achieve greater success when moving to the United States.

The company’s approach was different in that rather than launch a banking product and then set out to earn the trust of the community it aims to serve, it first worked hard to earn that trust and understand the community’s needs. 

So in its first years of existence, Welcome Tech has focused on building out a platform that provides educational resources, information and services that “they need to thrive in a  new country.” Its efforts are initially primarily focused on the Hispanic community in the U.S.

The goal of its platform, dubbed SABEResPODER (meaning Knowledge is Power in Spanish), is to serve as “a widely recognized and trusted resource” to members of the Hispanic community in the U.S., the company says.

Armed with knowledge and data that it has gathered over the years, Welcome Tech six months ago launched a banking service, including a debit card and bilingual mobile app. And in January, it launched a monthly subscription offering that gives users access to discounted resources such as medical and dental professionals.

Gardiner Garrard, co-founder and partner, TTV Capital, points out that the Hispanic market represents the largest minority cohort in the U.S., with a population of 62.8 million. 

“That said, less than half of Hispanic households are ‘fully banked’, meaning they cannot open an account, which then negatively impacts their ability to secure other products or services,” Garrard said. “To not serve this community is a major failure. Welcome Tech is addressing this issue head on.”

Today, Welcome’s platform is approaching 3 million active users, according to co-founder and CEO Amir Hemmat. Its ultimate goal, he said, is to serve as “digital Ellis Island.” 

“The way we leave immigrants’ success to chance is pretty crazy,” he told TechCrunch. “If you think of countries the way you think of companies and the way they want to attract and retain…here, we almost do the opposite.”

Image Credits: Welcome Tech

In particular, Hemmat and co-founder Raul Lomeli-Azoubel recognized that access to financial services was crucial to immigrants’ success.

“Although we ultimately see ourselves building towards a better future for immigration and a broader platform, the foundation and beachhead for that is definitely in financial services,” Hemmat said.  

Welcome offers a free banking account that is fully bilingual for English and Spanish speaking communities with “key features that are very tailor made for this community.”

A number of new digital banks targeting Latino and immigrant communities in general have emerged in recent years, including TomoCredit and Greenwood. Welcome aims to differentiate itself from competitors in being a more broad-based platform. Its subscription offering — at $10 a month — does things like offer discounts to healthcare professionals and free televisits, for example.

“When we dug in, we realized that immigrants are not being provided data-driven recommendations,” Hemmat said. “It’s very much a word of mouth and trial of error, and in some cases highly predatory, experience. We’re working to aggregate a historically fragmented audience and that gives us massive leverage to source better offerings, pricing and experiences for consumers across multiple categories.”

The company plans to use its new capital to build more partnerships so that it can do the above, as well as spread awareness about its services.

Gosia Karas, vice president and head of growth-stage investments at SoftBank’s Opportunity Fund, told TechCrunch that the fact that the immigrant population in the U.S. is “growing really fast and underserved creates an opportunity for someone to come in and serve them well with a financial services offering.”

In particular, SoftBank was attracted to Welcome Tech’s approach to truly understand, and gather data around, its target market.

“Before even jumping head first into building a fintech company, they did a lot of work prior,” Karas said. “They spent years building an understanding of this audience of the immigrant population, including building trust within that demographic. And at the same time, they have been building targeted content. This serves as a really great backbone to build a company that is very well-suited to serve that audience and to roll out things like the debit card and other financial services offerings.”

#bank, #banking, #crosscut-ventures, #debit-card, #diversity, #economy, #finance, #financial-services, #fintech, #funding, #fundings-exits, #greenwood, #los-angeles, #mubadala-capital, #owl-capital, #owl-ventures, #recent-funding, #softbank-group, #startups, #tc, #ttv-capital, #united-states, #venture-capital, #vodafone, #welcome-tech

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Mortgage is suddenly sexy as SoftBank pumps $500M in Better.com at $6B valuation

Digital mortgage lender Better.com has raised a $500 million round from Japanese investment conglomerate SoftBank that values the company at $6 billion.

The financing is notable for a few reasons. For one, that new $6 billion valuation,  is up 50% from the $4 billion it was valued at last November when it raised $200 million in Series D financing. It’s also up tenfold from its $600 million valuation at the time of its Series C raise in August 2019.

Secondly, it’s further proof that mortgage – a traditionally “unsexy” industry that has long been in need of disruption – is officially hot. For all its controversy, when SoftBank invests, people pay attention.

The COVID-19 pandemic and historically-low mortgage rates fueled acceleration in the online lending space in a way that no one could have anticipated. That, combined with the general fervour in venture funding, means it’s not a big surprise that Better.com has raised $700 million in just a matter of months.

The investment brings Better.com’s total funding raised to over $900 million since its 2014 inception. Other backers include Goldman Sachs, Kleiner Perkins, American Express, Activant Capital and Citi, among others.

According to the Wall Street Journal, SoftBank is buying shares from Better’s existing investors, and agreed to give all of its voting rights to CEO and founder Vishal Garg “in a sign of its eagerness” to invest in the company. 

During a one-on-one interview at Lendit Fintech’s USA 2020 virtual event in October, Garg had told me that an IPO was definitely in the works.

“We’ll do it when it’s right,” he said. “One of the core tenets of American capitalism is the ability for your customers to buy your stock.”

At that time, he had also told me that before the pandemic, Better was processing about $1.2 billion a month in loans. But as of October 2020, it was funding over $2.5 billion per month, and had gone from 1,500 staffers to about 4,000 worldwide. 

“When the pandemic started we were doing less than sort of like $50 million a month of revenue,” he said. “We’re two-and-a half times that now.”

#activant-capital, #better-com, #ceo, #citi, #companies, #finance, #fintech, #funding, #fundings-exits, #goldman-sachs, #kleiner-perkins, #online-lending, #recent-funding, #softbank, #softbank-group, #startups, #tc, #the-wall-street-journal, #united-states, #venture-capital, #vishal-garg, #vodafone

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How SoftBank’s Vision Fund turned losses into gold this summer

It’s hard to think back to the Vision Fund era today, given the oddities that 2020 has brought. But SoftBank’s gravity-bending investment vehicle only stopped investing last September, ending its disbursement of huge blocks of cash from a total committed capital pool worth nearly $99 billion.

The Vision Fund was a wrecking ball, smashing into any company it chose with a big check and demands for rapid growth. By the time it was done investing, the first Vision Fund had deployed around $100 million every day of its existence, according to TechCrunch calculations.


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But even before SoftBank and eccentric leader Masayoshi Son were done cutting checks, things were going awry. TechCrunch compiled a list of issues that cropped up inside the portfolio in 2019, including layoffs at the overstuffed Wag, Uber’s lackluster IPO, turmoil at Brandless, the enormous WeWork IPO fiasco and its ensuing chaos, executive changes at Compass, layoffs at Fair and Katerra and OneConnect’s IPO fizzle.

2020 picked up where 2019 had left off, with more issues at OYO, layoffs at Zume Pizza and some public flak for breaking terms sheets.

By this April, SoftBank admitted that it was on track to take stiff losses from its Vision Fund portfolio, which, when combined with other investing losses, pushed the company into a rare loss for the year.

And then things got better: SoftBank’s Vision Fund had a much better last six months than you probably guessed, and we need to understand why.

So, into the data we go, to have some laughs at the art that SoftBank cannot leave out of its reporting, and learn a bit about what changed for the Vision Fund family.

A comeback

Before we get to the turnaround, we need to understand how much damage the Vision Fund caused its parent company earlier this year.

To grok the impact that the Vision Fund’s rough patch caused SoftBank Group during the 12-month period ending March 31, 2020, we can glean all that we need from a single chart. Here’s SoftBank Group’s net income through its fiscal 2019:

The period’s loss stands out like a sore thumb.

What drove the deficit? A ¥1.9 trillion segment loss from the Vision Fund, produced by declines in the “fair values of Uber and WeWork and its three affiliates,” along with the fair value of “other portfolio companies decreas[ing] significantly in the fourth quarter primarily due to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

It was brutal and humiliating to have raised so much money and invested it with such confidence only to have so many deals go sideways.

At the end of its fiscal 2019, SoftBank Group reported that the Vision Fund held 88 investments that had cost it $75.0 billion. The whole group was worth $69.6 billion, “excluding exited investments.”

Fast forward to the company’s most recent report, covering the following six months — a period ending as September came to a close — and it’s hard to compare the two sets of results: SoftBank Group was back in the black, posting solid year-over-year gains from the same period of its preceding fiscal year.

Of course, SoftBank Group is far more than the Vision Fund — the company is a Japanese conglomerate with a huge telecom business that makes lots of money. But we care about its startup investing performance, so how did the Vision Fund itself impact its numbers in the six months concluding in September 2020?

#brandless, #fundings-exits, #katerra, #masayoshi-son, #softbank, #startups, #the-exchange, #vodafone, #wework

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SoftBank’s $100 million diversity and inclusion fund makes its first bet … in health Vitable Health

SoftBank’s Opportunity Growth Fund has made the health insurance startup Vitable Health the first commitment from its $100 million fund dedicated to investing in startups founded by entrepreneurs of color.

The Philadelphia-based company, which recently launched from Y Combinator, is focused on bringing basic health insurance to underserved and low-income communities.

Founded by Joseph Kitonga, a 23 year-old entrepreneur whose parents immigrated to the U.S. a decade ago, Vitable provides affordable acute healthcare coverage to underinsured or un-insured populations and was born out of Kitonga’s experience watching employees of his parents’ home healthcare agency struggle to receive basic coverage.

The $1.5 million commitment was led by the SoftBank Group Corp Opportunity Fund, and included Y Combinator, DNA Capital, Commerce Ventures, MSA Capital, Coughdrop Capital, and angels like Immad Akhund, the chief executive of Mercury Bank; and Allison Pickens, the former chief operating officer of Gainsight, the company said in a blog post.

“Good healthcare is a basic right that every American deserves, whoever they are,” said Paul Judge, the Atlanta-based Early Stage Investing Lead for the fund and the founder of Atlanta’s TechSquare Labs investment fund. “We’ve been inspired by Joseph and his approach to addressing this challenge. Vitable Health is bridging critical gaps in patient care and has emerged as a necessary, essential service for all whether they’re uninsured, underinsured, or simply need a better plan for their lifestyle.”

SoftBank created the opportunity fund while cities around the U.S. were witnessing a wave of public protests against systemic racism and police brutality stemming from the murder of the Black Minneapolis citizen George Floyd at the hands of white police officers.  Floyd’s murder reignited simmering tensions between citizens and police in cities around the country over issues including police brutality, the militarization of civil authorities, and racial profiling.

SoftBank has had its own problems with racism in its portfolio this year. A few months before the firm launched its fund, the CEO and founder of one of its portfolio companies, Banjo, resigned after it was revealed that he once had ties to the KKK.

With the Opportunity Fund, SoftBank is trying to address some of its issues, and notably, will not take a traditional management fee for transactions out of the fund “but instead will seek to put as much capital as possible into the hands of founders and entrepreneurs of color.”

The Opportunity Fund is the third investment vehicle announced by SoftBank in the last several years. The biggest of them all is the $100 billion Vision Fund; then last year it announced the $2 billion Innovation Fund focused on Latin America.

#atlanta, #ceo, #chief-operating-officer, #commerce-ventures, #companies, #entrepreneur, #founder, #gainsight, #george-floyd, #healthcare, #investment-fund, #joseph-kitonga, #latin-america, #minneapolis, #paul, #philadelphia, #softbank-group, #tc, #united-states, #vision-fund, #vitable-health, #vodafone, #y-combinator

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Indian telecom giant Vodafone Idea rebrands as ‘Vi’

Vodafone Idea, one of the largest telecom operators in India, has rebranded as ‘Vi’ as it looks to better leverage the unified venture between British telecom giant Vodafone Group’s India business and billionaire Kumar Mangalam Birla’s Idea Cellular two years after they merged in the country.

“As the integration of two businesses is now complete, it’s time for a fresh start. That’s why we believe that now is the perfect time to launch Vi, one company which provides the strength of Vodafone India and Idea,” Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read said at a virtual conference on Monday.

Vodafone Idea, once the largest telecom operator in the country with over 400 million subscribers, has lost more than 100 million subscribers in recent years to new comer India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani’s telecom venture Jio Platforms as it scaled to the top with its cut-rate mobile data tariff.

Jio Platforms has also attracted over $20 billion in investment from high-profile firms including Facebook and Google in recent months.

The logo of Vi (Image: Vodafone Idea)

“India is the second largest telecom market and the largest data consumer, globally. With 1.2 billion Indians accessing voice and data services at the world’s lowest tariffs across 500,000 villages, the ubiquitous wireless network in India is unmatched for its reach and impact in people’s lives,” said Kumar Mangalam Birla, Chairman of Aditya Birla Group and Vodafone Idea, at the conference today.W

“With our new brand — Vi, we stand committed to partner with government to accelerate India’s progression towards a digital economy, enabling millions of citizens to connect to the digital revolution and build a better tomorrow.”

Vodafone Idea — or Vi,  has yet to turn a profit since it joined forces. The company said it will continue to invest in 4G wireless technology, which now reaches more than 1 billion people in India, double the coverage at the time of merger announcement.

Last week, the company received approval from shareholders to sell stake worth $3.4 billion by selling shares and raising debt. The company received a much needed relief in India earlier this month after nation’s apex court granted Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel, another giant telecom operator in India, with 10 years to pay billions they owe to the government.

Prior to the court ruling, Vodafone Group had warned that Indian government’s short-deadline of three months to clear the dues were not feasible for the telecom firm and it would have no choice but to exit the market.

#airtel, #asia, #bharti-airtel, #india, #reliance-jio, #vodafone, #vodafone-idea

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How Reliance Jio Platforms became India’s biggest telecom network

It’s raised $5.7 billion from Facebook. It’s taken $1.5 billion from KKR, another $1.5 billion from Vista Equity Partners, $1.5 billion from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund$1.35 billion from Silver Lake, $1.2 billion from Mubadala, $870 million from General Atlantic, $750 million from Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, $600 million from TPG, and $250 million from L Catterton.

And it’s done all that in just nine weeks.

India’s Reliance Jio Platforms is the world’s most ambitious tech company. Founder Mukesh Ambani has made it his dream to provide every Indian with access to affordable and comprehensive telecommunications services, and Jio has so far proven successful, attracting nearly 400 million subscribers in just a few years.

The unparalleled growth of Reliance Jio Platforms, a subsidiary of India’s most-valued firm (Reliance Industries), has shocked rivals and spooked foreign tech companies such as Google and Amazon, both of which are now reportedly eyeing a slice of one of the world’s largest telecom markets.

What can we learn from Reliance Jio Platforms’s growth? What does the future hold for Jio and for India’s tech startup ecosystem in general?

Through a series of reports, Extra Crunch is going to investigate those questions. We previously profiled Mukesh Ambani himself, and in today’s installment, we are going to look at how Reliance Jio went from a telco upstart to the dominant tech company in four years.

The birth of a new empire

Months after India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, launched his telecom network Reliance Jio, Sunil Mittal of Airtel — his chief rival — was struggling in public to contain his frustration.

That Ambani would try to win over subscribers by offering them free voice calling wasn’t a surprise, Mittal said at the World Economic Forum in January 2017. But making voice calls and the bulk of 4G mobile data completely free for seven months clearly “meant that they have not gotten the attention they wanted,” he said, hopeful the local regulator would soon intervene.

This wasn’t the first time Ambani and Mittal were competing directly against each other: in 2002, Ambani had launched a telecommunications company and sought to win the market by distributing free handsets.

In India, carrier lock-in is not popular as people prefer pay-as-you-go voice and data plans. But luckily for Mittal in their first go around, Ambani’s journey was cut short due to a family feud with his brother — read more about that here.

#apple, #apps, #asia, #bharti-airtel, #extra-crunch, #facebook, #india, #mark-zuckerberg, #market-analysis, #media, #microsoft, #mobile, #mukesh-ambani, #payments, #reliance-industries, #telecom, #venture-capital, #vodafone, #vodafone-idea, #xiaomi

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Amazon reportedly considering $2 billion stake in Indian telecom operator Bharti Airtel

Amazon .com may follow its American peer Facebook’s footsteps in securing a slice of India’s booming telecom market.

The e-commerce giant, which has invested over $6.5 billion in India, is in early-stage talks to buy a 5% stake worth at least $2 billion in Bharti Airtel, the third-largest telecom operator in India, according to unnamed sources cited by Reuters.

Amazon’s interest in Bharti Airtel comes as Google is said to be in separate talks to buy stake in Vodafone Idea, the second largest telecom operator in India. In April, their fellow rival Facebook bought a 9.99% stake in the nation’s top telecom operator, Reliance Jio Platforms. According to local media reports, Microsoft is also in talks with Reliance Jio Platforms and could invest as much as $2 billion.

Facebook’s investment shows India is a major new battleground for Big Tech, said Amit Pau, a former Vodafone Global Group MD and now COO and Partner at Accloud. “Facebook’s focused attack on Amazon in Indian e-commerce through its partnership with Jio Platforms is the firing gun of an epic showdown between the world’s biggest companies that will see Indian consumers win better services through digitization and boost the economy.”

The American giants have formed multiple partnerships with telecom operators in India, a key overseas market for them, over the years to expand their reach in the nation. Microsoft has a partnership with Reliance Jio to bring Office 365 to millions of small businesses at subsidized cost. Google maintains a similar partnership with Airtel for its Google Cloud suite.

Amazon, which leads the cloud market in India, currently does not maintain any similar deals with a telecom operator — though it had a partnership with Bharti Airtel in the past.

#amazon, #amazon-com, #asia, #bharti-airtel, #ecommerce, #facebook, #google, #india, #microsoft, #reliance-jio, #vodafone, #vodafone-idea

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China Roundup: SoftBank leads Didi’s $500M round and Meituan crosses $100B valuation

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. Last week, we had a barrage of news ranging from SoftBank’s latest bet on China’s autonomous driving sector to Chinese apps making waves in the U.S. (not TikTok).

China tech abroad

The other Chinese apps trending in America

TikTok isn’t the only app with a Chinese background that’s making waves in the U.S. A brand new short-video app called Zynn has been topping the iOS chart in America since May 26, just weeks after its debut. Zynn’s maker is no stranger to Chinese users: it was developed by short-video platform Kuaishou, the nemesis of Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese sister.

The killer feature behind Zynn’s rise is an incentive system that pays people small amounts of cash to sign up, watch videos or invite others to join, a common user acquisition tactic in the Chinese internet industry.

The other app that’s been trending in the U.S. for a while is News Break, a hyper-local news app founded by China’s media veteran Jeff Zheng, with teams in China and the U.S. It announced a heavy-hitting move last week as it onboards Harry Shum, former boss of Microsoft AI and Research Group, as its board chairman.

Alibaba looks for overseas influencers

The Chinese e-commerce giant is searching for live-streaming hosts in Europe and other overseas countries to market its products on AliExpress, its marketplace for consumers outside China. Live-streaming dancing and singing is nothing new, but the model of selling through live videos, during which consumers can interact with a salesperson or session host, has gained major ground in China as shops remained shut for weeks during the coronavirus outbreak.

In Q1 2020, China recorded more than 4 million e-commerce live-streaming sessions across various platforms, including Alibaba. Now the Chinese giant wants to replicate its success abroad, pledging that the new business model can create up to 100,000 new jobs for content creators around the world.

Oppo in Germany

Oppo announced last week its new European headquarters in Düsseldorf, Germany, a sign that the Chinese smartphone maker has gotten more serious on the continent. The move came weeks after it signed a distribution deal with Vodafone to sell its phones in seven European countries. Oppo was also one of the first manufacturers to launch a 5G commercial phone in Europe.

Chinese tech stocks return

We speculated last week that Hong Kong might become an increasingly appealing destination for U.S.-listed Chinese tech companies, many of which will be feeling the heat of tightening accounting rules targeting foreign companies. Two firms have already taken action. JD.com and NetEase, two of China’s biggest internet firms, have won approvals to list in Hong Kong, Bloomberg reported, citing sources.

China tech back home

SoftBank doubles down on Didi

Massive losses in SoftBank’s first Vision Fund didn’t seem to deter the Japanese startup benefactor from placing bold bets. China’s ride-hailing giant Didi has completed an outsized investment of over $500 million in its new autonomous driving subsidiary. The financing led by SoftBank marked the single-largest fundraising round in China’s autonomous driving sector.

The capital will give Didi a huge boost in the race to win the autonomous driving race, where it is a relative latecomer. It’s competing with deep-pocketed players that are aggressively testing across the world, including the likes of Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu, and startups such as Momenta, NIO and Pony.ai.

Marriage of e-commerce and live streaming

Speaking of live-streaming e-commerce, two of China’s biggest internet companies have teamed up to exploit the new business model. JD, the online retailer that is Alibaba’s long-time archrival, has signed a strategic partnership with Kuaishou — yes, the maker of Zynn and TikTok’s rival in China.

The collaboration is part of a rising trend in the Chinese internet, where short video apps and e-commerce platforms pally up to explore new monetization avenues. The thinking goes that video platforms can leverage the trust that influencers instill in their audience to tout products.

Meituan hit record valuation

Despite reporting an unprofitable first quarter, Meituan, a leader in China’s food delivery sector, saw its shares reach a record high last week to bring its valuation to over $100 billion.

Notion got banned in China, briefly

Notion, the fast-growing work collaboration tool that recently hit a $2 billion valuation and has attracted a loyal following in China, was briefly banned in China last week. It’s still investigating the cause of the ban, but the timing noticeably coincided with China’s annual parliament meeting, which began last week after a two-month delay due to COVID-19. Internet regulation and censorship normally toughen around key political meetings in the country.

#alibaba, #alibaba-group, #asia, #china, #china-roundup, #didi, #dusseldorf, #germany, #harry-shum, #jd, #jd-com, #jeff-zheng, #kuaishou, #meituan, #netease, #softbank, #tc, #tiktok, #vision-fund, #vodafone

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China Roundup: A blow to US-listed Chinese firms and TikTok’s new global face

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. It’s been a tumultuous week for Chinese tech firms abroad: Huawei’s mounting pressure from the U.S., a big blow to U.S.-listed Chinese firms, and TikTok’s high-profile new boss.

China tech abroad

Further decoupling

Over the years, American investors have been pumping billions of dollars into Chinese firms listed in the U.S., from giants like Alibaba and Baidu to emerging players like Pinduoduo and Bilibili. That could change soon with the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, a new bill passed this week with bipartisan support to tighten accounting standards on foreign companies, with the obvious target being China.

“For too long, Chinese companies have disregarded U.S. reporting standards, misleading our investors. Publicly listed companies should all be held to the same standards, and this bill makes commonsense changes to level the playing field and give investors the transparency they need to make informed decisions,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen who introduced the legislation.

Here’s what the legislation is about:

1) Foreign companies that are out of compliance with the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board for three years in a row will be delisted from U.S. stock exchanges.

PCAOB, which was set up in 2002 as a private-sector nonprofit corporation overseen by the SEC, is meant to inspect audits of foreign firms listed in the U.S. to prevent fraud and wrongdoing.

The rule has not sat well with foreign accounting firms and their local regulators, so over time PCAOB has negotiated multiple agreements with foreign counterparts that allowed it to perform audit inspections. China is one of the few countries that has not been cooperating with the PCAOB.

2) The bill will also require public companies in the U.S. to disclose whether they are owned or controlled by a foreign government, including China’s communist government.

The question now is whether we will see Chinese companies give in to the new rules or relocate to bourses outside the U.S.

The Chinese firms still have a three-year window to figure things out, but they are getting more scrutiny already. Most recently, Nasdaq announced to delist Luckin, the Chinese coffee challenger that admitted to fabricating $310 million in sales.

Those that do choose to leave the U.S. will probably find a warmer welcome in Hong Kong, attracting investors closer to home who are more acquainted with their businesses. Alibaba, for instance, already completed a secondary listing in Hong Kong last year as the city began letting investors buy dual-class shares, a condition that initially prompted many Chinese internet firms to go public in the U.S.

TikTok gets a talent boost 

The long-awaited announcement is here: TikTok has picked its new chief executive, and taking the helm is Disney’s former head of video streaming, Kevin Mayer.

It’s understandable that TikTok would want a global face for its fast-growing global app, which has come under scrutiny from foreign governments over concerns of its data practices and Beijing’s possible influence.

Curiously, Mayer will also take on the role of the chief operating officer of parent company ByteDance . A closer look at the company announcement reveals nuances in the appointment: Kelly Zhang and Lidong Zhang will continue to lead ByteDance China as its chief executive officer and chairman respectively, reporting directly to ByteDance’s founder and global CEO Yiming Zhang, as industry analyst Matthew Brennan acutely pointed out. That means ByteDance’s China businesses Douyin and Today’s Headlines, the cash cows of the firm, will remain within the purview of the two Chinese executives, not Mayer.

Huawei in limbo following more chip curbs

Huawei is in limbo after the U.S. slapped more curbs on the Chinese telecoms equipment giant, restricting its ability to procure chips from foreign foundries that use American technologies. The company called the rule “arbitrary and pernicious,” while it admitted that the attack would impact its business.

Vodafone to help Oppo expand in Europe 

As Huawei faces pressure abroad due to the Android ban, other Chinese phone makers have been steadily making headway across the world. One of them is Oppo, which just announced a partnership with Vodafone to bring its smartphones to the mobile carrier’s European markets.

All of China’s top AI firms now on U.S. entity list 

The U.S. has extended sanctions to more Chinese tech firms to include CloudWalk, which focuses on developing facial recognition technology. This means all of the “four dragons of computer vision” in China, as the local tech circle collectively calls CloudWalk, SenseTime, Megvii and Yitu, have landed on the U.S. entity list.

China tech back home

China’s new trillion-dollar plan to seize the tech crown (Bloomberg)

China has a new master plan to invest $1.4 trillion in everything from AI to 5G in what it dubs the “new infrastructure” initiative.

Fitbit rival Amazfit works on a reusable mask

The smartwatch maker is eyeing a transparent, self-disinfecting mask, becoming the latest Chinese tech firm to jump on the bandwagon to develop virus-fighting tech.

ByteDance moves into venture capital investment

The TikTok parent bankrolled financial AI startup Lingxi with $6.2 million, marking one of its first investments for purely monetary returns rather than for an immediate strategic purpose.

Bilibili is the new Youtube of China

The once-obscure video site for anime fans is now in the mainstream with a whopping 172 million monthly user base.

Xiaomi’s investment powerhouse reaches 300 companies 

It’s part of the smartphone giant’s plan to conquer the world of smart home devices and wearables.

Alibaba pumps $1.4 billion into content and services for IoT

Like Amazon, Alibaba has a big ambition in the internet of things.

#alibaba, #alibaba-group, #asia, #beijing, #bilibili, #bytedance, #china, #china-roundup, #huawei, #kevin-mayer, #luckin, #sensetime, #tc, #tiktok, #u-s-securities-and-exchange-commission, #vodafone, #xiaomi

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China’s Oppo partners with Vodafone for bigger European push

Huawei is facing an uphill challenge in the overseas market as its upcoming devices lack the full set of Google apps and services. That leaves ample room for its Chinese rivals to chase after foreign consumers.

That includes Oppo, the sister brand of Vivo under Dongguan-based electronics holding company BBK. In an announcement on Monday, the Chinese firm announced a partnership with Vodafone to bring its smartphones to the mobile carrier’s European markets. The deal kicks off in May and will sell Oppo’s portfolio of advanced 5G handsets as well as value-for-money models into the U.K, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Romania and Turkey.

While Vodafone pulled Huawei phones from its U.K. 5G network last year following the U.S. export ban that stripped Huawei models of certain Android services, the British operator can now tap Oppo’s wide range of mobile products in a heated race to sign up 5G customers. The partners will jointly explore online sales channels as many parts of Europe’s physical premises remain closed due to the COVID-19.

Oppo, currently the second-largest smartphone vendor in its home country after Huawei, has seen a spike in sales across Europe since entering the market in mid-2018. The company was one of the first to launch commercially available 5G phones in Europe last year and now ranks fifth on the continent with a 2% share, according to a survey from research firm Canalys.

“Oppo has a product range that can hit many of the same segments as Huawei, enabling it to gain market share at the expense of Huawei,” Peter Richardson, research director at Counterpoint Research, explained to TechCrunch. “Oppo has always used quite a European flavour in its product design. This extends to things like colour choice, packaging, and advertising materials. This makes it acceptable to European consumers.”

Interestingly, Richardson pointed out that Oppo, which has a less “Chinese sounding” name than its domestic rivals Xiaomi and Huawei, will help it circumvent some of the “negative media surrounding China just now – first Huawei’s difficulties around security threats and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic.”

#5g, #5g-network, #asia, #china, #europe, #hardware, #huawei, #oppo, #smartphone, #smartphones, #telecommunications, #vodafone

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Facebook, telcos collaborate on subsea cable for Africa and Middle East

Facebook, and a group of telecom companies including China Mobile International, MTN GlobalConnect, Orange, and Vodafone are collaborating to build the “most comprehensive” subsea cable to serve the African continent and Middle East region where nearly a billion people are still not connected to the internet.

The project, called 2Africa, will see the companies lay cables that will stretch to 37,000km (22,990 miles) and interconnect Europe (eastward via Egypt), the Middle East (via Saudi Arabia), and 21 landings in 16 countries in Africa.

In a joint statement, the companies said they expect the system to be live by 2023 or early 2024. Once live, it should be able to deliver more than the total combined capacity of all subsea cables serving Africa today, with a design capacity of up to 180Tbps on key parts of the system.

The companies, which also includes Saudi Arabia-based telecom firm STC, Telecom Egypt, and African telecom firm WIOCC, say service providers in the countries where 2Africa cable lands will obtain capacity in carrier-neutral data centres or open-access cable landing stations on a fair and equitable basis.

Facebook and telecom operators did not reveal how much money they were investing on the project.

Najam Ahmad, Vice President of Network Infrastructure at Facebook, said 2Africa is “a major element of our ongoing investment in Africa to bring more people online to a faster internet. We’ve seen first-hand the positive impact that increased connectivity has on communities, from education to healthcare.”

The subsea cable would also help Facebook and others drive down their bandwidth costs.

The internet is an amalgamation of tiny bits of code that move around the world in cables across the ocean floor. As of early last year, 750,000 miles of cable have been laid out across the globe.

The involvement of Facebook, which maintains a number of other connectivity efforts to bring more people online, in 2Africa shouldn’t come as a surprise. Telecom firms have long worked on undersea cable projects, but over the past decade, several American technology companies have joined the effort.

Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon now own or lease nearly half of the undersea bandwidth, according to Washington-based research firm TeleGeography. Google alone has backed at least 14 cables globally.

Last year, the search giant unveiled Equiano, a privately-funded subsea cable to connect Europe and Africa. The first phase of this project was scheduled for completion in 2021. Both 2Africa and Equiano have commissioned Alcatel Submarine Networks for building the cable.

American technology companies aren’t alone in their fascination with laying cables across the globe. China’s Huawei completed a 3,750mile cable between Brazil and Cameroon in late 2018, and last year began work on a 7,500-mile cable connecting Europe, Asia and Africa.

It was also finishing up links across the Gulf of California in Mexico, WSJ reported last year, adding that some unnamed current and former U.S. officials were worried that the Chinese tech giant’s cables were vulnerable to espionage. Huawei denied any threat.

#amazon, #china-mobile-international, #facebook, #google, #healthcare, #media, #microsoft, #oceans, #social, #telegeography, #vodafone

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SirionLabs raises $44M to scale its contract management software

SirionLabs, a startup that provides vendor management software to enterprises, has raised $44 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand and handle surge in demand from clients.

Tiger Global and Avatar Growth Capital led the Seattle-headquartered startup’s Series C round. The eight-year-old startup, which was founded in India, has raised $66 million to date. The new round values the startup at about $250 million.

Enterprises broadly handle two kinds of contracts, one when they are buying things from a supplier for which they use a procurement contract, and the other when they are selling things to customers, when a sales contract comes into play.

A significant number of companies today handle these contracts manually with different teams within an organization often dealing with the same entity, which leads to discrepancies in their promises. Teams work in silos and often don’t know the terms others in the organization have already agreed upon.

That’s where SirionLabs comes into the picture. “We use artificial intelligence and natural language processing to connect the dots between contracts and what happens after the contract has been signed,” explained Ajay Agrawal, cofounder, chairman and chief executive of the startup, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“For us, it’s not just creating a contract, but also realizing the promises that have been made in those contracts,” he said. SirionLabs also audits the invoice of suppliers, which has enabled its customers to save a significant amount of money.

SirionLabs today hosts contracts in over 40 languages for more than 200 of the world’s largest companies including Credit Suisse, Vodafone, EY, Unilever, Abbvie, BP, and Fujitsu.

Agrawal said the startup has seen a 4X growth in the number of customers it has signed up in the last 18 months. Part of the new capital would go into handling their demand. He said the coronavirus crises has resulted in many companies becoming more cautious about what they promise in their contracts.

The startup, which just opened a technology center in Seattle, also plans to open an AI laboratory in the Washington state to fuel technology innovation and grow sales.

It has also hired several industry veterans including the appointment of Amol Joshi as chief revenue officer, Anu Engineer as chief technology officer, Mahesh Unnikrishnan as chief product officer, and Vijay Khera, who will serve as chief customer officer.

Vishal Bakshi, founder and managing partner at Avatar Growth Capital, said he expects SirionLabs to “capture massive network effects as the platform continues to scale.”

#abbvie, #apps, #artificial-intelligence, #bp, #credit-suisse, #enterprise, #fujitsu, #funding, #natural-language-processing, #sirionlabs, #tiger-global, #unilever, #vodafone

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Cuckoo Internet closes Seed funding to disrupt UK broadband market

Cuckoo Internet is a new UK start-up that aims to disrupt the UK broadband market. It has now raised £425,000 in seed funding, which includes funding from a new Silicon Valley fund operator fund led by Bart Macdonald (Sapling Founder). Other investors include the founders of Betterment, Second Home and energy challenger Bulb. The key to its strategy is that it has no servers of its own, meaning it can scale faster than traditional providers.

The anecdotal evidence is that the pandemic-led lockdown in many countries has revealed that your home broadband is almost certainly not fast enough for modern use. This has become especially obvious in the UK, where TV interviews with key figures are often interrupted by terrible buffering. Indeed, regulator Ofcom says 40% of people in the UK are paying more for terrible broadband merely because they are loyal customers. Complaints about broadband and mobile are almost 40% higher than every other sector in the UK economy, according to research from the Institute of Customer Service. At the same time younger workers, who usually rent so move home regularly, do not have broadband because of the long contracts and high exit fees.

Traditional ISPs are not set up for this new world. BT, Sky, Virgin Media and TalkTalk between them own more than 90% of the broadband market. The biggest independent challengers to them today are Shell Energy, the Post Office and Vodafone. No companies are incentivized to break the pattern of long contracts, high exit fees, and hidden loyalty taxes. But when you switch between most suppliers the only thing that normally changes is your router and the software you interact with. So there is now an opportunity to disrupt this space.

Cuckoo has one deal and a one-month rolling contract; simple pricing, no loyalty tax, no hidden charges. It says it also offers the fastest speed available on the network.

The startup was inspired when Cofounder Alexander Fitzgerald had to take on BT to get his father’s internet to work properly and for the right price. “The broadband market is broken. Customers struggle with complex deals, high prices, and bad service. There has to be a better way. Unlike the current providers, we will be transparent, with clear pricing, simple contracts, and good customer service,” he said.

Fitzgerald previously helped Bulb grow to 1.5 million customers as a consultant and while working with Bulb he saw there was something missing in broadband. The Bulb founders gave him advice on his first-ever pitch deck. He then quit his job in October 2019 and founded Cuckoo.

#broadband, #bt, #cofounder, #energy, #europe, #national-broadband-plan, #post-office, #start-up, #talktalk, #tc, #telecommunications, #united-kingdom, #virgin-media, #vodafone

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Africa Roundup: Visa connects to M-Pesa, Flutterwave enters e-commerce

It seems the demand for Safaricom’s M-Pesa payment product never eases. Since its 2007 launch in Kenya, the fintech app has commanded over 70% of the mobile money market in that country. When COVID-19 hit the East African nation of 53 million in March, the Kenyan Central Bank turned to M-Pesa as a public health tool to reduce use of cash.

And last month, one of the world’s financial services giants — Visa — connected M-Pesa to its global network.

Visa and Safaricom — which is Kenya’s largest telecom and operator of M-Pesa — announced a partnership on payments and tech.

The arrangement opens up M-Pesa’s own extensive financial services network in East Africa to Visa’s global merchant and card network across 200 countries.

The companies will also collaborate “on development of products that will support digital payments for M-Pesa customers.” The partnership is still subject to regulatory approval.

The details remain vague, but the payment providers also said they will use the collaboration to facilitate e-commerce.

Images Credits: Getty Images

On a continent that is still home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population, Kenya has one of the highest mobile-money penetration rates in the world. This is largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa in the country, which has 24.5 million customers and a network of 176,000 agents.

As we detailed in ExtraCrunch, Visa has been on a VC and partnership spree with African fintech companies. The global financial services giant has named working with the continent’s payments startups as core to its Africa expansion strategy.

One of those fintech ventures Visa has teamed up with, Flutterwave, launched an e-commerce product in April. The San Francisco and Lagos-based B2B payments company announced Flutterwave Store, a portal for African merchants to create digital shops to sell online.

The product is less Amazon  and more eBay — with no inventory or warehouse requirements. Flutterwave insists the move doesn’t represent any shift away from its core payments business.

The company accelerated the development of Flutterwave Store in response to COVID-19, which has brought restrictive measures to SMEs and traders operating in Africa’s largest economies.

After creating a profile, users can showcase inventory and link up to a payment option. For pickup and delivery, Flutterwave Store operates through existing third party logistics providers, such as Sendy in Kenya and Sendbox in Nigeria.

The service will start in 15 African countries and the only fees Flutterwave will charge (for now) are on payments. Otherwise, it’s free for SMEs to create an online storefront and for buyers and sellers to transact goods.

While the initiative is born out of the spread of coronavirus cases in Africa, it will continue beyond the pandemic. And Flutterwave’s CEO Olugbenga Agboola — aka GB — is adamant Flutterwave Store is not a pivot for the Y-Cominator backed fintech company.

“It’s not a direction change. We’re still a B2B payment infrastructure company. We are not moving into becoming an online retailer, and no we’re not looking to become Jumia,” he told TechCrunch .

In early stage startup activity, a relatively new company — Okra — has created a unique platform that allows it to generate revenue on both sides of the fintech aisle.

Founded in June 2019 by Nigerians Fara Ashiru Jituboh and David Peterside, the company refers to itself as a “super-connector API” with a platform that links bank accounts to third party applications.

Okra’s clients include fintech startups and large financial institutions in Nigeria. The company got the attention of TLcom Capital — a $71 million Africa focused VC firm —that backed Okra with $1 million in pre-seed funding. The Nigerian startup is using the funds to hire and expand to new markets in Africa, most likely Kenya .

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch               

#africa, #africa-roundup, #amazon, #api, #ceo, #david-peterside, #e-commerce, #east-africa, #ebay, #economy, #finance, #financial-technology, #fintech-startup, #flutterwave, #genomics, #kenya, #lagos, #m-pesa, #money, #nigeria, #okra, #olugbenga-agboola, #online-retailer, #safaricom, #san-francisco, #south-africa, #tc, #techcrunch, #tlcom-capital, #visa, #vodafone

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Streaming service Hooq shuts down, ends partnerships with Disney’s Hotstar, Grab and others

Hooq, a five-year-old on-demand video streaming service that aimed to become “Netflix for Southeast Asia,” has shut down weeks after filing for liquidation and terminated its partnerships with Disney’s Hotstar, ride-hailing giant Grab, and Indonesia’s VideoMax.

Hooq Digital, a joint venture among Singapore telecom group Singtel (majority owner), Sony Pictures, and Warner Bros Entertainment, discontinued the service on Thursday. It had amassed over 80 million subscribers in nearly half of the dozen markets in Asia.

“For the past 5 years, we gave you unbelievable thrills, heartrending drama, roaring laughs, awesome action, and more. Our goal was to bring you the best entertainment from here to Hollywood. Our hearts are full of gratitude for all of you who shared the journey with us,” it says on its website.

Hooq publicly disclosed that it had raised about $95 million, but the sum was likely higher. News outlet The Ken analyzed the regulatory filings last month to report that Hooq had raised $127.2 million, and its losses in the financial year 2019 had ballooned to $220, suggesting that it had received more capital.

The streaming service said last month that it could not receive new funds from new or existing investors.

Homepage of Hooq

The service counted India, where it entered into a partnership with Disney’s Hotstar in 2018 and telecom operators Airtel and Vodafone, as its biggest market. The company also maintained a partnership with ride-hailing giant Grab to supply content in its cab, and VideoMAX in Indonesia.

Hooq brought dozens of D.C. universe titles including “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “Wonder Woman” and other popular TV series such as “The Big Bang Theory” to its partners. In India, users began noticing last week that those titles were disappearing from Hotstar.

A spokesperson of Hooq told TechCrunch today that its tie-ups with all its partners including Hotstar have closed. A Hotstar spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Mobile operator Singtel first unveiled Hooq’s liquidation in an exchange filing last month. The Ken reported that the filing left hundreds of employees at Hooq stunned who thought the firm was doing fine financially. Nearly every employee at Hooq has been let go, with select few offered a job at Singtel, according to The Ken.

In an interview with Slator earlier this year, Yvan Hennecart, Head of Localization at HOOQ, said that the company was working to expand its catalog with local content and add 100 original titles in 2020.

“Our focus is mostly on localization of entertainment content; whether it is subtitling or dubbing, we are constantly looking to bring more content to our viewers faster. My role also expands to localization of our platform and any type of collateral information that helps create a unique experience for our users,” he told the outlet.

#airtel, #apps, #asia, #disney, #entertainment, #grab, #hooq, #hotstar, #media, #mobile, #netflix, #singtel, #southeast-asia, #vodafone, #warner-bros

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Visa and Kenya’s Safaricom partner on M-Pesa, payments and tech

Visa just connected to Africa’s most powerful mobile payments network. The global financial services company and Kenyan telecom Safaricom operator of the M-Pesa mobile money product announced a partnership today on payments and tech.

The arrangement opens up Visa’s global merchant and card network across 200 countries to M-Pesa’s own extensive financial services network in East Africa.

The two companies will also partner “on development of products that will support digital payments for M-Pesa customers,” according to a Safaricom release. The partnership is still subject to regulatory approval.

Safaricom’s M-Pesa app is arguably the most recognized fintech product in Africa and has become a global case study in using mobile money to increase financial inclusion.

On a continent that is still home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population, Kenya has one of the highest mobile-money adoption rates in the world. This is largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa in the country, which stands as Africa’s 6th largest economy. Across Kenya’s population of 53 million, M-Pesa has 24.5 million customers and a network of 176,000 agents. The product’s mobile money market share in the country has hovered above 75% for years.

M-PESA Sector Stats 4Q 2019 per Kenya’s Communications Authority

Since launching M-Pesa in Kenya in 2007, Safaricom has expanded the product to additional East African countries and added financial services, such as lending and small business services to the platform.

M-Pesa is is as ubiquitous to Kenyan culture as Coca Cola is in the U.S. The product’s easy to use and allows transfers and payments on any basic mobile phone via SMS .

Image Credits: Getty Images

The details are still vague, Visa and Safaricom also said they will use the partnership to facilitate online commerce. The two payment providers aim to “offer an expanded set of mobile e-commerce capabilities to merchants and consumers by enabling secure and convenient cashless payment solutions,” according to a Visa release sent to TechCrunch .

Visa has been on a VC and partnership spree with African fintech companies over the last year. The company named working with the continent’s payments startups in particular, as part of its strategy to expand on the continent.

As one of the most well capitalized and profitable companies in Kenya, Safaricom’s no startup. But the reach of its M-Pesa network will certainly give Visa an extended presence in Africa. The partnership will also expand the global financial services offered to Safaricom’s large East African consumer and small business network.

#africa, #business-services, #coca-cola, #e-commerce, #east-africa, #economy, #financial-services, #kenya, #m-pesa, #money, #safaricom, #sms, #tc, #techcrunch, #telecommunications, #united-states, #vodafone

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SoftBank expects $24 billion in losses from Vision Fund, WeWork, and OneWeb investments

The Japanese technology conglomerate SoftBank Group said it would lose a staggering $24 billion on investments made through its Vision Fund and bets on the co-working real estate company, WeWork, and satellite telecommunications company, OneWeb.

Ultimately, the company expects the losses to help generate a $7 billion total loss for the technology giant for the year as its ambitious bets on early stage companies come up short.

Over the past two years SoftBank and its founder Masayoshi Son have staked billions of (other people’s) dollars and its own fortunes on a vision that investments in machine learning technologies, robotics, and next generation telecommunications would reap of hundreds of billions in financial rewards.

While that was the vision that Son and his team sold, the reality was multiple billions of dollars invested into real estate investment plays like WeWork, OpenDoor, and Compass, and companies with direct-to-consumer merchandising plays like Brandless, pet supply businesses like Wag, and the food delivery business DoorDash. Add the hotel chain Oyo to the mix and the investment selection from the Vision Fund looks even less visionary.

Over the past year, several of its investments ran aground. Though none of them imploded as spectacularly as WeWork — whose valuation was slashed from over $40 billion to around $8 billion — many have struggled.

Brandless went bust earlier this year, and real estate investments in Compass along with investments in travel and tourism-related businesses like Oyo, have suffered in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak which has shuttered economies around the world.

While many SoftBank and SoftBank Vision Fund bets were made into companies that have failed, seem to be on that path, or perhaps may struggle in the economic downturn, not every wage is a clunker. The Vision Fund put lots of capital into Slack before it went public, and the company has caught a huge tailwind in the remote-work boom that we’re currently seeing in light of COVID-19.

Perhaps the most visionary of the SoftBank investments (and one not included in the Vision Fund) OneWeb, too, collapsed under the weight of its own capital-intensive vision for a network of satellites providing high-speed global telecommunications services. Zume, SoftBank’s robotic pizza delivery business, also folded.

The only reason why all of these gambles haven’t completely destroyed SoftBank is that the company still has a cash cow in its Alibaba stake and a relatively strong core business in telecommunications and semiconductor holdings.

“The difference in income before income tax is, in addition to the above, mainly due to the expected recording of non-operating loss totaling approximately JPY 800 billion for fiscal 2019 on investments held outside of SoftBank Vision Fund, including The We Company (WeWork) and WorldVu Satellites Limited (OneWeb),” the company said in a statement. “This will be partially offset by the gain relating to the settlement of variable prepaid forward contract using Alibaba shares recorded in the first quarter of fiscal 2019 and the dilution gain from changes in equity interest in Alibaba recorded in the third quarter of fiscal 2019, as well as an expected year-on-year increase in income on equity method investments related to Alibaba.”

Ultimately, it seems that Son was too enamored of the mythology he’d created around himself as a maverick and a visionary. To the detriment of his company’s outside shareholders and investors.

As Bloomberg noted in an op-ed earlier today:

Son’s insistence that startups grow faster than their founders planned, and strong-arm them into taking more money than they might have wanted, has turned into a burden. And that’s become a huge liability to investors in the Vision Fund and SoftBank, too.

By throwing cash around, dozens of startups became addicted to spending instead of building fiscal discipline into their business models. For years, it seemed like a sound strategy. By having more money than rivals, SoftBank-backed companies could win market share by offering bigger incentives, taking out more ads and luring the best talent.

Today, SoftBank has a major stake in sector leaders like Uber Technologies Inc., WeWork, Grab Holdings Inc. and Oyo. But climbing to number one doesn’t mean being profitable.

#alibaba, #alibaba-group, #companies, #compass, #doordash, #food-delivery, #fundings-exits, #masayoshi-son, #oneweb, #opendoor, #oyo, #real-estate-investment, #semiconductor, #softbank-group, #softbank-vision-fund, #tc, #telecommunications, #vision-fund, #vodafone, #wework

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Africa Roundup: Africa’s tech ecosystem responds to COVID-19

In March, the virus gripping the world — COVID-19 — started to spread in Africa. In short order, actors across the continent’s tech ecosystem began to step up to stem the spread.

Early in March Africa’s coronavirus cases by country were in the single digits, but by mid-month those numbers had spiked leading the World Health Organization to sound an alarm.

“About 10 days ago we had 5 countries affected, now we’ve got 30,” WHO Regional Director Dr Matshidiso Moeti said at a press conference on March 19. “It’s has been an extremely rapid…evolution.” 

By the World Health Organization’s stats Tuesday there were 3671 COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa and 87 confirmed deaths related to the virus — up from 463 cases and 8 deaths on March 18.

As the COVID-19 began to grow in major economies, governments and startups in Africa started measures to shift a greater volume of transactions toward digital payments and away from cash — which the World Health Organization flagged as a conduit for the spread of the coronavirus.

Africa’s leader in digital payment adoption — Kenya — turned to mobile-money as a public-health tool.

At the urging of the Central Bank and President Uhuru Kenyatta, the country’s largest telecom, Safaricom, implemented a fee-waiver on East Africa’s leading mobile-money product, M-Pesa, to reduce the physical exchange of currency.

The company announced that all person-to-person (P2P) transactions under 1,000 Kenyan Schillings (≈ $10) would be free for three months.

Kenya has one of the highest rates of digital finance adoption in the world — largely due to the dominance of M-Pesa  in the country — with 32 million of its 53 million population subscribed to mobile-money accounts, according to Kenya’s Communications Authority.

On March 20, Ghana’s central bank directed mobile money providers to waive fees on transactions of GH₵100 (≈ $18), with restrictions on transactions to withdraw cash from mobile-wallets.

Ghana’s monetary body also eased KYC requirements on mobile-money, allowing citizens to use existing mobile phone registrations to open accounts with the major digital payment providers, according to a March 18 Bank of Ghana release.

Growth in COVID-19 cases in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation of 200 million, prompted one of the country’s largest digital payments startups to act.

Lagos based venture Paga made fee adjustments, allowing merchants to accept payments from Paga customers for free — a measure “aimed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus by reducing cash handling in Nigeria,” according to a company release.

In March, Africa’s largest innovation incubator, CcHub, announced funding and engineering support to tech projects aimed at curbing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact.

The Lagos and Nairobi based organization posted an open application on its website to provide $5,000 to $100,000 funding blocks to companies with COVID-19 related projects.

CcHub’s CEO Bosun Tijani expressed concern for Africa’s ability to combat a coronavirus outbreak. “Quite a number of African countries, if they get to the level of Italy or the UK, I don’t think the system… is resilient enough to provide support to something like that,” Tijani said.

Cape Town based crowdsolving startup Zindi — that uses AI and machine learning to tackle complex problems — opened a challenge to the 12,000 registered engineers on its platform.

The competition, sponsored by AI4D, tasks scientists to create models that can use data to predict the global spread of COVID-19 over the next three months. The challenge is open until April 19, solutions will be evaluated against future numbers and the winner will receive $5,000.

Zindi will also sponsor a hackathon in April to find solutions to coronavirus related problems.

Image Credits: Sam Masikini via Zindi

On the digital retail front, Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia announced measures it would take on its network to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Nigeria headquartered operation — with online goods and services verticals in 11 African countries — said it would donate certified face masks to health ministries in Kenya, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria and Uganda, drawing on its supply networks outside Africa.

The company has also offered African governments use of of its last-mile delivery network for distribution of supplies to healthcare facilities and workers.

Jumia is reviewing additional assets it can offer the public sector. “If governments find it helpful we’re willing to do it,” CEO Sacha Poignonnec told TechCrunch.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

#africa, #articles, #artificial-intelligence, #bank, #bosun-tijani, #broadband, #ceo, #coronavirus, #e-commerce, #east-africa, #economy, #ghana, #italy, #jumia, #kenya, #lagos, #leader, #m-pesa, #machine-learning, #mobile-payment, #mobile-phone, #morocco, #nairobi, #nigeria, #p2p, #president, #sacha-poignonnec, #safaricom, #tc, #telecommunications, #uganda, #united-kingdom, #vodafone, #world-health-organization

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Telecom operators in India warn people of coronavirus outbreak, share tips

Telecom operators in India have started to warn users of Covid-19 spread after more than three dozen cases have been detected in the nation.

Subscribers of Reliance Jio, Airtel, and state-run BSNL were greeted with a warning in Hindi and English when they attempted to make a phone call on Sunday. The message, locally known as “caller tune,” plays instead of regular phone ring.

“Always protect your face with a handkerchief or tissue while coughing or sneezing. Regularly clean hands with soap. Avoid touching your face, eyes, or nose. If someone has cough, fever, or breathlessness maintain one metre distance. If needed, visit your nearest health centre immediately,” the pre-recorded message said.

Vodafone, the top telecom operator in India, is in the process of implementing the warning message, while Airtel is looking to broaden the reach of its alert, people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The initiative is being overseen by the nation’s ministries of health and telecommunications.

The coronavirus outbreak, which has made severe impact in many industries worldwide, is beginning to disrupt several businesses and livelihoods in India as well. Solar companies, and manufacturing and pharmaceutical firms, all of which source materials from China, are looking at the government for help.

To date, 43 cases of Covid-19 have been detected in the nation, three of whom have recovered fully.

A handful of firms have also advised their employees to work from home, in line with recent actions of several American giants. Financial services startup Paytm urged its employees in Noida and Gurgaon last week to not come to the office after one of the employees was tested positive with the new virus.

Chennai-headquartered cloud services firm Zoho told all its employees to work from home out of abundance of caution. IT conglomerate Tech Mahindra has made a similar push.

#airtel, #asia, #paytm, #tech-mahindra, #vodafone, #zoho

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