WorldCover raises $6M round for emerging markets climate insurance

WorldCover, a New York and Africa-based climate insurance provider to smallholder farmers, has raised a $6 million Series A round led by MS&AD Ventures.

Y-Combinator, Western Technology Investment, and EchoVC also participated in the round.

WorldCover’s platform uses satellite imagery, on-ground sensors, mobile phones, and data analytics to create insurance options for farmers whose crops yields are affected adversely by weather events—primarily lack of rain.

The startup currently operates in Ghana, Uganda, and Kenya . With the new funding WorldCover aims to expand its insurance offerings to more emerging market countries.

“We’re looking at India, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia. India could be first on an 18 month timeline for a launch,” WorldCover co-founder and chief executive Chris Sheehan said in an interview.

The company has served over 30,000 farmers across its Africa operations. Smallholder farmers as those earning all or nearly all of their income from agriculture, farming on 10 to 20 acres of land, and earning around $500 to $5000, according to Sheehan.

Farmer’s connect to WorldCover by creating an account on its USSD mobile app. From there they can input their region, crop type, determine how much insurance they would like to buy and use mobile money to purchase a plan. WorldCover works with payments providers such as M-Pesa in Kenya and MTN Mobile Money in Ghana.

The service works on a sliding scale, where a customer can receive anywhere from 5x to 15x the amount of premium they have paid.  If there is an adverse weather event, namely lack of rain, the farmer can file claim via mobile phone. WorldCover then uses its data-analytics metrics to assess it, and if approved, the farmer will receive an insurance payment via mobile-money.

Common crops farmed by WorldCover clients include maize, rice, and peanuts. It looks to add coffee, cocoa, and cashews to its coverage list.

For the moment, WorldCover only insures for events such as rainfall risk, but in the future it will look to include other weather events, such as tropical storms, in its insurance programs and platform data-analytics.

The startup’s founder clarified that WorldCover’s model does not assess or provide insurance payouts specifically for climate change, though it does directly connect to the company’s business.

“We insure for adverse weather events that we believe climate change factors are exacerbating,” Sheehan explained. WorldCover also resells the risk of its policy-holders to global reinsurers, such as Swiss Re and Nephila.

On the potential market size for WordCover’s business, he highlights a 2018 Lloyd’s study that identified $163 billion of assets at risk, including agriculture, in emerging markets from negative, climate change related events.

“That’s what WorldCover wants to go after…These are the kind of micro-systemic risks we think we can model and then create a micro product for a smallholder farmer that they can understand and will give them protection,” he said.

With the round, the startup will look to possibilities to update its platform to offer farming advice to smallholder farmers, in addition to insurance coverage.

WorldCover investor and EchoVC founder Eghosa Omoigui believes the startup’s insurance offerings can actually help farmers improve yield. “Weather-risk drives a lot of decisions with these farmers on what to plant, when to plant, and how much to plant,” he said. “With the crop insurance option, the farmer says, ‘Instead of one hector, I can now plant two or three, because I’m covered.”

Insurance technologyis another sector in Africa’s tech landscape filling up with venture-backed startups. Other insurance startups focusing on agriculture include Accion Venture Lab backed Pula and South Africa based Mobbisurance.

With its new round and plans for global expansion, WorldCover joins a growing list of startups that have developed business models in Africa before raising rounds toward entering new markets abroad.

In 2018, Nigerian payment startup Paga announced plans to move into Asia and Latin America after raising $10 million. In 2019, South African tech-transit startup FlexClub partnered with Uber Mexico after a seed-raise. And Lagos based fintech startup TeamAPT announced in Q1 it was looking to expand globally after a $5 million Series A round.

 

 

India unseats China as Asia’s top fintech funding source

China’s massive fintech industry took a beating in recent months as the government continued to wind down online lending nationwide, rattling investor confidence.

Funding for fintech startups shrank 87.6 percent year-over-year to $192.1 million during the first quarter of 2019, a new report from data provider CB Insights shows. India, which recorded $285.6 million raised for fintech startups in the period, overtook China to be Asia’s top fundraising hub for financial technology. Both countries clocked in 29 fintech deals, suggesting a cooling investor sentiment in China which saw its height of 76 deals just three quarters ago.

cb insights china q1

Chart: CB Insights

The plunge in China has followed on the heels of tightened regulation around online lending, suggests CB Insights . Over the past few years, China has rolled out a flurry of measures to rein in financial risks arising from its fledgling online lending industry. Peer-to-peer lending, which matches an individual looking for a loan with someone looking to invest, has been the top target in a wave of government crackdowns.

This kind of service offers credit to unbanked individuals who cannot otherwise get loans in a country without a mature unified credit system. But a lack of oversight led to rampant frauds across the board. Thousands of peer-to-peer lending sites shut down due to increased regulation, which is estimated to leave as few as 300 players on the market by the end of 2019, Shanghai-based research firm Yingcai forecasted.

Like China, India’s enthusiasm for finance technology is in part a result of the country’s lack of financial infrastructure. Lending startups are gathering steam as they, like their Chinese counterparts, tailor services to the country’s large unbanked and underbanked consumers and enterprises. Moves from tech leaders are also set to send ripples through the rest of the industry. Amazon finally followed its rivals Paytm, Google Pay and PhonePe to start offering peer-to-peer payments in the country. Walmart is closely watching how Flipkart, which it bought out last year, applies data to payments solution.

cb insights china q1

Chart: CB Insights

Despite the setback in online lending, a new form of consumer-facing financing vehicle — so-called mutual aid platforms that let patients crowdfund for serious diseases — is enjoying an early boom in China, CB Insights noted in its report. As with peer-to-peer lending, internet-powered mutual aid is trying to fill gaps in a traditional industry. Though most Chinese people are part of a national public insurance scheme, surgical bills can easily bring down an average family.

The top two performers in the sector are unsurprisingly from the top two opposing camps in China’s tech world. Shuidihuzhu, which translates as “water drop mutual help” in Chinese, counts Tencent as a major investor. Users contribute as little as half a cent to a pool of funds that pays out when a patient needs financial aid. The three-year-old platform, which leverages Tencent’s billion-user WeChat messenger to sign up members, claims it has attracted 78.8 million users and paid out nearly 440 million yuan $65.34 million to more than 3,100 families so far.

Shuidihuzhu’s rival, which is called Xiang Hu Bao and means “mutual protection”, is run by Alibaba’s affiliate e-wallet Alipay. Launched only last September, the service said it had acquired over 50 million users by April and had set itself up for an ambitious goal: to reach low-income groups who can’t afford the premiums and advance payments attached to traditional health insurance and to acquire 300 million users in the next two years. That means almost a third of Alipay users, most of whom live in Chia. By the end of 2018, the digital wallet had over 1 billion annual users worldwide.

Singapore’s SalesWhale raises $5.3M to bring AI to sales and marketing teams

SalesWhale, a Singapore-based startup that uses AI to help marketers and salespeople generate leads, has announced a Series A round worth $5.3 million.

The investment is led by Monk’s Hill Ventures — the Southeast Asia-focused firm that led SalesWhale’s seed round in 2017 — with participation from existing backers GREE Ventures, Wavemaker Partners and Y Combinator. That’s right, SalesWhale is one a select few Southeast Asian startups to have been through YC, it graduated back in summer 2016.

SalesWhale — which calls itself “a conversational email marketing platform” — uses AI-powered “bots” to handle email. In this case, its digital workforce is trained for sales leads. That means both covering the menial parts of arranging meetings and coordination, and the more proactive side of engaging old and new leads.

Back when we last wrote about the startup in 2017, it had just half a dozen staff. Fast-forward two years and that number has grown to 28, CEO Gabriel Lim explained in an interview. The company is going after more growth with this Series A money, and Lim expects headcount to jump past 70; SalesWhale is deliberating opening an office in California. That location would be primarily to encourage new business and increase communication and support for existing clients, most of whom are located in the U.S., according to Lim. Other hires will be tasked with increasing integration with third-party platforms, and particularly sales and enterprise services.

The past two years have also seen SalesWhale switch gears and go from targeting startups as customers, to working with mid-market and enterprise firms. SalesWhale’s “hundreds” of customers include recruiter Randstad, educational company General Assembly and enterprise service business Unit4. As it has added greater complexity to its service, so the income has jumped from an initial $39-$99 per seat all those years ago to more than $1,000 per month for enterprise customers.

SalesWhale’s founding team (left to right): Venus Wong, Ethan Lee and Gabriel Lim

While AI is a (genuine) threat to many human jobs, SalesWhale sits on the opposite side of that problem in that it actually helps human employees get more work done. That’s to say that SalesWhale’s service can get stuck into a pile (or spreadsheet) of leads that human staff don’t have time for, begin reaching out, qualifying leads and sending them on to living and breathing colleagues to take forward.

“A lot of potential leads aren’t touched” by existing human teams, Lim reflected.

But when SalesWhale reps do get involved, they are often not recognized as the bots they are.

“Customers are often so convinced they are chatting with a human — who is sending collateral, PDFs and arranging meetings — that they’ll say things like ‘I’d love to come by and visit someday,’ ” Lim joked in an interview.

“Indeed, a lot of times, sales team refer to [SalesWale-powered] sales assistant like they are a real human colleague,” he added.

Consumers get another digital home health offering as Tyto Care and Best Buy launch TytoHome

Best Buy is partnering with the Israeli technology Tyto Care to become the official retailer for the company’s all-in-one digital diagnostics kit through its physical stores in California, the Dakotas, Ohio and Minnesota and through its online store.

Tyto previously sold its technology through healthcare plans, making its handheld examination device with attachments that act as a thermometer, a stethoscope, an otoscope and a tongue depressor available to families with insurance that wanted to reduce the cost of checkups through remote monitoring. The company’s handheld device comes with an exam camera so it can prompt users on where to position the device to get the most accurate readings.

 

Now, through Best Buy, consumers can buy the company’s kit for $299.99. Through a partnership with American Well, users of the TytoHome kit have access to the company’s LiveHealth Online consultation service (if they live outside of Minnesota or the Dakotas). Which means patients can use the device to perform a medical exam and send the information to a physician for a diagnosis any time of the day or night.

As part of the deal, Tyto Care is partnering with additional regional health care systems to provide medical care to consumers throughout the country. The first is Sanford Health, a Minnesota-based not-for-profit health system operating in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. 

For Best Buy the move builds on the company’s attempts to move quickly into providing digital healthcare services just like it provides technical support through its Geek Squad.

Last year the company bought GreatCall, which sells connected health and emergency response services to the AARP crowd.

“We’re excited to partner with Best Buy, LiveHealth Online, American Well and regional health systems to extend our on-demand telehealth platform across the U.S., enhancing primary care delivery,” said Dedi Gilad, the chief executive and co-founder of Tyto Care, in a statement.

The company, based in Herzliya, Israel, has raised $56.7 million to date from investors including Sanford Health, the Japanese Itochu Corp., Shenzhen Capital Group, Ping An, LionBird, Fosun Group, Orbimed and Walgreens.

The company said at the time that it would use the cash to expand in the U.S. and to other international markets in Asia and Europe.

“These strategic partnerships will enable us to gain further momentum and accelerate our growth, deepening our foothold in the U.S. and other new strategic markets,” said GiladTyto Care said in a statement at the time.

China’s grocery delivery battle heats up with Meituan’s entry

Fast, affordable food delivery service has been life-changing for many working Chinese, but some still prefer to whip up their own meals. These people may not have the time to pick up fresh ingredients from brick-and-mortar stores, so China’s startups and large companies are trying to make home-cooked meals more effortless for busy workers by sending vegetables and meats to apartment doors.

The fresh grocery sector in China recorded 4.93 trillion yuan ($730 billion) in total sales last year, growing steadily from 3.37 trillion yuan in 2012 according to data collected by Euromonitor and Hua Chuang Securities. Most of these transactions still happen inside wet markets and supermarkets, leaving online retail, which accounted for only 3 percent of total grocery sales in 2016, much room for growth.

Ecommerce leaders Alibaba and JD.com have already added grocery to their comprehensive online shopping malls, nestling in the market with more focused players like Tencent-backed MissFresh (每日优鲜), which has raised $1.4 billion to date. The field has just grown a little more crowded with new entrant Meituan, the Tencent-backed food delivery and hotel booking giant that raised $4.2 billion through a Hong Kong listing last year.

meituan grocery

Screenshots of the Meituan Maicai app / Image: Meituan Maicai

The service, which comes in a new app called “Meituan Maicai” or Meituan grocery shopping that’s separate from the company’s all-in-one app, set out in Shanghai in January before it muscled into Beijing last week. The move follows Meituan’s announcement in its mid-2018 financial report to get in on grocery delivery.

Meituan’s solution to take grocery the last mile is not too different from those of its peers. Users pick from its 1,500 stock keeping units ranging from yogurt to pork loin, fill their in-app shopping carts and pay via their phones, the firm told TechCrunch. Meituan then dispatches its delivery fleets to people’s doors in as little as 30 minutes.

The instant delivery is made possible by a satellite of physical “service stations” across neighborhoods that serve warehousing, packaging and delivering purposes. Placing offline hubs alongside customers also allows data-driven internet firms to optimize warehouse stocking based on local user preferences. For instance, people from an upscale residential area probably eat and shop differently from those in other parts of the city.

Meituan’s foray into grocery shopping further intensifies its battle with Alibaba to control how Chinese people eat. Alibaba’s Hema Supermarket has been running on a similar setup that uses its neighborhood stores as warehouses and fulfillment centers to facilitate 30-minute delivery within a three-kilometer radius. For years, Meituan’s food delivery arm has been going neck-and-neck with Ele.me, which Alibaba scooped up last year. More recently, Alibaba and Meituan are racing to get restaurants to sign up for their proprietary software, which can supposedly give owners more insights into diners and beef up customer engagement.

As part of its goal to be an “everything” app, Meituan has tried out many new initiatives in the lead-up to its initial public offering but was also quick to put them on hold. The firm acquired bike-sharing service Mobike last April only to shutter its operations across Asia in less than a year for cost-saving. Meituan also paused expansion on its much-anticipated ride-hailing business.

But grocery delivery appears to be closer to Meituan’s heart, the “eating” business, to put in its own words. Meituan is tapping its existing infrastructure to get the job done, for example, by summoning its food delivery drivers to serve the grocery service during peak hours. As the company noted in its earnings report last year, the grocery segment could leverage its “massive user base and existing world’s largest intra-city on-demand delivery network.”

Alibaba and Amazon move over, we visited JD’s connected grocery store in China

The FT is buying another media startup: Deal Street Asia

Fresh from picking up a majority stake in Europe-based The Next Web, the Financial Times is buying another tech blog. The newspaper, which was founded in 1888, is adding Singapore-based Deal Street Asia to its roster with a deal expected to close in April, according to three sources with knowledge of discussions.

Founded in 2014 by Indian journalists Joji Thomas Philip and Sushobhan Mukherjee, Deal Street Asia mixes Asia startup news with updates from Asia’s financial markets and business verticals. It has around a dozen reporters across Southeast Asia and India, as well as a license to use content from wires. Its investors include Singapore Press Holdings, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the founder of Alibaba-backed Paytm, the Singapore Angel Network and Hindustan Times, the Indian media firm that operates Mint, which is a Deal Street Asia content partner.

The company never disclosed its total fundraising, although TechCrunch wrote about an undisclosed round that closed in late 2015.

The deal is led by Nikkei, the Japanese parent of the FT, which has agreed to buy at least one-third of Deal Street Asia, one source told TechCrunch, but the total stake could reach 51 percent (as was the case with The Next Web) depending on which investors decide to sell. A separate source said the investment is worth at least $5 million. That would represent a positive return for all investors with early backers potentially banking 4-5X. That’s a pretty handsome result for an investment in a media business, which are often efforts to spark an ecosystem or at least include a lower expectation on a return.

“The FT is not involved in plans to acquire Deal Street Asia,” an FT spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Deal Street Asia declined to comment. At the time of writing, Nikkei’s press department had not responded to a request for comment that was sent yesterday at 20:31 Japanese time.

TechCrunch understands that the deal for Deal Street Asia will be similar to that of The Next Web. That’s to say that one of the primary interests is adding the company’s events business to its roster to help to break into the conference scene in Southeast Asia.

Deal Street Asia’s events are targeted at a business crowd. For example, its main summit in Singapore in September costs upwards of $1,000 and features senior executives from the likes of DBS, Grab, Sea, GGV, Allianz and IFC.

The startup uses a subscription business for its website, which is priced upwards of $89 for three months of complete access. Its paywall is a selective one that keeps some stories locked for subscribers, whilst others are left open for all readers.

Deal Street Asia’s upcoming Asia PE-VC Summit takes place in Singapore in September

This far from it for the FT in terms of deals. TechCrunch understands that the company is actively seeking acquisition and investment opportunities in media startups across the world. Beyond augmenting its existing events business, one source told TechCrunch that the FT is considering a new media subscription business which could bundle some of its acquisitions together. That’s very much an ongoing work in progress as seeks additional deals to plump up that potential subscription offering.

Aside from The Next Web and Deal Street Asia, the FT has acquired content startup AlphaGrid, intelligence service GIS Planning and research firm Longitude. The FT itself was bought by Nikkei from previous owner Pearson for $1.3 billion in 2015.

Disclaimer: The author is a former employee of The Next Web

Pi Day wasn’t pleasant for a lot of tech execs

Pi Day is apparently New Job day for tech execs and VCs these days.

Leaving: Lee Fixel

It’s not every day that one of the top VC investors heads out from their shop. TechCrunch’s @cookie aka Connie Loizos has the story:

Lee Fixel, the low-flying head of Tiger Global’s private equity business, is leaving at the end of June, the firm announced today in a letter sent to clients and seen by Reuters . Scott Shleifer and Chase Coleman will continue as co-managers of the portfolios Fixel has overseen, with Shleifer taking over as its head, according to the letter.

Fixel, 39, is reportedly planning to invest his own money and “may start an investment firm in the future,” Tiger Global wrote in the letter.

Tiger Global has become a major force in late-stage investing. As I wrote last fall, it is also part of a small coterie of investment firms which have pushed their portfolio companies to IPO with reasonable speed (the other firm I noted at the time was Benchmark).

One challenge for Tiger has been the rise of the SoftBank Vision Fund, which has driven up valuations for startups and has almost certainly complicated the return profile of many of Tiger’s investments. The two also share a penchant for investing internationally, where Tiger had almost a monopoly position before the Vision Fund burst on the scene.

Another wrinkle worth tracking is the increasing opposition of Indian founders to both Tiger (and specifically Fixel) and SoftBank. As I wrote in the newsletter just a few weeks ago:

There is a clear lack of trust between India’s startup and venture communities, which ultimately threatens the sustainability and growth outlook of the country’s tech sector.

But a solution to the problem is not so cut and dry. Mega growth funds like SoftBank and Tiger Global have given limited control to their Indian portfolio companies and have forced their hands on numerous occasions. Yet Ola’s avoidance of SoftBank has led to lower valuations and more difficult and lengthier fundraising processes.

Leaving: Chris Cox & Chris Daniels

Facebook’s chief product officer is leaving along with Chris Daniels, the VP of WhatsApp. TechCrunch’s Josh Constine summarized the situation:

The changes solidify that Facebook is entering a new era as it chases the trend of feed sharing giving way to private communication. Cox and Daniels may feel they’ve done their part advancing Facebook’s product, and that the company needs renewed energy as it shifts from a relentless growth focus to keeping its users loyal while learning to monetize a new from of social networking.

There has been much ink spilled here about what this all means strategically, but I do think that there are no good times for prominent 13-year and 8-year veterans to leave their positions. Zuckerberg seems ready to begin a whole new era for Facebook, and perhaps neither wanted to make the multi-year commitment that his new vision entails.

That, or Cox unplugged the servers yesterday.

Leaving (America): Jay Jorgensen

A very rare move from the United States to Korea for a senior exec, from TechCrunch’s Catherine Shu:

Coupang, the unicorn that is defining e-commerce in Korea, announced today that it has hired Jay Jorgensen, Walmart’s former global chief ethics and compliance officer, to serve as its general counsel and chief compliance officer. Jorgensen will relocate to Seoul for the position.

Founded in 2010, with a total of $3.4 billion raised from investors, including SoftBank, and a valuation of $9 billion, Coupang currently operates only in Korea, where it is the largest e-commerce player, but has offices in Seoul, Beijing, Los Angeles, Mountain View, Seattle and Shanghai.

Coupang has been the outlier success of the Korean startup ecosystem for the past few years. The company’s founder, Bom Kim, who holds a bachelor’s and an MBA from Harvard, has worked to apply American management models to Coupang, attempting to eschew the insular culture typical of Korea’s technology companies. Clearly, that vision is drawing international talent.

Staying: Zachary Kirkhorn

Tesla is getting some financial help from itself, from TechCrunch’s Kirsten Korosec:

The automaker officially tapped as its next chief financial officer Zachary Kirkhorn, a longtime employee who has been part of the automaker’s finance team for nine years, according to securities filings posted Thursday. The automaker also appointed Vaibhav Taneja, who led the integration of Tesla and SolarCity’s accounting teams, as its chief accounting officer. Taneja, who will report to Kirkhorn, will oversee corporate financial reporting, global accounting functions and personnel.

No telling whether Kirkhorn knows how to blow a whistle though….

No Longer Admitted: Bill McGlashan

Sometimes when you venture to make an investment, it doesn’t always pan out, from Maggie Fitzgerald at CNBC:

TPG’s Bill McGlashan was fired from the private equity firm on Thursday amid the massive college cheating scandal.

McGlashan, 55, has been terminated for cause from his positions with TPG and Rise effective immediately.

“After reviewing the allegations of personal misconduct in the criminal complaint, we believe the behavior described to be inexcusable and antithetical to the values of our entire organization,” said a TPG spokesperson.

McGlashan founded TPG Growth, which has had a litany of successes investing in later-stage startups such as Airbnb.

Leaving (but not by choice): Bird employees

Once high-flying and now somewhat not as high-flying scooter startup Bird announced that it was laying off around 40 employees. From TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey:

“As we establish local service centers and deeper roots in cities where we provide service, we have shifting geographic workforce needs,” a Bird spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We are expanding our employee bases in locations that match our growing operations around the world, while developing an efficient operating structure at our Santa Monica headquarters. The recent events are a reflection of shifting geographical needs and our annual talent review process.”

I hope they flip them the Bird on the way out.

India fintech and the growing proxy war between global tech giants

Photo by anand purohit via Getty Images

Written by Arman Tabatabai

South African media conglomerate and investment giant Naspers is reportedly planning to invest $1 billion in India this year.

According to reports earlier this week, Naspers is looking towards India’s budding fintech market in particular to unload the fresh pile of dough it’s sitting on after recently lowering its stake in Tencent and cashing out on Walmart’s $16 billion acquisition of portfolio company Flipkart last year.

The fintech heavy thesis directionally makes sense in the context of Naspers’ broader strategy. Naspers has openly discussed its attraction to India’s financial services market and the company already has an established footprint in the region as the owner of payments platform PayU.

That said, the amount Naspers is reportedly looking to gift in just one year is astounding. Indian fintech startups saw around $2.6 billion of investment in 2018 according to Pitchbook. Naspers’ investment alone would represent a 40% spike in India’s total fintech venture capital.

Though one billion dollars in one year may seem ambitious, Naspers has proven it’s not afraid to pour billions into India and emerging verticals, having just led a $1 billion round in Indian food delivery startup Swiggy only a few months ago.

More importantly, Naspers’ push shows that the company is seriously doubling down in the escalating competition to become the dominant force in India’s booming fintech ecosystem. As we discussed in our recent conversation with Billionaire Raj author James Crabtree, India’s financial system is ripe for disruption. With secular tailwinds like growing mobile penetration and financial literacy, innovative financial models in India have begun leap-frogging traditional institutions, with Google and Boston Consulting Group even forecasting that the market for digital payments in India would reach $500 billion in size by 2020.

And many have taken notice — the number of fintech investments in India has grown at a 200%-plus compound annual growth rate over the last five years, according to data from Pitchbook, as leading investors and global tech powerhouses all battle to become the layer of financial infrastructure on which the future Indian economy sits.

A recent deep dive in the WSJ highlighted how crowded the ongoing fight for Indian payments dominance has become in the context of Paytm, an Indian startup that received a $1.4 billion investment from venture behemoth SoftBank:

The Indian market is one worth fighting for, with hundreds of millions of Indians getting online and starting to transact for the first time, thanks to plummeting prices for mobile data and smartphones.

Digital payments in India are soaring” and “set to explode,” Credit Suisse said in a February research note. They should rise nearly five times to $1 trillion by 2023, the report said…

…Meanwhile, it isn’t just Google and WhatsApp challenging Paytm . Indian e-commerce titan Flipkart, in which Walmart Inc. bought a controlling stake for $16 billion earlier this year, has a popular payments service called PhonePe. Amazon.com Inc. has its own payments service and two of India’s biggest telecom players, Bharti Airtel Ltd. and Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd., offer digital wallets, as well.”

Next to peers like Alibaba, SoftBank, or Google, Naspers can often seem like the biggest tech company no one has ever heard of. But if its latest swan dive into India can help Naspers strike gold — as it did with its early investment in Tencent — it might just become the company powering the next economies of the world.

Thanks

To every member of Extra Crunch: thank you. You allow us to get off the ad-laden media churn conveyor belt and spend quality time on amazing ideas, people, and companies. If I can ever be of assistance, hit reply, or send an email to danny@techcrunch.com.

This newsletter is written with the assistance of Arman Tabatabai from New York

500 Startups Japan becomes Coral Capital with a new $45M fund

The 500 Startups Japan crew is going independent. The VC firm announced a $30 million fund in 2015, and now the follow up is a new $45 million fund called Coral Capital.

Helmed by James Riney and Yohei Sawayama, just like 500 Startups Japan, Coral will essentially continue the work the U.S. firm made in Japan, where it made more than 40 investments including Kakehashi, satellite startup Infostellar, SmartHR and Pocket Concierge, which was acquired by American Express.

“Coral provides a foundational role within the marine ecosystem, it’s symbolic about how we want to be in the Japanese startup ecosystem,” Riney told TechCrunch in an interview.

LPs in the fund include 500 Startups backers Mizuho Bank, Mitsubishi Estate, and Taizo Son — the brother of SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son and founder of Mistletoe — and Shinsei Bank as well as other undisclosed institutional investors, who Riney said account for nearly half of the LPs. Riney said the fund was closed within two and a half months of fundraising and Coral had to turn some prospective investors away due to the overall interest shown.

Riney said that the scandals around 500 Startups — founding partner Dave McClure resigned in 2017 after admitting he’d been a “creep” around women — “wasn’t really a strong consideration” for starting Coral.

“It’s something we’d been wanting to do for a while,” he explained.

Coral Capital founding partners James Riney and Yohei Sawayama previously led 500 Startups Japan

Riney explained that Coral won’t mix in with 500 Startups Japan investments, and the team will continue to manage that portfolio whilst also running the fund.

Thesis-wise, the plan is to continue on from 500 Startups Japan, that means going after early stage deals across the board. Riney said that over the last four years, he’s seen more founders leave stable jobs and start companies which bodes well for Japan’s startup ecosystem.

“Now you’re seeing people more into their careers who see entrepreneurism as a way to fundamentally change their industry,” he said in an interview. “That bucks the trend of risk aversion in Japan which is commonly the perception.”

He sees the arrival of Coral as an opportunity to continue to push startup culture in Japan, a country well known for massive corporations and company jobs with an absence of early stage capital options for founders.

“There’s a lot of work we can do and the impact we can make in Japan is much higher than in somewhere like Silicon Valley,” Riney said.

“Pretty much every corporate has a startup program, but few of them are strong leads within seed or early stage deals, they tend to feel more comfortable in later stage investments. There have been investors investing on behalf of corporations who got the courage to spin out and go alone… but it is still much much fewer than other countries,” he added.

China’s YY eyes overseas live streaming with $1.45B Bigo buyout

One of China’s top live streaming companies YY bought a stake and obtained the right to purchase a majority share in Bigo last June, and now the other shoe has dropped after YY fully acquired the Singapore-based startup behind live streaming app Bigo Live and short-video service Like.

That’s according to an announcement YY made on Monday, which disclosed it has bought out the remaining 68.3 percent of all the issued and outstanding shares of Bigo for a price tag of about $1.45 billion.

Bigo’s connection to YY is deep-rooted. Li Xueling, a veteran Chinese journalist who’s also known as David Li, founded YY in 2005 well before the heyday of mobile-based live streaming apps. With the intent to bring the China-tested business to overseas markets, Li started Bigo in 2016 to replicate YY’s lucrative revenue model where the platform operator takes a cut whenever viewers reward streamers with virtual gifts, which can be cashed out.

YY racked up $675 million in net revenues and a net income of around $100 million from the fourth quarter of 2018, its latest earnings report shows.

The Bigo buyout is set to be a huge boost to YY’s international ambitions as its home market has been divided up between YY itself, its spin-off Huya that focuses on esports streaming and Huya’s archrival Douyu. Curiously, both Douyu and Huya are backed by Tencent, the company best known for the WeChat messenger but is also China’s largest games publisher.

To bring the domestic rivalry into perspective, Nasdaq-listed YY recorded a monthly mobile user base of 90.4 million in the fourth quarter. Huya, which priced its U.S. initial public offering at $180 million last August, posted a monthly of 50.7 million users from the same period. Douyu hasn’t recently unveiled its size as the company is reportedly mulling to go public in the U.S., but third-party data analytics company QuestMobile put its MAU in December at 43 million.

“We are very excited to announce the completion of the acquisition of Bigo. It is an important milestone for YY group which demonstrated our confidence and commitment to the globalization strategy,” said Li of YY in a statement.

Huya and Douyu have also ventured beyond China for new growth with their respective overseas brands Nimo TV and Nonolive. In its Q4 earnings report, Huya singled out foreign markets as one area of focus in 2019 and its Nimo already enjoys having a powerful ally, Tencent, which signed an agreement last July to help it with gaming content and brand recognition.

nimo tv

Huya’s overseas brand Nimo TV

“In addition to our vigorous domestic growth, we have successfully leveraged our unique business model to enter new overseas markets,” said chief executive Dong Rongjie. “We believe we are delivering long-term value through strategic investments in overseas markets in 2019 and beyond.”

While anchoring in Southeast Asia, Bigo has debuted in over 100 countries worldwide and been in the top ten of Apple’s app store not just in neighboring countries like Vietnam and Cambodia but also in Paraguay, Yeman and Angola, according to data collected by app tracking service App Annie. Growth in India has been particularly strong this year as the country captured 32 percent of Bigo’s 11 million new Android users who downloaded the app via Google Play between January and February, according to data provided by SensorTower.

Li estimated in 2017 that Bigo was generating an annual revenue of $300 million at the time. Bigo claims 200 million registered users to date with MAUs reaching almost 37 million worldwide. Its popularity has, however, gone hand in hand with its reputation for hosting offensive content, but the startup has assured it deploys resources to closely screen content. Back in China, YY, Huya, Douyu and the likes are constantly grappling with the government’s tightening grip over online information, which puts the burden on media companies to keep a robust content monitoring team to not only rid illegal videos but also parse the country’s opaque definition of what’s considered “inappropriate”.

Update (March 5, 2019, 13:00pm): Added details on Bigo’s growth and Huya’s overseas expansion

Sebastian Thrun initiates aggressive plan to transform Udacity

“I’m a fighter. I believe in our people, I believe in our mission, and I believe that it should exist and must exist.”

Sebastian Thrun is talking animatedly about Udacity, the $1 billion online education startup that he co-founded nearly eight years ago. His tone is buoyant and hopeful. He’s encouraged, he says over an occasionally crackly phone call, about the progress the company has made in such a short time. There’s even a new interim COO, former HP and GE executive Lalit Singh, who joined just days ago to help Thrun execute this newly formed strategy.

That wasn’t the case four weeks ago.

In a lengthy email, obtained by TechCrunch, Thrun lobbed an impassioned missive to the entire company, which specializes in “nanodegrees” on a range of technical subjects that include AI, deep learning, digital marketing, VR and computer vision.

It was, at times, raw, personal and heartfelt, with Thrun accepting blame for missteps or admitting he was sleeping less than four hours a night; in other spots the email felt like a pep talk delivered by a coach, encouraging his team by noting their spirit and tenacity. There were moments when he exhibited frustration for the company’s timidness, declaring “our plans are ridden of fear, of trepidation, we truly suck!” And moments just as conciliatory, where he noted that “I know every one of you wants to double down on student success. I love this about us.”

Thrun has sent spirited emails before. Insiders say it’s not uncommon and that as a mission-driven guy he often calls on employees to take risks and be creative. But this one stood out for its underlying message.

If there was a theme in the email, it was an existential one: We must act, and act now or face annihilation.

“It was a rallying cry, to be honest,” Thrun told TechCrunch. “When I wrote this email, I really wanted to wake up people to the fact that our trajectory was not long-term tenable.”

“I can tell you that I woke up the troops, that is absolutely sure,” he said later. “Whether my strategy is sound, only time can tell.”

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 at Pier 48 on September 19, 2017 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Thrun said the past month has been transformative for the company. “It was a tough moment when I had to look at the business, look at the financials, look at the people in the company,” Thrun said, adding, “And the people in the company are amazing. I really believe in them, and I believe that they’re all behind the mission.”

A tough year

Part of Udacity’s struggles were borne out of its last funding round in 2015, when it raised $105 million and became a unicorn. That round and the valuation set high expectations for growth and revenue.

But the company started hitting those targets and 2017 became a breakout year.

After a booming 2017 — with revenue growing 100 percent year-over-year thanks to some popular programs like its self-driving car and deep learning nanodegrees and the culmination of a previous turnaround plan architected by former CMO Shernaz Daver — the following year fizzled. Its consumer business began to shrink, and while the production quality of its educational videos increased, the volume slowed.

“In 2018, we didn’t have a single a blockbuster,” Thrun said. “There’s nothing you can point to and say, ‘Wow, Udacity had a blockbuster.’ “

By comparison, the self-driving car engineering nanodegree not only was a hit, it produced a successful new company. Udacity vice president Oliver Cameron spun out an autonomous vehicle company called Voyage.

Udacity CEO Vishal Makhijani left in October and Thrun stepped in. He took over as chief executive and the head of content on an interim basis. Thrun, who founded X, Google’s moonshot factory, is also CEO of Kitty Hawk Corp., a flying-car startup.

His first impression upon his return was a company that had grown too quickly and was burdened by its own self-inflicted red tape. Staff reductions soon followed. About 130 people were laid off and other open positions were left vacant, Thrun said.

Udacity now has 350 full-time employees and another 200 full-time contractors. The company also has about 1,000 people contracted as graders or reviewers.

An emphasis, when I rejoined, was to cut complexity and focus the company on the things that are working,” he said. 

One area where Udacity seemed to excel had also created an impediment. The quality of Udacity’s video production resulted in Hollywood-quality programming, Thrun said. But that created a bottleneck in the amount of educational content Udacity could produce.

Udacity’s content makers — a staff of about 140 people — released nearly 10 nanodegrees in 2018. Today, as a result of cuts, only 40 content creators remain. That smaller team completed about five nanodegrees in the first quarter of 2019, Thrun said.

Last year, it took between 10 to 12 people, and more than $1 million, to build one nanodegree, Thrun said. “Now it’s less than 10 percent of that.”

The company was able to accomplish this, he said, by changing its whole approach to video with taping, edits and student assessments happening in real time.

Udacity, under Thrun’s direction, has also doubled down on a technical mentorship program that will now match every new student with a mentor. Udacity has hired about 278 mentors who will work between 15 and 20 hours a week on a contract basis. The company is targeting about 349 mentors in all.

Students are also assigned a cohort that is required to meet (virtually) once a week.

Thrun described the new mentor program as the biggest change in service in the entire history of Udacity. “And we literally did this in two weeks,” he said. 

The strategy has met with some resistance. Some employees wanted to test the mentorship program on one cohort, or group of students, and expand from there. Even since these recent changes, some employees have expressed doubts that it will be enough, according to unnamed sources connected to or within the company.

Even Thrun admits that the “fruit remains to be seen,” although he’s confident that they’ve landed on the right approach, and one that will boost student graduation rates and eventually make the company profitable.

“If you give any student a personalized mentor that fights for them, and that’s the language I usually use, then we can bring our graduation rate, which is at about 34 percent to 60 percent or so,” he said. “And for online institutions 34 percent is high. But we have programs in that graduate more than 90 percent of our students.”

Udacity doesn’t share exact numbers on post-graduation hiring rates. But the company did say thousands of Udacity alumni have been hired by companies like Google, AT&T, Nvidia and others in the U.S., Europe, India and China.

In the U.S. and Canada, graduates with new jobs reported an annual salary increase of 38 percent, a Udacity spokesperson shared.

Indeed, Udacity has had some successes despite its many challenges.

Bright spots

Udacity has continued to increase revenue, although at a slower rate than the previous year-over-year time period. Udacity said it generated $90 million in revenue in 2018, a 25 percent year-over-year increase from 2017.

Udacity had informally offered enterprise programs to clients like AT&T. But in September, the company made enterprise a dedicated product and hired a VP of sales to bring in new customers.

Udacity has added 20 new enterprise clients from the banking, insurance, telecom and retail sectors, according to the company. There are now 70 enterprise customers globally that send employees through Udacity programs to gain new skills.

It continues to expand its career services and launched 12 free courses, built in collaboration with Google, with nearly 100,000 enrollments. It has also funded more than 1.1 million new partial and full scholarships to its programs for students across North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. About 21% of all Udacity Nanodegree students in the Grow with Google program in Europe have received job offers, according to Google.

The company also has a new initiative in the Middle East, where it teaches almost a million young Arab people how to code, Thrun said, an accomplishment he says is core to his mission.

Udacity isn’t profitable yet on an EBITDA basis, Thrun shared, but the “unit economics per students, and on a gross margin basis, are good.”

Now, it comes down to whether Thrun’s push to become faster, more efficient and nimble, all while investing in student services and its enterprise product, will be enough to right the ship.

“I really believe if you can get to the point that students come to us and we bend over backwards to ensure their success, we will be a company that has a really good chance of lasting for a lifetime,” he said. 

And if it doesn’t work, then we’ll adjust, like any other company. We can always shift.”