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.

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

Can we ever evaluate technical debt?

Every couple of months, I talk to an entrepreneur who is interested in building a marketplace for buying and selling app businesses (i.e. the actual IP and ownership of an app or other piece of software). These markets always seem to suffer from a lack of liquidity, and one reason why is that it’s really hard to know how much technical debt is latent in a codebase.

First, the developer behind the codebase may not even be aware of the technical debt they have piled on. Second, until a software engineer really understands a codebase, they are almost certainly not in a position to answer a question on technical debt authoritatively. That makes it hard to get third-party opinions on anything but the most simple codebases.

This opaqueness isn’t unique to software though. We lack tools for understanding the maintenance quality of assets — physical or digital — across our economy. Even when we do perform maintenance or hire someone to do it for us, it can be hard to verify that the work was performed well. How long does it take for an auto mechanic to truly evaluate the maintenance of a used car?

I was thinking about this challenge of evaluating maintenance when I read this deep dive into the economics of old housing by Akron’s head of planning, Jason Segedy:

It has been suggested to me, on more than one occasion, that indebted, college-educated Millennials could be lured back to the city by selling them these old, poorly-maintained houses for $1.00, and having them “fix up the house.”

People who say this do not have a realistic idea of what “fixing up” an old house entails—neither in terms of the scope of the rehabilitation work that would be required, nor in terms of the level of skill, time, and/or money needed to do the work.

Even in a low cost-of-living market like ours, $40,000 houses are generally not a “good deal.” They are almost always a liability. They are a ticking time bomb of deferred maintenance. They are an albatross.

In his own case:

All told, I have spent $93,400 on improvements to this house over the past 15 years. This works out to an additional $502 per month, above what I was paying in mortgage, taxes, and insurance. When you add all of that together, the total monthly cost works out to $1,439.

[…]

The total monthly cost for the brand-new house? $1,444. Which comes out to exactly $5.00 per month more than my 72-year-old house.

Maintenance is the secret challenge of any asset, physical or digital. We have been talking about the Tappan Zee bridge here a bit this week, and maintenance played an outsized role in forcing New York to spend even more money on a new bridge. From Phil Plotch’s book Politics Across the Hudson:

However, he also recognized that the Authority probably put less money into the bridge after it decided to replace it. “When maintenance folks know that a capital project is under design and will soon deal with the problems they have been battling for years,” he said. “They often back down a bit and turn their attention and resources to other areas.”

That didn’t work out so well:

One of the reasons the Thruway Authority wanted to build a new bridge in the late 1990s was to avoid replacing the bridge’s deck. However, the environmental review process took so long that the authority had to spend $300 million dollars to do exactly that anyway — after five-foot-wide holes started opening up along the length of the bridge.

Back in the software world, we have gotten much better about quantifying test coverage over the years, but we still seem to lack any means by which to evaluate technical debt. And yet, technical debt from my limited experience is hugely determinative on how fast product features can be launched.

It would be hugely helpful to have some sort of reasonably accurate grading system that said “this codebase is really up-to-date and clean” versus “this codebase is radioactive and run away from it.” Right now, so much of product engineering seems to be making decisions in the dark and discovering software quagmires. There has to be a better way.

Why we can’t build anything? (Part 5?)

Image from Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit

Written by Arman Tabatabai

We’ve been obsessed with the infrastructure crisis in the U.S. lately and the question of “Why can’t we build anything?” In case you thought the California HSR shitshow was an isolated incident, think again.

Construction Dive provided some more details around the DOJ’s subpoena of the Honolulu High-Speed Rail Project (Honolulu Rail Transit) last week, which ordered the project leads to open up their books. Just like in California, after decades of debate, Hawaii’s project has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. Today, the project holds an estimated cost of around $9-10 billion, compared to initial estimates of $3-4 billion, and some academics and industry specialists are even saying that number is more like $13 billion-plus. The court order came just after a state-led audit found that much of the cost overruns could be tied to poor contracting, planning and management practices — just as in California.

Given the similarities here, it’s possible we could see the federal government try and pull back the $1.6 billion it had earmarked for the project if it doesn’t like what it sees. Despite calls for infrastructure improvement, the feds seem to be taking a tougher stance on the use of fed funds for these projects.

Construction Dive also highlighted that the $650 million renovation of Denver International Airport’s Jeppesen Terminal was delayed indefinitely after operators found structural deficiencies in the concrete. Sound familiar? Maybe it’s because in just the last year we’ve seen “structural deficiencies” mar SF’s Transbay Terminal project and DC’s Metrorail extension. Denver’s reclamation project is expected to cost $1.8 billion in its entirety and is a year behind schedule after breaking ground less than nine months ago.

India’s general election might also determine Facebook’s future in the region

Westend61 via Getty Images

Written by Arman Tabatabai

India’s Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology announced it would be meeting with Facebook in early March to discuss “safeguarding citizens’ rights on social or online news media platforms.” The government has approached social media with a cautious eye ahead of the country’s huge upcoming elections, as concern over the use and misuse of social and messaging platforms in global elections becomes a hot-button issue.

The topic came up in our recent conversation with The Billionaire Raj author James Crabtree. He believes the election will be a hugely important period for social platforms in India. Having experienced a number of major historical scandals, India’s citizenry has a fairly harsh — albeit somewhat selective — view on corruption, and Crabtree believes that if Facebook or others were to face blame for any alleged misconduct, the potential fallout from a political, regulatory and public opinion standpoint could be devastating.

The prospect of such an outcome becomes even more alarming for foreign social companies as India has ticked up focus on data localization and movements towards a “national champion” policy that will increasingly favor domestic firms over external players.

I love triangulation negotiation

The trade kerfuffle between China and the U.S. is sort of just continuing at a glacial pace. Literally glaciers, because Greenland got involved over the past few months. Greenland power politics is very far afield of TC, but I wanted to point out one little nuance that offers a worthwhile lesson.

Greenland has wanted to upgrade its airports for some time (there are no roads between major cities in the sparsely populated but huge country). But Denmark, which Greenland is a constituent country, has rebuffed those requests; that is, until the Chinese got involved. From a WSJ article:

After Kalaallit Airports short-listed a Chinese construction firm to build the new airports, Denmark conveyed its alarm to the Pentagon. After Mr. Mattis got involved, Denmark’s government asked a consortium led by Danske Bank to help assemble an alternative financing package.

Officials in Greenland were pleasantly surprised by the terms. “Even Chinese funding is not as cheap as this,” Mr. Hansen said.

Plus this quote:

“He was not into it at all—until the Chinese showed interest,” said Aleqa Hammon, Greenland’s former prime minister, speaking of [Danish Prime Minister] Rasmussen.

This is how you negotiate! Get two larger adversaries lined up on either side of the line, and just start going back and forth between them. This works with Google and Facebook, Sequoia and Benchmark, or any other competitors. At some point, the game isn’t just a deal, it’s also the face-saving that comes from not losing to the competition.

Japan joining the trend of looser fundraising rules for growing companies

Written by Arman Tabatabai

Earlier this week, we talked about how security exchanges around the world were looking to loosen fundraising rules for young companies. The softening of these rules might be indicative of a wider trend, with Japan now proposing revised rules to make it easier for startups to fundraise through traditional brokerages and trade shares of listed companies. While the motivation here may not be to attract IPO deals like it seems to be in the U.S. and China, with the creation of more funding alternatives and with companies opting to stay out of the public markets for longer, national securities industries seem to be trying to brand themselves as the best venue for young companies to grow.

Obsessions

  • More discussion of megaprojects, infrastructure and “why can’t we build things?”
  • We are going to be talking India here, focused around the book “Billionaire Raj” by James Crabtree, who we just interviewed and will share more soon.
  • We have a lot to catch up on in the China world when the EC launch craziness dies down. Plus, we are covering The Next Factory of the World by Irene Yuan Sun.
  • Societal resilience and geoengineering are still top-of-mind.
  • Some more on metrics design and quantification.

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

Can we ever evaluate technical debt?

Every couple of months, I talk to an entrepreneur who is interested in building a marketplace for buying and selling app businesses (i.e. the actual IP and ownership of an app or other piece of software). These markets always seem to suffer from a lack of liquidity, and one reason why is that it’s really hard to know how much technical debt is latent in a codebase.

First, the developer behind the codebase may not even be aware of the technical debt they have piled on. Second, until a software engineer really understands a codebase, they are almost certainly not in a position to answer a question on technical debt authoritatively. That makes it hard to get third-party opinions on anything but the most simple codebases.

This opaqueness isn’t unique to software though. We lack tools for understanding the maintenance quality of assets — physical or digital — across our economy. Even when we do perform maintenance or hire someone to do it for us, it can be hard to verify that the work was performed well. How long does it take for an auto mechanic to truly evaluate the maintenance of a used car?

I was thinking about this challenge of evaluating maintenance when I read this deep dive into the economics of old housing by Akron’s head of planning, Jason Segedy:

It has been suggested to me, on more than one occasion, that indebted, college-educated Millennials could be lured back to the city by selling them these old, poorly-maintained houses for $1.00, and having them “fix up the house.”

People who say this do not have a realistic idea of what “fixing up” an old house entails—neither in terms of the scope of the rehabilitation work that would be required, nor in terms of the level of skill, time, and/or money needed to do the work.

Even in a low cost-of-living market like ours, $40,000 houses are generally not a “good deal.” They are almost always a liability. They are a ticking time bomb of deferred maintenance. They are an albatross.

In his own case:

All told, I have spent $93,400 on improvements to this house over the past 15 years. This works out to an additional $502 per month, above what I was paying in mortgage, taxes, and insurance. When you add all of that together, the total monthly cost works out to $1,439.

[…]

The total monthly cost for the brand-new house? $1,444. Which comes out to exactly $5.00 per month more than my 72-year-old house.

Maintenance is the secret challenge of any asset, physical or digital. We have been talking about the Tappan Zee bridge here a bit this week, and maintenance played an outsized role in forcing New York to spend even more money on a new bridge. From Phil Plotch’s book Politics Across the Hudson:

However, he also recognized that the Authority probably put less money into the bridge after it decided to replace it. “When maintenance folks know that a capital project is under design and will soon deal with the problems they have been battling for years,” he said. “They often back down a bit and turn their attention and resources to other areas.”

That didn’t work out so well:

One of the reasons the Thruway Authority wanted to build a new bridge in the late 1990s was to avoid replacing the bridge’s deck. However, the environmental review process took so long that the authority had to spend $300 million dollars to do exactly that anyway — after five-foot-wide holes started opening up along the length of the bridge.

Back in the software world, we have gotten much better about quantifying test coverage over the years, but we still seem to lack any means by which to evaluate technical debt. And yet, technical debt from my limited experience is hugely determinative on how fast product features can be launched.

It would be hugely helpful to have some sort of reasonably accurate grading system that said “this codebase is really up-to-date and clean” versus “this codebase is radioactive and run away from it.” Right now, so much of product engineering seems to be making decisions in the dark and discovering software quagmires. There has to be a better way.

Why we can’t build anything? (Part 5?)

Image from Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit

Written by Arman Tabatabai

We’ve been obsessed with the infrastructure crisis in the U.S. lately and the question of “Why can’t we build anything?” In case you thought the California HSR shitshow was an isolated incident, think again.

Construction Dive provided some more details around the DOJ’s subpoena of the Honolulu High-Speed Rail Project (Honolulu Rail Transit) last week, which ordered the project leads to open up their books. Just like in California, after decades of debate, Hawaii’s project has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. Today, the project holds an estimated cost of around $9-10 billion, compared to initial estimates of $3-4 billion, and some academics and industry specialists are even saying that number is more like $13 billion-plus. The court order came just after a state-led audit found that much of the cost overruns could be tied to poor contracting, planning and management practices — just as in California.

Given the similarities here, it’s possible we could see the federal government try and pull back the $1.6 billion it had earmarked for the project if it doesn’t like what it sees. Despite calls for infrastructure improvement, the feds seem to be taking a tougher stance on the use of fed funds for these projects.

Construction Dive also highlighted that the $650 million renovation of Denver International Airport’s Jeppesen Terminal was delayed indefinitely after operators found structural deficiencies in the concrete. Sound familiar? Maybe it’s because in just the last year we’ve seen “structural deficiencies” mar SF’s Transbay Terminal project and DC’s Metrorail extension. Denver’s reclamation project is expected to cost $1.8 billion in its entirety and is a year behind schedule after breaking ground less than nine months ago.

India’s general election might also determine Facebook’s future in the region

Westend61 via Getty Images

Written by Arman Tabatabai

India’s Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology announced it would be meeting with Facebook in early March to discuss “safeguarding citizens’ rights on social or online news media platforms.” The government has approached social media with a cautious eye ahead of the country’s huge upcoming elections, as concern over the use and misuse of social and messaging platforms in global elections becomes a hot-button issue.

The topic came up in our recent conversation with The Billionaire Raj author James Crabtree. He believes the election will be a hugely important period for social platforms in India. Having experienced a number of major historical scandals, India’s citizenry has a fairly harsh — albeit somewhat selective — view on corruption, and Crabtree believes that if Facebook or others were to face blame for any alleged misconduct, the potential fallout from a political, regulatory and public opinion standpoint could be devastating.

The prospect of such an outcome becomes even more alarming for foreign social companies as India has ticked up focus on data localization and movements towards a “national champion” policy that will increasingly favor domestic firms over external players.

I love triangulation negotiation

The trade kerfuffle between China and the U.S. is sort of just continuing at a glacial pace. Literally glaciers, because Greenland got involved over the past few months. Greenland power politics is very far afield of TC, but I wanted to point out one little nuance that offers a worthwhile lesson.

Greenland has wanted to upgrade its airports for some time (there are no roads between major cities in the sparsely populated but huge country). But Denmark, which Greenland is a constituent country, has rebuffed those requests; that is, until the Chinese got involved. From a WSJ article:

After Kalaallit Airports short-listed a Chinese construction firm to build the new airports, Denmark conveyed its alarm to the Pentagon. After Mr. Mattis got involved, Denmark’s government asked a consortium led by Danske Bank to help assemble an alternative financing package.

Officials in Greenland were pleasantly surprised by the terms. “Even Chinese funding is not as cheap as this,” Mr. Hansen said.

Plus this quote:

“He was not into it at all—until the Chinese showed interest,” said Aleqa Hammon, Greenland’s former prime minister, speaking of [Danish Prime Minister] Rasmussen.

This is how you negotiate! Get two larger adversaries lined up on either side of the line, and just start going back and forth between them. This works with Google and Facebook, Sequoia and Benchmark, or any other competitors. At some point, the game isn’t just a deal, it’s also the face-saving that comes from not losing to the competition.

Japan joining the trend of looser fundraising rules for growing companies

Written by Arman Tabatabai

Earlier this week, we talked about how security exchanges around the world were looking to loosen fundraising rules for young companies. The softening of these rules might be indicative of a wider trend, with Japan now proposing revised rules to make it easier for startups to fundraise through traditional brokerages and trade shares of listed companies. While the motivation here may not be to attract IPO deals like it seems to be in the U.S. and China, with the creation of more funding alternatives and with companies opting to stay out of the public markets for longer, national securities industries seem to be trying to brand themselves as the best venue for young companies to grow.

Obsessions

  • More discussion of megaprojects, infrastructure and “why can’t we build things?”
  • We are going to be talking India here, focused around the book “Billionaire Raj” by James Crabtree, who we just interviewed and will share more soon.
  • We have a lot to catch up on in the China world when the EC launch craziness dies down. Plus, we are covering The Next Factory of the World by Irene Yuan Sun.
  • Societal resilience and geoengineering are still top-of-mind.
  • Some more on metrics design and quantification.

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

Sequoia goes after early-stage with an accelerator program in India and Southeast Asia

Sequoia India is going deep into early-stage investing after it announced an accelerator program, Surge, which is focused on fledging startups in India and Southeast Asia, the two regions that it covers.

It’s been nearly six months since Sequoia India closed its newest $695 million fund — its fifth since its establishment 12 years ago — and with over 200 deals under its belt, it is going earlier than ever before. The Surge program is designed to work with a mix of companies; that could include founders with just an idea, to those at pre-launch or pre-seed, businesses with an existing product-market fit or even startups intending to pivot, Sequoia India managing director Shailendra Singh told TechCrunch.

“It’s a bold attempt to try to create a better program for seed to Series A,” Singh said in an interview. “We think founders are underserved. There is quality early-stage talent but we are trying to find a way to serve them better.”

Singh explained that the program is a result of extensive research. He said Sequoia India talked to startups, founders and investors, and that a series of Twitter polls he conducted last year show founders in India and Southeast Asia are too frequently under-capitalized, over-diluted and forced to spend too much time on the fundraising trail.

“We decided there is a better way,” Singh said.

So what is the Sequoia India solution?

Surge is aiming to recruit 10-20 companies per batch, with two cohorts running each year for four months each. Perhaps the most notable feature is that selected companies will receive a $1.5 million investment from Sequoia, with the option to raise more from the firm and other co-investors in a final “UpSurge” demo week that concludes the program. Participants will, however, need to pay a “program fee” although that is being waived for the first cohort.

On its website, the firm describes Surge as being designed to give founders an “unfair advantage, right out of the gate.”

That first program is scheduled to run in March and applications are open now, although Sequoia has already picked a small selection for the first program. While the focus is local startups, China-based startups looking at India and Southeast Asia and U.S. startups seeking an Asia will also be considered, the firm said.

Singh said equity will be negotiated on a company-by-company basis, but he anticipates that valuations will be will be in the range of “high single-digit to high-teens” pre-money. There’s no obligation for a Sequoia follow-on, and Singh stressed that a “curated” selection of investors will be invested to invest in the post-program round and even alongside the initial $1.5 million check.

Shailendra Singh, Sequoia India managing director

The program is quite unusual in being globally distributed. That’s to say that it is split into five ‘modules,’ each of which is hosted in a different city which taps into Sequoia’s global presence. That’ll include Singapore, China, India and Silicon Valley. Singh said each module will require founder presence for a week, when they will work together with Sequoia — including the firm’s AMP program — Surge mentors and others, before taking the learnings back to their company for the remainder of the month. The only exception is the final month, which will include an additional week for the demo segment.

Sequoia India has tapped its portfolio companies and other Sequoia investees to pull an initial list of mentors that include Nadiem Makarim (Go-Jek), Rajan Ananadan (Google), Byju Raveendran (Byju’s), Neeraj Arora (WhatsApp) and Kunal Shah (Freecharge and now Cred). Singh said more will be added after the public launch.

He added that Sequoia India is hiring dedicated Surge staff to work exclusively on the program. For now, the budget for the program will come from the India fund but, in the long term, Singh said a dedicated Surge fund could be created. That could be necessary given the potential costs from the program.

The focus is fairly vertical agnostic, Sequoia said, with a focus on the teams behind companies.

“The single biggest focus is on being founder-centric,” Singh told TechCrunch. “We want to assemble a group of founders who are quite special. We expect founders to learn a lot from each other.”

When I put it to Singh that Sequoia’s move into early stage puts it into competition with the very up-stream, seed investors that it works with to get Series A deal flow, he argued that Sequoia is already very present in that segment.

Pointing to a recent LinkedIn post — which reads like a precursor to today’s announcement — Singh said one-quarter of its deals have been with startups valued at $5 million or lower, with 64 percent at $10 million or lower.

“We’ve made seed investments and collaborated with other firms in the past. We’ve already spoken to a few friendly firms and they are excited to be involved,” Singh said.

Sequoia is well known for later-stage deals, but Sequoia’s Singh shared data showing that it is well invested in early-stage deals, too

That may well be true for some firms, but I can’t help but feel that others may be intimated at a deep-pocketed investor playing in their backyard. In such a case, there’s little more than you can do other than play along. That said, Singh seems genuinely keen to build links between Surge and other VCs at all levels.

“It’s not about us or them but what’s good for founders,” he explained, adding that Sequoia will “actively” work with firms to involve them in the program.

It’s definitely a fascinating move, and it is certainly one of Sequoia’s boldest strategies worldwide. It is too early to say if it will be replicated by Sequoia other global funds, but they will certainly be watching, as Singh himself admitted.

You can find more information about Surge here.

Apple losses trigger a plunge in US markets

Bad news from Apple and signs of slowing international and domestic growth sent stocks tumbling in Thursday trading on all of the major markets.

Investors erased some $75 billion in value from Apple alone… an amount known technically as a shit ton of money. But stocks were down broadly based on Apple’s news, with the Nasdaq falling 3 percent, or roughly 202.44 points, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeting 660.02 points, or roughly 2.8 percent.

Apple halted trading of its stock yesterday afternoon to provide lower guidance for upcoming earnings.

Apple’s news from late yesterday that it would miss its earnings estimates by several billion dollars thanks to a collapse of sales in China was the trigger for a broad sell-off that erased gains from the last trading sessions before the New Year (which saw the biggest one-day gain in stocks in recent history).

Apple’s China woes could be attributed to any number of factors, D.A. Davidson senior analyst Tom Forte said. The weakening Chinese economy, patriotic fervor from Chinese consumers or the increasingly solid options available from domestic manufacturers could all be factors.

Sales were suffering in more regions than China, Forte noted. India, Russia, Brazil and Turkey also had slowing sales of new iPhone models, he said.

Investors have more than just weakness from Apple to be concerned about. Chinese manufacturing flipped from growth to contraction in December and analysts in the region expect that the pain will continue through at least the first half of the year.

“We expect a much worse slowdown in the first half, followed by a more serious and aggressive government easing/stimulus centred on deregulating the property market in big cities, and then we might see stabilisation and even a small rebound later this year,” Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura in Hong Kong, wrote in a report quoted by the Financial Times.

U.S. manufacturing isn’t doing much better, according to an industrial gauge published by The Institute for Supply Management. The institute’s index dropped to its lowest point in two years.

“There’s just so much uncertainty going on everywhere that businesses are just pausing,” Timothy Fiore, chairman of ISM’s manufacturing survey committee, told Bloomberg. “No matter where you look, you’ve got chaos everywhere. Businesses can’t operate in an environment of chaos. It’s a warning shot that we need to resolve some of these issues.”

The index remains above the threshold of a serious contraction in American industry, but the 5.2-point drop from the previous month in the manufacturing survey is the largest since the financial crisis, and was only exceeded one other time — following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the U.S.

Facebook is not equipped to stop the spread of authoritarianism

After the driver of a speeding bus ran over and killed two college students in Dhaka in July, student protesters took to the streets. They forced the ordinarily disorganized local traffic to drive in strict lanes and stopped vehicles to inspect license and registration papers. They even halted the vehicle of the chief of Bangladesh Police Bureau of Investigation and found that his license was expired. And they posted videos and information about the protests on Facebook.

The fatal road accident that led to these protests was hardly an isolated incident. Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, which was ranked the second least livable city in the world in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 global liveability index, scored 26.8 out of 100 in the infrastructure category included in the rating. But the regional government chose to stifle the highway safety protests anyway. It went so far as raids of residential areas adjacent to universities to check social media activity, leading to the arrest of 20 students. Although there were many images of Bangladesh Chhatra League, or BCL men, committing acts of violence on students, none of them were arrested. (The BCL is the student wing of the ruling Awami League, one of the major political parties of Bangladesh.)

Students were forced to log into their Facebook profiles and were arrested or beaten for their posts, photographs and videos. In one instance, BCL men called three students into the dorm’s guest room, quizzed them over Facebook posts, beat them, then handed them over to police. They were reportedly tortured in custody.

A pregnant school teacher was arrested and jailed for just over two weeks for “spreading rumors” due to sharing a Facebook post about student protests. A photographer and social justice activist spent more than 100 days in jail for describing police violence during these protests; he told reporters he was beaten in custody. And a university professor was jailed for 37 days for his Facebook posts.

A Dhaka resident who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety said that the crackdown on social media posts essentially silenced student protesters, many of whom removed from their profiles entirely photos, videos and status updates about the protests. While the person thought that students were continuing to be arrested, they said, “nobody is talking about it anymore — at least in my network — because everyone kind of ‘got the memo,’ if you know what I mean.”

This isn’t the first time Bangladeshi citizens have been arrested for Facebook posts. As just one example, in April 2017, a rubber plantation worker in southern Bangladesh was arrested and detained for three months for liking and sharing a Facebook post that criticized the prime minister’s visit to India, according to Human Rights Watch.

Bangladesh is far from alone. Government harassment to silence dissent on social media has occurred across the region, and in other regions as well — and it often comes hand-in-hand with governments filing takedown requests with Facebook and requesting data on users.

Facebook has removed posts critical of the prime minister in Cambodia and reportedly “agreed to coordinate in the monitoring and removal of content” in Vietnam. Facebook was criticized for not stopping the repression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, where military personnel created fake accounts to spread propaganda, which human rights groups say fueled violence and forced displacement. Facebook has since undertaken a human rights impact assessment in Myanmar, and it also took down coordinated inauthentic accounts in the country.

UNITED STATES – APRIL 10: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies during the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing on “Facebook, Social Media Privacy, and the Use and Abuse of Data” on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Protesters scrubbing Facebook data for fear of repercussion isn’t uncommon. Over and over again, authoritarian-leaning regimes have utilized low-tech strategies to quell dissent. And aside from providing resources related to online privacy and security, Facebook still has little in place to protect its most vulnerable users from these pernicious efforts. As various countries pass laws calling for a local presence and increased regulation, it is possible that the social media conglomerate doesn’t always even want to.

“In many situations, the platforms are under pressure,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, policy director at Access Now. “Tech companies are being directly sent takedown orders, user data requests. The danger of that is that companies will potentially be overcomplying or responding far too quickly to government demands when they are able to push back on those requests,” he said.

Elections are often a critical moment for oppressive behavior from governments — Uganda, Chad and Vietnam have specifically targeted citizens — and candidates — during election time. Facebook announced just last Thursday that it had taken down nine Facebook pages and six Facebook accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior in Bangladesh. These pages, which Facebook believes were linked to people associated with the Bangladesh government, were “designed to look like independent news outlets and posted pro-government and anti-opposition content.” The sites masqueraded as news outlets, including fake BBC Bengali, BDSNews24 and Bangla Tribune and news pages with Photoshopped blue checkmarks, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Still, the imminent election in Bangladesh doesn’t bode well for anyone who might wish to express dissent. In October, a digital security bill that regulates some types of controversial speech was passed in the country, signaling to companies that as the regulatory environment tightens, they too could become targets.

More restrictive regulation is part of a greater trend around the world, said Naman M. Aggarwal, Asia policy associate at Access Now. Some countries, like Brazil and India, have passed “fake news” laws. (A similar law was proposed in Malaysia, but it was blocked in the Senate.) These types of laws are frequently followed by content takedowns. (In Bangladesh, the government warned broadcasters not to air footage that could create panic or disorder, essentially halting news programming on the protests.)

Other governments in the Middle East and North Africa — such as Egypt, Algeria, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — clamp down on free expression on social media under the threat of fines or prison time. And countries like Vietnam have passed laws requiring social media companies to localize their storage and have a presence in the country — typically an indication of greater content regulation and pressure on the companies from local governments. In India, WhatsApp and other financial tech services were told to open offices in the country.

And crackdowns on posts about protests on social media come hand-in-hand with government requests for data. Facebook’s biannual transparency report provides detail on the percentage of government requests with which the company complies in each country, but most people don’t know until long after the fact. Between January and June, the company received 134 emergency requests and 18 legal processes from Bangladeshi authorities for 205 users or accounts. Facebook turned over at least some data in 61 percent of emergency requests and 28 percent of legal processes.

Facebook said in a statement that it “believes people deserve to have a voice, and that everyone has the right to express themselves in a safe environment,” and that it handles requests for user data “extremely carefully.”

The company pointed to its Facebook for Journalists resources and said it is “saddened by governments using broad and vague regulation or other practices to silence, criminalize or imprison journalists, activists, and others who speak out against them,” but the company said it also helps journalists, activists and other people around the world to “tell their stories in more innovative ways, reach global audiences, and connect directly with people.”

But there are policies that Facebook could enact that would help people in these vulnerable positions, like allowing users to post anonymously.

“Facebook’s real names policy doesn’t exactly protect anonymity, and has created issues for people in countries like Vietnam,” said Aggarwal. “If platforms provide leeway, or enough space for anonymous posting, and anonymous interactions, that is really helpful to people on the ground.”

BERLIN, GERMANY – SEPTEMBER 12: A visitor uses a mobile phone in front of the Facebook logo at the #CDUdigital conference on September 12, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

A German court in February found the policy illegal under its decade-old privacy law. Facebook said it plans to appeal the decision.

“I’m not sure if Facebook even has an effective strategy or understanding of strategy in the long term,” said Sean O’Brien, lead researcher at Yale Privacy Lab. “In some cases, Facebook is taking a very proactive role… but in other cases, it won’t.” In any case, these decisions require a nuanced understanding of the population, culture, and political spectrum in various regions — something it’s not clear Facebook has.

Facebook isn’t responsible for government decisions to clamp down on free expression. But the question remains: How can companies stop assisting authoritarian governments, inadvertently or otherwise?

“If Facebook knows about this kind of repression, they should probably have… some sort of mechanism to at the very least heavily try to convince people not to post things publicly that they think they could get in trouble for,” said O’Brien. “It would have a chilling effect on speech, of course, which is a whole other issue, but at least it would allow people to make that decision for themselves.”

This could be an opt-in feature, but O’Brien acknowledges that it could create legal liabilities for Facebook, leading the social media giant to create lists of “dangerous speech” or profiles on “dissidents,” and could theoretically shut them down or report them to the police. Still, Facebook could consider rolling a “speech alert” feature to an entire city or country if that area becomes volatile politically and dangerous for speech, he said.

O’Brien says that social media companies could consider responding to situations where a person is being detained illegally and potentially coerced into giving their passwords in a way that could protect them, perhaps by triggering a temporary account reset or freeze to prevent anyone from accessing the account without proper legal process. Some actions that might trigger the reset or freeze could be news about an individual’s arrest — if Facebook is alerted to it, contact from the authorities, or contact from friends and loved ones, as evaluated by humans. There could even be a “panic button” type trigger, like Guardian Project’s PanicKit, but for Facebook — allowing users to wipe or freeze their own accounts or posts tagged preemptively with a code word only the owner knows.

“One of the issues with computer interfaces is that when people log into a site, they get a false sense of privacy even when the things they’re posting in that site are widely available to the public,” said O’Brien. Case in point: this year, women anonymously shared their experiences of abusive co-workers in a shared Google Doc — the so-called “Shitty Media Men” list, likely without realizing that a lawsuit could unmask them. That’s exactly what is happening.

Instead, activists and journalists often need to tap into resources and gain assistance from groups like Access Now, which runs a digital security helpline, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. These organizations can provide personal advice tailored to their specific country and situation. They can access Facebook over the Tor anonymity network. Then can use VPNs, and end-to-end encrypted messaging tools, and non-phone-based two-factor authentication methods. But many may not realize what the threat is until it’s too late.

The violent crackdown on free speech in Bangladesh accompanied government-imposed internet restrictions, including the throttling of internet access around the country. Users at home with a broadband connection did not feel the effects of this, but “it was the students on the streets who couldn’t go live or publish any photos of what was going on,” the Dhaka resident said.

Elections will take place in Bangladesh on December 30.

In the few months leading up to the election, Access Now says it’s noticed an increase in Bangladeshi residents expressing concern that their data has been compromised and seeking assistance from the Digital Security hotline.

Other rights groups have also found an uptick in malicious activity.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in an email that the organization is “extremely concerned about the ongoing crackdown on the political opposition and on freedom of expression, which has created a climate of fear ahead of national elections.”

Ganguly cited politically motivated cases against thousands of opposition supporters, many of which have been arrested, as well as candidates that have been attacked.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement about the situation, warning that the Rapid Action Battalion, a “paramilitary force implicated in serious human rights violations including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances,” and has been “tasked with monitoring social media for ‘anti-state propaganda, rumors, fake news, and provocations.’” This is in addition to a nine-member monitoring cell and around 100 police teams dedicated to quashing so-called “rumors” on social media, amid the looming threat of news website shutdowns.

“The security forces continue to arrest people for any criticism of the government, including on social media,” Ganguly said. “We hope that the international community will urge the Awami League government to create conditions that will uphold the rights of all Bangladeshis to participate in a free and fair vote.”

LemonBox brings US vitamins and health products to consumers in China

China is rising in many ways — the economy, consumer spending and technology — but still many of its population looks overseas, and particularly to the West, for cues on lifestyle and health. That’s a theme that’s being seized by LemonBox, a China-U.S. startup that lets Chinese consumers buy U.S. health products at affordable prices.

Indeed, the recent scare around Chinese vaccinations, which saw faulty inoculations given to babies and toddlers in a number of provinces, has only fueled demand for overseas health products which LemonBox founder Derek Weng discovered himself when his father was diagnosed as having high blood sugar levels. Weng, then working in the U.S. for Walmart, was able to look up and buy the right medicine pills for his father and bring them back to China himself. He realized, however, that others are not so fortunate.

After polling friends and family, he set up an experimental WeChat app in 2016 that dispensed health information such as articles and information. Within a year, it had racked up 30,000 subscribers and given him the confidence to jump into the business fully.

Today, LemonBox allows Chinese consumers to buy its own-branded daily vitamin packs from the U.S.. Further down the line, the goal is to expand into more specific verticals, including mother and baby, beauty and daily supplements, according to Weng, who believes that the timing is good.

“For the first time in China, people are taking a major interest in health and are working out, while society is becoming more developed,” he told TechCrunch in an interview. “We estimate that Chinese consumers are investing 30 percent of their income in health.”

The LemonBox daily pack of vitamins.

Since its full launch three weeks ago, LemonBox has pulled in 700 customers with 40 percent purchasing a three-month bundle package and the remainder a monthly order, Weng said. Typical basket size is around 300 RMB, or nearly $45.

To get the business off the ground, Weng needed expert support and his co-founder Hang Xu — who is also LemonBox’s “Chief Nutrition Scientist” — has spent 10 years in the field of nutrition science. Xu holds a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University, is a U.S.-registered dietitian and has published over 10 research papers. The startup’s third co-founder, Eddy Meng (CMO), is a graduate of Chinese app store startup Wandoujia which sold to Alibaba two years ago.

Right now, LemonBox has offices in the U.S. and China and it is squarely focused on e-commerce but Weng said the company is looking to introduce other kinds of health services. That could include consultations with dietary experts and specific offerings for patients leaving a hospital or in other long-term care situations, as well as potentially own-label products.

“We look at Stitch Fix for inspiration,” Weng said. “Right now, it leverages data to develop its own in-house private label products that improve on margin and the accuracy of recommendations. This kind of data and further services will be the next stage for us.”

LemonBox raised a seed round in March, which included participation from Y Combinator, and as part of Y Combinator’s current program, it’ll present to prospective investors at the program’s demo day. Already, though, Weng said there’s been interest from investors which the company is thinking over.

Interestingly, it was forth time lucky entering YC for Weng, who had before applied with previous startups unsuccessfully. This time it was entirely circumstantial. He applied to be in the audience for Y Combinator’s ‘Startup School’ event that took place in Beijing in May.

Unbeknownst to him, YC picked out a handful of attendees whose companies were of interest, and, after an interview that Weng didn’t realize was an audition, LemonBox was selected and fast-tracked into the organization’s latest program. In addition, YC joined the startup’s seed funding round which had initially closed in March.

That anecdotal evidence says much of YC’s effort to grab a larger slice of China’s startup ecosystem.

The organization has aggressively recruited companies from under-represented regions such as India, Southeast Asia and Africa, but China remains a tough spot. According to YC’s own data, fewer than 10 Chinese companies have passed through its corridors. That’s low considering that the organization counts over 1,400 graduates.

With events like the one in May, which helped snare LemonBox, and a new China-centric role for partner Eric Migicovsky, who founded Pebble, YC is trying harder than ever.

India may become next restricted market for U.S. cloud providers

Data sovereignty is on the rise across the world. Laws and regulations increasingly require that citizen data be stored in local data centers, and often restricts movement of that data outside of a country’s borders. The European Union’s GDPR policy is one example, although it’s relatively porous. China’s relatively new cloud computing law is much more strict, and forced Apple to turn over its Chinese-citizen iCloud data to local providers and Amazon to sell off data center assets in the country.

Now, it appears that India will join this policy movement. According to Aditya Kalra in Reuters, an influential cloud policy panel has recommended that India mandate data localization in the country, for investigative and national security reasons, in a draft report set to be released later this year. That panel is headed by well-known local entrepreneur Kris Gopalakrishnan, who founded Infosys, the IT giant.

That report would match other policy statements from the Indian political establishment in recent months. The government’s draft National Digital Communications Policy this year said that data sovereignty is a top mission for the country. The report called for the government by 2022 to “Establish a comprehensive data protection regime for digital communications that safeguards the privacy, autonomy and choice of individuals and facilitates India’s effective participation in the global digital economy.”

It’s that last line that is increasingly the objective of governments around the world. While privacy and security are certainly top priorities, governments now recognize that the economics of data are going to be crucial for future innovation and growth. Maintaining local control of data — through whatever means necessary — ensures that cloud providers and other services have to spend locally, even in a global digital economy.

India is both a crucial and an ironic manifestation of this pattern. It is crucial because of the size of its economy: public cloud revenues in the country are expected to hit $2.5 billion this year, according to Gartner’s estimates, an annual growth rate of 37.5%. It is ironic because much of the historical success of India’s IT industry has been its ability to offer offshoring and data IT services across borders.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made development and rapid economic growth a top priority of his government. (Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

India is certainly no stranger to localization demands. In areas as diverse as education and ecommerce, the country maintains strict rules around local ownership and investment. While those rules have been opening up slowly since the 1990s, the explosion of interest in cloud computing has made the gap in regulations around cloud much more apparent.

If the draft report and its various recommendations become law in India, it would have significant effects on public cloud providers like Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Alibaba, all of whom have cloud operations in the country. In order to comply with the regulations, they would almost certainly have to expend significant resources to build additional data centers locally, and also enforce data governance mechanisms to ensure that data didn’t flow from a domestic to a foreign data center accidentally or programmatically.

I’ve written before that these data sovereignty regulations ultimately benefit the largest service providers, since they’re the only ones with the scale to be able to competently handle the thicket of constantly changing regulations that govern this space.

In the India case though, the expense may well be warranted. Given the phenomenal growth of the Indian cloud IT sector, it’s highly likely that the major cloud providers are already planning a massive expansion to handle the increasing storage and computing loads required by local customers. Depending on how simple the regulations are written, there may well be limited cost to the rules.

One question will involve what level of foreign ownership will be allowed for public cloud providers. Given that several foreign companies already exist in the marketplace, it might be hard to completely eliminate them entirely in favor of local competitors. Yet, the large providers will have their work cut out for them to ensure the market stays open to all.

The real costs though would be borne by other companies, such as startups who rely on customer datasets to power artificial intelligence. Can Indian datasets be used to train an AI model that is used globally? Will the economics be required to stay local, or will the regulations be robust enough to handle global startup innovation? It would be a shame if the very law designed to encourage growth in the IT sector was the one that put a dampener on it.

India’s chief objective is to ensure that Indian data benefits Indian citizens. That’s a laudable goal on the surface, but deeply complicated when it comes time to write these sorts of regulations. Ultimately, consumers should have the right to park their data wherever they want — with a local provider or a foreign one. Data portability should be key to data sovereignty, since it is consumers who will drive innovation through their demand for best-in-class services.