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China Roundup: Beijing takes aim at algorithm, Xiaomi automates electric cars

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Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

The biggest news of the week again comes from Beijing’s ongoing effort to dampen the influence of the country’s tech giants. Regulators are now going after the exploitative use of algorithm-powered user recommendations. We also saw a few major acquisitions this week. Xiaomi is acquiring an autonomous vehicle startup called Deepmotion, and ByteDance is said to be buying virtual reality hardware startup Pico.

Algorithmic regulation

Beijing has unveiled the draft of a sweeping regulation to rein in how tech companies operating in China utilize algorithms, the engine of virtually all lucrative tech businesses today from short videos and news aggregation to ride-hailing, food delivery and e-commerce. My colleague Manish Singh wrote an overview of the policy, and here’s a closer look at the 30-point document proposed by China’s top cyberspace watchdog.

Beijing is clearly wary of how purely machine-recommended content can stray away from values propagated by the Communist Party and even lead to the detriment of national interests. In its mind, algorithms should strictly align with the interest of the nation:

Algorithmic recommendations should uphold mainstream values… and should not be used for endangering national security (Point 6).

Regulators want more transparency on companies’ algorithmic black boxes and are making them accountable for the consequences of their programming codes. For example:

Service providers should be responsible for the security of algorithms, create a system for… the review of published information, algorithmic mechanisms, security oversight… enact and publish relevant rules for algorithmic recommendations (Point 7). 

Service providers… should not create algorithmic models that entice users into addiction, high-value consumption, or other behavior that disrupts public orders (Point 8).

The government is also clamping down on discriminative algorithms and putting some autonomy back in the hands of consumers:

Service providers… should not use illegal or harmful information as user interests to recommend content or create sexist or biased user tags (Point 10).

Service providers should inform users of the logic, purpose, and mechanisms of the algorithms in use (Point 14).

Service providers… should allow users to turn off algorithmic features (Point 15).

The regulators don’t want internet giants to influence public thinking or opinions. Though not laid out in the document, censorship control will no doubt remain in the hands of the authorities.

Service providers should not… use algorithms to censor information, make excessive recommendations, manipulate rankings or search results that lead to preferential treatment and unfair competition, influence online opinions, or shun regulatory oversight (Point 13).

Like many other aspects of the tech business, certain algorithms are to obtain approval from the government. Tech firms must also hand over their algorithms to the police in case of investigations.

Service providers should file with the government if their recommendation algorithms can affect public opinions or mobilize civilians (Point 20).  

Service providers… should keep a record of their recommendation algorithms for at least six months and provide them to law enforcement departments for investigation purposes (Point 23). 

If passed, the law will shake up the fundamental business logic of Chinese tech companies that rely on algorithms to make money. Programmers need to pore over these rules and be able to parse their codes for regulators. The proposed law seems to have even gone beyond the scope of the European Union’s data rules, but how the Chinese one will be enforced remains to be seen.

Lei Jun bets on autonomous cars

In Xiaomi’s latest earnings call, the smartphone maker said it will acquire DeepMotion, a Beijing-based autonomous driving startup, to aid its autonomous driving endeavor. The deal will cost Xiaomi about $77.3 million, and “a lot of that will be in terms of stock” and “a lot of these payments will be deferred until certain milestones are hit,” said Wang Xiang, Xiaomi president on the call.

Xiaomi’s founder Lei Jun earlier hinted at the firm’s plan to enter the crowded space. On July 28, Lei announced on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, that the company is recruiting 500 autonomous driving experts across China.

Automation has become a selling point for China’s new generation of electric vehicle makers, often with companies conflating advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) with Level 4 autonomous driving. Such overstatements in marketing material mislead consumers and make one question the real technical capability of these nascent EV players.

Xiaomi has similarly unveiled plans to manufacture electric cars through a separate car-making subsidiary. The ADAS capabilities brought by DeepMotion are naturally a nice complement to Xiaomi’s future cars. As Wang explained:

We believe that there’s a lot of synergies with [DeepMotion’s ADAS] technology with our EV initiatives. So I think it tells you a couple of points. Number one is, we will roll out EV business. And I said in our prepared remarks, we’ve been very focused on hiring the right team for the EV business at this point in time, formulating our strategy, formulating our product strategy, et cetera, et cetera. But at the same time, we are not afraid to apply it and integrate other teams if we find that those will help us accelerate our plan right.

It’s noteworthy that DeepMotion, founded by Microsoft veterans, specializes in perception technologies and high-precision mapping, which puts it in the vision-driven autonomous driving camp. A number of major Chinese EV makers rely on consumer-grade lidar to automate their cars.

ByteDance goes virtual

ByteDance is said to be buying Beijing-based VR hardware maker Pico for 5 billion yuan ($770 million), according to Chinese VR news site Vrtuoluo. ByteDance could not be immediately reached for comment.

Advanced VR headsets are often expensive due to the cost of high-end processors. Experts observe that most VR hardware makers are yet to enter the mass consumer market. They are hemorrhaging cash and living off generous venture money and corporate deals.

ByteDance might be buying a money-losing business, but Pico, one of the major VR makers in China, provides a fast track for the TikTok parent to enter VR manufacturing. As the world’s largest short video distributor and an aggressive newcomer to video games, ByteDance has no shortage of creative talent. We will see how it works on producing virtual content if the Pico deal goes through.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/08/29/china-roundup-xiaomi-bytedance/

SaaS

Gamma brings in $7M to bring the slide deck into the 21st century

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Grant Lee has been living in slide decks for most of his career, but it wasn’t until he was doing some advisory work last year that relied heavily on slides that he aimed to reimagine the format.

“Slides were built for a different era of work,” he told TechCrunch. “They were more of a visual aid. You had to have a presenter because they have little standalone power without the person.”

Previously, people would print off slides or watch the presentation together on one screen, but the overall problem of people sharing and communicating their work has existed for a long time. Lee said. Slides have been around for over 30 years, and now everyone has their own screen.

So Lee and his co-founders, James Fox and Jon Noronha, all former Optimizely employees (Optimizely was acquired by Episerver in 2020), started Gamma, a software that enables users to build stacks of cards that fit a brand’s aesthetic and prioritize design by linking different bits of content, like videos and embeddable forms that can be filled out in real time.

Gamma

The Gamma team. Image Credits: Gamma

The idea for Gamma was to create something that still feels familiar to the traditional slide, but that also “unlocks a whole new set of super power,” Lee said. He refers to building content in Gamma like “choosing your own adventure,” and the content can be dragged, dropped uploaded and fit into the cards. And though the presenter is guiding the conversation, watchers can explore the content themselves and then go back to following the presentation.

The company was founded last November, launched in private beta in August and is now announcing $7 million in seed funding led by Accel. Other participants in the round include Zoom CEO Eric Yuan; former LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner; founders at Airtable, Patreon, Segment, Honey and Optimizely; and early-stage funds including Script Capital, South Park Commons, LocalGlobe, Afore and Hustle Fund.

“When we came out of stealth in August, we were talking to Accel and thought they were the right partner,” Lee said. “Investing in a new medium can be difficult, but we were excited about crafting the right building blocks. The new funding will allow us to build out the team and the product, and it will help having the right partner.”

Gamma is now out of private beta and Lee said there are thousands of people on the waitlist to be onboarded. It is too early to discuss growth metrics, due to the company not yet having paying customers, but there will be some paid plans down the road, he said.

PlatoAi. Web3 Reimagined. Data Intelligence Amplified.
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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/10/28/gamma-brings-in-7m-to-bring-the-slide-deck-into-the-21st-century/

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Finance

Tiger Global in talks to lead over $100M investment in India’s Slice

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A number of high-profile investors are chasing to invest in Slice, a fintech startup that is attempting to expand the market for credit cards in India.

Tiger Global is in advanced stages of talks to lead a round of over $100 million in the Bangalore-based startup, sources familiar with the matter told me.

A number of other firms, including Insight Partners, Ribbit Capital and Greenoaks, are also engaging with the startup, sources said, requesting anonymity as the matter is private.

Deliberations are ongoing and the terms can change, sources added.

Slice, which has raised around $30 million in its previous equity financing rounds and was valued at under $200 million in a round earlier this year, declined to comment. Slice counts Blume Ventures, Gunosy Capital and Better Capital among its investors.

Tiger Global declined to comment.

Even as hundreds of millions of Indians today have a bank account, only about 30 million have a credit card. Most people in the South Asian market are not eligible to get a credit card, and even many of those who are don’t bother to get one because the experience of signing up is too clumsy, time consuming and the rewards don’t make up for it.

Slice has made it easier for far more people — even those without a traditional full-time job — to get a card, and the signup process is swift. In the past two years, Slice has emerged as one of India’s largest card-issuing firms.

It has also become aggressive to reach potential customers. Last month, the startup launched a card with 2,000 Indian rupees ($27) as the default limit to tap the nation’s potential addressable market of 200 million individuals.

In a separate announcement earlier this week, Slice said it issued 110,000 cards last month. The startup, founded by Flipkart alum Rajan Bajaj, says it has more than 3 million registered members, whose average age is 23.

It is also exploring applications atop of blockchain, according to Bajaj’s LinkedIn and the startup’s recruitment posts. Last week, the firm announced that it is offering new hires a three-day week with steady pay and benefits to attract talent that wishes to work on other opportunities — or do whatever else they like — at the same time.

Tiger Global has emerged as the most aggressive growth-stage investor in India in recent quarters. It has backed over two dozen startups in India this year, propelling many of them to the covet unicorn club.

Image Credits: CB Insights

India’s startup ecosystem witnessed a record 519 deals in the quarter that ended in September this year, research firm CB Insights said in a report on Thursday. During the same quarter, the startups raised $9.9 billion, compared to $10.3 billion in all of last year, the report said. Sequoia Capital India was the most prolific investor in the world’s second largest internet market during the quarter with 33 deals.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/10/07/tiger-global-slice-india-fintech/

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Startups

Upmesh wants to build a community-driven discovery app for Southeast Asian live commerce

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The founders of Upmesh were building a game on top of Twitch’s API when they realized something about another group of livestreamers. Even though selling through Facebook Live has been gaining popularity in Southeast Asia for years, many vendors are still going through their comments afterward and using pen-and-paper to collect orders. Upmesh was created to automate the checkout process and ultimately wants to create a platform similar to Whatnot where people can discover new live commerce sellers across different social media platforms.

Upmesh announced today it has closed a seed round of $3 million, led by Leo Capital, with participation from Beenext, iSeed, Goto Financial head of merchant financial services Jonathan Barki, BukuWarung founders Abhinay Peddisetty and Chinmay Chauhan, and Zopim founders Royston Tay and Kwok Yangbin.

Upmesh was launched nine months ago by Wong Zi Yang, Soh Jan, Nhat Vu and Shawn Teow, and is now used by almost 300 live commerce merchants in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. The startup says it processes annualized gross merchandise value of $40 million.

The platform’s tools provide e-commerce functions that automatically capture orders made in livestream comments (for example “white top +1”), matches it to the right item in a seller’s inventory and sends a checkout link to the customer. Upmesh currently works with Facebook Live, but will add other platforms, too, with the goal of becoming platform-agnostic.

Other companies that provide order-capturing tools for live commerce include CommentSold, Dibsly, Soldie and Buy It Live, but Upmesh’s founders say one of its most important differentiators is tailoring its platform to meet the expectations of sellers and customers in different Southeast Asian countries.

“If you look at the live selling climate in Southeast Asia, the way people are collecting orders between each country is very different,” said chief executive officer Wong. “Between Singapore and the Philippines, whether you key-in your inventory before or after your live really different, even whether people maintain stock counts is really different.”

Upmesh's tool for collecting orders through Facebook Live comments

Upmesh’s tool for collecting orders through Facebook Live comments

For example, he said in Singapore, inventory turnaround is usually very fast, which means even sellers who offer 1,000s of items only keep stock on the shelf for short periods of time. In the Philippines, however, many vendors do live commerce to supplement their brick-and-mortar shops. Inventory is often taken from their stores and they sell what they have on hand. “The way the software is structured has to be very customized to the individual markets,” Wong said.

Upmesh will use part of its new funding to double down on the Philippines and Malaysia for at least another six months, but it also wants to enter Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. The company plans to increase its headcount, launch marketing campaigns and create educational content for sellers.

Wong notes that even though COVID-19 drove adoption of e-commerce, it isn’t what created interest in live commerce. Many of its clients have been livestreaming for about three years. “The way that people interact with e-commerce is changing. It’s becoming more relationship driven. In fact, our sellers actually know their buyers on a first name basis, so they can call them out by name when they join their livestream,” said Wong. “It’s actually replacing advertising for small business.”

Most of Upmesh’s user acquisition so far has been through word-of-mouth, and it serves a lot of fashion live sellers, since they are a closely-knit community, said Wong.

Upmesh’s future plans revolve around turning those communities into new ways of making money, creating a platform that will let sellers and buyers interact with each other and discover live commerce videos on different social media platforms.

“If we look at an interesting comparison to the U.S., the U.S. has live commerce platforms like Whatnot, but Whatnot is focused on collectibles and vintage items, things that have a very strong secondary reseller market,” said Wong. “In the U.S., those verticals have the most amount of community, people who are talking to each other on eBay, on YouTube or offline, and they look those communities and gave them a home to be in.”

Upmesh's dashboard for live commerce sellers

Upmesh’s dashboard for live commerce sellers

Southeast Asia, on the other hand, does not have a similar collectibles market, but communities spring up around different types of goods, like fashion or fresh foods. Those are the kinds of verticals that Upmesh wants to add to its platform.

“That’s the end game for live commerce, that you can discover and interact with different sellers and then once you find a seller you like, you can go deeper,” said Wong. “We direct users’ attention to where they goods are, and since we have the inventory of all our sellers, if you want a red dress, we can tell you which sellers have a red dress.”

PlatoAi. Web3 Reimagined. Data Intelligence Amplified.
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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/10/07/upmesh-wants-to-build-a-community-driven-discovery-app-for-southeast-asian-live-commerce/

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Artificial Intelligence

SoftBank-backed Korean edtech startup Riiid acquires Langoo, expands in Japan  

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Riiid, a South Korea-headquartered AI-powered edtech company, acquired its Japanese distribution partner Langoo to expand its Japan footprint. 

The acquisition comes after the company’s latest $175 million Series D round from SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 in May. Riiid has said it will continue to fuel its global expansion with the funding. 

Langoo, Riiid’s partner in Japan, offers Riiid Tutor, formerly known as Santa, a test prep app for the English-language proficiency test TOEIC in the region. Riiid claims that more than 2.5 million users downloaded the Riiid Tutor app in South Korea and Japan. When it launched in April 2019 in Japan, the Riiid Tutor app took the top ranking in sales among education applications in Android within the first week of its release. 

“The exceptional capacity of Langoo in its local business with Riiid Tutor was the main reason for this acquisition,” said co-founder and CEO of Riiid YJ Jang. “Riiid’s strength is our scalability and ability to apply our technology anywhere, regardless of regions, languages and domains. By leveraging this investment, we will capture broader Japanese market opportunities. This acquisition is the first step in an inorganic strategy to ultimately apply Riiid’s AI technology to the global market and help more learners around the world.” 

Japan is one of the largest education markets and has enormous potential to grow in the Japanese edtech industry that still relies on the conventional in-person education system, a spokesperson at Riiid told TechCrunch. After penetrating the Japanese market, Riiid will gear up to enter other international regions, including Central and East Asia, the spokesperson added. 

The Japanese remote learning industry was estimated at $2.6 billion in 2020, increasing 22.4% year on year, based on a report by Yano Research Institute. 

Riiid plans to shore up marketing, sales and B2B business development in Japan by setting up a Japanese unit via the acquisition. The company expects to address local remote learning and education in the market.

In Japan, Riiid will offer its services, ranging from the TOEIC to English speaking and tutoring services, to broaden its customer base.  

Riiid has been actively penetrating the global market since 2020 after it opened the U.S. arm, Riiid Labs, in Silicon Valley. Riiid also has users in Vietnam and Taiwan, and recently sealed a partnership deal with an India-based AI edtech company, the spokesperson said. It is set to open an R&D center in Canada, the spokesperson added. 

Beyond the TOEIC mobile app, the company launched an ACT prep mobile app with ConnectMe Education in early 2021 in Egypt, Turkey, UAE, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It also unveiled the GMAT beta version, in partnership with Kaplan, in 2021, aiming at the Korean market first. In the first quarter of 2022, Riiid is scheduled to launch Riiid Classroom, an AI-based solution that offers teachers a formative assessment and learning program. Its key features include individual performance analysis, lecture recommendations based on individual students’ weaknesses, dropout analysis and task management.  

Riiid provides AI-based online education solutions for K-12, post-secondary and corporate training. Founded in 2014, it has approximately 210 employees globally, including South Korea, the U.S, the U.K., Canada, Brazil, and Vietnam. 

PlatoAi. Web3 Reimagined. Data Intelligence Amplified.
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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/10/07/softbank-backed-korean-edtech-startup-riiid-acquires-langoo-to-expand-further-to-japan/

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