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China roundup: Meng Wanzhou’s release and Huawei’s future

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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.

On Friday, Huawei’s chief financial executive Meng Wanzhou was released from house arrest in Vancouver after reaching a breakthrough deal with the U.S. Justice Department. Chinese startups that announced major funding rounds this week include Momenta, a Daimler-backed autonomous driving startup, Nreal, an augmented reality company, and Hai Robotics, a warehouse robotics maker.

Landmark deal

Meng, the daughter of Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei, entered an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department in which she admitted to some wrongdoing while prosecutors deferred wire and bank fraud charges against her and could dismiss the indictment in 2022.

In 2018, Meng was arrested in Vancouver, Canada on suspicion she violated U.S. trade sanctions against Iran. Over the years, her case has become an irritant in straining U.S.-China relations. Around the time Meng took off for Shenzhen, home to Huawei’s headquarters, on Friday, China released two Canadians who have been detained on spying charges. Beijing has repeatedly denied connections between the detention of the two Canadians and Meng’s arrest.

Through a remote court appearance via video on Friday, Meng pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, bank fraud and wire fraud. However, she admitted to the basic facts underpinning the DOJ’s charges, which include “multiple material misrepresentations to a senior executive of a financial institution regarding Huawei’s business operations in Iran in an effort to preserve Huawei’s banking relationship with the financial institution.”

“Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Huawei Technologies, admitted today that she failed to tell the truth about Huawei’s operations in Iran, and as a result, the financial institution continued to do business with Huawei in violation of U.S. law. Our prosecution team continues to prepare for trial against Huawei, and we look forward to proving our case against the company in court,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the DOJ’s Criminal Division in a release.

China’s news outlets have largely left out Meng’s confirmation of wrongdoings and internet users rushed to triumph the Huawei executive’s release after three years. Within hours, posts hashtagged #MengWanzhouReturningToMotherland have garnered over 1 billion views on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo.

“We look forward to seeing Meng Wanzhou returning home safely to be reunited with her family. Huawei will continue to defend itself against the allegations in the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York,” the company said in a statement.

Ment said upon her release the past three years have been “a disruptive time” for her as “a mother, a wife and a company executive.” In a statement, she said support from China, both at the governmental and civil level, gave her faith and kept her going during the “dark moments.”

Meng’s return might boost employee morale at Huawei but the telecom equipment and smartphone giant continues to suffer from the aftershocks caused by U.S. sanctions. Huawei will see revenue from its smartphone business drop by at least $30-40 billion in 2021, its chairman Eric Xu said Friday. Once a global handset leader, Huawei has fallen out of the top ranks and been unseated by its Chinese rivals, with Xiaomi overtaking Apple as the second best-selling brand worldwide in Q2.

In 2019, Huawei lost access to critical chip components and software after the Trump Administration put it on an export blacklist. The firm has since stepped up efforts to make its own handset chips and operating system but these technologies have proven hard to come by in a short span of time.

Fundings

In other news, General Motors said it will pour $300 million into Chinese autonomous driving technology provider Momenta, which already counts Toyota, Chinese state-backed SAIC Motor and Mercedes-Benz AG among its investors.

Substantial funding has become necessary for competing in China’s autonomous driving race, and coalition with entrenched automakers are even more important as robotaxi upstarts begin testing their commercial viability by deploying advanced or autonomous driving solutions in trucks, buses and passenger cars.

Over the past year, we’ve seen Momenta’s rivals Pony.ai, WeRide, and Deeproute securing financings in the hundreds of million dollars.

Nreal, founded by Magic Leap veteran Xu Chi, said it has raised $100 million to expand overseas and develop new AR products. We covered its $15 million Series A round back in 2019 and the startup has reportedly reached a staggering $700 million valuation as of the current raise, according to CNBC. Nreal has been touting headsets that are more affordable and lightweight to its Western peers.

Lastly, Hai Robotics, a Shenzhen-based startup that makes case handling robots for warehouses, just raised $200 million. Industrial robots are in demand in China as the government calls for greater efficiency to deal with labor shortage in its manufacturing sector. As Huang He, an investor focused on industrial autoamtion, previously told me:

Youngsters these days would rather become food delivery riders than work in a factory. The work that robots replace is the low-skilled type, and those that still can’t be taken up by robots pay well and come with great benefits.

Nonetheless, he warned that the market might be overheated:

 There’s this bizarre phenomenon in China, where the most funded and valuable industrial robotic firms are generating less than 30 million yuan in annual revenue and not really heard of by real users in the industry.

In August, another warehouse robotics startup, Syrius, which is also based in the hardware haven of Shenzhen, announced it had raised over $20 million led by ByteDance.



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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/09/26/china-roundup-meng-wanzhous-release-and-huaweis-future/

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.

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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.”

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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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