Exits of many different kinds

Asia Tech Review: 10 August 2020

Welcome back,

This week’s theme is exits: they are all around us and very different depending on where in the world you’re looking.

This newsletter went AWOL for a few weeks, my apologies for that. Writing it is a passion project for me but it can also be a busman’s holiday at times since I spend most of time working on stories, newsletters and more for The Ken.

But I wouldn’t want it any other way. The Ken just turned four last week—you can read this passionate note from our CEO. We just passed 25,000 paying readers, most of whom are in India such is the youth of our SEA subscription, and are just getting started.

Before I’m done, I want to recommend Pear Anderson’s SEA Covid summary emails for anyone curious of how the region (and travel, in particular) will recover, I’ve found it (and the podcasts) useful. Finally, I was interviewed by Tanya Aggarwal for her Medium publication blog—thanks again Tanya. (Takeaway: I’ve been in this part of the world for a long, long time!)

Until next time,

Jon


China

Unpacking Trump’s EO on TikTok and WeChat

The Trump administration’s executive order that will ban the use of TikTok in the US unless it is sold to a US owner within 45 days. (What an exit.) But it has also reeled in WeChat, which you’ll likely know is China’s top messaging app. Given the different scope of these apps, the order on each has very different impacts.

[You can read the TikTok EO here and the WeChat EO here—both form part of a “Clean Network” strategy]

Casting the political right or wrong behind the EO aside, WeChat is probably the most suitable candidate for a technology service to be banned in the US. (I’m of the opinion that this could set a dangerous precedent, for what it’s worth.) 

In practical terms, WeChat is the only real communications tunnel that connects China with the world. That’s a very deliberate situation. Beijing has blocked practically all overseas internet companies in China, and those it has allowed—such as Microsoft’s LinkedIn service—as subject to government pressure which essentially means they are not channels for secure information. (LinkedIn’s China censorship actually extends to all countries since it limits messages that it deems sensitive from appearing in China.)

That means WeChat is the only way for overseas Chinese to communicate with family or friends back home. Likewise, for those doing business with China, it was a crucial channel. VPNs, of course, can be used to access forbidden services on Chinese soil but it’s complicated since the government made them illegal (none are available for Chinese iPhones) with fines for those who use them. Government-registered VPNs are allowed but that means the user data can be accessed by the government.

Data on WeChat is absolutely accessible. You’ll recall that Dr Li Wenliang—who is widely credited with identifying Covid-19 when the outbreak began on Wuhan—was apprehended by police after messaging fellow doctors in a WeChat group. We’ve long known that certain terms are monitored and censored in conversations, but Dr Li’s example shows that close listening happens, too.

All of this should worry the US government since it is a recipe for espionage. Whether or not that justifies a ban is something else.

As for TikTok, The New York Times says government agencies don’t fear it like Huawei but the thread, to me, seems to be around shaping news narratives. The service has, for example, censored videos around Black Lives Matter protests in the US. That isn’t China-level yet—Beijing has a tight leash over what ByteDance surfaces in Douyin in China—but the fact that a Chinese service has such influence in the US, and elsewhere, is rightly a concern.

But the style of the deal—this apparent forced sale to Microsoft—is alarming. It’s the type of deal you’d expect to see in despotic nations not America.

Things to watch next:

  • Are other Chinese apps or digital services targeted by the US government?

  • What happens to WeChat when the 45-day EO is over? It seems unlikely Tencent will sell the service as ByteDance is doing to TikTok.

  • Will Tencent’s other businesses (read: gaming) be impacted in the US? The immediate answer seems no, but then WeChat wasn’t expected to be dragged into this.

  • How does ByteDance deal with a backlash in China, where it is seen as kowtowing to Washington(!)?

  • And—mostly obviously—can Microsoft pull off the TikTok deal? The scope of the deal has now expanded to cover more than just the US, with India reportedly part of Microsoft’s wishlist, while there’s also competing bidders including Twitter.

Further reading:

In other news

The Trump administration threatened to delist Chinese stocks that don’t provide access to audits. Despite that looming, Chinese companies are still tapping US public markets.

Li Auto, a five-year-old EV startup backed by ByteDance among others, raised $1.1B in a Nasdaq IPO. Meanwhile, digital property brokerage Beike filed to raise up to $2B in a US IPO—the largest Chinese listing in the US since 2018 and a potential SoftBank exit.

But many are also cutting their US ties. Microblogging site Weibo was last month rumoured to be delisting, now travel giant Ctrip is linked with a Nasdaq delisting on account of Covid-19 and Sino-US tensions, according to Reuters

The management of China’s largest online travel firm, with a current market value of $16.5 billion, has reached out to a number of financial and strategic investors including private equity firms and domestic tech companies about joining a take-private deal, said four people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Another, co-working service UCommune has also abandoned a listing although it remains unclear whether this was due to factors like WeWork’s demise more than politics

Huawei says it is running out of processor chips that it needs for smartphones

Ant Group will reportedly aim to raise $30B from its dual China-Hong Kong IPO—that would make it the largest listing ever. Elsewhere in the Alibaba family, Alibaba Health is raising $1B via a share sale

Apple is being sued for $1.4B over Siri patents—the case could impact products sold in China

Zoom will cease direct sales in China and instead run its local business via local partners—Zoom had been criticised for censoring users

Didi is launching its ride-hailing service in Russia

Tencent has been busy doing deals, its latest could be a merger between China’s top two games streaming services, which both count it as an investor. The merger entity could be worth $10B, according to Bloomberg.

YouTube banned over 2,500 Chinese accounts between April-June 2020 for engaging in “coordinated influence operations” on political issues

China will allow small investors to file class-action lawsuits

A real-name verification system for games will come into force in September


Hong Kong

Google, AWS and Microsoft reported rejected a proposal that would have given Hong Kong regulators access to customer banking records

Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai is arrested under National Security Law


Taiwan

Wired has a profile on Taiwan’s digital minister, who is quite unlike most politicians and helped get the country’s tech community involved in the pandemic response

Hackers backed by China have reportedly compromised at least seven Taiwanese chip firms over the past two years

Chip designer MediaTek has surged as Huawei has struggled:

When the U.S. administration moved in May to block Huawei Technologies Co. from accessing American technology to manufacture its chips, shares of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. dropped.

Huawei, the Chinese phone and telecoms equipment giant, was one of the custom chipmaker’s biggest clients and losing those orders was thought to pose a huge threat to revenue. Yet that same day, shares of another Taiwanese company jumped as much as their daily 10% limit, the most in almost five years.

MediaTek Inc., a designer of chips used in electronics including smartphones, has since climbed another 78% in Taiwan and by late July overtook the market value of Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., the Taipei-based flagship of iPhone maker Foxconn Technology Group. At the close of trade Wednesday, MediaTek was Taiwan’s second-biggest company, worth NT$1.2 trillion ($40 billion).


India

A quick exit

Byju’s bought 18-month old WhiteHat Jr. for $300M in what is an unprecedented deal as my colleague Olina Banerji explained last week:

Three things happened in the space of 12 months. Rapidly.

Twelve months ago, ex-Discovery India head Karan Bajaj created a PowerPoint, with his vision for a company that would teach Indian kids coding. He named it Whitehat Jr.

Six weeks ago, Bajaj met Byju Raveendran, whose company Byju’s just raised US$400 million from an investor. Who? Doesn’t matter. At this point, only Jio hasn’t bitten the Byju’s bullet.

Two days ago, Byju’s acquired WhiteHat Jr in an all-cash deal for US$300 million, putting its recent fundraise to good use.

In a matter of 12 months, WhiteHat pulled off the quickest exit in Indian edtech, at seven times its last known valuation—US$40 million.

Meanwhile, Byju’s is said to be close to raising $400M from DST Global. Fellow edtech platform Springboard raised a $31M Series B.

In other news

Speaking of big money: ShareChat is said to be negotiating a $200M investment from Sequoia, while Microsoft is also looking to invest. (That could make things interesting if it buys TikTok India as part of its US deal.) Sequoia itself has beefed up its team with new additions that include Gojek’s former CTO.

Zomato is reportedly looking to bank $100M in new funding from Tiger Global

Google’s next investment after Jio could be Policybazaar, which counts SoftBank among its bakers. Economic Times reports Google may buy 10% of Policybazaar for around $150 million.

India added 15 more apps to its China blocked list—Xiaomi, for example, is rewriting its MIUI operating system to remove banned apps for India-based users

Google is giving its digital learning tools to 23 million students and teachers in India’s Maharashtra state

Online pharma is tipped to follow education with a period of consolidation

Samsung is staging a comeback in India

UPI will soon add NFC as a payment option

RazerPay is reportedly raising money at a $600M valuation


Southeast Asia

The exit bus comes to town

Exit deals have been like buses lately. We’ve written a number of stories recently that mention a lack of exits in Southeast Asia—it’s an important topic—and in recent weeks three have emerged:

  • July 30: Line Man gobbled up Thailand-based restaurant search and booking site Wongnai as part of a $110M investment deal

Each deal is different but they all have something in common, the companies were all seeking a sale. That’s not to demean the deals, but it is important context. The three sales are a validation of sorts for Southeast Asia. It’s likely that Covid-19 forcing more companies to go digital helped each one get over the line, but we have not yet reached the point that buyers are proactively going to Southeast Asia and looking to get into the market with an acquisition: that’s a seller’s market.

But we do have signs of progress here. 

Southeast Asia can do Saas: Intuit is a global business that found a fit with TradeGecko’s product. The product is global so this isn’t a Southeast Asia deal per se but it’s a validation that global Saas companies can be started and become successful from Southeast Asia.

Thailand isn’t impossible: The Line Man deal is a positive sign about Thailand from another global company, Line, which sees a promising consumer market. That’s notable because it is a country that many overseas companies have struggled to break into.

Traditional players must go digital: The Chilindo deal is a sign that traditional retailers and old school conglomerates need to be digital players, too. There are sure to be many other deals like this in the future—some of which will generate far larger exits.

Investors are increasingly interested in Southeast Asia due to difficult political situations in China and India, and Sea (the company) is also shining light on the region with its surging stock performance. (Even though much of the analysis is rather too rosy for me.)

In other news

Grab is reportedly raising $200M from Korea-based PE firm Stic Investments—the company launched a range of new fintech products around investment last week

Payments is a complicated game in Indonesia: Gojek, which operates GoPay, and Grab, which is an investor in OVO, are both competing to invest in Linkaja, a government backed payment service, according to KrAsia

Southeast Asia is the next global showdown for streaming: includes Chinese players iQiyi, Tencent’s WeTV and Mango TV as well as Netflix, HBO and (soon) Disney+. Good overview from Bloomberg 🔒 

As if to prove the point:

Chinese streaming giant iQIYI is to boost its Southeast Asia operation with the appointment of three new country managers. Two hail from Iflix, the regional streamer now being acquired by Tencent Video.

IQIYI said that former Iflix executive Sherwin Dela Cruz had been hired as its country manager for the Philippines. Dinesh Ratnam, also previously with Iflix, will oversee the markets of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Steven Zhang of live streaming platform Jovy will join iQIYI as country manager in Indonesia.

E-commerce enabler aCommerce says it is aiming to raise $200M in an IPO next year—company has talked about listing before, but this appears more advanced

Thailand is threatening Facebook with legal action if it doesn’t comply with requests to restrict content deemed illegal, including perceived insults to the country’s monarchy

Wahyoo raised $5M to help digitise small restaurants in Indonesia

Indonesia plans to expand its 10% digital tax initiative to cover Facebook, Netflix, Disney and others


Japan

Nintendo is killing it as game playing spikes during Covid (speaking personally, I am from a two Switch household)

TOKYO -- Nintendo posted its highest ever operating profit for the April-to-June quarter, logging a 427% rise to 144 billion yen ($1.3 billion), the Japanese gaming giant said on Thursday, as lockdowns and other social restrictions brought on by the coronavirus led to a surge in demand for its popular Switch console and game titles.

Net profit for the period reached its highest level since 2008, jumping 541% to 106 billion yen, while revenue doubled to 358 billion yen.

The Kyoto-based company attributed its bumper performance to strong demand for the Switch console as well as higher software sales, including those of smash hit "Animal Crossing: New Horizons."

Payment firm Hey raised an undisclosed sum from Bain Capital


South Korea

The New York Times relocation of staff shows Seoul is now a credible rival to Tokyo and Singapore when it comes to tech and business hubs in Asia


Longer reads


Last week on The Ken

I work at The Ken where we publish one daily story for each of our subscriptions. Here’s a recap what we ran over the last week:

Southeast Asia

  • SGX’s corporate governance challenge is RegCo’s opportunity link [free read]

  • Rocket Internet ventures into a crowded space searching for relevance link

  • Willson Cuaca and East Ventures’ race against themselves link [free read]

  • From Eko to Amity, a college dropout’s hurry to escape his family’s shadow link

  • The Southeast Asia encroachment of Singapore’s data hub position link

India

  • The problem with Nisaba Godrej’s silver linings playbook link

  • The Interview – Kunal Shah on improving Indians’ relationship with money through CRED link

  • To fix retail store dependence, Epigamia pours into digital link

  • The 32-year-old who wants to bring down the edifice of India’s fintech revolution link [free read]

  • The unbearable heaviness of being Jio Platforms link

  • Decoding Byju’s $300-million acquisition of WhiteHat Jr link

You can sample more stories on our free reads page.


You just finished reading Asia Tech Review, the weekly newsletter for keeping up with the tech industry across Asia.

If someone sent this to you, you can sign up for free at Asiatechreview.com

Big money: Ant finally files for IPO as Jio finally stops raising

Asia Tech Review: 21 July 2020

Welcome back,

I’m a little late this week but, as fortune would have it, I get a fresh run at briefly explaining why Ant Group’s IPO is such a big deal. There’s also more from Reliance, which announced its final investment, and a curious relocation for some of the New York Times in Hong Kong.

Yes, that’s it, that’s the intro—short this week.

See you again next time—stay safe,

Jon


China

Ant is finally moving its mountain

One benefit of this newsletter going out on Tuesday morning is I can write about Ant’s IPO while it is still fresh. It’s been a long, long, long time coming, but the Alibaba affiliate is finally going public.

Refresher: Ant operates payment app Alipay, China’s go-to mobile wallet, and a slew of financial products including loans and investments products. It has branched out into enterprise services which account for about half of revenue. And, yes, importantly, Alibaba owns one-third of the business.

The listing will be a dual China Star Market-Hong Kong affair—the first major combination of those two

Firstly, this is a huge deal simply because of size.

Reuters recently reported Ant is shooting for a $200B valuation. It’s believable that it’ll get it. This is a business that—thanks to its attachment to Alibaba—has commanded insane valuations: $150B in 2018 when it raised a colossal $14B in funding. (That was supposed to be a pre-IPO deal, by the way.)

More importantly, this is clearly a marker for other Chinese firms to follow—just as Alibaba’s 2014 US IPO—which remains a record highest—led to a glut of US IPO from Chinese firms, and then its December 2019 Hong Kong secondary kicked off other listings.

The message here is clear: the best Chinese companies can now list in China, and tap Hong Kong for access to international retail audiences.

Earlier, Nikkei Asian Review had written that the Shanghai-based Star Market would bring about a “new dawn” for Chinese tech stocks and this ‘Nasdaq alternative’ is finally picking up pace after a lackluster start last year.

The timing is right, too. US-China tensions and the Luckin Coffee fraud have made it tougher for Chinese firms to list Stateside. Ant’s listing—and Alibaba’s HK secondary—are carving out a market that a new generation of Chinese tech firms can tap with greater ease than the US.

Already, it’s happening. For example, robotics startup CloudMinds is looking to go public locally because sanctions botched a US IPO. Ant’s run will make the pathway all the more clearer. 

More: I wrote in The Ken’s BFO newsletter today that Ant’s listing is a clear signal that Chinese companies must put China first. Shout-out to TikTok and its efforts to appear non-Chinese.

In other news

China says it may retaliate against Ericsson and Nokia if the EU bans Huawei equipment. The UK banned Huawei kit from its 5G network in response to pressure from the Trump administration, and it remains possible that the sentiment could spread across Europe. There’s also cause for concern in other parts of the world. Huawei’s dominance in Southeast Asia is threatened after it lost 5G deals in Singapore and Vietnam. However, Huawei is among five bidders fighting to win a 5G contract with Thailand’s largest operator, AIS.

Britain’s Huawei ban may also end ByteDance’s interest in making London its new global HQ for TikTok, according to reports. Already, though, the city has become TikTok’s unofficial European headquarters by virtue of a massive hiring spree in recent months.

Microsoft span out its chatbot Xiaoice

EV maker/Tesla would-be/Tesla lawsuit contestant* Xpeng raised $500M from Hillhouse, Sequoia and others

The US reportedly became a bigger download market than China in Q2—first time since 2014 and it’s due to Covid-19

US Attorney General Barr says Apple, Google and Microsoft collaborate with China in order to sell in the country—while I’m willing to view TikTok as a threat to the US-based on risk and not evidence, where is the evidence for this?


Hong Kong

Gray Lady on the move, kinda

The New York Times is moving some of its Hong Kong-based staff to Seoul on account of the recent national security law

“China’s sweeping new national security law in Hong Kong has created a lot of uncertainty about what the new rules will mean to our operation and our journalism,” Times editors and executives who oversee the paper’s international coverage and operations wrote in a memo to staff on Tuesday. “We feel it is prudent to make contingency plans and begin to diversify our editing staff around the region.”

Two interesting takeaways from what is a logical a decision:

  • It doesn’t apply to all reporters, only the publication’s “digital news operations”—that’s around one-third of staff

  • It isn’t Taiwan. The relocation is to Seoul. Taiwan has been the destination for China-focused reporters kicked from the Mainland. Some have suggested Seoul is a more neutral place that avoids upsetting China. Who, indeed, knows...

On similar lines: VPN providers are giving up hosting servers in Hong Kong


India 

Jio’s super app train makes a final fuel stop

There’s not much that hasn’t been said about Jio Platforms closing out its funding with a $4.5B investment from Google.

The deal takes Jio Platforms—Reliance’s digital platform business—to $20B raised from investors that include Facebook, Microsoft, Intel, Qualcomm and a range of top hedge funds and venture capitalists plus Google.

  • For context: all of India’s startups together raised $14.5B last year

Google got the same discount as Facebook—others paid a 12% premium—presumably because these are the most strategic backers. Facebook owns WhatsApp, India’s top messaging app, and Google operates Android, which dominates the smartphone space with over 90% market share. These are crucial blocks to build a digital strategy in 2020.

Those discounts also imply that Google’s investment deal was reached sometime before it was announced. That shows the deals opened with a bang (Facebook) and closed with a bang (Google).

The deal is a disappointment given Google had days earlier announced a bold gesture to invest $10B into India over the next 5-7 years.

Jio means half of the budget blown already, and you’d hardly call the project an under-served cause that is in need of investment. This is Google ensuring it doesn’t miss out on whatever comes, not the act of giving or spurring development that the $10B announcement initially promised.

The smart take: Well done for ignoring the many Jio hot takes, but make sure to read my colleague Praveen on why this is Jio’s endgame. (Complete with dazzling illustrations.)

In other news

It may not be Reliance, but Policybazaar is hoping to kick off a wave of Indian tech IPOs with a listing next year at a target valuation of $3.5B—SoftBank is an investor

Smartphone sales dropped by 50% year-on-year in India during the first half of 2020

Fantasy sports startup Dream11 is reportedly raising $200M at a valuation of at least $2B


Southeast Asia

A strangely quiet week for Southeast Asia but in rare tech IPO news: retail tech startup Trax is reportedly eying a US IPO at a valuation of over $2B

Singapore is readying a blockchain network for faster and quicker international payments

SIM swapping has arrived in Singapore—thankfully without damage to the victim on this occasion

On-demand services Grab and Gojek have been used to intimidate activists in Indonesia

Digital banking startup Percipient raised $5M


Japan

SoftBank could sell Arm, or send it to IPO, according to a CNBC report that claims the telco giant has hired Goldman Sachs to explore an exit. SoftBank bought the business for $32B four years ago and had reportedly intended to list it until it received interest from potential buyers.

Remember that Masayoshi Son-Jack Ma feud (ATR June 29)? Well, SoftBank quietly sold off another $2.2B in Alibaba stock to keep the fire burning just a little bit longer. It still owns a stake worth $13.7B.

Japan is handing subsidies to firms that shift their manufacturing away from China—there’s an initial 87 beneficiaries


Outside of Asia tech

“No One Knows What Thailand Is Doing Right, but So Far, It’s Working”—I’ve seen a lot of complaints about this story but for me it’s accurate. Many of Thailand’s neighbours adopted stricter lockdowns, masks are also as common, and yet Philippines and Indonesia are struggling to contain Covid-19. Not a criticism of Thailand, but valid cause to ponder the differences.


Last week on The Ken

I work at The Ken where we publish one daily story for each of our subscriptions. Here’s a recap what we ran over the last week:

Southeast Asia

  • A tonik for Philippines’ underserved banking market link

  • Singlife’s hybrid theory tested in Singapore’s insurance forge link [free read]

  • Incoming: More Sequoia funding at more stages for Southeast Asia link

  • Into AMTD’s Singapore spiderverse link

  • When the Philippine taxman comes knocking on online sellers’ doors link [free read]

India

  • Swayam’s missed opportunity to be a Covid-19 remedy for higher education link

  • The Reliance Retail-DMart face-off over essentials link

  • Business on WhatsApp often skips WhatsApp Business link

  • The telecoms gymnastics behind BSNL’s Make-in-India 4G push link

  • Hero Group takes a leap of faith with its deep tech ambitions link

  • Indian fintech’s most wanted: The elusive BillDesk acquisition link

You can sample more stories on our free reads page.


You just finished reading Asia Tech Review, the weekly newsletter for keeping up with the tech industry across Asia.

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Hong Kong craziness, India's edtech boom and Indonesian unicorns hit funding trail

Asia Tech Review: 13 July 2020

Welcome back,

There’s a lot to get into this week, much of which centers around the ongoing US-China tensions. Beyond the obvious stuff like TikTok trying to be less Chinese and Google giving up ill-advised plans to offer services in China (again), news includes Foxconn’s apparent plan to invest $1B to grow its iPhone manufacturing in India.

There’s the usual swings and roundabouts on IPOs. Video site Bilibili is lining up a Hong Kong listing, which is where Ant Financial’s long-rumoured IPO will reportedly finally (really) take place. And at a valuation of at least $200B! Meanwhile, Weibo operator Sina is mulling an offer to delist from the NASDAQ and go private.

Oh, and I went on the Analyse Asia podcast to talk Grab-Gojek and things related to Southeast Asia tech.

See you next time,

Jon


China

Social distancing from China

ByteDance is said to be considering strategies to distance TikTok from its Chinese roots as it continues to attract criticism from politicians in the US, who are considering a ban. Ideas under discussion reportedly include creating a new management board for TikTok and opening a headquarters outside of China.

Still, it is hard to believe that any of these changes would stop a ban, if it turns out that the Trump administration wants to go down that path. (Amazon jumped into the picture when it emailed staff banning TikTok on work devices. It then reversed the order hours later—the message was, it claimed, “sent in error”.)

Speaking of politically contentious projects: Bloomberg reported that Google recently abandoned a project to offer cloud computing services “in China and other politically sensitive countries.”

In May, the search giant shut down the initiative, known as “Isolated Region” and which sought to address nations’ desires to control data within their borders, the employees said. The action was considered a “massive strategy shift,” according to one of the employees, who said Isolated Region had involved hundreds of workers scattered around the world.

The initiative would have allowed Google to set up cloud services controlled by a third party, such as a locally owned company or a government agency. The result would be a business sequestered from Google’s existing cloud computing services, which include data centers and computer networks.

In other news:

Alibaba’s Ant Financial—now known simply as Ant Group—is reportedly preparing for a Hong Kong IPO that could happen this year and value its business at a staggering $200B

Elsewhere in Chinese IPO watch: Royole, one of the first to make a dual screen smartphone, is reportedly considering a Chinese IPO after abandoning a US listing. JD.com is eying China’s Star Market for an IPO for its fintech unit. Popular video site Bilibili could be next for a secondary listing in Hong Kong. Bilibili is listed in the US with a market cap of over $16M. Sina, the firm behind social media service Weibo and another US listed company, is weighing a $2.7B offer to go private.

Didi Chuxing is testing China’s newly-minted digital currency as a payment method

US government contractors must now prove they don’t have links to Huawei

Tencent is in talks to buy Hong Kong-listed gaming firm Leyou in yet another deal

Alibaba’s Aliexpress Russia joint venture is said to be on course for $10B in annual GMV by 2023. The venture is said to be 3-4 years away from IPO, but a more immediate target is raising sales from Russia merchants as Chinese are said to dominate right now.

SCMP releases its annual China internet report


Hong Kong

Data law chaos

China’s new security law has rightly drawn concern over its draconian nature and potentially sweeping impact. The rules effectively make it illegal for anyone to discuss the potential for democracy in Hong Kong, even those outside of the country and China, as Axios explains:

China has long sought to crush organized dissent abroad through quiet threats and coercion. Now it has codified that practice into law — potentially forcing people and companies around the world to choose between speaking freely and ever stepping foot in Hong Kong again.

This means that anyone advocating democracy in Hong Kong, or criticizing the governments in Hong Kong or Beijing, could potentially face consequences if they step foot in Hong Kong, or have assets or family members in Hong Kong.

In technology terms, it has impacted services. Facebook and WhatsApp have suspended user information requests from Hong Kong authorities while ByteDance removed TikTok from Hong Kong—where it already offers the Chinese version of the app, Douyin. Apple said it is “assessing” how the law impacts its business.

In other news:

Logistics startup Gogovan is rebranding to GogoX. It reached a $1B valuation in 2017 when it merged with a division of Chinese classifieds giant 57 Home.


India 

Edtech on fire

India is seeing serious consolidation in the edtech business which was one of the few industries to record positives from the Covid-19 outbreak. And it is hard to keep up!

Byju’s is as big as they get. Despite concerns around its sales tactics, it is an investor favourite. Last month, it raised $100M from famed US VC Mary Meeker’s new firm Bond at a valuation of over $10B—that deal followed a $200M investment from Tiger Global in January and $200M more from General Atlantic in February. 

Byju’s has cash to splash to expand its repertoire, and now it is doing just that. It is reportedly looking to land Whitehat Jr, a platform for learning code, for $300M, and it said to be in talks to buy DoubtNut, a problem solving service, for over $100M. 

But it is not alone. Unacademy bought PrepLadder, a company that had never raised external funding, for $50M. Byju’s and Unacademy are said to have explored merger talks before it opted for DoubtNut. Elsewhere, Uber investor Coatue in talks to invest around $100M in Vedantu, another edtech startup, in a deal that will double its valuation to $600M. Vedantu recently invested in DoubtNut rival Instasolv.

In other news:

Facebook is hoping a cloning effort will work. It launched Reels, a TikTok-style short video service, in an effort to fill the hole created by the ban on TikTok. Following the China app ban, the India government is said to be reviewing 50 investment proposals for local companies from Chinese entities. 

Jio grabbed two more investments for its platform business—this time from Intel and Qualcommcloned Zoom to create its own conferencing service and its Industries division is close to buying Future Group’s retail businesses

Foxconn is reportedly investing $1 billion to expand its iPhone factory in India. The move is said to be part of Foxconn and Apple’s strategy to relocate a portion of manufacturing away from China given ongoing US-China tensions.

Sequoia landed $1.3 billion in fresh funds for India and Southeast Asia—the money is split between a regular fund and a growth fund, its first for the regions

Zomato released a new financial report which, not without controversy, claimed its monthly burn rate has dropped to $1.5M—see chart below. That’s opposed to a $293M annual loss last year. It said revenue grew 105% last year with costs up only 47%. Levels are close to 80% of what they were before the pandemic, it said.

Speaking of which, Times of India reports e-commerce volume has surpassed pre-Covid levels with 3 million shipments per day as the lockdown eases

Zomato rival Dunzo got hit by a data breach, but it says customer payment details are safe

Freshworks bough Flint, an IT and cloud management platform in India

Flipkart is doubling down on fashion to rival Amazon: it invested $35M into decades-old Arvind Fashions

Paytm added WeChat-style mini programs to add services into its payment app. Early partners include food brand Faasos and medical services Practo and 1mg.

The Supreme Court can now issue summons via WhatsApp, Telegram and email


Southeast Asia

Indonesia’s unicorns on money trail

Tokopedia is reportedly closing in on $500M-$1B in new funding (that’s a wide range) with Temasek and Google among the investors. The round has been going a while but Covid-19 (of course) and a recent hacking of Tokopedia’s service are said to have held things up. They have also slowed down IPO plans, which Bloomberg reports are still underway: the idea is a local and overseas dual listing.

Fellow Indonesian unicorn Traveloka is reportedly close to raising $250M at a reduced valuation of $2.75B. That’s 17% lower than its previous valuation, which seems pretty decent given that the pandemic has disrupted travel significantly. Traveloka has made layoffs to cut costs, but it seems fairly clear that there’s enough money in the company that investors will step in to help. In fact, reports suggest it has also attracted new suitors: Thailand’s Siam Commercial bank and insurance firm FWD.

In other news

Gojek will rebrand its overseas businesses (Get in Thailand and GoViet in Vietnam) to Gojek and it is bringing them all under the same app. A logical decision it should have made from the start. But it’s so far behind Grab it is hard to imagine anything can close the gap. Grab, meanwhile, got hit by a fine for promising drivers who leased cars from a partner priority access to customers. It also lost another CTO.

Indonesia dropped the hammer on a 10% digital services tax which will affect Netflix, Spotify, Google and others

Thailand may regulate food delivery services—a move that could prompt others to follow suit

Also in Thailand: Silicon Craft, a chip designer specialising in smart tags for animals, is poised to raise around $1.5M in a rare technology IPO in the country

What’s left of HOOQ, the video streaming platform owned by Singtel which shut down in March, will reportedly be bought by Korean e-commerce giant Coupang. HOOQ already filed for liquidation but Coupang sees an Amazon-like play here. Rival Iflix was bought by Tencent’s WeTV in a fire sale last month. (I wrote about that deal in ATR on 29 June.)

Internet providers are helping the Thai government track down dissidents

New kid on the online car sales block TiinTiin.id raised $2.5M—its CEO and other founding staff started Belimobilgue with Europe’s Frontier Car Group (backed by Naspers) but now have their own venture


Japan

Coronavirus has delayed Yahoo Japan's massive merger with Line. There’s no new deadline for when the deal will be done. 

Sony splashed out $250M to buy 1.4% of Epic Games, the developer behind Fortnite. The deal goes to show what an incredible coup Tencent made when it snapped up 40% of Epic for $330M in 2012. That stake is now worth over $7B based on the Sony deal.

Transportation operator Willer plans to launch an autonomous robotaxi service in Japan, Southeast Asia and Taiwan in partnership with Intel-owned Mobileye


Outside of Asia

A McKinsey report on Vietnam’s recovery from Covid-19 

Lee Fixel—who masterminded Tiger Global’s investments in India, which included Flipkart—has a new $1 billion fund but he remains as media shy and elusive as ever

“Spies, Lies, and Stonewalling: What It’s Like to Report on Facebook


Last week on The Ken

I work at The Ken where we publish one daily story for each of our subscriptions. Here’s a recap what we ran last week:

Southeast Asia

India

You can sample more stories on our free reads page.


You just finished reading Asia Tech Review, the weekly newsletter for keeping up with the tech industry across Asia.

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Iflix fire sale, Byju’s busy and the Jack Ma-Masa Son feud

Asia Tech Review: 29 June 2020

Welcome back,

Everyone is talking about Iflix this week after it got acquired, but I’m not so sure the deal itself is actually that significant—other than ending the drama over Iflix’s future.

Speaking of drama, there’s plenty more to be found this week: Luckin is on the verge of yet more chaos with a delisting from the Nasdaq imminent, while Jack Ma and Masayoshi Son are feuding. Over in Southeast Asia, Lazada denied it hired a new CEO is because it can’t keep up with the competition.

And finally, a quick personal plug. We’re hiring a reporter for The Ken Southeast Asia, its the first role we’ve opened since we launched three months ago. Full details here.

See you next week,

Jon


Iflix spared but far from glorious

Southeast Asia has been buzzing with news that Tencent’s WeTV business bought Iflix in an undisclosed deal. Iflix has been on the ropes for some time—in the last year alone it has sold off its Africa business, undertaken multiple rounds of layoffs, paid for content deals using stock and aborted an IPO in Australia—and it got to the point of either selling or liquidating. I’ve heard the price is $20M-$60M, but either way it is far from the $1B Iflix previously shot for from investors and is said to have targeted for its IPO (lol).

I don’t have much more to add at this moment but:

  • This is not the landmark exit Iflix management had envisaged when they started. In fact, it is unlikely any investor sees any return at all. Further, Iflix still owes a lot of content companies money and apparently the terms of this deal may not see them get paid. Those who took their IOUs in shares will also not see a return due to the structure of the deal—Iflix transferred its assets to a new entity and it is that which has been sold.

  • There’s no Midas touch. WeTV hasn’t done much in Southeast Asia yet having only entered Thailand. Yes, Tencent is behind it but Southeast Asia is a tough nut to crack. This deal looks like a no-brainer for Tencent to grow its reach by adding WeTV/Chinese content to Iflix (and countries) and roll out their tech stack but this is hardly a major acquisition. (Like, say, iQiyi.)

  • It is still game on. WeTV-Iflix faces plenty of competition from a variety of rivals including: China (iQiyi nabbed Netflix’s Asia head and there’s Mango TV), global players (HBO quietly arrived in Southeast Asia this year, Hotstar is coming soon, Netflix and Amazon Prime are here now) and then there’s indie player Viu, which outlasted Iflix and Singtel’s recently-shuttered HOOQ service.

On to this week’s news.


China

Drama boiling over

Luckin is delisting from the Nasdaq after it dropped its appeal to remain after receiving two warnings from the exchange following a $300M sales fraud. Luckin’s board is forcing chairman Lu Zhengyao to resign while Lu himself is moving to have independent director Sean Shao terminated. A shareholder meeting to discuss these decisions and more is set for 5 July, although a 2 July meeting will take place first to decide Lu’s future. Very messy.

One in, one out? Online property site Beike is bucking the trend for local IPOs by heading to New York to list. Beike counts Tencent and SoftBank as its investors and it is aiming to raise $2B.

Still the local listings continue with Cambricon, one of China’s most valuable artificial intelligence chipmakers, planning to raise $400M on China’s Star Market. At the same time, there are concerns that an ‘arms race’ between the US and China is creating a bubble around the valuation of chipmakers, as Reuters reports.

Investors have pushed the share prices of the country’s 45 listed chipmakers to over 100 times the companies’ earnings, making semiconductors the priciest sector in the stock market.

There is also a scramble for pre-listing deals, as venture capitalists once focused on consumer internet companies turn their attention to chips. Such investment in the sector almost doubled to 22 billion yuan ($3.11 billion) in two years through 2019, showed data from Zero2IPO.


India

Wheeler dealin’

Edtech startup Byju’s has been busy. The company announced an investment from Bond—the VC firm from high-profile US investor Mary Meeker—at a reported valuation of $10.5B, that’s double what it was worth one year ago. The deal may be part of a larger $100M round that Byju’s is reportedly raising.

Later in the week, reports emerged that Byju’s is in talks to snap up edtech startup Doubtnut, a two-year-old company that graduated Sequoia’s inaugural Surge accelerator program. TechCrunch pegs the deal at $125M-$150M which is a lot for a young company. Both startups share Sequoia (and Tencent) as investors, though the deal is apparently not done yet.

Doubtnut has grown popular in tier 2-3 cities in India as a way for children to learn during the pandemic. So popular that it seems it attracted the attention of another edtech in India—Unacademy—which reportedly held preliminary acquisition talks that fell through.


Southeast Asia

New fighter, same fight

Lazada has a new CEO, he’s Chinese and most recently led Lazada in Indonesia having previously spent time with Alibaba in China. (And, yeah, his name is Chun Li.) Reuters reports the change was a reflection of Lazada’s struggle to compete with Shopee.

The change was made after a middling performance from the e-commerce firm, two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters, declining to be identified as they were not authorised to speak to media.

A Lazada spokesman said there was “no truth to this statement” and the company rejected what it called an unsubstantiated assessment of its performance.

Irrespective of the why, Lazada said Li’s appointment will mean a sharper focus on Indonesia and technology, two areas where he is said to have had significant influence. Lazada has been caught between its old culture from Europe (it began as a Rocket Internet company) and new culture from Alibaba. This hire certainly appears to increase alignment with China.

Japan

In billionaire feud news: Masayoshi Son is stepping down from the Alibaba board one month after Jack Ma left the SoftBank. That’s tit-for-tat after years of partnership and huge returns from their efforts together. SoftBank’s early investment in Alibaba made over $100 billion. Ma quit the SoftBank board in May after its most recent financials, including a torrid run for the Vision Fund, were released.

Japan has been overlooked by global VCs for some time but now Sequoia is eyeing investments in the country as it sees opportunities around digitisation. It isn’t, however, setting up a local office or fund yet:

Sequoia plans to cultivate the Japanese market through its Chinese office for the time being. At first, it will provide funding to Japanese venture capital firms with which it has partnerships. A source said it plans to "decide on projects sometime within between half a year and a year."


Korea

An external review panel in South Korea recommended that prosecutors should not indict Samsung Group heir Jay Y. Lee over a 2015 merger and alleged accounting fraud. Elsewhere, Samsung denied reports that it plans to move much of its display production from China to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam this year.

Korea will launch a $825M fund designed to help local media and content companies compete with global giants like YouTube and Netflix 


International

Amazon is reportedly acquiring self-driving car startup Zoox for over $1B link

Uber’s fintech strategy appears over after less than a year—no super app strategy for ride-hailing’s OG

The Wirecard scandal is a crazy mess that’s dragged in other financial services companies, EY, and regulators across the world—too much to summarise briefly but the FT, which first broke news and has doggedly followed developments, has a long list of stories


Last week on The Ken

We publish one story for each of our subscriptions each week, here’s a recap what we ran over the last week:

Southeast Asia

India

You can sample more stories on our free reads page.


You just finished reading Asia Tech Review, the weekly newsletter for keeping up with the tech industry across Asia.

If someone sent this to you, you can sign up for free at Asiatechreview.com

Asia Tech Review: 16 June 2020

America's reliance on China for AI, India's Postman is no longer a secret and Southeast Asia's ride-hailing war is now all about payments

Welcome back,

There’s something different about this week’s issue. I decided to give Substack a go after years of deliberation. I know that I’m following the trend… and doing so very late, too.

We’ll see how it goes. If you have a strong opinion either way, please do let me know. The newsletter will also return to Mondays again. A small technical hitch is why it went out a little later today.

Now let’s get to this week’s issue.


China

America’s AI push relies on China

A backlash against China could blunt America’s AI push, according to a study published by the New York Times. AI is seen a major battleground between the US and China, but, interestingly, the US is dependent on its rival for talent.

That’s according to a study by think tank Marco Polo which found, among other things, that one-third of the America’s top AI researchers come from China and most work in the US. Moves to limit Chinese students and Chinese tech workers coming to the US could, thus, harm America push to dominate AI.

More: see the full Macro Polo report, and this thread from co-author Matt Sheehan

In other news of US-Sino collateral damage: US military ban locks two Chinese universities out of popular software

Zoom and Apple follow censorship orders

Zoom raised concerns when it shut down an account belonging to US-based Chinese activists after they held an event to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre on the video service. The company later reversed the decision and admitted its actions “should not have impacted users outside of mainland China.”

Zoom plans to release a transparency report and details of its censorship response policy at the end of June. But it looks like it will implement some kind of geo-location blocking to prevent attendees joining such calls if they are illegal in their country.

The App Store censorship saga continues after two popular podcast apps were removed from the Chinese version of the App Store “at the request of the Cyberspace Administration of China.”

Unfortunately nothing new here. A succinct explanation of the size of the problem comes from a New York Times column from back in January 2017:

Blocking a website is like trying to stop lots of trucks from delivering a banned book; it requires an infrastructure of technical tools (things like China’s “Great Firewall”), and enterprising users can often find a way around it. Banning an app from an app store, by contrast, is like shutting down the printing press before the book is ever published. If the app isn’t in a country’s app store, it effectively doesn’t exist. The censorship is nearly total and inescapable.

In other news


Hong Kong

  • Uber’s former head of India and South Asia is now its head of APAC—a job that stitches together disparate businesses in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Uber is seeking a new home in APAC after deciding that it will leave Singapore. Hong Kong is its preference but it remains unclear how legal its business is there, hence a throwback to the days of newspaper ads.

  • Cathay Pacific is getting a $5B bailout led by the Hong Kong government

  • South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong-based paper owned by Alibaba, said its revenue dropped 50% in Q1


India

Postman collects $2B valuation

One of India’s under-estimated software companies is finally coming out. Postman helps companies develop, test and manage APIs, and it just scored a $150M investment that values it at $2B. The deal had been rumoured—it was in last week’s newsletter—and it is a big jump on its $350M valuation as of last year.

I remember talking to CEO Abhinav Asthana in 2015 when Postman raised a $1M seed round and a couple of things stood out. Asthana started the service to solve a problem he had faced as a developer—product/market fit potential—and, even back then, the service was being used by teams in Box, Microsoft and Cisco—validation.

Reliance keeps on rolling

Reliance Platforms announced yet more investments: TPG ($600M for a 0.93% stake) and L Catterton ($250M for 0.39%) with reports of Saudi fund PIF coming next (2.33% for $1.5B).

That activity also takes it to 9 (soon to be 10) deals in two months as Reliance sold 25% of the business. Other invested include: Facebook, Silver Lake, Vista Equity Partners, General Atlantic, KKR, Mubadala and Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

Beyond this super app play, Reliance is also talking to Netflix. Its Network18 media unit is reportedly in talks to license content, according to Reuters. Reliance is also among the suitors keen to buy a stake in debt-laden Future Retail, according to Mint.

In other news


Japan


Korea


Southeast Asia

Ride-hailing becomes passé

Gojek and Grab’s future is all about payments and financial services, argues Bloomberg’s Tim Culpan—he cites Facebook and PayPal’s recent investment in Gojek as proof. It’s certainly a trend that’s been underway for some time. Just over the last week alone, Grab announced new services to digitise small businesses—on Grab’s platform, of course—while Gojek landed a bunch of trademarks that hint at future non-ride-hailing service.

In further proof of the importance of payments, Bloomberg reported (🔒) the merger deal between OVO (part owned by Grab) and Dana (backed by Alibaba) in Indonesia is close after investors finally agreed on valuation terms. Interesting, but frankly there’s not much new here. Reuters broke news of the deal last September, while Deal Street Asia said it was close to full agreement in December. I guess it is finally progressing after Covid (presumably) held things up.

In a timely story, Reuters reported on the struggle of ride-hailing drivers during Covid-19. Despite growth in food delivery orders, Grab and Gojek drivers still found little business and income with often dozens of drivers fighting to land each order.

Netflix loses one, wins one

Meanwhile, ambitious Chinese streamer iQiyi has hired Netflix’s head of APAC (Singapore-based Yu-Chuang Kuek) to lead its international effort. The firm has prioritised Southeast Asia where its presence includes a deal with Malaysian satellite TV firm Astro, but it’s likely we can expect much more to come.

But there is good news.

Netflix has been blocked on Telkomsel, Indonesia’s top telco, since 2016, but it will soon come to an end. Why? That’s unclear but Indonesia’s upcoming digital tax—which will force Netflix and others to pay dues on what they earn in the country—is seen by many as the likely trigger.

After Indonesia and the Philippines, Thailand is the next in Southeast Asia to jump on the digital tax bandwagon.

In other news

  • One Championship raised $70M in new funding, but it didn’t disclose investors and made layoffs. The news comes the week after it filed it latest financials with revenue and losses ballooning. The numbers are from 2018, so are somewhat dated but One Championship now counts bartered deals (non-cash income) within revenue. That has potential to be misleading since it commonly strikes non-cash deals, as we recently wrote at The Ken (🔒).

  • Press freedom is under attack. In the Philippines, Rappler founder Maria Ressa and a reporter from the public were charged with cyber libel. And in Myanmar, Reuters looked at how the promise of free media when Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won the 2015 election failed to materialise. Her administration is said to have brought charges against 31 reporters. No wonder many choose to report from exile.

  • Ula, a wholesale e-commerce marketplace that is just 5 months old, raised $10.5M from Sequoia and others, including the entire founding team of Indian e-commerce startup Udaan. That is serious early hype. I can’t remember seeing a company in Southeast Asia grow so fast (in terms of funding) and during a pandemic, too.

  • Philippines-based neobank Tonik raised $21M from Sequoia and others. In Vietnam, real estate platform Propzy raised $25M and financial services startup F88 raised $6M.

  • Singapore’s government is developing a physical Covid-19 tracker and the contract was awarded to local electronics firm PCI. App-based solutions apparently don’t cut it.

  • Facebook said there’s no evidence of malicious intention around a surge of fake accounts that flooded the Philippines

  • Vietnam has won manufacturing contracts from companies eager to diversify their supply chain away from China in the wake of ongoing US-China tension, but Indonesia is stepping up to the plate, too. Nikkei Asian Review reports that it held talks with the US government in an effort to attract business from the likes of Apple, but lost out.

  • Unfortunately the reality right now is cutbacks. The latest example is camera company Nikon which is cutting 700 jobs across Thailand and Laos, 10% of its headcount in each location.


Outside of Asia tech

Snap took inspiration from WeChat—Tencent is a Snap investor—when it launched a slew of new features including ‘apps include Snap’ aka WeChat’s mini programs. It’ll be an interesting test of whether the concept can work outside of China


Last week on The Ken

We publish one story for each of our subscriptions each week, here’s a recap what we ran over the last week:

Southeast Asia

  • Kopi Kenangan wants to walk in Luckin’s path, not in its shoes link

  • Swallowed in the Sea, Garena’s still making waves link [free read]

  • Behind the paywall curtain, The Star looks much the same link

  • Work from home blues hit Singapore’s packed telecom space link

  • A stitch in time boosts LINE link

India

  • Ebix, Yatra, and the $337 million deal that got away link

  • Bounce, ONN Bikes’ detour from sharing to long-term caring link

  • Past and present haunt Future Retail’s latest stab at e-commerce link

  • No more takers for the ESOPs opera link

  • It’s Operation Diplomacy for India as Covid vaccine preparedness hots up link [free read]

  • How AI startup SigTuple became a cash-burning laboratory chain link

You can sample more stories on our free reads page.


You just finished reading Asia Tech Review, the weekly newsletter for keeping up with the tech industry across Asia.

If someone sent this to you, you can sign up for free at Asiatechreview.com

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