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Funding Societies, a Southeast Asian lending platform, gets $25M Series B led by Softbank Ventures Korea

Funding Societies co-founders Reynold Wijaya and Kelvin Teo.

Funding Societies, a peer-to-peer lending platform in Southeast Asia, said today that it has raised a $25 million Series B led by Softbank Ventures Korea, the Japanese tech conglomerate’s early-stage venture capital unit. The round included returning investors Sequoia India, which led the Singapore-based startup’s Series A two years ago, Golden Gate Ventures and Alpha JWC Ventures, as well as new backers Qualgro and LINE Ventures.

Funding Societies also said it has raised credit lines from banks and financial institutions to lend to small- to medium-sized businesses. Founded in 2015 by Kelvin Teo and Reynold Wijaya, the startup’s name represents its “vision of financial inclusion in Southeast Asia.”

Its Series B was oversubscribed, says Funding Societies, which operates in Singapore, Indonesia, where it is called Modalku, and Malaysia.

When it announced its $7.5 million Series A in August 2016, Funding Societies had disbursed $8.7 million Singaporean dollars, a number that has since grown to $145 million SGD, chief executive officer Teo tells TechCrunch. Since its launch, the startup has increased its lender base to more than 60,000 and now claims a default rate of less than 1.5%, down from about 2% to 3% two years ago, thanks to improvements in its underwriting model.

In a press statement, Softbank Ventures Korea partner and managing director Sean Lee said the firm “has been actively investing across Southeast Asia. SME digital lending across Southeast Asia is where we saw huge growth potential. Among many players, we were most impressed with Funding Societies for what it has achieved in a short period of time and its potential to continue to become the number one player.”

Though Teo says Funding Societies is “always exploring other markets, there is still tons of work we need to do in our current three markets.” Despite its considerable growth over the past three years, the startup’s mantra is “slow and steady,” a phrase Teo repeated often during our interview.

“One of the key things we highlight is that it’s more important for us to grow slowly and steadily instead of fast and recklessly, because it’s a trust-based industry,” says Teo.

“We need to give out loans and be able to collect them back, so we focus on learning the market, understanding the market and solving key pain points instead of giving out a bunch of loans to chalk up high numbers and attract VCs.”

For example, though the platform may offer personal loans in the future, Teo said it currently only lends to SMEs because “we believe that we are strategically better suited to serving small businesses and, in terms of our company’s values, we think that serving SMEs is an expansionary effort. Consumer financing, in our personal view, is more consumptive finance. It doesn’t help grow economies.”

Many of the SMEs the company serves are very small. Some of its Indonesian borrowers, for example, make annual revenue of about $5,000 USD per year.

“Many of these borrowers are seeking their first business loan and do not have other sources of financing. A lot of financial institutions take a collateral underwriting approach and a lot of budding businesses would not be able to secure financing that way,” says Teo.

“But we also see some of them come to us as a form of top-up. They already have a bank loan, but it is insufficient for them, so they come to us because they are limited by the size of their collateral. Also, we are able to process financing faster than traditional institutions.”

Funding Societies was created to give SMEs, many of which had previously relied mostly on friends and family loans, access to more means of financing. The company points to a recent study by Ernst & Young, UOB and Dun & Bradstreet that says 65.2% of SMEs in Southeast Asia do not have easy access to traditional business financing, even though most are open to other options, including peer-to-peer lending platforms.

The company says it was the first online peer-to-peer lending platform in Malaysia and that based on third-party data, it is now the leading SME lending platform there, as well as one of Singapore’s three largest peer-to-peer lending platforms. It also holds sizable market share in Indonesia.

Though its platform uses algorithms for initial application screening, a significant portion of work, depending on loan size, is still done by Funding Societies’ employees, who have grown in number from 70 in 2016 to 165 now (Teo says the company is currently hiring in earnest and willing to pay relocation costs for promising talent). Almost all applicants talk directly to someone from the company. Micro-loans, which range in size from $500 USD to $40,000 USD, usually take about two business hours to approve and disburse, while applicants for larger loans may have to wait a few days to about a week.

“We’ve debated and discussed internally a lot if we leave too much money on the table, because our default rate is lower than certain banks in the markets we are serving, but given that we are still at a relatively nascent stage in the lending market and have no control over financial crises, it is more important to stay prudent than to grow recklessly,” says Teo.

This methodical approach is also important when entering new markets. Though many outside observers take the umbrella term “Southeast Asia” a little too literally, ignoring cultural differences between each country, Teo says it is still a fragmented market, so financial service companies need to localize carefully. When Funding Societies enters a new market, it can probably port about 50% of its tech and business model from its previous market, but the other half has to be built from ground up to account for economic and cultural differences, he adds.

“SME financing is a very localized business. With sufficient capital you can win the market and it’s really driven by subsidies and strong marketing,” Teo says. “But for SMEs, you really, really need to understand the local market.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

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Artificial Intelligence

Nvidia’s researchers teach a robot to perform simple tasks by observing a human

Industrial robots are typically all about repeating a well-defined task over and over again. Usually, that means performing those tasks a safe distance away from the fragile humans that programmed them. More and more, however, researchers are now thinking about how robots and humans can work in close proximity to humans and even learn from them. In part, that’s what Nvidia’s new robotics lab in Seattle focuses on and the company’s research team today presented some of its most recent work around teaching robots by observing humans at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), in Brisbane, Australia.

Nvidia’s director of robotics research Dieter Fox.

As Dieter Fox, the senior director of robotics research at Nvidia (and a professor at the University of Washington), told me, the team wants to enable this next generation of robots that can safely work in close proximity to humans. But to do that, those robots need to be able to detect people, tracker their activities and learn how they can help people. That may be in small-scale industrial setting or in somebody’s home.

While it’s possible to train an algorithm to successfully play a video game by rote repetition and teaching it to learn from its mistakes, Fox argues that the decision space for training robots that way is far too large to do this efficiently. Instead, a team of Nvidia researchers led by Stan Birchfield and Jonathan Tremblay, developed a system that allows them to teach a robot to perform new tasks by simply observing a human.

The tasks in this example are pretty straightforward and involve nothing more than stacking a few colored cubes. But it’s also an important step in this overall journey to enable us to quickly teach a robot new tasks.

The researchers first trained a sequence of neural networks to detect objects, infer the relationship between them and then generate a program to repeat the steps it witnessed the human perform. The researchers say this new system allowed them to train their robot to perform this stacking task with a single demonstration in the real world.

One nifty aspect of this system is that it generates a human-readable description of the steps it’s performing. That way, it’s easier for the researchers to figure out what happened when things go wrong.

Nvidia’s Stan Birchfield tells me that the team aimed to make training the robot easy for a non-expert — and few things are easier to do than to demonstrate a basic task like stacking blocks. In the example the team presented in Brisbane, a camera watches the scene and the human simply walks up, picks up the blocks and stacks them. Then the robot repeats the task. Sounds easy enough, but it’s a massively difficult task for a robot.

To train the core models, the team mostly used synthetic data from a simulated environment. As both Birchfield and Fox stressed, it’s these simulations that allow for quickly training robots. Training in the real world would take far longer, after all, and can also be more far more dangerous. And for most of these tasks, there is no labeled training data available to begin with.

“We think using simulation is a powerful paradigm going forward to train robots do things that weren’t possible before,” Birchfield noted. Fox echoed this and noted that this need for simulations is one of the reasons why Nvidia thinks that its hardware and software is ideally suited for this kind of research. There is a very strong visual aspect to this training process, after all, and Nvidia’s background in graphics hardware surely helps.

Fox admitted that there’s still a lot of research left to do be done here (most of the simulations aren’t photorealistic yet, after all), but that the core foundations for this are now in place.

Going forward, the team plans to expand the range of tasks that the robots can learn and the vocabulary necessary to describe those tasks.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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Delhi

58-year-old NRI masturbates sitting beside woman on board flight, held at Delhi airport

The security control room at the IGI Airport was informed in the early hours today that there was an “unruly passenger” on board a Turkish Airlines flight approaching Delhi.

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Delhi

After tens of thousands of pre-orders, 3D audio headphones startup Ossic disappears

After taking tens of thousands of crowd-funding pre-orders for a high-end pair of “3D sound” headphones, audio startup Ossic announced this weekend that it is shutting down the company and backers will not be receiving refunds.

The company raised $2.7 million on Kickstarter and $3.2 million on Indiegogo for their Ossic X headphones which they pitched as a pair of high-end head-tracking headphones that would be perfect for listening to 3D audio, especially in a VR environment. While the company also raised a “substantial seed investment,” in a letter on the Ossic website, the company blamed the slow adoption of virtual reality alongside their crowdfunding campaign stretch goals which bogged down their R&D team.

“This was obviously not our desired outcome. The team worked exceptionally hard and created a production-ready product that is a technological and performance breakthrough. To fail at the 5 yard-line is a tragedy. We are extremely sorry that we cannot deliver your product and want you to know that the team has done everything possible including investing our own savings and working without salary to exhaust all possibilities.”

We have reached out to the company for additional details.

Through January 2017, the San Diego company had received more than 22,000 pre-orders for their Ossic X headphones. This past January, Ossic announced that they had shipped out the first units to the 80 backers in their $999 developer tier headphones. In that same update, the company said they would enter “mass production” by late spring 2018.

In the end, after tens of thousands of pre-orders, Ossic only built 250 pairs of headphones and only shipped a few dozen to Kickstarter backers.

Crowdfunding campaign failures for hardware products are rarely shocking, but often the collapse comes from the company not being able to acquire additional funding from outside investors. Here, Ossic appears to have been misguided from the start and even with nearly $6 million in crowdfunding and seed funding, which they said nearly matched that number, they were left unable to begin large-scale manufacturing. The company said in their letter, that it would likely take more than $2 million in additional funding to deliver the existing backlog of pre-orders.

Backers are understandably quite upset about not receiving their headphones. A group of over 1,200 Facebook users have joined a recently-created page threatening a class action lawsuit against the team.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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