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June 25, 2019
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Tencent replaces hit mobile game PUBG with a Chinese government-friendly alternative

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China’s new rules on video games, introduced last month, are having an effect on the country’s gamers. Today, Tencent replaced hugely popular battle royale shooter game PUBG with a more government-friendly alternative that seems primed to pull in significant revenue.

The company introduced ‘Game for Peace’ in a Weibo post at the same time as PUBG — which stands for Player Unknown Battlegrounds — was delisted from China. The title had been in wide testing but without revenue, and now it seems Tencent gave up on securing a license to monetize the title.

In its place, Game for Peace is very much the type of game that will pass the demands of China’s game censorship body. Last month, the country’s State Administration of Press and Publication released a series of demands for new titles, including bans on corpses and blood, references of imperial history and gambling. The new Tencent title bears a striking resemblance to PUBG but there are no dead bodies, while it plays up to a nationalist theme with a focus on China’s air force — or, per the Weibo message, “the blue sky warriors that guard our country’s airspace” — and their battle against terrorists.

Game for Peace was developed by Krafton, the Korea-based publisher formerly known as BlueHole which made PUBG. Beyond visual similarities, Reuters reported that the games are twinned since some player found that their progress and achievements on PUBG had transferred over to the new game.

Tencent representatives declined to comment on the new game or the end of PUBG’s ‘beta testing’ period in China when contacted by TechCrunch. But a company rep apparently told Reuters that “they are very different genres of games.”

Tencent’s new ‘Game for Peace’ title is almost exactly the same as its popular PUBG game, which it is replacing [Image via Weibo]

Fortnite may have grabbed the attention for its explosive growth — we previously reported that the game helped publisher Epic Games bank a profit of $3 billion last year — but PUBG has more quietly become a fixture among mobile gamers, particularly in Asia.

At the end of last year, Krafton told The Verge that it was past 200 million registered gamers, with 30 million players each day. According to app analytics company Sensor Tower, PUBG grossed more than $65 million from mobile players in March thanks to 83 percent growth which saw it even beat Fortnite. There is also a desktop version.

PUBG made more money than Fortnite on mobile in March 2019, according to data from Sensor Tower

That is really the point of Tencent’s switcheroo: to make money.

The company suffered at the hands of China’s gaming license freeze last year, and a regulatory-compliant title like Game for Peace has a good shot at getting the green light for monetization — through the sale of virtual items and seasonal memberships.

Indeed, analysts at China Renaissance believe the new title could rake in as much as $1.5 billion in annual revenue, according to the Reuters report. That’s a lot to get excited about and resuscitating gaming will be an important part of Tencent’s strategy this year — which has already seen it restructure its business to focus emerging units like cloud computing, and pledge to use its technology to “do good.”

Utah’s Divvy raises $200M to eliminate expense reports

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In February 2016, Blake Murray wrote down an idea for a business expense and budgeting platform on the back of a napkin. Today, that’s Divvy, a tech-enabled replacement of monthly expense reports.

The company, not to be confused with Divvy Homes or Divvy Bikes, has raised an additional $200 million in venture capital funding as part of Series C financing led by NEA with participation from Pelion Venture Partners and Insight Venture Partners. Murray, Divvy’s co-founder and chief executive officer, declined to disclose Divvy’s valuation though he did confirm it’s grown 4x from the company’s $35 million Series B. According to PitchBook, the Series B financing valued Divvy at $173 million, suggesting a new valuation of nearly $700 million.

For a business headquartered in Lehi, Utah — for a Silicon Valley startup even — that’s a seriously rapid growth rate. Divvy only launched its platform, which allows customers to send and request funds, create virtual credit cards, manage team spending and more, in January 2018. Its valuation has grown 1000 percent since then across three rounds of equity funding. Murray tells TechCrunch the business hasn’t adopted a hypergrowth strategy, opting instead to spend nearly two years carefully crafting and iterating the product before its public launch.

Divvy co-founders Alex Bean (left) and Blake Murray.

“We aren’t taking the route of build fast and break fast,” Murray said. “If you want to disrupt a market you have to be very deliberate in your approach and you have to build powerful experiences that really pull the rug out from under your competition.”

Divvy’s expense tools are free. The business makes money from every transaction thanks to a fee paid by the merchant. That fee is split between Divvy, MasterCard and the issuing bank. The company’s key competitors are legacy expense system Concur and Expensify, a decade-old fellow venture-backed expense manager. Divvy, however, sets itself apart with a user-friendly mobile app and its corporate credit card, features that allow customers real-time visibility into their spending.

“It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that there’s been incredible innovation with B2B software that gives you real-time data,” Murray said. “Whether intentional or not, Divvy is creating a new category. Divvy took what looked like a bunch of disparate ideas, combined them and said holy crap that all makes a lot of sense.”

The company currently counts 200 employees and 3,000 customers on revenue growth of 30 percent quarter-over-quarter. Divvy plans to use the latest investment to bolster product and engineering teams, as well as launch a bill pay product. Next year, Divvy will expand internationally.

The round brings Divvy’s total raised to $245.5 million, not including a $250 million credit facility it secured in January. NEA managing general partner Scott Sandell is joining Divvy’s board of directors as part of the transaction.

The company has previously landed financial support from Utah’s tech unicorn CEOs Domo founder Josh James and Pluralsight co-founder Aaron Skonnard .

 

Ten steps to prepare for an exponential future

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If it feels like technological change is happening faster than it used to, that’s because it is.

It took around 12,000 years to move from the agrarian to the industrial revolution but only a couple of hundred years to go from the industrial to the information revolution that’s now propelling us in a short number of decades into the artificial intelligence revolution. Each technological transformation enables the next as the time between these quantum leaps becomes shorter.

That’s why if you are looking backwards to get a sense of how quickly the world around you will change, you won’t realize how quickly our radically different future is approaching. But although this can sometimes feel frightening, there’s a lot we can do now to help make sure we ride this wave of radical change rather than get drowned by it.

Here’s my essential list:

  1. Do what you can to preserve your youth
    Scientists are discovering new ways to slow the biological process of aging. It won’t be too long before doctors start prescribing pills, gene therapies, and other treatments to manage getting old as a partly curable disease. Because most of the terrible afflictions we now fear are correlated with age, medically treating aging will push off the date when we might have otherwise developed cancers, heart disease, dementia, and other killers. To maximally benefit from the new treatments for aging tomorrow, we all, no matter what our current age, need to do what we can to take care of our bodies today. That means exercising around 45 minutes a day, eating a healthy and mostly plant-based diet, trying to sleep at least seven hours a night, avoiding too much sun, not smoking, building and maintaining strong communities and support networks, and living a purposeful life. The healthier you are when the anti-age treatments arrive, the longer you’ll be able to maintain your vitality into your later years.
  2. Quantify and monitor your health
    You can’t monitor what you can’t measure. If you want to maintain optimal health, you need a way to regularly assess if you are on the right track. Monitoring your health through regular broad-spectrum blood and stool tests, constant feedback about your heart rate and sleep patterns from devices like your Apple Watch or Fitbit, having your genome sequenced, getting a full body MRI, and having a regular colonoscopy may seem like overkill to most people. But waiting until you have a symptom to start assessing your health status is like waiting until your car is careening down a hill to check if the brakes are in order. Some smart people worry that this kind of monitoring of “healthy” people will waste money, overwhelm our already overburdened healthcare system, and cause people unnecessary anxiety. But even the healthiest among us are in the early stages of developing one disease or another. Society will inevitably shift from a model of responsive sick care of people already in trouble to the predictive healthcare trying to keep people out of it. Do you want to be a dinosaur-like victim of the old model or a proactive pioneer of the new one?
  3. Freeze your essential biological materials
    Our bodies are a treasure trove of biological materials that could save us in the future, but every morning we still flush gold down the toilet. That gold, our stool, could potentially be frozen so we could repopulate our essential gut bacteria if our microbiome were to take a dangerous hit from antibiotics or illness. Skin cells could be transformed into potentially life-saving stem cells and stored for future use to help rejuvenate various types of aging cells. If our future treatments will be personalized using our own biological materials, but we’ll need to have stored these materials earlier in life to receive the full benefit of these advances. We put money in the bank to ensure our financial security, so why wouldn’t we put some of our biological materials in a bio-bank to have our youngest possible rescue cells waiting for us when we need them and help secure our physiological security?
  4. If you plan on ever having children, freeze your eggs or your sperm
    More people will soon shift from conceiving children through sex to conceiving them through IVF and embryo selection. The preliminary driver of this will be parents’ increasing recognition that they can reduce the roughly 3% chance their future children will be born with dangerous genetic mutations by having their embryos screened in a lab prior to implantation in the mother. This may seem less exciting than making babies in the back seat of a car, but the health and longevity benefits of screening embryos will ultimately overpower conception by sex kind of like how vaccinating our children has (mostly) overpowered the far more natural option of not doing so. If you are likely to conceive via IVF and embryo selection, why not freeze your eggs, sperm, or embryos when you are at your biological peak and when the chance of passing on genetic abnormalities is lower than it may be later in life?
  5. Manage your public identity
    The days of living incognito are over. No matter how aggressively some of us may try to avoid it, our lives leave massive digital footprints that are becoming an essential part of our very identities. The authoritarian government in China is planning to give “social credit“ scores evaluating the digitally monitored behavior of each citizen in a creepy and frightening way. But even in more liberal societies we will all be increasingly judged at work, at home, and in our commercial interactions based on our aggregated digital identities. These identities will be based on what we buy, what we post, what we seek, and how and with whom we interact online. Some societies and individuals are smartly trying to exert a level of control over the collection and use of this personal data, but even this won’t change the new reality that our digital identities will significantly influence what options are available to us in life and represent us after we die. Given this, and perhaps sadly, we all need to protect our privacy but also think of our public selves as brands, managing our digitally recorded activity from early on to present ourselves to the world the way we consciously want the world to know us.
  6. Learn the language of code
    Our lives will be increasingly manipulated by algorithms few of us understand. Most people who were once good at finding their way now just use their GPS-guided smart phones to get where they need to go. As algorithms touching many different aspects of our lives get better, we will increasingly rely on them to make plans, purchasing decisions, and even significant life choices for us. Pretty much every job we might do and many other aspects of our lives will be guided by artificial intelligence and big data analytics. Fully understanding every detail of how each of these algorithms function may be impossible, but we’ll be even more at their mercy if we don’t each acquire at least a rudimentary understanding of what code is and how it works. If you can read one book about code, that’s a start. Learning the fundamental of coding will do even more to help you navigate the fast arriving algorithmic world.
  7. Become multicultural
    Pretty much wherever you were in the 18th century, you needed to understand Europe to operate effectively because European power then defined so many parts of the world. The same was true for understanding United States in the 20th century understanding America was imperative for most people living outside of the United States because US actions influenced so many aspects of their lives. For many people living in 20th century America, understanding the rest of the world was merely interesting. As China rises and Global power decentralizes in the 21st-century, we’ll all need to learn more about China, India, and other new power, population, and culture centers than ever before. This won’t just help you become a more well-rounded person, it will give you a far greater chance of success in most anything you’ll be doing. Although machine translation will make communicating across languages pretty seamless, you’ll need a cultural fluidity and fluency to succeed in the 21st century world. The good news is that people motivated to learn about other groups and societies now have more resources than ever before to do so. If you want to be ready for our multicultural, multinational future, you’d better start doing all you can to learn about other cultures and societies now.
  8. Become an obsessive learner
    Technological change has been a constant throughout human history, but the pace of change is today accelerating far more rapidly than ever before. As innovations across the spectrum of science and technology empower, inspire, and reinforce each other, multiple technological transformations are converging into a revolutionary whole far greater than the sum of its parts. This unprecedented rate of change will mean that much of your knowledge will start becoming obsolete as soon as you acquire it. To keep up in your career and life, you’ll need to dedicate yourself to a lifetime of never ending, aggressive, continuous, and creativity-driven learning. The only skill worth having in an exponential world will be knowing how to learn and a passion for doing it. Call me an old-fashioned futurist, but this learning process must include reading lots of books to help you understand where we have come from and how the disparate pieces of information fit together to create a larger story. This type of knowledge will be an essential foundation of the wisdom we’ll each and all need to navigate our fast-changing world.
  9. Invest in physical community
    We humans are social species. A primary reason we rose to the top of the food chain and built civilization is that our brains are optimized for collaborating with those around us. When we bond with our partners and friends, we realize one of our essential cord needs as humans. That’s why people in solitary confinement tend to go a bit crazy. But although our progression from feeling our sense of connection, belonging, and community has expanded from the level of clan to village to city to country to, in some ways, the world, we are still not virtual beings. We may get a little dopamine hit whenever someone likes our tweet or Facebook post, but most of us still need a connected physical community around us in order to be happy and to realize our best potential. With all of the virtual options that will surround us – chatbots engaging us in witty repartee, virtual assistants managing our schedules, and even friends messaging from faraway lands among them – our virtual future must remain grounded in our physical world. To build your essential community of flesh and blood people, you must invest in deep and meaningful relationships with the people physically around you.
  10.   Don’t get stuck in today The olden days were, at least in most peoples’ minds, always better. We used to have better values, a better work ethic, better communities. We used to walk to school uphill in both directions! But while we do need to hold on to the best of the past, we also need to march boldly into the future. Because the coming world will feel like science fiction, will all need to be like science fiction writers  imagining the world ahead and positioning ourselves to shape it for the better. The technologies of the future will be radically new but we’ll need to draw on the best of our ancient value systems to use them wisely. The exponential future is coming faster than most of us appreciate or are ready for. Like it or not, we are now all futurists.

Partnering with Visa, emerging market lender Branch International raises $170 million

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The San Francisco-based startup Branch International, which makes small personal loans in emerging markets, has raised $170 million and announced a partnership with Visa to offer virtual, pre-paid debit cards to Branch client networks in Africa, South-Asia and Latin America. 

Branch — which has 150 employees in San Francisco, Lagos, Nairobi, Mexico City and Mumbai — makes loans starting at $2 to individuals in emerging and frontier markets. The company also uses an algorithmic model to determine credit worthiness, build credit profiles and offer liquidity via mobile phones.

“We’ll use [the money] to deepen existing business in Africa. Later this year we’ll announce high-yield savings accounts…in Africa,” says Branch co-founder and chief executive Matt Flannery.

The $170 million round from Foundation Capital and its new debit card partner, Visa, will support Branch’s international expansion, which could include Brazil and Indonesia, according to Flannery. Branch launched in Mexico and India within the last year. In Africa, it offers its services in Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania.

A potential Branch customer

The Branch-Visa partnership will allow individuals to obtain virtual Visa accounts with which to create accounts on Branch’s app. This gives Branch larger reach in countries such as Nigeria — Africa’s most populous country with 190 million people — where cards have factored more prominently than mobile money in connecting unbanked and underbanked populations to finance.

Founded in 2015, Branch started operating in Kenya, where mobile money payment products such as Safaricom’s M-Pesa (which does not require a card or bank account to use) have scaled significantly. M-Pesa now has 25 million users, according to sector stats released by the Communications Authority of Kenya. Branch has more than 3 million customers and has processed 13 million loans and disbursed more than $350 million, according to company stats.

Branch has one of the most downloaded fintech apps in Africa, per Google Play app numbers combined for Nigeria and Kenya, according to Flannery.

Already profitable, Branch International expects to reach $100 million in revenues this year, with roughly 70 percent of that generated in Africa, according to Flannery.

In addition to Visa and Foundation Capital, the $170 Series C round included participation from Branch’s existing investors Andreessen Horowitz, Trinity Ventures, Formation 8, the IFC, CreditEase and Victory Park, while adding new investors Greenspring, Foxhaven and B Capital.

Branch last raised $70 million in 2018. The company’s overall VC haul and $100 million revenue peg register as pretty big numbers for a startup focused primarily on Africa. Pan-African e-commerce startup Jumia, which also announced its NYSE IPO last month, generated $140 million in revenue (without profitability) in 2018.

Startups building financial technologies for Africa’s 1.2 billion population have gained the attention of investors. As a sector, fintech (or financial inclusion) attracted 50 percent of the estimated $1.1 billion funding to African startups in 2018, according to Partech.

Branch’s recent round and plans to add countries internationally also tracks a trend of fintech-related products growing in Africa, then expanding outward. This includes M-Pesa, which generated big numbers in Kenya before operating in 10 countries around the world. Nigerian payments startup Paga announced its pending expansion in Asia and Mexico late last year. And payment services such as Kenya’s SimbaPay have also connected to global networks like China’s WeChat.

Africa Roundup: Jumia files for IPO, OneFi acquires Amplify, FlexClub expands in Mexico

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Less than a decade ago IPOs, acquisitions, and global expansion by African startups were more possibility than reality. March saw all three from the continent’s tech scene.

Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia filed for an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange, per SEC documents and confirmation from chief executive Sacha Poignonnec.

In an updated filing, (since the March 12 original) Jumia indicated it will offer 13,500,000 ADR shares, for an offering price of $13 to $16 per share to trade under the ticker symbol “JMIA”. The IPO could raise up to $216 million for Jumia.

Since our first story (and reflected in the latest SEC docs) Mastercard Europe agreed up front to buy $50 million in Jumia ordinary shares.

With a smooth filing process, Jumia will become the first African startup to list on a major global exchange. The company is incorporated in Germany, but maintains its headquarters in Nigeria, and operates exclusively in Africa with 4000 employees on the continent.

The pending IPO creates another milestone for Jumia. The venture became the first African startup unicorn in 2016, achieving a $1 billion valuation after a funding round that included Goldman Sachs, AXA and MTN.

Founded in Lagos in 2012 with Rocket Internet backing, Jumia now operates multiple online verticals in 14 African countries. Goods and services lines include Jumia Food (an online takeout service), Jumia Flights (for travel bookings) and Jumia Deals (for classifieds). Jumia processed more than 13 million packages in 2018, according to company data. The company has started to generate annual revenues over $100 million, but like many burn-rate startups, has done so while racking up big losses.

There’ll be a lot more to cover, analyze, and debate pre and post Jumia’s NYSE bell toll—which could happen in coming weeks or months. For example, can Jumia generate a profit, is it really an African startup, will Jumia become an acquisition target for a big outside name or an acquirer of smaller startups in African e-commerce? Stay tuned for continuing TechCrunch coverage.

On the acquisition front,  Lagos based online lending startup OneFi bought Nigerian payment solutions company Amplify for an undisclosed amount.

OneFi is taking over Amplify’s IP, team, and client network of over 1000 merchants to which Amplify provides payment processing services, OneFi CEO Chijioke Dozie told TechCrunch.

The purchase of Amplify caps off a busy period for OneFi. Over the last seven months the Nigerian venture secured a $5 million lending facility from Lendable, announced a payment partnership with Visa, and became one of first (known) African startups to receive a global credit rating. OneFi is also dropping the name of its signature product, Paylater, and will simply go by OneFi (for now).

Collectively, these moves represent a pivot for OneFi away from operating primarily as a digital lender, toward becoming an online consumer finance platform.

“We’re not a bank but we’re offering more banking services…Customers are now coming to us not just for loans but for cheaper funds transfer, more convenient bill payment, and to know their credit scores,” said Dozie.

OneFi will add payment options for clients on social media apps including WhatsApp this quarter—something in which Amplify already holds a specialization and client base. Through its Visa partnership, OneFi will also offer clients virtual Visa wallets on mobile phones and start providing QR code payment options at supermarkets, on public transit, and across other POS points in Nigeria.

On the back of the acquisiton, OneFi is in the process of raising a round and will look to expand internationally, considering Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Ghana and Egypt and Europe for Diaspora markets.

On African startups expanding globally, FlexClub—a South African venture that matches investors and drivers to cars for ride-hailing services—announced it will expand in Mexico in a partnership with Uber after closing a $1.2 million seed round led by CRE Venture Capital.

The move comes as Africa’s tech-transit space continues to produce unique mobility solutions shaped around local needs.

FlexClub touts itself as a “gig economy investment platform” that is creating new asset classes in emerging markets, according to chief executive and co-founder Tinashe Ruzane.

That asset class, for now, is ride-hail vehicles. FlexClub allows investors to go on the site and purchase a car (ultimately managed and serviced by FlexClub). The startup then connects that car to an Uber driver who uses earnings to pay a weekly rental charge.

Those fees generate monthly, fixed-rate interest income for the investor. The driver has the option of buying the car after the 12 months, with a descending purchase price over time.

FlexClub’s platform manages the investment, rental income, and disbursement of funds across all parties. The startup also handles insurance, maintenance, and upkeep of the cars.

Ruzane envisions this as a model to finance multiple asset classes in emerging markets—where lending options are fewer for individuals who may not have credit histories.

“Our goal is to make this completely passive… where investors can invest in different kinds of assets on our platform, login to a dash, and see this is how my five cars in South Africa are doing, my vans in Mexico, my motorbikes in Indonesia — with a diversified portfolio around the world,” he explained.

FlexClub will begin work matching investors to cars and Uber drivers in Mexico in April. The startup sees opportunities to move into other mobility classes, such as Africa’s ride-hail motorcycle taxi and three-wheel tuk-tuk market, CEO Tinashe Ruzane told TechCrunch in this feature.

And finally, francophone Africa will see a boost in funds and support for startups. The Dakar Network Angels group launched last month, making its first investment to cleantech venture Coliba—an Ivorian startup that uses a mobile app to coordinate waste recycling

The deal is part of Dakar Network Angels’ mission of convening experts and capital to bridge the resource gap for startups in French-speaking Africa — or 24 of the continent’s 54 countries.

The organization — which goes by DNA for short — will offer seed fund investments of between $25,000 to $100,000 to early-stage ventures with high growth potential. These rounds will come with the entrepreneurial guidance of DNA’s angel network.

Launched in Senegal, the organization’s founder is Marieme Diop — a VC investor at Orange Digital Ventures — named the goal of bridging VC disparities between francophone and non-francophone Africa as the primary driver for DNA. She pointed to funding data by Partech indicating that 76 percent of investment to African startups goes to three English-speaking countries — Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa.

To gain consideration for DNA investment, startups must gain referral by a member. DNA will take a minority stake (less than 10 percent) in ventures that receive seed funds and provide program mentorship until exits, Diop told TechCrunch.

To become an angel, members must commit to investing a minimum of $10,000 a year (for those coming on as individuals), $20,000 (for corporates) and be on hand to support the portfolio startups, according to DNA’s Corporate Membership Charter.

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