Internet connectivity projects unite as Alphabet spinout Loon grabs $125M from SoftBank’s HAPSMobile

Two futuristic projects are coming together to help increase global internet access after Loon, the Google spinout that uses a collection of floating balloons to bring connectivity to remote areas, announced it has raised money from a SoftBank initiative.

HAPSMobile, a SoftBank project that is also focused on increasing global connectivity, is investing $125 million into Loon, according to an announcement from SoftBank made this morning. The agreement includes an option for Loon to make a reciprocal $125 million investment in HAPSMobile and it includes co-operation plans, details of which are below.

HAPSMobile is a one-year-old joint venture between SoftBank and U.S. company AeroVironment . The company has developed a solar-powered drone that’s designed to deliver 5G connectivity in the same way Facebook has tried in the past. The social network canceled its Aquila drone last year, although it is reported to have teamed up with Airbus for new trials in Australia.

Where Facebook has stumbled, HAPSMobile has made promising progress. The company said that its HAWK 30 drone — pictured below in an impression — has completed its initial development and the first trials are reportedly set to begin this year.

Loon, meanwhile, was one of the first projects to go after the idea of air-based connectivity with a launch in 2013. The business was spun out of X, the ‘moonshot’ division of Alphabet, last year and, though it is still a work in progress, it has certainly developed from an initial crazy idea conceived within Google.

Loon played a role in connecting those affected by flooding in Peru in 2017 and it assisted those devastated by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year. Loon claims its balloons have flown more than 30 million kms and provided internet access for “hundreds of thousands” of people across the world.

In addition to the capital investment, the two companies have announced a set of initiatives that will help them leverage their collective work and technology.

For starters, they say they will make their crafts/balloons open to use for the other — so HAPSMobile can tap Loon balloons for connectivity and vice-versa — while, connected to that, they will jointly develop a communication payload across both services. They also plan to develop a common ground station that could work with each side’s tech and develop shared connectivity that their airborne hardware can tap.

Loon has already developed fleet management technology because of the nature of its service, which is delivered by a collection of balloons, and that will be optimized for HAPSMobile.

The premise of HAPSMobile is very much like Loon

Outside of tech, the duo said they will create an alliance “to promote the use of high altitude communications solution with regulators and officials worldwide.”

The investment is another signal that shows SoftBank’s appetite in tech investing is not limited to up-and-coming startups via its Vision Fund, more established ventures are indeed also in play. Just yesterday, the Vision Fund announced plans to invest $1 billion in German payment firm Wirecard and its past investments include ARM and Nvidia, although SoftBank has sold its stake in the latter.

Ride-hailing firm Grab is losing its CTO

Grab is once again on the hunt for a CTO after Theo Vassilakis, the former Microsoft and Google executive who currently occupies the role, announced that he will leave the ride-hailing company this summer.

Vassilakis became Grab CTO in October 2017, ending a very long search to fill the job, but he explained in a LinkedIn post that he is leaving the Singapore-based firm, and Southeast Asia, for family reasons.

My family and I moved to Singapore in late 2017 when I joined Grab. Living and working in Southeast Asia has been an adventure that broadened our horizons and will always be in our hearts. Unfortunately, our personal circumstances have changed unexpectedly and we’ll need to spend most of our time outside the region — mostly in the south of China for the foreseeable future.

Following his exit on June 30, Vassilakis will remain an advisor to Grab, with a specific focus on “coaching our senior tech leaders and shepherding our ongoing AI and marketplace optimization efforts.” He said that he will be involved in finding and hiring his replacement.

While it will lack a ‘group CTO,’ Grab does have CTOs for its transport and financial business units — Mark Porter and Vikas Agrawal, respectively — while head of product and design Jerald Singh will be involved in filling the void. Grab’s first CTO was Wei Zhu, who is credited with creating Connect with Facebook, but he left in 2015 after just a year and later sued over alleged unpaid earnings.

Under Vassilakis’ leadership, Grab massively increased its tech presence. The company now has seven R&D offices — Bangalore, Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Seattle and Singapore — and it claims to have doubled its headcount in 2018. Grab said in December that it is projected to add a further 1,000 “tech roles” this year.

The company has also expanded from merely transportation services to on-demand services, apps from third-parties via its ‘platform’ strategy, and payments and financial services.

Grab has also become the largest tech company in Southeast Asia by some margin in the eyes of investors. The company was most recently valued at $14 billion when it raised nearly $1.5 billion from SoftBank’s Vision Fund in March. To date, Grab has raised in excess of $7.5 billion from investors, and there’s more to come. The company said earlier this month that it plans to pull in $2 billion more from investors this year to battle rival Go-Jek, make acquisitions and develop its ‘super app’ strategy.

Postmates has launched in 1,000 new cities since December

Postmates is expanding like crazy ahead of an initial public offering expected later this year. The food delivery business has launched in 1,000 new cities since December, the company announced today.

San Francisco-based Postmates now operates its on-demand delivery platform, powered by a network of local gig economy workers, in 3,500 cities across all 50 states. Postmates does not yet operate in any international markets aside from Mexico City.

“We want to enable anyone to have anything delivered on demand and this latest expansion allows us to deliver on that promise across all 50 states in the US,” Postmates co-founder and chief executive officer Bastian Lehmann said in a statement.

The company says it now reaches 70 percent of U.S. households and delivers food from some 500,000 restaurants, helping it to compete with food-delivery powerhouses Uber Eats and DoorDash. Additionally, Postmates recently launched Postmates Party, a new feature that lets customers within the same neighborhood pool their orders.

Postmates is poised to follow Uber into the public markets. The company — which has raised more than $670 million in venture capital funding, including a $100 million pre-IPO financing in January that valued the business at $1.85 billion — filed confidentially for a U.S. IPO in February.

The company makes completes 5 million deliveries per month and was reportedly expected to record $400 million in revenue in 2018 on food sales of $1.2 billion. Uber Eats, for its part, was expected to begin reaching 70 percent of the U.S. households by the end of 2018 and reportedly has plans in the works to use drones to deliver food by 2021.

DoorDash, meanwhile, is a rocketship. The food delivery company is active in 3,300 cities and claims to be growing 325 percent year-over-year. The company recently closed a $400 million Series F financing at a $7.1 billion valuation. It’s likely to go public in the next year, too.

You can now take your Amazon returns to all Kohl’s stores

It’s one thing to be able to get everything delivered to your doorstep, it’s another to then have to actually have to leave your home, brace the elements and return those things that just didn’t work out (or work at all). Typically, that means a run to your local FedEx or UPS store. For the last two years, Amazon and department store chain Kohl’s had a limited partnership that allowed you to bring your return to 100 Kohl’s stores across the country. Today, the two companies announced that they’d expand this program to all 1,150 Kohl’s locations in the U.S.

Only last month, Kohl’s and Amazon also announced that the store would start carrying Amazon products in about 200 of its stores. In a few stores, Kohl’s also features a special “Amazon Smart Home Experience.” If Amazon ever bought Kohl’s, nobody would be all that surprised, I guess.

One nice feature of this program is that the returns are free and that nobody will ask you why you returned an item. These regretful Amazon purchases also don’t have to be packaged. Kohl’s employees will handle all that for you.

What’s in it for Kohl’s? As people walk into Kohl’s to return the Bluetooth speaker they finally decided they really didn’t need, they’ll not only become familiar with the brand but maybe pick up a shirt or an Amazon Echo, too. Since it started taking Amazon returns, foot traffic to the stores that participated in its test is up and revenue in those stores increased as well (and well beyond what the company experienced in other stores), so this concept seems to be working out alright for Kohl’s.

India’s Mfine raises $17.2M for its digital healthcare service

Mfine, an India-based startup aiming to broaden access to doctors and healthcare using the internet, has pulled in a $17.2 million Series B funding round for growth.

The company is led by four co-founders from Myntra, the fashion commerce startup acquired by Flipkart in 2014. They include CEO Prasad Kompalli and Ashutosh Lawania who started the business in 2017 and were later joined by Ajit Narayanan and Arjun Choudhary, Myntra’s former CTO and head of growth, respectively.

The round is led by Japan’s SBI Investment with participation from sibling fund SBI Ven Capital and another Japanese investor Beenext. Existing Mfine backers Stellaris Venture Partners and Prime Venture Partners also returned to follow on. Mfine has now raised nearly $23 million to date.

“In India, at a macro-level, good doctors are far and few and distributed very unevenly,” Kompalli said in an interview with TechCrunch. “We asked ‘Can we build a platform that is a very large hospital on the cloud?’, that’s the fundamental premise.”

There’s already plenty of money in Indian health tech platforms — Practo, for one, has raised over $180 million from investors like Tencent — but Mfine differentiates itself with a focus on partnerships with hospitals and clinics, while others have offered more daily health communities that include remote sessions with doctors and healthcare professionals who are recruited independently of their day job.

“We are entering a different phase of what is called health tech… the problems that are going to be solved will be much deeper in nature,” Kompalli said in an interview with TechCrunch.

Mfine makes its money as a digital extension of its healthcare partners, essentially. That means it takes a cut of spending from consumers. The company claims to work with over 500 doctors from 100 ‘top’ hospitals, while there’s a big focus on tech. In particular, it says that an AI-powered ‘virtual doctor’ can help in areas that include summarising diagnostic reports, narrowing down symptoms, providing care advice and helping with preventative care. There are also other services, including medicine delivery from partner pharmacies.

To date, Mfine said that its platform has helped with over 100,000 consultations across 800 towns in India during the last 15 months. It claims it is seeing around 20,000 consultations per month. Beyond helping increase the utilization of GPs — Mfine claims it can boost their productivity 3/4X — the service can also help hospitals and centers increase their revenue, a precious commodity for many.

Going forward, Kompalli said that the company is increasing its efforts with corporate companies, where it can help cover employee healthcare needs, and developing its insurance-style subscription service. Over the coming few years, that channel should account for around half of all revenue, he added.

A more immediate goal is to expand its offline work beyond Hyderabad and Bangalore, the two cities where it currently is.

“This round is a real endorsement from global investors that the model is working,” he added.

Huawei says it shipped 59M smartphones in Q1 as revenue jumped 39% to $27B

Fresh from an $8.8 billion profit last year, much-maligned Chinese tech giant Huawei is touting yet more growth. The firm said today that revenue in the first quarter of 2019 grew 39 percent year-on-year to reach $26.78 billion, or 179.7 billion CNY.

The company claims it is owned by its employees — although a recent academic paper challenged that. While it isn’t listed publicly, it declares quarterly and yearly business figures, the latter of which is audited by KPMG.

For Q1, Huawei didn’t reveal a net profit but it said that its net profit margin was eight percent which is “slightly higher” than the same time in the previous year. During the quarter, Huawei said it shipped 59 million smartphones while it added that, as of the end of March, it had signed 40 commercial 5G contracts and shipped over 70,000 base stations to support 5G networks worldwide.

That’s about all it is saying about its top end figures. You can refer back to those 2018 numbers to get an idea of where the company is headed, in short: further into the consumer device space.

Huawei’s annual revenue increased by 19.5 percent year-on-year to 721 billion CNY, or $107.4 billion, in 2018 as smartphones and other devices became its largest source of income.

Huawei said revenue from the consumer business rose by 45 percent to reach 349 billion CNY ($52 billion), while sales from its carrier business dropped 1.3 percent to 294 billion CNY, or $43.8 billion. Enterprise services accounted for the remaining 74.4 billion CNY.

Huawei’s end of year financials show its consumer devices business is now its main money-maker

That consumer push isn’t a huge surprise given the hostility to Huawei’s traditional networking and carrier business from the U.S. and other Western governments.

Still, the Chinese company has fought back against a ban on its equipment in the U.S. through a lawsuit arguing that federal agencies and contractors have violated due process and acted in a way that is unconstitutional. Still, the U.S. concern around national security has been fortified by a recent U.K. government report claimed there are “significant technical issues” around adopting its telecom network kit.

The report, prepared for the National Security Advisor of the U.K. by the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) Oversight Board, said it has “not yet seen anything to give it confidence in Huawei’s capacity to successfully complete the elements of its transformation programme that it has proposed as a means of addressing these underlying defects.”

Sequoia reveals first cohort for its ‘Surge’ accelerator program in India and Southeast Asia

Back in January, Sequoia India announced plans for its first early-stage startup accelerator program in India and Southeast Asia, and today the firm announced its first cohort of 17 startups.

To recap, the program — which is called Surge — gives each startup a $1.5 million check and participation in a four-month program that’s split across India and Singapore, as well as the wider Sequoia global presence in China and San Francisco.

The program kicked off last month, but the startups were only unveiled for the first time today — here they are:

  • Azani Sports: a ‘full stack’ sports clothing startup based in India that sells online and through selected high street retails
  • Bobobox: a capsule hotel company based in Indonesia
  • Bulbul: a live-streaming service with a focus on e-commerce across India
  • DancingMind: a Singapore startup that uses VR to enable remote for stroke victims and patients of debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s
  • Doubtnut: an India-based education startup that uses photos, videos and AI
  • Flynote: a travel booking service with a focus on personalized trips
  • Hippo Video: a platform developing, editing and analyzing marketing and sales videos
  • InterviewBit Academy: a computer science training and development platform in India — that’s not unlike recent Y Combinator graduate Skill-Lync
  • Khatabook: an accounting service for SMEs in India that already claims 120,000 weekly users
  • Qoala: a micro-insurance startup based in Indonesia, which competes with rivals like PasarPolis — which is backed by three of Indonesia’s unicorns
  • ShopUp: a social commerce startup that helps sellers in Bangladesh do business through Facebook — that’s a similar concept to established Indian startups Meesho (another YC alum) and LimeRoad which enable sellers on WhatsApp
  • Skillmatics: a startup headquartered in India that develops learning games for pre-school and primary school kids aged under 10
  • Telio: a b2b commerce platform that aims to digitize the process of brands and wholesalers selling to retailers
  • Uiza: a Singapore-Vietnam startup that lets publishers and companies develop their own video infrastructure independent of platforms like YouTube
  • Vybes: an e-commerce platform for social media influencers that’s based out of Singapore
  • Zenyum: a startup that provides invisible braces for consumers in Southeast Asia at a lower cost than traditional alternatives

There’s one additional startup which is being kept ‘under the radar’ for now, Sequoia said.

Sequoia India managing director Shailendra Singh previously told TechCrunch that Surge would support a ‘curated’ selections of fellow VCs who could invest alongside in the cohort alongside the firm, and Sequoia said that the 17 startups have attracted a total of $36 million in investment. A spokesperson also pointed out that five of the selection have at least one female co-founders, which is almost certainly above average for the region although it is tricky to get reliable data covering India and (in particular) Southeast Asia.

Surge is an interesting effort for Sequoia, which has traditionally played in post-seed and growth stages of the investment cycle. Sequoia closed its most recent fund for India and Southeast Asia at $695 million last year, and it also has access to a globally active ‘growth’ fund that is targeted at $8 billion. Reports have suggested that Surge will get its own sparkling new $200 million fund, which would make a lot of sense given the potential conflict and confusion of investing via its main fund. But the firm is declining to comment on that possibility for now.

One major addition to the program that has been confirmed, however, is Rajan Anandan, the executive who previously ran Google’s business in India and Southeast Asia and is a well-known angel investor. His arrival was announced earlier this month and he will lead the Surge initiative.

His recruitment is a major win for Sequoia, which is betting that Surge’s early stage push will reap it richer dividends in India and Southeast Asia. That part remains to be seen, but certainly, there is a dearth of early-stage programs in both regions compared to other parts of the world.

Uber’s Self-Driving Arm Has Received a $1 Billion Investment Ahead of Its IPO

Uber Technologies Inc. secured a $1 billion investment from three Japanese companies, ahead of an initial public offering expected next month.

Denso Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and SoftBank Group Corp.’s Vision Fund bought stakes in the self-driving unit, valuing the arm at $7.25 billion, according to a statement. The deal will help Uber, which tallied a $3 billion operating loss last year, to continue funding a very costly endeavor.

Uber publicly filed a prospectus to go public last week and is expected to begin a road show to promote the stock before the end of the month. The offering could value Uber at roughly $100 billion, people familiar with the matter have said. The autonomous-car investment is the second major deal struck in the weeks leading up to the IPO. Uber Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi said last month that the company had agreed to acquire Middle Eastern rival Careem for $3.1 billion.

With Uber remaining the majority shareholder in the autonomous-car venture, public investors will still be exposed to a substantial expense. Uber spent $457 million last year on technology investments, including the self-driving car business. However, the pre-IPO deal will help the company argue that the autonomous program is a valuable component of its business.

The deal is expected to close in the third quarter, Uber said. Together, Toyota and the auto supplier Denso will invest $667 million, while the SoftBank Vision Fund will chip in $333 million for the self-driving unit.

SoftBank was already the largest shareholder in Uber, with a 16 percent holding. Toyota has a smaller stake. SoftBank hasn’t been able to take two board seats at Uber that were granted as part of its investment more than a year ago. Due to an impending U.S. national security review, SoftBank may never get those seats, but it will have rights to join a new board as part of the autonomous-car deal.

The new corporate entity will have a board compromised of six Uber-appointed members, one appointed by Toyota and one from SoftBank’s Vision Fund, a person familiar with the matter said. That seat will also require U.S. security approval.