Luckin Coffee replaces chairman Charles Lu

Luckin Coffee has replaced co-founder and (now ex-) chairman Charles Zhengyao Lu, despite his efforts to maintain control over the troubled Beijing-based coffee chain. The company disclosed in an SEC filing on Monday that Jinyi Guo, another co-founder, board member and former acting chief executive of Luckin, has been appointed as its new chairman and chief executive officer.

In today’s SEC filing, Luckin also said a total of four directors have left the board (Lu, David Hui Li, Erhai Liu and Sean Shao) and two new independent directors have been appointed. The new additions are Jie Yang, vice dean of the business school at the China University of Political Science and Law, and Ying Zeng, who was a partner at law firm Orrick Herrington and Sutcliffe and previously served as El Paso Corporation’s vice president and country manager for China.

The company’s disclosure comes after weeks of strife during which Lu sought to hold onto control of Luckin. Earlier this month, an attempt by Luckin Coffee’s directors to remove Lu as chairman failed to get enough votes during a board meeting.

The proposal to oust Lu was made on June 26 after an internal investigation found that Luckin Coffee’s net revenue in 2019 was inflated by about RMB 2.12 billion (US $300 million) and that fabrication of transactions began in April 2019, with Lu, former chief operating officer Jenny Zhiya Qian and several other employees participating in the false reports.

Luckin Coffee disclosed last month that Nasdaq had decided to delist the company, a spectacular fall from grace after it raised $651 million in its United States public offering in May before allegations of fraud caused its stock to plummet.

 

Project Ubin, the Singaporean money authority’s blockchain initiative, moves closer to commercialization

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and state investment firm Temasek announced today that Project Ubin, its blockchain-based multi-currency payments network, has proven its commercial potential after tests with more than 40 companies.

The initiative was launched in 2016. A prototype developed by Temasek and J.P. Morgan began undergoing testing last year to see how well it would integrate with commercial blockchain applications.

A report released today, commissioned by MAS and Temasek, said Project Ubin’s prototype was validated through workshops with more than 40 financial and non-financial firms. Its potential uses include faster, less costly cross-border transactions; foreign currency exchange; and smart contracts for escrow and trade.

The report also said that Project Ubin’s prototype can potentially pave the way to enable more collaborations with central banks and other financial institution to build better cross-border payments networks.

In a statement, Chia Song Hwee, Temasek’s deputy chief executive officer, said “This validates Temasek’s efforts in exploring and building blockchain solutions focusing on digital identity, digital currencies and financial asset tokenization. We look forward to supporting commercialization efforts emanating from Project Ubin and other application areas, with a view to drive greater adoption of blockchain technology.”

Tesla lowers the starting price of its Model Y electric SUV

Tesla has lowered the price of another vehicle. This time it’s the Model Y, an electric SUV the company started shipping in March. The long-range all-wheel drive version of the car is now listed with a purchase price of $49,990, or $3,000 less than what it was before. The car’s new pricing was first reported by Electrek over the weekend.

In May, Tesla cut prices for several of its electric cars, including high-end vehicles like the Model S sedan and the Model X SUV. The new pricing comes as U.S. automakers try to attract buyers despite the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The traditional big three U.S. automakers, Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, are offering 0% financing rates, in addition to deferred or longer-term payment options, while other automakers have also announced incentives and payment plans to appeal to new buyers and keep existing owners from defaulting on loans.

At the beginning of this month, Tesla said it delivered 90,650 vehicles in the second quarter, a 4.8% decline due to the pandemic and suspension of production at its main U.S. factory for several weeks, but still better than analysts’ expectations. Most of the deliveries, or 80,050, were Model 3 and Model Y, while the remaining 10,600 were its higher-end Model S and Model X.

WeWork’s chairman says it expects to have positive cash flow in 2021

After aggressive cost-cutting measures, including mass layoffs and selling several of its businesses, WeWork’s chairman expects the company to have positive cash flow in 2021. Marcelo Claure, who became WeWork’s chairman after co-founder Adam Neumann resigned as chief executive officer last fall, told the Financial Times that the co-working space startup is on target to meet its goal, set in February, of reaching operating profitability by the end of next year.

Claure is also chief operating officer of SoftBank Group, which invested $18.5 billion in the co-working space, according to leaked comments made by Claure during an October all-hands meeting.

SoftBank said in April that it would lose $24 billion on investments, with one of the main reasons being WeWork’s implosion last year. The company’s financial and management issues brought its valuation down from as much as $47 billion at the beginning of 2019 to $2.9 billion in March, according to a May report by CNBC.

In addition to the layoffs, WeWork sold off businesses including Flatiron School, Teem and its share of The Wing. Claure told the Financial times that WeWork also cut its workforce from a high of 14,000 last year to 5,600.

Neumann resigned as CEO in September, reportedly at the behest of SoftBank, over concerns about the company’s financial health and his behavior. Then the company postponed its IPO filing. The next month, SoftBank took ownership of WeWork as part of a financing package.

Claure is credited with orchestrating a turnaround at Sprint, cutting losses and increasing its stock price in 2015, three years after it was acquired by SoftBank. He has served as SoftBank Group’s COO since 2018.

Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many people to work from home, Claure said that companies have been leasing spaces from WeWork to serve as satellite offices close to where employees live. But he also said that revenues were flat during the second-quarter because many tenants terminated their leases or stopped paying rent.

California reportedly launches antitrust investigation into Google

According to a report in Politico, California has become the 49th state to launch an antitrust investigation into Google.

California and Alabama were the only states that did not participate in an antitrust investigation by 48 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, that began in September and is focused on Google’s dominance in online advertising and search.

It is still unclear what aspects of Google’s business the reported California investigation will focus on.

The Justice Department is also currently conducing its own antitrust investigation into Google, and working with the multi-state probe. It is expected that the investigations will result in lawsuits against Google.

Google is among several big tech companies, including Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, that are currently being scrutinized by state and federal legislators and agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission, over alleged antitrust issues.

In 2011, California, four other states (Texas, New York, Oklahoma and Ohio) and the Federal Trade Commission launched an antitrust investigation into allegations that Google unfairly favored its own products over competitors in search results. That investigation was closed in 2013.

TechCrunch has contacted Google and the office of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for comment.

 

U.S. government may finalize ban on federal contractors using equipment from Huawei this week

The Trump administration is set to finalize regulations this week that ban the United States government from working with contractors who use technology from five Chinese companies: Huawei, ZTE, Hikvision, Dahua and Hytera Communications, according to a Reuters report.

The ban was first introduced as a provision in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that prevents government agencies from signing contracts with companies that use equipment, services and systems from Huawei, ZTE, Hytera, Hikvision and Dahua, or any of their subsidiaries and affiliates, citing national security concerns.

Contractors were given until August 13, 2020 to comply, but immediately began voicing concerns over the ambiguity of the law.

More recently, the National Defense Industrial Association, a trade group, asked the government to extend the deadline because it said many contractors are currently dealing with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, reported Defense News.

Another challenge for federal contractors is that the companies on the blacklist are global market leaders in their respective categories, making it harder to find alternatives. For example, Huawei and ZTE are two of the largest telecom equipment providers in the world; Dahua and Hikvision are two of the biggest providers of surveillance equipment and cameras; and Hytera is a market leader for two-way radios.

The ban is one of many entanglements Huawei has had with the U.S. government since it was first identified as a national security threat, along with ZTE, in a 2012 Congressional report.

In May 2019, Huawei filed a legal motion against the provision in the National Defense Authorization Act, with the company’s chief legal officer stating that “politicians in the U.S. are using the strength of an entire nation to come after a private company.”

The United States, however, is not the only country with national security concerns about Huawei. On Thursday, for example, Reuters reported that Telecom Italia (TIM) decided to exclude Huawei from its tender for 5G equipment in Italy and Brazil, as the Italian government deliberates whether to bar Huawei’s tech from the country’s 5G network. Huawei told Reuters that “the security and development of digital Italy should be based on an approach grounded in facts and not baseless allegations.”

The United Kingdom is also reportedly considering a similar ban on Huawei in its 5G network.

Google reportedly cancelled a cloud project meant for countries including China

After reportedly spending a year and a half working on a cloud service meant for China and other countries, Google cancelled the project, called “Isolated Region,” in May due partly to geopolitical and pandemic-related concerns. Bloomberg reports that Isolated Region, shut down in May, would have enabled it to offer cloud services in countries that want to keep and control data within their borders.

According to two Google employees who spoke to Bloomberg, the project was part of a larger initiative called “Sharded Google” to create data and processing infrastructure that is completely separate from the rest of the company’s network. Isolated Region began in early 2018 in response to Chinese regulations that mean foreign tech companies that want to enter the country need to form a joint venture with a local company that would hold control over user data. Isolated Region was meant to help meet requirements like this in China and other countries, while also addressing U.S. national security concerns.

Bloomberg’s sources said the project was paused in China in January 2019, and focus was redirected to Europe, the Middle East and Africa instead, before Isolated Region was ultimately cancelled in May, though Google has since considered offering a smaller version of Google Cloud Platform in China.

After the story was first published, a Google representative told Bloomberg that Isolated Region wasn’t shut down because of geopolitical issues or the pandemic, and that the company “does not offer and has not offered cloud platform services inside China.”

Instead, she said Isolated Region was cancelled because “other approaches we were actively pursuing offered better outcomes. We have a comprehensive approach to addressing these requirements that covers the governance of data, operational practices and survivability of software. Isolated Region was just one of the paths we explored to address these requirements.”

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, broke out Google Cloud as its own line item for the first time in its fourth-quarter and full-year earnings report, released in February. It revealed that its run rate grew 53.6% during the last year to just over $10 billion in 2019, making it a more formidable rival to competitors Amazon and Microsoft.

Payfazz gets $53 million to give more Indonesians access to financial services

Indonesia is not only Southeast Asia’s most populated country, but also one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. But many people, especially outside of major cities, still lack access to basic financial services like bank accounts. Payfazz is one of several tech startups focused on solving that problem by finding innovative ways to give more Indonesians access to financial services. The company announced today that it has raised a $53 million Series B led by B Capital and Insignia Ventures Partners.

Previous investors, including Tiger Global, Y Combinator and ACE & Company, also returned for the round. New backers include strategic investor BRI Ventures, the venture arm of BRI, one of Indonesia’s largest banks. Payfazz’s last round of funding was a $21 million Series A announced in September 2018, led by Tiger Global. Its total raised to date is now more than $74 million.

Founded in 2016 by Hendra Kwik, Jefriyanto Winata and Ricky Winata, Payfazz is an alum of Y Combinator’s accelerator program.

There is a growing list of Indonesian financial tech startups, including Modalku, KoinWorks and Kredivo, that focus on consumer and small business financing, while larger and more diversified tech companies like Gojek and Grab are working their own online payment tools and other services. Payfazz differentiates with a portfolio of mobile services that make it easier for Indonesians to handle routine financial tasks, including bill payments and loans, even if they live in rural areas without banks. The company says it currently serves 10 million monthly active users, and plans to expand its offerings to include more digital financial products.

The company uses a network of financial agents to reach customers because many banks don’t open branches in rural areas, Kwik told TechCrunch. “Due to high fixed costs, traditional banks find it economical to operate only in cities and urban areas with high density and foot traffic,” he said. “This leaves a huge unfulfilled and underserved banking need in rural areas where banking access is very difficult.”

Payfazz’s network currently includes about 250,000 agents, most of whom are located in small stores. Users deposit cash with the agents, who serve as go-betweens with banks. This allows Payfazz’s users to have a balance they can use to pay phone, electricity and other bills. Payfazz also recently launched loans and payments for offline retailers.

Kwik said Payfazz built an agent network because even though smartphone penetration is high in Indonesia, many people haven’t used direct digital banking services before, so talking to a Payfazz agent helps familiarize them with the process. Because most of its agents are based out of warung or kirana stores, or neighborhood shops that sell food and other necessities, they are easier for people in rural areas and small towns to access than banks, ATM machines or convenience store chains.

“Our agents are small businesses and people who have lots of traffic from rural areas’ populations in their places. It can be warung and kirana stores, telco stores, small restaurants or even someone’s house,” Kwik said. “They are the perfect profile to become our agents because they’re ubiquitously distributed and have high coverage in rural areas.”

He added that Payfazz also gives agents an opportunity to earn extra income. Payfazz takes a 0.5% to 1% commission on every transaction, and agents are allowed to set the margins they charge customers for transactions, usually between 5% to 9%. Before signing on an agent, Payfazz screens them using KYC (“know your customer”) and verification technology to gauge trustworthiness, traffic and sales potential.

While Grab Financial and other Southeast Asian fintech companies may eventually become Payfazz’s competitors, Kwik said he currently sees them as potential partners.

“The reason is simply because most of these providers still focus their market and resources in the cities and urban areas, like many of the traditional banks. Meanwhile, Payfazz focuses all its market and resources in rural areas,” he added. “Payfazz can help other banks and financial service providers to expand their reach to rural areas and capture hundreds of millions of users and billions of dollars of revenue opportunity there.”

In a statement about the funding, Insignia Ventures founding managing partner Yinglan Tan said, “We have been privileged to have supported Payfazz since their early days. We believe that this path to taking their fintech ecosystem from Indonesia to the rest of the region will meet the pressing needs of many more of Southeast Asia’s digital consumers, and are excited to see how Hendra and the Payfazz team will build on top of the portfolio of services that millions of Indonesians are already using.”

Uber reportedly agrees to acquire Postmates for $2.65 billion

Uber has reportedly agreed to buy Postmates in an all-stock deal worth $2.65 billion. According to Bloomberg, the deal may be announced on Monday morning.

Like other travel- and transportation-related businesses, Uber’s ride-hailing segment has been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, due to shelter-in-place orders throughout the United States. On-demand delivery, however, has grown, with people relying on services like Uber Eats to get food without leaving their homes. According to its last earnings report, Uber’s ride-hailing gross bookings dropped, but its food delivery service saw gross sales growth of 54% during its first fiscal quarter.

According to previous reports, Uber made an offer to buy Grubhub, another on-demand delivery service, earlier this year, but after that deal fell through, it approached Postmates. Bloomberg reports that Uber and Postmates have actually talked on and off for about four years, but negotiations became more intense about a week ago.

Grubhub ended up being acquired by Just Eat Takeway in a deal worth $7.3 billion after its negotiations with Uber stalled.

With a valuation of $2.4 billion, Postmates is a smaller company than Grubhub. The company filed to go public in February 2019, but decided to hold off because of “choppy market” conditions.

If the deal goes through, the main competitors in the American food delivery market would be Uber Eats/Postmates versus Grubhub/Takeaway versus DoorDash.

In other countries, companies like Grab have also begun building out their on-demand delivery services to make up for losses from fewer ride-hailing bookings. For example, Grab responded to stay-at-home orders in Indonesia (its main market) and other Southeast Asian countries by re-deploying ride-hailing drivers to on-demand deliveries for food and essential items.

US plans to rollback special status may erode Hong Kong’s startup ecosystem

For two months, the people of Hong Kong waited in suspense after China’s legislature approved a new national security law. The legislation’s details were finally made public yesterday and almost immediately went into effect. As many Hong Kong residents feared, the broadly written new law gives Beijing extensive authority over the Special Administrative Region and has the potential to sharply curtail civil liberties.

In response, the United States began the first measures to end the special status it gives to Hong Kong, with the Commerce and State Departments suspending export license exceptions for sensitive U.S. technology and blocking the export of defense equipment.

Much remains uncertain. Hong Kong had also previously enjoyed many freedoms that do not exist in mainland China, under the “one country, two systems” principle put into place after the United Kingdom returned control to China. After announcing the new policies, the U.S. government said further restrictions are being considered. Under special status, Hong Kong had privileges including lower trade tariffs and a separate customs and immigration designation from mainland China, but now the future of those is unclear.

Equally opaque is how the erosion of special status and the new national security law will impact Hong Kong’s startups in the future. In conversations with TechCrunch, investors and founders said they believe the region’s ecosystem is resilient, partly because many companies offer online services — especially financial services — and have already established operations in other markets. But they are also keeping an eye on further developments and preparing for the possibility that key talent will want to relocate to other countries.