Rakuten Mobile’s low-cost data plan fully launches in Japan

Rakuten Mobile announced the full commercial launch of its low-cost data plan in Japan today. Priced at 2,980 yen (about $27) per month, the plan gives users unlimited calls and data where Rakuten has its own networks. The company also raised the amount of domestic roaming data in response to increased usage of remote working and online education tools.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency in seven prefectures, including Tokyo, after a new wave of COVID-19 cases in March. The order gives prefectural leaders the power to request closure of stores and businesses considered non-essential. Public schools in Tokyo and surrounding areas closed earlier this year and are not expected to re-open until early May.

In addition to serving increased need for online services during the pandemic, Rakuten Mobile’s pricing may also help it compete against Japan’s largest carriers–NTT Docomo, KDDI and SoftBank. Rakuten Mobile uses what the company says is the world’s first virtualized mobile network, which requires less hardware infrastructure, lowering deployments costs and in turn allowing the company to offer more affordable rates.

Last year, the company said it will have a total of 4,000 edge servers in Japan by the mobile service’s launch. Rakuten Mobile expects its network to cover all of Japan by next March.

Called Rakuten UN-LIMIT 2.0, the company’s current plan gives users 5GB of roaming data in areas where Rakuten Mobile has partners, and unlimited roaming data at a maximum speed of 1Mbps after the limit is reached. The original Rakuten UN-LIMIT plan offered 2GB of domestic roaming, and maximum 128kbps speed.

MyBuddy.ai, a virtual tutor for kids learning English, raises $1 million seed round

MyBuddy.ai, a startup that develops virtual tools to help kids learn English, announced today that it has raised $1 million in seed funding from LETA Capital. The capital will be used to expand into new markets and develop new features including mini-classes about health.

The San Francisco-based company’s app features a AI-based virtual tutor called Buddy who coaches kids through a series of exercises. According to MyBuddy.ai, there are 500 million children around the world who want to learn English, but don’t have someone to practice the language with. It claims that its app has been downloaded more than one million times since launching two years ago.

In a press statement, MyBuddy.ai co-founder and CEO Ivan Crewkov said, “The demand for online education is rising sharply due to the pandemic. This has exacerbated the chronic shortage of qualified English language teachers needed for half a billion kids struggling to learn English as a second language. Our AI-powered tutor Buddy can handle the mundane part of their work. He provides unlimited practice of spoken English, can scale to millions of students and is always available.”

Last month, MyBuddy.ai merged with Edwin, an edtech startup that also focuses on learning English for non-native speakers and whose investors include General Catalyst, Y Combinator and Google Assistant Investments Program. Edwin’s products included a chatbot based on adaptive learning and natural language understanding AI, and an on-demand tutoring service. The combined company kept the name MyBuddy.ai and is focused on integrating technology from both startups into the Buddy app.

Hong Kong fintech startup Neat raises $11 million Series A to give small companies more banking services

Neat, a Hong Kong-based fintech startup, announced today that it has raised a $11 million Series A to help small businesses do cross-border banking. The round was led by Pacific Century Group, with participation from Visa and MassMutual Ventures Southeast Asia, and returning investors Dymon Asia Ventures, Linear Capital and Sagamore Investments.

Neat also announced a strategic partnership with Visa, which means that in the next few months Neat will start issuing Visa credit cards to SMEs and startups.

This brings Neat’s total funding to $16.5 million, including its seed round announced at the end of 2018.

Like San Francisco-based Brex, which achieved a $2.6 billion valuation last year, Neat focuses on giving startups and small businesses a more efficient, online alternative to traditional banking.

Its services allow them to open business accounts for multiple currencies online, send and receive payments from different countries and apply for corporate credit cards. Neat’s new funding will be used for expansion, with a focus on Southeast Asian customers that do trade with European companies. Last year it opened a Shenzhen office to serve Chinese export businesses, as well as an office in London for Western European companies that trade in China.

Neat co-founder and CEO David Rosa told TechCrunch that businesses are still looking to digitize more of their operations despite the worldwide impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Neat is serving entrepreneurs around the world that trade with Asia. Before they may have fitted visits to the bank into their business trips to Hong Kong, this is no longer an option,” he said.

Corporate credit cards can be difficult for startups and SMEs to get because they typically need about three years of audited financials to qualify even for low spending limits, Rosa said. Employees often cannot get a corporate card because their managers do not have the tools to control their spending limits, making reimbursement more difficult. Neat’s partnership with Visa aims to solve many of the problems they encounter (it also offers a Neat Mastercard). In the future, Neat will launch tools for automated payroll, accounting and logistics.

In a statement, MassMutual Ventures managing director Ryan Collins said, “We’re proud to support Neat in the company’s vision to support entrepreneurs. There is a clear demand for better financial products for SMEs, especially when it comes to cross-border payments and trade, and we’re confident that Neat’s passionate and innovative team will deliver.”

Taiwan’s government bars its agencies from using Zoom over security concerns

Taiwan’s Executive Yuan issued an advisory on Tuesday barring the country’s government agencies from using Zoom and other video software with “associated security or privacy concerns.” Instead, the government said alternatives, including software from Google and Microsoft, should be considered.

Many organizations have been relying on Zoom to holding meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the video conferencing app has also been criticized for security and privacy issues.

Government agencies in other countries have also restricted the use of Zoom, though Taiwan’s ban is one of the most sweeping so far. For example, New York City officials said that schools are no longer allowed to use Zoom for remote teaching and Australia’s Defence Force and its MPs are no longer allowed to use the service.

The announcement from the Taiwanese government said, “The Executive Yuan’s Department of Cyber Security (DCS) today formally issued an advisory to all government organizations and specific non-government agencies that should it become operationally necessary to engage in video conferencing, the underlying video software to be used should not have associated security or privacy concerns, such as the Zoom video communication service.”

The DCS added that “if the organization must use non-domestically produced software for international exchanges or some other special situation, many global and communication giants—like Google and Microsoft—are offering such technology for free amid the current pandemic. Organizations should consider these options after evaluating any associated data security risks.”

On April 1, Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan wrote on the company’s blog that “usage of Zoom has ballooned overnight—far surpassing what we expected when we first announced our desire to help in late February,” with more than 200 million daily meeting participants in March, up from 10 million in December.

He apologized for the company’s security issues, writing that “we are looking into each and every one of them and addressing them as expeditiously as we can.”

In March, as usage suddenly increased due to the pandemic, “ZoomBombing” became an issue, with people using the software’s screen-sharing feature to interrupt meetings with inappropriate content, including violent images and pornography. The Intercept also reported that Zoom video calls are not end-to-end encrypted, like the company claimed. Last week, Citizen Lab researchers said they had found that some calls were routed through China.

TechCrunch has contacted Zoom for comment.

How Homage is tackling Southeast Asia’s growing eldercare need

The world’s population is aging, but the needs of elderly people are still being underserved. A United Nations report found that older people make up more than one-fifth of the population in 17 countries, and by 2100, a majority of the world’s population, or 61%, will be aged 60 and above.

One of the most urgent needs for families is caregiving, with demand outstripping the pool of qualified providers. This means many people in their thirties and forties are now part of the “sandwich generation,” juggling jobs and child care while looking after elderly relatives. This creates both an opportunity and challenge for tech startups and investors in almost every market around the world.

In Southeast Asia, Homage is addressing the issue with a platform that takes a curated approach to pairing caregivers and families, using a combination of in-person screening and its matching engine to make the process more efficient. Currently operating in Singapore and Malaysia, the startup announced earlier this year that it will use its Series B funding to expand into five new countries in the region.

Backed by investors, including HealthXCapital, Golden Gate Ventures and EV Ventures, Homage was co-founded in 2016 by chief executive officer Gillian Tee, who grew up in Singapore and was inspired by her family’s own experiences looking for caregivers. Tee says she wanted to build a platform that would make the process of matching caregivers and clients easier, and be scalable into different markets.

“It’s not the easiest space to be in, and I would say that you do need to want to be intentionally working in this space, rather than just falling into it. It goes hand in hand,” she told TechCrunch. “We found that there is a huge market opportunity, but why we’re doing it goes way beyond that.”

How Homage addresses the talent pool shortage

Grab hires Peter Oey as its chief financial officer

Grab announced today that it has hired Peter Oey as its new chief financial officer. Prior to joining Grab, Oey was the chief financial officer at LegalZoom, an online legal services company based near Los Angeles.

Before that, he served the same role at Mylife.com, an online platform that aggregates information about people based on public records. Oey also held financial leadership positions at Activision for twelve years, including corporate controller.

Grab, whose services include ride-sharing, food delivery and online financial services provider GrabPay, announced in February that it had raised a total of $856 million from Japanese investors Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group and TIS INTEC, to grow its financial services and digital payments infrastructure.

In a statement, Grab said Oey will be based in Singapore and report to co-founder and CEO Anthony Tan. He will also work with Grab president Ming Maa, who took over many responsibilities from Grab’s last CFO, Linda Hoglund, when she left in 2016. Grab said Maa will continue to lead its strategic business planning.

Grab, which acquired Uber’s Southeast Asia business in March 2018, has reportedly been in discussions to merge with merge with rival GoJek.

 

In a press statement, the company said that in 2019, GrabFood’s gross merchandise volume grew by over 400%, while GrabPay increased payment volume by 170%, thanks to strong performance in Indonesia.

Tan said “Last year, we made tremendous progress in growing our food delivery, payments and financial services business. The growth of these businesses give us a good foundation for achieving long-term sustainable growth for our company. I’m excited to welcome Peter to the Grab family where his extensive experience scaling rapidly growing technology companies makes him a valuable addition to our business.”

Grab has raised a total of about $9.9 billion from investors including SoftBank Vision Fund, which invested $1.46 billion into the company last year. Tan told CNBC last November that the company will not go public until its entire business is profitable.

How child care startups in the U.S. are helping families cope with the COVID-19 crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of billions of people around the world. For many parents with young children in the United States, shelter in place orders implemented in different areas over the past few weeks mean they now spend each day balancing work with taking care of their families. For child care providers, a vital but often underappreciated part of the American economy, the crisis means dealing with economic uncertainty, but also adapting to serve new roles, including providing care for essential workers.

Child care startups, including home-based daycare networks, apps for finding child care, and benefits and business management software, are working hard to help families. For example, many are using their technology to connect essential workers with carers or provide emergency child care, helping providers navigate government aid programs and, in some cases, raising their own relief funds.

TechCrunch talked to nine U.S.-based child care startups–home daycare and preschool networks Wonderschool, NeighborSchools, WeeCare and MyVillage; Winnie, Komae and Helpr, all apps for arranging child care; and enterprise software companies Kinside and Kangarootime–to see how they are dealing with the impact of COVID-19.

Child care for essential workers

Many of the child care startups TechCrunch spoke to are now focused on helping people in jobs classified as essential during shelter in place orders, including healthcare, emergency responders and grocery store workers. Several of them are adapting their platforms or services to serve those families more quickly, while balancing their urgent need for care with COVID-19 safety precautions.

For example, Winnie, a platform for finding verified child care providers throughout the United States, is collecting and updating data in real time about which providers are temporarily closed, and which ones have availability, says founder and CEO Sara Mauskopf. This week, Winnie launched a portal for parents to find emergency child care with immediate openings.

Kasey Edwards, the founder and CEO of Helpr, an app that connects parents with screened babysitters, said it is working with families of essential workers to help them afford child care. Helpr’s “Out-of-network” feature allows families to add their own care providers to the platform and manage backup care subsidies from their employers.

Meanwhile, Komae, an app that enables groups of families to create babysitting cooperatives and swap care with one another, is offering free care credits and working with seven healthcare organizations to coordinate child care for their workers, said founder and CEO Erin Beck.

The babysitting circles on Komae are private, “which means families from one organization can insulate their caregiving strictly among themselves, getting the care they need without risking exposure to the community at large (like our grandparents or other traditional caregivers),” Beck said. The app currently recommends that users “buddy up” with just one or two other families for their care group.

In some places, small in-home care providers have been allowed to stay open, said Chris Bennett, the co-founder and CEO of Wonderschool, a network of home-based child care and preschools in states including California, New York and Texas.

“Repeatedly, we are seeing county officials allowing small in-home childcare operators to continue to operate, thus providing support for these critical workers under shelter in place orders,” he said. “Our programs have now entered into a critical support role that larger preschools cannot support at this time.”

Jessica Chang, the co-founder and CEO of WeeCare, another network of in-home child care providers, said the company is “adjusting its support each hour and taking into account the changing protocols in each county. In certain areas such as Northern California and New York City, our providers are changing how they support their community. Instead of caring for children who attend their daycare regularly, they are now caring for children of first responders and essential workers.”

In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker ordered all early child care centers closed starting on March 23. The only centers currently allowed to operate in the state are Exempt Emergency Child Care programs, intended for essential workers and opened by the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC).

As a result, Boston-based NeighborSchools, which partners with home child care providers, closed all its centers to comply with the order. Co-founder and CEO Brian Swartz said some of NeighborSchool’s provider partners are applying to provide emergency child care for medical professionals, first responders and vulnerable populations. The startup is currently helping providers figure out regulatory requirements and putting together guidance for using government aid. It is also communicating with the EEC’s leadership to offer full access to its platform.

“While we never envisioned this scenario, the tech we’ve built for our network is uniquely well suited to automatically match families to child care programs in real-time,” said Swartz. “In child care scheduling, we need to account for each child’s date of birth, the family’s care schedule and the licensed capacity of each program within age range. Our team is ready to drop everything and make this happen if the EEC asks for our help.”

On-demand services

Startups are also helping other parents find short-term or emergency child care. Some have launched online services, like digital playdates, to help families balance working from home and their family lives.

MyVillage, a network of home-based care providers in Colorado and Montana, is seeing “an influx of interest from families who are looking for temporary care and/or short-term placement due to large child care centers closing and school districts closing,” said co-founder and CEO Erica Mackey. The company is currently working on a short-term placement solution for families in select MyVillage programs who need child care.

To help parents navigate the sudden collision of their work and home lives, Komae and Helpr both started offering online services. Helpr launched online music lessons and tutoring for families on its platform, while Komae is facilitating digital playdates. This means parents use the app to schedule video calls with their children’s friends.

“I never imagined my toddler could be so entertained by her friends on a computer screen, but they amazingly go an hour showing each other their toys and silly faces,” said Beck. “That social connection, for all of us, is so essential.”

Safety and support

Child washing hands

Safety compliance is always a priority for child care providers, but it is especially critical during this time. In addition to following CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many companies have also enacted safeguards of their own. Some are also implementing financial support programs to help care providers who are forced to close because of illness.

For example, Beck published a letter on Komae’s site on March 12, hours before Ohio became the first state to close schools, asking families on the app to immediately stop swapping child care.

“It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make as a founder, because as a parent myself, I was painfully aware of how desperate these families would be for both care and companionship,” Beck said. “But ‘adhering to social distance’ was not a given then like it is now; we had the responsibility as a leader of this vast community to be firm with what needed to be done.”

Taking steps like helping parents who work with healthcare organizations find care and launching digital features has allowed Komae to maintain its community, she added. “We knew Komae had the tools to make that happen, so with social distance at our core, we adapted for insulating or digital caresharing.”

As a safety precaution, WeeCare developed a feature to monitor caregivers for fevers, using a function already in its app that allows them to take photos and videos of children throughout the day and tag activities. The technology was adapted so providers can submit a video of themselves taking their temperature with a thermometer each morning. Once the video is verified by the WeeCare team, the provider receives a badge on their listing that says “Health Status: Fever-Free,” with the date of the verified reading.

Chang says the feature “allows providers to take more proactive measures, as recommended by the CDC, to ensure the health and safety of our community.”

Several companies are also providing financial programs to help their providers who are forced to shut down and ensure they don’t feel compelled to work even when sick. For example, MyVillage raised additional funding to allow the 60-plus open programs in its network to continue earning their projected income into April. Mackey says that so far, two anonymous funders have contributed.

“Many of our educators don’t have the safety net needed to stop working, so we want to help them stay open so long as it’s safe,” says Mackey. “If parents are exposed or infected and subject to quarantine, our relief funding provides a subsidy to cover 11 of the 14 days of the child’s tuition until he or she can safely return to class.”

Helpr launched a paid sick leave policy for babysitters on its platform after the first known cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. Sitters are also informed of any sickness in a home through a mandatory disclosure from the family in Helpr’s app when they book an appointment.

A few days after TechCrunch spoke to Wonderschool, Bennett announced that the company had been forced to lay off team members because of the crisis. Before the announcement, Bennett told TechCrunch that if a Wonderschool care program is forced to shut down because a child, parent or provider shows symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19, the company will draw on its network to help its other families find another carer in their area. For financial support, Wonderschool is monitoring state and federal relief policies for businesses.

“These crisis funds will be key in ensuring that in-home providers who have shut down temporarily are available to parents again once people return to work,” he said.

Enterprise software

For startups that build enterprise and management software related to child care, the pandemic creates a different set of challenges.

Genevieve Carbone of Kangarootime, business management software for child care providers, said that many of its customers have been relying on its messaging feature to keep families updated on rapidly changing regulations. Its software also enables “low contact,” for example by allowing information to be passed to parents digitally instead of on paper handouts, in-app check-in and check-outs, and online payments.

“We’re keeping a very close eye on the impact the virus will have on businesses further down the road and how we can better support our customers once the pandemic passes,” said Carbone. “Improving billing for agencies/subsidies is something we have explored, assuming there may be an increase in families that will need government subsidies to cover their childcare.”

Kinside, whose software helps employees manage family care benefits and find daycares, has seen a 60% decline in incoming parents because of shelter at home mandates and social distancing, said co-founder and CEO Shadiah Sigala. Thousands of daycares in its network have also shut down.

Even places that are not currently under shelter in place orders have seen a drop in parents searching for immediate care because they know “it’s likely only a matter of time before all states invoke similar measures,” she added.

But Kinside is helping essential workers find childcare and has also recently begun working with human resources at hospitals and grocery chains on its platform to “offer white glove child care support to their employees.”

After the pandemic

Daycare and school shutdowns have forced families to change their routines under extraordinary and difficult circumstances, and the situation is highlighting the value of caregivers to the economy and the well-being of families. At the same time, it also underscores how vulnerable many providers are, with few safety nets.

Mackey says that MyVillage was created to address structural problems in child care that have existed for a long time “It was tough to make it as a child care provider before this pandemic, and now, it’s even harder. More than 40% of family home child care businesses nationally report that they couldn’t make it two weeks without revenue from having children in care,” she said, adding that MyVillage was created to help fix “America’s deeply broken child care market, which doesn’t work well for educators, who earn on average $11.50 an hour, or for working parents, who pay more than public university tuition for child care in a majority of states.”

Sigala said “the pandemic has exposed the essentiality of child care in the everyday working lives of Americans, and the overall economy. More of our jobs may be fit to support work from home. But they are certainly not fit for work from home with kids.”

After the pandemic is over, many parents may find it difficult to re-enroll their kids with the same care provider or need to find new options that are more financially manageable for them, she added. Kinside currently works with thousands of employers, as well as daycare centers that can add up to one million child care slots. The company plans to offer deep discounts or free access to Kinside to companies while they recover from the crisis.

“We predict company executives will return to running their companies with more empathy than ever,” said Sigala. “They, too just experienced the complete lack of child care infrastructure (perhaps for the first time); a problem that many of their employees face on a daily basis. We are ready to engage with heads of HR and key executives with resources and consulting gratis.”

Notarize to add 1,000 online notaries to address demand for remote transactions

Notarize, the platform that enables digital notarizations, announced that it is adding 1,000 notaries to address demand as more Americans are ordered to shelter in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but still need to sign important documents.

The startup is partnering with the National Notary Association to verify notaries have been screened and have the necessary insurance or bonding. The service is available to Americans in all 50 states or abroad, but notaries must be physically located in Florida, Nevada, Texas or Virginia to join the platform (with plans to add more states later) and have a digital certificate before applying for Notarize .

Founder and CEO Pat Kinsel said Notarize is “experiencing unprecedented demand due to coronavirus. Consumers and businesses are turning to us en masse because they can’t complete critical transactions.”

He added that to scale quickly, Notarize is able to “leverage existing credentials from the National Notary Association that ensure people have commissions, insurance and background screenings. Notaries are stuck at home right now, looking for safe work. They can get onboarded in one to two days.”

Right before the spread of COVID-19 prompted shelter in place orders and social distancing mandates, there was an increased demand for mortgages because of low rates, with refinance applications growing 400% annually, according to CNBC. Now many of those loans can no longer be closed in-person. Kinsel says more than 2,000 lenders and title companies have contacted Notarize in the past week, and it is also opening the platform so they can add their own employees to serve transactions.

Notarize users also want to make sure critical documents are updated as they cope with the pandemic. “Beyond real estate, we’re seeing spikes in medical authorizations, people updating financial accounts and beneficiaries,” Kinsel said.

EPA relaxes enforcement of environmental laws during the COVID-19 outbreak

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Thursday that it is temporarily relaxing enforcement of environmental regulations and fines during the COVID-19 outbreak. The “enforcement discretion policy” applies retroactively to March 13, with no end date set yet.

“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes the challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” said EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler in the agency’s announcement.

While very broad, the EPA said the policy “addresses different categories of noncompliance differently.” For example, the EPA will not seek penalties for noncompliance with monitoring and reporting “that are the result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” but that it still expects public water systems to provide safe drinking water.

The new policy follows lobbying from industries including oil and gas, which told the Trump administration that relaxed regulations will allow them to more efficiently distribute fuel during the outbreak.

But critics say that the policy will not only result in more pollution, but also make it impossible to fully assess the environmental damage.

In a statement to the Hill, Cynthia Giles, who headed the EPA’s Office of Enforcement during the Obama administration, said the new policy “tells companies across the country that they will not face enforcement even if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws, so long as they claim that those failures are in some way ‘caused’ by the virus pandemic. And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was.”

Netflix is currently down for many users around the world

Netflix is currently experiencing outages around the world, but affecting mostly users in the United States and Europe. According to Down Detector, users began reporting issues around 12PM Eastern Standard Time on Wednesday, and many people are still unable to connect to the streaming service on different platforms, including mobile, PCs and smart TVs.

Many people around the world are relying on Netflix for entertainment while under lockdown or quarantine measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. Both Netflix’s status and help pages have notes saying “We are currently experiencing a higher than normal wait time for support via phone and chat. Please try again later or check our online help center for answers to frequently asked questions. Thank you for your patience.” It is also fielding issues through its customer support Twitter account.

On March 21, Netflix said that in response to the European Union’s request for streaming services to use telecommunications networks more efficiently, it had developed a way to reduce Netflix’s traffic on them by 25% and deployed it in Italy, Spain, the rest of the Europe and the United Kingdom before rolling it out to other places including India.