Binance begins to restrict US users ahead of regulatory-compliant exchange launch

The world’s largest crypto exchange is going legit. Binance, which processes over $1 billion on a daily basis and for so long has embodied crypto’s wild west culture, announced that it will launch a U.S-based service — but, in the meantime, it is implementing restrictions for U.S. passport holders worldwide and those based in the country.

The company has grown to become one of the biggest names in crypto by allowing anyone to use its service to trade a myriad of tokens, many of which are unavailable or limited on other exchanges. But over the past year, Binance has matured and begin to offer more formalized services. Following fiat currency exchange launches in the UK, Uganda and Singapore, so Binance is opening a dedicated U.S. exchange to avoid uncertainty around its legality.

This week, Binance announced it is pairing up with BAM Trading Services — which Coindesk notes is FinCEN registered and has links to Koi Compliance, which counts Binance as an investor — to launch a U.S. exchange “soon.” That will mean, however a level of disruption for some U.S. customers in the meantime.

Chiefly, Binance will no longer permit U.S. passport holders to sign up its global service. That’s according to the company’s updated terms and conditions — “Binance is unable to provide services to any U.S. person” — which were confirmed to TechCrunch by a spokesperson.

Existing users have a grace period of 90 days after which they will be unable to deposit funds to the site or make trades. Binance declined to state whether those bans will be administered by a geo-block on U.S. IP addresses, but it did confirm that U.S. customers will retain access to funds held in the service.

That 90-day period ends September 12, so that’s effectively the deadline for Binance to launch its new U.S. exchange if it is to avoid impacting its American user base.

The reality is that the situation is more nuanced.

U.S-based users could continue to use the service by browsing the site with a VPN. Binance allows its users to sign up for a limited account without KYC — i.e. providing verification documents like a passport copy — which allows trading but limits withdrawals to 2 Bitcoin per day. That won’t satisfy more professional traders — most of whom you’d imagine would already have an account on Binance by now — but it does leave a loophole for others.

Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao insisted that the long-term pay-off will be worth any compromise.

It’s certainly fascinating to watch Binance, which has historically been one of the most aggressive crypto companies, transition into a more regulatory-compliant business. At the same time, those who have been cautious, such as Coinbase, are beginning to add new assets.

In addition to the fiat ramp exchanges, Binance has launched a decentralized exchange and it is adding much-requested features such as margin trading. The company also took an investment from Singapore’s Vertex Ventures, one of a number of sovereign funds in the country, to develop its Binance Singapore service.

It hasn’t been plain sailing — the firm lost $40 million and briefly paused trading last month following a “large scale” hack.

Go-Jek doubles down on India with yet another talent acquisition

Go-Jek may be based in Southeast Asia, but the multi-billion-dollar ride-hailing firm continues to tap India for engineering talent. The Indonesia-headquartered firm announced today that it has acquired AirCTO, a recruitment platform based in Gurgaon.

The acquisition, the price of which has not been disclosed, is a talent grab. AirCTO’s platform uses a mix of AI and humans to help companies hire “top” developer talent — that’s of interest to Go-Jek because the company intends to double down on India, which houses a significant number of its R&D workforce already thanks to prior acquisitions.

Indeed, the company said that AirCTO’s entire team will join it to develop “products that accelerate the recruitment of talent” within its ranks.

First up, the deal will see a Gurgaon office opened as part of a wider plan to hire 100 new tech staff this year to increase Go-Jek’s headcount in India to 500. The firm said that some of that hiring could come from other acquisitions — that makes sense given that Go-Jek is the midst of raising a round that it claims has already passed the $1 billion mark at a valuation approaching $10 billion.

It’s challenging to keep up with Go-Jek acquisition spree because many of its deals are not announced at the time, or, indeed, at all.

But we do know there have been many. According to Crunchbase data, AirCTO is its tenth purchase. Three of those came from India — C42 Engineering, Pianta and Leftshift Technologies — to form an offshored R&D division. In addition, the company’s group CTO is Ajey Gore, a hire from India who spends a large chunk of his time at Go-Jek’s Bangalore office.

Go-Jek isn’t alone in setting up R&D centers in India, rival Grab, which is backed by SoftBank’s Vision Fund and valued at $14 billion, is present in the country, too.

Aware of the limits of the talent pool in its native Southeast Asia, Grab has long maintained engineering outposts overseas. These include Beijing, Seattle and — as of 2017 — Bangalore, in addition to various countries in Southeast Asia. Grab has also made an acquisition in India.

Back on the battlefield of Southeast Asia, Grab and Go-Jek are competing to become the region’s ‘super app.’ Since Uber exited more than a year ago, the ride-hailing war has developed into a contest to become the daily go-to app for the region’s 600 million consumers. That’s seen Go-Jek and Grab steadily add new features and services. Those range from the obvious like food and grocery deliveries, to messages, haircuts and other services on demand, and now even games, video streaming and other entertainment.

Grab operates in eight countries while Go-Jek, which finally forayed outside of Indonesia last year, is present in four.

Fintech platform Synapse raises $33M to build ‘the AWS of banking’

Synapse, a San Francisco-based startup that operates a platform enabling banks and fintech companies to easily develop financial services, has closed a $33 million Series B to develop new products and go after international expansion.

The investment was led by Andreessen Horowitz with participation from existing backers Trinity Ventures and Core Innovation Capital . Synapse — which recently rebranded (slightly) from ‘SynapseFi’ — announced a $17 million Series A back in September 2018 so this deal takes it to $50 million raised to date.

The startup was founded in 2014 by Bryan Keltner and India-born CEO Sankaet Pathak, who came to the U.S. to study but grew frustrating at the difficulty of opening a bank account without U.S. social security history. Inspired by his struggles, Synapse, which operated under the radar prior to that Series A deal, is focused on democratizing financial services.

Its approach to doing that is a platform-based one that makes it easy for banks and other financial companies to work with developers. The current system for working with financial institutions is frankly a mess; it involves a myriad of different standards, interfaces, code bases and other compatibility issues that cause confusion and consume time. Through developer- and bank-facing APIs, Synapse aims to make it easier for companies to connect with banks, and, in turn, for banks to automate and extend their back-end operations.

Pathak previously told us the philosophy is a “Lego brick” approach to building services. Its modules and services include payment, deposit, lending, ID verification/KYC, card issuance and investment services.

“We want to make it super easy for developers to build and scale financial products and we want to do that across the spectrum of financial products,” he told TechCrunch in an interview this week.

Synapse CEO Sankaet Pathak

“We don’t think Bank Of America, Chase and Wells Fargo will be front and center” of new fintech, he added. “We want to make it really easy for internet companies to distribute financial services.”

The product development strategy is to add “pretty much anything that we think would be an accelerant to democratizing financial services for everyone,” he explained. “We want to make these tools and features available for developers.”

Interestingly, the company has a public product roadmap — the newest version is here.

The concept of an ‘operating system for banking’ is one that resonates with the kind of investment thesis associated with A16z, and Pathak said the firm was “number one” on his list of target VCs.

With more than half of that Series A round still in the bank, Pathak explained that the Series B is less about money and more around finding “a partner who can help us on the next phase, which is very focused on expansion.”

As part of the deal, Angela Strange A16z’s fintech and enterprise-focused general partner — has joined the startup’s board. Strange, whose portfolio includes Branch, described Synapse as “the AWS of banking” for its potential to let anyone build a fintech company, paralleling the way Amazon’s cloud services let anyone, anywhere develop and deploy a web service.

Having already found a product market fit in the U.S. — where its tech reaches nearly three million end users, with five million API requests daily — Synapse is looking overseas. The first focuses are Canada and Europe, which it plans to launch in before the end of the year with initial services including payments and deposits/debit card issuance. Subsequently, the plan is to add lending and investment products next year.

Members of the Synapse team

Further down the line, Pathak said he is eager to break into Asia and, potentially, markets in Latin America and Africa, although expansions aren’t likely until 2020 at the earliest. Once things pick up, though, the startup is aiming to enter two “key” markets per year alongside one “underserved” one.

“We’ve been preparing for [global expansion] for a while,” he said, pointing out that the startup has built key tech in-house, including computer vision capabilities.

“Our goal is to be in every country that’s not at war or under sanction from the U.S,” Pathak added.

At home, the company is looking to add a raft of new services for customers. That includes improvements and new features for card issuance, brokerage accounts, new areas for its loans product, more detailed KYC and identification and a chatbot platform.

Outside of product, the company is pushing to make its platform a self-service one to remove friction for developers who want to use Synapse services, and there are plans to launch a seed investment program that’ll help Synapse developer partners connect with investors. Interesting, the latter platform could see Synapse join investment rounds by offering credit for its services.

More generally on financial matters, the Synapse CEO said the company reached $12 million ARR last year. This year, he is aiming to double that number through growth that, he maintains, is sustainable.

“If we stop hiring, we could break even and be profitable in three to four months,” said Pathak. “I like to keep the burn like that… it stabilizes us as a company.”

Line teams up with Visa to boost its mobile payment service

Messaging app Line has partnered with Visa to bring traditional financial clout to its mobile payment service.

The deal will see Line Pay become compatible with Visa’s 54 million merchant partner locations worldwide, boosting the service outside of its native Japan, where it has been pitched heaviest so far and where Line claims 80 million users.

The tie-up will allow Line users to use the app’s payment system even where Line Pay isn’t accepted. That’s through a ‘virtual’ visa card that’ll show up in the chat app.

Beyond that, the two sides said they will explore “ways for merchants to interact with the Line Pay service” and its digital wallet. That’s pretty lukewarm, and it’s hard to imagine that it’ll make much of a dent outside of Japan. Line’s three other major markets, in terms of users, are in Asia: Thailand (44 million), Taiwan (21 million) and Indonesia (19 million.)

One intriguing element of the deal involves blockchain, which Line has jumped into with its own crypto token (Link) and a blockchain investment arm. Line said it’ll work with Visa around “new experiences based on blockchain” that could include international money transfers among other things.

Finally, as is often the case with Japanese tech deals, there’s also an Olympics focus — with Tokyo scheduled to host the summer games in 2020.

Mobile payments are one of the Japanese government’s big focuses ahead of the games — organizing its taxis through tech, is another — and, thus, Visa and Line said they plan to heavily promote their ‘cashless’ alliance ahead of 2020.

Line and Visa are far from the first to combine traditional and new payments. Paytm and Uber rival Ola in India have both launched cards in partnership with banks, while cross-border payment companies like TransferWise, Monzo and others have tie-ups with Visa and Mastercard to enable spending.

This entrepreneur is donating unwanted bike-sharing cycles to underprivileged students in Myanmar

What is the world to do with the graveyards of dockless bicycles left over after China’s bike sharing startups retreated from global markets?

One man has come up with the best idea to date: donate them to students who need them.

Entrepreneur Mike Than Tun Win has bought 10,000 bikes from bike-sharing companies which he plans to provide to school children across Myanmar, many of who walk miles to school and, more broadly, lack transportation for their families.

“It’s a common sight to see lines and lines of students walking long distances from home to school in rural villages,” Than explained. “Some students can walk up to one hour from home to school and the families can hardly afford a simple form of transport like bicycle or motorcycle… a school bus is almost unheard of to the students in rural villages.”

To bridge the gap, Than — whose companies include tech entrepreneurship project and travel startup — created a non-profit organization called LessWalk which is buying up the bikes and making them suitable for students.

That means fitting them with a second seat, switching the QR code-scan lock for a regular key lock and then shipping them to Myanmar. Many of the bikes have been bought from liquidators — who took control of oBike’s shuttered business in Singapore and inherited Ofo’s abandoned fleets — which makes their acquisition cheaper than regular bikes. But still, the fixes and shipping costs are estimated at around $35-$40 per bike.

FreeWalk is modifying bikes to make them suitable for underprivileged students who walk to school in Myanmar

Than described those prices as “a rare once in a lifetime opportunity” to make a positive impact, but there’s still a significant cost attached to the project.

Than told TechCrunch that the project is funded with around $400,000 in capital, half of which has come from donations and sponsors with Than himself providing the rest.

Suddenly, there was an opportunity to buy [these bikes] at fraction of price,” he said in an interview. “The benefit it can develop is well beyond that cost.”

Right now, Than said that he has received around 4,000 bikes, which are currently warehoused in Myanmar. Rather than sad, well-used or damaged cycles, LessWalk has bought itself unused, new-generation products that hadn’t been deployed to the streets. Once sitting in a warehouse awaiting a rollout with startups, the adapted bikes will be distributed to students this year.

LessWalk has around 4,000 former bike sharing cycles in its warehouse in Myanmar

But giving out thousands of bicycles is no easy feat given that Myanmar has a population of over 50 million people and more than nine million students.

Than said he’s currently in contact with government organizations and civic groups in Myanmar to identify potential beneficiaries. The primary focus is students aged 13-16 who walk 2km or more to school each day and part of families without transport. He envisages that bikes will be given out in batches every two weeks for two or three months with support from volunteer groups and the government, but a lot of the operational approach is still to be defined.

“I’m only halfway through the journey. The remaining 50 percent is making sure we have an impact,” Than told TechCrunch.

Volunteers from LessWalk move former Ofo bikes into storage ahead of their distribution to students in Myanmar

Further down the line, he is hopeful that he can inspire “global friends” to follow his lead and set up similar donation programs that will put the hundreds of thousands of abandoned bikes to work, instead of creating yet more urban trash. Already, Than said he is fielding interest from Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.

Donations aren’t the only sustainable future for fleets of former Mobike and Ofo bikes, in some cases the people who ran the services are taking control. Indeed, a number of Mobike executives got together to buy out the company’s European business from Meituan — the on-demand giant that owns Mobike — for $20 million. That deal is scheduled to close this month.

China’s Didi kicks off expansion in Latin America with moves into Chile and Colombia

The wheels are turning on Didi Chuxing’s first major expansion in Latin America after the Chinese ride-hailing firm announced moves into Chile and Colombia to double its presence in the region.

Didi said it rolled into Valparaiso, Chile’s third largest metropolis, and Colombian capital city Bogota this week. The company plans to expand beyond those cities over time, and, in terms of services, it said that it will add dedicated licensed taxis in Colombia this year.

Anchored in China, where it is the country’s dominant ride-hailing service, Didi began to place focus on international expansion last year and Latin America is a key part of its global ambitions.

In the region, Didi currently operates in Brazil — where it acquired local player 99 for $1 billion — and Mexico, but recent reports have linked it with more countries in Latin America. In February, Reuters reported that the company was hiring for operational staff in Chile, Peru and Colombia. Other reports have put its total headcount in Latin America at over 1,000 staff, that’s a clear indication of its intent for the region.

In a statement, Mi Yang — who leads Didi’s operations in Central and South America — called Chile and Colombia “two important centers of growth and innovation in the region.”

Outside of Latin America and its homeland, Didi is present in Taiwan and Australia, where it has other global connection through its investment deals. The company owns a significant stake in Southeast Asia-based Grab it doubled down with a $2 billion investment alongside SoftBank in 2017 — as well as Bolt (formerly known as Taxify) across Europe and Africa, Ola in India and Lyft in the U.S.

Didi also has relations with Uber as a mutual investment was part of the deal that saw it acquire the Uber China business in 2016, and it invested in Middle East-based Careem, which is being acquired by Uber.

That’s a pretty complicated web of relationships and, with Didi’s global expansion, it often pits the Chinese company against its investments. In Australia, for example, Didi is up against Uber, Bolt AND Ola.

In Latin America, Uber is again a competitor and others the field include local players Cabify, Easy Taxi and Beat from Greece — companies that Didi hasn’t backed.

On offer is a market with vast growth potential. Latin America is the world’s second-fastest-growing mobile market. In a region of approximately 640 million people, there are more than 200 million smartphone users and, by 2020, predictions say that 63% of Latin America’s population will have access to the mobile Internet.

Didi’s globetrotting comes at a challenging time for its domestic business, where it is still reeling from the murder of two passengers last year.

As TechCrunch reported last month, Didi is revamping its security systems to put an increased focus on passenger security in the wake of those tragic deaths. That’s come at significant cost and it is said to have pushed back plans to take the company. Uber and Lyft have, of course, completed IPO this year, but Didi’s own timeline for doing so is unclear.

More generally, Didi is far from the first Chinese company to head to Latin America with ambitions of dizzying growth. Earlier this decade, Baidu made a major push to own the nascent web and search business in Brazil — which culminated in an acquisition — while Tencent has backed fintech unicorn Nubank and it is trying sniff out other potential giants-in-waiting as the region’s ecosystem matures.

YouTube says homophobic taunts don’t violate its policies

YouTube is a confusing mess of an internet platform. In what appears to be a moment that draws a line in the sand around how online platforms regulate content, YouTube has told a gay reporter that homophobic harassment he received from a prominent conservative channel does not violate its policies.

The company told Vox reporter Carlos Maza that comments from Steven Crowder, who has over 3.8 million subscribers, that focused on his sexuality and ethnicity are within its rules. The Google-owned video platform, which claims two billion monthly users, said on Twitter that it spent “the last few days” looking into a complaint lodged by Maza, who alleges that Crowder taunted him with racist and homophobic comments.

Yet, despite admitting that Crowder used “language that was clearly hurtful,” the company said that the show has acted within its boundaries. That means the videos remain on the site, and Crowder’s channel will not be punished.

Here’s what the company told Maza on Twitter in full:

(1/4) Thanks again for taking the time to share all of this information with us. We take allegations of harassment very seriously–we know this is important and impacts a lot of people.

(2/4) Our teams spent the last few days conducting an in-depth review of the videos flagged to us, and while we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies. We’ve included more info below to explain this decision:

(3/4) As an open platform, it’s crucial for us to allow everyone–from creators to journalists to late-night TV hosts–to express their opinions w/in the scope of our policies. Opinions can be deeply offensive, but if they don’t violate our policies, they’ll remain on our site.

(4/4) Even if a video remains on our site, it doesn’t mean we endorse/support that viewpoint.

There are other aspects of the channel that we’re still evaluating– we’ll be in touch with any further updates.

When contacted for comment, YouTube referred TechCrunch to its tweets but it did additional color. A spokesperson said that Crowder had asked viewers not to harass Maza, while it said that the YouTube host had not revealed his personal information.

That is true but, in a sign of the complexities around online communities, Crowder fans did doxx Maza last year. That resulted in a barrage of messages demanding that the Vox reporter “debate” with Crowder.

“It makes life sort of miserable. I waste a lot of time blocking abusive Crowder fanboys, and this shit derails your mental health,” wrote Maza.

Crowder, meanwhile, couched the situation as being about a larger battle between established media, such as Vox, and independent creators like his channel.

“This isn’t about me versus some guy at Vox. This is an example of a giant corporate media entity trying to silence voices that they don’t like,” he said in a video published on May 31.

“This is David versus Goliath,” he added.

Steven Crowder’s ‘Louder With Crowder’ YouTube show is approaching four million subscribers

The YouTuber admitted making comments that reference Maza’s sexuality and race — which include “the gay Latino host at Vox” and “lispy queer” — but he dismissed them as “friendly ribbing.” Crowder argued that because Maza identifies as Latino and gay on the internet — his Twitter handle is @gaywonk, for example — it is just “harmless” banter.

Beyond comments, Crowder also sells a range of merchandise, including t-shirts, which generate revenue for the YouTube Channel. The collection includes t-shirts that are labeled “Socialism Is For Fgs” — indeed that slogan has been adapted by Crowder fans to read “Carlos Maza Is A Fg,” as Maza himself has pointed out.

Crowder’s online store is powered by Shopify, which outlaws its service being used for “hateful content,” including discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to its terms and conditions.

TechCrunch has contacted Shopify for comment.

Crowder’s channel sells merchandize, which includes “Socialism Is For F*gs” t-shirts

Despite Crowder’s claims of victimization, clips shared by Maza paint a different picture of the rhetoric used on his show.

Some choice quotes from Crowder include: “You’re being given a free pass as a crappy writer because you’re gay,” and a number of derogatory references to his ethnicity.

“These videos get millions of views on YouTube. Every time one gets posted, I wake up to a wall of homophobic/racist abuse on Instagram and Twitter,” Maza said.

The kicker for this, however, is that YouTube calls Crowder’s comments “clearly hurtful” and that’s an exact term used within its harassment and cyberbullying policy. According to that policy, “content that makes hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person” will be removed with the channel owner warned. YouTube’s three-strike rule then comes into effect for channels.

It is not clear how or why YouTube did not take action based on that policy breach.

YouTube did not respond to a request for clarification.

This episode appears to mark a crisis moment for YouTube, as it continues to grapple with the demands of policing its service, particularly since it has become the go-to place for “far right” figures like Crowder to connect with their audience. Despite some in that community claiming YouTube, and other internet companies, are biased against them, Maza maintains that Crowder’s large following and conservative focus is precisely why YouTube is not taking action.

In an April interview with the New York Times, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said the company would lessen its focus on juicing numbers and generating revenue to instead focused on “responsible growth.”

“To boil it down: YouTube wants to remove the content that violates its policies more quickly and effectively; promote better, more authoritative material and limit the spread of videos that are potentially harmful but do not break the rules,” the Times wrote.

Despite the soundbites, there’s little evidence that Wojcicki can deliver on that promise.

Sleek lets companies incorporate and operate in Singapore — without the pain of paperwork

Singapore is keen to exert itself as an epicenter for startups and tech worldwide. But beyond the government-backed startup programs, which include grants, investment checks and more, a key point is simply making it easy for companies to set up shop in the country.

Southeast Asia is highly-touted as a growth region for startups, with its ‘internet economy’ forecast to triple between now and 2025, and Singapore is the most obvious anchor for the region. Neighboring countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam may have larger economies and populations, but bureaucracy can be arduous. In comparison, Singapore has digitized the process of incorporating and managing a business based there. More than just its local region, Singapore wants to be a global hub for companies.

Perhaps the best sign of that potential is that startups of its own are stepping up to help founders from any corner of the world register in Singapore, one of which includes Sleek. The company was founded in Singapore in May 2017 by French entrepreneurs Julien Labruyere and Adrien Barthel, who grew frustrated at the pedestrian speed of traditional corporate secretaries and accounting firms and their paperwork.

By contrast, Sleek is paperless. The idea is a one-stop-shop for registering a business in Singapore, so that means handling everything from incorporation, government, accounting and taxes, visas and regulatory compliance.

For SG$800 ($585) per year, Sleek will take on the role of compliance officer, with more expensive packages for nominee director, registered address, employee pass applications and more. Taxes and other costs are, of course, not included but the processes to handle them are offered on a pay-per-use basis.

Barthel — whose past roles including Luxola when it was acquired by Sephora — told TechCrunch that there’s still a significant paper trail, despite the digitization of many corporation processes in Singapore, but Sleek has made its own systems to cover that for now.

“As we receive mail every day for hundreds of companies, we have developed an AI that analyzes all the mail we receive for our clients, and that dispatches the documents in the right client cloud mailbox,” he said. That’s in addition to a workflow management tool.

Sleek founders Julien Labruyere (right) and Adrien Barthel (left)

Sleek has grown to over 50 people and it claims to work with over 1,000 clients, ranging from one-person consultancies to MNC sub-divisions and local startups. It is also a partner of Xero, which lists it as a ‘gold’ level partner — that’s ahead of better-known rivals including accounting’s Big Four, KPMG, EY, Deloitte and PwC.

The startup is now looking to push on after it raised an undisclosed round of investment that included participation from Martin Crawford, the former CEO of corporate services giant Vistra.

Hong Kong-based Vistra offers a range of services, including incorporation, across 78 offices worldwide and Bartel is excited at the potential to bring Crawford’s experience on board.

“His 25 years in our industry, serving hundred thousands of clients across 52 jurisdictions, made him realize that only technology could help tap this vast opportunity,” he said in an interview.

Members of the Sleek team outside its office in Singapore

Coming up in the future will be partnerships with other companies that can add new services that complement the work of Sleek. That platform-like approach, Barthel said, will include new projects from third-parties around financial services, more granular accounting controls and more. There are also plans to launch a similar service for incorporation in Hong Kong soon.

“What excites us is that we help entrepreneurs and SMEs at the very inception of their journey, assisting them in the good and the more challenging times,” Barthel said.

Sleek is far from the only player in the digital incorporation space. Aside from the aforementioned Big Four and Vistra, Singapore is home to other newer entrants. Those include Lanturn — another Xero partner — Osome and Bluemeg, each of which has arrived since Sleek’s foundation to add more competition.

Bathel said he welcomes the competition as a validation of “changing habits,” and particularly demand for “a new user experience that’s up to date with digital tools and no longer hardcopies to send across the world.”

As for why he believes Sleek has the edge on its rivals? He puts that down to its outsider status, which has helped understand the pain of the traditional system in a very personal way.

“We were frustrated clients who decided to build an alternative fitting our needs,” he explained.

Oppo and Xiaomi tease under-screen selfie cameras for smartphones

The next innovation in mobile is peeking its head for all to see today after Chinese companies Oppo and Xiaomi both showed off under-screen cameras.

Apple’s notch set the ball rolling as a new way to pack a front-facing camera without compromising on the screen size, but it is already feeling date. The industry has since given us smartphone cameras that pop out, flip up and slide out, while the hole-punch condenses the notch further still, but the next stage is going under the screen for full invisibility.

The benefits are obvious. There’s no compromise on the front screen, which is now 100 percent screen, and removing moving parts means no concern for potential damage — but can it be done well enough?

Oppo VP Brian Shen teased his company’s early effort on Weibo. The video, which was later shared by Oppo’s Twitter account, doesn’t have a lot of detail but it does show a hidden camera that takes a photo of the ceiling.

We don’t get a chance to delve into the quality of the image and it isn’t clear what device it was taken on, but already Shen claims the technology is showing promise.

“At this stage, it’s difficult for under-display cameras to match the same results as normal cameras, there’s bound to be some loss in optical quality. But, no new technology jumps to perfection right away,” he said, according to Engadget.

You’d imagine that a number of Chinese smartphone makers are hard at work bringing this design to reality. Proof of that comes from Xiaomi’s very hasty response, which saw the company posts its own under-screen camera teaser right after Oppo’s.

This one comes courtesy of Xiaomi co-founder Bin Lin, and it also originated on Weibo before it made its way to Twitter.

The Xiaoki video appears to show a prototype Mi 9 with the hidden camera compared with a regular model. As with the Oppo tease, we don’t know when this technology will reach consumers but these tactical leaks certainly show that the wheels are in motion.

Key Vision Fund investors are reportedly lukewarm on a second fund

SoftBank shook up the venture capital world with its unprecedented $100 billion Vision Fund, and the speculation continues around its follow-up.

The fund hasn’t quite closed $100 billion — it is mighty close… — but that hasn’t stopped reports of a sequel from surfacing for the last 18 months. SoftBank has mown through its allocation at speed, dealmaking increased to a record speed in Q1 despite controversy while its hiring has intensified, but the latest chatter suggests that a number of the fund’s key backers are lukewarm at the prospect of a return act.

The Wall Street Journal this weekend reported that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which anchored the Vision Fund with a $45 billion investment (but also provides the controversy), and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board are among those that “plan to make limited or no contributions” to the follow-up vehicle.

Sources told the Journal that a key factor is that many of these funds have disintermediated SoftBank to create their own vehicles that make late-stage investments in a more direct way. That cuts out the management fees to third-parties, and it gives the fund managers total control.

One wonders whether the criticism of PIF, which is controlled by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has been strongly linked with the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the regime, is part of the equation here. It isn’t mentioned in the report. The Vision Fund’s links to Khashoggi death hasn’t bothered startups offered access to billions, at least those in Asia that TechCrunch has probed over the issue.

SoftBank supremo Masayoshi Son has given the outside world a glimpse at the Vision Fund’s performance, which shows impressive gains on paper, but still the Journal reports that some investors are concerned a lack of transparency. Son pledged to provide a public update on the Vision Fund once per year on SoftBank’s annual earnings day; that’s a move that could provide greater transparency and, in the short term, potentially encourage an IPO for the fund itself, which has been rumored.

The Vision Fund refuted the Journal’s claims, calling them “misleading and even inaccurate.”

In the meanwhile, the Vision continues along at speed. In May alone it backed five ventures: India-based grocery startup Grofers, DoorDash, Germany’s GetYourGuide, lender Greensill Capital and GM Cruise.