India plans to have its own space station

India plans to have its own space station in the future and conduct separate missions to study Sun and Venus, it said on Thursday, as the nation moves to bolster its status as a leader in space technologies and inspire the young minds to take an interest in scientific fields.

India’s space agency said today that it will begin working on its space station following its first manned mission to space, called Gaganyaan (which means “space vehicle” in Sanskrit), in 2022 — just in time to commemorate 75 years of the country’s independence from Britain. The government has sanctioned Rs 10,000 crores ($1.5 billion) for Gaganyaan mission, it was unveiled today.

“We have to sustain the Gaganyaan program after the launch of the human space mission. In this context, India is planning to have its own space station,” said Dr Kailasavadivoo Sivan, chairman of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). ISRO is India’s equivalent to NASA.

“While navigation, communication, and earth observation are going to be the bread and butter for us, it is missions such as Chandrayaan (Sanskrit for “moon vehicle”), Mangalyaan (Sanskrit for “Mars vehicle”), and Gaganyaan that excite the youth, unite the nation, and also pave a technological seed for the future.”

“This is our ambition. We want to have a separate space station. We will launch a small module for conducting microgravity experiments,” he said in a press conference. Gaganyaan aims to send a crew of two to three people to space for a period of up to seven days. The spacecraft will be placed in low earth orbit of 300-400 km (186 – 248 miles).

The agency will submit a detailed report on how it intends to set up the space station to the government after the Gaganyaan mission. It currently believes it would take five to seven years to conceptualize the space station.

On the sidelines of the announcement, ISRO also unveiled Aditya-L1, a mission to study the Sun’s corona that impacts the change in climate on Earth, for the first half of next year, and a similar mission aimed at Venus, which it plans to conduct over the next few years. “Not only Sun and moon, we hope to reach other planets, like Venus,” he said.

The ambitious announcements come a day after the space agency said it will launch a lunar mission on July 15 this year in an attempt to become only the fourth nation — after the United States, Russia, and China — to land on the moon.

That mission, dubbed Chandrayaan-2, involves a lander, an orbiter, and a rover that the agency has built itself. India concluded its first mission to the moon in 2008, when it completed more than 3,400 orbits and played an instrumental role in the discovery of water molecules on the moon.

India’s space agency has specialized in low-cost space launches since the early 1960s, when components of rockets were transported by bicycles and assembled by hands. In 2014, it sent a spacecraft to Mars for $74 million, significantly lower than $671 million the U.S. spent for a Mars mission the same year. In early 2017, the nation launched a flock of 104 satellites into space over the course of 18 minutes, setting a new global record.

Facebook backs social commerce startup Meesho in first India investment

As Facebook explores ways to generate revenue from WhatsApp, the company is now turning to a startup that already has a lead. The social juggernaut said today it has invested in social-commerce startup Meesho in what is the first time the firm takes equity in an Indian startup.

Neither Facebook nor Meesho, which prior to this announcement had raised about $65 million from a number of investors including DST Partners, RPS Ventures and Shunwei Capital, shared financial terms of the deal. A source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch the size of the capital was “very significant.”

Meesho, a Y Combinator alumnus, is an online marketplace that connects sellers with customers on social media platforms such as WhatsApp. The four-year-old startup claims to have a network of more than 2 million resellers who largely deal with apparels and electronics items.

These resellers are mostly homemakers, most of whom have purchased a smartphone for the first time in recent years. 80% of Meesho’s user base is female, startup’s co-founder and CEO Vidit Aatrey told TechCrunch.

Meesho also has most of its customers in smaller cities and towns, popularly dubbed as India 2, where most users are still not online. These are two things that attracted Facebook to Meesho, Ajit Mohan, VP and Managing Director of Facebook India, told TechCrunch in an interview.

“A platform that is aimed at India 2 and has such a large user base of women — when most people online in India are predominantly men — is a remarkable achievement,” he said. According to several estimates, males account for more than 80% of India’s internet user base.

Meesho claims that it is helping thousands of resellers earn more than Rs 25,000 ($360) each month. In an interview with TechCrunch last year, Aatrey said the startup, which operates in India currently, planned to enter international markets.

Even as WhatsApp is a crucial play for Meesho, the startup will continue to work with other social media platforms, Facebook’s Mohan said. Last year, Facebook launched its Marketplace, which operates in the same space as Meesho. Mohan said the company does not see Meesho as a vehicle to expand its own family of services.

On the contrary, Facebook is now open to exploring investment in other startups that are building unique solutions for the Indian market. “Wherever we believe there is opportunity beyond the work we do today, we are open to exploring further investment deals,” he said. There is no particular category that Facebook is necessarily looking at, he added.

Even as Facebook has not made any push to make WhatsApp expand beyond a communications service, users in India, the service’s largest market, are increasingly finding ways to incorporate Facebook’s app into their businesses.

Google, Amazon, and Twitter too have made investments in Indian startups. While Twitter has backed social platform ShareChat, Google has invested in hyperlocal concierge app Dunzo.

India’s Zomato flies drone to deliver food in successful test

Zomato, one of India’s largest food delivery firms, may have figured out a faster way to crawl through dense populated routes: going air with drones.

The company, which has expanded its restaurant listing and booking service to about two-dozen markets in recent years, said today it has successfully tested a payload delivery from a hybrid drone.

The drone carried a payload of 5 kgs (11 pounds) and covered 5 kms (3.1 miles) in 10 mins, said Deepinder Goyal, CEO of Zomato, which aims to deliver food to customers in under 15 minutes some day. The drone hit a peak speed of 80 kmph (49.7 mph).

“Fifteen minutes is only possible if we take the aerial route – roads are not efficient for very fast delivery. While our biker fleet nowadays delivers in 30.5 minutes on an average (which is the fastest in the industry as far as we know), every incremental minute with our fleet becomes harder as it separates our users from their ordered food,” he said.

For Zomato, the drone test is more than a gimmick. The delivery firm, heavily backed by Ant Financial and Delivery Hero, acquired local drone startup TechEagle last year. Goyal said the company has finalized the design of its drone, which is lightweight and hosts an array of sensors to detect and avoid static and dynamic objects in its journey.

“Although being fully automated, each drone is currently being tested with (remote) pilot supervision to ensure 100% safety. Over time, as we have more data, we might not need remote pilot supervision,” he added.

The announcement comes at a time when Uber too is gearing up to introduce drones for food delivery for its UberEats business. The global giant, which has concluded initial phase of testing at San Diego State University in partnership with McDonald’s, plans to include others Eats restaurant partners later this year. Amazon too plans to begin drone deliveries “within months.”

How soon Zomato would be able to deploy these drones in its delivery fleet remains an open question. The firm said it will form a consortium, in accordance with local government’s direction, to carry out experimental drone operations in the country.

Much like the rest of the world, New Delhi has reserved its concerns over firms that want to operate drones commercially in the nation. Last month, a government body asked (PDF) interested stakeholders to express their interest in experimental use of drones that travel beyond visual line of sight. So far, the local regulation requires them to operate drones only during days and within the line of sight.

Goyal of Zomato, which is locked in an intense battle with heavily-backed Swiggy for tentpole position in India’s food delivery market, remains optimistic. “Food delivery by drones is no longer just a pipe dream. It’s almost here. Regulatory hurdles are not trivial, and the government’s concerns need to be looked at from various (valid) points of view. Having said that, the tech is ready to fly and I am confident that drone delivery will be commonplace sooner rather than later,” he said.

According to a report from Indian outlet Economic Times, Zomato is in talks to raise as much as $1 billion.

Xiaomi’s budget Mi Band wearable now sports a color screen and voice assistant

Xiaomi has refreshed its smart fitness tracker and unveiled a range of other gadgets in China, giving a glimpse at some of its affordable products that it will likely be bringing to other markets in the coming future.

The wearable fitness tracker, called Mi Smart Band 4, sports a bigger AMOLED display (39.9% increase in screen size) than its popular year-old predecessor and features support for XiaoAI, the company’s voice assistant that can be activated with a voice command.

The bigger display, which supports 16 million colors and 77 customized themes, will allow users to quickly glance at notifications and fitness stats. The tracker also supports offline payments via AliPay. It is still very affordable, priced at just RMB 169 (roughly $24.5).

Coupled with the long durability that previous generation smart bands have offered, it is no wonder that the Chinese giant has emerged as the second largest wearable maker in the world. According to IDC, Xiaomi shipped 7.5 million wearable units in the waning quarter of last year, second only to Apple, which shipped 16.2 units.

The company has also launched a smart lock, dubbed Mi Smart Door Lock, that offers up to six unlocking modes and allows users to track its status in real time. It also works with the NFC variant of Mi Smart Band 4 that when paired can serve as a key. It is priced at RMB 1699 (roughly $245).

The announcement comes as Xiaomi, which went public last year and is increasingly trying to expand its services business, struggles to meet analysts expectations. The Chinese group, once thought of worth over $100 billion, has a market cap of under $30 billion currently.

Xiaomi also launched a smart washing machine, induction cooker, e-skate hover, digital translator, and pens. The washing machine, called Mi Smart Combo Wash Dryer, sports OLED smart buttons and supports voice controls for activating or halting a washing cycle. It is priced at RMB 2999 (roughly $433).

Shaped like a smartphone, the Mi AI Translator, comes preloaded with Oxford and Collins dictionary as well as Chinese dictionaries. It is aimed at people who are trying to learn a new language and want to improve their pronunciation. It supports real-time translation between 34 languages. It starts at RMB 499 (roughly $72).

India’s Jumbotail raises $12.7 million to digitize convenience stores with its wholesale marketplace

With most small grocery stores in India yet to get online, startups racing to digitize them continue to see promising backing from investors. Jumbotail, an online wholesale marketplace for grocery and food items, today said it has raised $12.7 million to scale its operations.

The Series B financing round for the Bangalore-based startup was led by Heron Rock, with participation from Capria Fund, BNK Ventures and William Jarvis and existing investors Nexus Venture Partners, and Kalaari Capital . The three-and-a-half-year old startup has raised about $24 million to date.

More than 10 million grocery stores, locally known as kiranas, bridge urban cities, towns and villages in India. They control over 95% of the $350 billion food and grocery market in the nation, according to some estimates.

Jumbotail operates a marketplace that connects tens of thousands of these kirana stores with brands and traders. It offers a whole suite of services including supply chain logistics, a mobile app for placing orders, integration with point-and-sales devices, and credit solutions to shop owners that can’t easily get loan from banks.

Ashish Jhina, cofounder and COO of Jumbotail, told TechCrunch in an interview that the startup will invest the fresh capital in developing AI solutions to improve its supply chain network, and make it easier for brands to get started on the marketplace.

Jumbotail, which is only operational in Bangalore area for now, offers its mobile app and support in four languages (English, Hindi, Malayalam, and Kannada), something that is crucially important for their business.

“Our fundamental principle is to serve our customers in languages they are comfortable in. Many of these people are not using other apps. They are using smartphones for the first time. This is also their first experience with e-commerce,” he said.

Jhina added that even as Bangalore area is the only place the startup operates in, Jumbotail is on track to clock $100 million in GMV there by year-end. The startup is exploring expansion in other cities and will make moves in that space soon enough, he said, without disclosing the geography.

The startup employs about 140 people and has an additional 400 staff that work in supply chain network. It’s a small team compared to the likes of Amazon India and Walmart -owned Flipkart that are increasingly working with small retailers in the country to grow their wholesale operations. And then there is Reliance Retail, which is expanding its footprint quickly, too.

But Jhina, an alumnus of Stanford, don’t necessarily seem them as a big threat. On the contrary, he believes that since much of the market remains untapped, any player with deep pockets is helping educate the masses about the potential of e-commerce in the nation. In some ways, Jumbotail also competes with the likes of BigBasket, Grofers, Udaan, and ShopX, all of which are comparatively heavily backed.

WhatsApp is finally going after outside firms that are abusing its platform

WhatsApp has so far relied on past dealings with bad players within its platform to ramp up its efforts to curtail spam and other automated behavior. The Facebook -owned giant has now announced an additional step it plans to take beginning later this year to improve the health of its messaging service: going after those whose mischievous activities can’t be traced within its platform.

The messaging platform, used by more than 1.5 billion users, confirmed on Tuesday that starting December 7 it will start considering signals off its platform to pursue legal actions against those who are abusing its system. The company will also go after individuals who — or firms that — falsely claim to have found ways to cause havoc on the service.

The move comes as WhatsApp grapples with challenges such as spam behavior to push agendas or spread false information on its messaging service in some markets. “This serves as notice that we will take legal action against companies for which we only have off-platform evidence of abuse if that abuse continues beyond December 7, 2019, or if those companies are linked to on-platform evidence of abuse before that date,” it said in an FAQ post on its site.

A WhatsApp spokesperson confirmed the change to TechCrunch, adding, “WhatsApp was designed for private messaging, so we’ve taken action globally to prevent bulk messaging and enforce limits on how WhatsApp accounts that misuse WhatsApp can be used. We’ve also stepped up our ability to identify abuse, which helps us ban 2 million accounts globally per month.”

Earlier this year, WhatsApp said (PDF) it had built a machine learning system to detect and weed out users who engage in inappropriate behavior, such as sending bulk messages or creating multiple accounts with intention to harm the service. The platform said it was able to assess the past dealings with problematic behaviors to ban 20% of bad accounts at the time of registration itself.

But the platform is still grappling to contain abusive behavior, a Reuters report claimed last month. The news agency reported about tools that were readily being sold in India for less than $15 that claimed to bypass some of the restrictions that WhatsApp introduced in recent months.

TechCrunch understands that with today’s changes, WhatsApp is going after those same set of bad players. It has already started to send cease and desist letters to marketing companies that claim to abuse WhatsApp in recent months, a person familiar with the matter said.

India’s largest video streaming service, owned by Disney, breaks Safari compatibility to fix security flaw

Hotstar, India’s largest video streaming service with more than 300 million users, disabled support for Apple’s Safari web browser on Friday to mitigate a security flaw that allowed unauthorized usage of its platform, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The incident comes at a time when the streaming service — operated by Star India, part of 20th Century Fox that Disney acquired — enjoys peak attention as millions of people watch the ongoing ICC World Cup cricket tournament on its platform.

As users began to complain about not being able to use Hotstar on Safari, the company’s official support account asserted that “technical limitations” on Apple’s part were the bottleneck. “These limitations have been from Safari; there is very little we can do on this,” the account tweeted Friday evening.

Sources at Hotstar told TechCrunch that this was not an accurate description of the event. Instead, company’s engineers had identified a security hole that was being exploited by unauthorized users to access Hotstar’s content, they said.

Hotstar intends to work on patching the flaw soon and then reinstate support for Safari, the sources said.

The security flaw can only be exploited through Safari’s desktop and mobile browsers. On its website, the company recommends users to try Chrome and Firefox, or its mobile apps, to access the service. Hotstar did not respond to requests for comment.

Hotstar, which rivals Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in India, maintains a strong lead in the local video streaming market (based on number of users and engagement). Last month, it claimed to set a new global record by drawing more than 18 million viewers to a live cricket match.

Amazon, reeling from recent regulatory hurdles, pumps $404M into its India business

Following months-long intense regulatory setback in India, Amazon is moving back to spending big bucks to grow its business in the world’s second largest internet market.

Amazon has infused Rs 2,999 crores ($404 million) in its India business, according to a regulatory filing published this week. Amazon periodically deploys cash to its business in India, the most recent infusion being around $315 million from its international arm six months ago.

The big spendings in India is the latest signs of how crucial the country has become for Amazon, where it entered exactly six years ago and has spent more than $5.5 billion. The bet has largely worked for Amazon, which rivals Flipkart, that was snatched by Walmart for $16 billion last year.

The fight between the two companies for the tentpole position in India’s e-commerce market took a dark turn late last year, when the government announced new policies to mandate how these two companies source goods for their marketplaces. The local law prohibits Flipkart and Amazon to stock and sell their own inventories, so their wholesale units purchase goods in bulk and sell them to resellers.

To circumvent this, the two companies had bought stakes in a number of companies that sell a range of products on their platforms. The new law, which came into effect on February 1, closed that loophole. As a result, hundreds of thousands of products disappeared from both the shopping sites overnight, according to some estimates.

Barclays claimed in a report last year, seen by TechCrunch, that Amazon was quickly closing in on the lead that Flipkart has in the e-commerce space in India.

In its six years in India, Amazon has sprawled its tentacles in many businesses other than e-commerce, including payments that recently started offering flight tickets, cloud services, video and music streaming services, and in-house products that include a lineup of handsets that it worked closely to build and sell.

Even for a heavily-funded company like Amazon, India has emerged as a very competitive market in recent years. In addition to Flipkart getting the backing of global retail giant Walmart, startups such as BigBasket, Grofers, Swiggy, and Dunzo are quickly changing the way millions of Indians shop. And they have successfully courted major backers with deep pockets, too.

And then there is the ever lingering Reliance Industries, the biggest industrial house in India owned by Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in the country. Earlier this year, Ambani said that Reliance Retail, the largest retailer in India will join forces with Reliance Jio, a telecom operator that has disrupted the local market, to create an e-commerce platform.

Pratilipi, a ‘YouTube for writers’ storytelling platform in India, raises $15 million

Pratilipi, an app that is uniting writers in India and encouraging others to try their hand at storytelling, has just raised $15 million to expand its network in the nation.

The Series B financing round was led by Qiming Venture Partners. Existing investors Nexus Venture Partners, Omidyar Network India, Shunwei Capital, Contrarian Vriddhi Fund, and WEH Ventures also participated in the round. The five-year-old startup has raised about $21 million to date.

Ranjeet Pratap Singh, CEO of Pratilipi, describes his platform as “YouTube for writers.” In an interview with TechCrunch, he said more than 100,000 writers are active on the platform and it has amassed over 5.2 million monthly active readers.

Pratilipi mostly focuses on text and audio storytelling in Indian languages, a niche space but one that also remains largely untapped. Singh said that the platform has managed to attract a very loyal reader base. An average reader spends about 53 minutes on the app, while web users spend about 15 minutes there.

As people from smaller cities and towns in India come online for the first time, there has been a huge surge in the demand for content in local languages in recent years. Ankush Sachdeva, CEO and cofounder of social networking platform ShareChat, said earlier this year that he was surprised to see how quickly ShareChat had built a community with tens of millions of users by just offering content in Indian languages.

Pratilipi currently serves no ads to its users, but writers on the platform also do not have a way to directly monetize their content. That’s part of what Singh intends to change with the fresh capital.

He said that Pratilipi will soon begin to purchase rights to some stories and help writers secure deals with movie and web series studios and publishing houses. A significant portion of the capital will go into engineering to improve stories recommendations that populate the platform.

“Pratilipi is well positioned to capture the next wave of internet users in India, who prefer to consume content in their own vernacular languages. The company has already built a strong community of readers and writers, and network effects provide strong barriers to entry,” said Helen Pei-Hua Wong, Partner at Qiming Venture Partners.

“In China, we have seen the fast growth of user-generated content platforms, some of which became the main source of entertainment for millions of internet users. We hope to share our experiences in China to help the company grow,” she added.

Pratilipi competes with YourQuote, which has raised about $1 million to date. YourQuote runs short stories on its app and organizes open mic events across various cities and towns for writers and poets. In many ways, it also competes with ShareChat, Helo, and Vmate, all of which have built social networks around text and media content.

Google Maps now allows users in India to check live status of trains, bus travel times, and more

Apple unveiled a range of India-specific features in iOS 13 at WWDC this week as it begins to adapt its software for the world’s second largest internet market. But if you want to see how far an international service can be customized for the Indian market, look to Google Maps.

The app, which is used by hundreds of millions of people in India, today introduced three new capabilities: the ability to check live status of trains, bus travel times in 10 of India’s largest cities, and mixed-mode commute suggestions that combine auto-rickshaw and public transport.

For live status of trains, the company says it worked with Sigmoid Labs, a local startup it acquired last year. Sigmoid Labs maintains an app called ‘Where is My Train’ that offer similar functionalities — and that continues to exist as a standalone app.

The update means Google Maps users in India can now find all the suitable trains between two destinations and check their whereabouts from within the app. Each day, more than eight million people in India hop on a train to move between and through towns and cities to get to work.

For bus travel times, a feature Google is introducing for the first time in any market, the company says it is relying on a combination of its live traffic data and public bus schedules to calculate delays and provide accurate travel times. It is available in Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Pune, Lucknow, Chennai, Mysore, Coimbatore, and Surat.

The mixed-mode commute looks at journeys that combine travel in both an auto-rickshaw and public transport. So, for example, if you take an auto-rickshaw to get to a bus stand, and then board a bus from there as is common across many cities.

Google says Maps app can now suggest users when taking multiple commutes is a viable option and estimate how much time the journey would take. The app will also be able to suggest when a user should make the switch from one mode of transportation to another. This feature is initially limited to Android users who are located in Delhi and Bangalore, but Google said it will be extended to more cities soon.

In recent months, Google has added a number of features to Google Maps in India, some of which are available in other markets, too. Those additions include the ability to report traffic congestion and accidents, and, most recently, support for auto-rickshaw travel. The app also allows users to share their live location with friends and family. Late last year, the company inked a deal with ticket booking platform Redbus to add inter-city bus transportation information.

Google remains aggressively committed to India, a market where it is estimated to have more than 300 million users. The company has used the country as the testbed for many of its services including YouTube Go and Google Station.

That’s helped Google surge in terms of usage. That, combined with the dominant of Android as an operating system, has led to an anti-trust probe on Google’s influence in the nation.