YC-backed Blabla raises $1.5M to teach English through short videos

Short, snappy, entertaining videos have become an increasingly common way for young people to receive information. Why not learn English through TikTok-like videos too? That was what prompted Angelo Huang to launch Blabla.

Originally from Taiwan, Huang relocated to Shanghai in 2019 to start Blabla after working in Silicon Valley for over a decade. A year later, Blabla was chosen as part of Y Combinator’s 2020 summer cohort. The coronavirus had begun to spread in the U.S. at the time, keeping millions at home, and interest in remote learning was reviving.

“It was my eighth time applying to YC,” Huang, who founded two companies before Blabla, told TechCrunch during an interview.

This week, Blabla announced it has raised $1.54 million in a seed round led by Amino Capital, Starling Ventures, Y Combinator, and Wayra X, the innovation arm of the Spanish telecoms giant Telefónica. While Y Combinator wasn’t particularly instrumental in Blabla’s expansion in China — one of the biggest English-learning markets — the famed accelerator was of great help introducing investors to the young company, said the founder.

The Blabla app pays native English speakers by the hour to create short, engaging videos tailored to English-learning students around the world. The content creators are aided by Blabla’s proprietary software that can recognize and tag their scenes, as well as third-party translation tools that can subtitle their videos. The students, in turn, pay a subscription fee to receive personalized video recommendations based on their level of proficiency. They can practice through the app’s built-in speech recognition, among other features like speaking contests and pop quizzes.

The startup is in a highly crowded space. In China, the online English-learning market is occupied by established companies like VIPKID, which is backed by Tencent and Sequoia Capital. Compared to VIPKID’s one-on-one tutoring model, Blabla is more affordable with its starting price of 39 yuan ($6) a month, Huang noted.

“The students [on mainstream English learning apps] might have to spend several thousands of RMB before they can have a meaningful conversation with their teachers. We instead recycle our videos and are able to offer lessons at much cheaper prices.”

The app has about 11,000 weekly users and 300-400 paid users at the moment, with 80-90% of its total users coming from China; the goal for this year is to reach 300,000 students. The funding will allow Blabla to expand in Southeast Asia and Latin America while Wayra X can potentially help it scale to Telefónica’s 340 million global users. It will be seeking brand deals with influencers on the likes of TikTok and Youtube. The new capital will also enable BlaBla to add new features, such as pairing up language learners based on their interests and profiles.

Blabla doesn’t limit itself to teaching English and has ambitions to bring in teachers of other languages. “We want to be a global online pay-for-knowledge platform,” said Huang.

Chinese facial recognition unicorn Megvii prepares China IPO

Megvii, one of China’s largest facial recognition startups, is gearing up for an initial public offering in Shanghai. The company is working with CITIC Securities to prepare for its planned listing, according to an announcement posted by the China Securities Regulatory Commission on Tuesday.

The move came more than a year after Megvii, known for its computer vision platform Face++, filed to go public in Hong Kong in August 2019. At the time, Reuters reported that the company could raise between $500 million and $1 billion. However, the firm’s IPO application in Hong Kong has lapsed for undisclosed reasons and its focus is now on Shanghai’s STAR board, a person with knowledge of the matter told TechCrunch.

In 2019, China established the STAR board to attract high-growth, unprofitable Chinese tech startups after losing them to the U.S. for years. In the meantime, a domestic flotation is increasingly appealing to Chinese firms, especially those that count on government contracts and are caught in the U.S.-China tech competition.

Megvii and its rivals SenseTime, Yitu, and CloudWalk are collectively recognized as the “Four AI Dragons” of China for their market dominance and fundings from highflying investors. Megvii’s technology can be found powering smart city infrastructure across China as well as many smartphones and mobile apps. Alibaba, Ant Group and the Bank of China are among the group of investors who have pumped about $1.4 billion into the ten-year-old company since its inception.

The AI Dragons are less celebrated outside their home market. Last year, Megvii, Yitu and SenseTime were added to the U.S. Entity List for their alleged roles in enabling the government’s mass surveillance of the Muslim minority groups in western China. CloudWalk was subsequently added to the blacklist in 2020 and cut off from its U.S. suppliers.

According to the notice posted by China’s securities authority, Megvii plans to issue Chinese depositary receipts (CDRs), which are similar to American depositary receipts and allow domestic investors to hold overseas shares. That suggests the Beijing-based AI unicorn has not ruled out listing outside mainland China.

Currently seeking guidance in the pre-application stage, Megvii’s planned listing still needs approval from Chinese regulators.

Despite PR storm, Pinduoduo stock and downloads stay robust

Pinduoduo, a rapidly growing Chinese e-commerce company, is weathering its PR storm after the death of an employee sparked criticism against the firm’s grueling working hours.

The employee, 21 years old, collapsed on her way home from work on a late night before New Year. The cause of her death has not been disclosed but internet users speculated that she had died from exhaustion.

Posts with the hashtag #PinduoduoEmployeeSuddenDeath have accumulated 300 million views on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo. Separately, another Pinduoduo employee committed suicide on January 9 by jumping from his 27th-floor apartment. The local labor authorities are reported to be reviewing working conditions at Shanghai-based Pinduoduo.

On Sunday, a former Pinduoduo employee spoke out against the firm’s stressful work culture in a video that went viral, adding to the public outcry against Alibaba’s biggest rival. He alleged that employees at Pinduoduo’s headquarters are required to work at least 300 hours a month (about 75 hours a week), whereas staff in the newly established grocery delivery department have a 380-hour minimum. The employee who fell on her way home worked on Pinduoduo’s grocery business in the Western province of Xinjiang.

People with knowledge told TechCrunch that employees working on certain projects at Pinduoduo might work over 300 hours a month, though the hours aren’t mandatory. Companywide, staff are required to work from 11 AM to 8 PM.

Pinduoduo cannot be immediately be reached for comment.

Long working hours aren’t unique to Pinduoduo in China. The string of incidents is reviving the debate around “996”, a term that denotes employees working from 9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week, though it can refer to any other form of demanding work regime in China’s cutthroat internet industry.

Despite the public backlash and calls to boycott Pinduoduo, the company’s market position appears to remain firm. Its app downloads have remained stable since the first employee incident two weeks ago, with some days even seeing slight growth in installs, according to data analytics provider Jiguang. As of January 8, Pinduoduo had nearly 650 million installs.

Its shares, traded in New York, climbed from $144 on December 28 to $187 on January 5 and dropped slightly to $174 on January 11. A few venture capital investors of Pinduoduo contacted by TechCrunch declined to comment for this story.

The figures could be telling. Despite its efforts to attract more users in China’s wealthier cities, a substantial number of Pinduoduo users live in China’s low-tier cities and rural towns. The “996” culture of the megacity-based tech giants may be remote for them, while the deals on Pinduoduo, the e-commerce app famous for its “dirt cheap” goods, are tangible.

Vision Fund backs Chinese fitness app Keep in $360 million round

As Chinese fitness class provider Keep continues to diversify its offerings to include Peloton-like bikes, health-conscious snacks among other things, it’s bringing in new investors to fund its ambitions.

On Monday, Keep said it has recently closed a Series F financing round of $360 million led by SoftBank Vision Fund. Hillhouse Capital and Coatue Management participated in the round, as well as existing investors GGV Capital, Tencent, 5Y Capital, Jeneration Capital and Bertelsmann Asia Investments.

The latest fundraise values the six-year-old startup at about $2 billion post-money, people with knowledge told TechCrunch. Keep said it currently has no plans to go public, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Keep started out in 2014 by providing at-home workout videos and signed up 100 million users within three years. As of late, it has served over 300 million users, the company claims. It has over time fostered an ecosystem of fitness influencers who give live classes to students via videos, and now runs a team of course designers, streaming coaches and operational staff dedicated to its video streaming business.

The company said its main revenue driver is membership fees from the 10 million users who receive personalized services. It’s also expanding its consumer product line. Last year, for instance, the firm introduced an internet-connected stationary bike that comes with video instructions like Peloton . It’s also rolled out apparel, treadmills and smart wristbands.

The company launched foreign versions of its Keep app in 2018 as it took aim at the overseas home fitness market. It was posting diligently on Western social networks including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter up until the spring of 2019.

According to Keep, the purpose of the latest funding is to let it continue doing what it has focused on in recent years: improving services and products for users and serving fitness professionals against a backdrop of the Chinese government’s campaign for “national fitness.”

“We believe fitness has become an indispensable part of Chinese people’s everyday life as their income rises and health awareness grows,” said Eric Chen, managing partner at SoftBank Vision Fund .

 

China’s search giant Baidu to set up an EV making venture

China’s search giant Baidu is extending its car ambitions from mere software to production. The company said Monday that it will set up a company to produce electric vehicles with the help of Chinese automaker Geely. Baidu, a dominant player in China’s internet search market for the last decade or so, will provide smart driving technologies while Geely, which has an impending merger with Sweden’s Volvo, will be in charge of car design and manufacturing.

The move marks the latest company in China’s internet industry to enter the EV space. In November, news arrived that Alibaba and Chinese state-owned carmaker SAIC Motor had joined hands to produce electric cars. Ride-share company Didi and EV maker BYD co-developed a model for ride-hailing, which is already attracting customers like Ideanomics. Meanwhile, the stocks of China’s Tesla challengers, such as Xpeng, Li Auto, and NIO, have been in a steady uptrend over the past year.

Baidu’s car push is part of its effort to diversify a business relying on search advertising revenue. New media platforms such as ByteDance’s Toutiao news aggregator and short-video app Douyin come with their own search feature and have gradually eroded the share of traditional search engines like Baidu. Short video services have emerged as the second-most popular channel for internet search in China, trailing after web search engines and coming ahead of social networks and e-commerce, data analytics firm Jiguang shows.

Baidu has been working aggressively on autonomous driving since 2017. Its Apollo ecosystem, which is billed as “an Android for smart driving,” has accumulated over a hundred manufacturing and supplier partners. Baidu has also been busy testing autonomous driving and recently rolled out a robotaxi fleet.

The new venture will operate as a Baidu subsidiary where Geely will serve as a strategic partner and Baidu units like Apollo and Baidu Maps will contribute capabilities. The firm will cover the entire industrial chain, including vehicle design, research and development, manufacturing, sales, and service.

It’s unclear how Baidu’s tie-up with Geely will affect Apollo’s operation, though Baidu promised in its announcement that it will “uphold its spirit of open collaboration across the AI technology industry, striving to work closely with its ecosystem partners to advance the new wave of intelligent transformation.”

“At Baidu, we have long believed in the future of intelligent driving and have over the past decade invested heavily in AI to build a portfolio of world-class self-driving services,” said Robin Li, co-founder and chief executive officer of Baidu.

“We believe that by combining Baidu’s expertise in smart transportation, connected vehicles and autonomous driving with Geely’s expertise as a leading automobile and EV manufacturer, the new partnership will pave the way for future passenger vehicles.”

Tencent investment stays on game in 2020

It’s no secret that Tencent, the Chinese tech giant behind WeChat and a handful of blockbuster video games, is an aggressive investor. Even during 2020 when the pandemic slowed down economic activity in many parts of the world, Tencent was charging ahead with its investment ambitions.

During the year, the company participated in more than 170 funding rounds that amounted to a total of 249.5 million yuan ($38 million), according to the Chinese startup database ITJuzi. That made 2020 the most active year to date for Tencent’s investment team, which had been delivering superior results in the last decade.

By January 2020, over 70 of Tencent’s 800 portfolio companies had gone public and more than 160 of them surpassed $100 million in valuation, Martin Lau, Tencent’s president, told a room of investees at the time. The achievement could well place Tencent side by side with some of the world’s top venture funds.

Tencent established an investment and M&A unit back in 2008 and began to seriously ramp up financing around 2012. Since 2015, it has been funding more than 100 companies per year, ITJuzi data shows.

The social and entertainment giant has for long kept its funding activity close to its chest and data gleaned by third-party organizations like ITJuzi is often not exhaustive. The company did not immediately respond to TechCrunch’s questions about its investment in 2020, and the story draws mainly from public disclosures and interviews with people of knowledge.

B2B interest

While Tencent’s overall investment strategy has remained consistent — a diversifying portfolio with a focus on digital entertainment — it has quietly stepped up efforts in areas outside its main gaming arena. For instance, the firm has paid more attention to enterprise services ever since it announced a B2B pivot in 2018, putting more focus on cloud computing, fintech and the likes. The number of investments it made in enterprise software went from five in 2015 to 28 in 2020, according to ITJuzi.

In line with its new focus on enterprise, Tencent has also upped its game in fintech. In 2019 and 2020, it backed 18 and 15 fintech startups, respectively, ITJuzi shows, up from only four in 2015. The rise, though incremental, reflects the firm’s increased interest in an area that’s both hugely lucrative but also comes with many constraints.

In China, Tencent has long been competing with Ant Group, the Alibaba fintech affiliate, to court users in payments, lending, wealth management, and even insurance. The regulatory troubles facing Ant are not exclusive to the Jack Ma empire and will likely come to daunt its smaller contenders, including Tencent’s fintech segments.

That said, Tencent is “not nearly as aggressive” as Ant when it comes to strengthening its position in China’s financial market, a person who partners with Tencent’s overseas fintech business told TechCrunch.

Fintech overseas

The company is also prudent with its fintech expansion overseas in times of geopolitical tensions. So far, it’s mostly limited its ambition to providing cross-border payment services to China’s outbound tourists, rather than serving locals directly.

“There’s a lot of scrutiny around what Tencent and Alibaba are doing within the United States and that presents challenges,” said the CEO of a Tencent-backed startup based in the U.S. who declined to be named.

Through investments, however, Tencent has familiarized itself with the foreign financial markets. In 2015, the company made one fintech investment outside China. In 2020, it funded eight, according to public data collected by Crunchbase.

A significant portion of Tencent’s outside investments doesn’t bear strategic significance, and the company tends to let its portfolio startups operate autonomously. Partly for that reason, Tencent was slammed for prioritizing investment and financial return over product development and innovation in a viral article in 2018, titled ominously “Tencent Has No Dream.” The hands-off attitude is a stark contrast to the stranglehold practice of Alibaba, which prefers buying controlling stakes in businesses and shaking up their top management, as it did for Lazada.

But many Tencent investments do add value to its business, even when the press announcements leave out the potential strategic synergies. Over the years, Tencent has made a series of small investments in the U.S. and other Western countries. Few of them appear to bring collaborative opportunities in the near term, but Tencent would still invite executives from these companies to China where they would learn from each other.

“Tencent made those investments really just to kind of learn what people are doing in the U.S. and how it might be able to be applied in China,” said the executive from the Tencent-backed startup.

“We don’t have any near term plans to do anything in China. But Tencent is a very reputable name, whether it’s in China or the U.S. And you know, it’s good to have the option to be able to do something more strategic in partnership with Tencent down the road.”

Tencent’s fintech investments outside China could also be conducive to the firm’s gaming expansion overseas, according to a Hong Kong-based fund manager. The goal is to have half of its gamers to be overseas users, Tencent pleged in 2019.

“For the gaming industry in Latin America and Southeast Asia, the biggest bottleneck is, surprisingly, not hardware but payments,” the fund manager told TechCrunch. “Of course, localization and compatibility are also important.”

California vegan egg startup Eat Just yokes itself to China’s fast food chain

Eat Just, a food startup from San Francisco making chicken-less eggs, has ambitions to crack the Chinese market where consumer appetite for plant-based food is growing and other Western vegan substitute brands like Beyond became available in recent quarters.

The startup said this week it will be suppling to fast-food chain Dicos, a local rival to McDonald’s and KFC in China. The agreement will see Eat Just add its plant-based eggs to the restaurant’s breakfast items across more than 500 locations. The eggs are derived from a legume called mung beans, which have long been a popular ingredient for soup, noodles and dessert in China.

At Dicos in major Chinese cities, consumers will find Eat Just eggs in breakfast burgers, bagel sandwiches and Western-style breakfast plates. That diversifies the Dicos plant-based menu which already includes a vegan chicken burger supplied by local startup Starfield. Dicos also offers a gateway into China’s low-tier cities where it has built a stronghold and can potentially help evangelize plant-based proteins in communities beyond China’s urban yuppies. The chain operates a total of 2,600 stores in China and serves 600 million customers a year.

Eat Just first entered China in 2019 and currently generates less than 5% of its revenue from the country, Andrew Noyes, head of global communications at Eat Just, told TechCrunch. But over time, the company expects China to account for more than half of its revenue. Ten of its 160 employees are based in China.

Eat Just’s vegan egg recipe / Photo: Eat Just

“We have been intentional about starting small, going slow and hiring people who know the market and understand how to build a sustainable business there. We’ve also been focused on finding the right partners to work with on downstream manufacturing, sales and distribution, and that work continues,” said Noyes.

The partnership with Dicos arrived on the heels of Eat Just’s announcement to set up an Asia subsidiary. The nine-year-old company, formerly Hampton Creek, has raised over $300 million from prominent investors including Li Ka-Shing, Peter Thiel, Bill Gates and Khosla Ventures. It was last valued at $1.2 billion.

Before its tie-up with Dicos, Eat Just had already been selling online in China through Alibaba and JD.com among other retail channels. Its China business is currently growing by 70% year-over-year.

While there’s no shortage of strong competition in the plant-based food race in China, Eat Just claims it’s taken a unique angle by zeroing in on eggs.

“Plant-based meat companies offer products that pair deliciously with Just Egg,” the brand name of the startup’s main product, Noyes noted.

“Plant-based foods are increasing in popularity among Chinese consumers and more sustainable eating is becoming part of a national dialogue about the feeding of the country in the future. China produces about 435 billion eggs per year and demand for protein is increasing.”

Indeed, Euromonitor predicted that China, the world’s largest meat-consuming country, would see its “free from meat” market size grow to $12 billion by 2023, compared to $10 billion in 2018.

NYSE reverses plans to delist China’s three big telcos

In an unexpected turn, the New York Stock Exchange said Monday that it no longer intends to delist China’s three major telecoms operators, a decision that was originally announced on December 31.

The initial action targeted China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom as part of the Trump Administration’s move to bar investment in companies deemed to supply and support China’s military, intelligence and security services.

The current blacklist names 35 companies, including the parent organizations of the three listed telecoms firms as well as Huawei and China’s major chipmaker SMIC.

The reversal was made “in light of further consultation with relevant regulatory authorities,” said the exchange. The companies will continue to be listed and traded on the NYSE while the exchange will continue to evaluate how the executive order applies to them and their listing status, according to the announcement.

The delisting of the three telecoms giants, which have been trading on NYSE for about two decades, was seen by some experts as merely symbolic. The trading volumes of these firms in New York are only a small percentage of their total tradable shares, thus the impact of the potential delisting “would be rather limited on the companies’ growth and general market performance,” said the China Securities Regulatory Commission in a statement issued on Sunday.

“The recent move by some political forces in the U.S. to continuously and groundlessly suppress foreign companies listed on the U.S. markets, even at the cost of undermining its own position in the global capital markets, has demonstrated that U.S. rules and institutions can become arbitrary, reckless and unpredictable,” the Chinese exchange authority said.

“We hope that the U.S. side could show respect for the market and reverence for the rule of law, do more things that can benefit the order of global financial markets, the legitimate rights of investors, and the stability and development of the global economy.”

In recent times, a number of Chinese companies trading in the U.S. have opted for secondary listings in Hong Kong. Alibaba, JD.com and NetEase have debuted in Hong Kong and more tech companies are reportedly weighing their homecoming. Chinese tech bosses are wary of the U.S. government’s potential clampdown, but they also hope to replicate Alibaba’s success in Hong Kong and see funding opportunities in China’s new Nasdaq-style board, which was introduced in 2019 in part to lure its tech darlings home.

Alibaba shuts down 12-year-old music streaming app Xiami

Using Xiami was once synonymous with having good music taste in China. The music app, which debuted around 2008 and was acquired by Alibaba in 2013, is discontinuing its streaming service today, Xiami said in a notice to users.

Xiami, which means “smalll shrimp” in Chinese, was once known for its smart discovery, elegant design, social features and support for indie musicians which helped attract a loyal following among China’s artsy, hipster types. The beginning of its decline coincided with the battle for music rights in China. A digital music behemoth was formed in 2016 when Tencent bought a majority stake in China Music Group, which brought to Tencent a reservoir of exclusive music deals. By 2017, Tencent’s music apps controlled as much as 75% of China’s music streaming market.

Xiami, on the other hand, lost large quantities of music rights and consequently users who converted to more resource-rich platforms, albeit grudgingly.

Alibaba did have a shot at online music. In 2015, the e-commerce giant appointed two renowned industry veterans — a songwriter and a music company executive — to steer its newly minted music group. Neither was necessarily seen as having the experience for running an internet music business. Instead of growing Xiami, they poured resources into a platform called Alibaba Planet to build artist-fan relationships. The idea didn’t take off.

In the meantime, newcomers like NetEase Music are holding out in their battle against Tencent’s music empire, of which dominance has endured to this day.

While users will lose access to the app and all their data, Xiami is not totally dead. Its copyrights-focused segment Yin Luo (音螺 or Conch Music) will continue to operate, according to the notice. But the dream of Xiami’s utopian founders, “earn music & money” (hence the app’s original name “EMUMO”), a vision they laid out inside a cafe on a snowy day in Hangzhou, is surely gone.