Momo, Vietnam’s top payment app, lands big Series C investment led by Warburg Pincus

Fintech in Southeast Asia continues to pique the attention of global investors. Alibaba, Tencent and others have jumped into the region and deployed hundreds of millions of dollars, and now Warburg Pincus is joining them. The U.S-headquartered PE firm has led a Series C investment in Vietnam’s Momo, which claims to be the country’s largest mobile wallet company with 10 million downloads.

Momo already has some big-name investors; Standard Chartered led a $28 million round in 2016 while Goldman Sachs invested $5.7 million back in 2013.

The size of this new round isn’t being disclosed, but Pham Thanh Duc, CEO of M-Service — the parent company of Momo — said it is a record deal for an e-commerce or fintech startup in Vietnam. A lot of the biggest deals in Vietnam have been undisclosed, but one of the largest from last year was a $50 million-odd investment in e-commerce company Tiki from China’s JD.com which gives an indication of the size. The deal might even be as high as $100 million, that’s according to a Deal Street Asia report, although Pham declined to comment on the figure.

M-Service was founded over a decade ago, Momo is its take on digital payments in Vietnam, a market of nearly 100 million people, one-quarter of whom are aged under 25.

Momo started out offering digital payment via an e-wallet app. It has since expanded into utility bill payments and mobile top-up, as well as areas like movie tickets, airline flights and payment for goods and services at 100,000 payment points nationwide, including popular chains. The service recently began offering bill payment for loans, and Pham said it is developing a credit scoring system that will allow it to introduce financial services to users in partnership with financial institutions.

The playbook, he said, is very much based upon the success of Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay services in China, which went from payments to loans and investing and more.

While both of those Chinese internet giants have stepped into Southeast Asia with fintech investments in markets like Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, neither has entered Vietnam at this point. Pham said Momo has an ongoing dialogue with Alibaba, but there’s been no investment. Since neither Alibaba nor its fintech affiliate Ant Financial has an operating presence in Vietnam, he said the relationship is “just conversations” at this point. That’s certainly a pairing that is worth keeping an eye on as Alibaba aims to enlarge its presence in Southeast Asia, which — with a cumulative population of 600 million people, growing middle classes and rising internet access — is seen as a growth opportunity by Chinese tech companies.

Partner-wise, Momo works with the likes of Facebook and Google to provide payment for their services and it will soon begin working with Apple, Pham revealed.

While other businesses may be looking region-wide, Momo is not entertaining new market expansions at this point.

“For the next two to three years, we are still very focused on the domestic market,” Pham told TechCrunch in an interview. “There’s no short-term plan to expand to other countries [and] our main effort is focused on user base expansion in Vietnam.”

But, Pham said, he does expect that overseas players will enter Vietnam.

Grab Pay and GoPay [from ride-hailing duo Grab and Go-Jek) will come soon and even Alipay, but I think that for the last five years we have been the number one e-wallet provider,” he said. “We care much about competitors because we are leading the market… other players have had to imitate our model.”

Estimating that nearest-competitor ZaloPay, from Vietnam’s top chat app Zalo, may have around “one-tenth” of the user base Momo, Pham explained that he believes his company is around 12-18 months ahead of the competitor.

This new investment — which was led by a Warburg Pincus affiliate in Vietnam and closed last year — is aimed at fortifying that lead and grabbing a much larger slice of the Vietnamese population, which is tipped to rocket past 100 million by 2025.

Ciitizen raises $17 million to give cancer patients better control over their health records

Ciitizen, the company founded by the creators of Gliimpse (an Apple acquisition that’s been incorporated into the company’s HealthKit) which is developing tools to help patients organize and share their medical records, has raised $17 million in new funding.

Ciitizen, like Gliimpse before it, is an attempt to break down the barriers that keep patients from being able to record, store, and share their healthcare information with whomever they want in their quest for treatment.

The digitization of health records — a featured element of President Barack Obama’s overhaul of the healthcare system back in 2009 — remains an obstacle to quality care and proper treatment nearly a decade later. Hospitals spend millions and the US healthcare system spends billions on Electronic Health Records annually. All with very little too show for the expense.

Those kinds of challenges are what attracted investors in the Andreessen Horowitz -led round. New investors Section 32, formed by the former head of Google Ventures, Bill Maris; and Verily, one of the healthcare subsidiaries that spun out of Google X and is a part of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

“Ciitizen uniquely understands the challenges cancer patients face – including the intense friction patients experience when managing their medical records in our current healthcare system,” said Vijay Pande, a general partner in Andreessen Horowitz’s Bio fund, in a statement. “Using their deep insights, the Ciitizen team have developed sophisticated technology and tools that remove this friction, putting the power back in the patients’ hands and literally saving lives.”

Pande may be a little biased since Andreessen Horowitz also led the company’s seed funding last July, in what was, at the time, one of the earlier investments from the Bio fund’s latest $450 million second investment vehicle.

“The continued support from Andreessen Horowitz reaffirms the rapid progress we have already made and further validates our potential to significantly impact healthcare globally. Adding Section 32 and Verily to our effort further enhances our ability to transform the way patients engage with their health data,” said Anil Sethi, CEO and Founder of Ciitizen, in a statement.

Flutterwave and Visa launch African consumer payment service GetBarter

Fintech startup Flutterwave has partnered with Visa to launch a consumer payment product for Africa called GetBarter.

The app based offering is aimed at facilitating personal and small merchant payments within countries and across Africa’s national borders. Existing Visa card holders can send and receive funds at home or internationally on GetBarter.

The product also lets non card-holders (those with accounts or mobile wallets on other platforms) create a virtual Visa card to link to the app.  A Visa spokesperson confirmed the product partnership.

GetBarter allows Flutterwave—which has scaled as a payment gateway for big companies through its Rave product—to pivot to African consumers and traders.

Rave is B2B, this is more B2B2C since we’re reaching the consumers of our customers,” Flutterwave CEO Olugbenga Agboola—aka GB—told TechCrunch.

The app also creates a network for clients on multiple financial platforms, such as Kenyan mobile money service M-Pesa, to make transfers across payment products, national borders, and to shop online.

“The target market is pretty much everyone who has a payment need in Africa. That includes the entire customer base of M-Pesa, the entire bank customer base in Nigeria, mobile money and bank customers in Ghana—pretty much the entire continent,” Agboola said.

Flutterwave and Visa will focus on building a GetBarter user base across mobile money and bank clients in Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa, with plans to grow across the continent and reach those off the financial grid.

“In phase one we’ll pursue those who are banked. In phase-two we’ll continue toward those who are unbanked who will be able to use agents to work with GetBarter,” Agboola said.

Flutterwave and Visa will generate revenue through fees from financial institutions on cards created and on fees per transaction. A GetBarter charge for a payment in Nigeria is roughly 40 Naira, or 11 cents, according to Agboola.

With this week’s launch users can download the app for Apple and Android devices and for use on WhatsApp and USSD.

Founded in 2016, Flutterwave has positioned itself as a global B2B payments solutions platform for companies in Africa to pay other companies on the continent and abroad. It allows clients to tap its APIs and work with Flutterwave developers to customize payments applications. Existing customers include Uber, Facebook, Booking.com, and African e-commerce unicorn Jumia.com.

Flutterwave has processed 100 million transactions worth $2.6 billion since inception, according to company data.

The company has raised $20 million from investors including Greycroft, Green Visor Capital, Mastercard, and Visa.

In 2018, Flutterwave was one of several African fintech companies to announce significant VC investment and cross-border expansion—see Paga, Yoco, Cellulant, Mines.ie, and  Jumo.

Flutterwave added operations in Uganda in June and raised a $10 million Series A round in October that saw former Visa CEO Joe Saunders join its board of directors.

The company also plugged into ledger activity in 2018, becoming a payment processing partner to the Ripple and Stellar blockchain networks.

Flutterwave hasn’t yet released revenue or profitability info, according to CEO Olugbenga Agboola.

Headquartered in San Francisco, with its largest operations center in Nigeria, the startup plans to add operations centers to South Africa and Cameroon, which will also become new markets for GetBarter.

Apple reportedly looking to subsidize Watch with Medicare plans

If nothing else, the addition of ECG/EKG reinforced Apple’s commitment to evolving the Watch into a serious medical device. The company has long looked to bring its best selling wearable to various health insurance platforms, and according to a new report, it’s reaching out to multiple private Medicare plans in hopes of subsidizing the product.

If Medicare companies bite, the move would make the $279+ tracker much more successful for older users. Along with electrocardiograph functionality, last year’s Series 4 also features fall detection, an addition that could make it even more appealing to the elderly and health care providers.

The new report cites at least three providers who have been in discussions with the company. We’ve reached out to Apple for comment, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on hearing back until the ink is dry on those deals. For Apple, however, such a a partnership would help increase the target audience for a product that’s been a rare bright spot in the wearable category.

Apple’s not alone in the serious health push, of course. Fitbit has also been aggressively pursuing the space. Today the company announced its inclusion in the National Institutes of Health’s new All of Us health initiative.

Apple HomePod comes to China at $400 amid iPhone sales woes

Apple is finally launching HomePod in China, but the timing is tricky as the premium device will have to wrestle with local competitors and a slowing economy. The firm said over the weekend that its smart speaker will be available in Mainland China and Hong Kong starting January 18, adding to a list of countries where it has entered including US, UK, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Mexico and Spain.

The Amazon Echo competitor, which launched in mid-2017, is already available to Chinese buyers through third-party channels like “daigou”, or shopping agents who bring overseas products into China. What separates the new model is that it supports Mandarin, the official language on Mainland China and Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong and China’s most populated province Guangdong. Previously, Chinese-speaking users had to converse with HomePod in English until a system update in December that added Siri support for the two Chinese dialects.

A main selling point of HomePod is its focus on music, so the China version comes with Airplay support of a range of local music streaming apps like Tencent’s QQ Music for Mainland users and JOOX which is more popular in Hong Kong.

In its home market, HomePod remains an underdog with 5 percent market share while Amazon Echo and Google Home command 66 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

The question is how many Chinese shoppers are willing to shell out 2799 yuan, or $414, for the Siri-controlled speaker. A host of much cheaper options from local giants are available, such as Alibaba’s Tmall Genie, Xiaomi’s Mi AI and several models from Baidu.

Analysts have cited relatively high price — on top of a softening economy — as a major culprit for iPhones’ low sales in China, which have prompted Apple to lower its quarterly revenue forecast for the first time in over a decade and Chinese retailers to slash iPhone prices. It remains to see how Chinese shoppers react to HomePod, which is already about 17 percent higher than its normal $349 price in the US.

Correction: (January 14, 2018, 14:00 pm): The article has been updated to reflect that HomePod in non-China markets began supporting Chinese in December.

GM is smartening up its Bolt EV smartphone app

GM is sprucing up its smartphone app for owners of the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt through a collaboration with charging network companies EVgo, ChargePoint, and Greenlots.

The idea is to take aggregate dynamic data from each of the EV charging networks so owners can have a “more seamless charging experience.” In short: GM wants to make it easier and more intuitive for Bolt EV owners to find and access charging. Removing hurdles from the charging experience can go along way in convincing more people to buy the Bolt EV, or any EV for that matter.

The partnership with EVgo, ChargePoint, and Greenlots is a notable start considering that collectively that means more than 31,000 charging ports.

“GM believes in an all-electric future, and this is a significant step to make charging easier for our customers,” said Doug Parks, General Motors vice president of Autonomous and Electric Vehicle Programs. “By collaborating with these three companies, we expect to reduce barriers to create a stronger EV infrastructure for the future. This is an important step toward achieving GM’s vision of a world with zero emissions.”

GM plans to take the aggregate charging data from EVgo, ChargePoint, and Greenlots and use it to improve the myChevrolet app. For instance, owners will be able to see if a charging station is available and compatible with the Bolt EV. It will also provide real-time data on charge station to report if a charging station is working.

GM plans to create an app interface that will streamline the enrollment process for each of these networks. The automaker wants owners to be able to activate a charging session using the app instead of a membership card, but didn’t say when that feature would be rolled out. .

GM recently made a few updates to the myChevrolet app that lets owners project the energy assist to the vehicle’s infotainment system via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for drivers with model year 2017 or newer Bolt EVs.

This means Bolt EV drivers can access information through their infotainment system like vehicle range, charging station locations and search, as well as route planning that takes into consideration charging stops along the way if the destination is out of range.

Original purchasers of new Bolt EVs will have access to these features at no additional cost for five years from the vehicle delivery date, according to GM.

GM doesn’t provide updates about the Bolt EV, and more broadly its electric vehicle program at the same pace and frequency as say Tesla. But the company is still ramping up and expanding. GM recently expanded a battery lab and a new LG Electronics plant in Michigan has come online.

The LG Electronics facility in Hazel Park started making battery packs this fall to supply GM’s Orion Assembly Plant, where the automaker builds the all-electric Chevrolet  Bolt.

GM’s plan to launch 20 new all-electric vehicles globally by 2023 and increase production of the Chevy Bolt.

Vizio adds Apple AirPlay and HomeKit integrations to its SmartCast smart TV platform

Apple is reportedly gearing up for a new streaming TV service to rival Netflix, Amazon and Google this year, but in the meantime, it is also expanding interoperability with more third parties like smart TV makers to make what it already has available easier to use in the living room.

In the latest development, smart TV maker Vizio today announced at the CES consumer electronics show that it’s adding support for AirPlay 2 and HomeKit to its SmartCast interactive TV platform. The integration will mean that Vizio TV owners can link their other Apple devices up to their TVs to browse and watch content from iTunes, as well as any photos, videos or music on those devices. Then, through HomeKit, they can also control that content and the rest of the TV using Apple’s voice assistant Siri.

Vizio said that the feature will be rolled out first to beta users of the SmartCast 3.0 platform in the U.S. and Canada in Q1 2019. In Q2, it will be rolled out to all SmartCast TV users via a free, over-the-air update to the 3.0 version of the platform.

“At our core, Vizio is committed to delivering value. SmartCast 3.0 is one of the ways we’re doing just that. By adding support for Apple AirPlay 2 and HomeKit, users can play content from their iPhone, iPad and Mac directly to SmartCast TVs, and enable TV controls through the Home app and Siri,” said Bill Baxter, Chief Technology Officer, Vizio, in a statement.

He added that this also will make Vizio the first smart TV brand to offer the ability for consumers to use any major voice assistant — Siri, Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant (the latter two integrations were added previously) — to control their sets. “We’re excited to be the first in the marketplace to support such a wide range of ways for consumers to sit back and enjoy the entertainment they love.” The Google Assistant functionality is also expanding to control more services such as the launching of apps and switching inputs.

The Vizio / Apple news comes just one day after Vizio’s bigger rival Samsung — which has a 33 percent share of the smart TV market in the US compared to Vizio’s 24 percent — also debuted an Apple AirPlay integration, along with a new tab directly linking to iTunes in Samsung’s interactive platform.

The iTunes app is an exclusive to Samsung for the time being, but the Vizio deal lays the groundwork for more collaboration between Vizio and Apple ahead. Vizio, notably, is not a direct competitor to Apple in other business areas in the way that Samsung is.

For Vizio, this is a significant step ahead for the company at a time when it is playing some catchup against Samsung, which once trailed Vizio but gradually overtook it as the leading smart TV player. I’d argue that Vizio is also still recuperating from its no-good, very bad 2017.

Its series of unfortunate events included a failed $2 billion acquisition of the company by Chinese maker LeEco after LeEco itself fell apart; a lawsuit against LeEco over that deal breaking down; another lawsuit, this time from the FTC (settled for $2.2 million) over snooping on its customers’ viewing habits; and a third suit brought by AMD, this time over graphics patent infringement, which AMD has since won.

This is actually the first time that Vizio has been at CES in years, which is also saying something. The company is also using the event to announce its newest range of 4K HDR smart TVs and audio equipment, including sound bars and subwoofers.

On the side of Apple, taken together, the two integrations with Vizio and Samsung underscore Apple’s challenges and ambitions at the moment.

The company last week warned the market that sales of its iPhone smartphone — for years now the company’s undisputed growth engine — would be falling short of expectations for a number of reasons. (They included worse-than-expected sales in China, where price and feature competition is fierce; a global slowdown in phone sales as the market saturates; and weaker demand for its new, expensive models.

Apple, as you know, has over the years been building up a services model to complement its hardware business — with apps, music, video, cloud services and more — and many believe that the company will start to focus on that even more to offset slowdowns in its hardware sales, as well as to boost the sales of that hardware. (Hence the rumors of a Netflix-style OTT video service.)

It’s an opportunity for sure, but not a guaranteed win. Apple TV — the company’s existing bridge to content on televisions — hasn’t managed to overtake the collective popularity of other smaller middleware like Google’s Chromecast and Amazon’s Fire TV and Fire stick. And the OTT market is very crowded already, with offerings from all of the above, pay-TV providers, smart TV makers and more.

Given all of the above, it will be worth watching to see who else might have Apple-related news this week and if a kinder, more device-agnostic Apple-as-services provider emerges as a theme at CES this week.

In major TV push, China’s Xiaomi buys 0.5% stake in TCL

A veteran TV maker just got a notable refresh as it enters the age of connected devices. Xiaomi, the Beijing-based firm best known for budget smartphones, has bought 65.2 million shares, or 0.48 percent, of Chinese home appliance maker TCL, said TCL in a statement to the Shenzhen Stock Exchange on Sunday.

Shares of TCL, the world’s third-largest LCD TV manufacturer, jumped nearly 4 percent in morning trading on Monday, giving the company a market cap of $36 billion.

The financial gesture deepens an existing alliance between the duo. On December 29, the companies signed a strategic partnership that would see them collaborate on various fronts, including R&D in integrating smart devices with “core, high-end, and basic” electronic parts. To put in layman’s terms, the joint effort focuses on chips and will make it easier for TCL devices to incorporate into Xiaomi’s operating system, where an expanding universe of third-party gadgets reside. The partners may also make co-investments in the hardware field.

The tie-up provides “tremendous help” for Xiaomi as it ups the ante in home appliances, wrote Xiaomi founder and CEO Lei Jun on Weibo, China’s closest answer to Twitter, in a reply to TCL’s CEO Li Dongsheng. During the third quarter of 2018, smart TVs helped drive revenue growth for Xiaomi’s non-smartphone hardware segment, shows the company’s financial results.

“[Our partnership] helps facilitate the transformation and upgrade of China’s manufacturing industry,” wrote Li, whose company started in 1981 as a cassette manufacturer.

Xiaomi has long been keen to team up with manufacturers to make its own branded devices instead of producing them itself. By early 2018, Xiaomi reached nearly 100 such partners, many of which Xiaomi had invested in to harness bargaining power in the supply chain, from what a smartphone should look like to how much it’s priced at. Xiaomi’s retail stores — available online and in physical manifestations — have also opened doors to third-party brands in an effort to broaden product selection.

Xiaomi’s close ties with its ecosystem partners result in an inventory of affordable products rivaling the likes of Fitbit and Apple. During the third quarter of 2018, Xiaomi topped the global chart by shipping 6.9 million units of wearables. Apple and Fitbit came in second and third with 4.2 million units and 3.5 million units, respectively, according to market research firm IDC.

Xiaomi derives most of its revenues from smartphones, though Lei Jun has long envisioned a future in which internet services will be the firm’s main force. This segment, which Xiaomi has marketed as its key financial differentiator against other phone brands, includes sales from mobile games, internet finance, paid content among a slew of services available through Xiaomi’s connected devices.

Apple is bringing iTunes content to Samsung’s Smart TVs

Ahead of Apple’s plans to introduce its own streaming service this year, the company has partnered with Samsung to allow iTunes content to be accessible on Samsung Smart TVs. Samsung announced this morning that it will offer access to iTunes Movies and TV shows through a new “iTunes Movies and TV” app on its Smart TVs across 100 countries, and it will offer AirPlay 2 support on its Smart TVs in 190 countries worldwide.

Samsung is the first TV maker to have direct access to iTunes content though this new “iTunes Movies and TV” app, but this is not the first time that iTunes content has been accessible outside of Apple’s own ecosystem.

iTunes content is already accessible today through the third-party Movies Anywhere application, alongside purchases from Prime Video, Google Play, Microsoft Movies & TV, Vudu, and others. That app currently works on a number of streaming media devices, like Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV and others, but not yet on Samsung Smart TVs. In addition, Apple Music can today be streamed on Android devices and iTunes is available on Windows PCs. 

According to Samsung, Apple’s new “iTunes Movies and TV Shows” app will allow Samsung Smart TV owners to browse their existing iTunes library and the iTunes store, where they can purchase and rent hundreds of thousands of movies and TV episodes, including a large selection of 4K HDR titles. The movies and TV shows will also work with Samsung Smart TV features, like the Universal Guide, the new Bixby, and Search.

Meanwhile, Samsung is making AirPlay 2 support available on a range of Smart TVs, including QLED 4K and 8K TVs, The Frame and Serif lifestyle TVs, as well as other Samsung UHD and HD models. This will allow TV owners to play videos, photos, music, podcasts, and more on their TV.

“We look forward to bringing the iTunes and AirPlay 2 experience to even more customers around the world through Samsung Smart TVs, so iPhone, iPad and Mac users have yet another way to enjoy all their favorite content on the biggest screen in their home,” said Eddy Cue, senior vice president of Internet Software and Services at Apple, in a statement about the launch.

Given Apple’s plans to launch its own streaming service in 2019 – presumably through its existing iTunes app – it makes sense that Apple would make that app available on more devices in the living room, where it doesn’t have as much of a presence thanks to Apple TV’s small footprint.

The new app and AirPlay 2 will be offered on 2019 Samsung Smart TV models this spring. Samsung says. 2018 Samsung Smart TVs will receive a firmware update to enable access.

 

 

Apple losses trigger a plunge in US markets

Bad news from Apple and signs of slowing international and domestic growth sent stocks tumbling in Thursday trading on all of the major markets.

Investors erased some $75 billion in value from Apple alone… an amount known technically as a shit ton of money. But stocks were down broadly based on Apple’s news, with the Nasdaq falling 3 percent, or roughly 202.44 points, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeting 660.02 points, or roughly 2.8 percent.

Apple halted trading of its stock yesterday afternoon to provide lower guidance for upcoming earnings.

Apple’s news from late yesterday that it would miss its earnings estimates by several billion dollars thanks to a collapse of sales in China was the trigger for a broad sell-off that erased gains from the last trading sessions before the New Year (which saw the biggest one-day gain in stocks in recent history).

Apple’s China woes could be attributed to any number of factors, D.A. Davidson senior analyst Tom Forte said. The weakening Chinese economy, patriotic fervor from Chinese consumers or the increasingly solid options available from domestic manufacturers could all be factors.

Sales were suffering in more regions than China, Forte noted. India, Russia, Brazil and Turkey also had slowing sales of new iPhone models, he said.

Investors have more than just weakness from Apple to be concerned about. Chinese manufacturing flipped from growth to contraction in December and analysts in the region expect that the pain will continue through at least the first half of the year.

“We expect a much worse slowdown in the first half, followed by a more serious and aggressive government easing/stimulus centred on deregulating the property market in big cities, and then we might see stabilisation and even a small rebound later this year,” Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura in Hong Kong, wrote in a report quoted by the Financial Times.

U.S. manufacturing isn’t doing much better, according to an industrial gauge published by The Institute for Supply Management. The institute’s index dropped to its lowest point in two years.

“There’s just so much uncertainty going on everywhere that businesses are just pausing,” Timothy Fiore, chairman of ISM’s manufacturing survey committee, told Bloomberg. “No matter where you look, you’ve got chaos everywhere. Businesses can’t operate in an environment of chaos. It’s a warning shot that we need to resolve some of these issues.”

The index remains above the threshold of a serious contraction in American industry, but the 5.2-point drop from the previous month in the manufacturing survey is the largest since the financial crisis, and was only exceeded one other time — following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the U.S.