LemonBox, which brings US vitamins to Chinese consumers, raises $2M

LemonBox, a Chinese e-commerce startup that imports vitamins and health products from the US, has raised $2 million to develop its business.

The company graduated from Y Combinator’s most recent program in the U.S. and, fuelled by the demo day, it has pulled in the new capital from 10 investors which include Partech, Tekton Ventures, Cathexis Ventures, Scrum Ventures and 122 West Ventures.

LemonBox started when co-founder and CEO Derek Weng, a former employee at Walmart in the U.S, saw an opportunity to organize the common practice of bringing health products back in China. Any Mainland Chinese person who has lived or even just visited the U.S. will be familiar with such requests from family and friends, and LemonBox aims to make it possible for anyone in China to get U.S-quality products without relying on a mule.

The service is primarily a WeChat app — which taps into China’s ubiquitous messaging platform — and a website, although Weng told TechCrunch in an interview this week that the company is contemplating a standalone app of its own. The benefit of that, beyond a potentially more engaging customer experience, could be to broaden LemonBox’s product selection and use data to offer a more customized selection of products. Related to that, LemonBox said it hopes to work with health and fitness-related services in the future to gather data, with permission, to help refine the personal approach.

LemonBox’s team has now grown to 20 people, with 12 full-time staff and 8 interns, and Weng said that the new funding will also go towards increased marketing, improvements to the WeChat app and upgrading the company’s supply chain. Business, he added, is growing at 35 percent per week as LemonBox has adopted a personal approach to its packaging, much like Amazon-owned PillPack.

“This is the first time people in China have ever seen this level of customization for their vitamins,” Weng told TechCrunch.

Members of the LemonBox team with Qi Lu, who heads up Y Combinator’s China business

Qi Lu, the former Microsoft and Baidu executive who leads YC’s new China unit, said he is “bullish” about the business.

“What LemonBox offers resonates with me and is serving a clear China market needs. Personally, I travel a lot between China and the U.S, and I often was asked by my relatives to help purchase and carry them similar products like vitamins,” he said in a prepared statement.

“More importantly, what LemonBox can do is to build an initial core user base and a growing brand. Over time, by serving their users well, it can reach and engage more users who want to better take care of their broader nutrition needs, use more data and take advantage of increasingly stronger AI technologies to customers and personalize, and become an essential service for more and more users and customers in China,” Lu added.

Distinguished VCs back wholesale marketplace Faire with $100M at a $535M valuation

A slew of venture capitalists known for high-profile exits — Kirsten Green of Forerunner Ventures, Keith Rabois of Khosla Ventures, Alfred Lin of Sequoia Capital and Alex Taussig of Lightspeed Venture Partners — have invested in Faire (formerly known as Indigo Fair), a 2-year-old wholesale marketplace for artisanal products.

A quick glance at Faire suggests it’s a combination of Pinterest and Etsy, complete with trendy, pastel stationery, soap, baby products and more, all made by independent artisans and sold to retailers. Faire has today announced a $100 million fundraise across two financing rounds: a $40 million Series B led by Taussig at Lightspeed and a $60 million Series C led by Y Combinator’s Continuity fund. New investors Founders Fund, the venture firm founded by Peter Thiel, and DST Global also participated. The business has previously brought in a total of $16 million.

The latest financing values Faire at $535 million, according to a source familiar with the deal.

If you’re feeling a little bit of déjà vu, that’s because a similar startup also raised a sizeable round of venture capital funding, announced today. That’s Minted . The 10-year-old company, best known for its wide assortment of wedding invitations and stationery, raised $208 million led by Permira, with participation from T. Rowe Price. Though Minted is first and foremost a consumer-facing marketplace, it plans to double down on its wholesale business with its latest infusion of capital, setting it up to be among Faire’s biggest competitors.

Like Minted, Faire leverages artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to forecast which products will fly off its virtual shelves in order to to source and manage inventory as efficiently as possible. The approach appears to be working; Faire says it has 15,000 retailers actively purchasing from its platform — a 3,140 percent year-over-year increase. It’s garnered $100 million in run rate sales and has expanded its community of artists 445 percent YoY, to 2,000.

The company, headquartered in San Francisco, with offices in Ontario and Waterloo, was founded by three former Square employees: chief executive officer Max Rhodes, who was product manager on a variety of strategic initiatives, including Square Capital and Square Cash; chief data officer Daniele Perito, who led risk and security for Square Cash; and chief technology officer Marcelo Cortes, a former engineering lead for Square Cash.

“Our mission at Faire is to empower entrepreneurs to chase their dreams,” Rhodes wrote in a blog post this morning. “We believe entrepreneurship is a calling. Starting a business provides a level of autonomy and fulfillment that’s become difficult to find for many elsewhere in the economy. With this in mind, we built Faire to help entrepreneurs on both sides of our marketplace succeed.”

They scaled YouTube. Now they’ll shard everyone with PlanetScale

When the former CTOs of YouTube, Facebook, and Dropbox seed fund a database startup, you know there’s something special going on under the hood. Jiten Vaidya and Sugu Sougoumarane saved YouTube from a scalability nightmare by inventing and open sourcing Vitess, a brilliant relational data storage system. But in the decade since working there, the pair have been inundated with requests from tech companies desperate for help building the operational scaffolding needed to actually integrate Vitess.

So today the pair are revealing their new startup PlanetScale that makes it easy to build multi-cloud databases that handle enormous amounts of information without locking customers into Amazon, Google, or Microsoft’s infrastructure. Battletested at YouTube, the technology could allow startups to fret less about their backend and focus more on their unique value proposition. “Now they don’t have to reinvent the wheel” Vaidya tells me. “A lot of companies facing this scaling problem end up solving it badly in-house and now there’s a way to solve that problem by using us to help.”

PlanetScale has quietly raised a $3 million seed round in April led by SignalFire and joined by a who’s who of engineering luminaries. They include YouTube co-founder and CTO Steve Chen, Quora CEO and former Facebook CTO Adam D’Angelo, former Dropbox CTO Aditya Agarwal, PayPal and Affirm co-founder Max Levchin, MuleSoft co-founder and CTO Ross Mason, Google director of engineering Parisa Tabriz, and Facebook’s first female engineer and South Park Commons Founder Ruchi Sanghvi. If anyone could foresee the need for Vitess implementation services, it’s these leaders who’ve dealt with scaling headaches at tech’s top companies.

But how can a scrappy startup challenge the tech juggernauts for cloud supremacy? First, by actually working with them. The PlanetScale beta that’s now launching lets companies spin up Vitess clusters on its database-as-a-service, their own through a licensing deal, or on AWS with Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure coming shortly. Once these integrations with the tech giants are established, PlanetScale clients can use it as an interface for a multi-cloud setup where they could keep their data master copies on AWS US-West with replicas on Google Cloud in Ireland and elsewhere. That protects companies from becoming dependent on one provider and then getting stuck with price hikes or service problems.

PlanetScale also promises to uphold the principles that undergirded Vitess. “It’s our value that we will keep everything in the query pack completely open source so none of our customers ever have to worry about lock-in” Vaidya says.

PlanetScale co-founders (from left): Jiten Vaidya and Sugu Sougoumarane

Battletested, YouTube Approved

He and Sougoumarane met 25 years ago while at Indian Institute Of Technology Bombay. Back in 1993 they worked at pioneering database company Informix together before it flamed out. Sougoumarane was eventually hired by Elon Musk as an early engineer for X.com before it got acquired by PayPal, and then left for YouTube. Vaidya was working at Google and the pair were reunited when it bought YouTube and Sougoumarane pulled him on to the team.

“YouTube was growing really quickly and the relationship database they were using with MySQL was sort of falling apart at the seams” Vaidya recalls. Adding more CPU and memory to the database infra wasn’t cutting it, so the team created Vitess. The horizontal scaling sharding middleware for MySQL let users segment their database to reduce memory usage while still being able to rapidly run operations. YouTube has smoothly ridden that infrastructure to 1.8 billion users ever since.

“Sugu and Mike Solomon invented and made Vitess open source right from the beginning since 2010 because they knew the scaling problem wasn’t just for YouTube, and they’ll be at other companies 5 or 10 years later trying to solve the same problem” Vaidya explains. That proved true, and now top apps like Square and HubSpot run entirely on Vitess, with Slack now 30 percent onboard.

Vaidya left YouTube in 2012 and became the lead engineer at Endorse, which got acquired by Dropbox where he worked for four years. But in the meantime, the engineering community strayed towards MongoDB-style key-value store databases, which Vaidya considers inferior. He sees indexing issues and says that if the system hiccups during an operation, data can become inconsistent — a big problem for banking and commerce apps. “We think horizontally-scaled relationship databases are more elegant and are something enterprises really need.

Database Legends Reunite

Fed up with the engineering heresy, a year ago Vaidya committed to creating PlanetScale. It’s composed of four core offerings: professional training in Vitess, on-demand support for open source Vitess users, Vitess database-as-a-service on Planetscale’s servers, and software licensing for clients that want to run Vitess on premises or through other cloud providers. It lets companies re-shard their databases on the fly to relocate user data to comply with regulations like GDPR, safely migrate from other systems without major codebase changes, make on-demand changes, and run on Kubernetes.

The PlanetScale team

PlanetScale’s customers now include Indonesian ecommerce giant Bukalapak, and it’s helping Booking.com, GitHub, and New Relic migrate to open source Vitess. Growth is suddenly ramping up due to inbound inquiries. Last month around when Square Cash became the number one app, its engineering team published a blog post extolling the virtues of Vitess. Now everyone’s seeking help with Vitess sharding, and PlanetScale is waiting with open arms. “Jiten and Sugu are legends and know firsthand what companies require to be successful in this booming data landscape” says Ilya Kirnos, founding partner and CTO of SignalFire.

The big cloud providers are trying to adapt to the relational database trend, with Google’s Cloud Spanner and Cloud SQL, and Amazon’s AWS SQL and AWS Aurora. Their huge networks and marketing war chests could pose a threat. But Vaidya insists that while it might be easy to get data into these systems, it can be a pain to get it out. PlanetScale is designed to give them freedom of optionality through its multi-cloud functionality so their eggs aren’t all in one basket.

Finding product market fit is tough enough. Trying to suddenly scale a popular app while also dealing with all the other challenges of growing a company can drive founders crazy. But if it’s good enough for YouTube, startups can trust PlanetScale to make databases one less thing they have to worry about.

TNB Aura closes $22.7M fund to bring PE-style investing to Southeast Asia’s startups

TNB Aura, a recent arrival to Southeast Asia’s VC scene, announced today that it has closed a maiden fund at SG$31.1million, or around US$22.65 million, to bring a more private equity-like approach to investing in startups in the region.

The fund was launched in 2016 and it is a joint effort between Australia-based venture fund Aura and Singapore’s TNB Ventures, which has a history of corporate innovation work. It reached a final close today, having hit an early close in January. It is a part of the Enterprise Singapore ‘Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering’ scheme which, as you’d expect, means there is a focus on hardware, IO, AI and other future-looking tech like ‘industry 4.0.’

The fund is targeting Series A and B deals and it has the firepower to do 15-20 deals over likely the next two to three years, co-founder and managing partner Vicknesh R Pillay told TechCrunch in an interview. There’s around $500,000-$4 million per company, with the ideal scenario being an initial $1 million check with more saved for follow-on rounds. Already it has backed four companies including TradeGecko, which raised $10 million in a round that saw TNB Aura invest alongside Aura, and AI marketing platform Ematic.

The fund has a team of 10, including six partners and an operating staff of four. It pitches itself a little differently to most other VCs in the region given that manufacturing and engineering bent. That, Pillay said, means it is focused on “hardware plus software” startups.

“We are very strong fundamentals guys,” Pillay added. We ask what is the valuation and decide what we can get from a deal. It’s almost like PE-style investing in the VC world.”

A selection of the TNB Aura team [left to right]: Samuel Chong (investment manager), Calvin Ng, Vicknesh R Pillay, Charles Wong (partners), Liu Zhihao (investment manager)

Another differentiator, Pillay believes, is the firm’s history in the corporate innovation space. That leads it to be pretty well suited to working in the B2B and enterprise spaces thanks to its existing networks, he said.

“We particularly like B2B saas companies and we believe we can assist them through of our innovation platforms,” Pillay explained.

Outside of Singapore — which is a heavy focus thanks to the relationship with Enterprise Singapore — TNB Aura is focused on Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, four of the largest markets that form a large chunk of Southeast Asia’s cumulative 650 million population. With an internet population of over 330 million — higher than the entire U.S. population — the region is set to grow strongly as internet access increases. A recent report from Google and Temasek tipped the region’s digital economy will triple to reach $240 billion by 20205.

The report also found that VC funding in Southeast Asia is developing at a fast clip. Excluding unicorns, which distort the data somewhat, startups raised $2.6 billion in the first half of this year, beating the $2.4 billion tally for the whole of 2017.

There are plenty of other Series A-B funds in the region, including Jungle Ventures, Golden Gate Ventures, Openspace Ventures, Monks Hill Ventures, Qualgro and more.

Starbucks challenger Luckin snags $200M investment on $2.2B valuation

Luckin, a startup that vows to topple Starbucks’ dominance in China, announced on Wednesday that it’s lifted its valuation to $2.2 billion after raising $200 million in a series B funding round.

That came only five months after the coffee upstart, which soft-launched in January, picked up $200 million in investment. Luckin has been on a spending spree to open shop and burnt through $150 million within the first six months in operation, its founder said in July when the company had a cash reserve of 2 billion yuan, or roughly $290 million.

Luckin currently operates across 21 major Chinese cities, totaling more than 1,700 shops. For comparison, Starbucks’s footprint spanned 3,300 stores in China as of May, though one has to take into account that the Seattle coffee chain entered China nearly 20 years ago.

Different from Starbucks, Luckin’s brick-and-mortar facilities are a mix of sit-down cafes and pickup booths, which double as delivery hubs, and take-out kitchens that are solely for delivery staff to pick up caffeine-infused orders and put them in customers’ hands within 30 minutes.

As a result, Luckin managed to build a dense network targeting office workers who may be drawn to the idea of coffee delivery because they can’t leave their desk. There’s at least one Luckin location within a 500-meter radius anywhere in downtown Shanghai and Beijing, the company claimed.

The light speed at which Luckin has expanded in less than a year probably got on the nerves of Starbucks, which went on to team up with Alibaba-owned food delivery giant Ele.me in August to bring coffee to people’s doorstep. The American company aims to expand its delivery services to 30 cities in China by the end of 2018.

Luckin’s co-founder and chief executive officer Qian Zhiya, who is the former chief operating officer at one of China’s largest auto rental firms CAR Inc, said her startup will continue to invest in products, technology and business development to improve user experience following the new round.

Luckin raised the fresh capital from existing investors Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC, Chinese government-controlled China International Capital Corporation, Joy Capital and Dazheng Capital. Liu Erhai, founding and managing partner of Joy Capital, joined Luckin’s board of directors following the close of the round. Liu’s investment portfolio includes Car Inc, Facebook’s old Chinese rival Renren and Hong Kong-listed game publisher iDreamsky.

China’s Tencent Music raises $1.1 billion in downsized US IPO

Tencent Music, China’s largest streaming company, has raised $1.1 billion in a U.S. IPO after it priced its shares at $13 a piece ahead of a listing on the Nasdaq.

That makes it one of the largest tech listings of the year, but the pricing is at the bottom end of its $13-$15 range indicating that the much-anticipated IPO has felt the effects of an uncertain market. Indeed, the company is said to have paused the listing process, which it started in early October, for a time so choppy are the waters right now — and that’s not even mentioning a shareholder-led lawsuit that was filed last week.

Still, this listing gives TME — Tencent Music Entertainment, a spin-out of Tencent — an impressive $21.3 billion valuation which is just below the $30 billion that Spotify commanded when it went public earlier this year via an unconventional direct listing. TME was valued at $12 billion at the time of Spotify’s listing in Q1 of this year so this is also a big jump. (Meanwhile, Spotify’s present market cap is around $24 billion.)

The company operates a constellation of music streaming services in China which span orthodox Spotify-style streaming as well as karaoke and live-streaming services. Altogether, TME claims 800 million registered users — although there’s likely a little creative accounting or double counting across apps involved since the Chinese government itself says there are 800 million internet users in the entire country.

Notably, though, TME is profitable. The same can’t be said for Spotify and likely Apple Music — although we don’t have financials for the latter. That’s down to the unique business model that the Chinese firm operates, with subscription and virtual goods a major driver for its businesses, while Tencent’s ubiquitous WeChat messaging app helps it reach users and gain virality.

Tidy though the numbers are, its revenues are dwarfed by those of Spotify, which grossed €1.4 billion ($1.59 billion) in sales in its last quarter. For comparison, TME did RMB 8.6 billion ($1.3 billion) in revenue for the first six months of this year.

TME executives are taking that as a sign that there’s ample scope to grow their business, although it seems unlikely that will ever be as global as Spotify. The two companies might yet collaborate in the future though, since they are both mutual shareholders via a share swap deal that concluded one year ago.

You can read more about TME in our deep dive below.

We also wrote about the lessons Western services like Spotify and Apple Music can learn from TME.

Indonesia e-commerce leader Tokopedia raises $1.1B from Alibaba and SoftBank’s Vision Fund

Indonesia-based e-commerce firm Tokopedia is the latest startup to enter the Vision Fund after it raised $1.1 billion led by the SoftBank megafund and Alibaba.

SoftBank and Alibaba are existing investors in the business — the Chinese e-commerce giant led a $1.1 billion round last year, while SoftBank recently transitioned its shareholding in Tokopedia to the Vision Fund. That latter detail is what held up this deal which had been agreed in principle back in October, TechCrunch understands.

Tokopedia didn’t comment on its valuation, but TechCrunch understands from a source that the deal values the company at $7 billion. SoftBank Ventures Korea and other investors — including Sequoia India — also took part in the deal.

Founded nine years ago, Tokopedia is often compared to Taobao, Alibaba’s hugely successful e-commerce marketplace in China, and the company recently hit four million merchants. Despite this new round, CEO and co-founder William Tanuwijaya told TechCrunch that there are no plans to expand beyond Indonesia, which is Southeast Asia’s largest economy and the world’s fourth most populous country with a population of over 260 million.

“We do not have plans to expand beyond Indonesia at this moment. We will double down on the Indonesia market to reach every corner of our beautiful 17,000-island archipelago,” Tanuwijaya said via an emailed response to questions. (Tokopedia declined a request for an interview over the phone.)

In recent times, Tokopedia has moved into payments, including mobile top-up, and financial services, and Tanuwijaya hinted that it will continue its strategy to become a ‘super app.’

“We will go deeper and serve Indonesians better – from the moment they wake up in the morning until they fall asleep at night; from the moment a person is born, until she or he grows old. We will invest and build technology infrastructure-as-a-services, in logistics and fulfillment, payments and financial services, to empower businesses both online and offline,” Tanuwijaya added.

But, with the Vision Fund comes controversy.

A recent CIA report concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The prince manages Saudi Arabia’s PIF sovereign fund, the gargantuan investment vehicle that anchored the Vision Fund through a $45 billion investment.

SoftBank chairman Masayoshi Son has condemned the killing as an “act against humanity” but, in an analyst presentation, he added that SoftBank has a “responsibility” to Saudi Arabia to deploy the capital and continue the Vision Fund.

“We are deeply concerned by the reported events and alongside SoftBank are monitoring the situation closely until the full facts are known,” Tanuwijaya told us via email, although it remains unclear exactly what Tokopedia could (or would) do even in the worst case scenario. Given that the Trump administration seems focused on continuing the status quo, the situation remains in flux although there’s been plenty of discussion around whether the Saudi link makes the Vision Fund tainted money for founders.

Son himself said he hadn’t heard of any cases of startups refusing an investment from the Vision Fund, but he did admit that there “may be some impact” in the future.

Tanuwijaya didn’t directly address our question on whether he anticipates a backlash from this investment. The Vision Fund’s recent deal with Coupang, Korea’s leading e-commerce firm, doesn’t appear to have generated a negative reaction.

Even the involvement of Alibaba throws up other ethical questions, given that it owns Lazada — which is arguably Southeast Asia’s most prominent e-commerce service.

Unlike Tokopedia, Lazada covers six markets in Southeast Asia and it maintains close links to Alibaba’s Taobao service, giving merchants a channel to reach into the region. According to sources who spoke to TechCrunch earlier this year, Tokopedia’s management was keen to take money from Alibaba’s rival Tencent, but the intervention from SoftBank forced it to bring Alibaba on instead.

Tanuwijaya somewhat diplomatically played down the rivalry and any rift, insisting that there is no impact on its business.

“Tokopedia is an independent company with a diversified cap table,” he said via email. “No single shareholder owns the majority of the company. We work closely with our shareholders’ portfolio companies and tap into available synergies.”

“For example, Tokopedia works closely with both Grab — a SoftBank portfolio — and Gojek — a Sequoia portfolio. We see Lazada having a different business model than us: Lazada is a hybrid of retail and marketplace model, whereas Tokopedia is a pure marketplace. Lazada is [a] regional player, we are a national player in Indonesia,” he added.

More to follow, please refresh for updates

InVision, valued at $1.9 billion, picks up $115 million Series F

“The screen is becoming the most important place in the world,” says InVision CEO and founder Clark Valberg . In fact, it’s hard to get through a conversation with him without hearing it. And, considering that his company has grown to $100 million in annual recurring revenue, he has reason to believe his own affirmation.

InVision, the startup looking to be the Salesforce of design, has officially achieved unicorn status with the close of a $115 million Series F round, bringing the company’s total funding to $350 million. This deal values InVision at $1.9 billion, which is nearly double its valuation as of mid-2017 on the heels of its $100 million Series E financing.

Spark Capital led the round with participation from Goldman Sachs, as well as existing investors Battery Ventures, ICONIQ Capital, Tiger Global Management, FirstMark and Geodesic Capital. Atlassian also participated in the round. Earlier this year, Atlassian and InVision built out much deeper integrations, allowing Jira, Confluence and Trello users to instantly collaborate via InVision.

As part of the deal, Spark Capital’s Megan Quinn will be joining the board alongside existing board members, Amish Jani, Vas Natarajan, Simon Nebel, Lee Fixel, and Mark Hastings.

InVision started out back in 2011 as a simple prototyping tool. It let designers build out their experience without asking the engineering/dev team to actually build it, to then send to the engineering and product and marketing and executive teams for collaboration and/or approval.

Over the years, the company has stretched its efforts both up and downstream in the process, building out a full collaboration suite called InVision Cloud (so that every member of the organization can be involved in the design process), Studio, a design platform meant to take on the likes of Adobe and Sketch, and InVision Design System Manager, where design teams can manage their assets and best practices from one place.

But perhaps more impressive than InVision’s ability to build design products for designers is its ability to attract users that aren’t designers.

“Originally, I don’t think we appreciated how much the freemium model acted as a fly wheel internally within an organization,” said Megan Quinn. “Those designers weren’t just inviting designers from their own team or other teams, but PMs and Marketing and Customer Service and executives to collaborate and approve the designs. From the outside, InVision looks like a design company. But really, they start with the designer as a core customer and spread virally within an organization to serve a multitude.”

InVision has simply dominated prototyping and collaboration, today announcing it has surpassed 5 million users. What’s more, InVision has a wide variety of customers. The startup has a long and impressive list of digital first customers — including Netflix, Uber, Airbnb and Twitter — but also serves 97 percent of the Fortune 100, with customers like Adidas, General Electric, NASA, IKEA, Starbucks, and Toyota.

Part of that can be attributed to the quality of the products, but the fundamental shift to digital (as predicted by Valberg) is most certainly under way. Whether brands like it or not, customers are interacting with them more and more from behind a screen, and digital customer experience is becoming more and more important to all companies.

In fact, a McKinsey study showed that companies that are in the top quartile scores of the McKinsey Design Index outperformed their counterparts in both revenues and total returns to shareholders by as much as a factor of two.

But as with any transition, some folks are adverse to change. Valberg identifies industry education and evangelism as two big challenges for InVision.

“Organizations are not quick to change on things like design, which is why we’ve built out a Design Transformation Team,” said Valberg. “The team goes in and gets hands on with brands to help them with new practices and to achieve design maturity within the organization.”

With a fresh $115 million and 5 million users, InVision has just about everything it needs to step into a new tier of competition. Even amongst behemoths like Adobe, which pulled in $2.29 billion in revenue in Q3 alone, InVision has provided products that can both compliment and compete.

But Quinn believes that the future of InVision rests on execution.

“As with most companies, the biggest challenge will be continued excellence in execution,” said Quinn. “InVision has all the right tail winds with the right team, a great product, and excellent customers. It’s all about building and executing ahead of where the pack is going.”

Payment service Toss becomes Korea’s newest unicorn after raising $80M

South Korea has got its third unicorn startup after Viva Republica, the company beyond popular payment app Toss, announced it has raised an $80 million round at a valuation of $1.2 billion.

This new round is led by U.S. firms Kleiner Perkins and Ribbit Capital, both of which cut their first checks for Korea with this deal. Others participating include existing investors Altos Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, Goodwater Capital, KTB Network, Novel, PayPal and Qualcomm Ventures. The deal comes just six months after Viva Republica raised $40 million to accelerate growth, and it takes the company to nearly $200 million raised from investors to date.

Toss was started in 2013 by former dentist SG Lee who grew frustrated by the cumbersome way online payments worked in Korea. Despite the fact that the country has one of the highest smartphone penetrations rates in the world and is a top user of credit cards, the process required more than a dozen steps and came with limits.

“Before Toss, users required five passwords and around 37 clicks to transfer $10. With Toss users need just one password and three steps to transfer up to KRW 500,000 ($430),” Lee said in a past statement.

Working with traditional finance

Today, Viva Republica claims to have 10 million registered users for Toss — that’s 20 percent of Korea’s 50 million population — while it says that it is “on track” to reach a $18 billion run-rate for transactions in 2018.

The app began as Venmo -style payments, but in recent years it has added more advanced features focused around financial products. Toss users can now access and manage credit, loans, insurance, investment and more from 25 financial service providers, including banks.

Fintech startups are ‘rip it out and start again’ in the West –such as Europe’s challenger banks — but, in Asia, the approach is more collaborative and assistive. A numbe of startups have found a sweet spot in between banks and consumers, helping to match the two selectively and intelligently. In Toss’s case, essentially it acts as a funnel to help traditional banks find and vet customers for services. Thus, Toss is graduating from a peer-to-peer payment service into a banking gateway.

“Korea is a top 10 global economy, but no there’s no Mint or Credit Karma to help people save and spend money smartly,” Lee told TechCrunch in an interview. “We saw the same deep problems we need to solve [as the U.S.] so we’re just digging in.”

“We want to help financial institutions to build on top of Toss… we’re kind of building an Amazon for the financial services industry,” he added. “We try to aggregate all those activities, covering saving accounts, loan products, insurance etc.”

Former dentist SG Lee started Toss in 2013.

Lee said the plan for the new money is to go deeper in Korea by advancing the tech beyond Toss, adding more users and — on the supply side — partnering with more companies to offer financial products.

There’s plenty of competition. Startups like PeopleFund focus squarely on financial products, while Kakao, Korea’s largest messaging platform, has a dedicated fintech division — KakaoPay — which rivals Toss on both payment and financial services. It also counts the mighty Alibaba in its corner courtesy of a $200 million investment from its Ant Financial affiliate.

Alibaba and Tencent tend to move in pairs as opposites, with one naturally gravitating to the rivals of the other’s investees as recently happened in the Philippines. It’s tricky in Korea, though. Tencent is caught in limbo since it is a long-standing Kakao backer. But might the Ant Financial deal spur Tencent into working with Toss?

Lee said his company has a “good relationship” with Tencent, including the occasional home/away visits, but there’s nothing more to it right now. That’s intriguing.

Overseas expansion plans

Also of interest is future plans for the business now that it is taking on significantly more capital from investors who, even with the most patient money out there, eventually need a return on their investment.

Lee is adamant that he won’t sell, despite Viva Republica increasingly looking like an ideal entry point for a payment or finance company that has missed the Korean market and wants in now.

He said that there are plans to do an IPO “at some point,” but a more immediate focus is the opportunity to expand overseas.

When Toss raised a PayPal-led $48 million Series C 18 months ago, Lee told TechCrunch that he was beginning to cast his eyes on opportunities in Southeast Asia, the region of over 650 million consumers, and that’s likely to see definitive action next year. The Viva Republica CEO said that Vietnam could be a first overseas launchpad for Toss.

“We’re thinking seriously about going beyond Korea because sooner or later we will hire saturation point,” Lee said. “We think Vietnam is quite promising. We’ve talked to potential partners and are currently articulating ideas and strategy materialized next year.

“We already have a very successful playbook, we know how to scale among users,” Lee added.

While the plan is still being put together, Lee suggested that Viva Republica would take its time expanding across Southeast Asia, where six distinct countries account for the majority of the region’s population. So, rather than rapidly expanding Toss across those markets, he indicated that a more deliberate, country-by-country launch could be the strategy with Vietnam kicking things off in 2019.

The Toss team at HQ in Seoul, Korea

Korea rising

Toss’s entry into the unicorn club — a vaunted collection of private tech companies valued at $1 billion or more — comes weeks after Coupang, Korea’s top e-commerce company, raised $2 billion at a valuation of $9 billion.

While that Coupang round came from the SoftBank Vision Fund — a source of capital that is threatening to become tainted given its links to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — it does represent the first time that a Korea-based company has joined the $100 billion mega-fund’s portfolio.

Some milestones can be dismissed as frivolous, but these two coming so close together are a signal of increased awareness of the potential of Korea as a startup destination by investors outside of the country.

While Lee admitted that the unicorn valuation “doesn’t change a lot” in daily terms for his business, he did admit that he has seen the landscape shift for Korea’s startup ecosystem — which has only two other privately-held unicorns: Coupang and Yello Mobile.

“More and more global VCs are aware that South Korea is a really good opportunity to do a startup. It is getting easier for our fellow entrepreneurs to pitch and get access to global funds,” he said, adding that Korea’s top 25 cities have a cumulative population (25 million) that matches America’s top 25.

Despite that potential, Korea has tended to focus on its ‘chaebol’ giants like Samsung — which accounts for a double-digital percentage of the national economy — LG, Hyundai and SK. That means a lot of potential startup talent, both founders and employees, is locked up in secure corporate jobs. Throw in the conservative tradition of family expectations, which can make it hard for children to justify leaving the safety of a big company, and it is perhaps no wonder that Korea has relatively fewer startups compared to other economies of comparable size.

But that is changing.

Coupang has been one of the highest profile examples to follow, alongside the (now public) Kakao business. But with Viva Republica, Toss and a charismatic dentist-turned-founder, another startup story is being written and that could just inspire a future generation of entrepreneurs to rise up and be counted in South Korea.

Grab invests $100M into India’s OYO to expand its budget hotel service in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian ride-hailing firm Grab has made its most ambitious investment to date after it backed India-headquartered budget hotel network OYO to the tune of $100 million. The investment was part of a $1 billion Series E round led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund that closed back in September.

The deal was first made public via a regulatory filing in India, as Economic Times reported.

“We can confirm the investment into OYO,” a Grab spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Grab has done a handful of strategic deals thus far, including investments in bike-sharing startup oBike and grocery delivery service HappyFresh, but those have been far smaller and local to Southeast Asia. Its highest acquisition to date is around $100 million for Indonesia-based offline payment network Kudo some 18 months ago.

The deal with OYO is not only far higher but also outside of its immediate home turf, which spans eight countries in Southeast Asia. OYO’s business is heavily focused on India and China, but the company is also active in Nepal, Malaysia and, most recently, the UK. That Series E deal was aimed at funding international growth and it looks like Grab will work closely with the company to help expand its presence in Southeast Asia, a region with over 650 million consumers and a fast growing digital economy.

A source with knowledge of discussions told TechCrunch that Grab was primarily motivated to partner with OYO for its potential to boost its GrabPay service. The core idea here is that GrabPay could become the preferred payment method for OYO in Southeast Asia, thereby boosting Grab’s ambition of dominating the region’s mobile payment space.

OYO claims to have over 10,000 franchised or leased hotels in its network which it says spans 350 cities across five countries, although most of that is concentrated on India and China. In the latter country, OYO says it offers 87,000 rooms in 171 cities after launching in the country in June 2018.

Southeast Asia, where OYO is already present via Malaysia, is an obvious next step and Grab could also give it a helpful boost to reaching customers by including its service on its in-app platform. Months after a deal to buy Uber’s local business in exchange for a 27.5 percent equity stake, Grab unveiled a ‘platform’ designed to aggregate services in the region to give its audience of over 110 million registered users visibility of services that they may like. That, in turn, can help companies tap into the Grab userbase, although some users have complained that Grab’s app is increasingly ‘cluttered’ with additional services and information beyond basic transportation.

Grab has already partnered with travel giant Booking — which recently invested $200 million in its business — to offer deals to its users, and it is quite conceivable that it could do the same with OYO to help the Indian firm’s efforts in Southeast Asia.

The $11 billion-valued ride-hailing firm isn’t short of cash — having raised over $3 billion this year — so it can afford to make the occasional splashy investment. However, it might need a budget reallocation. That’s because Indonesian rival Go-Jek’s continued Southeast Asia expansion is threatening to reignite a subsidiary war that Grab probably thought it had won for good after Uber’s exit. It’ll be interesting to watch how that competition weighs in Grab’s overall effort to go from ride-hailing into the ‘super app’ space, covering payments, local services and more.