India sets rules for commissions, surge pricing for Uber and Ola

Ride-hailing firms such as Ola and Uber can only draw a fee of up to 20% on ride fares in India, New Delhi said in guidelines on Friday, a new setback for the SoftBank-backed firms already struggling to improve their finances in the key overseas market.

The guidelines, which for the first time bring modern-age app-based ride-hailing firms under a regulatory framework in the country, also put a cap on the so-called surge pricing, the fare Uber and Ola charge during hours when their services see peak demands.

According to the guidelines, Ola and Uber — and any other app-operated, ride-hailing firm — can charge a maximum of 1.5 times of the base fare. They can, however, choose to offer their services at 50% of the base fare as well. The rules also state that drivers will not be permitted to work for more than 12 hours in a day, and that the companies need to provide them insurance cover.

Uber and Ola have not previously publicly shared precisely how much they charge their drivers for each ride, but industry estimates show that a driver partner with either of these firms makes up to 74% of the ride fare, after paying taxes. The new guidelines say drivers should get to keep at least 80% of fares.

The cap on the ride fare and implied insurance costs will raise operating costs in India for Uber and Ola, both of which have eliminated jobs in recent months amid the pandemic to trim costs. The South Asian nation, which has attracted many giant international firms in recent years as they look for their next growth market, in the meantime has entered an unprecedented recession.

But not everything about the guidelines will hurt Uber and Ola, both of which had no comment to share on Friday. The rules will enable the companies to offer pooling (shared car) services on private cars, though there is a daily limit of four intra-city rides on such cars, and two weekly inter-city rides.

Ujjwal Chaudhry, an associate partner at Bangalore-based marketing research consulting firm Redseer, said the guidelines by the government will have a mixed impact.

“While it is positive in terms of formalizing the sector as well as increasing the consumer trust on aggregators through improved safety regulations. But, overall the impact of these guidelines on the ecosystem growth are negative as capping surge and platform fee will ultimately lead to reduced earnings for 5 Lac (500,000) drivers (currently on these platforms) and will also lead to increased prices and higher wait times for the 6-8 crore (60 to 80 million) consumers who use it for their mobility and commute needs,” he said in a statement.

The rules also address a range of other factors surrounding a ride. For instance, under no circumstance can the cancellation fee imposed on a rider or driver be more than 10% of the total fare, and the fee cannot exceed 100 Indian rupees, or $1.35. Also, female passengers looking for a pooled service will have the option to share the cab with only female passengers, the rules say. Cab aggregators are also required to establish a control room with round-the-clock operations.

Ola and Uber dominate the app-based ride-hailing market in India. Both the companies claim to lead the market, though SoftBank, a common investor, said recently that Ola had a slight lead over Uber in India.

Alibaba vies for a piece of China’s booming EV market

There’s no lack of news these days on China’s tech giants teaming up with traditional carmakers. Companies from Alibaba to Huawei are striving to become relevant in the trillion-dollar auto industry, which itself is seeking an electric transition and intelligent upgrade as 5G comes of age.

State-owned automaker SAIC Motor, a major player in China, unveiled this week a new electric vehicle arm called Zhiji, in which Alibaba and a Shanghai government-backed entity are minority shareholders. The tie-up comes as Chinese EV startups like Xpeng and Nio and their predecessor Tesla see their stocks soaring in recent months.

Alibaba’s ties with SAIC can be traced back to 2015 when they jointly announced a $160 million investment in internet-connected cars. The partners moved on to form a joint venture called Banma (or ‘Zebra’) and Alibaba has since developed a slew of auto solutions for the Banma platform to enable everything from voice-activated navigation to voice ordering coffee, which is, of course, linked to the Alipay e-wallet.

Alibaba is certainly not SAIC’s exclusive supplier, as it’s also worked closely with the likes of BMW and Audi as well over the years.

For SAIC’s new EV brand, Alibaba will continue to be its “technology solution provider,” an Alibaba spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The other tech giant making big moves in auto is Huawei. Just this week, the telecoms equipment and smartphone maker announced it would fold its smart car unit into its consumer business group, which previously focused on handsets. The expanded group will continue to be steered by Richard Yu, regarded as the man who helped grow Huawei from an underdog in the mobile industry to a leading global player.

Huawei’s ambition in auto is “not to manufacture cars but to focus on developing ICT [information and communications technology] to assist automakers in producing cars,” the firm asserts in the statement, addressing rumors that it wants to encroach on traditional carmakers’ turf.

Huawei’s phone business has taken a hit since U.S. sanctions hobbled its supply chain. It sold its budget phone brand Honor recently in the hope that the spinoff, independent from Huawei, will be free from trade curbs.

TikTok’s epic rise and stumble

TikTok’s rise in the West is unprecedented for any Chinese tech company, and so is the amount of attention it has attracted from politicians worldwide. Below is a timeline of how TikTok grew from what some considered another “copycat” short video app to global dominance and eventually became a target of the U.S. government.

2012-2017: The emergence of TikTok

These years were a period of fast growth for ByteDance, the Beijing-based parent company behind TikTok. Originally launched in China as Douyin, the video-sharing app quickly was wildly successful in its domestic market before setting its sights on the rest of the world. 

2012 

Zhang Yiming, a 29-year-old serial engineer, establishes ByteDance in Beijing.

2014

Chinese product designer Alex Zhu launches Musical.ly.

2016

ByteDance launches Douyin, which is regarded by many as a Musical.ly clone. It launches Douyin’s overseas version TikTok later that year.

2017-2019: TikTok takes off in the United States

TikTok merges with Musical.ly and and launches in the U.S., where it quickly becomes popular, the first social media app from a Chinese tech company to achieve that level of success there. But at the same time, its ownership leads to questions about national security and censorship, against the backdrop of the U.S.-China tariff wars and increased scrutiny of Chinese tech companies (including Huawei and ZTE) under the Trump administration.

2017

November

ByteDance buys Musical.ly for $800 million to $1 billion. (link)

2018

August

TikTok merges with Musical.ly and becomes available in the U.S. (link)

October

TikTok surpassed Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube in downloads. (link)

November

Facebook launches TikTok rival Lasso. (link)

2019

February

TikTok reaches one billion installs on the App Store and Google Play. (link)

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission fines TikTok $5.7 million over violation of children privacy law. (link)

May

TikTok tops the App Store for the fifth quarter in a row. (link)

September

TikTok is found censoring topics considered sensitive by the Beijing government. (link)

October

TikTok bans political ads (link) but does not appear to take action on hashtags related to American politics. (link)

TikTok taps corporate law firm K&L Gates for advice on content moderation in the U.S. (link)

U.S. lawmakers ask intelligence chief Joseph Maguire to investigate if TikTok poses a threat to national security. (link)

TikTok says it has never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and would not do so if asked. (link)

November

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States reportedly opens a national security probe into TikTok. (link)

Instagram launches TikTok rival Reels. (link)

TikTok apologizes for removing a viral video about abuses against Uighurs. (link)

December

The U.S. Navy reportedly bans TikTok. (link)

The first half of 2020: Growth amid government scrutiny

The app is now a mainstay of online culture in America, especially among Generation Z, and its user base has grown even wider as people seek diversions during the COVID-19 pandemic. But TikTok faces an escalating series of government actions, creating confusion about its future in America. 

A man wearing a shirt promoting TikTok is seen at an Apple store in Beijing

A man wearing a shirt promoting TikTok is seen at an Apple store in Beijing on Friday, July 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

2020

January

Revived Dubsmash grows into TikTok’s imminent rival. (link)

March

TikTok lets outside experts examine its moderation practices at its “transparency center.” (link)

Senators introduce a bill to restrict the use of TikTok on government devices. (link)

TikTok brings in outside experts to craft content policies. (link)

April

TikTok introduces parental controls. (link)

TikTok tops two billion downloads. (link)

June

TikTok discloses how its content recommendation system works. (link)

YouTube launches TikTok rival. (link)

July

Facebook shuts down TikTok rival Lasso. (link)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the U.S. is looking to ban TikTok. (link)

TikTok announced a $200 million fund for U.S. creators. (link)

Trump told reporters he will use executive power to ban TikTok. (link)

The second half of 2020: TikTok versus the U.S. government

After weeks of speculation, Trump signs an executive order in August against ByteDance. ByteDance begins seeking American buyers for TikTok, but the company also fights the executive order in court. A group of TikTok creators also file a lawsuit challenging the order. The last few months of 2020 become a relentless, and often confusing, flurry of events and new developments for TikTok observers, with no end in sight. 

August

Reports say ByteDance agrees to divest TikTok’s U.S. operations and Microsoft will take over. (link)

Trump signals opposition to the ByteDance-Microsoft deal. (link)

Microsoft announces discussions about the TikTok purchase will complete no later than September 15. (link)

Trump shifts tone and says he expects a cut from the TikTok sale. (link)

TikTok broadens fact-checking partnerships ahead of the U.S. election. (link)

August 7: In the most significant escalation of tensions between the U.S. government and TikTok, Trump signs an executive order banning “transactions” with ByteDance in 45 days, or on September 20. (link). TikTok says the order was “issued without any due process” and would risk “undermining global businesses’ trust in the United States’ commitment to the rule of law.” (link)

August 9: TikTok reportedly plans to challenge the Trump administration ban. (link)

Oracle is also reportedly bidding for the TikTok sale. (link)

August 24: TikTok and ByteDance file their first lawsuit in federal court against the executive order, naming President Trump, Secretary of State Wilbur Ross and the U.S. Department of Commerce as defendants. The suit seeks to prevent the government from banning TikTok. Filed in U.S. District Court Central District of California (case number 2:20-cv-7672), it claims Trump’s executive order is unconstitutional.  (link)

TikTok reaches 100 million users in the U.S. (link)

August 27: TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer resigns after 100 days. (link)

Kevin Mayer (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)

Walmart says it has expressed interest in teaming up with Microsoft to bid for TikTok. (link)

August 28: China’s revised export laws could block TikTok’s divestment. (link)

September

China says it would rather see TikTok shuttered than sold to an American firm. (link)

September 13: Oracle confirms it is part of a proposal submitted by ByteDance to the Treasury Department in which Oracle will serve as the “trusted technology provider.” (link)

September 18: The Commerce Department publishes regulations against TikTok that will take effect in two phases. The app will no longer be distributed in U.S. app stores as of September 20, but it gets an extension on how it operates until November 12. After that, however, it will no longer be able to use internet hosting services in the U.S., rendering it inaccessible.  (link)

On the same day as the Commerce Department’s announcement, two separate lawsuits are filed against Trump’s executive order against TikTok. One is filed by ByteDance, while the other is by three TikTok creators.

The one filed by TikTok and ByteDance is in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (case number 20-cv-02658), naming President Trump, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and the Commerce Department as defendants. It is very similar to the suit ByteDance previously filed in California. TikTok and ByteDance’s lawyers argue that Trump’s executive order violates the Administrative Procedure Act, the right to free speech, and due process and takings clauses.

The other lawsuit, filed by TikTok creators Douglas Marland, Cosette Rinab and Alec Chambers, also names the president, Ross and the Department of Commerce as defendants. The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (case number 2:20-cv-04597), argues that Trump’s executive order “violates the first and fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution and exceeds the President’s statutory authority.”

September 19: One day before the September 20 deadline that would have forced Google and Apple to remove TikTok from their app stores, the Commerce Department extends it by a week to September 27. This is reportedly to give ByteDance, Oracle and Walmart time to finalize their deal.

On the same day, Marland, Rinab and Chambers, the three TikTok creators, file their first motion for a preliminary injunction against Trump’s executive order. They argue that the executive order violates freedom of speech and deprives them of “protected liberty and property interests without due process,” because if a ban goes into effect, it would prevent them from making income from TikTok-related activities, like promotional and branding work.

September 20: After filing the D.C. District Court lawsuit against Trump’s executive order, TikTok and ByteDance formally withdraw their similar pending suit in the U.S. District Court of Central District of California.

September 21: ByteDance and Oracle confirm the deal but send conflicting statements over TikTok’s new ownership. TikTok is valued at an estimated $60 billion. (link)

September 22: China’s state newspaper says China won’t approve the TikTok sale, labeling it “extortion.” (link)

September 23: TikTok and ByteDance ask the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to grant a preliminary injunction against the executive order, arguing that the September 27 ban removing TikTok from app stores will “inflict direct, immediate, and irreparable harm on Plaintiffs during the pendency of this case.” (link)

September 26: U.S. District Court Judge Wendy Beetlestone denies Marland, Rinab and Chambers’ motion for a preliminary injunction against the executive order, writing that the three did not demonstrate “they will suffer immediate, irreparable harm if users and prospective users cannot download or update” TikTok after September 27, since they will still be able to use the app.

September 27: Just hours before the TikTok ban was set to go into effect, U.S. District Court Judge Carl J. Nichols grants ByteDance’s request for a preliminary injunction while the court considers whether the app poses a risk to national security. (link)

September 29: TikTok launches a U.S. election guide in the app. (link)

October

comedian Sarah Cooper's page is displayed on the TikTok app

WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 07: In this photo illustration, comedian Sarah Cooper’s page is displayed on the TikTok app. (Photo Illustration by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Snapchat launches a TikTok rival. (link)

TikTok says it’s enforcing actions against hate speech. (link)

TikTok partners with Shopify on social commerce (link)

October 13: After failing to win their first request for a preliminary injunction, TikTok creators Marland, Rinab and Chambers file a second one. This time, their request focuses on the Commerce Department’s November 12 deadline, which they say will make it impossible for users to access or post content on TikTok if it goes into effect.

October 30: U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone grants TikTok creators Marland, Chambers and Rinab’s second request for a preliminary injunction against the TikTok ban. (link)

November

November 7: After five days of waiting for vote counts, Joe Biden is declared the president-elect by CNN, followed by the AP, NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox News. With Biden set to be sworn in as president on January 20, the future of Trump’s executive order against TikTok becomes even more uncertain.

November 10: ByteDance asks the federal appeal court to vacate the U.S. government’s divestiture order that would force it to sell the app’s American operations by November 12. Filed as part of the lawsuit in D.C. District Court, ByteDance said it asked the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States for an extension, but hadn’t been granted one yet. (link)

November 12: This is the day that the Commerce Department’s ban on transactions with ByteDance, including providing internet hosting services to TikTok (which would stop the app from being able to operate in the U.S.), was set to go into effect. But instead the case becomes more convoluted as the U.S. government sends mixed messages about TikTok’s future.

The Commerce Department says it will abide by the preliminary injunction granted on October 30 by Judge Beetlestone, pending further legal developments. But, around the same time, the Justice Department files an appeal against Beetlestone’s ruling. Then Judge Nichols sets new deadlines (December 14 and 28) in the D.C. District Court lawsuit (the one filed by ByteDance against the Trump administration) for both sides to file motions and other new documents in the case. (link)

November 25: The Trump administration grants ByteDance a seven-day extension of the divestiture order. The deadline for ByteDance to finalize a sale of TikTok is now December 4.

This timeline will be updated as developments occur.

Tiger Global invests in India’s Unacademy at $2 billion valuation

Unacademy, an online learning platform in India, has added two more marquee investors to its cap table. The Bangalore-based startup, which focuses on K-12 online education, said on Wednesday it has raised new funds from Tiger Global Management and Dragoneer Investment Group.

The funding round, which is between $75 million to $100 million in size (according to a person familiar with the matter; Unacademy has not disclosed the figure), valued the four-and-a-half-year-old startup at $2 billion, up from about $500 million in February this year when Facebook joined its list of backers, and $1.45 billion in September, when SoftBank led the round.

“Our mission from Day One has been to democratise education and make it more affordable and accessible. We have consistently built the most iconic products that deliver high quality education to everyone. Today, I’m delighted to welcome Tiger Global and Dragoneer as our partners in the journey. They are both marquee global investors with a history of partnering with innovative companies that are making an impact on people’s lives,” said Gaurav Munjal, co-founder and chief executive of Unacademy, in a statement.

Unacademy helps students prepare for competitive exams to get into a college, as well as those who are pursuing graduate-level courses. On its app, students watch live classes from educators and later engage in sessions to review topics in more detail. In recent months, the startup has held several online interviews of high-profile individuals, such as Indian politician Shashi Tharoor, on a range of topics, which has expanded its appeal beyond its student base.

The platform has amassed over 47,000 educators, who teach students in 5,000 cities in India in over 14 languages. Over 150,000 live classes are conducted on the platform each month and the collective watch time across platforms is over 2 billion minutes per month, the startup said.

“The opportunity to improve lives through online education is enormous because of its sheer accessibility. The Unacademy team has innovated rapidly to build a leading platform that is taking education to the farthest corners of India. We are very excited to partner with Unacademy and look forward to seeing it scale further,” said Scott Shleifer, Partner at Tiger Global, in a statement.

More to follow…

The FCC rejects ZTE’s petition to stop designating it a “national security threat”

The Federal Communications Commission has rejected ZTE’s petition to remove its designation as a “national security threat.” This means that American companies will continue to be barred from using the FCC’s $8.3 billion Universal Service Fund to buy equipment and services from ZTE .

The Universal Service Fund includes subsidies to build telecommunication infrastructure across the United States, especially for low-income or high-cost areas, rural telehealth services, and schools and libraries. The FCC issued an order on June 30 banning U.S. companies from using the fund to buy technology from Huawei and ZTE, claiming that both companies have close ties with the Chinese Communist Party and military.

Many smaller carriers rely on Huawei and ZTE, two of the world’s biggest telecom equipment providers, for cost-efficient technology. After surveying carriers, the FCC estimated in September that replacing Huawei and ZTE equipment would cost more than $1.8 billion.

Under the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act, passed by Congress this year, most of that amount would be eligible for reimbursements under a program referred to as “rip and replace.” But the program has not been funded by Congress yet, despite bipartisan support.

In today’s announcement about ZTE, chairman Ajit Pai also said the FCC will vote on rules to implement the reimbursement program at its next Open Meeting, scheduled to take place on December 10.

The FCC passed its order barring companies deemed national security threats from receiving money from the Universal Service Fund in November 2019. Huawei fought back by suing the FCC over the ban, claiming it exceeded the agency’s authority and violated the Constitution.

TechCrunch has contacted ZTE for comment.

Police case filed against Netflix executives in India over ‘A Suitable Boy’ kissing scene

Netflix, which has invested more than $500 million to gain a foothold in India in recent years, is slowly finding out just about what all could upset some people in the world’s second-largest internet market: Apparently everything.

A police case has been filed this week against two top executives of the American streaming service in India after a leader of the governing party objected to some scenes in a TV series.

The show, “A Suitable Boy,” is an adaptation of the award-winning novel by Indian author Vikram Seth that follows the life of a young girl. It has a scene in which the protagonist is seeing kissing a Muslim boy at a Hindu temple.

Narottam Mishra, the interior minister of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, said a First Information Report (an official police complaint) had been filed against Monika Shergill, VP of Content at Netflix and Ambika Khurana, Director of Public Policies for the firm, over objectionable scenes in the show that hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus.

“I had asked officials to examine the series ‘A Suitable Boy’ being streamed on Netflix to check if kissing scenes in it were filmed in a temple and if it hurt religious sentiments. The examination prima facie found that these scenes are hurting the sentiments of a particular religion,” he said.

Gaurav Tiwari, a BJP youth leader who filed the complaint, demanded an apology from Netflix and makers of the series (directed by award-winning filmmaker Mira Nair), and said the film promoted “love jihad,” an Islamophobic conspiracy theory that alleges that Muslim men entice Hindi women into converting their religion under the pretext of marriage.

Netflix declined to comment.

In recent days, a number of people have expressed on social media their anger at Netflix over these “objectionable” scenes. Though it is unclear if all of them — if any — are a Netflix subscriber.

The incident comes weeks after an ad from the luxury jewelry brand Tanishq — part of the 152-year-old salt-to-steel conglomerate — which celebrated interfaith marriage received intense backlash in the country.

For Netflix, the timing of this backlash isn’t great. The new incident comes days after the Indian government announced new rules for digital media, under which the nation’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting will be regulating online streaming services. Prior to this new rule, India’s IT ministry oversaw streaming services, and according to a top streaming service executive, online services enjoyed a great degree of freedom.

New venture firm The-Wolfpack takes a fresh approach to D2C startups

The-Wolfpack’s co-founders, Toh Jin Wei, Tan Kok Chin and Simon Nichols

The-Wolfpack’s co-founders, Toh Jin Wei, Tan Kok Chin and Simon Nichols (Image Credit: The-Wolfpack)

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the consumer, leisure and media companies hard, but a new venture firm called The-Wolfpack is still very upbeat on those sectors. Based in Singapore, the firm was founded by former managing directors at GroupM, one of the world’s largest advertising and media companies, and plans to work very closely with each of its portfolio companies. Its name was chosen because they believe “entrepreneurs thrive best in a wolfpack.”

The-Wolfpack’s debut fund, called the Wolfpack Pioneer VCC, is already fully subscribed at $5 million USD, and will focus on direct-to-consumer companies, with plans to invest in eight to 10 startups. The firm is already looking to raise a second fund, with a target of $20 million SGD (about $14.9 million USD) and above, and will set up another office in Thailand, with plans to expand into Indonesia as well.

The-Wolfpack was founded by Toh Jin Wei and Simon Nichols, who met while working at GroupM, and Tan Kok Chin, a former director at Sunray Woodcraft Construction who has worked on projects with Marina Bay Sands, Raffles Hotel and the Singapore Tourism’s offices.

In addition to providing financial capital, The-Wolfpack wants to build ecosystems around its portfolio companies by connecting them with IP owners, digital marketing experts, content producers and designers who can help create offline experiences. It also plans to invest in startups based on opportunities for them to collaborate or cross-sell with one another.

Toh told TechCrunch that formal planning on The-Wolfpack began at the end of 2019, but he and Nichols started thinking of launching their own business five years ago while working together at GroupM.

“Our perspective on what the industry needed was similar — strategic investors who truly knew how to get behind D2C founders,” Toh said.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact has hurt spending in The-Wolfpack’s three key sectors (consumer, leisure and media). But it also presents opportunities for innovation as consumer habits shift, Nichols said.

For example, even though consumer spending has dropped, people are still “drawn towards brands that build towards higher-quality engagements,” he said. “There is a real business advantage for D2C brands who’ve recognized this shift and know how to act on it.”

The-Wolfpack hasn’t disclosed its investments yet since deals are still being finalized, but some of the brands its debut fund are interested in include one launched by an Australian makeup artist who wants to scale to Southeast Asia, and an online gaming company whose ecosystem includes original content, gaming teams and studios. The-Wolfpack plans to help them set up a physical studio to create an offline experience, too.

“Typically brands have talked at customers, but it’s become a two-way conversation, and startups who get D2C right have a real potential for exponential growth that’s worth investing in,” said Toh.

India bans 43 more Chinese apps over cybersecurity concerns

India is not done banning Chinese apps. The world’s second largest internet market, which has banned over 175 apps with links to the neighboring nation in recent months, said on Tuesday it was banning an additional 43 such apps.

Like with the previous orders, India cited cybersecurity concerns to block these apps. “This action was taken based on the inputs regarding these apps for engaging in activities which are prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order,” said India’s IT Ministry in a statement.

The ministry said it issued the order to block these apps “based on the comprehensive reports received from Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Center, Ministry of Home Affairs.”

The apps that have been banned include popular short video service Snack Video, which had surged to the top of the chart in recent months, as well as e-commerce app AliExpress, delivery app Lalamove, and shopping app Taobao Live. Full list here. At this point, there doesn’t appear to be any Chinese app left in the top 500 apps used in India.

Tuesday order comes as a handful of apps including PUBG Mobile and TikTok, both of which identified India as their biggest overseas market, are exploring ways to make a return to the country. In recent weeks, PUBG has registered a local entity in India, partnered with Microsoft for computing needs, and publicly vowed to invest $100 million in the country. It is yet to hear from the government, people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

Tensions between the world’s two most populous nations escalated after more than 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a military clash in the Himalayas in June. Ever since, “Boycott China” sentiment has trended on social media in India as a growing number of people post videos demonstrating destruction of Chinese-made smartphones, TVs and other products.

In April, India also made a change to its foreign investment policy that requires Chinese investors — who have ploughed billions of dollars into Indian startups in recent years — to take approval from New Delhi before they could write new checks to Indian firms. The move has significantly reduced Chinese investors’ presence in Indian startups’ deal flows in the months since.

Google-backed Chinese truck-hailing firm Manbang raises $1.7 billion

The Chinese Uber for trucks Manbang announced Tuesday that it has raised $1.7 billion in its latest funding round, two years after it hauled in $1.9 billion from investors including SoftBank Group and Alphabet Inc’s venture capital fund CapitalG.

The news came fresh off a Wall Street Journal report two weeks ago that Manbang was seeking $1 billion ahead of an initial public offering next year. The company declined to comment on the matter, though its CEO Zhang Hui said in May 2019 that the firm was “not in a rush” to go public.

Manbang said it achieved profitability this year. Its valuation was reportedly on course to reach $10 billion in 2018.

The company, which runs an app matching truck drivers and merchants transporting cargo and provides financial services to truckers, was formed from a merger between rivals Yunmanman and Huochebang in 2017. It was a time when China’s “sharing economy” craze began to see consolidation and shakeup.

The latest financing again attracted high-profile backers, including returning investors SoftBank Vision Fund and Sequoia Capital China, Permira and Fidelity, a consortium that co-led the round. Other participants were Hillhouse Capital, GGV Capital, Lightspeed China Partners, Tencent, Jack Ma’s YF Capital and more.

The company has other Alibaba ties. Its CEO Zhang, who founded Yunmanman, hailed from Alibaba’s famed B2B department where Manbang chairman Wang Gang also worked before he went on to fund ride-hailing giant Didi’s angel round.

Manbang claims its platform has over 10 million verified drivers and 5 million cargo owners. The latest funding will allow it to further invest in research and development, upgrade its matching system, and expand its service capacity to functions like door-to-door transportation.

Sequoia is quite bullish about truck-hailing as it made its sixth investment in Manbang. For Permira, a European private equity fund, the Manbang investment marked the China debut of its Growth Opportunities Fund.

Recycling robotics company AMP Robotics could raise up to $70M

AMP Robotics, the recycling robotics technology developer backed by investors including Sequoia Capital and Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, is close to closing on as much as $70 million in new financing, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the company’s plans.

The new financing speaks to AMP Robotics’ continued success in pilot projects and with new partnerships that are exponentially expanding the company’s deployments.

Earlier this month the company announced a new deal that represented its largest purchase order for its trash sorting and recycling robots.

That order, for 24 machine learning-enabled robotic recycling systems with the waste handling company Waste Connections, was a showcase for the efficacy of the company’s recycling technology.

That comes on the back of a pilot program earlier in the year with one Toronto apartment complex, where the complex’s tenants were able to opt into a program that would share recycling habits monitored by AMP Robotics with the building’s renters in an effort to improve their recycling behavior.

The potential benefits of AMP Robotic’s machine learning enabled robots are undeniable. The company’s technology can sort waste streams in ways that traditional systems never could and at a cost that’s far lower than most waste handling facilities.

As TechCrunch reported earlier the tech can tell the difference between high-density polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate, low-density polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene. The robots can also sort for color, clarity, opacity and shapes like lids, tubs, clamshells and cups — the robots can even identify the brands on packaging.

AMP’s robots already have been deployed in North America, Asia and Europe, with recent installations in Spain and across the U.S. in California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.

At the beginning of the year, AMP Robotics  worked with its investor, Sidewalk Labs on a pilot program that provided residents of a single apartment building representing 250 units in Toronto with detailed information about their recycling habits. Sidewalk Labs is transporting the waste to a Canada Fibers material recovery facility where trash is sorted by both Canada Fibers employees and AMP Robotics.

Once the waste is categorized, sorted and recorded, Sidewalk communicates with residents of the building about how they’re doing in their recycling efforts.

It was only last November that the Denver-based AMP Robotics raised a $16 million round from Sequoia Capital and others to finance the early commercialization of its technology.

 

As TechCrunch reported at the time, recycling businesses used to be able to rely on China to buy up any waste stream (no matter the quality of the material). However, about two years ago, China decided it would no longer serve as the world’s garbage dump and put strict standards in place for the kinds of raw materials it would be willing to receive from other countries.

The result has been higher costs at recycling facilities, which actually are now required to sort their garbage more effectively. At the time, unemployment rates put the squeeze on labor availability at facilities where trash was sorted. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has put even more pressure on those recycling and waste handling facilities, despite their identification as “essential workers”.

Given the economic reality, recyclers are turning to AMP’s technology — a combination of computer vision, machine learning and robotic automation to improve efficiencies at their facilities.

And, the power of AMP’s technology to identify waste products in a stream has other benefits, according to chief executive Matanya Horowitz.

“We can identify… whether it’s a Coke or Pepsi can or a Starbucks cup,” Horowitz told TechCrunch last year. “So that people can help design their product for circularity… we’re building out our reporting capabilities and that, to them, is something that is of high interest.”

AMP Robotics declined to comment for this article.