World’s most valuable AI startup SenseTime unveils self-driving center in Japan

The world’s highest-valued artificial intelligence startup SenseTime has set foot in Japan. The Beijing-based firm announced on Friday that it just opened a self-driving facility in Joso, a historic city 50 kilometers away from Tokyo where it plans to conduct R&D and road test driverless vehicles.

The initiative follows its agreement with Japanese auto giant Honda in 2017 to jointly work on autonomous driving technology. SenseTime, which is backed by Alibaba and last valued at more than $4.5 billion, is best known for object recognition technologies that have been deployed in China widely across retail, healthcare and public security. Bloomberg reported this week that the AI upstart is raising $2 billion in fresh funding,

Four-year-old SenseTime isn’t the only Chinese AI company finding opportunities in Japan. China’s biggest search engine provider Baidu is also bringing autonomous vehicles to its neighboring country, a move made possible through a partnership with SoftBank’s smart bus project SB Drive and Chinese automaker King Long.

Japan has in recent years made a big investment push in AI and autonomous driving, which could help it cope with an aging and declining workfoce. The government aims to put driverless cars on Tokyo’s public roads by 2020 when the Olympics takes place. The capital city said it already successfully trialled autonomous taxis last August.

SenseTime’s test park, which is situated near Japan’s famed innovation hub Tsukuba Science City, will be open to local residents who could check out the vehicles slated to transport them in a few years.

“We are glad to have the company setting up an R&D center for autonomous driving in our city,” said Mayor of Joso Takeshi Kandatsu in a statement. “I believe autonomous driving vehicles will bring not only revolutionary changes to our traffic system, but also solutions to regional traffic problems. With the help of SenseTime, I look forward to seeing autonomous cars running on the roads of Joso. We will give full support to make it happen.”

Mr Jeff bags $12M Series A to replace trips to the laundromat

If you thought the on-demand laundry space had run out of startup steam here’s a bit of a conditioner: Madrid-based startup, Mr Jeff, has bagged a $12M Series A, led by All Iron Ventures.

The 2016-founded firm currently offers home laundry and dry cleaning services, including on-demand and monthly subscription options, in seven countries, with a focus on LatAm. Last August it acquired Brazilian laundry franchise, Lava é Leva, to move into another market in the region.

The franchise model sets the approach apart from some other on-demand laundry startups that already folded. That and a focus on markets with lower rates of washing machine ownership. Ergo, they’re disrupting trips to the laundromat.

The company closed 2018 with more than 1,000 franchises operating, and more than 150 direct employees plus 2,400+ indirect employees working to turn the customer’s in-app tap into clean and ironed clothes returned to them within 48 hours.

Flush with new funding, Mr Jeff says it’s aiming to have franchises operating in 30 countries by the end of 2019, looking east to Asia. It also plans to consolidate its LatAm position by expanding its operations in Panama, Costa Rica and Uruguay.

Prior to the Series A, it had raised around $3.5M in seed funding, including from European entrepreneurs such as Albert Armengol (CEO of Doctoralia), Jeroen Merchiers (Managing Director of Airbnb Europe, Middle East and Africa), and Kim Jung ( CEO NX Corp).

It adds that a majority of its earlier investors have opted to continue to support the company by participating in the Series A.

Emeritus, which develops online courses with universities, raises $40M

The funding streak for educational startups in Asia continues into 2019 after Emeritus, a U.S-Indian company that partners with universities to offer digital courses, landed a $40 million Series C round led by Sequoia India.

The deal includes participation from existing investor Bertelsmann India Investments, and it takes Emeritus — founded in 2010 as offline management program company Eruditus — to around $50 million from investors to date. It also follows notable rounds in December for India-based education companies Byju’s ($540 million) and Toppr ($35 million).

Emeritus is the online branch of Eruditus. It was founded in 2014 as a response to the growth in digital learning. Specifically, it took the core elements of the Eruditus — which include helping educational institutions design new curriculums — and applied it to the online space to develop certificate courses and online degrees.

The company has offices in Boston — where it works to develop curriculum content — as well as Dubai, Mexico, Mumbai and Singapore. In total, it has some 350 employees while its partners include MIT, Columbia, Tuck at Dartmouth, Wharton, UC Berkeley and London Business School.

Today, Emeritus accounts for most of the business’s growth potential and it is really the focus of this investment, co-founder and director Ashwin Damera told TechCrunch in an interview.

“We’re helping working professionals who can’t otherwise come to these schools to access high-quality educational content online,” Damera said. “It’s very different from a MOOC [such as Coursera or Udemy], we are a SPOC — small, private, online course.”

For one thing, all Emeritus courses are run in collaboration with universities, they tend to attract older students — since they are masters level — and their completion rates are around 90 percent, according to Damera. Students on a course, he said, are broken down into sections of around 100 and then smaller working groups of around six, much like traditional offline courses.

Emeritus said it will enroll 30,000 students from 80 countries during this current financial year. That’s a figure that Damera wants to grow ten-fold over the next five years.

The company’s strategy to reach that lofty goal revolves around widening its reach to new audiences. A key part of that focus is to expand its existing English and Spanish content libraries, and develop content in Portuguese and Mandarin for the first time. Interestingly, in the case of China, Emeritus is open to a potential acquisition or a joint venture to get a local business up and running.

Right now, Damera said that just 70 percent of students are based overseas. In addition to accommodating additional international languages, he said that global push will mean the company will develop its tech stack to enable a greater more mobile-based content for students.

But, beyond those perhaps obvious areas, Emeritus is examining the potential to offer newer products and courses at more affordable prices. In particular, Damera believes there is a “huge opportunity” to apply itself to bachelor degree education although he plans to expand its master degrees first.

Crypto mining giant Bitmain is reportedly getting a new CEO as its IPO plan stalls

Bitmain, the Chinese crypto miner maker, looks like it has reached an interesting point in its pathway to going public. There’s been little heard since the company filed to go public in Hong Kong in September, but now it appears that a new CEO has been hired and its two founders are leaving.

That’s according to a report from SCMP which — citing two sources — said Wang Haichao, Bitmain’s director of product engineering, has assumed CEO duties following a transition that began in December. Founders Wu Jihan (pictured above) and Zhan Ketuan will be co-chairs with Wang described as the “potential successor.”

The publication said that it isn’t clear when a new CEO will be named, or indeed whether an outside appointment will be made.

Bitmain declined to comment on the report when asked by TechCrunch.

The company, which is said to have been valued as high as $15 billion, certainly appears to have stalled with its IPO following the filing of an application on September 26. That document opened up a treasure trove of financial information regarding the company, which is estimated to supply around three-quarters of the world’s crypto mining machines.

Indeed, Bitmain’s IPO filing showed heady growth in revenue. The company grossed more than $2.5 billion in revenue in 2017, a near-10X leap on the $278 million it claimed for 2016, while sales in the first six months of last year surpassed $2.8 billion.

However, there were no figures for Q3 2018 and, since September, the price of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency has plummeted further still, therein reducing the appeal of buying a mining machine and likely impacting Bitmain’s sales.

Bitmain saw impressive revenue growth as the crypto market grew, but it isn’t clear how the business weathered the price slump that affected the market in 2017

We reported that the company likely made a loss of around $400 million in that Q3 quarter. Things are likely to have been trickier still in Q4, as crypto prices dropped so low that mining companies in China were reported to be selling off machines because the cost of power to mine was lower than the reward for doing so.

Bitmain has diversified into non-mining services, to its credit, but its efforts to grow Bitcoin Cash — a controversial fork of Bitcoin — have been controversial and likely loss-making, to boot.

The price of Bitcoin Cash is currently $162 at the timing of writing, that’s down significantly from around $2,500 one year ago. That doesn’t bode well for Bitmain’s investment into the cryptocurrency, and it likely explains why the company has made layoffs, like others in the crypto space.

What a difference four months can make. The challenge for the company’s (apparent) new CEO is certainly a daunting one.

But Bitmain’s struggle isn’t unprecedented. Just this week, its closest rival — Canaan — was linked with a U.S. IPO. The company had planned to go public in Hong Kong last year but it allowed its application to expire as crypto market prices went south.

There’s plenty to watch out for in the mining space in 2019!

Editorial note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Thailand issues its first licenses to 4 crypto exchanges

Thailand has joined Japan in regulating crypto exchanges after it issued its first licenses to four applicants.

The four that were approved as licensed brokers and dealers of cryptocurrencies in the country are Bx, Bitkub, Coins and Satang Pro. One other exchange — Coin Asset — is under extended review after replacing its management team in a bid to win a license.

But two that failed to win a license — Cash2Coins and Southeast Asia Digital Exchange — will shut down this month. They have until January 14 to notify their customers and move any assets outside of their exchanges. The companies were rejected on account of insufficient know your customer (KYC) processes and inadequate IT infrastructure, according to a report from the Bangkok Post.

The deal has been hailed as a major step forward for the legitimacy of cryptocurrencies in Thailand.

“We can partner with traditional financial institutions, brokers, e-wallets etc to offer more financial products to customers,” Jirayut Srupsrisopa, the founder of Bitkub, told TechCrunch. “The bottleneck was the regulation.”

The move could help Thailand establish itself as a hub for the blockchain industry in Asia. The country announced regulation for ICOs — initial coin offerings — last year and it is said to considering moves to loosen those rules. That, combined with licensed exchanges, could appeal to those who seek ‘regulatory havens’ in light of China’s ban on crypto and increased activity from the SEC in the U.S.

But Thailand is up against stiff competition to attract blockchain projects and talent.

Singapore has established itself as a global hub for ICOs while it has a wider pool of developers than most of Southeast Asia. Japan was the first to regulate crypto exchanges — there are currently over a dozen licensed and the exchange industry has been granted self-regulatory status — while Vietnam had made its name as blockchain talent hub with China’s Huboi and Quoine, the parent company of the Liquid exchange, among the companies operating local offices.

Hong Kong has also said in the last year that it may license exchanges, now it has another model to look at for ideas.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Thailand issues its first licenses to 4 crypto exchanges

Thailand has joined Japan in regulating crypto exchanges after it issued its first licenses to four applicants.

The four that were approved as licensed brokers and dealers of cryptocurrencies in the country are Bx, Bitkub, Coins and Satang Pro. One other exchange — Coin Asset — is under extended review after replacing its management team in a bid to win a license.

But two that failed to win a license — Cash2Coins and Southeast Asia Digital Exchange — will shut down this month. They have until January 14 to notify their customers and move any assets outside of their exchanges. The companies were rejected on account of insufficient know your customer (KYC) processes and inadequate IT infrastructure, according to a report from the Bangkok Post.

The deal has been hailed as a major step forward for the legitimacy of cryptocurrencies in Thailand.

“We can partner with traditional financial institutions, brokers, e-wallets etc to offer more financial products to customers,” Jirayut Srupsrisopa, the founder of Bitkub, told TechCrunch. “The bottleneck was the regulation.”

The move could help Thailand establish itself as a hub for the blockchain industry in Asia. The country announced regulation for ICOs — initial coin offerings — last year and it is said to considering moves to loosen those rules. That, combined with licensed exchanges, could appeal to those who seek ‘regulatory havens’ in light of China’s ban on crypto and increased activity from the SEC in the U.S.

But Thailand is up against stiff competition to attract blockchain projects and talent.

Singapore has established itself as a global hub for ICOs while it has a wider pool of developers than most of Southeast Asia. Japan was the first to regulate crypto exchanges — there are currently over a dozen licensed and the exchange industry has been granted self-regulatory status — while Vietnam had made its name as blockchain talent hub with China’s Huboi and Quoine, the parent company of the Liquid exchange, among the companies operating local offices.

Hong Kong has also said in the last year that it may license exchanges, now it has another model to look at for ideas.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Vietnam threatens to penalize Facebook for breaking its draconian cybersecurity law

Well, that didn’t take long. We’re less than ten days into 2019 and already Vietnam is aiming threats at Facebook after it violating its draconian cybersecurity law which came into force on January 1.

The U.S. social network stands accused of allowing users in Vietnam to post “slanderous content, anti-government sentiment and libel and defamation of individuals, organisations and state agencies,” according to a report from state-controlled media Vietnam News.

The content is said to have been flagged to Facebook which, reports say, has “delayed removing” it.

That violates the law which — passed last June — broadly forbids internet users from organizing with, or training, others for anti-state purposes, spreading false information, and undermining the nation state’s achievements or solidarity, according to reports at the time. It also requires foreign internet companies to operate a local office and store user information on Vietnamese soil. That’s something neither Google nor Facebook has complied with, despite the Vietnamese government’s recent claim that the former is investigating a local office launch.

In addition, the Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information (ABEI) claimed Facebook had violated online advertising rules by allowing accounts to promote fraudulent products and scams, while it is considering penalties for failure to pay tax. The Vietnamese report claimed some $235 million was spent on Facebook ads in 2018, with $152.1 million going to Google.

Facebook responded by clarifying its existing channels for reporting illegal content.

“We have a clear process for governments to report illegal content to us, and we review all these requests against our terms of service and local law. We are transparent about the content restrictions we make in accordance with local law in our Transparency Report,” a Facebook representative told TechCrunch in a statement.

TechCrunch understands that the company is in contact with the Vietnamese government and it intends to review content flagged as illegal before making a decision.

Vietnamese media reports claim that Facebook has already told the government that the content in question doesn’t violate its community standards.

It looks likely that the new law will see contact from Vietnamese government censors spike, but Facebook has acted on content before. The company latest transparency report covers the first half of 2018 and it shows that received 12 requests for data in Vietnam, granting just two. Facebook confirmed it has previously taken action on content that has included the alleged illegal sale of regulated products, trade of wildlife, and efforts to impersonate an individual.

Facebook did not respond to the tax liability claim.

The company previously indicated its concern at the cybersecurity law via Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) — a group that represents the social media giant as well as Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Line and others — which cautioned that the regulations would negatively impact Vietnam.

“The provisions for data localization, controls on content that affect free speech, and local office requirements will undoubtedly hinder the nation’s fourth Industrial Revolution ambitions to achieve GDP and job growth,” AIC wrote in a statement in June.

“Unfortunately, these provisions will result in severe limitations on Vietnam’s digital economy, dampening the foreign investment climate and hurting opportunities for local businesses and SMEs to flourish inside and beyond Vietnam,” it added.

Vietnam is increasingly gaining a reputation as a growing market for startups, but the cybersecurity act threatens to impact that. One key issue is that the broad terms appear to give the government signficant scope to remove content that it deems offensive.

“This decision has potentially devastating consequences for freedom of expression in Vietnam. In the country’s deeply repressive climate, the online space was a relative refuge where people could go to share ideas and opinions with less fear of censure by the authorities,” said Amnesty International.

Vietnam News reports that the authorities are continuing to collect evidence against Facebook.

“If Facebook did not take positive steps, Vietnamese regulators would apply necessary economic and technical measures to ensure a clean and healthy network environment,” the ABEI is reported to have said.

Go-Jek’s Southeast Asia expansion runs into a roadblock in the Philippines

Southeast Asian ride-hailing challenger Go-Jek has expanded into three new markets as it bids to expand beyond its native Indonesia, but it is having major issues getting into a fourth.

The company — which rivals Grab, is valued at over $6 billion and is backed by the likes of Google and Tencent — this week suffered a blow in the Philippines where the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) denied its application to operate in the country, as Rappler reports.

The issue is pretty simple: Go-Jek’s Philippines-based business — an entity called Velox Technology Philippines — is majority owned by an overseas business. (Go-Jek’s own Singapore-based Velox South-East Asia Holdings.) That violates local law which stipulates that at least 60 percent of a company should be owned by Philippines individuals or entities.

That’s a pretty major roadblock which, for now, Go-Jek doesn’t appear to have much chance adhering to without major structural change. It remains unclear how the company failed to foresee this issue, but that’s another matter altogether.

“We continue to engage positively with the LTFRB and other government agencies, as we seek to provide a much needed transport solution for the people of the Philippines,” was all Go-Jek would say when asked for comment from TechCrunch .

Meanwhile, Grab, which bought out Uber’s local business last year, claims it is compliant. A Grab spokesperson said the company’s business in the Philippines is “majority local owned.”

The company declined to provide more details, including the identity of Grab’s Philippines-based owner.

Previously, Philippines law allowed ride-hailing services to operate as ‘telecommunications services’ but that changed last year.

This week’s ruling is a blow for Go-Jek, which has moved into Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore over the last six months following a protracted $1.5 billion funding round secured last year. Go-Jek is edging close to finalizing a new investment of $2 billion which TechCrunch understands will be used to offer additional services and expand its presence in those three expansion markets.

Grab, meanwhile, has raised over $2 billion from its ongoing Series H round which the company intends to extend to $5 billion, as TechCrunch reported last month. That’s primarily motivated by an impending investment from SoftBank’s Vision Fund but TechCrunch understands that Grab is keen to raise a significant war chest as part of its battle with Go-Jek.

Matrix India announces new $300M fund

Matrix India, one of India’s highest-profile tech VCs, is loading up for new deals after it announced a new $300 million fund for early stage investments.

This is the third fund for the Indian firm, which is associated with U.S-based Matrix Partners. Matrix India has backed over 60 startups to date, including Uber rival Ola, ambitious medical platform Practo, popular news aggregator DailyHunt and classifieds company Quikr. The plan is to continue on that road with the new fund, which was announced today but officially closed its commitments in December, according to an SEC filing in the U.S.

Matrix India has been fairly consistent with its capital. Its debut fund was an initial $150 million that was later increased $300 million, while the follow-up in 2011 came in at $300 million before being increased by $100 million following the departure of co-founding partner Rishi Navani.

No extensions are planned for round three, Avnish Bajaj — the firm’s founder and MD in India — told TechCrunch in an interview.

Bajaj said he doesn’t have concrete plans for how the capital will be spent, but he envisages 12-14 deals per year “with more bias given to seed” over Series A and B deals.

“We will continue to do early stage,” Tarun Davda, the second of Matrix India’s three MDs — explained. “We are traditional venture capital with more focus on consumer brands.”

But that’s a very founder-led approach for Matrix, which is entirely dependent on finding startups teams it can gel with and believe in.

“We get smart enough about a trend to found out whose smarter than us and pursuing it,” Bajaj explained. But “if we find a market we like but not excited by founding team, we’ll pass.”

If on board, however, Matrix helps out on a range of areas, including hiring — it has a four-person recruitment team in house — as well as in marketing and finance, if required. Bajaj said it tries to connect portfolio founders were it sees benefits, but he freely admits that many in India’s startup ecosystem are already connected and know each other so often don’t require assistance.

Matrix India managing directors [left to right] Vikram Vaidyanathan, Avnish Bajaj (also founder) and Tarun Davda

Opportunity in India

Looking at the market now, the firm’s three managing partners see cause for optimism following 2018, a year in which Indian startup founding rebounded and the country saw a range of exits, chiefly Walmart’s massive takeover of Flipkart.

Davda said that, in particular, the growth of 4G in India — which has been driven by the developer of ‘challenger telco’ Reliance Jio — has been a “game changer” for a number of the firm’s portfolio who have seen the total addressable market for their services widen massively, while average user engagements have increased, too.

Matrix India sees the growth in internet access (and quality of access) coupled with India’s growing middle class as key development drivers for internet companies and startups in the country generally.

“The scale of companies likely to be significantly larger,” Davda said, adding that the pace of growth is increasing, too.

All of these could mean that IPO exits may be on the horizon for India startups, potentially within the next 2-3 years, Bajaj said, but already exit opportunities are appearing and they don’t all need to involve a Walmart buying a Flipkart — the $16 billion, while generating huge returns, isn’t particularly repeatable for a market.

Bajaj points to acquisitive Indian category leaders — including the likes of Ola, Paytm and others — who have reached sufficient size and have looked to other India startups to build up their businesses or expand into verticals via deals.

“That’s the real story, you are starting to see liquidity into the exits markets [as domestic] companies are reaching a certain scale,” he said. “Three years from now, we’ll see 2018 as a point of time when things changed.”

A large part of that may also be the type of founders and the nature of startups in Indian in 2019.

“Today, we are seeing guys who have been part of startup ecosystem for a while, who worked at big unicorns and got excited about problems they are seeing there, start new companies,” said Mumbai-based Vikram Vaidyanathan, the firm’s third MD. “They can hit the ground running at a much faster pace.”

Alibaba acquires German big data startup Data Artisans for $103M

Alibaba has paid €90 million ($103 million) to acquire Data Artisans, a Berlin-based startup that provides distributed systems and large-scale data streaming services for enterprises.

The deal was first announced by European media, including EU-Startups, before being confirmed by both Alibaba and Data Artisans through blog posts.

Data Artisans was founded in 2014 by the team leading the development of Apache Flink, an open source large-scale data processing technology. The startup offers its own dA Platform, with open source Apache Flink and Application Manager, to enterprise customers that include Netflix, ING, Uber and Alibaba itself.

The Chinese e-commerce giant has been working with Data Artisans since 2016, through support and open source work to help the architecture and performance of the software, both companies said in statements. Data Artisans is on record as raising $6.5 million over two rounds, most recently a Series A in 2016 led by Intel Capital, but there was a seemingly unannounced Series B which closed last year and it looks like Alibaba was involved, according to a blog post from Data Artisans co-founders Kostas Tzoumas and Stephan Ewen.

Now Alibaba’s ownership — and you’d also presume, resources — can help the business reach “new horizons” with its open source technology, including moves to “expand to new areas that we have not explored in the past and make sure that Flink becomes a more valuable data processing framework for the modern data-driven, real-time enterprise,” the duo wrote.

“Moving forward together, data Artisans and Alibaba will not only continue, but accelerate contributions to Apache Flink and open source Big Data,” Tzoumas and Ewen added, explaining that Alibaba is one of Flink’s biggest users and contributors to the community.

To mark the new era, Alibaba has committed to providing its own in-house developments to Flink — which it calls Blink — to the community.

“By leveraging the technology expertise of both teams and shared passion to develop the open-source community, we are confident that this strategic tie-in will further strengthen the growth of the Flink community, accelerate the data-processing technologies and help bolster an open, collaborative and constructive environment for global developers who are passionate about stream processing and enabling real-time applications for modern enterprises,” said Jingren Zhou, vice president of Alibaba Group, in a statement.

This deal is reminiscent of Alibaba’s 2017 investment in MariaDB, an open source startup known for offering the most popular alternative to MySQL, a database management system. While not a full acquisition, the partnership has seen the two companies work together on new products for the community, and that’s also the goal here.

“Especially at times when many open source technologies and companies decide on a less collaborative and more “closed” approach, it is with great pleasure to see Alibaba committed to open source and our mission, eager to take Flink’s technological advancement to the next level,” Tzoumas and Ewen wrote in the announcement blog post.

Moving into open source and infrastructure tech makes sense for Alibaba, which is best known for e-commerce but also operates a cloud business, streaming services and more. With a net profit of $2.66 billion on revenue of $12.4 billion in its last quarter of business, the Chinese company certainly has plenty of money to pursue the strategy.

We’ve contacted Alibaba and Data Artisans with follow-up questions, and we hope to have more information on the deal soon. Please refresh for updates.