Gay dating site Manhunt hacked, thousands of accounts stolen

Manhunt, a gay dating app that claims to have 6 million male members, has confirmed it was hit by a data breach in February after a hacker gained access to the company’s accounts database.

In a notice filed with the Washington attorney general’s office, Manhunt said the hacker “gained access to a database that stored account credentials for Manhunt users,” and “downloaded the usernames, email addresses and passwords for a subset of our users in early February 2021.

The notice did not say how the passwords were scrambled, if at all, to prevent them from being read by humans. Passwords scrambled using weak algorithms can sometimes be decoded into plain text, allowing malicious hackers to break into their accounts.

Following the breach, Manhunt force-reset account passwords began alerting users in mid-March. Manhunt did not say what percentage of its users had their data stolen or how the data breach happened, but said that more than 7,700 Washington state residents were affected.

The company’s attorneys did not reply to an email requesting comment.

But questions remain about how Manhunt handled the breach. In March, the company tweeted that, “At this time, all Manhunt users are required to update their password to ensure it meets the updated password requirements.” The tweet did not say that user accounts had been stolen.

Manhunt was launched in 2001 by Online-Buddies Inc., which also offered gay dating app Jack’d before it was sold to Perry Street in 2019 for an undisclosed sum. Just months before the sale, Jack’d had a security lapse that exposed users’ private photos and location data.

Dating sites store some of the most sensitive information on their users, and are frequently a target of malicious hackers. In 2015, Ashley Madison, a dating site that encouraged users to have an affair, was hacked, exposing names, and postal and email addresses. Several people died by suicide after the stolen data was posted online. A year later, dating site AdultFriendFinder was hacked, exposing more than 400 million user accounts.

In 2018, same-sex dating app Grindr made headlines for sharing users’ HIV status with data analytics firms.

In other cases, poor security — in some cases none at all — led to data spills involving some of the most sensitive data. In 2019, Rela, a popular dating app for gay and queer women in China, left a server unsecured with no password, allowing anyone to access sensitive data — including sexual orientation and geolocation — on more than 5 million app users. Months later, Jewish dating app JCrush exposed around 200,000 user records.

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China’s Xpeng in the race to automate EVs with lidar

Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.

Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.

“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.

“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”

Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.

The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.

“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.

By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.

“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”

The lidar camp

Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.

“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.

“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.

The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.

Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.

Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.

In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.

Supply challenges

While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.

Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.

Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”

Taking on robotaxis

Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.

“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.

“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.

“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”

Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.

“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”

5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.

FBI launches operation to remotely remove Microsoft Exchange server backdoors

A Texas court has authorized an FBI operation to “copy and remove” backdoors from hundreds of Microsoft Exchange email servers in the United States, months after hackers used four previously undiscovered vulnerabilities to attack thousands of networks.

The Justice Department announced the operation on Tuesday, which it described as “successful.” It’s believed this is the first known case of the FBI effectively cleaning up private networks following a cyberattack.

In March, Microsoft discovered a new China state-sponsored hacking group — Hafnium — targeting Exchange servers run from company networks. The four vulnerabilities when chained together allowed the hackers to break into a vulnerable Exchange server and steal its contents. Microsoft fixed the vulnerabilities but the patches did not close the backdoors from the servers that had already been breached. Within days, other hacking groups began hitting vulnerable servers with the same flaws to deploy ransomware.

The number of infected servers dropped as patches were applied. But hundreds of Exchange servers remained vulnerable because the backdoors are difficult to find and eliminate, the Justice Department said in a statement.

“This operation removed one early hacking group’s remaining web shells which could have been used to maintain and escalate persistent, unauthorized access to U.S. networks,” the statement said. “The FBI conducted the removal by issuing a command through the web shell to the server, which was designed to cause the server to delete only the web shell (identified by its unique file path).”

The FBI said it’s attempting to inform owners via email of servers from which it removed the backdoors.

Assistant attorney general John C. Demers said the operation “demonstrates the Department’s commitment to disrupt hacking activity using all of our legal tools, not just prosecutions.”

The Justice Department also said the operation only removed the backdoors, but did not patch the vulnerabilities exploited by the hackers to begin with or remove any malware left behind.

Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department commented by press time.

 

Chinese autonomous vehicle startup WeRide scores permit to test driverless cars in San Jose

WeRide, the Chinese autonomous vehicle startup that recently raised $310 million, has received a permit to test driverless vehicles on public roads in San Jose, California. WeRide is the seventh company, following AutoX, Baidu, Cruise, Nuro Waymo and Zoox, to receive a driverless testing permit.

In the early days of autonomous vehicle development, testing permits required human safety drivers behind the wheel. Some 56 companies have an active permit to test autonomous vehicles with a safety driver. Driverless testing permits, in which a human operator is not behind the wheel, have become the new milestone and a required step for companies that want to launch a commercial robotaxi or delivery service in the state.

The California DMV, the agency that regulates autonomous vehicle testing in the state, said the permit allows WeRide to test two autonomous vehicles without a driver behind the wheel on specified streets within San Jose. WeRide has had a permit to test autonomous vehicles with safety drivers behind the wheel since 2017. WeRide is also restricted to how and when it tests these vehicles. The driverless vehicles are designed to operate on roads with posted speed limits not exceeding 45 miles per hour. Testing will be conducted during the day Monday through Friday, but will not occur in heavy fog or rain, according to the DMV.

To reach driverless testing status in California, companies have to meet a number of safety, registration and insurance requirements. Any company applying for a driverless permit must provide evidence of insurance or a bond equal to $5 million, verify vehicles are capable of operating without a driver, meet federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards or have an exemption from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and be an SAE Level 4 or 5 vehicle. The test vehicles must be continuously monitored and train remote operators on the technology.

Driverless testing permit holders must also report to the DMV any collisions involving a driverless test vehicle within 10 days and submit an annual report of disengagements.

While the vast majority of WeRide’s operations are in China, the permit does signal its continued interest in the United States. WeRide, which is headquartered in Guangzhou, China, maintains R&D and operation centers in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Zhengzhou and Anqing, as well as in Silicon Valley. The startup, which was founded in 2017, received a permit in February to operate a ride-hailing operation in Guangzhou.

The company is one of China’s most-funded autonomous vehicle technology startups with backers that include bus maker Yutong, Chinese facial recognition company SenseTime and Alliance Ventures, the strategic venture capital arm of Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi. Other WeRide investors include CMC Capital Partners, CDB Equipment Manufacturing Fund, Hengjian Emerging Industries Fund, Zhuhai Huajin Capital, Flower City Ventures and Tryin Capital. Qiming Venture Partners, Sinovation Ventures and Kinzon Capital.

Chinese hardware makers turn to crowdfunding as they look to go global

China’s tech giants have had a rough time in Western markets over the last few years. Huawei and DJI have been hit by trade restrictions, while TikTok and WeChat are threatened with their apps being banned in the U.S. Overall, Chinese companies with an overseas footprint are increasingly wary of rising geopolitical tensions.

But at an event hosted by California-based crowdfunding platform Indiegogo for Chinese consumer product makers in Shenzhen, businesses from sizes ranging from a startup making portable power stations to 53-year-old home appliances behemoth Midea, listened attentively as Indiegogo’s China managers shed light on how to court Western consumers.

“The first stage is to let ourselves be heard by the world. We have done that,” Li Yongqin, general manager of Indiegogo China, exhorted a room of entrepreneurs. “Next, we will bravely ride the tide and accept the challenge of coming the brands loved by users around the world.”

For Midea, “crowdfunding gives us a very direct way to understand consumers,” said Chen Zhenrui, who oversees the group’s overseas e-commerce initiative. Platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter are ways for individuals and organizations to raise capital from a large number of people to fund a project. In most cases, backers get perks or rewards from the project they fund.

Midea raised $1.5 million last year for a new air conditioner unit launched on Indiegogo, an almost negligible amount compared to the 280 billion yuan ($42 billion) annual revenue it generated in 2019. But the support from its 3,600 backers on Indiegogo was more a proof of concept.

Within a few weeks, Midea learned that a compact air conditioner that saddles snugly on the window sill, blocks out noise and saves energy could entice many American consumers. Like other established Chinese home appliances makers, Midea had been exporting for several decades.

But “in the past, much of our overseas business was in the traditional, B2B export realm. I think we are still far from being a world-class brand,” said Chen.

When Midea first launched on Indiegogo, a user left comments on its campaign page calling the project a scam: How could a Fortune Global 500 company be on Indiegogo?

“Through rounds of communication, we got to know each other. That user gave us a big push,” Chen recalled, adding that Midea used a dozen of suggestions from Indiegogo backers to improve its product.

Li Yongqin, general manager of Indiegogo China, exhorted a room of entrepreneurs to develop brands loved by global users. Photo: TechCrunch

More and more traditional manufacturers from China are giving crowdfunding a shot. Padmate, based in the southern coastal city of Xiamen, built a new earbud brand called Pamu from its foundation as a white-label maker of sound systems.

Edison Shen, a director at Padmate, said that traditional export was getting harder as old-school distributors became squeezed by new retail channels like e-commerce. By creating their own brands and reaching consumers directly, factories could also improve profit margins. Padmate went on Indiegogo in 2018 and raised over $6.6 million in one of its wireless headphone campaigns.

Most of the projects on Indiegogo will go beyond the 9-million-backer crowdfunding site onto mainstream platforms, listing on Amazon as well as advertising on Google and Facebook. Though the core services of these American Big Tech firms aren’t available in China, they have all set up some form of operational presence in China, whether it’s stationing staff in the country like Amazon or working through local ad resellers like Facebook.

Indiegogo itself opened its China office in Shenzhen five years ago and has since seen China-based projects raise over $300 million through its platform, according to Lu Li, general manager for Indiegogo’s global strategy. China is now the company’s fastest-growing market and accounted for over 40% of the campaigns that raised over $1 million in 2020.

Kickstarter, a rival to Indiegogo, also saw a surge in projects from China, which reached a record $60.5 million in funding in 2020. The Brooklyn-based company recently began looking for a contractor in Shenzhen or the adjacent city Hong Kong to help it research the Chinese market.

“In recent years, more Chinese companies are getting the hang of crowdfunding and taking their brand global, so ‘blockbuster’ campaigns [from China] are also on the rise,” observed Li.

Beyond Meat opens its first production plant in China

About a year after Beyond Meat debuted in China on Starbucks’s menu, the Californian plant-based protein company opened a production facility near Shanghai to tap the country’s supply chain resources and potentially reduce the carbon footprint of its products.

Situated in Jiaxing, a city 85 km from Shanghai, the plant is Beyond Meat’s first end-to-end manufacturing facility outside the U.S., the Nasdaq-listed company said in an announcement on Wednesday.

Over the past year, competition became steep in China’s alternative protein space with the foray of foreign players like Beyond Meat and Eat Just, as well as a slew of capital injections for domestic startups including Hey Maet and Starfield.

Beyond Meat doesn’t flinch at the rivalry. When asked by TechCrunch to comment on a story about China’s alternative protein scene, a representative of the company said “there are none that Beyond Meat considers their competitors.”

China not only has an enormous, unsaturated market for meat replacements; it’s also a major supplier of plant-based protein. Chinese meat substitute startups enjoy a cost advantage from the outset and don’t lack interest from investors who race to back consumer products that are more reflective of the tastes of the rising middle class.

Having some kind of manufacturing capacity in China is thus almost a prerequisite for any serious foreign player. Tesla has done it before to build Gigafactory in Shanghai to deliver cheaper electric vehicles. Localized production also helps companies advance their sustainability goals as it shortens the supply chain.

In Beyond Meat’s own words, the Jiaxing facility is “expected to significantly increase the speed and scale in which the company can produce and distribute its products within the region while also improving Beyond Meat’s cost structure and sustainability of operations.”

The American food-tech giant works hard on localization, selling in China both its flagship burger patties and an imitation minced pork product made specifically for the world’s largest consumer of pork. The soy- and rice-based minced pork could be used in a wide range of Chinese cuisines and is the result of a collaboration between the firm’s Shanghai and Los Angeles teams.

Besides production, the Jiaxing plant will also take on R&D responsibilities to invent new products for the region. Beyond Meat will also be unveiling its first owned manufacturing facility in Europe this year.

“We are committed to investing in China as a region for long-term growth,” said Ethan Brown, CEO and founder of Beyond Meat. “We believe this new manufacturing facility will be instrumental in advancing our pricing and sustainability metrics as we seek to provide Chinese consumers with delicious plant-based proteins that are good for both people and planet.”

Beyond Meat products can now be found in Starbucks, KFC, Alibaba’s Hema supermarket and other retail channels across major Chinese cities.

Former Amazon exec gives Chinese firms a tool to fight cyber threats

China is pushing forward an internet society where economic and public activities increasingly take place online. In the process, troves of citizen and government data get transferred to cloud servers, raising concerns over information security. One startup called ThreatBook sees an opportunity in this revolution and pledges to protect corporations and bureaucracies against malicious cyberattacks.

Antivirus and security software has been around in China for several decades, but until recently, enterprises were procuring them simply to meet compliance requests, Xue Feng, founder and CEO of six-year-old ThreatBook, told TechCrunch in an interview.

Starting around 2014, internet accessibility began to expand rapidly in China, ushering in an explosion of data. Information previously stored in physical servers was moving to the cloud. Companies realized that a cyber attack could result in a substantial financial loss and started to pay serious attention to security solutions.

In the meantime, cyberspace is emerging as a battlefield where competition between states plays out. Malicious actors may target a country’s critical digital infrastructure or steal key research from a university database.

“The amount of cyberattacks between countries is reflective of their geopolitical relationships,” observed Xue, who oversaw information security at Amazon China before founding ThreatBook. Previously, he was the director of internet security at Microsoft in China.

“If two countries are allies, they are less likely to attack one another. China has a very special position in geopolitics. Besides its tensions with the other superpowers, cyberattacks from smaller, nearby countries are also common.”

Like other emerging SaaS companies, ThreatBook sells software and charges a subscription fee for annual services. More than 80% of its current customers are big corporations in finance, energy, the internet industry, and manufacturing. Government contracts make up a smaller slice. With its Series E funding round that closed 500 million yuan ($76 million) in March, ThreatBook boosted its total capital raised to over 1 billion yuan from investors including Hillhouse Capital.

Xue declined to disclose the company’s revenues or valuation but said 95% of the firm’s customers have chosen to renew their annual subscriptions. He added that the company has met the “preliminary requirements” of the Shanghai Exchange’s STAR board, China’s equivalent to NASDAQ, and will go public when the conditions are ripe.

“It takes our peers 7-10 years to go public,” said Xue.

ThreatBook compares itself to CrowdStrike from Silicon Valley, which filed to go public in 2019 and detect threats by monitoring a company’s “endpoints”, which could be an employee’s laptops and mobile devices that connect to the internal network from outside the corporate firewall.

ThreatBook similarly has a suite of software that goes onto the devices of a company’s employees, automatically detects threats and comes up with a list of solutions.

“It’s like installing a lot of security cameras inside a company,” said Xue. “But the thing that matters is what we tell customers after we capture issues.”

SaaS providers in China are still in the phase of educating the market and lobbying enterprises to pay. Of the 3,000 companies that ThreatBook serves, only 300 are paying so there is plentiful room for monetization. Willingness to spend also differs across sectors, with financial institutions happy to shell out several million yuan ($1 = 6.54 yuan) a year while a tech startup may only want to pay a fraction of that.

Xue’s vision is to take ThreatBook global. The company had plans to expand overseas last year but was held back by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve had a handful of inquiries from companies in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. There may even be room for us in markets with mature [cybersecurity companies] like Europe and North America,” said Xue. “As long as we are able to offer differentiation, a customer may still consider us even if it has an existing security solution.”

Fueled by pandemic, contactless mobile payments to surpass half of all smartphone users in U.S. by 2025

Among other technology trends accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of contactless mobile payments boomed in 2020. According to a recent report by analyst firm eMarketer, in-store mobile payments usage grew 29% last year in the U.S., as the pandemic pushed consumers to swap out cash and credit cards for the presumably safer mobile payments option at point-of-sale.

Last year, 92.3 million U.S. consumers age 14 or older used proximity-based mobile payments at least one time during a 6-month period in 2020 — a figure the firm expects to grow to reach 101.2 million this year. And that usage is now on track to surpass half of all smartphone users by 2025, eMarketer forecasts.

Image Credits: eMarketer

Adoption last year was largest among younger consumers, including Gen Z and millennials. The former is expected to account for more than 4 million of the total 6.5 million new mobile wallet users per year from 2021 to 2025. Millennials, meanwhile, will continue to account for around 4 in 10 mobile wallet users.

Several industry reports had already noted the pandemic impacts on the mobile wallet industry in general, with one from earlier this month by finance and investment company Finaria estimating that the industry would grow 24% from last year to reach $2.4 trillion in 2021. It had said that while Asian markets and particularly China had been leading the way in mobile payments adoption, the U.S. had earlier struggled due to the slow rollout of mobile payment technologies by retail stores. But now, the U.S. has grown to become the second-largest market with $465.1 billion worth of mobile payment transactions, which will grow to $698 billion in 2023.

The pandemic had pushed lagging retailers to finally get on board with mobile payments. A mid-year survey published in 2020 by the National Retail Federation and Forrester, found that no-touch payments had increased for 69% of retailers, and that 67% now accept some form of contactless payment, including both mobile payments and contactless cards.

Image Credits: eMarketer

As a result of the industry changes, eMarketer reports that not only has mobile wallet usage increased, the average annual spend per user is increasing, as well. The firm predicts that figure will grow 23.6% from ~$1,973.70 in 2020 to $2,439.68 in 2021, and will surpass $3,000 by 2023.

In the U.S., Apple Pay remains the top mobile payment player with 43.9 million users in 2021, growing by 14.4 million between 2020 and 2025 — more than its competitors. Starbucks will remain the No. 2 player with 31.2 million users, followed by Google Pay, which will add 10.2 million users during that time frame. Samsung Pay, meanwhile, is seeing stagnant growth, adding just 2 million more users between 2020 and 2025.

Image Credits: eMarketer

Chinese startups rush to bring alternative protein to people’s plates

On a recent morning in downtown Shenzhen, Lingyu queued up to order her go-to McMuffin. As she waited in line with other commuters, the 50-year-old accountant noticed the new vegetarian options on the menu and decided to try the imitation spam and scrambled egg burger.

“I’ve never had fake meat,” she said of the burger — one of five new breakfast items that McDonald’s introduced last week in three major Chinese cities featuring luncheon meat substitutes produced by Green Monday.

Lingyu, who works in her family business in Shenzhen, is exactly the type of Chinese customer that imitation meat companies want to attract beyond the young, trendy, eco-conscious urbanites. Her yuan means potentially more to meat replacement companies because it advances their business and climate agendas both. Eating less meat is one of the simplest ways to reduce an individual’s carbon footprint and help fight climate change.

McDonald’s hopes that its pea- and soy-based, zero-cholesterol, luncheon meat substitutes will carve out a piece of China’s massive dining market. Long-time rival KFC, and local competitor Dicos introduced their own plant-based products last year. Partnering with fast food chains is a smart move for companies that want to promote alternative protein to the masses, because these products are often pricey and are usually aimed at wealthy urbanites.

2020 could well have been the dawn of alternative protein in China. More than 10 startups raised capital to make plant-based protein for a country with increasing meat demand. Of these, Starfield, Hey Maet, Vesta and Haofood have been around for about a year; ZhenMeat was founded three years ago; and the aforementioned Green Monday is a nine-year-old Hong Kong firm pushing into mainland China. The competition intensified further last year when American incumbents Beyond Meat and Eat Just entered China.

Although some investors worry the sudden boom of meat substitute startups could turn into a bubble, others believe the market is far from saturated.

“Think about how much meat China consumes a year,” said an investor in a Chinese soy protein startup who requested anonymity. “Even if alternative protein replaces 0.01% of the consumption, it could be a market worth tens of billions of dollars.”

In many ways, China is the ideal testbed for alternative protein. The country has a long history of imitation meat rooted in Buddhist vegetarianism and an expanding middle class that is increasingly health-conscious and willing to experiment. The country also has a grip on the global supply chain for plant-based protein, which could give domestic startups an edge over foreign rivals.

“I believe, in five years, China will see a raft of domestic plant-based protein companies that could be on par with industry leaders from Europe and North America,” said Xie Zihan, who founded Vesta to develop soy-based meat suitable for Chinese cuisine.

Meat varieties

Hey Maet’s imitation meat dumplings / Photo: Hey Maet 

Lily Chen, a manager at the Chinese arm of alternative protein investor Lever VC, outlines three categories of meat analog companies in China: Western giants such as Beyond Meat and Eat Just; local players; and conglomerates such as Unilever and Nestlé that are developing vegan meat product lines as a defense strategy. Lever VC invested in Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Memphis Meats.

“They all have their product differentiation, but the industry is still very early stage,” said Chen.

Collaborative iOS app Craft Docs secures $8M, led by Creandum and a ‘Skyscanner Mafia’

Launched in only November last year, the Craft Docs app — which was built from the ground up as an iOS app for collaborative documents — has secured an $8 million Series A round led by Creandum. Also participating was InReach Ventures, Gareth Williams, former CEO and co-founder of Skyscanner, and a number of other tech entrepreneurs, many of whom are ex-Skyscanner.

Currently available on iOS, iPadOS and MacOS, Craft now plans to launch APIs, extended integrations, and a browser-based editor in 2021. It has aspirations to become a similar product to Notion, and the founder and CEO Balint Grosz told me over a Zoom call that “Notion is very much focused around writing and wikis and all that sort of stuff. We have a lot of users coming from Notion, but we believe we have a better solution for people, mainly for written content. Notion is very strong with its databases and structural content. People just happen to use it for other stuff. So we are viewed as a very strong competitor by our users, because of the similarities in the product. I don’t believe our markets overlap much, but right now from the outside people do switch from Notion to us, and they do perceive us as being competitors.”

He told me this was less down to the app experience than “the hierarchical content. We have this structure where you can create notes within notes, so with every chunk of text you add content and navigate style, and add inside of that – and notion has that as well. And that is a feature which not many products have, so that is the primary reason why people tend to compare us.”

Craft says it’s main advantages over Notion are UX; Data storage and privacy (Craft is offline first, with real-time sync and collaboration; you can use 3rd party cloud services (i.e. iCloud); and integrations with other tools.

Orosz was previously responsible for Skyscanner’s mobile strategy after the company acquired his previous company, Distinction.

Fredrik Cassel, General Partner at Creandum, said in a statement: “Since our first discussions we’ve been impressed by both the amount of love users have for Craft, as well as the team’s unique ability to create a product that is beautiful and powerful at the same time. The upcoming features around connectivity and data accessibility truly set Craft apart from the competition.”

Craft ipad app

Craft ipad app

Roberto Bonazinga, Co-founder at InReach Ventures, added: “We invested in Craft on day zero because we were fascinated by the clarity and the boldness of Balint’s vision – to reinvent how millions of people can structure their thoughts and write them down in the most effective and beautiful way.”

The launch and funding of the Craft startup suggests there is something of a “Skyscanner Mafia” emerging, after its acquisition by Trip.com Group (formerly Ctrip), the largest travel firm in China, $1.75 billion in 2016.

Other backers of the company include Carlos Gonzalez (former CPO at Skyscanner, CTPO at GoCardless), Filip Filipov (former VP Strategy at Skyscanner), Ross McNairn (former CEO at Dorsai, CPO at TravelPerk), Stefan Lesser (former Technology and Partnership Manager at Apple) and Akos Kapui (Former Head of Technology at Skyscanner, VP of Engineering at Shapr3D).