Rakuten Mobile’s low-cost data plan fully launches in Japan

Rakuten Mobile announced the full commercial launch of its low-cost data plan in Japan today. Priced at 2,980 yen (about $27) per month, the plan gives users unlimited calls and data where Rakuten has its own networks. The company also raised the amount of domestic roaming data in response to increased usage of remote working and online education tools.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency in seven prefectures, including Tokyo, after a new wave of COVID-19 cases in March. The order gives prefectural leaders the power to request closure of stores and businesses considered non-essential. Public schools in Tokyo and surrounding areas closed earlier this year and are not expected to re-open until early May.

In addition to serving increased need for online services during the pandemic, Rakuten Mobile’s pricing may also help it compete against Japan’s largest carriers–NTT Docomo, KDDI and SoftBank. Rakuten Mobile uses what the company says is the world’s first virtualized mobile network, which requires less hardware infrastructure, lowering deployments costs and in turn allowing the company to offer more affordable rates.

Last year, the company said it will have a total of 4,000 edge servers in Japan by the mobile service’s launch. Rakuten Mobile expects its network to cover all of Japan by next March.

Called Rakuten UN-LIMIT 2.0, the company’s current plan gives users 5GB of roaming data in areas where Rakuten Mobile has partners, and unlimited roaming data at a maximum speed of 1Mbps after the limit is reached. The original Rakuten UN-LIMIT plan offered 2GB of domestic roaming, and maximum 128kbps speed.

Virgin Orbit announces new plans for first Asian spaceport in Oita, Japan

Virgin Orbit may be focusing its production efforts right now on making ventilators to support healthcare workers battling COVID-19, but it’s also still making moves to build out the infrastructure that will underpin its small satellite launch business. To that end, the new space company unveiled a new partnership with Oita Prefecture in Japan to build a new spaceport there from which to launch and land its horizontal take-off launch vehicle carrier aircraft.

Working in collaboration with ANA Holdings and the Space Port Japan Association, Virgin Orbit says it is currently targeting Oita Airport as the site for its next launch site – the first in Asia – with a plan to start flying missions from the new location as early as 2022.

There are still a number of steps that have to take place before the Oita airport becomes official – including performing a technical study in partnership with local government to determine the feasibility of using the proposed site. Already, Oita is home to facilities from a number of corporations including Toshiba, Nippon Steel, Canon, Sony, Daihatsu and more, but this would marks its first entry into the space industry, an area where Oita is hoping to encourage in future.

“We are eager to host the first horizontal takeoff and landing spaceport in Japan. We are also honored to be able to collaborate with brave technology companies solving global-level problems through their small satellites,” said Katsusada Hirose, Governor for the Oita Prefectural Government, in a press release. “We hope to foster a cluster of space industry in our prefecture, starting with our collaboration with Virgin Orbit.”

Virgin Orbit is looking to scale its efforts globally in a number of ways, even as it gears up for a first demonstration launch of its orbital small satellite delivery capabilities sometime later this year. The company announced plans to provide launch services from a forthcoming spaceport facility in Cornwall for the UK market, and it’s also looking at standing up a site in Guam.

The horizontal launch model that Virgin Orbit uses means that it can much more easily leverage traditional airport infrastructure and processes to set up launch sites, and doing so can provide domestic launch capabilities essentially on-demand for countries looking to add small satellite flight to their in-country housed services. That’s a big selling point, and Oita securing should be a considerable win and for Japan as the site of a first Virgin Orbit port across the whole continent.

Tractable claims $25M to sell damage-assessing AIs to more insurance giants

London-based insurtech AI startup Tractable, which is applying artificial intelligence to speed up accident and disaster recovery by using computer vision to perform visual damage appraisal instead of getting humans to do the job, has closed a $25 million Series C, led by Canadian investment fund Georgian Partners.

Existing investors also participated, including Insight Partners and Ignition Partners. The round nearly doubles the 2014-founded startup’s total funding, taking it to $55M raised to date.

When TechCrunch spoke to Tractable’s co-founder and CEO Alexandre Dalyac, back in 2018, he said the company’s aim is to speed up insurance-related response times around events like car accidents and natural disasters by as much as 10x.

Two years on the startup isn’t breaking out any hard metrics — but says its product is used by a number of multinational insurance firms, including Ageas in the UK, France’s Covéa, Japan’s Tokio Marine and Polish insurer Talanx-Warta — to analyse vehicle damage “effectively and efficiently”.

It also says the technology has been involved in accelerating insurance-related assessments for “hundreds of thousands of people worldwide”.

Tractable’s pitch is that AI appraisals of damage to vehicles/property can take place via its platform “in minutes”, thereby allowing for repairs to begin sooner and people’s livelihoods to be restored more quickly.

Though of course if the AI algorithm denies a person’s claim the opposite would happen.

The startup said its new funding will go on expanding its market footprint. It has customers across nine markets, globally, at this point. And in addition to its first offices in the UK and US recently opened a permanent office in Japan — with the stated aim of serving new clients in the Asia region.

It also said the Series C will be used for continued product development by further enhancing its AI.

Its current product line up includes AI for assessing damage to vehicles and another focused on the appraisal of damage caused by natural disasters, such as to buildings by hurricanes.

“Our AI solutions capture and process photos and damage and predict repair costs — at scale,” Tractable claims on its website, noting its proprietary algorithms can be fed by “satellite, drone or smartphone imagery”.

Commenting on the funding in a statement Lonne Jaffe, MD at Insight Partners and also Tractable board director, said: “Tractable has achieved tremendous scale in the past year with a customer base across nine countries, a differentiated data asset, and the expansion of their team to over 100 employees across London, New York, and now Tokyo. We are excited to continue to invest in Tractable as the team brings its powerful AI technology to many more countries.”

Emily Walsh, principal at Georgian Partners, added that the startup’s “sophisticated approach to computer vision applied to accident recovery is resonating with the largest players globally, who are using the platform to make real-time, data-driven decisions while dramatically improving the customer experience”.

“We’re incredibly excited to partner with the Tractable team to help them move even faster on bringing the next wave of technological innovation to accident and disaster recovery across the world,” she added.

It’s worth noting that in the EU citizens have a right, under data protection law, to (human) review of algorithmic decisions if they a legal or similarly significant impact — and insurance would likely fall into that category.

EU policymakers also recently laid out a proposal to regulate certain “high risk” AI systems and said they intend to expand the bloc’s consumer protection rules by bringing in a testing and certification program for the data-sets that feed algorithms powering AI-driven services to support product safety.

Google Cloud opens its Seoul region

Google Cloud today announced that its new Seoul region, its first in Korea, is now open for business. The region, which it first talked about last April, will feature three availability zones and support for virtually all of Google Cloud’s standard service, ranging from Compute Engine to BigQuery, Bigtable and Cloud Spanner.

With this, Google Cloud now has a presence in 16 countries and offers 21 regions with a total of 64 zones. The Seoul region (with the memorable name of asia-northeast3) will complement Google’s other regions in the area, including two in Japan, as well as regions in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but the obvious focus here is on serving Korean companies with low-latency access to its cloud services.

“As South Korea’s largest gaming company, we’re partnering with Google Cloud for game development, infrastructure management, and to infuse our operations with business intelligence,” said Chang-Whan Sul, the CTO of Netmarble. “Google Cloud’s region in Seoul reinforces its commitment to the region and we welcome the opportunities this initiative offers our business.”

Over the course of this year, Google Cloud also plans to open more zones and regions in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Jakarta, Indonesia.

Online learning marketplace Udemy raises $50M at a $2B valuation from Japanese publisher Benesse

The internet has, for better or worse, become the default platform for people seeking information, and today one of the companies leveraging that to deliver educational content has raised some funding to fuel its next stage of growth. Udemy, which provides a marketplace offering some 150,000 different online learning courses from business analytics through to ukulele lessons, has picked up $50 million from a single investor, Benesse Holdings, the Japan-based educational publisher that has been Udemy’s partner in the country. The investment values Udemy at $2 billion post-money, it said.

This is a big jump since the startup last raised money, a $60 million round in 2016 that valued it at around $710 million (according to PitchBook data). With this round, Udemay has raised around $130 million in funding.

The plan will be to use the funding to expand all of Udemy’s business, which includes a vast array of courses for consumers that can be purchased a la carte — to date used by some 50 million students; as well as enterprise services, where Udemy works with companies like Adidas, General Mills, Toyota, Wipro, Pinterest and Lyft and others — 5,000 in all — to develop and administer subscription-based professional development courses. Udemy’s president Darren Shimkus describes this as a “Netflix-style” model, where users are presented with a dashboard listing a range of courses that they can take on demand.

Udemy will also be looking at improving how courses are delivered, as well as consider new areas it might move into more deeply to fit what Shimkus described as the biggest challenge for the company, and for the global workforce overall:

“The biggest challenge is for learners is to figure out what skills are emerging, what they can do to compete best in the global market,” he said. “We’re in a world that’s changing so quickly that skills that were valued just three or four years ago are no longer relevant. People are confused and don’t know what they should be learning.” That’s a challenge that also stands for businesses, he added, which are trying to work out what he described as their “three to five year human capital roadmap.”

The investment will also include a specific boost for Udemy’s international operations, starting with Japan but extending also to other markets where Udemy has seen strong growth, such as Brazil and India.

“We’ve worked closely with Benesse for several years, and this investment is a testament to the strength of our relationship and the opportunity ahead of us,” said Gregg Coccari, CEO of Udemy, in a statement. “Udemy is on a mission to improve lives through learning, and so is Benesse. 2020 will be a milestone year where we serve millions more students and enable thousands of businesses and governments to upskill their employees. This growth wouldn’t be possible without our expert instructors who partner with us every step of the way as we build this business.”

Benesse’s business spans instructional materials for children through to courses for adults both online and in in-person training centers — one of the better-known brands that it owns is Berlitz, which operates both virtual courses as well as a network of physical schools — and Udemy has been developing content alongside Benesse both in Japanese as well as English, Shimkus said, targeting both consumer and business markets.

“Access to the latest workplace skills is crucial for success everywhere, including Japan; and Udemy is the world’s largest marketplace enabling professional transformation. With this partnership, we envision a world where more people can continue to learn continuously throughout their lives,” said Tamotsu Adachi, Representative Director, President and CEO of Benesse Holdings Inc., in a statement. “Udemy and Benesse are incredibly synergistic businesses. This investment is the next progression in our business relationship and demonstrates our confidence in what we can accomplish together.”

Udemy’s expansion comes at a time when online education overall has generally continued to grow, although not without bumps.

Among those that compete at least in part with it, Coursera last year announced a $103 million round of funding at a $1 billion+ valuation and made its first acquisition to expand how it teaches programming and other computer science subjects. And in Asia, Byju’s in India is now valued at $8 billion after a quick succession of large growth rounds. We’ve also heard that Age of Learning, which quietly raised at a $1 billion valuation in 2016, is also gearing up for another round.

On the other hand, not all is rosy. Another big name in online learning, Udacity (not to be confused with Udemy), laid off 20% of its workforce amid a larger restructuring; and further afield, Kano — which merges online learning with DIY hardware kits — has also laid off and restructured in recent months. Meanwhile, we don’t seem to hear much these days from LinkedIn Learning, another would-be competitor that was rebranded Lynda.com after it was acquired by the social networking site (itself owned by Microsoft).

Unlike Coursera and others that aim for full degrees that are potentially aiming to disrupt higher education, Udemy focuses on short courses, either simply for the student’s own interest, or potentially for certifications from organizations that either help administer the courses or “own” the subject in question (for example, Cisco for networking certifications, or Microsoft regarding one of its software packages, or the PMI for a course related to project management).

Those courses are delivered by individuals who form the other half of Udemy’s two-sided marketplace. In the 10 years that it’s been in business, Udemy has worked with some 57,000 instructors to develop courses, and in the marketplace model, Shimkus told TechCrunch that those instructors have been netted $350 million in payments to date. (He would not disclose Udemy’s cut on those courses, nor whether the company is currently profitable.)

The company has a lot of areas that it has yet to tackle that present opportunities for how it might evolve. Working with enterprises but with a large base of consumer usage, there is, for example, a lot of scope to develop more data analytics about what is used, what is popular, and how to tailor courses in a better way to fit those models to improve outcomes and engagement. Another area potentially could see Udemy moving deeper into specific subject areas like language learning, where it offers some courses today but has a lot of scope for growing, particularly leaning on what Benesse has with Berlitz. To date, Udemy has made no acquisitions, but that is also an area that Shimkus said could be an option.

Spaceflight Industries to sell its satellite rideshare launch business to Japan’s Mitsui & Co. and Yamasa

Spaceflight Industries, owner of both Spaceflight, Inc. and BlackSky, is selling the Spaceflight, Inc. portion of its business to Japanese industrial megacorporation Mitsui & Co, and Yamasa both of which will co-own the company in a 50/50 joint venture after its closing. The deal will see Spaceflight continue to operate as an independent business based in the U.S. and headquartered in Seattle, with the same mission of providing rideshare launch services for small satellite payloads.

Meanwhile, Spaceflight Industries will use the funds generated from the sale (the terms of the deal were not disclosed) to re-invest in its BlackSky business. BlackSky is an Earth observation company that deals in geospatial intelligence, and that currently operates four satellites in orbit, with eight more planned to join its constellation sometime later this year.

The deal also means that Mistui & Co, which is one of Japan’s largest businesses and which operates in a variety of sectors including infrastructure, energy production, IT, food, consumer products, mining, chemicals and more, will now be in the rocket launch rideshare business as well. Mitsui also has an aerospace arm that includes a space business which provides satellite development, launch and operation services, but noted in a press release that Spaceflight will become “the cornerstone” of its space strategy pending close of the deal.

Spaceflight, Inc. has been offering its services since 2010, and has launched a total of 271 satellites on 29 separate rocket launches, with 10 missions set to take place in 2020 alone. The company’s business seems poised to grow as more launch providers and more small satellite operators enter the market, with many predictions indicating sharp uptakes in orbit-based businesses to come over the next decade.

This arrangement is perhaps indicative of things to come in the space industry, as more young companies look at their overall business and determine how best to delineate things to continue their growth and return funds on investment to stay on mission. SpaceX, for instance, has confirmed it’s looking at spinning out its Starlink business and taking that public, a move that could generate significant funds for it to then funnel back into its core launch business in pursuit of its goals of making humans multi-planetary.

The deal still has to undergo review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) because there’s a national security interest involved, given Spaceflight’s past work. This is expected to take multiple months, and the companies say they anticipate the deal will close sometime during Q2 2020 if everything is approved.

Company-builder Antler passes $75M raised after investment from Schroders and Ferd

Antler is a “company builder” that emerged a couple of years ago, running startup generator programs and investing from an early stage, bringing a heady mix of technologists, product builders and operators together with its own technology stack.

Now, plenty of “company builders” have come and gone. It’s a bit like Apocalypse Now: everyone goes in thinking they will come up with the major formula to spit out startups at a prodigious rate and they come out screaming “The Horror! The Horror!”

But Antler appears to have been on an interesting run. It has so far made more than 120 investments across a wide range of companies, with several going on to raise later-stage funding from the likes of Sequoia, Golden Gate Ventures, East Ventures, Venturra Capital and the Hustle Fund.

Since its launch in Singapore two years ago, Antler now has a presence across New York, London, Singapore, Sydney, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Nairobi and Oslo.

Today, it’s announcing that it has attracted investment from British investment management company Schroders, investment house FinTech Collective and Ferd, the vehicle used by Johan H. Andresen, the Norwegian industrialist and investor.

This latest investment takes the capital raised by Antler over the past six months to more than $75 million.

These investors join an existing group that includes Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Canica International and Credit Saison, the third-largest credit card issuer in Japan. The idea here is that these investors get exposure to early-stage companies as they are built.

As with most company builders and accelerators, Antler only takes 1-1.5% of the applicants

Its portfolio includes Sampingan, an on-demand workforce in Indonesia; Xailient, a computer vision technology; Airalo, a global e-sims marketplace; and FusedBone, which enables medical centers to produce bespoke, non-metal implants on-site.

Magnus Grimeland, Antler co-founder and CEO said: “With our support, our founders start refining their ideas and building new and innovative businesses. What is equally important is the deep relationship our founders build with their peers, our advisors and backers. Having accomplished investors like Schroders, Ferd and FinTech Collective on board means we can provide a more valuable network for our startups as they grow their businesses.”

Peter Harrison, Group CEO of Schroders, who will also be joining Antler’s advisory board, said: “We are in a period of unprecedented change. The visibility on venture capital activity and innovation that Antler provides is therefore leading-edge.”

Antler says more than 40% of its portfolio companies have a female co-founder and 78% of these have a female CEO.

Japanese vacation rental management startup H2O raises $7 million Series B from investors including Samsung Ventures

Japan’s tourism industry is booming, but it faces a hotel room shortage, especially in Tokyo as it prepares for the Summer Olympics. H2O addresses the market opportunity with a platform that helps vacation rental owners manage their properties. The startup announced today it has raised $7 million in Series B funding from Samsung Ventures, Stonebridge Ventures, IMM Investment and Shinhan Capital, bringing its total raised to $18 million.

H2O (the name stands for Hospitality 2.0) allows owners to manage operations, housekeeping and bookings from different online travel agencies on its platform, lowering the cost of doing business. The company also recently launched H2O, a vacation rental brand, to expand its real estate development business, including a new hotel near Universal Studio Japan.

The company began in 2015 with Wahome in South Korea, a home cleaning service, before launching H2O two years later after acquiring several hospitality management companies in Japan, including a housekeeping service for vacation rentals. There are currently about 5,000 managed rooms connected to the platform, which is used by about 25 online travel agencies. Since the third-quarter of 2018, revenue has doubled every quarter, says founder and CEO John Lee.

Lee, who studied hotel administration at Cornell University and previously worked in banking at Morgan Stanley, told TechCrunch in an email that there were three market trends that made launching a hospitality business in Japan compelling: strong domestic tourism, increasing inbound tourism and a huge shortage in accommodations. It first focused on allowing flexible housekeeping bookings for vacation rental properties. Then in 2018, H2O expanded to full hospitality management services, including property, yield, revenue and operations.

Lee said that he believes “the core value of the hospitality industry is how to increase the yield of the real estate. I always believed that managing one building with high fixed costs (front desk, housekeeping department, etc.) was very inefficient from building owners point of view.”

H2O’s property management system works by syncing three calendars: guests, rooms and housekeeping. All are linked and automated to prevent double bookings and make sure housecleaning services are available. This allows H2O’s software to manage revenue, inventory and yield on a per room basis and schedule guests and cleanings.

The platform also allows clients to manage multiple properties at once and offer smart locks, online check-ins and chat-based customer service.

In June 2019, Japan implemented the Housing and Accommodations Business Act (also called the minpaku law, after the Japanese term for private residences rented out as short-term accommodations, similar to properties on AirBnb), formally legalizing and regulating vacation rental management. Lee says the new regulation allowed more real estate investors, who already owned other types of hospitality properties, to enter the minpaku market. H2O manages properties under four licenses, including hotel, ryokan and kanishokuksho, but the majority of its properties are under the minpaku law, which allowed it to grow its B2B business.

The average daily rate for accommodations on H2O was around $160 in 2019, with an average occupancy rate of 87%. Of the property owners who use H2O, the majority, or 70%, are real estate property managers, 20% are local property owners and 10% are overseas real estate funds. About 60% of guests who use H2O to book accommodations are inbound travelers (of that number, 40% are from China, 40% are from Southeast Asia, 10% are from South Korea and 10% are from other countries), while the rest are domestic tourists.

In press statement, Eric Kim, senior investment manager at Samsung Ventures, said “We’re pleased to be part of the fastest-growing hospitality company in Japan. H2O has already proven product market fit within Japan, and we expect them to continue to thrive as they expand outside of major cities.”

With $30 million in fresh funds, The Bouqs plans to plant its flower delivery business in Japan

The Bouqs plans to take a slice of Japan’s $6 billion flower market this year with a $30 million strategic growth round from Japanese enterprise business investor Yamasa. While The Bouqs still must compete with bigger contenders like 1-800-Flowers and FTD in the U.S., it will now have to take on incumbents like Ayoma Flower Market and FloraJapan, both of which also offer same-day delivery throughout the land of the rising sun.

So why Japan? According to The Bouqs founder and CEO John Tabis, his company had been looking to expand internationally for awhile and Japan seemed to fit well within that plan.

The Bouqs CEO and founder John Tabis

The Bouqs CEO and founder John Tabis

And as far as bigger competition in any country, Tabis is undeterred, telling TechCrunch there’s plenty of opportunities in the flower delivery business if you know where to look. “There’ve been four or five other startups that tried something similar — some of them no longer exist,” Tabis said. “But the thing that’s worked for us, the first is the way that we’ve sourced is unique and it’s really the foundation of our brand.”

The Bouqs sprung up in a wave of Silicon Valley funded flower delivery startups like BloomThat, Farm Girl and  Urban Stems, all promising Pinterest -worthy bouquets at the click of a button. But what set it apart was its farm-direct supply chain, cutting out costs from middlemen and delivering flowers that last longer.

This particular round now puts The Bouqs up top as far as total funding raised among its flower delivery startup peers, bringing in $74 million in total funding to date, with competitor Urban Stems at a close second with $27 million in funding, according to Crunchbase.

Tabis also tells TechCrunch the new funds will also further the company’s development into brick-and-mortar stores and that it’s jumping into the wedding biz. As anyone who’s ever planned a wedding will tell you, it’s an industry ripe for disruption — with brides and grooms spending about 8% of the budget on the flowers alone.

One other renewed focus for the company will be its subscription business, keeping customers set up with a fresh bunch of flowers once the old bouquet is ready for tossing. “It’s sort of the linchpin of our business that’s grown very nicely…expanding both our revenue and profitability,” Tabis told TechCrunch.

The SVP of Yamasa, Norikazu Sano, also mentioned further expansion into Asia for the company in a company press release so we could see the Bouqs in more international areas over time, if all goes right in Japan.

“This financing will enable us to fully realize our vision to create a global network of top quality farms paired with a category-defining local floral brand enabled by proprietary supply chain technology and vertically-integrated sourcing capabilities. We’re so excited for this next phase of the business, and all of the opportunities that lie ahead,” Tabis said.

Diligent’s Vivian Chu and Labrador’s Mike Dooley will discuss assistive robotics at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI

Too often the world of robotics seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Assistive robotics, on the other hand, are among one of the primary real-world tasks existing technology can seemingly address almost immediately.

The concept for the technology has been around for some time now and has caught on particularly well in places like Japan, where human help simply can’t keep up with the needs of an aging population. At TC Sessions: Robotics+AI at U.C. Berkeley on March 3, we’ll be speaking with a pair of founders developing offerings for precisely these needs.

Vivian Chu is the cofounder and CEO of Diligent Robotics. The company has developed the Moxi robot to help assist with chores and other non-patient tasks, in order to allow caregivers more time to interact with patients. Prior to Diligent, Chu worked at both Google[X] and Honda Research Institute.

Mike Dooley is the cofounder and CEO of Labrador Systems. The Los Angeles-based company recently closed a $2 million seed round to develop assistive robots for the home. Dooley has worked at a number of robotics companies including, most recently a stint as the VP of Product and Business Development at iRobot.

Early Bird tickets are now on sale for $275, but you better hurry, prices go up in less than a month by $100. Students can book a super discounted ticket for just $50 right here.