Tokyo-based SODA, which runs Japan’s largest sneaker resell platform, lands $22 million led by SoftBank Ventures Asia

Tokyo-based SODA, which runs sneaker reselling platform SNKRDUNK, has raised a $22 million Series B led by SoftBank Ventures Asia. Investors also included basepartners, Colopl Next, THE GUILD and other strategic partners. Part of the funding will be used to expand into other Asian countries. Most of SNKRDUNK’s transactions are within Japan now, but it plans to become a cross-border marketplace.

Along with SODA’s $3 million Series A last year, this brings the startup’s total funding to $25 million.

While the COVID-19 pandemic was initially expected to put a damper on the sneaker resell market, C2C marketplaces have actually seen their business increase. For example, StockX, one of the biggest sneaker resell platforms in the world (which hit a valuation of $2.8 billion after its recent Series E), said May and June 2020 were its biggest months for sales ever.

SNKRDUNK’s sales also grew last year, and in December 2020, it recorded a 3,000% year-over-year increase in monthly gross merchandise value. Chief executive officer Yuta Uchiyama told TechCrunch this was because demand for sneakers remained high, while more people also started buying things online.

Launched in 2018, SNKRDUNK now has 2.5 million monthly users, which it says makes it the largest C2C sneaker marketplace in Japan. The Series B will allow it to speed up the pace of its international expansion, add more categories and expand its authentication facilities.

Like StockX and GOAT, SNKRDUNK’s user fees cover authentication holds before sneakers are sent to buyers. The company partners with FAKE BUSTERS, an authentication service based in Japan, to check sneakers before they are sent to buyers.

In addition to its marketplace, SNKRDUNK also runs a sneaker news site and an online community.

SODA plans to work with other companies in SoftBank Venture Asia’s portfolio that develop AI-based tech to help automate its operations, including logistics, payment, customer service and counterfeit inspection.

App stores saw record 218 billion downloads in 2020, consumer spend of $143 billion

Mobile adoption continued to grow in 2020, in part due to the market forces of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to App Annie’s annual “State of Mobile” industry report, mobile app downloads grew by 7% year-over-year to a record 218 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, consumer spending grew by 20% to also hit a new milestone of $143 billion, led by markets that included China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

Consumers also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone, the report found.

In another shift, app usage in the U.S. surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours on their mobile device.

The increase in time spent is a trend that’s not unique to the U.S., but can be seen across several other countries, including both developing mobile markets like Indonesia, Brazil and India, as well as places like China, Japan, South Korea, the U.K., Germany, France and others.

The trend isn’t isolated to any one demographic, either, but is seen across age groups. In the U.S., for example, Gen Z, millennials and Gen X/Baby Boomers spent 16%, 18% and 30% more time in their most-used apps year-over-year, respectively. However, what those favorite apps looked like was very different.

For Gen Z in the U.S., top apps on Android phones included Snapchat, Twitch, TikTok, Roblox and Spotify.

Millennials favored Discord, LinkedIn, PayPal, Pandora and Amazon Music.

And Gen X/Baby Boomers used Ring, Nextdoor, The Weather Channel, Kindle and ColorNote Notepad Notes.

The pandemic didn’t necessarily change how consumers were using apps in 2020, but rather accelerated mobile adoption by two to three years’ time, the report found.

Investors were also eager to fuel mobile businesses as a result, pouring $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year. According to Crunchbase data, 26% of total global funding dollars in 2020 went to businesses that included a mobile solution.

From 2016 to 2020, global funding to mobile technology companies more than doubled compared with the previous five years, and was led by financial services, transportation, commerce and shopping.

Mobile gaming adoption also continued to grow in 2020. Casual games dominated the market in terms of downloads (78%), but Core games accounted for 66% of games’ consumer spend and 55% of the time spent.

With many stuck inside due to COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines, mobile games that offered social interaction boomed. Among Us, for example, became a breakout game in several markets in 2020, including the U.S.

Other app categories saw sizable increases over the past year, as well.

Time spent in Finance apps in 2020 was up 45% worldwide, outside of China, and participation in the stock market grew 55% on mobile, thanks to apps like Robinhood in the U.S. and others worldwide, that democratized investing and trading.

TikTok had a big year, too.

The app saw incredible 325% year-over-year growth, despite a ban in India, and ranked in the top five apps by time spent. The average monthly time spent per user also grew faster than nearly every other app analyzed, including 65% in the U.S. and 80% in the U.K., surpassing Facebook. TikTok is now on track to hit 1.2 billion active users in 2021, App Annie forecasts.

Other video services boomed in 2020, thanks to a combination of new market entrants and a lot of time spent at home. Consumers spent 40% more hours streaming on mobile devices, with time spent in streaming apps peaking in the second quarter in the west as the pandemic forced people inside.

YouTube benefitted from this trend, as it became the No. 1 streaming app by time spent among all markets analyzed except China. The time spent in YouTube is up to 6x that of the next closet app at 38 hours per month.

Of course, another big story for 2020 was the rise of e-commerce amid the pandemic. This made the past year the biggest ever for mobile shopping, with an over 30% increase in time spent in Shopping apps, as measured on Android phones outside of China.

Mobile commerce, however, looked less traditional in 2020.

Social shopping was a big trend, with global downloads of Pinterest and Instagram growing 50% and 20% year-over-year, respectively.

Livestreaming shopping grew, too, led by China. Downloads of live shopping TaoBao Live in China, Grip in South Korea and NTWRK in the U.S. grew 100%, 245% and 85%, respectively. NTWRK doubled in size last year, and now others are entering the space as well — including TikTok, to some extent.

The pandemic also prompted increased usage of mobile ordering apps. In the U.S., Argentina, the U.K., Indonesia and Russia, the app grew by 60%, 65%, 70%, 80% and 105%, respectively, in Q4.

Business apps, like Zoom and Google Meet among others, grew 275% in Q4, for example, as remote work and sometimes school, continued.

The analysis additionally included lists of the top apps by downloads, spending and monthly active users (MAUs).

Although TikTok had been topping year-end charts, Facebook continued to beat it in terms of MAUs. Facebook-owned apps controlled the top charts by MAUs, with Facebook at No. 1 followed by WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram.

TikTok, however, had more downloads than Facebook and ranked No. 2 by consumer spending, behind Tinder.

The full report is available only as an online interactive experience this year, not a download. The report largely uses data from both the iOS App Store and Google Play, except where otherwise noted.

New York licenses GMO Internet to issue the first JPY-pegged stablecoin

The New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) has approved Tokyo-based GMO Internet to launch GYEN, the first stablecoin pegged to the Japanese yen.

GMO Internet, an internet conglomerate that offers a large array of services, including domain hosting, online advertising and what it claims is the world’s largest foreign exchange trading platform, will set up GMO-Z.com Trust Company (GMO Trust) to issue GYEN and ZUSD, a USD-pegged stablecoin. Both will start selling outside of Japan next month.

In a press announcement, GMO Trust said it had also made strategic partnerships with global digital asset exchanges to ensure the liquidity of the virtual currencies. Began developing GYEN in 2018.

GMO Trust joins about two dozen other companies that have received virtual currency licenses, also called BitLicenses, from the NYSDFS. BitLicenses, which went into effect in June 2015, are required to engage in virtual currency business activities in New York. Other companies based in Asia that hold BitLicenses include Japan’s bitflyer, a Bitcoin exchange, and Hong Kong-based digital wallet Xapo.

SoftBank will reportedly file for a SPAC on Monday

SoftBank Investment Advisers may file as early as Monday to raise between $500 million and $600 million through an initial public offering of its first special purpose acquisition vehicle, reports Axios.

SoftBank Investment Advisers manages the two Vision Funds and may continue leaning into SPACs, with two more reportedly in the works.

The conglomerate first revealed its SPAC plans in October when SoftBank Investment Advisers chief executive officer Rajeev Misra said he was planning a SPAC while speaking at the Milken Institute Global Conference. An SPAC would give the Vision Fund another way of investing in private companies, and also allow the public to invest in SoftBank’s portfolio picks.

SPACs are blank-check companies created for the purpose of merging or acquiring other companies, and have gained popularity this year as an alternative to traditional stock market debuts.

While this would be SoftBank’s first SPAC, one of its portfolio companies, real-estate platform OpenDoor, recently went public through an SPAC. Another one of its investments, Indonesian e-commerce giant Tokopedia, is also considering going public through a SPAC backed by Richard Li and Peter Thiel, after putting its IPO plans because of the pandemic.

TechCrunch has contacted SoftBank Investment Advisers for comment.

NASA selects four companies for moon material collection as it seeks to set precedent on private sector outer space mining

NASA has selected the winning candidates that they’ve decided to tap to collect lunar resources for eventual Earth return. The four companies all have rides booked on future commercial lunar lander missions, and the agency is using this as a demonstration of what kinds of efficiencies it can realize by piggybacking on private industry for serving its needs. It is also a precedent-setting event for NASA paying private companies to retrieve materials that they retrieved and owned privately for their own purposes prior to transferring ownership to the agency.

The winning bids were evaluated based on two simple criteria: Basically, were they technically feasible, and how much did they cost. There were four winners, each with a different ride out, which will seek to satisfy the conditions of NASA’s request, which is basically to collect a lunar regolith (essentially what we call “soil” on the moon) in an amount ranging from between 50 grams to 500 grams, with retrieval to be handled separately by NASA at a later date. The samples had to be collected before 2024 as part of the request, which sets them up for potential retrieval via NASA’s Artemis mission series, though the agency isn’t necessarily going to actually pick up the samples, it reserves the option to do so.

The four companies selected are:

  • Lunar Outpost, from Golden, Colorado, which bid to complete the contract for just $1, following the arrival of the Blue Origin lunar lander in 2023.
  • ispace Japan, which asked for $5,000 for a retrieval via the landing of its Hakuto-R lander during its first mission currently set for 2022.
  • ispace Europe, a part of ispace Japan’s global corporate footprint, which bid for $5,000 and an arrival in 2023 on the second Hakuto-R mission.
  • Masten Space Systems, which asked for $15,000, with an arrival in 2023 using its Masten XL lander.

The agency received 22 proposals in total, between 16 and 17 companies. This was intentionally designed to help NASA demonstrate the advantages of its public-private partnerships approach, and to set precedents about how resource material collection can happen on extra-terrestrial bodies like the moon.

“With the commercial partnerships, this is setting a precedent internally as well as externally, relative to NASA continuing that paradigm,” said NASA’s Acting Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations Mike Gold. “Rather than pay for the development of the systems themselves, NASA is playing the role as customer.”

More specifically, these contracts also set precedents in terms of what private companies can do in terms of collecting material from the moon, and who has ownership of that material once collected.

“I’ve often said that the rocket science part, the engineering, sometimes that seems like the easy aspect when it comes to all of the policy issues, legal or financial challenges that we have,” Gold said. “It’s very important that we resolve any legal or regulatory questions in advance because we never want policy, or regulations to slow down or hinder incredible innovations in development that we’re seeing from both the public and the private sector. So we think it’s very important to establish the precedent that the private sector entities can extract, take these resources that NASA can purchase, and utilize them to fuel, not only NASA’s activities, but a whole new dynamic era of public and private development and exploration on the moon, and then eventually to Mars.”

Basically, NASA wants this to set a precedent that private companies can go to the moon, and eventually Mars, and mine material and retain ownership of said material for later distribution to both public and other private customers.

That’s part of the reason these bids are so low — companies like ispace and Lunar Outpost have future business models that involve significant potential planetary-body mining components. The other is that these lunar lander missions were already planned, and as NASA explicitly laid out in their request for proposals for this bid, the agency did not want to pay for any development costs for the mission of getting to the moon itself — just the actual collection.

ORIX invests $60M in Israeli crowdfunding platform OurCrowd

Japan-based financial services group ORIX Corporation today announced that it has made a $60 million strategic investment into the Israeli crowdsourcing platform OurCrowd. In return, the crowdfunding platform will provide the firm with access to its startup network. OurCrowd also says that the two groups will collaborate to create financial products and investment opportunities for the Japanese and global market, including access to its venture funds and specific companies in the OurCrowd portfolio.

ORIX is a global leader in diversified business and financial services who will strengthen OurCrowd in many ways,” OurCrowd CEO Jon Medved said in today’s announcement. “We are enthusiastic about the potential to further transform the venture capital asset class together and provide a strong bridge for our innovative companies to the important Asian markets.”

While ORIX already operates in 37 countries, including the U.S., this is the company’s first investment in Israel. It comes at a time where Japanese investments in Israel are already surging. And earlier this year, Israel’s flag carrier El Al was about to launch direct flights to Tokyo, for example, and while the pandemic canceled those plans, it’s a clear sign of the expanding business relations between the two countries.

“We are excited about investing in OurCrowd, Israel’s most active venture investor and one of the world’s most innovative venture capital platforms,” ORIX UK CEO Kiyoshi Habiro said. “We intend to be active partners with OurCrowd and help them accelerate their already impressive growth, while bringing the best of Israeli tech to Japan’s large industrial and financial sectors.”

So far, OurCrowd has made investments in 220 companies across its 22 funds. Some of its most successful exits include Beyond Meat and Lemonade, JUMP Bike, Briefcam and Argus. ORIX, too, has quite a diverse portfolio, with investments that range from real estate to banking and energy services.

Pfizer and BioNTech to submit request for emergency use approval of their COVID-19 vaccine today

Two of the companies behind one of the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates will seek approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization (EUA) of their preventative treatment with an application to be delivered today. Pfizer and BioNTech, who revealed earlier this week that their vaccine was 95% effective based on Phase 3 clinical trial data, are submitting for the emergency authorization in the U.S., as well as in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.K., and says that could pave the way for use of the vaccine to begin in “high-risk populations” by the end of next month.

The FDA’s EUA program allows therapeutics companies to seek early approval when mitigating circumstances are met, as is the case with the current global pandemic. EUA’s still require that supporting information and safety data are provided, but they are fast-tracked relative to the full, formal and more permanent approval process typically used for new drugs and treatments that come before they’re able to actually be administered broadly.

Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine candidate, which is an mRNA-based vaccine that essentially provides a recipient’s body with instructions on how to produce specific proteins to block the ability of SARS-CoV-19 (the virus that causes COVID-19) to attach to cells. The vaccine has recently been undergoing a Phase 3 clinical trial, that included 43,661 participants so far. The companies are submitting supporting information they hope will convince the FDA to grant the EUA, including data from 170 confirmed cases from among the participants, and safety information actively solicited from 8,000 participants, and supplementary data form another 38,000 who that was passively collected.

While production is ramping globally for this and other vaccines in late stage development, and EUA will potentially open up access to high-risk individuals including frontline healthcare workers, it’s worth pointing out that any wide vaccination programs likely aren’t set to begin until next year, and likely later in 2021.

Ride Vision raises $7M for its AI-based motorcycle safety system

Ride Vision, an Israeli startup that is building an AI-driven safety system to prevent motorcycle collisions, today announced that it has raised a $7 million Series A round led by crowdsourcing platform OurCrowd. YL Ventures, which typically specializes in cybersecurity startups but also led the company’s $2.5 million seed round in 2018, Mobilion VC and motorcycle mirror manufacturer Metagal also participated in this round. The company has now raised a total of $10 million.

In addition to this new funding round, Ride Vision also today announced a new partnership with automotive parts manufacturer Continental .

“As motorcycle enthusiasts, we at Ride Vision are excited at the prospect of our international launch and our partnership with Continental,” Uri Lavi, CEO and co-founder of Ride Vision, said in today’s announcement. “This moment is a major milestone, as we stride toward our dream of empowering bikers to feel truly safe while they enjoy the ride.”

The general idea here is pretty straightforward and comparable with the blind-spot monitoring system in your car. Using computer vision, Ride Vision’s system, the Ride Vision 1, analyzes the traffic around a rider in real time. It provides forward collision alerts and monitors your blind spot, but it can also tell you when you’re following another rider or car too closely. It can also simply record your ride and, coming soon, it’ll be able to make emergency calls on your behalf when things go awry.

As the company argues, the number of motorcycles (and other motorized two-wheeled vehicles) has only increased during the pandemic, as people started avoiding public transport and looked for relatively affordable alternatives. In Europe, sales of two-wheeled vehicles increased by 30% during the pandemic.

The hardware on the motorcycle itself is pretty straightforward. It includes two wide-angle cameras (one each at the front and rear), as well as alert indicators on the mirrors, as well as the main computing unit. Ride Vision has patents on its human-machine warning interface and vision algorithms.

It’s worth noting that there are some blind-spot monitoring solutions for motorcycles on the market already, including those from Innovv and Senzar. Honda also has patents on similar technologies. These do not provide the kind of 360-degree view that Ride Vision is aiming for.

Ride Vision says its products will be available in Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, France, Greece, Israel and the U.K. in early 2021, with the U.S., Brazil, Canada, Australia, Japan, India, China and others following later.

KKR, Rakuten to acquire most of Walmart’s stake in Japanese supermarket chain Seiyu

Walmart announced today it will sell most of its shares in Seiyu, the Japanese supermarket chain it acquired 12 years ago, to KKR and Rakuten. The deal values Seiyu at about $1.6 billion and means Walmart will almost completely exit its operations in Japan.

Under the agreement, investment firm KKR will buy a 65% stake in Seiyu, while Rakuten, Japan’s largest e-commerce company, will take a 20% stake through a newly created subsidiary called Rakuten DX. Walmart will retain a 15% stake in Seiyu.

After struggling with strong competition in Japan and low margins, Walmart reportedly considered relisting Seiyu or its holding company, Walmart Japan Holdings last year.

Rakuten is already familiar with Seiyu’s business because it formed a strategic alliance with Walmart in 2018 that included launching an online grocery delivery service in Japan. Called Rakuten Seiyu Netsuper, the online delivery service includes a dedicated fulfilment center, in addition to inventory picked up from Seiyu’s supermarkets.

After the deal, Seiyu will be part of Rakuten DX, which is intended to bring more brick-and-mortar stores online through Rakuten’s e-commerce and cashless payment channels.

Japan’s online grocery delivery market has trailed behind other countries, due in part to the reluctance of shoppers to purchase fresh food online. But the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a rapid shift in consumer habits. According to a July 4 report from the Japan Times, internet sales accounted for about 5% of total grocery sales, compared to 2.5% before the pandemic.

Rivals to Rakuten include grocery delivery services run by Aeon (in partnership with Ocado), Amazon and Ito-Yokado.

Twitter brings its Stories feature, Fleets, to Japan

Twitter’s own version of Stories, which it calls “Fleets,” have arrived in Japan. The new feature allows users to post ephemeral content that automatically disappears after 24 hours. Though Fleets previously launched in Brazil, India, Italy, and South Korea, Japan is notably Twitter’s second largest market, with some estimated 51.9 million users.

It’s also second in terms of revenues, led by advertising. In Q3 2020, Japan generated $132.4 million in revenue, coming in second behind the U.S.’s $512.6 million.

Twitter can be experimental when it comes to new features — it even once developed a new way to manage threads with a public prototype, coded alongside user feedback. But not all the features it dabbles with make it to launch.

However, the further expansion of Fleets to Japan signals Twitter’s interest in the product hasn’t diminished over time. It seems it’s now only a matter of time before Fleets arrive in Twitter largest market, the U.S.

That said, the U.S. may be the hardest market for Fleets to crack, as here, many users are concerned about how all social media apps are starting to look alike.

Whatever feature becomes a breakout success on one platform soon finds its way to all the others. In the early days, we saw this trend with the “feed” format, modeled after Facebook’s News Feed. The Stories format, popularized by Snapchat, came next. And now apps like Instagram and Snapchat are ripping off TikTok with their own short-form video features.

The result is that apps are losing focus on what makes them unique.

Twitter, for what it’s worth, has historically been slow to copy from other social networks. In fact, it’s one of the last to embrace Stories — a feature that’s now even on LinkedIn, of all places.

Plus, in Twitter’s case, the Stories feature may end up serving a different purpose than on other networks.

Instead of offering users a way to post content of lesser quality — posts that didn’t deserve the a more prominent spot in the feed, that is — Fleets may encourage users who haven’t felt comfortable with the platform’s more public nature to begin posting for the first time. Or, at least, it could push users to increase their content output and engagement.

Twitter’s Fleets work much like Stories on other platforms. With a tap on the “+” (plus) button, users can post text, photos, GIFs or videos. Meanwhile, viewers use gestures to navigate through the Fleets posted by others. The Stories sit at the top of the app’s home screen, also like on other platforms.

Twitter tells TechCrunch all users in Japan should have Fleets available on their accounts over the  days, but couldn’t share a timeframe for a U.S. launch.