Data-driven iteration helped China’s Genki Forest become a $6B beverage giant in 5 years

China’s e-commerce and industrial ecosystem is as different from the Western world as its culture. The country took decades to earn its reputation as the Factory of the World, but it now boasts a supply chain and manufacturing ability that few countries can match.

Creative use of the country’s networked manufacturing and logistics hubs make mass production both cheap and easy. Clothing, electronics, toys, automobiles, musical instruments, furniture — you name it and you’ll find a manufacturer in China who can turn your intangible concept into mass-manufacturable reality in mere days. And they’ll do it for cheaper than anywhere else in the world.

It was just a matter of time until an intrepid Chinese entrepreneur with a tech background decided to take on Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

China is also home to one of the world’s largest e-commerce and tech ecosystems. Hundreds of startups dot the landscape, and the amount of money being raised and spent on innovating around the country’s industrial heft is mind-boggling.

So it was just a matter of time until an intrepid Chinese entrepreneur with a tech background decided to take on Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. The tech revolution hasn’t yet affected the bottled beverage industry quite as much as it has others. Incumbent giants therefore could lose a sizable chunk of market share if a company could just manage to weave together China’s manufacturing proficiency and agility with the modern tech startup philosophy of “moving fast and breaking stuff.”

Genki Forest, a Chinese direct-to-consumer (D2C) bottled beverage startup, is one such contender. A philosophy centered around iteration informed by data, quick turnarounds and a laser focus on taking advantage of China’s huge e-commerce ecosystem has helped this company’s revenues rise rapidly since it started five years ago. Its sugar-free sodas, milk teas and energy drinks sell in 40 countries and generated revenue of about $450 million in 2020. The company aims to reach $1.2 billion this year.

If anything, Genki Forest’s valuation has shot up even faster. It recently completed its fourth VC round that values it at a whopping $6 billion, triple the price it fetched a year earlier, and it has so far raised at least half a billion dollars.

It’s striking how closely Genki Forest’s operations resemble that of a tech startup. So we thought we should take a closer look and see what this company’s graph can tell us about the new wave of Chinese D2C entrepreneurship looking to take over the globe.

Finding a bigger wave to ride

The bottled beverage industry wasn’t what Genki Forest’s founder, Binsen Tang, initially set out to tackle. His first startup was a successful casual, mostly mobile gaming outfit known as ELEX Technology. It was nowhere near record-breaking, though — some 50 million users logged on to a few popular games in over 40 countries worldwide, including one of the first versions of Happy Farm, a predecessor to Zynga’s Farmville. But Tang wasn’t satisfied and eventually sold ELEX Technology to a publicly listed company for about $400 million in 2014.

Tang would walk away with a few important lessons. He’d learned by now that Chinese products were already competitive globally, whether people realized it or not, and that and geographic arbitrage was real, Happy Farm being the perfect example of this. Lastly, he now knew that it was far more important to choose the right “racetrack” (as Chinese investors and entrepreneurs like to put it) than to have a great product.

Picking the right race to win was perhaps the most important takeaway. It’s also an idea that sets Chinese entrepreneurs apart from their Western counterparts — the most worthwhile endeavors are in identifying the largest and most rewarding market at hand, regardless of one’s previous expertise. It was what led Zhang Yiming to create ByteDance, and Lei Jun to found Xiaomi.

That very philosophy led Tang to build Genki Forest. After selling ELEX Technology, Tang didn’t go back to the business that netted him his first pot of gold. As much as he had benefited from the rise of the mobile internet, he thought there was a far bigger opportunity building a consumer brand and applying the lessons he learned from programming to the manufacture of tangible products.

He soon set up his own investment fund, Challenjers Capital, convinced that the next big tech opportunity in China was in tech’s application to everyday consumer products. He soon began to invest in everything from ramen and hotpots to bottled beverages.

China’s quickly expanding e-commerce ecosystem and the plethora of D2C businesses flourishing on Alibaba and JD.com would also influence his decision to sell directly to his target audience rather than take the traditional route. But to truly understand his motivations, we need to take a look at the extremely unique D2C environment in China and how it has changed over the years.

What’s different about Chinese D2C?

“China doesn’t need any more good platforms,” Tang told his team in an internal email in 2015, “but it does need good products.” Tang was talking about how the age of building infrastructure for e-commerce in China was largely over; it was now time to create brands that could take advantage of the advanced distribution network that had been laid out.

Other investors noticed as well. Albus Yu, principal at China Growth Capital, told me that his fund had stopped making investments in independent consumer-facing platforms or marketplaces for a while. “2014 might have been the last year it was economically feasible to start such a business due to the soaring cost of acquiring customers and the strength of incumbents,” he said.

Indeed, 2015 was the year when CACs began to exceed or at least rival ARPUs for Alibaba and JD.com.

In China, that distribution network was present across the digital and physical worlds. Online, there was immense market power concentrated in the hands of just two players: Alibaba and JD.com, which used to have, and still maintain, 80% or above in market share.

In fact, the dominance of Alibaba, in particular, was so overwhelming that for years, VCs invested not in D2C, but in “Taobao brands,” since that was the only channel one needed to conquer in order to make it.

Customer acquisition was therefore straightforward — throw everything into advertising on Alibaba’s Tmall platform, especially during its annual flagship shopping festival, Singles’ Day. Even today, garnering a top spot in one of the category leaderboards remains a surefire way to build brand awareness, investor interest, as well as sales records.

Physically, the Chinese market also differs greatly from much of the developed West. Years of heavy investment in logistics by the private sector, accelerated by government support and infrastructure buildout, means that delivery costs have come down significantly over the years, even dipping below $0.40 per package wholesale as of this year. Innovations such as return insurance have also sped up customer adoption.

By 2016, China was shipping 30 billion packages a year, already accounting for 44% of global shipments. That number has been doubling every three years and is expected to exceed 100 billion this year. And the low cost of delivery is one of the biggest reasons for China’s outsized e-commerce market — the largest globally and estimated to reach $2.8 trillion in 2021, more than triple that of the No. 2, the U.S.

Express parcels sit stacked at a logistic base of e-commerce giant Suning before the 618 Shopping Festival

Express parcels sit stacked at a logistic base of e-commerce giant Suning before the 618 Shopping Festival. Image Credits: VCG

Present-day China also presents another edge: Proximity to an advanced, flexible manufacturing network and supply chain for the vast majority of consumer products, and the ability to outsource almost everything to them.

The original equipment manufacturers of years past have long since evolved into original design manufacturers. An expected consequence of being “the Factory of the World” for so many years, making goods for some of the best brands in the world, is that some of the knowledge was bound to transfer.

It may be difficult for outsiders to understand just how strong China’s networked manufacturing hubs are these days. What used to take weeks now takes mere days, the lead times shortened drastically by software, robots and other advancements. For example, Chinese cross-border ultra-fast-fashion company Shein has compressed design-to-ship timelines to as little as seven days.

And it’s definitely not just for making crop tops. The turnaround can be astonishingly fast even when manufacturing completely unfamiliar goods, such as when electric vehicle maker BYD turned its factory into the world’s largest face mask plant in just two weeks when the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year.

Companies leverage this manufacturing flexibility and agility for more than just speed. Chinese cosmetics upstart Perfect Diary uses it to launch twice as many SKUs as foreign competitors. In addition, the quick turnaround allows agile brands to take advantage of that most ephemeral of IP, memes.

It’s not to say that the Chinese supply chain is inaccessible to foreign entrepreneurs. Best-selling mattress maker Zinus, for example, is founded by a South Korean, but its products are manufactured in China and sold mostly on Amazon to U.S. customers.

It’s just that very few non-Chinese companies have figured out how to tap as deeply into the supply chain as this new crop of Chinese D2C brands, which can require years of working not just alongside but physically inside the factories, building trust and know-how. Shein, for example, watches carefully what other brands are making by staying close to the factories.

The China opportunity

Before global sensations such as TikTok weakened the mantra, “copy to China” used to be a dominant characterization of Chinese startups. In December 2015, when Tang registered the Genki Forest trademark, that was still very much a relevant strategy.

China Roundup: Kai-Fu Lee’s first Europe bet, WeRide buys a truck startup

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

Despite the geopolitical headwinds for foreign tech firms to enter China, many companies, especially those that find a dependable partner, are still forging ahead. For this week’s roundup, I’m including a conversation I had with Prophesee, a French vision technology startup, which recently got funding from Kai-Fu Lee and Xiaomi, along with the usual news digest.

Spotting opportunities in China

Like many companies working on futuristic, cutting-edge tech in Europe, Prophesee was a spinout from university research labs. Previously, I covered two such companies from Sweden: Imint, which improves smartphone video production through deep learning, and Dirac, an expert in sound optimization.

The three companies have two things in common: They are all in niche fields, and they have all found eager customers in China.

For Prophesee, they are production lines, automakers and smartphone companies in China looking for breakthroughs in perception technology, which will in turn improve how their robots respond to the environment. So it’s unsurprising that Xiaomi and Chinese chip-focused investment firm Inno-Chip backed Prophesee in its latest funding round, which was led by Sinovation Venture.

The funding size was undisclosed but TechCrunch learned it was in the range of “tens of million USD.” It was also the first investment that Kai-Fu Lee has made through Sinovation in Europe. As Prophesee CEO Luca Verre recalled:

I met Dr. Kai-Fu Lee three years ago during the World Economic Forum … and when I pitched to him about Prophesee, he got very intrigued. And then over the past three years, actually, we kept in touch and last year, given the growing traction we were having in China, particularly in the mobile and IoT industry, he decided to jump in. He said okay, it is now the right timing Prophesee becomes big.

The Paris-based company wasn’t actively seeking funding, but it believed having Chinese strategic investors could help it gain greater access to the complex market.

Rather than sending information collected by sensors and cameras to computing platforms, Prophesee fits that process inside a chip (fabricated by Sony) that mimics the human eyes, a technology that is built upon neuromorphic engineering.

The old method snaps a collection of fixed images so when information grows in volume, a tremendous amount of computing power is needed. In contrast, Prophesee’s sensors, which it describes as “event-based,” only pick up changes in the environment just as the photoreceptors in our eyes and can process information continuously and quickly.

Europe has been pioneering neuromorphic computing, but in recent years, Verre saw a surge in research coming from Chinese universities and tech firms, which reaffirmed his confidence in the market’s appetite.

We see Chinese OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), particularly Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo pushing the standard of quality of image quality to very, very high … They are very eager to adopt new technology to further differentiate in a way which is faster and more aggressive than Apple. Apple is a company with an attitude which to me looks more similar to Huawei. So maybe for some technology, it takes more time to see the technology mature and adopt, which is right very often but later. So I’m sure that Apple will come at certain point with some products integrating event-based technology. In fact, we see them moving. We see them filing patents in the space. I’m sure that will come, but maybe not the first.

Though China is striving for technological independence, Verre believed Prophesee’s addressable market is large enough — $20 billion by his estimate. Nonetheless, he admitted he’d be “naive to believe Prophesee will be the only one to capture” this opportunity.

WeRide bought a truck company

One of China’s most valuable robotaxi startups has just acquired an autonomous trucking company called MoonX. The size of the deal is undisclosed, but we know that MoonX raised “tens of millions RMB” 15 months ago in a Series A round.

While WeRide is focused on Level 4 self-driving technology, it is also finding new monetization avenues before its robotaxis can chauffeur people at scale. It’s done so by developing minibusses, and the MoonX acqui-hire, which brings the company’s founder and over 50 engineers to WeRide, will likely help diversify its revenue pool.

WeRide and MoonX have deep-rooted relationships. Their respective founders, Tony Han and Yang Qingxiong, worked side by side at Jingchi, which was later rebranded to WeRide. Han co-founded Jingchi and took the helm as CEO in March 2018 while Yang was assigned vice president of engineering. But Yang soon quit and started MoonX.

Han, a Baidu veteran, gave Yang a warm homecoming and put him in charge of the firm’s research institute and its new office in Shenzhen, home to MoonX. WeRide’s sprawling headquarters is just about an hour’s drive away in the adjacent city of Guangzhou.

AI surveillance giant Cloudwalk nears IPO

Cloudwalk belongs to a cohort of Chinese unicorns that flourished through the second half of the 2010s by selling computer vision technology to government agencies across China. Together, Cloudwalk and its rivals SenseTime, Megvii and Yitu were dubbed the “four AI dragons” for their fast ascending valuations and handsome funding rounds.

Of course, the term “AI dragon” is now a misnomer as AI application becomes so pervasive across industries. Investors soon realized these upstarts need to diversify revenue streams beyond smart city contracts, and they’ve been waiting anxiously for exits. Finally, here comes Cloudwalk, which will likely be the first in its cohort to go public.

Cloudwalk’s application to raise 3.75 billion yuan ($580 million) from an IPO on the Shanghai STAR board was approved this week, though it can still be months before it starts trading. The firm’s financials don’t look particularly rosy for investors, with net loss amounting to 720 million yuan in 2020.

Also in the news

  • Speaking of the torrent of news in autonomous driving, vehicle vision provider CalmCar said this week that it has raised $150 million in a Series C round. Founded by several overseas Chinese returnees in 2016, CalmCar uses deep learning to develop ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance System) used in automotive, industrial and surveillance scenarios. German auto parts maker ZF led the round.
  • Baby clothes direct-to-consumer brand PatPat said it has raised $510 million from Series C and D rounds. The D2C ecosystem leveraging China’s robust supply chains is increasingly gaining interest from venture capitalists. Brands like Shein, PatPat, Cider and Outer have all secured fundings from established VCs. Founded by three Carnegie Mellon grads, PatPat counts IDG Capital, General Atlantic, DST Global, GGV Capital, SIG China and Sequoia China among its investors.

China’s expected edtech clampdown may chill a key startup sector

News that China’s government may force domestic tutoring-focused companies to go non-profit is taking a huge bite out of the value of several technology companies. Bloomberg notes that the value of companies like New Oriental Education & Technology Group and TAL Education are tumbling in light of the news, which would constitute merely the latest salvo against tech companies in the autocratic country.

New Oriental’s Hong Kong-listed shares fell 44.22% in after-hours trading after the non-profit news broke, while NYSE-shares of TAL are off an even sharper 51.75% in pre-market trading. With Yahoo Finance listing a roughly $13.8 billion market cap for TAL ahead of its impending declines at the market open, billions of equity value are about to get deleted. The list goes on: China Online Education Group is off 39.97% in after-hours trading, for example.


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A new decision by China’s government to exert more control over a sector of its domestic economy should not surprise. And we shouldn’t be shocked that online tutoring is in the country’s targets; today’s news is a follow-up to prior regulatory action in the sector from earlier in the year.

As China has become synonymous with edtech startup in recent years, the news impacts more than just public companies. The expected rules change may also hit a host of private, venture-backed companies.

For example, what will happen to Yuanfudao? The company was valued at $15.5 billion last year, offering what TechCrunch described as “live tutoring, an online Q&A arm and a math problem-checking arm.” Will the company see its wings clipped?

Or how about Zuoyebang, which raised $1.6 billion in a single round last year? TechCrunch wrote that Zuoyebang offers “online courses, live lessons and homework help for kindergarten to 12th grade students.” Is it in trouble as well?

All this comes on the same day that shares in Zomato began to float, with the Indian online food delivery company seeing its shares close up nearly 65% in their first day’s trading. TechCrunch has viewed the Zomato IPO as a possible bellwether for the larger Indian startup market, and the results augur well for other growth-focused, loss-making unicorns in the country.

Food delivery firm Zomato surges 65% in key India debut

Shares in Zomato, a Gurgaon-based food delivery company and first of India’s consumer tech startups to go public, closed up 64.7% in its debut day of trading in Mumbai, delivering a key insight into the appetite investors have for the world’s second largest internet market’s burgeoning startup ecosystem.

Zomato’s shares traded all day above the issue price of 76 Indian rupees ($1) and surged as high as 138.9 Indian rupees ($1.87). The 12-year-old firm ended day one of trading on BSE in Mumbai at 125.2 Indian rupees ($1.68), securing a market cap of $13.2 billion, up from about $5 billion valuation it had attained in private markets during the startup’s fundraise earlier this year.

The startup’s $1.3 billion initial public offering was 40 times subscribed last week.

Friday’s milestone of Zomato has equally been significant for the rest of the industry as startup founders and investors closely watched the performance. India’s Twitter timeline on Friday was flooded with well wishes and celebratory messages from industry colleagues.

Ashish Dave, India head of Mirae Asset, a backer of Zomato, said the listing and performance of Zomato today has delivered the missing piece of liquidity in Indian startup ecosystem.

“This validates that we can generate large IPOs, which then makes our startups more attractive for global LPs. It also gives Indian investors a chance to participate in the India tech journey rather than from watching it from sidelines,” he told TechCrunch, adding that retail investors of this generation will finally find a way to get in on the action with the brands they recognize and have grown with.

Zomato chief executive Deepinder Goyal was quick to reciprocate. In a blog post, Goyal wrote, “Today is a big day for us. A new Day Zero. But we couldn’t have gotten here without the incredible efforts of India’s entire internet ecosystem. Jio’s prolific growth has set all of us up for unprecedented scale. Flipkart, Amazon, Ola, Uber, Paytm – have also over the years, collectively laid the railroads that are enabling companies like ours to build the India of the future.”

“They say it takes a village to raise a child, and we are no exception. Hundreds of people have selflessly played a part in making Zomato what it is today.”

Indian tech startups have raised a record amount of capital this year as some high-profile investors have doubled down in the South Asian market. Swiggy, Zomato’s chief rival in India, said earlier this week it had raised $1.25 billion from SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 and Prosus among others at a valuation of $5.5 billion.

A handful of other firms are also preparing to publicly list within a few months. Financial services startups Paytm and MobiKwik filed for their initial public offerings earlier this month. Online insurance aggregator Policybazaar is expected to file its paperwork within a few weeks.

“I don’t know whether we will succeed or fail – we will surely, like always, give it our best. But I hope that the fact that we are here, inspires millions of Indians to dream bigger than we ever have, and build something way more incredible than what we can dream of,” wrote Goyal.

India considering phased roll out of central bank digital currency

India’s central bank is considering launching a digital currency, according to a top executive, giving a clear indication of its intentions for the first time after previously stating that it was studying the idea.

T Rabi Sankar, the deputy governor of Reserve Bank of India, said at a conference today that the central bank is considering introducing the nation’s digital currency in a “phased” manner while legal changes are made to the South Asian nation’s foreign-exchange rules and IT laws.

The digital currency, which will be backed by sovereign, will lower the economy’s reliance on cash, enable cheaper and smoother international settlements, and protect people from the volatility of privacy cryptocurrencies, he said.

“Every idea has to wait for its time, and the time for CBDC [central bank digital currency] is near. We have carefully evaluated the risks,” he told an audience at a conference held by think-tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

Sankar said the central bank’s “endeavor is that as we move forward [with the plan],” so that India’s digital currency “can reiterate its leadership position in payment systems of the world.”

The top executive’s remarks follows European Central Bank saying last week that it will begin a 24-month “investigation phase” that, if successful, could lead to the creation of a digital euro by 2025.

Also last week, China’s central bank said its digital yuan trial had reached $5.3 billion in transaction value by the end of June.

“Central banks have increased their attention on digital currencies,” said Sankar. “CBDC will be in the arsenal of most if not all central banks in the world. A calibrated and nuanced approach will be considered at the drawing board as well as with stakeholder consultations,” he said, adding that the central bank has been exploring the benefits and risks of issuing a sovereign CBDC for “quite some time.”

“We have studied specific-purpose CBDCs proposed by different central banks around the world for wholesale and retail segments. The launch of a general-purpose CBDC for population scale is being considered, and RBI is working towards a phased introduction strategy and examining use cases with little or no disruption of India’s banking and monetary systems,” he said. “However, conducting pilots in wholesale and retail segments may be a possibility in near future.”

In his remarks, Sankar also hinted that the central bank hasn’t changed its stand on private cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.

In 2018, an Indian government panel recommended banning all private cryptocurrencies and proposed up to 10 years of jail time for offenders. The panel also suggested the government to explore a digital version of the fiat currency and ways to implement it.

At the time, RBI said the move was necessary to curb “ring-fencing” of the country’s financial system. It had also argued that bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies cannot be treated as currencies as they are not made of metal or exist in physical form, nor were they stamped by the government.

“They are not commodities or claims on commodities as they have no intrinsic value; some claims that they are akin to gold clearly seem opportunistic,” Sankar said today.

The 2018 notice from the central bank sent a panic to several local startups and companies offering services to trade in cryptocurrency. Nearly all of them have either since closed shop, or pivoted to serve other markets.

This proposal was challenged by several exchanges and traders, who filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court. The nation’s apex court ruled in their favor last year. This ruling was seen as “historic” but it has yet to impact the earlier circular on the policy level. In the meantime, the country has hinted that it plans to introduce a law to ban private cryptocurrencies.

In the agenda published on the lower house website earlier this year, a legislation sought to “prohibit all private cryptocurrencies in India,” but allow “for certain exceptions to promote the underlying technology [blockchain] of cryptocurrency and its uses.”

India considering phased roll out of central bank digital currency

India’s central bank is considering launching a digital currency, according to a top executive, giving a clear indication of its intentions for the first time after previously stating that it was studying the idea.

T Rabi Sankar, the deputy governor of Reserve Bank of India, said at a conference today that the central bank is considering introducing the nation’s digital currency in a “phased” manner while legal changes are made to the South Asian nation’s foreign-exchange rules and IT laws.

The digital currency, which will be backed by sovereign, will lower the economy’s reliance on cash, enable cheaper and smoother international settlements, and protect people from the volatility of privacy cryptocurrencies, he said.

“Every idea has to wait for its time, and the time for CBDC [central bank digital currency] is near. We have carefully evaluated the risks,” he told an audience at a conference held by think-tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

Sankar said the central bank’s “endeavor is that as we move forward [with the plan],” so that India’s digital currency “can reiterate its leadership position in payment systems of the world.”

The top executive’s remarks follows European Central Bank saying last week that it will begin a 24-month “investigation phase” that, if successful, could lead to the creation of a digital euro by 2025.

Also last week, China’s central bank said its digital yuan trial had reached $5.3 billion in transaction value by the end of June.

“Central banks have increased their attention on digital currencies,” said Sankar. “CBDC will be in the arsenal of most if not all central banks in the world. A calibrated and nuanced approach will be considered at the drawing board as well as with stakeholder consultations,” he said, adding that the central bank has been exploring the benefits and risks of issuing a sovereign CBDC for “quite some time.”

“We have studied specific-purpose CBDCs proposed by different central banks around the world for wholesale and retail segments. The launch of a general-purpose CBDC for population scale is being considered, and RBI is working towards a phased introduction strategy and examining use cases with little or no disruption of India’s banking and monetary systems,” he said. “However, conducting pilots in wholesale and retail segments may be a possibility in near future.”

In his remarks, Sankar also hinted that the central bank hasn’t changed its stand on private cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.

In 2018, an Indian government panel recommended banning all private cryptocurrencies and proposed up to 10 years of jail time for offenders. The panel also suggested the government to explore a digital version of the fiat currency and ways to implement it.

At the time, RBI said the move was necessary to curb “ring-fencing” of the country’s financial system. It had also argued that bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies cannot be treated as currencies as they are not made of metal or exist in physical form, nor were they stamped by the government.

“They are not commodities or claims on commodities as they have no intrinsic value; some claims that they are akin to gold clearly seem opportunistic,” Sankar said today.

The 2018 notice from the central bank sent a panic to several local startups and companies offering services to trade in cryptocurrency. Nearly all of them have either since closed shop, or pivoted to serve other markets.

This proposal was challenged by several exchanges and traders, who filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court. The nation’s apex court ruled in their favor last year. This ruling was seen as “historic” but it has yet to impact the earlier circular on the policy level. In the meantime, the country has hinted that it plans to introduce a law to ban private cryptocurrencies.

In the agenda published on the lower house website earlier this year, a legislation sought to “prohibit all private cryptocurrencies in India,” but allow “for certain exceptions to promote the underlying technology [blockchain] of cryptocurrency and its uses.”

India’s BlackBuck valued at $1 billion in $67 million fundraise

India’s trucking system has a big inefficiency problem that continues to drag the economy. BlackBuck, one of the handful of logistics startups that is trying to overhaul this system, has just raised a new financing round and attained the coveted unicorn status.

Tribe Capital, IFC Emerging Asia Fund and VEF led the $67 million Series E financing round in the six-year-old startup, valuing it at $1.02 billion, BlackBuck chief executive Rajesh Yabaji told TechCrunch in an interview earlier this week. BlackBuck is the 16th Indian startup to become a unicorn.

BlackBuck connects businesses with truck owners and freight operators. It has developed a simplified app for truck drivers in India, who are typically not very literate, to help them accept work and easily navigate to their destination using Google Maps. On the client side, businesses can fire up a similar app to place orders.

About 700,000 truckers and 1.2 million trucks in India today are connected to the platform, which sees over 15 million transactions each month. “India’s truckers did not go truly digital till 2019. Since then, the supply activity has gone up by 20 times. That is the transformation our business has undertaken,” he said.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Indonesian B2B marketplace GudangAda raises more than $100M in new funding

A photo of GudangAda founder and chief executive officer Stevensang

GudangAda founder and chief executive officer Stevensang

GudangAda, a Jakarta-based marketplace that brings wholesalers closer to retail stores and other buyers, announced it has closed a Series B of more than $100 million. The company says the round was oversubscribed, passing its initial target of $75 million. The funding was led by Asia Partners and Falcon Edge, with participation from Sequoia Capital India, Alpha JWC and Wavemaker Partners.

This brings GudangAda’s total raised so far to about $135 million. Its last funding was a $25.4 million Series A last year, led by Sequoia Capital India and JWC Alpha Ventures.

Founded in January 2019, GudangAda is now used by half a million SMEs and covers 500 cities in Indonesia. Before raising its Series B, it had already grown to $6 billion in net merchandise value on $35 million of funding. Principal manufacturers and distributors on the platform range include food products company Sido Muncul, seasoning maker Sasa and British multinational consumer goods group Reckitt Benckiser.

Founder and chief executive officer Stevensang spent more than 25 years in Indonesia’s fast-moving consumer goods and retail industries before starting GudangAda. Over the past 10 years, Stevensang told TechCrunch that logistics costs in Indonesia have increased to among the highest in the world, impacting the whole supply chain, especially SME buyers.

GudangAda helps lower operational costs by connecting principal manufacturers, distributors and retailers, and handling almost all aspects of B2B buying, including deliveries. Its mobile app includes a point-of-sale system and it can also be used to manage orders, track logistics and make payments.

Stevensang said GudangAda focuses on several things to make buying inventory easier for SMEs. One is optimizing inventory turnover to increase working capital for businesses on the platform. The company also provides market research and data for products and gives retailers a large selection of goods. Being connected to multiple suppliers on the same platform also lets small retail stores that sell a large selection of items, but don’t have the buying volume to order directly from distributors, to purchase inventory at competitive costs.

To keep logistics costs down, GudangAda partners with third-party vehicle and warehouse providers to build its coverage throughout Indonesia. For its logistics partners, it provides transportation and warehouse management systems to help them digitize their operations.

GudangAda also partners with banks to provide working capital for SMEs, enabling them to apply for loans using their data on the platform.

The funding will be used to expand GudangAda’s product categories, which now include fast-moving consumer goods, pharmaceuticals, packaging, homeware and stationery. It also plans to develop AI-based tools that can provide personalized recommendations for merchant customers. For example, during COVID-19, the platform suggested how much disinfectants a store should stock.

In a statement, Falcon Edge co-founder Navroz D. Udwadia said, “GudangAda is definitively the largest SME e-commerce marketplace in Indonesia with best-in-class metrics. Our research and conversations with stakeholders (principals, wholesalers and retailers) has given us confidence on GudangAda’s distinctive ROI and value addition to the entire ecosystem.”

Indonesia “sea-to-table” platform Aruna hooks $35M led by Prosus and East Ventures Growth Fund

When Aruna’s founders first met at university, they wanted to find a way to use their studies in information technology to help family members who were running small fisheries. Indonesia is one of the world’s largest fisheries producers, but the industry is very fragmented. This means fisheries, especially small ones, deal with fluctuations in demand and price instability. Aruna was created to bring them closer to customers like restaurants and exporters, the way farm-to-table startups are aggregating the agricultural supply chain.

Aruna announced today it has raised $35 million in Series A funding led by Prosus Ventures and East Ventures Growth Fund, with participation from SIG and returning investors including AC Ventures, MDI and Vertex Ventures. Aruna says this is the largest Series A investment to date in Indonesia’s agritech and maritime sector.

The company works primarily with small fisheries (or ones that have boats with about one to two metric tonnes of capacity) and focuses on sustainability, helping suppliers adhere to the United Nations Goal 14’s targets. These include preventing overfishing, protecting coastal ecosystems and giving small-scale fisheries access to more resources and markets.

Aruna was founded in 2016 by Farid Naufal Aslam, Indraka Fadhlillah and Utari Octavianty, who met while studying information technology administration and management at Telkom University. Fadhlillah and Octavianty came from families in the fishing industry, and the three wanted to create something that would solve some of the challenges they faced.

“This was the main idea, but the bigger thing we saw at the time was the advantage of Indonesia’s position as a large agricultural country with big potential in the seafood industry,” Aslam told TechCrunch.

According to the World Bank, Indonesia is the world’s second largest fisheries producer. The sector creates about $4.1 billion in annual export earnings and supports more than 7 million jobs.

But Aruna’s founding team saw two major problems while analyzing coastal communities. The first one was market access and getting fair prices for seafood. The second was access to working capital.

To solve the first issue, Aruna was built to shorten the supply chain, which Aslam said can have six or seven layers between fisheries and buyers like restaurants, markets or exporters.

Buyers make purchase orders through the platform, which are then distributed to fishery communities that Aruna organizes to focus on particular types of seafood. This helps them predict demand, guarantee return business and prevent overfishing.

Aruna also built a logistics network that includes more than 45 collection sites, or warehouses where seafood is delivered by fisheries for quality checks, processing and packaging. Aruna’s warehouses are a combination of facilities that it owns or runs with partners. Deliveries are performed by third-party logistics providers.

The platform currently has about 20 product categories and will use its funding to expand into more. Its commodities include high-value products like lobster, which are shipped by exporters to markets like Malaysia, Singapore, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Canada and the United States.

One of Aruna’s main requirements for fisheries on the platform is sticking to its sustainability process. According to the World Bank, one of the biggest issues facing Indonesia fisheries is overfishing, which hurts marine biodiversity. Aruna team members work with fisheries to standardize their equipment so they comply with government regulations and chose locations that are not overfished.

By focusing on a few types of seafood each, fisheries that work with Aruna are better able to ensure the quality and traceability of their products, and manage pricing fluctuations.

The second problem Aruna is working on is lack of access to working capital. To help fisheries get low interest, collateral-free loans for equipment and other things they need for their businesses, Aruna partners with financial institutions and fintech companies. When an Aruna fishery applies for a loan, the platform is able to provide transaction data collected on the platform for credit scoring.

The company also announced today that it has appointed Budiman Goh as its president, and Octavianty as its chief sustainability officer. Its funding will be used to expand to new areas in Indonesia, hiring data analytics and tech development, including IoT devices to help perform quality checks.

Aruna plans to focus on Indonesia for the near future because of the large number of fisheries in the country.

“Currently we have 21,000 fishermen on the platform, yet there are about 2.7 million fishermen in Indonesia, so there is a lot of room to grow,” Aslam said.

In a statement, Sachin Bhanot, Prosus Ventures’ head of Southeast Asia investment said, “Having built a robust supply chain and technology infrastructure steeped with deep industry knowledge and expertise, we believe Aruna is uniquely positioned to service the growing global demand for sustainable fishery product, while supporting the livelihood of local fishermen.”

 

Byju’s acquires reading platform Epic for $500 million in US expansion push

Byju’s said on Wednesday it has acquired California-headquartered reading platform Epic for $500 million, the latest in a series of moves from India’s most valuable startup as it deepens its footprint in the U.S. market.

The deal involves both cash and stock and Epic founders — Kevin Donahue and Suren Markosian — will continue to run the business, they said in an interview with TechCrunch.

Epic operates an eponymous digital reading platform for kids aged 12 or younger. The platform, which has a presence across 90% of elementary schools in the U.S., has amassed over 2 million teachers and 50 million kids (up from 20 million last year).

Epic, which counts Evolution Media as an early backer, collects and analyzes real-time anonymized and aggregated data on how many children read a book, how deeply they engage with it and where their interest starts to wane. In a Netflix-esque move, the firm has also started to release several print versions of its own original titles.

TechCrunch reported in March that Byju’s was in talks to acquire Epic. Donahue and Markosian are no strangers to Byju’s. They first met with Byju Raveendran, co-founder and chief executive of the eponymous Indian startup, four or five years ago, but conversations about an acquisition only began this year, they said.

Raveendran (pictured above) said in an interview that his son uses the app, which gave him the conviction to explore any opportunity with the startup more seriously.

“We started Epic about eight years ago with the goal of bringing books to every child. We thought through technology we can get kids excited about reading and we can remove any barrier between the child and book. We are now in almost every school in the U.S., reaching over 50 million kids and a billion books read,” said Markosian.

“It has been our personal passion to build this platform because we wanted our kids to read more, too. So when we got to this point, it really made sense for us to look at scaling globally and internationally. When we started to talk to Byju, we realized that we share a common passion for education and belief in technology helping solve this opportunity. Together with Byju, we can take Epic to the next level,” he said.

Some original titles released by Epic. Image Credits: Epic

U.S. expansion

For Byju’s, the new product expands its current portfolio and brings expertise about a demographic of the U.S. that the startup has been looking for, said Raveendran. The addition of Epic to Byju’s offerings is “complimentary from a product standpoint as reading is a very powerful format for students to learn,” he said.

“The distribution they have will also help us offer more options to students in the U.S. and reach a demographic that we have also been working to serve. They understand this demographic very well,” he said.

Earlier this year, Byju’s rebranded its international business as Byju’s Future School, as part of which it is offering coding and math in synchronous and asynchronous formats to students and plans to add music, English, fine arts and science to the catalog. Raveendran said he hasn’t decided whether Epic will be rebranded, acknowledging that the California-headquartered startup has a strong brand awareness in the U.S.

Byju’s, which launched a learning app featuring Disney characters in the U.S. earlier this month, now has three large offerings in the U.S. that Raveendran expects will generate $100 million each in revenue this year alone. “Our ambition is to make a global impact,” he said.

The startup plans to invest $1 billion in its North America business, he said. Byju’s, which also has a significant presence in China, plans to bring Epic’s offering to India and other markets, he added.

Acquisitions and fundraise

Epic is the latest in a series of acquisitions by Byju’s. In the past two years, the startup has acquired U.S.-based kids-focused “phygital” startup Osmo (for $120 million), online coding platform WhiteHat Jr (for $300 million), coaching centre chain Aakash (for nearly $1 billion), and Indian edtech startups Toppr* and Gradeup*. (*Yet to be officially confirmed.)

“We have not done acquisitions not for the sake of doing it,” said Raveendran, who himself is a teacher, pointing to the growth and success of firms he has acquired post-acquisition and how these firms have been led by their original founding teams. “Our aspiration is very long-term. We work with the founders to help them turbo-charge their growth,” he said, adding that the startup is open to exploring more M&A opportunities.

Byju’s, which has raised about $1.5 billion since the pandemic broke last year and has attracted several high-profile investors including Blackstone, said the fundraise in recent years has helped the startup to acquire younger firms. He said the startup currently doesn’t plan to raise more external capital, but he didn’t rule out more fundraises in the next few months.