Grab delays shuttering Uber app as Singapore probes merger deal

Fans of Uber in Singapore will have a little more time to continue using the app after Grab, the rival that is acquiring Uber’s business in the region, agreed to extend the life of the app until April 15 while the country’s competition commission reviews the merger deal.

Grab had originally intended to close the Uber app by April 8, but that has been delayed in Singapore by one week following a request from the Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore (CCCS) while it continues to assess the implications of the tie-up.

This agreement only covers Singapore, however, so the Uber app will be closed in the seven other countries where it was operational on April 8. Uber Eats is also being transitioned to Grab, as part of its Grab Food platform, and it will be closed at the end of May.

Last week, the CCCS said it has “reasonable grounds” to suspect that the deal may fall foul of section 54 of Singapore’s Competition Act. The organization issued an Interim Measures Directions (IMD) to Uber and Grab — the first of its kind in Singapore — which instructed both parties to “maintain pre-transaction independent pricing, pricing policies and product options,” hence the extension of life for Uber’s app.

Grab said it had provided an alternative proposal “which takes into account our role in Singapore’s vibrant point-to-point transport industry and how Grab serves commuters and drivers,” which the CCCS confirmed that it is reviewing.

A Grab spokesperson declined to discuss the details of the proposal with TechCrunch.

At this point it is unclear whether the Uber app will get another extension. Assuming that the CCCS doesn’t come to a conclusion within the next week and the IMD remains, then Uber may live on a little longer in Southeast Asia . But, if the commission is ready to move on, then the April 15 close will happen as scheduled.

Here’s the key segment of concern to the commission:

About the Section 54 Prohibition under the Competition Act & Merger Procedures

Section 54 of the Act prohibits mergers that have resulted, or may be expected to result, in a substantial lessening of competition in Singapore.

CCCS is generally of the view that competition concerns are unlikely to arise in a merger situation unless:

The merged entity has/will have a market share of 40% or more; or
The merged entity has/will have a market share of between 20% to 40% and the post-merger combined market share of the three largest firms is 70% or more.

One major factor is how Grab’s business is viewed. The commission defines the space not as ride-hailing — where Grab would appear to hold a significantly dominant position by acquiring Uber’s business — but instead as “chauffeured personal point-to-point transport passenger and booking services.”

In that respect, taxi companies in Singapore — which allow booking by SMS and phone call, and also offer ride-hailing apps in some cases — may be considered competition which might water down Grab’s market share. Likewise, Grab’s case may be helped by Singapore carpooling service Ryde’s plan to add private car services in an effort to fill some of the gap post-Uber.

Here’s Grab statement in full:

Grab continues to engage closely with the CCCS. We’ve had productive discussions on our alternative proposals, which more appropriately address the CCCS’ objectives during this interim period, and which takes into account our role in Singapore’s vibrant point-to-point transport industry and how Grab serves commuters and drivers. Together with the CCCS and Uber, we’ve agreed that the Uber app will run for another week until 15 April, while the CCCS considers Grab’s proposal. We hope the CCCS will complete its review in an expeditious manner, so that we can continue competing with incumbent transport companies and with new entrants. We will continue working with the CCCS and other relevant agencies to ensure a pro-business and pro-innovation environment, so that Singapore consumers can benefit from new and improved services.

In the meantime, the Grab app operates as per normal. The extension also gives Uber drivers more time to sign up on alternative platforms. Grab has helped thousands of former Uber drivers sign up to the Grab platform and will continue to provide support to those who are interested, as well as to obtain their PDVL.

Note: The original version of this article has been updated to correct that the Uber app will only be extended in Singapore, not across all Southeast Asian markets.

Botanalytics offers analytics for conversational interfaces and chatbots

The rise of chatbots and smart speaker-powered voice assistants, such as Alexa and Google Home, has produced the need for specialist analytics so that developers can track how well those conversational interfaces are working. Hoping to take a chunk of this nascent market, including competing with Google’s own chatbot analytics product Chatbase, is Istanbul and San Francisco-based Botanalytics.

Previously backed by 500 Startups, the company quietly raised $1 million in seed funding late last year. The round was led by ACT Venture Partners and will be used by Botanalytics to further develop its technology.

This will include enhancing support for “voice first” platforms, and enabling business to gain actionable insights based on customer conversations, including understanding how to improve customer support across various channels. The idea is to be able to optimise voice and chatbot performance for engagement, retention and other KPIs.

As it stands, Botanalytics supports a plethora of existing platforms including all of the big names: Google Home, Amazon Alexa, Messenger, Slack, Twitter, Telegram, Kik, Twilio, Skype, Line, Microsoft Teams, WeChat and Viber.

The analytics offering spans a number of features, such as “fundamental metrics” measurement, segmenting conversations, tracking activities of a chatbot, retention of conversations, live take-over, broadcast messages and the ability to set up funnels.

The Botanalytics tech also claims to be powered by AI (presumably NLP). This makes it possible to track transcripts of any conversation — including rich media such as video, audio, location and images — and compare live conversations with historical ones.

CEO Ilker Koksal tells me the main difference with Botanalytics compared to competitors is that is it positioning itself as a broader conversational analytics play, including newer voice interfaces, and traditional customer support, not just chatbots. “We’re analyzing all conversational channels of companies,” he says.

To that end, Koksal says Botanalytics’ customers are agencies that build bots for clients and companies with various customer support channels. They include Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Ford, L’Oréal and GoPro.

500 Startups takes strategic investment from Abu Dhabi Financial Group

500 Startups, the U.S.-headquartered VC firm hit by scandal last year after co-founder Dave McClure resigned following allegations of sexual misconduct, has announced an unconventional deal that sees Abu Dhabi Financial Group (ADFG) take a stake in its parent company.

It is normal for VC firms to work closely with big corporates as LPs that supply money for their funds — the Middle East has proven to be fertile hunting ground for the likes of 500, Uber and Softbank — but direct investment in parents is not common in VC-land. ADFG has been an LP with 500 for some time and Christine Tsai, who heads the VC firm up, said there is “strong alignment on vision and complementary strengths” between the two.

Founded in 2011, ADFG claims to have $6 billion in assets under management via offices in the UAE, UK and Eastern Europe. The firm covers public markets, private markets, real estate and debt investments.

500 isn’t saying what size ADFG’s investment other than it will lead to “substantial capital” being injected into the firm to “accelerate the growth of our key initiatives, expand into new markets, and anchor future 500 funds.”

ADFG will also get a board seat at 500, Tsai confirmed.

Unlike most U.S. VCs, 500 has offices, accelerator programs and micro-funds across the world including Europe and Asia. In the aftermath of McClure’s scandal last year, the firm shuttered its Canada-based fund while a maiden Australia-based program was axed by partner LaunchVic, a $60 million entrepreneurship scheme backed by the government of Victoria, before it even started.

SoftBank leads $450M investment in Paytm’s e-commerce business

SoftBank is at it again giving money to companies that rival startups it has already invested in.

The Japanese firm and its long-time ally (and existing Paytm backer) Alibaba have come together to invest $450 million more into Paytm’s e-commerce business, Paytm Mall, as first reported by Mint. The deal is said to value the business at $1.6-$2 billion, with SoftBank providing around $400 million of the committed investment.

SoftBank is already present in India’s e-commerce space courtesy of an investment in Flipkart via its Vision Fund. The firm also previously backed Snapdeal which it tried to shoehorn into a merger deal with Flipkart that was ultimately unsuccessful.

Alibaba meanwhile has been behind the core Paytm business, which specializes in mobile payments with plans for financial services, having invested $1.4 billion into parent firm One97 Communications last year. This new deal signals its crossing into the e-commerce business, too.

“This latest investment led by Softbank and Alibaba reaffirms the strength of our business model, growth trajectory, execution capability and the potential of India’s massive O2O model in the retail space,” Amit Sinha, Paytm Mall COO, told Mint in a statement.

SoftBank added: “Paytm Mall’s offline-to-online operating model, combined with the strength of the Paytm ecosystem, is uniquely positioned to enable India’s 15 million offline retail shops to participate in India’s eCommerce boom.”

Alibaba’s involvement in Paytm has seen the business — or rather, its many businesses — become proxies for Alibaba in India.

Paytm Mall has linked up with Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace in China to extend the reach of Chinese merchants into India. Similar arrangements have also been reached in Southeast Asia via Alibaba’s Lazada e-commerce business.

Alibaba has also got behind the mobile payment component of Paytm — which bears a likeness to its Alipay  unit — while you can see the influence of the Chinese firm, and in particular its Ant Financial affiliate, with Paytm’s plans to launch digital banking and other online financial services in India.

Indeed, it was through investments by Ant Financial that Alibaba first became associated with Paytm. It’s not a huge surprise, then, to see that SoftBank — often a co-investor — is also spreading its influence across the Paytm business. After all, Alibaba needs all the help it can get to battle Amazon directly in India.

82Labs raises $8M to create a better hangover recovery drink

While taking some time off to travel before his next gig, Sisun Lee spent a lot of time in Korea — where he found himself drinking alcohol pretty much every night and then getting rolling the next morning, regardless of hangover status.

He also found that there were popular local herbal hangover drinks that everyone kept raving about. So he brought a bunch of them back to the U.S., handed them out to friends, and generally got interested in the drink as a thought experiment. After reaching out to scientists in academia about the herbal drinks and finding no one had really commercialized it into a product in the U.S. — and that there might actually be something behind the idea — he decided to start 82Labs and roll out the Morning Recovery drink. The startup has also raised $8 million in new financing from Altos Ventures, Slow Ventures, Strong Ventures and Thunder Road Capital.

“My friends would go to work the next day and they would swear by these hangover drinks with an herbal base,” Lee said. “In many ways that was almost when I was first inspired by it. That was at the back of my head. It turned out it was a massive market, it wasn’t one major brand — all the CPG companies had their own brand. It’s like the energy drink market. I did some research, and [people in academia] might be really passionate about something, and give you this conviction that this is the next big thing, but they wouldn’t commercialize it. They didn’t know how to get going.”

The drink is based on a flavonoid component of popular herbal medicines called DHM. The original concept for the drink was also based on research on DHM from USC, where Lee had gotten in touch with the scientists working on it to see if the idea was actually worth pursuing. That’s then bottled with other components like vitamins, electrolytes, milk thistle and some others which are known to have some detoxifying components. 82Labs initially launched in August, but at the time was literally handing out white powder in little bags — something Lee wasn’t particularly thrilled about. But as more and more interest came in after handing it out to area friends (and product managers) throughout the course of an unscientific experiment, they decided to roll with it and try to turn it into the kind of market you’d find abroad.

Lee and his friends decided to create a website to start sending it out for free for anyone who was interested in signing up. They made a few hundred bottles, gave it a flavor, and put a sign-up sheet online where they would ship it to you. Naturally, however, this is Silicon Valley, so the site ended up going viral and they got so many requests that they needed to figure out what to do next because larger bottling orders came in the tens of thousands. After some work figuring out how they could actually get it to market abiding by rules and regulations by the FDA, the team ended up making an Indiegogo campaign, which raised more than $250,000

“Because of our margins, every user we onboard is profit we generate,” Lee. “But we’ve had to learn a lot really quickly. The big thing for us last year was a big production mistake and we were always supply constrained every order. Sometimes we had compliance issues, quality issues, or mistakes on timeline. everything has been around putting out fires and making sure customers are happy, or giving them refunds December was the first month we had inventory and started to sell during holiday season when people are drinking a lot. We really never had time to think and go, “holy crap, what are we actually doing, what’s the goal here, what’s the mission here.”

Lee said that while Morning Recovery, which costs $30 for a six-pack of the 3.4-ounce drink, is their first drink they don’t want to just stop there. After all, getting a successful beverage to market — even if it turns out there’s plenty of work to do on the science side — requires getting into retail outlets and into the hands of consumers. But if that’s successful, that could easily build a brand and help the company start thinking about the next product that they should make. That direct-to-consumer approach has been increasingly popular amid the success of companies like Dollar Shave Club and others.

But that also means that 82Labs will likely face a lot of challenges, especially if it starts to get traction and larger companies start to take notice of it. Since the market is popular internationally — Lee says it’s a few hundred million dollars annually in countries like Korea — it wouldn’t take much for a consumer packaged goods company with beverage experience to try to produce something similar. So the goal will be to build up enough traction before that happens in order to continue growing.

“If big companies take notice, while they can’t make the exact same product as us, I’m sure they can figure something out,”  Lee said. “We have the advantage of a couple months — once we get to at a threshold in revenue companies will probably notice us. We thought we could keep growing slowly, but if any of these pharmaceutical companies or CPG companies do something, we’re gonna be crushed. Or, we thought we would raise money to front-load expansion purely on growth.”