Meituan-Dianping’s IPO off to a good start as shares climb 7% on debut

Meituan-Dianping (3690.HK) enjoyed a strong debut today in Hong Kong, a sign that investors are confident in the Tencent-backed company’s prospects despite its cash-burning growth strategy, heavy competition and a sluggish Hong Kong stock market.

During morning trading, Meituan’s shares reached a high of HKD$73.85 (about $9.41), a 7% increase over its initial public offering price of HKD$69. When Meituan reportedly set a target valuation of $55 billion for its debut, it triggered concerns that the company, which bills itself a “one-stop super app” for everything from food delivery to ticket bookings, as overconfident.

While Meituan, the owner of Mobile, is the leading online marketplace for services in China, it faces formidable competition from Alibaba’s Ele.me and operating on tight margins and heavy losses as it spends money on marketing and user acquisition costs. As it prepared for its IPO, Meituan was also under the shadow of underwhelming Hong Kong debuts by Xiaomi and China Tower. Like Xiaomi, Meituan is listed under a new dual-class share structure designed to attract tech companies by allowing them to give weighted voting rights to founders.

The sponsors of Meituan’s IPO are Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

Vegan meal delivery startup Allplants is served £7.5M Series A funding

Allplants, a London-based startup that delivers ready-made “plant-based” meals (that’s vegan, to you and me), has raised £7.5 million in Series A funding. The round is led by VC firm Octopus Ventures, which was an early backer in healthy snack delivery company Graze.

Additional investors in the round include existing backer Felix Capital (which I’m told has doubled its seed investment), Swedish VC firm Otiva, unnamed partners at VerlInvest (who are participating in a personal capacity), David Milner (ex-CEO Tyrells), Simon Nixon (founder of MoneySupermarket), and video blogger Jack Harries. Allplants reckons it is the U.K.’s largest Series A round for a vegan company.

Based on the premise that switching to a plant-based diet is the most impactful way to reduce our environmental footprint (and improve health), Allplants has developed a delivery service that wants to make it “effortlessly easy to eat more plants”. Specifically, either as a one-off or on a subscription basis, it delivers healthy, chef-made, vegan meals, for you to reheat at home.

They are “quick frozen” to lock in freshness and the idea is that you receive six meals at a time, to serve one or two people each, making the model more scalable and delivery more cost-effective. When your food is delivered you store it in your own freezer and cook/eat as needed, before your next order.

Since being founded in 2017 by brothers Jonathan and Alex Petrides, Allplants says it has served over 250,000 meals nationwide to plant-inspired foodies and built a “movement” with over 70,000 online fans. Notably, the company is a B-Corp, promising to do good by people and the planet.

Meanwhile, Allplants says it will use the investment to develop a broader range of ready-to-eat food, accelerate the growth of its community, further grow its North London-based 40-plus team, and expand the capacity of its production kitchen, which will operate on renewable and waste-created energy.

Adds Allplants’ Jonathan Petrides: “Most allplants customers aren’t veggie or vegan, they’re curious and hunting for convenient, healthy ways to boost their busy lives. This investment well help us fuel the plant-based movement forward”.

Marketing data startup Singular raises $30M

Singular, a startup working to unify data for marketers, is announcing that it has raised $30 million in Series B funding.

The company was founded by former Onavo executives, including Gadi Eliashiv, Eran Friedman and Susan Kuo — who now serve, respectively, as Singular’s CEO, CTO and COO.

Eliashiv explained that Singular was created in response to “this trend of data explosion in the marketing stack,” which require marketers to pull data from hundreds or thousands of different systems.

“Essentially what we see is the creation of this new category of marketing intelligence, where the complexity of the marketing stack has created the need for this layer that sits on top,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you use a marketing cloud like Adobe that’s bundling five products together — at the end of the day, you need a layer on top on making sense of it, helping you make better decisions.”

Eliashiv said Singular is able to go from a high-level dashboard summary for CMOs to “the finest level of detail.” He also noted that while the company is designed to integrate with existing marketing tools, it will “oftentimes displace smaller point solutions.”

“Our principal is, it has to be relevant for data, meaning we’re never going to displace your ad-buying tool,” he added. “It’s not what we do. We’re an intelligence platform.”

The idea of unifying marketing data is one that I hear a lot, but Eliashiv’s claims seem weightier when you see that Singular is already working with a number of big names, including Lyft, Yelp, Airbnb, LinkedIn, Symantec, Zynga, Match and Twitter.

Singular previously raised $20 million in funding. Norwest Venture Partners led the new round, with partner Scott Beechuk joining the board of directors.

Beechuk told me that he’d been studying marketing analytics market for quite some time, and he argued, “There is something really unique and special about Singular. It’s the bridge between mobile, web and offline, all on a single platform.”

“What you’re going to find is, there are going to be a lot of technologies that Singular replaces,” Beechuk continued. “Let’s say a CMO or [chief growth officer] has 300 different outlets where they are advertising … Every one of those systems tends to have their own analytics built in. The first thing Singular does, it replaces all of those analytics systems with a single pane of glass.”

General Catalyst, Method Capital, Telstra Ventures, Translink Capital and Thomvest also participated in the new funding.

Ola raises $50M at a $4.3B valuation from two Chinese funds

Ola, the arch-rival of Uber in India, has raised $50 million at a valuation of about $4.3 billion from Sailing Capital, a Hong Kong-based private equity firm, and the China-Eurasian Economic Cooperation Fund (CEECF), a state-backed Chinese fund. The funding was disclosed in regulatory documents sourced by Paper.vc and reviewed by Indian financial publication Mint.

According to Mint, Sailing Capital and CEECF will hold a combined stake of more than 1% in Ola . An Ola spokesperson said the company has no comment.

Ola’s last funding announcement was in October, when it raised $1.1 billion (its largest funding round to date) from Tencent and returning investor SoftBank Group. Ola also said it planned to raise an additional $1 billion from other investors that would take the round’s final amount to about $2.1 billion.

At the time, a source with knowledge of the deal told TechCrunch that Ola was headed toward a post-money valuation of $7 billion once the $2.1 bllion raise was finalized. So while the funding from Sailing Capital and CEECF brings it closer to its funding goal, the latest valuation of $4.3 billion is still lower than the projected amount.

Ola needs plenty of cash to fuel its ambitious expansion both within and outside of India. In addition to ride hailing, Ola got back into the food delivery game at the end of last year by acquiring Foodpanda’s Indian operations to compete with UberEats, Swiggy, Zomato and Google’s Areo. It was a bold move to make as India’s food delivery industry consolidated, especially since Ola had previously launched a food delivery service that shut down after less than one year. To ensure the survival of Foodpanda, Ola poured $200 million into its new acquisition.

A few months later after buying Foodpanda, Ola announced the acquisition of public transportation ticketing startup Ridlr in an all-stock deal. Outside of India, Ola has been focused on a series of international launches. It announced today that it will begin operating in New Zealand, fast on the heels of launches in the United Kingdom and Australia (its first country outside of India) this year.

Terra is an ambitious crypto project to build a stable coin through e-commerce

Four of the world’s largest crypto exchanges are leading a $32 million investment in an ambitious venture out of Korea that’s aiming to develop a new stable coin using e-commerce as the lynchpin.

Global exchanges Binance Labs, OKEx, Huobi Capital, and Dunamu — the firm behind Korea’s Upbit — have all poured capital into Terra, a crypto project whose founding team is headed by Daniel Shin, founder and president of TicketMonster — the $1.7 billion Korean e-commerce firm that has been owned by both Living Social and Groupon.

This is the first time global exchanges have come together on a deal, and the stellar line-up of investors includes Polychain Capital, China’s FBG Capital, Hashed, 1kx, Kenetic Capital and Arrington XRP — the crypto fund from TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington .

The deal is a token-based investment round, as opposed to equity. Shin told TechCrunch that Terra plans to hold a private sale in a couple of weeks to add additional capital to this “highly strategic” set of investors. The company will eschew a public sale with retail investors, but it plans to hit exchanges — you guess which ones… — in the coming months.

Terra co-founder Daniel Shin also started Korean e-commerce unicorn Ticket Monster

Yet another stable coin

Stable coins, for the uninitiated, are tokens that are designed to remain at the same price… stable, as the name suggests.

They’re typically pegged to the U.S. dollar and are highly sought after in the world of crypto, where stability is hard, nay impossible, to find. Today, stable coins are mostly used for trading and exchange-related purposes and Tether, the controversial project backed by Bitfinex, is probably the best-known. There’s plenty of criticism around Tether, and research has suggested that Bitcoin’s phenomenal rise in late 2017 — when its value it a record high of nearly $20,000 — was fuelled by Tether manipulation.

Arguably, Tether is the best example of a stable coin, and since it is propped up by the injection of hundreds of millions of dollars on a routine basis, it would be fair to say that the concept has never worked.

That viewpoint might be a little cynical, and Terra believes it can make the concept work through mass adoption of its token. Its gateway for that is to leverage e-commerce in Asia.

While Terra is marketed as a stable coin in its whitepaper and other documents, it would be fair to see it as more of a fintech platform — think Alibaba’s Alipay on the blockchain. That’s because the project is kicking off by working with a slew of e-commerce firms across Korea and other parts of Asia.

Shin explained that Terra aims to complement existing payment solutions by offering its own Stripe -like payment option that would allow customers to pay using its coin (a name hasn’t been decided on yet). For merchants, that could mean circumventing existing payment networks like Visa, which take a cut of all revenue. On the other side, the project could help offer incentives for consumers to buy using the token, for example, through discounts that don’t add to the e-commerce platform’s cash burn.

Because buying crypto and using wallets still isn’t mainstream — and it is a clunky experience — there’s also the potential for consumers to earn tokens when they use platforms, Shin said. The token would be spendable across all supported e-commerce services.

Already, Terra has secured quite a list of partners. There are 15 e-commerce services signed up — including Woowa Brothers, Qoo10, Carousell, Pomelo, and Tiki — which between them boast a cumulative 40 million customers and some $25 billion in annual transaction volume.

Shin said the project is targeting Asia because it is the world’s most active crypto region. He believes that Terra can take a slice of the payments behind the partner businesses — he’s targeting payment GMV in the region of “tens, if not hundreds, of millions of U.S. dollars” before the end of 2019 — and in doing so set itself up for becoming a stable token by virtue of usage.

Of course, it also has its own stability engine. That features a second token — Luna — which Shin said acts as collateral by accumulating revenue by taking the small transaction fee incurred when spending the Terra token. Shin said an algorithm will use Luna to buy back the Terra token in high season to keep the price stable, while it will burn a portion of tokens to maintain stability during periods of recession. A more detailed explanation of the ‘reserve ratio’ can be found in the Terra whitepaper.

Singapore’s Carousell is among the e-commerce partners slated to work with Terra

Alipay on the blockchain

What makes Terra particularly interesting is that the intention is to build the next Alipay.

Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial, which runs Alipay, may be little known in the U.S. and Europe, but it is dripping with ambition. It is tipped to go public in the next year or two, and already it is valued at over $100 billion following a recent $14 billion funding round.

Alipay is China’s dominant mobile payment service, and it has spawned a digital bank, lending products and more. Ant claims over 500 million users, and it has spent close to $1 billion on a series of aggressive expansions across Asia and beyond as it aims to replicate its formidable Chinese business outside of the country.

Shin explained that he believes Terra could do the same in Asia where, like Alipay, it will try to leverage e-commerce (in this case its partner businesses) to go beyond payments and into financial services.

Shin explained that the plan is to roll out with initial e-commerce partners in Korea during Q4 of this year, before widening to cover Southeast Asia and beyond in 2019. One year later — 2020 — is when he believes Terra will have the required base to welcome developers and third-parties.

“Many projects open up a developer platform prior to adoption,” he explained in an interview. “Once we have tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of users is when we’ll open up.”

Exactly what that platform will look like is unclear at this point. Terra is designing a multi-chain structure in order to accommodate numerous chains with its stable coin concept, but it is yet to decide which will primary and therefore the platform for third-party development. Ethereum has tended to be that canvass, but the project is a challenging phase right now so holding out isn’t necessarily a bad thing at this point.

Terra is a hugely ambitious project in the field of often-impossible ideas that is crypto.

Taking on Alipay head-to-head is tough, developing a stable coin is impossible, but doing both lengthens the odds further still. But yet Shin and his team have won the backing of a collective of top names in the crypto space. That, if nothing else, is a good reason to keep an eye on this project.

The odds may be long but, as Shin explains it, you can readily argue that there is upside to having so many big-name partners on board.

“The worst case scenario with this project is a reverse ICO with over 10 e-commerce companies,” he explained. “But the best possible outcome is that we build a platform that competes with Alipay on the blockchain.”

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Very Good Security makes data ‘unhackable’ with $8.5M from Andreessen

“You can’t hack what isn’t there,” Very Good Security co-founder Mahmoud Abdelkader tells me. His startup assumes the liability of storing sensitive data for other companies, substituting dummy credit card or Social Security numbers for the real ones. Then when the data needs to be moved or operated on, VGS injects the original info without clients having to change their code.

It’s essentially a data bank that allows businesses to stop storing confidential info under their unsecured mattress. Or you could think of it as Amazon Web Services for data instead of servers. Given all the high-profile breaches of late, it’s clear that many companies can’t be trusted to house sensitive data. Andreessen Horowitz is betting that they’d rather leave it to an expert.

That’s why the famous venture firm is leading an $8.5 million Series A for VGS, and its partner Alex Rampell is joining the board. The round also includes NYCA, Vertex Ventures, Slow Ventures and PayPal mafioso Max Levchin. The cash builds on VGS’ $1.4 million seed round, and will pay for its first big marketing initiative and more salespeople.

“Hey! Stop doing this yourself!,” Abdelkader asserts. “Put it on VGS and we’ll let you operate on your data as if you possess it with none of the liability.” While no data is ever 100 percent unhackable, putting it in VGS’ meticulously secured vaults means clients don’t have to become security geniuses themselves and instead can focus on what’s unique to their business.

“Privacy is a part of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We should be able to build innovative applications without sacrificing our privacy and security,” says Abdelkader. He got his start in the industry by reverse-engineering games like StarCraft to build cheats and trainer software. But after studying discrete mathematics, cryptology and number theory, he craved a headier challenge.

Abdelkader co-founded Y Combinator-backed payment system Balanced in 2010, which also raised cash from Andreessen. But out-muscled by Stripe, Balanced shut down in 2015. While transitioning customers over to fellow YC alumni Stripe, Balanced received interest from other companies wanting it to store their data so they could be PCI-compliant.

Very Good Security co-founder and CEO Mahmoud Abdelkader

Now Abdelkader and his VP from Balanced, Marshall Jones, have returned with VGS to sell that as a service. It’s targeting startups that handle data like payment card information, Social Security numbers and medical info, though eventually it could invade the larger enterprise market. It can quickly help these clients achieve compliance certifications for PCI, SOC2, EI3PA, HIPAA and other standards.

VGS’ innovation comes in replacing this data with “format preserving aliases” that are privacy safe. “Your app code doesn’t know the difference between this and actually sensitive data,” Abdelkader explains. In 30 minutes of integration, apps can be reworked to route traffic through VGS without ever talking to a salesperson. VGS locks up the real strings and sends the aliases to you instead, then intercepts those aliases and swaps them with the originals when necessary.

“We don’t actually see your data that you vault on VGS,” Abdelkader tells me. “It’s basically modeled after prison. The valuables are stored in isolation.” That means a business’ differentiator is their business logic, not the way they store data.

For example, fintech startup LendUp works with VGS to issue virtual credit card numbers that are replaced with fake numbers in LendUp’s databases. That way if it’s hacked, users’ don’t get their cards stolen. But when those card numbers are sent to a processor to actually make a payment, the real card numbers are subbed in last-minute.

VGS charges per data record and operation, with the first 500 records and 100,000 sensitive API calls free; $20 a month gets clients double that, and then they pay 4 cent per record and 2 cents per operation. VGS provides access to insurance too, working with a variety of underwriters. It starts with $1 million policies that can be much larger for Fortune 500s and other big companies, which might want $20 million per incident.

Obviously, VGS has to be obsessive about its own security. A breach of its vaults could kill its brand. “I don’t sleep. I worry I’ll miss something. Are we a giant honey pot?,” Abdelkader wonders. “We’ve invested a significant amount of our money into 24/7 monitoring for intrusions.”

Beyond the threat of hackers, VGS also has to battle with others picking away at part of its stack or trying to compete with the whole, like TokenEx, HP’s Voltage, Thales’ Vormetric, Oracle and more. But it’s do-it-yourself security that’s the status quo and what VGS is really trying to disrupt.

But VGS has a big accruing advantage. Each time it works with a clients’ partners like Experian or TransUnion for a company working with credit checks, it already has a relationship with them the next time another clients has to connect with these partners. Abdelkader hopes that, “Effectively, we become a standard of data security and privacy. All the institutions will just say ‘why don’t you use VGS?’”

That standard only works if it’s constantly evolving to win the cat-and-mouse game versus attackers. While a company is worrying about the particular value it adds to the world, these intelligent human adversaries can find a weak link in their security — costing them a fortune and ruining their relationships. “I’m selling trust,” Abdelkader concludes. That peace of mind is often worth the price.

Berkshire Hathaway reportedly agrees to buy stake in One97, owner of Paytm

Berkshire Hathaway has reportedly agreed to buy a stake in One97, the owner of India’s largest digital payments service Paytm . This would mark the first time the investment firm has invested in an Indian startup. According to Indian financial news site Mint, which first broke the news, Berkshire Hathaway, the investment firm headed by Warren Buffett, is set to buy shares worth about $300 million to $350 million, at a valuation of about $10 billion to $12 billion.

Another report in Bloomberg says Berkshire Hathaway will acquire a 3% to 4% stake in One97.

Paytm’s investors already include SoftBank, which led a $450 million round in Paytm earlier this year, and Alibaba. Already India’s largest digital wallet and payment service with 230 million registered users, Paytm has recently focused on adding a host of new mobile services that could potentially turn it into a WhatsApp competitor, including a messenger and games.

A spokesperson for One97 declined to comment. TechCrunch has also contacted Berkshire Hathaway.

Japanese fintech startup Paidy lands strategic investment from Visa

A month after announcing its $55 million Series C, Japanese fintech startup Paidy has snagged a strategic investment from payment giant Visa.

Paidy didn’t disclose how much Visa put into its business, which has raised over $80 million to date, but it did say that it will work with the credit card giant to develop “new digital payment experiences” in Japan.

For those in need of a refresher, the Paidy service is aimed at making it easier to shop online in Japan, which is the world’s fourth largest e-commerce market with high credit card penetration but yet many consumers opt for cash on delivery.

The startup asserts that cash accounts for some 40 percent of the country’s 16.5 trillion yen ($148 billion) annual e-commerce spend because credit card payments are cumbersome and cash is just more simple. It’s certainly true that whipping out your card and keying in digits is a pain, while Japanese systems layer on other security checks that make the process more tedious.

Paidy’s answer is an account tied to a customer’s phone number or email address that sits as a payment option at e-commerce checkouts. Payment itself requires entry of a confirmation code, and that’s it. Added to the simplicity, Paidy also offers various payback options to effectively give users the features of a credit card.

The company claims there are 1.5 million active Paidy accounts and it is aiming to grow that figure to 11 million by 2020. The main rocket for reaching that ambitious target is onboarding large retailers who integrate the service into their online sales process. That’s a tactic that has worked well for Paidy so far, but it’s also clearly an area where Visa’s network can be massively beneficial, especially if they are joint products on offer.

With Paidy operating like a virtual credit card system that rivals plastic cards, Visa has seen enough to warrant coming on board the project, according to Chris Clark, Visa’s Asia Pacific regional president.

“We have been following Paidy’s progress and the enhanced shopping experience they provide at the time of purchase. In Japan there is enormous opportunity to bring consumers more options to pay, whether all at once or in instalments, especially when shopping across multiple channels,” Clark said in a statement.

Paidy counts Itochu Corporation, Goldman Sachs, Eight Roads — the investment arm of Fidelity — SBI Holdings, SBI’s FinTech Business Innovation LPS, Arbor Ventures and SIG Asia as existing investors.

Alibaba confirms it raised $3B for its newly consolidated local services business

Alibaba has confirmed that it has raised $3 billion for its new-look local services business after it united its Koubei local services business with Ele.me, the on-demand delivery business it recently acquired.

The company said it put the capital into the business alongside SoftBank, according to a note within its financial results that were released today. TechCrunch understands that the actual amount raised may increase as existing Koubei investors have an option to be a part of the new round, while new backers may also be added. Bloomberg previously reported the consolidation and investment.

From the filing:

We have established a company to hold Ele.me and Koubei as our combined flagship local services vehicle, which we plan to separately capitalize with investments from Alibaba, Ant Financial and third-party investors. As of the time of this announcement, we have received over US$3 billion in new investment commitments, including from Alibaba and SoftBank. As a result of this reorganization, subject to closing conditions, we will consolidate Koubei, which would result in a material one-off revaluation gain when the transaction closes.

Koubei, the company’s local services platform, got a $1.1 billion injection in early 2017 and is predominantly focused on enabling local commerce. Other investors besides Alibaba include Silver Lake, CDH Investments, Yunfeng Capital and Primavera Capital.

Ele.me, meanwhile, first landed an investment from Alibaba two years ago. The e-commerce giant bought it out in April in a deal that valued Ele.me at $9.5 billion. Ele.me is a key piece of Alibaba’s recent partnership with Starbucks — the on-demand service will be used to deliver coffee to Starbucks customers across China as the U.S. coffee giant seeks out new growth opportunities and competes with rival services.

The deal may be a footnote in Alibaba’s Q1 earnings report but it is representative of a new battle that’s taking place to own China’s ‘local services’ market. That is on-demand services such as groceries deliveries, takeouts, movie tickets and other commercial activities within local areas.

Meituan Dianping, a firm backed by Alibaba rival Tencent, has led the charge into local services. The company was formed from a merger deal involving China’s two largest group deals sites in 2015 and it has since raised significant capital, including a $4 billion round two years ago.

Meituan’s next act is an IPO in Hong Kong, and the ambitious firm has expanded into ride-hailing to take on Didi Chuxing, bike-sharing via a $2.7 billion acquisition of Mobike, and even Southeast Asia, where it invested in ride-hailing startup Go-Jek.

Local services — and in particular food delivery — remains its core focus. Alibaba is betting that pairing Koubei with Ele.me, throwing in a couple of billion and adding a dash of SoftBank can give it a strong rival that can compete for China’s ‘online to offline’ market. Another war is brewing.

Alibaba shrugs off China concerns as revenue jumps 61%

Mail digitizing service Earth Class Mail acquires receipt digitizing service Shoeboxed

Earth Class Mail, a company that digitizes your physical mail so you don’t have to go to the mailbox every day, today announced that it has acquired receipt scanning and expense tracking service Shoeboxed.

The reason Earth Class Mail would be interested in Shoeboxed is pretty obvious, given that both companies focus on taking the pain out of dealing with paper. Both services will continue to operate as usual, though we’ll likely see some deep integrations between the two over time.

Shoeboxed, which launched eleven years ago, currently digitizes over five million documents per year for its over 1 million customers in 90 countries. Its main market is small businesses in the U.S., though, which make up 500,000 of its users.

“When we started in 2008 and put the first iPhone app in the app store to scan receipts; there was one other powerhouse around helping small business go digital — Earth Class Mail,” the company’s CEO and co-founder Tobias Walter tells us. “The combined power of our two companies will be a massive shift for small businesses to finally become paperless and say goodbye to old workflows that cost them hours of their productivity. I could not be happier with the new home we found for the company, the team, and our customers!”

What sets Earth Class Mail apart from the United States Postal Service’s Informed Delivery service is that it not only scans the outside of the envelopes that you are about to receive but that you can also give the company permission to scan all the documents inside, too (and the price you pay for the service depends mostly on how many of these full scans you want per month). While Oregon-based Earth Class Mail had to file for bankruptcy protection in 2015, its new leadership team turned the company around. The company says that its annual run rate is now $10 million, up 20 since Jess Garza become its new CEO last December.

Walter also notes that users would occasionally send unopened envelopes, too, but the company wasn’t allowed to open them. These customers can now easily become Earth Class Mail users.

Over the course of its existence, Shoeboxed only raised a moderate amount of funding, with a $580,000 Series A round led by Novak Biddle Venture Partners in 2008 (when Series A rounds were still much smaller than today) and a $1.4 million Series B round in 2011. The financial details of today’s acquisition were not disclosed.