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Stealthy Singapore VC firm Qualgro is raising a $100M fund

Stealthy Singapore VC firm Qualgro is raising a 0M fund

Southeast Asia’s venture capital space is booming right now. Openspace Ventures just announced the close of its newest $135 million fund, Golden Gate Ventures hit the first close on its upcoming $100 million vehicle, and a third Singapore-based fund is also raising big right now: Qualgro.

Unlike others, Qualgro has operated relatively under the radar to date.

That’s been very deliberate, according to managing partner Heang Chhor, who started the firm after leaving McKinsey following a 26-year stint that spanned Europe and Asia. Cambodian by birth, Chhor grew up in France and he rose to become a member of the McKinsey Global Board, whilst also leading the business in Japan.

Prior to McKinsey, Chhor started a number of businesses — of which he says he got a modest exit but plenty of experience — and now he is turning his attention to Southeast Asia, where growing internet access among a cumulative base of 650 million consumers is opening up new opportunities for tech and internet businesses. The region’s digital economy is forecast to pass $200 billion by 2020, up from an estimated $50 billion in 2017, according to a much-cited report from Temasek and Google.

Qualgro — which stands for ‘quality’ and ‘growth,’ in case you wondered — opened its doors in 2015 with a maiden $50 million fund. Alongside Chhor is Jason Edwards, formerly with PE firm Clearwater Capital and Peter Huynh, who joined from the Singtel Innov8 VC arm. To date, Qualgro has made 19 investments, which include IP and data firm Patsnap, e-commerce startup Shopback, and lending platform Funding Societies.

The aim is to super-size that with this new fund, which this week completed a first close of $60 million. The total target is $100 million. Qualgro didn’t comment on the identity of its LPs, but it said the increased capital will see it further its efforts on Series B deals.

The firm has focused on Series A and B deals in Southeast Asia so far with a primary interest in b2b businesses, and those that use data, AI, enterprise and Sass models. Beyond that b2b specialism, the firm looks to distinguish itself by offering international growth opportunities to its portfolio. That’s to say that Chhor uses his networks across the world to help Southeast Asia-based companies expand into new geographical markets — especially on issues like setting up offices and hiring — whilst also tapping his connections within the enterprise and business worlds.

“As a Southeast Asia-based VC, we are looking for talented people that are able to grow their company regionally and potentially become a real global player. It’s a little bit difficult because as a Southeast Asian entrepreneur you need to have certain skills and be on the right business model to access the global world and compete successfully [but] we invest in this type of talent irrespective of their country in Southeast Asia,” Chhor told TechCrunch.

[Left to right] Heang Chhor, Qualgro founder and managing partner, Jason Edwards, co-founder and partner, and Peter Huynh, co-founder and partner

That’s been most visible with its efforts in Australia to date. For example, Qualgro has worked closely with Shopback to expand its service into the country. While Patsnap, too, has leveraged its investor to expand into Europe, where it has a sizeable operation in addition to its Singapore HQ.

But the strategic deals also flow the other way.

Qualgro is looking to back companies that seek the opportunities to move into Southeast Asia. To date that has seen it get active in the Australian market, where it has done more deals that other Southeast Asian VC firm. Those include Data Republic, which has expanded to Singapore with plans to go beyond that, too.

Chhor explained that, beyond its current scope on Southeast Asia and Australia, the firm is open to pursuing deals with companies in markets like Europe and Japan when there are opportunities for Qualgro to come in as a strategic investor help grow businesses and expand networks across Asia.

Indeed, Qualgro’s focus on international is reflected in its team which consists of six people in Singapore with one in Australia and an advisor in Europe.

Stealthy Singapore VC firm Qualgro is raising a 0M fund
Source: TechCrunch

SoftBank’s Vision Fund to help Chinese online insurance giant ZhongAn go international

SoftBank’s Vision Fund to help Chinese online insurance giant ZhongAn go international

SoftBank’s Vision Fund is backing Chinese online insurance giant ZhongAn through its latest investment, which could take the company — which has struggled for stability following a monster IPO last year — into international markets.

The Vision Fund announced today it has made an undisclosed investment in ZhongAn International, the global arm of the five-year-old company created by $200 billion insurance giant Ping An and internet firms Tencent and Alibaba. The ZongAn business is widely-heralded as China’s first digital insurance company. Its insurance products cover lifestyle, consumer finance, health, travel and automotive, and it went public last September in a Hong Kong IPO that raised $1.5 billion. ZhongAn International was created in December of last year to scout out overseas opportunities.

Despite impressive credentials and a trailblazing business, it hasn’t been smooth sailing.

Disappointing financial results — which center around hefty fees paid to online platforms that give it distribution — have seen the value of ZhongAn shares nosedive. The current price of HKD35.55 is down on the HK$59.70 IPO price, and a far cry from a peak HKD 93.65 back in October.

Aside from adding the support of a major name — SoftBank’s Vision Fund is easily the largest tech investment firm in the world, with a $90 billion-plus purse — this investment might give cause for optimism. Alongside the investment, ZongAn International is creating a new entity in partnership with SoftBank that will be dedicated to “exploring international opportunities.”

More specifically, SoftBank plans to use ZongAn’s technology and its network to expand to “multiple markets” in Asia, although it isn’t specific about which countries or a timeframe for the potential launches.

“We are pleased to announce this partnership which will allow us to explore new and innovative ways to serve more companies and customers outside of China. SoftBank is an important business partner and we believe this collaboration will significantly boost our technology solutions businesses,” said ZhongAn Online CEO Jeffrey Chen in a statement.

The deal, and joint entity, signifies a growing trend of SoftBank becoming operationally involved in investments with companies that are looking at overseas growth opportunities.

SoftBank inked a joint-venture with Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing to launch a taxi-booking service in Japan. While it has also announced a JV to bring Indian payment service Paytm to Japan. Both companies are long-term investments for SoftBank, but SoftBank believes its experience and network can help them navigate international waters. The same thinking applies to the ZhongAn deal although it appears that the partnership is shooting for more than just Japan.

SoftBank’s Vision Fund to help Chinese online insurance giant ZhongAn go international
Source: TechCrunch

The tech angle in dogs, mac and cheese and working out

The tech angle in dogs, mac and cheese and working out

Welcome back to TechCrunch Mixtape, the podcast where Megan Rose Dickey and I, Henry Oliver Pickavet, talk about some of the stories of the week that we feel like talking about. This week it was dogs, working out and mac and cheese.

BarkBox creators Bark and Co. decided that Nashville, Tenn., needed a place for dogs to take their humans. Naturally they created a dog park that includes space for humans to convene and drink coffee with their friends and hop on the Wi-Fi while the dogs get down to doing dog things. There is a membership fee, of course.

Mac and cheese is the next thing we talked about because Y Combinator invested money in a restaurant called Mac’d. It’s not got much of a tech angle aside from making itself available for delivery-via-app in Portland. Niche. But there is nothing wrong with talking about mac and cheese, because come on.

And finally, Tonal this week came out with the first workout machine that I actually want in my studio apartment. (I will find room.) The system doesn’t use weights, but rather electromagnetism to simulate and control weight.

Next week, we have Sarah Cooper in the studio for a chat about her new book “How to Succeed Without Hurting Men’s Feelings,” and it’s great. You can pre-order it here. In the meantime, click play below to listen to this week’s episode. And if you haven’t subscribed yet, what are you waiting for? Find us on Apple PodcastsStitcherOvercastCastBox or whatever other podcast platform you can find.

The tech angle in dogs, mac and cheese and working out
Source: TechCrunch

The public finance opportunity

The public finance opportunity

If you’re a certain age, it’s likely that you’ve never given a second thought to buying a municipal bond or the process of bond buying, even if you’ve intuited, rightly, that’s it’s an intentionally opaque business.

Yet there could be a big opportunity for startups, and for people looking for places to invest, and for cities with crumbling infrastructures, in disrupting the status quo — if only more Americans start playing attention.

First, there’s a strong case for buying bonds. Late last year, the Trump administration capped at $10,000 the amount that taxpayers can deduct in property tax and local and state income tax. Most people with hefty tax bills are benefiting in other ways from that same new tax bill, but this aspect of it isn’t so great for them, and municipal bonds can help. The reason: interest income paid on muni bonds is exempt from federal tax. (Bonds issued within one’s state can also be free of state tax.)

What about people without hefty tax bills? For one thing, bonds are a very safe investment. They’re not sexy, it’s true ( they typically deliver interest in the single digits), but they also feature low default rates. Whether debts from states, cities, or counties, they’re typically government guaranteed and paid back in full at the end of their term. In fact, muni bond default rates have been as low as below .03 percent over the last decade. What’s also compelling — perhaps even more so — is that bonds can give residents an opportunity to help out the community where they live. For example, Oakland, Ca. voters in 2016 overwhelmingly approved a $600 million bond to fix old city streets and build affordable housing.

You might be wondering at this point where the new opportunity lies and what role tech can play. Let’s start with the moolah, which there happens to be a lot of sloshing around the municipal bond market. Last year, Morningstar Direct reported $34 billion in net inflows to municipal bond funds and exchange-traded funds, and there’s a lot of action happening outside these kinds of products, which package up a bunch of bonds to create a diversified portfolio for investors.

Like any financial services disruptor, the idea here is to offer what the big financial institutions are offering but to do it at less cost.

There’s also room to create many more bonds than are currently available. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, fewer municipal bonds have been hitting the market ever since the financial crisis of 2008. More, the Trump administration’s new tax law revision eliminated something called “advance refunding issues,” which the Times describes as a type of municipal bond financing that accounts for around 15 percent of the market. Where there’s constrained supply, there’s demand.

Right now, there aren’t tons of startups paying attention to public finance, and perhaps just one company laser focused on bringing the muni bond market into the 21st century: Neighborly, which is a six-year-old, Bay Area-based company that’s very progressive, to say the least, for a bond broker. In 2017, its technology enable the city of Cambridge, Ma., to create $2 million of “mini bonds” that allowed residents to earn tax-exempt interest for smaller check sizes than typically possible, and the residents were able to invest that money directly in a variety of projects, without going through a middleman. (Apparently, it was successful; Cambridge staged a second mini bond sale earlier this year.)

Earlier this year, Neighborly convinced the city of Berkeley, Ca., to stage an initial coin offering that it dubbed an “initial community offering.” The idea is to deliver crytocurrency tokens in exchange for investments into cash-strapped projects in Berkeley — tokens that will be backed by municipal bonds. (Bond holders can receive their money back in digital coins or cash.) The project is still in development, but if it works, it could certainly provide a roap map for other cities.

Whether Neighborly winds up being a pioneer in the space- – or else trampled by a newer entrant — remains to be seen, but a recent on-stage sit-down with a longtime political strategist turned investor, Bradley Tusk, opened our eyes to the possibilities. You can check out part of that conversation below.  Note that Tusk is not an investor in Neighborly but has more recently begun advising the company. Our chat has been edited for length.

TC: You think the muni bond market is broken. Why?

BT: We have a system now that, on the one hand works. Governments can issue debt. People will pay for it. You can build projects and people will get paid back. That basically works. But it’s a very opaque, very closed system. And in the way that tech has managed to disrupt other very closed industries and force change and make them more cost efficient and transparent, there’s no reason that can’t happen in public finance as well.

[Earlier in my career], I was at Lehman Brothers . . . and they didn’t know where to put me so they stuck me in public finance. The people who worked there were honest, they weren’t the people who bankrupted the global economy. But they made a lot of money, and effectively, it was just all layered on top of the taxpayers. It’s built into [banks’] underwriting costs. And you just don’t need that any more.

TC: So right now, bonds are mostly made available through brokers who charge too much in your view. But is skipping straight to “initial community offerings” or employing blockchain technologies the right way to go? You could see that scaring people.

BT: I think blockchain gets confused with crypto and ultimately, it’s just a better system of piping, a more efficient way of moving data across a ledger from Point A to Point B and done n a way where it’s distributed across lots of different places so that it’s more secure and less hackable. But it’s plumbing; it’s infrastructure at the end of the day. So it will evolve to the point where it will just make a transaction that’s complicated and has lots of different parties and pieces just easier and faster. It’s no different than how the Internet makes it faster to do things we used to do. Email is faster than writing a letter. Text is faster than email.

[To your point], what Neighborly is trying to achieve isn’t solely dependent on blockchain. I don’t think it existed in the form it does now when [Neighborly founder and CEO Jase. Wilson] first came up with this idea. The main notion is you have a public finance system that’s expensive and opaque and not particularly democratic. You meanwhile have a lack of awareness by the people most impacted by the decisions [about where bond money should go], and those are real inefficiencies in the marketplace that Neighborly and other companies are trying to do address. Blockchain should just help them do it more efficiently over time.

TC: Is Neighborly making already available bonds to users of its platform or creating new bond offerings?

BT: Both. It can participate in a process and make bonds available or it can work with a municipality that, say, wants to create community-owned broadband.

TC: What about challenges in persuading governments to work with startups like Neighborly? Aren’t there a lot of special interests and existing relationships to overcome?

BT: Yeah, there’s a huge problem right now, which is that you have all these firms that advise government on issuing debt or participate in the process that, even though a lot of them are prohibited from giving money directly to candidates, they are very, very entrenched. They have relationships with mid-level people at budget offices everywhere.

This is a cartel that has to be taken on, just like Uber has had to take on the taxi industry and Airbnb has taken on hotels. In some ways, it’s an even harder cartel to fight because it’s so opaque. No one really understands how the budgeting process works internally, so it’s a big cartel and it’s a silent cartel, which in some ways is the most powerful of all, so it’s a pretty big fight. I give Neighborly a lot of credit for taking it on.

TC: Is there a precedent here? 

BT: [Not really.] One company does it well, then 15 more pop up. The first one has to do all the heavy lifting and take on all the fights and that’s probably what’s going to happen here, too. When market opens up, and people realize there’s money to be made, you’ll see more come in, but right now, there’s just one company that I’m aware of that’s doing most of the work.

Public finance departments are good at really working over who gets to issue and underwrite the debt, and Neighborly would rather live in a world where they didn’t have to play that game, but to some extent, the real world of politics still exists.

The public finance opportunity
Source: TechCrunch