The OpenStack Foundation becomes the Open Infrastructure Foundation

This has been a long time coming, but the OpenStack foundation today announced that it is changing its name to ‘Open Infrastructure Foundation,” starting in 2021.

The announcement, which the foundation made at its virtual developer conference, doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Over the course of the last few years, the organization started adding new projects that went well beyond the core OpenStack project and renamed its conference to the ‘Open Infrastructure Summit.’ The organization actually filed for the ‘Open Infrastructure Foundation’ trademark back in April.

Image Credits: OpenStack Foundation

After years of hype, the open-source OpenStack project hit a bit of a wall in 2016, as the market started to consolidate. The project itself, which helps enterprises run their private cloud, found its niche in the telecom space, though, and continues to thrive as one of the world’s most active open-source projects. Indeed, I regularly hear from OpenStack vendors that they are now seeing record sales numbers — despite the lack of hype. With the project being stable, though, the Foundation started casting a wider net and added additional projects like the popular Kata Containers runtime and CI/CD platform Zuul.

“We are officially transitioning and becoming the Open Infrastructure Foundation,” long-term OpenStack Foundation executive president Jonathan Bryce told me. “That is something that I think is an awesome step that’s built on the success that our community has spawned both within projects like OpenStack, but also as a movement […], which is [about] how do you give people choice and control as they build out digital infrastructure? And that is, I think, an awesome mission to have. And that’s what we are recognizing and acknowledging and setting up for another decade of doing that together with our great community.”

In many ways, it’s been more of a surprise that the organization waited as long as it did. As the foundation’s COO Mark Collier told me, the team waited because it wanted to sure that it did this right.

“We really just wanted to make sure that all the stuff we learned when we were building the OpenStack community and with the community — that started with a simple idea of ‘open source should be part of cloud, for infrastructure.’ That idea has just spawned so much more open source than we could have imagined. Of course, OpenStack itself has gotten bigger and more diverse than we could have imagined,” Collier said.

As part of today’s announcement, the group is also adding four new members at Platinum tier, its highest membership level: Ant Group, the Alibaba affiliate behind Alipay, embedded systems specialist Wind River, China’s Fiberhome (which was previously a Gold member) and Facebook Connectivity. To become a Platinum member, companies have to contribute $350,000 per year to the foundation and must have at least 2 full-time employees contributing to its projects.

“If you look at those companies that we have as Platinum members, it’s a pretty broad set of organizations,” Bryce noted. “AT&T, the largest carrier in the world. And then you also have a company Ant, who’s the largest payment processor in the world and a massive financial services company overall — over to Ericsson, that does telco, Wind River, that does defense and manufacturing. And I think that speaks to that everybody needs infrastructure. If we build a community — and we successfully structure these communities to write software with a goal of getting all of that software out into production, I think that creates so much value for so many people: for an ecosystem of vendors and for a great group of users and a lot of developers love working in open source because we work with smart people from all over the world.”

The OpenStack Foundation’s existing members are also on board and Bryce and Collier hinted at several new members who will join soon but didn’t quite get everything in place for today’s announcement.

We can probably expect the new foundation to start adding new projects next year, but it’s worth noting that the OpenStack project continues apace. The latest of the project’s bi-annual releases, dubbed ‘Victoria,’ launched last week, with additional Kubernetes integrations, improved support for various accelerators and more. Nothing will really change for the project now that the foundation is changing its name — though it may end up benefitting from a reenergized and more diverse community that will build out projects at its periphery.


By Frederic Lardinois

VESoft raises $8M to meet China’s growing need for graph databases

Sherman Ye founded VESoft in 2018 when he saw a growing demand for graph databases in China. Its predecessors like Neo4j and TigerGraph had already been growing aggressively in the West for a few years, while China was just getting to know the technology that leverages graph structures to store data sets and depict their relationships, such as those used for social media analysis, e-commerce recommendations, and financial risk management.

VESoft is ready for further growth after closing an $8 million funding round led by Redpoint China Ventures, an investment firm launched by Silicon Valley-based Redpoint Ventures in 2005. Existing investor Matrix Partners China also participated in the Series pre-A round. The new capital will allow the startup to develop products and expand to markets in North America, Europe, and other parts of Asia.

The 30-people team is comprised of former employees from Alibaba, Facebook, Huawei, and IBM. It’s based in Hangzhou, a scenic city known for its rich history and housing Alibaba and its financial affiliate Ant Financial, where Ye previously worked as a senior engineer after his four-year stint with Facebook in California. From 2017 to 2018, the entrepreneur noticed that Ant Financial’s customers were increasingly interested in adopting graph databases as an alternative to relational databases, a model that had been popular since the 80s and normally organizes data into tables.

“While relational databases are capable of achieving many functions carried out by graph databases… they deteriorate in performance as the quantity of data grows,” Yu told TechCrunch during an interview. “We didn’t use to have so much data.”

Information explosion is one reason why Chinese companies are turning to graph databases, which can handle millions of transactions to discover patterns within scattered data. The technology’s rise is also a response to new forms of online businesses that depend more on relationships.

“Take recommendations for example. The old model recommends content based purely on user profiles, but the problem of relying on personal browsing history is it fails to recommend new things. That was fine for a long time as the Chinese [internet] market was big enough to accommodate many players. But as the industry becomes saturated and crowded… companies need to ponder how to retain existing users, lengthen their time spent, and win users from rivals.”

The key lies in serving people content and products they find appealing. Graph databases come in handy, suggested Yu, when services try to predict users’ interest or behavior as the model uncovers what their friends or people within their social circles like. “That’s a lot more effective than feeding them what’s trending.”

Neo4j compares relational and graph databases (Link)

The company has made its software open source, which the founder believed can help cultivate a community of graph database users and educate the market in China. It will also allow VESoft to reach more engineers in the English-speaking world who are well-acquainted with the open-source culture.

“There is no such thing as being ‘international’ or ‘domestic’ for a technology-driven company. There are no boundaries between countries in the open-source world,” reckoned Yu.

When it comes to generating income, the startup plans to launch a paid version for enterprises, which will come with customized plug-ins and host services.

The Nebula Graph, the brand of VESoft’s database product, is now serving 20 enterprise clients from areas across social media, e-commerce, and finance including big names like food delivery giant Meituan, popular social commerce app Xiaohongshu, and e-commerce leader JD.com. A number of overseas companies are also trialing Nebula.

The time is ripe for enterprise-facing startups with a technological moat in China as the market for consumers has been divided by incumbents like Tencent and Alibaba. This makes fundraising relatively easy for VESoft. The founder is confident that Chinese companies are rapidly catching up with their Western counterparts in the space, for the gargantuan amount of data and the myriad of ways data is used in the country “will propel the technology forward.”


By Rita Liao

Startups are transforming global trade in the COVID-19 era

Global trade watchers breathed a sigh of relief on January 15, 2020.

After two years of threats, tariffs and tweets, there was finally a truce in the trade war between the U.S. and China. The agreement signed by President Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in the Oval Office didn’t resolve all trade tensions and maintained most of the $360 billion in tariffs the administration had put on Chinese goods. But for the first time in months, it looked like manufacturers, importers and shippers could start to put two difficult years behind them.

Then came COVID-19, at first a local disruption in Wuhan, China. Then it spread throughout Hubei province, causing havoc in a concentric circle that eventually engulfed the rest of China, where industrial production fell by more than 13.5% in the first two months of the year. When the virus spread everywhere, chaos ensued: Factories shuttered. Borders closed. Supply chains crumbled.

“It has had a cascading effect through the entire world’s economy,” says Anja Manuel, co-founder and managing partner of Rice, Hadley, Gates & Manuel LLC, an international strategic consulting firm based in Silicon Valley.

The crisis has caused a drastic contraction in global trade; the World Trade Organization estimates trade volumes will fall 13-20% in 2020. And spinning activity back up could be tricky: Even as China starts to get back online, the slowdown there could reduce worldwide exports by $50 billion this year. When factories do reopen, there’s no guarantee whether they will have parts available or empty warehouses, says Manuel, who also serves on the advisory board of Flexport, a shipping logistics startup. “Our supply chains are so tightly-knit and so just-in-time that throw a few wrenches in it like we’ve just done, and it’s going to be really hard to stand it back up again. The idea that we go back to normal the moment we lift restrictions is unlikely, fanciful, even.”

Getting to that new normal, though, is a job that a number of logistics startups are embracing. Already on the rise, companies like Flexport, Haven and Factiv see a global trade crisis as a setback, but also an opportunity to demonstrate the value of their digital platforms in a very much analog industry.

Information is king

As companies along the global supply chain reel from these fast-moving events, they are increasingly turning to firms that can offer them information — and the options that come with it.

“In moments of lots of volatility, you want to make sure the data you’re looking at is real,” says Sanne Manders, Flexport’s COO. “Where before you could get away with a weekly supply chain update, now you need accurate and timely data every minute. If you don’t, you’re not agile to make decisions.”


By Walter Thompson

Will China’s coronavirus-related trends shape the future for American VCs?

For the past month, VC investment pace seems to have slacked off in the U.S., but deal activities in China are picking up following a slowdown prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

According to PitchBook, “Chinese firms recorded 66 venture capital deals for the week ended March 28, the most of any week in 2020 and just below figures from the same time last year,” (although 2019 was a slow year). There is a natural lag between when deals are made and when they are announced, but still, there are some interesting trends that I couldn’t help noticing.

While many U.S.-based VCs haven’t had a chance to focus on new deals, recent investment trends coming out of China may indicate which shifts might persist after the crisis and what it could mean for the U.S. investor community.

Image Credits: PitchBook


By Walter Thompson

Chinese cloud infrastructure market generated $3.3B in Q42019

Research firm Canalys reports that the Chinese cloud infrastructure market grew 66.9% to $3.3 billion in the last quarter of 2019, right before the COVID-19 virus hit the country. China is the second largest cloud infrastructure market in the world with 10.8% share.

The quarter puts the Chinese market on a $13.2 billion run rate. Canalys pegged the US market at $14 billion for the same time period with a 47% worldwide market share.

Alibaba led the way in China with over 46% market share. Like its American eCommerce giant counterpart, Amazon, Alibaba has a cloud arm, and it dominates in its country much the same way AWS does in the U.S.

Tencent was in second with 18%, roughly the equivalent of Microsoft Azure’s share in the US, and Baidu AI Cloud came in third with 8.8%, roughly the equivalent of Google’s US market share.

Slide: Canalys

Matthew Ball, an analyst at Canalys says the fourth quarter numbers predate the medical crisis due to the COVID-19 outbreak in China. “In terms of growth drivers for Q4, we have seen the ongoing demand for on-demand compute and storage accelerate throughout 2019, as private and public organizations embark on digital transformation projects and start building platforms and applications to develop new services.”

Ball says gaming was a big cloud customer, as was healthcare, finance, transport and industry. He also pointed to growth in facial recognition technology as part of the smart city sector.

As for next year, Ball says the firm still sees big growth in the market despite the virus impact in Q12020. “In addition to the continuation of digital projects once business returns to normality, we anticipate many businesses new to using cloud services during the crisis will continue use and become paying customers,” he said. The cloud companies have been offering a number of free options to businesses during the crisis.

“The overall outcome of current events around the world will be that companies will assess their business continuity measures and make sure they can continue to operate if events are ever repeated,” he said.


By Ron Miller

China Roundup: Enterprise tech gets a lasting boost from coronavirus outbreak

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. This week, a post from Sequoia Capital sounding the alarm of the coronavirus’s impact on businesses is reaching far corners of tech communities around the world, including China.

Many echo Sequoia’s observation that the companies that are the “most adaptable” are the likeliest to survive. Others cling to the hope of “[turning] a challenging situation into an opportunity to set yourself up for enduring success.”

Two weeks ago I wrote about how the private sector and the government in China are working together to contain the epidemic, bringing a temporary boost to the technology industry. This week I asked a number of investors and founders which of these changes will stand to last, and why.

B2B on the rise

The business-to-business (B2B) space was rarely a hot topic in China until online consumer businesses became relatively saturated in recent times. And now, the COVID-19 epidemic has unexpectedly breathed life into the once-boring field, which stretches from virtual meetings, online education, digital healthcare, cybersecurity, telecommunications, logistics to smart cities, analysis from investment firm Yunqi Partners shows.

For one, there is an obvious opportunity for remote collaboration tools as people work from home. Downloads of indigenous work apps like Dingtalk, WeChat Work, TikTok’s sister Lark as well as America’s Zoom jumped exponentially amid the health crisis. While some argue that the boom is overblown and will dissipate as soon as businesses are back to normal, others suggest that the shift in behavior will endure.

Like other work collaboration services, Zoom soared in China amid the coronavirus outbreak, jumping from No. 180 in late January to No. 28 as of late February in overall app installs. Data: App Annie 

“People are reluctant to change once they form a new habit,” suggests Joe Chan, partner at Hong Kong-based Mindworks Ventures. The virus outbreak, he believes, has educated the Chinese masses to work remotely.

“Meeting in person and through Zoom both have their own merits, depending on the social norm. Some people are used to thinking that relationships need to be established through face-to-face encounters, but those who don’t hold that view will have fewer meetings. [The epidemic] presents a chance for a paradigm shift.”

But changes are slow

Growth in enterprise businesses might be less visible than what China witnessed over the SARS epidemic that fueled internet consumer verticals such as ecommerce. That’s because software-as-a-services (SaaS), cloud computing, health tech, logistics and other enterprise-facing services are intangible for most consumers.

“Compared to changes in consumer behavior, the adoption of new technologies by enterprises happen at a slower pace, so the impact of coronavirus on new-generation innovations [B2B] won’t come as rapidly and thoroughly as what happened during SARS,” contended Jake Xie, vice president of investment at China Growth Capital.

Xie further suggested that the opportunities presented by the outbreak are reserved for companies that have been steadily investing in the field, in part because enterprise services have a longer life cycle and require more capital-intensive infrastructure. “Opportunists don’t stand a chance,” he concluded.

As for changing consumer behavior, such as the uptick in grocery delivery usage by seniors trapped indoors, the impact might be short-lived. “The only benefit that the epidemic brings to these apps is getting more people to try their services. But how many of them will stay? The argument that people will keep using these apps over concerns of getting sick in offline markets is unsubstantiated. The strength of a business lies in its ability to solve user problems in the long term, for example, providing affordability and convenience,” suggested Derek Shen, chairman of Danke Apartment, the Chinese co-living startup slated to list on NYSE.

Summoned by Beijing

The adjacent sector of enterprise services — at-scale technologies tailored to energizing government functions — has also seen traction over the course of the epidemic. Private firms in China have teamed up with regional authorities to better track people’s movements, ramp up facial recognition capacities aimed at a mask-wearing public, develop contact-free consumer experience, among other measures.

Tech firms touting services to the government are no stranger to criticisms concerning the lack of transparency in how user data is used. But the appeal to private firms is huge, not only because state contracts tend to provide a steady stream of long-term revenue, but also that certain public-facing projects can be billed as a fulfillment of corporate social responsibilities. Following the virus outbreak, Chinese tech companies of all sizes hastened to offer contributions, with efforts ranging from making monetary donations to building tools that keep the public informed.

On the flip side, the government also needs private help in emergency management. As prominent Chinese historian Luo Xin poignantly pointed out in podcast SurplusValue’s recent episode [1:00:00], some of the most efficient and effective responses to the public health crisis came not from the government but the private sector, whether it is online retailer JD.com or logistics firm SF Express delivering relief supplies to the epicenter of the outbreak.

That said, Luo argued there are signs that some local authorities’ tendency to centralize control is getting in the way of private efforts. For example, some government offices have stumbled in their attempts to develop crisis management systems from scratch, overlooking a pool of readily available and proven infrastructure powered by the country’s tech giants.


By Rita Liao

Alibaba unveils Hanguang 800, an AI inference chip it says significantly increases the speed of machine learning tasks

Alibaba Group introduced its first AI inference chip today, a neural processing unit called Hanguang 800 that it says makes performing machine learning tasks dramatically faster and more energy-efficient. The chip, announced today during Alibaba Cloud’s annual Apsara Computing Conference in Hangzhou, is already being used to power features on Alibaba’s e-commerce sites, including product search and personalized recommendations. It will be made available to Alibaba Cloud customers later.

As an example of what the chip can do, Alibaba said it usually takes Taobao an hour to categorize the one billion product images that are uploaded to the e-commerce platform each day by merchants and prepare them for search and personalized recommendations. Using Hanguang 800, Taobao was able to complete the task in only five minutes.

Alibaba is already using Hanguang 800 in many of its business operations that need machine processing. In addition to product search and recommendations, this includes automatic translation on its e-commerce sites, advertising and intelligence customer services.

Though Alibaba hasn’t revealed when the chip will be available to its cloud customers, the chip may help Chinese companies reduce their dependence on U.S. technology as the trade war makes business partnerships between Chinese and American tech companies more difficult. It can also help Alibaba Cloud grow in markets outside of China. Within China, it is the market leader, but in the Asia-Pacific region, Alibaba Cloud still ranks behind Amazon, Microsoft and Google, according to the Synergy Research Group.

Hanguang 800 was created by T-Head, the unit that leads the development of chips for cloud and edge computing within Alibaba DAMO Academy, the global research and development initiative that Alibaba is investing more than $15 billion in. T-Head developed the chip’s hardware and algorithms designed for business apps, including Alibaba’s retail and logistics apps.

In a statement, Alibaba Group CTO and president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence Jeff Zhang (pictured above) said “The launch of Hanguang 800 is an important step in our pursuit of next-generation technologies, boosting computing capabilities that will drive both our current and emerging businesses while improving energy-efficiency.”

He added “In the near future, we plan to empower our clients by providing access through our cloud business to the advanced computing that is made possible by the chip, anytime and anywhere.”

T-Head’s other launches included the XuanTie 910 earlier this year, an IoT processor based on RISC-V, the open-source hardware instruction set that began as a project at U.C. Berkeley. XuanTie 910 was created for heavy-duty IoT applications, including edge servers, networking, gateway and autonomous vehicles.

Alibaba DAMO Academy collaborates with universities around the world that have included U.C. Berkeley and Tel Aviv University. Researchers in the program focus on machine learning, network security, visual computing and natural language processing, with the goal of serving two billion customers and creating 100 million jobs by 2035.


By Catherine Shu

Alibaba to help Salesforce localize and sell in China

Salesforce, the 20-year-old leader in customer relationship management (CRM) tools, is making a foray into Asia by working with one of the country’s largest tech firms, Alibaba.

Alibaba will be the exclusive provider of Salesforce to enterprise customers in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, and Salesforce will become the exclusive enterprise CRM software suite sold by Alibaba, the companies announced on Thursday.

The Chinese internet has for years been dominated by consumer-facing services such as Tencent’s WeChat messenger and Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace, but enterprise software is starting to garner strong interest from businesses and investors. Workflow automation startup Laiye, for example, recently closed a $35 million funding round led by Cathay Innovation, a growth-stage fund that believes “enterprise software is about to grow rapidly” in China.

The partners have something to gain from each other. Alibaba does not have a Salesforce equivalent serving the raft of small-and-medium businesses selling through its e-commerce marketplaces or using its cloud computing services, so the alliance with the American cloud behemoth will fill that gap.

On the other hand, Salesforce will gain sales avenues in China through Alibaba, whose cloud infrastructure and data platform will help the American firm “offer localized solutions and better serve its multinational customers,” said Ken Shen, vice president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence, in a statement.

“More and more of our multinational customers are asking us to support them wherever they do business around the world. That’s why today Salesforce announced a strategic partnership with Alibaba,” said Salesforce in a statement.

Overall, only about 10% of Salesforce revenues in the three months ended April 30 originated from Asia, compared to 20% from Europe and 70% from the Americas.

Besides gaining client acquisition channels, the tie-up also enables Salesforce to store its China-based data at Alibaba Cloud. China requires all overseas companies to work with a domestic firm in processing and storing data sourced from Chinese users.

“The partnership ensures that customers of Salesforce that have operations in the Greater China area will have exclusive access to a locally-hosted version of Salesforce from Alibaba Cloud, who understands local business, culture and regulations,” an Alibaba spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Cloud has been an important growth vertical at Alibaba and nabbing a heavyweight ally will only strengthen its foothold as China’s biggest cloud service provider. Salesforce made some headway in Asia last December when it set up a $100 million fund to invest in Japanese enterprise startups and the latest partnership with Alibaba will see the San Francisco-based firm actually go after customers in Asia.


By Rita Liao

Cathay Innovation leads Laiye’s $35M round to bet on Chinese enterprise IT

For many years, the boom and bust of China’s tech landscape have centered around consumer-facing products. As this space gets filled by Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, and more recently Didi Chuxing, Meituan Dianping, and ByteDance, entrepreneurs and investors are shifting attention to business applications.

One startup making waves in China’s enterprise software market is four-year-old Laiye, which just raised a $35 million Series B round led by cross-border venture capital firm Cathay Innovation. Existing backers Wu Capital, a family fund, and Lightspeed China Partners, whose founding partner James Mi has been investing in every round of Laiye since Pre-A, also participated in this Series B.

The deal came on the heels of Laiye’s merger with Chinese company Awesome Technology, a team that’s spent the last 18 years developing Robotic Process Automation, a term for technology that lets organizations offload repetitive tasks like customer service onto machines. With this marriage, Laiye officially launched its RPA product UiBot to compete in the nascent and fast-growing market for streamlining workflow.

“There was a wave of B2C [business-to-consumer] in China, and now we believe enterprise software is about to grow rapidly,” Denis Barrier, co-founder and chief executive officer of Cathay Innovation, told TechCrunch over a phone interview.

Since launching in January, UiBot has collected some 300,000 downloads and 6,000 registered enterprise users. Its clients include major names such as Nike, Walmart, Wyeth, China Mobile, Ctrip and more.

Guanchun Wang, chairman and CEO of Laiye, believes there are synergies between AI-enabled chatbots and RPA solutions, as the combination allows business clients “to build bots with both brains and hands so as to significantly improve operational efficiency and reduce labor costs,” he said.

When it comes to market size, Barrier believes RPA in China will be a new area of growth. For one, Chinese enterprises, with a shorter history than those found in developed economies, are less hampered by legacy systems, which makes it “faster and easier to set up new corporate software,” the investor observed. There’s also a lot more data being produced in China given the population of organizations, which could give Chinese RPA a competitive advantage.

“You need data to train the machine. The more data you have, the better your algorithms become provided you also have the right data scientists as in China,” Barrier added.

However, the investor warned that the exact timing of RPA adoption by people and customers is always not certain, even though the product is ready.

Laiye said it will use the proceeds to recruit talents for research and development as well as sales of its RPA products. The startup will also work on growing its AI capabilities beyond natural language processing, deep learning, and reinforcement learning, in addition to accelerating commercialization of its robotic solutions across industries.


By Rita Liao

IDC: Asia-Pacific spending on AI systems will reach $5.5 billion this year, up 80 percent from 2018

Spending on artificial intelligence systems in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to reach $5.5 billion this year, an almost 80 percent increase over 2018, driven by businesses in China and the retail industry, according to IDC. In a new report, the research firm also said it expects AI spending to climb at a compound annual growth rate of 50 percent from 2018 to 2022, reaching a total of $15.06 billion in 2022.

This means AI spending growth in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to outpace the rest of the world over the next three years. In March, IDC forecast that worldwide spending on AI systems is expected to grow at a CAGR of 38 percent between 2018 to 2022.

Most of the growth will happen in China, which IDC says will account for nearly two-thirds of AI spending in the region, excluding Japan, in all forecast years. Spending on AI systems will be driven by retail, professional services and government industries.

Retail demand for AI-based tools will also lead growth in the rest of the region, as companies begin to rely on it more for merchandising, product recommendations, automated customer service and supply and logistics. While the banking industry’s AI spending trails behind retail, it will also begin adopting the tech for fraud analysis, program advisors, recommendations and customer service. IDC forecasts that this year, companies will invest almost $700 million in automated service agents. The next largest area for investment is sales process recommendations and automation, with $450 million expected, and intelligent process automation at more than $350 million.

The fastest-growing industries for AI spending are expected to be healthcare (growing at 60.2 percent CAGR) and process manufacturing (60.1 percent CAGR). In terms of infrastructure, IDC says spending on hardware, including servers and storage, will reach almost $7 billion in 2019, while spending on software is expected to grow at a five-year CAGR of 80 percent.


By Catherine Shu

Market map: the 200+ innovative startups transforming affordable housing

In this section of my exploration into innovation in inclusive housing, I am digging into the 200+ companies impacting the key phases of developing and managing housing.

Innovations have reduced costs in the most expensive phases of the housing development and management process. I explore innovations in each of these phases, including construction, land, regulatory, financing, and operational costs.

Reducing Construction Costs

This is one of the top three challenges developers face, exacerbated by rising building material costs and labor shortages.


By Arman Tabatabai

Kong raises $43M Series C for its API platform

Kong, the open core API management and lifecycle management company previously known as Mashape, today announced that it has raised a $43 million Series C round led by Index Ventures. Previous investors Andreessen Horowitz and Charles River Ventures (CRV), as well as new investors GGV Capital and World Innovation Lab also participated. With this round, Kong has now raised a total of $71 million.

The company’s CEO and co-founder Augusto Marietti tells me that the company plans to use the funds to build out its service control platform. He likened this service to the “nervous system for an organization’s software architecture.”

Right now, Kong is just offering the first pieces of this, though. One area the company plans to especially focus on is security, in addition to its existing management tools, where Kong plans to add more machine learning capabilities over time, too. “It’s obviously a 10-year journey but those two things — immunity with security and machine learning with [Kong] Brain are really a 10-year journey of building an intelligent platform that can manage all the traffic in and out of an organization,” he said.

In addition, the company also plans to invest heavily in its expansion in both Europe and the Asia Pacific market. This also explains the addition of World Innovation Lab as an investor. The firm, after all, focuses heavily on connecting companies in the US with partners in Asia — and especially Japan. As Marietti told me, the company is seeing a lot of demand in Japan and China right now, so it makes sense to capitalize on this, especially as the Chinese market is about to become more easily accessible for foreign companies.

Kong notes that it doubled its headcount in 2018 and now has over 100 enterprise customers, including Yahoo! Japan, Ferrari, SoulCycle and WeWork.

It’s worth noting that while this is officially a Series C investment, Marietti is thinking of it more like a Series B round given that the company went through a major pivot when it moved from being Mashape to its focus on Kong, which was already its most popular open source tool.

“Modern software is now built in the cloud, with applications consuming other applications, service to service,” said Martin Casado, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz . “We’re at the tipping point of enterprise adoption of microservices architectures, and companies are turning to new open source-based developer tools and platforms to fuel their next wave of innovation. Kong is uniquely suited to help enterprises as they make this shift by supporting an organization’s entire service architecture, from centralized or decentralized, monolith or microservices.”


By Frederic Lardinois

Hong Kong-based fintech startup Qupital raises $15M Series A to expand in mainland China

Qupital, a fintech startup that bills itself as Hong Kong’s largest trade financing platform for SMEs, has closed a $15 million Series A led by CreditEase FinTech Investment Fund (CEFIF), with participation from returning investors Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund and MindWorks Ventures, both participants in its seed round. To date, Qupital has raised $17 million, including a seed round two years ago, and will use its latest funding to expand its supply chain financing products, launch in mainland Chinese cities and hire more people for its tech development and risk management teams.

CreditEase, which provides loans and other financial services for SMEs in China, will act as a strategic investor, aiding with Qupital’s geographic expansion. Existing investor Alibaba has already helped Qupital reach small businesses on its platform. Qupital will open branches in Chinese cities including Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, along with setting up a new technology center in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area for talent and tech development. In total, it will hire about 100 people for its Hong Kong office this year.

Founded in 2016, Qupital offers lending for SMEs that frequently have cash flow issues because they are in a cycle of waiting for invoices to be paid. Qupital’s loans cover most of the value of an invoice, then matches that with investors and funders who cover the cash with the expectation of a return. The company makes money by charging SMEs a service fee that is a fixed percentage of the total invoice value and then a discount fee, and taking a percentage of net gains made by investors.

Qupital has now processed 8,000 trades, totaling HKD $2 billion in value. It won’t disclose how many SMEs it has worked with, but co-founder and chairman Andy Chan says that number is in the hundreds.

Chan tells TechCrunch that in China, Qupital will not compete directly against traditional financial institutions, because it focuses on financing the Hong Kong business entities of Chinese companies in U.S. and Hong Kong currency, instead of onshore renminbi. It will also target SMEs underserved by traditional lenders, by using alternative data sources to determine their creditworthiness.

In a prepared statement, CEFIF managing director Dennis Cong said “The growing volume of SME and cross-border trading drives a huge demand for alternative financing for SME’s who are underserved in the market and opportunities for investors to earn a decent risk-adjusted return. We look forward to working with Qupital to broaden its source of capital base and create unparalleled investment opportunities for CreditEase.”


By Catherine Shu

Alibaba acquires Israeli VR startup Infinity Augmented Reality

Infinity Augmented Reality, an Israeli virtual reality startup, has been acquired by Alibaba, the companies announced this weekend. The deal’s terms were not disclosed. Alibaba and InfinityAR have had a strategic partnership since 2016, when Alibaba Group led InfinityAR’s Series C. Since then, the two have collaborated on augmented reality, computer vision and artificial intelligence projects.

Founded in 2013, the startup’s augmented glasses platform enables developers in a wide range of industries (retail, gaming, medical, etc.) to integrate AR into their apps. InfinityAR’s products include software for ODMs and OEMs and a SDK plug-in for 3D engines.

Alibaba’s foray into virtual reality started three years ago, when it invested in Magic Leap and then announced a new research lab in China to develop ways of incorporating virtual reality into its e-commerce platform.

InfinityAR’s research and development team will begin working out of Alibaba’s Israel Machine Laboratory, part of Alibaba DAMO Academy, the R&D initiative it is pouring $15 billion into with the goal of eventually serving two billion customers and creating 100 million jobs by 2036. DAMO Academy collaborates with universities around the world and Alibaba’s Israel Machine Laboratory has a partnership with Tel Aviv University focused on video analysis and machine learning.

In a press statement, the laboratory’s head, Lihi Zelnik-Manor, said “Alibaba is delighted to be working with InfinityAR as one team after three years of partnership. The talented team brings unique knowhow in sensor fusion, computer vision and navigation technologies. We look forward to exploring these leading technologies and offering additional benefits to customers, partners and developers.”


By Catherine Shu

Can predictive analytics be made safe for humans?

Massive-scale predictive analytics is a relatively new phenomenon, one that challenges both decades of law as well as consumer thinking about privacy.

As a technology, it may well save thousands of lives in applications like predictive medicine, but if it isn’t used carefully, it may prevent thousands from getting loans, for instance, if an underwriting algorithm is biased against certain users.

I chatted with Dennis Hirsch a few weeks ago about the challenges posed by this new data economy. Hirsch is a professor of law at Ohio State and head of its Program on Data and Governance. He’s also affiliated with the university’s Risk Institute.

“Data ethics is the new form of risk mitigation for the algorithmic economy,” he said. In a post-Cambridge Analytica world, every company has to assess what data it has on its customers and mitigate the risk of harm. How to do that, though, is at the cutting edge of the new field of data governance, which investigates the processes and policies through which organizations manage their data.

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“Traditional privacy regulation asks whether you gave someone notice and given them a choice,” he explains. That principle is the bedrock for Europe’s GDPR law, and for the patchwork of laws in the U.S. that protect privacy. It’s based around the simplistic idea that a datum — such as a customer’s address — shouldn’t be shared with, say, a marketer without that user’s knowledge. Privacy is about protecting the address book, so to speak.

The rise of “predictive analytics” though has completely demolished such privacy legislation. Predictive analytics is a fuzzy term, but essentially means interpreting raw data and drawing new conclusions through inference. This is the story of the famous Target data crisis, where the retailer recommended pregnancy-related goods to women who had certain patterns of purchases. As Charles Duhigg explained at the time:

Many shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and extra-big bags of cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and washcloths, it signals they could be getting close to their delivery date.

Predictive analytics is difficult to predict. Hirsch says “I don’t think any of us are going to be intelligent enough to understand predictive analytics.” Talking about customers, he said “They give up their surface items — like cotton balls and unscented body lotion — they know they are sharing that, but they don’t know they are giving up their pregnancy status. … People are not going to know how to protect themselves because they can’t know what can be inferred from their surface data.”

In other words, the scale of those predictions completely undermines notice and consent.

Even though the law hasn’t caught up to this exponentially more challenging problem, companies themselves seem to be responding in the wake of Target and Facebook’s very public scandals. “What we are hearing is that we don’t want to put our customers at risk,” Hirsch explained. “They understand that this predictive technology gives them really awesome power and they can do a lot of good with it, but they can also hurt people with it.” The key actors here are corporate chief privacy officers, a role that has cropped up in recent years to mitigate some of these challenges.

Hirsch is spending significant time trying to build new governance strategies to allow companies to use predictive analytics in an ethical way, so that “we can achieve and enjoy its benefits without having to bear these costs from it.” He’s focused on four areas: privacy, manipulation, bias, and procedural unfairness. “We are going to set out principles on what is ethical and and what is not,” he said.

Much of that focus has been on how to help regulators build policies that can manage predictive analytics. Since people can’t understand the extent that inferences can be made with their data, “I think a much better regulatory approach is to have someone who does understand, ideally some sort of regulator, who can draw some lines.” Hirsch has been researching how the FTC’s Unfairness Authority may be a path forward for getting such policies into practice.

He analogized this to the Food and Drug Administration. “We have no ability to assess the risks of a given drug [so] we give it to an expert agency and allow them to assess it,” he said. “That’s the kind of regulation that we need.”

Hirsch overall has a balanced perspective on the risks and rewards here. He wants analytics to be “more socially acceptable” but at the same time, sees the needs for careful scrutiny and oversight to ensure that consumers are protected. Ultimately, he sees that as incredibly beneficial to companies who can take the value out of this tech without risking provoking consumer ire.

Who will steal your data more: China or America?

The Huawei logo is seen in the center of Warsaw, Poland

Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Talking about data ethics, Europe is in the middle of a superpower pincer. China’s telecom giant Huawei has made expansion on the continent a major priority, while the United States has been sending delegation after delegation to convince its Western allies to reject Chinese equipment. The dilemma was quite visible last week at MWC-Barcelona, where the two sides each tried to make their case.

It’s been years since the Snowden revelations showed that the United States was operating an enormous eavesdropping infrastructure targeting countries throughout the world, including across Europe. Huawei has reiterated its stance that it does not steal information from its equipment, and has repeated its demands that the Trump administration provide public proof of flaws in its security.

There is an abundance of moral relativism here, but I see this as increasingly a litmus test of the West on China. China has not hidden its ambitions to take a prime role in East Asia, nor has it hidden its intentions to build a massive surveillance network over its own people or to influence the media overseas.

Those tactics, though, are straight out of the American playbook, which lost its moral legitimacy over the past two decades from some combination of the Iraq War, Snowden, Wikileaks, and other public scandals that have undermined trust in the country overseas.

Security and privacy might have been a competitive advantage for American products over their Chinese counterparts, but that advantage has been weakened for many countries to near zero. We are increasingly going to see countries choose a mix of Chinese and American equipment in sensitive applications, if only to ensure that if one country is going to steal their data, it might as well be balanced.

Things that seem interesting that I haven’t read yet

Obsessions

  • Perhaps some more challenges around data usage and algorithmic accountability
  • We have a bit of a theme around emerging markets, macroeconomics, and the next set of users to join the internet.
  • More discussion of megaprojects, infrastructure, and “why can’t we build things”

Thanks

To every member of Extra Crunch: thank you. You allow us to get off the ad-laden media churn conveyor belt and spend quality time on amazing ideas, people, and companies. If I can ever be of assistance, hit reply, or send an email to [email protected].

This newsletter is written with the assistance of Arman Tabatabai from New York.

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By Danny Crichton