Catalyst Fund gets $15M from JP Morgan, UK Aid to back 30 EM fintech startups

The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.

The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.

That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.

Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.

“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.

Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.

Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.

Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.

African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s startups, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.

That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.

The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.

By several estimates, Africa is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale finance solutions on the continent.

Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech related startups on the continent.

This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.

For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation

“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.

This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.

More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts any of its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets like Nigeria, India and Mexico.

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Open banking platform Tink raises €90M at a post-money valuation of €415M

Tink, the European open banking platform, is disclosing €90 million in new funding, just 11 months after the Sweden-headquartered company announced a €56 million round of funding.

Co-leading this new round is Dawn Capital, HMI Capital and Insight Partners. The round also includes the incumbent postal operator and Italy’s largest financial services network Poste Italiane as a new investor, along with existing investors Heartcore Capital, ABN AMRO Ventures and BNP Paribas’ venture arm, Opera Tech Ventures.

The injection of capital will enable Tink to accelerate its European expansion plans and further develop its product accordingly.

“During 2020, we are committed to building out our platform with more bank connections and, on top of that, expand our product offering,” Tink co-founder and CEO Daniel Kjellén tells me. “Our aim is to become the preferred pan-European provider of digital banking services and increase our local presence across the region”.

Originally launched in Sweden in 2013 as a consumer-facing finance app with bank account aggregation at its heart, Tink has long since repositioned its offering to become a fully-fledged open banking platform, requisite with developer APIs, to enable banks and other financial service providers to ride the open banking/PSD2 train.

Through its various APIs, Tink provides four pillars of technology: “Account Aggregation,” “Payment Initiation,” “Personal Finance Management” and “Data Enrichment.” These can be used by third parties to roll their own standalone apps or integrated into existing banking applications.

“We have grown significantly, both in terms of our platform’s connectivity and as an organisation,” says Kjellén, when asked what has changed in the last 11 months. “We have during the year launched our platform in Belgium, Austria, the U.K., Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and Italy. In total, our open banking platform is right now live in twelve European markets and connects to more than 2,500 banks that reach more than 250 million bank customers across Europe”.

The company’s headcount has also grown a lot, too. In the beginning of 2019 it sat at around 120, but is now at 300 employees. Most but not all are based in its headquarters in Stockholm, alongside local offices including recently opened sites in Paris, Helsinki, Oslo, Madrid, Warsaw, Milan and Copenhagen.

Perhaps better positioned than most, I asked Kjellén what types of use cases are really resonating with open banking, given that many industry commentators don’t think it has quite yet lived up to the hype.

“Many of our customers are seeing the advantage of being able to build smart multi-banking products with the data that they are now able to fetch and use to add value for their end users,” he says. “The use cases that really show the potential of open banking that we see our customers thriving with are those that leverage the full value of the financial data to deliver truly personalised experiences at scale, or remove friction in the user journey to a minimum, such as proactive price comparison, enhanced credit scoring and onboarding. Use cases such as these show that the consumer’s data can really work for them and bring improvements to their everyday interactions”.

One example Kjellén gives me is Klarna, the checkout credit provider, which he says is using open banking to provide a “wonderful” in-app experience. “I love that I as a consumer can now choose to change my mind and slice up the payments for a purchase I have already paid in full with my bank card,” he explains. “This shows how the potential of open banking goes way beyond just accessing a transaction history and allows the most innovative players, such as Klarna, to create a new standard in consumer experience”.

Kjellén says another standout use-case is using PSD2 APIs to verify identity to complete any type of customer registration completely automatically. “[That is] something that I find very innovative. It automates the previously time-consuming administration on the business side and delivers a completely seamless digital service on the end user side,” he says.

Meanwhile, Tink says its customer numbers have “quadrupled” in the past year, and includes PayPal, Klarna, NatWest, ABN AMRO, BNP Paribas Fortis, Nordea and SEB. “More than 4,000 developers are currently using Tink to build and power new innovative financial services and products,” adds Kjellén.

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Samsung invests $500M to set up a smartphone display plant in India

Samsung, which once led India’s smartphone market, is investing $500 million in its India operations to set up a manufacturing plant at the outskirts of New Delhi to produce displays.

The company disclosed the investment and its plan in a filing to the local regulator earlier this month. The South Korean giant said the plant would produce displays for smartphones as well as a wide-range of other electronics devices.

In the filing, the company disclosed that it has allocated some land area from its existing factory in Noida for the new plant.

In 2018, Samsung opened a factory in Noida that it claimed was the world’s largest mobile manufacturing plant. For that factory, the company had committed to spend about $700 million.

The new plant should help Samsung further increase its capacity to produce smartphone components locally and access a range of tax benefits that New Delhi offers.

Those benefits would come in handy to the company as it faces off Xiaomi, the Chinese smartphone vendor that put an end to Samsung’s lead in India.

Samsung is now the second largest smartphone player in India, which is the world’s second largest market with nearly 500 million smartphone users. The company in recent months has also lost market share to Chinese brand Realme, which is poised to take over the South Korean giant in the quarter that ended in December last year, according to some analysts.

TechCrunch has reached out to Samsung for comment.

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In Los Angeles, the Women’s March embraces technology to organize and inspire

The roughly 300,000 marchers that filled the streets of downtown Los Angeles for the third annual Women’s March received more than just an opportunity to hear from some of the state’s high powered politicians, they were also part of a new experiment from local March organizers in bringing technology into the movement.

Using an organizational tool called SameSide, whose launch coincided with the Women’s March and a joint effort with RockTheVote, Women’s March organizers are hoping to transfer excitement about the march into broader political engagement with local and national women’s issues in this Presidential election year.

At the same time, the March organizers were trying to find a way to incorporate art and artists into the event, while being respectful of public spaces. That’s where a new, pre-launch application called Mark, came into the picture.

Mark, a joint venture between the Danish game development firm Sybo and the Chinese mobile game publisher iDreamSky, uses augmented reality to permanent installations of digital street art. The two year old company is still in beta, but decided to work with the Women’s March as an initial test of its product.

The company agreed to donate up to $300,000 in total, and up to $100 per-person for new users who downloaded the application. Mark donated $1 per download and initial share by a user for an account created during the march. Subsequent donations will be made fo consecutive days in app and multiple shares of posts made using MARK, according to the company. Login for 60 straight days and share 20 Mark AR posts and the company agreed to donate $100 to The Women’s March.

Image courtesy of Mark

“Any movement encompasses art,” says Women’s March Los Angeles Foundation executive director Emiliana Guereca. “Social justice art and technology and the movement really melded for us. Even though it’s technology, it’s organic.”

Using Google’s persistent cloud anchors in ARCore, Mark users are able to create permanent images that can be viewed and modified through the company’s app. In Los Angeles, the company worked with American and international artists Amy Sol, Sam Kirk , Faith XLVIILedania, and Fatma Al-Remaihi to create pieces that would be available at specific sites throughout the march route.

Though the Women’s March may serve as Mark’s debut, the company intends to avoid picking political sides. “We want to be as politically neutral as possible,” says Mark’s chief executive Jeff Lyndon Ko. The former founder of the publicly traded Shenzhen-based gaming publisher iDreamSky, acknowledged that his new company couldn’t work in China’s tightly controlled social media market.

“This project will have a lot more legs outside of the Greater China reach,” Ko said.  As for the company’s Chinese shareholders (iDreamSky is an investor in Mark), the politics of the women’s movement in the U.S. were a foreign concept. “MyChina team was like, ‘What is that?’” Ko said.

If the collaboration with Mark was designed to inspire, the work that The Women’s March Foundation Los Angeles is doing with SameSide is intended to incite action.

A graduate of the politically focused accelerator, Higher Ground Labs, Sameside is the work of Nicole a’Beckett and her brother, a former Navy Seal. Together the two worked to create a social network that would combine political engagement and social activities to develop communities built around shared ideologies and purpose.

The company offers push notifications and reminders of important dates as well as a database of potentially engaged activists who could be organized around social events. It’s kind of like a politically focused “Meetup” with the added ability to message members about important dates and include calls to action for future activity.

“The Women’s March is the unofficial launch of SameSide, and is making the Women’s March in Los Angeles a catalyst for action by providing a platform for people everywhere to set up affiliated events — things like sign making parties, meet-up coffee parties the morning of the march, house parties for those who can’t attend a march — and delivering a voter registration action kit powered by Rock the Vote to everyone who RSVPs to any affiliated events or the Los Angeles Women’s March,” wrote a’Beckett in an email.

The Women’s March Foundation Los Angeles organizers view political engagement as a crucial next step for march participants. “There is a ‘to-do’ list after marching,” says Guereca. “The draw to Sameside is now people can plug in. How to continue the movement via your phone is critical.”

 

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China Roundup: Tencent’s new US gaming studio and WeChat’s new paywall

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.

The spotlight this week is back on Tencent, which has made some interesting moves in gaming and content publishing. There will be no roundup next week as China observes the Lunar New Year, but the battle only intensifies for the country’s internet giants, particularly short-video rivals Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) and Kuaishou, which will be vying for user time over the big annual holiday. We will surely cover that when we return.

‘Honor of Kings’ creator hiring for U.S. studio

Tencent’s storied gaming studio TiMi is looking to accelerate international expansion by tripling its headcount in the U.S. in 2020, the studio told TechCrunch this week, though it refused to reveal the exact size of its North American office. Eleven-year-old TiMi currently has a team working out of Los Angeles on global business and plans to grow it into a full development studio that “helps us understand Western players and gives us a stronger global perspective,” said the studio’s international business director Vincent Gao.

Gao borrowed the Chinese expression “riding the wind and breaking the wave” to characterize TiMi’s global strategy. The wind, he said, “refers to the ever-growing desire for quality by mobile gamers.” Breaking the wave, on the other hand, entails TiMi applying new development tools to building high-budget, high-quality AAA mobile games.

The studio is credited for producing one of the world’s most-played mobile games, Honor of Kings, a mobile multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, and taking it overseas under the title Arena of Valor. Although Arena of Valor didn’t quite take off in Western markets, it has done well in Southeast Asia in part thanks to Tencent’s publishing partnership with the region’s internet giant Garena.

Honor of Kings and a few other Tencent games have leveraged the massive WeChat and QQ messengers to acquire users. That raises the question of whether Tencent can replicate its success in overseas markets where its social apps are largely absent. But TiMi contended that these platforms are not essential to a game’s success. “TiMi didn’t succeed in China because of WeChat and QQ. It’s not hard to find examples of games that didn’t succeed even with [support from] WeChat and QQ.”

Call of Duty: Mobile is developed by Tencent and published by Activision Blizzard (Image: Call of Duty: Mobile via Twitter) 

When it comes to making money, TiMi has from the outset been a strong proponent of game-as-a-service whereby it continues to pump out fresh content after the initial download. Gao believes the model will gain further traction in 2020 as it attracts old-school game developers, which were accustomed to pay-to-play, to follow suit.

All eyes are now on TiMi’s next big move, the mobile version of Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty. Tencent, given its experience in China’s mobile-first market, appears well-suited to make the mobile transition for the well-loved console shooter. Developed by Tencent and published by Blizzard, in which Tencent owns a minority stake, in September, Call of Duty: Mobile had a spectacular start, recording more worldwide downloads in a single quarter than any mobile game except Pokémon GO, which saw its peak in Q3 2016, according to app analytics company Sensor Tower.

The pedigreed studio has in recent times faced more internal competition from its siblings inside Tencent, particularly the Lightspeed Quantum studio, which is behind the successful mobile version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). While Tencent actively fosters internal rivalry between departments, Gao stressed that TiMi has received abundant support from Tencent on the likes of publishing, business development and legal matters.

WeChat erects a paywall – with Apple tax

Ever since WeChat rolled out its content publishing function — a Facebook Page equivalent named the Official Account — back in 2012, articles posted through the social networking platform have been free to read. That’s finally changing.

This week, WeChat announced that it began allowing a selected group of authors to put their articles behind a paywall in a trial period. The launch is significant not only because it can inspire creators by helping them eke out additional revenues, but it’s also a reminder of WeChat’s occasionally fraught relationship with Apple.

WeChat launched its long-awaited paywall for articles published on its platform 

Let’s rewind to 2017 when WeChat, in a much-anticipated move, added a “tipping” feature to articles published on Official Account. The function was meant to boost user engagement and incentivize writers off the back of the popularity of online tipping in China. On live streaming platforms, for instance, users consume content for free but many voluntarily send hosts tips and virtual gifts worth from a few yuan to the hundreds.

WeChat said at the time that all transfers from tipping would go toward the authors, but Apple thought otherwise, claiming that such tips amounted to “in-app purchases” and thus entitled it to a 30% cut from every transaction, or what is widely known as the “Apple tax.”

WeChat disabled tipping following the clash over the terms but reintroduced the feature in 2018 after reaching consensus with Apple. The function has been up and running since then and neither WeChat nor Apple charged from the transfers, a spokesperson from WeChat confirmed with TechCrunch.

If the behemoths’ settlement over tipping was a concession on Apple’s end, Tencent has budged on paywalls this time.

Unlike tipping, the new paywall feature entitles Apple to its standard 30% cut of in-app transactions. That means transfers for paid content will go through Apple’s in-app purchase (IAP) system rather than WeChat’s own payments tool, as is the case with tipping. It also appears that only users with a Chinese Apple account are able to pay for WeChat articles. TechCrunch’s attempt to purchase a post using a U.S. Apple account was rejected by WeChat on account of the transaction “incurring risks or not paying with RMB.”

The launch is certainly a boon to creators who enjoy a substantial following, although many of them have already explored third-party platforms for alternative commercial possibilities beyond the advertising and tipping options that WeChat enables. Zhishi Xingqiu, the “Knowledge Planet”, for instance, is widely used by WeChat creators to charge for value-added services such as providing readers with exclusive industry reports. Xiaoe-tong, or “Smart Little Goose”, is a popular tool for content stars to roll out paid lessons.

Not everyone is bullish on the new paywall. One potential drawback is it will drive down traffic and discourage advertisers. Others voice concerns that the paid feature is vulnerable to exploitation by clickbait creators. On that end, WeChat has restricted the application to the function only to accounts that are over three months old, have published at least three original articles and have seen no serious violations of WeChat rules.

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