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China lays out official stance on trade talks with U.S.

Posted by on Jun 2, 2019 in Asia, Beijing, China, fedex, Government, Huawei, Policy, smartphone, Trade war, U.S. China trade war, U.S. government, United States | 0 comments

On Sunday, China released a comprehensive white paper to formalize its positions on trade negotiations with the U.S. The set of statements come as the trade war escalates and Beijing threatens to hit back with a retaliatory blacklist of U.S. firms. Here are some key takeaways from the press conference announcing the white paper:

U.S. ‘responsible’ for stalled trade talks

The “U.S. government bears responsibility” for setbacks in trade talks, chided the paper, adding that the U.S. has imposed additional tariffs on Chinese goods that impede economic cooperation between the two countries and globally.

While it’s “common” for both sides to propose “adjustments to the text and language” in ongoing negotiations, the U.S. administration “kept changing its demands” in the “previous more than ten rounds of negotiations,” the paper alleged.

On the other hand, reports of China backtracking on previous trade deals are mere “mudslinging,” Wang Shouwen, the Chinese vice minister of commerce and deputy China international trade representative, said as he led the Sunday presser.

China ready to fight if forced to

China does not want a trade war with the U.S, but it’s not afraid of one and will fight one if necessary, said the white paper.

Beijing’s position on trade talks has never changed — that cooperation serves the interests of both countries and conflict can only hurt both — according to the paper. CNBC’s Eunice Yoon pointed out that Beijing’s latest stance repeats previous statements made back in September.

Deals must be equal

Difference and frictions remain on the economic and trade fronts between the two countries, but China is willing to work with the U.S. to reach a “mutually beneficial and win-win agreement,” stated the paper. However, cooperation has to be based on principles and must not compromise China’s core interests.

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” Wang said.

He said one needs not “overinterpret” China’s soon-to-come entity list, adding that it mainly targets foreign companies that run against market rules and violate the spirit of contracts, cut off supplies to Chinese firms for uncommercial reasons, damage the legitimate rights of Chinese companies, or threaten China’s national security and public interests.

China respects IP rights

The paper also touched on issues that are at the center of the prolonged U.S.-China trade dispute, including China’s dealings with intellectual property rights. U.S. allegations of China over IP theft are “an unfounded fabrication,” said the white paper, adding that China has made great efforts in recent years to protect and enforce IP rights.

Wang claimed that China pays the U.S. a significant sum to license IP rights every year. Of the $35.6 billion it shelled out for IP fees in 2018, nearly a quarter went to the U.S.

Investments are mutually beneficial

The white paper claimed that bilateral investments between the two countries are mutually beneficial rather than undermining for U.S. interests when taken account of “trade in goods and services as well as two-way investment.”

The Chinese government also pushed back at claims that it exerts influence on businesses’ overseas investments.

“The government is not involved in companies’ business activities and does not ask them to make specific investments or acquisitions,” said Wang. “Even if we make such requests, companies won’t obey.”

In response to China’s probe into FedEx over Huawei packages that went stray, Wang assured that “foreign businesses are welcome to operate legally in China, but when they break rules, they have to cooperate with regulatory investigations. That’s indisputable.”

The Shenzhen-based smartphone and telecom giant has been hit hard by during the trade negotiations as the Trump administration orders U.S. businesses to sever ties with the Chinese firm.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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India’s most popular services are becoming super apps

Posted by on May 11, 2019 in Apps, Asia, China, Cloud, Developer, Facebook, Finance, Flipkart, Food, Foodpanda, Gaana, Gaming, grab, haptik, hike, India, MakeMyTrip, Media, Microsoft, microsoft garage, Mobile, Mukesh Ambani, mx player, payments, Paytm, paytm mall, reliance jio, saavn, SnapDeal, Social, Startups, Tapzo, Tencent, Times Internet, Transportation, Truecaller, Uber, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, WeChat | 0 comments

Truecaller, an app that helps users screen strangers and robocallers, will soon allow users in India, its largest market, to borrow up to a few hundred dollars.

The crediting option will be the fourth feature the nine-year-old app adds to its service in the last two years. So far it has added to the service the ability to text, record phone calls and mobile payment features, some of which are only available to users in India. Of the 140 million daily active users of Truecaller, 100 million live in India.

The story of the ever-growing ambition of Truecaller illustrates an interesting phase in India’s internet market that is seeing a number of companies mold their single-functioning app into multi-functioning so-called super apps.

Inspired by China

This may sound familiar. Truecaller and others are trying to replicate Tencent’s playbook. The Chinese tech giant’s WeChat, an app that began life as a messaging service, has become a one-stop solution for a range of features — gaming, payments, social commerce and publishing platform — in recent years.

WeChat has become such a dominant player in the Chinese internet ecosystem that it is effectively serving as an operating system and getting away with it. The service maintains its own app store that hosts mini apps and lets users tip authors. This has put it at odds with Apple, though the iPhone-maker has little choice but to make peace with it.

For all its dominance in China, WeChat has struggled to gain traction in India and elsewhere. But its model today is prominently on display in other markets. Grab and Go-Jek in Southeast Asian markets are best known for their ride-hailing services, but have begun to offer a range of other features, including food delivery, entertainment, digital payments, financial services and healthcare.

The proliferation of low-cost smartphones and mobile data in India, thanks in part to Google and Facebook, has helped tens of millions of Indians come online in recent years, with mobile the dominant platform. The number of internet users has already exceeded 500 million in India, up from some 350 million in mid-2015. According to some estimates, India may have north of 625 million users by year-end.

This has fueled the global image of India, which is both the fastest growing internet and smartphone market. Naturally, local apps in India, and those from international firms that operate here, are beginning to replicate WeChat’s model.

Founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Paytm Vijay Shekhar Sharma speaks during the launch of Paytm payments Bank at a function in New Delhi on November 28, 2017 (AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN)

Leading that pack is Paytm, the popular homegrown mobile wallet service that’s valued at $18 billion and has been heavily backed by Alibaba, the e-commerce giant that rivals Tencent and crucially missed the mobile messaging wave in China.

Commanding attention

In recent years, the Paytm app has taken a leaf from China with additions that include the ability to text merchants; book movie, flight and train tickets; and buy shoes, books and just about anything from its e-commerce arm Paytm Mall . It also has added a number of mini games to the app. The company said earlier this month that more than 30 million users are engaging with its games.

Why bother with diversifying your app’s offering? Well, for Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of Paytm, the question is why shouldn’t you? If your app serves a certain number of transactions (or engagements) in a day, you have a good shot at disrupting many businesses that generate fewer transactions, he told TechCrunch in an interview.

At the end of the day, companies want to garner as much attention of a user as they can, said Jayanth Kolla, founder and partner of research and advisory firm Convergence Catalyst.

“This is similar to how cable networks such as Fox and Star have built various channels with a wide range of programming to create enough hooks for users to stick around,” Kolla said.

“The agenda for these apps is to hold people’s attention and monopolize a user’s activities on their mobile devices,” he added, explaining that higher engagement in an app translates to higher revenue from advertising.

Paytm’s Sharma agrees. “Payment is the moat. You can offer a range of things including content, entertainment, lifestyle, commerce and financial services around it,” he told TechCrunch. “Now that’s a business model… payment itself can’t make you money.”

Big companies follow suit

Other businesses have taken note. Flipkart -owned payment app PhonePe, which claims to have 150 million active users, today hosts a number of mini apps. Some of those include services for ride-hailing service Ola, hotel booking service Oyo and travel booking service MakeMyTrip.

Paytm (the first two images from left) and PhonePe offer a range of services that are integrated into their payments apps

What works for PhonePe is that its core business — payments — has amassed enough users, Himanshu Gupta, former associate director of marketing and growth for WeChat in India, told TechCrunch. He added that unlike e-commerce giant Snapdeal, which attempted to offer similar offerings back in the day, PhonePe has tighter integration with other services, and is built using modern architecture that gives users almost native app experiences inside mini apps.

When you talk about strategy for Flipkart, the homegrown e-commerce giant acquired by Walmart last year for a cool $16 billion, chances are arch rival Amazon is also hatching similar plans, and that’s indeed the case for super apps.

In India, Amazon offers its customers a range of payment features such as the ability to pay phone bills and cable subscription through its Amazon Pay service. The company last year acquired Indian startup Tapzo, an app that offers integration with popular services such as Uber, Ola, Swiggy and Zomato, to boost Pay’s business in the nation.

Another U.S. giant, Microsoft, is also aboard the super train. The Redmond-based company has added a slew of new features to SMS Organizer, an app born out of its Microsoft Garage initiative in India. What began as a texting app that can screen spam messages and help users keep track of important SMSs recently partnered with education board CBSE in India to deliver exam results of 10th and 12th grade students.

This year, the SMS Organizer app added an option to track live train schedules through a partnership with Indian Railways, and there’s support for speech-to-text. It also offers personalized discount coupons from a range of companies, giving users an incentive to check the app more often.

Like in other markets, Google and Facebook hold a dominant position in India. More than 95% of smartphones sold in India run the Android operating system. There is no viable local — or otherwise — alternative to Search, Gmail and YouTube, which counts India as its fastest growing market. But Google hasn’t necessarily made any push to significantly expand the scope of any of its offerings in India.

India is the biggest market for WhatsApp, and Facebook’s marquee app too has more than 250 million users in the nation. WhatsApp launched a pilot payments program in India in early 2018, but is yet to get clearance from the government for a nationwide rollout. (It isn’t happening for at least another two months, a person familiar with the matter said.) In the meanwhile, Facebook appears to be hatching a WeChatization of Messenger, albeit that app is not so big in India.

Ride-hailing service Ola too, like Grab and Go-Jek, plans to add financial services such as credit to the platform this year, a source familiar with the company’s plans told TechCrunch.

“We have an abundance of data about our users. We know how much money they spend on rides, how often they frequent the city and how often they order from restaurants. It makes perfect sense to give them these valued-added features,” the person said. Ola has already branched out of transport after it acquired food delivery startup Foodpanda in late 2017, but it hasn’t yet made major waves in financial services despite giving its Ola Money service its own dedicated app.

The company positioned Ola Money as a super app, expanded its features through acquisition and tie ups with other players and offered discounts and cashbacks. But it remains behind Paytm, PhonePe and Google Pay, all of which are also offering discounts to customers.

Integrated entertainment

Super apps indeed come in all shapes and sizes, beyond core services like payment and transportation — the strategy is showing up in apps and services that entertain India’s internet population.

MX Player, a video playback app with more than 175 million users in India that was acquired by Times Internet for some $140 million last year, has big ambitions. Last year, it introduced a video streaming service to bolster its app to grow beyond merely being a repository. It has already commissioned the production of several original shows.

In recent months, it has also integrated Gaana, the largest local music streaming app that is also owned by Times Internet. Now its parent company, which rivals Google and Facebook on some fronts, is planning to add mini games to MX Player, a person familiar with the matter said, to give it additional reach and appeal.

Some of these apps, especially those that have amassed tens of millions of users, have a real shot at diversifying their offerings, analyst Kolla said. There is a bar of entry, though. A huge user base that engages with a product on a daily basis is a must for any company if it is to explore chasing the super app status, he added.

Indeed, there are examples of companies that had the vision to see the benefits of super apps but simply couldn’t muster the requisite user base. As mentioned, Snapdeal tried and failed at expanding its app’s offerings. Messaging service Hike, which was valued at more than $1 billion two years ago and includes WeChat parent Tencent among its investors, added games and other features to its app, but ultimately saw poor engagement. Its new strategy is the reverse: to break its app into multiple pieces.

“In 2019, we continue to double down on both social and content but we’re going to do it with an evolved approach. We’re going to do it across multiple apps. That means, in 2019 we’re going to go from building a super app that encompasses everything, to Multiple Apps solving one thing really well. Yes, we’re unbundling Hike,” Kavin Mittal, founder and CEO of Hike, wrote in an update published earlier this year.

And Reliance Jio, of course

For the rest, the race is still on, but there are big horses waiting to enter to add further competition.

Reliance Jio, a subsidiary of conglomerate Reliance Industry that is owned by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, is planning to introduce a super app that will host more than 100 features, according to a person familiar with the matter. Local media first reported the development.

It will be fascinating to see how that works out. Reliance Jio, which almost single-handedly disrupted the telecom industry in India with its low-cost data plans and free voice calls, has amassed tens of millions of users on the bouquet of apps that it offers at no additional cost to Jio subscribers.

Beyond that diverse selection of homespun apps, Reliance has also taken an M&A-based approach to assemble the pieces of its super app strategy.

It bought music streaming service Saavn last year and quickly integrated it with its own music app JioMusic. Last month, it acquired Haptik, a startup that develops “conversational” platforms and virtual assistants, in a deal worth more than $100 million. It already has the user bases required. JioTV, an app that offers access to over 500 TV channels; and JioNews, an app that additionally offers hundreds of magazines and newspapers, routinely appear among the top apps in Google Play Store.

India’s super app revolution is in its early days, but the trend is surely one to keep an eye on as the country moves into its next chapter of internet usage.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Singapore’s Grain, a profitable food delivery startup, pulls in $10M for expansion

Posted by on May 10, 2019 in Asia, bangkok, Cento Ventures, ceo, Deliveroo, Food, food delivery, Foodpanda, funding, Fundings & Exits, grain, Honestbee, Impossible foods, munchery, online food ordering, openspace ventures, Singapore, Southeast Asia, Spotify, Startup company, TC, Thailand, transport, Travis Kalanick, Uber, United States, websites, world wide web | 0 comments

Cloud kitchens are the big thing in food delivery, with ex-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s new business one contender in that space, with Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia, a major focus. Despite the newcomers, a more established startup from Singapore has raised a large bowl of cash to go after regional expansion.

Founded in 2014, Grain specializes in clean food while it takes a different approach to Kalanick’s CloudKitchens or food delivery services like Deliveroo, FoodPanda or GrabFood.

It adopted a cloud kitchen model — utilizing unwanted real estate as kitchens, with delivery services for output — but used it for its own operations. So while CloudKitchens and others rent their space to F&B companies as a cheaper way to make food for their on-demand delivery customers, Grain works with its own chefs, menu and delivery team. A so-called ‘full stack’ model if you can stand the cliched tech phrase.

Finally, Grain is also profitable. The new round has it shooting for growth — more on that below — but the startup was profitable last year, CEO and co-founder Yi Sung Yong told TechCrunch.

Now it is reaping the rewards of a model that keeps it in control of its product, unlike others that are complicated by a chain that includes the restaurant and a delivery person.

We previously wrote about Grain when it raised a $1.7 million Series A back in 2016 and today it announced a $10 million Series B which is led by Thailand’s Singha Ventures, the VC arm of the beer brand. A bevy of other investors took part, including Genesis Alternative Ventures, Sass Corp, K2 Global — run by serial investor Ozi Amanat who has backed Impossible Foods, Spotify and Uber among others — FoodXervices and Majuven. Existing investors Openspace Ventures, Raging Bull — from Thai Express founder Ivan Lee — and Cento Ventures participated.

The round includes venture debt, as well as equity, and it is worth noting that the family office of the owners of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf — Sassoon Investment Corporation — was involved.

Grain covers individual food as well as buffets in Singapore

Three years is a long gap between the two deals — Openspace and Cento have even rebranded during the intervening period — and the ride has been an eventful one. During those years, Sung said the business had come close to running out of capital before it doubled down on the fundamentals before the precarious runway capital ran out.

In fact, he said, the company — which now has over 100 staff — was fully prepared to self-sustain.

“We didn’t think of raising a Series B,” he explained in an interview. “Instead, we focused on the business and getting profitable… we thought that we can’t depend entirely on investors.”

And, ladies and gentleman, the irony of that is that VCs very much like a business that can self-sustain — it shows a model is proven — and investing in a startup that doesn’t need capital can be attractive.

Ultimately, though, profitability is seen as sexy today — particularly in the meal space where countless U.S. startups has shuttered including Munchery and Sprig — but the focus meant that Grain had to shelve its expansion plans. It then went through soul-searching times in 2017 when a spoilt curry saw 20 customers get food poisoning.

Sung declined to comment directly on that incident, but he said that company today has developed the “infrastructure” to scale its business across the board, and that very much includes quality control.

Grain co-founder and CEO Yi Sung Yong [Image via LinkedIn]

Grain currently delivers “thousands” of meals per day in Singapore, its sole market, with eight-figures in sales per year, he said. Last year, growth was 200 percent, Sung continued, and now is the time to look overseas. With Singha, the Grain CEO said the company has “everything we need to launch in Bangkok.”

Thailand — which Malaysia-based rival Dahamakan picked for its first expansion — is the only new launch on the table, but Sung said that could change.

“If things move faster, we’ll expand to more cities, maybe one per year,” he said. “But we need to get our brand, our food and our service right first.”

One part of that may be securing better deals for raw ingredients and food from suppliers. Grain is expanding its ‘hub’ kitchens — outposts placed strategically around town to serve customers faster — and growing its fleet of trucks, which are retrofitted with warmers and chillers for deliveries to customers.

Grain’s journey is proof that startups in the region will go through trials and tribulations, but being able to bolt down the fundamentals and reduce burn rate is crucial in the event that things go awry. Just look to grocery startup Honestbee, also based in Singapore, for evidence of what happens when costs are allowed to pile up.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Industrial robotics giant Fanuc is using AI to make automation even more automated

Posted by on Apr 18, 2019 in Artificial Intelligence, Asia, bin-picking, fanuc, industrial automation, Industrial Robotics, manufacturing, Robotics, TC Sessions: Robotics + AI | 0 comments

Industrial automation is already streamlining the manufacturing process, but first those machines must be painstakingly trained by skilled engineers. Industrial robotics giant Fanuc wants to make robots easier to train, therefore making automation more accessible to a wider range of industries, including pharmaceuticals. The company announced a new artificial intelligence-based tool at TechCrunch’s Robotics + AI Sessions event today that teaches robots how to pick the right objects out of a bin with simple annotations and sensor technology, reducing the training process by hours.

Bin-picking is exactly what it sounds like: a robot arm is trained to pick items out of bins and used for tedious, time-consuming tasks like sorting bulk orders of parts. Images of example parts are taken with a camera for the robot to match with vision sensors. Then the conventional process of training bin-picking robots means teaching it many rules so it knows what parts to pick up.

“Making these rules in the past meant having to through a lot of iterations and trial and error. It took time and was very cumbersome,” said Dr. Kiyonori Inaba, the head of Fanuc Corporation’s Robot Business Division, during a conversation ahead of the event.

These rules include details like how to locate the parts on the top of the pile or which ones are the most visible. Then after that, human operators need to tell it when it makes an error in order to refine its training. In industries that are relatively new to automation, finding enough engineers and skilled human operators to train robots can be challenging.

This is where Fanuc’s new AI-based tool comes in. It simplifies the training process so the human operator just needs to look at a photo of parts jumbled in a bin on a screen and tap a few examples of what needs to be picked up, like showing a small child how to sort toys. This is significantly less training than what typical AI-based vision sensors need and can also be used to train several robots at once.

“It is really difficult for the human operator to show the robot how to move in the same way the operator moves things,” said Inaba. “But by utilizing AI technology, the operator can teach the robot more intuitively than conventional methods.” He adds that the technology is still in its early stages and it remains to be seen if it can be used during in assembly as well.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Terry Gou will resign as Foxconn’s chairman to run for president of Taiwan

Posted by on Apr 17, 2019 in Asia, China, Foxconn, Government, Politics, taiwan, TC, Terry Gou | 0 comments

Foxconn chairman Terry Gou officially announced on Wednesday that he will run for president of Taiwan. Gou will step down from leading the company (also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. Ltd.), one of Apple’s most important manufacturers, in order to campaign for the nomination of the Kuomintang, the pro-China opposition party.

Taiwan’s economy and complicated relationship with China will be at the heart of the 2020 presidential campaign, as incumbent Tsai Ing-wen defends her position against not only candidates from the Kuomintang and other parties, but also a challenger from her own party, the Democratic Progressive Party, William Lai, who entered the race last month.

Gou earlier said that his presidential aspirations had been blessed by Mazu, the sea goddess who is one of the most important Taoist and Buddhist deities. Gou founded Foxconn in 1974 and has held no political office, but his campaign will be helped by his business reputation and reported $7 billion net worth.

Gou’s lack of government experience may be balanced in the mind of voters by his relationships with Donald Trump and China’s government. Foxconn has committed to building a $10 billion factory in Wisconsin. Even though Taiwan’s sovereignty is not recognized by China, which views the country as a rogue province, Foxconn has more plants there than in any other country.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Dutch chipmaker NXP makes China push by backing radar company Hawkeye

Posted by on Apr 17, 2019 in alibaba, Asia, Automotive, autonomous driving, banma, China, Nanjing, NXP Semiconductors, Qualcomm, Radar, self driving vehicles, semiconductor, Transportation | 0 comments

Dutch chipmaker NXP Semiconductors has come a long way since Qualcomm’s outsize $44 billion to acquire it fell through last year. In an announcement released on Tuesday, NXP said it’s agreed to back and partner with Hawkeye Technology, a Chinese company specializing in automotive radars, as part of an ambition to capture the rapid growth of sensor-powered vehicles in China.

Financial terms of the investment were undisclosed, but the tie-up will see Hawkeye providing a suite of technical know-how to NXP. That includes the Chinese company’s engineering team, a research lab it set up with Southeast University in the Chinese city of Nanjing, and its 77Ghz radar, a long-range sensing technology that enables cars to detect crashes down to sub-millimeter accuracy.

Under the agreement, NXP and Hawkeye will work together to create reference designs rather than retail products.

“The fast development of ADAS [Automatic Data Acquisition System] and autonomous driving technologies has raised new requirements for vehicle-based millimeter radar,” said Alex Shi, co-founder and chief executive of Hawkeye. “By partnering with NXP, Hawkeye will focus on providing advanced millimeter wave radar system level solutions as well as comprehensive technical support for Tier 1 customers.”

The deal is a smart move for NXP, whose claim to fame is its chips for car-related applications, as it strives to be a key player in China’s autonomous driving race. Hawkeye may be little known, but not its CEO. Shi was the former boss of Banma Network, a joint venture between ecommerce behemoth Alibaba and Chinese state-owned automaker SAIC Motors, which is the key force to commercialize Alibaba’s connected car solutions.

In April 2015, Shi and a group of other prominent auto figures from China founded Hawkeye with an initial registered capital of 30 million yuan ($4.5 million).

The Hawkeye funding arrived less than a year after Qualcomm dropped its proposed buyout of NXP, which was set to be one of the largest in the semiconductor space but ended up as a collateral damage in rising trade tensions between China and the U.S. Qualcomm had mulled buying NXP as early as September 2016.

China remained a focus for NXP, which assured that its alliance with Hawkeye is evidence of its “confidence in the Chinese market” and “determination to continuously invest in the country,” said NXP president Kurt Sievers in a statement.

“Innovators in automotive, like Hawkeye and Southeast University, have become the driving force for the transformation of China’s automotive industry. We are pleased to collaborate with these excellent partners, leveraging NXP’s leadership in the fast-growing radar semiconductor market to improve road safety,” Sievers added.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Student sues JD.com’s billionaire CEO Richard Liu for alleged rape

Posted by on Apr 17, 2019 in Asia, China, Companies, JD.com, Lawsuit, Minnesota, Richard Liu, University of Minnesota, Weibo | 0 comments

A Chinese student has filed a lawsuit against JD.com founder and chief executive Richard Liu, alleging the billionaire businessman raped her in Minnesota back in August, four months after local prosecutors decided not to press charges.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Hennepin County on Tuesday, is seeking damages of more than $50,000. It identifies the student as Jingyao Liu (not related to Richard Liu), an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota.

JD did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Peter Walsh, an attorney for JD.com at Hogan Lovells, says the company is “not in position to comment at this time” but “will vigorously defend these meritless claims against the company.”

Liu has maintained his innocence through his lawyers throughout the investigation. The executive said on social media in December that he had “broken no laws” but felt “extreme self-admonishment and regret” for the pain that his behavior “on that day” brought to his family and wife, who is an internet celebrity known as Sister Milk Tea.

In December, Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman said he was not charging Liu because “there were profound evidentiary problems which would have made it highly unlikely that any criminal charge could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” He further emphasized his decision “had nothing to do with Liu’s status as a wealthy, foreign businessman.”

Liu’s case has drawn widespread interest in China where the tale of Liu’s rags-to-riches has inspired many. If charged and convicted, Liu could face up to 30 years in prison.

JD’s stock immediately tumbled after the student first accused Liu in August over concerns that the case will hamper his ability to run the company, which is the arch-rival to Jack Ma’s Alibaba and faces growing competition from ecommerce upstart Pinduoduo.

The company’s shares have slowly crawled back since December after the Hennepin County Attorney decided not to charge the founder. Nonetheless, JD is coping with sagging morale as large-scale layoffs hit executives and a new pay scheme threatens to depress income among its armies of couriers.

Updated with JD.com’s statement


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Flipkart ranked highly for ‘fairness’ of working conditions in India gig platform study

Posted by on Mar 26, 2019 in Apps, Asia, business models, Deliveroo, eCommerce, Europe, Flipkart, Germany, gig economy, India, Ola, online platforms, Oxford Internet Institute, South Africa, TC, Uber, United Kingdom, university of Manchester, workers rights | 0 comments

The Oxford Internet Institute has published what it bills as the world’s first rating system for working conditions on gig economy platforms.

The Fairwork academic research project is a collaboration with the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore, the University of Cape Town, the University of Manchester, and the University of the Western Cape.

As the name suggests, the project focuses on conditions for workers who are being remotely managed by online platforms and their algorithms — creating a framework to score tech firms on factors like whether they pay gig economy workers the minimum wage and ensure their health and safety at work.

The two initial markets selected for piloting the rating system are India and South Africa, and the first batch of gig economy firms ranked includes a mix of delivery, ride-hailing and freelance work platforms, among others.

The plan is to update the rating yearly, and to also add gig economy platforms operating in the UK and Germany next year.

Fairness, rated

Fairwork’s gig platform scoring system measures performance per market across five standards — which are neatly condensed as: Fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management, and fair representation.

Platforms are scored on each performance measure with a basic point and an advanced point, culminating in an overall score. (There’s more on the scoring methodology here.)

Most of the measures are self explanatory but the emphasis on fair contracts is for T&Cs to be “transparent, concise, and provided to workers in an accessible form”, with the contacting party subject to local law and identified in the contract.

While, in instances of what those behind the project dub “genuine” self-employment, terms of service must be free of clauses that “unreasonably exclude liability” on the part of the platform.

For fair management, a good rating demands a documented process and clear channel of communication through which workers can be heard; decisions can be appealed; and workers be informed of the reasons behind the decisions.

The use of any decision-making algorithms must also be transparent and result in “equitable outcomes for workers”. And there must also be identified and document policy to ensure equity in areas such as hiring and firing, while any data collection must be documented with a clear purpose and explicit informed consent.

Fair representation calls for platforms to allow workers to organize in collective bodies regardless of their employment status and be prepared to negotiate and co-operate with them.

Critical attention

Criticism of the so called ‘gig economy’ has dialled up in recent years, in Western markets especially, as the ‘flexible’ working claims platforms trumpet have attracted closer and more critical scrutiny.

Policymakers are acting on concerns that demand for casual labor is being exploited by increasingly powerful tech firms which are applying algorithms at scale while using self-serving employment classifications designed to workaround traditional labor rights so they can micromanage large-scale workforces remotely while sidestepping the costs of actually employing so many people.

Trenchant critics liken the result to a kind of modern day slavery — arguing that rights-denuded platform workers are part of a wider beaten down ‘precariat’.

A report last year by a UK MP was more nuanced but still likened the casual labor practices on UK startup Deliveroo’s food delivery platform to the kind of dual market seen in 20th century dockyards, suggesting that while the platform could work well for some gigging riders this was at the exploitative expense of others who were not preferred for jobs in the same way — with a risk of unpredictable and unstable earnings. 

In recent years a number of unions have stepped up activity to support contract and casual workers used by the sector, as the number of platform workers has grown. Even as gig platforms have generally continued to deny granting collective bargaining to their ‘self-employed’ workers.

Against this backdrop there have also been a number of wildcat style ‘strikes’ by gig economy workers in the UK triggered by sudden changes to pricing policies and/or conditions, or focused more broadly on trying to move the needle on pay and working conditions.

A UK union-backed attempt to use European human rights law to challenge Deliveroo’s refusal to grant collective bargaining rights for couriers was dismissed by the High Court at the end of last year. Though the union vowed to appeal.

Regardless of that particular set-back, pressure from policymakers and the publicity from legal challenges attached to workers rights have yielded a number of improvements for gig workers in Europe, with — for example — Uber announcing it would expand free insurance products for drivers across much of the region last year. And it’s clear that scrutiny of platforms is an important lever for improving conditions for workers.

It’s with that in mind that the researchers behind Fairwork have launched their rating system.

“The Fairwork rating system shines a light on best and worst practice in the platform economy,” said Mark Graham, professor of Internet geography at the University of Oxford, commenting in a statement. “This is an area in which for too long, very few regulations have been in place to protect workers. These ratings will enable consumers to make informed choices about the platforms and services they need when ordering a cab, a takeaway or outsourcing a simple task.”

“Our hope is that our five areas of fairness will take a life of their own, and that workers, platforms and other advocates will start using them to improve the working conditions across the platform economy,” he added.

And now to those first year scores in India and South Africa…

Best and worst performers

In India, ecommerce giant Flipkart came out on top of the companies ranked, with its delivery and logistics arm eKart scoring 7/10.

Though — if it wants to get a perfect 10 — it’s still got work to do on contracts, to improve clarity and ensure they reflect the true nature of the relationship, according to the researchers’ assessment.

Flipkart also does not recognize a body that could support collective bargaining for its workers.

Three tech platforms shared the wooden spoon for the worst conditions for Indian gig workers, according to the researchers’ assessment — namely: Food delivery platform Foodpanda and ride-hailing giants Ola and Uber which scored just 2/10 apiece, fulfilling only the minimum wage criteria and failing on every other measure.

UberEats, Uber’s food delivery operation, did slightly better — scoring 3/10 in India, thanks to also offering a due process for decisions affecting workers.

While in South Africa the top scorer was white collar work platform NoSweat, which got 8/10. On the improvements front, it also could do a little more work to make its contracts fairer, and also doesn’t recognize collective bargaining.

Bottom of the list in the country is ride-hailing firm Bolt (Taxify) — which scored 4/10, hitting targets on pay and some conditions (mitigating task-specific risks), while also offering a due process for decisions affecting workers, but failing on other performance measures.

Uber didn’t do much better in South Africa either — coming in second to last, with 5/10. Though it’s notable the company does offer more protections for workers there vs those grafting on its platform in India, including mitigating task-specific risks and actively seeking to improve conditions (such as by offering insurance).

Reached for comment on its Fairwork ratings, an Uber spokesperson sent this statement:

Uber wouldn’t be what it is without drivers — they are at the heart of the Uber experience. Over the past years we have made a number of changes to offer a better experience with more support and more protection, including our Partner Injury Protection programme, new safety features and access to quality and affordable private healthcare coverage for driver-partners and their families. We will continue to work hard to earn our partners trust and ensure that their voices are heard as we take Uber forward together.

There’s clearly no one universal standard for Uber’s business where working conditions are concerned. Instead the company tunes its standard to the local regulatory climate — offering workers less where it believes it can get away with it.

That too suggests a stronger spotlight on conditions offered by gig economy platforms can help improve workers’ lot and raise standards globally.

On the improvements front the Fairwork researchers claim the project has already led to positive impacts in the two pilot markets — claiming discussions are “ongoing” with platforms in India about implementing changes in line with the principles, including with a platform that has some 450,000 workers.

Though they also point out the first-year ranking show the overwhelming majority of India’s platform workers are engaged on platforms that score below their Fairwork basic standards (with scores <5/10) — which covers more than a million gig economy workers.

In South Africa another positive development they point to is alcohol delivery platform Bottles committing to supporting the emergence of fair workers’ representation on its platform, after collaborating with the project.

The local NoSweat freelance work platform has also introduced what the researchers couch as “significant changes” in all five areas of fairness — now having a formal policy to pay over the minimum wage after workers’ costs are taken into account; a clear process to ensure clients on the platform agree to protect workers’ health and safety; and a channel and process for workers to lodge grievance about conditions.

Commenting in a statement, Wilfred Greyling, co-founder of NoSweat said the project had helped the company “formalise” the principles and incorporate them into its systems. “NoSweat Work believes firmly in a fair deal for all parties involved in any work we put out,” he said, adding that the platform is “built on people and relationships; we never hide behind faceless technology”.

This report was updated with comment from Uber


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Shiok Meats takes the cultured meat revolution to the seafood aisle with plans for cultured shrimp

Posted by on Mar 15, 2019 in Asia, asia pacific, Australia, food and drink, India, meat, Singapore, Southeast Asia, TC, United Nations, Y Combinator | 0 comments

Rising consumer interest in alternative proteins and meat replacements has brought hundreds of millions of dollars to companies trying to grow or replace beef or chicken, but few companies have turned their attention to developing seafood alternatives.

Now Shiok Meats is looking to change that. The company has raised pre-seed financing from investors like AIM Partners, Boom Capital, and Ryan Bethencourt and is now part of the recent Y Combinator cohort presenting next week.

Co-founders Sandhya Sriram and Ka Yi Ling are both stem cell scientists working at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research who decided to leave their cushy government posts for life in the fast lane of entrepreneurship. 

The two have set themselves a goal of creating a shrimp substitute that would be similar to what’s typically found in the freezer section of most grocery stores — and a minced shrimp-replacement for use in dumplings.

There’s a huge market for seafood across the globe, but especially in Asia and Southeast Asia where crustaceans are a huge part of the diet. Chinese consumers alone account for the consumption of some 3.6 million tons of crustaceans, according to a 2015 study from the Food and Agriculture Department of the United Nations .

Shrimp cultivation as it stands is also a pretty dirty business. The industry is constantly being criticized for poor working conditions, unsanitary farms, and ancillary environmental damage. A blockbuster report from the Associated Press revealed instances of modern slavery in the Thai seafood industry.

“We chose to start with shrimp because it’s an easier animal to deal with compared to crabs and lobsters,” says Shriram. But the company will be expanding its offerings over time to those higher-end crustaceans.

Right now, the focus is squarely on shrimp. The company’s early tests have proved successful and the company estimates that it can make a kilogram of shrimp meat for somewhere around $5,000.

While that may sound expensive, it’s still much less than many of the lab-grown meat companies are pending to produce their replacement beef.

“We’re still relatively low compared to the other clean meat companies, which are still at hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Ling.

The company is looking to bring its first product to market in the next three-to-five years and will initially target the Asia-Pacific consumer.

That means initially selling into their home market of Singapore and expanding into Hong Kong, India and eventually, Australia.

 


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Surging costs send shares of ecommerce challenger Pinduoduo down 17 percent

Posted by on Mar 14, 2019 in alibaba, alibaba group, Amazon, Asia, bytedance, China, e-book, E-Commerce, Earnings, eCommerce, online marketplaces, Qutoutiao, shanghai, supply chain, tiktok | 0 comments

China’s new tech force Pinduoduo is continuing its race to upend the ecommerce space, even at the expense of its finances. The three-year-old startup earmarked some big wins from the 2018 fiscal year, but losses were even greater, dragging its shares down 17 percent on Wednesday after the firm released its latest earnings results.

The Shanghai-based company is famous for offering cheap group deals and it’s able to keep prices down by sourcing directly from manufacturers and farmers, cutting out middleman costs. In 2018, the company saw its gross merchandise value, referring to total sales regardless of whether the items were actually sold, delivered or returned, jump 234 percent to 471.6 billion yuan ($68.6 billion). Fourth-quarter annual active buyers increased 71 percent to 418.5 million, during which monthly active users nearly doubled to 272.6 million.

These figures should have industry pioneers Alibaba and JD sweating. In the twelve months ended December 31, JD fell behind Pinduoduo with a smaller AAU base of 305 million. Alibaba still held a lead over its peers with 636 million AAUs, though its year-over-year growth was a milder 23 percent.

But Pinduoduo also saw heavy financial strain in the past year as it drifted away from becoming profitable. Operating loss soared to 10.8 billion ($1.57 billion), compared to just under 600 million yuan in the year-earlier period. Fourth-quarter operating loss widened a staggering 116 times to 2.64 billion yuan ($384 million), up from 22 million yuan a year ago.

Pinduoduo is presenting a stark contrast to consistently profitable Alibaba, which generates the bulk of its income from charging advertising fees on its marketplaces. This light-asset approach grants Alibaba wider profit margins than its arch-foe JD, which controls most of the supply chain like Amazon and makes money from direct sales. Pinduoduo seeks out a path similar to Alibaba’s and monetizes through marketing services, but its latest financial results showed that mounting costs have tempered a supposedly lucrative model.

Where did the ecommerce challenger spend its money? Pinduoduo’s total operating expenses from 2018 stood at 21 billion yuan ($3 billion), of which 13.4 billion yuan went to sales and marketing expenses such as TV commercials and discounts for users. Administration alongside research and development made up the remaining costs.

Pinduoduo’s spending spree recalls the path of another up-and-coming Chinese tech startup, Qutoutiao . Like Pinduoduo, Qutoutiao has embarked on a cash-intensive journey by burning billions of dollars to acquire users. The scheme worked, and Qutoutiao, which runs a popular news app and a growing e-book service, is effectively challenging ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) in smaller Chinese cities where many veteran tech giants lack dominance.

Offering ultra-cheap items is a smart bet for Pinduoduo to lock in price-intensive consumers in unpenetrated, smaller cities, but it’s way too soon to know whether this kind of expensive growth will hold out long-term.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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