Jessica Goodfellow
Nov 25, 2019

Tech Bites: Week of November 25, 2019

Oculus, Hooq, Appier, Paytm, Huawei, Carousell, Asiaray and more, in our weekly collection of tech and media news.

Tech Bites: Week of November 25, 2019

Facebook's Oculus buys VR game studio; hints at further acquisitions

Facebook-owned Oculus is acquiring the studio behind hit virtual reality game 'Beat Saber', a move that has drawn mixed responses from the gaming community.

The VR company, which makes Rift and Quest VR headgear, revealed the acquisition in a blog post, but did not disclose the financial terms. It said Prague-based Beat Games will continue to operate as an independent studio following the acquisition.

Oculus director of augmented and virtual reality content Mike Verdu said: "Beat Games' accomplishments are already impressive, but Facebook and the Beat Games team know that there is so much more that can be done across VR, games, and music. They have only scratched the surface with Beat Saber in terms of social features, new modes, music, and more. We are thrilled to join forces to see where this talented team takes VR gaming in the future."

In the game, people slash cubes with light sabers to the beat of a song

The company said it was "exploring many ways to accelerate VR", adding the Beat Games acquisition is "just the beginning".

While some Facebook users responded positively to the blog post, suggesting the move will help evolve Beat Games, more expressed concern it was the "death" of the popular game.

"Rest in peace Beat Saber. This is a huge loss for the VR community," one user said.

Grab pilots motorbike hailing service in Malaysia

Grab is to pilot its GrabBike motorbike hailing service in Malaysia, intensifying competition with rival Gojek.

The announcement comes just weeks after the Malaysian government gave permission for Gojek and other motorcycle-hailing firms like local start-up Dego Ride to begin limited operations in the country.

Operators are permitted to pilot the motorbike service for six months from January 2020 to measure demand, and to give the government a chance to draw up regulations if needed.

Grab will pilot service in the Klang Valley, Malaysia's most developed region. The Singapore-headquartered firm already operates GrabBike in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.

WhatsApp lures Indian startups with Facebook ad credits

Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp is to award 500 startups in India with $500 each of Facebook ad credits, that they can use to encourage customers to start conversations with them on the platform.

The intention is for the startups to use a call-to-action button in their Facebook ads that takes customers through to a Whatsapp chat, in the same way many businesses guide customers to chat to them on Messenger. It will allow businesses to "deepen connections and increase sales", the company said, while also increasing Facebook and Whatsapp's active users.

The WhatsApp incentive has been launched via a partnership with Startup India. The business has also awarded a grant worth $50,000 each to five entrepreneurs who have developed India-specific solutions with socio-economic impact.

"Startups and small businesses are the lifeblood of Indian communities and are a powerful driver of local economies. India's entrepreneurs are at the forefront of bringing impactful social and economic change, and we at WhatsApp are committed to provide them support in achieving success," WhatsApp India head Abhijit Bose said.

Hooq targets "aggressive" growth in Thailand

Hooq has struck a partnership with Grab in Thailand, renewed its exclusive partnership with M Pictures, and is launching six new Thai original productions, as part of its plans to "grow aggressively" in the market. 

The partnership with Grab will enable customers in Thailand to use Grab reward points to redeem a one-month Hooq subscription voucher and a movie rental ticket worth 240 baht (US$10.8).

The SVoD platform—a joint-venture of Sony Pictures, Warner Bros and Singtel—is also renewing its long-time exclusive partnership with M Pictures to bring Thai blockbusters such as Love Battle, Khun Bun Lue, Art of the Devil Series and Necromancer 2020 to the platform. It will launch six original productions in Thailand in 2020—four series and two films—as part of its plans to deliver 100 Hooq Originals throughout Southeast Asia and India by Q2 2020. Hooq is also increasing its free, ad-funded offerings to cater to a wider range of consumers, it said.

Hooq Thailand managing director Piyanuch Meemook said: “Hooq Thailand’s vision for 2020, in line with our mission—Made in Asia, For Asia—is to bring even more local productions and Hooq originals to our viewers as quickly as possible, allowing access anywhere, anytime. With the significant investment towards Thai content and partners, we are proud to increase the number, variety and genre of our Hooq Originals, and in turn, increase user base and engagement on the platform.”

Appier raises capital to expand beyond marketing

Taiwan-based AI company Appier, which provides tools for marketers to automate content creation, delivery and targeting, has raised US$80 million Series D funding.

The investment round includes TGVest Capital, HOPU-Arm Innovation Fund, Temasek’s Pavilion Capital, Insignia Venture Partners, JAFCO Investment and UMC Capital.

It will use the latest capital injection for market expansion, talent and to drive innovation in AI for industries beyond digital marketing.

Appier’s total funding to date is US$162 million, with previous rounds including high-profile investors Sequoia Capital, SoftBank and Line Corp. It now claims to have more than 400 employees across 14 offices in 12 markets.

Appier CEO and cofounder Chih-Han Yu

Appier CEO and co-founder Chih-Han Yu said. “Our latest investment brings with it new shareholders whose growth-stage experience will help us to scale faster towards our ultimate goal of revolutionizing the way enterprises adopt and leverage AI to grow, remain competitive and manage continuous business transformation.”

Indian payment wallet Paytm raises additional US$1 billion

Indian mobile payments platform Paytm has raised US$1 billion in a new financing round to help the company to continue to compete in the rapidly growing fintech space.

The financing round, dubbed Series G, was led by US asset manager T Rowe Price, and included cash injections from existing investors Ant Financials, which contributed $400 million, Japan's SoftBank Vision Fund, which contributed $200 million, and Discovery Capital.

The fresh funding valued the company at about $16 billion—higher than any other local startup.

Paytm's mobile wallet enables users to transfer money to each other, pay for items such as food delivery and utility bills, as well as secure small loans. In May the company partnered with Citibank to launch a credit card. The wallet has more than 250m users in India and 8 million customers in Japan, where it is operated as PayPay, a joint venture with SoftBank and Yahoo Japan.

US deals further blow to Huawei

The Federal Communications Commission has voted to block US telcos from using federal funds to buy equipment from companies deemed national security threats, including Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE.

The $8.5 billion Universal Service Fund (USF) provides billions of dollars in subsidies for companies to offer wireless service around the US. But under the new rule, which the FCC voted for unanimously, wireless carriers can’t use money from the fund to purchase goods from Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE. The FCC is also proposing a process to remove Huawei and ZTE equipment already deployed in USF-funded networks.  

"Given the threats posed by Huawei and ZTE to America’s security and our 5G future, this FCC will not sit idly by and hope for the best," commented FCC chairman Ajit Pai.

“We take these actions based on evidence in the record as well as longstanding concerns from the executive and legislative branches. Both companies have close ties to China’s Communist government and military apparatus. Both companies are subject to Chinese laws broadly obligating them to cooperate with any request from the country’s intelligence services and to keep those requests secret. Both companies have engaged in conduct like intellectual property theft, bribery, and corruption," Pai added.

The move is part of a broader trade war between the US and China that has severly impacted Huawei. Government officials in the US believe Huawei may use its technology to spy on smartphone users. The US is not alone in its concerns—Australia, Japan and New Zealand have all issued bans on Huawei equipment in the last 12 months. Huawei has insisted that it has no ties to the Chinese government and that it acts as an independent company.

Carousell to merge with rival marketplace operator

Singaporean online marketplace Carousell is to merge with classifieds website 701Search, which runs three online marketplaces across Southeast Asia; Mudah in Malaysia, Cho Tot in Vietnam, and OneKyat in Myanmar. Some observers have suggested the deal could be a precursor to an IPO.

Under the agreement, the three marketplaces will retain their individual names and operations, but will now report to Carousell chief executive Quek Siu Rui. Meanwhile, 701Search's regional hub team, which operates in Singapore, will be fully integrated into Carousell. Carousell operates within Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, and the Philippines.

The part-cash, part-equity deal was signed with Norwegian telco Telenor Group, which owns 701Search. The move will bring the value of Carousell to over US$850 million—from US$560 million earlier this year. Following the deal, Telenor will become Carousell's new single-largest minority shareholder, with a 32% stake in the combined company.

Ant Financial buys stake in OOH company Asiaray

Alibaba Group's Ant Financial has purchased 7.5% worth of shares of out-of-home company Asiaray. 

Ant Financial has conditionally agreed to subscribe for a total of 35,675,676 subscription shares at the price of HK$4.10 per share, with the net proceeds estimated at approximately HK$142.8 million (US$18.2 million).

Asiaray intends to use the net proceeds as general working capital and for funding projects in China and Singapore. Asiaray currently operates OOH media sites in China and Hong Kong.

Asiarat founder, chairman and executive director Lam Tak Hing Vincent said: "I am very pleased that the group has secured a shareholder in such a reputable corporation as Ant Financial...Apart from strengthening our financial position for expanding our business, we also look forward to exploring any other cooperation possibilities with Ant Financial in fields that can generate synergies for our existing business, allowing us to create sustainable value for our shareholders."

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