Has a startup finally found one of food science’s holy grails with its healthy sugar substitute?

A little less than three years ago at the Computer Science Museum in Mountain View, Calif. the founders of a young company hailing from Cambridge, England addressed a crowd of celebrities, investors and entrepreneurs at Y Combinator’s August Demo Day promising a revolution in food science.

Over the years, the event has become a relatively low-tech, low-budget showcase for a group of tech investors and billionaire industry insiders to take a look at early stage businesses that could be their next billion-dollar opportunity.

Sharing the stage with other innovation-minded budding entrepreneurs the Cambridge scientists boasted of a technology could produce a sweetener that would mimic not just the taste of sugar, but the caramelization and stickiness that makes sugar the go-to additive for the bulk of roughly 74% of packaged foods that are made with some form of sweetener. Their company, Cambridge Glycoscience  could claim a huge slice of a market worth at least a $100 billion market, they said.

Now, the company has a new name, Supplant, and $24 million in venture capital financing to start commercializing its low-cost sugar substitute made from the waste materials of other plants.

 

The bitter history of the sweetest ingredient

Sugar came into the human diet roughly 10,000 years ago as sugarcane, which is native to New Guinea and parts of Taiwan and China. Over the next 2,000 years the crop spread from those regions to Madagascar and eventually took root in India, where it was first refined in about 500 BC.

From there, the sweetener spread across the known world. By the first century AD Greek and Roman scholars were referencing its medicinal properties and, after the Crusades, sugar consumption traveled across Europe through the Middle Ages.

It was a welcome replacement from Europe’s mainstay, honey, and the early artificial sweeteners used by the Romans, which contained near-lethal doses of lead.

The cold climates of Northern Europe proved mostly inhospitable to sugarcane cultivation so the root took root in the more temperate South and the islands off of Europe’s southern coast.

Those regions also became home to the first European experiments with agricultural slavery — a byproduct of the sugar trade, and one that would plant the seeds for the international exploitation of indigenous American and African labor for centuries as the industrial growth of sugar production spread to the New World.

First, European indentured servants and enslaved indigenous people’s powered the production of sugar in the Americas. But as native populations died off due to the introduction of European diseases, genocidal attacks, and back-breaking labor, African slaves were brought to the new colonies to work the fields and mills to make refined sugar.

Sugar hangover

The horrors of slavery may be the most damning legacy of industrial sugar, but it’s far from the only problem caused by the human craving for sweeteners.

As climate change becomes more of a threat, fears of increasing deforestation to meet the world’s demand — or to provide cover for other industrialization of virgin forests — have arisen thanks to new policies in Brazil.

“Conventional cane sugar is heavily heavily water intensive,” said Supplant co-founder Tom Simmons in an interview. That’s another problem for the environment as water becomes the next resource to be stressed by the currents of climate change. And species extinction presents another huge problem too.

“The WWF number one source for biodiversity lost globally is cane sugar plantations,” Simmons said. “Sugar is a massive consumer of water and in contrast, there’s big sustainability pitch for what we do.. the raw materials are products of the current agricultural industry.”

And the quest for sugar substitutes in the U.S. has come with related health costs as high fructose corn syrup has made its way into tons of American products. Invented in 1957, corn syrup is one of the most common sweeteners used to replace sugar — and one that’s thought to have incredibly disastrous effects on the health of consumers worldwide.

The use of corn syrup has been linked to an increasing prevalence of diabetes, obesity, and fatty liver disease, in the world’s population.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – APRIL 08: In this photo illustration, products containing high sugar levels are on display at a supermarket on April 8, 2016 in Melbourne , Australia. The World Health Organisation’s first global report on diabetes found that 422 million adults live with diabetes, mainly in developing countries. Australian diabetes experts are urging the Federal Government to consider imposing a sugar tax to tackle the growing problem. (Photo by Luis Ascui/Getty Images)

Looking For A Healthier Substitute

As Supplant and its investors look to take the crown as the reigning replacement for sugar, they join a long line of would-be occupants to sugar’s throne.

The first viable, non-toxic chemically derived sugar substitute was discovered in the late 18th century by a German chemist. Called saccharine it was popularized initially during sugar shortages caused by the first World War and gained traction during the health crazes of the sixties and seventies.

Saccharin, still available in pink Sweet n’ Low packets and a host of products, was succeeded by aspartame (known commercially as Equal and present as the sugar substitute in beverages like Diet Coke), which was supplanted by sucralose (known as Splenda).

These chemically derived sweeteners have been the standard on the market for decades now, but with a growing push for natural — rather than chemical — substitutes for sugar and their failures to act as a replacement for all of the things that sugar can do as a food ingredient, the demand for a better sugar has never been higher.

Supplanting the competition 

“Not everything that we back is going to change the world. This, at scale, does that.” said Aydin Senkut, the founder and managing partner of Felicis Ventures, the venture firm that’s one of Supplant’s biggest backers. 

Part of what convinced Senkut is the fact that Supplant’s sweetener has already received preliminary approvals in the European Union by the region’s regulatory equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration. That approval not only covers the sale of Supplant’s product as a sweetener, but also as a probiotic with tangible health benefits he said.

So not only is the Supplant product arguably a better and more direct sugar replacement, as the founders claim, it also has health benefits through providing increased fiber in consumers who use it regularly, Senkut said.

“The European FDA is even stricter than the U.S. FDA,” Senkut said. “[And] they got pre-approval for this.”

Senkut and Felicis invested in Cambridge Glycosciences almost immediately after seeing the company’s presentation at Y Combinator.

“We became the largest investors at seed,” Senkut said.

Its selling points were the products extremely low glycemic index and its ability to be manufactured from waste plant fibers, which means that it ultimately can be produced at a lower cost, according to Senkut.

What’s the difference? 

Supplant differs from its competition in a number of other key ways, according to company co-founder Tom Simmons.

While companies like the Israeli startup DouxMatok or Colorado’s MycoTechnology and Wisconsin’s Sensient work on developing additives from fungus or tree roots or bark that can enhance the sweetness of sugars, Supplant uses alternative sugars to create its sweetener, Simmons said. 

“The core difference is they’re working with cane sugar,” according to Simmons. “Our pitch is we make sugars from fiber so you don’t need to use cane sugar.”

Simmons said that these other startups have been approaching the problem from the wrong direction. “The problem that their technology addresses isn’t the problem the industry has,” Simmons said. “It’s about texture, bulking, caramelization and crystallization… We have a technology that’s going to give you the same sweetness gram for gram.”

There are six different types of calorific sugar, Simmons explained. There’s lactose, which is the sugar in milk; sucrose, which comes from sugarcane and sugar beets; maltose, found in grains like wheat and barley; fructose, the sugar in fruits and honey; glucose, which is in nearly everything, but especially carbohydrate-laden vegetables, fruits, and grains; and galactose, a simple sugar that derives from the breakdown of lactose.

Simmons said that his company’s sugar substitute isn’t based on one compound, but is derived from a range of things that come from fiber. The use of fibers means that the body recognizes the compounds as fibrous and treats them the same way in the digestive tract, but the products taste and act like sugar in food, he said. “Fiber derived sugars are in the category of sugars, but are not the calorific sugars,” said Simmons.

NEW YORK – DECEMBER 6: Packets of the popular sugar substitute Splenda are seen December 6, 2004 in New York City. The manufacturer of sucralose, the key ingredient in the no-calorie sweetener, says demand is so high for the product that it will not be able to take on new U.S. customers until it doubles production in 2006. Splenda has been boosted by the popularity of the low-sugar Atkins diet. (Photo Illustration by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Trust the process? 

Supplant’s technology uses enzymes to break down and fragment various fibers. “As you start breaking it down, it starts looking molecularly like sucrose — like cane sugar — so it starts behaving in a similar way,” said Simmons.

This is all the result of years of research that Simmons began at Cambridge University, he said. “I arrived at Cambridge intending to be a professor. I did not arrive in Cambridge intending to start a business. I was interested in doing science, making inventions and stuff that would reach the wider world. I always imagined the right way for me to do that was to be a professor.”

In time, after receiving his doctorate and beginning his post-doctoral work into the research that would eventually turn into Supplant, Simmons realized that he had to start a company. “To try and do something impactful I was going to have leave the university,” he said. 

In some ways, Supplant operates at the intersection of all of Simmons’ interests in health, nutrition, and sustainability. And he said the company has plans to apply the processing technology across a range of consumer products eventually, but for now the company remains focused on the $100 billion sugar substitute market.

“There’s a handful of different core underlying scientific approaches in different spaces,” he said. The sort of things that go into personal care and homecare. Those chemicals. A big drive in the industry is for both less harsh and harsh chemicals in shampoos but also to do so in a way that’s sustainable. That’s made form a sustainable source but also biodegradable.”

Next steps 

With the money that the company has now raised from investors including Bonfire Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Felicis, Soma Capital, and Y Combinator, Supplant is now going to prove its products in a few very targeted test runs.* The first is a big launch with a celebrity chef, which Simmons teased, but did not elaborate on.

Senkut said that the company’s roll out would be similar to the ways in which Impossible Foods went to market. Beginning with a few trial runs in higher end restaurants and foodstuffs before trying to make a run at a mass consumer market.

The feedstocks for Supplant’s sugar substitute come from sugar cane bagasse, wheat and rice husks, and the processing equipment comes from the brewing industry. That’s going to be a benefit as the company looks to build out an office in the U.S. as it establishes a foothold for a larger manufacturing presence down the line.

“We’re taking known science and applying it in the food industry where we know that it has value,” Simmons said. “We’re not inventing any brand new enzymes and each part of the process — none of it on their own are new. The discovery that these sugars work well and can replace cane sugar. That’s someone that no one has done before. Most sugars don’t behave like cane sugar in food. They’re too dry, they’re too wet, they’re too hard, they’re too soft.”

Ultimately the consumer products mission resonates highly for Simmons and his twenty person team. “We’re going to use these hugely abundant renewable resources produced all around the world,” he said. 

*This story was updated to include Bonfire Ventures and Khosla Ventures as investors in Supplant.

Chinese mobile games are gaining ground in the US

Over the past year, the coronavirus crisis has spurred app usage in the United States as people stay indoors to limit contact with others. Mobile games particularly have enjoyed a boom, and among them, games from Chinese studios are gaining popularity.

Games released on the U.S. App Store and Google Play Store raked in a total of $5.8 billion in revenue during the fourth quarter, jumping 34.3% from a year before and accounting for over a quarter of the world’s mobile gaming revenues, according to a new report from market research firm Sensor Tower.

In the quarter, Chinese titles contributed as much as 20% of the mobile gaming revenues in the U.S. That effectively made China the largest importer of mobile games in the U.S., thanks to a few blockbuster titles. Chinese publishers claimed 21 spots among the 100 top-grossing games in the period and collectively generated $780 million in revenues in the U.S., the world’s largest mobile gaming market, more than triple the amount from two years before.

Occupying the top rank are familiar Chinese titles such as the first-person shooter game Call of Duty, a collaboration between Tencent and Activision, as well Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. But smaller Chinese studios are also quickly infiltrating the U.S. market.

Mihoyo, a little-known studio outside China, has been turning heads in the domestic gaming industry with its hit game Genshin Impact, a role-playing action game featuring anime-style characters. It was the sixth-most highest-grossing mobile game in the U.S. during Q4, racking up over $100 million in revenues in the period.

Most notable is that Mihoyo has been an independent studio since its inception in 2011. Unlike many gaming startups that covet fundings from industry titans like Tencent, Mihoyo has so far raised only a modest amount from its early days. It also stirred up controversy for skipping major distributors like Tencent and phone vendors Huawei and Xiaomi, releasing Genshin Impact on Bilibili, a popular video site amongst Chinese youngsters, and games downloading platform Taptap.

Magic Tavern, the developer behind the puzzle game Project Makeover, one of the most installed mobile games in the U.S. since late last year, is another lesser-known studio. Founded by a team of Tsinghua graduates with offices around the world, Magic Tavern is celebrated as one of the first studios with roots in China to have gained ground in the American casual gaming market. KKR-backed gaming company AppLovin is a strategic investor in Magic Tavern.

Other popular games in the U.S. also have links to China, if not directly owned by a Chinese company. Shortcut Run and Roof Nails are works from the French casual game maker Voodoo, which received a minority investment from Tencent last year. Tencent is also a strategic investor in Roblox, the gaming platform oriented to young gamers and slated for an IPO in the coming weeks.

China’s Black Lake raises $77M to give factories a digital upgrade

Zhou Yuxiang doesn’t have the typical profile for working in China’s manufacturing world. A soft-spoken yet incisive person in his early thirties, Zhou graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in government and went on to work in investment banking in Hong Kong, following the path of many Chinese overseas returnees.

But a few years into his career, Zhou realized he wanted to build his own business. This was around 2015, a time when China was consumed by a startup craze amid Premier Li Keqiang’s campaign for “mass entrepreneurship and innovation.” Rather than going into the sleek world of consumer lifestyle, fintech or AI, Zhou picked manufacturing as a starting point.

During his time at Barclays, Zhou helped deep-pocketed Chinese manufacturers scour for merger and acquisition deals in Europe. He saw how factories in Germany digitize their operations using Siemens and SAP solutions. In China, “factories had a lot of money and could buy top-of-the-line equipment. But on the software management front, they were still very primitive,” said Zhou in an interview with TechCrunch.

“Most of the operation was done on paper. Every day, workers received a stack of papers telling them what to do, and in turn, they filled up the sheets reporting what material they had used… When you acquire these financially underperforming factories in Europe, you realize their software infrastructure capabilities are still far superior to yours,” Zhou added.

That digital gap encouraged Zhou to start Black Lake, a software platform for factory workers to log their daily tasks and managers to oversee the plant floor. Since its inception in 2016, the startup has raised over $100 million from GGV Capital, Bertelsmann Asia Investments, GSR Ventures, ZhenFund and others. The company recently closed a Series C round, pocketing nearly 500 million yuan ($77 million) and bringing on new backers including Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek, who led the round, as well as China Renaissance and Lightspeed Venture Partners.

Black Lake’s vision is to be a one-stop collaboration platform for factory workers and managers, digitizing data incurred in all stages of production, from client orders, material procurement, quality compliance, warehouse management, to logistics and shipment. The software analyzes these reams of data, churning out reports for bosses to check for abnormalities in production and for workers to see how they could increase their output and income.

Compared to SaaS incumbents from the West, Black Lake’s more localized services and affordable prices have a greater appeal to China’s wide swathes of small and medium-sized factories, Zhou argued. Black Lake tries to simplify its user experience to a Lego-like building process so factory bosses can easily customize the software for their own use. Workers access the cloud-based software from their smartphones, which have become ubiquitous in China’s affluent cities thanks to increasingly friendly device prices and data fees. A foreign SaaS giant’s solution could cost a factory at least three million yuan a year, while Black Lake 300,000 yuan or less, Zhou said.

To date, the company has served nearly 2,000 manufacturers and suppliers across the Greater China Region and Southeast Asia, counting in its customers Tesla, L’Oréal, Xiaomi, Sinopec, and Chinese state-owned conglomerate China Resources’ pharmaceutical group. The company claims to have reached 500,000 production workers.

Manufacturing 2.0

Black Lake’s collaboration and data management software for factories

Black Lake is riding a perfect wave of “upgrading” in China’s manufacturing world. For one, the demand for customized products is rising as consumers become savvier. Instead of producing bottled water with the same packaging, for instance, beverage companies now design various looks tailored to different demographics. Factories need to adjust quickly to the flood of customized orders, and a cloud-based data management platform could be the solution, Zhou suggested.

The U.S.-China trade war is another impetus for China’s push for factory upgrade. Having felt the heat from trade sanctions, Chinese manufacturers look to cut expenses and improve productivity. That shift, along with the government’s “new infrastructure” policy to breathe high tech into traditional industries, makes Zhou all the more bullish about his business.

But Black Lake is certainly not the only one to have spotted opportunities in China’s push to modernize production, and enterprise software in China has a notoriously slow monetization cycle in part due to low adoption and companies’ reluctance to pay for services. The key is finding a viable business model to fund its dream to be the ultimate “data entry point” for China’s millions of factories.

With proceeds from its new funding, Black Lake plans to spend on product development, hiring, market expansion, and building an open platform for third-party developers. The startup realizes it can’t build everything factories need, and it’s already working with partners across telecommunications, cloud computing, automation and consulting, such as Huawei, Alibaba, SAP and McKinsey.

“When Chinese factories ‘wake up’, their speed of digitization will definitely leapfrog that of their American and European counterparts,” Zhou asserted.

Huawei’s CEO open to speaking with Joe Biden

During a small gathering of journalists in China, Ren Zhengfei made his first public remarks since Joe Biden was inaugurated at the 46th President of the United States. The Huawei CEO struck a hopeful tone for those gathered around the table, in comments reported by CNBC among others.

“I would welcome such phone calls and the message is around joint development and shared success,” the executive said, noting a readiness to speak with the new administration in translated remarks. “The U.S. wants to have economic growth and China wants to have economic growth as well.”

Huawei’s future in the U.S. has been a major question mark hanging over the new administration. Under Trump, a number of high profile Chinese companies were added to the Commerce Department’s so-called “entity list” to various effects. Huawei has been among the hardest hit by the moves.

In addition to blocking sales in the world’s third-largest smartphone market, the company has been unable to work with key U.S. companies, including Google. That, in turn, has blocked access to key technologies, including the Android ecosystem and left Huawei scrambling. The company’s support among consumers has increased within China, but the move has been a big blow to the smartphone maker’s bottom line.

The incoming Biden administration has mostly been quiet on the matter. Though, facing mounting criticism from Republican lawmaker, Commerce Secretary nominee Gina Raimondo has since added that, “I currently have no reason to believe that entities on those lists should not be there. If confirmed, I look forward to a briefing on these entities and others of concern.”

While there haven’t been many positive signs for Huawei thus far, the company’s Chief understandably would prefer to make nice with the new administration.

“If Huawei’s production capacity can be expanded, that would mean more opportunities for U.S. companies to supply too,” Ren said in the translated comments. “I believe that’s going to be mutually beneficially. I believe that (the) new administration would bear in mind such business interests as they are about to decide their new policy.”

 

Tesla’s Bitcoin investment could be bad for the company’s climate reputation and its bottom line

Tesla’s $1.5 billion investment in Bitcoin may be good for Elon Musk, but it’s definitely risky for the company that made him the world’s richest man, according to investors, analysts and money managers at some of the country’s largest banks.

As a standard bearer for the consumer electric vehicle industry and the broader climate tech movement rallying around it, Tesla’s bet to go all in on crypto could damage its climate bonafides and its reputation with customers even as other automakers pour in to the EV market.

Given Bitcoin’s current environmental footprint, the deal flies in the face of Tesla’s purported interest in moving the world to cleaner sources of energy and commerce.

Until the energy grid decarbonizes in places like Russia and China, mining bitcoin remains a pretty dirty business (from an energy perspective), according to some energy investors who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak about Musk’s plans.

We were talking about people doing this in Russia back in 2018 and how they were tapping coal power to run their mining operations,” one investor said. “The cost per transaction from an energy intensity standpoint has only gotten more intense. I don’t see how those things coalesce, climate and crypto.”

The stake makes Tesla one of the largest corporate hodlers of Bitcoin but represents a massive portion of the company’s $19 billion in cash and cash equivalents on hand.

“Given the size of their treasury it feels irresponsible, IMO,” wrote one investor whose firm backed Tesla from its earliest days. The company’s move could be seen as another example of the absurdity of U.S. capital markets in today’s investment climate — and the underlying cynicism of some of its biggest beneficiaries.

Industry observers on Wall Street also criticized the company’s big bet on Bitcoin.

“Tesla buying $1.5 billion in BTC is interesting. Am assuming they haven’t hedged it, so they will either be cash rich in the future or have a hole in the balance sheet. Elon Musk stays wild,” wrote one capital planning executive at a major Wall Street bank who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the press. “[It’s] not dissimilar from a large company throwing cash into a wildly volatile emerging market currency.”

Still, in the short term, the deal is showing dividends. The price of Bitcoin has risen nearly $8,000, or 18.73%, over the course of the day since Tesla made its announcement. The question is whether any regulator will step in to punish Musk and Tesla.

Musk has been tweeting his support for Bitcoin and other, more arcane (or useless) cryptocurrencies like Dogecoin for the past several weeks, in what seems to be a violation of his agreement with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The world’s richest man has previously been fined by regulatory agencies for his tweeting habits. Back in 2018, the SEC charged Musk with fraud for tweets about privatizing the electric vehicle company at $420 per share.

Musk eventually settled with the SEC, at the price of his role as chairman of Tesla’s board and a $20 million personal fine — with Tesla paying out another $20 million to the SEC.

The volatility of the cryptocurrency could impact more than just Tesla’s bottom line, but also hit its customers should they use the currency to buy cars.

“Bitcoin jumped over 15% to a new high of $44,000 on Monday. This sort of hype-based price power should be worrying to investors and consumers alike – especially if this is to be used as medium of exchange,” wrote GlobalData analyst Danyaal Rashid, Head of Thematic Research at GlobalData.

“If Elon Musk can help dictate the price of this asset with a tweet or large order, the same could happen to send the price back down. The task of purchasing a vehicle should not be speculative. Consumers who may have thought of buying bitcoin to use as a substitute for fiat – could very easily end up with more or less than they bargained for.”

 

Clubhouse is now blocked in China after a brief uncensored period

Thousands of Chinese users suddenly found themselves unable to access Clubhouse on early Monday evening as the country prepared to start the week-long Lunar New Year holiday. Inside WeChat groups, Clubhouse users rushed to report the situation and help each other with ways to get back onto the red hot live audio app.

Audio drop-in startup Clubhouse was rapidly gaining steam in China, attracting a bevy of users early on to conversations on a wide range of topics. The app seemed likely to meet the fate of other U.S.-based apps and services, however – namely, a ban – and as of Monday, that indeed what Clubhouse faces, as confirmed by TechCrunch. Clubhouse is no longer available to users in China, and is unlikely to return given how much the app’s model would have to change to comply with Chinese internet regulation.

Notice received by users in China when trying to access Clubhouse as of Monday.

Clubhouse has faced criticism at home in the U.S. for its lack of effective moderation and abuse-prevention practices, so it’s hardly a surprise that it has fallen afoul of China’s rather more strict enforcement of measures designed to stifle the spread information the government deems inappropriate for discussion. The app was also not officially available via Apple’s China App Store, though access to it and its audio rooms was, before today, freely available without use of a VPN provided a user had the app installed on their device.

As Clubhouse was not listed on the Chinese App Store, so it’s unclear how many people from mainland China were on the platform. A room discussing the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen protest, a taboo topic in China, reached the maximum number of participants at 5,000 on Friday. Some users are reporting inside WeChat groups that they can no longer receive verification codes at their Chinese phone numbers, which could provide additional clues to the level of blockage. Users in China used their Chinese phone numbers to sign up for Clubhouse, and those are linked to their real ID in the country, which means there are potential risks for those who registered.

In the past two weeks, Clubhouse soared in popularity within a few communities in mainland China, including people in startups, investment, academic, or those with overseas background. Many of them were aware the app wouldn’t last long in China given free and often political debates frequented the platform. Clubhouse rooms titled “How long will Clubhouse last in China” and “Have you been invited to have tea for using Clubhouse?” attracted big crowds. “Having tea” is a euphemism for being taken away for interrogation by the police.

As TechCrunch noted on Saturday, Clubhouse’s early success prior to this shutdown has already prompted the creation of a number of homegrown alternatives designed around drop-in audio networking. Clubhouse’s popularity in China, however, may be difficult to replicate for any of these similar efforts – for the same reasons the original app itself is now inaccessible within the country.

 

 

With a Great Firewall circumvention tool like a virtual private network (VPN), some users on mainland China managed to regain access to Clubhouse.

We will update with more information about the ban….

China court to proceed with ByteDance case against Tencent over alleged monopoly

ByteDance is bringing its battle with archrival Tencent to the court at a time when the Chinese government moves to curve the power of the country’s internet behemoths.

The Beijing Intellectual Property Court has permitted a ByteDance lawsuit brought against Tencent to proceed, a ByteDance spokesperson confirmed with TechCrunch. Upstart new media company ByteDance alleged that Tencent’s restrictions on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, are in violation of China’s anti-monopoly draft rules. Douyin is headquartered in Beijing while Tencent’s base is in Shenzhen.

For three years, Tencent has blocked Douyin from its flagship networking apps WeChat and QQ, which bans users from viewing or sharing content from the short video app. Tencent’s behavior “no doubt” constitutes “monopolistic behavior achieved by abusing market domination to exclude and limit competition,” which the proposed anti-monopoly law prohibits, Douyin, said.

“We believe that competition is better for consumers and promotes innovation. We have filed this lawsuit to protect our rights and those of our users.”

Tencent said in response the accusation is false and malicious defamation. It further asserted that Douyin, which is used by 600 million users every day, uses illegal and anti-competitive methods to access WeChat’s user data, and it’s planning to sue ByteDance for harming its platform ecosystem and user rights.

ByteDance and Tencent each covet the other’s turf. ByteDance debuted a chat app to take on Tencent’s dominance in social networking, while Tencent countered Douyin’s popularity by introducing a slew of short video apps. Neither has managed to threaten the other’s dominance in their respective field.

Early signs show that the Chinese government is increasingly willing to rein in monopolistic behavior on the Chinese internet following two decades of relatively lax regulations.

In November, the country’s top market regulator unveiled the draft version of its first anti-monopoly law, opening a floodgate to lawsuits and investigations. In December, regulators launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba for forcing vendors to sell exclusively on its platform. Just this month, a court in Beijing imposed a 3 million yuan ($464,000) fine on fashion e-commerce site Vipshop over anti-competitive behavior. It won’t be surprising to see more Chinese internet giants getting hit by anti-trust actions in the upcoming months.

Will the Clubhouse model work in China?

On Friday just past midnight, I stumbled across a Clubhouse room hosted by a well-known figure in the Chinese startup community, Feng Dahui. At half-past midnight, the room still had nearly 500 listeners, many of whom were engineers, product managers, and entrepreneurs from China.

The discussion centered around whether Clubhouse, an app that lets people join pop-up voice chats in virtual rooms, will succeed in China. That’s a question I have been asking myself in recent weeks. Given the current hype swirling in Silicon Valley about the audio social network, it’s unsurprising to see well-informed, tech-savvy Chinese users start flocking to the platform. Demand for invitations in China runs high, with people paying as much as $100 to buy one from scalpers.

Many users I talked to believe the app won’t reach its full potential or even just find product-market fit in China before it gets banned. Indeed, a handful of well-attended Chinese-language rooms touch on topics that are normally censored in China, from crypto trading to protests in Hong Kong.

If it’s of any consolation, Clubhouse clones and derivatives are already in the making in China. A Chinese entrepreneur and blogger who goes by the nickname Herock told me he is aware of at least “dozens of local teams” that are working on something similar. Moreover, voice-based networking has been around in China for years, albeit in different forms. If Clubhouse is blocked, will any of its alternatives go on to succeed?

Information control

A direct Clubhouse clone probably won’t work in China.

A few factors dim its prospects in the country, which has nearly one billion internet users. The major appeal of Clubhouse is the organic flow of conversations in real time. But “how could the Chinese government allow free-flowing discussions to happen and spread without control,” a founder of a Chinese audio app rhetorically asked, declining to be named for this story. Video live streaming in China, for example, is under close regulatory oversight limiting who can speak and what they can say.

The founder then cited a famous online protest back in 2011. Thousands of small vendors launched a cyber attack on Alibaba’s online mall over a proposed fee hike. The tool they used to coordinate with one another was YY, which started out as a voice-based chatting software for gamers and later became known for video live streaming.

“The authorities dread the power of real-time audio communication,” the founder added.

There are signs that Clubhouse may already be the target of censorship. While Clubhouse works perfectly in China without the need for a virtual private network (VPN) or other censorship-circumvention tools (at least for the moment), the iOS-exclusive app is unavailable on China’s App Store. Clubhouse was removed there shortly after its global release in late September, app analytics firm Sensor Tower said.

Currently, in order to install Clubhouse, Chinese users need to install the app by switching to an App Store located in another country, which further limits the product’s reach to users who have the means of using a non-local store.

It’s unclear whether Apple preemptively delisted Clubhouse in anticipation of government action, given that any later removal of a major foreign app in China could stir up accusations of censorship. Alternatively, Clubhouse might have voluntarily pulled the app itself knowing that any form of real-time broadcasting won’t go unchecked by Chinese regulators, which would inevitably compromise user experience.

Entering China could be way down on Clubhouse’s to-do list given the traction it is gaining elsewhere. The app has seen about 3.6 million worldwide installs so far, according to Sensor Tower estimates. The majority of its lifetime installs originate in the United States, where the app has seen nearly 2 million first-time downloads, followed by Japan and Germany both with over 400,000 downloads.

Clubhouse elites

Clubhouse room hosted by Feng Dahui, a respected figure in China’s startup world. (Screenshot by TechCrunch)

The improbability of uncensored and open discussions on the Chinese internet may explain why the market hasn’t seen its own Clubhouse. But even if an app like Clubhouse is allowed to exist in China, it may not reach the same massive scale across the country as Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) and WeChat did.

The app is “elitist,” sort of like a voice version of Twitter, said Marco Lai, CEO and founder of Lizhi, a NASDAQ-listed Chinese audio platform. So far, Clubhouse’s invite-only model has confined its American user base largely to the tech, arts and celebrity circles. Herock observed that its Chinese demographics mirror the trend, with users concentrated in fields like finance, startup and product management, as well as crypto traders.

Even among these users though, there is the question of free time. The other night, I was up at midnight eavesdropping on a group of ByteDance employees. In fact, I’ve mostly been on Clubhouse in the late evenings after work, because that’s when user activity in China appears to peak. “Who in China has that much time?” said Zhou Lingyu, founder of Rainmaker, a Chinese networking community for professionals, when I asked whether she thinks Clubhouse will attract the masses in China.

While her remark may not apply to everyone, the tech-centric, educated crowds in China — the demographic that Clubhouse appears to be targeting or at least attracting — are also those most likely to work the notorious “996” schedule, the long hours practice common in Chinese tech companies. The type of “meaningful conversations” that Clubhouse encourages is desirable, but the app’s real-time, spontaneous nature is also a lot to ask of 996 workers, who likely prefer more efficient and manageable use of time.

Moderators may also need material incentives to remain active aside from the pure passion in connecting with other human beings. One potential solution is to turn quality conversations into podcast episodes. “Clubhouse is for one-off, casual conversations. Those who produce high-quality content would want to record the conversation so it could be for repeatable consumption later on,” said Zhou.

Chinese counterparts

In China, audio networking has played out in slightly different shapes. Some companies place a great deal of focus on gamification, filling their apps with playful, interactive features.

Lizhi’s social podcast app, for example, is not just about listening. It also lets listeners message hosts, tip them through virtual gifts, record themselves shadowing a host who is reading a poem, compete in online karaoke contests, and more.

Interaction between hosts and listeners happens in a relatively orchestrated way, as Lizhi’s operational staff design campaigns and work with content creators behind the scenes to ensure content quality and user engagement. Clubhouse growth, in comparison, is more organic.

“The Chinese products focus more on spectatorship and performance, not so much translating natural social behavior in real life into a product. Clubhouse features are simple. It’s more like a coffee shop,” Lai said.

Lizhi’s other voice product Tiya is considered a close answer to Clubhouse, but Tiya’s users are young — the majority of whom are 15-22 years old — and it focuses on entertainment, letting users chat via audio while they play games and watch sports. That also feeds the need for companionship.

Dizhua, which launched in 2019, is another Chinese app that’s been compared to Clubhouse. Unlike Clubhouse, which relies on people’s existing networks for room discovery, Dizhua matches anonymous users based on their declared interests. Clubhouse conversations can start and die off casually. Dizhua encourages users to pick a theme and stay engaged.

“Clubhouse is a pure audio app, with no timeline, no comment, et cetera,” said Armin Li, an expert in residence with a venture capital firm in China. “It’s a kind of casual and drop-in style for the scenarios where user needs are not clear like hangout or multitasking … Its high community participation, content quality, and user quality are unseen in Chinese voice products.”

The bottom line is: The conversations that happen on Chinese platforms are monitored by content auditors. User registration requires real-name verification on internet platforms in China, so there’s no real anonymity online. The topics that users can discuss are limited, often leaning towards the fun and innocuous.

Why do people in China join Clubhouse anyway? Some, like me, joined out of FOMO. Entrepreneurs are always scouring for the next market opportunity, and product managers from internet giants hope to learn a thing or two from Clubhouse that they could apply to their own products. Bitcoin traders and activists, on the other hand, see Clubhouse as a haven outside the purview of Chinese regulators.

Technical support

One thing I find impressive about Clubhouse is how smoothly it works in China. Even when a foreign app isn’t banned in China, it often loads slowly due to its servers’ distance from China.

Clubhouse doesn’t actually build the technology supporting its enormous chat groups that sometimes reach thousands of participants. Instead, it uses a real-time audio SDK from Agora, two sources told me. The South China Morning Post also reported that. When asked to verify the partnership, Agora CEO Tony Zhao said via email he can’t confirm or deny any engagement between his company and Clubhouse.

Rather, he emphasized Agora’s “virtual network,” which overlays on top of the public internet running on more than 200 co-located data centers worldwide. The company then uses algorithms to plan traffic and optimize routing.

Noticeably, Agora’s operations teams are mainly in China and the U.S., a setup that inevitably raises questions about whether Clubhouse data are within the scope of Chinese regulations.

With real-time voice technology providers like Agora, opportunists are able to build Clubhouse clones quickly at low costs, Herock said. Chinese entrepreneurs are unlikely to copy Clubhouse directly due to local regulatory challenges and different user behavior, but they will race to crank out their own interpretations of voice networking before the hype around Clubhouse fades away.

Kuaishou, TikTok’s Chinese nemesis, surges 194% on IPO debut

Kuaishou, a Chinese video app that’s largely underappreciated outside China, has just completed a massive initial public offering in Hong Kong. The app is by far the biggest rival for Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese version, and unlike many Western video platforms that make money from ads and subscriptions, Kuaishou’s cash cow is its tipping business.

Kuaishou’s shares opened in Hong Kong on Friday at HK$338 ($43.6) apiece, a 194% jump from its IPO price of HK$115 ($14.8). That catapults its market cap to nearly HK$1.4 trillion ($180 billion). The company pocketed approximately $5.4 billion from the listing with a total of 365,218,600 shares, excluding the overallotment option.

Kuaishou, which is backed by Tencent, now has a replenished coffer to invest in growth and hopefully work towards profitability. In the first nine months of 2020, the app posted an adjusted net loss of 7.2 billion yuan ($1.1 billion), compared to an adjusted profit of 1.8 billion yuan in the same period a year earlier.

Kuaishou’s stock is a huge hit with both institutional financiers and retail investors from China, many of whom are familiar with the app that boasted 481 million monthly users in the 11 months ended November. The app set a record as the most oversubscribed deal in Hong Kong, attracting retail investor demand totaling $164.8 billion, the South China Morning Post reported. Its share reached HK$322.8 on the gray market platform operated by Phillip Securities Group and HK$421 on online broker Futu Securities.

Like Douyin, Kuaishou began as a platform for people to create and share 15-second short videos (following a brief period as a GIF app) and later expanded into live streaming. The transition is natural, as creators who have built a name may seek further interaction with followers, and followers may want to express their loyalty and affection to creators. Live streaming and virtual gifting fill that need.

Kuaishou has three main monetization methods, with live streaming making up the majority of its revenue. Fifty-eight million users on Kuaishou spent on live videos monthly in the 11 months ended November, and on average every paying user brought 47.6 yuan ($7.36) in revenue.

The app also sells ads, with each user driving 71.4 yuan ($11) in marketing revenue for the period. Lastly, Kuaishou allows creators to hawk products. The gross merchandise value — an industry metric used loosely to measure e-commerce transactions — generated directly on Kuaishou reached 332.7 billion yuan ($51.4 billion) in the period.

For comparison, the live streaming feature on Alibaba’s Taobao bazaar generated over 400 billion yuan in GMV for the twelve months ended December.

While Kuaishou enjoys growing revenue from live streaming, regulatory risks loom in the background. The Chinese government has banned users under the age of 18 from purchasing virtual gifts. It has also urged platforms to put a cap on users’ monthly spending on virtual gifts, though regulators haven’t specified or suggested a limit.

Kuaishou is aware of the risk, noting in its prospectus that “any limits on user spending on virtual gifting ultimately imposed may negatively impact our revenues derived from virtual gifting and our results of operations.”

Until regulators take further action to rein in virtual gifting, Kuaishou will likely continue to thrive while it works on diversifying its business.

Kuaishou, TikTok’s Chinese nemesis, surges 194% on IPO debut

Kuaishou, a Chinese video app that’s largely underappreciated outside China, has just completed a massive initial public offering in Hong Kong. The app is by far the biggest rival for Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese version, and unlike many Western video platforms that make money from ads and subscriptions, Kuaishou’s cash cow is its tipping business.

Kuaishou’s shares opened in Hong Kong on Friday at HK$338 ($43.6) apiece, a 194% jump from its IPO price of HK$115 ($14.8). That catapults its market cap to nearly HK$1.4 trillion ($180 billion). The company pocketed approximately $5.4 billion from the listing with a total of 365,218,600 shares, excluding the overallotment option.

Kuaishou, which is backed by Tencent, now has a replenished coffer to invest in growth and hopefully work towards profitability. In the first nine months of 2020, the app posted an adjusted net loss of 7.2 billion yuan ($1.1 billion), compared to an adjusted profit of 1.8 billion yuan in the same period a year earlier.

Kuaishou’s stock is a huge hit with both institutional financiers and retail investors from China, many of whom are familiar with the app that boasted 481 million monthly users in the 11 months ended November. The app set a record as the most oversubscribed deal in Hong Kong, attracting retail investor demand totaling $164.8 billion, the South China Morning Post reported. Its share reached HK$322.8 on the gray market platform operated by Phillip Securities Group and HK$421 on online broker Futu Securities.

Like Douyin, Kuaishou began as a platform for people to create and share 15-second short videos (following a brief period as a GIF app) and later expanded into live streaming. The transition is natural, as creators who have built a name may seek further interaction with followers, and followers may want to express their loyalty and affection to creators. Live streaming and virtual gifting fill that need.

Kuaishou has three main monetization methods, with live streaming making up the majority of its revenue. Fifty-eight million users on Kuaishou spent on live videos monthly in the 11 months ended November, and on average every paying user brought 47.6 yuan ($7.36) in revenue.

The app also sells ads, with each user driving 71.4 yuan ($11) in marketing revenue for the period. Lastly, Kuaishou allows creators to hawk products. The gross merchandise value — an industry metric used loosely to measure e-commerce transactions — generated directly on Kuaishou reached 332.7 billion yuan ($51.4 billion) in the period.

For comparison, the live streaming feature on Alibaba’s Taobao bazaar generated over 400 billion yuan in GMV for the twelve months ended December.

While Kuaishou enjoys growing revenue from live streaming, regulatory risks loom in the background. The Chinese government has banned users under the age of 18 from purchasing virtual gifts. It has also urged platforms to put a cap on users’ monthly spending on virtual gifts, though regulators haven’t specified or suggested a limit.

Kuaishou is aware of the risk, noting in its prospectus that “any limits on user spending on virtual gifting ultimately imposed may negatively impact our revenues derived from virtual gifting and our results of operations.”

Until regulators take further action to rein in virtual gifting, Kuaishou will likely continue to thrive while it works on diversifying its business.