Serial fiction app Radish acquired by Kakao Entertainment for $440M

Serialized fiction app Radish will be acquired by Kakao Entertainment in a transaction valued at $440 million. Kakao Entertainment is owned by Kakao, the South Korean internet giant whose services include its eponymous messaging platform. Radish founder Seungyoon Lee will hold onto his role as its chief executive officer, while also becoming Kakao Entertainment’s global strategy officer to lead its growth in international markets.

Radish claims millions of users in North America, and the acquisition will be help Kakao Entertainment expand its own webtoons and web novel business there, and in other English-speaking markets. Radish will retain management autonomy and continue operating as its own brand.

Founded in 2015, Radish originally focused on user-generated content, but now the core of its business is Radish Originals, or serial fiction series designed specifically for the app. The company said the launch of Radish Originals in 2018 helped propel its growth, with revenue increasing more than 10 times in 2020 from the previous year.

Radish monetizes content through its micropayments system, which allows users to read several free episodes before making payments of about 20 to 30 cents to unlock new episodes (users also have the option of waiting an hour to unlock episodes for free). About 90% of its revenue now comes from Radish Originals.

The acquisition means that Radish Originals’ intellectual property will now be adapted by Kakao into webtoons, videos and other content, increasing their reach. Since 2016, Kakao Entertainment has adapted several web novels including “What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim?,” “A Business Proposal” and “Solo Leveling” into webtoons and other media.

Lee told TechCrunch that Radish started exclusively distributing several of Kakao Entertainment’s most popular original series, like “What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim?” last month. It plans to launch more content from Kakao Entertainment’s portfolio and are also “looking at ways in which we can make original localized novel adaptions of Kakao’s popular stories,” he added.

In a press statement, Kakao Entertainment CEO Jinsoo Lee said, “Radish has firmly established itself as a leading web novel platform and yet we see even greater growth potential… With the combination of Kakao’s expertise in the IP business and Radish’s strong North American foothold, we are excited about what we can achieve together.”

The acquisition has been approved by Radish’s board of directors, which includes a representative from SoftBank Ventures Asia, its largest investor, and the majority of its shareholders. Radish’s other backers include Lowercase Capital, K50 Ventures, Nicolas Bergruen, Charlie Songhurst, Duncan Clark and Amy Tan, the best-selling author.

Twitch UX teardown: The Anchor Effect and de-risking decisions

Twitch evidently has no issues getting people to spend time on its platform — even politicians can draw huge crowds by streaming themselves playing games. But monetizing video content is hard, and Twitch has missed revenue targets for the last few years.

So how does Twitch make money? And more importantly, what subtle psychology does it use within its iOS app to encourage viewers to spend more?

I’m a UX analyst and the founder of UX community Built for Mars — where I regularly tear down some of the best products in the world, showing you how they’re made, and, more importantly, how they could be improved.

I recently published my analysis of Twitch. But for Extra Crunch subscribers, I wanted to go a little deeper and bridge the gap between what Twitch does and how you can make meaningful changes to your product’s UX.

In general, you should encourage the user to make the hard decision (i.e., to commit to subscribing), after understanding all the benefits.

So here are three UX tips to discuss during your next team Zoom call.

The Anchor Effect

In short: The Anchor Effect is a heuristic bias whereby people will become attached (anchored) to an initial piece of information. For example, spending $1,000 on an iPhone may not seem like a bad deal if you saw an ad for the $1,500 one first — by comparison, it looks “cheap.”

On Twitch, when a new user subscribes to a channel for the first time, they’re shown the benefits of subscribing, and then asked how long they want those benefits for before being shown a price.

Image Credits: Twitch

This type of bias is everywhere. For example, the order of your pricing tiers will affect conversions — which is likely why Mailchimp shows its pricing tiers in reverse order.

Music mixing marketplace EngineEars raises $1M, with help from Kendrick Lamar

EngineEars today announced a $1 million raise. The company’s first round of funding features investments from Kendrick Lamar, DJ Mustard, Roddy Rich and Slauson and Co. “Quality of sound is still important in music,” Lamar said in a quote provided to TechCrunch. “Ali has always been a progressive thinker. Engineers will transcend the culture.”

The service was launched in 2018 by Grammy winner Derek “MixedByAli” Ali, who has worked on a slew of high-profile tracks from artists including Lamar, Jay Rock, SZA, Nipsey Hussle and Snoop Dogg.

The educational courses turned into a touring curriculum, with 15 workshops in four countries, where Ali says he was able to determine what the community most needed.

“During that time, we really learned what the problem is,” says Ali. “All of the problems entailed tracking payments, being credited, the antiquated business model of file transfers and essentially just helping an independent audio engineer sustain and create a business for themselves.”

Source:  Claima Stories 

EngineEars has since branched out into something more akin to a marketplace for audio engineers. Independent mixers can offer their services and connect with artists and labels, get credit for the tracks they’ve worked on and — perhaps most importantly in the world of freelancing — get paid.

The platform launched an alpha version in January and since has 120 engineers verified by an existing vetting process. The invite-only service has another 2,000 people on its waiting list, according to Ali.

The service is currently working on a feature roadmap based on the requests of existing users and looking toward potential additions like the ability to buy beats, going forward. Other suggested features include contract negotiations for work-for-hire, but much of this is still very much in early stages.

How 4 New Jersey pools turned into a startup that just raised $10M

As the oldest of 12 children, Bunim Laskin spent much of his teen years looking for ways to help keep his siblings entertained. Noticing that a neighbor’s pool was often empty, Laskin reached out to ask if his family could use her pool. To make it worth her while, he suggested that they could help cover her expenses for maintaining the pool.

Soon after, five other families had made the same arrangement with her and the pool owner had six families covering 25% of her expenses. This meant that the neighbor was actually making money off her pool. The arrangement sparked a business idea in Laskin’s mind. At the age of 20, he founded Swimply, a marketplace for homeowners to rent out their underutilized pools to local swimmers, with Asher Weinberger.

The Cedarhurst, New York-based company launched a beta in 2018, starting with four pools in the New Jersey area. 

“We used Google Earth to find houses, and then knocked on 80 doors with a pool,” Laskin recalls. “We got to 100 pools organically. Word of mouth really helped us grow.” The site was pretty bare bones, he admits, with potential customers only able to view photos of the pools and connect with the pool owner by phone.

That year, Swimply did around 400 reservations and raised $1.2 million from friends and family.

In 2019, Swimply launched what he describes as a “proper” website and app with an automated platform. It grew “4 to 5 times” that year, again mostly organically. In an episode that aired in March 2020, the company appeared on Shark Tank but went home without a deal.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Swimply, Laskin said, pivoted right into the pandemic.

“We were the perfect solution for people when the world was falling on its head,” he said. The company restructured its offering to ensure that pool owners did not have to interact with guests. “It was the perfect, contact-free, self-serve experience to hang out and be with people you quarantined with.”

The CDC then came out to say that it was safe to swim because chlorine could help kill the virus, and that proved to be a big boon to its business.

“On one end, it was a way for people to have a normal day and on the other, it helped give owners a way to earn an income, at a time when many people were being affected financially,” Laskin told TechCrunch.

Business took off in 2020 with revenue growing 4,000% and now Swimply is announcing a $10 million Series A round. Norwest Venture Partners led the financing, which also included participation from Trust Ventures and a number of angel investors such as Poshmark founder and CEO Manish Chandra; Rob Chesnut, former general counsel and chief ethics officer at Airbnb; Ancestry.com CEO Deborah Liu and Michael Curtis. 

Swimply is now operating in a total of 125 U.S. markets, two markets in Canada and five markets in Australia. It plans to use its new capital in part to expand into new markets and toward product development.

Image Credits: Swimply

The way it works is pretty straightforward. Swimply simply connects homeowners that have underutilized backyard spaces and pools with those seeking a way to gather, cool off or exercise, for example. People or families can rent pools by the hour, ranging in price from $15 to $60 per hour (at an average of $45/hour) depending on the amenities. New markets that Swimply has recently expanded to include Portland, Oregon; Raleigh, NC and the California cities of Oakland, San Luis Obispo and Los Gatos. 

“The shifting mindset from younger generations about ownership is a huge contributor to increased growth of the Swimply marketplace,” said co-founder Weinberger, who serves as Swimply’s COO. “Swimming is the third most popular activity for adults and number one for children, and yet no other company has tackled the aquatic space to make swimming more affordable and accessible…until now.”

While the company declined to provide hard revenue figures, Laskin said Swimply was seeing “7 digits a month in revenue” and 15,000 to 20,000 reservations a month. Families represent the most popular reservation.

“People can book and pay through our platform, and only 20% of hosts ever meet their guests,” Laskin said. “We’re enabling a new kind of consumer behavior with what we’re doing.”

The company is planning to use its new capital to also rebuild much of its tech infrastructure and boost its customer support team to be more “readily available.”

It is also now offering a complimentary up to $1 million worth of insurance per booking for liability as well as $10,000.

Swimply has a little over 20 employees, up 10 times from 2 people in December of 2020. It plans to double that number over the next few months.

The company’s model has proven quite lucrative for some owners, according to Laskin.

“Last year, there were some owners who earned $10,000 a month. One owner in Denver earned $50,000 last year and he had signed up toward the end of the summer. He should make over $100,000 this year,” Lasken projects.

Its only criteria is that owners offer a clean pool. Eighty five percent of hosts offer restrooms as well. If they don’t, they are limited to one-hour reservations with a max of five guests. Swimply has also partnered with local pool companies, and if they pay one of its owners a visit and certify that pool, that owner gets a badge on the site “so guests get an additional level of security,” Laskin said.

Ed Yip of Norwest Venture Partners admits that when he first heard of the concept of Swimply, he “didn’t know what to make of it.”

But the more he heard about it, the more excited he got.

“This is the holy grail for a consumer investor. We’re not changing consumer behavior, but rather productize the experience and make it safer and easier on both sides,” Yip told TechCrunch.

What also gets the investor excited is the potential for Swimply beyond just swimming pools in the future.

“We’re seeing a ton of demand from hosts wanting to list hot tubs and tennis courts, for example,” Yip said. “So this can turn into a marketplace for shared outdoor resources and that’s a huge market opportunity that adds value on both sides.”

Indeed, the concept of monetizing underutilized space is a growing concept. Earlier this year, we reported on Neighbor, which operates a self-storage marketplace, raising $53 million in a Series B round of funding. Neighbor’s unique model aims to repurpose under-utilized or vacant space — whether it be a person’s basement or the empty floor of an office building — and turn it into storage.

 

 

Rapchat tunes into $2.3M as its music-making app hits 7M users

YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, TikTok and Facebook’s Instagram have upended the film and TV industries, with a new wave of cinematographers, directors and actors leveraging innovations in technology to create new work and connect directly with billions of consumers to see it. Today, a startup is announcing some funding as it looks to make a similar impact in the world of music.

Rapchat, an app that lets people create music tracks — raps, as its names suggest, or something else — using a platform that crowdsources beats and lets people put vocals on top of them, has raised $2.3 million.

Co-led by Sony Music Entertainment and NYC VC firm Adjacent, this is an extension to Rapchat’s seed round of $1.7 million back in 2018, and CEO and co-founder Seth Miller tells me it’s coming as the startup is getting ready for a bigger Series A.

With no connection to Snapchat — not now at least, except that founders Seth Miller and Pat Gibson did think it was a funny pun at the time that they were first conceiving of the company as a side hustle while still in university in 2015 — Rapchat has already gone quite some way in scaling.

The company today has some 7 million registered users, and at the moment some 250,000 songs are being created around a catalog of about 100,000 beats by 500,000 active users on the platform each month. Engagement is hovering right now at 35 minutes per day on average, a mix not just of people making tunes, but through the beginnings of a social graph: people coming onto the app to discover and share those tracks.

Rapchat plans to use the funding to continue expanding the scope of what you can create on its platform, including growing the prize pools for Rapchat’s ‘Challenges’ competition series; expand to have more artists, producers, and industry executives on the platform for mentoring; and to extend that platform’s reach to integrate more deeply with the likes of TikTok, Snapchat, Spotify and Apple Music — platforms where creators are already making a lot of content, and where music is figuring strongly in that effort.

Rapchat’s growth not only speaks to how the startup has pulled off its ambition to make it easier to make music, but it also speaks to an appetite, an itch, in the creator economy: there is a big wide world of music-making out there, and more want to see if they can strike the right note.

Rapchat is definitely not the only, nor the first, company to think of how to address music creators within the bigger creator economy.

Another app called Voisey had conceived of a similar idea but focused primarily on letting people create and record shorter clips rather than full music tracks before sharing them to other platforms. It has not quite come a household name, but it did have some small success in bringing attention to new artists, and interestingly, it was quietly acquired by Snap last year (and for now Snap’s kept Voisey’s app up).

TikTok’s parent ByteDance has also made an acquisition of another music creation app, Jukedeck. As with Snap’s acquisition, so far we’re not fully clear on how and where that acquisition is going, but we’ve heard through the grapevine that TikTok is working on a new music service that sounds like it might let more content get plugged into TikTok’s music layer, so perhaps watch this space.

And in perhaps the most trend-endorsing act of all, Rapchat has been cloned — by Facebook, no less. NPE, the social networking behemoth’s in-house skunkworks team, in February rolled out BARS (all caps! stand out!) — which is, yes — an app on which you can create your own rap music.

Miller, at least for now, is about as laid back as you could be, considering all of the above, confident that at least for now, he is very happy with the engagement Rapchat is seeing, including around tests it has been running around offering new premium features — the app is free to use right now, but it has plans to offer creators more production tools and better ways of sharing their work and helping build a business out of it. Key to that will be never demanding licensing fees on music: creators keep the royalties, with Rapchat’s value lying in helping them make and track how that music gets used with the metadata that it holds on those tracks.

Some of the low-key approach might well come from the fact that Rapchat and its founders are somewhat outside of the startup fray. The idea for the app first came up in 2013, Miller said, when he and Gibson were students at Ohio University in Columbus.

“We were coming of age when everyone in college was using apps like Snapchat and Instagram,” he said. “We loved them for video, but saw there was nothing like them for creating music. So we pitched the idea during a Startup Weekend competition: snapping like Snapchat but for rap. Someone said, ‘Rapchat’ and we liked it.”

They went full-time on the idea in 2015 when they got into 500 Startups with the app, but even so it’s taken them years to build up the business, get attention from investors and raise money. Why? Partly because music is hard, and frankly the main game in town for years has been streaming services, rather than creation services.

Miller and Gibson persisted: “I knew that this market was huge. It just made so much sense to me,” he said. “The advent of the mobile devices the moment that apps like Instagram, VSCO and Snapchat have turned people into photographers and video makers, and Substack is turning people into writers.” And now Rapchat wants to tap the world for rappers.

“Rapchat has created a music studio that fits into your pocket,” said Nico Wittenborn, lead Investor at venture capital firm Adjacent, in a statement. “It decreases the friction of creativity by allowing anyone, anywhere in the world to record and publish music straight from their phones. This mobile-enabled democratization of technology is what Adjacent is all about, and I am super excited to support the team in building out this next-level music platform.”

Netflix won seven Oscars last night

After everything was wrapped up at a very weird Oscars ceremony, original films released by Netflix had won seven statuettes.

The streaming service’s awards include for two for “Mank” (production design and cinematography), two for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (hair/makeup and costume), documentary feature (“My Octopus Teacher”), animated short (“If Anything Happens I Love You”) and live action short (“Two Distant Strangers”).

Meanwhile, Amazon’s “Sound of Metal” won the awards for sound and editing, while Facebook’s Oculus, EA and Respawn won their first Oscar for “Colette,” which won in the documentary short category.

This comes after a pandemic year in which theaters closing or operating at reduced capacity, forcing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to delay the ceremony and change its awards eligibility rules. It also essentially erased the distinction between theatrical and streaming films — for example, Searchlight Pictures released Best Picture-winner “Nomadland” in theaters and on Hulu at the same time.

Netflix received 36 nominations total, making it the most-nominated studio, with “Mank” the most-nominated film. And seven wins is a big improvement on the two it won last year.

Going into the evening, “Nomadland” was seen as the front runner for Best Picture, but Netflix executives still had reason to be  disappointed: In a nearly unprecedented move, Best Picture wasn’t the final award of the night — instead, it was Best Actor, which was widely expected to go to the late Chadwick Boseman for his performance in “Ma Rainey.” So when Anthony Hopkins (who wasn’t in attendance) won for “The Father,” it made for a pretty deflating end to the evening.

What the MasterClass effect means for edtech

MasterClass, which sells a subscription to celebrity-taught classes, sits on the cusp of entertainment and education. It offers virtual, yet aspirational learning: an online tennis class with Serena Williams, a cooking session with Gordon Ramsay. While there’s the off chance that an instructor might actually talk to you — it has happened before — the platform mostly just offers paywalled documentary-style content.

The vision has received attention. MasterClass is raising funding that would value it at $2.5 billion, as scooped by Axios and confirmed independently by a source to TechCrunch. But while MasterClass has found a sweet spot, can the success be replicated?

Investors certainly think so. Outlier, founded by MasterClass’ co-founder, closed a $30 million Series C this week, for affordable, digital college courses. The similarities between Outlier and its founder’s alma mater aren’t subtle: It’s literally trying to apply MasterClass’ high-quality videography to college classes. This comes a week after I wrote about a “MasterClass for Chess lovers” platform launched by former Chess World Champion Garry Kasparov.

Two back-to-back MasterClass copycats raising millions in venture capital makes me think about if the model can truly be verticalized and focused down into specific niches. After 2020 and the rise of Zoom University, we know edtech needs to be more engaging, but we don’t know the exact way to get there. Is it by creating micro-learning communities around shared loves? Is it about gamification? Aspirational learning has different incentives than for-credit learning. In order to be successful, Outlier needs to prove to universities it can use MasterClass magic for true outcomes that rival in-person lectures. It’s a harder, and more ambtious promise.

My riff aside, I turned to two edtech founders to understand how they see the MasterClass effect panning out, and to cross-check my gut reaction.

Taylor Nieman, the founder of language learning startup Toucan:

Although I do love how these models try to lean into this theme of “invisible learning” like we leverage with Toucan, it faces the same issues as so many other consumer products that try to steal time out of people’s very busy days. Constantly competing for time leads to terrible engagement metrics and very high churn. That leads me to question what true learning outcomes could occur from little to no usage of the product itself.

Amanda DoAmaral, the founder of Fiveable, a learning platform for high school students:

Masterclass is important for showing us why educational content should be treated more like entertainment. All of our bars for content quality is much higher now than it ever was before and I’m excited to see how that affects learning across the board.

For students, it’s about creating environments that support them holistically and giving them space to collaborate openly. It feels so obvious that these spaces should exist for young people, but we’ve lost sight of what students actually need. At my school, we built policies that assumed the worst in students. I want to flip that. Assume the best, be proactive to keep them safe, and create ways to react when we need to.

Anyways, that’s just some nuance to chew on during this fine day. In the rest of this newsletter, we will focus a lot on tactical advice for founders, from the money they raise to the peacock dance they might want to do one day. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @nmasc_ so we can talk during the week, too!

The peacock dance

You know when male peacocks fan their feathers to court a lover? That, but for startups trying to get acquired. As one of our many rabbit holes on Equity this week, we talk about Discord walking away from a Microsoft deal, and if that deal ever existed in the first place or if it was just a way to drum up investor excitement in the audio gaming platform.

Here’s what to know: Discord is reportedly pursuing an IPO after walking away from talks with multiple companies that were looking to acquire the audio gaming giant.

Discord aside, the consolidation environment continues to be hot for some sectors.

Four business people used ropes to tighten their money bags, economic austerity, reduced income, economic crisis

Image Credits: VectorInspiration / Getty Images

Even venture capital knows that the future isn’t simply venture capital

Clearbanc, a Toronto-based fintech startup that gives non-dilutive financing to businesses, has rebranded alongside a $100 million financing that valued it at $2 billion. Now rebranded as Clearco, the startup wants to be more than just a capital provider, but a services provider, too.

Here’s what to know: The startup has been on a tear of product development for the past year, launching services such as valuation calculators or runway tools. It’s a step away from what Clearbanc originally flexed: the 20-minute term sheet and rapid-fire investment. I talk about some of the levers at play in my piece:

Many of Clearco’s newest products are still in their infancy, but the potential success of the startup could nearly be tied to the general growth of startups looking for alternatives to venture capital when financing their startups. Similar to how AngelList’s growth is neatly tied to the growth of emerging fund managers, Clearco’s growth is cleanly related to the growth of founders who see financing as beyond a seed check from Y Combinator.

abstract human brain made out of dollar bills isolated on white background

Abstract human brain made out of dollar bills isolated on white background. Image Credits: Iaremenko / Getty Images

Don’t market your opportunity away

Keeping on the theme of tactical advice for founders, let’s move onto talking about marketing. Tim Parkin, president of Parkin Consulting, explained how startup founders can use marketing as a tool to stand out in the noisy environment. Differentiation has never been harder, but also more imperative.

Here’s what to know: Parkin outlines four ways that martech will shift in 2021, strapped with anecdotes and a nod to the importance of investing in influencers.

Red ball on curved light blue paper, blue background. Image Credits: PM Images / Getty Images

Around TechCrunch

Your humble yet favorite startup podcast, Equity, got nominated for a Webby! Me and the team need your help to win, so please vote for us here. Your support means a ton.

This newsletter will always be free, but if you do want to support me, feel free to use code STARTUPSWEEKLY for 25% off a subscription to Extra Crunch.

Across the site

Seen on TechCrunch

The rise of the next Coinbase, thanks to Coinbase

Attack of the robotic SPACs

Tiger Global backs Indian crypto startup at over $500M valuation

This is your brain on Zoom

Early Coinbase backer Garry Tan is keeping the ‘vast majority’ of his shares because of this deal

Seen on Extra Crunch

Dear Sophie: How can I get my startup off the ground and visit the US?

How to pivot your startup, save cash and maintain trust with investors and customers

How startups can ensure CCPA and GDPR compliance in 2021

As UiPath closes above its final private valuation, CFO Ashim Gupta discusses his company’s path to market

European VC soars in Q1

zoom glitch

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Thanks for reading along today and everyday. Sending love to my readers in India and everyone around the world that is facing yet another deadly surge of this horrible disease. I’m rooting for you.

N

Daily Crunch: Meet Disney Imagineering’s new robot

We get up close with a robotic Groot, SpaceX has a successful astronaut launch and cryptocurrency prices tumble. This is your Daily Crunch for April 23, 2021.

The big story: Meet Disney Imagineering’s new robot

Disney Imagineering’s Project Kiwi represents a real robotics milestone — a free-walking robot that seems to fully capture the personality of the original character. In this case, the original is Groot, the beloved tree character from “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

I’m not just saying that based on the demo video, either. Matthew Panzarino has seen Project Kiwi in person and reports:

The pint-sized character has accurately rendered textures on its face, hands and feet. It’s dressed in a distressed red flight suit that you may remember from the films. And its eyes are expressive as it looks at me and waves. This is the moment, the one that Disney Imagineers and park goers alike have been waiting decades to realize.

Startups, funding and venture capital

SpaceX successfully launches astronauts with a re-used Dragon spacecraft for the first time — This was SpaceX’s second official astronaut delivery mission for NASA.

Hyundai invests in teleoperations startup Ottopia as part of $9M round — Ottopia’s first product is a universal teleoperation platform that allows a human operator to monitor and control any type of vehicle from thousands of miles away.

Introvoke raises $2.7M to power online events that can be embedded anywhere — While there’s been plenty of attention and money lavished on virtual event platforms over the past year, Introvoke co-founder and CEO Oana Manolache predicted that we’re only at the beginning of a “third wave of digital transformation.”

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

2021 should be a banner year for biotech startups that make smart choices early — Be wise when managing legal risk and choosing investors.

After going public, once-hot startups are riding a valuation roller coaster — A short meditation on value.

Should you give an anchor investor a stake in your fund’s management company? — A GP stake investor brings significant advantages and disadvantages.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Crypto market takes a dive with Bitcoin leading the way — Cryptocurrency prices continued to tumble today, with Bitcoin leading the charge.

India restricts American Express from adding new customers for violating data storage rules — In a statement, the Reserve Bank of India said existing customers of either of the two card companies (American Express and Diners Club) will not be impacted by the new order, which goes into effect May 1.

Just one week left to save $100 on TC Early Stage 2021: Marketing & Fundraising — Get ready to join your community of early-inning startup founders for a two-day bootcamp July 8-9.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Audi spinoff holoride collects $12m in Series A led by Terranet AB

Holoride, the company that’s building an immersive XR in-vehicle media platform, today announced it raised €10 million (approximately $12 million) in its Series A investing round, earning the company a €30 million ($36 million) valuation. 

The Swedish ADAS software development company Terranet led the round with €3.2 million (~$3.9 million), followed by a group of Chinese financial and automotive technology investors, organized by investment professional Jingjing Xu, and educational and entertainment game development company Schell Games, which has partnered with holoride in the past to create content. 

Holoride will use the fresh funds to search for new developers and other talent both as it prepares to expand into global markets like Europe, the United States and Asia, and in advance of its summer 2022 launch for private passenger cars. 

“This goes hand-in-hand with putting more emphasis on the content creator community, and as of summer this year, releasing a lot of tools to help them build content for cars on our platform,” Nils Wollny, holoride’s CEO and founder, told TechCrunch. 

The Munich-based company launched at CES in 2019. TechCrunch got to test out its in-car virtual reality system. Our team was surprised, and delighted, to find that holoride had figured out how to quell the motion sickness caused both by being a passenger in a vehicle, and by using a VR headset. The key? Matching the experience users have within the headset to the movement of the vehicle. Once holoride launches, users will be able to download the holoride app to their phones or other personal devices like VR headsets, which will connect wirelessly to the car itself, and extend their reality.  

“Our technology has two sides,” said Wollny. “One is the localization, or positioning software, that takes data points from the car and performs real time synchronization. The other part is what we call our Elastic Software Development Kit. Content creators can build elastic content, which adapts to your travel time and routes. The collaboration with Terranet means their sensors and software stack that allow for a more precise capture and interpretation of the environment at an even faster speed with higher accuracy will enable us in the future for even more possibilities.”

Terranet’s VoxelFlow™ software, which was originally designed for ADAS applications, will help holoride advance its real time, in-vehicle XR entertainment. Terranet’s CEO Par-olof Johannesson, describes VoxelFlow™ as a new paradigm within computer vision and object identification, wherein a combination of sensors, event cameras and a laser scanner are integrated into a car’s windshield and headlamps in order to calculate the distance, direction and speed of an object.

Terranet’s VoxelFlow™ uses computer vision and object identification via a combination of sensors, event cameras and a laser scanner, which are integrated into a car’s windshield and headlamps, in order to calculate the distance, direction and speed of an object.

Holoride, which is manufacturer-agnostic, will be able to use the data points calculated by VoxelFlow™ in real time if holoride were being used in a vehicle that was built integrated with Terranet’s software. But more important is the ability for holoride to reuse 3D event data for XR applications, giving it to creators so they can create the most interactive experience. Terranet is also looking forward to opening up a new vertical for VoxelFlow™

“We are of course very eager to access holoride’s wide pipeline, as well,” said Johannesson. “This deal is very much about expanding the addressable market and tapping into the heart of the automotive industry, where lead times and turnaround times are usually pretty long.”

Holoride is on a mission to revolutionize the passenger experience by turning dead car time into interactive experiences that can run the gamut of gaming, education, productivity, mindfulness and more. For example, around Halloween 2019, holoride teamed up with Ford and Universal Pictures to immerse riders into the frightening world of the Bride of Frankenstein, replete with monsters jumping out and tasks for riders to perform. 

Wollny said holoride always has an eye towards the next step, even though its first product hasn’t gone to market yet. He understands that the future is in autonomous vehicles, and wants to build an essential element of the future tech stack of future cars, cars in which everyone is a passenger. 

“Car manufacturers always focus on the buyer of the car or the driver, but not so much on the passenger,” said Wollny. “The passenger is who holoride really focuses on. We want to turn every vehicle into a moving theme park.”

Westward plans a $30M debut fund to take Chinese indie games global

In Hefei, a Chinese city known for its relics from the Three Kingdoms period and its manufacturing industry today, Maxim Rate was thrilled to find a small studio crafting a Western role-playing game, a genre that attracts lovers of gritty aesthetics and dark storylines.

“The design and computer graphics are really good. You can’t tell they are a Chinese team,” said Rate.

Rate’s mission is to find Chinese studios like the bootstrapped Hefei team and help them woo international players. As Chinese regulators tighten rules on game publishing and make licenses hard to obtain in recent years, small studios find themselves struggling. Since last year, Apple has pulled thousands of unlicensed games from its Chinese App Store at the behest of local authorities. Small-time developers begin to look beyond their home turf.

“The problem is these startups have no experience in overseas expansion,” said Rate.

An avid gamer himself, Rate quit his job at a Chinese cross-border payment firm last year and launched a part-incubator, part-investment vehicle to take Chinese games abroad. The firm, called Westward Gaming Ventures, took inspiration from Zheng He, a Chinese diplomat and explorer who embarked on state-sponsored naval expeditions to the “Western Oceans” during the Ming Dynasty.

Westward plans to raise 200 million yuan ($30 million) for its debut fund, Rate told TechCrunch in an interview. It plans to deploy the capital over the next three years with an intended check size of 2-4 million yuan per studio. It’s currently in talks with 20-30 teams that span a wide range of genres.

The Chinese fund being established is a so-called Qualified Foreign Limited Partners Fund, which, for the first time, will enable foreign investors (USD and EUR) to invest directly in Chinese gaming firms. Only a few institutions own a license for QFLP, and while Westward itself doesn’t hold one, it gains legitimacy for direct foreign investment by partnering with the private equity arm of a major Chinese financial conglomerate, which declined to be named at this stage.

To navigate such regulatory complications, Westward also seeks help from its advisors, including one that oversaw the legal and financial process of one of the largest joint ventures established between Chinese and foreign gaming firms in recent years. The partnership, which can’t be named, was also the first time a foreign entity has become the majority shareholder in a gaming joint venture in China.

China limits foreign investments in areas it considers sensitive, such as value-added services, so many companies resort to setting up elaborate offshore entities to receive overseas funding. The restriction makes it difficult for resource-strapped studios to land foreign investors, who could help them venture into global markets. They are left with the option of getting backed or bought by Chinese giants like Tencent or ByteDance.

Rise of Chinese plays

The idea of Westward is not just to lower the barriers for independent Chinese games to secure foreign capital but also better prepare them for overseas expansion.

“Chinese gaming studios, big or small, used to rely heavily on ads for user acquisition when they went abroad,” said Rate. “Sometimes a game would take off, but the team had no idea why, so they continued to test. Those who failed may just give up.”

But taking a game abroad is not as simple as translating it, hitting the publish button and launching an ad campaign on Facebook.

Westward’s plan is to get involved in a game’s early development phase and help them position: Is it an RPG? Is the targeted user a casual or serious player? What’s the graphic style? In addition, the firm also plans to supply developers with workspace, technical assistance, marketing and localization expertise, connection to publishers, and overseas operation help.

Image Credits: Westward Gaming Ventures

To provide post-investment support, Westward has partnered up with V+ Gaming Society, an incubator for games headquartered Shenzhen, which Westward also calls home.

Chinese tech companies are facing mounting challenges in the West as geopolitical tensions rise. Many now prefer calling themselves “global firms” and even deny their Chinese roots outright.

But for Westward, the games it helps doesn’t need to pretend they are non-Chinese. “Most players don’t consider where a game is from if it is a really good game,” said Rate.

“We actually hope to see elements of Chinese culture in these games that can be understood by overseas players.”

Amy Ho, a partner at Westward along with Rate and Edward He, said one of the few Chinese games that have managed to be both “Chinese” and transcend cultural boundaries is Chinese Parents. The simulation game became a global hit by letting users experience what it is like to raise a child in China.

The benchmark Rate gave was the generation of Japanese games that began exporting 20-30 years ago, which he described as “Japanese” in spirit but “globalized” in graphics and game design.

There have already been globally successful titles from Chinese makers like Tencent and rising studios Lilith and Mihoyo. In the past, many Chinese users on Steam would be asking foreign titles to rush out Chinese versions. Now, it’s not uncommon to see Western users demanding English editions of Chinese games, Rate observed.

Rather than politics, the bigger challenge, especially for small studios, is how to “collect key data for product iteration while complying with local privacy laws,” said Ho.

50-70% of Westward’s capital will come from Chinese institutions. The presence of Chinese investments inevitably leads to questions around censorship. Ho said while Westward provides resources and capital to studios, it will work to ensure their independence from investor influence.

If things go well, Westward could help facilitate cultural exchange between China and the rest of the world. Beijing has been trying to export the country’s soft power, and games may be a suitable conduit, suggested Rate. Amid the ongoing trade war, having foreign fundings in Chinese companies may also do good to China’s “brand”, he said.