Meet Seoul-based accelerator SparkLabs’ 19th batch of startups 

SparkLabs Korea, a Seoul-based seed to early-stage accelerator, held a demo Day on Thursday for its 19th cohort of companies. The latest demo day marks its tenth year after SparkLabs launched its accelerator program in December 2012. The accelerator has backed more than 270 startups since its inception in 2012, co-founder and partner of SparkLabs Eugene Kim told TechCrunch. 

The program has two cohorts a year — one starting in January and the other in June — Kim said, adding that the program is 16 weeks long.   

SparkLabs admits 10 to 15 companies per cohort and invests up to $100,000 into each startup in exchange for 6% equity. Kim noted that the investment is made either with a SAFE (simple agreement for future equity) or stock purchase agreement — a decision that is up to the startup to make. 

During its program, SparkLabs provides funding, mentorship and access to administrative and legal advisory support for startups. In addition, participating startups get co-working space, will attend weekly classes and have access to four to six mentors who have expertise in various industries, not just in South Korea but global regions. 

SparkLabs, a member of the global accelerator network (GAN), has been using international best practices for accelerators from the beginning, Kim said. He added that its partners and mentors are all former entrepreneurs and have global business experience in both the U.S. and Asia. 

The accelerator also operates other government-supported programs like TIPS, a tech incubator program for startups in South Korea, and manages later-stage investment funds, Kim noted. 

SparkLabs began in Korea to find and help local Korean startups in their seed stage and help them go global. Though the majority are based in Korea, the accelerator gets applicants from other countries looking or planning to enter Korea or Asia, according to Kim. 

When asked if SparkLabs Korea is a subsidiary of SparkLabs Group, Kim said it’s not a group structure. Each accelerator entity, such as SparkLabs Korea, SparkLabs Taiwan and SparkLabs Cultiv8, is a separate entity with its own accelerator fund. 

Kim said in an interview with TechCrunch that as the program focuses on early-stage seed startups, some teams pivot or change their business focus as they try to find product market fit (PMF). 

“Not all teams end up pitching at demo day. If the teams feel they want to focus on building their traction or PMF, they can choose to pitch at a later demo day,” Kim said.

Here’s the list of nine companies in the most recent cohort at SparkLabs. The 19th cohort ends with a demo day on November 3. 

  • Vetflux: A telehealth veterinary platform that provides an artificial intelligence-based chatbot for vet clinics and pet owners. It offers two apps connecting vets with their pet patients. The Vetflux app is for pet owners to get the latest information about pet care, while the other, called Vetflux +, is for vets to organize workflows.
  • Amondycare: Amondycare’s app lets mental health therapists manage their workflows and administrative work from patient appointments to sales.
  • YKring: A social app, Kevin’s Club, helps college students make the most of their college life outside the library or dorms. YKring says it enables users to find out what’s going on in the community to find clubs or a group of people with similar interests to do activities together. YKring, which launched its service in January, claims that it has more than 2,500 users with $35,000 in sales as of October 2022. Its monthly subscription fee is ~$20.
  • DataBean: This startup develops a cooling system for data centers. Its service SmartBox allows for thermal management.
  • Fasket: Fasket is a quick commerce startup that operates an instant grocery delivery business in South Korea. 
  • Gyverse: Gyverse develops a fridge for dry-aged meat using IoT and AI. Users can dry age beef at home by interconnecting Gyverse’s smart devices to its app to monitor the temperature and humidity.
  • Moverse: A 3D motion marketplace that allows users to access and buy 3D motion data sources for the use of metaverse, games, movies, animation and augmented reality.
  • R-Materials: R-Material’s platform, called the Hybrid-generator system, enables solar and wind to convert power sources.
  • MyShop Cloud: An online to offline (O2O) platform that wants to digitize the value chain of dried fish, from wholesale to the retail market. Its service Dasiwoorida, which analyzes the dried fish price and transactions, recommends products for customers.

SparkLabs is currently open to applications for its 20th batch program until November 11. The accelerator will finalize its selections in December and looks to start the 20th batch in January.  

South Korea, which attracts the third largest amount of venture capital funding in Asia — about $6.45 billion annually — following China and India, currently has 16 unicorns to date.

Meet Seoul-based accelerator SparkLabs’ 19th batch of startups  by Kate Park originally published on TechCrunch

Volocopter raises $170M, now valued at $1.87B, to fuel the first commercial launches of its flying taxi fleet

Volocopter, the startup out of southern Germany (Bruchsal) that has been developing electric VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft and a business model for operating them in taxi-style fleets in urban areas, has picked up another big round of funding as it inches closer to its first commercial launches. It has raised $170 million, funding that it said it will be using to kick off its first air taxi services, which it noted in an announcement would be “in cities like Singapore, Rome, and Paris.”

The money is part of a Series E, and Volocopter describes it at a first closing made at a pre-money valuation of $1.7 billion, which works out to a post-money valuation of $1.87B. I’ve asked what its target is for the full Series E and any other details it can share on the timing and will update as and when I learn more.

This first tranche is being led by WP Investment, a new backer of the company from South Korea, with strategic investor Honeywell (also a new investor), previous backers Atlantia, Whysol, and btov Partners, and other unnamed existing investors also participated. It has raised $579 million in total to date, and other investors include Geely, Mercedes-Benz Group, Intel Capital, and BlackRock.

Volocopter made a big mark in the autonomous vehicle space when in 2017 — backed by giants like Intel — it ran its first autonomous flying car test in Dubai. (Intel also imported and showed off the Volopter’s self-flying capabilities at an over-the-top event of its own.)

Notably, the announcement of the funding today doesn’t have even a single mention of autonomy or self-driving capabilities, underscoring some more realistic framing as these services get closer to being rolled out.

“This funding round is a testament to Volocopter’s leading position in what is a highly attractive emerging market. We continue to make significant technical and commercial progress as we work toward bringing urban air mobility to life at scale in cities worldwide,” said Florian Reuter, CEO of Volocopter, in a statement.

It also does not specify any timing for the commercial launch, but in March 2021, Reuter told us the services were two years out (so, 2023). We’re also asking about the latest estimated launch date.

Currently, Volocopter highlighting three craft that will appear in its taxi fleets: VoloCity, VoloConnect, and VoloDrone, and it said that it is the “first and only” electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) company to receive Design Organisation Approval (DOA) from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). That means if it plays its cards right it could have a clear shot at the market either as a standalone branded commercial provider, or as a partner to other urban transportation companies, before competitors — others hoping to make a mark in this space include Lilium, Kitty Hawk and Joby Aviation — move in.

On that note, this Series E is an all-equity round, but Volocopter has also been raising a lot of debt for the building of that bigger fleet. Earlier this year it inked a $1 billion deal “in principle” with Aviation Capital Group (ACG) to finance the sale and leasing operation of Volocopter aircraft (that will mean that it could borrow up to $1 billion in debt when the time comes). This will kick in only once Volocopter has full aircraft certification.

It has so far completed some 1,000 public and private test flights.

The company also noted in the announcement that its plan will be to use the funding to get to launch, but also to eventually going public.

“Volocopter has spectacular investors from around the globe, which puts us in an excellent position to focus on our first-to-certification and first-to-market strategies before we embark on the path to public listing,” said Christian Bauer, CCO of Volocopter, in a statement.

That fist-mover advantage, combined with the work that it’s been doing for the last ten years developing its air vehicles, seem to be the two factors that are lending it a lot of credibility right now with investors, even though it has yet to prove a market for the product.

“We are confident that Volocopter will be among the first to bring UAM to cities globally, since seeing its aircraft fly in Seoul last year. As a leader in ESG investment, we are excited to empower city sustainability through Volocopter,” said Dr. Lei Wang, chairman of WP Investment, in a statement. The firm’s co-chairman Tiffany Park added that Korea will be a part of the commercial launch as well.

Korean proptech startup Rsquare raises $72M Series C to fuel its expansion

The commercial real estate brokerage market in South Korea is fragmented, which makes finding a new office for tenants a challenge due to inaccurate listing information, high brokerage fee and complex paperwork. A Seoul-based proptech startup called Rsquare built a data-driven platform to digitize the process, enabling tenants to compare multiple properties and find an office.

The startup has raised a $72 million (85 billion won) Series C round from a single backer STIC Investments, JohnWoo Lee, CEO of Rsquare, said in an interview with TechCrunch. The latest funding brings its total raised to approximately $95 million.

Rsquare will spend the proceeds on advancing its AI-based proptech platform, accelerating its commercial building transaction and fulfillment centers brokerage service and increasing headcount to 400 employees by next year, Lee said. It has 354 employees as of October.

The Seoul-headquartered company also plans to make further investments in the proptech sector in South Korea and Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia, Lee said. Rsquare has invested in a Vietnamese proptech startup Propzy in 2020 and an Indonesian proptech company Mamikos in 2019.

Rsquare, which opened an office in Vietnam in June, is set to enter Singapore this month and Indonesia in 2022, Lee added.

Founded in 2009, Rsquare launched its office brokerage service in 2015 to help startups find office space and has since expanded its platform to serve small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and larger corporations. In 2016, the company set up a wholly-owned subsidiary, Rsquare Design, to provide office interior design services in the wake of $3.8 million Series B funding from Yahoo Japan Capital and SoftBank Ventures Asia.

Lee pointed out that Rsquare’s key differentiator is its commercial building data, including the office landlords’ and tenants’ information, the startup has gathered since its launch. Rsquare claims it has amassed more than 120,000 commercial building data across 50 locations in South Korea and around 10,000 commercial properties data in Vietnam. Its real-time database provides detailed information and reduces more than 50% of time and costs compared to the traditional commercial brokers, according to the company. Rsquare has handled more than 10,000 office brokerage transactions with over 21,000 clients in South Korea.

The pandemic has been hard on the commercial real estate market globally. Rsquare, which also grappled with the pandemic, is being recovered quickly as many Korean companies started to reopen their offices from the second half of last year, Lee said. The company posted revenue of $55.2 million in 2020 and $85 million for the previous eight months. Rsquare expects its revenue to double by the end of 2021, compared to last year, as COVID-19 lockdowns ease, according to the company.

As for its exit plan, Rsqaure is not planning to go public soon; Lee said it would not happen in two years. The company has been approached by global strategic investors for M&A, including WeWork, about two years ago, but couldn’t find any synergy with them at the time, Lee said when asked regarding its M&A possibility. Rsquare will focus on expanding its business and penetrating further into overseas markets for the next two years, Lee added.


igniteXL Ventures closes debut fund to target ‘$5T oversight’ in beauty, wellness

IgniteXL Ventures, a fund founded by general partner Claire Chang, closed on its first fund of $10 million aimed at backing diverse early-stage founders in the beauty and wellness industry.

Chang is an angel investor who moved to the U.S. from Seoul when she was a child and started a global accelerator in 2015. Since then, she has formed a connection to the K-beauty industry and worked with more than 200 early-stage startups.

It was while working with the accelerator that she noticed a gap in funding between angel and seed, observing the frustration female founders felt with the lack of female VCs and with male investors who were not experienced in investing in the beauty and wellness industry. Chang formed igniteXL in 2018 and started fundraising over a year ago.

Claire Chang, ignitexl Ventures

Claire Chang, general partner at igniteXL Ventures. Image Credits: igniteXL Ventures

“This is a $5 trillion market opportunity that is hugely overlooked,” she told TechCrunch. “Beauty and wellness is seen as a women’s segment, but what is happening with the cultural transformation being applied to every industry, this segment is ripe for that.”

The fund’s first close was in February 2020, but she had to stop when the global pandemic hit, and start deploying the capital into the portfolio.

She picked up fundraising again earlier this year and now has 21 companies in the portfolio, including livestream platform BuyWith, sexual wellness brand Dame and skincare brand Good Light. Chang’s plan is to deploy capital into 30 new investments and keep some back for follow-on investments.

“When I set out to raise funds, I had no idea what to do — it was my personality to figure it out along the way,” she said. “I figured out LPs have set a criteria, and I didn’t fit into that: I don’t come from an investment banking background and don’t look like a typical VC. If anything, I am coming from a far different spectrum and it was a challenge, but it forced me to differentiate and bring something different.”

Chang aims to target funding dollars into more diverse founders, where investments historically go to men over 95% of the time and into just 2% of female-founded companies, though she says that number is increasing a bit.

She says she is bringing a unique lens, viewpoint and network to finding companies, especially those that are like she described herself — not a typical VC-backed company.

“Women care for themselves and also buy for all of their family members, so we see many more VC-backed founders coming into this space and more deal flow,”  Chang added. “The fact is that an opportunity lies in this overlooked market. Statistics show that diverse teams outperform by 30%, and for me to raise my second fund, this first fund has to be successful, and more diverse teams are going to help me do that.”

Ultimately, igniteXL’s fund attracted a global profile of prominent VCs and strategic LPs, including Han Kim of Altos Ventures Management, Perry Ha of Draper Athena, Allen Miner of SunBridge Group and the world’s leading cosmetics ODM, Cosmax.

Kim, whose fund invested in Roblox, Coupang, Delivery Hero and Krafton, said via email that “the VC world needs more people like Claire. She empathizes with entrepreneurs and takes on their problems as if they were her own. She really cares.”


Match Group details plans for a dating ‘metaverse,’ Tinder’s virtual goods-based economy

Tinder has already undergone a big revamp with its recent launch of “Explore,” a new section inside the app that will enable more interactive experiences, including the second “Swipe Night” series, real-time chat, interest-based matching, and more. Now, parent company Match Group is detailing its longer-term vision for Tinder and Explore, which will expand to include exclusive, shared, and live experiences and a virtual goods-based economy, supported by Tinder’s new in-app currency, Tinder Coins. In addition, Match spoke today about its broader plans for a dating “metaverse,” and avatar-based virtual experiences that may later roll out to apps across its portfolio, including Tinder.

In terms of the virtual economy, the first phase of its development includes Tinder Coins, which are already being tested in several markets, including a few countries in Europe, Match said.

Next year, Tinder Coins will become available to global users to make in-app purchases of Tinder’s a la carte products, like Boost and Super Like — tools aimed at helping online daters get more matches. They’ll also be used for new pay-as-you-go products that were previously only available with a subscription, like the See Who Likes You feature. And they’ll be used to incentivize certain behaviors on the app, like encouraging members to verify their profiles or add videos to their bio, for example.

Image Credits: Match Group

Longer-term, however, Tinder will evolve its app to include virtual goods and a trading ecosystem, which is being planned for 2022 and beyond. This strategic initiative was detailed during Tinder parent company Match Group’s Q3 earnings, including in its Shareholder Letter and on its earnings call with investors on Wednesday morning.

Across its dating app portfolio, Match Group had reported Q3 revenue of $802 million, up 25% year-over-year, and 16.3 million paid subscribers, up 16%. But the company was transparent about the fact that the Covid pandemic has had an impact on its business — lockdowns early in the pandemic had forced a pivot towards virtual experiences. And now, some users are still less inclined to meet in-person, compared with before the pandemic. In addition, citing lingering Covid effects in Asia, Match Group forecasted weaker Q4 growth than expected with $810-$820 million in revenue instead of the analyst forecast of $838 million.

To address this changing market for online dating, Tinder has leaned into virtual experiences that take place inside the app, instead of only pushing people to get offline for connections. That’s led to the launch of Tinder Explore, and now, it’s driving plans for the forthcoming virtual goods-based economy Tinder has in the works.

Image Credits: Tinder

According to Match Group CEO Shar Dubey, speaking to investors on today’s call, Tinder’s virtual goods will “help users with both self-expression as well as the ability to stand out — particularly in a one-to-many surface area that ‘Explore’ experiences will enable,” she said. “And so the way we envision virtual goods is that it’s something users will be able to collect, as well as give and gift to others.”

Dubey said Tinder in 2022 would be working to design the virtual goods, categorize them, create their value structure, and determine where to best showcase the items on users’ Tinder profiles. This will involve testing virtual goods then iterating and refining the product further, based on those tests. Despite the work that still needs to be done, the exec was optimistic about this plan.

“If we get this right, I do think this could be a multi-year revenue vector for Tinder which doesn’t exist today,” she said.

In addition to developing a virtual goods economy inside Tinder, Match Group also spoke to its larger plans for leveraging Hyperconnect, the Seoul-based social app maker it acquired for $1.73 billion earlier in 2021. So far, Hyperconnect has not performed as well as expected, in part due to Covid and in part due to other issues — including marketing performance and product delays, the company admitted.

But Match still believes in Hyperconnect’s long-term value to its business, Dubey said.

She talked specifically about Hyperconnect’s test of an avatar-based dating app and “metaverse” experience called Single Town, where users interact using real-time audio and meet each other in virtual spaces, like a bar, where they have live audio conversations. Users can express interest in one another in the virtual world, then choose to connect privately to continue their conversations.

“It is metaverse experiences coming to life in a way that is transformative to how people meet and get to know each other on a dating or social discovery platform, and is much more akin to how people interact in the real world,” Dubey said of the test.

This type of interactivity is something Match Group eventually wants to leverage across its portfolio, the company said.

“This next phase of dating apps, in particular, is going to be all about richer, more organic, and more akin to real-life ways of discovering, meeting, and getting to know people. Technology is finally getting there. And this underlying technology platform Hyperconnect has built that powers Single Town has been built in a way that it can be leveraged by other platforms easily,” Dubey noted, but without naming which Match-owned apps she had in mind.

However, it seems a metaverse-like platform for dating could later tie into something like Tinder’s virtual goods economy, though the company didn’t state this was the plan. But based on current social trends, it’s obvious how a dating app’s users could one day buy items to accessorize their avatar or buy gifts for other users, which are purchased with virtual currency — much like in other “metaverse” platforms, like Roblox, Fortnite, or withing Meta’s (Facebook’s) Horizon.

In its Shareholder Letter, Match Group only hinted towards the possibilities for this dating metaverse and the experiences it creates.

“This new experience provides a glimpse into how metaverse experiences could be applicable to dating and it is the sort of innovation that will help us evolve our portfolio as we enter the next phase of dating,” the letter stated.

“We’re still very optimistic about the long-term prospects for Hyperconnect,” explained Match Group CFO and COO Gary Swidler, on the call. “It can contribute extremely significantly to the long-term growth of the overall Match Group. There’s many ways that we can do that. We think that we can leverage video, audio, A.I. capabilities that they’ve got, things in moderation, and safety. There’s a number of things that we’re working very hard at leveraging,” he continued.

“The new metaverse elements and the experience that we’re seeing in that beta test — that is something that potentially we can build into either standalone app and/or potentially leverage that user experience into some of our apps in the portfolio,” Swidler said.

SoftBank leads $15M round for China’s industrial robot maker Youibot

SoftBank has picked its bet in China’s flourishing industrial robotics space. Youibot, a four-year-old startup that makes autonomous mobile robots for a range of scenarios, said it has notched close to 100 million yuan ($15.47 million) in its latest funding round led by SoftBank Ventures Asia, the Seoul-based early-stage arm of the global investment behemoth.

In December, SoftBank Ventures Asia led the financing round for another Chinese robotics startup called KeenOn, which focuses on delivery and service robots.

Youibot’s previous investors BlueRun Ventures and SIG also participated in the round. The startup, based in Shenzhen where it went through SOSV’s HAX hardware accelerator program, secured three financing rounds during 2020 as businesses and investors embrace industrial automation to minimize human contact. Youibot has raised over 200 million yuan to date.

Founded by a group of PhDs from China’s prestigious Xi’an Jiaotong University, Youibot develops solutions for factory automation, logistics management, as well as inspection and maintenance for various industries. For example, its robots can navigate around a yard of buses, inspect every tire of the vehicles and provide a detailed report for maintenance, a feature that helped it rack up Michelin’s contract.

Youibot’s “strongest suits” are in electronics manufacturing and electric power patrol, the company’s spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The startup is also seeing high growth in its semiconductor business, with customers coming from several prominent front-end wafer fabs, which use the firm’s robots for chip packaging, testing, and wafer production. Youibot declined to disclose their names due to confidentiality.

Chinese clients that it named include CRRC Zhuzhou, a state-owned locomotive manufacturer, Huaneng Group, a state-owned electricity generation giant, Huawei, and more. China currently comprises 80% of Youibot’s total revenues while overseas markets are rapidly catching up. The firm’s revenues tripled last year from 2020.

Youibot plans to spend the fresh proceeds on research and development in its mobile robots and propietary software, team building and market expansion.

GM, LG Chem studying the feasibility of a second battery cell plant in the U.S.

General Motors is exploring building a second U.S. battery cell manufacturing plant with its joint-venture partner Seoul, South Korea-based LG Chem.

If the plant moves forward, it would be the latest in a series of investments aimed at building out the auto giant’s portfolio of electric vehicles. The company’s joint venture with LG, Ultium Cells LLC, is already at work constructing a $2.3 billion battery cell manufacturing facility in Lordstown, Ohio.

The companies hope to have a decision on the factory in the first half of 2021, GM spokesman Dan Flores told TechCrunch. He declined to specify possible locations for the site but Tennessee is high on the list, according to reporting from the Wall Street Journal.

GM has set ambitious targets for decarbonizing its operations and pledged steep investments to get there. Through 2025 alone the company said it would bring thirty EV models across its brands to the global market and spend $27 billion on electrification and automated technology—a 35% increase from 2020 spending. By the mid-2030s, GM said its fleet will be all-EV.

“Clearly, with our commitment to an all-electric future, we will need a lot of battery cells,” Flores said.

He declined to comment on the ongoing shortage of battery cells, which has affected EV manufacturers Tesla and Nikola. President Joe Biden issued an executive order at the end of February instructing federal agencies to identify risks in the supply chains for batteries, semiconductors, and other critical items, including where supply chains are dependent on “competitor nations.”

GM CEO Mary Barra said in a virtual investor presentation last week that the battery shortage is one reason the company is investing in its own battery cell manufacturing. She alluded to plans to grow the company’s battery cell manufacturing operations but did not go into specifics.

“There’s more coming than we’ve announced already,” she said.

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Tencent leads $100M Series B funding round into China-based esport provider VSPN

Further confirmation that the esports market is booming amid the pandemic comes today with the news that esports ‘total solutions provider’ VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has raised what it describes as ‘close to’ $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings . Other investors that participated in the round include Tiantu Capital, SIG (Susquehanna International Group), and Kuaishou. The funding round will go towards improving esports products and its ecosystem in China and across Asia.

Founded in 2016 and headquartered in Shanghai, VSPN was one of the early pioneers in esports tournament organization and content creation out of Asia. It has since expanded into other businesses including offline venue operation.

In a statement, Dino Ying, CEO of VSPN (see also our exclusive interview) said: “We are delighted to announce this latest round of funding. Thanks to policies supporting Shanghai as the global center for esports, and with Beijing, Chengdu, and Xi’an expressing confidence in the development of esports, VSPN has grown rapidly in recent years. After this funding round, we look forward to building an esports research institute, an esports culture park, and further expanding globally. VSPN has a long-term vision and is dedicated to the sustainable development of the global esports ecosystem.”

Dino Ying, VSPN CEO

Dino Ying, VSPN CEO

Mars Hou, general manager of Tencent Esports, commented: “VSPN’s long-term company vision and leading position in esports production are vital for Tencent to optimize the layout of the esports industry’s development.”

We had a hint that Tencent might invest in VSPN when, in March this year, Mark Ren, COO of Tencent Holdings, made a public statement that Tencent would provide more high-quality esports competitions in conjunction with tournament organizers like VSPN.

As we observed in August, Tencent, already the world’s biggest games publisher, that it would consolidate Douyu and Huya, the previously competing live-streaming sites focused on video games.

In other words, Tencent’s investment into VSPN shows it is once again doubling-down on the esports market.

This Series B funding round comes four years after VSPN’s 2016 Series A funding round, which was led by Focus Media Network, joined by China Jianteng Sports Industry Fund, Guangdian Capital, and Averest Capital.

Now, VSPN has become the principal tournament organizer and broadcaster for PUBG MOBILE international competitions, and China’s top competitions for Honor of Kings, PUBG, Peacekeeper Elite, CrossFire, FIFA, QQ Speed, and Clash Royale. This will tally-up 12,000 hours of original content. The company has partnered with over 70% of China’s esports tournaments.

In March, another huge esports player, ESL, joined forces with Tencent to become a part of the PUBG Mobile esports circuit for 2020.

In addition to its core esports tournament and content production business, VSPN has branded esports venues in Chengdu, Xi’an, and Shanghai. In May, VSPN launched its first overseas venue, V. SPACE in Seoul, South Korea.

And even offline events are coming back. VSPN hosted the first large-scale esport event with offline audiences in August this year. And the LOL S10 event will open 6,000 tickets. However, all tournaments will operate under strict COVID-19 prevention measures and approval processes by the Chinese government, and not all esports events are allowing offline audiences. In the main, only high-level ones are approved.

VSPN said it will continue to focus on building an esports short-form video ecosystem, improving the quality of esports content creation, and reaching more users via different channels. VSPN currently houses more than 1,000 employees in five business divisions.

Google Cloud announces four new regions as it expands its global footprint

Google Cloud today announced its plans to open four new data center regions. These regions will be in Delhi (India), Doha (Qatar), Melbourne (Australia) and Toronto (Canada) and bring Google Cloud’s total footprint to 26 regions. The company previously announced that it would open regions in Jakarta, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Seoul and Warsaw over the course of the next year. The announcement also comes only a few days after Google opened its Salt Lake City data center.

GCP already had a data center presence India, Australia and Canada before this announcement, but with these newly announced regions, it now offers two geographically separate regions for in-country disaster recovery, for example.

Google notes that the region in Doha marks the company’s first strategic collaboration agreement to launch a region in the Middle East with the Qatar Free Zones Authority. One of the launch customers there, is Bespin Global, a major manages services provider in Asia.

“We work with some of the largest Korean enterprises, helping to drive their digital transformation initiatives. One of the key requirements that we have is that we need to deliver the same quality of service to all of our customers around the globe,” said John Lee, CEO, Bespin Global. “Google Cloud’s continuous investments in expanding their own infrastructure to areas like the Middle East make it possible for us to meet our customers where they are.”

SendBird’s messaging platform gets new moderation tools, full-text search and more

SendBird is announcing a major update to its chat API for web and mobile today. With this, SendBird is adding numerous new features to its service that will make it easier for its customers to moderate images, build custom moderation tools for their specific needs and add reactions and delivery receipts to their chat interfaces.

The company, which was founded in Seoul, says it currently serves about 90 million active users across the globe and sends out about 1.5 billion messages per month. SendBird CEO John Kim tells me that the company is especially strong in the on-demand services space with customers like Gojek, iFood and Delivery Hero, as well as marketplace services like Carousell, Paytm, Treveloka and SSG, and community sites with customers like Reddit, Dream 11 and Yahoo Fantasy Sports (Disclosure: Yahoo is owned by VMG and hence has the same corporate parent as TechCrunch).

“We’ve seen a lot of recent growth in Healthcare for both care provider to patient chat as well as for benefits management,” he added. “These tend to be digital-first disruptors like Accolde, Livongo, and Grand Rounds. We have pockets of customers in gaming, dating, and live streaming.”

As for today’s updates, quite a few of them focus on moderation. There’s a new image moderation feature, for example, as well as a new RegEx profanity filter that gives moderators a lot of options for how to prevent specific messages from getting through. SendBird now also offers a GDPR-compliant API and a moderation API that its customers can use to extend the company’s built-in options.

Also new are offline sync for caching messages locally when there is a service interruption, on-demand translation to augments SendBird’s auto-translation feature and the ability to translate push notifications.

This focus on translation doesn’t come as a surprise. SendBird has a global customer base and the company has long been a strong player in the APAC region. Now, however, Kim tells me, it’s customer base is spread pretty evenly between the U.S., EMEA and APAC.

What users are most likely to notice, though, is that SendBird customers can now add reactions to their chat interfaces, making them feel a bit more like a modern messaging app on a smartphone. In addition to that, SendBird is adding delivery receipts and full-text search capabilities.

“If you think about it, chat/messaging was one of the first uses of technology (telephone, fax) and then the Internet (chat rooms, IRC, and ICQ),” Kim said when I asked him why he thinks in-app chat is now taking off. “During the desktop era, chat was limited by access to a modem and when you were at home. But the mobile era and cheap access to 3G/4G networks and WIFI has unlocked global and democratized access to chat. As smartphone adoption grew, especially in developing and heavily populated countries where people bypassed older technologies like desktops and email, the use of chat became the norm.”

He argues that in the messaging space, network-effects drive the market toward a small number of players (think WhatsApp, WeChat, and Facebook Messenger) — and over time, customers simply expect the same kind of convenience from the companies they deal with on a daily basis.

“Now everyone else has to catch up and ensure their experience meets the new normal,” he noted. “But most don’t have the talent or knowhow to get there or compete. Hence the current popularity and growth of chat APIs.”