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Notion, the fast-growing work collaboration tool that recently hit a $ 2 billion valuation, said on Twitter Monday that its service is blocked in China.

The productivity app has attracted waves of startups and tech workers around the world — including those in China — to adopt its all-in-one platform that blends notes, wikis, to-dos, and team collaboration. The four-year-old San Francisco-based app is widely seen as a serious rival to Evernote, which started out in 2004.

Notion said it is “monitoring the situation and will continue to post updates,” but the timing of the ban noticeably coincides with China’s annual parliament meeting, which began last week after a two-month delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Internet regulation and censorship normally toughen around key political meetings in the country.

Notion could not be immediately reached for comment.

For Notion and other apps that have entered the public eye in China but remained beyond the arm of local laws, a looming crackdown is almost certain. The country’s cybersecurity watchdog could find Notion’s free flow of note-sharing problematic. Some users have even conveniently turned the tool’s friendly desktop version into personal websites. If Notion were to keep its China presence, it would have to bow to the same set of regulations that rule all content creation platforms in China.

Its predecessor Evernote, for example, established a Chinese joint venture in 2018 and released a local edition under the brand Yinxiang Biji, which comes with compromised features and stores user data within China.

Rivalry in work collaboration

Just before its ban in China, Notion surged on May 21 to become the most-downloaded productivity app in the domestic Android stores, according to third-party data from App Annie. The sudden rise appears to be linked to its Chinese copycat Hanzhou (寒舟), which stirred up controversy within the developer community over its striking resemblance to Notion.

In an apologetic post published on May 22, Xu Haihao, the brain behind Hanzhou and a former employee of ByteDance-backed document collaboration app Shimo, admitted to “developing the project based on Notion.”

“We are wrong from the beginning,” wrote Xu. “But I intended to offend nobody. My intention was to learn from [Notion’s] technology.” As a resolution, the developer said he would suspend Hanzou’s development and user registration.

Some of the largest tech firms in China are gunning for the workplace productivity industry, which received a recent boost during the coronavirus crisis. Alibaba’s Dingtalk claimed last August that more than 10 million enterprises and over 200 million individual users had registered on its platform. By comparison, Tencent’s WeChat Work said it had logged more than 2.5 million enterprises and some 60 million active users by December.


TechCrunch

Brothers Martin, Meti and Massi Basiri all left Iran to study abroad in Canada. After struggling with every aspect from the visa process to grade conversions, the brothers saw an opportunity to make the transition to study internationally more seamless. So, they started Applyboard in 2015 at University of Waterloo’s Velocity Garage.

ApplyBoard has two main parts of its business. First, the company helps international students search and apply from a single platform to universities and colleges across the world. Similar to how American students use the Common App to apply to schools, ApplyBoard seeks to be the college undergrad application for international students, and serve as a marketplace. It is free for students.

The other part of ApplyBoard’s business is on the university side. The startup makes money from revenue-sharing agreements with colleges and universities. If a student attends a college from using their services, ApplyBoard gets a cut of the tuition.

While the SaaS-enabled startup did not disclose revenue, it said it took in $ 300 million in sales last year.

Five years after founding, ApplyBoard has helped assist over 100,000 students across 110 countries to study internationally. Today, the Ontario-based startup announced it raised $ 75 million (USD) at a $ 1.5 billion valuation, making it the latest edtech unicorn.

Unlike most of the reported rounds we’ve been covering these days, this round was closed at the end of March in the thick of the pandemic for Canada, co-founder Martin Basiri told TechCrunch . It means that ApplyBoard’s new valuation is yet another example of how edtech as a sector is feeling dollar sign momentum from COVID-19.

The pandemic has forced millions of students to learn from home, putting tech companies at the forefront of making remote education possible. ApplyBoard, said Basiri, had a 200% month-over-month surge of new schools signing up for its service.

“A lot of investors noticed the importance of our digital platform that can do such an important job,” said Basiri.

While most unicorns in the edtech space hail from the B2C space, like Duolingo and Udemy, the story with ApplyBoard shows that there is promise in selling to large businesses. Across the world, colleges have been turning to alternative marketing channels as campus tours and limited travel hurts their exposure to international students.

The new round was led by Drive Capital. Other participating investors include Fidelity Investments Canada ULC, Business Development Bank of Canada, Anthos Capital, Artiman Ventures, and Plug and Play Tech Center. ApplyBoard plans to hire 100 more employees, atop its existing 400 staff.


TechCrunch

Ebanx, the newly minted Brazilian financial services unicorn, expects to process $ 2 billion in payments by the end of the year and is looking to expand its offerings into domestic payments as it grows.

Since its launch in 2012, Ebanx has primarily focused on helping international merchants sell locally in Brazil. The Brazilian business accounts for nearly 90% of the company’s revenue, but as it expands into other markets the company is also broadening its suite of services.

The company moved into local payment processing in Brazil in April of this year, and recently closed on a new financing round from previous investors FTV and Endeavor Catalyst that values the company north of $ 1 billion, according to chief executive Alphonse Voigt. 

The money will be used to continue an aggressive hiring push in new markets and the launch of the company’s local payment services in other geographies, beginning with Colombia in the new year.

As credit cards penetrate the Latin American market, approval rates for local companies are increasing, which represents an attractive new source of revenue, Voigt says.

In addition to the local payment processing, Ebanx recently announced that it became a payment partner for the Uber Pay ecosystem in Latin America and would start processing cash voucher and bank transfer payments for Uber in Brazil and across Latin America. The company also inked deals with Coursera, Scribd, Trip.com and Shopify throughout Latin America. Finally, the company partnered with Mastercard on an initiative to increase electronic payments in the Brazilian state of Parana.


TechCrunch

You may not have heard of Kobalt before, but you probably engage with the music it oversees every day, if not almost every hour. Combining a technology platform to better track ownership rights and royalties of songs with a new approach to representing musicians in their careers, Kobalt has risen from the ashes of the 2000 dot-com bubble to become a major player in the streaming music era. It is the leading alternative to incumbent music publishers (who represent songwriters) and is building a new model record label for the growing “middle class’ of musicians around the world who are stars within niche audiences.

Having predicted music’s digital upheaval early, Kobalt has taken off as streaming music has gone mainstream across the US, Europe, and East Asia. In the final quarter of last year, it represented the artists behind 38 of the top 100 songs on U.S. radio.

Along the way, it has secured more than $ 200 million in venture funding from investors like GV, Balderton, and Michael Dell, and its valuation was last pegged at $ 800 million. It confirmed in April that it is raising another $ 100 million to boot. Kobalt Music Group now employs over 700 people in 14 offices, and GV partner Avid Larizadeh Duggan even left her firm to become Kobalt’s COO.

How did a Swedish saxophonist from the 1980s transform into a leading entrepreneur in music’s digital transformation? Why are top technology VCs pouring money into a company that represents a roster of musicians? And how has the rise of music streaming created an opening for Kobalt to architect a new approach to the way the industry works?

Gaining an understanding of Kobalt and its future prospects is a vehicle for understanding the massive change underway across the global music industry right now and the opportunities that is and isn’t creating for entrepreneurs.

This article is Part 1 of the Kobalt EC-1, focused on the company’s origin story and growth. Part 2 will look at the company’s journey to create a new model for representing songwriters and tracking their ownership interests through the complex world of music royalties. Part 3 will look at Kobalt’s thesis about the rise of a massive new middle class of popular musicians and the record label alternative it is scaling to serve them.

Table of Contents

Early lessons on the tough road of entrepreneurship

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Image via Kobalt Music

It’s tough to imagine a worse year to launch a music company than 2000. Willard Ahdritz, a Swede living in London, left his corporate consulting job and sold his home for £200,000 to fully commit to his idea of a startup collecting royalties for musicians. In hindsight, his timing was less than impeccable: he launched Kobalt just as Napster and music piracy exploded onto the mainstream and mere months before the dot-com crash would wipe out much of the technology industry.

The situation was dire, and even his main seed investor told him he was doomed once the market crashed. “Eating an egg and ham sandwich…have you heard this saying? The chicken is contributing but the pig is committed,” Ahdritz said when we first spoke this past April (he has an endless supply of sayings). “I believe in that — to lose is not an option.”

Entrepreneurial hardship though is something that Ahdritz had early experience with. Born in Örebro, a city of 100,000 people in the middle of Sweden, Ahdritz spent a lot of time as a kid playing in the woods, which also holding dual interests in music and engineering. The intersection of those two converged in the synthesizer revolution of early electronic music, and he was fascinated by bands like Kraftwerk.


TechCrunch

There’s a new fintech startup in the U.S. that is inching closer to the unicorn status. New York City-headquartered MoneyLion, which provides customers both financial advice and access to loans and other services, said today it has raised $ 100 million in a new round to accelerate its growth in the U.S. market.

The Series C round million for the six-year-old startup was led by Edison Partners and Greenspring Associates, MoneyLion said. MetaBank and FinTech Collective also participated in the round, while Capital One made a strategic investment.

MoneyLion also raised $ 60 million in venture capital and debt in Q2 2018, a spokesperson told TechCrunch. This was not previously disclosed. This means MoneyLion has raised over $ 200 million to date, with its current round valuing the startup at nearly $ 1 billion, a person familiar with the matter said.

MoneyLion, which describes itself as a mobile bank, operates a part lending, part savings and part wealth management app. The all-in-one platform allows users to connect all their bank accounts and credit cards and receive personalized advice on how to better spend their money and also secure loans from within the app.

The startup makes most of its money from subscription services — that cost $ 19.99 per month — it sells to consumers, Dee Choubey, founder and CEO of MoneyLion, told TechCrunch in an interview. The subscription offering bundles banking, core investment management, and access to financing.

Choubey didn’t say how many subscribers MoneyLion has, but noted that more than 5 million customers use the app. This includes free users, who are able to access some core banking features at no cost.

MoneyLion will use the new capital to refine its subscription offerings, finance model, and add new features to keep its existing users enticed to the platform, Choubey said. Last year, the app bandied out over $ 12 million in cashback rewards to its members and 70% of its users saw their credit score climb up by 30 points.

“You will see us investing heavily in broker dealer capabilities, training capabilities, and stock investing capabilities. We think of ourselves approaching financial services just like Netflix approaches content. We want to keep users hooked to the platform,” he said.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Chris Sugden, Managing Partner at Edison Partners, said MoneyLion has focused on bringing the entire bank offerings to its platform in last one year. And this “comprehensive, bundling, first class opportunities around banking and financial literacy” for customers is what attracted him to the startup, he said.

As traditional banks make slow moves to help the growing financial needs of their customers, a growing number of fintech startups have emerged over the years across the globe to fill the gap. In many parts of the world, including the U.S., “neo banks” are helping small and medium sized businesses automate their finances and access many additional features.

On some fronts, MoneyLion competes with a handful of players such as Chime, another mobile bank that raised $ 200 million earlier this year, investment service Acorn, which has more than 3.5 million users, and online money lender SoFi, which quietly raised $ 500 million two months ago.


TechCrunch

Cao Xudong turned up on the side of the road in jeans and a black T-shirt printed with the word “Momenta,” the name of his startup.

Before founding the company — which last year topped $ 1 billion in valuation to become China’s first autonomous driving “unicorn” — he’d already led an enviable life, but he was convinced that autonomous driving would be the real big thing.

Cao isn’t just going for the moonshot of fully autonomous vehicles, which he says could be 20 years away. Instead, he’s taking a two-legged approach of selling semi-automated software while investing in research for next-gen self-driving tech.

Cao, pronounced ‘tsao’, was pursuing his Ph.D. in engineering mechanics when an opportunity came up to work at Microsoft’s fundamental research arm in Asia, putatively the “West Point” for China’s first generation of artificial intelligence experts. He held out there for more than four years before quitting to put his hands on something more practical: a startup.

“Academic research for AI was getting quite mature at the time,” said now 33-year-old Cao in an interview with TechCrunch, reflecting on his decision to quit Microsoft. “But the industry that puts AI into application had just begun. I believed the industrial wave would be even more extensive and intense than the academic wave that lasted from 2012 to 2015.”

In 2015, Cao joined SenseTime, now the world’s highest-valued AI startup, thanks in part to the lucrative face-recognition technology it sells to the government. During his 17-month stint, Cao built the company’s research division from zero staff into a 100-people strong team.

Before long, Cao found himself craving for a new adventure again. The founder said he doesn’t care about the result as much as the chance to “do something.” That tendency was already evident during his time at the prestigious Tsinghua University, where he was a member of the outdoors club. He wasn’t particularly drawn to hiking, he said, but the opportunity to embrace challenges and be with similarly resilient, daring people was enticing enough.

And if making driverless vehicles would allow him to leave a mark in the world, he’s all in for that.

Make the computer, not the car

Cao walked me up to a car outfitted with the cameras and radars you might spot on an autonomous vehicle, with unseen computer codes installed in the trunk. We hopped in. Our driver picked a route from the high-definition map that Momenta had built, and as soon as we approached the highway, the autonomous mode switched on by itself. The sensors then started feeding real-time data about the surroundings into the map, with which the computer could make decisions on the road.

momenta

Momenta staff installing sensors to a testing car. / Photo: Momenta

Momenta won’t make cars or hardware, Cao assured. Rather, it gives cars autonomous features by making their brains, or deep-learning capacities. It’s in effect a so-called Tier 2 supplier, akin to Intel’s Mobileye, that sells to Tier 1 suppliers who actually produce the automotive parts. It also sells directly to original equipment manufacturers (OMEs) that design cars, order parts from suppliers and assemble the final product. Under both circumstances, Momenta works with clients to specify the final piece of software.

Momenta believes this asset-light approach would allow it to develop state-of-the-art driving tech. By selling software to car and parts makers, it not only brings in income but also sources mountains of data, including how and when humans intervene, to train its codes at relatively low costs.

The company declined to share who its clients are but said they include top carmakers and Tier 1 suppliers in China and overseas. There won’t be many of them because a “partnership” in the auto sector demands deep, resource-intensive collaboration, so less is believed to be more. What we do know is Momenta counts Daimler AG as a backer. It’s also the first Chinese startup that the Mercedes-Benz parent had ever invested in, though Cao would not disclose whether Daimler is a client.

“Say you operate 10,000 autonomous cars to reap data. That could easily cost you $ 1 billion a year. 100,000 cars would cost $ 10 billion, which is a terrifying number for any tech giant,” Cao said. “If you want to acquire seas of data that have a meaningful reach, you have to build a product for the mass market.”

Highway Pilot, the semi-autonomous solution that was controlling our car, is Momenta’s first mass-produced software. More will launch in the coming seasons, including a fully autonomous parking solution and a self-driving robotaxi package for urban use.

In the long run, the startup said it aims to tackle inefficiencies in China’s $ 44 billion logistics market. People hear about warehousing robots built by Alibaba and JD.com, but overall, China is still on the lower end of logistics efficiency. In 2018, logistics costs accounted for nearly 15 percent of national gross domestic product. In the same year, the World Bank ranked China 26th in its logistics performance index, a global benchmark for efficiency in the industry.

momenta

Cao Xudong, co-founder and CEO of Momenta / Photo: Momenta

Cao, an unassuming CEO, raised his voice as explained the company’s two-legged strategy. The twin approach forms a “closed loop,” a term that Cao repeatedly summoned to talk about the company’s competitive edge. Instead of picking between the presence and future, as Waymo does with Level 4 — a designation given to cars that can operate under basic situations without human intervention — and Tesla with half-autonomous driving, Momenta works on both. It uses revenue-generating businesses like Highway Pilot to fund research in robotaxis, and the sensor data collected from real-life scenarios to feed models in the lab. Results from the lab, in turn, could soup up what gets deployed on public roads.

Human or machine

During the 40-minute ride in midday traffic, our car was able to change lanes, merge into traffic, create distance from reckless drivers by itself except for one brief moment. Toward the end of the trip, our driver decided to grab the wheel for a lane change as we approached a car dangerously parked in the middle of the exit ramp. Momenta names this an “interactive lane change,” which it claims is designed to be part of its automated system and by its strict definition is not a human “intervention”.

“Human-car interaction will continue to dominate for a long time, perhaps for another 20 years,” Cao noted, adding the setup brings safety to the next level because the car knows exactly what the driver is doing through its inner-cabin cameras.

“For example, if the driver is looking down at their cellphone, the [Momenta] system will alert them to pay attention,” he said.

I wasn’t allowed to film during the ride, so here’s some footage from Momenta to give a sneak peek of its highway solution.

Human beings are already further along the autonomous spectrum than many of us think. Cao, like a lot of other AI scientists, believes robots will eventually take over the wheel. Alphabet-owned Waymo has been running robotaxis in Arizona for several months now, and smaller startups like Drive.ai are also offering a similar service in Texas.

Despite all the hype and boom in the industry, there remains thorny questions around passenger safety, regulatory schema and a host of other issues for the fast-moving tech. Uber’s fatal self-driving crash last year delayed the company’s future projects and prompted a public backlash. As a Shanghai-based venture capitalist recently suggested to me: “I don’t think humanity is ready for self-driving.”

The biggest problem of the industry, he argued, is not tech-related but social. “Self-driving poses challenges to society’s legal system, culture, ethics and justice.”

Cao is well aware of the contention. He acknowledged that as a company with the power to steer future cars, Momenta has to “bear a lot of responsibility for safety.” As such, he required all executives in the company to ride a certain number of autonomous miles so if there’s any loophole in the system, the managers will likely stumble across it before the customers do.

“With this policy in place, the management will pay serious attention to system safety,” Cao asserted.

Momenta

Momenta’s new headquarters in Suzhou, China / Photo: Momenta

In terms of actually designing the software to be reliable and to trace accountability, Momenta appoints an “architect of system research and development,” who essentially is in charge of analyzing the black box of autonomous driving algorithms. A deep learning model has to be “explainable,” said Cao, which is key to finding out what went wrong: Is it the sensor, the computer, or the navigation app that’s not working?

Going forward, Cao said the company is in no rush to make a profit as it is still spending heavily on R&D, but he assured that margins of the software it sells “are high.” The startup is also blessed with sizable fundings, which Cao’s resume certainly helped attract, and so did his other co-founders Ren Shaoqing and Xia Yan, who were also alumni of Microsoft Research Asia.

As of last October, Momenta had raised at least $ 200 million from big-name investors including GGV Capital, Sequoia Capital, Hillhouse Capital, Kai-Fu Lee’s Sinovation Ventures, Lei Jun’s Shunwei Capital, electric vehicle maker NIO’s investment arm, WeChat operator Tencent and the government of Suzhou, which will house Momenta’s new 4,000 sq-meter headquarters right next to the city’s high-speed trail station.

When a bullet train speeds past Suzhou, passengers are able to see from their windows Momenta’s recognizable M-shape building, which, in the years to come, might become a new landmark of the historic city in eastern China.


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