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As Chinese funding dries up in India, local tech startups are looking elsewhere

Written by Avanish Tiwary and AJ Cortese Published on 

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India’s new foreign investment policy forces both local startups and Chinese investors to adapt amid an uncertain moment.

India is home to 30 unicorn companies, 18 of which are at least partly backed by Chinese investors. As India’s economy continues to digitize, Indian tech startups have increasingly looked to Chinese investors for venture capital funding as well as for Internet industry expertise.

Chinese investors poured USD 3.9 billion into India in 2019, up from USD 2 billion in 2018, as India’s burgeoning Internet industry bears many similarities with China’s online sector, not least of which the immense scale of both markets.

To name a few examples, India’s digital payments leader, Paytm, counts Alibaba Group (NYSE: BABAHKEX: 9988) and its financial affiliate Ant Group as key investors in the company’s journey to spread mobile payments in the world’s largest cash economy.

Swiggy, one of India’s frontrunners in food delivery and local services, has received significant investment from Chinese internet giants Tencent (HKG: 0700) and Meituan-Dianping (HK: 3690), while its rival in the sector, Zomato, is backed by Ant Group, with the Hangzhou-based financial technology firm holding more than a 25% stake in the company.

In addition to China’s internet giants like Alibaba and Tencent, venture capital funds like Shunwei Capital and Morningside Venture have been actively investing in India’s developing tech ecosystem. In December 2019, Chinese insurance giant Ping An (SHA: 601318) made its first investment in India, participating in CarDekho’s USD 70 million Series D round along with Sequoia China and Hillhouse Capital.

However, following political tensions between the two countries, India’s Ministry of Commerce rolled out a new policy in April to block “opportunistic takeovers” requiring all foreign direct investment (FDI) from neighboring countries that share land-border with India to be approved by the government. In a press note, the Indian Government stated that “It has reviewed the extant foreign direct investment (FDI) policy for curbing opportunistic takeovers/acquisitions of Indian companies due to the current COVID-19 pandemic…and amended the FDI policy, 2017.”

“If one has filed all the proper documents, the Indian review team would take around 45 days to respond for the approval to invest in India,” Alok Sonker, partner at K Law, explained to KrASIA about the implementation of the law.

A preliminary result of the new policy is clear: investment from China in Indian companies fell down from USD 1.23 billion in the first half (H1) of 2019 to USD 263 million across 15 deals in H1 2020.

Read more: Food delivery industry in India has almost recovered: Zomato

A Swiggy delivery person’s two-wheeler parked in Bengaluru. Photo by Avanish Tiwary

How are Indian startups adapting?

Of India’s neighbors, China is by far the largest supplier of foreign investment, and the initial effects of the funding roadblock have already started appearing. When food delivery unicorn Zomato couldn’t receive USD 50 million from Ant Group, as part of its USD 150 million round announced in January this year, the former raised USD 62 million from Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek.

For Indian tech startups who have relied on Chinese investment in the past, the future looks uncertain as they look for alternative funding sources, while some have raised concerns about the policy’s potential impact on existing foreign-owned stakes in Indian companies.

A Bengaluru-based startup founder, who has raised a Series A round from a Chinese venture capital (VC) fund, told KrASIA on the condition of anonymity that India shouldn’t stop Chinese money from coming into the country. “Indian founders need money as well as their [Chinese VCs] know-how of the industry. Instead of ‘blocking’ investment from China, India should pass a law that limits their shareholding in an Indian company,” the founder said.

Meanwhile, the shift is likely to mean greater interest in fundraising from US investors, which are also very active in India’s tech sector. US-based funds have been investing in Indian tech startups since 2010 and have forged long-term relationships with people in the industry. In fact, many Chinese VCs prefer to invest in an Indian startup only if there’s an American or Indian fund joining the round, already familiar with the founders or sector.

“Although Chinese funds have spent around seven years in India, they have not been able to create an intimacy with Indian founders and VCs as much as US-based funds. A lot of American funds like Sequoia Capital and Accel have hired a lot of people in India and have created founder pools,” Sonker explained.

All the companies that have been waiting for follow-on rounds from China would now have to approach US and Indian funds, which have been collecting funding from limited and general partners, as well as family offices that have started showing interest in technology startups, according to experts.

Read this: India’s Paytm denies Ant Group having a significant influence over it

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To name a few examples, US-based Sequoia Capital, a firm that has invested in India since 2006, backing more than 50 Indian startups last year, announced the completion of two funds amounting to USD 1.35 billion for India and Southeast Asia markets, while In July, Google announced an India-focused fund of whopping USD 10 billion. Singapore-based VC firm Beenext, launched by Japanese founder Teruhide Sato, also raised USD 160 million in June to invest in India, Southeast Asia, and Japan. Indian venture capital firms have also announced new funds to back early-stage tech companies, such as Bengaluru-based 3One4 Capital, which raised USD 40 million this month for its third fund of USD 100 million. 

“It’s not like capital has dried up in India. India has a capital pool coming in from US and European funds, and even South Korean and Japanese funds are interested in this market. In addition to this, we have a local pool of funds,” said Ravish Naresh, founder of digital ledger startup Khatabook.

However, the investors KrASIA spoke to said that while there is no paucity of money, most of the investment is going to growth-stage and mid-stage companies, as VCs would like to save their existing portfolio companies.

What’s more, the Indian startup ecosystem will require this year more funds than ever as the country has added a major number of startups in the first half of 2020. 551 companies were incorporated in H1 as compared to 460 firms in the H1 of last year, according to a report by business intelligence firm Tracxn.

“Post-COVID-19, when businesses would start looking up, startups would be in extra need of money,” Mahendra Swarup, founder and CEO of early-stage fund Venture Gurukool, who actively works with Chinese investors, told KrASIA.

What does this mean for active Chinese investors in India?

Experts in the industry said that while Chinese VCs can still invest in Indian startups, they would prefer to wait for the bilateral relationship to get better. In addition, Chinese investors are known for their speed in closing deals and wouldn’t want to wait for 45 days to get the government’s approval.

“I think this will limit investment in the short-run, but given the tightening investment environment caused by COVID-19, we would have seen a slowdown anyway,” according to Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He added that it is “difficult to quantify the impact of the policy.”

For now, the reality seems to indicate that the slowdown of Chinese investment in India during the first half of 2020 is set to continue, at least in the short-term.

Read this: The shifting gears in India’s VC ecosystem amid India-China standoff

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Big Chinese names are already taking bold decisions. Reuters reported on August 26 that Alibaba has shelved its plans to invest in Indian companies for at least six months, after pouring in over USD 2 billion in Indian companies since 2015. Just weeks later, Alibaba was reported to be in talks to invest USD 3 billion in Singapore-based Grab to seek expansion in Southeast Asia, a region unencumbered by restrictive policies.

Scissors explained that he does not think the policy will target specific business sectors. “I don’t think there is going to be a straightforward split among sectors where some sectors are open to Chinese investment and others are not.” 

He also downplayed the risk for existing Chinese investment in India, citing the logistical difficulties of unwinding some of the country’s biggest tech deals. In a post-pandemic recovery cycle, it would be difficult to find buyers for the divestment of notable recent Chinese investment deals, such as Fosun International’s stake in Dehlivery, Ant Group’s stake in Paytm, and Tencent’s stake in Swiggy among others, according to Scissors.

According to Venture Gurukool’s Swarup, Chinese VCs are not going to give up as they have already spent a lot of time in India.

“It will take a little while for things to smoothen out, but once the geopolitical condition and public sentiment gets better, investors who have already committed would be the first ones to complete their commitments,” Swarup said.

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