If you were around during the turn-of-the-millennium tech boom in Silicon Valley, then you probably have a long-forgotten page in a notebook somewhere filled with ideas to help you change the world and get rich quick. One superstar idea from that era is today’s Tesla, the electric vehicle maker born in 2003 that has become one of the world’s most valuable companies. While that big idea hailed from the Valley, the Teslas of tomorrow could come from anywhere. After all, the global tech boom is revolutionizing everything from how we communicate to how we transfer money — even to how we eat. Today’s Sunday Magazine dives into the investment trends, apps and businesses that are reshaping our world.
Isabelle Lee and Pallabi Munsi, Reporters
hot investment trends
1. A New Social Pillar
Facebook is to Instagram as SoftBank is to… SoftBank’s internet subsidiary. Z Holdings is looking for a company to buy to help it transform like Facebook did when it acquired Instagram. The goal? To become a Southeast Asian social media giant to rival the big boys in Silicon Valley and China and give the world a “third option” in tech. With a market cap of $43 billion, it’s already gobbled up messaging app Line and is hungry for more.
2. Spectacular SPACs
Commonly known as “blank check” deals, special purpose acquisition companies have become the biggest craze in finance as a way to quickly take a company public. Groups of investors pool their money and go looking for a company to acquire that aligns with their interests — in deals that are often led by big personalities from basketball star Shaquille O’Neal to singer Ciara to former Trump White House adviser Gary Cohn. There has already been $73 billion worth of SPAC deals this year, nearly topping last year’s record-shattering $83 billion, with some $118 billion now looking for acquisition/merger targets. But here’s the rub: As the market crowds, blank-check companies are settling for less than perfect matches, with the CNBCs SPAC 50 market cap index recently dropping 15 percent in two weeks — erasing this year’s gains.
The newest crypto craze in many ways resembles the days of collecting Pokémon or baseball cards … just add a few zeros to the price. Non-fungible-tokens (NFTs) run on blockchain technology and can be just about anything that can be made digital, though artwork is hottest right now. In addition to collectors, investors and speculators are flocking to the space, with digital art from the likes of Beeple fetching millions of dollars, a LeBron James dunk video selling for $208,000 and William Shatner auctioning an X-ray of his teeth (really). Look out for investment flowing to startups that help create NFTs or their marketplaces.
The pandemic flipped the biotech and pharmaceutical company script; it’s now young biotech firms that hold the power. Many smaller biotech companies are deciding to resist being acquired in order to maintain their control and independence. At the same time, the sector attracted more venture capital investment than ever and a record 71 biotech companies made initial public offerings in 2020, raising a collective $16 billion. Big pharma companies are still keen on buying up smaller firms in order to pick up new products, but they’ll have new competition from the world of private equity — which is showing an increased interest in health care.
Going to the store and blindly choosing a wine because you’re charmed by the label feels antiquated now, thanks to our friends at Bright Cellars. These MIT grads created a custom algorithm that finds the perfect wine for you. Just take their palate quiz and you’ll get wine selected just for you delivered to your doorstep. Sign up now to get $45 off your first order of six wines.
Mesmerizing users since its 2015 launch, this app lets you order everything from cookies to cash. It assigns a courier to act like a real-life genie, transporting your personal belongings, picking up cash, even walking your dog in more than 50 cities across nine Latin American countries. Rappi’s founders were included in the Bloomberg 50 list in 2019, and the company has attracted financing from the likes of SoftBank, Sequoia Capital and Andreessen Horowitz. But there’s a catch: Brazilian labor inspectors recently accused the company of being “willfully blind” to its use of child labor, as they discovered 16- and 17-year-olds making Rappi deliveries on bikes, in violation of the country’s labor laws.
It started off as the Uber of motorcycle taxis in 2018 and now has plans to become the biggest superapp in Africa. In August, Gozem acquired Délivroum, the largest Togolese delivery application for parcels. Today, the app operates in seven cities across Togo and Benin and recently announced a partnership with Singaporean fund manager Asia Africa Investment & Consulting. It now plans to connect its users with health care services as it plots an expansion into eight countries across West and Central Africa.
3. Yandex (Russia)
The search giant is the most valuable company in the Russian internet, at around $23 billion. And now with the August launch of Yandex Go — combining on-demand transportation and delivery — the Moscow-based firm has what could be considered Europe’s first superapp. In a bid to become Russia’s Google, Uber and Amazon all rolled into one (raising monopoly concerns), Yandex is not averse to spending money. After recording a 2 percent spike in profits during a pandemic-wracked 2020, Yandex aims to spend $400-$500 million this year in an e-commerce push. Founder Arkady Volozh, still at the company’s helm after two decades, is not shy about throwing his influence around.
Starting as a local ride-hailing app in 2012, Grab has had a long, fruitful and bumpy ride expanding across Southeast Asia. Now the company offers GrabPay — a local Venmo or Google Pay — and GrabFood to compete with UberEats. Grab Financial offers drivers micro-insurance in Malaysia and personal loans in the Philippines. The app also has teamed up with Agoda and Booking.com to let users compare prices and book hotels and rent apartments. Meanwhile, it’s partnered with HOOQ to give users in Singapore access to on-demand streaming video and has a joint venture with China’s Ping An Good Doctor to provide medical services such as telehealth appointments and medicine delivery. Despite all these sprawling lines of business, Grab has yet to turn a profit, leading to talk of a merger with its chief ride-hailing rival, Indonesia’s Gojek.
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You’ve probably never heard of this AI company, but its $35 billion valuation is about as much as eBay. New York City–based UiPath is at the cutting edge of “robotic process automation,” where companies deploy AI in places you wouldn’t normally expect — like accounting, call centers and claims processing. The desired result is improved efficiency and allowing people to do higher-value work than paper-pushing, but these bots also could be coming for your job.
The largest digital bank in the world outside of China is based in Brazil. A whopping 34 million people use Nubank, which features a jazzy purple credit card, competitive fees and interest rates — and no physical branches. Now valued at $25 billion and expanding into Colombia and Mexico, the company is helping people across Latin America set up their financial futures outside of institutionalized banks, which many in the region trust.
The Melbourne-based startup makes it easier for companies that do business in several countries to trade and receive money by reducing their foreign exchange fees — seeking out the best exchange rates and charging low fees — while designing borderless cards with Visa. It became the fastest Australian company to reach unicorn status, hitting a $1 billion valuation less than four years after its 2015 founding by a group of 20-something college pals, including Lucy Yueting Liu.
4. Cellulant (Kenya)
This firm was rocked by scandal in August when it was revealed that 14 employees had inappropriately received funds from a Cellulant spin-off company. After steering the company through the crisis, CEO and co-founder Ken Njoroge announced he’ll step down in June and allow a new leader to grow the company. Originally founded as a platform to help artists get paid when people used their songs as ringtones, Cellulant is credited with helping jump-start Africa’s fintech boom and now works across 34 African countries, processing 12 percent of the continent’s digital payments.
5. Konfio (Mexico)
This firm is at the forefront of using technology to speed up the traditionally drawn-out loan process for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Konfio uses tech to compile data about the applicants, allowing them to make decisions quickly and give out loans faster than banks. Its service is more important than ever given the crush that SMEs have experienced during the pandemic. Konfio just got a boost of $60 million to its Goldman Sachs credit line, on top of $100 million the bank extended in 2019. Konfio has pledged to inject that into the Latin American market, with a focus on women-led businesses.
Last year, Beyoncé’s dad, Mathew Knowles, joined as an investor. But that’s not the only reason this music streaming platform has thrived in many of Africa‘s biggest markets since its birth four years ago, while also serving the U.K. and North America. Perhaps it has become a hit because it wants to change the world’s perception of African music. As Knowles put it at the Midem industry forum: “There’s a tendency to always put African music and African artists in a bucket, and that bucket is called ‘World Music.’ We want to change that perception.” MePlaylist is going about that task with new deals with distributors FUGA and Symphonic, which will boost its offerings by 7 million songs.
2. JustWatch (Germany)
This app could be your new best friend. Ask it about a show and it will direct you to exactly which episodes are available in which streaming format, a maddeningly complex proposition these days that even Google can’t always solve. It’s a TV Guide for the modern age that you didn’t know you needed.
3. Chingari (India)
Despite its reputation, Chingari’s co-founder and CEO makes it clear that his app isn’t just a TikTok clone. And he is proving it too. Just recently, the short video platform inked a deal with two independent music labels to ensure their creators can engage with it. In addition, it's entering the “social commerce” sphere and using artificial intelligence to do it. Now users can watch videos, hit pause if they like a creator’s outfit and buy something similar on Amazon, thanks to an AI algorithm.
This beauty brand is one of the first to use WeChat to leverage sales. Its virtual avatar befriends you on the app and then can send promo codes or promote new products through messages. This innovative marketing formula, combined with low-cost items and viral ad campaigns, makes Perfect Diary one of China’s biggest beauty industry disruptors. After going public in the fall, its parent company, Yatsen, now has a market cap of $11.8 billion and is buying British-owned skincare brand Eve Lom.
2. NotCo (Chile)
Meet NotCo, the meat and dairy substitute company that is outperforming Impossible Foods. Yes, really. The company uses AI that analyzes the taste, color and texture of different foods to design recipes for dairy-free ice cream and plant-based burgers and is leading the Latin American market in the quest for alternatives. The company’s ersatz beef is being touted at both Burger King and Papa John’s pizza outlets in Chile.
3. Klasha (Nigeria)
The worst part about online shopping is getting all the way to the checkout window and realizing that the company doesn’t ship to your country or won’t accept your currency. Jessica Anuna is trying to solve that problem for African consumers. She created Klasha, which will allow consumers to buy from any fashion retailer and get items delivered. The app is focused on the Nigerian, Kenyan and Ghanaian markets, but Anuna is determined to expand further.
4. Noquo (Sweden)
Anyone who’s sampled options for vegan cheese knows they can be hit or miss — more often miss. Noquo to the rescue. The Swedish company is betting big on legumes being the secret to making dairy-free cheese — typically made from coconut oil or nuts — something that tastes and melts like the real deal.
5. Transfernation (U.S.)
What can a restaurant do with all that leftover food? One option is to call Transfernation, a New York City–based delivery app that connects restaurants to homeless shelters and pantries, diverting millions of pounds of prepared food from landfills. The force behind the nonprofit, Hannah Dehradunwala, is pushing for restaurants and corporations alike to commit to doing good for the sake of doing good, not just for the optics.