Tech stars of the year
Mail.ru Group and Yandex, Russia’s largest Internet companies, as well as Sberbank, the state-owned financial institution turning into a tech giant, made the headlines in 2019. Meanwhile, a few Russian and Ukrainian companies from the e-commerce and online gaming sectors began asserting themselves internationally.
Sberbank is no longer just the good old savings bank that survived all Russian revolutions since the middle of the nineteenth century. It has become a tentacular tech group well beyond financial services.
Last year saw this empire expand continuously. Sberbank’s most notable moves included:
- A JV partnership with Mail.ru Group with an up to $1 billion co-investment in food delivery and taxi hailing activities;
- Another partnership with this group to boost the development of digital economy and AI powered products in Russia;
- The potential acquisition of a $170 million stake in Mail.ru Group through the purchase of MF Technologies, previously a property of Gazprombank;
- Bought a large stake in online media group Rambler;
- A joint-venture with Cognitive Technologies with a focus on AI-based driver assistance systems;
- The acquisition of a controlling stake in Speech Technology Center to create a “global leader” in biometrics;
- The acquisition of logistics service provider Shiptor;
- The acquisition of Rabota.ru, a major Russian digital job search service.
In February, Sberbank went as far as to launch a neuroscience and human behavior laboratory. This lab will aim to make the results of its research available to Sberbank affiliates “in their everyday practice,” making their products “completely relevant” to people’s needs.
Last year was rich in strategic moves for Mail.ru, the LSE-listed Russian group which controls a large fraction of the Russian social networks, online gaming and other digital resources.
In addition to its new projects with Sberbank, Mail.ru Group:
- Completed a major e-commerce JV deal involving Alibaba Group and its subsidiary AliExpress, as well as MegaFon and RDIF, with a joint $400 million investment plan;
- Teamed up with Alipay, USM, MegaFon and RDIF to launch an e-wallet business;
- Acquired Belarusian game studio Swag Masha, Russian content and ad recommendation service Relap.io and online recruiting service Worki
- Took control of YouDrive, a car-sharing company;
- Acquired a majority stake in Skillbox, an e-learning platform for digital and IT specialties;
- Bought a minority stake in Performance Food, a Moscow-based healthy food delivery service.
Russia’s Yandex also made a series of acquisitions, starting in March with Q&A service TheQuestion. Developing activities beyond online search, its original core business, Yandex also acquired e-ticketing system TicketSteam.
The NASDAQ-listed company was even more active in the field of transport tech. Its taxi-hailing subsidiary Yandex.Taxi – which merged activities in Russia with Uber in 2018 – turned profitable in 2019. Yandex.Taxi made a series of acquisitions in 2018 and 2019 to strengthen its leadership across Russian regions. It also acquired a food delivery startup called ‘Partiya Edy’ (‘The Party of Food’).
Yandex.Taxi’s shareholders announced plans to go public through a dual-listing in Russia and the USA with a targeted valuation of $5 billion to $8 billion. The promising driverless car business will be developed through a separate company, ‘Yandex.SDK.’
The past year was not entirely rosy for Yandex, however. Its alliance with Sberbank was obviously weakened after Yandex co-founder and main shareholder Arkady Volozh declined, in late 2018, the bank’s pressing offer to buy a major stake in the company. Sberbank’s friendly moves towards Mail.ru Group, Yandex’s archrival, all along 2019, were perceived as a potential alliance U-turn that could deprive Yandex from significant resources.
Even though some industry observers saw in Sberbank’s moves an “informal declaration of war” on Yandex, the two companies are still tied through two joint ventures: Yandex.Money, a market leader in electronic payment services, and the Yandex.Market group of companies, which operates e-commerce marketplaces. One of these, the Bringly cross-border platform, ceased activities in December 2019 as a consequence of market slowdown (see EWDN’s e-commerce report).
In late 2019, facing a long-standing government pressure, Yandex went through a major overhaul of its governance structure. A new “Public Interest Foundation” will be given veto power over significant ownership transactions. Through this and other provisions, the new ownership structure seeks to address the Russian government’s concerns that the NASDAQ-listed company — seen as a critical piece of Russia’s national online infrastructure — could be controlled one day by foreign shareholders.
Playrix – a company founded in Vologda, Russia, in 2004 – made the news several times in the course of the year, asserting itself as a global leader in free-to-play mobile games. In April 2019, its founders Igor and Dmitry Bukhman appeared in Bloomberg’s list of US dollar billionaires. In August, Playrix made an investment in Vizor, a major Belarusian publisher of multiplayer games for browser, social networks and mobile platforms. In November, the company announced the acquisition of Ukrainian game studio Zagrava Games.
With yearly turnover growth nearing 80%, this company is the superstar of the Russian e-commerce market. It confirmed its market leadership in H1 2019, generating 31% of the total number of e-commerce orders in the domestic market. In a rare example of international expansion of a Russian e-commerce company, Wildberries announced plans to invest €200 million for EU expansion and launched sales in Poland in early 2020.
In April 2019, this Ukrainian-owned classifieds platform became an African e-commerce leader by acquiring from Naspers the activities of OLX, its main competitor, on the continent. In December, this “combination of eBay and Craigslist” announced the completion of a $21 million round led by Abu Dhabi-based Knuru Capital. Headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria, Jiji is backed by Genesis, a Kyiv-based company which is behind a variety of Internet and mobile projects.
Deals of the year
In Russia, where venture activity hardly reaches $1 billion per year (less than 0.5% of the global VC market), few venture deals reached or exceeded the $10 million mark.
The largest investment went to e-commerce major Ozon, which is engaged in a race for market leadership. In May 2019, a $150 million convertible loan was provided by two of its existing shareholders, private equity firm Baring Vostok and LSE-listed conglomerate Sistema, to help the company maintain its current growth rate (nearly 75% a year) and develop its logistic and IT infrastructure.
A month later ivi.ru, a major online video company, secured a $40 million capital injection from an international investor consortium. Russia’s sovereign fund RDIF, Mubadala Investment Company (UAE), Baring Vostok Private Equity Fund IV, Flashpoint VC, RTP Global and Winter Capital were involved.
Two other deals also marked the year in Russia:
- In August, Dostavista raised $15 million from Swedish Vostok New Ventures and other investors to assert itself on the global crowdsourced delivery market;
- In December, online appointment platform YClients secured $10 million from Elbrus Capital and Guard Capital, two major Russian investors.
Several deals involved Russian-founded companies established abroad. One of these is Veeam Software, which raised $500 million in North America in early 2019 – one year before being acquired by US investor Insight Partners for $5 billion. In April, Ride-hailing service Wheely attracted $15 million from UK and Russian investors as it moved its headquarters to London. In December, Russian-founded and US-headquartered Voximplant raised $10 million from Baring Vostok and RTP Ventures, two investors with Russian roots.
Brilliant Ukrainian entrepreneurs also made their way in the US. In May 2019, for example, CRM software startup People.ai secured $60 million round of funding from prestigious Silicon Valley investors. In October, Grammarly, a San Francisco-based startup born in Ukraine, was valued at more than $1 billion as it secured $90 million in a round led by General Catalyst. Grammarly thus became the first-ever unicorn from Ukraine.
The year ended with Snap’s acquisition of AI Factory, a startup with Ukrainian roots that develops image and video technologies. Its founder Victor Shaburov had already sold a startup to Snap in 2015 for $150 million.
In Belarus, few deals attained significant amounts. In August a local fund, Zubr Capital, announced an investment of several millions of US dollars (from $3.5 million to $10 million, according to the local media) in MediaCube, a provider of IT tools for video and music creators.
Illustrating the talent of tech founders and teams from Eastern Europe, 2019 was marked by impressive exits with international implications:
- In January 2019, US-based IT giant DXC acquired Russian-founded Luxoft for $2 billion;
- In March, Russian-founded web server leader Nginx was absorbed by a US company for $670 million;
- In June, Huawei purchased the Russian face recognition technology Vocord at a price estimated at $40-50 million;
- In November, Andrey Andreev, the Russian-born online dating tycoon, sold his online dating business (Badoo, Bumble, Chappy, Lumen) to Blackstone, one of the world’s leading investment firms, for around $3 billion;
- In December, BlaBlaCar completed the acquisition of Busfor, a Ukrainian-born, Polish-headquartered bus ticketing platform operating across Europe.
In another major transaction, in early 2019, Naspers took full control of Avito, Russia’s leading classifieds site, at a $3.85 billion valuation. The company was founded in the late 2000s by Swedish entrepreneurs and backed repeatedly by Swedish fund VNV.
A rare case of a Russian acquisition in the US also took place. In August, Abbyy bought TimelinePI, a process intelligence solution provider, for an undisclosed amount (estimated at $20 million). Abbyy is a renowned, Moscow-based software company working on document recognition and language processing.
In Ukraine, international moves took place in the thriving IT service industry. For example, software developer Acceptic was bought by Israeli Yael Group; Core Value by Polish IT Kontrakt; and Onlinico by Swedish Beetroot. In Belarus, IT service giant EPAM announced the acquisition of Israeli NAYA Technologies, a specialist of data and cloud migration.
A few modest IPOs took place in the Russian tech sector. Thus, in May 2019, HeadHunter Group, a leading online job recruitment platform in Russia, raised $220 million on the NASDAQ and saw its market capitalization grow to $787.5 million at the close of the first day.
In October Tinkoff, an innovation-friendly online bank, began trading on the Moscow stock exchange. This secondary listing was designed to help Tinkoff, which has its primary listing in London and is domiciled in Cyprus, secure an estimated $200 million inflow from Russia-focused investment funds.
Several large investment funds involving state-backed organizations were launched or announced in Russia, including these ones:
- RDIF, the Russian sovereign fund, agreed high-tech investment partnerships amounting to up to $3 billion with Middle East and Chinese players. These partnerships included a $2 billion plan to support Russian startups developing AI projects as well as a joint Russo-Chinese R&D fund project involving the China Investment Corporation (CIC);
- RVC, the state-owned fund of funds dedicated to innovation, agreed with Japanese corporation Mizuho to create a medtech investment fund;
- RVC also teamed up with RZD (Russian Railways) to prepare two venture funds for industrial and digital investments, scheduled for launch in 2021; and with the Ministry of Economic Development to create a $100 million internationally-oriented edtech fund;
- VEB Ventures teamed up with Korean Daedeok Ventures Partners to launch a Russian-Korean investment fund of up to $200 million focusing on smart cities, medicine and industrial technologies.
- Rostec and Russian Railways, two state-controlled corporations, committed to create a $100 million venture fund to support IT and IoT projects;
- RVC, VEB Innovation, Gazprom Neft and Gazprombank agreed to launch ‘New Industry Ventures,’ a fund aimed to lower Russia’s reliance on foreign technology in the oil industry.
Some initiatives came from the private sector, such as these ones:
- Efko, an agroindustrial group, launched an international $50 million venture fund focusing on foodtech;
- Phystech Ventures and North Energy Venture announced a $40 million fund to support AI and robotics projects;
- MTS, a leading mobile operator, launched a corporate fund to invest $15 million in startups;
- ITI Funds, a buy-side intermediary, advisory and asset management company with Russian connections, announced a new crypto fund focused on index tracking.