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Tracking the revival of startup funding across Asia in the new normal

(Clockwise from top left): Eudora Wang, senior reporter, DealStreetAsia; Andi Haswidi, head of ASEAN Research at DealStreetAsia; Pramugdha Mamgain, correspondent & content specialist, India, DealStreetAsia; Mars Mosqueda Jr, correspondent, Philippines, DealStreetAsia; Peter McMillan, head of sales for APAC, DFIN and Dmitry Levit, founder & partner, Cento Ventures

 Across Asia this year, long-standing records for dealmaking had been broken, driven by a post-pandemic boom.

This was clear from the number of unicorns in India: 28 this year as against 12 in all of 2020. In Southeast Asia, the number of unicorns stood at 18 and was expected to reach 20 by the end of the year, a greater number than all the unicorns in the region over the last 5 years.

In China, deal value stood at over $57 billion in the first 8 months, comfortably surpassing the $56 billion raised through all of 2020.

And dealmaking to a greater extent than ever before, was embracing the use of technology and AI to expedite the process and make it more efficient.

These were just some of the insights from ‘The Deals Barometer Launch – Tracking the Revival of Startup Funding in the New Normal’ a session at the recently concluded PE-VC Summit organised by DealStreetAsia.

Speaking at the session were Dmitry Levit, founder & partner, Cento Ventures; Peter McMillan, head of sales for APAC, DFIN; Eudora Wang, senior reporter, DealStreetAsia; Mars Mosqueda Jr, correspondent, Philippines, DealStreetAsia and Pramugdha Mamgain, correspondent & content specialist, India, DealStreetAsia. The session was moderated by Andi Haswidi, head of ASEAN Research at DealStreetAsia.

Sponsored by DFIN, the session also marked the launch of the DFIN Deals Barometer, a monthly overview of dealmaking in the region, which aims to track key sectors, investors and trends across 3 of Asia’s most significant markets: Greater China, India and Southeast Asia. The free-to-read Deals Barometer will officially launch later this month.

Watch the video of the session and read a transcript below, edited for clarity and brevity.

We aim to have a lively discussion on deals across Asia and how they have performed so far and will be introducing our new product, the DFIN Deals Barometer. Irrespective of whether you are an investor or a founder, you can count on it as a source of accurate verified data and information on dealmaking in Asia.

Considering the purpose of the Barometer, we are here to discuss dealmaking. A recent report from Cento described 2021 as an ‘exuberant year’, and an interesting data point was that the deal sizes and median rounds had gone up across pre-Series A, Series A and Series B. What is driving dealmaking, particularly given the second wave of the pandemic?

Dmitry Levit (DL): The report used the term exuberant in relation to publicly listed stocks out of Southeast Asia. They have been on a complete tear since the beginning of 2020. And that seems to be sending a strong signal to the world’s investors to check out what’s going on.

Other than that, H1 2021 was, if anything, a little bit subdued. Megadeals were not quite as present as they used to be.

There was a nice steady uptick the $10 – $15 million per and in seed investments. Obviously as an investor in Series A, we care about median round valuations. This uptick was a matter of significant debate.

I have a working theory on this: it’s easy enough to blame things on ‘unhinged dealmaking’ and some of the hot parts in Southeast Asia. But the hotter deals are happening regardless of pandemic inconveniences, and some of the less popular deals are on the back burner.

What you see is not the uptick in valuation, or size of the deal – but rather a not really representative sample of the deals that are getting closed and registered. I will only be sure about this after another two or three periods – this is a working theory.

If the deals have in fact been somewhat slower, how do you explain so many unicorns? At least 18 companies surpassed $ 1 billion valuation this year across different verticals. We see a lot new unicorns coming from ecommerce, as well as logistics. What do you make of that?

DL: There are 3 or 4 factors at play. There is a cluster of logistics companies finally coming into their own – the result of the hard work of ecommerce investors, over half a decade. They have created companies that consume an inordinate amount of logistic services. We mostly skip logistics companies because we don’t see them as tech as much as tech adjacent. Even without the pandemic, they would get these valuations, because of the 30%-40% sometimes 70%, YOY growth of ecommerce. COVID accelerated some of the categories, especially logistics heavy ones, like groceries.

The other factor that is secular and doesn’t really have much to do with the pandemic was digital financial services. As a global investment theme, it got significantly hotter as regulators changed their stance and certain theories about wallets and payments were debunked.

Globally, the pandemic drove traction to a lot of payment companies, and therefore valuations are trending up. But not what digital financial services players in Southeast Asia cover: quite a few of the names are not consumer plays but SMBs and SMEs getting digitized.

The third factor at play is companies registering in Singapore and getting called Singapore unicorns, even though they do not really index to anything related to Southeast Asia’s demographics or economics.

And the fourth factor is exuberant global capital markets, spilling over from China and India and finding a new outlet. LatAm is even worse. Many such unicorns are getting minted in Latin America, but Southeast Asia catches some of the overspill.

Peter, I’m sure you’re looking at the activity from a different light. What are some of the big trends?

Peter McMillan (PM): In addition to what Dmitry mentioned, a lot of our clients have been tapping into and really thinking about Southeast Asia. A lot of them have digital based platforms that can really thrive where brick and mortar just can’t reach. Banking, private wealth and investing platforms have been a huge recipient of this advantage. Especially the ones that have been able to scale or just pivot in to make sure that they are up and running and attracting the attention of investors.

Obviously, valuations have gone crazy. When it comes to capital markets activity, globally it’s been an absolutely blockbuster year. It’s almost like a silver lining on a very grey, dark, unwelcome cloud; an opportunity that has come out of adversity.

During the pandemic at least some due diligence was conducted virtually – how has technology bolstered dealmaking?

PM: There was an initial slowdown in due to a combination of economic and health concerns. Overcoming those obstacles, the market has embraced technology and adopting digital tools.

We are definitely seeing that it’s a sustainable channel. Digital dealmaking has increased the speed at which deals are done and has given people more options.

There are a few ways that our clients have adopted this as part of the workflow.

The first one clearly is being able to open more doors. Whether you’re a company looking for investors or an investor searching for opportunities, you now have a technology platform to connect with a partner and tap into different communities. Using technologies to marry up with partners, has been a critical capability. It probably left people in a better position than they might have been prior to the pandemic.

We all know that AI is a powerful tool, and it can really help to take away a lot of monotonous jobs that were previously done manually. Whether you’re exiting or entering into a particular asset, you can reduce time spent on tasks like due diligence. Analysing data rather than spending all your time searching for it, allows people to look at more opportunities. And to assess a wider scope of areas, when they are looking at quality of investments.

It’s not only the acceptance, but the capabilities offered by these platforms: remote collaboration, and to continually cater to the rapid changes that occur during the course of a deal. This can actually happen virtually now. Prior to this, everyone would have to be sitting in a room together or meeting face to face. Obviously, everybody wants a return. This technology allows people to be as professional as possible when presenting themselves to investors. They are able to prepare investments with public ready financials, so that companies can match up to the standards that are expected, especially now when we’re in a more global arena.

Finally, when you are actually in the midst of the deal, you are able to analyse investor activity. You can understand what they are doing, their interests, the documents they’re reading and what they’re spending time on. When you get the opportunity to address them, you can really focus on their specific requirements, and be a lot more productive.

Dmitry, what has been your experience been when it comes to technology in dealmaking?

DL: We were set up from the beginning as a digital first team with shared CRM and chat systems. Despite some of my colleagues preferring to meet face to face, we enforced the digital first posture, mostly because we decided to be in Singapore but cover the rest of the region by travelling a lot. Everybody was on the road and had to coordinate. From that perspective, the only thing that happened since the pandemic was that I had to add another screen on top of my current setup, to handle all the messenger windows. Every country in Southeast Asia insists on having two or three on top of WhatsApp!

But more seriously, we have actually seen a reverse impact. We put quite a bit more work on the shoulders of our local advisors and venture partners. Previously it was so easy to hop on a flight and see what an investment is worth. Now, we actually work our team intelligence network, quite a bit harder than we did before.

Another interesting cultural aspect was that there used to be a certain generational divide in Southeast Asia. It was not very sensitive or polite to insist people take a call with you. Not anymore. Now, we have a fantastic — if tragic — reason to request even a 65-year-old billionaire if he could please ask his grandchildren how to use Zoom and get on a call with us. A small silver lining to an outright disaster.

Are you concerned that technology will make it easier for global VCs to compete for a limited number of startups in the region? We have seen a greater participation from Asia in events like Y Combinator

DL: In my experience, whenever there is a new supply of capital, the number of startups increases, usually by a factor of more than one. I do believe that some of the velocity of capital at the moment is undermining the foundations of how long-term relationships have to be set up. But I will not take too much of your time with this — VC Twitter is full of moans and complaints about deals being done overnight. We’ve been hearing that ever since Softbank made its first appearance in the region.

But yes, there is now a little more colour to the ecosystem. Guys from New York and Paris pop up and that’s actually bringing in new ideas and interesting twists.

I’m also under the impression that Y Combinator would have scaled to emerging markets, no matter what – technology or no technology. The machine is just swinging into high gear, and half a dozen other guys emulating their model, are not far behind. It’s actually a secular and not a pandemic or technology driven trend.

Moving on to the next section, I am going to let my colleagues give us an overview on what’s happening in terms of dealmaking across their respective regions. We start with Eudora on China:

Eudora Wang (EW): We track startups that include privately held companies headquartered in the Greater China region: mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. The dominant part of dealmaking nowadays comes from mainland China given its sheer size. We have proprietary data on Greater China, because unlike many other markets, privately held companies are not legally required to file their fundraising details with local regulatory bodies.

The database is compiled by our team’s day to day tracking of market participants, announcements, updates on official websites and social media channels, as well as DealStreetAsia’s research. The database covers but is not limited to PE-VC fund managers, financial and legal advisors, incubators, startups, unicorns and decacorns, of all sizes.

Moving on to key findings from the Greater China market, for the first 8 months of the year, startup funding in Greater China shows a general upward trend. Collectively, startups raised just over $57 billion across at least 1,259 deals between January and August. It already surpassed the $56.2 billion across about 1,200 deals for the whole of last year.

Fundraising had a relatively slow start in the first two months, which is not uncommon due to China’s weeklong New Year holiday in February. But in March, risk capital investors injected a record $11.4 billion into 199 deals.

Most likely, they were simply clearing transactions in the backlog. March is also by far the most active month for dealmaking this year. Moving on to Q2, dealmaking returned to a more normalised tempo. Both deal value and volume in the following months between June and August trended upwards.

Among the important metrics that we track is megadeal – a transaction of $100 million or higher. And 2021 has been a better year by far in terms of big-ticket transactions. Although the average size of megadeals has been relatively smaller compared to last year, for the first 8 months of this year, we have recorded 159 megadeals which raised $36.5 billion. It has already surpassed 2020, when 135 megadeals were completed. The average deal size was only $229.6 million — slightly smaller than $283 million last year.

In August, the number of megadeals rose to an annual peak level — 27 and raised a combined $6 billion, or 67.2% of the month’s total funding.

The most favoured sectors are software, biotech and consumer product in the first 8 months. Software led the pack with 142 deals in total. Investors are using a playbook of America’s software giants to envision the future of their Chinese counterparts. But in software, the average deal size was not as sizable as biotech — an indication that the market is still developing, and has yet to welcome a major venture-backed player.

Sequoia Capital China, an early investor in tech giants like Alibaba and, remains the most active investor, with at least 15 deals each month. It is followed by other well-known dealmakers including Hillhouse Capital, and its fairly young venture capital arm GL Ventures. Other companies include Qiming Venture Partners, Matrix Partners China and Lightspeed China Partners. Those investors remain quite bullish about startups in the early stage: Series B or earlier. Transactions into the early stage continue to account for the bulk of deal counts.

The appetite for early-stage portfolios is expected to grow in the following months after the launch of a new stock exchange in the capital city of Beijing to serve more small and medium sized enterprises.

To wrap things up, China still dominates the overall unicorn list in Asia. It currently has over 138 unicorns, which is more than 4 times the number from India, according to statistics released by CB Insights in May 2021.

Newly minted unicorns, rising challengers as well as growth or earlier stage players who have not been given enough of the spotlight, despite robust businesses, valuation and growth, represent great investment opportunities for investors.

My colleague Pramugdha will now share some major trends from India

Pramugdha Mamgain (Pramugdha M): India has emerged as the third largest startup ecosystem in the world after the US and China. After a dull 2020, it bounced back with record highs this year. India’s fundraising in the first two quarters has already surpassed the amount raised in all of last year. In 2020, it was close to $11.6 billion. We’ve already raised about $30 billion in an 8-month period. If we look at January to August data, except for May, when the COVID second wave hit its peak, fundraising has been on the rise. In fact, it broke a 19-month record in July when startups collectively mopped up about $10.7 billion from investors.

That was because of 2 big ticket transactions: Flipkart’s $3.6 billion fundraising and Swiggy’s $1.25 billion funding. Softbank was lead investor in both deals.

Coming to megadeals, there were about 81 in India. Combined with dry powder in the system, and a relatively sombre 2020, big ticket fundraises grew. We have to mention unicorns — India has already produced 28 this year as against 12 in all of 2020.

Coming to sectors, retail (ecommerce), financial services, education training, logistics and software have been among the most funded. Retail was pushed to the top in the first 8 months because of the $3.6 billion Flipkart deal.

Consumers started transacting online, and that in turn sped the demand for online payments. Fintech – lending, financing and pay later options are all adding to the growth.

Logistics and distribution in ecommerce has a huge role to play. But what brings all industries together is technology. The adoption since last year has grown multi-fold. Which is why we have seen a spike in many sectors including edtech. Schools have been shut for over a year and a half now. While the government is looking to reopen schools in a phased manner, the companies that benefitted most from the closure were Byjus, Unacademy and Vedantu.

Obviously digitalisation played a huge role in pushing these sectors to the top.

Coming to deal volume, early-stage deals have dominated the tally. Pre-seed to Series A accounted for about 55% of the total deal volume of 930 deals. Investors have started to show confidence in new business ideas.

When we talk of digitalisation, B2B Saas has caught a lot of investor attention. India is no more an exporter of talent in this space – it has started to export technology too. Freshwork’s IPO is one of the examples and a proud moment for the country. Since work from home has become the new normal, enterprise software has picked up pace.

Sequoia has always been among the most active investors in India. It does seed stage deals through its accelerator fund – Surge. Other key investors include Venture Catalyst, Inflection Point Ventures, Accel, Titan Capital and Tiger Global.

How about Southeast Asia, Mars?

Mars Mosqueda (MM): We’ve started to track dealmaking in January this year, focusing mostly on VC deals. Through the entire 2020, we saw $8.5 billion in total startup funding, while $8.8 billion was recorded in 2021. These were from private equity, debt instruments, equity crowdfunding and other forms of financing, and not just venture investments.

But from January to August, startups in the region raised $8.3 billion from over 450 deals that were mostly VC investments, excluding PE and other forms of financing. There were more than 50 deals during the period that did not disclose the amount raised. With September and Q4 still to be reported, we are confident that startup funding in Southeast Asia will be at a record high this year.

April posted the highest deal value at over $3 billion largely due to 3 megadeals that took place during the month. Over half of the amount raised in April was from J&T Express, a delivery company in Indonesia that raised $2 billion in funding, backed by Sequoia Capital China. Also in April, Indonesian ecommerce firm Bukalapak raised $234 million in Microsoft and GIC backed funding.

For the year to August, we’ve seen 60 megadeals. They raised a total of $5.4 billion — over half the total amount from January to August this year. These megadeals included J&T, Gojek’s $300 million round, VN Life’s $350 million fund raise and Singapore’s Nium with a $200 million funding that minted the company as a unicorn. We also have $640 million for Trax, a Singapore based company.

Going into geographies, Singapore dominated by volume with 212 deals. But Indonesia raised the most amount with $4 billion from just 190 deals, largely thanks to J&T Express.

Vietnam had 55 deals valued at $421 million. The Philippines raised $312 million, which is a record for the country so far, with 31 deals.

Malaysian firms raised $234 million from 30 deals. Thailand had 15 deals valued at over $31 million.

Logistics was the top sector in terms of value with $2.5 billion. Fintech and financial services registered 92 deals at over $1.3 billion dollars in funding. Ecommerce received nearly a billion dollars in VC from 44 deals so far this year.

In terms of investors, the region has quite a few active venture firms: East Ventures, Vertex, Wavemaker Partners, Seqouia with Surge, MDI Ventures, Insignia, Alpha JWC Ventures and several dozen more. Notably, we’ve noticed the growing angel investor activity in the region, which means that startups in Southeast Asia are supported at every stage of development.

What impact is the regulatory crackdown in China across sectors likely to have?

EW: There have been a lot of changes. We can see very vividly that investors are changing favour to different sectors.

Last year, for example, we saw more funding into online education platforms, electric vehicles, and other more advanced technology related investments. This year, in the first 8 months, we’ve rarely seen any investments into edtech ever since Beijing’s crackdown on the sector. The few that we saw are companies that provide work related training services (i.e. vocational education), instead of tapping into private sector education for students. The only room for education companies is to offer services to the working class, or adults.

That’s very different from other markets in India or Southeast Asia. Another major change, is unlike in India, where investments go towards e-commerce or logistics, those sectors are very much mature in China already. There is very little room left for newcomers (with market dominants including Alibaba and in e-commerce; and SF Express in logistics). These companies are increasingly serving as infrastructures for the development of consumer products that are being sold on their platforms and then being delivered to consumers using their logistics services – That is partially why the consumer products sector has risen to become the third most favoured by venture investors in China.

These companies are more involved in the provision of food and beverage, beauty and hygiene or clothing, fitness, and wellness for Generation Z. Younger generations have very different demands compared to the generations before.

The most favoured sector is software which has seen more interactions these days. Part of that we think is probably related to the recent tech crackdown which is more focused on consumer-facing businesses nowadays, especially if they collect data of over 1 million users in the domestic market.

We suppose that’s part of the reason why software companies that directly deal with enterprise clients are more immune (to the country’s regulatory changes for now). That’s probably why investors find them a safer bet.

What does the changes in China mean for Southeast Asia?

DL: It’s hard to say. Every time I ask my colleagues and friends in mainland China, what to think, they tell me they are lying low for the rest of the year and to check back in 2022. We wait for the outcomes with bated breath.

Is this likely to make these companies focus more on the region?

DL: I have no idea. All I can see is that people are leaving international investment arms. Who knows if it is just turnover of staff, a change of priorities or lying low to not attract more scrutiny? It does seem to be the case though that the changes in China involve promotion, a significant push anyway, for any and all sorts of cross border activities that export the results of Chinese manufacturing prowess.

The world is about to be flooded with many more variations of Tiktok and an unbelievable number of DTC brands from China. We are already bracing for that. Everything else is yet to be confirmed.

What do you expect from 2022? Will it be a year of rationalization or another year of exceptional growth?

PM: The sentiment from a lot of our financial advisor clients is that this has been a big year globally. They expect that to continue into 2022. There are a lot of reasons that they could get behind that from an IPO perspective, and seeing a path to exit for a lot of these big companies. Not only are domestic markets very strong and performing well, but also, if you think about the main US markets – Nasdaq and NYSE – they have listed over 330 companies in the first 8 or 9 months. That international option is clearly on the table.

The other big thing that is riding through the globe and really coming across Asia is the incredible volumes of SPAC activity over 2021. While issuance of SPACs themselves have slowed down, mostly in the face of SEC regulation, there are still many blank check companies out there looking to get their business combination going.

There are obviously a lot of targets in the US that people have gone for. But as those start to dry out or become a lot more competitive, a lot of eyes have turned to Asia — particularly India and Southeast Asia.

You only have to look at the Grab de-SPAC deal which was valued at something like $40 billion to see how much of a store these investors are putting in this particular region. As the time pressure on these de-SPACs increases since they only have 24 months before they complete that business combination —more of that is going to happen.

We’ve had about 50% of De-SPACs complete in the last quarter, and there’s no reason that trend won’t continue growing in 2022, given that there’s probably 400 that still need to complete their business in the next 12 months or so.

In addition, to give more kind of IPO or listing activity, the SGX announced early this month its new SPAC framework for its own boards. We’re looking forward to seeing what that means and how that’s going to help companies in Southeast Asia who would like to list but want to stay closer to home than maybe going all the way to the US.

From our perspective, we see signs of the exit market being in great shape, moving into 2022. That should fill investors with a lot of confidence

What do you think of the SGX SPAC framework?

DL: To be honest, I haven’t scrutinised the framework. We could not recommend SPACs as structures for portfolio companies of ours. In my case I can only just wish them all the best and hope that the Thai and Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange catch up soon. But I will be cautious about making any predictions as to whether or not Singapore is doing good work.

We do believe that the cutoff point for that is, after a billion or preferably $2 billion. And after the company can truly claim to be an institution. Before that, it’s a risky proposition. And we do suggest to the founders to take a good close look at trade exits and at traditional IPO routes first, but the situation changes case by case, of course.

What does the first half tell you about exit planning?

DL: Looking at the exits we tracked, things seem a bit subdued. There were 4 trade exits and a couple of pretty impressive IPOs. For the first time I think in our track history, IPO liquidity exceeds trade exits. It’s a far cry from late 2019, when mergers, roll ups and corporates buying smaller corporates were all the rage. I would speculate that for the moment, if you’re running a sizable company, you cannot possibly lock your strategy for the next year with confidence in Southeast Asia.

Not until you know what the vaccination rates, lockdowns, and government policies would be. You might undertake a tactical acquisition. Maybe acqui-hire with $10 million here or $20 million there. But you cannot make major moves unless your industry is unique and you are in some sort of a track where you have to acquire or make a decision.

Most likely there are a whole bunch of not quite ready yet trade exits that are being formed till clarity arrives. We will see that in 2022 or maybe even 2023. As for all the liquidity emerging from public markets, for me it’s a great mystery.

PM: There’s a lot of deals and I’m combining IPOs and de-SPACs. They are thinking about whether the SGX framework will bring smaller companies to the table and give them an opportunity to list that they was previously not there. Not only from a domestic listing side, but in general being able to get out there and lift them up from a Southeast Asian perspective. Whoever we talked to, they’re very bullish on going into next year and think that that’s going to stay relatively consistent.

What’s the outlook for India?

Pramugdha M: As far as public listening is concerned; we have a lot of companies in the pipeline that are ready to go for an IPO like Oyo and Ola. Zomato already launched its IPO. There is a full lineup and we expect more IPOs to happen this year. The exit market has been performing as per expectations and this will give many exit routes to early investors.

Time for some audience questions – are there any sectors or verticals getting overcrowded?

MM: I don’t think there’s a specific sector or vertical that is overcrowded. Logistics was the top sector for the first 8 months of this year and there were only 25 deals in the sector. FinTech and finance are among the top sectors but there have only been 92 deals so far. There still a lot of room for investors to come in. There’s no overcrowding yet and a lot of space for players to invest in.

DL: I don’t believe the region needs this many buy now, pay later startups. But let’s do a whole separate session on that!

What would your advice be for startups that are seeking to raise capital?

DL: Read DealStreetAsia, keep track of who invests into what, make your own list of targets and stop asking this question at conferences! It’s now become a bit of a science and less of an art.

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