China’s newest source of on-demand hype, rental bicycles, gets its first unicorn

There can be no hype without a unicorn. China’s newest startup money pit — bicycle rentals on-demand — now has its first billion-dollar valued company.

The industry has sucked in more than $300 million from investors this year alone — that’s counting just one company — and now Ofo has become the first in the space to reach the much-coveted $1 billion valuation. The Beijing-based company announced today that it had closed its $450 million Series D round led by DST.

China’s top taxi hailing service Didi Chuxing invested in Ofo via a financing deal last year, and it has its fingerprints all over this round, too. All of the other investors that took part in this Series D have invested in Didi — those are Matrix China and CITIC — as did DST, while Didi itself also put money in this time.

Didi’s involvement is really quite fitting since there are plenty of pertinent comparisons to its battle with Uber, which culminated in the U.S. company admitting defeat and agreeing to sell its China business to its rival.

Ofo is involved in a subsidization/funding battle with Mobike, its arch rival that has raised capital from Tencent, Xiaomi, Sequoia China and Singaporean sovereign fund Temasek among others. Mobike opened the year with a $215 million Series D round of its own in January, before taking on at least $85 million in additional capital via strategic investments from Foxconn and Temasek. Mobike was quick to claim to be the most capitalized startup of its kind, but Ofo has clapped back on the vanity metric stakes with ‘first unicorn.’

Meaningless labels and self-awarded accolades aside, there are plenty of question marks around the businesses themselves. If you thought the ride on-demand model pioneered by Uber, and taken to scale in China by Didi, had issues over longterm profitability, Mobike and Ofo are a whole other thing.

Both services ostensibly aim to democratize access to rental bikes by using technology. Bikes are tagged with GPS chips which enable them to be rented via a mobile app without needed to be stored in a central location, as is commonplace for bike rental services like London’s ‘Boris Bikes’ or similar government-backed programs across the world.

That makes them hugely convenient, but the business margins are less clear at this point at just 1 CNY ($0.15) per hour per bike. Then there are issues around vandalism — some people can be jerks — and the handling of requisite deposits from users, which our partner site Technode recently reported are being used as cash floats by some smaller players.

In terms of scale, Ofo claims it has rented out more than one million cycles since June to over 20 million registered users. Its business covers close to 40 cities in China, while it claims to be in the early stages of expanding into the U.S., UK and Singapore.

Mobike, meanwhile, recently claimed to have served more than 10 million unique users, who have completed more than 200 million paid rides. It began in tier-one cities, but has since expanded to cover 21 cities in China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Like Ofo, Mobike intends to foray into overseas markets in Asia, Europe and North America this year.

Didi buying Uber China may have ended one on-demand rivalry, but another has quickly risen to take its place.