Alibaba is preparing to invest in Grab

Fresh from announcing a deal to buy out Uber in Southeast Asia, Grab looks set to gain further firepower with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba preparing to invest in the ride-hailing firm.

Alibaba is in the early stages of making an investment in Grab, two sources with knowledge of discussions told TechCrunch. Isn’t yet clear what size that might be or at what valuation for Grab, which was last valued by investors at $6 billion.

In addition, the timing is unclear due to current anti-trust investigations into the Grab-Uber deal. The Competition Commission of Singapore has said there are grounds to believe the merger may violate the law, while other countries are looking into its implications. But still, there is intent from both sides and key investor SoftBank to make the deal.

Grab declined to comment for this story. An Alibaba spokesperson said the company “doesn’t confirm on market rumors.”

Alibaba and Grab first held talks over an investment last summer but a deal never materialized after the Chinese firm became pre-occupied chasing an investment in Tokopedia, the Indonesia-based e-commerce unicorn. That deal was prioritized because Alibaba’s arch-rival Tencent was in advanced talks over an investment that could give it a foothold in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy and the world’s fourth most populous country.

Alibaba leaned heavily on its long-time ally SoftBank — an early backer of Tokopedia and Grab — to get the Tokopedia deal ahead of Tencent. That’s despite Tokopedia’s own founders’ preference for Tencent due to Alibaba’s ownership of Lazada, an e-commerce rival to Tokopedia. SoftBank, however, forced the deal through.

“It was literally SoftBank against every other investor,” a separate source with knowledge of negotiations told TechCrunch.

Ultimately, Alibaba was successful and it led a $1.1 billion investment in Tokopedia in August which did not include Tencent.

TechCrunch understands that one condition SoftBank attached to the Tokopedia deal was that Alibaba would invest in Grab when the time was right. SoftBank is widely seen to have been the deal-maker in the recent Grab-Uber consolidation and now, with that transaction agreed, Alibaba’s investment will follow.

The timing may be ideal for Grab. While it has plenty of money in the bank from past investments, Indonesian rival Go-Jek is preparing to expand into regional markets so the firm will need to brace itself for a new wave of competition.

Despite the background, this is far from Alibaba being strong-armed into an investment, a deal with Grab makes plenty of sense for the firm.

It has been actively seeking investment deals in Southeast Asia’s top internet companies for some time, and Grab clearly fits the bill. In particular, Grab’s focus on payments and its recently announced financial services play is aligned with Alibaba and its fintech arm Ant Financial’s goals, too.

Last year, Ant Financial went on an investment spree which included multiple investments deals across Southeast Asia and the failed acquisition of MoneyGram. Involvement in Grab Pay, which is shaping up to be a major payment player across the region, would massively boost Alibaba and Ant’s objective.

Finally, there’s the good old competition factor. With Tencent an investor in Grab rival Go-Jek, Alibaba has motivation enough to back a horse in Southeast Asia’s ride-hailing space.

As I wrote last year, the two Chinese internet giants have been carving up Southeast Asia’s most promising startups in search of investments that give them a good position as the region’s internet economy grows.

A report co-authored by Google last year forecast that Southeast Asia’s internet economy will grow to $200 billion in 2025 from $50 billion in 2017. Right now, it is Chinese companies, not those from the U.S., that are seizing the opportunity.

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