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Backer of Musical.ly, Grindr and Opera to invest $50M in self-driving startup Pony.ai

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Image Credits: Pony.ai

A games publisher in China is following the path of its larger peer Tencent to back a wide spectrum of startups for financial gains. Beijing Kunlun Wanwei, or Kunlun, announced in a filing this week that it plans to inject $50 million into autonomous driving startup Pony.ai in exchange for a 3 percent stake.

Pony.ai confirmed the investment with TechCrunch in an email response, adding that the money contributes to its pre-B round of financing. The startup last pocketed $102 million, which valued it at nearly $1 billion. It has raised $214 million in total fundings, excluding its angel round, according to data from Crunchbase.

Shanghai-listed Kunlun has its bets on one of China’s most aggressive smart driving companies. Pony.ai, co-founded by James Peng, formerly a leader in Baidu’s self-driving division, was only second to Baidu in total autonomous miles driven in Beijing last year (although by a large margin).

While neither Kunlun nor Pony.ai provided an inkling of possible strategic collaboration between them, next-gen vehicles have become a much sought-after space for hosting entertainment content, and without a doubt that includes video games.

Few outside China’s internet industry know of Kunlun, which has over the years been squeezed by industry leaders Tencent and NetEase. The 11-year-old company has, however, gradually earned its reputation as a savvy investor. Led by Zhou Yahui, a shrewd investor himself, Kunlun has backed companies that broadened distribution channels for its gaming titles. Other fundings appear more tangential. Here’s a taste of Kunlun’s lucrative portfolio:

  • Musical.ly: Kunlun laid out $20 million for Musical.ly and cashed out $41.08 million when ByteDance acquired Musical.ly in 2017, according to a filing. Musical.ly is now part of the popular short-video app TikTok.
  • Inke: Back in 2016, Kunlun invested 68 million yuan ($10 million) in live-streaming company Inke. By 2017, it had sold all its stakes in the startup and was poised to cash out a total of 824 million yuan ($123 million) after the transaction completed, according to a filing. Inke is currently the third-largest live-streaming app by monthly active devices in China, says data from iResearch.
  • Opera: Kunlun was part of a consortium that acquired the web browser in 2016 when it shelled out $600 million in investment. Through the consortium, Kunlun now owns a 48 percent stake in Opera, which floated on Nasdaq in 2018.
  • Grindr: Kunlun paid $93 million for a 60 percent stake in Grindr, the popular dating app for gay, bisexual, transgender and queer users, back in 2016, and completed the buyout with $152 million in fundings in 2018. Kunlun is reportedly looking to sell Grindr after the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States decided its ownership of the dating app may threaten national security.
  • Qudian: Kunlun owned a 19.2 percent stake in Qudian when the micro-lender became one of the first Chinese fintech companies to list on Nasdaq. Kunlun has since been selling its stakes through a gradual exit and Zhou recently told analysts that his firm was expected to make around 2 billion yuan ($300 million) in profit from the Qudian investment.

The article has been updated to clarify Crunchbase’s data did not include Pony.ai’s angel round funding.

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