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Philippines SME lending startup First Circle raises $26M ahead of regional expansion – TechCrunch

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This year has been a breakout one for micro-financing startups in Southeast Asia, which are becoming among the most funded within the region’s fintech space. Next in line to raise capital is First Circle, an SME-lending service that’s based in the Philippines which has pulled in $26 million as it begins to consider regional expansion options.

The new financing is led by Venturra Capital with participation from Insignia Ventures Partners, Hong Kong’s Silverhorn Investment Advisors, and Tryb Group. First Circle has previously raised $2.5 million, including a $1.3 million seed round 18 months ago.

The company was founded by Irish duo CEO Patrick Lynch, formerly of CompareAsia Group and CTO Tony Ennis, previously with WebSummit, and the goal is to help small businesses scale by offering them short-term loans. The Philippines is an impact market since SMEs account for 99.6 percent of the country’s business, 65 percent of its workforce and a staggering 35 percent of national GDP. Yet, there’s no formal credit scoring system and existing loan coverage is patchy at best.

Most of First Circle’s loans are often transaction or working capital, such as financing to take on a new deal for a client with a guaranteed financial return that requires a fairly brutal wait of 90-120 days, Lynch told TechCrunch in an interview.

“A lack of access to capital is a problem that faces tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of businesses in the Philippines,” he explained. “Emerging markets are not capital developed, and our business model is quite different from the p2p lender model in that we do share risk with the investors.”

First Circle sources capital from third parties, including asset managers and family offices, who take half of the loan book. Unlike the P2P model, which is going through a spectacular crash in China, First Circle is invested in all deals and as such it does thorough due diligence before committing. However, after processing over $100 million in deals to “thousands” of businesses, Lynch said that the company has built up data on a number of suppliers and business partners to the point that a “significant” chunk of applications can be processed without human involvement.

For example, if a loan application is seeking financing in order to do a dealing with Multinational X, First Circle can move quickly if it has dealt with the application before or it has issued loans to other partners who have done business with Multinational X.

“Over time, as we acquire more customers, the degrees of separation are collapsing over time,” Lynch said.

First Circle’s executive team including co-founders Tony Ennis (third from left) and Patrick Lynch (middle)

The fact that there is little data available via a credit bureau makes things challenging. The need to built a solution from the ground up necessitates great time, cost and other resources but it can have major benefits, as First Circle is beginning to enjoy.

“Many new providers of financial services are rating customer for the first time. In 80 percent of the time in our case, it’s the first time our customer will have had a formal relationship” with a financial organization, Lynch explained. “That provides an opportunity, if done correctly, to provide a strong relationship and be a part of their future success for a long time.”

Indeed, the First Circle CEO said that, to date, customers will typically take a loan of around $10,000, but the average will balance is $30,000 — meaning that there are three loans active. That reflects the transactional nature of the loans the startup is issuing, but of course more business means more data, stronger relationships and a higher chance of word-of-mouth recommendations.

First Circle is staying focused on the Philippines for now, but Lynch revealed that there are plans to expand to other parts of Southeast Asia, the region of nearly 650 million consumers. This round may help the company “put a foot in a second market,” Lynch said, but it is likely to go out and raise more money to push its regional expansion plan next year.

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Xiaomi Redmi K40 Pro flaunts Snapdragon 888 and a shocking price tag

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Although it is Qualcomm’s best bet for 2021, very few phones so far carry its Snapdragon 888 chipset. Those that do also have rather high price tags, including the Xiaomi Mi 11 to some extent. The Chinese smartphone superstar, however, isn’t done with the Snapdragon 888 just yet and, at least for certain markets, it may have an even better offer in the guise of the Redmi K40 Pro and Redmi K40 Pro+.

The base Redmi K40 is actually the first of the brand’s K-series to use a Snapdragon 8-series processor. That said, Redmi opted for the Snapdragon 870 here instead, reserving the Snapdragon 888 for the “Pro” models. Both, of course, are 5G-capable and few users might see much difference between the two in real-world use.

The Redmi K40, Redmi K40 Pro, and Redmi K40 Pro+ do share many things in common, particularly the 6.67-inch Samsung E4 AMOLED display with a 2400×1080 resolution and 120Hz refresh rate. This screen has a punch-hole cutout in the middle, hiding a single 20MP camera common to all three. The siblings also have the same 4,520 mAh battery that supports 33W wired fast charging and no wireless charging capabilities at all.

They naturally differ in some aspects, particularly the cameras. While they share the same 8MP ultra-wide and 5MP telemacro cameras, only the Redmi K40 Pro+ boasts of having a 108MP Samsung ISOCELL HM2. The Redmi K40 Pro gets a 64MP Sony IMX686 while the Redmi K40 settles for a 48MP Sony IMX582.

As with many Redmi phones, price is where it’s at. The Redmi K40 Pro+, with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, goes for 3,699 RMB ($570), lower than an equivalent Xiaomi Mi 11 at 4,699 RMB ($727). Of course, the Xiaomi Mi 11 has more features and some better hardware but the Redmi K40 Pro+ definitely covers the basics already. Xiaomi also announced the Redmi AirDots 3 for 199 RMB ($31) that will be launching on March 4 in China along with the Redmi K40 series.

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Wear OS “OK, Google” bug is finally getting a fix soon

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Smartwatches are rather curious little gadgets that are like miniaturized and watered-down versions of our smartwatches. For better or worse, that means that smartwatches can’t really use the same interaction conventions and UIs that are almost second nature on smartphones. While touch screens and buttons are always an option, Google has been pushing for more hands-free controls on Wear OS using Google Assistant. Unfortunately, an important part of the process has been broken for months before the company committed to working on a fix.

If Google’s vision is to be followed, smartwatches will primarily be controlled by voice with the screen simply providing visual feedback in addition to spoken responses. Google Assistant is perfect for that role and there are multiple ways to call it up on your wrist. The most convenient is, of course, to literally call it up with “OK, Google” or “Hey, Google” but, unfortunately, that is also the most broken method at the moment.

Users have been complaining that the wake words just don’t work on their Wear OS smartwatches, no matter the brand. It has apparently been the case since November last year but there are also claims that the problem was present even back in June 2020. During that period, Google has seemingly been silent, which naturally caused a lot of disappointment among Wear OS users.

The good news is that Google is no longer silent. It told The Verge that it is aware of users reporting issues and will work with its partners to address those. It doesn’t explain, however, why it took so long for it to even respond to the numerous and loud complaints.

Google also hasn’t given a timeline for the availability of the fix, which could still take weeks or even months. Unfortunately, the incident has opened up old wounds about the state of Wear OS and the dissatisfaction users have over its development or lack of it.

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Galaxy Tab S7 Lite 5G specs give weight to its name

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The tablet market today is mostly dominated by Apple’s iPads and only a few Android manufacturers have stuck to that device category through thick and thin. Samsung is arguably the biggest of those, launching a few tablets across different price tiers. Rumor has it that it has at least two more coming soon headed for the mid-range market. One of those may have appeared on a benchmark site showing that the Galaxy Tab S7 Lite 5G might indeed be light in almost every sense.

Samsung doesn’t always put out “lite” versions of its tablets and when it does, it doesn’t always use the same naming scheme. There was a Galaxy Tab S6 Lite last year but that was preceded by a Galaxy Tab S5e. Curiously, there was no “non-lite” Galaxy Tab S5.

There were rumors that a Galaxy Tab S7 Lite would be coming and, based on the most recent leak, it would have some heavyweight features like a large 12.4-inch screen and 5G connectivity. The latter, however, is no longer exclusive to high-end and expensive devices thanks to Qualcomm’s numerous 5G-capable chips and that seems to be the case with the mid-range version of last year’s high-end Samsung tablet.

Spotted on Geekbench is an entry for a certain SM-T736B, believed to either be the Galaxy Tab S7 Lite or a Galaxy Tab S8e. Although the entry doesn’t actually name the processor, MySmartPrice suggests that the specs, like the 2.21 GHz clock speed and Adreno 619 GPU, point to a Snapdragon 750G chipset. This is indeed one of Qualcomm’s mid-range processors capable of 5G connectivity.

The site also puts 3.28GB RAM in the tablet, which could either be 4GB or even 3.5GB in reality. The scores that this device gets on Geekbench aren’t exactly reassuring, especially for a tablet with a large screen and fast data connectivity.

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