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Former Paytm execs team up to chase gold in India

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Nearly every adult in India has a bank account, but fewer than a quarter of them in the South Asian nation can secure loans from the formal financial institutions.

Although much of the population in the country doesn’t have a credit score, an increasingly growing number of people here are looking for credit — and some are going to extreme lengths.

Hundreds of informal online lending apps have begun attempting to tackle — and in some cases, abuse — this opportunity in recent years, offering Indians short-term, collateral-free and instant loans.

The catch? Several of these apps charge such high fees that the interest rate, when annualized, could go as high as 1,000%.

Many of these apps, several of which are operated by Chinese firms, have also been found to be employing sketchy tactics, such as contacting family members and colleagues of the customer to shame them and recover their money.

Google caught wind of this recently, and last month removed hundreds of such apps from the Play Store in India. But it wasn’t until several people committed suicide in the country in an attempt to save themselves from embarrassment from family, colleagues and society.

Deepak Abbot and Nitin Misra, two former executives of Paytm, India’s most valuable startup, believe that this problem can be solved for many by using an asset that has been sitting idly in nearly 200 million homes in the country: Gold.

Indians stockpile more gold than citizens of any other country. In fact, such is the demand for gold in India that the South Asian nation is the world’s third-largest importer of this precious metal.

But once most Indians have bought gold, they don’t really do much with it other than hoarding and getting it off circulation, thereby dragging down the economy. According to estimates by the World Gold Council, Indians have stashed 25,000 tons of gold, whose value today is over $1.4 trillion.

Monetizing even a third of it can add 2% to the GDP growth rate, analysts say. Banks and other financial institutions love gold as it’s a great secure asset whose value has only grown over the decades.

New Delhi has made several efforts, too, to get stashed gold back in circulation through initiatives such as the gold monetization scheme, but it hasn’t had much success with it so far.

The core challenge with convincing people to part ways with their gold is that it’s an emotional asset, said Misra and Abbot in an interview with TechCrunch. Gold jewellery is a show of strength and pride in India, and families pass on their reserve to future generations.

“Irrespective of your state, religion, community, in India, gold has a certain auspicious sentiment attached to it. You worship it. Even when tax concession and premium price is offered to someone, they can’t fathom the idea of their necklaces and other jewellery being melted and going away,” said Misra.

The other challenge is that even when someone absolutely needs to sell their gold, which is often their last resort, to attend a family emergency or other urgent and unavoidable cause, the process of selling it is an awkward and embarrassing experience for many because of the stigma of pawning their family’s precious property.

In recent years, a handful of firms and startups — in collaboration with banks — have attempted to remove this stigma by visiting the customer at their doorstep to some success.

Abbot and Misra, pictured above, think they have a better approach and broader idea.

Many people in India keep their gold stash and other precious items in a safe locker at a bank that can charge as high as $65 a month for this service. (Banks require customers to pay the fee annually, however.) There are some downsides to using a bank’s locker: Accessing this locker is a long-process and can easily take half of your day, if not more. There’s also no insurance protection on items people keep in the locker. Customers are also required to put up a security deposit of a few hundred dollars to avail this service — and, there is also a long-waiting period before people can even avail this service.

Through their newfound startup indiagold, Abbot and Misra are offering customers a similar locker service for as little as $1.36 a month, which also includes full insurance coverage. The idea, the duo explained, is to make it easier and convenient for people to secure their previous metal reserve.

“You sign up on indiagold app, our agents come to your house, inspect and weigh the gold, and put it in a tamper proof bag. We also attach an RFID sticker to the bag, which once scanned, can detect if there was any attempt to open it. They then put the bag inside a steel box, which is locked by the customer with their fingerprint. And all of this is being captured through a body camera by one of our agents, which is streaming the feed in real-time to the customer as they leave the premise to the designated vault location,” said Misra.

With crime rates going up, very few people bark at the idea of securing their jewelries and especially when they know that their property is being insured, the duo said. Once they have deposited their gold stash with indiagold, the startup displays the real-time value of their property and offers a line of credit that could be accessed within seconds.

“It’s fine if the customer doesn’t want a loan, but should they ever need it, they have a zero-touch option available. They know that their gold is secured in a locker with their fingerprint, so their jewellery is not going to be melted or broken. If they ever need a line of credit, they can avail it in 30 seconds without talking to anyone, or even having someone quietly visit their home,” he said.

“If they have deposited multiple jewellery items, they can avail loan against just some of them. Say if the person knows that they need to use some necklace in an event soon, they can take a loan against other items in that case. And we charge at max 1% interest rate on the loan,” he added.

This is just part of the problem that indiagold, which kickstarted its operation late last year, is trying to address.

It has built a platform that determines the credit worthiness of its customers, and provides APIs to banks and other lenders who are trying to reach this untapped market.

The startup, which is currently operational in Delhi-NCR, recently raised $2 million in a financing round led by Leo Capital, with participation from high-profile investors including Kunal Shah of Cred, Amrish Rau of PineLabs, Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal of Snapdeal, Ashneer Grover and Bhavik Koladiya of BharatPe, Miten Sampat of Cred and MX Player, Sameer Mehta of Boat, Ashish Sharma of Innoven Capital, Ankit Agarwal of Alteria Capital, Rahul Soota of MyMoneyMantra, Ramakant Sharma of Livspace, and Blume Founders Fund.

“We think this is the only way this huge market can really be addressed, and now we are beginning to scale our efforts,” said Misra.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Facebook will pay $650 million to settle class action suit centered on Illinois privacy law

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Facebook was ordered to pay $650 million Friday for running afoul of an Illinois law designed to protect the state’s residents from invasive privacy practices.

That law, the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), is a powerful state measure that’s tripped up tech companies in recent years. The suit against Facebook was first filed in 2015, alleging that Facebook’s practice of tagging people in photos using facial recognition without their consent violated state law.

1.6 million Illinois residents will receive at least $345 under the final settlement ruling in California federal court. The final number is $100 higher than the $550 million Facebook proposed in 2020, which a judge deemed inadequate. Facebook disabled the automatic facial recognition tagging features in 2019, making it opt-in instead and addressing some of the privacy criticisms echoed by the Illinois class action suit.

A cluster of lawsuits accused Microsoft, Google and Amazon of breaking the same law last year after Illinois residents’ faces were used to train their facial recognition systems without explicit consent.

The Illinois privacy law has tangled up some of tech’s giants, but BIPA has even more potential to impact smaller companies with questionable privacy practices. The controversial facial recognition software company Clearview AI now faces its own BIPA-based class action lawsuit in the state after the company failed to dodge the suit by pushing it out of state courts.

A $650 million settlement would be enough to crush any normal company, though Facebook can brush it off much like it did with the FTC’s record-setting $5 billion penalty in 2019. But the Illinois law isn’t without teeth. For Clearview, it was enough to make the company pull out of business in the state altogether.

The law can’t punish a behemoth like Facebook in the same way, but it is one piece in a regulatory puzzle that poses an increasing threat to the way tech’s data brokers have done business for years. With regulators at the federal, state and legislative level proposing aggressive measures to rein in tech, the landmark Illinois law provides a compelling framework that other states could copy and paste. And if big tech thinks navigating federal oversight will be a nightmare, a patchwork of aggressive state laws governing how tech companies do business on a state-by-state basis is an alternate regulatory future that could prove even less palatable.

 

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AWS reorganizes DeepRacer League to encourage more newbies

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AWS launched the DeepRacer League in 2018 as a fun way to teach developers machine learning, and it’s been building on the idea ever since. Today, it announced the latest league season with two divisions: Open and Pro.

As Marcia Villalba wrote in a blog post announcing the new league, “AWS DeepRacer is an autonomous 1/18th scale race car designed to test [reinforcement learning] models by racing virtually in the AWS DeepRacer console or physically on a track at AWS and customer events. AWS DeepRacer is for developers of all skill levels, even if you don’t have any ML experience. When learning RL using AWS DeepRacer, you can take part in the AWS DeepRacer League where you get experience with machine learning in a fun and competitive environment.”

While the company started these as in-person races with physical cars, the pandemic has forced them to make it a virtual event over the last year, but the new format seemed to be blocking out newcomers. Since the goal is to teach people about machine learning, getting new people involved is crucial to the company.

That’s why it created the Open League, which as the name suggests is open to anyone. You can test your skills and if you’re good enough, finishing in the top 10%, you can compete in the Pro division. Everyone competes for prizes as well such as vehicle customizations.

The top 16 in the Pro League each month race for a chance to go to the finals at AWS re:Invent in 2021, an event that may or may not be virtual, depending on where we are in the pandemic recovery.

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Free 30-day trial of Extra Crunch included with TC Sessions: Justice tickets

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TC Sessions: Justice is coming up on Wednesday, and we’ve decided to sweeten the deal for what’s included with your event pass. Buy your ticket now and you’ll get a free month of access to Extra Crunch, our membership program focused on founders and startup teams with exclusive articles published daily.

Extra Crunch unlocks access to our weekly investor surveys, private market analysis and in-depth interviews with experts on fundraising, growth, monetization and other core startup topics. Get feedback on your pitch deck through Extra Crunch Live, and stay informed with our members-only Extra Crunch newsletter. Other benefits include an improved TechCrunch.com experience and savings on software services from AWS, Crunchbase and more.

Learn more about Extra Crunch benefits here, and buy your TC Sessions: Justice tickets here.  

What is TC Sessions: Justice? 

TC Sessions: Justice is a single-day virtual event that explores diversity, equity and inclusion in tech, the gig worker experience, the justice system and more. We’ll host a series of interviews with key figures in the tech community. 

The event will take place March 3, and we’d love to have you join. 

View the event agenda here, and purchase tickets here

Once you buy your TC Sessions: Justice pass, you will be emailed a link and unique code you can use to claim the free month of Extra Crunch.

Already bought your TC Sessions: Justice ticket?

Existing pass holders will be emailed with information on how to claim the free month of Extra Crunch membership. All new ticket purchases will receive information over email immediately after the purchase is complete.

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We’re happy to extend a free month of access to existing users. Please contact extracrunch@techcrunch.com and mention that you are existing Extra Crunch members who bought a ticket to TC Sessions: Justice. 

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