WeLab, an financial tech startup that operates online lending platforms in Hong Kong and China, has raised $220 million in combined equity and debt financing. The round, which WeLab says is its Series B+, brings its total funding so far to $425 million. Investors include the Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Credit Suisse, which also acted as the round’s placement agent.
The company declined to disclose its valuation. Founder and chief executive officer Simon Loong told TechCrunch that it is still too early to share details about any plans for an initial offering, but said “there are many similarities between the recent fintech companies who have gone public and us—one of which is that these companies and ourselves started around 2012-2013. We keep a close eye on the IPOs.”
Most of WeLab’s borrowers are individuals and small businesses who don’t have enough established credit to take out loans from traditional banks at a low interest rate and typically rely on friends and family or microloan programs instead. WeLab’s platform, which allows users to submit loan applications through a smartphone app, positions itself as a more efficient alternative. WeLab can respond to applications almost instantly by assessing creditworthiness with data gathered from online sources, including bill payment records and social media profiles, with its proprietary technology, which it also licenses to banks and telecoms.
WeLab was founded in 2013 and now claims 25 million users and says it has processed a total of $28 billion in loans. Loong said that investors from this round will allow WeLab to partner with more banks to develop financial products and services. It already works with more than 40 banks and is planning to expand into Southeast Asia.
“We see Southeast Asia as a region with huge growth potential for WeLab due to its high percentage of unbanked population (73% out of 600 million) which makes it impossible to borrow and its high mobile penetration rate (133%),” said Loong.
The company’s new financing will also be used to develop its artificial intelligence and automation capabilities, which WeLab uses to detect fraud, lower its operating costs and improve customer experience. For example, artificial intelligence powers its chatbot WeBot, which Loong says now handles 70% of WeLab’s customer service enquiries.
The Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund was launched by Alibaba Group to find investments that could also serve as strategic partners. Alibaba’s interest in WeLab isn’t surprising because of its focus on using technology to disrupt the traditional banking industry in China through Ant Financial, its financial services arm, and online payment system Alipay.
In a statement, the fund’s executive director, Cindy Chow, said “With a specific focus in developing innovation and entrepreneurship in Hong Kong, we invest in promising Hong Kong companies with groundbreaking business models and technologies. We were attracted to WeLab because of its innovative business model. As one of the fastest growing fintech companies in Hong Kong and the Mainland, we look forward to working with the team and support their further expansion.”
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