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Temasek seeks cloud startups in India as e-commerce 'overheated'

The venture capital arm of Temasek Holdings is shifting its focus in India to software makers that service small and medium businesses, as it sees the e-commerce sector becoming "overheated" with funds rushing to invest in unprofitable companies.

[SINGAPORE] The venture capital arm of Temasek Holdings is shifting its focus in India to software makers that service small and medium businesses, as it sees the e-commerce sector becoming "overheated" with funds rushing to invest in unprofitable companies.

Vertex Venture Holdings, a unit of the Singapore state investment company, is hunting for startups making cheap software for the nation's hordes of small businesses that could range from a supply chain app to a payroll processing system, said Ben Mathias, its managing director for India.

In the rush to fund mobile phone-based startups that target consumers, investors have "largely ignored" enterprise software, Bengaluru-based Mathias, who was appointed Vertex's first managing director of India in October, said in a telephone interview. "Hundreds of millions of Indians are getting on the Internet, and with them, tens of millions of Indian enterprises are also getting on the Internet."

"As small and medium enterprises use the mobile Internet more and more to drive their business, they will need to adopt cloud-based enterprise solutions," he said, referring to the model of Internet-based computing where software and data resources are typically shared and accessed on-demand.

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Over the next 12 months, Vertex plans to invest between US$5 million and US$6 million each in three to four Indian companies, and will direct about half of its investments into enterprise software makers in the coming years, Mr Mathias said. Three out of Vertex's four investments in India so far have been in consumer- facing companies, including children's apparel site and travel booking site

The Indian investments were from Vertex's US$200 million fund that focuses on Southeast Asia and India companies, according to Mr Mathias. Vertex has received an additional $600 million from Temasek to invest in US, Israel, China start ups in "innovation and technological disruption," The Straits Times reported last month. 

Temasek Holdings has been shaking up its asset mix with a push into biotechnology and consumer companies that stand to benefit from aging populations and increasing disposable incomes, and in the fiscal year ended March 31 added stakes including in US pharmaceutical firm Gilead Sciences Inc and Indian drugmaker Intas Pharmaceuticals Ltd.

India's market for apps offering software as a service is estimated to be worth about US$300 million, of which 60 per cent of the demand comes from small and medium businesses, according to Biswajeet Mahapatra, a Dubai-based research director at Gartner Inc. That market has been relatively under-penetrated as a lot of small businesses either don't use computers at all or rely on outdated systems that can't adapt to new trends in mobile-based Internet technology, he said.

Startups that make low-priced, subscription-based software to manage supply chains, elicit customer feedback or handle human resource functions can capture market share as small business clients in India may not be able to afford offerings from larger software companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Inc.

"Small and medium businesses will not buy costly solutions, but they will buy smaller, nimbler apps," Mr Mahapatra said. "Now a lot of people are seeing the potential of investing in these startups." Record Fundraising Indian startups raised a record US$1.4 billion in venture capital funding in the first nine months of this year, beating last year's US$1.2 billion, according to data from Venture Intelligence. The country's largest e-retailers -, and Inc. - conducted their biggest sale of the year in October, offering discounts to lure customers.

Flush with cash, e-commerce companies have been competing to gain market share with new apps and large discounts, and would need to alter their business models significantly to become profitable, UBS said in an April report.

To highlight their progress, Internet retailers often rely on a metric known as "gross merchandise value", which measures listed selling prices of all goods sold on the platform. That metric doesn't account for additional costs or losses incurred by e-retailers, such as through discounts or cash-back subsidies offered to customers, and "that is a problem," Mr Mathias said.

"When I see consumer companies purely talking about GMVs for example, and not talking about gross margins and the cost of customer acquisition, then I get very worried," Mr Mathias said. "At the end of the day, you can't keep doing fundraising rounds every six months. It's not sustainable."