Mobile phone adoption has grown to six billion people globally, with five billion users still in emerging markets, according to a study by the World Bank. Out of that number, only 38 percent are smartphones, which explains the rise of companies like Sydney-based biNu, a mobile social platform that enables feature phones to function like smartphones. The company announced today the closing of their $4.3 million Series B round with participation from 500 Startups, PanAfrican Investment Co., and other private investors. BetaKit covered the company’s $2 million Series A funding from Eric Schmidt’s TomorrowVentures, the Savannah Fund, and others earlier in the year. The company will use the funding to continue expanding its reach in emerging markets, primarily Africa, Latin America, Asia, and parts of Europe.
The company’s technology creates a virtual smartphone experience in the cloud, giving feature phone users access to over 100 cloud-based apps and services, that the company states are 10 times faster than standard mobile browsers and use 10 times less data bandwidth. The apps themselves don’t require any downloading or updating, with users able to multi-task and switch between them. Earlier in the year, the company added an assortment of social features to its platform including news feeds, the ability to follow or friend other members, and photo sharing. Users can also access apps on the platform ranging from Facebook and Twitter, to apps that let them check sports scores, and get news updates from around the world.
The company is now out to begin monetizing the platform, and today announced the launch of biNu credits. “We’re going to build up and implement that strategy that we had. We have an increasing focus on demonstrating the commercial value of what we’re doing…certainly from an investor perspective, that’s been important,” CEO Gour Lentell said in an interview with BetaKit. “So biNu credits have been there…for some time and now really coming to forefront of what we’re doing, and the investors that have come on board in the second stage of our funding round are endorsing the strategy we’ve been articulating for some months now.”
The credits can be both purchased and earned to allow members of platform to send SMS messages to non-members anywhere around the world, and to purchase premium content and downloads like games, music, and books. The credits can be earned by members as they complete activities within the biNu app, which can range from completing their profile, to sharing content, or they can be given out as rewards by brands, researchers and advertisers.
When asked about the rise of smartphone adoption and the decline of feature phones and what that will mean for biNu, Lentell said that he recently received data from a market research firm that projected that 60 percent of global mobile handsets in 2016 will still be feature phones, though right now that number is 62 percent, so the likelihood smartphones won’t gain any more market share is slim. He did say they are looking at developing native apps for smartphones though to help bring that audience on board.
“biNu is a cloud platform and we’re acquiring users to our cloud platform and we’re working now to extend access to the platform to web browsers and will look next at native phone apps for some of our platform features,” Lentell added. “Others started on the web and then smartphone and moved down into the to mass market feature phone. We’re doing it the other way around, we’re actually acquiring users to our cloud platform, starting at the bottom and moving to other means of access, we’ll move with our audience over a period of years…we’re building brand loyalty to our cloud-platform now which will persist despite a user switching from a feature phone.”
With mobile phones enabling the next wave of micro-entrepreneurs in emerging markets thanks to the ability to facilitate mobile payment transfers in industries like agriculture, biNu is looking to be part an entirely new ecosystem spinning out of that global trend. With the added funding and a platform that brings all the functionality of a smartphone to millions of feature phone users, the company should be able to capitalize on a large market, and develop native apps before smartphones overtake feature phones globally.