Airwallex raises $13M led by Tencent to bring its cross-border payment service to Europe

By Jon Russel for TechCrunch

Australia-based cross-border payments startup Airwallex has closed a $13 million Series A round to expand its reach across Asia Pacific and into Europe. The deal was led by Chinese internet giant Tencent — marking its first investment in an Australian startup — with participation from Sequoia China, Mastercard and other undisclosed investors.

Airwallex was founded last year to tackle the issue of cross-border transactions at scale. Unlike predominantly consumer-focused services such as TransferWise — which actually opened an Asia Pacific HQ last week — Airwallex targets businesses, allowing them to make and receive international payments at scale at both a lower cost and with less hassle.

Beyond convenience of faster payment and reconciliation, the Melbourne-based startup, which previously raised $3 million last summer, has forged relationships with trading partners to help its customers save money on their overseas transactions.

“We’ve made settlement and reconciliation very easy, but our customers can also enjoy institutional FX prices to save a lot of money,” Airwallex CEO Jack Zhang told TechCrunch in an interview. “We can access the most competitive pricing in the world to facilitate traditional retailers that don’t enjoy that sort of rate.”

Already it is working with Tencent to help lower backend costs for its WeChat Pay service overseas — which is seen to have potential to grow alongside the emergence of outbound tourism from China, where WeChat is the dominant messaging app — but Zhang said the firm primarily deals with financial institutions, insurance companies and others that “do international payments at scale.” Two undisclosed clients, he said, are forecast to transaction “billions of U.S. dollars” each by the end of 2017, and the firm is on the hunt for more customers in this bracket.

“It makes sense to take strategic investment from Tencent because the WeChat ecosystem and WeChat pay is a big deal,” he added. “The internationalization will be interesting in the next couple of years, so we want to prepare ourselves for that expansion.”

Airwallex principally offers its business customers an API that can slot into their existing systems to handle global transfers. It charges a transaction fee based on the payment, which is metered by API usage although the company plans to introduce a manual mass-payout option in the coming month or so, according to Zhang.

The startup is also working on growing its presence in Europe. It recently opened a London-based office and Zhang said the team is working to connect prospective customers in Europe to their business interests in Asia Pacific more efficiently.

Overall, Airwallex has around 40 staff and offices in Melbourne, Shanghai and Hong Kong, alongside that new London base it is also planning to open a presence in Singapore. Right now, Zhang said its most common corridor is transactions between China and Southeast Asia, but Australia and New Zealand are also significant.

There’s no immediate plan to enter the U.S. market, but Airwallex is already preparing for that eventuality by getting the relevant licenses for the country.

“In two or three years as our transaction volume ramps up a bit, our focus can be wider. Right now, the focus in on Asia Pacific and Europe,” Zhang said.