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How a bottled-water founder became the richest man in China (for a moment)

September 8, 2020, 2:17 PM UTC

It’s hard to deny the stock market’s love affair with technology companies—the sector has come to dominate over the past decade and even more so in the pandemic, with Apple’s now $2.1 trillion valuation pushing it above oil giant Saudi Aramco’s $1.9 trillion.

But here’s a break from that narrative: Nongfu Springs, China’s top bottled-water distributor, jumped as much as 85% in its first day trading on the Hong Kong stock exchange on Tuesday, catapulting founder Zhong Shanshan briefly into the position of China’s richest man.

Yes, China, where tech giants such as Alibaba and Tencent nest. At one point in the stock’s debut, Zhong commanded a net worth of about $59 billion thanks to his 84% stake in the bottled water company, putting his wealth briefly above that of Alibaba founder Jack Ma and Tencent founder Pony Ma, who are valued at $57 billion and $52 billion respectively.

Investors’ bullishness on the company comes in part because Chinese consumers lack access to safe drinking water, with about 80% of groundwater declared unsafe for consumption by the government in 2016, per my Hong Kong-based colleague Grady McGregor.

While Nongfu’s stock has since cooled slightly and shaved Zhong’s net worth down to $51 billion, it’s a reminder that despite all the tech, in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, at least, you still need to eat (or hydrate).

BOUGIE INVESTING: Here’s a fun one. Despite fears of doom and gloom, the stock market has remained (perhaps alarmingly) resilient to the point of overvaluation. Now investors are looking for yield in non-traditional places, including, apparently, in shares of bankrupt companies (ahem Hertz) and in luxury goods and collectibles formerly possible only for the ultra-wealthy. 

Of course, Main Street investors, for the most part, can’t afford to throw down millions of dollars for a race horse, classic car, or art piece. So fintech startups that sell fractional stakes in those assets have surged during the pandemic. Masterworks, which sells stakes in artwork for as low as $20, has apparently added 10,000 users a month during the pandemic, its founder told Bloomberg. Read more.

BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS FROM 40 UNDER 40: Fortune polled its 40 Under 40 in Finance list for their book recommendations. Here is the selection.

JOIN US: The pandemic has rewritten how employees work. Fortune is hosting a virtual discussion with experts across industries (Intel, Slack, Citi, Universal Pictures) to explore how leaders can keep their organizations motivated in a time of intense change. Register here for free to join on September 16 at 2:00-3:00 p.m. EDT.

Lucinda Shen
Twitter: @shenlucinda


- Byju’s, an Indian ed-tech, has raised $500 million in funding that values it at $10.8 billion. Silver Lake led the round and was joined by investors including Tiger Global, General Atlantic, and Owl Ventures. Read more.

- Mollie, an Amsterdam-based startup with an API-based way to integrate payments into a site or an app, raised €90 million ($106 million) in funding. TCV led the round. Read more.

- LinkDoc Technology (Beijing) Company, a Chinese-based provider of medical data solutions and oncology big data services, raised 700 million yuan ($102 million) in extended Series D funding. Investors were not disclosed. Read more.

- Livspace, a Singapore-based platform for shoppers to book interior designers and purchase home decor, raised $90 million in Series D funding. Kharis Capital and Venturi Partners co-led the round. Read more.

- Melio Payments, a New York-based B2B payments platform, raised $80 million. Investors include Coatue Management and General Catalyst.

- Tingyun, a Chinese application performance management service platform managed by Beijing NetworkBench, raised 400 million yuan ($57 million) in Series C funding. Investors include  CICC Capital’s sub-fund CICC Fengtai, China Universal Asset Management Company, GF Securities’ GF Qianhe, and Mangrove Capital. Read more.

- Thunes, a Singapore-based startup developing a cross-border payments network, raised $60 million in Series B funding. Helios Investment Partners led the round and was joined by investors including, GGV Capital and Future Shape. Read more.

- Gaana, an India-based music streaming app, raised $50 million in funding. Tencent and Times Internet led the round. Read more.

- AnyVision, an Israel- and New York-based maker of facial recognition tech, raised $43 million in funding. The backs weren’t disclosed.

- BIMA, a London- and Stockholm-based provider of life and health insurance policies, raised $30 million in funding. CreditEase’s Fintech Investment Fund led the round and was joined by investors including LeapFrog Investments and insurance giant Allianz.

- Oncomfort, a Belgian maker of a virtual reality platform for treating pain and anxiety, raised €10 million ($11.8 million) in Series A funding. Debiopharm and Crédit Mutuel Innovation led the round.

- ThoughtRiver, a London-based legaltech startup applying A.I. to contract screening, raised $10 million in Series A funding. Octopus Ventures led the round and was joined by investors including Crane, Local Globe, Entrée Capital, and Syndicate Room. Read more.

- Sumsub, a London-based identity verification platform for fintechs, raised $6 million in Series A funding. MetaQuotes led the round.

- Athennian, a Canada-based developer of legal entity management software, raised $8 million in Series A funding. Arthur Ventures led the round and a previously undisclosed $2 million seed financing round from Q3 2019.

- Lokalise, a Riga, Latvia-based localization software startup, raised $6 million in Series A funding. Mike Chalfen led the round and was joined by investors including capital300. 

- Myst AI, a San Francisco-based startup using A.I. to forecast electricity supply and demand, raised $6 million in Series A funding. Valo Ventures led the round and was joined by investors including Gradient Ventures.

- Silk and Sonder, a San Francisco-based mental wellness subscription company, raised $3.4 million in seed funding. Redpoint led the round.

- Freshket, a Thailand-based e-commerce marketplace for farmers, restaurants, and consumers, raised $3 million in Series A funding. Openspace Ventures led the round. 

- HumanForest, a U.K.-based dockless, shared and ad-supported e-bike service, raised £1.8 million ($2.3 million) in funding. Investors included Cabify founders Juan de Antonio and Vicente Pascual. Read more.


- Apollo Global Management and Lone Star Funds are preparing rival bids to buy Asda,  the U.K. supermarket chain, the Telegraph reports. Financial terms weren't disclosed. Read more.

- Centerbridge Partners led a  €150 million ($177 million) round of funding in Auxmoney, a Düsseldorf, Germany-based credit marketplace. Centerbridge will acquire shares from existing investors. Foundation Capital, Index Ventures and Union Square Ventures remain fully on board. Read more.

- Innovative Discovery, a portfolio company of Silver Oak Services Partners, has acquired Integro, an Englewood, Co.-based provider of information governance solutions. Financial terms weren't disclosed.

- Innovery, backed by Wise Equity, acquired NB Service, an Italian system integrator in the cybersecurity market. Financial terms weren't disclosed.

- Three private equity groups have submitted final bids to Serie A, Italy’s soccer league, per Reuters. CVC Capital Partners has submitted a joint bid with Advent and Fondo Strategico Italiano, valuing a 10% stake in Serie A’s media business at about 1.6 billion euros ($1.89 billion). Another consortium is led by Bain Capital, while another has been formed by Fortress, Apax, and Three Hills Capital Partners. Read more.

- Levine Leichtman Capital Partners acquired Tropical Smoothie Cafe, a Atlanta-based franchisor of fast casual cafes with over 870 units across 44 states. Financial terms weren't disclosed.

- Royston Group, a portfolio company of Industrial Opportunity Partners, acquired the assets of ProImage Wholesale Signs, a Jacksboro, Tenn.-based wholesale manufacturer of retail signage. Financial terms weren't disclosed.

- Warburg Pincus agreed to invest in Infoniqa, an Austria-based provider of HR software and service solutions in DACH countries. Financial terms weren't disclosed.


- Louis Dreyfus, the commodities trader, is discussing the sale of a stake in itself to Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund ADQ, per Bloomberg. Read more.

- Empower Retirement agreed to acquire MassMutuals retirement plan business. Financial terms weren't disclosed.


- Progress (NASDAQ: PRGS) agreed to acquire Chef, a Seattle-based provider of developer operation tools, for $220 million in cash. Backers of Chef include Battery Ventures and DFJ.


- Hensoldt, a German aerospace company, plans to go public in Frankfurt. KKR backs the firm.


- GI Partners, private equity firm, raised $1.8 billion for its Data Infrastructure Fund.

- Mountain Capital, a growth equity firm, raised about $414.8 million for its second flagship fund, per the SEC. Read more.

- Brightspark Capital, a venture firm, raised CAD$60 for its third Brightspark Canadian Opportunities Fund (BCOF) towards an ultimate fund size of CAD$75 million.