Mobile device maker HMD Global has announced a $230M Series A2 -- its first tranche of external funding since a $100M round back in 2018 when it tipped over into a unicorn valuation. Since late 2016 the startup has exclusively licensed Nokia's brand for mobile devices, going on to ship some 240M devices to date.
Its latest cash injection is notable both for its size (HMD claims it as the third largest funding round in Europe this year); and the profile of the strategic investors ploughing in capital -- namely: Google, Nokia and Qualcomm.
Though whether a tech giant (Google) whose OS dominates the world's smartphone market (Android) becoming a strategic investor in Europe's last significant mobile OEM (HMD) catches the attention of regional competition enforcers remains to be seen. Er, vertical integration anyone? (To wit: It's a little over two years since Google was slapped with a $5BN penalty by EU regulators for antitrust violations related to how it operates Android -- and the Commission has said it continues to monitor the market 'remedies'.)
In a further quirk, when we spoke to HMD Global CEO, Florian Seiche, ahead of today's announcement, he didn't expect the names of the investors to be disclosed -- but a press spokesperson had already shared them with us so he duly confirmed the trio are investors in the round. (But wouldn't be drawn on how much equity Google is grabbing.)
HMD's smartphones run on Google's Android platform, which gives the tech giant a firm business reason for supporting the mobile maker in growing the availability of Google-packed hardware in key growth markets around the world.
And while HMD likens its consistent (and consistently updated) flavor of Android to the premium 'pure' Android experience you get from Google's own-brand Pixel smartphones, the difference is the Finnish company offers devices across the range of price points, and targets hardware at mobile users in developing markets.
The upshot is relatively little overlap with Google's Pixel hardware, and still plenty of business upside for Google should HMD grow the pipeline of Google services users (as it makes money by targeting ads).
Connoisseurs of mobile history may see more than a little irony in Google investing into Nokia branded smartphones (via HMD), given Android's role in fatally disrupting Nokia's lucrative smartphone business -- knocking the Finnish giant off its perch as the world's number one mobile maker and ushering in an era of Android-fuelled Asian mobile giants. But wait long enough in tech and what goes around oftentimes comes back around.
"We're extremely excited," said Seiche, when we mention Google's pivotal role in Nokia's historical downfall in smartphones. "How we are going to write that next chapter on smartphones is a critical strategic pillar for the company and our opportunity to team up so closely with Google around this has been a very, very great partnership from the beginning. And then this investment definitely confirms that -- also for the future."
"It's a critical time for the industry therefore having a clear strategy -- having a clear differentiation and a different point of view to offer, we believe, is a fantastic asset that we have developed for ourselves. And now is a great moment for us to double down on this," he added.
We also asked Seiche whether HMD has any interest in taking advantage of the European Commission's Android antitrust enforcement decision -- i.e. to fork Android and remove the usual Google services, perhaps swapping them out for some European alternatives, which is at least a possibility for OEMs selling in the region -- but Seiche told us: "We have looked at it but we strongly believe that consumers or enterprise customers actually love [Google] services and therefore they choose those services for themselves." (Millions of dollars of direct investment from Google also, presumably, helps make the Google services business case stack up.)
Nokia, meanwhile, has always had a close relationship with HMD -- which was established by former Nokia execs for the sole purpose of licensing its iconic mobile brand. (The backstory there is a clause in the sale terms of Nokia's mobile device division to Microsoft expired in 2016, paving the way for Nokia's brand to be returned to the smartphone market without the prior Windows Mobile baggage.)
Its investment into HMD now looks like a vote of confidence in how the company has been executing in the fiercely competitive mobile space to date (HMD doesn't break out a lot of detail about device sales but Seiche told us it sold in excess of 70M mobiles last year; that's a combined figure for smartphones and feature phones) -- as well as an upbeat assessment of the scope of the growth opportunity ahead of it.
On the latter front US-led geopolitical tensions between the West and China do look poised to generate a tail-wind for HMD's business.
Mobile chipmaker Qualcomm, for example, is facing a loss of business, as US government restrictions threaten its ability to continue selling chips to Huawei; a major Chinese device maker that's become a key target for US president Trump. Its interest in supporting HMD's growth, therefore, looks like a way for Qualcomm to hedge against US government disruption aimed at Chinese firms in its mobile device maker portfolio.
While with Trump's recent threats against the TikTok app it seems safe to assume that no tech company with a Chinese owner is safe.
As a European company, HMD is able to position itself as a safe haven -- and Seiche's sales pitch talks up a focus on security detail and overall quality of experience as key differentiating factors vs the Android hoards.
"We have been very clear and very consistent right from the beginning to pick these core principles that are close to our heart and very closely linked with the Nokia brand itself -- and definitely security, quality and trust are key elements," he told TechCrunch. "This is resonating with our carrier and retail customers around the world and it is definitely also a core fundamental differentiator that those partners that are taking a longer term view clearly see that same opportunity that we see for us going forward."
HMD does use manufacturing facilities in China, as well as in a number of other locations around the world -- including Brazil, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
But asked whether it sees any supply chain risks related to continued use of Chinese manufacturers to build 'secure' mobile hardware, Seiche responded by claiming: "The most important [factor] is we do control the software experience fully." He pointed specifically to HMD's acquisition of Valona Labs earlier this year. The Finnish security startup carries out all its software audits. "They basically control our software to make sure we can live up to that trusted standard," Seiche added.
Landing a major tranche of new funding now -- and with geopolitical tension between the West and the Far East shining a spotlight on its value as alternative, European mobile maker -- HMD is eyeing expansion in growth markets such as Africa, Brail and India. (Currently, HMD said it's active in 91 markets across eight regions, with its devices ranged in 250,000 retail outlets around the world.)
It's also looking to bring 5G to devices at a greater range of price-points, beyond the current flagship Nokia 8.3. Seiche also said it wants to do more on the mobile services side. HMD's first 5G device, the flagship Nokia 8.3, is due to land in the US and Europe in a matter of weeks. And Seiche suggested a timeframe of the middle of next year for launching a 5G device at a mid tier price point.
"The 5G journey again has started, in terms of market adoption, in China. But now Europe, US are the key next opportunity -- not just in the premium tier but also in the mid segment. And to get to that as fast as possible is one of our goals," he said, noting joint-working with Qualcomm on that.
"We also see great opportunity with Nokia in that 5G transition -- because they are also working on a lot of private LTE deployments which is also an interesting area since... we are also very strongly present in that large enterprise segment," he added.
On mobile services, Seiche highlighted the launch of HMD Connect: A data SIM aimed at travellers -- suggesting it could expand into additional connectivity offers in future, forging more partnerships with carriers.
"We have already launched several services that are close to the hardware business -- like insurance for your smartphones -- but we are also now looking at connectivity as a great area for us," he said. "The first pilot of that has been our global roaming but we believe there is a play in the future for consumers or enterprise customers to get their connectivity directly with their device. And we're partnering also with operators to make that happen."
"You can see us more as a complement [to carriers]," he added, arguing that business "dynamics" for carriers have also changed substantially -- and customer acquisition hasn't been a linear game for some time.
"In a similar way when we talk about Google Pixel vs us -- we have a different footprint. And again if you look at carriers where they get their subscribers from today is already today a mix between their own direct channels and their partner channels. And actually why wouldn't a smartphone player be a natural good partner of choice also for them? So I think you'll see that as a trend, potentially, evolving in the next couple of years."