Grab plans to double engineering strength in India, says CTO Vassilakis

Grab CTO Theodore Vassilakis
Grab, which owns Southeast Asia’s biggest ride-hailing app, has several businesses under its umbrella — payments, food delivery, logistics. The underline architecture has been a sharper focus on technology, which the Singapore-headquartered company has been able to harness effectively through strong R&D teams. India is one of the 7 locations globally where it has such a team. Theodore Vassilakis, group CTO of Grab, shares his India strategy in an interview with Yuvraj Malik. Edited excerpts:

Grab opened the Bengaluru R&D centre in March 2017. What happens there and what is the plan for it?

We said in 2017 that we’ll have 200 engineers at this centre. We are almost at that mark. The plan is to have 400 over 12 months. We work on multiple product lines there (Bengaluru centre). We started with payments then ventured into a full financial services platform. There’s a team that’s building the lending platform, another team is building risk models. We are doing work outside of financial services, like building a geo team for maps. We are also building security and data engineering teams here.

Grab acquired local payments start-up iKaaz last year. Are you open to more such buys?

We are open to it whenever it makes strategic sense. Our focus is not to acquire tech for tech’s sake, but to serve customers. We have built strong teams so that we can tackle all areas like transport, food, logistics, or the platform. But if we can accelerate our efforts and it makes sense to build out our team, we will consider it (potential acquisition).

Grab is transitioning into a platform or super app…

Through the end of 2017, Grab was a transport-focused company. At that time, we realised we had the opportunity to serve many more needs and that is when the super app strategy was born. We decided we had to build Grab Financial Services Group, we had to build food delivery, last-mile logistics, and a platform that enables others (third-party businesses). And 2018 was the year of execution. We now have Grab Express, which is essentially our logistics and last-mile delivery service. The first on the platform was grocery service, then health care, and now we have launched a video service. These are all through partners. We have partnered with ZhongAn, a Chinese insurance firm, and rolling out insurance products.

You have had operations in India for two years. Any plan to launch your direct-to-consumer service here?

We have been clear that we are focused on Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia has 650 million people. We are on only a 138 million cell phones. The region has a middle class of a couple of hundred million, and in 10 years it is expected to touch 400 million, which will put it at roughly where China is today. That’s the scale of the opportunity and that’s why the founders are focused on Southeast Asia. To launch in India is not the focus of our strategy today. We raised more than $3 billion in the last year or so. We have partnered with Toyota, Hyundai, and Kia. We’ll continue to be building partnerships, but for Southeast Asia.

What about IPO?

IPO is not part of our immediate objective. As I have mentioned, we have raised capital to keep growing the business. We hit $1 billion revenue last year. We have 138 million downloads across eight countries in Southeast Asia, and very recently we completed 3 billion rides.

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