Big Deal: Investors take a slice of Lime

The electric scooter and bike rental service has raised $335m in a GIC-backed round that was led by GV, indicating the frenetic growth of the sector this year.

US-based electric scooter rental service Lime confirmed this week that it has raised $335m in a round led by GV, a corporate venturing vehicle for internet and technology conglomerate Alphabet, illustrating that the mobility sector is continuing to branch out.

GV was joined by its parent company as well as ride hailing platform Uber, financial services group Fidelity Management and Research, venture capital firms Institutional Venture Partners, Atomico, Andreessen Horowitz and Fifth Wall Ventures, investment firm Coatue Management and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, GIC.

Joe Kraus, a general partner at GV, is joining Lime’s board of directors in conjunction with the round, which values the company at $1.1bn according to a Wall Street Journal report last month.

Founded in 2017 as LimeBike, Lime operates a service that enables users to rent e-scooters pedal bikes and electrically-assisted bicycles. It is available as a smartphone app but the company also accepts cash payments from customers without mobile devices.

Lime has a presence in cities spanning 18 US states, as well as five European cities and 18 US university campuses. It is aiming to grow by establishing partnerships not only with universities but also businesses that can offer the service as a flat-rate plan to employees as part of a benefits package.

The latest round boosted the company’s overall funding to $467m and follows a series B round that closed at $120m in February this year with a $70m investment by Fifth Wall, Rainbow Technology, Andreessen Horowitz, Decent Capital and NGP Capital, which counts communications technology provider Nokia as a backer.

Coatue Management had led the $50m first tranche in October 2017, investing with Andreessen Horowitz, DCM Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, Franklin Templeton Investments, GGV Capital, Section 32, Stanford-StartX Fund and The Durant Company.

Andreessen Horowitz had already led the company’s $12m series A round, which also featured IDG Capital and DCM, in March 2017.

The funding will be put toward international growth as well as the development and introduction of new technologies and the expansion of Lime’s infrastructure and headcount. GV and Alphabet’s commitment to the round is interesting but the bigger story is Uber’s involvement.

Despite raising billions in funding, Uber has been far from an active VC investor, but it is backing Lime in connection with a strategic partnership that will make the latter’s service available on Uber’s app, which had 75 million monthly active users as of January this year.

Lime’s emergence can be read as part of a wider urban mobility trend that began with the rapid growth of on-demand ride providers like Uber before moving into app-based bicycle rentals, epitomised by China-based platforms Mobike and Ofo, whose bikes have become an increasingly widespread sight in large cities.

Uber’s chief rival, Didi Chuxing, was quick to get onboard the bicycle rental rush, investing in Ofo’s late 2016 series C round and taking part in larger subsequent rounds as it expanded its push across China and the world. It also acquired dockless bike rental service Bluegogo in January 2018 with a view to establishing its own fully-owned offering.

However, Uber was left out of the burgeoning sector and its investment in Lime can be seen as an attempt to rectify that absence. With the option of an affiliate service on its app, Uber can expand its reach in urban mobility and access customers it would not otherwise reach, and potentially connect different modes of transport for single journeys.

In a wider sense, electric scooters mark both the latest iteration of urban mobility and a sign that each iteration is accelerating in terms of growth. Uber, the quickest of the ride hailing apps, was founded in 2009 and took four years to reach a 10-figure valuation. Ofo did it in three and Mobike in two, but both Lime and its main competitor, Bird, have achieved the astonishing feat of achieving unicorn valuations the year after they were founded.

The question of course is what the endgame is, considering no one in the larger sector has yet to reach the public markets, though some have been acquired and early investors in several of the companies have cashed out with substantial profits.

Lime and Bird are also already encountering some of the same regulatory and vandalism issues as their predecessors. Lime is seeking to avoid those by retrieving their scooters at night, though whether that will be sustainable as its fleet grows is another matter, which brings things to a more specific point: can the model ever be profitable? Lime now has a sizeable cash runway to investigate the matter.

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