Promising Australian startup Unlockd falls into administration, blaming Google for sinking its pending IPO

Matt Berriman, co-founder of Unlockd. Image: Supplied.
  • App which rewards users for watching ads now in administration.
  • It was preparing for IPO when Google threatened to withdraw services.
  • Unlockd completed a $30 million Series B raise this time last year.

Australian startup Unlockd has gone from a potential IPO to voluntary administration in the space of weeks.

Less than a month ago, the English High Court granted an interim injunction to stop Google from disabling AdMob-generated ads and removing Unlockd apps from the Google Play Store in the UK.

Launched in 2016, Unlockd built a business by using Google’s AdMob inventory to source most of its advertising content.

Users were rewarded for viewing the targeted ads, content and offers when they unlocked their smartphone, in the form of mobile data, credit off phone bills, entertainment content or loyalty points.

As of last month, it had returned over $15 million worth of rewards to 330,000 active users, and was preparing for a listing on the Australian Stock Exchange.

As news of a possible IPO broke in mid-April, Google warned the startup it would withdraw its access to Google Play and AdMob services, citing a breach of “a number of its policies”.

But Unlockd claimed Google approved its app for use with AdMob on two separate occasions during 2017 “following exhaustive testing”, and on May 10, the English High Court granted an interim injunction against Google’s threatened actions and set an expedited trial date for September.

But it looks like it was too little, too late for the startup which counted Lachlan Murdoch, former Seven managing director Peter Gammell and Catch of the Day founders Hezi and Gabby Leibovich among its investors.

A year ago, it was riding high on one of the biggest capital raises for an Australian startup in 2017, securing $30 million in a series B round led by Malaysian telecommunications giant Axiata Group Berhad.

That deal gave Unlockd access to Axiata’s carrier list, which covers ten Asian countries including Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, India and Singapore.

Unlockd in action.

A statement from an Unlockd spokeswoman said the “ramifications of Google’s actions have had and continue to have a deep impact on the business when considering the valuation of Unlockd prior to these threats and the postponement of the planned IPO, which would have fueled the continued growth and expansion of the business.

“As such, we have not been able to secure the capital we had expected to replace the IPO and therefore have been left no choice but to move into voluntary administration.”

It continued:

“Unlockd launched in 2016 with a clear vision to change the way people use and pay with their digital devices. It is now a revolutionary platform that is fundamentally changing the way that people interact with the world of advertising, by returning value to users in exchange for their attention in a way that Google and other big tech companies do not.

We believe that Google’s conduct and the effect of its actions represents a further example by them of anti-competitive conduct toward innovative start-ups such as Unlockd, that might pose a future threat to their position in the market.

Until wide reaching change is brought about to prevent companies like Google from abusing their dominant market positions, consumers and innovation will continue to suffer.”

The spokeswoman told Business Insider that Unlockd’s “legal course of action remains, however, we will now also consider our options in relation to damages against Google”.

Unlockd’s board of directors are “planning to continue to discuss investments and potential acquisitions”.

McGrathNicol Advisory Firm has been appointed to manage the process for Unlockd.

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