Graph databases, which store information in nodes and relationships instead of tables like Excel sheets, have grown in popularity due to an explosion of data across industries. While TigerGraph and Neo4j have dominated the western market, China sees its own homegrown pioneers in the space.
NebulaGraph is one of China’s fastest growing startups offering graphics databases with open source and business subscription options. Two years after we covered the $8 million funding round, the company announced this week that it has closed a Series A round led by Jenation Capital. The company has not stated how much it has raised, but only says it is in the “low tens of millions” of dollars.
Other investors in the round include Matrix Partner China, Redpoint China Ventures and Source Code Capital.
NebulaGraph has shown encouraging growth over the past two years, with the number of users rising to over 900 from just 60, including freemium and paid. The type of users has also been broadened. Two years ago, customers primarily used NebulaGraph to explore data relationships across social media, e-commerce, and fintech platforms. Since then, the startup has attracted companies from the manufacturing sector, the most surprising of which are electric vehicle and aircraft manufacturers.
The EV supply chain is very sophisticated, and every car sale can generate piles of data from the design stage to after it’s shipped, said founder and CEO Sherman Yu, who previously worked at Ant Group and Meta. Even a minor defect in a nail can have a major ripple effect on the vehicle, so manufacturers keep a mountain of information detailing the condition of various parts, such as which supplier and even employee is responsible for them.
That’s not the end of data collection. In today’s hyper-personalization, Internet-connected vehicles also learn the behavior of drivers and passengers. That means auto companies need more robust tools to handle the ocean of data they own, and that’s where graph databases come into play.
“You used to be able to find relationships in data, but relational databases become very slow as the data set grows,” explains Yu. Much of what NebulaGraph does for its customers is real-time, such as store recommendations, so speed is critical.
Other emerging use cases for NebulaGraph include AI-based drug discovery and chip design, Yu added.
About 90% of the company’s users are in China, but like many mature open source SaaS companies, NebulaGraph has a vision to venture into the West and build a global developer community. The company’s plan to open an office in the US was “stalled” by the COVID-19 pandemic, Yu said, but it is reallocating resources to bring back global expansion by 2023.
While many of China’s consumer-focused start-ups are going global as regulatory uncertainty grows at home, NebulaGraph wants a slice of the Western SaaS market because it’s more “mature,” Yu said.
With the world’s largest internet population, China clearly has an abundance of data to mine. The problem is that the willingness to pay for SaaS remains low, from shoddy startups to companies with deep pockets. That’s partly due to China’s long history of software piracy and relatively low labor costs, making workplace automation less urgent than in the West.
There is also an old accounting problem, Yu explained. To this day, China still hasn’t formally classified computer software — whether it should be categorized as an asset or as an expense, making it difficult for companies to do their accounting.