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Alibaba Invests $50 Million in TV Remote App Peel

It happened last spring, but Peel kept mum until after Alibaba’s IPO.

Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

Alibaba, the Chinese tech giant, continues to place financial bets outside of its core e-commerce focus, investing $50 million into entertainment app maker Peel.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based startup makes apps for smartphones and tablets that allow people to use these devices to control their TVs in place of traditional TV and cable remotes. The app’s Android version comes preloaded on a range of Samsung and HTC phones and tablets and will work with just about any TV, cable box or streaming video box, via infrared technology. The iOS version will only replace a remote control for Dish and DirectTV boxes.

Alibaba previously invested $5 million in Peel as part of a larger $20 million venture investment that the company raised in 2013. Alibaba then invested this $50 million in late spring, though Peel chose to wait to announce it until after Alibaba’s historic IPO.

For Alibaba, the Peel funding is one of several big venture investments the company has made in the last year as it eyes expansion into other industries such as media, messaging and gaming. Alibaba has invested huge sums this year in ride-sharing service Lyft, mobile gaming company Kabam and messaging app Tango.

Peel CEO Thiru Arunachalam told Re/code that Alibaba was attracted to Peel’s app install base of 96 million people, but that there is no pressure to integrate any Alibaba e-commerce experiences into the app.

“They are more and more like a regular VC,” he said. “They pick a space and invest and let the company continue to progress.”

“They are very patient investors,” he added.

Still, Arunachalam said he could imagine a future in which Peel data on what TV shows people watch could be interesting to advertisers or sellers on Alibaba’s e-commerce marketplaces.

Peel makes money by charging TV networks to promote their shows on the app, which displays TV show listings and times. Arunachalam said Peel will generate about $8 million in revenue this year and projects $20 million in revenue for 2015.

In the future, Peel may attempt to make a universal remote app that also controls other devices in the home such as air conditioners and lights.

“Can we become the gateway control of all the things in the living room?” Arunachalam said.

Hongping Zhang, managing director of Alibaba’s investment arm, has joined Peel’s board of directors. Peel previously raised more than $35 $45 million from Redpoint Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Translink Capital and Harrison Metal.

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