James Murdoch is embarking on an ambitious new media venture in India after reuniting with Uday Shankar, the executive who helped build the Murdoch family’s Star television empire before leading Disney’s Asia arm.
The project brings back together one of India’s most successful media partnerships with the aim of building a “large-scale” business in the areas of digital media, education and healthcare delivery, developed in part through acquisitions.
While the name of the venture and its precise strategy have yet to be disclosed, Mr Murdoch told the Financial Times it would be a “major priority” and a “centre of gravity” for his Lupa Systems holding company.
Mr Murdoch created Lupa using his $2bn in proceeds from the $71bn sale of most of the Murdoch family’s 21st Century Fox empire to Disney. Investments so far have included the Tribeca Film Festival, Vice Media, Art Basel and an online education start-up in India called Harappa Education.
“We really feel like we can accelerate what we are doing at Lupa,” he said, adding that the project with Mr Shankar would be “entrepreneurial, but with large-scale ambitions”.
“We’ve had the privilege of working together to build a great media company,” he said. “And now we are doing something that has a broad scope . . . in the context of just extraordinary mobile connectivity. It’s a great moment to start something with a blank sheet of paper.”
Mr Shankar left Disney last month after spending two years as its president for Asia-Pacific and chair of its India operations. He is credited with turning a struggling Indian television channel in 2007 into one of the country’s biggest media groups and dominant sports broadcaster, with a Disney Plus Hotstar streaming service that has amassed tens of millions of subscribers. The group’s various outlets have a weekly audience of more than 700m viewers.
He began working with Mr Murdoch when he was overseeing News Corp’s Asia business in the late-2000s. “We created something in this part of the world which has traditionally been considered a tough market for western companies in general,” Mr Shankar said. “Almost every American media company tried it, but no one was able to succeed.”
Mr Murdoch said their new project would not be venture capital but have a more operational focus, aiming to knit together the “explosive growth” of mobile data access in India with services such as online learning and healthcare. The project will cover the whole Asia region, but with India as its main focus. “We think that M&A is certainly going to be a part of this,” he said.
India has the world’s largest school-age population at around 270m, yet faces a chronic shortage of high-quality education options in both government schools and the ultra-cheap private schools where around half of all students study. Many children have still not returned to their classrooms since the country went into lockdown in March, something that has prompted a surge in demand for online education services, both from children and their families.
The shift has piqued investor interest. Start-ups like Byju’s, which is valued at more than $10bn, have raised billions from international funds such as Sequoia and Naspers. Counterpoint Research, an advisory firm, estimates that the number of internet users in India will rise from more than 600m currently to over 850m by 2022.
“There is no dearth of initiatives in this part of the world going from zero to one. There are a lot of them, but scaling from one to 10, or one to 50 or 100, that is the real challenge,” said Mr Shankar.
Mr Murdoch added that the pair “would not try to replicate” what they had done in the past with Star, saying the entertainment streaming sector was already looking “very crowded”.