Green Monday Holdings, the business arm of Hong Kong’s vegetarian advocacy group, raises $70 million from TPG, Swire Pacific

Green Monday Holdings, a manufacturer of plant-based pork substitute products and frozen meals and an operator of a chain of vegetarian-focused retail outlets and cafes, said it has raised $70 million in financing from investors including TPG’s The Rise Fund and the massive conglomerate Swire Pacific.

It’s one of the largest investments in a plant-based meat replacement company headquartered in Asia and comes as investments into companies developing alternatives to animal proteins continue to surge.

It’s also a huge infusion of cash for the business arm of what may be Hong Kong’s largest vegetarian advocacy group.

Born out of a social movement that started on Earth Day in Hong Kong on 2012 (and was inspired by the Meatless Monday campaign in the US), the Green Monday organization advocates for consumers to dedicate at least one day a week to going meatless. 

Its founder, David Yeung is a longtime buddhist and (mostly) vegetarian who founded the organization with Francis Ngai, the head of Social Ventures Hong Kong, after a lunchtime conversation over how to promote sustainable living in one of the world’s most populous cities.

Other investors in the round include, CPT Capital, Jefferies Group and Sino Group’s Ng Family Trust along with previous corporate and celebrity investors like Lee Kum Kee Health Products Happiness Capital, the singer Wang Leehom, James Cameron, and environmental activist Mary McCartney.

Green Monday Holdings, part of the Green Monday Group, operates two different lines of business under the OmniFoods and Green Common brands. OmniFoods makes pork alternatives and prepared frozen meals, while Green Common is a retailer and restaurant for plant-based products.

The company said it will use the money to expand into 10 new markets across Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and North America, add 20,000 new retail outlets for its products and launch new flagship stores for its Green Common retail locations in China and Singapore.

With the new financing, the company has added a key strategic partner in Swire Pacific.

“Our airline Cathay Pacific has been serving OmniPork onboard and we look forward to working together further to develop new menus to suit the taste of our passengers – many of whom have a deep interest in health, wellness and environmental sustainability,” said David Cogman, Development Director, Swire Pacific, in a statement. “We are also in discussion about working together on the retail front: we have a network of malls, hotels and food and beverage businesses in Hong Kong and on the Chinese mainland, as well as associated supply chain operations across the country. We are very excited about our partnership with David and Green Monday to develop new collaborations across our group companies, to make our shared vision a reality.”

#airlines, #cathay-pacific, #companies, #hong-kong, #james-cameron, #north-america, #partner, #rise-fund, #singapore, #social-ventures, #tc, #tpg

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Lightspeed announces the launch of its Southeast Asia operations

A group photo of Lightspeed Venture Capital's Southeast Asia team

Lightspeed’s Southeast Asia team: Akshay Bhushan, Marsha Sugana, Pinn Lawjindakul and Bejul Somaia

Lightspeed Venture Partners announced the launch of its Southeast Asia operations today. Based out of the firm’s new regional headquarters in Singapore, Lightspeed’s team there will invest in startups throughout Southeast Asia from the three global funds it closed earlier this year, which total about $4 billion.

The Southeast Asia team consists of partner Akshay Bhushan, who was a founding member of Flipkart’s corporate development team before joining Lightspeed five years ago; partner Bejul Somaia, who helped set up Lightspeed India; vice president Pinn Lawjindakul, a veteran of Grab and Tiger Global Management; and senior investment associate Marsha Sugana, who previously worked at L Catterton and Goldman Sachs.

Bhushan told TechCrunch that Lightspeed opened its Singapore office in January to serve as a base for its team as they met with entrepreneurs throughout the region. Obviously, the onset of COVID-19 curtailed travel, but they continued talking to startups through video calls and emails.

Lightspeed focuses on early-stage investments and has already invested in some of the most prolific startups in Southeast Asia, including Grab. Its other portfolio companies in the region are Indonesian startups Chilibeli, a social commerce platform, B2B wholesale marketplace Ula and e-commerce logistics platform Shipper, as well as Singaporean software developer NextBillion.AI.

Some of Lightspeed’s investments in other countries have also taken a keen interest in Southeast Asia as a key market for global expansion, including Indian startups OYO Rooms, Darwinbox and Yellow Messenger.

Having regional operations will allow Lightspeed to work more closely with its portfolio companies and make deeper connections with entrepreneurs, Bhushan said.

He added that the pandemic has prompted the rapid adoption of technologies, including platforms that help small businesses digitize their operations or sell online, supply chain solutions and remote working or online education-related services.

In sectors like fintech or logistics, there is also a lot of opportunity in several Southeast Asian countries to build transformative platforms and services. For example, Bhushan said, Shipper is focused on solving some of the biggest supply chain and logistics challenges facing e-commerce sellers in Indonesia, while Grab has made digital payments and other financial services like insurance easier to access.

“The big opportunity in most emerging markets, and this applies to most of the markets in Southeast Asia, is that we generally find that a lot of the fundamental infrastructure is broken, and founders can leverage technology to fill those gaps,” he said. “What excites us are founders who are solving those infrastructural problems, and a lot of our investments are to that effect.”

#asia, #lightspeed, #lightspeed-venture-partners, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #tc, #venture-capital

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Homage’s Gillian Tee on how technology can serve the world’s aging population

It’s always a pleasure to chat with Homage co-founder and chief executive Gillian Tee because of her nuanced take on how technology can help elderly and other vulnerable people.  According to the United Nations, people 65-years-old and over is the fastest-growing age group worldwide. At the same time, there is also an acute shortage of caregivers in many countries, complicated by high rates of burnout in the profession.

“It’s absolutely one of the most important social topics and global issues,” Tee said during her Disrupt session (the video is embedded at the bottom of this article).

Launched in Singapore four years ago, Homage’s platform uses a matchmaking engine to help families find the best caregivers, while its telehealth platform provides services like online medical consultations and screenings. It has since expanded in Malaysia and yesterday announced a new strategic investment from Infocom, one of the largest healthcare technology companies in Japan. The partnership will enable Homage to accelerate its Asia-Pacific expansion.

Before launching Homage, Tee was co-founder of New York-based Rocketrip. A ticket-booking platform created to reduce work travel-related costs for companies, Rocketrip attracted investors like Google Ventures, Y Combinator and Bessemer Ventures, and raised more than $30 million. But in 2016, Tee decided to return to Singapore, her home country, after living abroad for about 15 years. In her Disrupt session, Tee said this was to be closer to her mother, and because she felt that her startup experience could also be applied to Southeast Asia.

Tee knew that she wanted to launch another company, but she didn’t decide to tackle the caregiving space immediately. That idea materialized when several of her close relatives were diagnosed with chronic conditions that needed specialized care.

“We didn’t know how to cope or how even to start thinking about what was required, and that was when I realized, wow, I needed to get myself schooled in many ways,” Tee said.

Many families around the world are dealing with the same challenges as their populations age and social dynamics shift. Family members who traditionally would have been carers for relatives are unable to do so because they have moved away or need to work.

Families often rely on word-of-mouth or agencies to find caregivers, a complicated, time-intensive and often emotionally difficult process. Homage uses matching algorithms to make it easier. One of the most unique things about the platform is how much detail it goes into. Providers are not only screened based on their certifications and the kind of care they provide (for example, long-term care, respite care, physical therapy or rehabilitation), but specific skills. For example, many patients need mobility assistance, so Homage assesses what kind of transfers they are able to safely perform.

Then its matching technology decides which caregivers are best suited for a patient, and final assignments are made by Homage’s staff. By making the process more efficient, Homage also lowers its costs, making its services accessible to more people while increasing pay rates for providers.

This taps into another one of Homage’s goals: expanding the caregiving pool in its markets and retaining talent. Other ways it addresses the issue is by placing caregivers on its platform into the jobs they are best suited for, organizing continuing education programs and making sure they are not over-scheduled. Some caregivers on the platform have long-term contracts, while others work with Homage clients only a few days a week.

A holistic approach to “age-tech”

In June, Homage launched its telehealth service. Called Homage Health, the platform has been in development for a while, but its launch was accelerated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote consultations fit into the “high-touch,” or in-person, care side of the company’s business because many patients need regular screenings or consultations with doctors and specialists. For patients who have limited mobility or are immunocompromised, this makes it easier for them to make routine consults.

Hardware, including wearable sensors, also show promise to identify any potential health issues, like heart conditions, before they require acute care, but one challenge is making them easy for patients to integrate into their daily routines or remember to wear, Tee said.

Overall, Homage’s mission is to create a holistic platform that covers many caregiving needs. Its new partnership with strategic investor Infocom will help bring that forward because the company, which Tee said Homage has been talking to for several years, works with about 13,000 facilities in Japan, including senior residences and hospitals. Infocom develops software for a wide range of verticals, including drug, hospital and medical record management, and medical imaging.

Infocom also runs its own caregiving platform, and its partnership with Homage will enable the two companies to collaborate and reach more patients. Japan has one of the largest populations of elderly people in the world. Tee said at minimum, half a million caregivers need to be mobilized within the next five to ten years in Japan in order to meet demand.

“We need to start building infrastructure to enable people to be able to access the kind of care services that they need, and so we really align in terms of that mission with Infocom,” said Tee. “They also have a platform that engages caregivers to apply for jobs in Japan and they see the Homage model as being particularly applicable because it’s curated as well.”

#asia, #caregiving, #disrupt-2020, #gillian-tee, #homage, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-disrupt

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Homage announces strategic partnership with Infocom, one of Japan’s largest healthcare IT providers

Homage, a Singapore-based caregiving and telehealth company, has taken a major step in its global expansion plan. The startup announced today that it has received strategic investment from Infocom, the Japanese information and communications technology company that runs one of the largest healthcare IT businesses in the country. Infocom’s solutions are used by more than 13,000 healthcare facilities in Japan.

During an interview with TechCrunch that will air as part of Disrupt tomorrow, Homage co-founder and chief executive Gillian Tee said “Japan has one of the most ageing populations in the world, and the problem is that we need to start building infrastructure to enable people to be able to access the kind of care services that they need.” She added that Homage and Infocom’s missions align because the latter is also building a platform for caregivers in Japan, in a bid to help solve the shortage of carers in the country.

Homage raised a Series B earlier this year with the goal of entering new Asian markets. The company, which currently operates in Singapore and Malaysia, focuses on patients who need long-term rehabilitation or care services, especially elderly people. This makes it a good match for Japan, where more than one in five of its population is currently aged 65 or over. In the next decade, that number is expected to increase to about one in three, making the need for caregiving services especially acute.

The deal includes a regional partnership that will enable Homage to launch its services into Japan, and Infocom to expand its reach in Southeast Asia. Homage’s services include a caregiver-client matching platform and a home medical service that includes online consultations and house calls, while Infocom’s technology covers a wide range of verticals, including digital healthcare, radiology, pharmaceuticals, medical imaging and hospital information management.

In a statement about the strategic investment, Mototaka Kuboi, Infocom’s managing executive officer and head of its healthcare business division, said, “We see Homage as an ideal partner given the company’s unique cutting-edge technology and market leadership in the long-term care segment, and we aim to drive business growth not only in Homage’s core and rapidly growing market in Southeast Asia, but also regionally.”

#asia, #caregiving, #digital-health, #elderly, #fundings-exits, #healthcare, #homage, #infocom, #japan, #malaysia, #seniors, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc, #telehealth

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Thunes, a fintech startup serving emerging markets, raises $60 million led by Africa-focused Helios Investment Partners

Thunes, a Singapore-based startup developing a cross-border payments network to make financial services more accessible in emerging markets, announced today it has raised a $60 million Series B. The round was led by Africa-focused firm Helios Investment Partners, with participation from Checkout.com, and returning investors GGV Capital and Future Shape.

Thunes launched in 2019 when financial tech company TransferTo split into two companies: Thunes for business-to-business solutions, and DT One, which focuses on consumer services like mobile top-ups and data bundles.

Thunes develops APIs and other technology for financial companies, including banks, digital wallet providers, and money transfer services, that helps them reach customers in emerging economies, who often don’t have access to traditional bank accounts. Instead, many rely on digital wallets or mobile money accounts to make or receive online payments.

The company now operates in about 100 countries, up from 40 when TechCrunch covered its $10 million Series A in May 2019. The latest round will be used to grow its operations across Africa, Asia and Latin America, and brings Thunes’ total raised so far to $70 million.

Headquartered in Singapore, Thunes also has offices in London, Shanghai, New York, Dubai and Nairobi. Chief executive officer Peter De Caluwe told TechCrunch that Thunes looked for active investors who could help it work with banks and regulators in new markets, and help them connect with potential clients. Part of its Series B round will be used to hire teams in countries it wants to enter or expand its operations in, including Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia.

“Having Helios, who know many of the regulators and players already in Africa, will allow us to grow faster and get introductions,” said De Caluwe. “GGV did the same for us in China, because GGV is well-established in China and the [San Francisco] Bay Area.”

In an email to TechCrunch, Helios Investment Partners co-founder and managing partner Tope Lawani said the firm focuses on fintech, especially payments, in Africa, and backed Thunes because it is building important financial infrastructure.

Its other investments include online payment platform Fawry, which recently went public on the Egyptian Stock Exchange.

“Cross-border payments represents a significant market opportunity globally given increasing cross border trade and globalization; yet, across several emerging markets, fragmented and complex payment ecosystems often leave businesses and consumers struggling with slow, costly and unreliable ways of moving money,” Lawani said. “Thunes’ unique platform which was set up to address these pain points by providing accessible, fast and reliable payment solutions stood out to us as a company very well positioned to capture this growth”

Peter De Caluwe, the chief executive officer of cross-borders payment network Thunes

Peter De Caluwe, chief executive officer of cross-border payments network Thunes

Pulling together a fragmented ecosystem

Similarly to how the SWIFT system connects traditional banks, Thunes’ cross-border payments network makes it easier to transfer money online to recipients in different countries, even if they use different financial services, by serving as a hub for financial institutions, digital wallets and other payment systems.

De Caluwe said Thunes divides its markets’ needs into four categories. The first are countries that are primarily cash-driven, like the Philippines. The second are places where there is a dominant digital wallet, like MPesa in Kenya (one of Thunes’ clients). Then there are countries like Indonesia, where there are a host of new financial instruments, like GrabPay or GoPay. Finally, Thunes also serves banks that usually work with businesses.

“Nobody really connects all these players together. It might sound very logical to do that, but it’s almost like building an infrastructure, making sure there are pipes, tunnels, or whatever you want to call it, going between a wallet in Africa, a bank in China or accounting in Southeast Asia,” said De Caluwe.

SWIFT (or the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), founded in 1973, revolutionized the financial industry by connecting banks through a standardized messaging system. This is what enables people to deposit checks from another bank into their accounts.

Thunes wants to do the same thing with digital financial services in emerging markets. “All of these e-wallets, bank accounts, mobile money accounts, we plug them into our central platform, so they become interoperable, which means that you can easily transfer money from one country to another country over our network,” De Caluwe said.

Thunes’ market opportunity is massive: based on data from a strategic workshop it conducted with financial research firm EY, about $45 trillion flows between the countries Thunes operates in. That amount includes many different kinds of transactions, but Thunes is taking a focused approach to which ones it handles, with APIs designed for specific use cases.

The first example De Caluwe gave is for remittance companies, including MoneyGram, Western Union and Remitly (all Thunes clients), to move money into digital wallets and bank accounts. Another API was developed for processing large amounts of payments and is used by clients like VIA, a region-wide mobile wallet alliance launched by Singtel Group, the Singapore-based telecommunications conglomerate. Thunes’ technology allows people to make payments from their VIA wallets in different currencies and countries. A major part of Thunes’ business is also its B2B solutions, designed for cross-border trade, that allows companies in different countries to transfer money directly into each other’s bank accounts without needing to deal with a maze of interbank connections and long wait times.

How Thunes’ technology helps

Part of Thunes’ Series B is earmarked for product development, specifically technology that will enable more collections from countries. De Caluwe explained that so far, most of Thunes’ solutions have focused on moving money into its markets. A potential use case for collections are Chinese retailers who sell to customers in African countries. Thunes’ new solution will allow them to collect payments directly from a digital wallet like MPesa, while making it easier for people to make payments on sites that don’t accept digital wallets or mobile money accounts. To serve those customers, Thunes is also working on digital bank accounts, which it has already begun piloting in Indonesia. Users are able to deposit cash into their digital bank accounts at ATMs, and then use those funds for online payments.

Other noteworthy Thunes clients include Grab, which uses its real-time payment system to make daily transfers to drivers’ digital wallets, bank accounts or cash pick-up locations, and the National Bank of Dubai.

Traditional methods of sending money across international borders are time-consuming and expensive, and there many financial tech companies looking to solve some of those pain points. Some of the best-known are Transferwise, Revolut and Payoneer.

Thunes differentiates by focusing almost exclusively on emerging markets, where the barriers to entry are high. Transferwise theoretically is a competitor, but it doesn’t serve as many markets as Thunes, and is also a potential client for Thunes’ technology, De Caluwe said.

Thunes does compete with regional digital payment hubs, but De Caluwe said the market opportunity is so vast he’d be “happy to share that $45 trillion with many players, because even if we could get one or two percent of that, we would already be a very larger business.” He added, “the market is so large and the systems that are currently used are broken or not helpful because many consumers can’t even get access to it since they don’t have a bank accounts, they only have a digital wallet or mobile money account.”

One advantage of Thunes’ technology is that it significantly reduces the amount of transaction fees consumers or businesses need to pay. The company makes revenue by charging a fixed transaction fee between two cents to $2, depending on the destination country. If there is a currency exchange involved, it charges a small markup on the exchange rate, using mid-market rates for reference.

“We need to make money, but our price also needs to be very attractive for a bank, a financial institution, digital wallet or mobile money accounts, so they can also make a markup on what they’re selling to the customer,” De Caluwe said. “So we operate on small margins, high volumes and high frequency.”

#africa, #asia, #cross-border-payments, #finance, #fintech, #fundings-exits, #latin-america, #singapore, #startups, #tc, #thunes

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SoftBank Vision Fund 2 leads $100 million Series C in digital therapeutics company Biofourmis

Biofourmis, which combines AI-based data analytics and biosensors to monitor the progress of medical treatments, has raised funding from one of the world’s most high-profile investors. The digital therapeutics company, which launched in Singapore and is now headquartered in Boston, announced today it closed a $100 million Series C led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2, with participation from returning investors Openspace Ventures, MassMutual Ventures, Sequoia Capital and EDBI.

The company’s last funding announcement was in May 2019 for a $35 million Series A led by Sequoia India and MassMutual, the venture capital arm of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Biofourmis’ platform combines AI-based health analytics and wearable sensors to help healthcare providers gauge patient progress and the effectiveness of drugs and other treatments. The company, founded in 2015 by chief executive Kuldeep Singh Rajput and managing director Wendou Niu, said this is the largest funding for a healthtech startup in Southeast Asia to date. In addition to Boston and Singapore, Biofourmis also has offices in Switzerland and India.

Since its Series A funding, Biofourmis has grown through a series of partnerships with seven pharmaceutical companies and 10 health systems, including Novartis, AstraZeneca, and Mayo Clinic. Biofourmis also made several acquisitions, including wearable biosensor startup Biovotion and Gaido Health, a digital therapeutics company for cancer patients.

The funding will be used to validate and bring new digital therapeutic solutions for cardiology, respiratory, oncology and pain treatments to the market. Biofourmis also plans to expand in the United States and Asia-Pacific markets including China and Japan.

Biofourmis also said today that it is realigning its internal operations into two verticals: Biofourmis Therapeutics, which partners with companies like AstraZeneca and Chugai to created software that can help increased the efficacy of drug treatments, and Biofourmis Health, a “home hospital” platform that allows health providers to monitor patients remotely as they transition out of acute care. Biofourmis Health focuses on heart failure, coronary artery disease, respiratory illnesses and cancer.

EDBI is an investment firm linked to Singapore’s government, and looks for startups that can help advance the country’s industries, including healthcare. Biofourmis’ funding from EDBI is a strategic investment, and its technology is being used in Singapore as it copes with repeated outbreaks of COVID-19.

Announced last July, SoftBank Vision Fund 2 launched with $108 billion to invest in AI-based technology. The first Vision Fund is coping with heavy losses stemming in large part from its investments in WeWork and Uber, so the performance of Vision Fund 2’s focus on markets including healthtech (its other investments in the space include pharmaceutical delivery startup Alto and life sciences company Karius) is being closely watched.

In a press statement, SoftBank Investment Advisers partner Greg Moon said, “We believe predictive health is the future of medicine and Biofourmis is a leader in using AI and machine learning-based models to advance digital therapeutics.”

#asia, #biofourmis, #boston, #digital-therapeutics, #fundings-exits, #healthcare, #singapore, #softbank-vision-fund-2, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc

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Someone to Always Spill the Tea With

Jessica Hanser struck up a conversation with James Atkinson a couple of years ago at London’s British Library, and the two haven’t stopped talking since.

#marriages, #quarantines, #singapore, #weddings-and-engagements

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We Didn’t See Our Kids for 109 Days

Two Manhattan doctors sent their girls to Singapore while they worked the front lines — and then the country closed its borders.

#coronavirus-2019-ncov, #hospitals, #manhattan-nyc, #new-york-presbyterian-hospital, #parenting, #quarantines, #singapore, #travel-warnings

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Singapore’s trade finance startup Incomlend raises $20M led by Sequoia Capital India

Incomlend, a Singapore-headquartered startup that operates a trading platform to connect exporters and importers with investors, has raised $20 million in a new financing round, it said on Tuesday.

Sequoia India, the India and SEA investment arm of the storied U.S. headquartered venture firm, led the Series A round in four-year-old Incomlend. The CMA CGM Group, one of the world’s largest shipping and logistics firms, also participated in the round.

Incomlend’s invoice trading platform is solving three pain points. Exporters typically get paid weeks or months after shipping goods and lack working capital to move to service other orders until they have received the due. Incomlend says its platform employs AI-powered underwriting technology to enable exporters to receive early payment.

Similarly, the startup says importers on its platform are able to minimize the risk of supply chain disruption and set more favorable payment terms. And investors have found a new alternative asset class to invest in through Incomlend that offers returns in shorter durations.

These roadblocks have prompted traditional banks to pull back from financing such deals, creating a cash crunch among cross-border trading firms worldwide. “This has led to a $1.5 trillion trade finance gap, hitting mid-cap companies hard. This gap has worsened with Covid-19,” the startup said, citing its own research.

“The impact is acute in high-growth Asia where SMEs — which account for more than 95% of all businesses and provide two out of three private-sector jobs in the region — need more financing options to meet their growing demand. Further, low-interest rates in Asia — and negative rates in Europe — are prompting many global investors to seek alternative asset classes,” the startup said.

Morgan Terigi, co-founder and chief executive of Incomlend, said the startup’s trading platform is able to onboard clients and process deals in a more timely fashion with higher flexibility. Incomlend has facilitated over $330 million in financing and covered invoice finance trades across 50 countries to date.

“The massive trade finance gap, combined with declining global interest rates and the high credit quality of Incomlend’s customers, has helped them create a compelling business that helps solve one of the most important challenges faced by global SMEs,” said Abheek Anand, Managing Director at Sequoia Capital India, in a statement.

Terigi said the startup will deploy the fresh capital to expand into Europe, Southeast Asia, and North Asia and bulk up its technology stack.

#apps, #asia, #finance, #funding, #sequoia, #sequoia-capital-india, #sequoia-india, #singapore

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Hypotenuse AI wants to take the strain out of copywriting for ecommerce

Imagine buying a dress online because a piece of code sold you on its ‘flattering, feminine flair’ — or convinced you ‘romantic floral details’ would outline your figure with ‘timeless style’. The very same day your friend buy the same dress from the same website but she’s sold on a description of ‘vibrant tones’, ‘fresh cotton feel’ and ‘statement sleeves’.

This is not a detail from a sci-fi short story but the reality and big picture vision of Hypotenuse AI, a YC-backed startup that’s using computer vision and machine learning to automate product descriptions for ecommerce.

One of the two product descriptions shown below is written by a human copywriter. The other flowed from the virtual pen of the startup’s AI, per an example on its website.

Can you guess which is which?* And if you think you can — well, does it matter?

Screengrab: Hypotenuse AI’s website

Discussing his startup on the phone from Singapore, Hypotenuse AI’s founder Joshua Wong tells us he came up with the idea to use AI to automate copywriting after helping a friend set up a website selling vegan soap.

“It took forever to write effective copy. We were extremely frustrated with the process when all we wanted to do was to sell products,” he explains. “But we knew how much description and copy affect conversions and SEO so we couldn’t abandon it.”

Wong had been working for Amazon, as an applied machine learning scientist for its Alexa AI assistant. So he had the technical smarts to tackle the problem himself. “I decided to use my background in machine learning to kind of automate this process. And I wanted to make sure I could help other ecommerce stores do the same as well,” he says, going on to leave his job at Amazon in June to go full time on Hypotenuse.

The core tech here — computer vision and natural language generation — is extremely cutting edge, per Wong.

“What the technology looks like in the backend is that a lot of it is proprietary,” he says. “We use computer vision to understand product images really well. And we use this together with any metadata that the product already has to generate a very ‘human fluent’ type of description. We can do this really quickly — we can generate thousands of them within seconds.”

“A lot of the work went into making sure we had machine learning models or neural network models that could speak very fluently in a very human-like manner. For that we have models that have kind of learnt how to understand and to write English really, really well. They’ve been trained on the Internet and all over the web so they understand language very well. “Then we combine that together with our vision models so that we can generate very fluent description,” he adds.

Image credit: Hypotenuse

Wong says the startup is building its own proprietary data-set to further help with training language models — with the aim of being able to generate something that’s “very specific to the image” but also “specific to the company’s brand and writing style” so the output can be hyper tailored to the customer’s needs.

“We also have defaults of style — if they want text to be more narrative, or poetic, or luxurious —  but the more interesting one is when companies want it to be tailored to their own type of branding of writing and style,” he adds. “They usually provide us with some examples of descriptions that they already have… and we used that and get our models to learn that type of language so it can write in that manner.”

What Hypotenuse’s AI is able to do — generate thousands of specifically detailed, appropriately styled product descriptions within “seconds” — has only been possible in very recent years, per Wong. Though he won’t be drawn into laying out more architectural details, beyond saying the tech is “completely neural network-based, natural language generation model”.

“The product descriptions that we are doing now — the techniques, the data and the way that we’re doing it — these techniques were not around just like over a year ago,” he claims. “A lot of the companies that tried to do this over a year ago always used pre-written templates. Because, back then, when we tried to use neural network models or purely machine learning models they can go off course very quickly or they’re not very good at producing language which is almost indistinguishable from human.

“Whereas now… we see that people cannot even tell which was written by AI and which by human. And that wouldn’t have been the case a year ago.”

(See the above example again. Is A or B the robotic pen? The Answer is at the foot of this post)

Asked about competitors, Wong again draws a distinction between Hypotenuse’s ‘pure’ machine learning approach and others who relied on using templates “to tackle this problem of copywriting or product descriptions”.

“They’ve always used some form of templates or just joining together synonyms. And the problem is it’s still very tedious to write templates. It makes the descriptions sound very unnatural or repetitive. And instead of helping conversions that actually hurts conversions and SEO,” he argues. “Whereas for us we use a completely machine learning based model which has learnt how to understand language and produce text very fluently, to a human level.”

There are now some pretty high profile applications of AI that enable you to generate similar text to your input data — but Wong contends they’re just not specific enough for a copywriting business purpose to represent a competitive threat to what he’s building with Hypotenuse.

“A lot of these are still very generalized,” he argues. “They’re really great at doing a lot of things okay but for copywriting it’s actually quite a nuanced space in that people want very specific things — it has to be specific to the brand, it has to be specific to the style of writing. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense. It hurts conversions. It hurts SEO. So… we don’t worry much about competitors. We spent a lot of time and research into getting these nuances and details right so we’re able to produce things that are exactly what customers want.”

So what types of products doesn’t Hypotenuse’s AI work well for? Wong says it’s a bit less relevant for certain product categories — such as electronics. This is because the marketing focus there is on specs, rather than trying to evoke a mood or feeling to seal a sale. Beyond that he argues the tool has broad relevance for ecommerce. “What we’re targeting it more at is things like furniture, things like fashion, apparel, things where you want to create a feeling in a user so they are convinced of why this product can help them,” he adds.

The startup’s SaaS offering as it is now — targeted at automating product description for ecommerce sites and for copywriting shops — is actually a reconfiguration itself.

The initial idea was to build a “digital personal shopper” to personalize the ecommerce experence. But the team realized they were getting ahead of themselves. “We only started focusing on this two weeks ago — but we’ve already started working with a number of ecommerce companies as well as piloting with a few copywriting companies,” says Wong, discussing this initial pivot.

Building a digital personal shopper is still on the roadmap but he says they realized that a subset of creating all the necessary AI/CV components for the more complex ‘digital shopper’ proposition was solving the copywriting issue. Hence dialling back to focus in on that.

“We realized that this alone was really such a huge pain-point that we really just wanted to focus on it and make sure we solve it really well for our customers,” he adds.

For early adopter customers the process right now involves a little light onboarding — typically a call to chat through their workflow is like and writing style so Hypotenuse can prep its models. Wong says the training process then takes “a few days”. After which they plug in to it as software as a service.

Customers upload product images to Hypotenuse’s platform or send metadata of existing products — getting corresponding descriptions back for download. The plan is to offer a more polished pipeline process for this in the future — such as by integrating with ecommerce platforms like Shopify .

Given the chaotic sprawl of Amazon’s marketplace, where product descriptions can vary wildly from extensively detailed screeds to the hyper sparse and/or cryptic, there could be a sizeable opportunity to sell automated product descriptions back to Wong’s former employer. And maybe even bag some strategic investment before then…  However Wong won’t be drawn on whether or not Hypotenuse is fundraising right now.

On the possibility of bagging Amazon as a future customer he’ll only say “potentially in the long run that’s possible”.

Joshua Wong (Photo credit: Hypotenuse AI)

The more immediate priorities for the startup are expanding the range of copywriting its AI can offer — to include additional formats such as advertising copy and even some ‘listicle’ style blog posts which can stand in as content marketing (unsophisticated stuff, along the lines of ’10 things you can do at the beach’, per Wong, or ’10 great dresses for summer’ etc).

“Even as we want to go into blog posts we’re still completely focused on the ecommerce space,” he adds. “We won’t go out to news articles or anything like that. We think that that is still something that cannot be fully automated yet.”

Looking further ahead he dangles the possibility of the AI enabling infinitely customizable marketing copy — meaning a website could parse a visitor’s data footprint and generate dynamic product descriptions intended to appeal to that particular individual.

Crunch enough user data and maybe it could spot that a site visitor has a preference for vivid colors and like to wear large hats — ergo, it could dial up relevant elements in product descriptions to better mesh with that person’s tastes.

“We want to make the whole process of starting an ecommerce website super simple. So it’s not just copywriting as well — but all the difference aspects of it,” Wong goes on. “The key thing is we want to go towards personalization. Right now ecommerce customers are all seeing the same standard written content. One of the challenges there it’s hard because humans are writing it right now and you can only produce one type of copy — and if you want to test it for other kinds of users you need to write another one.

“Whereas for us if we can do this process really well, and we are automating it, we can produce thousands of different kinds of description and copy for a website and every customer could see something different.”

It’s a disruptive vision for ecommerce that is likely to either delight or terrify — depending on your view of current levels of platform personalization around content. That process can wrap users in particular bubbles of perspective — and some argue such filtering has impacted culture and politics by having a corrosive impact on the communal experiences and consensus which underpins the social contract. But the stakes with ecommerce copy aren’t likely to be so high.

Still, once marketing text/copy no longer has a unit-specific production cost attached to it — and assuming ecommerce sites have access to enough user data in order to program tailored product descriptions — there’s no real limit to the ways in which robotically generated words could be reconfigured in the pursuit of a quick sale.

“Even within a brand there is actually a factor we can tweak which is how creative our model is,” says Wong, when asked if there’s any risk of the robot’s copy ending up feeling formulaic. “Some of our brands have like 50 polo shirts and all of them are almost exactly the same, other than maybe slight differences in the color. We are able to produce very unique and very different types of descriptions for each of them when we cue up the creativity of our model.”

“In a way it’s sometimes even better than a human because humans tends to fall into very, very similar ways of writing. Whereas this — because it’s learnt so much language over the web — it has a much wider range of tones and types of language that it can run through,” he adds.

What about copywriting and ad creative jobs? Isn’t Hypotenuse taking an axe to the very copywriting agencies his startup is hoping to woo as customers? Not so, argues Wong. “At the end of the day there are still editors. The AI helps them get to 95% of the way there. It helps them spark creativity when you produce the description but that last step of making sure it is something that exactly the customer wants — that’s usually still a final editor check,” he says, advocating for the human in the AI loop. “It only helps to make things much faster for them. But we still make sure there’s that last step of a human checking before they send it off.”

“Seeing the way NLP [natural language processing] research has changed over the past few years it feels like we’re really at an inception point,” Wong adds. “One year ago a lot of the things that we are doing now was not even possible. And some of the things that we see are becoming possible today — we didn’t expect it for one or two years’ time. So I think it could be, within the next few years, where we have models that are not just able to write language very well but you can almost speak to it and give it some information and it can generate these things on the go.”

*Per Wong, Hypotenuse’s robot is responsible for generating description ‘A’. Full marks if you could spot the AI’s tonal pitfalls

#amazon, #artificial-intelligence, #asia, #e-commerce, #ecommerce, #emerging-technologies, #fundings-exits, #hypotenuse-ai, #machine-learning, #natural-language-processing, #neural-network, #personal-shopper, #shopify, #singapore, #startups, #y-combinator

0

Grab launches new consumer financial services, including micro-investments and loans

Grab announced today that its financial unit, which previously focused mainly on services for entrepreneurs and small businesses, is launching a slew of consumer products, including micro-investments, loans, health insurance and a pay-later program.

Based in Singapore, Grab began in 2012 as a ride-hailing company before expanding into on-demand deliveries and other services. In January 2019, it formed a joint venture with ZhongAn Insurance to build a digital insurance marketplace. Since then, its financial services portfolio has grown through a series of partnerships and the acquisition of Bento, which allowed it to offer investment and wealth management services as well.

In February, Grab announced that it had raised up to $856 million to speed up development of its payments and financial services.

Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Grab raised $200 billion from South Korean private equity firm Stic, bringing its total funding so far to more than $10 billion at a valuation of about $14.3 billion. A Grab spokesperson declined TechCrunch’s request for comment on that raise.

Tapping into a growing market

During a call with reporters today, when asked if Grab has a timeline for reaching profitability, Reuben Lai, senior managing director at Grab Financial Group, said there isn’t one yet, but “research has shown that there is a real demand for the products we are launching today. What we really want to do is focus on consumers and make sure we deliver products they use. We think profitability and sustainability will follow.”

Grab Financial Group’s new products including AutoInvest, a platform that allows consumers to invest small sums of money through Grab’s app; consumer loans; a buy now, pay later program; and expanded insurance offerings, including hospital insurance that will first launch in Indonesia.

While Grab’s new consumer products were in the works before the COVID-19 pandemic, Lai said the crisis has accelerated demand for services like online shopping, digital payments and insurance.

Grab’s consumer products will compete with services like StashAway, an online investment platform based in Singapore, but Lai said Grab Financial Group’s competitive edge is that there are already millions of Grab users in Southeast Asia. This gives it a built-in consumer base and also data to continually refresh the scoring models it uses to determine creditworthiness.

According to a 2019 report by e-Conomy Asia, a research program run by Google and Temasek, about 70% of people in Southeast Asia are “underbanked,” meaning that they lack access to credit cards or long-term savings products. Even in Singapore, one of Asia’s financial centers, about 40% of consumers qualify as underbanked. Bain and e-Conomy estimate that the digital financial services in Southeast Asia can generate $60 billion in revenue by 2025, making it a lucrative market for Grab.

Micro-investing and insurance

Most of the unit’s insurance was previously focused on Grab’s ecosystem, including drivers and merchants on its platform. But new products, like hospital coverage that will launch in Indonesia first to supplement the country’s national healthcare system, are targeted at consumers.

Chandrima Das, who founded Bento in 2016 and is now head of GrabInvest, said Grab’s new micro-investment product will be accessible through Grab’s digital wallet. Returns can be cashed out and spent on Grab services or merchants that accept GrabPay. it is partnered with liquid fixed-income funds managed by Fullerton Fund Management and UOB Asset Management, and allows users to invest as little as SGD $1 at a time, with the potential to earn returns about about 1.8%. It will launch first in Singapore at the beginning of September.

While Grab Financial Group already offers working capital loans to drivers and purchase financing for merchants on its platform, its new consumer credit products include PayLater, which allows users to pay for Grab services at the end of each month, and will first be available in Singapore and Malaysia.

The company is also offering consumer loans with an application process that it Ankur Mehrota, Grab Financial Group’s head of lending, says is so simple “you can do it while sitting on your couch watching Netflix.” Grab will partner with licensed banks and financial institutions to help verify users’ creditworthiness. Once approved, lenders can use Grab’s Buy Now Pay Later services, which allows them to pay in monthly installments or defer payments to the following month.

Mehrota said benefits of the program for merchants include increased gross merchandise value, larger basket sizes and lower cart abandonment rates.

#apps, #asia, #consumer-finance, #financial-services, #fintech, #grab, #grab-financial-group, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #tc

0

Why Did Hong Kong Delay Its Election — by a Year?

The government blames the pandemic. More likely, it was afraid to lose.

#china, #civil-rights-and-liberties, #constitutions, #coronavirus-2019-ncov, #elections, #freedom-of-assembly, #hong-kong, #lam-carrie-1957, #politics-and-government, #secession-and-independence-movements, #singapore, #south-korea, #tokyo-japan

0

Future Fields is tackling cultured meat’s biggest problem

One possible solution to cellular agriculture’s biggest problem — how to develop a cheap, humane, growth material for cultured meat — may have come from a conversation in line at a Tim Hortons in Alberta.

The husband and wife duo of Matt and Jalene Anderson-Baron were waiting for Timbits and coffee and talking about the technology behind their startup, Future Fields, when Jalene suggested a possible new growth medium.

Matt Anderson-Baron had hit a wall in his research, and the pair, which represented two-thirds of the founding triumvirate of Future Fields, were out for a snack. Along with co-founder Lejjy Gafour, the three friends had set out to launch a startup from Canada that could do something about the world’s reliance on animals for protein.

They recognized that the attendant problems associated with animal farming were unsustainable at a scale needed to meet global demand for meat. So the three turned their attention to cell-based alternatives to the meat market.

“It was all just our interesting crazy side project that we never thought would turn into a business,” said Jalene Anderson-Baron. “That has evolved into a successful business idea over the last year.”

Future Fields co-founders. Image credit: Future Fields

Initially, the trio had hoped to launch their own cultured meat brand to sell lab grown chicken to the world, but after four months spent experimenting in the lab, Matt Anderson-Baron and the rest of the team, decided to pivot and begin work on a new growth serum. All thanks to Tim Hortons.

“Our MVP was a chicken nugget. It worked out to be about $3,000 per pound… Which is obviously not a lucrative business model. Given that the aims was to produce something price comparable to meat,” said Anderon-Brown. “We shifted to focus on a new medium that would be economically viable. Originally we intended it for something that just we used. We didn’t realize at first the novelty of our product and how beneficial it would be to the industry. About eight months ago we decided to pivot and make that growth medium our product.”

Now, as it gets ready to leave the Y Combinator accelerator program, the company has some paid contracts in place and will be rolling out the first couple of pilot product lines of its cell growth material for shipment within the next month.

The potential demand for the company’s product is huge. Alpha Meats, Shiok Meat, Finless Foods, Memphis Meats, Meatable, Mosa Meat, Aleph Farms, Future Meat Technologies, Lab Farm Foods, and Eaat, are all companies developing lab grown alternatives to meat and fish. All told, these companies have raised well over $200 million. Some of the biggest names in traditional meat production like Tyson Foods are investing in meat alternatives.

Image Credit: Getty Images/VectorMine

“It’s about getting the price at scale. The companies that are using smaller volumes are bringing it down 10 to 100 times cheaper. We can do that. But our superpower is producing the growth medium at scale and doing it 1,000 times cheaper,” said Matt Anderson-Brown. “We’re talking about $2 to $3 per liter at scale.”

Future Fields’ founders didn’t say much about the technology that they’re using, except to say that they’re genetically modifying a specific organism by inserting the genetic code for specific protein production into their unidentified cell line to produce different growth factors.

The University of Alberta isn’t unique in its development of a Health Accelerator Program, but its equity-free approach allows startups and would-be bio-engineering entrepreneurs an opportunity to develop their businesses without fear of dilution.

Future Fields has already raised a small, pre-seed round of $480,000 from a group of undisclosed angel investors and the Grow Agrifood Tech Accelerator out of Singapore.

And company has the capacity to produce a few hundred liters of its growth factor, according to Gafour, and is working on plans to scale up production to hit tens of thousands of liters per month over the next year.

For Gafour and his compatriots, the cellular agriculture industry has already reached an inflection point, and the next steps are less about scientific discovery and radical innovation and more about iteration and commercialization.

“With the inclusion of a growth media solution, the core pieces are in place, and now it’s a matter of understanding the efficiencies in being able to scale it up,” said Gafour.

Still, there are other components that need to be developed for the industry to truly bring down costs to a point where it can compete with traditional meat. Companies still need to develop a scaffolding to support the growth of protein cells into the muscle and fatty tissues that give meat its flavor. Bioreactor design needs to improve as well, according to Matt Anderson-Baron. “It’s the wild west. There’s so many things still to be done.”

And there are many companies working on these technologies as well. Glycosan, Lyopor and Prellis are all working on building tissue scaffolding that can be used for animal organ development.

“The vision oif our company was to accelerate this industry and move the industry along,” said Jalene Anderson-Baron. “At first we didn’t realize the potential of our technology. We thought that everyone would overcome that roadblock around the same time. As we were speaking with other companies and speaking with investors who had been in touch with other companies, we realized this was the key piece to move the industry forward.”

#alpha, #cellular-agriculture, #cultured-meat, #food-and-drink, #future-meat-technologies, #just, #memphis, #memphis-meats, #singapore, #tc, #tim-hortons, #tyson-foods, #university-of-alberta

0

Singapore-based Volopay wants to be the “Brex of Southeast Asia”

Volopay founders Rajith Shaji and Rajesh Raikwar

Small- to medium-sized companies that do a lot of international business have to deal with two big headaches: high foreign exchange fees and corporate expense tracking. Volopay, a Singapore-based financial tech startup with offices in Bangalore, wants to help by integrating prepaid multi-currency corporate cards, expense tracking and accounting tools into one free-to-use platform.

Volopay is currently taking part in Y Combinator and is also part of Antler and Nium’s Bolt, two other accelerator programs. It now has about 40 clients in Singapore, mostly tech startups like Dathena, Tookitaki and Appknox, and plans to launch in Indonesia and Australia within the next six months.

The company was founded last year by chief executive officer Rajith Shaji and chief technology officer Rajesh Raikwar, who met while working at MoneySmart, a financial services comparison platform. Before joining MoneySmart, Shaji also held positions at fintech companies like CompareAsiaGroup, MatchMove and BankBazaar.com.

Shaji spent most of his time working in India, but often traveled to offices abroad. Dealing with corporate expenses after every trip was a “nightmare,” Shaji told TechCrunch.

“Each time I went back home, I had to make a list of all my expenses on behalf of the company. First of all, it often ran up to a few thousand dollars and I had to put in all these receipts and everything,” he said.

Shaji did not have access to most of the accounting software used by the companies’ accounting departments and communicating with them across different time zones made the process even more cumbersome and time-consuming.

Volopay addresses those issues by combining prepaid multi-currency corporate cards (available as physical or virtual cards), domestic and international bank transfers, automated payments, and expense and accounting software on one platform. Volopay’s app lets employees ask for more funds for their prepaid cards from managers, who can approve or reject the request instantly.

Shaji said this saves companies money on foreign exchange fees, which are typically about 3% of a transaction on a traditional credit card, and gives them real-time visibility into spending.

Volopay is free to use and earns money through the interchange fees credit cards charge merchants. Interchange fees also enable Volopay to offer perks like cashback deals.

Shaji said the company aspires to be the “Brex of Southeast Asia.” Like Brex, it offers an alternative to traditional financial services for startups and other small- to mid-sized businesses. But it needs to compete with several companies that also want to solve some of the same problems, like high fees for cross-border banking and corporate expense tracking. For example, Transferwise and Revolut both have operations in Singapore, while Neat and Aspire, based in Hong Kong and Singapore respectively, offer online business accounts.

Shaji said Volopay’s integration of multiple services on one platform gives it a competitive edge, adding that a better comparison to his startup is YouTrip, a multi-currency wallet for consumers that is popular in Singapore.

With accounts linked to a prepaid Mastercard, YouTrip users can make payments in 150 currencies without fees and it also supports in-app foreign currency exchanges. When explaining Volopay to potential clients, Shaji often refers to it as “YouTrip for companies.”

“YouTrip is a well-known brand [in Singapore], everyone knows they can load their money on it and save money on foreign exchange,” he said. Volopay gives the same functionality to companies, with accounting software added.

Volopay currently focuses on serving small businesses with 25 or more employees, especially tech startups that are scaling their operations and therefore need to manage increasing numbers of online payments and expenses. Shaji said Volopay has also signed up several marketing agencies, because many work on multiple projects, and therefore have to juggle multiple budgets at once.

#asia, #cross-border-banking, #enterprise, #finance, #fintech, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc, #volopay

0

What America’s Coronavirus Response Looks Like Abroad

From lockdowns to testing, we showed people around the world the facts and figures on how the U.S. has handled the pandemic.

#coronavirus-2019-ncov, #coronavirus-aid-relief-and-economic-security-act-2020, #coronavirus-reopenings, #coronavirus-risks-and-safety-concerns, #europe, #great-britain, #jordan, #new-zealand, #politics-and-government, #quarantines, #singapore, #tests-medical, #unemployment

0

Singaporean startup Partipost gets $3.5 million to let anyone become an influencer

Partipost, a Singapore-based marketing startup that lets anyone with a social media profile sign up for influencer campaigns, has raised $3.5 million in new funding. The round was led by SPH Ventures, the investment arm of publisher Singapore Press Holdings, with participation from Quest Ventures and other investors.

The funding will be used to grow Partipost’s current operations in Singapore, Indonesia and Taiwan, and expand into Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, other Southeast Asian markets with heavy social media usage. Since launching its mobile app in 2018, Partipost says it has added about 200,000 influencers to its platform, and that over the past 12 months, it has helped conduct 2,500 social media marketing campaigns for more than 850 brands, including Adidas, Arnott’s, Red Bull, Chope and Gojek.

According to benchmark report released in March by Influencer Marketing Hub, the influencer marketing industry is expected to be worth about $9.7 billion in 2020, with companies spending increasing amounts on social media campaigns and working with more “micro-influencers.” To serve them, the report said that more than 380 new influencer marketing agencies and platforms were launched last year, joining a roster of companies that already include AspireIQ, Upfluence, BuzzSumo, SparkToro and Inzpsire.me, to name just a few examples.

While most of these companies focus on helping brands identify the influencers with the widest social media reach, Partipost lets anyone sign up to take part in a campaign.

“Partipost’s main difference is that we believe that everyone can be an influencer,” founder and chief executive officer Jonathan Eg told TechCrunch. “Even if you have 200 followers, you can be one. We want to create a new market that we believe will be the future. Everyone can post on social media, write a review or give some feedback and be paid for it.”

“We want to empower everyone to monetize off their own data and influence and not just allow the big tech companies to do so,” he added.

Aspiring influencers browse brand campaigns on Partipost’s app and apply to take part by submitting a post draft. If the brand approves it, the user can then go ahead and post it on their social media profiles.

The amount of cash they earn is based on how much engagement each post receives. According to the company’s website, most campaigns require a minimum of 200 followers or more, and successful users can earn an average of $5 to $150 per campaign, depending on the brand’s payout structure.

One of Partipost’s selling points for brands is that it enables them to sign up thousands of influencers for a campaign in a single day, help them react quickly to online trends. Part of the funding will also be used to build data tools to help brands match campaigns with Partipost users more efficiently. The company says it expects to increase its base of aspiring influencers to one million within the next 18 months.

As part of the funding, SPH Ventures chief executive officer Chua Boon Ping will join Partipost’s board, while Quest Ventures partner Jeffrey Seah will become an observer.

In a media statement, Chua said, “Social influencer marketing is one of the fastest growing segments within Digital marketing. Hence, we are very excited to lead Partipost’s Series A round to further accelerate its growth. We are impressed by Partipost’s strong traction in Singapore, Indonesia and Taiwan as a young startup and look forward to partnering it to scale to new markets.”

#asia, #fundings-exits, #influencer-marketing, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc

0

Singapore-based marketing SaaS startup Insider gets $32 million to enter the US

Insider, a Singapore-based startup that develops software to help clients make marketing decisions, plans to launch in the United States after raising a $32 million Series C. The round was led by Riverwood Capital, with participation from Sequoia India, Wamda and Endeavor Catalyst.

Founded in 2012, the company says its SaaS for multichannel marketing and customer engagement is currently used by more than 800 brands, including Singapore Airlines, Marks and Spencer, Virgin, Uniqlo, Samsung and Estée Lauder.

Insider’s Series C brings its total funding so far to $42 million. In addition to entering the U.S., the new capital will be used on sales and marketing, hiring more engineers for its research and development team and adding new features to its platform.

One noteworthy aspect of the company is that half of its executive team, including co-founder and chief executive officer Hande Cilingir, are women. The company runs a program called Young Engineers that provides coding classes to high school students, especially girls, and it plans to expand to primary school-age kids as well.

Cilingir told TechCrunch that Insider’s AI-based technology differentiates it from older, larger competitors like Salesforce because it is able to integrate customer data from different marketing channels, including offline ones, to help companies make better predictions about customer behavior. Insider’s analytics help brands coordinate campaigns across different platforms, including the web, mobile apps, messaging apps, email and other channels.

“Insider, on top of all those solutions, creates a one-stop shop because you can overcome operational bottlenecks because of the technology, but at the same time, we are still offering all of the features, including personalization technologies, that online businesses need,” she said.

Helping brands create new marketing strategies is crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, e-commerce companies have seen a surge in traffic because of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, but need to figure out how to make that translate into sales. Meanwhile, other verticals, like travel and hospitality, have to find new ways of making revenue.

The company has teams in 24 countries across Europe, Asia and the Middle East to support brands’ localization strategies. Even though Insider’s software does not need to be adapted in order to work in different countries, Cilingir said marketing differs widely between cultures.

For example, in Indonesia, direct sales are important, but in Japan, sales operations are often dependent on agencies within a company. Insider’s customer support teams serve as a complement to its software, helping clients use it to create marketing strategies.

In a press statement about the investment, Sequoia India principal Pieter Kemps said, “We liked the Insider team from the first days, but have been positively surprised by their highly efficient go-to-market engine. The quality of customer interactions, combined with exceptional product and technology, has enabled Insider to stand out among the many point-solutions out there—and build up a very impressive list of customer logos.”

#asia, #customer-engagement, #fundings-exits, #insider, #marketing, #recent-funding, #riverwood-capital, #saas, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc

0

Project Ubin, the Singaporean money authority’s blockchain initiative, moves closer to commercialization

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and state investment firm Temasek announced today that Project Ubin, its blockchain-based multi-currency payments network, has proven its commercial potential after tests with more than 40 companies.

The initiative was launched in 2016. A prototype developed by Temasek and J.P. Morgan began undergoing testing last year to see how well it would integrate with commercial blockchain applications.

A report released today, commissioned by MAS and Temasek, said Project Ubin’s prototype was validated through workshops with more than 40 financial and non-financial firms. Its potential uses include faster, less costly cross-border transactions; foreign currency exchange; and smart contracts for escrow and trade.

The report also said that Project Ubin’s prototype can potentially pave the way to enable more collaborations with central banks and other financial institution to build better cross-border payments networks.

In a statement, Chia Song Hwee, Temasek’s deputy chief executive officer, said “This validates Temasek’s efforts in exploring and building blockchain solutions focusing on digital identity, digital currencies and financial asset tokenization. We look forward to supporting commercialization efforts emanating from Project Ubin and other application areas, with a view to drive greater adoption of blockchain technology.”

#blockchain, #cross-border-payments, #monetary-authority-of-singapore, #project-ubin, #singapore, #tc, #temasek

0

In Singapore, an Orderly Election and a (Somewhat) Surprising Result

The People’s Action Party, which has never been out of power, won yet again, but by a narrower margin than usual. The opposition had sought to deny it “a blank check.”

#coronavirus-2019-ncov, #economic-conditions-and-trends, #elections, #foreign-workers, #lee-hsien-loong, #peoples-action-party-singapore, #politics-and-government, #singapore

0

Singaporean startup Karana raises $1.7 million for meat substitutes made from jackfruit

Singaporeans have a growing appetite for plant-based meat substitutes. In fact, demand for products from companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Quorn have grown during the pandemic, partly because consumers are making more health-conscious decisions, according to the Straits Time. Now there is a new entrant to the market. Headquartered in Singapore, Karana announced today it has raised $1.7 million in seed funding and plans to launch its first product, a pork substitute made from jackfruit, this year.

Karana’s seed investors include Henry Soesanto, the CEO of Monde Nissin Group, which acquired Quorn Foods in 2015; agtech investment firms Big Idea Ventures and Germi8; and angel investors Kevin Poon and Gerald Li, both Hong Kong entrepreneurs with experience in the food and beverage industry. Karana said the round also included participation from an undisclosed leading Asia-based FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) distributor.

Karana’s jackfruit is sourced from Sri Lanka, where jackfruit is already a common meat substitute. What Karana’s processing method does is create a texture that replicates minced and shredded pork more closely, making it easier to use in dishes like dumplings, char siu bao or bahn mi.

Founded in 2018 by Dan Riegler and Blair Crichton, Karana turns organic jackfruit into a pork substitute by using a proprietary mechanical technique that the company says does not use any chemical processing. Its pork substitute will be available in restaurants this year, before arriving in retail stores at the beginning of next year.

Riegler and Crichton told TechCrunch in an email that Karana uses jackfruit because it not only has a “naturally meaty texture,” but is an environmentally-friendly crop. It is usually grown intercropped (or with other produce, in the same field), has a high yield and low water usage. But about 60% of jackfruit harvested currently goes to waste, they added. “There is a lot of room for further commercialization, which means additional income streams for farmers.”

Karana’s founders started with pork because it is the most frequently consumed meat in Asia. Its seed funding will be used on research and development to launch new products and the company currently talking to strategic partners in other Asian markets. Future Karana products will use other crops grown in Asia to create new meat substitutes.

“Karana is a whole-plant meat company, our focus is on leveraging what nature has given us and enhancing these amazing biodiverse ingredients to create delicious products. In the future, we will launch products using other regional ingredients that will enable us to expand beyond pork,” the founders said. “This is a real differentiator from other companies that are by-and-large relying on commodity crops in processed forms.”

#asia, #food-tech, #fundings-exits, #karana, #meat-substitute, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc

0

US plans to rollback special status may erode Hong Kong’s startup ecosystem

For two months, the people of Hong Kong waited in suspense after China’s legislature approved a new national security law. The legislation’s details were finally made public yesterday and almost immediately went into effect. As many Hong Kong residents feared, the broadly written new law gives Beijing extensive authority over the Special Administrative Region and has the potential to sharply curtail civil liberties.

In response, the United States began the first measures to end the special status it gives to Hong Kong, with the Commerce and State Departments suspending export license exceptions for sensitive U.S. technology and blocking the export of defense equipment.

Much remains uncertain. Hong Kong had also previously enjoyed many freedoms that do not exist in mainland China, under the “one country, two systems” principle put into place after the United Kingdom returned control to China. After announcing the new policies, the U.S. government said further restrictions are being considered. Under special status, Hong Kong had privileges including lower trade tariffs and a separate customs and immigration designation from mainland China, but now the future of those is unclear.

Equally opaque is how the erosion of special status and the new national security law will impact Hong Kong’s startups in the future. In conversations with TechCrunch, investors and founders said they believe the region’s ecosystem is resilient, partly because many companies offer online services — especially financial services — and have already established operations in other markets. But they are also keeping an eye on further developments and preparing for the possibility that key talent will want to relocate to other countries.

#asia, #china, #extra-crunch, #financial-technology, #gogovan, #government, #hong-kong, #lalamove, #market-analysis, #policy, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #special-status, #startups, #taiwan, #tc, #venture-capital, #welab

0

How Do I Apologize for Outing My Brother?

“I was young and in denial of my own sexuality.”

#christians-and-christianity, #families-and-family-life, #homosexuality-and-bisexuality, #religion-and-belief, #singapore

0

Singapore-based options trading platform Sparrow raises $3.5 million Series A

Sparrow Exchange, a Bitcoin and Ethereum options trading platform based in Singapore, announced today it has raised $3.5 million in Series A funding.

The round was led by HDR Group, the owner of cryptocurrency exchange BitMEX, with participation from Signum Capital, Du Capital and FinLab EOS VC.

The funding will be used to develop Sparrow’s platform and launch new products and services. Earlier this month, for example, it introduced an iOS-optimized mobile interface, and has other releases coming soon. Since launching a year ago, Sparrow has seen over $150 million in options trading volume.

In a press statement, FinLab EOS VC Fund managing director Stefan Schuetze said, “We are excited to invest in Sparrow, which is developing the next generation of financial products by leveraging EOSIO for their on-chain settlement layer.”

Despite the pandemic, the company says its seen an increase in volume over the past few months, as Bitcoin trading reached record highs in several countries, after an initial sell-off in March.

#asia, #bitcoin, #cryptocurrency, #ethereum, #fundings-exits, #options-trading, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #sparrow, #sparrow-exchange, #startups, #tc

0

Reebelo, a Singapore-based site for refurbished electronics, raises $1.25 million seed round

Reebelo, a Singapore-based marketplace for refurbished electronics, announced it has raised a seed round of $1.25 million led by June Fund, with participation from Antler.

The new funding will be used for hiring, especially marketing and operations positions for customer service as the company scales. Reebelo currently operates in Singapore, but plans to expand across the Asia-Pacific region over the next two to three years.

Founded last year by chief executive officer Philip Franta, Reebelo was launched to reduce the amount of waste created by consumer electronics. The company participated in StartupX’s HyperSpark, a pre-accelerator program focused on sustainability that is run in partnership with Temasek, Singapore’s sovereign fund.

Reebelo, which holds a secondhand goods dealers license from the Singapore Police Force, differentiates from peer-to-peer marketplaces by screening and refurbishing electronic devices, including phones, laptops, tablets and gaming devices, before they are listed on the site. Each device comes with a warranty and the company says they can cost up to 70% less than a new version. It also buys used devices for cash through its online trade-in program.

June’s managing partner, David Rosskamp, will join Reebelo’s board.

In press statement, Rosskamp said, “We are strong believers and investors in circular commerce. What it ultimately stands for is a different form of consumption, with a more sustainable and often fairer way. Reebelo’s team is following this mission with passion and focus. Supporting Reebelo to build up a central electronics trading infrastructure ideally mirrors our investment theses, and we are happy to invest at an earlier stage than we usually do.”

#asia, #circular-commerce, #e-commerce, #fundings-exits, #reebelo, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc

0

Amid a Pandemic, ‘Batman’ Matters More Than Ever

Wang Linfa has researched bats and their diseases for decades, usually drawing little public attention. Now a world wracked by the coronavirus is relying on the work of scientists like him.

#bats, #biology-and-biochemistry, #china, #coronavirus-2019-ncov, #duke-university, #national-university-of-singapore, #research, #singapore, #viruses, #wang-linfa, #wuhan-china

0

Singapore-based caregiving startup launches Homage Health for online and home medical consultations

Homage, the Singapore-based startup that matches families and caregivers, has launched a new service that provides home medical visits, telehealth consultations and medication delivery. Called Homage Health, the service was already being developed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but co-founder and CEO Gillian Tee told TechCrunch that its launch was accelerated because many of the company’s caregiving recipients are elderly or have long-term health conditions, and are at higher risk for the disease.

Backed by investors including HealthXCapital, Alternate Ventures and KDV Capital, Homage launched in 2016 with a caregiving program that focuses on people who need long-term assisted living and rehabilitation care. This integrates with Homage Health because the platform’s caregivers, including nurses, are able to provide in-person support for online consultations with doctors and help followup on recommended healthcare regimens.

Before launching Homage Health, the startup worked with healthcare organizations to deliver mobile medical services, including doctor house calls, for its clients, and telehealth consultations as part of its COVID-19 response. Even before the pandemic, however, there was demand because many clients need regular health screenings.

“Particularly with COVID-19, as an essential service, we felt a higher impetus to ensure our care recipients can continue to gain access to in-home and caregiving services,” she said.

“A key example would be where our care recipients can receive speech therapy through teleconsultations,” she added. “For specific hallmark assessment sessions where a therapy care plan is defined, or where subsequent delivery is adjusted due to progressional improvements made, in-person sessions can be conducted, leading to best health, accessibility and cost outcomes.”

Having caregivers, medical sessions and prescriptions records on one platform also makes long-term healthcare management easier. For example, Homage can provide baseline medical assessment reports for medical and care providers.

Homage prescreens doctors before adding them to the platform. All of them are registered with the Singapore Medical Council, have a minimum of five years practicing medicine and receive medical teleconsultation training. The service can be used to diagnose common conditions, like the cold or allergies, or when prescriptions need to be refilled. It can also provide the follow-up consultations needed by people recovering from strokes or with chronic conditions like Parkinson’s disease and hypertension.

Homage Health will expand to include more rehabilitation and therapy categories. Basic teleconsultations have a flat fee of SGD $20, excluding prescriptions and delivery fees. Mobile medical services, which start at SGD $180, include at-home blood tests, home visits by doctors and minor surgery like wound care and drainage.

#asia, #caregiving, #health, #homage, #seniors, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc

0

Astroscale expands into geostationary satellite life extension with new acquisition

Orbital spacecraft sustainability startup Astroscale has acquired the IP, most assets and staff of a an Isreali company called Effective Space Solutions in order to broaden its service offering to include servicing geostationary (GEO) satellites, as well as low Earth orbit (LEO) debris removal. Astroscale, founded in Japan in 2013 with a mission of addressing the growing problem of orbital debris and sustainable space operations, is also setting up an office in Israel as part of this deal.

Already, Astroscale has offices in the U.K., the U.S. and Singapore, and this new arrangement will make it even more of a global company. The operation in Israel will focus on the GEO satellite life extension aspect of the business, which is what ESS was working on previously. Satellite life extension is actually something that a number of companies are looking to develop and bring to market, including orbital ‘gas station’ company Orbit Fab, as well as larger legacy industry companies like Maxar.

Extending the life of GEO satellites with on-orbit servicing is potentially a very lucrative industry, since it would mean that companies can get a lot more usable life, and revenue, out of their considerable investments in building the expensive, large and pricey to launch spacecraft to begin with.

GEO satellites provide crucial communications and navigation infrastructure, including via GPS, as well as satellite internet networks and long-distance Earth imaging and observation capabilities. On-orbit satellite servicing could mean that these investments, which can range into the billions, can operate long beyond their intended lifespan, and could even eventually be updated with new hardware, sensors or other capabilities as more modern equipment than they launched with becomes available.

Launch costs are often the most expensive part of deploying any orbital spacecraft, so the potential of repurposing existing on orbit assets through life extension efforts could change the fundamental economics of doing business in space.

Astroscale will be taking on and continuing to develop ESS’ Space Drone program, which is not yet at the point where it’s actually launching orbital space servicing missions, but the work of the Isreali company will definitely give Astrocale a leg-up in terms of building out its own orbital servicing ambitions.

#aerospace, #astroscale, #flight, #gas-station, #gps, #imaging, #israel, #japan, #ma, #orbit, #outer-space, #satellite, #singapore, #space, #space-debris, #spaceflight, #startups, #tc, #united-kingdom, #united-states

0

Stop the Coronavirus Superspreaders

In our study, 20 percent of Covid-19 cases accounted for 80 percent of transmissions.

#bars-and-nightclubs, #coronavirus-2019-ncov, #coronavirus-reopenings, #deaths-fatalities, #hong-kong, #hospitals, #israel, #japan, #meat-packers-and-butchers, #mers-middle-east-respiratory-syndrome, #quarantines, #sars-severe-acute-respiratory-syndrome, #saudi-arabia, #singapore, #superspreading

0

GoBear raises $17 million to expand its consumer financial services for Asian markets

Singapore-based fintech startup GoBear has raised $17 million from returning investors Walvis Participaties, a Dutch venture capital firm, and Aegon N.V., a life insurance and asset management provider. The funding brings GoBear’s total funding so far to $97 million, and will be used to expand its consumer financial services platform, which is available in seven Asian markets: Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Founder and CEO Adrian Chng told TechCrunch that GoBear will focus on what it calls its “three growth pillars”: an online financial supermarket that evolved from the company’s financial products aggregator/comparison service; an online insurance brokerage; and its digital lending business, which it recently expanded by acquiring consumer lending platform AsiaKredit.

The company has also added three new executives over the past few months: chief information technology officer Valeriy Gasratov; chief strategy officer Jinnee Lim as Chief Strategy Officer; and Mike Singh from AsiaKredit as its new chief lending officer.

GoBear originally launched in 2015 as a metasearch engine, before transitioning into financial services. The company now works with over 100 financial partners, including banks and insurance providers, and says its platform has been used by over 55 million people to search for more than 2,000 personal financial products.

The startup serves consumers who don’t have credit cards or other access to traditional credit building tools. Similar to other fintech companies that focus on underbanked populations, GoBear aggregates and analyzes alternative sources of data to judge lending risk, including patterns in consumer behavior. For example, Chng said if a loan application is filled out in less than a minute, it is more likely to be fraudulent, and applications made between 8:30PM and midnight are less risky than ones made between 2AM to 5AM.

Data points from smartphones is also used to assess creditworthiness in markets like the Philippines, where the credit card penetration rate is less than 10%, but more than 40% of the population uses a smartphone.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Chng said GoBear has been gross margin positive since the end of 2019. Interest in travel insurance has declined, but the company has continued to see demand for other insurance products and lending. Its online insurance brokerage has grown its average order by 52% over the last three months, and the company has seen 50% year-over-year growth from its loan products.

There are other fintech companies in Asia that overlap with some of the services that GoBear offers, like comparison platform MoneySmart, CompareAsiaGroup and Grab Financial Group. In terms of competition, Chng told TechCrunch that not only is the market opportunity in Asia huge (he said there are 400 million underbanked people across GoBear’s seven markets), but the company also differentiates with its three core services, which are all interconnected and draw on the same data sources to score credit.

Chng anticipates that the pandemic will spur more financial institutions to begin digitizing their products and looking for partners like GoBear to help them manage risk. In turn, that will make more financial institutions open to using non-traditional data to score credit, enabling underbanked markets to have increased access to financial products.

“The momentum is here. I think now is the time for tech and data to transform financial services,” he said. “As a platform, we are really looking for partners to come with us for the next phase of growth and investment. I feel positive even with COVID-19, because I think that we will have more acceleration, and the opportunity to change people’s lives and benefit them and investors by solving tough problems will only increase.”

#asia, #consumer-finance, #financial-services, #fintech, #fundings-exits, #gobear, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc

0

A Virus-Hunter Falls Prey to a Virus He Underestimated

Peter Piot, 71, one of the giants of Ebola and AIDS research, is still battling a coronavirus infection that hit him “like a bus” in March.

#acquired-immune-deficiency-syndrome, #africa, #antwerp-belgium, #coalition-for-epidemic-preparedness-innovations, #coronavirus-2019-ncov, #ebola-virus, #epidemics, #immune-system, #international-aids-society, #london-england, #london-school-of-hygiene-and-tropical-medicine, #lungs, #oxygen, #piot-peter, #ramjee-gita, #sierra-leone, #singapore, #steroids, #unaids, #world-health-organization, #wuhan-china, #your-feed-health, #your-feed-science

0

A Sudden Coronavirus Surge Brought Out Singapore’s Dark Side

The pandemic seemed to pass over the city-state. Then the government was blindsided by an outbreak among poor migrant workers in packed dormitories.

#coronavirus-2019-ncov, #foreign-workers, #migrant-labor-non-agriculture, #singapore, #surveillance-of-citizens-by-government

0

Did the Coronavirus Kill Ideology in Australia?

How a government both sectarian and divisive learned (briefly) to become inclusive.

#australia, #coronavirus-2019-ncov, #deaths-fatalities, #epidemics, #firearms, #frydenberg-josh, #germany, #great-britain, #gross-domestic-product, #howard-john-winston, #mass-shootings, #mnuchin-steven-t, #morrison-scott-1968, #new-zealand, #organized-labor, #qatar, #reserve-bank-of-australia, #singapore, #south-korea, #trump-donald-j, #unemployment, #unemployment-insurance, #wildfires

0

Singapore-based Intellect wants to lower barriers to mental health support in Asia

Taking care of your emotional wellbeing is as important as physical health, but in Asia, the topic is often stigmatized. Intellect, a Singapore-based startup, wants to make the idea of mental health more approachable with an app that offers self-guided exercises based on cognitive behavorial therapy techniques.

The company develops consumer and enterprise versions of the app (for employers to offer as a benefit) and now has users in countries including Singapore, Indonesia, India and China.

Since its beta launch earlier this year, co-founder and CEO Theodoric Chew says Intellect has signed up about 10,000 users, as well as 10 companies ranging in size from startups to large corporations. The startup plans to launch Mandarin and Bahasa Indonesian versions, and is currently working with researchers to develop localized versions of its exercises, which include guided journaling, behavioral exercises and “rescue sessions” with short audio clips about topics like stress, low self-esteem, emotional burnout and sleep issues.

The company has raised a pre-seed round that included SEEDS Capital, the investment arm of Enterprise Singapore, a government agency that supports entrepreneurship.

In the United States and Europe, there is a growing roster of self-help apps that teach users coping strategies for common mental health issues, including Headspace, MoodKit, Moodnotes, Sanvello and Happify, to name a few examples. But the space is still nascent in Asia.

Before launching Intellect, Chew was head of affiliate growth and content marketing at Voyagin, a travel booking marketplace that was acquired by Rakuten in 2015. He became interested in the mental health space because of his own experiences.

“I’ve been to therapy quite a bit for anxiety and in Asia, there is still a lot of social stigma and there aren’t a lot of tools. A lot of work is being done in the U.S. and Europe, but in Asia, it’s still developing,” Chew told TechCrunch.

He added that “most people shy away when you mention mental health. We see a lot of that in Asia, but if we frame it in other ways, like how to work on personal problems, like low self-esteem or confidence, we see a huge shift in people opening up.”

Intellect was developed with feedback from mental healthcare professionals, but Chew emphasizes it is not a replacement for professional therapy. Instead, it is meant to give people an accessible way to take care of their mental health, especially in cultures where there is still a lot of stigma around the topic. The app’s exercises address low mood and anxiety, but also common workplace and interpersonal issues, like developing assertiveness and handling criticism.

The enterprise version of the app can be customized with exercises tailored to people in different industries. It is meant for startups and other SMEs that don’t have the kind of employee assistance programs (EAP) that bigger companies can offer, which often include mental health resources, like support hotlines and referrals to mental healthcare providers.

The consumer app usually charges a flat monthly fee that gives unlimited access to all its features, but Intellect is making it free during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eventually, the startup hopes to develop a network of mental health professionals that users can connect to within the app.

“The way we approach this is that therapy is not solely for clinically depressed people, but for everyone,” said Chew. “In three to five years, we want to make therapy commonplace to address every day problems. We want to tackle more clinical issues as well, but we believe most people can benefit from framing it as a way to tackle every day issues using CBT-based methods.”

#apps, #asia, #intellect, #mental-health, #self-help, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc

0

Singapore-based data protection startup Dathena raises $12 million Series A

Dathena, a Singapore-based company that provides AI-based data protection and privacy solutions, announced it has raised a $12 million Series A. Part of the funding will be used to expand Dathena’s co-sell partnership with Microsoft in the United States, which is targeted to Azure Cloud and Microsoft 365 customers who need to comply with new data privacy regulations like the California Consumer Privacy Act.

The funding was led by Jungle Ventures, with participation from Caphorn and SEEDS Capital, the investment arm of Enterprise Singapore, a government agency that supports entrepreneurs. Existing investors Cerracap Ventures and MS&AD Ventures also returned for this round. This brings Dathena’s total raised to $18 million.

Founded in 2016, Dathena says it currently has more than 200,000 users and enterprise clients. Its software scans and organizes data stored on premise or in the cloud, identifies sensitive information, and then monitors access and potential security risks.

Dathena also automates compliance with data protection regulations around the world, like the European Union’s GDPR and California’s CCPA, which is useful for clients who have operations in different countries or are in highly-regulated industries like healthcare, finance or defense.

Dathena CEO and co-founder Christopher Muffat told TechCrunch that the new funding will also be used to grow the company’s R&D efforts to build a self-service and plug-and-play platform, and hire more sales, marketing and customer support staff for users in North America and Europe. The company recently opened its U.S. headquarters in New York City.

Muffat identified Dathena’s main competitors as DocAuthority, MinerEye and Exonar, which also organize and protect enterprise data. Dathena strives to differentiate by being data-source agnostic, so any ETL (extract, transform, load) tools can be plugged into its platform, allowing data sets from almost any source to be imported. It is also deeply-integrated into Microsoft software, including Microsoft 365 E3 and E5, Azure Information Protection and Microsoft Cloud App Security.

Muffat added that Dathena is also simple to use, while its AI-based software makes data security tasks more time efficient and scalable.

“Most data privacy tools are made for IT folks and are too complex to navigate for other members of an organization, yet managing compliance with regulations such as GDPR and CCPA often falls under the purview of legal or other non-IT business functions,” he said.

As people continue working remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Muffat says this creates new vulnerabilities, including access to corporate systems over mobile or home computers that their employers may not have full control of; less visibility over where company data flows, making it harder to protect; and workers potentially using unsecured Wi-Fi networks or accessing their email through web portals instead of desktop apps.

Remote employees may also use their Office 365 or Gmail credentials to access cloud apps, increasing the risk of breeches.

To address that, Dathena has been focusing on Microsoft customers and cloud deployment, and now provides managed services to operate the Dathena platform, helping clients get more use out of the product.

In a press statement, Jungle Ventures Amit Anand founding partners said, “Dathena’s global growth positions the tech leader to capitalize on the rapid evolution of the $120 billion data protection market. It’s a shining example of our investment in global tech companies emerging out of Asia and we’re excited to continue to support their rapid growth.”

#data-security, #dathena, #fundings-exits, #singapore, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc

0

Southeast Asian lending platform Validus raises $20 million for its Series B+ round

Small- to medium-sized businesses are one of the most important parts of Southeast Asia’s economy, but many have trouble securing growth capital from traditional financial institutions. Validus wants to fix the financing gap with its peer-to-peer lending platform, which connects accredited lenders with SMEs. The Singapore-based startup announced today that it has raised $20 million for its ongoing Series B+ round.

The funding was co-led by Vertex Growth fund and Kuok Group’s Orion Fund, which is managed by K3 Venture Partners. Returning investors in the round include FMO, the international development bank of the Netherlands; Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia and India; Openspace Ventures; AddVentures; and VinaCapital Ventures.

This brings Validus’ total raised to about $40 million since it was founded in 2015, including a $15.2 million Series B round announced last year.

After getting its capital markets services license from the Monetary Authority of Singapore in December 2017, Validus launched services in Indonesia and Vietnam and says it has lent over $315 million to businesses so far. Its plans for its Series B+ round include expanding into Thailand during the last quarter of this year. Validus’ credit risk model analyzes information from invoices, contracts and cash flow.

Co-founder and COO Nikhilesh Goel says that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has seen more demand for short-term financing, with a 50% year-over-year increase for credit-approved unsecured loans over the past few months.

Despite the impact of the pandemic on small businesses, loan performance has held steady, he added, because Validus focuses on corporate vendor financing for SMEs whose end-buyers are large corporations or government-linked entities.

Validus also plans to provide financing to SMEs that are on the frontlines in the battle against COVID-19, including working capital for SMEs in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries, and logistics and cleaning services.

“Through working closely with corporate partners and investors on the platform, we also aim to support SMEs who are pivoting their businesses to adapt to services and products that are required in this time,” Goel said. “In the last month, we have disbursed multiple such loans averaging $250,000 to $500,000, to support SMEs’ efforts in meeting the demand for face masks and other protective gear in short supply.”

In a press statement, MX Kuok of K3 Ventures said, “We are highly impressed by the leadership and depth of credit management experience at Validus. The team has demonstrated the unique ability to capture critical data points, combined with comprehensive machine learning capabilities, to identify high-potential SMEs that may have fallen through the gaps of the traditional banking model.”

#fintech, #fundings-exits, #p2p-lending, #singapore, #smes, #southeast-asia, #startups, #tc, #validus

0

Biotherapeutics startup Hummingbird Bioscience brings its total Series B funding to $25 million

Hummingbird Bioscience, a startup focused on developing new treatments for cancer and other diseases, announced today it has added $6 million to its previously announced Series B, bringing the round’s total to $25 million.

The extension was led by SK Holdings, and included participation from returning investors including Heritas Capital and SEEDS Capital, the investment arm of Enterprise Singapore, a government agency that supports small- to medium-sized businesses.

This brings Hummingbird Bioscience’s total raised so far to $65 million. The company says it extended its Series B because the round was oversubscribed. The new funding will be used to take treatments Hummingbird Bioscience is developing to clinical trials more quickly, and expand research and development for its early stage pipeline.

Heritas Capital Management executive director and CEO Chik Wai Chiew said in a press statement that “Heritas Capital is pleased to continue our backing of the Hummingbird team since leading its Series A extended round. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a slow-down in investing, we are mindful that backing innovative biotech companies, especially players such as Hummingbird, to develop cures for addressing patients’ needs remains our priority.”

The company published data earlier this year on two antibodies, both oncology treatments, and expects to make regulatory submissions to start Phase 1 studies in the second half of this year.

Hummingbird Bioscience has offices in Singapore, Houston and South San Francisco and strategic collaborations with Cancer Research United Kingdom and Amgen. It was previously awarded a product development grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

#asia, #biotech, #fundings-exits, #hummingbird-bioscience, #oncology, #singapore, #startups, #tc

0

Boston Dynamics’ Spot is patrolling a Singapore park to encourage social distancing

Since announcing the commercial availability of Spot, Boston Dynamics has presented a factotum of different gigs for the robot, from construction to telepresence. Last month, the company announced that it was partnering with local hospitals interested in using the platform to perform remote visits for COVID-19 victims.

Turns out the global pandemic has spurred all manner of surprise innovation for the technically impressive quadrupedal robot.  Among the more expected is Singapore’s use of Spot to patrol parks and encourage social distancing among citizens. The pilot program starts today and will run for two weeks during off-peak hours.

A remote operator will control the robot (social distancing, mind) as it patrols around two miles of Singapore’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. A recorded message encourage social distancing will be broadcast from the robot. There are cameras on board, too, used to monitor gatherings, but the government insists that they won’t be using face tracking or collected personal data.

“Spot is fitted with safety sensors to detect objects and people in its path,” according to the release. “It has in-built algorithms to detect an object or person within 1 metre of its proximity to avoid collision. SPOT will be accompanied by at least one NParks officer during the trial period.” If things go well, the robot will be allowed to patrol during peak hours, as well.

One of the pandemic’s more fascinating knock-on effects to the tech world is an increased interest in robotics and automation. Check out our recent VC survey to see how COVID-19 could shape the future of the industry.

#boston-dynamics, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #health, #robotics, #singapore, #spot

0

UK eyeing switch to Apple-Google API for coronavirus contacts tracing — report

The UK may be rethinking its decision to shun Apple and Google’s API for its national coronavirus contacts tracing app, according to the Financial Times, which reported yesterday that the government is paying an IT supplier to investigate whether it can integrate the tech giants’ approach after all.

As we’ve reported before coronavirus contacts tracing apps are a new technology which aims to repurpose smartphones’ Bluetooth signals and device proximity to try to estimate individuals’ infection risk.

The UK’s forthcoming app, called NHS COVID-19, has faced controversy because it’s being designed to use a centralized app architecture. This means developers are having to come up with workarounds for platform limitations on background access to Bluetooth as the Apple-Google cross-platform API only works with decentralized systems.

The choice of a centralized app architecture has also raised concerns about the impact of such an unprecedented state data grab on citizens’ privacy and human rights, and the risk of state ‘mission creep‘.

The UK also looks increasingly isolated in its choice in Europe after the German government opted to switch to a decentralized model, joining several other European countries that have said they will opt for a p2p approach, including Estonia, Ireland and Switzerland.

In the region, France remains the other major backer of a centralized system for its forthcoming coronavirus contacts tracing app, StopCovid.

Apple and Google, meanwhile, are collaborating on a so-called “exposure notification” API for national coronavirus contacts tracing apps. The API is slated to launch this month and is designed to remove restrictions that could interfere with how contact events are logged. However it’s only available for apps that don’t hold users’ personal data on central servers and prohibits location tracking, with the pair emphasizing that their system is designed to put privacy at the core.

Yesterday the FT reported that NHSX, the digital transformation branch of UK’s National Health Service, has awarded a £3.8M contract to the London office of Zuhlke Engineering, a Switzerland-based IT development firm which was involved in developing the initial version of the NHS COVID-19 app.

The contract includes a requirement to “investigate the complexity, performance and feasibility of implementing native Apple and Google contact tracing APIs within the existing proximity mobile application and platform”, per the newspaper’s report.

The work is also described as a “two week timeboxed technical spike”, which the FT suggests means it’s still at a preliminary phase — thought it also notes the contract includes a deadline of mid-May.

The contracted work was due to begin yesterday, per the report.

We’ve reached out to Zuhlke for comment. Its website describes the company as “a strong solutions partner” that’s focused on projects related to digital product delivery; cloud migration; scaling digital platforms; and the Internet of Things.

We also put questions arising from the FT report to NHSX.

At the time of writing the unit had not responded but yesterday a spokesperson told the newspaper: “We’ve been working with Apple and Google throughout the app’s development and it’s quite right and normal to continue to refine the app.”

The specific technical issue that appears to be causing concern relates to a workaround the developers have devised to try to circumvent platform limitations on Bluetooth that’s intended to wake up phones when the app itself is not being actively used in order that the proximity handshakes can still be carried out (and contacts events properly logged).

Thing is, if any of the devices fail to wake up and emit their identifiers so other nearby devices can log their presence there will be gaps in the data. Which, in plainer language, means the app might miss some close encounters between users — and therefore fail to notify some people of potential infection risk.

Recent reports have suggested the NHSX workaround has a particular problem with iPhones not being able to wake up other iPhones. And while Google’s Android OS is the more dominant platform in the UK (running on circa ~60% of smartphones, per Kantar) there will still be plenty of instances of two or more iPhone users passing near each other. So if their apps fail to wake up they won’t exchange data and those encounters won’t be logged.

On this, the FT quotes one person familiar with the NHS testing process who told it the app was able to work in the background in most cases, except when two iPhones were locked and left unused for around 30 minutes, and without any Android devices coming within 60m of the devices. The source also told it that bringing an Android device running the app close to the iPhone would “wake up” its Bluetooth connection.

Clearly, the government having to tell everyone in the UK to use an Android smartphone not an iPhone wouldn’t be a particularly palatable political message.

One source with information about the NHSX testing process told us the unit has this week been asking IT suppliers for facilities or input on testing environments with “50-100 Bluetooth devices of mixed origin”, to help with challenges in testing the Bluetooth exchanges — which raises questions about how extensively this core functionality has been tested up to now. (Again, we’ve put questions to the NHSX about testing and will update this report with any response.)

Work on planning and developing the NHS COVID-19 app began March 7, according to evidence given to a UK parliamentary committee by the NHSX CEO’s, Matthew Gould, last month.

Gould has also previously suggested that the app could be “technically” ready to launch in as little as two or three weeks time from now. While a limited geographical trial of the app kicked off this week in the Isle of Wight. Prior to that, an alpha version of the app was tested at an RAF base involving staff carrying out simulations of people going shopping, per a BBC report last month.

Gould faced questions over the choice of centralized vs decentralized app architecture from the human rights committee earlier this week. He suggested then that the government is not “locked” to the choice — telling the committee: “We are constantly reassessing which approach is the right one — and if it becomes clear that the balance of advantage lies in a different approach then we will take that different approach. We’re not irredeemably wedded to one approach; if we need to shift then we will… It’s a very pragmatic decision about what approach is likely to get the results that we need to get.”

However it’s unclear how quickly such a major change to app architecture could be implemented, given centralized vs decentralized systems work in very different ways.

Additionally, such a big shift — more than two months into the NHSX’s project — seems, at such a late stage, as if it would be more closely characterized as a rebuild, rather than a little finessing (as suggested by the NHSX spokesperson’s remark to the FT vis-a-vis ‘refining’ the app).

In related news today, Reuters reports that Colombia has pulled its own coronavirus contacts tracing app after experiencing glitches and inaccuracies. The app had used alternative technology to power contacts logging via Bluetooth and wi-fi. A government official told the news agency it aims to rebuild the system and may now use the Apple-Google API.

Australia has also reported Bluetooth related problems with its national coronavirus app. And has also been reported to be moving towards adopting the Apple-Google API.

While, Singapore, the first country to launch a Bluetooth app for coronavirus contacts tracing, was also the first to run into technical hitches related to platform limits on background access — likely contributing to low download rates for the app (reportedly below 20%).

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