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Korean 3D spatial data tool startup Urbanbase closes $11.1M Series B+ round

By Kate Park

Urbanbase, a Seoul-based company that develops a 3D spatial data platform for interior planning and design, announced today it has raised $11.1 million (13 billion won) in a Series B+ round as it scales up.

This round of funding was led by Hanwha Hotel & Resort, which is a subsidiary of South Korean conglomerate Hanwha Corporation.

Urbanbase, founded in 2013 by chief executive officer and a former architect Jinu Ha, has now raised $20 million (approximately 23 billion won) in total.

Existing investors did not join this round. The company had raised Series A funding of $1.8 million and an additional $1.2 million in 2017 and its first Series B round in April 2020, from backers that included South Korea-based Shinsegae Information & Communication, Woomi Construction, SL Investment, KDB Capital, Shinhan Capital, Enlight Ventures, CKD Venture Capital, and Breeze Investment, Ha said.

The latest funding will be used for enhancing its B2B SaaS, investing in R&D for advanced virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and 3D tools, which are considered core technologies of metaverse that is its new business Urbanbase plans to enter, according to Ha. Global metaverse market size is projected to increase $280 billion by 2025 from $30.7 billion in 2021, based on Strategy Analytics’ report.

Companies that focus on opportunities in the so-called “metaverse” have been growing as part of a next-generation approach to building viable business models in areas like virtual and augmented reality, and all the hardware and software and new tech that are being built for them. Big tech corporations, ranging from Facebook, Intel to Microsoft, are targeting to move in the area. Apple also waded into the area of virtual reality, working on developing a high-end VR headset.

Urbanbase also plans to upgrade its home interior software platform, Urbanbase Studio, that has functions to transform 2D indoor space images into 3D displays via Urbanbase’s patented algorithm, visualize interior products in augmented reality and analyze spatial images based on the AI technology.

Urbanbase claims 50,000 monthly active users with 70,000 registered B2C users. The company has about 50 B2B customers.

“Most of our B2B clients are large conglomerates in South Korea and Japan, for example, LG Electronics, Japan-based Mitsubishi Real Estate Service, Nitori Holdings, Dentsu Group and SoftBank, but we would like to extend our B2B clients base to small, midsized companies and bring more B2C users after closing the Series B+ funding,” Ha mentioned.

Urbanbase is seeking an acquisition target in prop-tech and construction technology sectors, Ha told TechCrunch. Urbanbase currently focuses on developing the interior tools for apartment buildings because about 70-80 percent of total households in South Korea and Japan live in apartments, Ha said, adding that it will diversify its portfolio by acquiring a startup that covers different types of residence.

It currently operates the platform in Korean and Japanese, but it will add English language service prior to entering in Singapore in the end of 2021, Ha said.

UK names John Edwards as its choice for next data protection chief as gov’t eyes watering down privacy standards

By Natasha Lomas

The UK government has named the person it wants to take over as its chief data protection watchdog, with sitting commissioner Elizabeth Denham overdue to vacate the post: The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) today said its preferred replacement is New Zealand’s privacy commissioner, John Edwards.

Edwards, who has a legal background, has spent more than seven years heading up the Office of the Privacy Commissioner In New Zealand — in addition to other roles with public bodies in his home country.

He is perhaps best known to the wider world for his verbose Twitter presence and for taking a public dislike to Facebook: In the wake of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal Edwards publicly announced that he was deleting his account with the social media — accusing Facebook of not complying with the country’s privacy laws.

An anti-‘Big Tech’ stance aligns with the UK government’s agenda to tame the tech giants as it works to bring in safety-focused legislation for digital platforms and reforms of competition rules that take account of platform power.

Official announcement

Government announces preferred candidate for Information Commissioner – https://t.co/2fri3ROyhm https://t.co/i8b4OBcwzC

— John Edwards (@JCE_PC) August 26, 2021

If confirmed in the role — the DCMS committee has to approve Edwards’ appointment; plus there’s a ceremonial nod needed from the Queen — he will be joining the regulatory body at a crucial moment as digital minister Oliver Dowden has signalled the beginnings of a planned divergence from the European Union’s data protection regime, post-Brexit, by Boris Johnson’s government.

Dial back the clock five years and prior digital minister, Matt Hancock, was defending the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as a “decent piece of legislation” — and suggesting to parliament that there would be little room for the UK to diverge in data protection post-Brexit.

But Hancock is now out of government (aptly enough after a data leak showed him breaching social distancing rules by kissing his aide inside a government building), and the government mood music around data has changed key to something far more brash — with sitting digital minister Dowden framing unfettered (i.e. deregulated) data-mining as “a great opportunity” for the post-Brexit UK.

For months, now, ministers have been eyeing how to rework the UK’s current (legascy) EU-based data protection framework — to, essentially, reduce user rights in favor of soundbites heavy on claims of slashing ‘red tape’ and turbocharging data-driven ‘innovation’. Of course the government isn’t saying the quiet part out loud; its press releases talk about using “the power of data to drive growth and create jobs while keeping high data protection standards”. But those standards are being reframed as a fig leaf to enable a new era of data capture and sharing by default.

Dowden has said that the emergency data-sharing which was waived through during the pandemic — when the government used the pressing public health emergency to justify handing NHS data to a raft of tech giantsshould be the ‘new normal’ for a post-Brexit UK. So, tl;dr, get used to living in a regulatory crisis.

A special taskforce, which was commissioned by the prime minister to investigate how the UK could reshape its data policies outside the EU, also issued a report this summer — in which it recommended scrapping some elements of the UK’s GDPR altogether — branding the regime “prescriptive and inflexible”; and advocating for changes to “free up data for innovation and in the public interest”, as it put it, including pushing for revisions related to AI and “growth sectors”.

The government is now preparing to reveal how it intends to act on its appetite to ‘reform’ (read: reduce) domestic privacy standards — with proposals for overhauling the data protection regime incoming next month.

Speaking to the Telegraph for a paywalled article published yesterday, Dowden trailed one change that he said he wants to make which appears to target consent requirements — with the minister suggesting the government will remove the legal requirement to gain consent to, for example, track and profile website visitors — all the while framing it as a pro-consumer move; a way to do away with “endless” cookie banners.

Only cookies that pose a ‘high risk’ to privacy would still require consent notices, per the report — whatever that means.

Oliver Dowden, the UK Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, says that the UK will break away from GDPR, and will no longer require cookie warnings, other than those posing a 'high risk'.https://t.co/2ucnppHrIm pic.twitter.com/RRUdpJumYa

— dan barker (@danbarker) August 25, 2021

“There’s an awful lot of needless bureaucracy and box ticking and actually we should be looking at how we can focus on protecting people’s privacy but in as light a touch way as possible,” the digital minister also told the Telegraph.

The draft of this Great British ‘light touch’ data protection framework will emerge next month, so all the detail is still to be set out. But the overarching point is that the government intends to redefine UK citizens’ privacy rights, using meaningless soundbites — with Dowden touting a plan for “common sense” privacy rules — to cover up the fact that it intends to reduce the UK’s currently world class privacy standards and replace them with worse protections for data.

If you live in the UK, how much privacy and data protection you get will depend upon how much ‘innovation’ ministers want to ‘turbocharge’ today — so, yes, be afraid.

It will then fall to Edwards — once/if approved in post as head of the ICO — to nod any deregulation through in his capacity as the post-Brexit information commissioner.

We can speculate that the government hopes to slip through the devilish detail of how it will torch citizens’ privacy rights behind flashy, distraction rhetoric about ‘taking action against Big Tech’. But time will tell.

Data protection experts are already warning of a regulatory stooge.

While the Telegraph suggests Edwards is seen by government as an ideal candidate to ensure the ICO takes a “more open and transparent and collaborative approach” in its future dealings with business.

In a particularly eyebrow raising detail, the newspaper goes on to report that government is exploring the idea of requiring the ICO to carry out “economic impact assessments” — to, in the words of Dowden, ensure that “it understands what the cost is on business” before introducing new guidance or codes of practice.

All too soon, UK citizens may find that — in the ‘sunny post-Brexit uplands’ — they are afforded exactly as much privacy as the market deems acceptable to give them. And that Brexit actually means watching your fundamental rights being traded away.

In a statement responding to Edwards’ nomination, Denham, the outgoing information commissioner, appeared to offer some lightly coded words of warning for government, writing [emphasis ours]: “Data driven innovation stands to bring enormous benefits to the UK economy and to our society, but the digital opportunity before us today will only be realised where people continue to trust their data will be used fairly and transparently, both here in the UK and when shared overseas.”

The lurking iceberg for government is of course that if wades in and rips up a carefully balanced, gold standard privacy regime on a soundbite-centric whim — replacing a pan-European standard with ‘anything goes’ rules of its/the market’s choosing — it’s setting the UK up for a post-Brexit future of domestic data misuse scandals.

You only have to look at the dire parade of data breaches over in the US to glimpse what’s coming down the pipe if data protection standards are allowed to slip. The government publicly bashing the privacy sector for adhering to lax standards it deregulated could soon be the new ‘get popcorn’ moment for UK policy watchers…

UK citizens will surely soon learn of unfair and unethical uses of their data under the ‘light touch’ data protection regime — i.e. when they read about it in the newspaper.

Such an approach will indeed be setting the country on a path where mistrust of digital services becomes the new normal. And that of course will be horrible for digital business over the longer run. But Dowden appears to lack even a surface understanding of Internet basics.

The UK is also of course setting itself on a direct collision course with the EU if it goes ahead and lowers data protection standards.

This is because its current data adequacy deal with the bloc — which allows for EU citizens’ data to continue flowing freely to the UK is precariously placed — was granted only on the basis that the UK was, at the time it was inked, still aligned with the GDPR.

So Dowden’s rush to rip up protections for people’s data presents a clear risk to the “significant safeguards” needed to maintain EU adequacy.

Back in June, when the Commission signed off on the UK’s adequacy deal, it clearly warned that “if anything changes on the UK side, we will intervene”. Moreover, the adequacy deal is also the first with a baked in sunset clause — meaning it will automatically expire in four years.

So even if the Commission avoids taking proactive action over slipping privacy standards in the UK there is a hard deadline — in 2025 — when the EU’s executive will be bound to look again in detail at exactly what Dowden & Co. have wrought. And it probably won’t be pretty.

The longer term UK ‘plan’ (if we can put it that way) appears to be to replace domestic economic reliance on EU data flows — by seeking out other jurisdictions that may be friendly to a privacy-light regime governing what can be done with people’s information.

Hence — also today — DCMS trumpeted an intention to secure what it billed as “new multi-billion pound global data partnerships” — saying it will prioritize striking ‘data adequacy’ “partnerships” with the US, Australia, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, and the Dubai International Finance Centre and Colombia.

Future partnerships with India, Brazil, Kenya and Indonesia will also be prioritized, it added — with the government department cheerfully glossing over the fact it’s UK citizens’ own privacy that is being deprioritized here.

“Estimates suggest there is as much as £11 billion worth of trade that goes unrealised around the world due to barriers associated with data transfers,” DCMS writes in an ebullient press release.

As it stands, the EU is of course the UK’s largest trading partner. And statistics from the House of Commons library on the UK’s trade with the EU — which you won’t find cited in the DCMS release — underline quite how tiny this potential Brexit ‘data bonanza’ is, given that UK exports to the EU stood at £294 billion in 2019 (43% of all UK exports).

So even the government’s ‘economic’ case to water down citizens’ privacy rights looks to be puffed up with the same kind of misleadingly vacuous nonsense as ministers’ reframing of a post-Brexit UK as ‘Global Britain’.

Everyone hates cookies banners, sure, but that’s a case for strengthening not weakening people’s privacy — for making non-tracking the default setting online and outlawing manipulative dark patterns so that Internet users don’t constantly have to affirm they want their information protected. Instead the UK may be poised to get rid of annoying cookie consent ‘friction’ by allowing a free for all on people’s data.

 

Mental health startup Intellect gets $2.2M to expand across Asia

By Catherine Shu

Intellect, a Singapore-based startup that wants to make mental health care more accessible in Asia, announced it has raised $2.2 million in pre-Series A funding. It is taking part in Y Combinator’s current batch, which will hold its Demo Day at the end of this month.

The round was led by returning investor Insignia Venture Partners and included participation from Y Combinator, XA Network and angel investors like Rainforest co-founder J.J. Chai; Prenetics and CircleDNA founder Danny Yeung; and Gilberto Gaeta, Google’s director of global HR operations.

This brings Intellect’s total funding since it launched a year ago to $3 million, including a seed round announced in December 2020 that was also led by Insignia.

Intellect offered two main product suites: a consumer app with self-guided programs based on cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, and a mental health benefits solution for employers with online therapy programs and telehealth services. The startup now claims more than 2.5 million app users, and 20 enterprise clients, including FoodPanda, Shopback, Carousell, Avery Dennison, Schroders and government agencies.

Founder and chief executive officer Theodoric Chew told TechCrunch that Intellect’s usage rate is higher than traditional EAP helpline solutions. On average, its mental health benefits solution sees about 20% to 45% engagement within three months after being adopted by companies with more than 5,000 employees.

In many Asian cultures, there is still a lot of stigma around mental health issues, but that has changed over the last year and a half as people continue to cope with the emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chew said. “From individuals, to companies, insurers and governments, all these different types of people and organizations are today prioritizing mental healthcare on an individual and organizational level in an extremely rapid manner.”

Intellect protects user privacy with zero-knowledge encryption, so the startup and employers don’t have access to people’s records or communications with their coaches and counsellors. Any insights shared with employers are aggregated and anonymized. Chew said the company is also compliant with major data privacy regulations like ISO, HIPAA and GDPR.

Intellect is currently collaborating in 10 studies with institutions like the National University of Singapore, King’s College London, University of Queensland and the Singapore General Hospital. It says studies so far have demonstrated improvements in mental well-being, stress levels and anxiety among its users.

The new funding will be used to expand into more Asian markets. Intellect currently covers 12 countries and 11 languages.

 

Ai Palette raises $4.4M to help companies react faster to consumer trends

By Catherine Shu

Developing new packaged foods and consumer goods can take a couple years as companies research, prototype and test products. In a society that runs on social media, however, people expect to see trends land on store shelves much more quickly. Founded in 2018, Ai Palette uses machine learning to help companies spot trends in real time and get them retail-ready, often within a few months. The startup, whose clients include Danone, Kellogg’s, Cargill and Dole, announced today it has raised an oversubscribed $4.4 million Series A co-led by pi Ventures and Exfinity Venture Partners. Both will join Ai Palette’s board.

The round also included participation from returning backers food tech venture firm AgFunder and Decacorn Capital, and new investor Anthill Ventures. It brings Ai Palette’s total raised to $5.5 million, including a seed round announced in 2019.

Ai Palette is based in Singapore, with an engineering hub in Bangalore. Its customer base started in Southeast Asia, before expanding into China, Japan, the United States and Europe.

Its customer base started in Southeast Asia and India, and expanded to China, Japan, the United States and Europe. Ai Palette supports 15 languages, which the company claims is the most of any AI-based tool for predicting consumer packaged goods (CPG) trends. Its funding will be used to expand into more markets and fill engineering and data science roles.

Ai Palette was founded in 2018 by chief executive officer Somsubhra GanChoudhuri and chief technology officer Himanshu Upreti, who met through Entrepreneur First, the “talent investor” that recruits and teams up potential founders.

Before Ai Palette, GanChoudhuri worked in sales and marketing at Givaudan, the world’s largest manufacturer of fragrances and flavors. This allowed him to see how product innovation is done for many types of consumer products, ranging from snacks and fast food to packaged goods. Many of the companies he worked with were beginning to realize that a two-year product innovation cycle could no longer meet demand. Upreti, an advanced machine learning and big data analysis expert, previously worked at companies including Visa, where he built models that can handle petabytes of data.

Ai Palette’s first product is Foresight Engine, which tracks trends like ingredients or flavors, analyzes why they are popular and predicts how long demand will last. It also identifies “white space opportunities,” or situations where there is unmet demand. For example, GanChoudhuri said the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way people eat — they are now eating health snacks up to six times a day in front of screens — so companies have the chance to release new kinds of products.

Foresight Engine gives contextual information, said Upreti. “For example, is a food item eaten on the go, or at a café. Is a product consumed socially or individually? What’s trending at kids’ birthday parties? For a specific product or ingredient, images provide information on product pairings and product format.”

The platform uses data from sources like social media, search, blogs, recipes, menus and company data. “Data sets popular to each market are prioritized, like a local recipe or a food delivery app,” said GanChoudhuri. “And they are tracked over the years to determine growth trajectory with a strong degree of confidence.”

Some specific examples of how Ai Palette’s tech has translated into new products include brands that want to launch a new flavor, like for a potato chip or soda, in a specific country. They can use the Foresight Engine to not only see what trends are rising, but which ones have the potential to become long-term favorites, so they don’t invest in a product that will almost instantly lose its popularity.

Many of Ai Palette’s clients have used it to react to new trends and consumer behavior patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not surprisingly, people in many markets are interested in healthy food or ones that are supposed to boost immunity. For example, in Southeast Asia there is more demand for lemon and garlic, while acerola and yerba mate are trending in the United States.

On the other hand, “in China, taste is paramount, even over health, because people are looking for food that brings back a sense of normalcy,” said GanChoudhuri. Meanwhile in India, there is demand for products with longer shelf life as people continue to cope with the pandemic, but many consumers are also seeking interesting snacks to ease the boredom of lockdown, with kimchi and other Korean flavors becoming especially popular.

Ai Palette’s ability to work with many languages is one of the ways it differentiates from other machine learning-based trend-prediction platforms. It currently supports English, simplified Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Bahasa Indonesian, Bahasa Melayu, Tagalog, Spanish, French and German, with plans to add more as it targets new European countries, Mexico, Latin America and the Middle East.

 

Y Combinator-backed Adra wants to turn all dentists into cavity-finding ‘super dentists’

By Christine Hall

Like other areas of healthcare, the dental industry is steadily embracing technology. But while much of it is in the orthodontic realm, other startups, like Adra, are bringing artificial intelligence into a dentist’s day-to-day workflow, particularly in finding cavities, of what will be a $435.08 billion global dental services market this year.

The Singapore-based company was founded in 2021, but was an idea that started last year. Co-founder Hamed Fesharaki has been a dentist for over a decade and owns two clinics in Singapore.

He said dentists learn to read X-rays in dental school, but it can take a few years to get good at it. Dentists also often have just minutes to read them as they hop between patients.

As a result, dentists end up misdiagnosing cavities up to 40% of the time, co-founder Yasaman Nemat said. Her background is in imaging, where she developed an artificial intelligence machine identifying hard-to-see cancers, something Fesharaki thought could also be applied to dental medicine.

Providing the perspective of a more experienced dentist, Adra’s intent is to make every dentist “a super dentist,” Fesharaki told TechCrunch. Its software detects cavities and other dental problems on dental X-rays faster and 25% more accurately, so that clinics can use that time to better serve patients and increase revenue.

Example of Adra’s software. Image Credits: Adra

“We are coming from the eye of an experienced dentist to help illustrate the problems by turning the X-rays into images to better understand what to look for,” he added. “Ultimately, the dentist has the final say, but we bring the experience element to help them compare and give them suggestions.”

By quickly pointing out the problem and the extent of it, dentists can decide in what way they want to treat it — for example, do a filling, a fluoride treatment or wait.

Along with third co-founder Shifeng Chen, the company is finishing up its time in Y Combinator’s summer cohort and has raised $250,000 so far. Fesharaki intends to do more formalized seed fundraising and wants to bring on more engineers to tackle user experience and add more features.

The company has a few clinics doing pilots and wants to attract more as it moves toward a U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance. Fesharaki expects it to take six to nine months to receive the clearance, and then Adra will be able to hit the market in late 2022 or early 2023.

YC-backed Tablevibe’s customer surveys help restaurants reduce their reliance on delivery apps

By Catherine Shu

Food delivery apps offer convenience for customers, but a host of headaches for restaurants, like commissions as high as 40% and very few tools to build customer loyalty. Based in Singapore, Tablevibe wants to help restaurants reduce their reliance on third-party delivery apps and help them get more direct orders and returning customers. The startup is part of Y Combinator’s current batch, which will hold its Demo Day at the end of this month.

Tablevibe’s founding team includes two former Googlers: Jeroen Rutten, formerly head of Google Search’s product strategy in APAC and Sneep, who was responsible for its app development go-to-market strategy and led large sales teams. They are joined by Guido Caldara, a lead teacher at coding bootcamp Le Wagon and Tablevibe’s chief technology officer.

The idea for Tablevibe came after Rutten, its chief executive officer, visited a restaurant in Singapore that used paper feedback forms.

“We thought, if they use a paper feedback form, it actually creates a lot of hassle, like entering all the data into an Excel spreadsheet,” he told TechCrunch. “How’s the restaurant owner going to get actionable feedback based on data in an Excel spreadsheet?”

The team began working on the first version of Tablevibe, with simple Google Forms for dine-in customers and Google Data Studio dashboards, and tested it with three restaurants a few months before COVID-19 emerged. They found that using Tablevibe instead of paper forms increased response rates by up to 26x and also had the benefit of creating more repeat customers, since they are given an incentive for filling out surveys.

Then the pandemic hit and restaurants had to suddenly pivot to deliveries. The team kept the same idea behind their feedback forms, but started using QR codes affixed to takeout packaging. The QR codes (usually in the form of stickers so food and beverage businesses don’t need to order new packaging) also offer an incentive if customers scan it and fill out a survey—but the discount or free item can’t be redeemed through third-party delivery apps, only through direct orders with the restaurant.

Restaurants can customize surveys, but about 80% use Tablevibe’s templates, which are quick to fill out, since most questions just ask for a rating from one to five stars (there’s also an optional form for customers to write their opinions). Customers fill out their name, email addresses, and then rank the food and atmosphere (for dine-in). For delivery, customers are also asked what app they used.

Tablevibe is integrated with Google Reviews, so if someone gives the restaurant a high rating, they are asked if they want to make it public. They also have the option to follow its Facebook or Instagram profile.

For dine-in customers, Tablevibe primarily works with F&B businesses that have multiple venues, including Merci Marcel and Lo and Behold Group. For its delivery survey, most users are smaller restaurants that have one location. It also serves cloud kitchens, like CloudEats in the Philippines.

“As a restaurant, you want to own and grow your customer relationships,” said Sneep, Tablevibe’s chief operating officer. “The first part is actually knowing who your customers are, what they experienced and how you can contact them, which is how we can help. The second piece is growing a customer relationship, which we do by giving a reward, but only if a customer reorders directly with a restaurant.”

Customers have generated over 25,000 reviews through Tablevibe so far, which gives the company data to help determine what kind of incentives will convince someone to scan a restaurant’s QR code and take a survey.

Tablevibe’s founders say it can deliver more than 100x return on investment to its clients. For example, Merci Marcel did an evaluation and determined that it got a 103x ROI, based on the number of customers who claimed incentives, average order value, how many people left a five-star Google Review and how much more business those reviews drove to their venues.

The startup plans to expand into other English-speaking markets, focusing first on Northern Europe and then North America later this year. Aside from Singapore, it’s already used by customers in the Philippines, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Portugal.

Rutten said that Tablevibe plans to build its development team, with the goal of becoming a “Salesforce for restaurants” that can help them build engagement through delivery or dine-ins, capture data and turn them into useful insights.

“Our roadmap has two levers—one is to get more data and the other is to provide more intelligence,” he said. “We’re working on API integrations so Tablevibe can integrate with point-of-sale systems. The second thing is to pull in more publicly available data from sources like Google Reviews. We will also build out more marketing features to leverage customer databases so businesses can send out emails about new restaurant launches, etc.” Eventually, Tablevibe also plans to use AI to help restaurants determine exactly what they need to do to improve customer experience, like change a menu item.

A close look at Singapore’s thriving startup ecosystem

By Ram Iyer
Toni Eliasz Contributor
Toni Eliasz is the program manager of the Disruptive Technologies for Development Program (DT4D) that supports the innovation and adoption of technology-driven solutions in World Bank Group operations. In addition, Toni works on several digital-economy-related initiatives that support the scaling of digital businesses, stimulate startup ecosystems and accelerate the digital transformation of key industries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East.
Jamil Wyne Contributor
Jamil Wyne is a co-author of the World Bank report “The Evolution and State of Singapore’s Start-up Ecosystem: Lessons for Emerging Market Economies.” He is an adviser and investor focusing on high-impact entrepreneurship in emerging markets and has worked with the World Bank, International Finance Corporation, as well as numerous funds and startups focusing on developing countries.

Singapore is home to fewer than six million people, making it one of the smallest ASEAN countries, in terms of population. It is a young country as well — having gained independence in 1963 — and resides in a neighborhood with far larger economies, including China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. When the country first became independent, its mandate was to simply survive rather than thrive.

So how does a country evolve from a position of relative uncertainty, with comparatively few resources, to one that leads the ASEAN region in venture capital investment and has been home to 10 unicorns?

Countries around the world examine Singapore’s ecosystem from a distance, hoping to learn from, and emulate, its story. The World Bank Group recently published a report, The Evolution and State of Singapore’s Start-up Ecosystem, documenting the country’s experience in building its startup ecosystem and the challenges facing it.

This article presents an overview of the report’s key findings and offers a few key recommendations on what other countries can learn from Singapore’s experience, as well as what Singapore itself can do to maintain progress.

A glimpse into Singapore’s current startup ecosystem

As of 2019, Singapore had over $19 billion in PE and VC assets under management, more than twice that of neighboring Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand combined. In that same year, the country was home to an estimated 3,600 tech startups and nearly 200 different intermediary and supporting organizations (accelerators, co-working spaces, coding academies, etc.) – some which have a multinational presence, such as Blk71, whose Singapore headquarters has been referred to as “the world’s most tightly packed entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

While assessing the size and strength of startup ecosystems is an evolving method, Start-up Genome priced Singapore’s ecosystem at over $25 billion, five times the global median.

Arguably, the most eye-catching hallmark of this ecosystem is its population of current and former unicorns. Collectively, Singapore has been home to ten unicorns, three of which have offered an IPO (Nanofilm, Razer and Sea) and two of which have been acquired – one by giant Alibaba (Lazada) and one by Chinese streaming powerhouse YY (Bigo Live). The remaining five are Trax, Acronis, JustCo, PatSnap, and Grab – the ASEAN region’s largest unicorn to date.

 

The education sector is also prominent in Singapore’s ecosystem. Universities like the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are deeply embedded into this ecosystem, helping with R&D commercialization linkages, incubation, talent/knowledge transfer, and other areas.

So, how did Singapore’s startup ecosystem come to be?

Numerous factors have contributed to building Singapore’s startup ecosystem, with government intervention and leadership being the dominant driving forces. The government has spent more than USD60 billion over the past several decades to enhance the country’s R&D infrastructure, create VC funds, and launch accelerators and other support organizations.

Singapore’s logistics tech startup Parcel Perform raises $20 million

By Manish Singh

Singapore-headquartered Parcel Perform, which connects merchants with e-commerce carriers and provides shipment tracking features, said on Wednesday it has raised $20 million in a new financing round as it scales its business in several parts of the world.

Cambridge Capital led the logistics tech startup’s Series A financing round, while SoftBank Ventures Asia and existing investors including Wavemaker Partners and Investible participated in it.

The SaaS startup helps improve the experience of e-commerce merchants and their customers when engaging with carriers, explained Dr. Arne Jeroschewski, co-founder and chief executive of Parcel Perform, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Nespresso, which sells home coffee machines, capsules and accessories, relies on Parcel Perform to gain access to logistics data, for instance. Based on this data, said Jeroschewski, tracking experience — such as a web page for tracking, a system for authentication — is charted for the firm and the startup also provides tools for customer support.

Parcel Perform also provides these merchants with tools to create additional touchpoints after the checkout to create higher brand loyalty with customers, opportunities to move more inventories, and it has also developed a system to support more than 30 languages to offer the most personalized experience to customers. It says businesses on its platform have increased their customer lifetime value by up to 40%. 

The startup — which is already profitable and has grown its revenue by 5x since the onset of the pandemic — also uses its AI stack to make predictions on things such as when a customer will get their parcel. Parcel Perform, which integrates with over 700 carriers, has courted clients globally and executes more than 100 million parcel updates each day.

“Visibility is a vital market in this age of e-commerce. After evaluating many companies worldwide, we believe that Parcel Perform simply offers the best visibility and experience solution. They have built a unique value proposition for brands, marketplaces and carriers, with the most complete solution for end-to-end shipment tracking,” said Benjamin Gordon, Managing Partner of Cambridge Capital, in a statement. Cambridge focuses exclusively on global logistics and supply chain technology.

Jeroschewski founded the startup with Dana von der Heide. Jeroschewski previously co-founded e-tail unicorn Zalora, and held senior roles in Singapore Post and DHL, where he worked together with Dana. Dana is also an advisory member of the German Logistics Association and part of the distinguished eFounder Fellowship program by Alibaba.

Parcel Perform will deploy the fresh funds to scale further in Asia and Europe and also set up a regional office in North America, said Jeroschewski. The startup is also looking to increase its headcount.

What’s driving the global surge in retail media spending?

By Ram Iyer
Cynthia Luo Contributor
Cynthia Luo is the head of Marketing at Epsilo, an all-in-one e-commerce SaaS solution for marketplace sellers in Southeast Asia. Cynthia also runs CAOSE, a boutique e-commerce and digital consulting firm working with clients such as ExxonMobil, Criteo and Shippit.

Most businesses by now are well versed with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic: Faltering offline sales, flexible work-from-anywhere options, fluctuating foot traffic with lockdown mandates and e-commerce becoming a channel many brands wished they had built infrastructure for earlier.

As a record number of consumers in Southeast Asia move from shopping malls to online platforms like Shopee, Lazada, Tiki and Tokopedia, the advertising dollars are naturally flowing in. Emerging markets are witnessing the advent of retail media right now.

Amazon paved the way in North America in 2018 by launching Amazon Advertising to become the first bid-and-buy marketplace. BCG now estimates retailers have a $100 billion business opportunity to capture, if they can keep up.

The money is where the consumer is

To understand why retailers will capture more ad spend, it’s important to evaluate what modern day marketing has become.

Is it bus stop advertisements? Bidding on Google keywords or a Clubhouse session? Or is it a viral TikTok video? As the world becomes more connected and the lines between offline and online blur even more, modern day marketing is a mix of all the channels tied to key performance metrics.

The main goal of marketing, no matter the medium, is to highlight a business or product to the right consumers to score a potential sale. And like most things, there is a bad, a good and a much better way of doing things.

E-commerce as an advertising channel is unique, because it encapsulates the entire consumer journey from start to finish, especially as marketplaces continue to steal the share of search from search engines.

Traditional marketing channels were primarily linear TV, radio and print, because the mediums were highly popular at the time. However, with the birth of the internet newer platforms emerged such as email, websites and streaming. Then came the rise of social media and apps that shook up the advertising landscape. But regardless of these shifts, there has always been one constant: The business went where the consumer was.

So when sources of traffic and revenue once again change, let’s say due to a pandemic, the marketing mix follows. In the next 12 months alone, many marketers are planning to decrease spending in cinema, print and out of home (OOH), while the majority will increase budgets in social and search, according to Nielsen.

The search for superior advertising channels

So which channels will benefit as money flows out of outdated buckets? A good indicator is ad revenue trends in mature markets like the U.S. While Google and Facebook remain the dominant advertising players, Amazon has eaten into the duopoly’s ad revenue pie in the U.S., growing its share from 7.8% to 10.3% in 2020 alone, according to eMarketer.

How? Because the most valuable advertising channel is the one that has the most measurable touch points with the consumer.

Singapore-based Nektar.ai gets $6M to help B2B sales team collaborate more effectively

By Catherine Shu

A photo of Nektar.ai founders Aravind Ravi Sulekha and Abhijeet Vijayvergiya

Nektar.ai founders Aravind Ravi Sulekha and Abhijeet Vijayvergiya

Organizing information about prospective deals is a challenging task for B2B sales teams, since salespeople usually rely on multiple tools (email, Zoom, WhatsApp, etc) to talk with buyer committees. It becomes even more unwieldy when sales teams work remotely. Nektar.ai is a B2B sales productivity startup that wants to help sales team by reducing the amount of time they spend on manual data entry and providing analytics that can increase their revenue. The Singapore-based company announced today it has raised $6 million in seed funding, led by B Capital Group.

3One4 Capital and returning investor Nexus Venture Partners also participated, along with angel investors like Amit Midha, president of Asia Pacific and Japan at Dell; Ritesh Agarwal the founder and CEO of OYO Hotels;, Kevin Merritt, former president of Tyler Technologies’ data and insights division; Evan Davidson, SentinelOne’s vice president of Asia Pacific and Japan; Deep Nishar, senior managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers; and Tom Donlea, Ekata’s vice president and general manager of APAC.

Combined with its previous round, $2.15 million led by Nexus Venture Partners and announced in November 2020, the new funding brings Nektar.ai’s total seed capital to $8.1 million. The company says this is one of the largest seed rounds ever for a SaaS company based in Asia. Nektar.ai’s workforce is remote-first and the company says half of its team are women.

Nektar.ai has been in stealth mode since it was founded in 2020 by Abhijeet Vijayvergiya and Aravind Ravi Sulekha, working with hundreds of clients in private beta mode. Its waitlist is currently open for sign-ups, with plans to launch publicly in the first half of 2022. Part of Nektar.ai’s seed funding will be used to build a go-to-market team focused on the United States.

Nektar.ai was designed for SaaS revenue teams who have to manage information across many channels, including email, calendars, web conferences, Slack, CRM tools, LinkedIn and WhatsApp. This makes it hard for them to collaborate, follow playbooks (or sets of best practices) and get a full understanding of their deals pipeline and revenue. Nektar.ai integrates with different apps, surfaces key data and delivers it to the most convenient collaboration tool for a team, like Slack.

Vijayvergiya told TechCrunch that over the last six months, Nektar.ai accelerated product development because “we saw a strong demand for a guided selling solution in the market,” onboarding more than 200 prospects from its waitlist.

Nektar.ai launched a web console for managers, a Chrome extension and integrations with Salesforce, Google Workspace and Slack. It also added a new feature called Capture Bot, an AI-based system that automatically extracts important information from salespeople’ online interactions with buyer committees, surfacing data that would otherwise be tucked away in different inboxes and calendars. This increases the accuracy of their CRM tools and allows sales managers to see how engaged their teams are with potential customers and how prospective deals are progressing.

For individual representatives, Nektar.ai’s tools let them spend less time on manual data entry. They also get analytics like multithreading scores that help them identify how deals were won or lost. For example, Vijayvergiya said one client found they won deals if they had at least four contacts with a buyer committee after the demo stage. As a result, its sales representatives began engaging with more than four members of the buyer committee on all potential deals.

Another way Nektar.ai helps SaaS sales teams save money and time is building databases of first-party contacts from their inboxes. Vijayvergiya said one client was able to save $50,000 by organizing their existing contacts instead of purchasing third-party contact data.

In a statement, B Capital Group general partner Gabe Greenbaum said, “Nektar.ai’s solutions provide great value to distributed revenue teams, which is even more important as enterprises conduct further business across global markets. B Capital is always eager to work with experienced and knowledgeable founders, and we’re confident that Abhijeet, Aravind and the Nektar.ai team will continue their strong momentum on the path to becoming the industry-leading tool for enterprise sales productivity.”

INKR draws in $3.1M to make more comics accessible to worldwide audiences

By Catherine Shu

A photo of digital comics platform INKR's team

Digital comics platform INKR’s team

INKR is a digital comics platform that crosses cultural and language divides, enabling creators to reach global audiences with its proprietary localization technology. Previously bootstrapped, the company announced today that it has raised $3.1 million in pre-Series A funding led by Monk’s Hill Ventures, with participation from manga distributor TokyoPop founder and chief executive Stu Levy and VI Management managing director David Do.

Headquartered in Singapore with an office in Ho Chi Minh City, INKR was founded in 2019 by Ken Luong, Khoa Nguyen and Hieu Tran. The company says that since it launched in October 2020, its monthly average users have grown 200%. It currently partners with more than 70 content creators and publishers, including FanFan, Image Comics, Kodansha USA, Kuaikan, Mr. Blue, SB Creative, TokyoPop and Toons Family, and has more than 800 titles so far, including manga, webtoons and graphic novels.

Luong, INKR’s CEO, told TechCrunch that the platform will focus first on translated comics from top global publishers, but plans to open to small and indie creators in 2022.

At the heart of INKR’s platform is its localization technology, which the company says reduces the time spent on preparing comics for different markets from days to just hours.

“Comics localization is more than just translation. It is a time-consuming process with many steps involving many people—file handling, transcription, translation, typesetting, sound effects, quality control, etc,” Luong said.

A screenshot with some of the titles on digital comics platform INKR

Some of the titles on INKR

In addition to language, publishers also have to take into account the differences between comic styles around the world, including Japanese manga, Chinese manhua, Korean manhwa, American comics. For example, comics can be laid out page-by-page or use vertical scrolling. Some languages read from left to right, while others go from right to left.

Luong says INKR’s proprietary AI engine, called INKR Comics Vision, is able to recognize different formats and elements on a comic page, including text, dialogue, characters, facial expressions, backgrounds and panels. INKR Localize, its tool for human translators, helps them deliver accurate translations more quickly by automating tasks like text transcription, vocabulary suggestions and typesetting.

Since localization is performed by teams, including people in different locations, INKR provides them with browser-based collaboration software. The platform supports Japanese-English, Korean-English and Chinese-English translations, with plans to add more languages. Some publishers, like Kuaikan Manhua and Mr. Blue, have used INKR to translate thousands of comic chapters from Chinese and Korean into English.

INKR provides content creators with a choice of monetization models, including ad-supported, subscription fees or pay-per-chapter. Luong says the platform analyzes content to tell publishers which model will maximize their earnings, and shares a percentage of the revenue generated.

INKR is vying for attention with other digital comics platforms like Amazon-owned Comixology and Webtoon, the publishing portal operated by Naver Corporation.

Luong said INKR’s competitive advantages include the the diversity of comics is offers and the affordability of its pricing. Before launching, it also invested in data and AI-based technology for both readers and publishers. For example, users get personalized recommendation based on their reading activity, while publishers can access analytics to track title performance based on consumption trends.

In a statement, Monk’s Hill Ventures general partner Justin Nguyen said INKR’s “proprietary AI-driven platform is addressing pain points for creators and publishers who need to go digital and global—localizing for many languages quickly and cost-effectively while also helping them improve reach and readership through analytics and intelligent personalized feeds. We look forward to partnering with them to quench the huge demand for translated comics globally.”

Untitled Ventures joins the scramble for Russian & Eastern European startups with a $118M warchest

By Mike Butcher

Sorry Mr. Putin, but there’s a race on for Russian and Eastern European founders. And right now, those awful capitalists in the corrupt West are starting to out-gun the opposition! But seriously… only the other day a $100 million fund aimed at Russian speaking entrepreneurs appeared, and others are proliferating.

Now, London-based Untitled Ventures plans to join their fray with a €100 million / $118M for its second fund to invest in “ambitious deep tech startups with eastern European founders.”

Untitled says it is aiming at entrepreneurs who are looking to relocate their business or have already HQ’ed in Western Europe and the USA. That’s alongside all the other existing Western VCs who are – in my experience – always ready and willing to listen to Russian and Eastern European founders, who are often known for their technical prowess.

Untitled is going to be aiming at B2B, AI, agritech, medtech, robotics, and data management startups with proven traction emerging from the Baltics, CEE, and CIS, or those already established in Western Europe

LPs in the fund include Vladimir Vedeenev, a founder of Global Network Management>. Untitled also claims to have Google, Telegram Messenger, Facebook, Twitch, DigitalOcean, IP-Only, CenturyLinks, Vodafone and TelecomItaly as partners.

Oskar Stachowiak, Untitled Ventures Managing Partner, said: “With over 10 unicorns, €1Bn venture funding in 2020 alone, and success stories like Veeam, Semrush, and Wrike, startups emerging from the fast-growing regions are the best choice to focus on early-stage investment for us. Thanks to the strong STEM focus in the education system and about one million high-skilled developers, we have an ample opportunity to find and support the rising stars in the region.”

Konstantin Siniushin, the Untitled Ventures MP said: “We believe in economic efficiency and at the same time we fulfill a social mission of bringing technological projects with a large scientific component from the economically unstable countries of the former USSR, such as, first of all, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, but not only in terms of bringing sales to the world market and not only helping them to HQ in Europe so they can get next rounds of investments.”

He added: “We have a great experience accumulated earlier in the first portfolio of the first fund, not just structuring business in such European countries as, for example, Luxembourg, Germany, Great Britain, Portugal, Cyprus and Latvia, but also physically relocating startup teams so that they are perceived already as fully resident in Europe and globally.”

To be fair, it is still harder than it needs to be to create large startups from Eastern Europe, mainly because there is often very little local capital. However, that is changing, with the launch recently of CEE funds such as Vitosha Venture Partners and Launchub Ventures, and the breakout hit from Romania that was UIPath.

The Untitled Ventures team:
• Konstantin Siniushin, a serial tech entrepreneur
• Oskar Stachowiak, experienced fund manager
• Mary Glazkova, PR & Comms veteran
• Anton Antich, early stage investor and an ex VP of Veeam, a Swiss cloud data management company
acquired by Insight Venture Partners for $5bln
• Yulia Druzhnikova, experienced in taking tech companies international
• Mark Cowley, who has worked on private and listed investments within CEE/Russia for over 20 years

Untitled Ventures portfolio highlights – Fund I
Sizolution: AI-driven size prediction engine, based in Germany
Pure app – spontaneous and impersonal dating app, based in Portugal
Fixar Global –  efficient drones for commercial use-cases, based in Latvia,
E-contenta – based in Poland
SuitApp – AI based mix-and-match suggestions for fashion retail, based in Singapore
• Sarafan.tech, AI-driven recognition, based in the USA
Hello, baby – parental assistant, based in the USA
Voximplant – voice, video and messaging cloud communication platform, based in the USA (exited)

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