“Employee Wellbeing” SaaS platforms have been around for some time. Both regulation and increasing stress levels and health problems in the workplace have fed the rise of this sector of tech, and with many corporates painting long-term contracts with providers, it’s a lucrative business. Furthermore, with the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, large remote-workforces look here to stay for the foreseeable future and are likely to need these platforms more than ever. Notable players in the space include Rally Health, Dacadoo and Virgin Pulse.
Tictrac is a startup in this space that uses a combination of personalized content, lifestyle campaigns and incentivized challenges to motivate staff. It combines this with behavioral science to identify trigger points to egg-on staff to positive behaviors. Existing investors of Tictrac include world-class tennis champion, Andy Murray and American basketball player, Carmelo Anthony who has been named an NBA All-Star 10 times.
Today it secures a £6m ($7.5M) in a funding round led by London-based Puma Private Equity, bringing its total investment to date to £13.5m ($17M). The latest round will allow the company to expand its Employee Wellbeing platform for its thousand-plus customers. It will also now expand its Enterprise platform, which enables insurance companies and health providers to engage their customers in their health and tailor relevant products and services to them.
Tictrac relies heavily on content, contributed by well-known health and fitness influencers, covering fitness, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, recipes and blog posts which provide its users with inspiration and advice on how to improve their lifestyle.
Unlike a lot of other “Employee Welbeing” platforms, users can follow the content or experts that they can relate to (much like with Instagram, Calm or Glo Yoga) powered by a campaign engine that delivers creative themes across Tictrac features, like healthy habit-forming action plans and activity challenges.
In a statement Martin Blinder, CEO and founder of Tictrac, commented: “Now more than ever, companies have a greater role and responsibility in supporting the health of their workforce. And while businesses are focused on sustaining retention and productivity – particularly with so many people working remotely – they are now tasked with trying to navigate health issues such as burn-out and striking a healthy work-life balance.”
Rupert West, Managing Director at Puma Private Equity said: “We have been consistently impressed with Tictrac’s ability to heighten health and wellbeing engagement, which in turn will help alleviate some of the pressures our health services continue to face.”
TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has added Lingxi, a Beijing-based startup that applies machine intelligence to financial services such as debt collection and insurance sales, to its ever-expanding portfolio of investments.
The AI startup has raised a $6.2 million Series A round co-led by ByteDance and Rocket Internet, the German accelerator that has incubated e-commerce giants Lazada and Jumia. Junsan Capital and GSR Ventures also participated in the round, which officially closed in April.
This marks one of ByteDance’s first investment deals for purely monetary returns, rather than for an immediate strategic purpose. However, with ByteDance’s recent foray into the financial services domain, that relationship could shift over time.
TikTok’s parent company previously focused narrowly on strategic deals, with the aim of leveraging these smaller startups’ technology, industry know-how, talents and other resources for its own business objectives. The most prominent example is perhaps its acquisition of Musical.ly, through which TikTok gained access to tens of millions of American users and a reputed product team led by founder Alex Zhu.
In 2019, ByteDance’s strategic investment team began its search for venture capital-style funding opportunities. Spearheading the effort is former Sequoia China investor Yang Jie.
There are, however, clear strategic synergies in ByteDance’s first financial investment. The online entertainment giant has already received an insurance broker license and is in the process of obtaining one for consumer finance, according to Lingxi founder and chief executive Zhongpu “Vincent” Xia. When asked if he sees ByteDance eventually deploying Lingxi’s machine intelligence in its future financial services, Xia responded, “Why not?”
ByteDance declined to comment on its entry into the financial sector.
Despite billing themselves as AI-first companies, both ByteDance and Lingxi recognize the essential role of humans before AI reaches the desired level of sophistication. ByteDance today relies on thousands of human auditors to screen content published across its TikTok, Douyin, Today’s Headlines and other apps. Likewise, Lingxi is labor-intensive and manages 200 customer representatives aided by a team of 30 AI experts.
The core of Lingxi is to “augment humans, not to replace them,” said Xia in a phone interview with TechCrunch .
Xia was leading a team of 90 people to work on Baidu’s commercialization of AI when he had an epiphany to do something of his own. He was convinced that AI would enhance humans’ cognitive capability, he said, the same way the steam engine had boosted humans’ physical production a century ago. The Chinese search pioneer has widely been perceived as the poster child of the nation’s booming AI industry because of its early and outsized investment in the technology, but by the end of 2017, Xia felt Baidu’s model of touting AI as a tool wasn’t working.
“We hit a bottleneck. The technology [AI] wasn’t mature enough yet, which means you have to combine it with a big team of people to perform manual tasks like data labeling, so you not only need to hire AI experts, professionals in the business you serve, but also a large number of workers to label data and train the machines,” he said.
Xia is among the industry practitioners who recognize the limitation of machines. While computers can outperform humans in completing repetitive, menial tasks, they remain unreliable in handling complex human emotions and can lead to counterproductive and even detrimental repercussions were they left with full autonomy.
The result of relying completely on machines is “client dissatisfaction,” said Xia. “The client might be very happy for the first few months, but as its business evolves and new needs arise, it will start to realize that the so-called machines are getting dumber and dumber. Artificial intelligence becomes artificial retardedness.”
Lingxi staff at work during the COVID-19 pandemic
Most self-proclaimed AI startups in China make money by selling bots akin to how old-fashioned software was sold with pre-programmed objectives, allowing little room for iteration or upgrade later on. Lingxi, in contrast, is service-based and takes a commission from client revenues.
Take debt collection — Lingxi’s primary focus at this stage — for example. When a client, a financial affiliate of one of China’s biggest internet firms, assigned Lingxi with 1.9 million yuan (about $270,000) worth of debt, the startup’s algorithms first determined how much the machines could handle. It turned out that the robots recovered 1.7 million yuan and left the rest of the cases, which Xia categorized as “irrational and complicated,” to human staff. By Q1 2020, Lingxi was able to achieve 2.5 times the average output of debt collection agencies, and it aims to ramp up the ratio to 4 times by the end of the year.
Conventionally, a company selling AI tools deals only with the IT department from its clients. Lingxi works with the business department instead. In the client’s eye, the AI startup is no different from a traditional debt collector. In practice, Lingxi is a debt collector with souped-up productivity enabled by computing power.
“The client doesn’t care what tools we use. They care only about the result,” said Xia. “The difference in working with these two departments is that the one in charge of the actual business is result-driven and will give us much stricter KPIs.”
The immediate impact of this model is that the AI-driven vendor must keep improving its algorithms, manually sampling and correcting machine decisions to improve their accuracy. “We might not be making money in the beginning, but over time, our output will certainly surpass those of our competitors.”
The service-oriented approach pushes Lingxi to get its hands dirty, upending the image of tech startups coding away in their sleek and comfortable offices. Its engineers are asked to regularly talk to clients about their real-life business challenges, whereas its customer representatives are required to attend training in how AI works.
“Fusion is what defines our company culture,” said Xia introspectively. “The technical team needs to understand business practices. Vice versa, our business people need to understand technology.”
It’s not hard to see why Xia chose to target China’s financial services industry. The booming sector is lucrative and tends to be more progressive in embracing technological innovations. Competition in fintech runs high, leveling the playing field for newer entrants against those that are more established.
“There’s a saying in the Chinese tech world that goes: If you can conquer the financial industry, you have conquered the business-to-business world,” said the founder.
The three-year-old startup is targeting 40-80 million yuan ($5.6 million to $11.3 million) in revenue in 2020. It’s one of the few businesses that have, against the odds, thrived under the COVID-19 pandemic because more people are taking out loans to tide the looming economic downturn.
Meanwhile, traditional debt collectors are struggling to hire during city lockdowns due to travel bans across the country, which started to ease in March, while machine-only vendors still fail to satisfy the whole range of client demands. That gave Lingxi a big window to onboard a significant number of new clients, prompting it to hire new staff.
Singapore-based Igloo, formerly known as Axinan, has raised $8.2 million as the insurance-tech startup looks to broaden its foothold in half a dozen Southeast Asian markets and Australia.
InVent, a corporate venture capital arm of telecommunications firm Intouch Holdings, led Igloo’s extended Series A round, the startup told TechCrunch. Existing investors Openspace Ventures, a venture capital fund that invests in Southeast Asia, and Linear Capital, a Shanghai-based early-stage venture capital firm focusing on tech-driven startups, participated in this round, which makes four-year-old Igloo’s to-date raise to $16 million. It raised about $1 million in its Seed financing round.
Igloo — founded by Wei Zhu, who previously served as Chief Technology Officer at Grab — works with e-commerce and travel firms such as Lazada, RedDoorz, and Shopee in Southeast Asia to offer their customers insurance products that provide protection on electronics, and coverage on accidents and travel.
The startup, which also operates in Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia, said more than 15 million users have benefitted from its insurance products to date, and in the last one year it has processed more than 50 million transactions.
Igloo, which rebranded from Axinan this month, said insurance products are proving especially useful to — and popular among — people during the coronavirus outbreak.
Raunak Mehta, Chief Commercial Officer at Igloo, told TechCrunch that the startup has seen a surge in transactions and customer acquisitions in the last 45 days. “While some travel related business have seen a dip, the larger e-commerce business continues to see a surge,” he added.
“With COVID-19 impacting every facet of personal life and business, digitisation can help the world adjust to the new normal. This is especially apparent in insurance, where we can tap on digital channels for distribution and also for creating awareness,” said Zhu.
“We see that digital insurance is on the rise in Southeast Asia, and we believe that Igloo, with our digital-first approach and expansion of our product portfolio into personal health, accident and other related products can help fill those gaps and address consumers’ needs for personal well-being,” he added.
He said the digital insurance penetration remains low in Southeast Asia, and Igloo sees massive opportunity in the space. According to one estimate (PDF), Southeast Asia’s digital insurance market is currently valued at $2 billion and is expected to grow to $8 billion by 2025.
The startup, which competes with a handful of startups including Singapore Life and Saphron, will use the fresh capital to expand its business development and engineering teams and broaden its presence in the half-dozen markets. It is already engaging with telecom operators, banks, non-banking financial firms, and travel agencies, it said.
OneDegree, the Hong Kong-based insurance technology startup, launched its first product today, a line of medical plans for pets called Pawfect Care. The company will introduce other products, including cyber insurance and medical coverage for humans, all available completely online, over the next 12 months.
Co-founder and CEO Alvin Kwock told TechCrunch that it took OneDegree two years to launch Pawfect Care because of the stringent regulatory approval process required to get an insurance license in Hong Kong.
The first two virtual insurance licenses issued by Hong Kong’s Insurance Authority went to companies owned by existing insurance providers (Sun Life’s Bow Tie and Asia Insurance’s Avo), in an effort to encourage more legacy players to go digital. OneDegree was the first independent insurance company to start online to be granted a license.
OneDegree will gradually launch cyber and human medical insurance plans over the next year. Kwock said the COVID-19 pandemic has created a “paradigm shift,” because face-to-face activities have declined dramatically, and the Insurance Authority is now issuing new virtual insurance licenses and allowing more products to be sold online.
The company decided to start with pet insurance because the company estimates that even though there are about half a million pet dogs and cats in Hong Kong, only about 3% of them have medical insurance despite the high cost of veterinary care. OneDegree lets customers buy and manage policies and file claims through a mobile app. It says that about 90% of approved claims will be paid within two working days.
In response to the pandemic, Pawfect Care’s pet insurance includes coverage of medical costs related to COVID-19. OneDegree emphasizes that there have only been a few known cases of pets testing positive for the virus so far and no evidence of them acting as carriers so far, but added the coverage for customers’ peace of mind.