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Cloud kitchen startup JustKitchen to go public on the TSX Venture Exchange

By Catherine Shu

JustKitchen, a cloud kitchen startup, will start trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) Venture Exchange on Thursday morning. It is doing a direct listing of its common shares, having already raised $8 million at a $30 million valuation.

The company says this makes it one of the first—if not the first—cloud kitchen company to go public in North America. While JustKitchen launched operations last year in Taiwan, it is incorporated in Canada, with plans to expand into Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and the United States. TSX Venture is a board on the Toronto Stock Exchange for emerging companies, including startups, that can move to the main board once they reach certain thresholds depending on industry.

“It’s a really convenient way to get into the market and with the ghost kitchen industry in particular, it’s early stage and there’s a lot of runway,” co-founder and chief executive officer Jason Chen told TechCrunch. “We felt there really was a need to get going as quickly as we could and really get out into the market.”

Participants in JustKitchen’s IPO rounds included returning investor SparkLabs Taipei (JustKitchen took part in its accelerator program last year), investment institutions and retail clients from Toronto. More than half of JustKitchen’s issued and outstanding shares are owned by its executives, board directors and employees, Chen said.

One of the reasons JustKitchen decided to list on TSX Venture Exchange is Chen’s close ties to the Canadian capital markets, where he worked as an investment banker before moving to Taiwan to launch the startup. A couple of JustKitchen’s board members are also active in the Canadian capital markets, including Darren Devine, a member of TSX Venture Exchange’s Local Advisory Committee.

These factors made listing on the board a natural choice for JustKitchen, Chen told TechCrunch. Other reasons included ability to automatically graduate to the main TSX board once companies pass certain thresholds, including market cap and net profitability, and the ease of doing dual listings in other countries. Just Kitchen is also preparing to list its common shares on the OTCQB exchange in the U.S. and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in Germany.

Taiwan-based MLOps startup InfuseAI raises $4.3M Series A led by Wistron Corporation

By Catherine Shu

AI models not only take time to build and train, but also to deploy in an organization’s workflow. That’s where MLOps (machine learning operations) companies come in, helping clients scale their AI technology. InfuseAI, a MLOps startup based in Taiwan, announced today it has raised a $4.3 million Series A, led by original design manufacturer Wistron Corporation, with participation from Hive Ventures, Top Taiwan Venture Capital Group and Silicon Valley Taiwan Investments.

Founded in 2018, InfuseAI says the market for MLOps solutions is worth $30 million a year in Taiwan, with the global market expected to reach about $4 billion by 2025, according to research firm Cognilytica. Its clients include E.SUN, one of Taiwan’s largest banks, SinoPac Holdings and Chimei.

InfuseAI helps companies deploy and manage machine learning models with turnkey solutions like PrimeHub, a platform that includes a model training environment, cloud or on-premise cluster computing (including container orchestration with Kubernetes) and collaboration tools for teams. Another product, called PrimeHub Deploy, lets clients train, deploy, update and monitor AI models.

In a press statement, Hive Ventures founder and managing partner Yan Lee said, “As enterprises from manufacturing, healthcare, finance and other sectors seek to scale their AI operations and model deployments, they will require a platform like InfuseAI to allow seamless collaboration between developers and data scientists. InfuseAI fits perfectly into our investment thesis which is focused on platforms and software in the enterprise adoption cycle.”

Sequoia Capital India on its early investment in Appier, the fund’s latest exit

By Catherine Shu

Chih-Han Yu, chief executive officer and co-founder of Appier Group Inc., right, holds a hammer next to a bell during an event marking the listing of the company on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, at the company's office in Taipei, Taiwan on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Chih-Han Yu, chief executive officer and co-founder of Appier Group Inc., right, holds a hammer next to a bell during an event marking the listing of the company on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, at the company’s office in Taipei, Taiwan on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Appier’s initial public offering on the Tokyo Stock Exchange yesterday was a milestone not only for the company, but also Sequoia Capital India, one of its earliest investors. Founded in Taiwan, Appier was the fund’s first investment outside of India, and is now also the first company in its portfolio outside of India to go public. In an interview with TechCrunch, Sequoia Capital managing director Abheek Anand talked about what drew the firm to Appier, which develops AI-based marketing software.

Before shifting its focus to marketing, Appier’s founders—chief executive officer Chih-Han Yu, chief operating officer Winnie Lee and chief technology officer Joe Su—worked on a startup called Plaxie to develop AI-powered gaming engines. Yu and Su came up with the idea when they were both graduate students at Harvard, but found there was little demand at the time. Anand met them in 2013, soon after their pivot to big data and marketing, and Sequoia Capital India invested in Appier’s Series A a few months later.

“It’s easy to say in retrospect what worked and what didn’t work. What really stands out without trying to write revisionist history is that this was just an incredibly smart team,” said Anand. “They had probably the most technical core DNA of any Series A company that we’ve met in years, I would argue.” Yu holds a PhD in computer science from Harvard, Wu earned a PhD in immunology at Washington University in St. Louis and Su has a M.S. in computer science from Harvard. The company also filled its team with AI and machine learning researchers from top universities in Taiwan and the United States.

At the time, Sequoia Capital “had a broad thesis that there would be adoption of AI in enterprises,” Anand said. “What we believed was there were a bunch of people going after that problem, but they were trying to solve business problems without necessarily having the technical depth to do it.” Appier stood out because they “were swinging at it from the other end, where they had an enormous amount of technical expertise.”

Since Appier’s launch in 2012, more companies have emerged that use machine learning and big data to help companies automate marketing decisions and create online campaigns. Anand said one of the reasons Appier, which now operates in 14 markets across the Asia-Pacific region, remains competitive is its strategy of cross-selling new products and focusing on specific use cases instead of building a general purpose platform.

Appier’s core product is a cross-platform advertising engine called CrossX that focuses on user acquisition. Then it has products that address other parts of their customers’ value chain: AiDeal to help companies send coupons to the customers who are most likely to use them; user engagement platform AIQUA; and AIXON, a data science platform that uses AI models to predict customer actions, including the likelihood of repeat purchases.

“I think the number one thing that the company has spent a lot of time on is focusing on efficiency,” said Anand. “Customers have tons of data, both external and first-party, that they’re processing to drive business outcomes. It’s a very hard technical problem. Appier starts with a solution that is relatively easy to break into a customer, and then builds deeper and deeper solutions for those customers.”

Appier’s listing is also noteworthy because it marks the first time a company from Taiwan has listed in Japan since Trend Micro’s IPO in 1998. Japan is one of Appier’s biggest markets (customers there include Rakuten, Toyota and Shiseido), making the Tokyo Stock Exchange a natural fit, Anand said, even though most of Sequoia Capital India’s portfolio companies list in India or the United States.

The Tokyo Stock Exchange also stood out because of its retail investor participation, liquidity and total volume. Some of Appier’s other core investors, including JAFCO Asia and SoftBank Group Corp., are also based in Japan. But though it has almost $30 billion in average trading volume, the vast majority of listings are domestic companies. In a recent report, Nikkei Asia cited a higher corporate tax rate and lack of potential underwriters, especially for smaller listings, as a potential obstacles for foreign companies.

But Appier’s debut may lead the way for other Asian startups to chose the Tokyo Stock Exchange, said Anand. “Getting ready for the Japanese exchange meant having the right accounting practices, the right reporting, a whole bunch of compliance stuff. It was a long process. In some ways we were leading the charge for external companies to get there, and I’m sure over time it will keep getting easier and easier.”

JustKitchen is using cloud kitchens to create the next generation of restaurant franchising

By Catherine Shu

JustKitchen operates cloud kitchens, but the company goes beyond providing cooking facilities for delivery meals. Instead, it sees food as a content play, with recipes and branding instead of music or shows as the content, and wants to create the next iteration of food franchises. JustKitchen currently operates its “hub and spoke” model in Taiwan, with plans to expand four other Asian markets, including Hong Kong and Singapore, and the United States this year.

Launched last year, JustKitchen currently offers 14 brands in Taiwan, including Smith & Wollensky and TGI Fridays. Ingredients are first prepped in a “hub” kitchen, before being sent to smaller “spokes” for final assembly and pickup by delivery partners, including Uber Eats and Foodpanda. To reduce operational costs, spokes are spread throughout cities for quicker deliveries and the brands each prepares is based on what is ordered most frequently in the area.

In addition to licensing deals, JustKitchen also develops its own brands and performs research and development for its partners. To enable that, chief operating officer Kenneth Wu told TechCrunch that JustKitchen is moving to a more decentralized model, which means its hub kitchens will be used primarily for R&D, and production at some of its spoke kitchens will be outsourced to other food vendors and manufacturers. The company’s long-term plan is to license spoke operation to franchisees, while providing order management software and content (i.e. recipes, packaging and branding) to maintain consistent quality.

Demand for meal and grocery deliveries increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, this means food deliveries made up about 13% of the restaurant market in 2020, compared to the 9% forecast before the pandemic, according to research firm Statista, and may rise to 21% by 2025.

But on-demand food delivery businesses are notoriously expensive to operate, with low margins despite markups and fees. By centralizing food preparation and pickup, cloud kitchens (also called ghost kitchens or dark kitchens) are supposed to increase profitability while ensuring standardized quality. Not surprisingly, companies in the space have received significant attention, including former Uber chief executive officer Travis Kalanick’s CloudKitchens, Kitchen United and REEF, which recently raised $1 billion led by SoftBank.

Wu, whose food delivery startup Milk and Eggs was acquired by GrubHub in 2019, said one of the main ways JustKitchen differentiates is by focusing on operations and content in addition to kitchen infrastructure. Before partnering with restaurants and other brands, JustKitchen meets with them to design a menu specifically for takeout and delivery. Once a menu is launched, it is produced by JustKitchen instead of the brands, which are paid royalties. For restaurants that operate only one brick-and-mortar location, this gives them an opportunity to expand into multiple neighborhoods and cities (or countries, when JustKitchen begins its international expansion) simultaneously, a new take on the franchising model for the on-demand delivery era.

One of JustKitchen's delivery meals, with roast chicken and vegetables

One of JustKitchen’s delivery meals. Image Credits: JustKitchen

Each spoke kitchen puts the final touches on meals before handing them to delivery partners. Spoke kitchens are smaller than hubs, closer to customers, and the goal is to have a high revenue to square footage ratio.

“The thesis in general is how do you get economies of scale or a large volume at the hub, or the central kitchen where you’re making it, and then send it out deep into the community from the spokes, where they can do a short last-mile delivery,” said Wu.

JustKitchen says it can cut industry standard delivery times by half, and that its restaurant partners have seen 40% month on month growth. It also makes it easier for delivery providers like Uber Eats to stack orders, which means having a driver pick up three or four orders at a time for separate addresses. This reduces costs, but is usually only possible at high-volume restaurants, like fast food chain locations. Since JustKitchen offers several brands in one spoke, this gives delivery platforms more opportunities to stack orders from different brands.

In addition to partnerships, JustKitchen also develops its own food brands, using data analytics from several sources to predict demand. The first source is its own platform, since customers can order directly from Just Kitchen. It also gets high-level data from delivery partners that lets them see food preferences and cart sizes in different regions, and uses general demographic data from governments and third-party providers with information about population density, age groups, average income and spending. This allows it to plan what brands to launch in different locations and during different times of the day, since JustKitchen offers breakfast, lunch and dinner.

JustKitchen is incorporated in Canada, but launched in Taiwan first because of its population density and food delivery’s popularity. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, food delivery penetration in the U.S. and Europe was below 20%, but in Taiwan, it was already around 30% to 40%, Wu said. The new demand for food delivery in the U.S. “is part of the new norm and we believe that is not going away,” he added. JustKitchen is preparing to launch in Seattle and several Californian cities, where it already has partners and kitchen infrastructure.

“Our goal is to focus on software and content, and give franchisees operations so they have a turnkey franchise to launch immediately,” said Wu. “We have the content and they can pick whatever they want. They have software to integrate, recipes and we do the food manufacturing and sourcing to control quality, and ultimately they will operate the single location.”

Qualcomm-backed chipmaker Kneron nails Foxconn funding, deal

By Rita Liao

A startup based out of San Diego and Taipei is quietly nailing fundings and deals from some of the biggest names in electronics. Kneron, which specializes in energy-efficient processors for edge artificial intelligence, just raised a strategic funding round from Taiwan’s manufacturing giant Foxconn and integrated circuit producer Winbond.

The deal came a year after Kneron closed a $40 million round led by Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing’s Horizons Ventures. Amongst its other prominent investors are Alibaba Entrepreneurship Fund, Sequoia Capital, Qualcomm and SparkLabs Taipei.

Kneron declined to disclose the dollar amount of the investment from Foxconn and Winbond due to investor requests but said it was an “eight figures” deal, founder and CEO Albert Liu told TechCrunch in an interview.

Founded in 2015, Kneron’s latest product is a neural processing unit that can enable sophisticated AI applications without relying on the cloud. The startup is directly taking on the chips of Intel and Google, which it claims are more energy-consuming than its offering. The startup recently got a talent boost after hiring Davis Chen, Qualcomm’s former Taipei head of engineering.

Among Kneron’s customers are Chinese air conditioning giant Gree and German’s autonomous driving software provider Teraki, and the new deal is turning the world’s largest electronics manufacturer into a client. As part of the strategic agreement, Kneron will work with Foxconn on the latter’s smart manufacturing and newly introduced open platform for electric vehicles, while its work with Winbond will focus on microcontroller unit (MCU)-based AI and memory computing.

“Low-power AI chips are pretty easy to put into sensors. We all know that in some operation lines, sensors are quite small, so it’s not easy to use a big GPU [graphics processing unit] or CPU [central processing unit], especially when power consumption is a big concern,” said Liu, who held R&D positions at Qualcomm and Samsung before founding Kneron.

Unlike some of its competitors, Kneron designs chips for a wide range of use cases, from manufacturing, smart home, smartphones, robotics, surveillance, payments, to autonomous driving. It doesn’t just make chips but also the AI software embedded in the chips, a strategy that Liu said differentiates his company from China’s AI darlings like SenseTime and Megvii, which enable AI service through the cloud.

Kneron has also been on a less aggressive funding pace than these companies, which fuel their rapid expansion through outsize financing rounds. Six-year-old SenseTime has raised about $2.6 billion to date, while nine-year-old Megvii has banked about $1.4 billion. Kneron, in comparison, has raised just over $70 million from a Series A round.

Like the Chinese AI upstarts, Kneron is weighing an initial public offering. The company is expected to make a profit in 2023, Liu said, and “that will probably be a good time for us to go IPO.”

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