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.
Stockwell AI entered the world with a bang but it is leaving with a whimper. Founded in 2017 by ex-Googlers, the AI vending machine startup formerly known as Bodega first raised blood pressures — people hated how it referenced and poorly ‘disrupted’ mom-and-pop shops in one fell swoop — and then raised a lot of money. But ultimately, it was no match for COVID-19 and the hit it has had on how we live.
TechCrunch has learned and confirmed that Stockwell will be shutting down at the end of this month, after it was unable find a viable business for its in-building app-controlled “smart” vending machines stocked with convenience store items.
“Regretfully, the current landscape has created a situation in which we can no longer continue our operations and will be winding down the company on July 1st,” co-founder and CEO Paul McDonald wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “We are deeply grateful to our talented team, incredible partners and investors, and our amazing shoppers that made this possible. While this wasn’t the way we wanted to end this journey, we are confident that our vision of bringing the store to where people live, work and play will live on through other amazing companies, products and services.”
We originally reached out after we were tipped off by someone who had received an email about the closure. Stockwell’s vending boxes were distributed primarily in apartment and office buildings, and it has been contacting those customers for the past week to break the news.
For what it’s worth, the building operator that was using Stockwell vending machines said it is actively in search of a replacement provider, so it seems it did get some use, but more pointedly it’s been very hard for the vending machine industry, where some distributors have seen business losses of up to 90%.
Stockwell’s closure is notable because it underscores how in the current climate, having a strong list of backers and a very decent amount of funding cannot always guarantee insulation for everyone.
As of last September, Stockwell had raised at least $ 45 million in funding from investors that included NEA, GV, DCM Ventures, Forerunner, First Round, and Homebrew. Its network had grown to 1,000 “stores”, smart vending machines that work a little like advanced hotel minibars: sensors detect and charge you for what you take out, and you use a smartphone app both to track what you buy and to pay for it.
As of last autumn, the company appeared to be gearing up for a widening of its business model, allowing its customers (building, office and apartment managers) to have a bigger say in what got stocked beyond the items Stockwell itself put into its machines, which included water and other beverages, savoury and sweet snacks, and a few home basics like laundry detergent and pain killers.
By December, it seems that McDonald’s co-founder, Ashwath Rajan, had quietly left the startup, and then as 2020 kicked into gear, COVID-19 took its toll.
First, consumers found themselves spending much more time working and simply being at home, going out less and bulk buying to minimise shopping efforts. That, in turn, had a big impact on the sustainability of business models based on casual, small purchases, such as the kind that one would typically make from vending machines like Stockwell’s.
Second, at a time when many are trying to minimise the spread of infection by wearing face masks, washing hands and minimising touching random objects, a big question mark hangs over the whole concept of unattended vending machines, and whether they can ever be properly sanitised. That’s impacted not only people buying items, but the workforce that’s meant to help stock and maintain these kiosks.
There have been some interesting twists in how the vending industry has handled COVID-19. Some are swapping out pretzels and Snickers and replacing them with PPE equipment, and others are finding opportunity in stocking them with healthy food specifically for front-line workers who have no other options and need quick but nutritious fixes during critical times.
But more generally, the vending machine industry has been hit hard by the pandemic.
The wider market in a normal year is estimated to be worth some $ 30 billion annually — one reason why Stockwell nee Bodega likely caught the eye of investors — but business has fallen off a cliff for many key operators.
The president of the European Vending Association, in an appeal in April to government leaders for financial assistance, said that business had dropped off by 90% and described COVID-19 as having a “devastating effect” on the sector. Difficult numbers for the Pepsi’s and Mondelez’s (nee Kraft) of the world, but surely the nail in the coffin for a young, promising AI-based vending machine startup that nonetheless some doubted from the word go.
Meet Watchful, a Tel Aviv-based startup coming out of stealth that wants to help you learn more about what your competitors are doing when it comes to mobile app development. The company tries to identify features that are being tested before getting rolled out to everyone, giving you an advantage if you’re competing with those apps.
Mobile app development has become a complex task, especially for the biggest consumer apps, from social to e-commerce. Usually, mobile development teams work on a new feature and try it out on a small subset of users. That process is called A/B testing as you separate your customers in two buckets — bucket A or bucket B.
For instance, Twitter is trying out its own version of Stories called Fleets. The company first rolled it out in Brazil to track the reaction and get some data from its user base. If you live anywhere else in the world, you’re not going to see that feature.
There are other ways to select a group of users to try out a new feature — you could even take part in a test because you’ve been randomly picked.
“When you open the app, you’ll probably see a different version from the app I see. You’re in a different region, you have a different device,” co-founder and CEO Itay Kahana told me. He previously founded popular to-do app Any.do.
For product designers, it has become a nightmare as you can’t simply open an app and look at what your competitors are doing. At any point in time, there are as many different versions of the same app as there are multiple A/B tests going on at the same time.
Watchful lets you learn from the competition by analyzing all those different versions and annotating changes in user flows, flagging unreleased features and uncovering design changes.
It is different from other mobile intelligence startups, such as App Annie or Sensor Tower. Those services mostly let you track downloads and rankings on the App Store and Play store to uncover products that are doing well.
“We’re focused on everything that is open and visible to the users,” Kahana said.
Like other intelligence startups, Watchful needs data. App Annie acquired a VPN app called Distimo and a data usage monitoring app called Mobidia. When you activate those apps, App Annie captures data about your phone usage, such as the number of times you open an app and how much time you spend in those apps.
According to a BuzzFeed News report, Sensor Tower has operated at least 20 apps on iOS and Android to capture data, such as Free and Unlimited VPN, Luna VPN, Mobile Data and Adblock Focus. Some of those apps have been removed from the stores following BuzzFeed’s story.
I asked a lot of questions about Watchful’s source of data. “It’s all real users that give us access to this information. It’s all running on real devices, real users. We extract videos and screenshots from them,” Kahana said.
“It’s more like a panel of users that we have access to their devices. It’s not an SDK that is hidden in some app and collects information and do shady stuff,” he added.
You’ll have to trust him as the company didn’t want to elaborate further. Kahana also said that data is anonymized in order to remove all user information.
Images are then analyzed by a computer vision algorithm focused on differential analysis. The startup has a team in the Philippines that goes through all that data and annotates it. It is then sent to human analysts so that they can track apps and write reports.
Watchful shared one of those reports with TechCrunch earlier this year. Thanks to this process, the startup discovered that TikTok parent company ByteDance has been working on a deepfake maker. The feature was spotted in both TikTok and its Chinese sister app Douyin.
But Watchful’s customers aren’t news organizations. The company sells access to its service to big companies working in the mobile space. Kahana didn’t want to name them, but it said it is already working with “the biggest social network players and the biggest e-commerce players, mainly in the U.S.”
The startup sells annual contracts based on the number of apps that you want to track. It has raised a $ 3 million seed round led by Vertex Ventures .
Another startup has turned to downsizing and fund raising to help weather the uncertainty around the economy amid the global coronavirus health pandemic. People.ai, a predictive sales startup backed by Andreessen Horowitz, Iconic, Lightspeed and other investors and last year valued at around $ 500 million, has laid off around 30 people, working out to about 18% of staff, TechCrunch has learned and confirmed.
Alongside that, the company has quietly raised a debt round in the “tens of millions of dollars” to make strategic investments in new products and potentially other moves.
Oleg Rogynskyy, the founder and CEO, said the layoffs were made not because business has slowed down, but to help the company shore up for whatever may lie ahead.
“We still have several years of runway with what we’ve raised,” he noted (it has raised just under $ 100 million in equity to date). “But no one knows the length of the downturn, so we wanted to make sure we could sustain the business through it.”
Specifically, the company is reducing its international footprint — big European customers that it already has on its books will now be handled from its U.S. offices rather than local outposts — and it is narrowing its scope to focus more on the core verticals that make up the majority of its current customer base.
He gave as an example the financial sector. “We create huge value for financial services industry but have moved the functionality for them out to next year so that we can focus on our currently served industries,” he said.
People.ai’s software tracks the full scope of communication touch points between sales teams and customers, supposedly negating the tedious manual process of activity logging for SDRs. The company’s machine learning tech is also meant to generate the average best way to close a deal — educating customer success teams about where salespeople may be deviating from a proven strategy.
People.ai is one of a number of well-funded tech startups that is making hard choices on business strategy, costs and staffing in the current climate.
Layoffs.fyi, which has been tallying those losing their jobs in the tech industry in the wake of the coronavirus (it’s based primarily on public reports with a view to providing lists of people for hire), says that as of today, there have been nearly 25,000 people laid off from 258 tech startups and other companies. With companies like Opendoor laying off some 600 people earlier this week, the numbers are ratcheting up quickly: just seven days ago, the number was just over 16,000.
In that context, People.ai cutting 30 may be a smaller increment in the bigger picture (even if for the individuals impacted, it’s just as harsh of an outcome). But it also underscores one of the key business themes of the moment.
Some businesses are getting directly hit by the pandemic — for example, house sales and transportation have all but halted, leaving companies in those categories scrambling to figure out how to get through the coming weeks and months and prepare for a potentially long haul of life and consumer and business behavior not looking like it did before January.
But other businesses, like People.ai, which provides predictive sales tools to help salespeople do their jobs better, is (for now at least) falling into that category of IT still in demand, perhaps even more than ever in a shrinking economy. In People.ai’s case, software to help salespeople have better sales conversations and ultimately conversions at a time when many customers might not be as quick to buy things is an idea that sells right now (so to speak).
Rogynskyy noted that more than 90% of customers that are up for renewal this quarter have either renewed or expanded their contracts, and it has been adding new large customers in recent weeks and months.
The company has also just closed a round of debt funding in the “tens of millions” of dollars to use for strategic investments.
It’s not disclosing the lender right now, but it opted for debt in part because it still has most of its most recent round — $ 60 million raised in May 2019 led by Iconic — in the bank. Although investors would have been willing to invest in another equity round, given that the company is in a healthy position right now, Rogynskyy said he preferred the debt option to have the money without the dilution that equity rounds bring.
The money will be used for strategic purposes and considering how to develop the product in the current climate. For example, with most people now working from home, and that looking to be a new kind of “normal” in office life (if not all the time, at least more of the time), that presents a new opportunity to develop products tailored for these remote workers.
There have been some M&A moves in tech in the last couple of weeks, and from what we understand People.ai has been approached as well as a possible buyer, target and partner. All of that for now is not something the company is considering, Rogynskyy said. “We’re focused on our own future growth and health and making sure we are here for a long time.”
Business at Tushy is booming.
While the circumstances that led to the boom are sobering, the bidet company needed to adapt its strategy after seeing an uptick in business amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Other companies in this cohort include video conferencing service Zoom, meal kit service Blue Apron and Facebook, thanks to its social network, video hardware Portal and Oculus Quest VR headset. These companies all have something in common — they offer solutions to problems that, until recently, were not all that urgent.
Founded in 2015 by Thinx founder Miki Agrawal, Tushy aims to replace toilet paper, CEO Jason Ojalvo tells TechCrunch. Ojalvo, who joined the company as CEO in 2018, says North America has been a holdout when it comes to bidets. As a result, the nation flushes about 15 million trees down the toilet every year.
Tushy, which has raised $ 2.9 million since its founding, has been profitable for the last two years. That’s in part thanks to the company’s focus on sustainability — not just from an environmental standpoint, but from a business one, Ojalvo says. That means not over-hiring or spending too much on marketing.
“We’re really careful about doing it in a way so we won’t explode like some other direct-to-consumer companies can do when they raise too much money and they over-hire and then they have to let people go,” Ojalvo says. “That’s just a debacle that I’ve seen first hand and I don’t want to be part of it. Not only do I not want to be part of it but I don’t want to be the leader of the company that does that.”
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Tushy saw its growth double year-over-year. Ojalvo says that’s partly been a result of having customers who evangelize on their behalf. Fast-forward to around March 9, when sales really started to double beyond the norm; a few days later, Tushy was having days where it brought in $ 500,000 in sales.
Goodlord, the London ‘proptech’ startup that offers cloud-based software to help estate agents, landlords and tenants manage the rental process, appears to have achieved somewhat of a turn-around after it fell into difficulty two years ago. Since then the company installed a new CEO and CTO, and raised further funding. Today Goodlord is announcing its next milestone: £10 million in “Series B” funding.
Backing comes from Finch Capital, which led the startup’s previous round (also called a Series B!), and Latitude Ventures, the growth-stage “sister” fund to London seed firm LocalGlobe (another previous investor). Also participating is new investor Oxx Capital, the recently outed SaaS-focused venture capital firm founded by Richard Anton and Mikael Johnsson.
Goodlord says it will use the additional capital to invest in its engineering, product, and customer facing teams. Despite layoffs back in early 2018, the company grew from 47 to 97 employees last year and currently has a number of open positions.
Founded in 2014, unlike other startups in the rental market space that want to essentially destroy traditional brick ‘n mortar letting agents with an online equivalent, Goodlord’s Software-as-a-Service is designed to support all stakeholders, including traditional high-street letting agents, as well as landlords and, of course, tenants. Its SaaS enables letting agents to “digitize” the moving-in process, including utilising e-signatures and collecting rental payments online, while tenants benefit from a tenant dashboard and more transparency.
In a brief call with Goodlord CEO William Reeve, who co-founded LoveFilm and was also a founding director of Zoopla, he revealed that he only initially agreed to step into the role on a temporary basis to steady the ship. However, upon joining, he says he’s been energised by the vision and enthusiasm of the team and the startup’s broader mission of solving problems faced by “generation-rent”.
He says that, as it stands, Goodlord is mostly focused on the transactional element of renting (contracts, payments etc.), but argues (rightly) that this vantage-point provides a host of future opportunities post-move in where more value can be created — and captured. This already includes things like help with switching or setting up utilities, such as broadband, once a tenancy has been signed.
To solve another pain-point for tenants and landlords/agencies, Goodlord has introduced “virtual banking technology” for customers. Provided in partnership with fintech Modulr — a company also used by the likes of Revolut — Goodlord provides each tenant with a dedicated bank account number to pay their rent into. This makes it easier to track payments and accelerate a move-in date since payments don’t need to be reconciled in a central landlord bank account and the whole process is infinitely more transparent.
It’s also a good example of embedded fintech (or evidence backing up the “every company will be a fintech company” thesis recently made popular by venture firm Andreessen Horowitz).
Reeve also tells me that Goodlord is adding value on the landlord side by helping navigate recent regulation in the U.K. that bans tenant fees. By using the SaaS and the processes it has digitised, landlords can ensure they remain compliant.
Lastly, I asked Reeve to provide an example of a big decision he has taken since becoming CEO and he said the biggest changes have been around technology. Not only did Goodlord recruit an experienced CTO — Donovan Frew, formerly CTO of Secret Escapes — but Reeve put into deep freeze a project to entirely re-factor the startup’s software platform, which he saw as unnecessary and not driven by the needs of customers, who, he said, loved the product.
More broadly, he said he’s not a fan of re-factoring for the sake of it or in pursuit of the latest, greatest shiny new tech. Instead, he prefers an “if it isn’t broke don’t fix it” approach, and says that tech decisions should always be to the benefit of customers.
Kidtech startup SuperAwesome raises $17M, with strategic investment from Microsoft’s M12 venture fund
Kidtech startup SuperAwesome has raised an additional $ 17 million in funding, which includes a new strategic investment from Microsoft’s venture fund, M12. Others participating in the round include existing investors Mayfair Equity, Hoxton Ventures and Ibis, along with other angels.
To date, SuperAwesome has raised $ 37 million in outside investment.
SuperAwesome has been tapping into the need for more kid-friendly technology on the web that’s now used just as much by younger children as it is by adults.
“Historically the internet was designed to be used by adults, but now over 40% of new users are kids,” said SuperAwesome CEO Dylan Collins. “We’re in the middle of a structural shift in the composition of the internet that requires investment in privacy and kidtech to support children. This is as big a transition as mobile was for the desktop internet,” he noted.
The company’s platform includes products for kid-safe advertising, social engagement tools, authentication and parental controls. The breadth of this lineup has attracted big-name kids’ brands as customers, including Activision, Hasbro, Mattel, Lego, Cartoon Network, Spin Master, Nintendo, Bandai, WB, Shopkins maker Moose Toys, WPP, Omnicom, Dentsu, Niantic and Wildworks, among others.
Today, the company has more than 300 customers in total.
SuperAwesome’s technology has arrived at a critical time for many working in the kids’ app space, as governments are newly enacting and enforcing a range of kids’ privacy laws like COPPA (the U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule) and GDPR-K in the E.U., as well as other laws in major markets like China, Brazil and India. In the U.S., for example, the FTC has slapped apps like Musical.ly (now TikTok) and YouTube with record fines for violations of children’s privacy regulations.
These changes have been a boon to SuperAwesome, which is now fully profitable and powering more than 12 billion kids’ digital transactions per month. Last year, the company pulled in $ 55 million in revenue and is on track for $ 80 to $ 90 million in revenue in 2020, Collins told TechCrunch.
SuperAwesome and Microsoft aren’t yet talking in detail about how the two companies will be teaming up, following the strategic investment. One thing being discussed by the two, however, are the opportunities around family identity, we’re told. In addition, Microsoft today is focused on both privacy and kids across its products — for example, with its web browser as well as with its educational efforts involving Minecraft, among other things.
“After we spent time with the M12 team and folks in Microsoft, it was clear we shared the same vision of where the internet is going: more kids and more privacy,” Collins said.
“We are proud to welcome the SuperAwesome team to the M12 portfolio. Dylan has cultivated a mission-driven team dedicated to keeping the internet safer for kids—a critical priority for digital-first generations,” said Nagraj Kashyap, Microsoft corporate vice president and global head of M12, in a statement about the funding. “Given Microsoft’s footprint in the identity management space, we’re excited to explore opportunities for partnership with SuperAwesome as well,” Kashyap added.
Xnor.ai, spun off in 2017 from the nonprofit Allen Institute for AI (AI2), has been acquired by Apple for about $ 200 million. A source close to the company corroborated a report this morning from GeekWire to that effect.
Apple confirmed the reports with its standard statement for this sort of quiet acquisition: “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.” (I’ve asked for clarification just in case.)
Xnor.ai began as a process for making machine learning algorithms highly efficient — so efficient that they could run on even the lowest tier of hardware out there, things like embedded electronics in security cameras that use only a modicum of power. Yet using Xnor’s algorithms they could accomplish tasks like object recognition, which in other circumstances might require a powerful processor or connection to the cloud.
CEO Ali Farhadi and his founding team put the company together at AI2 and spun it out just before the organization formally launched its incubator program. It raised $ 2.7M in early 2017 and $ 12M in 2018, both rounds led by Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group, and has steadily grown its local operations and areas of business.
The $ 200M acquisition price is only approximate, the source indicated, but even if the final number were less by half that would be a big return for Madrona and other investors.
The company will likely move to Apple’s Seattle offices; GeekWire, visiting the Xnor.ai offices (in inclement weather, no less), reported that a move was clearly underway. AI2 confirmed that Farhadi is no longer working there, but he will retain his faculty position at the University of Washington.
An acquisition by Apple makes perfect sense when one thinks of how that company has been directing its efforts towards edge computing. With a chip dedicated to executing machine learning workflows in a variety of situations, Apple clearly intends for its devices to operate independent of the cloud for such tasks as facial recognition, natural language processing, and augmented reality. It’s as much for performance as privacy purposes.
Its camera software especially makes extensive use of machine learning algorithms for both capturing and processing images, a compute-heavy task that could potentially be made much lighter with the inclusion of Xnor’s economizing techniques. The future of photography is code, after all — so the more of it you can execute, and the less time and power it takes to do so, the better.
It could also indicate new forays in the smart home, toward which with HomePod Apple has made some tentative steps. But Xnor’s technology is highly adaptable and as such rather difficult to predict as far as what it enables for such a vast company as Apple.
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Facebook is building out its gaming business — earlier this year, the company added its Gaming hub to the main navigation menu. And last month, it agreed to buy Beat Games, developer of popular virtual reality title Beat Saber.
PlayGiga, meanwhile has been working with telcos to create streaming game technology for 5G. It also developed a gaming-as-a-service platform, using Intel’s Visual Cloud platform, that will enable telcos and communication service providers to offer streaming games to their customers.
Earlier this year, TiVo said it was preparing to split itself into two — a product and IP business — in order to make itself more attractive to buyers. Today, the company announced those plans have been put on hold as it has instead merged with technology licensor Xperi Corporation, in a $ 3 billion deal.
Tastebuds (discovered by reverse engineering master Jane Manchun Wong) is designed to let users explore the music taste profiles of their friends. It will live as a navigation option alongside your Library and Home/Browse sections.
In Germany, Uber’s ride-hailing business works exclusively with professional and licensed private-hire vehicle companies — so the court ban essentially outlaws Uber’s current model in the country.
Sending people Snackpass rewards became a new way to flirt or show gratitude at Yale. And through the Venmo-esque Snackpass social feed, users could keep up with a fresh form of gossip while discovering restaurants.
Though China’s payment market today is led by local players, including eWallet providers like AliPay and WeChat Pay, there’s room for PayPal to grow in a market where digital payments per year are counted in the trillions, not billions, of dollars.
A little over a year after sparking a legal firestorm for musing that he would take Tesla private for $ 420, Elon Musk is probably glad he didn’t. (Extra Crunch membership required.)
Seoul and South Korea may well be the secret startup hub that (still) no one talks about.
While often dwarfed by the scale and scope of the Chinese startup market next door, South Korea has proven over the last few years that it can — and will — enter the top-tier of startup hubs.
Case in point: Baedal Minjok (typically shortened to Baemin), one of the country’s leading food delivery apps, announced an acquisition offer by Berlin-based Delivery Hero in a blockbuster $ 4 billion transaction late this week, representing potentially one of the largest exits yet for the Korean startup world.
The transaction faces antitrust review before closing, since Delivery Hero owns Baemin’s largest competitor Yogiyo, and therefore is conditional on regulatory approval. Delivery Hero bought a majority stake in Yogiyo way back in 2014.
What’s been dazzling though is to have witnessed the growth of this hub over the past decade. As TechCrunch’s former foreign correspondent in Seoul five years ago and a university researcher locally at KAIST eight years ago, I’ve been watching the growth of this hub locally and from afar for years now.
While the country remains dominated by its chaebol tech conglomerates — none more important than Samsung — it’s the country’s startup and culture industries that are driving dynamism in this economy. And with money flooding out of the country’s pension funds into the startup world (both locally and internationally), even more opportunities await entrepreneurs willing to slough off traditional big corporate career paths and take the startup route.
Five years ago, Baemin was just an app for chicken delivery with a cutesy and creative interface facing criticism from restaurant franchise owners over fees. Now, its motorbikes are seen all over Seoul, and the company has installed speakers in many restaurants where a catchy whistle and the company’s name are announced every time there is an online delivery order.
(Last week when I was in Seoul, one restaurant seemingly received an order every 1-3 minutes with a “Baedal Minjok Order!” announcement that made eating a quite distracted experience. Amazing product marketing tactic though that I am surprised more U.S.-based food delivery startups haven’t copied yet).
The strengths of the ecosystem remain the same as they have always been. A huge workforce of smart graduates (Korea has one of the highest education rates in the world), plus a high youth unemployment and underemployment rate have driven more and more potential founders down the startup path rather than holding out for professional positions that may never materialize.
What has changed is venture capital funding. It wasn’t so long ago that Korea struggled to get any funding for its startups. Years ago, the government initiated a program to underwrite the creation of venture capital firms focused on the country’s entrepreneurs, simply because there was just no capital to get a startup underway (it was not uncommon among some deals I heard of at the time for a $ 100k seed check to buy almost a majority of a startup’s equity).
Now, Korea has become a startup target for many international funds, including Goldman Sachs and Sequoia. It has also been at the center of many of the developments of blockchain in recent years, with the massive funding boom and crash that market sustained. Altogether, the increased funding has led to a number of unicorn startups — a total of seven according to the The Crunchbase Unicorn Leaderboard.
And the country is just getting started – with a bunch of new startups looking poised to driven toward huge outcomes in the coming years.
Thus, there continues to be a unique opportunity for venture investors who are willing to cross the barriers here and engage. That said, there are challenges to overcome to make the most of the country’s past and future success.
Perhaps the hardest problem is simply getting insight on what is happening locally. While China attracts large contingents of foreign correspondents who cover everything from national security to the country’s startups and economy, Korea’s foreign media coverage basically entails coverage of the funny guy to the North and the occasional odd cultural note. Dedicated startup journalists do exist, but they are unfortunately few and far between and vastly under-resourced compared to the scale of the ecosystem.
Plus, similar to New York City, there are also just a number of different ecosystems that broadly don’t interact with each other. For Korea, it has startups that target the domestic market (which makes up the bulk of its existing unicorns), plus leading companies in industries as diverse as semiconductors, gaming, and music/entertainment. My experience is that these different verticals exist separately from each other not just socially, but also geographically as well, making it hard to combine talent and insights across different industries.
Yet ultimately, as valuations soar in the Valley and other prominent tech hubs, it is the next tier of startup cities that might well offer the best return profiles. For the early investors in Baemin, this was a week to celebrate, perhaps with some fried chicken delivery.