Sequoia reveals first cohort for its ‘Surge’ accelerator program in India and Southeast Asia

Back in January, Sequoia India announced plans for its first early-stage startup accelerator program in India and Southeast Asia, and today the firm revealed the first cohort of 17 startups.

To recap, the program — which is called Surge — gives each startup a $1.5 million check and participation in a four-month program that’s split across India and Singapore, as well as the wider Sequoia global presence in China and San Francisco.

The program kicked off last month, but the startups were only unveiled for the first time today — here they are:

  • Azani Sports: a ‘full stack’ sports clothing startup based in India that sells online and through selected high street retails
  • Bobobox: a capsule hotel company based in Indonesia
  • Bulbul: a live-streaming service with a focus on e-commerce across India
  • DancingMind: a Singapore startup that uses VR to enable remote for stroke victims and patients of debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s
  • Doubtnut: an India-based education startup that uses photos, videos and AI
  • Flynote: a travel booking service with a focus on personalized trips
  • Hippo Video: a platform developing, editing and analyzing marketing and sales videos
  • InterviewBit Academy: a computer science training and development platform in India — that’s not unlike recent Y Combinator graduate Skill-Lync
  • Khatabook: an accounting service for SMEs in India that already claims 120,000 weekly users
  • Qoala: a micro-insurance startup based in Indonesia, which competes with rivals like PasarPolis — which is backed by three of Indonesia’s unicorns
  • ShopUp: a social commerce startup that helps sellers in Bangladesh do business through Facebook — that’s a similar concept to established Indian startups Meesho (another YC alum) and LimeRoad which enable sellers on WhatsApp
  • Skillmatics: a startup headquartered in India that develops learning games for pre-school and primary school kids aged under 10
  • Telio: a b2b commerce platform that aims to digitize the process of brands and wholesalers selling to retailers
  • Uiza: a Singapore-Vietnam startup that lets publishers and companies develop their own video infrastructure independent of platforms like YouTube
  • Vybes: an e-commerce platform for social media influencers that’s based out of Singapore
  • Zenyum: a startup that provides invisible braces for consumers in Southeast Asia at a lower cost than traditional alternatives

There’s one additional startup which is being kept ‘under the radar’ for now, Sequoia said.

Sequoia India managing director Shailendra Singh previously told TechCrunch that Surge would support a ‘curated’ selections of fellow VCs who could invest alongside in the cohort alongside the firm, and Sequoia said that the 17 startups have attracted a total of $36 million in investment. A spokesperson also pointed out that five of the selection have at least one female co-founders, which is almost certainly above average for the region although it is tricky to get reliable data covering India and (in particular) Southeast Asia.

Surge is an interesting effort for Sequoia, which has traditionally played in post-seed and growth stages of the investment cycle. Sequoia closed its most recent fund for India and Southeast Asia at $695 million last year, and it also has access to a globally active ‘growth’ fund that is targeted at $8 billion. Reports have suggested that Surge will get its own sparkling new $200 million fund, which would make a lot of sense given the potential conflict and confusion of investing via its main fund. But the firm is declining to comment on that possibility for now.

One major addition to the program that has been confirmed, however, is Rajan Anandan, the executive who previously ran Google’s business in India and Southeast Asia and is a well-known angel investor. His arrival was announced earlier this month and he will lead the Surge initiative.

His recruitment is a major win for Sequoia, which is betting that Surge’s early stage push will reap it richer dividends in India and Southeast Asia. That part remains to be seen, but certainly, there is a dearth of early-stage programs in both regions compared to other parts of the world.

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Industrial robotics giant Fanuc is using AI to make automation even more automated

Industrial automation is already streamlining the manufacturing process, but first those machines must be painstakingly trained by skilled engineers. Industrial robotics giant Fanuc wants to make robots easier to train, therefore making automation more accessible to a wider range of industries, including pharmaceuticals. The company announced a new artificial intelligence-based tool at TechCrunch’s Robotics/AI Sessions event today that teaches robots how to pick the right objects out of a bin with simple annotations and sensor technology, reducing the training process by hours.

Bin-picking is exactly what it sounds like: a robot arm is trained to pick items out of bins and used for tedious, time-consuming tasks like sorting bulk orders of parts. Images of example parts are taken with a camera for the robot to match with vision sensors. Then the conventional process of training bin-picking robots means teaching it many rules so it knows what parts to pick up.

“Making these rules in the past meant having to through a lot of iterations and trial and error. It took time and was very cumbersome,” said Dr. Kiyonori Inaba, the head of Fanuc Corporation’s Robot Business Division, during a conversation ahead of the event.

These rules include details like how to locate the parts on the top of the pile or which ones are the most visible. Then after that, human operators need to tell it when it makes an error in order to refine its training. In industries that are relatively new to automation, finding enough engineers and skilled human operators to train robots can be challenging.

This is where Fanuc’s new AI-based tool comes in. It simplifies the training process so the human operator just needs to look at a photo of parts jumbled in a bin on a screen and tap a few examples of what needs to be picked up, like showing a small child how to sort toys. This is significantly less training than what typical AI-based vision sensors need and can also be used to train several robots at once.

“It is really difficult for the human operator to show the robot how to move in the same way the operator moves things,” said Inaba. “But by utilizing AI technology, the operator can teach the robot more intuitively than conventional methods.” He adds that the technology is still in its early stages and it remains to be seen if it can be used during in assembly as well.

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Amazon China to close local marketplace and place more focus on cross-border

Amazon has finally given up the fight with Chinese online shopping giants to capture the domestic market. On Thursday, the Seattle-based ecommerce company announced it will shut down its marketplace on Amazon.cn, which connects mainland Chinese buyers and sellers, while other units of its local venture will stay intact.

“We are working closely with our sellers to ensure a smooth transition and to continue to deliver the best customer experience possible,” an Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch, adding that this segment of the business will end on July 18.

The partial retreat, first reported by Reuters and Bloomberg, is indicative of the relentless ecommerce race in China where Alibaba and JD.com dominate, with newcomer Pinduoduo closing on the incumbents’ heels.

But this is hardly the end of Amazon’s China story. The American giant has over the years attracted waves of cross-border sellers, many of whom have hailed from China’s traditional export industry looking to sell cheaply manufactured goods to consumers around the world for lucrative margins. To date, Chinese export suppliers are able to sell to 12 countries that include India, Japan, Australia, Canada, the United States, and five Western European countries.

Other global ecommerce players also have their eyes set on the massive raft of goods flowing out of China, though each comes with a different geographic focus. Alibaba-backed Lazada, for example, is the bridge between Chinese merchants and Southeast Asian shoppers, while Jumia, which just listed in the U.S., exports from China to Africa.

“The biggest appeal [of exporting through Amazon] is the low costs because we are close to a lot of supply chain resources,” a Shenzhen-based vendor selling water-resistant placemats on Amazon told TechCrunch.

In the meantime, China has developed a big craving for imported goods as middle-class consumers now demand higher quality products. Amazon is in the import business, too, although it lags far behind more entrenched players such as Alibaba, of which Tmall Global takes the lead with 29 percent market share in the cross-border ecommerce space according to data from iResearch, dwarfing Amazon’s 6 percent.

That could change if Amazon finds a prominent local partner. Rumors have swirled for months that Amazon was reportedly in talks to merge its import unit with Kaola, the cross-border shopping business run by Chinese internet giant Netease with a 22.6 percent market share.

Not to be forgotten, Amazon also offers cloud computing services to Chinese enterprises although, in this space, it’s again in a direct face-off with Alibaba Cloud, the dominant player in China. Lastly, China remains the largest market for Kindle, so pivotal that the e-reader launched a localized model just for China.

“Over the past few years, we have been evolving our China online retail business to increasingly emphasize cross-border sales, and in return we’ve seen very strong response from Chinese customers,” said the Amazon spokesperson. “Amazon’s commitment to China remains strong—we have built a solid foundation here in a number of successful businesses and we will continue to invest and grow in China across Amazon Global Store, Global Selling, AWS, Kindle devices and content.”

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Starbucks challenger Luckin’s fundraising spree continues with $150M investment

Coffee startup Luckin is continuing its fundraising spree as it sets its sight on becoming an alternative to Starbucks in China.

The a-year-and-a-half old company announced on Thursday that it closed a Series B-plus raise totaling $150 million. The fresh proceeds valued Luckin at $2.9 billion post-money, up from $2.2 billion just four months ago.

While many question Luckin’s cash-fueled expansion, Blackrock, which owns a 6.58 percent stake in Starbucks, shows its confidence in the Chinese startup by pumping $125 million through its private equity fund into Luckin’s new round.

With that, the New York-based investment firm has its bet on two contrasting models for China’s coffee consumption. While Starbucks zeroes in on the brick-and-mortar experience, Luckin is a network of last-mile coffee delivery centers plus places for people to pick up orders and sit down targeting busy white-collar workers.

In a move that would amp up its battle with Luckin, Starbucks teamed up with Alibaba’s food delivery unit Ele.me last August to put hot and cold drinks in people’s hands.

Luckin did not disclose how it will spend the fresh capital infusion, but the pace at which it’s raising suggests the startup is in dire need of cash. The new round arrived less than a year after it secured a $200 million Series A in July and another $200 million from a Series B in December.

Indeed, Luckin founder Qian Zhiya, a former executive at auto rental firm Car Inc, confessed the company burned through $150 million within just six months from launching. A big chunk of money had gone to shelling out deep discounts for consumers, while the coffee challenger’s offline expansion was as cash-intensive.

As of late, Luckin has opened 2,000 outlets consisting of small prep kitchens, pickup stations and cafes in 22 Chinese cities, up from 1,700 locations reached in December. That gives Luckin less than eight months to fulfill its ambition of becoming the “biggest coffee chain in China by the number of outlets run and cups sold.” The goal is to top 4,500 outlets by the end of 2019.

Starbucks, which made its foray into China 20 years ago, has also been aggressively putting up storefronts. It currently runs 3,600 stores across 150 cities in China, up from 3,300 last May.

When it comes to actual people using the service, Starbucks still enjoys a huge lead. The Luckin app that allows one to order and pay has 650 thousand unique downloads in March, data from research firm iResearch shows. Starbucks’s app is more than four times its size with 2.81 million unique downloads from the same period.

Other investors who joined in on Luckin’s latest round included existing backers such as Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC, Chinese government-controlled China International Capital Corporation, Dazheng Capital and Joy Capital, whose founding partner Liu Erhai sits on Luckin’s board.

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Consumers get another digital home health offering as Tyto Care and Best Buy launch TytoHome

Best Buy is partnering with the Israeli technology Tyto Care to become the official retailer for the company’s all-in-one digital diagnostics kit through its physical stores in California, the Dakotas, Ohio and Minnesota and through its online store.

Tyto previously sold its technology through healthcare plans, making its handheld examination device with attachments that act as a thermometer, a stethoscope, an otoscope and a tongue depressor available to families with insurance that wanted to reduce the cost of checkups through remote monitoring. The company’s handheld device comes with an exam camera so it can prompt users on where to position the device to get the most accurate readings.

Now, through Best Buy, consumers can buy the company’s kit for $299.99. Through a partnership with American Well, users of the TytoHome kit have access to the company’s LiveHealth Online consultation service (if they live outside of Minnesota or the Dakotas). Which means patients can use the device to perform a medical exam and send the information to a physician for a diagnosis any time of the day or night.

As part of the deal, Tyto Care is partnering with additional regional health care systems to provide medical care to consumers throughout the country. The first is Sanford Health, a Minnesota-based not-for-profit health system operating in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. 

For Best Buy the move builds on the company’s attempts to move quickly into providing digital healthcare services just like it provides technical support through its Geek Squad.

Last year the company bought GreatCall, which sells connected health and emergency response services to the AARP crowd.

“We’re excited to partner with Best Buy, LiveHealth Online, American Well and regional health systems to extend our on-demand telehealth platform across the U.S., enhancing primary care delivery,” said Dedi Gilad, the chief executive and co-founder of Tyto Care, in a statement.

The company, based in Herzliya, Israel, has raised $56.7 million to date from investors including Sanford Health, the Japanese Itochu Corp., Shenzhen Capital Group, Ping An, LionBird, Fosun Group, Orbimed and Walgreens.

The company said at the time that it would use the cash to expand in the U.S. and to other international markets in Asia and Europe.

“These strategic partnerships will enable us to gain further momentum and accelerate our growth, deepening our foothold in the U.S. and other new strategic markets,” said GiladTyto Care said in a statement at the time.

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