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Hong Kong startup ICW eyes supply chain diversification demand amid trade war

For American importers, finding suppliers these days can be challenging not only due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. The U.S. government’s entity list designations, human rights-related sanctions, among other trade blacklists targeting Chinese firms have also rattled U.S. supply chains.

One young company called International Compliance Workshop, or ICW, is determined to make sourcing easier for companies around the world as it completed a fresh round of funding. The Hong Kong-based startup has just raised $5.75 million as part of its Series A round, boosting its total funding to around $10 million, co-founder and CEO Garry Lam told TechCrunch.

ICW works like a matchmaker for suppliers and buyers, but unlike existing options like Alibaba’s B2B platform or international trade shows, ICW also vets suppliers over compliance, product quality, and accreditation. It gathers all that information into its growing database of over 40,000 suppliers — 80% of which are currently in China — and recommends them to customers based on individual needs.

Founded in 2016, ICW’s current client base includes some of the world’s largest retailers, including Ralph Lauren, Prenatal Retail Group, Blokker, Kmart, and a major American pharmacy chain that declined to be named.

ICW’s latest funding round was led by Infinity Ventures Partners with participation from Integrated Capital and existing investors MindWorks Capital and the Hong Kong government’s $2 billion Innovation and Technology Venture Fund.

Supply chain shift

In line with the ongoing shift of sourcing outside China, in part due to the U.S.-China trade war and China’s growing labor costs, ICW has seen more customers diversifying their supply chains. But the transition has limitations in the short run.

“It’s still very difficult to find suppliers of certain product categories, for example, Bluetooth devices and power banks, in other countries,” observed Lam. “But for garment and textile, the transition already began to happen a decade ago.”

In Southeast Asia, which has been replacing a great deal of Chinese manufacturing activity, each country has its slight specialization. Whereas Vietnam abounds with wooden furniture suppliers, Thailand is known for plastic goods and Malaysia is a good source for medical supplies, said Lam.

When it comes to trickier compliance burdens, such as human rights sanctions, ICW relies on third-party certification institutes to screen and verify suppliers.

“There is a [type of] qualification standard that verifies whether a supplier has fulfilled its corporate social responsibility… like whether the factory fulfills the labor law, the minimum labor rights, or the payroll, everything,” Lam explained.

ICW plans to use the fresh proceeds to further develop its products, including its compliance management system, product testing platform, and B2B sourcing site.


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

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.

The hidden cost of food delivery

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, who 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

Each spoke kitchen puts the final touches on meal 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.”

REEF Technology raises $700M from SoftBank and others to remake parking lots


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Chinese online education app Zuoyebang raises $1.6 billion from investors including Alibaba

The rivalry between China’s top online learning apps has become even more intense this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest company to score a significant funding round is Zuoyebang, which announced today (link in Chinese) that it has raised a $1.6 billion Series E+ from investors including Alibaba Group. Other participants included returning investors Tiger Global Management, SoftBank Vision Fund, Sequoia Capital China and FountainVest Partners.

Zuoyebang’s latest announcement comes just six months after it announced a $750 million Series E led by Tiger Global and FountainVest. The latest financing brings Zuoyebang’s total raised so far to $2.93 billion. The company did not disclose its latest worth, but Reuters reported in September that it was raising at a $10 billion valuation.

One of Zuoyebang’s main competitors is Yuanfudao, which announced in October that it had reached a $15.5 billion valuation after closing a $2.2 billion round led by Tencent. This pushed Yuanfudao ahead of Byju as the world’s most valuable ed-tech company. Another popular online learning app in China is Yiqizuoye, which is backed by Singapore’s Temasek.

Chinese live tutoring app Yuanfudao is now worth $15.5 billion

Zuoyebang offers online courses, live lessons and homework help for kindergarten to 12th grade students, and claims about 170 million monthly active users, about 50 million of whom use the service each day. In comparison, there were about 200 million K-12 students in 2019 in China, according to the Ministry of Education (link in Chinese).

In fall 2020, the total number of students in Zuoyebang’s paid live-stream classes reached more than 10 million, setting an industry record, the company claims. While a lot of the growth was driven by the pandemic, Zuoyebang founder Hou Jianbin said in the company’s funding announcement that it expects online education to continue growing in the longer term, and will invest in K-12 classes and expand its produt categories.

Chinese online learning app Zuoyebang raises $750M

 


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California vegan egg startup Eat Just yokes itself to China’s fast food chain

Eat Just, a food startup from San Francisco making chicken-less eggs, has ambitions to crack the Chinese market where consumer appetite for plant-based food is growing and other Western vegan substitute brands like Beyond became available in recent quarters.

The startup said this week it will be suppling to fast-food chain Dicos, a local rival to McDonald’s and KFC in China. The agreement will see Eat Just add its plant-based eggs to the restaurant’s breakfast items across more than 500 locations. The eggs are derived from a legume called mung beans, which have long been a popular ingredient for soup, noodles and dessert in China.

At Dicos in major Chinese cities, consumers will find Eat Just eggs in breakfast burgers, bagel sandwiches and Western-style breakfast plates. That diversifies the Dicos plant-based menu which already includes a vegan chicken burger supplied by local startup Starfield. Dicos also offers a gateway into China’s low-tier cities where it has built a stronghold and can potentially help evangelize plant-based proteins in communities beyond China’s urban yuppies. The chain operates a total of 2,600 stores in China and serves 600 million customers a year.

Eat Just first entered China in 2019 and currently generates less than 5% of its revenue from the country, Andrew Noyes, head of global communications at Eat Just, told TechCrunch. But over time, the company expects China to account for more than half of its revenue. Ten of its 160 employees are based in China.

Eat Just’s vegan egg recipe / Photo: Eat Just

“We have been intentional about starting small, going slow and hiring people who know the market and understand how to build a sustainable business there. We’ve also been focused on finding the right partners to work with on downstream manufacturing, sales and distribution, and that work continues,” said Noyes.

The partnership with Dicos arrived on the heels of Eat Just’s announcement to set up an Asia subsidiary. The nine-year-old company, formerly Hampton Creek, has raised over $300 million from prominent investors including Li Ka-Shing, Peter Thiel, Bill Gates and Khosla Ventures. It was last valued at $1.2 billion.

Before its tie-up with Dicos, Eat Just had already been selling online in China through Alibaba and JD.com among other retail channels. Its China business is currently growing by 70% year-over-year.

While there’s no shortage of strong competition in the plant-based food race in China, Eat Just claims it’s taken a unique angle by zeroing in on eggs.

“Plant-based meat companies offer products that pair deliciously with Just Egg,” the brand name of the startup’s main product, Noyes noted.

“Plant-based foods are increasing in popularity among Chinese consumers and more sustainable eating is becoming part of a national dialogue about the feeding of the country in the future. China produces about 435 billion eggs per year and demand for protein is increasing.”

Indeed, Euromonitor predicted that China, the world’s largest meat-consuming country, would see its “free from meat” market size grow to $12 billion by 2023, compared to $10 billion in 2018.

Beyond Burger arrives in Alibaba’s grocery stores in China


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Singapore is poised to become Asia’s Silicon Valley

Long established as a global financial center, Singapore also looks set to become the “Silicon Valley of Asia.”

Tencent, ByteDance and Alibaba are reportedly planning regional hubs in the city-state, with ByteDance in particular expected to add hundreds of jobs over the next three years. They will join an international coterie of tech giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Stripe, Salesforce and Grab, that already have headquarters or significant operations, including engineering and R&D centers, in Singapore.

This means startups will have to compete more aggressively for talent. But having a diverse cluster of big tech companies helps the ecosystem by providing more resources, including mentorship and early funding opportunities, say Singapore-based investors. In the long term, the presence of global tech giants, coupled with homegrown unicorns like Grab, Sea (formerly known as Garena) and Trax, may also mean more exit opportunities for startups.

The Singaporean government continues to create new initiatives that make it attractive to tech companies and entrepreneurs.

While the United States-China trade war may have prompted Chinese companies like Tencent and ByteDance to move more of their operations to Singapore, it’s not the only reason, said AppWorks partner Jessica Liu, who oversees the venture firm and accelerator’s programs in Southeast Asia.

Many already had investments in Southeast Asian companies and were eyeing markets there as well, particularly Indonesia. “Some of it is probably due to the trade war over the past two years and other difficulties they’ve faced in the States,” she told Extra Crunch. “Strategically, they also have to find another big market with long-term potential for growth, and I think that’s why they are targeting Southeast Asia.”

Government policy pays off

Proximity to important growth markets isn’t the only reason tech companies find Singapore desirable. Regulations also play a role. Liu said, “The Singaporean government has already done a good job, from a policy and tax perspective, for startups and big tech companies to set up and incorporate in Singapore,” making the country an “intuitive” choice for regional headquarters.

A lot of what makes Singapore attractive to tech companies today can be credited to government initiatives that have been in play for more than a decade, said Kuo-Yi Lim, co-founder and managing partner at early-stage investment firm Monk’s Hill Ventures.

Before Monk’s Hill Ventures, Lim served as chief executive officer of Infocomm Investments from 2010 to 2013. Infocomm Investments is backed by the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) of Singapore, a government agency that is responsible for promoting the IT industry in Singapore.

“One of its explicit mandates was to look at bringing in top-tier tech companies to set up shop in Singapore, and ideally focus on product development activities, in addition to marketing activities like sales,” said Lim. “That’s always been a very explicit part of the government’s strategy to grow the tech industry.”

Over the past few years, companies like Google and Facebook have set up substantial operations in Singapore, along with fast-growing startups like Twilio, which came in after receiving investment from Infocomm.

“That strategy has been in play for almost 10 years, even longer, and I think we’re seeing the fruits of that now, with ByteDance, as well as Tencent, et cetera,” Lim said. “In terms of impact, I would say in general it has been very positive in terms of the vibrancy of the ecosystem, bringing in more depth of talent across multiple functional areas and bringing more richness in the different types of players across different verticals.”

Other factors made Singapore an attractive base for tech companies, including the fact it is a primarily English-speaking country, has a large number of international schools and was already filled with other multinational companies.

Timing was also crucial.

“Between 2010 and 2020, Southeast Asia went through a sea change, a lot of mobile first, which made it more meaningful for companies to set up local operations,” said Lim. “All those dovetailed nicely during that time.”

The Singaporean government continues to create new initiatives that make it attractive to tech companies and entrepreneurs. For example, it recently launched the Singapore Blockchain Innovation Programme (SBIP), with the aim of helping companies commercialize blockchain technology.

Competing for the same talent pool

All this means that the pool of tech talent in Singapore, which has a population of 5.6 million, is in especially high demand. Moving teams of employees to Singapore can be expensive, said Liu, and as a result, many companies have satellite engineering teams in Vietnam, India and Taiwan, especially for front-end engineers.

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Tencent invests in DJI-backed agritech startup FJ Dynamics

Back in 2018, Tencent pledged to put more focus on enterprises as traditional industries in China increasingly tapped technology to boost productivity. The firm’s industrial projects range from using AI to screen medical images to building customer management tools for retailers on its WeChat messenger.

Most recently, Tencent invested in FJ Dynamics, a Chinese startup selling agricultural automation solutions such as smart tractors and rice transplanters as well as unmanned vehicles for ports and factories to clients around the world. The funding from Tencent and other undisclosed investors amounted to “hundreds of millions of yuan” ($1= 6.55 yuan), Tencent said in an announcement on Tuesday

Founded 2017, FJ Dynamics has links to several big-name corporations in China. Among its shareholders are drone maker DJI and Dongfeng Asset Management, a Chinese state-owned automaker, according to the firm’s business registration filing. There are clues in its name, too: FJ is short for “Feng” and “Jiang” in Chinese, which are taken from the Chinese spelling of Dongfeng and DJI respectively. Its founder and chief executive officer Wu Di also hailed from DJI, where he worked as the chief scientist and led research and development in chips.

FJD Affordable and Mass-produced Agri-robots. It is not an expensive demo. They support sustainable business for farmers on earth. The series of FJD smart agri-machines includes tractor, transplanter, harvester,etc.. Learn more: https://t.co/XvMZpBFI7G #AgriRobot #Smartfarm #FJD

— FJ Dynamics (@FJDynamics) February 26, 2020

Interestingly, DJI has also been making a strong push into agricultural drones itself in recent times.

“Our society is turning to improve productivity, which ushers in growth opportunities for enterprise services,” said Jeffrey Li, managing partner of Tencent’s investment unit, at a speech in April. “In the U.S., a considerable amount of venture capital and private equity fundings go towards enterprise-focused companies; but in China, enterprised-focused businesses take up only a small share of deals compared to consumer-facing companies. The pivot to industries takes time.”

Registered in China, FJ Dynamics claims to have R&D centers in China, Sweden, and the Netherlands.


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Esports pioneer Dino Ying talks to TechCrunch about the next phase of VSPN

Following the news that China’s esport giant VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has raised close to $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings, TechCrunch interviewed founder and CEO Dino Ying via email about his strategy for the company.

Founded in 2016 and headquartered in Shanghai, VSPN was one of the early pioneer in esports tournament organization and content creation out of Asia. It has since expanded into other businesses including offline venue operation.

VSPN began hosting the first large-scale esport event with offline audiences in August, although tournaments now operate under strict COVID-19 prevention measures.

TechCrunch: VSPN has a large content production ecosystem surrounding its esports activity. Can you expand on the detail behind your stated short-form video strategy? Will this involve TikTok?

Ying: VSPN intends to use our world-class video production capabilities and industry insights to create different forms of content. We will give our existing fans and a wider audience a new and vivid esports experience. Kuaishou, as our investors and a strategic partner, will support in all ways as a media platform to help our content reach more users. Short-form video is an important part of our future strategy and we look forward to working with platforms all over the world in this regard.

TC: What is VSPN’s share of the eSports market?

Ying: There is no official estimation of the size of the esports market but VSPN is far the largest esports organization in China, with over 1000+ employees and covering every major esports tournament you’ve ever heard of. By many measures, we are the largest esports organization in the world and will continue to expand.

TC: Why do you think Shanghai has become a center for esports?

Ying: As the biggest and perhaps most international city in China, it has a vibrant and increasingly sophisticated economy. Tech innovation and new industries are actively encouraged to grow here.

The Shanghai government has implemented supportive measures and policies to encourage the growth of esports both domestically and internationally. Thanks to these measures Shanghai has become an international hub for the biggest and best tournaments in the world

VSPN events have returned, despite COVID-19

VSPN events have returned, despite COVID-19

TC: How important is research into eSports for VSPN and why?

Ying: It is vital for VSPN. As an esports total solutions provider aiming to build a sustainable global esports ecosystem, data and R&D allows us to give our fans a richer experience. The research center will allow us to continually improve as a company and develop the industry.

TC: You are the cofounder and chairman and CEO by title. What is the role of cofounder Ethan Teng?

Ying: Ethan Teng is Co-founder and president of VSPN. Ethan as one of the most important partners of VSPN, with his dedicated esports industry experience, he plays a vital role in leading and managing the company’s strategic goal setting and day to day management.

TC: What is the nature of the strategic relationship with Tencent?

Ying: VSPN is a key partner of Tencent in the esports industry. With Tencent’s support, VSPN has built a leading position in esports tournament content production. Since the emergence of esports in China, our deep-rooted industry expertise has helped further develop the esports ecosystem to grow and mature. Alongside Tencent we will continue to generate new opportunities within the industry.

TC: What made you choose these partners and why? What was the strategic thinking behind these decisions?

Ying: Together with Kuaishou, VSPN aims to establish an esports short-form video ecosystem to diversify existing content, and to build the connections between top quality creators and channels. With an extensive portfolio in the consumer and TMT sectors, both Tiantu Capital and SIG will utilize their industry insights and expertise to aid VSPN’s strategic development. With our investors, we will empower esports to be the new sports for the next generation.

TC: In addition to the core esports tournament and content production business, VSPN has branded esports venues. How important are these other businesses – like the venues – to the core offering of VSPN? What sort of growth do you expect in the next few years?

Ying: Regardless of business lines, VSPN’s core mission is to provide the best eSports experiences for our fans. And these experiences include not just online viewing experiences, but also offline ones where fans physically attend. We see our offline business as a natural way to extend our services to our fans; it is an important supplement to our overall offerings. We expect to grow it per our fans’ and partner’s demands.

TC: Mobile esports, especially the KPL and PUBG MOBILE (or Peacekeeper Elite in China), have attracted more and more female audiences. What is the future of eSports among women / girls?
Ying: Mobile gaming has really helped extend eSports’ reach to female participants and audiences. Rightfully so, we see a future of eSports where female participants take a more prominent role than they have done. Not just on stage as athletes, but also off stage as fans and more importantly backstage as top quality producers and decision-makers in the industry. The impact of having more female fans, athletes and professionals is exciting and will be hugely beneficial to the wider industry.

TC: What is the future of esports in Augmented Reality?

Ying: We think eSports in its full form will look and feel a lot different from what we’ve seen so far in sports and entertainment. The possibility of integrating real world gaming and virtual competitions is fascinating. VSPN is only beginning to test the boundaries of new technologies such as AR, VR. The emergence of these technologies will help us create fresher experiences, and the possibilities are endless.

VSPN headquarters

VSPN headquarters

TC: Please tell us more about your personal history?

Ying: Firstly, thank you for having me – it is a real pleasure to speak to TechCrunch and be able to announce our fundraise to the world. I have been working in the gaming and esports industry all my life and I’m excited about the future. With the team at VSPN we are proud to be pioneers in the esports industry.

I live between Beijing and Shanghai, but I spend a lot of my time travelling to other Chinese cities like Xi’an, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Shenzhen where we have esports arenas and business interests. Usually I travel internationally to some of our overseas operations and competitions, so I look forward to that when travel becomes easier.

I am a fan of traditional sports too and an avid football fan. I follow some of the European leagues – whenever I can, I go to matches to enjoy the atmosphere; I went to Stamford Bridge early this year and loved it, but seeing the AC vs Inter Derby live is hard to beat…

TC: Why did you get into this business and how?

Ying: Mostly because I am a HUGE gaming fan! I’ve been playing computer games since I was a teenager and enjoy playing all types. Earlier this year I played COD Warzone as soon as it came out and often play PUBG Mobile; I’m extremely lucky to be in an industry which I’ve loved since I was very young. It’s a great way to connect with friends and I am proud to have worked in game development and publishing for my whole career. 5 years ago, esports seemed like the obvious next step because of the competitive element. We saw the beginnings of a trend and founded VSPN with a world-class team to make that potential a reality.

VSPN is very proud to be leading the world in a relatively new industry. We think esports will continue to grow exponentially and will be an incredibly important part of the entertainment industry in years to come. To lead a Chinese company with a global future is really exciting.

TC: What motivates you as a businessman?

Ying: Bringing new forms of entertainment to millions of people around the world and building a global business.

TC: Who inspires you most in the business world?

There are so many fantastic businessmen in China who are doing some really innovative things at the moment. For example, the live-streaming industry has become enormous in 2020 due to the pandemic and has offered entrepreneurs a new way to sell products and engage with new audiences.

If I had to name one it would be Mark Ren (COO at Tencent Holdings) – he is an exceptional businessman. The way he has helped create sustainable ecosystems in the entertainment space and captured trends is something every businessman should aspire to. This is something VSPN works hard at and we are very proud to be such close partners of Tencent.

TC: What is your opinion of Silicon Valley?

Ying: It’s an amazing place and has shown the world how technology can improve lives all over the world. For many years it has led the world as a centre for creativity and innovation and continues to be an inspiration to entrepreneurs around the world. In China, we have lots of Silicon Valleys!

TC: Is there anything else you’d like to say to TechCrunch readers?

Ying: This has been a challenging year for many businesses and the esports industry has had to adapt, but I think the world has seen how big esports is and how it can bring communities and cultures together. As the industry grows there will bigger and bigger online and offline tournaments across the world, especially with 5G and mobile gaming becoming even more popular. We look forward to being at the forefront of esports for competitors all over the world and hopefully some of your readers will enjoy watching our original content and tournaments.

Finally, with celebrities and big brands seeing live streaming and casual gaming as a new way to engage with a wider audience, the future for VSPN is very, very bright.


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Tencent leads $100M Series B funding round into China-based esport provider VSPN

Further confirmation that the esports market is booming amid the pandemic comes today with the news that esports ‘total solutions provider’ VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has raised what it describes as ‘close to’ $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings . Other investors that participated in the round include Tiantu Capital, SIG (Susquehanna International Group), and Kuaishou. The funding round will go towards improving esports products and its ecosystem in China and across Asia.

Founded in 2016 and headquartered in Shanghai, VSPN was one of the early pioneers in esports tournament organization and content creation out of Asia. It has since expanded into other businesses including offline venue operation.

In a statement, Dino Ying, CEO of VSPN (see also our exclusive interview) said: “We are delighted to announce this latest round of funding. Thanks to policies supporting Shanghai as the global center for esports, and with Beijing, Chengdu, and Xi’an expressing confidence in the development of esports, VSPN has grown rapidly in recent years. After this funding round, we look forward to building an esports research institute, an esports culture park, and further expanding globally. VSPN has a long-term vision and is dedicated to the sustainable development of the global esports ecosystem.”

Dino Ying, VSPN CEO

Dino Ying, VSPN CEO

Mars Hou, general manager of Tencent Esports, commented: “VSPN’s long-term company vision and leading position in esports production are vital for Tencent to optimize the layout of the esports industry’s development.”

We had a hint that Tencent might invest in VSPN when, in March this year, Mark Ren, COO of Tencent Holdings, made a public statement that Tencent would provide more high-quality esports competitions in conjunction with tournament organizers like VSPN.

As we observed in August, Tencent, already the world’s biggest games publisher, that it would consolidate Douyu and Huya, the previously competing live-streaming sites focused on video games.

In other words, Tencent’s investment into VSPN shows it is once again doubling-down on the esports market.

This Series B funding round comes four years after VSPN’s 2016 Series A funding round, which was led by Focus Media Network, joined by China Jianteng Sports Industry Fund, Guangdian Capital, and Averest Capital.

With stadiums closed, TV networks turn to live esports broadcasts

Indian mobile gaming platform Mobile Premier League raises $90 million

Now, VSPN has become the principal tournament organizer and broadcaster for PUBG MOBILE international competitions, and China’s top competitions for Honor of Kings, PUBG, Peacekeeper Elite, CrossFire, FIFA, QQ Speed, and Clash Royale. This will tally-up 12,000 hours of original content. The company has partnered with over 70% of China’s esports tournaments.

In March, another huge esports player, ESL, joined forces with Tencent to become a part of the PUBG Mobile esports circuit for 2020.

In addition to its core esports tournament and content production business, VSPN has branded esports venues in Chengdu, Xi’an, and Shanghai. In May, VSPN launched its first overseas venue, V. SPACE in Seoul, South Korea.

And even offline events are coming back. VSPN hosted the first large-scale esport event with offline audiences in August this year. And the LOL S10 event will open 6,000 tickets. However, all tournaments will operate under strict COVID-19 prevention measures and approval processes by the Chinese government, and not all esports events are allowing offline audiences. In the main, only high-level ones are approved.

VSPN said it will continue to focus on building an esports short-form video ecosystem, improving the quality of esports content creation, and reaching more users via different channels. VSPN currently houses more than 1,000 employees in five business divisions.

Tencent wants to merge China’s esports archrivals Douyu and Huya

How FaZe Clan is continuing to lead the esports world


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Japanese startup Nature launches Remo 3, its home appliance smart remote, in the U.S. and Canada

Nature, a Japanese hardware startup that focuses on IoT home devices, announced the launch Remo 3, its home appliance smart remote, in the United States and Canada today. Priced at $129, the Bluetooth-enabled Remo 3 allows people to control multiple appliances that uses an infrared remote, including air conditioners, TVs, robot vacuum cleaners and fans, with their smartphones or smart speakers.

Nature claims that its Remo series is Japan’s top smart remote, with over 200,000 units sold so far. The Remo 3, designed to be mounted on a wall, also has sensors for temperature, humidity, lighting and movement, allowing users to create customized settings for when they want devices to turn on or shut off. Remo 3’s app also has a GPS location feature, so appliances can turn on automatically as users get closer to their homes.

As COVID-19 forces people to spend more time at home than usual, many are embarking on home improvement projects.

Even though people may be reluctant to purchase new appliances because of the economic downturn, relatively inexpensive products like the Remo 3 may still attract buyers because it can help reduce energy consumed by devices they already own. The Remo 3 also adds another layer of functionality to smart speakers and before the pandemic, global smart speaker sales hit a record high last year with 146.9 million units shipped. The Remo 3 is compatible with Amazon smart speakers like the Echo Dot, as well as Google Home and Apple HomePod speakers.

Nature founder and chief executive Haruumi Shiode told TechCrunch that Nature conducted a pilot with Kansai Electric, one of the largest utility providers in Japan, to prove that it can lower the amount of electricity used by air conditioners. He added that the pandemic actually accelerated sales of Nature Remo devices in Japan and prompted the company’s decision to launch in the U.S.

The COVID-19 pandemic made mass-producing the Remo 3 more challenging because Nature’s team was no longer able to make monthly trips to Shenzhen, Shiode said. But the Remo 3 is the sixth product Nature has launched so far, so it was able to figure out how to work with factories remotely on production and quality assurance.

“I read that since the pandemic started, 70% of Americans are tackling home improvement projects,” Shiode added. “Similarly, people around the world have been looking for ways to make their shelter-in-place less mundane and more convenient. With the Nature Remo 3, we hope to offer the same convenience and efficiencies to the American market as we have in Japan.”


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China tops 110 million 5G users in less than a year

Over 110 million users in China have signed up for 5G plans, announced president of the China Academy for Information and Communications Technology (CAICT), a think tank under the telecoms watchdog Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, at an industry event on Wednesday.

That makes China the largest 5G market in terms of user size, the think tank president said. The milestone came in less than a year after China’s top carriers rolled out  5G plans for consumers, and just over a year after the authority began issuing 5G licenses for commercial use.

The number is still a small fraction of the overall subscription. In June, China’s three state-run carriers collectively commanded some 1.6 billion mobile subscribers (suggesting China’s 1.4 billion population owned over one mobile device per capita).

China’s 5G ambition is a multi-pronged effort among the government, network carriers, telecoms equipment makers, device makers, and software developers. Policymakers need to show consumers visible improvement on network speed, and as such the carriers have been aggressively setting up 5G base stations across the country — more than 460,000 towers by July.

China was adding an average of 15,000 new 5G base stations every week, said an official in July. The government has plans to raise that number to 600,000 by the end of 2020, covering all prefectural-level cities nationwide. A clear winner in China’s 5G push is Huawei, which makes both 5G devices and the infrastructure that undergirds the next-gen network.

In the meantime, Huawei, Oppo, Xiaomi and their rivals are rushing to launch 5G compatible handsets. China has sold over 93 million units of 5G mobile phones this year so far, according to recent data released by CAICT. 5G phones accounted for 60% of total shipments in August.

China’s rapid shift to 5G is also driving the need for new hardware parts like integrated circuits. The country produced over 100 billion units of ICs during the first half of 2020, representing a 16.4% year-over-year gain, said an industry official in July, adding that much of the demand came from 5G-related projects.


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