Atomicwork connects workers and their companies

Sometimes the work of having a job takes time away from work. Tasks like asking for leave, filing tech requests and checking company policy also result in a lot of administrative work for HR and IT department, especially companies with remote or hybrid work models. Atomicwork wants to help with an AI assistant that automates […]

Backed by Peak XV and Jungle, Neurowyzr puts the focus on brain health

The rate of dementia is expected to double every 20 years, but many tools for early detection, like MRI scans, are difficult for patients to access. Neurowyzr wants to help more people get brain healthcare through tools like its online Digital Brain Function Screen (DBFS). The startup, which has offices in Singapore and India, announced today it has raised $2.1 million in seed funding. The oversubscribed round was led by Jungle Ventures and Peak XV’s (formerly Sequoia India and Southeast Asia) Surge program, with participation from angel investors.

Neurowyzr has now raised $3.3 million since it was founded in 2019 by Nav Vij and Pang Sze Yunn. It will participate in 2023 Medtech Innovator Asia Pacific, the world’s largest medtech accelerator program.

Vij, Neurowyzr’s chief digital neuroscientist, became interested in early brain decline and related therapies while studying for his neuroscience degree at the University of Melbourne. One of his family members was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease at a young age, which motivated Vij to remove obstacles to brain healthcare. Pang, who has worked on pioneering health initiatives including Asia’s first heart failure monitoring project, got interested in brain healthcare because she saw the impact brain conditions can have on family members, especially women caregivers.

Pang told TechCrunch that a lot of work in neurology currently focuses on treatment for serious brain conditions. But brain decline can start 20 to 40 years before a condition like dementia, mental illness or stroke emerges. As a result, early detection is crucial.

Neurowyzr co-founders Pang Sze Yunn (CEO) and Nav Vij (chief digital neuroscientist)

Neurowyzr co-founders Pang Sze Yunn (CEO) and Nav Vij (chief digital neuroscientist)

Traditional brain tests like pen-and-paper tests can be affected by tester bias, while MRI and CT scans are expensive and inaccessible to many patients. Neurowyzr wants to address the gap with its digital neuroscience assessment tool, the Digital Brain Function Screen (DBFS). Meant to be faster and less costly than traditional cognitive testing. DBFS is currently used by healthcare organizations like Parkway Shenton, SATA Commhealth, Farrer Park Hospital, MHC Medical Centre (Amara) and O’Joy in Singapore. It has also completed a pilot with a large private hospital chain in India and is registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Singapore Health Sciences Authority and Australia Therapeutic Goods Administration.

Pang said the DBFS can be completed in 15 to 20 minutes. It assesses a patient’s immediate memory, working memory, attention and executive brain function through a series of gamified neuroscience puzzles. For example, one puzzle has dots with a number on each scattered across the screen, and asks the users to connect them in order. Another shows a series of numbers that users need to memorize and then write in order. DBFS is hosted online, so patients can access it through a web browser link at home, though it was designed for primary care settings.

Neurowyzr’s new funding will be used on product development and regional expansion in Southeast Asia and India. The startup is currently working with academic organizations like the NTU Lee Kong Chian School Medicine’s Dementia Research Centre to develop more digital brain health solutions, with the goal of decreasing undetected cases of early brain decline.

In a statement, Jungle Ventures healthcare partner Seemant Jauhari said, “Projected numbers tell a stark story for Asia: over the next two decades, more than 66 million individuals could face dementia, while mild cognitive impairment could affect over 400 million. Neurowyzr is a direct response to this challenge. By assessing brain and mental health promptly, we’re building a proactive defense against potential epidemic.”

Crypto lender Maple Finance raises $5M to enter Asia amid regulatory clarity

Maple Finance, an on-chain, institutional credit marketplace that’s aspiring to fill a gap left behind by the collapses of crypto lending heavyweights like BlockFi and Celcius, has its sight set on Asia as financial hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore provide more regulatory clarity around digital assets.

Maple, which falls under the so-called decentralized finance or DeFi category, differs from centralized finance or CeFi platforms like BlockFi in that it allows lenders to see loan operations on the blockchain, promising to offer more transparency. Cumulatively, the three-year-old startup has issued $2.2 billion in loans and currently, it has around $50 million deposited on the platform.

To fuel its expansion eastward, Maple recently closed a $5 million strategic investment from a group of crypto-focused investors. The round was led by Blocktower Capital and Tioga Capital, with participation from Cherry Ventures, Spartan Capital, GSR Ventures, and Veris Ventures, as well as past investors Maven 11 and Framework Ventures.

“In Asia, you have regulatory clarity, or rather, regulatory support, both coming out of Hong Kong and Singapore in terms of new legislation that’s come through, and you already have a very heavy trading focus over there,” Sidney Powell, co-founder and CEO at Maple, told TechCrunch.

While Maple’s two-dozen employees are spread mostly across Western Europe and North America, a number of its major borrowers have come from Hong Kong and Singapore.

“A lot of the more bullish trading activity that occurs in terms of like Bitcoin price movement was largely driven by trading activity that was coming out of the Asia time zone, based on the times that the trading was occurring, so I see a really big opportunity to get more active there on the ground,” the founder said, adding that Maple plans to add its first headcount in the region.

DeFi’s promise

The “DeFi summer” of 2021, which saw a spike of retail investor interest in financial products built on Ethereum smart contracts, “engendered a lot of speculation,” Powell admitted, but he argued that yield farming, which allows users to earn high yields by providing liquidity to DeFi protocols, “also got the space going.” Now that the crypto market has cooled down significantly, 2023 is the year that DeFi “needs to prove out the use case,” he said.

Notably, decentralized lending platforms have promised to bring more financial inclusivity to small and medium enterprises by allowing them to access undercollateralized loans. The idea is commendable, but a few backlashes in the industry has prompted a reckoning of these platforms’ design shortcomings.

Goldfinch, a DeFi protocol extending loans to real-world businesses, faced a major loan default after a Kenyan motorcycle company recently breached its loan agreement. Maple had its own setback after several borrowers missed payments following the FTX implosion, leading to a temporary suspension of its lending pools on Solana, an Ethereum challenger seen as having close ties with FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried.

Maple started as a credit marketplace connecting institutional lenders and borrowers, but it has recently rolled out its own direct lending business, offering loans that are overcollateralized and secured by Bitcoin, Ether, and staked Ether collateral.

“Other players try to focus on just trying to build the technology, kind of like Uber and Airbnb. What we’ve tried to do is to act as an underwriter so we need to show credit expertise. I think it gives us a little bit more control over the outcome and it’s a little bit closer to Apple in that it’s more vertically integrated,” said Powell, explaining Maple’s decision to launch its own lending arm.

“I think now is the time to do that because all the other competition exited, and so that’s created this opportunity for us to step in and offer a product,” he continued. “But that product has to be improved upon what they did. With those players, you couldn’t see how the loans were performing; but when I post a loan on the blockchain you can always see how it’s performing, so I can never lie to you that our loan book is performing when it’s not.”

Real-world assets

Maple is also working on diversifying its customer base. In the early days, many of its borrowers were market makers that provided liquidity to crypto exchanges. As trading volume remains low during the market downturn, the lending platform is now touting safer products, such as tokenized treasury bills, or T-bills, to those who want low-risk interest rates.

“That appeals to startups who might have done a seed or a Series A funding round because they just want to put their funds somewhere that’s going to be relatively safe and know that they can get it back at short notice,” explained Powell.

Meanwhile, Maple has plans to offer trade finance to real-world companies, like a traditional trading business that needs a loan to fund its shipment of a commodity overseas. This new direction, Powell said, “ties in quite nicely” with its expansion in Asia, particularly major shipping hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore.

“Import and export businesses are something that we could potentially fund a lending pool for on Maple. Already, we’ve been pitched a few trade finance deals and so establishing business relationships on the ground in Singapore and Hong Kong is something that I hope to do,” said the founder.

Solar AI wants to make solar power more accessible in Southeast Asia

High energy prices are leading to a solar boom across the world, but in Singapore, many home owners are still hesitant to install solar panels because of the high cost, says Bolong Chew, the founder of Solar AI Technologies. The startup wants to make solar energy more accessible in Southeast Asia with a rent-to-own model that helps customers start saving on their energy bills from the start. It recently raised $1.5 million in seed funding, led by Earth Venture Capital with participation from Undivided Ventures, Investible and climate-tech angel investor David Pardo.

Solar AI was launched three years ago and incubated through Engie Factory, the venture arm of French utility company Engie Group. Chew, who founded the company along with Gérald Chablowski and Luke Ong, said the team realized that one of the barriers to rooftop solar adoption in Southeast Asia is lack of trust and awareness, since significant upfront costs have led to low adoption. As a result, most people don’t know anyone who has already installed a solar system, despite the rising cost of electricity, and the penetration rate of solar systems is still less than 1%.

“The traditional pitch for a rooftop solar system is that you pay $15,000 to $20,000 upfront for it, break even after about seven to eight years and get free electricity for another 20 years,” said Chew. “But when most people don’t know someone who’s already had a solar system for two or three years already, it’s very difficult for customers to take that leap of faith and move ahead. Ultimately, the rental model is a way for us to de-risk solar ownership for these customers.”

Solar AI offers three plans, including a five year plan with 50% down payments, a 10 year plan with zero upfront costs and a traditional upfront purchase. Monthly fees for the rent-to-own plans are about $200 a month, compared to average electricity bills of $250 a month. Chew says this means customers can start saving $50 a month on their energy costs as soon as they get a solar system installed. Excess solar energy generated is exported to the grid and users get paid for it by the grid operator. In Singapore, that is SP Group, which pays customers directly for excess energy regardless of what electricity retailer they use. Solar AI also covers maintenance and warranty costs during the contract period.

Solar AI is currently serving more than 100 customers, and says it has surpassed $3 million SGD on signed rooftop solar contracts.

The rent-to-own model is already prevalent in the United States and Europe, but Solar AI is the first company to offer it in Singapore. When launching the business model, Chew says the team “asked ourselves, are we really ahead of our time or just stupid?” They spoke with traditional industry players who advised the team against rent-to-own from a unit economics perspective. While large-scale rooftop systems are funded through property agreements, unit costs are much higher for smaller scale projects because of the expense of customer acquisition. Chew said one of the advantage that Solar AI has is that a lot of their sales are done through digital channels, which helps drive unit costs down.

Before launching its rent-to-own business, Solar AI had already begun building an audience through educational content on its website. Chew said it is now top ranked in terms of most solar search keywords in Southeast Asia. In Singapore, its web traffic is three times higher than the two other largest solar companies combined. In the Philippines, where it is planning to expand within the next 12 months, its web traffic is five times more than the largest solar company. This helps keep its customer acquisition costs down.

Chew says that over the past one and half years, Solar AI has spent very little on paid marketing, with about 80% of customer segments coming from organic search, including written content on Solar AI’s website and online tools like its instant solar assessment. Potential customers then go into Solar AI’s sales pipeline, where its salespeople have tools to give them a digital picture of the process and send them a proposal. This means the physical part of installing a solar system only comes once a customer has decided they are comfortable proceeding with either a five year or 10 year plan. At that point, Solar AI goes to their property and does a site survey. The other 20% of customer segments comes through referrals.

Other markets Solar AI plans to expand to include Malaysia and the Philippines, where it has already begun working with local partners.

“Ultimately, the reason we built the company is to really try and hyper scale rooftop solar, because we all believe that it’s one of the best climate solutions out there to decarbonize our environment,” Chew said.

In a statement, Investible investment manager Ben Lindsay said, “There is a huge amount of untapped potential for both residential and commercial solar-as-a-service throughout Southeast Asia. The traction and robust pipeline Solar AI team have achieved to date is a strong indicator for their ability to be a leader throughout the region as its development continues to accelerate.”

HealthXCapital’s team joins Jungle Ventures

The team behind HealthXCapital, which invested in and helped health tech startups scale up, has joined Singapore-based Jungle Ventures. Seemant Jauhari, who led HealthXCapital since it was founded eight years ago, is now a partner at Jungle, where he will invest in healthcare startups in Southeast Asia and India.

HealthXCapital’s portfolio includes RED.Health, Homage, Medfin and THB. The firm has fully deployed its first fund and will no longer make any further investments.

At Jungle, Jauhari will take a similar approach as he did at HealthXCapital, combining capital with strategic partners in the healthcare sector to help startups toward validation and commercialization. These partners include providers, distributors and IT system integrators.

Jauhari noted that about 30% of the global population live in India and Southeast Asia, but the regions are very underserved, with just 4% of the gross domestic product going toward healthcare. That’s where he sees an opportunity for digital healthcare and new business models to increase access to healthcare.

Seemant Jauhari

Seemant Jauhari

As an example of how Jungle has worked with healthcare startups, Jauhari said one of its portfolio companies needed to expand from five to 12 cities. Securing supply from providers was crucial to meet demand, so Jungle’s board partners worked with the startup to create a time-bound group level plan. Then, based on that plan, it used its strategic network to facilitate crucial partnerships across healthcare providers. Then an operational partner helped the startup run a unit economics optimization initiative that improved margins by almost 20% to 25%.

Jauhari added that key trends emerging in Asian health tech include large-scale adoption of digital platforms in markets like India, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam and specialty care growing by taking a “phygital” approach through a combination of brick-and-mortar locations and online platforms.

In terms of valuations, Jauhari said it has not been a major concern for the healthcare sector since it has been underfunded especially at venture growth stages.

“Case in point, in the last five years, of the 2000+ healthcare startups in India and Southeast Asia, less than 10% reached the venture growth stage and less than 20% of the total capital invested in the region has been invested in venture growth,” he said. “Hence, we see a clear opportunity to invest in an undercapitalized stage and region. Combining this with the resilience of the healthcare sector, we believe that sustainable and scalable businesses will drive steady valuations.”

Singapore wealth management platform Endowus raises $35M

Back in 2021 and early 2022, there was a flurry of VC interest in Southeast Asian investment apps. One of them was Singapore-based Endowus, which raised two rounds in rapid succession: a Series A in June 2021 followed just seven months later by $25.6 million in follow-on funding. Now two years later, despite a much different funding environment, especially for fintech startups, Endowus is announcing another round.

This time it’s $35 million with new investors, including Citi Ventures and MUFG Innovation Partners, bringing the company’s total raised so far to $95 million. Participants also include “four of Asia’s wealthiest families,” the startup said in its press release, whose operating businesses encompass banking and real estate across Southeast Asia and China. Returning investors include notable firms like UBS Next, Singapore’s EDBI, Prosus Ventures (owned by Naspers), Lightspeed Venture Partners, Singtel Innov8 and Endowus employees.

The new funding will be used to scale in its main markets of Singapore and Hong Kong, where it currently serves over 100K clients in both markets. As a group, Endowus now has over $5 billion in assets under management and $40 million in savings for its clients.

Despite macroeconomic challenges, Endowus said it saw organic revenue growth of 80% in 2022 and tripled its group revenue after completing the acquisition of multi-family office Carret Private. Since TechCrunch last covered Endowus, it has launched more services like low cost passive index funds in Singapore and Endowus Private Wealth for high-net-worth individuals. It also started services in Hong Kong this year as what it describes as the “only independent, commission-free and conflict-free digital wealth advisor and low cost fund platform.”

Co-founder and chairman Samuel Rhee told TechCrunch that Endowus is now “multiple times the size of the next player and now competing with large banks and incumbent players.”

Other investment apps in Singapore include Syfe and Stashaway, which also attracted big VC bucks a couple years ago.

One of the main ways Endowus differentiates is being what it says is the only digital wealth platform that serves both private wealth and public pension as the first digital advisor for Singapore’s Central Provident Fund Investment Scheme (CPF).

Endowus manages more than SGD $1 billion of pension assets on its platform. Rhee said one of the reasons Endowus covers pension funds as well as personal wealth is to serve clients at all stages of their financial lives, including retirement.

For CPF, it built in-house a tech stack that creates a fully-automated digital process for investors. Endowus plans to replicate its CPF work with Hong Kong’s Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF). Instead of being a robo-advisor, Rhee said Endowus uses fund managers with proven track records to make top-performing, institutional-share class funds for retail investors more accessible.

Endowus monetizes only through advisory fees, and Rhee says it is the first and largest platform in Singapore and Hong Kong to provide a 100% rebate of all trailer commission fees, paid through cashbacks.

When asked if there is a possibility of consolidation among investment app players, Rhee said “the opportunity for wealthtech players continues to be outsized,” pointing to a McKinsey report that shows the Asia-Pacific region now accounts for at least 40%, or $218 trillion, of total global wealth.

But he added that “we do anticipate increased consolidation in future as wealthtechs in Singapore and in Asia mature, and those that lack scale or technological innovation or a moat around the business will suffer, as we have seen in the recent downturn. We may see some players exit the market, and smaller players closing down.”

As for how Endowus fared during the slowdown in fintech funding (and funding in general), Rhee said the company had no problems securing fundraising from its investors.

“We are also fortunate to have some of the biggest investors as our shareholders,” he added, like Citi Ventures, MUFG Innovation Partners and UBS.

ID verification platform Bureau bumps its Series A to $16.5M

Identity verification platform for businesses, Bureau, has added $4.5 million in its Series A, bringing its total to $16.5 million. The funding was raised from GMO Venture Partners and GMO Payment Gateway. Other investors in the round include Quona Capital and Commerce Ventures.

Bureau has now raised $20.5 million to date. In addition to its new funding, it also announced the acquisition of inVOID, a Y Combinator-backed identity verification startup, and entered a strategic partnership with GMO Payment Gateway.

Founded in 2020, Bureau is headquartered in California, with teams in Dubai and India. It claims that over the last 12 months, it increased its customer and revenue numbers 6x, with 300 million identities verified through its platform. Bureau helps companies prevent fraud and keep in step with compliance regulations. Sectors served by Bureau include banking, fintech, insurance, the gig economy and real money gaming.

Before founding Bureau, co-founder and CEO Ranjan Reddy started mobile billing aggregator Qubecell, which was sold to mobile payments company Boku in 2013. Reddy then served as chief business officer at Boku Identity, which was acquired by Twilio.

Bureau founder Ranjan Reddy

Bureau founder Ranjan Reddy

Reddy said Bureau’s approach is build a single source of truth, with its network of verified identities, all tokenized behind a mobile number. Reddy explained that Bureau maps out a digital person, including mobile numbers, emails, devices and IPs, and also a physical identity based on document verification, OCR, Facematch, biometric, info from government databases or database/AML checks. This generates contextual, tokenized insights when someone opens an account, performs compliance for verification, logs onto an app or make a transaction.

An identity network is built up over time by combining digital persons, physical identity and behavior using link analysis. The risk factor of an identity is then assessed based on how many links there are and what type, including indications of past fraudulent activities.

Some examples of how Bureau has been used is by banks and neobanks to prevent mule accounts and synthetic ID detection at onboarding. Several lending companies are using Bureau’s insights to lend to a larger base of new-to-credit customers by evaluating their risk profile more accurately. Some fintech organizations have use Bureau’s anti-fraud software to detect account takeover.

Reddy said one way Bureau differentiates from other identity management platforms is that it is not a data broker. It shares decisions and not consumer data. He added that tokenized identities are part of Bureau’s data privacy architecture.

Bureau’s new funding will be used in additional investments in data and AI capabilities to automate its decisions, improving their efficiency and coverage. It also wants to expand its current coverage in 20 markets to more than 100 markets around the world.

UTU raises $35M to help travelers get more from tax-free shopping

Utu, a travel tech company that helps flyers get more out of their tax-free shopping, announced today it has raised a $35 million Series B led by SC Ventures. Part of the funding was used to acquire CardsPal, a Singapore-based fintech that offers deals and promotions nearby to users.

During the pandemic-induced travel hiatus, utu worked to establish partnerships with travel, hotel chain and retail brands. The company notes that even though travel has rebounded, only about 1% of venture funding over the past 15 years has gone to travel, primarily short-term rental hospitality. Utu’s goal is to create innovation in the tax-free shopping sector, which allows tourists to reclaim VAT on their purchases.

Utu offers customers a Tax Free Card, which has two main offerings. First, tax-free shoppers can opt for frequent flyer miles or hotel points instead of VAT refunds. Or they can select an immediate store voucher that is equal to 120% of the VAT or GST they paid while shopping overseas. Utu says that retailers, airlines, hotels and other organizations that partner with them can not only increase customer loyalty, but also grow their revenue from tourist shopping by up to 40%.

Utu’s partners include 10 global airlines, like Air France-KLM, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines, as well as Accor, one of Europe’s large hospitality brands. To facilitate payments, utu works with fintech partners with Nium and also uses its own proprietary tech. It plans to announce more partnerships later this year.

Customer pay VAT upfront, and can reclaim it through operators like Planet or Global Blue. But they don’t get back the full amount of VAT, which is where utu comes in.

Utu co-founder Asad Jumabhoy spent eight years working in the duty-free business, before another 25 in tax-free shopping. While operating fashion and perfume stores at Changi Airport in Singapore in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jumabhoy started a tax refund business that evolved into Global Blue. After selling Global Blue in 2012, Jumabhoy decided to take his understanding of retail margins, value-added taxes and customer shopping habits to develop utu.

“The way we think about our work is that we are unbuilding new product layers on top of the existing tax-free shopping infrastructure that unlocks value for all stakeholders connected to tourist shopping—brands, tourists and our VAT refund partners,” he said.

Jumabhoy said even though tax-free shopping is a common practice, there are still two problems. The first is that the process of getting VAT refunds is difficult, and secondly, tourists only get part of their VAT spending back. Utu focuses on the second problem and wants to give tourists more value when they shop. For example, they can receive over 90% of their refund value in airline frequent flyer miles.

The CardsPal acquisition will give utu a digital marketplace, a promotions engine and self-service merchant registration portal. It will also expedite utu’s rollout in markets like France and Italy, plus another 50 countries that offer VAT and GST refunds.

Utu’s funding will be used to grow its product distribution across all countries that offer a VAT refund service, invest in technology and new products and strengthening its management to execute its growth plan.

UTU raises $35M to help travelers get more from tax-free shopping by Catherine Shu originally published on TechCrunch

Generation Prime launches to make fertility services more accessible in Asia

Generation Prime, a startup that wants to make IVF and other fertility services more accessible to patients in Asia, is launching its first two clinics in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. The company also announced seed funding led by Recharge Capital, which incubated it, with participation from Thiel Capital, Shamrock Holdings, the Disney family’s investment vehicle and Blue Lion Global.

Generation Prime describes itself as the first “full-stack, closed-loop IVF health services clinic” in Southeast Asia, which means that IVF services will be provided through digital and physical channels, starting with initial consultations and including egg and sperm freezing, diagnosis, testing, IVF and surrogacy. The clinics expect to serve both patients who live locally, as well as those traveling from other countries, like China, for fertility services.

Over the next three years, Generation Prime plans to open a total of 15 clinics in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Lorin Gu, a founding partner at Recharge Capital, said the firm incubated Generation Prime because people in Asia want options and flexibility for family planning, but often do not have access to fertility services in the countries where they live.

Recharge Capital founding partner Lorin Gu

Recharge Capital founding partner Lorin Gu

“Across Asia and Southeast Asia, the different legal structures have created a highly fragmented industry,” he said. He added that studies show by 2045, close to half of couples are expected to use IVF to start their families. “Despite these markers, female health conditions totaled just 1% of pharmaceutical research funding in 2020.”

Generation Prime expects about 70% of its clients to be medical tourists from China, and 30% to be local patients. “This is not because local patients are not actively using IVF services, but mainly because of the sheer population of China and the unmet demands that exists in the country,” said Gu. “In addition, China does not allow many of the IVF procedures that are currently desired by patients seeking more robust family planning services, and as a result, a large number of patients have been pushed into the Southeast Asian market.”

Generation Prime launches to make fertility services more accessible in Asia by Catherine Shu originally published on TechCrunch