Crypto startup Ledger teams up with Cathay Innovation to launch $110M sector fund

Cathay Innovation is hoping to secure the bag in a new investment partnership with a company that secures crypto assets.

The $1.5 billion venture capital firm is entering the crypto market with a new $110 million fund dedicated to the sector that it will operate jointly with Ledger, a French startup focused on digital asset security, Cathay co-founder Dennis Barrier told TechCrunch.

The fund is similar to a corporate venture firm in that it’s partially operated by a company, but Ledger is different from the typical corporate VC because it’s a Series C-stage startup, not a large conglomerate looking to make bets on nascent firms. Ledger Cathay Capital, as the new fund is called, will invest in seed to Series A companies across a broad variety of segments across the crypto landscape, including emerging DeFi, security and infrastructure, according to Barrier.

Denis Barrier, co-founder of Cathay Innovation

Denis Barrier, co-founder of Cathay Innovation Image Credits: Cathay Innovation

Ledger’s claim to fame is its USB-like device that confirms crypto transactions, allowing users to keep physical control of their private wallet keys rather than relying on their memories for access. The startup’s most recent fundraise brought in $427 million for the company, its CEO Pascal Gauthier told TechCrunch — a slight increase from the $380 million in commitments that TechCrunch reported at the time because of new commitments that came in thereafter. Cathay Innovation was the lead investor in that round, which valued Ledger at $1.5 billion, Gauthier said.

Cathay, a backer of Ledger for the past five years, asked Ledger to team up with them to raise new capital for a crypto fund rather than doing so alone because the venture firm wanted to “get the best of both worlds,” Barrier explained. He wanted the fund to be able to move quickly like a traditional VC while providing long-term support and expertise for portfolio companies akin to a corporate venture arm, Barrier explained. It’s taken about a year for the fund to come together as an official vehicle after the two companies began conversations about this strategy, he added.

While it’s somewhat unconventional for a startup to launch a venture arm, it’s a lot more common in crypto — Uniswap, FTX, and Binance are three prominent examples. Ledger itself, which Gauthier said has been profitable for years, has made some recent investments into other startups. One of them was RTFKT, the NFT company Nike acquired last December, Gauthier said, though he did not share the names of any of Ledger’s other bets in the space.

“We invested from the balance sheet because the pressure from our partners was too high, so we had to start somewhere. Now, we are putting some structure around what we were doing, very naturally and very quickly … but we’ve been in the market for some time,” Gauthier said.

Cathay, a global venture firm that’s best known for its bets on tech startups including Pinduoduo and Chime through generalist funds, has paired up with companies in this manner in the past to go deep into a sector. It runs a smart energy fund in conjunction with Total Energy and Hubei as well as a mobility fund alongside Valeo, both of which operate with models similar to Ledger Cathay Capital, according to the Barrier.

Although Ledger itself is best-known for its hardware, the fund has a broad mandate, according to Gauthier.

“Anyone that can build on top of the [Ledger] platform — which is basically anyone in the market — has a shot of engaging with us [through the fund],” Gauthier said.

The fund hasn’t yet deployed any of the capital, he added, noting that it closed very recently. Bpifrance, the country’s public investment bank, is one of the new fund’s investors, according to Ledger Cathay Capital’s official announcement.

With the recent crypto market downturn, I asked Gauthier if he was concerned about the timing of launching this fund and whether it’s too late to capitalize on opportunities in crypto. He responded by noting that Ledger was founded in 2014 and has weathered downturns before, adding that he is still optimistic about the market’s potential, in part because of the developer activity he’s seen on the Ledger platform.

Gauthier thinks this will be a key differentiator for Ledger Cathay Capital, as Ledger has a global view of new dApps and blockchains coming to market from its own users — the company claims it secures 20% of the world’s cryptocurrencies. That’s part of why Gauthier said he isn’t concerned about crypto prices right now, in addition to the advantages he said stem from being a global investor headquartered outside of the United States.

“When markets are getting tough, that’s when we are at our best,” Gauthier said.

Antler East Africa closes $13.5M fund to invest in early-stage startups

Antler East Africa, the Nairobi office of VC firm and venture builder Antler, has closed a $13.5 million fund to invest in early-stage tech startups in the region.

The oversubscribed round — Antler intended to raise $10 million but ended up with an extra $3.5 million — has LPs that include Baillie Gifford, a well-known Tesla backer; family offices such as Canica; and institutional investors like the IFC.

Antler East Africa was launched in August 2019. It runs a full venture building model with two cohorts each year.

Five cohorts with 153 founders have passed through the accelerator programs so far, and the firm has made 14 investments. A few of them include AIfluence, Marketforce-subsidiary Digiduka, Honeycoin, Uncover Skincare, Try Cooked and Vybe.

However, its parent company, Antler, founded two years earlier by Magnus Grimeland, employs a mixed model where it acts as a venture builder and VC firm.

The firm, which invests from pre-seed to Series C, has cut checks in more than 250 companies from its $300 million fund.

Antler East Africa’s new fund allows it to embrace a similar approach: accepting founders who want to build their startups from scratch and investing in already formed teams that need capital to scale.

“We still do the venture building. That’s still the core of what we do. Just that now that the fund is closed, we have enough money to spend in existing businesses that are coming in,” Selam Kebede, the firm’s director, told TechCrunch over a call. “And we can invest in stuff that’s already been built with a pure kind of VCs type setup investment.”

Kebede is part of the all-female-led team that includes partners Melalite Ayenew and Marie Nielsen and program manager Joana Borges.

Antler said it would accept founders and teams on a rolling basis. Founders going for the venture building model to find a co-founder and launch an idea will stay within Antler’s community for up to six months.

For existing startups, two to six weeks is all that’s needed for Antler East Africa to work with the team before the firm cuts a check. Antler East Africa says it will invest up to $100,000 in these startups at a “mutually agreed valuation.” It plans to make 35 new investments from pre-seed to Series A over the next three years. There’s also an arrangement for the global Antler fund to follow up on some rounds all the way to Series C.

“What changed now is, in the past, we were going only from zero to like the first $100,000 ticket. But now we’re saying we can also take in existing teams and ideas that formed outside of Antler, but they can come to us and then we can invest just like any other VC would,” Kebede noted.

“So that changed a bit from what we typically used to do in the past three years. Now, we can start from literally day zero to support you and give you the first institutional ticket following up to Series C and D.”

Kebede told TechCrunch that Antler East Africa is sector agnostic. Nevertheless, the firm is keen on investing in startups solving problems in climate tech, agritech and fintech. She also said the team has already made a few investments with this new format but declined to disclose their names.

Being a female-led VC team, Antler East Africa is particular about investing more in startups founded and led by women in the region, Kebede said. It will try to improve the numbers from its venture building model, where 25% of the founders in its portfolio are women.

Meanwhile, female-run VC firms are impressively taking up their place in a male-dominated tech space as they try to address the funding gap that has plagued the industry for years. The Antler East Africa team, led by Ayenew and Nielsen, joins that list of such firms, including those specially dedicated to female-founded and led teams like Alitheia Capital and FirstCheck Africa.

“There are few or no female-run VC 100% that I know of, at least in Kenya. But our partners [Ayenew and Nielsen] and I, we’re all women,” expressed Kebede.

“And so it’s been super exciting to be able to do this, especially as first-time fund managers. It hasn’t been easy though because, you know, there’s the added kind of scrutiny and concern from other people when they see only women running it, but it has been exciting too.”

Mercury restricted a number of accounts linked to African startups and didn’t exactly say why

Yesterday, Mercury, which describes itself as a bank for startups, restricted several accounts linked to African tech startups, TechCrunch has learned. 

The number of companies involved with this restriction is unknown. But some sources told TechCrunch that they range from a dozen to 30 — including well established YC-backed startups and newer upstarts. 

According to our sources, Mercury did not give any prior notice that it would take this action, nor did it explain why the action was taken in its first email to the affected startups. 

“Hi, Your access to the Mercury account for [company’s name] has been temporarily restricted. Let us know if you have any question or concerns,” read the first email Mercury sent out. 

Upon further questioning, Mercury, who holds over 4 billion in customer deposits for its 40,000+ businesses in over 200 countries, told some of these startups that their accounts had been flagged and placed under review by its compliance team after it noticed some “unusual activity” and couldn’t provide further details until its review was complete. 

“We don’t have a definite date for when this will be completed, but we will provide an update as soon as we have one. We’re prioritizing the review of your account with our bank partner. We do apologize for any inconvenience this may cause,” it said in another email. 

Some founders and tech stakeholders have taken to Twitter to express their disappointment at Mercury’s decision to block these accounts without any concrete reason. For a number of these startups, Mercury’s restriction came at an inconvenient time — the end of the month — when major obligations such as salaries and taxes ought to be attended to; now, those will have to wait, the founders say. 

A couple of founders, who chose not to be named, said Mercury’s move might be linked to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has seen the company’s partner bank review its exposure to “high risk” regions such as Africa. However, in an email sent to one of the founders whose startup was affected, Mercury tried to point out that its intention wasn’t for the founder and his business to “feel singled out or held to a different standard.”

It’s hard to think that isn’t the case, considering how startups from other regions don’t seem to have experienced a similar problem, judging by activity linked to the situation on Twitter.

A spokesperson responding to TechCrunch’s request for comment said Mercury is aware that one of its backend banks has suspended the accounts of a number of Mercury customers in Africa. And while the bank was acting in compliance with its internal procedures, the suspension has adversely affected some of its customers.

“It’s top priority for us to work with the bank to resolve this matter as quickly as possible. We’re reaching out to the customers impacted directly and apologize for the disruption this event has caused,” it said in the remainder of the email to TechCrunch. 

Meanwhile, CEO Immad Akhund reached out via email to those affected:

Hi everyone,

I am the CEO of Mercury. Since many of you have emailed/messaged me directly I thought it would be best if I just reached out directly.

We found out yesterday that our partner bank noticed unusual activity and asked us to lock and investigate a large set of accounts with linked activity. We are working through our due diligence on all those accounts and will be in touch with you individually with questions if we have any on your account or activity.

Since it’s a reasonably large set of accounts it’s taking us some time to work through all of them but it’s the highest priority for us internally and we have more than 10 people working on this.

We apologize for this sudden inconvenience and hope to put better practices in place to avoid this in the future. We will be in touch directly as we make progress and feel free to email me on this email if you have follow up questions.



Wayflyer raises $150M on a $1.6B valuation for a new spin on providing loans to e-commerce merchants

E-commerce has continued to boom in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, but running an e-commerce business has also become significantly more chaotic, with unpredictable supply chains, logistics hiccups, and overall higher costs upending even the best-laid plans. To underscore the demand for solutions to address this, today a startup called Wayflyer — which has built a new kind of financing platform, using big data analytics and repayments based on a merchant’s revenue activity — is announcing a big round of funding, $150 million. It plans to use the funds to double down on its business after a strong year of growth, with average monthly capital deployments (that is, loans) on the platform reaching $100 million, up nearly 1,000% on the year before.

The Series B funding values the Dublin-based startup at $1.6 billion.

DST Global and QED Investors co-led the all-equity round, with Prosus, Madrone Capital Partners and J.P. Morgan — all new backers — also participating, alongside previous investors Left Lane Capital and Guillaume Pousaz (the founder of J.P. Morgan is something of a strategic investor here: it’s not a direct partner (yet?) of Wayflyer, but in addition to being a major financier of tech startups, it’s also the world’s biggest bank and has been buying up fintechs to grow that part of its business.

Some 65% of Wayflyer’s customers today are in the U.S. and North America, with the remainder in Western Europe (mainly UK) and Australia. The plan is to continue investing both in the technology that Wayflyer uses to evaluate and make loans; and to continue growing its business overall, in particular with more partnerships to serve merchants. (Those partners today include Adobe, Sezzle and eBay UK.)

Wayflyer is not yet profitable, said CEO Aidan Corbett in an interview. But he noted that the startup has hardly touched the $76 million in funding that it raised in May 2021, and could potentially be profitable this year if it chooses. Along with the $76 million equity round in May, the startup also secured $100 million in debt to provide financing; we’ve asked whether there is another debt component in this latest round and will update the story as and when we learn more.

The valuation is a big one for an Irish startup, but it is all the more notable because Wayflyer, founded in September 2019, has only been around for just over two years. Yet in that time it has grown substantially. Corbett (who co-founded the company with president Jack Pierse) said that currently the company has “thousands” of customers — exact number undisclosed — who typically take out loans of between $300,000-$400,000 to cover things like inventory purchases, shipping costs and other big-ticket items necessary for running an e-commerce business.

The crux of the problem that Wayflyer is addressing is a persistent one in the world of e-commerce, but it has definitely become more exacerbated in the last couple of years. E-commerce businesses regularly face shortages with working capital, with funds coming into their accounts often not matching up with expenditures because outgoings need to be made on a regular basis, but incoming funds face reconciliation and other delays.

Corbett said that the Covid-19 pandemic made this an even more acute situation, with e-commerce merchants facing “three hits” that got especially rough in 2021. (Ironically, he noted that 2020 was a lot less difficult because it was just pure boost in demand with the knock on effect in supply chains taking longer to play out. 2022 is looking “better,” he added.)

“Raw material prices went up, there were supply chain delays so getting things took longer, and the cost of freight has gone up,” he said of last year. “It was a triple blow and they needed our funding more because the time in which they were paid or recognized revenue was elongated.” Specific costs simply went haywire: for example, the price of a container — an important item especially for smaller merchants that don’t charter their own shipping frigates — jumped to $14,000 from $4,000 last year. And supply chain delays jumped to 12 weeks from four.

“We have thousands of customer stories” detailing the problems, he said.

The company’s technology is a classic big-data play: it uses a number of sources of data, from Shopify and Woo Commerce through to TrustPilot reviews and Google Analytics and even wider information about how shipping services are performing, to determine how a merchant is doing as a business. It considers data not as a static but dynamic resource, which in turn becomes the basis on which repayments are made.

Revenue finance, as this is called, is not completely a new concept, but with the rise if big data analytics, it has become increasingly more ubiquitous and stands in contrast to how a traditional bank might have made a loan in the past.

“This gives founders downsize protection,” Corbett notes. “So say a shipment is late, you pay less money back that month. I am taking a performance risk on you.”

But this is also variable and can work in Wayflyer’s favor, too. “If they do well and outperform, we get paid back faster. It’s a lovely alignment on both sides,” he said. It’s not unlike the financing model adopted by other kinds of startups like Lambda School.

Its big data approach has some other benefits, too. Wayflyer can forecast when a merchant might be seeing more issues down the line, and so it nudges customers to put in orders earlier in those cases. It also has an interesting view on what is driving sales for businesses. Right now, for example, among social channels, TikTok is outpacing Snapchat and Pinterest for referrals and giving Facebook and Instagram a big run for their money.

In terms of competitors, the size of the loans it typically makes, and the frequency — depending on the nature and size of the customer, loans could be made as frequently as monthly — has partly meant that Wayflyer doesn’t compete, but complements, some of the other companies that have emerged as financiers to e-commerce businesses. Those include the likes of Stripe and Square, or those issuing credit cards to merchants, all of whom also base their loans on data from their platforms detailing what kind of incomings and outgoings a company is seeing. These tend to be much smaller amounts of money, however, and not aimed at helping a merchant run their supply chains. The bigger players in those categories might potentially become partners, or even try to acquire companies like Wayflyer as they grow and seek to diversify their own revenue streams.

More directly, Wayflyer competitors include the likes of Clearco and Uncapped.

“Aidan, Jack and the Wayflyer team remain focused on helping eCommerce companies grow and maximise their potential,” said Tom Stafford, co-founder and managing partner at DST Global, in a statement. “We are impressed by their commitment to building the best products for their customers and proactively helping their customers grow via analytics, practical insights and attractively priced funding. We are pleased to continue supporting the team, as Wayflyer expands globally to provide innovative financing and growth solutions for eCommerce businesses around the world.”

“The pandemic has accelerated eCommerce adoption globally and Wayflyer is transforming financial services for eCommerce businesses wanting to scale quickly, helping them to gain access to capital, inventory and insights at attractive terms,” said Sandeep Bakshi, head of investments for Europe at Prosus Ventures, in a statement. “Aidan, Jack and their team have a deep understanding of what will drive value for their customers, and the financial and business innovation that Wayflyer provides will help to fuel eCommerce ecosystems globally.”

Five Seasons Ventures pulls in €180M fund to tackle human health and climate via FoodTech

FoodTech is booming in Europe and is growing exponentially. In 2020, €3 billion went into European FoodTech companies (State of European Tech Report, March 2021), and the pandemic has accelerated demand as consumers have shifted to grocery delivery. The industry has also been affected by the rise of direct-to-consumer food brands. Finally, the pandemic created a boom in interest in healthy food and nutrition to improve people’s immunity to COVID-19.

So it’s perhaps understandable that European FoodTech VC Five Seasons Ventures has announced the final closing of €180 million second fund. Their first fund was €77 million, so this next fund is a sizeable improvement and reflects what’s going on in Food Tech.

The new Fund II will continue making Series A and B investments into European FoodTech companies, with, says the company “an emphasis on fast-growing consumer-focused food with a quantifiable environmental or social impact.”

Five Seasons says it’s aiming to prove that FoodTech startups can grow as fast as ‘normal’ tech startups, with its Fund I portfolio on track to reach a combined revenue of over €350M in 2021, it says. One such company, Air Up, has hit a €100M revenue run rate in less than two years, says Five Seasons. Air-Up sells a reusable smart water bottle that “delivers flavor via retro-nasal scent”.

Ivan Farneti, Co-founding Partner of Five Seasons Ventures, said: “There’s no doubt that FoodTech is experiencing a boom in Europe right now. When we launched Five Seasons in 2018, we were the first VC to focus on FoodTech in Europe, and we believe we contributed to making this an attractive asset class. Fund II was quickly oversubscribed as more investors wanted to get exposed to European FoodTech, seeking high growth and impact.”

Five seasons has also backed Butternut Box, a direct-to-consumer fresh dog food company in Europe, and ‘This’, plant-based meat alternative. The VC’s team has also grown to nine, with the appointment of a Head of Impact and Sustainable Investing.

Fund II has so far invested in female wellness supplements her1, and vly, a company using peas to provide a plant-based milk alternative filled with protein. It’s also invested in Barkyn and The Nu Company. 

In total, Five Seasons Ventures has backed 14 companies across six European countries: Germany, France, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, and the UK. 

In an interview, Niccolo Manzoni, Co-founding Partner of Five Seasons Ventures, added: “If you look at the amount of capital that has gone into FoodTech ventures in the last two years it’s grown from €1 billion to €3 billion just in Europe, and it’s bound to continue growing because there are lots of companies that have raised good money and have grown really fast.”

“Secondly, it also has the Impact side,” he said. “Two of the most pressing issues the world is facing today are human health and climate change. And that’s exactly the kind of companies we look for. If you look across our portfolio, for example, last year we saved about 2 million kilograms of food waste. The products that our companies sell are designed to improve health and well being… There’s a huge amount of things you can do in food tech which you cannot do in SaaS, for example.”

Germany’s icon group VC bets $30M to back startups enabling traditional companies to pivot

Icon group is a new $30M VC fund being launched out of Germany’s iconmobile group, a WPP network agency. This means a reorganization of the company from a full-service innovation agency into also offering VC backing.

iconmobile has garnered a reputation as an innovative technology, design, and sustainability agency, but the turnaround means it will now, instead, back tech startups that enable traditional companies to “reinvent their business models and the way they reach their consumers.”

The icon ventures VC fund will be accompanied by new company arm: ‘icon impact’, the continuation of iconmobile’s well-established product and experience innovation arm.

Previous iconmobile properties now fall under the icon ventures umbrella include:

• D[AI]TA, a white label sustainable laundry system that filters microplastic fibers via smart washing machines, reduces chemical contaminants, and uses ‘smart grid’ washing to save energy. It also tracks what items have been washed, and worn, and sends that data to retailers.

• banbutsu, that does sustainable last-mile fulfillment

• icon incar a mobility experience company

Thomas Fellger, Founder of icon group said: “Whether it’s creating the first connected toothbrush for Oral-B or UX/UI design for the world’s leading automotive brands, icon group works to bring innovation from idea to scale…. Now, with the inclusion of a venture fund, we can create the things we believe in without waiting for permission or additional budget allocations by investing in opportunities where we have deep knowledge and proven impact, something that sets us apart from the big five firms.”

Speaking to me over a call he added: “We are more capable than most companies to convert our knowledge of R&D into a fast business opportunity. For example, we found an infrared sensor, which can be used to measure air quality in Egypt. Because we knew we needed that kind of quality of air data, we were able to create a whole new product. And that’s what we will be good at – connecting the dots of different products services across industries to create for that industry, a new way of looking at their business by changing the business model, or even extending the services which they couldn’t do before.”

EQT acquires freemium graphics and stock photo marketplace, Freepik

Freepik, a Malaga-Spain based website which offers a curated freemium marketplace of vector graphics and stock photos fed by a community of contributing designers and photographers, is being acquired by investment and private equity firm EQT.

The EQT Mid Market Europe fund has entered into an agreement to acquire a majority stake of Freepik from its founders and management team, who will remain on as minority owners, with co-founders, Alejandro and Pablo Blanes and Joaquin Cuenca, continuing to lead the company day to day, the pair said in a press release today.

EQT believes favorable global trends are set to feed Freepik’s business, with the PE firm pointing to factors such as the increasing shift to digital advertising, the “global democratization of content production” via social media and the surge in mobile media and online gaming — areas it says have shown resilience to downturns and recessions.

Freepik, which was founded back in 2010 and claims to be the largest freemium provider of digital visual content in the world, has some 32 million monthly visitors to its site, 20M registered users and 5BN downloads to date — with the site offering more than 10M graphic resources, including icons, vectors, photos, and templates.

Freemium users of the repository can access “thousands” of graphical resources, while premium fee-paying users have access to a far wider selection of content and unlimited downloads. All submissions are reviewed, with only a subset selected for the marketplace. While content sourcing is data-driven, based on Freepik crunching download data to better understand consumer demand.

On the supplier side, Freepik has a network of over 450 in-house freelancer graphical designers in addition to 9,000+ external contributors, per its website. It operates under two additional brands (Flaticon and SlidesGo).

EQT said today it will support Freepik’s accelerated growth by investing in its proprietary content library, UX and tech platform — including AI and tool integration capabilities. Broadening Freepik’s market penetration in markets such as the US and Asia is another goal for the acquisition, given EQT’s slated “digital expertise” and global presence.

Commenting in a statement, Victor Englesson, partner at EQT Partners and investment advisor to EQT Mid Market, said: “We are impressed by Freepik’s achievements and EQT is proud to partner with its co-Founders to help achieve its full potential. Freepik is supported by numerous positive secular megatrends and represents a truly thematic investment, which fits strongly with EQT’s focus on growth investments and partnerships with world class management teams.”

EQT is a prolific investor in and buyer of tech startups, acquiring the likes of b2b payment transfer business Banking Circle and commercial Linux distribution Suse in recent years. It’s also recently invested in Peanut, a social network for mothers; Anyfin (consumer loans refinancing); Netlify (microservices for building websites); and Wolt (food delivery), to name a few. The firm has more than €62BN in raised capital and some €40BN in assets under management across 19 active funds.

“We are very excited to partner with EQT and look forward to working together,” added Freepik co-founder Cuenca in another statement on the acquisition. “EQT’s digital and sector expertise, global platform, combined with local presence across Europe, the US and Asia, as well as its extensive network of advisors will be key to our future success and of great value for the strengthening of our management team.”

The value of the acquisition has not being disclosed. The transaction is expected to close in June 2020.

Chinese startup Rokid pitches COVID-19 detection glasses in U.S.

Thermal imaging wearables used in China to detect COVID-19 symptoms could soon be deployed in the U.S.

Hangzhou based AI startup Rokid is in talks with several companies to sell its T1 glasses in America, according to Rokid’s U.S. Director Liang Guan.

Rokid is among a wave of Chinese companies creating technology to address the coronavirus pandemic, which has dealt a blow to the country’s economy. 

Per info Guan provided, Rokid’s T1 thermal glasses use an infrared sensor to detect the temperatures of up to 200 people within two minutes from up to three meters away. The devices carry a Qualcomm CPU, 12 megapixel camera and offer augmented reality features — for hands free voice controls — to record live photos and videos.

The Chinese startup (with a San Francisco office) plans B2B sales of its wearable devices in the U.S. to assist businesses, hospitals and law enforcement with COVID-19 detection, according to Guan.

Rokid is also offering IoT and software solutions for facial recognition and data management, as part of its T1 packages.

Image Credits: Rokid

The company is working on deals with U.S. hospitals and local municipalities to deliver shipments of the smart glasses, but could not disclose names due to confidentiality agreements.

One commercial venture that could use the thermal imaging wearables is California based e-commerce company Weee!.

The online grocer is evaluating Rokid’s T1 glasses to monitor temperatures of its warehouse employees throughout the day, Weee! founder Larry Liu confirmed to TechCrunch via email.

On procedures to manage those who exhibit COVID-19 related symptoms, that’s something for end-users to determine, according to Rokid. “The clients can do the follow-up action, such as giving them a mask or asking to work from home,” Guan said.

The T1 glasses connect via USB and can be set up for IoT capabilities for commercial clients to sync to their own platforms. The product could capture the attention of U.S. regulators, which have become increasingly wary of Chinese tech firms’ handling of American citizen data. Rokid says it doesn’t collect info from the T1 glasses directly.

“Regarding this module…we do not take any data to the cloud. For customers, privacy is very important to them. The data measurement is stored locally,” according to Guan.

Image Credits: Rokid

Founded in 2014 by Eric Wong and Mingming Zhu, Rokid raised $100 million at the Series B level in 2018. The business focuses primarily on developing AI and AR tech for applications from manufacturing to gaming, but developed the T1 glasses in response to China’s COVID-19 outbreak.

The goal was to provide businesses and authorities a thermal imaging detection tool that is wearable, compact, mobile and more effective than the common options.

Large scanning stations, such as those used in some airports, have drawbacks in not being easily portable and handheld devices — with infrared thermometers — pose risks.

“You have to point them to people’s foreheads…you need to be really close, it’s not wearable and you’re not practicing social distancing to use those,” Guang said.

Rokid pivoted to create the T1 glasses shortly after COVID-19 broke out in China in late 2019. Other Chinese tech startups that have joined the virus-fighting mission include face recognition giant SenseTime — which has installed thermal imaging systems at railway stations across China — and its close rival Megvii, which has set up similar thermal solutions in supermarkets.

On Rokid’s motivations, “At the time we thought something like this can really help the frontline people still working,” Guang said.

The startup’s engineering team developed the T1 product in just under two months. In China, Rokid’s smart glasses have been used by national parks staff, in schools and by national authorities to screen for COVID-19 symptoms.

Temperature detectors have their limitation, however, as research has shown that more than half of China’s COVID-19 patients did not have a fever when admitted to hospital.

Source: Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Research Center

The growth rate of China’s coronavirus cases — which peaked to 83,306 and led to 3,345 deaths — has declined and parts of the country have begun to reopen from lockdown. There is still debate, however, about the veracity of data coming out of China on COVID-19. That led to a row between the White House and World Health Organization, which ultimately saw President Trump halt U.S. contributions to the global body this week.

As COVID-19 cases and related deaths continue to rise in the U.S., technological innovation will become central to the health response and finding some new normal for personal mobility and economic activity. That will certainly bring fresh facets to the common tech conundrums — namely measuring efficacy and balancing benefits with personal privacy.

For its part, Rokid already has new features for its T1 thermal smart glasses in the works. The Chinese startup plans to upgrade the device to take multiple temperature readings simultaneously for up to four people at a time.

“That’s not on the market yet, but we will release this very soon as an update,” said Rokid’s U.S. Director Liang Guan .