Baopals – provides taobao and tmall for expats

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While a handful of expat entrepreneurs try to bring innovation from their country to China, this startup builds on the success of one of China’s largest companies and adapts it to expat tastes.

Taobao, one of the largest consumer-to-consumer e-commerce platforms in the world, lets users buy all kinds of products, such as clothes, gadgets, and even temporary boyfriends.

However, the website is only available in Chinese, which makes it difficult for foreigners to purchase and browse items. There are are also various other barriers to foreigners such as communicating with sellers and delivery men, and figuring out payment options.

“China doesn’t have a reputation for quality products and services. We want to show how amazing e-commerce is now in China,” Jay Thornhill, the co-founder of Baopals, told TechNode.

Founded in May 2016 by three expats, Baopals is a website and WeChat platform linking expats to more than 800 million products from Taobao and Tmall, Alibaba’s B2C e-commerce platform. The company doesn’t manage its own product inventory. Instead, it works as a platform to automatically translate pages into English and bridge the gap between expats and Taobao goods.

“We never came to China with the intention of starting Baopals,” says Charlie Erickson, the co-founder of Baopals.  “However, the more we stayed here, the more we realized the need for this service. It’s the market that we know since we’re expats.”

Alibaba also serves foreign shoppers with AliExpress, the retail arm of Alibaba, which provides a gateway to buy wholesale goods directly from Chinese suppliers.

“Alibaba has AliExpress. However, it’s not serving customers within China,” Mr. Erickson told TechNode.

“On the international scene, there’s still an issue regarding trust and reliability of Chinese products,” he says.

Baopals currently accepts Alipay, WeChat Wallet, and China UnionPay as payment methods and is hoping to integrate international payments in the future. The company takes a commission fee on transactions.

Image Credit: Baopals

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Neobear – Stop Kids From Becoming iPad Zombies

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It isn’t easy being a parent in today’s hi-tech world. With smartphones and tablets in households, kids have more and more excuses to spend their afternoons staring at a screen.

“Times are changing,” says Neo Hsiung, the CEO of Neobear, an early education startup based in Shanghai. “It’s not possible to prevent your child from playing with an iPad.”

“But AR technology can let [your child] experience multimedia entertainment without having them stare at a screen for a long period of time,” he says. “If you want to play with AR, you have to interact with physical objects.”

Neobear believes it can create engaging educational experiences without turning kids into couch potatoes by using augmented reality.

Last month, the company launched the AR Globe, its latest AR product, which lets children interact with animated objects on a physical globe via an app. By clicking and moving around a smartphone or tablet, kids can learn about animals that they find roaming around the globe or pull apart different layers of the Earth. The idea is to leverage AR to create more interesting educational experiences for kids without requiring them to sit still and stare at a screen, says Mr. Hsiung.

“Our first reaction was that the traditional globe is just about seeing different countries,” says Mr. Hsiung. “But with a virtual globe overlaid on it, we can do a lot of things. We can throw a lot of little animals on the it, […]  you can cut open the globe like a watermelon, […]  you’ll see boats on the ocean, sailing back and forth.”

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Neobear’s AR Globe

Neobear began developing AR products in 2012, one of the few education companies leveraging AR technology at the time. Creating AR products for children comes with its own host of unique challenges, such as designing hardware that’s appropriate for children. For children ages 2 to 6 or Neobear’s target age group, tablets can be too heavy. It’s also easy for children to accidentally block the camera which is needed for AR functions.

To remedy that issue, Neobear developed the “Magnifier NEO”, a magnifying glass-shaped device that lets kids discover animations overlaying the real world. The company also plans to launch a hardware platform for small to medium hardware developers in October or November, according to Mr. Hsiung.

“For the past few years, educating users has been a very exhausting task,” says Mr. Hsiung. Thanks to Pokemon Go, however, explaining what augmented reality is to parents has become a lot easier, he says.

The success and popularity of Pokemon Go has thrust augmented reality into the limelight, even in China where the app is currently unavailable. AR is not a new technology by any means but so far it’s mainly been applied in non-consumer contexts, such as logistics and manufacturing. However, as the technology matures and becomes less expensive, that might change – something tech giants like Microsoft are betting on.

According to AR/VR and mobile games consulting firm Digi-Capital, the augmented reality market value is estimated to reach $90 billion USD by 2020.

Image credit: Neobear

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iStaging – VR Real Estate Company Seals $5M To Fuel International Expansion

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Taiwan-based virtual and augmented reality company iStaging has sealed a $5 million USD pre-A funding round led by WI Harper with participation from Taya Venture Capital, one of a consortium of venture capital firms working with the Taiwan National Development Fund.

The company is a promising addition to a number of startups that cater to real estate agents and furniture makers by using virtual reality to let prospective buyers spatially experience living spaces remotely.

Releasing their debut app in January, iStaging is certainly not the first company to pioneer the use of VR in real estate, thought their position in Taiwan gives them access to a growing number of Chinese citizens seeking to invest in foreign real estate.

iStaging will leverage the latest funding round to fuel an expansion into western markets, building on operations in France and the U.S.

“Real estate agents have everything they need to capture, create, and allow their clients to visualize hundreds of properties virtually before selecting the ones to visit in person,” said Kevin Basset, iStaging’s Head of Marketing, on the capabilities of iStaging’s technology.

“It’s something we’re excited to promote in the U.S., Europe and China.”

Chinese investors have spent $300 billion on property in the U.S. market alone, according to a report from Rosen Consulting Group and the Asia Society released in May. Virtual and augmented reality services like iStaging could play a large role in streamlining future international property sales, allowing buyers to view and furnish properties remotely.

Other startups tapping the Chinese VR real estate market include Hong Kong-based VResidence, which oversees a number of virtual reality services, including a platform specifically for ‘second hand’ apartments in China.

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Xiaomi – cleaning robots

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Xiaomi unveiled its Mi Robot Vacuum, the latest addition to its smart home product line, as the company continues to drift further away from its core smartphone business toward a diversified internet hardware ecosystem.

True to Xiaomi’s style, the vacuum’s design takes a minimalist approach to buttons and screens, and true to the style of most Chinese hardware makers, the Mi Robot Vacuum sees itself in neck and neck competition with international flagship models, such as Roomba and Botvac, only cheaper.

The Mi Robot Vacuum will cost RMB 1,700 (about $254 USD) several hundred dollars cheaper than its overseas equivalents.

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Xiaomi’s latest vacuum bot

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The vacuum in its charging dock

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The android covering edges

The protruding round cap on top of the vacuum is a laser distance sensor, which is supposed to scan and gauge the size of the room and obstacles. The robot then comes up with a route of neat rows to complete the task. Though this is trumpeted as Xiaomi’s feat, it’s by no means a unique function. Mapping and navigation is what Neato, a leading brand, has long been proud of. As with most devices in Xiaomi’s smart home product suite ‘Mijia’, the Mi Robot Vacuum is connected to an IoT system and can be activated and monitored on the go, a function that’s also available in its overseas counterparts.

Since the glory days of Xiaomi’s phones, the company has always seen itself as the flag bearer of a movement to breathe new life into the “Made in China” brand. The company’s ventures into the floor sweeping business could be another such attempt. In the past few years, Chinese tourists have been cleaning shelves of department stores in Japan and Korea, lugging home smart electronics. The first items to go out of stock were rice cookers, blow dryers, heated toilet seats, and yes, robot sweepers. 

Even People’s Daily, the party mouthpiece, noticed the shopping spree. In 2015, it published an editorial urging homegrown manufacturing, specifically mentioning rice cookers to make a point. One year after the editorial, Xiaomi launched its own rice cooker within the Mijia product line.

So what next?  Blow dryers?  Toilet seat covers? Air conditioners? Xiaomi hasn’t exactly been exerting itself as a smartphone leader, especially in sales. According to research firm IDCXiaomi’s smartphone sales plunged nearly 40% compared to last years’ second quarter – not exactly something to brag about.

The company has even begun to distribute product catalogues, further emphasizing its image as an appliance – not smartphone – company. Flipping through pages of water filters, rice cookers, blood pressure monitors, and even batteries, it’s easy to get the feeling that Xiaomi’s future looks alarmingly low cost and low tech.

Image credit: Xiaomi

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Testin – mobile App testing platform

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Testin, a leading cloud testing service in China, announced last week that it competed a $30 million USD Series C funding round led by an undisclosed domestic dollar fund.

Founded in 2011, Testin started off as an enterprise mobile app compatibility test business, providing developers statistics on an apps’ performance in installation, operation, functionality, and UI..

As an early player in the field, the company gradually expanded its business to solve all kinds of pain points that developers face during the app development cycle, such as prototype testing, service quality monitoring, app crash analytics, and QA test services.

Testin claims to have run tests for more than 1.8 million apps, providing service to more than 700,000 developers. It has testing centers in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and the U.S. with 50,000 terminals coving more than 4,500 smart devices categories, the company says.

This round of financing is earmarked for upgrading products and recruiting and expanding to global markets, according to a statement from the company. Testin launched its global expansion initiative in 2014, and the latest round of funding is expected to speed up international expansion in North America, Europe, and Asia Pacific regions.

After receiving Series A funding from IDG Capital Partners in 2011, the Beijing-based company raised a B round from IDG and Banyan Capital in 2014 and a B+ round led by Haiyin Venture Partners, with participation from existing investors Banyan and IDG, in 2015. The B Series financing totaled $54.9 million USD, according to local media. The current round is raised at a higher valuation than the previous round, the media noted.

Testin has multiple competitors in different verticals given it’s providing testing services in different app development stages, including Tencent’s Utest for real device-based compatibility test, Fir.im and Pgyer for beta testing.

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Testin

 

VIPKID – Online Education startup

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Education platform VIPKID has announced $100 million USD in series C funding from existing investor Sequoia Capital and new investor Yunfeng Capital, the VC firm co-founded by Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

It comes at a time when China’s education online education market is attracting healthy inflows of capital despite an increasingly risk-averse VC market.

VIPKID is a platform that offers one-on-one language instruction for the Chinese market, targeting children between the ages of five and twelve.  The company says they will funnel the new capital into curriculum and product development, content, customer service and improving teaching standards.

“The rapid spread of broadband in China has made it possible to bring one-to-one English and broader curriculum learning directly to families throughout the country at an affordable price level,” said VIPKID CEO Cindy Mi in a statement.

China’s elementary and high school education system puts intense pressure on parents to intervene in early learning. Acceptance to universities hinges on success in the final school exam, or ‘Gaokao’, which attracts masses of media attention annually due to the extreme pressure it places on students and their families.

It’s the same high-pressure culture that has caused extracurricular learning services – both online and offline, to thrive. One of the country’s largest online education firms, China Online Education Group (also known as 51talk) listed on the NYSE last month with positive initial gains.

VIPKID claims to currently have over 3,000 North American teachers on their platform and say they are currently growing at a rate of 1000 percent year-over-year. The company launched an “entirely new” curriculum alongside the new investment, and is now available on iOS as well as Android.

It’s by far the largest round ever secured by the firm, and brings their total funding amount to $125 million USD. Previous investors include Innovation Works, Matrix Partners, and Northern Light Venture Capital. A spokesperson for VIPKID confirmed to Technode that there will be further investors announced within this round.

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VIPKID

 

Vivire – sponsor and bet on your friends

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A fitness startup is helping busy people in Shanghai get out of their comfort zone by letting them make and bet on challenges.

Vivire, which means ‘to live’ in Italian, allows users to put challenges on the platform, such as “doing sit-ups in front of my boss”. Then other users can sponsor the challenge by betting through WeChat’s payment system. When the user completes the task, they take a picture or film a video and post it on the app to prove it.

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Team Leader of Vivire, Brendan Goh

“Life is already a challenge, why not make the best out of it?” Brendan Goh, the team leader of Vivire, the winner of the Startup Weekend in Shanghai, told TechNode.

“The idea is to spur on another person to break away from our comfort zone and experience new things. In the process, we might build new relationships and gain more opportunities.”

Unlike other existing fitness apps, Vivire is focusing on companies. For example, the Vivire team plans to give workshops to companies and start giving out easy challenges like “talk to the person in the office that you never talked to”.

Mr. Goh, the founder of Vivire, already runs a B2B on-demand fitness app called Freefite in Shanghai, where he and his team visit offices to give 10 to 20 minute fitness lessons.

Mr. Goh says the new idea or Vivire can be easily combined with his original service. Currently, those who filled out the survey form on Vivire are in a WeChat chat group, where they can suggest different challenges to each other: lying down on the floor and counting to 30, going to a restaurant and suggest a new menu to the cook, singing the first two verses of Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me.’

This startup won first prize during Startup Weekend, which took place over the weekend in Shanghai. As the winner of Startup Weekend, the five team members of Vivire were given a free office for six months at naked Hub, a co-working space in Shanghai, and a UCloud Enterprise program ticket.

Startup Weekend is a 54-hour event designed to provide education for entrepreneurs. For this Startup Weekend Shanghai event, fifteen teams built up their ideas throughout the weekend and presented their demos in front of judges last Sunday.

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Brendan Goh, team leader of Vivire, is pitching in front of the judges.

Image Credit: TechNode, Startup Weekend

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