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Back in August, we flagged a filing for you that we found interesting, one for a now 2.5-year-old, 40-person Redwood City, Calif.,-based startup called Bear Robotics that’s been developing robots to deliver food to restaurant customers. The filing listed a $35.8 million target; Bear Robotics founder and CEO John Ha now tells us the final close, being announced today, was $32 million in Series A funding.

The round was led by SoftBank Group, whose other recent robotics bets include the currently beleaguered food truck company Zume and, as we reported yesterday, Berkshire Grey, a seven-year-old, Lexington, Mass.-based company that makes pick, pack and sorting robots for fulfillment centers and that just raised a whopping $263 million in Series B funding led by SoftBank.

Because we know you’re interested in much more than Bear Robotics’ funding picture, we asked Ha — a former Intel research scientist turned technical lead at Google who in recent years opened and closed his own restaurant — to share more about the company and its robot servers.

TC: You were an engineer at Google. Why then start your own restaurant?

JH: It’s not like I had a dream of having a restaurant; it was more of an investment. It sounded fun, but it didn’t turn out to be fun. What I was really shocked by was how much hard work is involved and how low [employees’] income is. I felt [as I was forced to close it] that this was going to be my life’s work — to transform the restaurant industry with the skills I have. I wanted to remove the hard work and the repetitive tasks so that humans can focus on the truly human side, the hospitality. At restaurants, you’re selling food and service, but most of your time is spent dealing with hiring people and people not showing up, and I suspect our product will change [the equation].

TC: How did you come up with the first idea or iteration of the robot you’ve created, that you’re calling Penny?

JH: First, me and my restaurant staff constantly discussed, ‘If we have this robot, what would it look like and what capacity and features would it need?’ I knew it couldn’t be too big; robots have to be able to move well in narrow spaces. We also focused on the right capacity. And we didn’t want to make a robotic restaurant. I wanted to build a robot that no one really cares about; it’s just in the background, sort of like R2-D2 to Luke Skywalker. It’s a sidekick — a bland robot with a weak personality to get things done for your master.

TC Let’s talk parts. How are these things built?

JH: It’s self-driving tech that’s been adopted for indoor space, so it can safely navigate from Point A to Point B. A server puts the food on Penny, and it finds a way to get to the table. It has a two-wheel differential drive, plus casters. It’s pretty safe. A lot of similar-looking robots have blind spots, but ours doesn’t. It can detect baby hands on the floor — even something as thin as a wallet that’s fallen from someone’s table.

We’re not using robot arms because it’s very difficult to make it 100% safe when you have arms in a crowded space. The material — it’s going to be plastic — is safe and easy to clean and able to work with the sanitizers and detergents used in restaurants. We’ve also had to make sure the wheels won’t accumulate food waste, because that would cause issues with the health department.

TC: So this isn’t out in the world yet.

JH: We haven’t entered the mass-manufacturing phase yet.

TC: Where will these be built, and how will you charge for them?

JH: They’ll be made somewhere in Asia — maybe China or some other country. And we haven’t figured out pricing yet but restaurants will be leasing these, not buying them, and there will be a monthly subscription fee that they are paying for a white-glove service, so they don’t have to worry about maintenance or support.

TC: How customizable are these Penny robots going to be? Are there different tiers of service?

JH: Penny can be configured into several modes. The default is [for it to hold] three trays, so it can carry food to a table or a server can use it for busing help.

TC: Will it address the customers?

JH: Penny can speak and play sound, but it’s not conversational yet. It can say, ‘Please take your food,’ or play music while it’s moving. That’s where customers may want to personalize the robot for their own purposes.

TC: Ultimately, the idea is for this to be sold where — just restaurants?

JH: Wherever food is served, so it’s being tested right now in some restaurants, casinos, some homes. [I’m sure we’ll add] nursing homes, too.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/22/bear-robotics-a-company-making-robot-waiters-just-raised-a-32-million-round-led-by-softbank/

Airbnb has well and truly disrupted the world of travel accommodation, changing the conversation not just around how people discover and book places to stay, but what they expect when they get there, and what they expect to pay. Today, one of the startups riding that wave is announcing a significant round of funding to fuel its own contribution to the marketplace.

Domio, a startup that designs and then rents out apart-hotels with kitchens and other full-home experiences, has raised $100 million ($50 million in equity and $50 million in debt) to expand its business in the U.S. and globally to 25 markets by next year, up from 12 today. Its target customers are millennials traveling in groups or families swayed by the size and scope of the accommodation — typically five times bigger than the average hotel room — as well as the price, which is on average 25% cheaper than a hotel room.

The Series B, which actually closed in August of this year, was led by GGV Capital, with participation from Eldridge Industries, 3L Capital, Tribeca Venture Partners, SoftBank NY, Tenaya Capital and Upper90. Upper90 also led the debt round, which will be used to lease and set up new properties.

Domio is not disclosing its valuation, but Jay Roberts, the founder and CEO, said in an interview that it’s a “huge upround” and around 50x the valuation it had in its seed round and that the company has tripled its revenues in the last year. Prior to this, Domio had only raised around $17 million, according to data from PitchBook.

For some comparisons, Sonder — another company that rents out serviced apartments to the kind of travelers who have a taste for boutique hotels — earlier this year raised $225 million at a valuation north of $1 billion. Others like Guesty, which are building platforms for others to list and manage their apartments on platforms like Airbnb, recently raised $35 million with a valuation likely in the range of $180 million to $200 million. Airbnb is estimated to be valued around $31 billion.

Domio plays in an interesting corner of the market. For starters, it focuses its accommodations at many of the same demographics as Airbnb. But where Airbnb offers a veritable hodgepodge of rooms and homes — some are people’s homes, some are vacation places, some never had and never will have a private occupant, and across all those the range of quality varies wildly — Domio offers predictability and consistency with its (possibly more anodyne) inventory.

“We are competing with amateur hosts on Airbnb,” said Roberts, who previously worked in real estate investment banking. “This is the next step, a modern brand, the next Marriott but with a more tech-powered brain and operating model.” These are not to be confused with something like Hilton’s Homewood Suites, Roberts stressed to me. He referred to Homewood as “a soulless hotel chain.”

“Domio is the anti-hotel chain,” he added.

Roberts is also quick to describe how Domio is not a real estate company as much as it is a tech-powered business. For starters, it uses quant-style algorithms that it’s built in-house to identify regions where it wants to build out its business, basing it not just on what consumers are searching for, but also weather patterns, economic indicators and other factors. After identifying a city or other location, it works on securing properties.

It typically sets up its accommodations in newer or completely new buildings, where developers — at least up to now — are not usually constructing with short-term rentals in mind. Instead, they are considering an option like Domio as an alternative to selling as condominiums or apartments, something that might come up if they are sensing that there is a softening in the market. “We typically have 75%-78% occupancy,” Roberts said. He added that hotels on average have occupancy rates in the high 60% nationally.

As Domio lengthens its track record — its 12 U.S. markets include Miami, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Phoenix — Roberts says that they’re getting a more select seat at the table in conversations.

“Investors are starting to go out to buy properties on our behalf and lease them to us,” he said. This gives the startup a much more favorable rate and terms on those deals. “The next step is that Domio will manage these directly.” The most recent property it signed, he noted, includes a Whole Foods at the ground level, and a gym.

Using technology to identify where to grow is not the only area where tech plays a role. Roberts said that the company is now working on an app — yet to be released — that will be the epicenter of how guests interact to book places and manage their experience once there.

“Everything you can do by speaking to a human in a traditional hotel you will be able to do with the Domio app,” he said. That will include ordering room service, getting more towels, booking experiences and getting restaurant recommendations. “You can book your Uber through the Domio app, or sync your Spotify account to play music in the apartment.

And there are plans to extend the retail experience using the app. Roberts says it will be a “shoppable” experience where, if you like a sofa or piece of art in the place where you’re staying, you can order it for your own home. You can even order the same wallpaper that’s been designed to decorate Domio apartments.

Ripe for the booking

Although Airbnb has grown to be nearly as ubiquitous as hotels (and perhaps even more prominent, depending on who you are talking to), the wider travel and accommodation market is still ripe for the taking, estimated to reach $171 billion by 2023 and the highest growth sector in the travel industry.

“Airbnb has taught us that hotels are not the only place to stay,” said Hans Tung, GGV’s managing partner. “Domio is capitalizing on the global shift in short-term travel and the consumer demand for branded experiences. From my travels around the world, there is a large, underserved audience — millennials, families, business teams — who prefer the combined benefits of an apartment and hotel in a single branded experience.”

I mentioned to Roberts that the leasing model reminded me a little of WeWork, which itself does not own the property it curates and turns into office space for its tenants. (The SoftBank investor connection is interesting in that regard.) Roberts was very quick to say that it’s not the same kind of business, even if both are based around leased property re-rented out to tenants.

“One of the things we liked about Domio is that is very capital-efficient,” said Tung, “focusing on the model and payback period. The short-term nature of customer stays and the combination of experience/price required to maintain loyal customers are natural enforcers of efficient unit economics.”

“For GGV, Domio stands out in two ways,” he continued. “First, CEO Jay Roberts and the Domio team’s emphasis on execution is impressive, with expansion into 12 cities in just three years. They have the right combination of vision, speed and agility. Domio’s model can readily tap into the global opportunity as they have ambition to scale to new markets. The global travel and tourism spend is $2.8 trillion with 5 billion annual tourists. Global travelers like having the flexibility and convenience of both an apartment and hotel — with Domio they can have both.”

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/12/17/domio-raises-100m-in-equity-and-debt-to-take-on-airbnb-and-hotels-with-its-curated-apartments/

Paytm, India’s biggest mobile payments firm, now has 10 million customers in Japan, the company said as it pushes to expand its reach in international markets. Paytm entered Japan last October after forming a joint venture with SoftBank and Yahoo Japan called PayPay.

In addition to 10 million users, PayPay is now supported by 1 million merchant partners and local stores in Japan, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of Paytm said Thursday. The mobile payments app has clocked more than 100 million transactions to date in the nation, he claimed. In June, PayPay had 8 million users.

“Thank you India 🇮🇳 for your inspiration and giving us chance to build world class tech…,” he posted in a tweet.

Like in India, cash also dominates much of the daily transactions in Japan. Large medical clinics and supermarkets often refuse to accept plastic cards and instead ask for cash. This encouraged Paytm, which also has presence in Canada, to explore the Japanese market.

And it has the experience, capital and tech chops to achieve it. The mobile payments app has amassed more than 250 million registered users in India. Most of these customers signed up after the Indian government invalidated much of the cash in the nation in late 2016.

PayPay competes with a handful of local players in Japan. Its biggest competition is Line, an instant messaging app that has followed China’s WeChat model to aggressively expand its offerings in recent years.

Like PayPay, Line also has no shortage of money. Earlier this year, it announced a ¥30 billion ($282 million) reward campaign to boost usage of its payments service. Line has more than 80 million users in Japan, 32 million of whom used its payments service as of February this year. There are about 120 million internet users in Japan.

PayPay maintains a ¥10 billion ($94 million) marketing campaign of its own, as part of which customers who make a certain number of transactions and participate in referral programs earn some money. In a statement, PayPay said Thursday that moving forward it “will strive to create a society where people can buy anything through cashless payments in every corner of the country with a safe and secured service for our users.”

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2019/08/08/paypay-10m-users/