By Kyle Wong, Project Director, ACH Worldwide Limited
Many Start-ups in Difficulty
No doubt the COVID-19 caused huge damage to the global economy. Several industries have been particularly hard hit: retails, travels, food and beverage. One high profile company facing major challenges Is the Hotel Startup Oyo which is backed by Softbank. The Indian startup was valued at 10B USD as recent as Sept 2019. It lost 355M USD in fiscal year 2018/19. It is expected to report dismal number for the fiscal year 2019/20. Since the COVID-19 hits, it freezes operations and lays off workers across the globe. Another high profile company in trouble is another Softbank portfolio company WeWork. WeWork failed to be listed last year due to the sky-high valuation and unprofitable business model. Since then it has to rely on financing from Softbank. But given the huge loss, even Softbank is considering cutting off the financial support to WeWork. It is reported that WeWork has stopped lease payments at many of its properties and started to fire staff.
What we have learned
The WeWork and Oyo shared many common weaknesses in the VC start-ups:
- Questionable business models. Even in the best of time, it is hard to imagine when Oyo and WeWork will ever turn a profit given the huge cost structure.
- Highly competitive industries. Hotel and office rental are not new industries and there are many entrenched and well-funded incumbents. They may introduce new operational models, but the underlying industries are mature and highly competitive and full of well-entrenched competitors.
- Unrealistic Valuation. The sky-high valuation offers little protection to investors and seems to benefit only the founders and the early investors.
Not all gloom and doom
Despite the challenges the VC industry is facing, there are still many bright spots. In terms of funding actually, 2020 Q1 is a fantastic quarter. In the first quarter of this year, 62 venture capital funds raised a total of $21 billion in the U.S., according to data gathered by PitchBook and the National Venture Capital Association. That cash puts them in a strong position as the economy weakens: In 2019, US firms raised $51 billion for the full year. As an added buffer, VCs reported a total of $121 billion in committed but unspent capital as of the middle of 2019, the latest numbers available, according to the NVCA. (1) As the pandemic drags on, the inflow of institutional money may be delayed.
Focusing in Asia, in 2019Q4 18.7B was raised across 1,021 deals. While 2019 is weaker than 2018, it is still one of the highest in terms of venture financing. (2) So right before the pandemic crisis, VC capital raising remains strong on a global basis.
Who are the winners in the future?
Fast Detection is Key to Control Pandemics
One sector that will emerge as a winner in the crisis will no doubt be health care. Given that the COVID-19 is a new type of virus, the development of the vaccine is under development. There is no certainty when a commercial product will arrive. The success of Asia in particularly Hong Kong in controlling the spread of COVID-19 is the detection at the port of entry. The current detection method uses the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technology, which is costly and slow. It requires dedicated PCR machines and well-trained staff to do the testing. So the scale is limited. The accuracy depends on the quality of the test kit. The market needs a low-cost alternative to PCR technology. Fortunately an Israeli start-up NewSight Imaging demonstrated their sensor technology can be incorporated in a spectrometer to detect impurities, bacteria, and possibly COVID-19 in a fluid. (3), (4). NewSight is currently starting the collaboration with medical institutes to explore the feasibility of COVID-19 detection. NewSight believes that with the assistance of machine learning, the accuracy will be improved and the speed of detection will be brought under 1 second at a much lower cost than current PCR technology.
In a recent online competition “Coronavirus Battle in Europe” which took place on April 22, 2020, startups all over the world pitch their ideas to detect, control and treat COVID-19. More than 50 European Venture Capital experts and investors are on the Jury Expert Board, including 500 Startups, Target Partners, Acrobator Ventures and Emerald Technology Ventures. NewSight was placed third among 20 finalists. The success is remarkable given that the first two places go to medical startups. (5)
Washing hands is simple and effective
It is interesting to one of the simplest and effective ways to prevent the spread of virus is proper handwashing. It is especially important in a factory or restaurant when virus can be spread easily through human touch. An Israeli’s start-up, appropriately named Soapy Care, invents a hygiene MicroStation which can help companies maintain hygiene levels among the workers. The Soapy microstations are already in use in several countries.
Soapy provides an optimal amount of water (taken from the atmosphere) and soap per 20-second handwashing. A computer vision interface verifies that the handwashing was done properly. On request, the soap will now include a plant-derived substance proven to kill tobamovirus – which is more resistant than coronavirus. So Soapy’s products have the potential to disinfect workers and office occupants against COVID-19. The recently released results show the combination of the special reagent and Soapy’s machine to be 100% effective in 72 samples. (6)
From Home Office to Home Gym
The global Lockdown forces many workers to work from home and to practice social distancing. People around the globe keep in touch using FaceTime, Zoom and Team. At the same time the Lockdown prevents many people from attending gyms while the pandemic really reminds us to be more health-conscious. Fortunately, a Hong Kong startup Eggplant Technology with IOT products branded under Move-it brings the gym experience to home using apps and IoT devices like smart dumbbells and some other smart workout equipment. These devices measure the user movements so that the users can receive immediate feedback from live coaches anywhere in the world. All the data collected by the devices can help coaches monitor the progress of a user. With the advent of AR/VR, we believed that the home gym experience will become closer and closer to the real thing.
The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us the importance of healthy living. A start-up in Hong Kong, Farmacy, brings hydro-farming to restaurants and homes. They minimize hydro-farms that can easily fit into a restaurant or even the small size flats in Hong Kong so their customers can enjoy the most healthy, clean and delicious vegetables.
Robots essential to keep the economy working
The exponential growth in skyscrapers worldwide has led to high demand for window washers. Though the specialized job can be lucrative, dangling alongside multi-story structures is dangerous, and accidents are not uncommon. Fortunately, Skyline Robotics creates Ozmo, an intelligent window cleaning robot, with humans supervising from the safety of the ground. (7) ACH believed that Ozmo will be welcome in China and Hong Kong which have the highest number of skyscrapers in the world.
VC industry has always adapted to the macro-environment. People complain that portfolio companies have become too expensive and investors have been chasing high profile projects blindly. The current economic difficulty means only companies creating real values will survive the downturn. The lowering of the valuation actually makes this a great time to invest in VC. After all, investment is all about timing.