Kencko chugs down $3.4M to help you get more fruit and vegetables in your diet

Kencko, a company that wants to help people eat more fruit and vegetables in their daily life, is entering feast mode after it announced a $3.4 million seed round for growth and product development.

We profiled the company last year, but — for those who missed it — Kencko develops plant-based products that help people eat healthy without having to suffer the pain of horrible tasting food or other extreme eating. That’s to say that its fruit drinks, the company’s first product, include the pulp and vitamins absent in pressed juice but come in a convenient sachet that has been flash-frozen and slow-dried to retain all the goodness. The company says that each packet, which is 20g and mixes with water, contains two of the five-a-day recommendation for fruit and vegetable servings.

Right now, Kencko — which means health in Japanese — is selling the fruit drink with six different flavor options. Founder and CEO Tomás Froes said the plan is to add as many as half a dozen new options before this year is out. Also coming are two new products that, like the drinks, are made from 100% organic fruits and vegetables to, again, make it easy and tasty to eat healthily.

Beyond products, Kencko is also using the new capital to develop its direct-to-consumer strategy. A big focus of that is its mobile app which is currently in beta with early customers but will get a full launch this year, according to Froes.

Kencko products are sold in units but also as a subscription, and that bundle will include a personal nutritionist — from Kencko’s in-house team — who will use data collected in the app to help customers personalize their diet and approach to health. Further down the line, that may include face-to-face appointments in parts of the U.S. and remote-based sessions, added Froes — who runs the 25-person company with co-founder and CBD Ricardo Vice Santos.

Kencko is focused on the U.S. and Canada but it is available worldwide. Customers can buy the fruit drink through a $16 three-day-trial pack, or more committed packages of 20 and 60 sachets, which cost $60 and $150, respectively.

Froes became a vegan after being diagnosed with acute gastritis. He was inspired to start the company in 2017 after a 90% fruit and vegetable diet cleared the condition without medicine — a doctor had previously told him that he would need to be treated with a cocktail of pills for the rest of his life.

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Now, with plant-based brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat booming and increased media coverage of the science and sustainability of food, Froes believes interest in healthy diet options has never been higher.

“There is demand for more transparency and knowledge on ingredients,” he explained in an interview. “The past few years have sparked a completely new revolution around food.”

The investment came from NextView Ventures, LocalGlobe, Kairos Ventures, Techstars, Max Ventures and other unnamed backers. Kencko took part in Techstar’s London accelerator last year.

Spotify Lite for Android gets an official launch in 36 countries

Spotify’s Lite app is now official. The app has been in beta since last year, and now Spotify is officially releasing it in 36 countries worldwide.

The app is designed to work on patchy or weak internet connections and, at just 10MB, it is small enough to cater to lower-end devices that have limited storage or older phones. Spotify Lite is limited to Android devices running version 4.3 or newer, and it is open to both paying and non-paying users. For those worried about maxing out their data plan, the app comes with an optional limit that can tell you when you are close to hitting that buffer.

Spotify claims that 90 percent of the features of the main app are available in Lite, in particular areas around multiple — including video and cover artist — are omitted as they are not critical to the core experience.

A spokesperson told TechCrunch that, as of now, there are no plans to bring the Lite experience to iOS. That makes sense as the majority of people who would benefit from the stripped-down experience would be Android owners.

India is likely to be a key focus. Spotify introduced Lite in India in June, months after the full service went live in the country in February.

The overall goal here is to expand Spotify’s reach beyond the current user base by focusing on emerging markets or older users. The company currently claims 217 million users, of which 100 million are paying customers. For comparison, Apple Music passed 60 million users in June.

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Cecilia Qvist, Global Head of Markets, Spotify (left) announced the release of Spotify Lite on stage at Rise in Hong Kong (Photo By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

According to Google Play Store data, Spotify Lite has been downloaded more than one million times. Expect that numbers to rocket as the company goes to town promoting Lite as an alternative entry point for its service.

Lite apps have been popularized by services such as Facebook, Messenger and YouTube which have tapped demand, particularly in emerging markets where data speeds tend to be inconsistent and lower-end devices are more prevalent.

Uber CTO says competing with Didi is ‘very healthy’ despite their complicated relationship

Competing with a company that counts you as an investor is hardly conventional — some might call it strange — but for Uber it’s a situation that is not only normal but essential.

That’s according to the ride-hailing giant’s CTO, Thuan Pham, who talked about the complicated rivalry Uber has with China’s Didi Chuxing, which counts each other as investors. Uber famously exited China in 2016 — it has since left Southeast Asia and merged with a rival in Russia, too — and part of that deal saw it take nearly six percent of the Chinese company’s business while Didi got equity in Uber. Yet, years later, the two compete in the growing Latin America market, where Didi is making aggressive moves, and also in Australia.

“If you don’t have competition then you can become complacent because there’s no competition to challenge,” Pham said during an interview at the Rise conference in Hong Kong today. “This competition is definitely a very healthy thing, it’s very very necessary.”

When competing in China, “both of the companies had to be on our best in order to compete,” Pham said, and he maintains that iron continues to sharpen iron on the other side of the planet.

“Even after we exited [China] we ran into them in other markets as well,” he added. “Our philosophy [is that] if they are doing something better in terms of features, we try harder to close the gap and surpass them. In the areas where our services are better, we try not to rest on our laurels because we see them trying to catch up all the time.”

Pham didn’t address the fact that Uber owns pieces of its rivals directly — and thus it burns money competing with them — but he did allude to that fact that the battle in some markets may make or break ride-hailing services.

“The best few companies will ultimately get to stay around and the lesser companies will get absorbed,” he said.

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HONG KONG , Hong Kong – 9 July 2019; Thuan Pham, CTO, Uber, left, with Shelly Banjo, Asia Tech Reporter, Bloomberg, on Centre Stage during day one of RISE 2019 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Hong Kong. (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Uber’s relationship with its competition is very tangled. It owns stakes in Didi and Grab and its M&A activity included buying Careem in the Middle East for $3.1 billion. Didi, meanwhile, spent $1 billion to acquire Brazil’s 99 to kickstart its Latin America business — Uber is said to have bid for 99 unsuccessfully. Didi is also a prolific investor and it owns stakes in Ola, Grab, Careem and Bolt, each of which competes with Uber… which counts Didi as a shareholder.

An added wrinkle to the global rivalry is that investors such as SoftBank, its Vision Fund and Coatue own stakes in multiple ride-hailing services.

Despite a trio of global retreats which suggest that Uber’s one-size-fits-all approach to international markets struggles against localized plays, Pham maintained that Uber’s approach is still to “build globally.”

That may be up for debate, but those retreats do give the company interesting options for the future. Already, Uber has made billions on paper from the stakes it owns in markets where it exited. The big question is whether, in the long term, it’ll cash out of those deals and realized profits or look at M&A opportunities to re-enter those regions. It’s certainly a unique situation.

Waresix hauls in $14.5M to advance its push to digitize logitics in Indonesia

Waresix​, one of a handful of startups aiming to modernize logistics in Indonesia — the world’s fourth most populous country — has pulled in $14.5 million to grow its 18-month-old business.

This new investment, Waresix’s Series A, is led by EV Growth — the growth-stage fund co-run by East Ventures — with participation from SMDV — the investment arm of Indonesia corporation Sinar Mas — and Singapore’s Jungle Ventures . The startup previously raised $1.6 million last year from East Ventures, SMDV and Monk’s Hill Ventures. It closed a seed round in early 2018.

Waresix is aiming to digitize logistics, the business of moving goods from A to B, which it believes is worth a total of $240 billion in Indonesia.

A large part of that is down to the country’s geography. The archipelago officially has over 17,000, but there are five main ones. That necessitates a lot of challenges for logistics, which are said to account for 25-30 percent of GDP — a figure that is typically below five percent in Western markets — while Indonesia barely scraped the top 50 rankings in World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index.

But, as Southeast Asia’s largest economy and the key market for digital growth in the region, that makes this an attractive problem to solve… or, rather, attractive industry to modernize.

Like others in its space worldwide — which include Chinese unicorn Manbang and BlackBuck in Indonesia — Waresix is focused on optimizing logistics by making the process more transparent for clients and more efficient for haulage companies and truckers. That includes removing the chain of ‘middle man’ brokers, who add costs and reduce transparency, and provide a one-stop solution for transportation by land or sea, as well as cold storage and general cargo handling.

As of today, Waresix claims a fleet of more than 20,000 trucks and over 200 warehouses partners across Indonesia. The company said it plans to use this new capital to expand that coverage further. In particular, that’ll include additional land transport options and additional warehouse capacity in tier-two cities and more remote areas. That’s a push that founders Andree Susanto (CEO), Edwin Wibowo (CFO), and Filbert Hansel (CTO) — who met at UC Berkley in the U.S. — believe fits with Indonesia’s own $400 billion commitment to improve national infrastructure and transport.

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Waresix trucks

It is also consistent with East Ventures, the long-standing early-stage VC, which has backed a pack of young companies aiming to inject internet smarts into traditional industries in Indonesia. Some of that portfolio includes Warung Pintar, which develops smart street vendor kiosks, Kedai Sayur, which is digitizing street vendors, and Fore Coffee, which draws inspiration from China’s digital-first brand Luckin Coffee, which recently listed in the U.S.

Now with EV Growth, which reached a final close of $200 million thanks to LPs that include SoftBank, the East Ventures has the firepower to write larger checks that go beyond seed and pre-Series A deals as it has done with Waresix.

But the company is far from alone in going after the logistics opportunity in Indonesia. Its rivals include Kargo, which was started by a former Uber Asia exec and is backed by Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick’s 10100 fund among others, and Ritase.

Ritase, which claims to be profitable, closed an $8.5 million Series A this week. It said it has 7,500 trucks and, on the client side, some 500 SMEs and a smattering of well-known global brands. Kargo has kept its metrics quiet, but it is a later arrival on the scene. The startup only came out of stealth in March of this year when it announced a $7.6 million funding round.

PayU, Naspers’ global fintech firm, enters Southeast Asia with acquisition of Red Dot Payment

PayU, the Naspers owned fintech firm that specializes in emerging markets, is broadening its global reach into Southeast Asia after it announced a deal to buy a majority stake in Singapore-based Red Dot Payment.

Naspers is best known for its payments and fintech business in markets like India, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe, but now it will enter Southeast Asia, a market with over 600 million consumers and rapidly rising internet access.

PayU plans to tap that potential through Red Dot, an eight-year-old startup founded by finance veterans which offers services that include a payment gateway, e-commerce storefronts and online invoicing across Southeast Asia. PayU said it has acquired “a majority stake” in the business. It did not specify the exact size but it did disclose that the deal values Red Dot at $65 million.

It isn’t clear exactly how much Red Dot had raised from investors overall — its Series B was $5.2 million but the value of prior rounds were not disclosed — but its backers include Japan’s GMO, Wavemaker, Skype co-founder Toivo Annus and MDI Ventures. The company said that that “the majority” of its investors exited through this transaction, but some stakeholders — including CEO Randy Tan — are keeping shares with a view to a later buyout in full.

That’s important for PayU, according to CEO Laurent le Moal, who stressed that the company believes in retaining teams and empowering them through acquisitions, rather than simply buying an asset.

“We have to strike the balance between a solid majority [acquisition] and an opportunity” for founders, he told TechCrunch in an interview.

PayU plans to put “real investment” into the startup, whilst also integrating its services into its ‘Hub’ of services and tech, a stack that is shared with its mesh of global business and was built from its acquisition of Israel’s Zooz. PayU’s India business alone is estimated to be worth $2.5 billion, but its overall business is hard to value but more details emerge of its global business as Naspers lists select entities through an IPO in Europe.

Back to the deal, Tan called it “a marriage made in heaven,” and he also revealed that Red Dot had turned down recent investment and acquisition offers from three other suitors.

“They [PayU] operate globally and have over 300,000 merchants, including Facebook, Google and the kind of clients we aspire to win,” he said.

So why Southeast Asia, and why now?

“We want to build the number one payments company for high growth markets,” le Moal said. “If you look at what the top 10 economies will be in 2030, half are in Southeast Asia and the rest are growth markets we are already in

“We are number one in India, in the biggest markets in Africa, the fastest-growing part of Europe and Latin America, but we have no presence in Southeast Asia,” he continued. “It’s fundamental… you want to go where the consumer growth is.”

The initial focus post-deal is to supercharge the Red Dot business through shared tech, networks and expertise, but, further down the line, de Moal has a vision of going deeper into fintech and financial services to offer products such as consumer credit, as it has done in India.

Such a product launch isn’t likely to happen for another 12 months at least, the PayU CEO said. Before then, there will be a focus on growing Red Dot’s cross-border trade business and developing synergy with its business in other markets, especially India.

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PayU CEO Laurent Le Moal said the company is looking to dominate high-growth markets in Southeast Asia following its acquisition of Red Dot Payment

De Moal hinted also that PayU has ambitions to be in Japan and Korea, although he conceded that the exact strategy — which could include organic growth — is still to be defined. We can certainly expect to see an uptick from the company in Southeast Asia and the wider Asian continent.

“There will be an acceleration of investment and M&A,” de Moal said. “It’s just the beginning for us as PayU and Naspers in the region.”

Stranger Things 3 is now available on Netflix

July 4 is American Independence Day, but it also marks the arrival of Stranger Things season three — a release that might just be the most-anticipated in the history of Netflix.

Season three dropped at 12:01 PDT which means, dear reader, that it is now online and ready for your viewing pleasure.

The series has been an enormous hit for Netflix. Beyond a litany of awards, it has proven to be a smash with Netflix subscribers. More than 15 million watched the season 2 opener within three days of its release, while every episode of the second season had racked up more than four million views within that early window.

Netflix has gone to town promoting season three — with teasers in popular Roblox and Fortnite and an international promotion campaign — so you can expect that the numbers will be even higher this time around. The only question is whether it can deliver on the hype?

Sony announces a new $185M fund to invest in tech startups

Sony is doubling down on the world of startup investment. The Japanese tech giant announced a new fund that is aiming to raise 20 billion JPY (around $185 million) to invest in companies within “key high-growth industries.”

While Sony launched a fund in 2016, this new vehicle — which is called Innovation Growth Fund — has been set up with others. Firstly, it is being run jointly with Daiwa Capital Holdings — the VC arm of investment bank Daiwa Securities — and early LPs confirmed include Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, Osaka Shoko Shinkin Bank and Mitsubishi UFJ Lease & Finance Company Limited. Sony isn’t saying how much has been raised so far, but it isn’t the full target yet.

The previous fund made over 40 investments, Sony said, and now IGF is taking over with the goal of writing bigger checks than Sony typically manage by itself and paying closer attention to tech startups.

One longer-term goal is to help its portfolio companies develop into public firms, which is where Daiwa’s expertise of public listings comes into play. The fund, meanwhile, said it plans to open links with “renowned research institutions” and other tech companies to help its startups on their path — the latter certainly sounds like a SoftBank Vision Fund-style approach, albeit considerably less than its $100 billion ammunition.

“We believe that the integration of Sony’s insight of cutting-edge technologies and Daiwa Securities Group’s expertise in finance will lead to the creation of a new kind of venture capital business while providing the spark for new trends in the venture capital ecosystem,” said Yoshihisa Kaneko, executive managing director of Daiwa Securities, in a statement.

Kyash, a would-be challenger bank in Japan, raises $14M

The new era of tech-enabled banks is coming, even in regulation-heavy Japan. Kyash, a fintech company with visions on becoming Japan’s first challenger bank, said today it has raised $14 million to continue its expansion.

To be clear, Kyash isn’t a bank. Yet. But it is currently applying for a host of licenses in Japan that could allow it to offer banking-style features including checking accounts, ATM withdrawals and money remittance. Right now, it is a payment app that offers a connected Visa card in the style of Monzo, N26, Revolut (which has a Japan license) and others of that ilk.

The startup was founded in 2015 in Shinichi Takatori, a former banker and management consultant who saw the potential to merge tech and finance.

“I really noticed that information and communication has become ubiquitous but money itself hasn’t changed for a long time,” Takatori told TechCrunch in an interview.

The company took some time — two years — before it released a consumer product, but it quickly tied up with Visa to offer a prepaid debit card that connects to the Kyash app. That provides benefits like instant payment notifications, clear balance and lower fees for overseas spending, while costs are born by merchants rather than users. They might seem elementary today, but they are still not standard among Japan’s traditional banks, Takatori explained.

The company declined to share its user numbers, but Takatori said that this new round of funding — Kyash’s Series B — is a validation of the progress it has made.

The $14 million investment is co-led by Goodwater Capital, a U.S. investor that has backed fintech startups like Monzo, Stash and Toss in Korea, and Mitsubishi UFJ Capital, the investment arm of Japan’s largest bank.

Mitsubishi’s involvement means that Kyash counts Japan’s three largest banks as investors, with SMBC, Mizuho having previous put money into the company. Others that took part in this Series B include Toppan Printing, JAFCO and Shinsei Corporate Investment Limited.

So many banks on the cap table might seem like a strange thing for a disruptor — let alone the banks, which tend to behave territorially — but Takatori believes that there’s the potential for cooperation, not to mention that it will help the startup with its licensing efforts. Already, he revealed, Mitsubishi plans to integrate its card with the Kyash app to provide its customers with the best of both worlds.

“We’re not here to win over existing banks, but instead inform [them of] how money should work in next decade,” explained Takatori. “So why not collaborate in some way.”

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Kyash has a tie-up with Visa that allows it to offer its customers a connected debit card and also provide issuing services to other fintech startups

There’s also the fact that, even with a license, Kyash and others are unlikely to be able to offer full banking services. That means they will have to serve as complementary offerings to the industry, which would likely mean that cooperation is good — essential — for both sides.

But, beyond the consumer play, a notable piece of Kyash’s business that has investors excited is its B2B payment business.

The company developed its own payment processing system to reduce costs, which is one reason why it took time to launch. Thanks to a tie-up with Visa, it offers both issuing and processing of prepaid Visa cards to fintech companies in Japan that want to go down the payment route.

That’s increasingly popular given the government push to make the country a “cashless society” ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games next year. It could also appeal to crypto companies in Japan, which offers the world’s most robust licensing, who want to follow the example of the Coinbase card in Europe or startups like Crypto.com and TenX which offer similar prepaid cards.

Takatori said Kyash is “in discussions” with crypto companies, but that it has not made a decision on how to proceed yet. The company is also eying potential overseas expansions, although that is some way down the line.

“We have open eyes for globalization, it’s just a matter of when,” he told TechCrunch. “We still have a far way to go [in Japan, but] maybe after the Olympics.”

More pressingly, he sees the company looking to raise a “pretty quick” Series C round to give it acceleration into next year. That’s likely to go to more expansion and user acquisition since the licenses the startup has applied for are unlikely to be granted this year.

Sweet Escape, a platform for booking photographers, raises $6M

Sweet Escape, a startup founded in Indonesia that helps connect photographers with customers, is all smiles today after it announced a $6 million Series A round.

The company — which was profiled by TechCrunch last year — said that the investment was led by Singapore-based funds Openspace Ventures and Jungle Ventures with participation from Burda Principal
Investments. Existing investors, which include Beenext, SkyStar Capital, and GDP Venture, also took part. The startup previously raised $1 million in seed funding.

Founded in 2017 by David Soong and Emile Etienne — whose previous startup was recently acquired by Indonesian travel unicorn Traveloka — Sweet Escape was initially aimed at helping travelers to connect with photographers to take great holiday photos, and get them back quickly. Now, however, that mission has broadened and the company is billing itself as a platform to reach and book photographers.

“A photographer for every need, anywhere in the world,” said Soong, who is CEO, when I asked for an elevator pitch.

Rather than disruption, the company is formalizing the process of booking photo shoots. I can’t imagine that I’d ever feel the need to spend $300 to book a snapper while I’m at the beach, but I’m in the minority — to be fair, I don’t even use Instagram anymore — according to Soong and (COO) Etienne. Photos are high quality and help create memories, they argue, while they are also provided within just three working days — although that is headed towards just 24 hours.

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Sweet Escape founders Emile Etienne (left) and David Soong (right)

When TechCrunch spoke to the company last year, it said it had served 10,000 customers and worked with over 2,000 photographers across over 400 cities in some 100 countries. While they declined to give figures, Soong said the customer numbers have doubled over the corresponding eight months with Indonesia and Philippines its largest markets. Beyond consumers, Sweet Escape has begun to tap the corporate market, giving companies a platform to secure photo shoots.

Indeed, calling Sweet Escape a photo site for travelers is underselling its direction. As well as catering to corporate customers, it works closely with photographers to help them increase their business.

Aside from driving customers, that also covers photo editing which Sweet Escape takes care of. In particular, it is working to automate much of the basic editorial process to enable its human editor to focus on tasks that require skill and expertise.

“Editing hundreds or thousands of images per day can be monotonous,” Etienne said.

The aim is for tech to automate 80-90 percent of editing, which is mostly touch-ups, with areas like color enhancement left to the human editing team.

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Sweet Escape aims to use tech to automate many of the monotonous edits its team makes to customer photos

The efficient approach is also designed to increase turnaround time, meaning customers get photos as quickly as possible, leaving photographers with satisfied reviews and more time to focus on actually taking photos. Beyond that, Sweet Escape also wants to provide the tools and expertise that will enable photographers to develop their ability and experience in new areas.

“We want to create a platform where people can say: ‘Hey, I want to service clients in this vertical or that vertical’ and ultimately make more money,” said Etienne.

This new round is announced right after France-based Meero, which runs a photographer marketplace and editing tools for pros, became a unicorn thanks to a $230 million Series C deal. Soong and Etienne say their round closed before that news and that it was oversubscribed — meaning they had to, presumably politely, decline some VC offers — but still they are taking Meero’s success as another validation of their vision.

The company has progressed to office in Jakarta (HQ), the Philippines, London and Singapore and a workforce of 109, with more plans for expansion. The company is eying offices in Thailand, Korea and Japan as part of an expansion to 200 staff, which will include a mixture of roles including hires to the tech team.

While there is early product-market fit, the founders are aware that China and the U.S. are larger markets that may require significant investment in resources to take the business to the next level. That isn’t happening yet, but Etienne said that a Series B planned for the end of this year or early next year is when a decision will be made on tackling one of those “giant” markets directly.

“We see huge potential globally, but exactly where we are in one to three years is still a question mark,” he added.

Nexon takes control of emerging game studio Embark via a $96M investment

Six months ago Korean games giant Nexon seemed headed for a management change, but now it seems very much back to business as usual. Days after founder Kim Jung-ju was reported to have called off selling his near-50 percent share in the firm, Nexon has snapped up a controlling stake in seven-month-old game developer Embark for $96 million.

Sweden-based Embark was founded by former EA executive Patrick Söderlund last year. Nexon was its sole early investor, having paid a reported $41 million for around one-third of the business. Today, Nexon said it had agreed to double its ownership to reach a total of 66 percent. The Korean firm revealed it is paying $96 million for the deal.

Nexon isn’t a stranger to M&A but this is an uncharacteristically early move. That’s likely down to the company’s high regard for Söderlund — who already sits on the Nexon board — and its belief in Embark’s vision.

With nearly 50 staff, the studio is still to release its first title. But Söderlund teased that it will be “a cooperative free-to-play action game set in a distant future, about overcoming seemingly impossible odds by working together.”

In a blog post announcing the new investment, he explained that Nexon and Embark are both aligned on the mission of developing new concepts for the gaming world.

“Our companies share the same world-view. We both know that game development needs an overhaul, and we’re both convinced that new technology, methodologies, and perspectives will completely reshape what games can become,” he wrote.

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“So what now? We keep on building our studio and will continue doing things the way we have, working on the things we’ve started building. If anything, Nexon’s increased support means we can move a bit faster and focus even harder on our long-term mission,” Söderlund added.

He shared early concept visuals (above) and said that development has now advanced to weekly playtests, which are “gloriously buggy.”

Beyond games, Embark is also working on “a platform that we hope will let anyone create interactive experiences, even people with no prior experience with game development tools.”

It isn’t exactly clear what that will end up being when finished, but Söderlund shared a video of a learning system that develops animations without manual input.

He also showed an environment demo that was developed using photogrammetry.

That progress obviously appeals to Nexon, and the deal will see Embark become a consolidated subsidiary of Nexon Group.

The Embark deal could be a shrewd bet if the company’s vision produces quality titles, let alone if it can shift the bar for gaming. Nexon is fresh from a record first quarter that saw it make a profit of $493 million total revenue of $860 million — the estimated $137 million it has spent on Embark is a relative drop in the ocean.