Jobpal pockets $2.7M for its enterprise recruitment chatbot

Berlin-based recruitment chatbot startup Jobpal has closed a €2.5 million (~$2.7M) seed round of funding from InReach Ventures and Acadian Ventures.

The company, which was founded back in 2016, has built a cross-platform chatbot to automate candidate support and increase efficiency around hiring by applying machine learning and natural language processing for what it dubs “talent interaction”.

The target customers are large enterprises with Jobpal offering the product as a managed service.

For these employers the pitch is increased efficiency by being able to rapidly respond to and engage potential job applicants whenever they’re reaching out for more info via an always-on channel (i.e. the chatbot) which is primed to respond to common questions.

Candidates can also apply for vacancies via the Jobpal chatbot by answering a series of questions in the familiar messaging thread format. Jobpal says its chatbot can also be used to screen applicants’ CVs and recommend the most promising candidates.

It takes care of the logistical legwork of scheduling interview appointments — leaving HR departments with more time to spend on more meaningful portions of the recruitment process.

Co-founder and CEO Luc Dudler tells TechCrunch it has more than 30 enterprise clients at this stage, generating “thousands of conversations” per day. Customers he name checks include the likes of Airbus, Deutsche Telekom and McDonald’s.

The software works on popular messaging platforms including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and SMS, and is available in 15+ languages — though Jobpal confirms the German market remains its largest so far.

“The sheer volume of interest and number of questions enterprises receive from prospective talent is often difficult to deal with, which results in a suboptimal experience and frustrated candidates. Conversational interfaces and Natural Language Processing enable us to deliver a candidate-centric experience and increase the efficiency of the recruiting function,” says Dudler, arguing that the recruitment landscape has become “candidate first” — putting the onus on enterprises to get the “candidate experience” right.

“This technology allows employers to engage with candidates when they want and on the platforms they use, such as WhatsApp. This gives control to the candidates, meaning they can get answers in a matter of seconds, instead of days or weeks. For Internal HR teams, they can spend time more time finding the best talent, as jobpal automates tedious and time-consuming tasks, allowing recruitment teams to focus on more value-add tasks.”

“We focus mainly on communication and engagement, and our customers only do in-house recruitment. We don’t work with agencies,” he adds.

Jobpal points to increased engagement from use of its chatbot — claiming companies are seeing more queries from jobseekers than they used to receive emails, as well as arguing the “low-friction” approach is accessible and convenient and leads to increased conversion rates.

With any automated process there could be a risk of biased and unequitable outcomes — depending on the criteria the chatbot is using to sift candidates. Although Jobpal says it’s not using algorithms to take recruitment decisions, so the biggest bias risk looks to be in the hands of the employers setting the criteria.

Misinterpretation of candidates’ queries based on the technology failing to understand what’s being asked could potentially lead to responses that disproportionately disadvantage certain applicants. Though Jobpal says queries that are too complex are routed to a human to deal with.

“We get a lot of queries about the application process/deadline/evaluation, qualifications needed, supporting documents, working hours, growth options and salary that Jobpal is designed to deal with,” says Dudler, of Jobpal candidate users. “Our chatbots don’t answer questions that are too personal, too obscure or anything non-recruitment related such as customer service queries.”

“Jobpal stores the query data but it’s de-associated from the candidate data. This data is used to train AI models which supports general communication as well as company-specific chatbots. We don’t mine or sell candidate profiles, and we don’t do algorithmic decision making in the recruitment process,” he adds.

The software integrates with a number of enterprise Human Capital Management suites at this point, including SAP SuccessFactors, Workday, Oracle (formerly Taleo), Avature and Smartrecruiters.

The seed round follows what Dudler couches as “a huge increase in demand” — with the team spying an opportunity for further growth.

“We’ll be investing in product development and tripling our headcount in the next 12 months. Specifically, we are looking to recruit a VP of marketing,” he tells us.

Chatbots still strike many consumers as robotic — and even irritating — but the technology has nonetheless been flourishing in the customer support and recruitment space for several years now. Business areas where there’s no shortage of repetitive tasks for automating. And where being able to offer some level of service 24/7 is a major plus.

On the hiring front, the power imbalance between employer and job applicant might even make interfacing with a bot more appealing for a candidate than the pressure of talking to an actual human who already works at the target employer.

For certain types of jobs employee churn can also be incredibly high — making hiring essentially a neverending task. Again, chatbots are a natural fit in such a scenario; being scalable, they take the strain out of repeat and formulaic conversations — with the promise of a smooth pipeline of candidate conversions.

Given all that there’s now no shortage of recruitment chatbots touting automated support for HR departments. At the same time there’s unlikely to ever be a one-size fits all approach to the hiring problem. It’s a multifaceted, multi-dimensional challenge on account of the spectrum of work that exists and jobs to be filled, and indeed the human variety of jobseekers.

This is why there are so many different ‘flavors’ and ‘styles’ of chatbots offering to assist, some with algorithmic matching, and/or targeting different types of employers and/or jobs/industry (or indeed jobseekers; passive vs active) — others just super basic tools (such as the Jobo bot which alerts jobseekers to vacancies matching criteria they’ve specified).

Some more sophisticated chatbot examples include MeetFrank (passive job matching); Mya (for recruiting agencies and massive enterprises, including for shift filling); Vahan (low skilled, blue-collar job-matching for high attrition delivery jobs); and AllyO (conversational AI for “end-to-end HR management”).

While a few recruitment chatbots that are closer to what Jobpal is offering include the likes of IdealBrazen and Xor, to name three.

With so much chatbot competition pledging to ‘streamline recruitment’ by applying automation to the hiring task, employers might be forgiven for thinking they have a fresh choice headache on their hands.

But for startups applying AI technology to ‘fix recruitment’ by making talk cheap (and structured), the patchwork of players and approaches still in play suggests there’s ongoing opportunity to grab a slice of a truly massive market. 

Beyond Meat files for a public offering

Beyond Meat, the meat replacement company whose packages of Beyond Burgers line grocery store aisles across America, has filed for an initial public offering.

The company is looking to raise roughly $200 million in the stock sale for its portfolio of burger, chicken and sausage replacements, selling 8.75 million shares of common stock at an upper limit of $21 per share that would value Beyond Meat at more than $1 billion.

The Los Angeles-based company’s public offering should be a nice windfall for the Chicago-based investors DNS Capital, an investment firm managing the private wealth of the Pritzker family, and Cleveland Avenue, founded by former McDonald’s executive Don Thompson; as well as the venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins and Obvious Ventures.

Another winner from the Beyond Meat public offering is the corporate investment arm of Tyson Foods . The meat processor and marketer invested in Beyond Meat back in 2016.

All told, Beyond Meat has raised $122 million from investors, including Obvious Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Cleveland Avenue, DNS Capital, Tyson Ventures, Bill Gates, S2G Ventures and a whole host of other firms, according to Crunchbase.

While Beyond Meat has increased its revenues steadily — from $16.2 million when it began selling its wares in 2016 to $87.9 million in 2018 — the company is still a loss-generating machine. Its operations were in the red to the tune of $29.9 million in 2018, down from $30.4 million a year earlier.

With the public offering, Beyond Meat becomes the first venture-backed meat replacement company to list its shares, but there are other startups waiting to follow suit. Impossible Burger is another well-financed startup making burger alternatives, as is the current king of animal-free condiments, Just, which is looking at lab-grown meat on its product roadmap.

Supporting all of this investment activity is the potential to carve out a huge chunk of the $270 billion consumers spent on meat in the U.S. in 2017 alone. Globally, consumers bought $1.4 trillion of meat, according to data from Fitch Solutions Macro Research cited by the company.

Meanwhile, consumption of plant-based meat replacements in the U.S. is growing at a steady clip. In the first half of 2018, Americans bought $670 million of meat replacement products, according to a Nielsen study commissioned by the Plant Based Food Association.

Google Cloud, McDonald’s big tech acquisition, and motivating an engineering team

Our live conference call on Google Cloud Next

Last week at its conference in San Francisco, Google Cloud unveiled a bevy of new features, and we also got to hear for the first time from its head honcho, Thomas Kurian . TechCrunch was on the scene, with enterprise editor Frederic Lardinois and enterprise reporter Ron Miller covering all aspects of this major conference.

They conducted a live conference call with Extra Crunch members last week. In case you missed it, we’ve posted the transcript for members.

New Series: The Exit (this time with Dynamic Yield)

We talk a lot at Extra Crunch about starting companies up, but how do startups exit?

Lucas Matney, one of TechCrunch’s San Francisco-based writers, is developing a new series exploring why certain companies successfully exit. In this inaugural interview, he talks with venture capitalist Adam Fisher of Bessemer about his investment in Dynamic Yield, an adtech (but not really ad-based) startup that exited to (of all places) McDonald’s for a reported $300 million.

Lucas Matney: McDonald’s certainly seems like a bit of an unexpected buyer considering the early history of the company, but at what point in the company’s life cycle did it make sense that they would want to buy this tech? Or are you still a little surprised that this is the deal that went through?

Adam Fisher: Oh, yeah, with these kind of things you have to be skeptical until you see it in writing, and even then, skeptical. You know, as a VC, I’ve seen too many deals never mature to an offer, or even after the offer it’s pulled away. I mean, the less traditional the buyer, the more worried you have to be that something strange will happen, that somebody will change their mind, that somebody will get fired, that something unrelated will happen on the macro level.

So, you know, we were obviously skeptical until there was an offer.

But it was very clear, at a certain point, that the level of engagement was so high and so immense that they were serious, that this wasn’t just an idea that popped up after the had met Dynamic Yield, that they had been thinking about making such an acquisition for quite a while beforehand.

The Exit: an AI startup’s McPivot

Five years ago, Dynamic Yield was courting an investment from The New York Times as it looked to shift how publishers paywalled their content. Last month, Chicago-based fast food king McDonald’s bought the Israeli company for $300 million, a source told TechCrunch, with the purpose of rethinking how people order drive-thru chicken nuggets.

The pivot from courting the grey lady to the golden arches isn’t as drastic as it sounds. In a lot of ways, it’s the result of the company learning to say “no” to certain customers. At least, that’s what Bessemer’s Adam Fisher tells us.

The Exit is a new series at TechCrunch. It’s an exit interview of sorts with a VC who was in the right place at the right time but made the right call on an investment that paid off. 

Fisher

Fisher was Dynamic Yield founder Liad Agmon’s first call when he started looking for funds from institutional investors. Bessemer bankrolled the bulk of a $1.7 million funding round which valued the startup at $5 million pre-money back in 2013. The firm ended up putting about $15 million into Dynamic Yield, which raised ~$85 million in total from backers including Marker Capital, Union Tech Ventures, Baidu and The New York Times.

Fisher and I chatted at length about the company’s challenging rise and how Israel’s tech scene is still being underestimated. Fisher has 11 years at Bessemer under his belt and 14 exits including Wix, Intucell, Ravello and Leaba.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


Saying “No”

Lucas Matney: So, right off the bat, how exactly did this tool initially built for publishers end up becoming something that McDonalds wanted?

Adam Fisher: I mean, the story of Dynamic Yield is unique. Liad, the founder and CEO, he was an entrepreneur in residence in our Herzliya office back in 2011. I’d identified him earlier from his previous company, and I just said, ‘Well, that’s the kind of guy I’d love to work with.’ I didn’t like his previous company, but there was something about his charisma, his technology background, his youth, which I just felt like “Wow, he’s going to do something interesting.” And so when he sold his previous company, coincidentally to another Chicago based company called Sears, I invited him and I think he found it very flattering, so he joined us as an EIR.

Jio Health combines online and offline healthcare in Southeast Asia, starting in Vietnam

The internet is often lauded for the potential to increase the impact of a range of primary services in emerging markets, including education, commerce, banking and healthcare. While many of those platforms are now being built, a few are finding that a hybrid approach combining online and offline is advantageous.

That’s exactly what Jio Health, a ‘full stack’ (forgive the phrase) healthcare startup is bringing to consumers in Southeast Asia, starting in Vietnam.

The company started out as a U.S-based venture that worked with healthcare providers around the ‘Obamacare’ initiative, before sensing the opportunity overseas and relocating to Vietnam, the Southeast Asian market of 95 million people and a fast-growing young population.

Today, it operates an online healthcare app and a physical facility in Saigon, it also has licenses for prescriptions and over the counter drug sales. The serviced launched nearly a year ago, already the company has some 130 staff, including 70 caregivers — including doctors — and a tech team of 30.

The idea is to offer services digitally, but also provide a physical location for when it is needed. Therein, the company ensures that “every element of that journey” is controlled and of the required standard, that’s in contrast to services that partner with hospitals or other care centers.

The scope of Jio Health’s services range from pediatrics to primary care, chronic disease management and ancillary services, which will soon cover areas like eye care, dermatology and cancer.

“Our initial research [before moving] found that healthcare in Vietnam was unlike the U.S,” Raghu Rai, founder and CEO of Jio Health, told TechCrunch in an interview. “Spending is primarily driven by the consumer (out of pocket) and there’s no real digital infrastructure to speak of.”

Rai — a U.S. citizen — said doctors typically “have minutes per patient” and get through “hundreds” of consultations in every morning shift. That gave him an idea to make things more efficient.

“We can probably address north of 80 percent of consumers health needs,” he said of Jio Health,” but we also have referral partnerships with certain hospitals.”

Raghu Rai is CEO and founder of Jio Health

The process begins when a consumer downloads the Jio Health app and inputs primary information. A representative is then dispatched to visit the consumer in person, potentially within “hours” of the submission of information, according to Rai.

He believes that Jio Health can save its users money and time by using remote consultancy for many diagnoses. The company also works with health insurance companies, for areas like annual checkups, and Rai said that McDonald’s and 7-Eleven are among the corporations that offer Jio Health among the providers for their staff, they’re not exclusive.

This week, Jio Health announced that it has closed a $5 million Series A funding from Southeast Asia’s Monk’s Hill Ventures . Rai said the company plans to use the capital for expansion. In particular, he said, the company is adding new care categories this month — including eye care and dermatology — and it is working towards expanding its brand through marketing.

Further down the line, Rai said the company hopes to expand to Hanoi before the end of this year. While there is interest in moving into other markets within Southeast Asia, that isn’t about to happen soon.

“We have begun to investigate other markets but at this point feel the market in Vietnam is substantial in itself,” he told TechCrunch. “It’s very plausible that we’d be looking at international expansion plans in 2020… we’re going to be focused on Southeast Asia.”

McDonald’s is acquiring Dynamic Yield to create a more personalized drive-thru

McDonald’s is announcing an agreement to acquire personalization company Dynamic Yield.

The announcement does not include a price, but a source with knowledge of the deal said that it’s more than $300 million.

Dynamic Yield works with brands across e-commerce, travel, finance and media to create what’s been described as an Amazon-style personalized experience.

McDonald’s said it will use this technology to create a drive-thru menu that can be tailored to things like the weather, current restaurant traffic and trending menu items. Once you’ve started ordering, the display can also recommend additional items based on what you’ve already chosen.

In fact, the fast food giant said it has been testing this out in several U.S. locations in 2018. The plan is to start rolling this out across the United States in 2019, and then to move into international markets. The company also plans to integrate this technology into other digital products, like self-serve kiosks and the McDonald’s mobile app.

“Technology is a critical element of our Velocity Growth Plan, enhancing the experience for our customers by providing greater convenience on their terms,” said McDonald’s President and CEO Steve Easterbrook in a statement. “With this acquisition, we’re expanding both our ability to increase the role technology and data will play in our future and the speed with which we’ll be able to implement our vision of creating more personalised experiences for our customers.”

At the same time, McDonald’s said Dynamic Yield will continue to operate as a standalone company serving existing and future clients, that it will continue to invest in the core personalization technology.

According to Crunchbase, Dynamic Yield has raised a total of $83.3 million from investors including Innovation Endeavors, Bessemer Venture Partners, Marker Capital, as well as strategic investors like Naver (which owns the messaging apps Line and Snow), Baidu, The New York Times and Deutsche Telekom.

Updating

First China, now Starbucks gets an ambitious VC-funded rival in Indonesia

Asia’s venture capital-backed startups are gunning for Starbucks .

In China, the U.S. coffee giant is being pushed by Luckin Coffee, a $2.2 billion challenger surfing China’s on-demand wave, and on the real estate side, where WeWork China has just unveiled an on-demand product that could tempt people who go to Starbucks to kill time or work.

That trend is picking up in Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest country and Southeast Asia’s largest economy, where an on-demand challenger named Fore Coffee has fuelled up for a fight after it raised $8.5 million.

Fore was started in August 2018 when associates at East Ventures, a prolific early-stage investor in Indonesia, decided to test how robust the country’s new digital infrastructure can be. That means it taps into unicorn companies like Grab, Go-Jek and Traveloka and their army of scooter-based delivery people to get a hot brew out to customers. Incidentally, the name ‘Fore’ comes from ‘forest’ — “we aim to grow fast, strong, tall and bring life to our surrounding” — rather than in front of… or a shout heard on the golf course.

The company has adopted a similar hybrid approach to Luckin, and Starbucks thanks to its alliance with Alibaba. Fore operates 15 outlets in Jakarta, which range from ‘grab and go’ kiosks for workers in a hurry, to shops with space to sit and delivery-only locations, Fore co-founder Elisa Suteja told TechCrunch. On the digital side, it offers its own app (delivery is handled via Go-Jek’s Go-Send service) and is available via Go-Jek and Grab’s apps.

So far, Fore has jumped to 100,000 deliveries per month and its app is top of the F&B category for iOS and Android in Indonesia — ahead of Starbucks, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut .

It’s early times for the venture — which is not a touch on Starbuck’s $85 billion business; it does break out figures for Indonesia — but it is a sign of where consumption is moving to Indonesia, which has become a coveted beachhead for global companies, and especially Chinese, moving into Southeast Asia. Chinese trio Tencent, Alibaba and JD.com and Singapore’s Grab are among the outsiders who have each spent hundreds of millions to build or invest in services that tap growing internet access among Indonesia’s population of over 260 million.

There’s a lot at stake. A recent Google-Temasek report forecast that Indonesia alone will account for over 40 percent of Southeast Asia’s digital economy by 2025, which is predicted to triple to reach $240 billion.

As one founder recently told TechCrunch anonymously: “There is no such thing as winning Southeast Asia but losing Indonesia. The number one priority for any Southeast Asian business must be to win Indonesia.”

Forecasts from a recent Google-Temasek report suggest that Indonesia is the key market in Southeast Asia

This new money comes from East Ventures — which incubated the project — SMDV, Pavilion Capital, Agaeti Venture Capital and Insignia Ventures Partners with participation from undisclosed angel backers. The plan is to continue to invest in growing the business.

“Fore is our model for ‘super-SME’ — SME done right in leveraging technology and digital ecosystem,” Willson Cuaca, a managing partner at East Ventures, said in a statement.

There’s clearly a long way to go before Fore reaches the size of Luckin, which has said it lost 850 million yuan, or $124 million, inside the first nine months in 2018.

The Chinese coffee challenger recently declared that money is no object for its strategy to dethrone Starbucks. The U.S. firm is currently the largest player in China’s coffee market, with 3,300 stores as of last May and a goal of topping 6,000 outlets by 2022, but Luckin said it will more than double its locations to more than 4,500 by the end of this year.

By comparison, Indonesia’s coffee battle is only just getting started.

The next big restaurant chain may not own any kitchens

If investors at some of the biggest technology companies are right, the next big restaurant chain could have no kitchens of its own.

These venture capitalists think the same forces that have transformed transportation, media, retail and logistics will also work their way through prepared food businesses.

Investors are pouring millions into the creation of a network of shared kitchens, storage facilities, and pickup counters that established chains and new food entrepreneurs can access to cut down on overhead and quickly spin up new concepts in fast food and casual dining.

Powering all of this is a food delivery market that could grow from $35 billion to a $365 billion industry by 2030, according to a report from UBS’s research group, the “Evidence Lab”.

“We’ve had conversations with the biggest and fastest growing restaurant brands in the country and even some of the casual brands,” said Jim Collins, a serial entrepreneur, restauranteur, and the chief executive of the food-service startup, Kitchen United. “In every board room for every major restaurant brand in the country… the number one conversation surrounds the topic of how are we going to address [off-premise diners].”

Collins’ company just raised $10 million in a funding round led by GV, the investment arm of Google parent company, Alphabet. But Alphabet’s investment team is far from the only group investing in the restaurant infrastructure as a service business.

Perhaps the best capitalized company focusing on distributed kitchens is CloudKitchens, one of two subsidiaries owned by the holding company City Storage Solutions.

Cloud Kitchens and its sister company Cloud Retail are the two arms of the new venture from Uber co-founder and former chief executive, Travis Kalanick, which was formed with a $150 million investment.

As we reported at the time, Travis announced that he would be starting a new fund with the riches he made from Uber shares sold in its most recent major secondary round. Kalanick said his 10100, or “ten one hundred”, fund would be geared toward “large-scale job creation,” with investments in real estate, e-commerce, and “emerging innovation in India and China.”

If anyone is aware of the massive market potential for leveraging on-demand services, it’s Kalanick. Especially since he was one of the architects of the infrastructure that has made it possible.

Other deep pocketed companies have also stepped into the fray. Late last year Acre Venture Partners, the investment arm formed by The Campbell Soup Co., participated in a $13 million investment for Pilotworks, another distributed kitchen operator based in Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, Kitchen United has been busy putting together a deep bench of executive talent culled from some of the largest and most successful American fast food restaurant chains.

Former Taco Bell Chief Development Officer, Meredith Sandland, joined the company earlier this year as its chief operating officer, while former McDonald’s executive Atul Sood, who oversaw the burger giant’s relationship with online delivery services, has come aboard as Kitchen United’s Chief Business Officer.

The millions of dollars spicing up this new business model investors are serving up could be considered the second iteration of a food startup wave.

An earlier generation of prepared food startups crashed and burned while trying to spin up just this type of vision with investments in their own infrastructure. New York celebrity chef David Chang, the owner and creator of the city’s famous Momofuku restaurants (and Milk Bar, and Ma Peche), was an investor in Maple, a new delivery-only food startup that raised $25 million before it was shut down and its technology was absorbed into the European, delivery service, Deliveroo.

Ando, which Chang founded, was another attempt at creating a business with a single storefront for takeout and a massive reliance on delivery services to do the heavy lifting of entering new neighborhoods and markets. That company wound up getting acquired by UberEats after raising $7 million in venture funding.

Those losses are slight compared to the woes of investors in companies like Munchery, ($125.4 million) Sprig, ($56.7 million) and SpoonRocket ($13 million). Sprig and Spoonrocket are now defunct, and Munchery had to pull back from markets in Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle as it fights for survival. The company also reportedly was looking at recapitalizing earlier in the year at a greatly reduced valuation.

What gives companies like Kitchen United, Pilotworks and Cloud Kitchens hope is that they’re not required to actually create the next big successful concept in fast food or casual dining. They just have to enable it.

Kitchen United just opened a 12,000 square foot facility in Pasadena for just that purpose — and has plans to open more locations in West Los Angeles; Jersey City, N.J.; Atlanta; Columbus, Ohio; Phoenix; Seattle and Denver. Its competitor, Pilotworks, already has operations in Brooklyn, Chicago, Dallas, and Providence, R.I.

While the two companies have similar visions, they’re currently pursuing different initial customers. Pilotworks has pitched itself as a recipe for success for new food entrepreneurs. Kitchen United, by comparison is giving successful local, regional, and national brands a way to expand their footprint without investing in real estate.

“One of the directions that the company was thinking of going was toward the restaurant industry and the second was in the food service entrepreneurial sector,” said Collins. “Would it be a company that served restaurants with their expansions? Now, we’re in deep discussions with all kinds of restaurants.”

Smaller national fast food chains like Chick-Fil-A or Shake Shack, or fast casual chains like Dennys and Shoney’s could be customers, said Collins. So could local companies that are trying to expand their regional footprint. Los Angeles’ famous Canter’s Deli is a Kitchen United customer (and an early adopter of a number of new restaurant innovations) and so is The Lost Cuban Kitchen, an Iowa-based Cuban restaurant that’s expanding to Los Angeles.

Kitchen United is looking to create kitchen centers that can house between 10-20 restaurants in converted warehouses, big box retail and light industrial locations.

Using demographic data and “demand mapping” for specific cuisines, Kitchen United said that it can provide optimal locations and site the right restaurant to meet consumer demand. The company is also pitching labor management, menu management and delivery tools to help streamline the process of getting a new location up and running.

“In all of the facilities, all of the restaurants have their own four-walled space,” says Collins. “There’s shared infrastructure outside of that.”

Some of that infrastructure is taking food deliveries and an ability to serve as a central hub for local supplier, according to Collins. “One of the things that we’re going to be launching relatively soon here in Pasadena, is actually in-service days where local supplier and purveyors can come in and meet with seven restaurants at once.”

It’s also possible that restaurants in the Kitchen United spaces could take advantage of restaurant technologies being developed by one of the startup’s sister companies through Cali Group, a holding company for a number of different e-sports, retail, and food technology startups.

The Pasadena-based kitchen company was founded by Harry Tsao, an investor in food technology (and a part owner of the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Football Club) through his fund Avista Investments; and John Miller, a serial entrepreneur who founded the Cali Group.

In fact, Kitchen United operates as a Cali Group portfolio company alongside Miso Robotics, the developer of the burger flipping robot, Flippy; Caliburger, an In-n-Out clone first developed by Miller in Shanghai and brought back to the U.S.; and FunWall, a display technology for online gaming in retail settings.

“Kitchen United’s data-driven approach to flexible kitchen spaces unlocks critical value for national, regional, and local restaurant chains looking to expand into new markets,” said Adam Ghobarah, general partner at GV, and a new director on the Kitchen United board. “The founding team’s experience in scaling — in addition to diverse exposure to national chains, regional brands, regional franchises, and small upstart eateries — puts Kitchen United in a strong position to accelerate food innovation.”

GV’s Ghobarah actually sees the investment of a piece with other bets that Alphabet’s venture capital arm has made around the food industry.

The firm is a backer of the fully automated hamburger preparation company, Creator, which has raised roughly $28 million to develop its hamburger making robot (if Securities and Exchange Commission filings can be believed). And it has backed the containerized farming startup, Bowery Farming, with a $20 million investment.

Ghobarah sees an entirely new food distribution ecosystem built up around facilities where Bowery’s farms are colocated with Kitchen United’s restaurants to reduce logistical hurdles and create new hubs.

“As urban farming like Bowery scales up… that becomes more and more realistic,” Ghobarah said. “The other thing that really stands out when you have flexible locations … all of the thousands of people who want to own a restaurant now have access. It’s not really all regional chains and national chains… With a satellite location like this… [a restaurant]… can break even at one third of the order volume.”

 

The 21-day bitcoin challenge

There is a documentary series currently airing on iQiyi, China’s Netflix equivalent, about a Chinese bitcoin enthusiast who attempts to survive 21 days by merely living on 0.21 bitcoin, or $1,300, without any help or donations.

He You Bing is traveling and carrying nothing with her, and she has to retrieve food, housing, and basic necessities all through bitcoin transactions done on her phone. Interestingly, she is also doing this challenge in some of China’s largest cities including Beijing and Shenzhen.

Her name is something of a nom de guerre – a nickname, with “You Bing” directly translating to “having a disease,” and the whole name alludes to the girl’s over-enthusiasm for bitcoin.

It’s a fascinating time for making this attempt. In the last few weeks, there have been numerous reports of China’s crypto bans – including Beijing and Shenzhen banning public cryptocurrency-related speeches, events, or activities, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Also included in the purported ban were a number of WeChat media accounts that promoted cryptocurrencies, which have been permanently blocked. Furthermore, Beijing blocked access to the websites of over 120 offshore exchanges in the mainland and banned large crypto purchases through popular Chinese payments platforms Alipay and WeChat transactions.

Given the sheer number of these bans, readers who live outside of China may be led to think that there is a bleak outlook for the cryptocurrency environment on mainland China. But He You Bing’s Bitcoin challenge reveals a refreshing perspective on the crypto awareness of people living in these local cities as well as the power of WeChat. $1,300 may not sound like much for 21 days of travel in the U.S., but in China, where a cheap meal costs just $1, it can go a long way. The real question is, will people accept bitcoin?

Finding acceptance with bitcoin

Through daily video-log like documentaries, Bing is filmed running around asking different business vendors whether they accept bitcoin. The vendors, varying from small hole-in-the-wall eateries to employees from large chain stores like Uniqlo, express their reactions that are telling of their preconceived notions, or lack thereof, of bitcoin and cryptocurrency. Similar to the U.S., people’s attitudes vary from ignorance and distrust to welcoming. It’s eye-opening to see how different Chinese people think about bitcoin.

On the first day of her challenge, Bing arrives in Beijing, where she wants to go to an amusement park. The entrance fee is 2 Chinese Yuan, or around 30 cents in USD, but the park didn’t accept bitcoin. Bing also asked several fast food restaurants whether they accepted bitcoin so she could buy food, but neither of them did.

As she approaches these vendors, rather than paying in bitcoin, she often has to explain what a bitcoin is in the first place, and finds very little success along the way. One feat on her first day is that she was able to find an unlocked Ofo bike, a dockless bike that can be unlocked and paid for with one’s cellphone. With it, she biked around in an attempt to reach out to more vendors. By the end of the first day, Bing didn’t succeed in finding a food place that accepted bitcoin, and she subsisted on four packets of ketchup and food samples from a supermarket. She slept in a 24-hour McDonald’s on her first night.

The second day, Bing foraged for food. She grabbed fruits from wild trees. Her food intake for the second day consisted of some fruits on a tree and someone else’s leftover burger at a McDonald’s. She ended up getting a stomach ache and threw up, sleeping in another 24-hour McDonald’s. 

Bing was becoming hopeless by the third day. She was on the the verge of fainting and the filmmakers sent her to a hospital. At this point, the challenge had gathered some attention, and supporters were able to contact the filmmakers. They then brought Bing food and she paid for it by bitcoin. On the third night, she slept in an art gallery.

It’s not the currency, it’s the community

Bing’s story soon spread and people started finding her through WeChat where they would offer to exchange bitcoin to fiat. At that point, the challenge would have become too easy, so the filmmakers changed the rules so that Bing had to transact offline and exchange Bitcoin with people in real life.

On the sixth day, Beijing was having the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Summit, so the filmmakers moved to Shenzhen to continue the challenge. The audience started getting suspicious of the filmmakers, asking whether they were related to scam projects. The filmmakers said that they were approached by crypto projects but that they declined them. By then, six support groups in WeChat had been created to support Bing, with every WeChat group having 500 people (500 is the max number of people one can have in a WeChat group). These chatroom participants included bitcoin believers, real estate agents, and advertising salesmen.

Despite the current ban on crypto activities, the documentary shows that bitcoin is alive and well in China within digital communities, albeit not prevalent in the physical world. Most of Bing’s days are documented on iQiyi. And her encounters are telling of what is actually happening in China when it comes to cryptocurrency and mobile technology adoption. Notably, Bing was able to get through living in China simply through her phone. The power of WeChat brought her supporters directly to her.

By day seven, Bing got in contact with some of her WeChat supporters and was able to purchase face wash from them. The next day, she found a restaurant that accepted bitcoin. She got someone to buy her clothes at Uniqlo by exchanging bitcoin with them and then also found someone who was willing to book a hotel for her by exchanging bitcoin.

Gradually, Bing’s bitcoin challenge started a small movement, where her supporters would also approach shops to ask whether they accepted bitcoin and relay the information to her.

On a daily basis, the filming team recorded how many business and pedestrians Bing reached out to and the number of successful bitcoin transactions she made. From the initial ten days to now, Bing has gradually gained confidence. She now has a strategy on how to find people to exchange her bitcoins and what to exchange them for. Over time, the number of inquiries Bing did increased from ten to twenty a day to over a hundred per day. The number of successful transactions was still only a handful a day, however.

Bing’s story continues, and she is now at day 19. She and the filmmakers have migrated to the southern city of Guangzhou. As she assimilates into this new lifestyle, Bing found people to exchange Bitcoin to fiat with her to purchase her train tickets, her hotel rooms, and her meals. Nonetheless, more often than ever, the pedestrians and small business vendors she approached were ignorant, skeptical, and did not want to be part of the filming.

Finding utility in bitcoin

Recently, China Daily covered Bing’s challenge. The documentary has gotten some media attention in China, and companies and institutions have asked to donate and sponsor the filmmakers. They have claimed that they have turned them all down.

In the last year, the narrative around bitcoin has gradually centered on becoming a “store of value” in the U.S. given the increasing transaction costs on the blockchain. Bitcoin transaction prices have increased from 30 cents at the beginning of 2017 to $40 at end of 2017 during the peak of bitcoin prices. As a result of such large fluctuations in fees, transactions no longer happened as frequently as before. Bitcoin’s transaction cost is now back down to about 60 cents this year.

However, as the market has come down in the last few months, bitcoin has once again become a “safe haven” for individuals to go to, and as a result, bitcoin now makes up more than 56% of the total cryptocurrency market cap, up from 34% at the beginning of January 2018.

Bing still gets people suspecting that she is trying to scam them. Since the rise of crypto prices and bitcoin reaching almost as high as $20,000 at the end of 2017, there have been numerous scam coins coming out everywhere. In China, there are often obscure and random coins that appear with no real value-add, no relationship to any blockchain, and are devised purely to fool non-savvy citizens who think they can make a quick buck. In fact, one of the purposes of Beijing’s ban on commercial venues hosting cryptocurrency events was aimed at purging coins from scamming the public.

Bing will continue and finish her bitcoin challenge, but the greater challenge is on all of us in the blockchain community to continually improve this technology for broader consumption.

Ritzy-sounding Caviar is now working with fast-food king McDonald’s

McDonald's Big Mac

Food delivery service Caviar is adding another big brand to its list of partner restaurants. Today it will start delivering McDonald’s to offices around New York.

This whole week, Caviar’s quick delivery service, Fastbite, will be serving up McDonald’s sausage McMuffin and hash browns for five bucks. Fastbite promises to deliver meals in 15 minutes or less to hungry workers at lunchtime. This is the second major food chain that Caviar has teamed up with, after Chipotle.

Caviar is a subsidiary of Square, which has been bulking up its restaurant services since acquiring Caviar last August. This year, the company acquired Fastbite and added a point-of-sale interface geared toward bartenders. The partnership with McDonald’s is helping to solidify its position in the fast-food delivery space.

McDonald’s has struggled for the past few years to maintain relevance in a country that is increasingly moving toward healthy and organic eating. Targeting a lunch crowd tethered to their desks could be a good opportunity to get McDonald’s back on people’s radar. The fast-food giant recently made their breakfast menu available all day to the delight of many.