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China’s Black Lake raises $77M to give factories a digital upgrade

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Zhou Yuxiang doesn’t have the typical profile for working in China’s manufacturing world. A soft-spoken yet incisive person in his early thirties, Zhou graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in government and went on to work in investment banking in Hong Kong, following the path of many Chinese overseas returnees.

But a few years into his career, Zhou realized he wanted to build his own business. This was around 2015, a time when China was consumed by a startup craze amid Premier Li Keqiang’s campaign for “mass entrepreneurship and innovation.” Rather than going into the sleek world of consumer lifestyle, fintech or AI, Zhou picked manufacturing as a starting point.

During his time at Barclays, Zhou helped deep-pocketed Chinese manufacturers scour for merger and acquisition deals in Europe. He saw how factories in Germany digitize their operations using Siemens and SAP solutions. In China, “factories had a lot of money and could buy top-of-the-line equipment. But on the software management front, they were still very primitive,” said Zhou in an interview with TechCrunch.

“Most of the operation was done on paper. Every day, workers received a stack of papers telling them what to do, and in turn, they filled up the sheets reporting what material they had used… When you acquire these financially underperforming factories in Europe, you realize their software infrastructure capabilities are still far superior to yours,” Zhou added.

That digital gap encouraged Zhou to start Black Lake, a software platform for factory workers to log their daily tasks and managers to oversee the plant floor. Since its inception in 2016, the startup has raised over $100 million from GGV Capital, Bertelsmann Asia Investments, GSR Ventures, ZhenFund and others. The company recently closed a Series C round, pocketing nearly 500 million yuan ($77 million) and bringing on new backers including Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek, who led the round, as well as China Renaissance and Lightspeed Venture Partners.

Black Lake’s vision is to be a one-stop collaboration platform for factory workers and managers, digitizing data incurred in all stages of production, from client orders, material procurement, quality compliance, warehouse management, to logistics and shipment. The software analyzes these reams of data, churning out reports for bosses to check for abnormalities in production and for workers to see how they could increase their output and income.

Compared to SaaS incumbents from the West, Black Lake’s more localized services and affordable prices have a greater appeal to China’s wide swathes of small and medium-sized factories, Zhou argued. Black Lake tries to simplify its user experience to a Lego-like building process so factory bosses can easily customize the software for their own use. Workers access the cloud-based software from their smartphones, which have become ubiquitous in China’s affluent cities thanks to increasingly friendly device prices and data fees. A foreign SaaS giant’s solution could cost a factory at least three million yuan a year, while Black Lake charges 300,000 yuan or less, Zhou said.

To date, the company has served nearly 2,000 manufacturers and suppliers across the Greater China Region and Southeast Asia, counting in its customers Tesla, L’Oréal, Xiaomi, Sinopec, and Chinese state-owned conglomerate China Resources’ pharmaceutical group. In all, the company claims to have reached 500,000 production workers.

Manufacturing 2.0

Black Lake’s collaboration and data management software for factories

Black Lake is riding a perfect wave of “upgrading” in China’s manufacturing world. For one, the demand for customized products is rising as consumers become savvier. Instead of producing bottled water with the same packaging, for instance, beverage companies now design various looks tailored to different demographics. Factories need to adjust quickly to the flood of customized orders, and a cloud-based data management platform could be the solution, Zhou suggested.

The U.S.-China trade war is another impetus for China’s push for factory upgrade. Having felt the heat from trade sanctions, Chinese manufacturers look to cut expenses and improve productivity. That shift, along with the government’s “new infrastructure” policy to breathe high tech into traditional industries, makes Zhou all the more bullish about his business.

But Black Lake is certainly not the only one to have spotted opportunities in China’s efforts to modernize production, and enterprise software in China has a notoriously slow monetization cycle in part due to low adoption and companies’ reluctance to pay for services. The key is finding a viable business model to fund its dream to be the ultimate “data entry point” for China’s millions of factories.

With proceeds from its new funding, Black Lake plans to spend on product development, hiring, market expansion, and building an open platform for third-party developers. The startup realizes it can’t build everything factories need, and it’s already working with partners across telecommunications, cloud computing, automation and consulting, such as Huawei, Alibaba, SAP and McKinsey.

“When Chinese factories ‘wake up’, their speed of digitization will definitely leapfrog that of their American and European counterparts,” Zhou asserted.

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InsurGrid raises pre-seed financing to help modernize legacy insurance agents

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Insurance agents spend hours handling paperwork and grabbing client information over the phone. A new seed-stage startup, InsurGrid, has developed a software solution to help ease the process, and make it easier for agents to serve existing clients — and secure new ones.

InsurGrid gives agents a personalized platform to collect information from clients, such as date of birth, driver’s license information and policy declaration. This platform helps agents avoid sitting on long calls or managing back-to-back emails, and instead gives them one spot to understand how all their different clients function. It is starting with property and casualty management.

The startup integrates with 85 insurance carriers, serving as the software layer instead of the provider. Using the InsurGrid platform, insurers can ask clients to upload information and within seconds be registered as a policyholder. This essentially turns into a living Rolodex that insurers can use to access information on the account, and offer quotes on a faster rate.

Image Credits: InsurGrid

There’s a monetary benefit in providing better service. Eden Insurance, a customer of InsurGrid, said that people who submit information through the platform converted at an 82% higher rate than those who don’t. Jeremy Eden, the agency owner of Eden Insurance, said they were able to show consumers that its plan was $300 cheaper than its existing rate.

At the heart of InsurGrid is a bet from the founding team that legacy insurance agents aren’t going anywhere. Co-founder/CEO Chase Beach pointed out that the majority of the $684 billion of annual property and casualty insurance premiums in the United States is distributed by approximately 800,000 agents working in 16,000 brokerages. So far, InsurGrid works with more than 150 of those agencies.

When asked if InsurGrid ever had plans to offer its own insurance, similar to insurtech giants Hippo, Lemonade and Root, Beach said that it is solely working on innovating around the sales process for now. He said that these big companies, which have either recently gone public or are planning to, still rely on agents to be successful.

“Instead of us replacing the insurance agent, what if we gave them that same level of technology of a Hippo or large carrier,” Beach said. “And provide them with the digital experiences so they can compete in 2021.”

As time goes on, he sees insurance agents taking the same role that financial advisors or real estate agents take: “very much involved in the process because they are that expert.”

Other startups that have popped up in this space include Gabi, Trellis and Canopy Connect. The differentiator, the team sees, is that Beach comes from a 144-year-old insurance legacy, giving him key insights on how to sell to agents in a successful and effective way. It is starting with sales, but expect InsurGrid to expand to other parts of the insurance process as well.

To help them compete with new and old startups, InsurGrid recently raised $1.3 million in pre-seed financing to help it fulfill its goal to be the “underdog for the underdogs,” Beach said. Investors include Engineering Capital, Hustle Fund, Vess Capital, Sahil Lavingia and Trevor Kienzle.

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Backed by Blossom, Creandum and Index, grocery delivery and dark store startup Dija launches in London

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Dija, the London-based grocery delivery startup, is officially launching today and confirming that it raised £20 million in seed funding in December — a round that we first reported was partially closed the previous month.

Backing the company is Blossom Capital, Creandum and Index Ventures, with Dija seemingly able to raise pre-launch. In fact, there are already rumours swirling around London’s venture capital community that the upstart may be out raising again already — a figure up to £100 million was mooted by one source — as the race to become the early European leader in the burgeoning “dark” grocery store space heats up.

Image Credits: Dija

Over the last few months, a host of European startups have launched with the promise of delivering grocery and other convenience store items within 10-15 minutes of ordering. They do this by building out their own hyper-local, delivery-only fulfilment centres — so-called “dark stores” — and recruiting their own delivery personnel. This full-stack or vertical approach and the visibility it provides is then supposed to produce enough supply chain and logistics efficiency to make the unit economics work, although that part is far from proven.

Earlier this week, Berlin-based Flink announced that it had raised $52 million in seed financing in a mixture of equity and debt. The company didn’t break out the equity-debt split, though one source told me the equity component was roughly half and half.

Others in the space include Berlin’s Gorillas, London’s Jiffy and Weezy, and France’s Cajoo, all of which also claim to focus on fresh food and groceries. There’s also the likes of Zapp, which is still in stealth and more focused on a potentially higher-margin convenience store offering similar to U.S. unicorn goPuff. Related: goPuff itself is also looking to expand into Europe and is currently in talks to acquire or invest in the U.K.’s Fancy, which some have dubbed a mini goPuff.

However, let’s get back to Dija. Founded by Alberto Menolascina and Yusuf Saban, who both spent a number of years at Deliveroo in senior positions, the company has opened up shop in central London and promises to let you order groceries and other convenience products within 10 minutes. It has hubs in South Kensington, Fulham and Hackney, and says it plans to open 20 further hubs, covering central London and Zone 2, by the summer. Each hub carries around 2,000 products, claiming to be sold at “recommended retail prices”. A flat delivery fee of £1.99 is charged per order.

“The only competitors that we are focused on are the large supermarket chains who dominate a global $12 trillion industry,” Dija’s Menolascina tells me when I ask about competitors. “What really sets us apart from them, besides our speed and technology, is our team, who all have a background in growing and disrupting this industry, including myself and Yusuf, who built and scaled Deliveroo from the ground up”.

Menolascina was previously director of Corporate Strategy and Development at the takeout delivery behemoth and held several positions before that. He also co-founded Everli (formerly Supermercato24), the Instacart-styled grocery delivery company in Italy, and also worked at Just Eat. Saban is the former chief of staff to CEO at Deliveroo and also worked at investment bank Morgan Stanley.

During Dija’s soft-launch, Menolascina says that typical customers have been doing their weekly food shop using the app, and also fulfilling other needs, such as last minute emergencies or late night cravings. “The pain points Dija is helping to solve are universal and we built Dija to be accessible to everyone,” he says. “It’s why we offer products at retail prices, available in 10 minutes – combining value and convenience. Already, Dija is becoming a key service for parents who are pressed for time working from home and homeschooling, as one example”.

Despite the millions of dollars being pumped into the space, a number of VCs I’ve spoken to privately are sceptical that fresh groceries with near instant delivery can be made to work. The thinking is that fresh food perishes, margins are lower, and basket sizes won’t be large enough to cover the costs of delivery.

“This might be the case for other companies, but almost everyone at Dija comes from this industry and knows exactly what they are doing, from buying and merchandising to data and marketing,” Menolascina says, pushing back. “It’s also worth pointing out that we are a full-stack model, so we’re not sharing our margin with other parties. In terms of the average basket size, it varies depending on the customer’s need. On one hand, we have customers who do their entire grocery shop through Dija, while on the other hand, our customers depend on us for emergency purchases e.g. nappies, batteries etc.”

On pricing, he says that, like any retail business, Dija buys products at wholesale prices and sells them at recommended retail prices. “Going forward, we have a clear roadmap on how we generate additional revenue, including strategic partnerships, supply chain optimisation and technology enhancements,” adds Menolascina.

Dija testing on Deliveroo

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Meanwhile, TechCrunch has learned that prior to launching its own app, Dija ran a number of experiments on takeout marketplace Deliveroo, including selling various convenience store items, such as potato chips and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. If you’ve ever ordered toiletry products from “Baby & Me Pharmacy” or purchased chocolate sweets from “Valentine’s Vows,” you have likely and unknowingly shopped at Dija. Those brands, and a number of others, all delivered from the same address in South Kensington.

“Going direct to consumer without properly testing pick & pack is a big risk,” Menolascina told me in a WhatsApp message a few weeks ago, confirming the Deliveroo tests. “We created disposable virtual brands purely to learn what to sell and how to replenish, pick & pack, and deliver”.

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Daily Crunch: Square acquires Tidal

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Square buys a majority stake in Jay-Z’s Tidal, WhatsApp improves its desktop app and Hopin raises even more funding. This is your Daily Crunch for March 4, 2021.

The big story: Square acquires Tidal

Square announced this morning that it has purchased a majority stake in Tidal, the music streaming service founded by Jay-Z. It sounds like an odd fit at first, which Square CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged in a tweet asking, “Why would a music streaming company and a financial services company join forces?!”

His answer: “It comes down to a simple idea: finding new ways for artists to support their work. New ideas are found at the intersections, and we believe there’s a compelling one between music and the economy. Making the economy work for artists is similar to what Square has done for sellers.”

Square is paying $297 million in cash and stock for the deal, which will result in Jay-Z joining Square’s board.

The tech giants

WhatsApp adds voice and video calling to desktop app — This should provide relief to countless people sitting in front of computers who have had to reach for their phone every time WhatsApp rang.

Apple’s App Store is now also under antitrust scrutiny in the UK — The U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority announced that it’s opened an investigation following a number of complaints from developers alleging unfair terms.

Google speeds up its release cycle for Chrome — Mozilla also moved to a four-week cycle for Firefox last year.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Hopin confirms $400M raise at $5.65B valuation — For Hopin, the round is another rapid-fire funding event.

Coursera is planning to file to go public tomorrow — The company has been talking to underwriters since last year, but tomorrow could mark its first legal step in the process to IPO.

Luxury air travel startup Aero raises $20M — The startup describes its offering as “semi-private” air travel.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

As activist investors loom, what’s next for Box? — A company with plenty of potential is mired in slowing growth.

Unraveling ThredUp’s IPO filing: Slow growth, but a shifting business model — ThredUp is a used-goods marketplace approaching the public markets in the wake of Poshmark’s own strong debut.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

SITA says its airline passenger system was hit by a data breach — Global air transport data giant SITA has confirmed a data breach involving passenger data.

How to successfully dance the creator-brand tango — What makes creators succeed, and how should brands work with them?

Announcing the Early Stage Pitch-Off Judges — On April 2, TechCrunch will feature 10 top startups across the globe at the Early Stage Pitch Off.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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