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Spotlighting five innovative startups in Malaysia


Some young Malaysian startups are changing mindsets while dealing with problems that you may not have thought needed solving. — 123rf.com

Some young Malaysian startups are changing mindsets while dealing with problems that you may not have thought needed solving. — 123rf.com

Malaysian startups are using technologies such as machine learning and blockchain to help companies compete in a new era. 

Startups love talking about ­disrupting existing players, ­modernising services or at least dragging them online. But ­sometimes startups also manage to change the way customers view products and services by providing new ways for them to interact with companies that serve them.  

Here are some young Malaysian startups that are changing mindsets while dealing with problems that you may not have thought needed solving.

Glueck Technologies uses AI, machine learning and facial recognition to detect and analyse viewers. — Glueck Technologies
Glueck Technologies uses AI, machine learning and facial recognition to detect and analyse viewers. — Glueck Technologies

Glueck Technologies
Team size: 13, with eight based locally and five off-shore
Funding stage: Self funded with grant from Cradle 

Coming straight out of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report is Glueck Technologies Sdn Bhd’s advertising boards which tailors ads according to viewers. 

“When developing the service, the movie did come to mind,” chuckled CEO Alberrt Alexander. 

Glueck Technologies, set up three years ago, uses artificial intelligence (AI), deep machine learning and facial recognition to detect and analyse in real-time the gender, age, emotional state and attention span of people viewing the ad. 

It uses a camera to take a ­snapshot every few microseconds and processes the information against a proprietary database of facial demographics made up of over five million people from 65 countries.

Glueck Technology CEO Alberrt Alexander.
Alexander: We can see if an ad makes the viewer happy or not.

“The accuracy is quite high even between countries, as expressions – like a smile – are universal whether you’re in Africa or China,” said Alexander. Reflecting this philosophy, the company’s name Glueck is German for happiness.  

Remember the scene where Tom Cruise’s character looks at a signboard and its contents immediately change to fit what it assumed would catch his ­interest? This system allows businesses to display ads based on the make up of the crowd looking at the board. 

It would, for instance, display videos of theme parks or toys to families, while young adults may be shown a popular Netflix series or holiday packages and gadgets instead.  

Asked how the system deals with modern pedestrians who have their faces buried in their smartphones at all times, Alexander said the advertisements still needed to catch the viewers’ eyes.  

“We can measure eye contact in just miliseconds. With facial recognition we can see if the ad makes them happy or even ­disgusts them,” he said.  

He explained such feedback is essential in measuring the effectiveness of advertising and even acts as a warning if audiences react poorly to the visuals. For instance, if people are laughing at a sombre ad, the content or tone of the ad needs to be reconsidered.  

For people ­worried about their faces being ­recorded, Alexander assured that the images are not stored.

(L-R) Booku's founder and CEO Sivanathan, along with his co-founders, CTO Syed Zulazri and CIO Khairul Azizi.
(l-r) Booku's Sivanathan, along with his co-founders, CTO Syed Zulazri and CIO Mohd Khairul. — Booku

Booku
Team size: Nine, including four founders
Funding stage: Self funded 

The unfortunate truth is that many people only read a book once. Looking to ­provide a solution are four ­engineering and multimedia technology graduates – Sivanathan Subramaniam, Syed Zulazri Syed Kassim, Gunalan Gingan and Mohd Khairul Azizi – who came up with a peer-to-peer (P2P) book rental platform, Booku (booku.rent).  

The team quickly realised that the service would be invaluable to university students as textbooks are pricey.  

Also, seniors who had ­completed a class were straddled with books they no longer ­needed, while juniors who ­needed them were reluctant to spend so much. So Booku signed on senior students to rent their books out to the juniors, and now around 30% of its 3,100 titles are university textbooks. 

Booku CEO Sivanathan said users will be saving on average around 80% of the cost of buying a new book. 

Though rental prices are set by book owners, the company ­suggests they rent it at about 1% to 2% of the market value of the book per day so most reference books cost between RM0.70 and RM1.00 per day to rent. 

However, if renters hold onto the books beyond the agreed period, they will be hit with a late fee similar to a library. Or if they really enjoyed the book, they could even buy it.  

Booku makes its profit by ­taking a 15% cut off the rental fees, while book renters are also expected to pay for the shipping (both ways).  

Another realisation the team came to was that many of their users preferred to take their time reading the books and preferred to buy them at second hand ­prices.  

“Based on data collected from users over the last six months, we are working on Booku Store,” he said, adding that it would be rolled out at the end of February.  

Users just have to hand over their books to Booku Store and it will handle the storage, promotion, sale and shipping.  

Unlike its renting service, the price will be set by Booku Store and the company will be taking a 30% cut. 

Asked if a hub which required the company to physically store books was wise, Sivanathan admitted that many brick and mortar bookstores were wiped out by the emergence of ebooks and social media as an alternative distraction, but claimed that the print media has been making a come back over the last few years.  

He also added that unlike most bookstores, it saved cost by not needing a physical storefront. 

The team is also exploring a book subscription service, which would act like a hybrid between the two services. 

Luxtag
Team size: 17 members, including three co-founders
Funding stage: Self funded, with grants from Agensi Inovasi Malaysia’s Platcom Ventures Sdn Bhd and the NEM blockchain platform. 

How do you know a luxury item is authentic when even the certificates could be counterfeited? 

The team behind Luxtag Sdn Bhd’s solution is to use blockchain to create tamper-proof certificates of authenticity.

Luxtag CEO Rene Bernard
Bernard: Luxtag's system can also tag items as stolen or lost. — Luxtag

Its CEO Rene Bernard explained that since luxury items like ­handbags and watches already come with certificates or serial numbers, they will add another layer of security in the form of a digital certificate. 

The reason blockchain is more secure comes down to how the information is stored. As a distributed database – essentially a shared record book – the ­information is stored on many servers and every time a change is made, it has to be verified by all the other servers before it’s accepted. 

This renders tampering of one or even a large number of servers ineffective.

The elegance of LuxTag’s ­implementation, however, lies in how it is seamlessly integrated into a brand. Bernard explained that for a customer, registering the digital certificate would appear no ­different than signing up for an online warranty. Brands could offer incentives like extended ­warranties, lost and found ­coverage or even discounts on future purchases to drive sign ups.  

He assured that the system did not require much personal data, at most a username and the product’s ID number.  

Having a tamper-proof ­certificate of authenticity meant that the luxury goods would have better second hand value, as ­interested buyers could verify the product’s history like a JPJ database for cars. Also, only the genuine owner will be able to hand over the ownership ID.  

“This is very important for pawnshops and secondhand shops. They can check the ­database and see if there’s a ­mismatch (which indicates the bag is fake or stolen),” he said. 

He added that Luxtag’s system can also tag items as stolen or lost, and alert owners if someone attempted to check the ID. If the item was lost, users can also embed actionable info like who to contact if the bag was found.  

This not only helps reunite ­owners with their lost items but if the insurance on the product has been claimed, the ownership ID and item will go to the insurer instead. 

Also, counterfeiters will often buy an original product so they can base their fakes on it. However, they will not be able to duplicate the ownership ID and if buyers try to authenticate the fake ID, the manufacturer will be ­alerted. The manufacturer can then trace the counterfeiter by checking who ­purchased the original that the fakes were based on. 

MyCash Online
Team size: 10 staff, including two co-founders
Funding stage: RM1.3mil raised in an equity crowdfunding campaign through PitchIn’s crowdfunding platform. 

While having a credit card and a bank account is a common ­convenience for most Malaysians, for foreign workers such services are still a luxury. 

MyCash Online, which bills itself as a ­marketplace for migrants, gives the unbanked (those without bank accounts) access to essential services like making remittances, paying bills, topping up phone credit and ­buying bus or plane tickets.

Mehedi: Our primary goal is to provide financial independence. — MyCash Online
Mehedi: Our primary goal is to provide financial independence. — MyCash Online

CEO Mehedi Hasan Sumon said while some of these services are available offline, there are additional issues such as extra fees for the middlemen and the danger of having to carry a lot of cash.  

“Without a bank account, he or she (migrant) cannot visit the airline’s website to buy tickets directly and cheaply, he needs to go to a travel agent. This makes it unnecessarily difficult for the person to travel home,” said Mehedi.  

The team’s experience ­working with migrant workers also revealed that many who worked in remote areas like oilpalm plantations, construction sites or up in Cameron Highlands ­plantations would resort to illegal channels to send money home and make payments, often at the risk of being cheated.  

“Our primary goal is to provide financial independence. By letting them make better, safer choices it also makes them more financially literate,” he said.  

Though MyCash Online does not have a remittance license, it works with several remittance partners to facilitate transactions legally. 

The service works by having users buy MyCash Online points through “mobile sales personnel” in mom and pop shops and ­convenience stores.  

If they had a bank account, but no credit card, they could still use JomPay to purchase points which could in turn be used to buy plane tickets and other credit reliant ­services.  

In line with keeping the users’ interest on the forefront, MyCash Online does not charge the user any fees, instead taking a cut from its service partners. 

For the convenience of the users, the service is available in many languages, including Bahasa Malaysia, Bengali, Nepali, Hindi, Indonesian and English. 

The idea seemed to strike a chord. Cradle Fund Sdn Bhd, which led the equity crowdfunding round, said the company’s potential laid in how it addressed the needs of the migrants, with 90% of the three million plus migrants in Malaysia not having access to banks or financial institutions. 

Since the ECF round last June, MyCash Online had also massively expanded its mobile sales personnel, from fewer than 200 to over 800 people.  

Compared to its first year of operation in 2016, MyCash Online’s monthly transactions has grown from RM500,000 a month to more than RM2mil a month and now serves 80,000 customers.

A sample of the table management software by Umai, available on mobile devices and desktop. — Photos: Umai
A sample of the table management software by Umai, available on mobile devices and desktop. — Umai

Umai
Team size: 34 staff, including two co-founders
Funding stage: Seed funding with Singaporean venture capital firm Segnel Ventures 

When you book a table at a ­restaurant, neither party really knows what to expect. 

Umai seeks to smooth out the booking process by using publicly available information on social media to personalise guests’ ­dining experience.  

Managing director Jonas Chelbat said though things have dramatically evolved in the food industry’s front end, most internal ­operations are very archaic with staff still using pen and paper to manage bookings.

Chelbat: If you are coming on your birthday, the restaurant will know to prepare a surprise.
Chelbat: If you are coming on your birthday, the restaurant will know to prepare a surprise. — Umai

“You’d be surprised how many of these small places have good food but don’t get business. The problem is that they tend to be restaurant people, not marketing people,” he said.  

Realising that most restaurants have an online presence but fail to fully utilise it, Umai’s team ­created a booking management system service that integrates into the establishment’s own, whether it’s a dedicated website, Facebook or Instagram page.  

In addition to filling in the standard booking requirements – name, time slot and number of people – Umai also allows guests to book specific types of tables or areas, like a seat at the sushi bar, a place by the window or a booth. 

On the restaurant’s side, the company has automated certain tasks like optimising seating arrangements and sending reminder messages to ensure attendance, even giving the option to cancel the reservation.  

“We always look at how to improve the guest experience which means making the operators run more smoothly,” he said. 

Leveraging on investigative software, the service is also able to compile a customer profile based on social media posts and similar trails of data online.  

“Say, if they’re a social media influencer, we would suggest ­getting the chef to greet them rather than a waiter. Or if the ­system figures out you’re coming on your birthday, the restaurant will know to prepare a surprise. 

“It doesn’t get creepy, as Umai uses purely public info. We realise people are always conservative about that,” said Chelbat.  

Now running in over 50 ­restaurants in Malaysia and 110 in Singapore, Umai also uses CRM (customer relationship management) software to track guest ­history across restaurants, though in accordance with data privacy rules it limits the information shared between establishments. 

“The system will say if it’s your first time at the place, so the staff will know to prepare menu ­recommendations,” he said.  

It is also able to recognise if they are vegetarians, prefer steaks or have an allergy to peanuts or shellfish.  

It will also be able to detect if customers have double booked at different ­restaurants, alerting the service staff so they are prepared for a cancellation.

   

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