Taiwan Business TOPICS profiles five of Taiwan’s ascendant tech startups in industries ranging from healthcare and tourism to transportation and media.
Diabetes runs in Ed Deng’s family. Relatives of the Taipei-based entrepreneur have passed away from complications of the disease, which is the third-leading cause of death among Taiwanese women. Researchers believe that East Asians may develop diabetes more easily than Westerners because of weaker insulin secretions, which stymie proper blood-sugar control.
Yet diabetes is a disease that can be managed, Deng says. He points out that his 87-year-old diabetic grandmother is living a healthy life. She keeps a daily log of her blood sugar, taking note of how different foods and drinks affect it. As a result, “she has lower blood sugar than I do,” says the 38-year-old Deng.
Inspired by his grandmother, in 2013 Deng created a software application for glucose control: Health2Sync. “Digitized data is easier for a person to grasp,” he says. Simulating the interaction between patients and healthcare professionals, the app provides automated feedback to users about their blood sugar, blood pressure, and weight. User data, such as food intake or medicine use, can be transferred to the app via cable, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth.
Health2Sync is useful for its ability to alert users of trends. For instance, the app will detect if a person’s blood sugar frequently spikes at mid-day or is unusually low in the early evening. It is then the user’s responsibility to take the next step.
Meanwhile, healthcare professionals can use Health2Sync’s online platform to interact with patients. For instance, patient data can be transferred in real time from a person’s smartphone to a doctor’s computer.
Deng says that the app is effective. According to data compiled by Health2Sync, glucose levels in the highest risk users (those with the most elevated blood-sugar) fall by about 20% on average in the first three months of use.
While Health2Sync is currently free of charge, Deng expects large pharmaceutical companies will eventually pay for it. “Pharmaceuticals will be able to provide better patient support by leveraging us,” he says, adding that Health2Sync is working with the world’s three largest diabetes drug manufacturers to “deliver digitized patient support.”
“We foresee strong demand for software as a medical device in the future,” he concludes.
Online travel-experience booking platform KKday is the fourth company to be started by entrepreneur Chen Ming-ming. The company serves the domestic and inbound Asian tourism markets, covering Taiwan, Japan, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, and China. Chen is a co-founder of the online Taiwanese travel agencies eZTravel, Startravel, and EzFly, which are all listed on local stock exchanges.
In the early and mid-2000s, online travel agencies did a good business here. “The official websites of airlines were not well developed back then, so it was more convenient to purchase a package including airline tickets and accommodation from an agency,” Chen says. “And there was usually a discount compared to buying the tickets and booking a hotel separately.”
But as airlines improved their websites, passengers began to book through them directly, while Airbnb and other home-sharing services disrupted the hotel industry. Meanwhile, online accommodation booking giants Booking Holdings (which includes Agoda and Booking.com) and Expedia usually offer the most competitive prices for hotel rooms. “They can provide a lot of steady business to hotels, so hotels offer them attractive room rates,” Chen says.
Tracking these trends, Chen concluded that the air ticket and accommodation markets were near saturation. It was then that he turned his attention to the third segment of travel: activities. He saw opportunity within Asia, where the independent traveler market is surging. “People want authentic local experiences. But they don’t always know how to plan those activities for themselves, especially when they aren’t familiar with a place and there’s a language barrier,” he says.
KKday receives a commission from every sale of an activity, which is charged to the supplier. Suppliers are typically small businesses – such as a taxi driver licensed to provide tours. These suppliers are willing to pay KKday to bring in business they can’t find on their own because of their limited resources and to handle customer service, Chen says.
In just a few years, KKday has grown to become one of Asia’s top online booking platforms for travel activities. The company currently has 11 branch offices, covering Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and China. It offers a total of more than 10,000 travel experiences in 500 different cities and 80 different countries.
In a round of funding held in February, KKday raised US$10.5 million from Japanese travel operator H.I.S. and from MindWorks Ventures, a venture-capital firm based in Hong Kong. The funds will help support further international expansion.
Expedia and Booking Holdings may dominate online hotel booking, but not the more fragmented vacation rentals business. It was in this segment that former investment banker C.K. Cheng saw a major opportunity. “Vacation rentals don’t have the manpower of hotels,” he says. “They often need a partner that can provide them with customer service [which AsiaYo! does], not just help them find guests.”
In this business segment, AsiaYo! competes with home-sharing giant Airbnb. But there are several key distinctions. First, with Airbnb it is the hosts who provide the customer service. Second, Airbnb rose to prominence in Taiwan on the back of unlicensed short-term home rentals. In December 2015, the Taipei City government ordered Airbnb to remove 95% of its 4,200 short-term home rental listings. The central government later significantly hiked the fines for operating hotel services without a license.
By focusing only on licensed vacation rentals since its founding in 2013, AsiaYo! has steered clear of major regulatory hassles – always a concern for startups in Taiwan – and built up a steady customer base.
In addition to Taiwan, Japan is a major market for the company, accounting for half of its business. Japan has long been Taiwan’s top outbound travel destination.
Given the high cost of hotel accommodations in Japan, vacation rentals are a popular choice with Taiwanese tourists. Compared to a major hotel in Japan, an inn or bed and breakfast is usually 20-35% less expensive, Cheng says.
There are also cost considerations for suppliers. AsiaYo! charges its suppliers 12-15% on each transaction. For Booking.com, those fees are at least 15%, Agoda charges closer to 25%, and Expedia’s fees are in the 18-27% range, market insiders say. For a small bed and breakfast, AsiaYo!’s services are more affordable.
Looking ahead, AsiaYo! aims to expand within the region. It plans to tap the Japanese outbound Japanese tourism market in both Taiwan and South Korea.
Ride-hailing in Taiwan has a checkered history. Just ask Uber about it. The world’s most valuable startup struggled ferociously with regulators over its first three years here, accruing stratospheric fines before calling it quits in early 2017. Uber returned a few months later in a partnership with rental-car companies. Users say it’s just not the same.
That’s where TaxiGo comes in. A Taipei-based ride-hailing service, it partners with licensed yellow cabs instead of the private drivers Uber used. Founded in 2017 by Hong Konger Kevin Chan and a Taiwanese partner, the company offers ride-hailing through a chatbot – software that conducts a conversation with users – which works with the messaging apps Line and Facebook Messenger. Users download the free chatbot from the Google Play store or Apple’s App Store. Payment for rides is typically done electronically; only about 20% of TaxiGo’s drivers take cash.
“It’s getting to the point where people have too many apps on their smartphones,” says Chan, who formerly worked as an engineer for chipmaker Qualcomm at the company’s San Diego headquarters. “We want to give users the convenience of being able to get a taxi through messaging apps that they already have installed.”
From Uber’s travails, Chan observed that regulators sought to protect taxi drivers, from whom the U.S. company took many customers. “If you think about it, Taiwan has had too many taxis for a long time,” he says, noting that there are 50,000 cabs in northern Taiwan alone. “Even before Uber, many taxi drivers weren’t earning a decent living, so it’s hard to see how the government would want to introduce additional supply.”
At the same time, taxi dispatch companies charge drivers a hefty monthly fee to belong to their fleet. The two biggest such firms in Taiwan are Taiwan Taxi and Metropolitan Taxi. “The drivers don’t like having to pay that fee, but the big dispatch companies have the customer base,” Chan says.
Instead of charging drivers a monthly fee to join its fleet, TaxiGo charges per transaction. The business model has proven successful, as in just over a year’s time the startup has built the third-largest fleet in Taiwan – 5,000 drivers – after Taiwan Taxi and Metropolitan Taxi.
Chan says that TaxiGo carefully screens drivers to ensure that their driving ability and vehicle condition are up to par. New or newish Toyota Wishes make up most of the fleet.
One challenge for the company is aggressive competition, Chan says. He notes that competitors have complained to regulators that TaxiGo isn’t following existing regulations, as it allows its drivers to join more than one fleet. Some competitors have even cloned the company’s software.
TaxiGo is undeterred, though, and plans to expand throughout Taiwan this year.
The News Lens
In August 2013, Joey Chung and Mario Yang founded the News Lens in a bid to change Taiwan’s sensationalist media culture for the better. They believed that Taiwan’s open, democratic environment offered fertile soil in which a Chinese-language media startup could take root.
Five years later, few Taiwanese view the media as a trustworthy information source.
But the Taipei-based News Lens itself has grown significantly. It now has 75 employees. To broaden the scope of its coverage, it recently acquired two local digital media companies – one with expertise in technology news (Inside) and the other a specialist in sports reporting (Sports Vision). It also set up a small investigative reporting team.
“Our goal is to be the size of a legacy media company without the fluff,” says Chung, who serves as the News Lens’s chief executive officer. “We’ve been at around 7 million unique monthly readers since the summer of 2017. To get bigger we need vertical growth.”
For the News Lens, that means developing sub-brands around the core brand. It’s a strategy that has paid off for the U.S.’s Vox Media, which has eight sub-brands that together attract close to 900 million monthly views.
The News Lens has expanded globally as well. It has a Hong Kong edition and an office with a team of eight in the former British crown colony. Staff members in the Taipei headquarters oversee production of the Southeast Asia and English-language editions.
An office in Southeast Asia is a possibility, but the company needs to be sure that’s fiscally prudent, Chung says. As it is, “Hong Kong is expensive,” he says. That’s putting it mildly: The city has the world’s priciest office leasing space. Hong Kong’s median monthly wage is also about one-third higher than Taiwan’s: 16,000 Hong Kong dollars (about NT$60,000), compared to NT$40,000 here.
Chung says he expects to see a near-term consolidation of Taiwan’s digital media startups. “When you have 20 digital media startups and most of them are losing money, it makes sense to consolidate,” he says.