Goldman backs Kobo360, Rwanda commits to EVs, Interswitch IPO update – gpgmail


Nigerian freight logistics startup Kobo360 raised a $20 million Series A round led by Goldman Sachs and $10 million in working capital financing from Nigerian commercial banks.

The company — with an Uber-like app that connects truckers and companies to delivery services — will use the funds to upgrade its platform and expand to 10 new countries beyond current operating markets of Nigeria, Togo, Ghana and Kenya.

Kobo360 looks to grow beyond its Nigeria roots to become a truly Pan-African company, co-founder Obi Ozor told gpgmail .  He co-founded the venture in 2017 with fellow Nigerian Ife Oyedele II.

Since its launch in Lagos, the startup has continued to grow its product offerings, VC backing and customer base. Kobo360 claims a fleet of more than 10,000 drivers and trucks operating on its app. Top clients include Honeywell, Olam, Unilever, Dangote and DHL.

Kobo360’s latest round is also notable for Goldman Sachs’ involvement. Goldman’s participation tracks a growing list of African venture investments made by the U.S. based finance firm.

Chinese mobile-phone and device maker Transsion will list in an IPO on Shanghai’s STAR Market, Transsion confirmed to gpgmail.

The company — which has a robust Africa sales network — could raise up to 3 billion yuan (or $426 million).

Transsion’s IPO prospectus is downloadable (in Chinese) and its STAR Market listing application available on the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s website.

STAR is the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s new Nasdaq-style board for tech stocks that also went live in July with some 25 companies going public.

Headquartered in Shenzhen — where African e-commerce unicorn Jumia also has a logistics supply-chain facility — Transsion is a top-seller of smartphones in Africa under its Tecno brand.

The company has a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia and recently expanded its presence in India.

Transsion plans to spend the bulk of its STAR Market raise (1.6 billion yuan or $227 million) on building more phone assembly hubs and around 430 million yuan ($62 million) on research and development, including a mobile phone R&D center in Shanghai, a company spokesperson said.

The government of Rwanda will soon issue national policy guidelines to eliminate gas motorcycles in its taxi sector in favor of e-motos, according to a preview of the plan by President Paul Kagame at a public-rally

The director general for the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority, Patrick Nyirishema, confirmed Kagame’s comments were ahead of a national e-mobility plan in the works for the East African nation.

“The president’s announcement is exactly the policy direction we’re in…it’s about converting to electric motos…The policy is prepared, it’s yet to be passed…and is going through the approval process,” Nyirishema told gpgmail on a call from Kigali.

Motorcycle taxis in Rwanda are a common mode of transit, with estimates of 20 to 30 thousand operating in the capital of Kigali.

Nyirishema explained that converting to e-motorcycles is part of a national strategy to move Rwanda’s entire mobility space to electric. The country will start with public transit operators, such as moto-taxis, and move to buses and automobiles.

Ampersand, a Kigali-based e-moto startup, has already begun to pilot EVs and charging systems in Rwanda and will work with the country’s government on the moto-taxi conversion.

In an ExtraCrunch feature, gpgmail delved into tech talent accelerator Andela — one of the most recognized and well funded startups operating in Africa.

In a byte, Andela is Series D stage startup ― backed by $180 million in VC ― that trains and connects African software developers to global companies for a fee.

CEO Jeremy Johnson dished on the company’s strategy toward profitability and responded to some of the criticism it receives ― namely a claim the startup is creating a second brain-drain when software developers leave Andela and Africa, to take positions with global companies.

Today Andela has offices in New York and five African countries: Nigeria, Kenya,  Rwanda, Uganda, and Egypt ― which largely align with the continent’s top tech VC markets.

Across this network the company recruits software developers, builds software engineers, and deploys teams of software engineers.

Johnson disclosed numbers on Andela’s expected new hires for the year, current developer staff, how many departures the company expects, and how many of those will likely leave their home countries―which actually amounts to a fairly small percentage.

gpgmail checked in with Nigerian fintech company Interswitch for the latest on its anticipated dual-listing London and Lagos stock exchanges.

A Bloomberg News story (based on background sourcing) revived speculation the IPO could happen this year for the company — which provides much of Nigeria’s digital banking infrastructure and has expanded its operations presence and payments products across Africa and globally.

Reports that Interswitch could be one of the earliest big tech companies out of Africa to go public trace back to 2016, when CEO and founder Mitchell Elegbe told gpgmail the company was considering a listing before the end of that year.

Last month, an Interswitch spokesperson would neither confirm or deny a pending IPO, per a gpgmail inquiry. So, it’s still tough to say if or when the company could list. But there are still several reasons why the business (and its possible IPO) are worth keeping an eye on, which we detailed in the update story.

 

One could be an eventual increase in venture funding to African startups, that could come from Interswitch. Another could be an Interswitch IPO adding another benchmark for global investors to gauge Africa’s tech sector beyond Jumia — the e-commerce company that became the first big tech firm operating in Africa to launch on a major exchange, the NYSE in April.

More Africa-related stories @gpgmail

African tech around the ‘net

 


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Didi Chuxing to launch self-driving rides in Shanghai and expand them beyond China by 2021 – gpgmail


Didi Chuxing will begin picking up ride-hailing passengers with self-driving cars in Shanghai in just a few months, according to company CTO Zhang Bo (via Reuters). The plan is to roll out autonomous pick-ups in Shanghai first, starting in one district of the city, and then expand the program from there – finally culminating in the deployment of self-driving vehicles outside of China by 2021.

Like Uber’s autonomous test vehicles, Didi’s cars will be staffed with a human driver on board during the initial launch period, which awaits a few remaining licenses before it can actually begin serving human passengers. Self-driving rides will be free for customers, and Zhang said that more than 30 different vehicles will be offered for self-driving trips as part of the pilot.

After its initial pilot launch in Shanghai, Didi will look to expand its offerings to Beijing and Shenzhen as well, with hopes to be live in all three cities by 2020.

Didi is the largest ride-hailing company in China, and beat out an attempt by Uber to establish a presence in the market, resulting in Uber selling its Chinese business to Didi and exiting the market in 2016 (in exchange for a minority stake). We spoke to Didi’s CTO (who asked to be identified by as ‘Bob’ at the time, hence the lower-third in the video below) later that same year about why the company believes it has an advantage when it comes to data-driven technology development relative to Uber and other ride-hailing companies.

Aside from a general sense in the industry that autonomy is a likely, if not inevitable end goal for ride-hailing and other mobility services with a technological focus, Didi is also likely motivated by a need for drivers to meet demand – and drivers who can provide a safe and secure experience for passengers. The company revealed in July that it had proved over 300,000 drivers that didn’t meet up to its safety standards after overhauling those standards last year.

Earlier this month, Didi also announced that it was spinning out its autonomous driving unit as a separate company, with Zhang as CEO. It’ll look to develop tech for its own fleet, and work in partnership with automakers, including Toyota, in pursuit of commercializing and deploying autonomous driving.


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China’s Transsion and Kenya’s Wapi Capital partner on Africa fund – gpgmail


Chinese mobile-phone and device maker Transsion is teaming up with Kenya’s Wapi Capital to source and fund early-stage African fintech startups.

Headquartered in Shenzhen, Transsion is a top-seller of smartphones in Africa that recently confirmed its imminent IPO.

Wapi Capital is the venture fund of Kenyan fintech startup Wapi Pay—a Nairobi based company that facilitates digital payments between African and Asia via mobile money or bank accounts.

Investments for the new partnership will come from Transsion’s Future Hub, an incubator and seed fund for African startups opened by Transsion in 2019.

Starting September 2019, Transsion will work with Wapi Capital to select early-stage African fintech companies for equity-based investments of up to $100,000, Transsion Future Hub Senior Investor Laura Li told gpgmail via email.

Wapi Capital won’t contribute funds to Transsion’s Africa investments, but will help determine the viability and scale of the startups, including due diligence and deal flow, according to Wapi Pay co-founder Eddie Ndichu.

Wapi Pay and Transsion Future Hub will consider ventures from all 54 African countries and interested startups can reach out directly to either organization, Ndichu and Li confirmed.

The Wapi Capital fintech partnership is not Transsion’s sole VC focus in Africa. Though an exact fund size hasn’t been disclosed, the Transsion Future Hub will also make startup investments on the continent in adtech, fintech, e-commerce, logistics, and media and entertainment, according to Li.

Transsion Future Hub’s existing portfolio includes Africa focused browser company Phoenix, content aggregator Scoop, and music service Boomplay.

Wapi Capital adds to the list of African located and run venture funds—which have been growing in recent years—according to a 2018 study by gpgmail and Crunchbase. Wapi Capital will also start making its own investments and is looking to raise $1 million this year and $10 million over the next three years, according to Ndichu, who co-founded the fund and Wapi Pay with his twin brother Paul.

Transsion’s commitment to African startup investments comes as the company is on the verge of listing on China’s new Nasdaq-style STAR Market tech exchange. Transsion confirmed to gpgmail this month the IPO is in process and that it could raise up to 3 billion yuan (or $426 million).

Transsion sold 124 million phones globally in 2018, per company data. In Africa, Transsion holds 54% of the feature phone market — through its brands Tecno, Infinix and Itel — and in smartphone sales is second to Samsung and before Huawei, according to International Data Corporation stats.

Transsion has R&D centers in Nigeria and Kenya and its sales network in Africa includes retail shops in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Egypt. The company also has a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia.

Transsion’s move into venture investing tracks greater influence from China in African tech.

China’s engagement with African startups has been light compared to China’s deal-making on infrastructure and commodities.

Transsion’s Wapi Pay partnership is the second recent event — after Chinese owned Opera’s big venture spending in Nigeria — to reflect greater Chinese influence and investment in the continent’s digital scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Huawei pushes back launch of 5G foldable, the Mate X – gpgmail


If you were desperately ripping days off of your calendar until you could get your hands on Huawei’s $2,600 5G foldable, the Mate X — which was originally slated to launch next month — it sounds like you’re going to have to wait a bit longer, per TechRadar which attended a press event at Huawei’s Shenzhen headquarters today. 

It reports being told there is no possibility of a September launch. Instead Huawei is now aiming for November. But the company would only profess itself certain its first smartphone that folds out to a (square) tablet will launch before 2020. So it seems Mate X buyers may need to wait until circa Christmas to fondle this foldable.

It’s not clear exactly why the launch is being delayed. But — speculating wildly — we imagine it’s something to do with the fact that the screen, er, folds.

We’ve reached out to Huawei for official comment on the delay.

Huawei’s Mate X date slippage suggests Samsung will still be first to market with its (previously) delayed Galaxy Fold — which was itself delayed after a bunch of review units broke (because, well, did we tell you the screen folds?).

Last we heard, the Galaxy Fold is slated for a September release — Samsung seemingly confident it’s fixed the problem of how to make a foldable phone survive actual use.

Of course survival in the wild very much remains to be seen with any of these foldable. So expect TC’s in house hardware guru, Brian Heater, to put all of these expensively hinged touchscreens through their paces.

Returning to Huawei’s Mate X, potential buyers may not be entirely reassured to learn the company appeared to dangle rather more information about a planned sequel in front of reporters at the press event.

A sequel which may or may not have even more screens, as Huawei is apparently considering putting glass on the back. Yes, glass. (The gen-one Mate X will have a steel back.) Glass panels which it says could double as touchscreens. On the back. As well as the front. We have no idea if that means the price-tag will double too.

This theoretical quad (?) screen foldable follow-up to the still unreleased Mate X might even be released as soon as next year, according to TechRadar’s reportage. Or — again speculating wildly — it might never be released. Because, frankly, it sounds mental. But that’s the wacky world of foldables for ya.

There may be method in this madness too. Because, since smartphones turned into all-screen devices — making it almost impossible to tell one touch-sensitive slab from another — plucky Android device makers are trying to find a way to put more screen on the slab so you can see more.

If they can pull that off it might be great. However sticking a hinge right through the middle of a smartphone’s primary feature and function without that simultaneously causing problems is certainly a major engineering challenge.


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London edtech startup pi-top sees layoffs after major contract loss – gpgmail


London-based edtech startup pi-top has cut a number of staff, gpgmail has learned.

According to our sources, the company has reduced its headcount in recent weeks, with staff being told cuts are a result of restructuring as it seeks to implement a new strategy.

One source told us pi-top recently lost out on a large education contract.

Another source said sales at pi-top have been much lower than predicted — with all major bids being lost.

Pi-top confirmed to gpgmail that it has let staff go, saying it has reduced headcount from 72 to 60 people across its offices in London, Austin and Shenzhen.

Our sources suggest the total number of layoffs could be up to a third. 

In a statement, pi-top told us:

pi-top has become one of the fastest growing ed-tech companies in the market in 4.5 years.  We have a unique vision to increase access to coding and technical education through project based learning to inspire a new generation of makers.

As part of this vision we built up our global team with a view to winning a particularly exciting national project in a developing nation, where we had a previous large scale successful implementation. We were disappointed this tender ultimately fell through due to economic factors in the region and have subsequently made the unfortunate but unavoidable decision to reduce our team size from 72 to 60 people across our offices in London, Austin and Shenzhen.

Moving forward we are focusing on our growth within the USA where we continue to enjoy widespread success. We are rolling out our new learning platform pi-top Further which will enable schools everywhere to access a world of content enhanced by practical hands-on project based learning outcomes. We have recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign and we look forward to releasing our newest product pi-top [4].

We are also proud to have appointed Stanley Buchesky as our new Executive Chairman. Stanley brings a wealth of experience in the ed-tech sector and will be a great asset to our strategy going forward.

Pi-top sells hardware and software designed for educational use in schools. It’s one of a large number of edtech startups that have sought to tap into the popularity of the “learn to code” movement by piggybacking atop the (also British) low-cost Raspberry Pi microprocessor — which provides the computing power for all pi-top’s products.

Pi-top adds its own OS and additional education-focused software to the Pi, as well as proprietary cases — including a bright green laptop housing with a built-in rail for breadboarding electronics.

Its most recent product, the pi-top 4, which was announced back in January, looks intended to move the company away from its first focus on educational desktop computing to more modular and embeddable hardware hacking that could be used by schools to power a wider variety of robotics and electronics projects.

Despite raising $16M in VC funding just over a year ago, pi-top opted to run a crowdfunding campaign for the pi-top 4 — going on to raise almost $200,000 on Kickstarter from 521 backers.

Pi-top 4 backers have been told to expect the device to ship in November.


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Africa’s top mobile phone seller Transsion to list in Chinese IPO – gpgmail


Chinese mobile-phone and device maker Transsion will list in an IPO on Shanghai’s STAR Market,  Transsion confirmed to gpgmail. 

The company—which has a robust Africa sales network—could raise up to 3 billion yuan (or $426 million).

“The company’s listing-related work is running smoothly. The registration application and issuance process is still underway, with the specific timetable yet to be confirmed by the CSRC and Shanghai Stock Exchange,” a spokesperson for Transsion’s Office of the Secretary to the Chairman told gpgmail via email.

Transsion’s IPO prospectus was downloadable (in Chinese) and its STAR Market listing application available on the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s website.

STAR is the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s new Nasdaq-style board for tech stocks that also went live in July with some 25 companies going public. 

Headquartered in Shenzhen—where African e-commerce unicorn Jumia also has a logistics supply-chain facility—Transsion is a top-seller of smartphones in Africa under its Tecno brand.

The company has a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia and recently expanded its presence in India.

Transsion plans to spend the bulk of its STAR Market raise (1.6 billion yuan or $227 million) on building more phone assembly hubs and around 430 million yuan ($62 million) on research and development,  including a mobile phone R&D center in Shanghai—a company spokesperson said. 

Transsion recently announced a larger commitment to capturing market share in India, including building an industrial park in the country for manufacture of phones to Africa.

The IPO comes after Transsion announced its intent to go public and filed its first docs with the Shanghai Stock Exchange in April. 

Listing on the STAR Market will put Transsion on the freshly minted exchange seen as an extension of Beijing’s ambition to become a hub for high-potential tech startups to raise public capital. Chinese regulators lowered profitability requirements, for the exchange, which means pre-profit ventures can list.

Transsion’s IPO process comes when the company is actually in the black. The firm generated 22.6 billion yuan ($3.29 billion) in revenue in 2018, up from 20 billion yuan from a year earlier. Net profit for the year slid to 654 million yuan, down from 677 million yuan in 2017, according to the firm’s prospectus.

Transsion sold 124 million phones globally in 2018, per company data. In Africa, Transsion holds 54% of the feature phone market—through its brands Tecno, Infinix, and Itel—and in smartphone sales is second to Samsung and before Huawei, according to International Data Corporation stats.

Transsion has R&D centers in Nigeria and Kenya and its sales network in Africa includes retail shops in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Egypt. The company also attracted attention for being one of the first known device makers to optimize its camera phones for African complexions.

On a recent research trip to Addis Ababa, gpgmail learned the top entry-level Tecno smartphone was the W3, which lists for 3600 Ethiopian Birr, or roughly $125.

In Africa, Transsion’s ability to build market share and find a sweet spot with consumers on price and features gives it prominence in the continent’s booming tech scene.

Africa already has strong mobile-phone penetration, but continues to undergo a conversion from basic USSD phones, to feature phones, to smartphones.

Smartphone adoption on the continent is low, at 34 percent, but expected to grow to 67 percent by 2025, according to GSMA.

This, added to an improving internet profile, is key to Africa’s tech scene. In top markets for VC and startup origination—such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa—thousands of ventures are building business models around mobile-based products and digital applications.

If Transsion’s IPO enables higher smartphone conversion on the continent that could enable more startups and startup opportunities—from fintech to VOD apps.

Another interesting facet to Transsion’s IPO is its potential to create greater influence from China in African tech, in particular if the Shenzhen company moves strongly toward venture investing.

Comparatively, China’s engagement with African startups has been light compared to China’s deal-making on infrastructure and commodities—further boosted in recent years as Beijing pushes its Belt and Road plan.

Transsion’s IPO move is the second recent event—after Chinese owned Opera’s big venture spending in Nigeria—to reflect greater Chinese influence and investment in the continent’s digital scene.

So in coming years, China could be less known for building roads, bridges, and buildings in Africa and more for selling smartphones and providing VC for African startups.


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The scientist behind Juul launches a Juul alternative for China – gpgmail


The chemist who helped create the magic sauce behind Juul, Xing Chenyue, unveiled the product of her new startup Myst Labs this week after two years of development: electronic cigarette alternatives designed for China’s 350 million smokers, the world’s biggest smoking population.

This new contender makes for a potentially heated battlefield given that Juul will reportedly enter China soon. gpgmail has reached out to Juul about its expansion, but has not heard back at the time of writing.

Pax Labs — the company that spun out Juul in 2017 — was a 20-person team when Xing joined as one of its first scientists in 2013. During her nearly three-year post at what would become America’s largest vaping company, Xing helped invent nicotine salts, the compounds that made Juul an instant hit. The patented technology inspired a raft of followers because it allows high levels of nicotine to be inhaled more easily and with less irritation, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Xing left Juul when the company made a foray into marijuana vaporizers, a move that didn’t particularly interest the scientist, a non-smoker whose ambition is to “help smokers meet their nicotine needs whilst reducing the harmful substances they consume,” Xing told gpgmail in a phone interview.

Myst says it spends about 20% of its money raised on research and development. / Photo: Myst Labs

The China-born scientist took up a project management role at publicly-traded pharmaceutical company Dermia before eventually returning to cigarettes research by starting Myst Labs, which she co-founded in 2017 with Thomas Yao, a venture capitalist she had met over a decade ago at Fudan University in Shanghai.

As Myst began to take form, Juul was on course to reach its whopping $38 billion valuation even while it was under fire for luring teenagers into vaping. Meanwhile in China, vaping had just begun to catch on. Research from Soochow Securities (in Chinese) shows that China, despite being the world’s biggest producer of vaping devices, accounts for merely 6% of the world’s e-cig market. Xing wanted to seize the opportunity and this time, she’s in control over what comes out of the lab.

“We certainly want to reach the same level of society-wide impact in China as Juul does in the U.S. We hope Myst can leave a positive mark on Chinese smokers,” said Xing. “Myst can slowly transform the way people smoke and gradually reduce the level of their nicotine intake.”

Myst’s first product, dubbed the P1 series, is a 399 yuan ($58) flash-drive-shaped device that comes with a nicotine level of 3% or 5% and sports a retractable cigarette holder for hygiene and a “click” sound that mimics a lighter. Myst will ship in China through online and offline channels and said it plans to sell in international markets down the road. Its price point is comparable to Juul’s pricing in the U.S.

Myst does not market itself as a smoking cessation tool because to do so would require approval from China’s drug regulator. Rather, the startup bills itself as a “new type of cigarette substitute for adult smokers.” It has avoided using images of young, cool-looking models, the style of campaigns that backfired on Juul. To verify customers’ age, Myst applies facial recognition, an increasingly ubiquitous technology in China where people scan their face to pay for things or access certain entertainment services such as video games and live videos.

myst 4

Myst says its products are priced and marketed to target ‘adult smokers,’ not young people. / Photo: Myst Labs

That positioning also allows the company to potentially evade stepping on the toes of China’s powerful cigarette monopoly, which provides the government with handsome sums of tax revenues.

From Silicon Valley to Shenzhen

Myst deploys about half of its 20-person team to conduct research and development in Silicon Valley. The rest of the company mainly works out of Shenzhen, the electronics manufacturing hub that also produces the majority of the world’s vaporizers.

“We are combining Silicon Valley research and China’s supply chain, a strategy that sets us apart from most vaporizers on the market,” Yao, who heads up business development at Myst, told gpgmail.

He compared China’s vaping craze to what happened to smartphones between 2010 and 2011 when copycats of incumbents crowded the market in a gold rush. Countless knockoffs of Juul and other established brands now flood the market. Companies with various degrees of development capabilities have also mushroomed — at least 20 Chinese e-cig startups have received venture investment in the last seven months.

As with the smartphone market that’s now dominated by a small rank of players, Yao believed the bad apples in vaping will eventually be weeded out. “This [counterfaiting] happens whenever China experiences a technological breakthrough. Chinese brands get eliminated at a rate to which no other country can compare. Perhaps a lot of [e-cig] companies will go out of business by the end of this year.” A sector reshuffle will result in part from government regulation, which can arrive in China anytime soon.

myst 5

Myst co-founder Thomas Yao introduced his co-founder and the company’s chief scientist Xing Chenyue, a former scientist at Juul. / Photo: Myst Labs

Xing believes Myst’s edge lies in the quality of its products. According to Yao, the company spends about 20% of the money raised on R&D.

Yao declined to disclose how much the company has banked but said it has sufficient funds in the coffer and that “money isn’t an issue” because he has personally invested in Myst. Yao had previously picked some winners by backing mobility unicorn Lime and India’s wallet leader Paytm in their early days.

The co-founder has also brought to the table key personnel for the business, including Myst’s chief executive officer Daniel Chen, who previously managed Hong Kong-listed robotics firm Super Robotics; chief operation officer Martin Liu, former CEO of Blackberry China; head of product Yingqun Cao, a former product manager at Google Home and Juul; and lastly head of design Jiandong Hao, previously a design director at global design firm IDEO.

The pool of talent is reflective of Myst’s vision to digitize smoking, which can manifest in the form of a connected vaporizer that tracks users’ health conditions just like a smart wristband does. Myst’s current generation of products does not yet enable the futuristic scenario, but Yao maintained that digitization is key to smoking.

“For smokers, vaporizers could become the second most used electronic devices after smartphones,” he said.


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Lessons from the hardware capital of the world – gpgmail


A week is obviously not enough time to truly understand a market as massive and fascinating as China. Hell, it’s not really even enough time to adjust to the 12-hour time difference from New York. That said, each of the three visits I’ve taken to the country in the past two years has yielded some useful insights into my role as hardware editor here at gpgmail.

Late last week, I got back from an eight-day trip to Shenzhen in the Guangdong Province of South China and nearby Hong Kong. In some respects, the cities are worlds apart, though a newly opened high-speed rail system has reduced the trip to 30 minutes. Customs issues aside, it’s the height of convenience. Though for political and cultural reasons I’ll not get into here, some have bemoaned the access it’s provided.

This particular visit was sort of a scouting trip. In November, gpgmail will be hosting its first Hardware Battlefield event in a couple of years. Previous events had been held at CES for reasons of easy access to young startups. This time out, however, we’ve opted to go straight to the source.

The birthplace of hardware


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