As the Covid-19 pandemic rumbles on, ‘contactless’ foodtech has never had a bigger profile.
With the world more germ-conscious than ever before, there has been a boom in interest around technological solutions that can make, store, and serve us food while minimizing human contact and other contamination risks.
This wasn’t the original thinking behind Singaporean startup Advantir Innovations’ flagship product, a ‘smart’ soft-serve vending machine; founder and CEO Jeremy Tan came up with the concept three years ago, out of disappointment at the insipid desserts he kept getting from ice cream machines in fast food establishments.
National University of Singapore (NUS) alumnus Tan decided to build a better device in order to feed his need for higher-quality, machine-made desserts.
That resulted in Swirl.GO, a sleek, tech-enabled device that uses a capsule-based system — much like Nestlé‘s Nespresso coffee maker — to churn out a wide range of frozen desserts at the push of a button, in globally recognizable flavors as well as regional tastes like lychee and rose, black sesame gelato, hojicha, and chendol.
Fast-forward to 2021 and, boosted by the pandemic-related clamor for contactless foodtech, Advantir has raised a seven-figure Singapore dollar seed round to expand its international footprint. Leading the round was Raging Bull Investments, the VC firm set up by Ivan Lee, co-founder and CEO of pan-Asian restaurant chain ThaiExpress. She1K, Expara Asia Ventures, Azerus, and several undisclosed angel investors also participated.
Advantir has already completed pilot trials with several partners in the food and beverage, hospitality, and convenience retail segments that plan to launch Swirl.GO desserts during the first half of this year, according to Tan. Read on to hear more from him on the startup’s progress and why he thinks Swirl.GO is the future of the world’s sweet tooth.
AFN: What kind of demand is there for a solution like the one developed by Advantir?
Jeremy Tan: I came up with the idea in 2018, as I love eating soft-serve desserts and always wondered why I could not get good quality soft-serve desserts. After some research I found that the typical soft-serve machines at fast-food restaurants were expensive, big, and bulky, and required manpower training. As an alumnus of the NUS Overseas Colleges programme, which encourages entrepreneurship, I figured that since there was no other alternative I would develop one.
It took approximately two years to create our [B2B] device, and we partnered with several engineering design companies to develop it as I envisioned it. My engineering team is continuing to work on a B2C model, which will be smaller to fit on a typical kitchen countertop, as well as to include some personalized options.
What makes Advantir stand out from the rest of the crowd when it comes to food dispensing and vending automation?
Our main selling point is the ability to serve multiple different dessert types, with over 100 flavors, from one machine; currently four [types] — ice cream, gelato, sorbet, froyo — and soon to be six, as we plan to add smoothies and acai desserts soon. This compares fantastically to other soft-serve machines which typically only offer one or two flavors of ice cream.
In addition to the variety of dessert types and flavors, our other main selling point is the simple, fuss-free nature of our machine. The whole process, from inserting a Swirl pod to the dessert of choice being dispensed, takes less than one minute. It’s simple enough for consumers to serve themselves.
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No cleaning or washing is required in between dispensing different flavors and types, and there’s no requirement for water input, drainage, or loading of pre-mixes.
We’ve also added analytical capabilities to our machine, so a business can quickly get an overview of which dessert types and flavours are fan favorites. This helps for inventory management, as well as purchasing.
How does Advantir generate revenue?
We have a B2B model, where we are targeting businesses like convenience outlets, restaurants, hotels, shopping malls, and corporates.
We have two main revenue models: rent to purchase, where we rent our machine and accompanying freezer for S$260 ($196) per month [and] the business can purchase the Swirl pods separately; and loan with purchase, where the machine is loaned for free to businesses that can commit at least S$350 ($264) worth of Swirl pods per month – which is between 125 and 160 Swirl pods, depending on dessert type and flavor.
We plan to launch Swirl.GO in Q1 2021 with these two revenue models. We are also open to exploring if businesses wish to do one-off sales.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a startup so far – and how have you overcome them?
Some of our biggest challenges have included getting the right manufacturing and brand partners on board in the early months when we did not have a fully built product. These were suppliers and manufacturers that were essential to our business. They saw the confidence, passion, as well as the vision of what we were building and took a leap of faith with us. We are glad to say that they are still working with us today. We are incubated by NUS Enterprise, which has provided us mentoring support as well as incubation space, so we are fortunate to have avoided the typical challenges that plague most other startups.
Did Covid-19 present any difficulties in terms of fundraising and expanding the business?
Covid-19 has had impact on the hospitality sector, which is a key customer segment for Swirl.GO. However, we are now seeing the sector picking up, and many businesses are looking for new ways to engage with their customers in a hygienic, reduced-contact manner, as well as new revenue streams. Given its self-serve features, Swirl.GO is ideal for this. Since there is no food contact between the device and individual Swirl pods, cross contamination between different users is minimal.