Singapore’s retail tech startup Crown Technologies had secured its first major, cross-border investment with JR East Business Development SEA Pte Ltd., a subsidiary of East Japan Railway Company, back in January 2021.
This brought the company to an initial valuation of S$33 million.
The investment will accelerate the rollout of ELLA — Crown Technologies’ AI-powered robotic barista — across East Japan Railway’s network of 1,657 train stations that serve an average of 17 million passengers daily, with completion slated to meet the increased demands of the Tokyo Olympics 2020.
However, ELLA was only launched in Tokyo, Japan yesterday (December 8) after 11 months of preparations and meetings.
As part of a test marketing collaboration, ELLA will serve cups of coffee to time-pressed commuters at Tokyo and Yokohama Stations until 28 February 2022.
It can serve up to 200 cups of gourmet coffee per hour, while occupying a retail footprint of under five square metres.
ELLA also offers a safe, cashless and contactless option for consumers. Consumers can order via the ELLA app on their mobile phones without direct contact with ELLA’s user interface and retrieve coffees via a designated “pigeonhole” that swivels 180 degrees to open for collection, resulting in minimal touchpoints at the kiosk.
Commuters will also be able to make e-payments at the ELLA kiosks via Suica, prepaid IC cards issued by JR East for train commutes.
ELLA can serve over 1,000 cups of coffee a day
Founded in 2016, Crown Coffee started out as a gourmet cafe in Singapore.
When they were faced with high staff turnover and manpower challenges, it decided to rethink its business model and innovated to create a solution that delivers gourmet coffee in a fast and efficient manner through the use of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).
They ended up with ELLA, Singapore’s first robotic barista. Its tech arm Crown Robotics was responsible for conceptualising ELLA, while smart retail solutions provider Crown Digital developed the app.
“She has served dignitaries and leaders at conferences and events around the world. She has recently won two tech and innovation awards in Singapore, and can serve over 1,000 cups of coffee a day without breaking a sweat,” said Keith Tan, CEO and founder of Crown Digital as he delivered his opening speech.
He added that Crown Digital has since grown into a full-stack tech startup — they design and build their hardware, software and people.
“Our strengths have been improved by our partnership with JR East, with a strategic cross-border investment secured in December 2020. Because of our work with JR East, we successfully integrated the SUICA payment system in Japan, and we’re the first foreign company to do so,” he added.
Separately, Crown Digital has also has partnered with Stellar Lifestyle (formerly called SMRT Commercial) to bring robot baristas serving gourmet coffee to 30 MRT stations across Singapore by the end of 2022.
The first ELLA kiosk will be launched at a “key MRT station” in Singapore in January 2022.
“As the trend towards contactless retail in this post-pandemic world accelerates and labour shortages worsen, ELLA will become increasingly relevant in evolving the retail landscape. We look forward to bringing ELLA to Singapore commuters soon, and to other major Asian transit hubs,” said Keith.
Bigger things can be achieved with the right partnership
“Due to Covid-19 we faced unimaginable challenges logistically, travel was stopped, we had no idea if we could enter Japan for this launch, but we kept the faith and kept believing that things will eventually work out. It was an impossible project made possible,” said Keith.
He humbly feels that this journey would not be possible without the partnership of an esteemed company like JR East.
“As a startup, we have great ideas, we move fast, and we take risks for high rewards. However, startups often do not have the resources to turn ideas into reality. However, larger organisations do. Therefore, if a startup can partner with a large company and work together collaboratively, great things can be achieved in a short period of time,” said Keith.
“I want to take this opportunity to encourage fellow startups to step up, push themselves forward and pursue their dreams. And for the larger corporations, I encourage you to embrace the startup ecosystem, assist them and offer them opportunities to put their ideas into practice. This will provide the necessary support for wonderful and exciting ideas to become a reality.”
He further stressed that the future of F&B and retail is automated, and as automation and AI will be omnipresent in our daily lives, tech companies can continue to contribute to the betterment of the industry and society.
“This is just the beginning, and we know that ELLA and JR East will be creating an extremely exciting future ahead,” he said.
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Featured Image Credit: Crown Digital