Asian hardware at ChinaBang was amazing. Profitable? It depends (VIDEO)
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Cool stuff like a humanoid robot were presented at TechNode's Asia Hardware Competition. Photo credit: Laura Rosbrow-Telem / Geektime

Cool stuff like a humanoid robot were presented at TechNode's Asia Hardware Competition. Photo credit: Laura Rosbrow-Telem / Geektime

ChinaBang, TechNode’s latest conference in Chengdu, China, showcased some of Asia’s best hardware startups. While the ideas were amazing, few seemed profitable

Miniature robots on skateboards; A teddy bear that can hug your long distance partner; Hydroponic-grown plants from shipping containers. These were just some of the cool products presented at the TechNode Asia Hardware Competition. 

The judges of the competition featured prominent figures such as Luke Iseman, Y Combinator’s hardware expert, and Tomihasa Kamada, who co-founded ACCESS, the first big software startup in Japan that went public.

While there were three finalists, two of which are mentioned below, there was little fanfare at TechNode’s final award banquet — to the point that most people in the audience and the company did not know who won. So we will focus on what we thought was interesting. 

Coming from Israel, where startups usually focus on B2B (business-to-business) services such as adtech and cyber security, these hardware startups were much sexier. While the innovation of these companies was oftentimes inspiring, it is hard to imagine that many investors in the room would be ready to put down cash for most of these early stage products before they are tested further in the market.

Take this miniature robot from Japanese startup PLEN, which is marketed as the world’s first printable open-sourced humanoid. It is amazing, adorable, and can ride on a mini-skateboard.

While 3D printing does make creating such toys easier, few people beyond those who already use 3D printing would likely be motivated enough to build these “humanoids.”

Another amusing technology aimed to help long distance couples and families living abroad find a substitute for the feeling of each other’s touch, the one thing video calls still can’t bridge. However, the VR device-controlled robotic teddy bear used to address this problem could either be construed as comforting or creepy.

If you were wondering, yes, the startup is from Japan.

Here, you can see Adawarp‘s founder on stage do a live demo.

Several featured innovations that could greatly help those with disabilities. One included an Indian startup called Live Braille, which is creating different levels of products to assist or replace canes altogether. Their confidence is high, claiming that people who are blind are able to run with their higher end technology (which will cost about $699) and anyone dissatisfied with their products can ask for their money back guaranteed. Part of why they feel so confident is that their early testers have largely kept with the product, not abandoning them like so many wearables.

A demo of a blind person being able to run full speed ahead with Live Braille's technology. Photo credit: Laura Rosbrow-Telem / Geektime

A demo of a blind person being able to run full speed ahead with Live Braille’s technology. Photo credit: Laura Rosbrow-Telem / Geektime

This reporter tried out the most basic product, a $300 ring that vibrates when you get close to objects. It is meant to accompany a cane, so when we tried it out, it was a bit wonky, but promising.

This reporter with LiveBraille's most basic ring device to assist the blind. Photo credit: LiveBraille

This reporter with LiveBraille’s most basic ring device to assist the blind. Photo credit: LiveBraille

But the real winner of the disability tech was Japanese startup exiii, which has developed a much cheaper bionic hand through the help of 3D printing technology. They were one of the three finalists of the competition.

The founder wonderfully captured the company’s desire to design the product less like a real hand and more as a “way to express their missing hand rather than conceal it as a disability.”

A famous Japanese entertainer that performed for the first time with her new hand from exiii. Photo credit: Laura Rosbrow-Telem / Geektime

A famous Japanese entertainer that performed for the first time with her new hand from exiii. Photo credit: Laura Rosbrow-Telem / Geektime

This reporter’s personal favorite startup from the day, however, was Beijing-based Alesca Life, which also was one of the competition’s finalists. They repurpose shipping containers into hydroponic growing areas for fresh produce, creating highly effective spaces for urban farming.

They claim to use 20 times less water than conventional farming methods, and partner with restaurants and hotels that want to source freshly grown food.  Here’s a photo of one cafe already using a smaller version of their container in the cafe itself.

An Alesca Life container growing food in a Beijing cafe. Photo credit: Laura Rosbrow-Telem / Geektime

An Alesca Life container growing food in a Beijing cafe. Photo credit: Laura Rosbrow-Telem / Geektime

While some may be skeptical about the market potential for businesses and consumers that really want hydroponic produce, beyond being cool, it’s extremely resource friendly. That makes this reporter think that even if consumers aren’t sold on its greenness, businesses may just love that it’s a potentially cheaper way to grow food.

When speaking with Startup East’s Amos Avner, he took a classically Israeli B2B view on the startups. He liked a Korean technology company called TipTalk, an offshoot of Samsung that could allow you to take a call from a watch or smartwatch by pressing on your ear. While not sexy (and didn’t interest this reporter), he thought a mobile phone company would likely buy it. He may be right.

Photo credit: Laura Rosbrow-Telem / Geektime

Photo credit: Laura Rosbrow-Telem / Geektime

The other startups that participated included AR outdoors startup RideOn from Israel, Aurora Brewing Co. from China, Revolution through Pollution from India, Meditation Master from China, uSens from China, Eggplant from Hong Kong, and Medexo Robotics from Hong Kong.

This trip was sponsored by TechNode and coordinated by Startup East

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Laura Rosbrow-Telem

About Laura Rosbrow-Telem


I am a social entrepreneurship enthusiast: This is what happens when a former social worker becomes a tech journalist. I mostly write about startups, technology, peace and justice issues, cultural topics, and personal stuff. Before Geektime, I was an editor at the Jerusalem Post and Mic.

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