China's Keenon Robotics taps Singapore as launchpad

Keenon entered a partnership with SoftBank Robotics to launch its delivery robot, Keenbot, in Singapore and Japan.
Keenon entered a partnership with SoftBank Robotics to launch its delivery robot, Keenbot, in Singapore and Japan.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Shanghai-based Keenon Robotics is turning to Singapore to kick off its international ambitions, with the help of its latest investor, SoftBank's Vision Fund 2, and the Japanese conglomerate's robotics arm.

On Tuesday, Keenon entered a partnership with SoftBank Robotics to launch its delivery robot, called the Keenbot, in Singapore and Japan. Following this, the Chinese start-up plans to expand to Europe, the Middle East and the United States, it announced at a press event.

"In the next two to three years, Keenon aspires to be a world leader in this field. Also, we are witnessing a milestone in the commercial robotics industry, whereby we will be seeing a lot of such usage in our daily lives," said its founder Tony Li, who spoke at the event over a video call.

The announcement comes about a week after Keenon announced that it had raised US$200 million (S$271 million) in Series D funding, led by the SoftBank Vision Fund 2. Founded in 2010, Keenon says that it is one of the largest players in China's mobile robotics market, serving the food and beverage (F&B), hospitality and medical sectors, among others.

SoftBank Robotics is integrating its cloud system with Keenon's robots, and will help the company in distributing the Keenbot here, Mr Kenichi Yoshida, chief business officer of SoftBank Robotics, told The Business Times on Tuesday.

Asked what differentiates the Keenbot from existing tray return robots in Singapore, Mr Yoshida cited Keenon's ability to manufacture at scale. "Keenon is the number one in the Chinese market. Their volume is the number one. Cost-wise, that is the cheapest. We need mass volume to do mass production."

Mr Yoshida declined to disclose the cost of a Keenbot or the company's specific targets in Singapore, but said that the focus is on quality and cost. SoftBank Robotics counts Singapore as its Asia-Pacific headquarters, with about 20 staff here.

Grab, which is also backed by SoftBank, will use the Keenbot at its cloud kitchen in Hillview. This will help with limiting physical contact while improving productivity, said Mr Yee Wee Tang, Grab's Singapore managing director.

Likewise, F&B group Tung Lok will also be deploying the Keenbot at restaurants. The new normal of the pandemic has made customer-facing robots more acceptable, said chief executive Andrew Tjioe.

"Three years ago, if you had asked me whether I would engage serving robots in the restaurant, the answer would be no: we always believe that robotics and automation should be behind the scenes and not facing our customers because of the nature of our business. But obviously, there's a change in mindset now," he said at Tuesday's event.