Press Release: Protégé Ventures Bets on ZOLO to Transform Southeast Asia’s Food Sector with a Pre-Seed Investment

The investment in ZOLO, an AI-powered B2B software, marks the conclusion of Protégé Ventures (PV) Fund I – which has made a total of 11 strategic investments since its inception in 2017.

Singapore, 28 February 2024 Protégé Ventures (PV), Singapore’s only student-led venture capital fund and the first such fund in Southeast Asia, has announced an undisclosed pre-seed investment in ZOLO, an AI-powered B2B software company founded by two alumni from two Singapore universities. The investment is the 11th student-founded startup Protégé Ventures has funded since 2017.   

PV was established in 2017 by the Singapore Management University (SMU)’s Institute of Innovation & Entrepreneurship (IIE) with an earlier partnership with Kairos ASEAN and funding partners – Wavemakers Partners and Dr  Jeffrey Chi of Vickers Venture Partners. To nurture the next generation of tech and entrepreneurial leaders, PV extends an opportunity for students to gain practical work experience in venture investment landscape. PV students also get to collaborate with their peers from across different tertiary institutions in Singapore. 

In the seven years since its inception, PV has trained a total of 320 students as VC professionals, evaluated over 1,300 deals and invested S$298,000 in 11 student start-ups. These start-ups have collectively raised over S$35 million from notable institutional investors to date.  

Founded in 2023, ZOLO is an AI-powered B2B software designed to simplify orders, payments and deliveries for food suppliers. In response to the growing trend of restaurants utilising messaging apps like WhatsApp for B2B orders with food suppliers, ZOLO first starts with addressing the challenges posed by text-based orders for food suppliers which are time consuming and error-prone (e.g., spelling mistakes, language variations, incorrect interpretation of acronyms). The solution effortlessly integrates WhatsApp order details, transforming unstructured text messages into structured purchase orders, and then seamlessly incorporating them into back-office enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.  

ZOLO’s three-layer AI technology helps suppliers significantly reduce errors, save time, and minimize cost and wastage associated with inefficiencies of manual order processing. With ZOLO, suppliers can easily automate and streamline their orders from WhatsApp to ERP in seconds. 

Through this technology, ZOLO strives to enhance the sustainability and profitability of Southeast Asia’s B2B food industry. Building on its successful sales and order management system with the country’s largest food suppliers in 2023, ZOLO is poised to expand its capabilities in payments, financing and delivery management in 2024. 

The decision to invest in ZOLO underlines PV’s commitment to backing high-growth student startups that drive positive change and innovation in their industries. Together with ZOLO’s prior investors such as Antler, GHARAGE and NTUitive (via an equity-free grant), PV is embarking on a collaborative journey to foster innovation in the B2B food marketplace. 

ZOLO founders, Mr Mrat Yussubaliyev and Mr Mark Keong, bring a wealth of expertise and passion in building digital supply chain solutions with F&B domain experience to their venture. Mr Yussubaliyev, who earned a Masters in Business Administration from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in 2019, was previously a Director at a Shell-incubated technology company focused on B2B supply chain. Mr Keong, with a Bachelor of Engineering from the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2016, has extensive experience across the food supply chain including upstream with one of the largest global food producers BRF, midstream with regional food distributor SATS and downstream with cloud kitchens and restaurant business. The duo met through an Executive Program organized by Antler in late 2021. 

Reflecting on the deal sourcing and evaluation process, Mr Arjun Kumar, an analyst from PV, who is currently a third-year Computer Science and Business student at NTU,  emphasises the importance of thorough assessment and conviction in startup selection. He said, “We’re grateful for the opportunity to have been involved in every stage of the deal process for ZOLO, from initial deal-sourcing to presenting to our investment committee. One overarching takeaway is that it is our responsibility as analysts to thoroughly assess the startups we source, present a compelling case, while ensuring that they have a strong potential for returns and successful exits. With that in mind, we firmly believe that ZOLO is a promising addition to our portfolio. Overall, this firsthand experience is invaluable and presents a rare opportunity, especially for us aspiring students who are passionate and keen to hone our proficiency in venture capital.”

Ms Anaanya Bijay (SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business) and Mr Sherwin Ng (NTU Nanyang Business School), Managing Partners of PV who are also part of the Investment Committee, expressed confidence in ZOLO’s disruptive potential, citing the founders’ keen understanding of industry pain points and meticulous approach to solution-building, “We were thoroughly impressed by the level of attention to detail displayed by Mrat and Mark, with a very clear and concise approach in discussing sales channels, day to day operations and in charting out their future product roadmap.”

ZOLO joins PV’s portfolio companies – which include Lumitics, an IoT food waste management solution, Hypotenuse AI, an AI-content writer startup, Intellect, Asia’s largest mental health care app, and Angie’s Tempeh, a plant-based protein products manufacturer – to name a few.

“Protégé Ventures provides students with hands-on experience and learning opportunities, and we are elated to announce this latest investment – which also marks a successful conclusion of PV Fund I. As we move to the next phase with PV Fund II, we are certain it will serve as a catalyst, empowering and nurturing aspiring venture capitalists, youth startup founders and more. We are poised to cultivate the next generation of tech-savvy entrepreneurial-minded leaders and propel the growth of our student startup ecosystem,” said Ms Yasi Huo, Senior Associate Director of SMU IIE.

PV launched its second fund, the PV Fund II valued at S$500,000 in September 2023 – contributed by founding managing partner David Su of venture capital firm Matrix Partners China. This is to empower more investments in early-stage technology start-ups founded by students or recent graduates of Singapore’s polytechnics and universities which are seeking their pre-seed to seed funding. 

PV distinguishes itself as Singapore’s only student venture capital fund, created by SMU, offering students across different tertiary institutions in Singapore invaluable hands-on experience in the venture investment landscape.

Student-led start-ups who are interested in seeking investments from PV can visit https://protege.vc/get-funding.  

Students from any universities and polytechnics in Singapore who are interested in venture capital and the start-up ecosystem can indicate interest in applying for PV at https://bit.ly/PV2024_Interest  

For more information about Protégé Ventures, visit https://protege.vc

Enclosure: An Annexe listing Protégé Ventures portfolio companies 

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