Protégé Ventures (PV), Singapore-based student venture capital fund, has announced an undisclosed pre-seed investment in ZOLO, an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered business to business (B2B) software company founded by two alumni from two Singapore universities.

PV said in a statement on Wednesday that the investment is the 11th student-founded startup Protégé Ventures has funded since 2017.

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.

“We firmly believe that ZOLO is a promising addition to our portfolio,” said Arjun Kumar, an analyst from PV.

Anaanya Bijay (SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business) and Mr Sherwin Ng (NTU Nanyang Business School), Managing Partners of PV, also 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,” they said.

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 SGD 298,000 ($221,413) in 11 student start-ups.

These start-ups have collectively raised over SGD 35 million ($26 million) from notable institutional investors to date.

PV launched its second fund, the PV Fund II valued at SGD 500,000 ($371,499) 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.

ZOLO joins PV’s portfolio companies – which include Lumitics, an internet of things (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.

“PV 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,” said Yasi Huo, Senior Associate Director of SMU IIE.

“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,” she added.

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 utilizing 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.

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.

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.

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.

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