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SoftBank injects Hong Kong robotics business into joint venture

Partners to launch global sales of autonomous disinfecting and cleaning machine

HONG KONG -- SoftBank Robotics will inject its local operations in Hong Kong and Macao into a new joint venture with a Hong Kong biomedical company that manufactures disinfection robots used to sterilize the city's train cars. The venture will then launch a new cleaning robot tailored for commercial spaces including offices, hotels and shopping malls later this month.

Lewis Ho, chief executive of Hong Kong biotechnology company Avalon SteriTech, told Nikkei Asia that the unit of Japan's SoftBank Group decided to work with his company to develop the new disinfection robot in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has raised requirements for sterilization in public places.

The new decontaminating version of SoftBank's Whiz commercial cleaning robot, priced between $25,000 and $30,000 and powered by artificial intelligence technology, will be able to detect obstacles automatically and disinfect up to 1,500 sq. meters of space in a single charge.

Its spraying technology can break down liquid disinfectants into tiny particles that are safe to use in rooms with electronic devices, including data centers.

"We have been studying disinfection technology for years, but the coronavirus has suddenly lifted the demand for disinfection," Ho told Nikkei. "We have the expertise in biotechnology, while SoftBank is good at automation and robotics. So, we thought, what a perfect match."

Lewis Ho, CEO of Avalon SteriTech, says "the coronavirus has suddenly lifted the demand for disinfection." (Courtesy Avalon SteriTech)

Ho said his company clinched the deal with SoftBank Robotics within three months, largely through online communications. "Even now, I haven't met Ken in person," he said, referring to Kenichi Yoshida, SoftBank Robotics' chief business officer. "I think that demonstrates SoftBank's immense trust in us."

In a statement on Monday, Yoshida said that Avalon SteriTech is "able to fulfill the high environmental regulatory standards after... extensive collaborative research work," and that he believes the partnership will enable the design of new products and robotic solutions that can "address the new public health requirements."

The robots will be manufactured in China and Malaysia.

SoftBank Robotics' Hong Kong and Macao unit has 13 staff involved in marketing, sales, distribution and operations in the two cities. Avalon will hold a majority on the joint venture's five-member board, reflecting its controlling interest.

Apart from Hong Kong's mass transit railway, Avalon SteriTech's robots also are operating in Hong Kong's International Finance Centre high-rise complex, luxury hotels and Sun Hung Kai Properties' shopping malls.

Ho said the joint venture with SoftBank will market the robot globally, leveraging the Japanese company's reputation and international distribution network. The two companies will continue to research and develop new disinfection solutions targeting various purposes and venues, he said.

Meanwhile, Avalon SteriTech is looking to expand its local team, which currently includes around 50 employees, and set up new offices in the U.S., Singapore and Europe to tap the international market. Although the company is not in "financial need" to raise funds, Ho said it would welcome strategic investors who could enhance its products.

Founded in 2013, Avalon SteriTech specializes in cleaning, disinfection and sterilization technologies. Yuen Kwok-yung, a prominent microbiologist and an adviser to the Hong Kong government on COVID-19, sits on the company's technology board.

Correction: An earlier version of this article and its headline incorrectly indicated that SoftBank Robotics would take a minority stake in Avalon SteriTech.

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