WeWork China’s former tech head introduces on-demand work pods for mental health • TechCrunch

As China’s coronavirus policy continues to boycott offline work and face-to-face interactions, Dominic Peñalosa, former head of innovation and technology at WeWork China, came up with a bold idea – on-demand work booths in public locations – and managed to Rapidly raise capital for the business.

Penaloza named his new project Peace in hopes of boosting the mental health of those who use the company’s quiet, private space to avoid crowded offices and noisy coffee shops. Peace announced this week that it has raised a seven-figure funding round from a range of business and entrepreneur partners.

Peace is the latest iteration of Penaloza’s ongoing experiment with flexible working. In 2019, the executive led an internal project to introduce pay-as-you-go spaces at WeWork China. A year later, he moved on to found his own proptech-focused startup studio, which incubated a similar on-demand workspace service but with third-party landlords.

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Seven-month-old Pace launched its first batch of portable capsules last week in three upscale malls and two office buildings in the heart of Shanghai. Peñaloza said in a video call from one of the pods in the mall that she aims to deploy 1,000 of them across the capital next year.

“We sell privacy on demand,” the founder said when I asked if the kiosks would be equipped with security cameras, an infrastructure that has become ubiquitous in China and often raises privacy concerns.

“We don’t plan on putting cameras in… I think it’s more important to make our users feel like it’s really 100% private space. No one can hear what they’re saying. And of course, no one can see his or her screen.”

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Each Peace Pod is 35 square meters with a meeting table that can seat up to four people. The portable box comes with an app-enabled lock, electrical outlets, WiFi, soundproof walls, and ventilation fans. It also features COVID-19 prevention technology from a startup called LumenLabs that uses a new UVC method to inactivate viruses and bacteria.

Each PG pod can accommodate up to four people. Photo: peace

The long list of equipment illustrates the prohibitive cost of the pods—in the mid-tens of thousands of yuan ($1 = 7.16 yuan as of this writing) to manufacture one.

Penaloza believes his team has come up with a sustainable revenue model. The founder said that each pod costs 11.25 yuan per 15 minutes, but this is a reference price. In the future, the cost may vary based on location and real-time supply and demand. It’s not cheap – an Americano costs about 25 yuan in an average coffee shop in China’s first-tier cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen, but if four people split it costs 45 yuan, plus the advantages that a capsule brings – privacy and stable internet – and if peace comes to meaningful intensity, it may be a viable business.

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Peace has also found a sweet spot in its relationship with landlords, including retail spaces, office building lobbies, regenerative urban spaces, transportation hubs, exhibition centers, and residential developments.

“We don’t rent the place,” Peñalosa explained. “Our formula for working with real estate companies is one of our most secret sauces because this device, in the language of the owner, is actually an asset enhancement. It has to be part of the renovation budget that they have from year to year to make the building better and keep the building competitive, so Peace capsules will attract white-collar people to spend more time in the building.”

“Even when we put it in an office lobby, even though everyone has a desk upstairs, people still use it, especially in China where mixed business is not popular yet, because the small meeting rooms in offices are fully used, and everyone needs to Peace and quiet from time to time,” added the founder.

Working with owners also helps Peace save on maintenance costs. Since the outbreak of COVID, the Chinese government has begun to require indoor operators to clean their facilities after use. Peace’s technology platform automatically alerts the property manager at the end of each reservation, and a cleaner will be sent to the pod, a process that can be as quick as spraying surfaces with disinfectant and wiping them down.

Investors in Peace are mostly made up of entrepreneurs, including Joachim Poylo and Francois Ammand of Aden Group, Chris Brooke of Brooke husband, Pablo Fernandez of CleanAir Spaces, Patrick Berbon of CM Venture, Hei Ming Cheng of Kailong, and Wei Cao from Lumenlabs, Penaloza himself, and Panda Eagle Group.


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