Pokémon GO took the world by storm when it was released last year. Almost everyone on the streets with a mobile phone in their hand was capturing the virtual creatures on the location-based augmented reality game.

The gaming industry is changing rapidly, and a Taiwan startup is planning to catch up.

“Gaming is a new platform for us to experience our emotions. It’s novel for the previous century,” says Allen Yu (余政彥), team leader of Toii.

The 32-year-old and his team of seven is developing a mobile app that gamifies travel experiences. Using a concept similar to Pokémon GO, Toii is a game that pins down tourist attractions worth visiting in New York City with different themes. Gamers can earn coins as they travel to each location, and the coins can be redeemed in stores around the city for food or drinks.

Toii recently exhibited at NYC Media Lab and is one of the 12 startups showcasing in TechCrunch Disrupt NY this year.

The News Lens spoke with Yu to learn more about Toii and the team’s future plans.

The News Lens: What inspired you to start Toii?

Allen Yu: I went to graduate school at NYU for game design and my thesis was making collectible figures. But many investors believe toys are a dying industry so we switched to focus on the gaming aspect and to go more digital

I love to travel but when I go to foreign countries, I find it hard to start because there is so much to see. You can do research online but it takes a lot of time and effort. So we came up with this idea to make the tourism experience fun and easy.

Our concept is to integrate the augmented reality (AR) experience with mobile gaming and location based service. An example of this is Pokémon GO, and what we want to do is gamify your travel experience.

TNL: How has Toii developed so far?

Yu: Last year, we worked with Kaohsiung Metro and the sales of their one-day pass, which is designed for tourists, increased by 300 percent. The game for this project was designed in a more Japanese-anime style. It’s a good example but the U.S. market is not interested in the look.

The NYC version is planned to launch this September — both iOS and Android — and the look of the game is completely different from the Kaohsiung one because when we showed the Kaohsiung demo to the U.S. audience, people weren’t very interested in the anime style so we created a new look with the same concept.

We interviewed tourists to create both free and paid “missions” with different themes; from broadway shows to movies or TV shows that were shot in NYC. There are ten attractions available in each mission for now, and we are working with local businesses; for example, the bubble tea shop Coco sponsors us with free drinks as a gift for tourists when they visit their shops. We are testing if people like the idea of Toii, and then make tweaks accordingly.


Photo Credit: Toii

Allen Yu (left) and the Toii team.

TNL: What are the challenges Toii has seen so far?

Yu: Nothing is easy. But looking for angel investors in Taiwan is so hard. You have to have a patent, a working business model; you can’t just have a good idea. I have heard people are changing but it’s still slow.

Another thing is, our team is fully Asian. Even though we have all spent time in the States and Toii started there, we have a hard time competing with American teams. The language barrier is hard to break through.

TNL: If that’s the case, why did you choose to launch Toii in the U.S. and not Taiwan?

Yu: NYC has lots of tourists and it has all the resources for them. We also have connections from our schools, NYC Media Lab and the local Taiwanese community.

TNL: How are you funding Toii?

Yu: We have gone through some frustration when pitching to Taiwanese investors because they are very conservative. But Kaohsiung Metro, the company, provided some funding and we received some from Taiwan Startup Stadium and the Industrial Technology Research Institute.

TNL: What are the future plans for Toii?

The game will not be limited to NYC. We are currently talking to other cities in the States like Philadelphia is very interested because it is just two hours away from NYC. During the NYC Media Lab showcase this year, we had over 100 interviews with tourists, hotel managers and newspaper company managers, and they are very excited about the game. Japan Docomo (a mobile phone operator in Japan) has also expressed interest.

TNL: What are your expectations for TechCrunch NYC?

Yu: We hope to find business partners and investors. But based on our experience so far, we need to choose the investors very wisely. It’s not only about money, but what resources and connections they can offer.

TNL: Based on your experience observing the startup scene in Taiwan and the U.S., what differences do you see? How do you think the Taiwan government could better help local startups?

Yu: Startups and venture capitalists in the U.S. are more willing to take the risk if they think it's a good idea. The overall environment is supportive of ideas. On the contrary, Taiwanese startups and VCs are willing to take less risk. They want you to have traction, good business model or even good revenue. They calculate their risk very very precisely. They always want to win, which is almost impossible for early stage startups.

The Taiwan society is also more conservative about startups; they like to follow the rules and certain innovation is good, but "disruptive" is not respectful to the current business. Parents tend to encourage their kids to get a more stable payroll job.

On the bright side, the Taiwanese government is revising the law to provide a more tax-related incentive for angel investors to be more willing to invest in early-stage startups. I think this is a good start, even though there are still many details that need sorting out. There are a lot of wealthy people in Taiwan, but they tend to invest their money in real estate and building new buildings. I think once the attitude toward housing is treated as a basic need (like health care) rather than investment, the money will start flowing to other industries, including startups.

The News Lens was sponsored by Taiwan Startup Stadium to attend TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017.

Editor: Edward White