The FF17 Semi Finals in Melbourne

As part of the recent Melbourne Startup Week, Next Money hosted the Melbourne heat of the FF17 pitch contest, to decide which local FinTech startup will compete at the FF17 finals in Hong Kong later this week.

screen-shot-2017-01-15-at-8-15-03-pmAt the outset, I should declare an interest, as I myself was one of the pitch contestants, but hopefully that doesn’t preclude me from commenting on the event. The competing startups were as follows (as listed on the event Meetup page):

AirWallex

This payments solutions provider has featured in my blog before. Since the last time I saw AirWallex pitch, the market for cross-border remittance and payment solutions has drawn a lot of attention. First, the growing opportunity for exporters to market products and services to Chinese consumers and tourists means that payment platforms like AirWallex (and others like Novatti, LatiPay and Flo2Cash) are partnering with Chinese payment gateways such as WeChat Pay, AliPay, JDPay and Union Pay). Second, cross-border remittance services has become a key use case for Bitcoin and other digital currencies (as evidenced by the recent partnership between Novatti and Flexepin).

Analyst Web

Still in private beta, Analyst Web is aiming to disrupt the market structure (and payment model) for equity research. By enlisting qualified CFAs to write bespoke investment reports on listed companies, then distribute them via subscription services, Analyst Web claims to be bringing quality, objectivity and value for money to this investor service. Currently, investors have to rely on either brokers (who may offer “free” reports to their clients under soft dollar arrangements) to provide research on individual stocks; or subscribe to independent research houses (such as Morningstar). Typically, neither brokers nor the research houses cover the full market – tending to focus on the bigger stocks and those included in benchmark indices. Of course, companies themselves use investor relations services to issue commentary on their market performance and prospects, but these communications perhaps lack objectivity. There are also other models, such as the ASX Equity Research Service, whereby research providers are “sponsored” by the stock exchange to provide reports on qualifying companies to boost market coverage. Some of the challenges Analyst Web will need to overcome are: investor willingness to pay for research; market credibility and acceptance of their reports; and sustainable financial models that appropriately compensate the analysts without compromising independence and objectivity.

Proviso

Proviso has also been mentioned in my blog before, and they continue to impress with their solution to take friction out of the documentation processes for loan origination, and their ability to secure more financial institutions as clients. In my previous commentary, I noted that Proviso risked being disintermediated by an industry-owned utility. While I still think that is a possibility, I also see that the combination of Blockchain solutions (for distributed ledgers and bank data feeds) and more open APIs for financial data and account information may mean that customers themselves may be empowered to drive the process, since it will be easier for them to demonstrate their creditworthiness and establish their cashflow status, but also have better control over the disclosure of their data.

DragonBill

DragonBill, an invoicing solution for SMEs, is yet another of the FF17 contestants to appear in my blog, most recently when they presented at Startup Victoria’s regular pitch night. In addition to offering both direct payment and escrow options for micro-businesses and sole traders, DragonBill continues to mine an interesting niche market among sports clubs and associations – the reason being that many club members are themselves sole traders. As part of its future developments, the business is scoping a solution to help clients manage their superannuation obligations, and to provide informed advice on cashflow management.

BreezeDocs

Similar to Proviso, BreezeDocs is a document automation solution for lenders, although currently focusing on mortgage origination. And like Proviso, at the heart of the solution is the ability to streamline the extraction and processing of data from customer documents. On top of a core OCR capability, BreezeDocs also claims to be using machine learning to train their systems on different document types, formats, structure and content. Despite the use of ETL processes within financial institutions, the disparate nature of financial products and documentation; the way customer, product and transaction data is often maintained in different systems; and the fact that customers will often have accounts and products with different providers can undermine the need for standardised processes.

Vestabyte

As I commented in my previous blog, equity crowding may be about to come into its own as a way to connect investors with entrepreneurs and startups. Vestabyte are certainly enthusiastic exponents of this method for raising capital, but legal constraints mean that their platform still has to operate under a unit trust model, rather than offering access to investments in the form of direct shares in specific assets, companies or ventures. This may change if the proposed legislation can get through Parliament, although it’s far from being a done deal. But in the absence of formal legislation, it sounds like a great opportunity for a FinTech startup seeking funding to test ASIC’s first licensing exemption under its sandbox regime….

coHome

By their own admission, coHome is very much a nascent business – one that is still defining its customer offering. At its heart, this shared ownership service provides a matching service for aspiring property owners, along with some standard documentation for a co-ownership agreement, known legally as a tenancy in common. With multiple parties to the property transaction and mortgage application, coHome aims to streamline the process, make it easier for buyers to connect with other interested parties, and provide customers with appropriate legal safeguards. It’s clearly an admirable objective, and one that deserves to gain attention. But monetizing the service may prove challenging, unless coHome takes a commission from the mortgage providers, lawyers and conveyancers?

BugWolf

Not strictly speaking confined to the FinTech sector, nevertheless BugWolf, a tool for managing user-acceptance testing, has managed to gain traction with at least one of Australia’s Big 4 banks. Using gamification, competitions and other techniques to recruit, engage and manage teams of testers, BugWolf claims to support all aspects of functionality testing across software, websites and mobile apps. Combined with robust reporting and analytics, BugWolf can also help clients achieve shorter product development cycles.

Brave New Coin

I joined the team at Brave New Coin (BNC), a provider of market data for digital assets, in early 2016. So, it was the first time I have pitched, outside of hackathons, client presentations and sales conferences. And the fact that BNC was a last-minute confirmation for this event made it an even more interesting experience. Established about 3 years ago by a team of founders with an interesting mix of publishing, Bitcoin and full stack development experience, BNC has built a suite of data APIs (market prices, indices, exchange rates and analytics) for Bitcoin and most other crypto-currencies and Blockchain assets. While the APIs are typically used by developers, the growing interest in digital assets among brokers, investors and asset managers means that market data on these new asset classes is in demand, and BNC is busily building distribution partnerships and subscription deals with traditional brokers, market data vendors and exchanges. Recent price fluctuations for Bitcoin may suggest continued speculation in this currency, but the launch of investable and tradeable products such as CFDs, futures, ETFs and other derivatives also suggest that digital assets are starting to achieve broader market acceptance.

BankVault

Unlike other solutions to defeat hackers and hoaxers (e.g., anti-virus software, spam-filters, VPNs and proxy servers), BankVault uses virtual machine technology to protect customers’ bank details when they transact online. This means a “new and instant” machine is created for one-time use only, each time a customer launches the BankVault service. Offering both individual subscriptions and enterprise solutions, the business is in the process of launching in the USA.

Conclusion

The winner, based on the judges’ votes, was BugWolf, which came as something of a surprise to a number of the other contestants, myself included. Without wishing to sound churlish, this event was supposed to be about the future of finance (hence FF17…), so it would seem reasonable that the winner would be based in FinTech (as opposed to TechTech?). The result (although highly deserved and based on an impressive pitch), also reinforced my sense that this event did not draw the “usual” FinTech or startup audience in Melbourne, based on the many pitch nights and meetups I have attended over the past few years. From my perspective, neither was it an investor audience, nor a capital markets audience, meaning I wasn’t really sure who I was pitching to. I’m hoping that the organisers will reflect on this event, and look to make some changes for next year.

Next week: A few rules on pitching

What might we expect in 2017?

On a number of measures, 2016 was a watershed year. Unexpected election results, fractious geopolitics, numerous celebrity deaths, too many lacklustre blockbuster films, spectacular sporting upsets (and regular doping scandals), and sales of vinyl records are outpacing revenue from digital downloads and streaming services. What might we expect from 2017?

Detail from "The Passing Winter" by Yayoi Kusama (Photo by Rory Manchee)

Detail from “The Passing Winter” by Yayoi Kusama [Photo by Rory Manchee]

Rather than using a crystal ball to make specific predictions or forecasts, here are some of the key themes that I think will feature in 2017:

First, the nature of public discourse will come under increased scrutiny. In the era of “post-truth”, fake news and searing/scathing social commentary, the need for an objective, fact-based and balanced media will be paramount. In addition, the role of op-ed pieces to reflect our enlightened liberal traditions and the need for public forums to represent our pluralist society will be critical to maintaining a sense of fairness, openness, and just plain decency in public dialogue.

Second, a recurring topic of public conversation among economists, politicians, sociologists, HR managers, career advisors, bureaucrats, union leaders, technologists, educators and social commentators will be the future of work. From the impact of automation on jobs, to the notion of a universal basic income; from the growth of the gig economy, to finding purpose through the work we do. How we find, engage with and navigate lifelong employment is now as important as, say, choosing high school electives, making specific career choices or updating professional qualifications.

Third, the ongoing focus on digital technology will revolve around the following:

  • The Internet of Things – based on a current exhibit at London’s Design Museum, the main use cases for IoT will continue to be wearable devices (especially for personal health monitoring), agriculture, transport and household connectivity
  • Fintech – if a primary role of the internet has been for content dissemination, search and discovery, then the deployment of Blockchain solutions, the growth in crypto-currencies, the use of P2P platforms and the evolution of robo-advice are giving rise to the Internet of Money
  • Artificial Intelligence – we are seeing a broader range of AI applications, particularly around robotics, predictive analytics and sensory/environmental monitoring. The next phase of AI will learn to anticipate (and in some cases moderate) human behaviour, and provide more efficacious decision-making and support mechanisms for resource planning and management.
  • Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality – despite being increasingly visible in industries like gaming, industrial design, architecture and even tourism, it can feel like VR/AR is still looking for some dedicated use cases. One sector that is expected to benefit from these emerging technologies is education, so I would expect to see some interesting solutions for interactive learning, curriculum delivery and student assessment.

Fourth, and somewhat at odds with the above, the current enthusiasm for the maker culture is also leading to a growing interest in products that represent craft, artisan and hand-made fabrication techniques and traditions. Custom-made, bespoke, personalized and unique goods are in vogue – perhaps as a reaction to the “perfection” of digital replication and mass-production?

Fifth, with the importance of startups in driving innovation and providing sources of new economic growth, equity crowdfunding will certainly need to come of age. Thus far, this method of fund-raising has been more suited (and in many cases, is legally restricted) to physical products, entertainment assets, and creative projects. The delicate balance between retail investor protection and entrepreneurial access to funding means that this method of startup funding is constrained (by volume, amounts and investor participation), and contrary to stated intentions, can involve disproportionate set up costs and administration. But its time will come.

Finally, as shareholder activism and triple bottom line reporting become more prevalent (combined with greater regulatory and compliance obligations), I can see that corporate governance principles are increasingly placing company directors in the role of quasi-custodians of a company’s assets and quasi-trustees of stakeholder interests. It feels like boards are now expected to be the conscience of the company – something that will require directors to have greater regard to the impact of their decisions, not just whether those decisions are permitted, correct or good.

One thing I can predict for 2017, is that Content in Context will continue to comment on these topics, and explore their implications, especially as I encounter them through the projects I work on and the clients I consult to.

Next week: The FF17 Semi Finals in Melbourne

End of Year Reflection

As we reach the end of 2016, I can’t help thinking: “What just happened?“. It’s been a year of unexpected (and far from conclusive) electoral outcomes. Renewed Cold War hostilities threaten to break out on a weekly basis. Sectarian conflicts have created levels of mass-migration not seen since the end of WWII. Meanwhile, there have been more celebrity deaths than I can recall in a single year. (And a Scotsman is the #1 tennis player in the world.)

Old Father Time, Museum of London (Image: Chris Wild)

Old Father Time, Museum of London (Image: Chris Wild)

The Brexit and Trump poll results are being cited as either examples of the new populist/nationalist politics, or proof that our current democratic systems are highly flawed. Either way, they are indicative of a certain public mood: anger fueled by a sense of despair at not being able to deal with the rapid changes brought about by globalisation, multiculturalism, modernisation and the “open source” economy. Ironically, both the Brexit and Trump campaigns relied heavily on the global technologies of social media, 24-news cycles and internet-driven soundbites (plus they surely benefited at various times from fake news, false claims and belligerent rhetoric).

As I write, I am in the UK, which is heading for a mini winter of discontent (with high-profile strikes in the rail, mail and airline sectors). The last time I was here about two years ago, there was a general sense of public optimism; now, post-Brexit, it feels very subdued, even depressed. Whether this is a delayed response to the Brexit result, or uncertainty about the exit process itself, it’s hard to tell. While the governing Conservative party leadership is struggling to implement the outcome of a referendum that many of them did not want (or expect), the opposition Labour party (whose own leadership was highly ambivalent about the Brexit vote) is busily re-enacting the 1970’s and 1980’s….

Speaking of the 70’s and 80’s, the return to Cold War hostilities has felt like an inevitability for the past few years, and if it weren’t so serious it might be the suitable subject of a satire by Nikolai Gogol. While the primary fault lines are again between the USA and Russia, there are some complications and distractions, that don’t paint as clear a picture compared to the past: first, the relationships between the US President-elect and Russia confuse matters; second, the ideological war has shifted from capitalism vs communism, to liberalism vs autocracy; third, the role of “satellite” states is no longer to act as proxies in localised disputes – these supporting characters might now provide the trigger for all out hostilities between the super powers.

The ascendancy of this new nationalism (within the USA as much as in Russia) and the increased autocratic leadership on display in democratic, theocratic, oligarchic and totalitarian regimes alike is a renewed threat to enlightened liberalism and classical pluralism. Hence the significance of failing democratic institutions and political leadership in the west – the vacuum they leave behind is readily filled by the “certainty” of dictatorship and extremism. With China added to the mix via recent maritime events, plus ongoing strife in the Middle East, the potential flash point for a new Cold War conflict might be in the Spratly Islands as much as Syria, Ulaanbaatar as Ukraine, or Ankara as Aden.

On a (slightly) lighter note, the number of celebrity deaths reported in 2016 could be explained by demographics: artists who became famous during the explosion of popular culture in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s are simply getting old. In terms of dead pop stars, 2016 was book-ended by the deaths of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. Both were experiencing something of a renaissance in their professional fortunes, and each left us with some of the most challenging but enduring work of their careers. Of their surviving contemporaries, some might argue that Neil Young and Bob Dylan continue to keep the musical flame alive, but for my money, Brian Eno and John Cale are the torch bearers for their generation.

In a satirical end of year review in The Times last weekend, the following words were “attributed” to Bowie (someone known to understand, if not define, the zeitgeist):

“Sorry to bail, guys. But I could see the way things were going.”

Next week: Content in Context is taking a break for the holidays. Peace and best wishes to all my readers. Normal service will resume on January 10.

Final Startup Vic Pitch Night of 2016

There was something of a festive mood in the room for Startup Vic‘s final pitch night of 2016, hosted at inspire9. It certainly had an end of term feel, as a number of the long-term Startup Vic team members said their farewells before moving on to new ventures. So it will be interesting to see how these monthly events continue to evolve in 2017.

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-4-01-47-pmContinuing the theme of recent pitch nights, diversity was the key – this month’s startup hopefuls came from the energy, AI, environmental and consumer sectors. As usual, I will comment on each pitch in the order that they presented:

BioFuel Innovations

With the simple aim of turning waste into fuel, BioFuel Innovations uses an enzyme, as opposed to a more caustic chemical catalyst, to convert used cooking oil from restaurant kitchens into biodiesel. Given this greener and more sustainable process, the company can use lower quality feedstock, consume less energy and reduce the amount of waste water.

Having built a pilot plant in Dandenong, the founders are currently developing a containerised “turnkey solution” comprising a pilot micro-refinery, which can be financed by 3rd party lenders (a bit like some solar energy schemes). However, they are seeking funding to gain access to a startup accelerator program.

With a number of existing service providers that collect used cooking oil from restaurants and food processing plants, BioFuel Innovations only plan to produce their own fuel on a small scale. Rather, their business model is to sell micro-refineries for biodiesel production.

Asked by the judges why they are focusing on biodiesel rather than other higher-yield fuels, the team pointed out that some of those products require high temperature processing, and therefore consume more energy. Also, in concentrating on this type of biodiesel production, the founders believe they are helping to solve the problem of disposing of waste oils. However, longer term, they may explore even more sustainable energy derivatives and regeneratives. And in Asia Pacific, for example, there is a need to re-process palm oil residues.

Finally, a key to their success will be streamlined manufacturing processes and logistics, such as building supply chain partnerships for the shipping containers that hold the micro-refineries.

Breathable

This is an environmental design concept that aims to use plants to replace air ventilation systems in offices and homes. Based on research from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, Breathable uses an algorithm based design solution. Taking into account the building dimensions, natural light, air flow, number of people, amount of mechanical and electrical equipment, etc., the team can design the right combination and layout of plants for each given location.

Established as a bootstrapped social enterprise, whose profits go to helping asthma sufferers and patients with respiratory complaints, Breathable is hoping to make a large and sustainable impact.

The first question from the judges was, why set up in Australia? The team explained that given certain plants are not allowed here, the underlying algorithm has to be reconfigured for native plants, by a local team.

This was a very timely comment, given the recent episode of “thunderstorm asthma” in Melbourne. However, the judges were a little concerned that while there was a clear connection between purpose and passion, they wondered whether it is more of a lifestyle business for the founders, especially as thus far, no IP has been registered or protected. (On this specific point, the team simply said, “we challenge people to do it better”.)

There is an expansion plan, to develop fully self-sustaining eco-systems – such as using plants to power lights that help generate photosynthesis. But big goals need big marketing budgets, and with an active waiting list of 20 corporate clients, the challenge for the business is in how to scale.

MagicPi

I should say upfront that based on what I had read in advance on their website, this pitch was not what I had expected. Instead of a presentation on artificial intelligence, we got a pitch about Australia’s Chinese tourism “problem”. Namely that, based on a 2016 report from Bloomberg, by 2020 Australia will host 5 million Chinese visitors a year, representing a $13bn market. (And as I know from having worked with the founders at China Digital, many tourist destinations in Australia are far from China ready.)

Using natural language AI (cognitive, cloud, machine learning – “Siri with a human touch”) MagicPi is targeting Destination Marketing Organisations (conventions, conferences, local tourism boards). They plan to create content and solutions for client websites, and then take a commission on bookings. With a presence on both WeChat (including a voice recognition bot) and AliPay, MagicPi has a long-term vision of being the “intelligent interface for everything”.

However, the judges questioned whether the solution works or even exists. They felt that there was currently no visibility for investors or consumers. Claiming to have built a demo app, the team stated that there is a lack of quality information for Chinese tourists, and people are willing to pay for premium content – and to distinguish mere “recommendations” from the visitor “reality”.

Despite adopting a deliberate enterprise solution, the judges felt that the pitch needed to stress the “why”, rather than focusing on the problem.

The Cider Link

I should mention that I first met the team from The Cider Link about a year ago, and was intrigued by their mission to build an online craft cider market that connects makers with customers. (So much so, that I connected them to local wine producer, Richard Stockman, who invited them to appear as guests on his weekly food and drink radio program.)

The Cider Link is challenging both the market duopoly for cider retailing, and the ubiquity of “commercial” cider, much of which is produced from bulk juice mixed with alcohol – rather than being fomented from freshly pressed fruit, as is the case with craft ciders.

Cider is currently enjoying 10% annual growth by volume (based on bottle shop sales alone). So, online, cider and craft are all “on trend”. The founders have built a commission-based market place, and with connections to producers who are members of industry body Cider Australia, The Cider Link is also appearing at festivals and related events.

In the Q&A with judges, the team explained that success for them would be sales of 1000 cases a month, making it a $1m business. They also plan to take the model to the UK, which has the largest cider market in the world.

In addition to attracting more customers, the founders are seeking investment to improve sales conversions and support some advertising.

Given the mix of pitches, and the range of business models and sectors, based on judging criteria and audience votes, the winner was Breathable.

Next week: End of Year Reflection