Victorian Tech Startup Week – Pitch Night

As part of the recent Victorian Tech Startup Week, Silicon Beach Melbourne and YBF Melbourne hosted the city’s first in-person pitch night for over a year (thanks to the 3 lock-downs we have had in that time). Compered by Karen Finch of Legally Yours, and supported by OVHcloud, the esteemed judges for the evening were Farley Blackman (YBF), Yian Ling Tan (OVHcloud) and David Hauser (Silicon Beach).

The usual Silicon Beach rules applied – Round One featured 90-second pitches from each founder (and no slide decks), from which the judges shortlisted 3 startups for Round Two. The Round One presentations in order of appearance were (as usual, website links are embedded in the names):

TwistedXeros.com

Using “emotional phase shifting to accelerate personal growth and transformation through Insight, Manifestation and Neuroscience”, the impetus for this startup came about from the founder’s own experience. Designed to help overcome certain mental health issues associated with anxiety, the founder claims his technique can help practitioners overcome events such as panic attacks within 6 seconds (as opposed to 600 seconds with traditional CBT methods). Had been accepted into the Founders’ Institute, then COVID came along.

The Leaf Protein Co.

There is a growing demand for plant-based foods, both as a source of sustainable protein, and in response to the increased prevalence of food-based allergies (e.g., gluten and soy). Add concerns about GMOs, unsustainable agriculture and climate change, the founder is looking to develop a scalable process for extracting specific types of leaf protein, including arid-climate plants and Australian natives such as saltbush to counter soil salination. Currently seeking funding to pay for a CSIRO pilot to scale the protein extraction.

E-Toy Library

Essentially a toy-lending app, that provides an end-to-end process (source, distribute, cleanse, circulate) via a subscription model. In trials, already secured 50 customers and over 100 subscribers. Estimates there is a $2.4bn toy market in Australia – but it wasn’t clear how much of this market the founders aim to capture.

Kido Paint

This app aims to bring childrens’ drawings to life, using AI/ML to scan a photo of the drawing, and convert it into an animated 3-D digital file that can be rendered within the app using augmented reality.

Thorium Data

Using the oft-heard tag line “data is the new oil”, this B2B solution is designed to help companies organise, manage and extract more value from their data. It does this by resolving issues of data inconsistency, privacy, risk and governance. It also derives and assigns numerical factors to to individual datasets to assess the “value” of this data, and uses indices to benchmark that value.

QuestionID

This product feels like a cross between a wiki for academic research papers, and an open text search tool to find answers within the wiki database. I know from experience that repositories of published research reports (especially refereed and peer reviewed papers) are highly structured and tagged, with the emphasis being on classification, authorship and citation. Often, you sort of need to know in advance the rough answer to the question you want to pose. Significant resources are already allocated to maintaining and commercialising these existing databases, so I’m not sure how QuestionID will deal with IP and other rights associated with these reference resources.

HiveKeepers

HiveKeepers is designed to support beekeepers by helping them to establish and maintain healthier hives, and enhance their own livelihoods at a time when the industry is facing numerous challenges. At its core is a smart phone app that monitors IoT sensors (temperature, weather, weight, motion, sound, etc.) attached to the hive itself. Over time, the data will enable predictive analytics. With the launch of its MVP, HiveKeepers has already attarcted 700 customers globally.

Round Two

The three finalists selected from Round One were KidoPaint, LeafProtein and HiveKeepers. Each founder made a longer pitch, and then answered questions from the judges:

Kido Paint – The Q&A discussion centred on the commercial model (B2B/C, gift cards, in-app vouchers), the file conversion process (turnaround time can be 24- 48 hours), options for scaling, and getting the right price pint for user prices. So it’s not an instant result (which may disappoint some impatient younger users), and the 3-D rendering and animation is somewhat limited to the imagination of the AI/ML algorithms used in the conversion process.

LeafProtein – There was a further discussion on the approach to producing sustainable and allergen free plant proteins. For example, the attraction of pereskia is two-fold – a higher protein ratio, and an arid climate plant. Also, the aim is to counter mono-culture and GMO crops. A D2C brand has been launched (using small-scale production processes), while the CSIRO project is to designed to scale protein extraction, as well as develop an emulsifier for use in the food industry.

HiveKeepers – The founder talked more about the need to address climatic and environmental impact on hives. Having benefited from support from the La Trobe University and SVG Thrive AgriFood accelerator programs, this startup is seeking funding for product development – current price point is $105 USD per smart hive per annum. While the industry is seeing a 2% growth in new hives, it is also suffering significant hive losses due to parasites and diseases.

The overall winner on the night was LeafProtein.

Next week: From R&D to P&L

Startmate Virtual Demo Day

Despite being under lock-down, the current cohort of Australian & NZ startups participating in the Startmate accelerator programme managed to deliver their Demo Day presentations on-line, including a virtual “after party” where founders were available for Q&A.

Given the large number of startups, and the fact that several were very early stage businesses, I have grouped them into loose clusters, with just a brief summary of each project. More info can be found at the links in the names:

Real Estate

Landlord Studio – tax & book-keeping solution for landlords. I tend to think the need for very niche accounting solutions is either overstated, or existing software platforms like Xero will come up with a plug-in of their own. Also, tax rules vary greatly by jurisdiction, so scaling internationally can be a challenge.

Passingdoor – an online estate agency trying to remove some of the costs and hassles of selling your home. Rather than listing with a traditional estate agent, Passingdoor will find buyers on your behalf (via a matching process?). I assume that prospective buyers will come from: people in the process of selling their own home; buyer advocates; or recent mortgage applicants – which is why the founders will need relationships with traditional agencies (referrals), mortgage brokers (cross-selling) and real estate ad platforms (leads). But given that sellers on Passingdoor only pay a 0.5% commission once an offer becomes unconditional, I’m not sure how the cashflow model will work.

MedTech

Mass Dynamics – scaling spectrometry for improved patient care. From what I understand, Mass Dynamics is using cloud-based architecture to “lease out” spectrometry capacity on demand, and to accelerate sample analysis.

LaserTrade – a marketplace for second-hand medical laser equipment. Rather than seeing re-usable equipment go to scrap, the founder saw an opportunity to create a marketplace for unwanted items. All items are tested beforehand. Has the potential to extend to other types of equipment, assuming the certification process is valid?

Health & Wellbeing

Body Guide – semi-customised rehab exercises to suit your symptoms. With superb timing as we emerge from months of inaction (or poor posture) while working from home during lock-down, this service is an aid to physical recovery, once your condition has been formally diagnosed. I’d probably want to check in with my GP or physio that the programme was right for me, though.

Sonnar – offers a library of audio content for people with reading disabilities. This is a subscription service, which claims to be cheaper than other audio-book services, and with a broader type of content (periodicals as well as books). I was unclear whether Sonnar is cheaper because they don’t need to pay publisher or author royalties (as it is deemed a charity?), or because they only license out-of-copyright content.

Good Thnx – promises to be “the world’s best gifting and recognition tool, with impact”. Aiming to provide a service for businesses, individuals and partner charities, Good Thnx is still in development. But as part of the Startmate Demo Day, gave attendees an opportunity to allocate a small financial donation to a selection of charities.

Food & Agriculture

Cass Materials – With the search for sustainable alternatives to meat, Cass Materials is developing a cheap and edible high fibre cell scaffold on which to grow cultivated meat – otherwise known as bacterial nanocellulose (BNC). I’m not opposed to the idea of “meat substitutes”, but I’m generally wary of what are sometimes called “fake meats” – vegetable proteins that are so processed so as to resemble animal flesh. I’d rather go vegetarian (I’m not sure I can go full vegan, because if we weren’t supposed to eat honey and yoghurt, why do they taste so good, especially together?).

Digital Agriculture Services – An AgTech platform is using AI-powered applications for developing a range of data-driven solutions across rural, agricultural and climate applications. The potential to bring more business insights and practical analysis to farming and allied industries is of huge potential in the Australian economy.

Heaps Normal – This company has taken a novel approach to producing non-alcoholic beer. Rather than chemical extraction or other processing to remove alcohol from ordinary beer, Heaps Normal has managed to brew beer without alcohol content.

Energy

Gridcognition – Using digital twin mapping of buildings, structures and locations to optimise the planning and operation of distributed energy projects. Given the value of lower transmission and storage costs, as well as more efficient energy generation, Gridcognition is aiming to bring their “decarbonised, decentralised, digitised” solutions to a range of industry participants.

ZeroJet – Helping the marine industry transition to sustainable energy solutions with the development of electric propulsion systems. In particular, targeting small inshore craft which are ideal boats for this type of engine.

Logistics & Analytics

PyperVision – This startup has developed a system for fog dispersal at airports. By aiming for zero fog delays, PyperVision is helping to reduce disruption in the travel and logistics sectors.

Arlula – An API service to stream satellite images from space. As we know, satellite imagery is an important input to modelling, planning and analysis. Arlula also offers access to historic and archive content.

Database CI – A platform for in-house software developers to access the right sort of enterprise data for real-life testing purposes. For example, realistic and appropriate “dummy” data that does not compromise privacy, confidentiality or other obligations.

Law on Earth – On-line access to self-serve legal documents, forms and precedents, plus lower-cost legal advice. With a mission to “empower the public to safely manage their own legal needs”, Law on Earth already has a tie-up with Thomson Reuters, one of the largest legal information providers in the world.

Next week: Are we there yet?

Australia’s Blockchain Roadmap

The Australian Government recently published its National Blockchain Roadmap – less than 12 months after announcing this initiative. While it’s an admirable development (and generally, to be encouraged), it feels largely aspirational and tends towards the more theoretical rather than the practical or concrete.

First, it references the US Department of Homeland Security, to define the use case for Blockchain. According to these criteria, if a project or application displays three of the four following requirements, then Blockchain technology may offer a suitable solution:

  • data redundancy
  • information transparency
  • data immutability
  • a consensus mechanism

In a recent podcast for The Crypto Conversation, Bram Cohen, the inventor of the BitTorrent peer-to-peer file sharing protocol, defined the primary use case for Blockchain as a “secure decentralized/distributed database”. On the one hand, he describes this as a “total oxymoron; on the other, he acknowledges that Blockchain provides a solution to the twin problems of having to have trusted third parties to verify transactions, and preventing double-spend on the network. This solution lies in having to have consensus on the state of the database.

Second, the Roadmap speaks of adopting a “principles based but technology-neutral” approach when it comes to policy, regulation and standards. Experience tells us that striking a balance between encouraging innovation and regulating a new technology is never easy. Take the example of VOIP: at the time, this new technology (itself built on the newish technology of the internet) was threatened by incumbent telephone companies and existing communications legislation. If the monopolistic telcos had managed to get their way, maybe the Post Office would then have wanted to start charging us for sending e-mails?

With social media (another internet-enabled technology), we continue to see considerable tension as to how such platforms should be regulated in relation to news, broadcasting, publishing, political advertising, copyright, financial services and privacy. In the music and film industries, content owners have attempted to own and control the means of production, manufacture and distribution, not just the content – hence the format wars of the past in videotape, compact discs and digital file protocols. (A recurring theme within  Blockchain commentary is the need for cross-chain interoperability.)

Third, the Roadmap mentions the Government support for Standards Australia in leading the ISO’s Technical Committee 307 on Blockchain and DLT Standards. While such support is to be welcomed, the technology is outpacing both regulation and standards. TC 307 only published its First Technical Report on Smart Contracts in September 2019 – three years after its creation. In other areas, regulation is still trying to catch up with the technology that enables Initial Coin Offerings, Security Token Offerings and Decentralized Autonomous Organizations.

If the ICO phenomenon of 2016-18 demonstrated anything, it revealed that within traditional corporate and market structures, companies no longer have a monopoly on financial capital (issuance was largely subscribed via crowdfunding and informal syndication); human capital (ICO teams were largely self-forming, self-sufficient and self-directed); or networks and markets (decentralized, peer-to-peer and trustless became catch words of the ICO movement). Extend this to DAOs, and the very existence of, and need for traditional boards and shareholders gets called into question.

Fourth, the Roadmap makes reference to some existing government-related projects and initiatives in the area of Blockchain and cryptocurrencies. One is the Digital Transformation Agency’s “Trusted Digital Identity Framework”; another is AUSTRAC’s “Digital Currency Exchange” regulation and registration framework. With the former, a more universal commercial and government solution lies in self-sovereign identity – for example, if I have achieved a 100 point identity check with Bank A, then surely I should be able to “passport” that same ID verification to Bank B, without having to go through a whole new 100 point process? And with the latter, as far as I have been able to ascertain, AUSTRAC does not publish a list of those digital currency exchanges that have registered, and exchanges are not required to publish their registration number on their websites.

Fifth, the need for relevant training is evident from the Roadmap. However, as we know from computer coding and software engineering courses, students often end up learning “yesterday’s language”, rather than acquiring flexible and adaptable coding skills and core building blocks in software development. It’s equally evident that many of today’s developers are increasingly self-taught, especially in Blockchain and related technologies – largely because it is a new and rapidly-evolving landscape.

Finally, the Roadmap has identified three “showcase” examples of where Blockchain can deliver significant outcomes. One is in agricultural supply chains (to track the provenance of wine exports), one is in education and training (to enable trusted credentialing), and one is in financial services (to streamline KYC checks). I think that while each of these is of interest, they are probably just scratching the surface of what is possible.

Next week: Brexit Blues (Part II)

 

Startup Vic’s Secret Pitch Night

For its August meetup event, Startup Vic presented The Secret Pitch. Designed to highlight inequality in investment decisions, it combined voice-modulation software, and was a bit like The Voice meets Blind Date. Hosted at the Victorian Innovation Hub with support from Rampersand, LaunchVic, Stone & Chalk and Weploy, the Judges were selected from Rampersand, Light Warrior Ventures, AWS, Impact Investment Group and Venture Capital Exchange. By sitting with their backs to the presenters, and having to rely on only the slides and the disguised voices, the Judges had a limited idea of the identity of the presenters.

The pitches in order they presented (websites embedded on the titles):

FRDM

Described as “your closet in the cloud”, and dedicated to “making fast fashion sustainable”, FRDM is subscription-based service for “shared” clothing – customers borrow and return each item after use. Apparently, we are  buying more clothing but using it less.  The circular model is set up to break down and recycle garments over a three year lifecycle. it’s an emerging, but competitive space – competitors include Glam Corner, Le Tote, and Unlimited. Asked about their approach to circulation and cleaning, the founders assume three “wears”  with a 30% margin per customer but admit that they are still lacking some logistics experience. The goal of having items delivered on time, in the right place and in an acceptable condition is still being developed. Firmly aimed at women aged  22-28 years old, I suggest FRDM think about a their name, as my search revealed at least two similar URLs – https://frdm.co and http://frdm.io.

Assignment Hero

I have covered this startup before. It’s positioned as a collaboration platform for tertiary students. When it comes to team project work, there appears to be a disconnect between prescribed apps (Dropbox, Facebook Groups, Evernote, Google Docs, etc.) and the activity notifications and alerts they generate – in short, too much “noise” which overwhelms the students, which gets in the way of them completing their tasks.

Offering a dashboard, the platform is natively integrated with Google Docs. Users can track individual contributions to each document (based on time spent, and using track changes). To me that system is very easy to game – what’s to stop users simply editing for the sake of boosting their rating? How does it deal with plagiarism and copyright abuse? How does the app evaluate the quality, depth or rigour of contributions? Who owns the content that is uploaded to the platform?

Claiming to be signing up 42 new users every day, with repeat users, the founders offer a B2C model – providing access to suggested solutions via on-demand student services and products, and charging a 30% commission on each sale. Student sign-up is free, but the platform can recommends products to users. There is also an SaaS offering for universities, established via paid trials. But the B2B model is a long sales cycle, with the goal being annual licensing fees. Asked how about the viability of the Google relationship, the founders explained they tried using their own document editor, but customer  preference is for Google (and Microsoft) products.

Asked about how Assignment Hero compares to other collaboration tools such as Atlassian’s JIRA, Trello, Confluence, Slack, etc. the founders suggested that these are aimed more at enterprises, and that their own UX/UI is sexier than existing education tools such as Blackboard. As with all such platforms, the key is to enable users to manage the project, not manage the project management software….

Book An Artist

This two-sided market place is designed to help clients to find or connect with an artist. According to the founders, finding the right one is hard. Instagram’s search function is not location based, and the platform is dominated by big names.

With 80 artists on board, Book An Artist charges a 10% commission, and has completed around 40 transactions with an average ticket size of $2,200. Traction has been achieved via referrals, influence programs, SEO and Google Ads. Initially focused on commissions for murals and graffiti works, the founders plan to expand into sign writing, textiles, illustrations, mosaics, installations and calligraphy. With a presence in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, the founders are seeking $500k in funding. Currently using external agencies and contractors to handle administration, the funding will largely be allocated to marketing to drive engagement.

Although the commissions appear to be at a higher price point compared to other creative market places, what prevents platforms such as  Fivr,  99Designs or Canva moving into this space? Also, how does Find An Artist handle things like copyright, IP licensing, attribution or planning permission for external works?

Aggie Global

This is a food sourcing platform, connecting small farmers to large markets. Because of current market structures and procurement processes, businesses often can’t “see” what produce is available to them locally. Based on the founders’ experience in Fiji, where the local economy ends up having to import food to feed tourists, they have run an actual in-market pilot program, but are still building the e-commerce platform.

The results of the pilot achieved a 6x increase in both farmers’ income and hotel cost savings. Tourism is the 1st or 2nd largest industry in 20/48 developing countries. Importing food to satisfy tourist demand is therefore an issue.

For farmers, the service offers a freemium model, while businesses pay a 5% transaction fee and an annual subscription. Currently researching other markets, managing the supply chAIn for quality control, provenance, organic certification etc. is critical. The MVP aims to get farmers keeping proper records via face to face training, and gaining recognition for existing farming practices.

Asked about the cost of data connectivity and access for farmers in remote locations, the founders explained that data is stored offline and uploaded periodically. They are also investigating the use of AI/ML for predictive supply and demand. They also need to manage timely delivery as well as tracking environmental and climate data.

Part of the solution lies in making sure there is appropriate produce for the market, while matching local cuisine to tourist expectations. Too often, local chefs try to emulate western menus, so they need to help develop alternatives and foster innovation.

Maybe the Startup Vic organisers were saving the best til last, as Aggie Global took out the People’s Choice and was declared the Overall Winner by the judges.

Next week: Recent Notes from Europe