Sola.io – changing the way renewable energy is financed

Late last year, I had the privilege to be one of the judges for the PitchX competition for start-ups. The overall winner was Sola, a new investment platform to fund solar power using a virtual power plant structure to bring together investors and producers, who might not otherwise have access to the financial and production benefits of this renewable energy resource.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Alan Hunter, Founding Team member of Sola while he was in Melbourne earlier this month. He was busy in the middle of a series of investor meetings and finalising arrangements for their energy retailing licensing.

Prior to Sola, Alan had established a fleet company that leased cars to Uber drivers. Recognising that some immigrants lacked relevant qualifications for advertised jobs, but lacked the finance to buy a car, the business joined the dots and enabled many people with a driver’s license to secure employment. It told him a lot about about helping those less fortunate by building a business designed to remove inequalities and lower barriers to entry.

With that experience, an interest in renewable energy, and a desire to help consumers reduce their power bills Sola was launched. Starting out as CEC-approved Solar Retailer, Sola offers consumers a subscription service to electricity (at a cheaper rate than users pay today).

Sola is now planning to offer the same subscription service with a solar system, for a cheaper monthly payment. It is able to achieve this though the development of an innovative investment and infrastructure platform, that will serve three main types of clients:

1. Home-owners who want to install solar energy, reduce their own power bills, and even generate additional benefits as rebates or credits from feed-in tariffs

2. Retail investors, who may not have access to solar energy (renters, apartment residents, or those in dwellings ill-placed for panels)

3. Wholesale investors and self-managed superannuation funds looking for an alternative fixed income asset

In short, Sola underwrites the cost of panel installation on consumers’ homes. In return, Sola acquires 100% of the energy generated, and the customer subscribes to Sola for their monthly usage. Consumers become subscription members of Sola’s network, via the latter’s retailer license.

For retail investors, Sola will present them with an opportunity to access fractional ownership of a virtual power plant, for as little as $100. These investors then receive a dividend from the energy sales generated by the network.

For wholesale investors, and for a larger stake, they will be part of a closed end capped fund, which will generate a dividend from the energy sales. Sola has an energy off-take entitlement over the panels, and over time, panels which are replaced may still be sold into secondary markets, such as in developing countries, if they have a remaining useful life.

Some of the benefits of this structure include a more equitable arrangement for access to, ownership, and distribution of solar energy assets. It also removes the need for unsecured lending to finance panels and systems which may soon become obsolete. Plus, it enables people who might not have direct access to solar panels to benefit from this asset.

The complex issue of Federal and State rebates came up in our discussion. According to Alan, the former are useful in supporting the roll-out of Sola’s virtual power plant model, and in accessing the carbon credit marketplace via the Small-scale Technology Certificates (STC). Whereas, State rebates are better for end-users, who can engage Sola direct to install their panels, and then join the Sola retail network.

Then there is the issue of inverters, and batteries. It’s generally the former that are rendered obsolete before the panels, but the costs mean that customers tend to end up replacing the whole system. And the latter will not become economic until purchase costs reduce, and feed-in tariffs are phased out.

Finally, Alan wanted to make sure he got this point across – Sola will shortly be launching campaigns in seven locations, to sign-up 180-230 homes, in areas impacted by bush fires. The aim is to give participants a 35-40% saving on their energy bills, as well as establishing the first phase of the virtual power plant network.

Next week: Australia’s Blockchain Roadmap

 

 

 

 

 

30 years in publishing

It’s 30 years since I began my career in publishing. I have worked for two major global brands, a number of niche publishers, and now I work for a start-up. For all of this time, I have worked in non-fiction – mostly professional (law, tax, accounting), business and financial subjects. I began as an editor in London, became a commissioning editor, launched a publishing business in Hong Kong, managed a portfolio of financial information services for the capital markets in Asia Pacific, and currently lead the global business development efforts for a market data start-up in blockchain, crypto and digital assets. Even when I started back in 1989, industry commentators were predicting the end of print. And despite the best efforts of the internet and social media to decimate the traditional business models, we are still producing and consuming an ever-growing volume of content.

The importance of editing and proofreading still apply to publishing today…. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The first company I worked for was Sweet & Maxwell, a 200-year-old UK law publisher. In 1989, it had recently been acquired by The Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters), a global media and information brand, and majority owned by the Thomson family of Canada. When I began as a legal editor with Sweet & Maxwell in London, Thomson still had newspaper and broadcasting interests (the family continues to own the Toronto Globe & Mail), a directory business (a rival to the Yellow Pages), a travel business (comprising an airline, a travel agent and a tour operator), and a portfolio of publishing brands that ranged from the arts to the sciences, from finance to medicine, from defence titles to reference works.

Thanks to Thomson, not only did I get incredible experience from working in the publishing industry, I also got to start a new business in Hong Kong (which is still in existence). This role took me to China for the first time in 1995, including a couple of private lunches at The Great Hall of The People in Beijing. The Hong Kong business expanded to include operations in Singapore and Malaysia – during which we survived the handover and the Asian currency crisis. I also spent quite a bit of time for Thomson in the USA, working on international sales and distribution, before joining one of their Australian businesses for a year.

Given the subscription nature of law, tax and accounting publishing, many of the printed titles came in the form of multi-volume loose-leaf encyclopedias, which required constant (and laborious) updating throughout the subscription year. In fact, as editors we had to forecast and estimate the average number of pages required to be added or updated each year. If we exceeded the page allowance, the production team would not be happy. And if the number of updates each year did not match the budgeted number we had promised subscribers, the finance team would not be happy. So, we had a plethora of weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, semi-annual and annual deadlines and schedules to manage – even today, I recall the immense relief we experienced when we got the CRC (camera ready copy) for the next release back from the typesetters, on time, and on budget…

This blog owes its title to something that senior Thomson executives liked to proclaim: “Content is King!” We were still in the era of media magnates, when newspapers (with their display and classified advertising) had a license to print money – the “rivers of gold” as some called it. But as the internet and online search came to determine how readers discovered and consumed information, the catch cry became “Content in Context!”, as publishers needed to make sure they had the right material, at the right time, in the right place, for the right audience (and at the right price….).

Of course, over the 12 years I was at Thomson, technology completely changed the way we worked. When I first started, editors still did a lot of manual mark-up on hard copy, while other specialists were responsible for technical editing, layout, design, indexing, proofreading and tabling (creating footnotes and cross-references, and compiling lists of legal and academic citations). Most of the products were still in printed form, but this was a period of rapid transition to digital content – from dial-up databases to CD-ROM, from online to web formats. Word processing came into its own, as authors started to submit their manuscripts on floppy disk, and compositors leveraged SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) for typesetting and for rendering print books as digital documents. Hard to believe now, but CD-ROM editions of traditional text books and reference titles had to be exact visual replicas of the printed versions, so that in court, the judges and the lawyers could (literally) be on the same page if one party or other did not have the digital edition. Thankfully, some of the constraints disappeared as more content went online – reference works had to be readable in any web browser, while HTML enabled faster search, cross-referencing and indexing thanks to text tagging, Boolean logic, key words and embedded links.

The second global firm I worked for was Standard & Poor’s, part of the The McGraw-Hill Companies (now S&P Global). Similar to Thomson, when I started with McGraw-Hill, the McGraw family were major shareholders, and the group had extensive interests in broadcasting, magazines and education publishing, as well as financial services. But when I joined Standard & Poor’s in 2002, I was surprised that there were still print publications, and some in-house authors and editors continued to work with hard copy manuscripts and proofs (which they circulated to one another via their in/out trays and the internal mail system…). Thankfully, much of this time-consuming activity was streamlined in favour of more collaborative content development and management processes. And we migrated subscribers from print and CD-ROM to web and online (XML was then a key way of streaming financial data, especially for machine-to-machine transmission).

Working for Standard & Poor’s in a regional role, I was based in Melbourne but probably spent about 40% of my time overseas and interstate. My role involved product management and market development – but although I no longer edited content or reviewed proofs, I remained actively involved in product design, content development, user acceptance testing and client engagement. The latter was particularly interesting in Asia, especially China and Japan. Then the global financial crisis, and the role of credit rating agencies such as Standard & Poor’s, added an extra dimension to client discussions…

After a period as a freelance writer and editor, for the past few years I have been working for a startup news, research and market data provider, servicing the growing audience trading and investing in cryptocurrencies and digital assets. Most of the data is distributed via dedicated APIs, a website, desktop products and third party vendors. It may not sound like traditional publishing, but editorial values and production processes lie at the core of the business – quality digital content still needs a lot of work to capture, create and curate. And even though the internet gives the impression of reducing the price of online content to zero, there is still considerable value in standardizing, verifying and cataloguing all that data before it is served up to end users.

Next week: You said you wanted a revolution?

Startup Vic’s Health Tech & Med Tech Pitch Night

The theme for last month’s startup pitch night co-hosted by Startup Vic and LaunchVic was Health Tech and Med Tech. According to recent data, of Victoria’s 2,700 startups, 20% are in health services and technology. The judging panel was drawn from HealthKit, ANDHealth, MHX and Pfizer.

The startups in the order they presented were (websites embedded in the names, where available):

Hearables 3d

With the vision of “making custom-fit the new norm”, Hearables 3d is developing personalised and customisable ear devices. In  many cases, users give up on hearing aids because the purchase process is slow (it can take 2 weeks to place an order), expensive (average price of $300), and often of variable quality. Plus, providers are relatively inaccessible. Instead, using a combination of smartphone scanning, design powered by machine-learning and a 3D production process,  Hearables 3d aims to get costs down to $50.

The team are already developing working prototypes, running user trials, filing a patent, setting up a B2B distribution pilot, and have recently raised seed equity and been admitted to the Skalata Ventures accelerator programme. This will be followed by further fundraising in 6-9 months’ time.

The judges were interested to understand more about the business model – especially the payment system, and distribution structure. Hearables 3d aims to be a service provider to existing distributors, leveraging their automated design process. Given that the medical device registration process is currently done by manufacturers, of which there a six global firms, it would appear to make sense to become embedded in the current manufacturing eco-system and a key aspect of the go-to-market strategy..

The team is also looking at other verticals, such as sleep apnea devices, but the judges wanted to understand whether there were any plans for a direct to consumer model, and whether they were actively engaging with audiologists. There was also a suggestion that some competitors were making more of a fashion statement about their products, incorporating elements of  jewellery into their designs.

Stelect

Aiming to “take guesswork out of stent selection”, Stelect is changing the way PCI procedures (Percutaneous Coronary Intervention, formerly known as angioplasty with stent) are conducted. Currently, 4.1m cardiac stents are fitted in patients each year, but according to the founders, more than 70% are incorrectly sized.

Stelect has developed a balloon catheter with spatial sensors, which ensures a more accurate fit and a less invasive procedure because measurement and fitting are done in a single step.

Claiming that competing products are expensive (non-reimbursable), complex, not and integrated to current workflows, the team are initially targeting more acute cases, which account for 15% of procedures.

A previous winner of MedTech’s Got Talent, Stelect is aiming to complete a US FDA 501(k) pre-market submission for new devices by July 2021, with the likely exit of a trade sale once that process is approved.

A key benefit of this device is that it will combine two existing reimbursable codes, resulting in both initial cost savings for patients, plus downstream economic advantages for health service providers. Asked about clinician feedback and potential take-up, especially when compared to current imaging processes, the team stated that by removing the interim step of having to use a separate imaging catheter will significantly reduce the procedure time. The product overcomes the engineering constraints of traditional balloon catheters by drawing on the expertise of a microscopic transducers expert.

As to selling into hospitals, the team plan to partner with existing manufacturers and suppliers, and license the sensory capabilities. And while there is potential to commercialise data & analytics (for predictive purposes, for example) the current focus is on the device.

Consentic

According to the founders, the completion, collection and management of medical consent forms results in 40% dissatisfaction, just 20% retention and only 9% compliance. Often the cause of legal claims (due to limited patient understanding, poor form design or a lack of clarity), Consentic plan to challenge the status quo using video content, a checklist (to reinforce understanding) and a simplified consent form.

The team already claim a 20% improvement in patient comprehension, 80% patient preference for this model, and a 15% reduction in patient anxiety. It also saves clinician time. The product will be supplied under a subscription model with scale rates, and having completed successful trials in their own field of dermatology, the founders are looking to extend the service to other medical and consent verticals.

The team have completed 40 trials with 10 paid customers, completed the HCF Catalyst accelerator program, and are currently part of the 2019 MHX cohort.

The team were asked about whether they have integrated with practice management software (not yet), and whether they had plans to address US issues on health care and “financial consent”, and for removing the issue of consent as a barrier to clinical trials.

Hayylo

Hayylo is an aged care home services provider. For many clients, services change often with little or no notice. According to the founders, there is little transfer of client knowledge, a lack of shared team processes, and few common tools. Part of the problem is a communication challenge. This all impacts client independence.

Hayylo is an online platform, working with multiple channels and providers. It can provide clients with automatic updates, resulting in call reduction, and increased satisfaction. Using a B2B SaaS model, along with white label options, the team is targeting a potion of the $4bn-$8bn global market.

To date the team has mainly bootstrapped, obtained some angel investment, and has been in market since April 2018. Their strategy is to offer integration solutions (with rostering and practice management tools) and develop distribution partnerships (reseller agreements).

While there is competition, including from AI/ML and IoT solutions, the team believe that by mapping multiple data sources on to a single platform, and by unifying the team experience, the resulting operating system model gives them an edge. Currently in user testing with 10 providers, and 30,000 clients, the team is also using focus groups to gather feedback.

After the audience voting and judges’ diliberations were done, the People’s choice was Stelect, while the overall winner was Consentric.

Next week: Sometimes it’s OK to Meet Your Idols

Demo Day #1 – Startupbootcamp

Energy and climate change are proving to be hot topics in Australia’s federal election campaign. Not surprising, given that proposed changes to current policy settings brought down the last Prime Minister. With that in mind, it was impressive and refreshing to hear what founders participating in the latest Startupbootcamp Energy Australia accelerator program had managed to come up with over the course of 12 weeks. The 10 projects presenting at this month’s Demo Day offered a range of solutions that our political leaders and their advisors might want to acquaint themselves with.

The pitches in alphabetical order were (websites links embedded in the names):

Builtspace

The challenge for many commercial building owners is that their facilities managers lack full visibility into the physical design and fabric of the infrastructure they are responsible for. And much of the in-house knowledge literally walks out the door when staff leave. Builtspace has developed a SaaS platform that creates a “digital twin” of each building, managing everything from the asset condition to real-time maintenance transactions, all connected in the cloud. Claiming to reduce ticket backlogs to deliver a 75% productivity gain, and a 5x ROI, including increased energy efficiency, the founders are currently looking for re-sellers in Australia, and are in the process of raising Series A funding.

Ecologic

A home energy audit app that offers tailored advice at scale, Ecologic uses cloud-based simulations to deliver proposed energy efficiency solutions and enables users to connect to appropriate suppliers. The team has identified that the combination of a lack of independent information, unknown costs (and limited finance) and inadequate service co-ordination creates a barrier to adoption for many consumers. In addition, consumers need simple and actionable insights. Currently generating referral fees and sales commissions, the founders are investigating a subscription model for Uber-style consultations, and a white label B2B solution. During the boot camp, Ecologic has obtained 1,500 customer profiles, identified a channel partnership model with a number of local councils, and secured a pilot integrated utility service with Energy Australia. To address the issue of consumers’ access to finance, the founders are exploring a project finance facility, to offer customers zero upfront installation costs, and using the energy savings to pay down the debt.

Elemize

Using a distributed energy model, Elemize claims to have found a solution to Australia’s comparatively high energy bills. Via its LiberPower application, the team are working with property developers and builders to help them install custom renewable energy solutions to deliver “free energy” to their residents and tenants. Part of the solution involves the system taking control of the batteries in each home, to obtain maximum efficiency.

Fohat

One of the problems with domestic-scale solar energy systems is that we can end up with too many solar units – which in turn can, with things like feed-in supply arrangements, cause network and transmission constraints. Fohat aims to solve this problem with a software solution to manage microgrids. With the owner’s permission, the operating system can have visibility over the whole network by taking control of each battery, by directing network capacity to where it is needed, and/or diverting excess supply into designated batteries. The platform also supports energy trading (but not at the level of individual consumers), and has recently secured a pilot with the City of Melbourne to install a microgrid and battery system at the Queen Victoria Market. The startup profile also mentions the use of blockchain technology, but this important aspect was not described during the pitch.

ivcbox

It was a little difficult to understand what this browser-based video chat service was doing at an energy accelerator. But the fact that it only takes a 1.5% sales commission compared to the 22.5% cost of a face-to-face sale, means it should appeal to energy retailers who have encountered greater customer churn due to price comparison sites and increased regulatory transparency on fees and charges. The service uses facial recognition and identity verification, which means the API platform can also be extended to banks and insurers.

Nostromo

Nostromo has developed a “world first” modular Ice Thermal Energy Storage system, using a glycerol heat conversion process. Typically, 60% of the peak energy usage by a commercial building is for cooling purposes, yet the peak demand amounts to only 400 hours a year. Designed to support demand side management and storage, Nostromo has secured $5.5m in seed funding, including $1.5m in grants to develop demo solutions.

Powerdiverter

Around 2 million homes and businesses in Australia are already using solar energy. Storing and managing that energy remains a challenge. Powerdiverter is a hardware device that uses electric hot water tanks as energy storage units. It doesn’t require any plumbing or additional electrical work. It plugs into the existing solar system to divert all the surplus energy into the tank. A typical lithium battery solution has a 12-year payback, versus 1.5 years with Powerdiverter. The business model includes device sales (7,000 have already been installed, mainly in the UK), a subscription service and licensing agreements with energy providers.

RedGrid

One of the problems with our current electricity network is that it is built on “imposed” grids, not coordinated intelligent devices. This means an overloaded grid, and high energy costs. RedGrid aims to solve this, with a Platform-as-a-Service model, where every smart device will have machine-to-machine communications, delivering energy on demand capability. This so-called “Internet of Energy” is constructed on a decentralised demand management solution that is private, scalable and secure. The team is currently focused on universities and facilities management, as well as consumer markets, and are planning a crowd funding equity raise.

Senno

In an era of growing concern about how social media platforms and other service providers harvest, trade (and compromise) our personal data, an increasing number of Blockchain-enabled solutions are using things like self-sovereign digital identity and attention economics to put consumers in control of their own data, and empower them to monetize these assets. Senno is using digital wallets to help owners secure their personal data and to determine who has access to it, in return for specified rewards. Where does this fit into the energy market? Well, Senno proposes to share (non-personal) data and consumer behaviour on energy usage with retailers, in return for a share of the revenue derived from the metadata, under a SaaS model.

UCapture

According to the founders, consumers want to reduce their carbon footprint, but they don’t want to pay to do so, they are reluctant to change their behaviours, so they need incentives to do so. Using a browser extension (Chrome and Firefox), UCapture enables consumers to shop online at participating retailers and “earn” carbon credits in return. Consumers can also receive coupon codes. UCapture receives a sales commission on each transaction, and allocates 2/3 of the commission to carbon offset projects. (While unexplained during the pitch, it seems that each purchase is calibrated to an equivalent amount of carbon offsets – whether that is based on the ticket price, or the actual carbon footprint of each item is not immediately clear.)  UCapture is enabling corporate clients to batch install the extension on their networks, allowing their employees to participate. On the positive side, UCapture is giving consumers indirect access to carbon credit schemes which are often only available to wholesale participants. On the negative side, it does seem incongruous to be encouraging consumers to spend more and to buy more stuff, in order to save the planet.

Next week: Demo Day #2 – Startmate