Startup Vic’s Impact Pitch Night

Due to my personal travel commitments in recent months, it’s been a while since I attended one of Startup Vic‘s regular pitch nights – so I was pleasantly surprised to see that these monthly events continue to draw a solid crowd. As with last year’s impact investing pitch night,  this event was co-sponsored by Giant Leap VC (part of the Impact Investing Group), with support from LaunchVic, who played hosts at the Victorian Innovation Hub.

As usual, the startups pitching appear in the order they presented:

Vollie

This is an on-line platform or market place for helping charities to find skilled volunteers for project-based assignments, mostly involving digital, marketing, technical, professional and advisory services that can be delivered remotely (rather than on-site or in-field).

The founders described the benefits to corporate clients in meeting their CSR goals. These companies either “sponsor” their employees’ time and/or donate money – to be honest, it was not entirely clear how this part worked. And of course, being a two-sided market place, Vollie also charges charities on a per project basis.

According to the presenters, there are 56,000 charities in Australia, and so far the platform has generated $360,000 in “value”.

However, Vollie only assists the charities with project on-boarding, whereas the NFPs themselves are responsible for actual project delivery.

While acknowledging the appeal to Gen Y/Z volunteers, the judges were interested to know how much personalisation the platform offers, and how QA/QC issues were handled. Having served on the board of a NFP myself, I appreciate how much more complicated it is to manage volunteers – from police checks to insurance, from training to risk management.

Cyber Clinic

Claiming to provide easier access (and a better user experience) to therapeutic clinic services, Cyber Clinic enables people to find a professional therapeutic counsellor or psychologist that matches their needs. Essentially an on-line directory for mental health care (part of the growing number of telehealth providers), the service matches clients and counsellors, connects them for sessions that can be delivered remotely and at times that suit the recipient, and measures the results.

Partly developed in response to the high incidents of mental health issues presenting to GPs, delivery of counselling services is via secure video conferencing and consultation, backed up by a dedicated app. The service is designed to run on even low-bandwidth connectivity, making it accessible to regional and country users.

The guiding principles are cost, access and trust (service providers are vetted before being admitted to the platform).

The judges were interested to understand the founder’s patient acquisition strategy, which involves connecting with government agencies, healthcare providers and corporates (e.g., as part of their EAP services) – so it’s clearly designed as a B2B model, plus a direct to market, public-facing website. The judges also wondered about customer retention when measured against outcomes.

STEMSparX

With the declining levels of STEM participation in high schools, STEMSparX is designed to engage younger students by bringing STEM education direct to their doorstep.

The service combines an AI-assisted on-line learning interface with practical DIY kits. Designed around the Arduino Open Source Ecosystem, the business model is based on a B2C subscription service. The founder is a participant in Melbourne University’s MAP programme, and has been running pilot project workshops and developing an engineering curriculum.

The judges wondered how STEMSparX would compete with the likes of Code Academy, and how effective a direct-to-consumer model is, unless it was combined with a channel strategy involving communication with parents, schools and public libraries? Plus, how does a service like this compete with other distractions such as online games, video streaming and social media?

Amber Electric

This alternative electricity seller is offering retail customers access to real-time wholesale prices. By only charging customers a $10 monthly service fee, Amber claims it can pass on the true wholesale price, based on 30-minute price resets (reflecting actual market supply and demand), rather than the fixed rates and price bands that traditional electricity retailers charge.

A key aspect of Amber’s business is the availability of renewable inputs (Australia has the largest % of renewables in the national grid – excluding WA which is not part of the grid…). For example, the increase of solar-generated energy from domestic sources (household rooftop panels) that can be fed into the grid can have an impact on the average unit cost of electricity from non-solar sources, and some resulting market distortion.

The judges were keen to know if Amber applies price loading to take account of passive consumption, and whether their revenue model allows for feedback funding into additional renewables? Another question was whether Amber customers will experience considerable price spikes during the summer spikes?

Currently, Amber is only available to people living in the Sydney metropolitan area, and who do NOT have solar panels (due to the issues of feed-in tariffs?). So, very limited access at present – but clearly a disruptive model that threatens to undermine the highly regulated retail market.

It’s fair to say that Amber ticked the box for most people in the audience, as it won both the Judges’ prize, and the people’s choice.

Next week: Startup Vic’s FinTech Pitch Night

Box Set Culture

I was first introduced to the box set phenomenon in 1974, when I received a collection of novels by J G Ballard for my birthday. This led to an on-off interest in sci-fi (Asimov, Aldis, Bradbury, Dick, Spinrad, Crichton et al). It also made me aware that curators (like librarians) have an enormous influence on the cultural content we consume, and the way we consume it. Even more so nowadays with streaming and on-demand services. Welcome to the binge society.

Welcome to box set culture (Image sourced from Unsubscriber)

With network TV being so rubbish (who needs more “reality” shows, formulaic sit-coms or re-hashed police procedurals?) I am slowly being drawn back into the Siren-like charms of Netflix. More on that in a  moment.

Box set culture has been especially prevalent in the music industry, despite or even because of downloading and streaming services. It’s possible to buy the complete works of particular artists, or curated compilations of entire record labels, music genres or defining eras of music. It’s a niche, but growing, business. In recent times, I have been lured into buying extensive box set retrospectives of major artists (notably Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Fall, Kraftwerk), as well as extended editions of classic albums (Beatles, Beach Boys), and first time releases of exhumed and near-mythical “lost” albums (Big Star, Brian Eno, Beach Boys again). I like to justify these acquisitions on the basis that they are significant works in the canon of contemporary music. But only die-hard fans would attempt to embrace the monumental box set put out recently by King Crimson – comprising a 27-disc compilation of just TWO(!) years in the band’s history.

Death (and/or lapsed copyright) has become a fertile ground for box set curators and re-issue compilers, whether in literature, film or TV, as well as music. I’m sure there are publishers and editors maintaining lists of their dream compilations, waiting for the right moment to release them (a bit like the TV stations and newspapers who keep their updated obituaries of the Queen on standby). Sadly, in the case of Mark E Smith of The Fall, his death was immediately preceded by a significant box set release (tempting fate?). And as for Bowie, he had no doubt planned his legacy (and now posthumous) retrospectives prior to his own demise.

On the other hand, streaming services create the false impression we are in control of what we listen to or watch. Unless we meticulously search, select and curate our own individual playlists, we are at the mercy of algorithms that are based on crowd-sourced behaviours that are imposed upon our own personal preferences. These algorithms are based on what is merely popular, or what the service providers are being paid to promote. And while it is possible to be pleasantly surprised by these semi-autonomous choices, too often they result in the lowest common denominator of what constitutes popular taste.

And so to Netflix, and the recent resurgence in pay TV drama. Binge watching (and box set culture in general) has apparently heralded a golden age of television (warning: plug for Sky TV). But depending on your viewpoint, binge watching is either a boon to shared culture (the normally stoical New Statesman) or results in half-baked content(the usually culturally progressive Guardian). Typically, the Independent is on the fence, acknowledging that binge viewing has changed the way TV is made (and watched) but at what price? Not to be left out, even Readers Digest has published some handy health tips for binge-TV addicts. Meanwhile, Netflix itself has released some research on how binge-watching informs our viewing habits (and presumably, our related consumer behaviours). And not everyone thinks this obsession with binge watching is healthy, or even good for business – presumably because it is not sustainable, as consumers will continue to expect/demand more and more at lower and lower subscription fees.

Meanwhile, for a totally different pace of binge-watching, SBS recently tested audience interest in “slow TV”. The free-to-air network screened a 3 hour, non-stop and ad-free documentary (with neither a voice-over narrative nor a musical soundtrack) featuring a journey on Australia’s Ghan railway. So successful was the experiment, not only did the train company’s website crash as viewers tried to find out about tickets, but SBS broadcast a 17 hour version just days later.

Next week: Infrastructure – too precious to be left to the pollies…

YBF #FinTech pitch night

It’s getting difficult to keep up with all the FinTech activity in Melbourne – from Meetups to pitch nights, from hubs to incubators. The latest Next Money / York Butter Factory / Fintech Victoria pitch night was a showcase for three startups-in-residence at YBF. As such, it was not the usual pitch competition – more an opportunity for the startups to hone their presentations.

First up was Handy, an app-based solution that connects trades with customers to streamline the settlement process for property insurance claims. There is an industry-wide low-level of satisfaction with property claims – which can take up to 60 days to process, even though 80% of claims are for less than $5,000. Handy offers a faster solution, and doesn’t require a lengthy estimate or quoting process, using instead fixed-price rates. With a target market of 100,000 claims per annum, Handy expects to generate 25% savings to the insurance industry, as well as having a broader societal impact in terms of speedier claims, better appreciation of service providers, and more consideration of the respective needs of householders and trades. Launching an MVP in November, there are four insurance firms in pilot test mode. Aiming for a white label solution, Handy will charge clients basic setup and maintenance fees, as well as volume transaction costs (although the exact pricing and revenue model still needs to be worked out). There were audience questions about the liability for quality of work and dispute resolution, the trade supplier on boarding and verification process, and the process for communicating to policy holders whether their insurance provider or broker is covered by the platform.

Next was FinPass, a startup appealing to the 40% of the workforce expected to be freelance by 2020 – a key feature of the gig economy. Targeting so-called “slashies“, FinPass is designed to help customers apply for personal loans when they don’t have a single, steady or stable source of income – and therefore, may lack a formal credit rating or personal credit score – while adhering to the five Cs of credit. Using a combination of blockchain and API to validate a loan applicant’s income profile, FinPass would then make this data available to approved lenders (subject, presumably, to consumer credit and lending standards, customer privacy and data protection requirements). To be fair, this project was fresh from winning a recent hackathon event, and therefore is still at the concept stage. However, it was clear that much needs to be done to define the revenue model, as well as designing the actual blockchain solution. Audience feedback questioned the need for a standalone solution, given the existence of various block explorers, APIs, vendors, protocols and bank feed sources. In addition, while blockchain provides a level of transaction immutability, and since only the hash-keys will be captured, the SHA’s will only confirm the hash itself, not the veracity of the underlying data?

Finally, there was Resolve, a two-sided market place for the insolvency services – a platform to buy and sell distressed businesses. Designed to capture turnaround opportunities, the platform has a target market of 14,000 transactions per annum – of which only 1% currently advertised, simply because it’s too expensive to use traditional media (i.e., finance and business publications). In addition, 92% of companies that enter insolvency return zero cents in the dollar to their creditors. Part bulletin board, part deal room, Resolve aims to create a passive deal flow for this alternative asset class. When asked about their commercial model, the founders expect a turnover based on a few hundred businesses each year, and revenue coming from a flat $1,000 per listing – but the key to success will be building scale.

Each of these early-stage startups represent promising ideas, revealing some innovative solutions, so it will be interesting to follow their respective journeys over the coming months.

Next week: Bitcoin – Big In Japan

SportsTech and Wearables Pitch Night at Startup Victoria

Appropriately hosted within Melbourne’s Olympic Park, last week’s Startup Victoria pitch night featured four companies working in SportsTech. It was further evidence of the breadth and variety within the local startup sector even if, on this showing at least, there was a little less innovation than we have seen at other monthly pitch nights.

First, there were a couple of presentations from Catapult and Genius Tech Group, to help provide some context to the topic, especially helpful for people who may not be familiar with this sector. However, I’m not convinced that referencing Australia’s Olympic medal tally as a key rationale for building a sports technology industry necessarily set the right tone. For a start, despite some gold medal success in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 summer games, Australia has seen a rapid decline in medal performance at the past two Olympiads. Then there are the cultural and governance issues at the AOC itself.

Then came the pitches, in order of appearance (website links in the titles):

TidyHQ

With the slogan “tribes are everywhere”, this business is all about getting the off-field performance right. TidyHQ is supporting smarter sporting clubs and organisations by helping them with things like governance and succession planning, and by having all their back office operations in one place. Essentially a white label portal solution that offers branded websites (“SaaS doesn’t work in this market”), the service is designed to support grassroots clubs and associations, across all sports.

Using a freemium subscription model, the main sales channels are local and regional AFL leagues. Sales are helped by a viral effect – given that in small towns and regional areas, there is quite an overlap of club officers.

TidyHQ also takes a clip from sales of multi-stream products and services sold through their customer sites, which includes a diverse range of clients such as yoga studios, play groups, plus a number of US sororities, fraternities and law schools.

Competition comes from different quarters: vendors like TeamSnap and SportsTG; incumbent club officials and their spreadsheets; even social media. One challenge, however is managing and harnessing the “volunteer mindset” associated with community sports clubs, especially when it comes to budgets and adapting to change.

RefLIVE

This company has built an app for soccer referees that works on smart watches. Referees typically use stopwatches to record match time and stoppages which, with constant match use have an average life of 2-3 years. Yet referees also have to keep track of player substitutions, match scores as well as the yellow and red cards they hand out.

At a price point of $60 per annum for referees, and annual fees of between $5k and $50k for soccer leagues and associations, an ideal entry point for RefLIVE would seem to be local, short-form knock-out tournaments, where the full range of features can be deployed in one place.

Currently scaling to take advantage of international market opportunities, RefLIVE is currently receiving enquiries from youth soccer leagues in Japan, as well as Germany and China.

Considered to be (literally) a game changing app for the Apple smart watch, RefLIVE is
also seeing interest from AFL, Rugby Union, Rugby League and field hockey.

At the moment, the platform does not support a live back-end, and there are no real plans to distribute or commercialize the data. While live data could be pushed to a server via WiFi, a bigger obstacle is getting the refs themselves on board – even though it has the potential to enhance their on-field performance and help them with off-field administration.

Spalk

Spalk (“crowd-sourced sports commentary”) enables custom audio streaming for TV sports, via some proprietary technology to synchronise secondary content with traditional broadcasts. Due to the high costs and copyright issues associated with TV broadcast rights for professional sports (only made more complex by “over the top” platforms), Spalk is mainly licensed by broadcasters for coverage of amateur competitions.

The international basketball body, FIBA, sees an opportunity for Spalk to help drive international engagement, through the use of localised and translated commentary. However, in many cases, Spalk will need sports that retain their own D2C content rights. (Anyone familiar with the challenges of listening to overseas test matches will be aware of Guerilla Cricket, and its predecessor, Test Match Sofa.)

Part of Spalk’s “special sauce” is in integrating and synchronizing multiple audio tracks, which can provide better UX compared to social media streams and viewer posts, commentary and Tweets. Another key to success is the ability to integrate with existing broadcasting commentary technology and vendors.

SPT

Finally, SPT (sports performance tracking) is a GPS monitoring system aimed at amateur and grass-roots clubs and leagues. Offering analytics for all teams, SPT is cloud-based, multilingual and claims to be “efficient, simple, affordable”. So simple, that unlike the aforementioned Catapult, clubs don’t even need to hire sports scientists….

Currently supporting 800 clubs, and 65% of revenue coming from overseas (despite claiming to have spent only $300 on marketing), the main appeal is probably the $299 price point per device, and the core user base is amateur leagues.

SPT has so far relied on viral effects and referrals, plus an element of FOMO. While SPT may not be as sophisticated or as detailed as similar platforms used in professional sports, it has managed to demonstrate the data validation when compared to some camera-based apps. In any event, according to the founders, a 2-3% margin for error is OK for this audience. And if users can compare their own performances against those of professionals, that is an added bonus.

However, one issue facing the collection, use and sharing of sports analytics has recently surfaced in a spat between the England team manager, Gareth Southgate, and Manchester United boss, Jose Mourinho. Which may make some clubs reluctant to upload their data.

Following a tally of the judges’ votes, Spalk was declared the winner, but only by a margin of 0.25 points….

POSTCRIPT: While I think the decision to present thematic pitch nights was a good call, there are a few logistical aspects to the current series of events that the organisers need to address:

  1. Choice of venues: the room used for the sports tech pitch night had an unfortunate layout – there was a pillar right in front of the stage, which must have been off-putting for the presenters. (Also, there was only a very small screen to display the pitch deck slides, so most people in the audience wouldn’t have been able to see them.)
  2. AV tech: I’ve said this before, but organisers need to arrange for a second monitor in front of the presenters, so they don’t need to keep looking over their shoulders at their slides. And please, please check that clickers are working (or that presenters know how to use them!)
  3. Audience participation: At previous pitch nights, the MC would field questions from the audience. Now, no more. And the audience voting system (people’s choice) has gone awry. Makes it feel less engaging.

Next week: The network(ing) effect