Moving #innovation from “permitted” to “possible”

As the dust settles on the Federal election results, the Turnbull government has already been taken to task for failing to get one of its key messages across to the public: how to take advantage of the economic, technological, scientific, social and cultural opportunities inherent in the “Innovation Agenda”.  It seems that the so-called “Ideas Boom” failed to resonate with much of the electorate because, apparently, no-one has explained to them how innovation actually impacts their lives.

Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 8.39.24 PMUnfortunately, I think it goes deeper than that: the recent campaign debates were limited to concepts of “traditional” job-creation; reliance on conventional relationships between the State, the private sector and individual citizens; and the priorities of (pre)serving the interests of public institutions such as 3-year Parliaments and even political parties themselves. The electorate may (perhaps rightly) feel short-changed by the level of the debate, but voters also need to take some responsibility for not challenging candidates to raise their game: where were the mainstream discussions on climate change, new technology, the future of “work”, digital disruption, scientific advances, and the changing attitudes towards end of life?

There is also a core misconception, that the government is responsible for fostering  innovation, that only public policy (and public resources?) can set the innovation agenda. I don’t believe it is the role of government to “make it happen”, and certainly, such an approach is not going to occur overnight. At best, government can create a framework, highlight best practice, and encourage appropriate activity. Just as I don’t think you can “teach” creativity (only identify, support and nurture it), I don’t think innovation is something to be determined from the outside. As with creative inspiration, innovation has to come from within: from employees, from customers, from suppliers, etc.

The risk of relying solely on governments or other vested interests to shape innovation is that our thinking becomes constrained by what is “permitted”, rather than what is “possible”.

On a related theme, it was refreshing to listen to a panel of speakers at a seminar on “Innovation from the inside out” held during Melbourne Startup Week. The key messages were:

  • how to instill purpose in any organisational change, business transformation or innovation project;
  • how to empower all levels of an organisation to make ideas happen; and
  • how to incentivize intrapreneurship?

This naturally leads to a discussion of developing more adaptable and resilient career paths. If you don’t have transferable skills, or if you not prepared to update your knowledge, or if you think of your career path as a straight linear projection, it will be much harder to cope with the demands of a flexible work environment. If you think of yourself as only ever performing a specific job function, or identify only as your profession or job title, or define yourself only by your formal qualifications, you will only ever think about what roles you may be “permitted” to perform, rather than seeing what career opportunities may be possible. As a careers adviser in the Victorian Government’s Skills and Job Centre network told his audience at a recent Small Business workshop: it’s not the responsibility of the government or your employer to manage your career. Notwithstanding upskilling initiatives and structured outplacement programs, we are each responsible for shaping our own destiny – especially in the increasingly on-demand economy.

Back to the main topic, I’ve been participating in a series of workshops on the Future of Work, Money, Ageing, Death, Democracy etc. hosted by the Re-Imagineers, an on-line ideas playground that builds co-created artifacts to support people-led innovation. The model is designed to help organisations draw on insights from their in-house knowledge and skills, customer experience and feedback, and external expertise to originate new ideas and innovative solutions from within their own resources, and which align with their values and those of their stakeholders. It’s still early days, but all of the discussions have identified some amazing ideas and possibilities.

The team from Re-Imagineers will be visiting Australia during July and August, so if you or your organisation would like to hear about the key learnings from these forums, especially as they impact sectors such as finance, health care and IT, please contact me via this blog, and I will make the relevant introductions.

Next week: Update on the New #Conglomerates

 

University Challenge – #Startup Victoria’s Student #Pitch Night

There were around 500 people in the audience for last week’s #StartupVic University Startup Battle, which either says there was nothing better to do on a chilly Melbourne evening, or that this new Meetup format is working – or that the students of today are less interested in finding a job, and more interested in building their own career opportunities that connect with their purpose. (Our political leaders should take note….)

A sell out audience for the University Startup Battle (Image by Stefan Welack sourced from Twitter)

A sell out audience for the University Startup Battle (Image by Stefan Welack sourced from Twitter)

After a series of campus competitions, the finalists on the night were representing 6 of Victoria’s universities, and revealed a wealth of talent, ideas, innovation and inspiration. In order of appearance, the pitches were:

InternMe – (Victoria University)

With a tagline of “Experience the Experience”, this is a 2-sided market for graduate recruitment, that revealed some interesting stats about the student employment market.

Revenue is expected to come from fees for successful placements, and job advertisements. The business plans to cover work experience, internships, part-time and temporary work during study, as well as permanent and full-time roles.

Currently sourcing leads via LinkedIn and social media (notably Instagram), the founders say they may include psychometric profiling tools for better matching applicants with opportunities.

The pitch was to raise $100,000 for website development, but as the judges commented during the Q&A, the biggest challenge is engaging employers. As regular attendees to these pitch nights will recall, this mismatch or disconnect between students/graduates and employers continues to provide startup opportunities.

Printabox – (Swinburne University)

This website is designed to reduce the time, cost and complexity of ordering short-run branded boxes. Basically a self-serve model, the founders have spent $500,000 in development costs, primarily on a proprietary design tool. The resulting products come in 3 standard sizes – perhaps more customisation will become available?

The target clients are the 44,000 online stores in Australia who often need small numbers of branded boxes for sending out customer orders. But as the judges noted (based on a quick online search) there does appear to be a lot of competition. And although Printabox claims that their source code is protected, they have not applied (or are unable to apply) for a design patent.

Mech X Innovation – Project Ora – (Deakin University)

The founders have developed a hardware device that fits on standard tablet computers, and is designed to help children reduce and prevent eyesight damage caused by too much screen time, and by being too close to the device.

Essentially a Bluetooth-enabled accessory linked to an app, Ora monitors the amount of user screen time, proximity to the device and ambient lighting, and can be used in conjunction with “time outs”, scheduled messages and reminders to “go and do something else”. It can be semi-customised, so that parents can create a reward system, for example.

According to the designers, the competitor products (Appomate and samtime) are app-based only, and focus on time and distance – not lighting. Ora may also integrate with other devices, e.g. FitBit, but the target market is children and teenagers up to age 18, and their parents.

Asked about their path to market, they are planning a crowdfunding campaign. The key to adoption, though, will be via schools (who either provide or prescribe what devices pupils use) and schools suppliers (e.g., digital text books and e-learning tools).

ICallDibs – (Monash University)

This idea grew out of direct user experience, namely how can overseas students coming to Melbourne buy and sell furniture? The business is aiming to provide a market place for “Second Hand Furniture, First Class Deals”.

The biggest challenges faced by international students when buying/selling furniture are transportation, timing and finding buyers/sellers. The business will offer bundled services, including storage and removals/delivery, via partnerships.

The company aims to target international student agencies, and will ensure better matching between buyers and sellers (although they may want to consider changing the name unless they can trademark it….).

Rather than an “Ask”, the team offered a “Give” in the form of a customer discount for the evening’s attendees.

When asked about logistics and insurance, the founders clarified that the counterparts (buyer and seller) bear the direct risk. The business takes their commission upfront, then release the order details to the customers.

Assignment Hero – (Melbourne University)

It felt that this app, a collaboration tool for group work (sort of Slack for education?) was speaking to the converted, given the audience response. In short, having access to lots of different collaboration tools sounds great, but they each only do one or two things (albeit, really well). And if you use more than one app, you end up with too many tools and too many notifications.

While students may hate group assignments, they’re an important aspect of learning how to work with other people and acquiring other soft skills. They also seem to comprise a greater component of student assessments – possibly because they require less direct teacher-student face time?

Rather than build a whole new system, the founders have opted for native integration with Google Docs, plus some dashboard reporting tools (including the amount of individual input to a project).

The app is free to end users, but will generate revenue from education providers (enterprise sales) and on-demand services and commissions. When asked about existing tools like Moodle and Blackboard, the founders noted that these were designed for teaching, not collaboration.

It was also noted that existing productivity apps are not easily accessible by students (although no doubt, as with education content providers, enterprise app vendors will make student versions and pricing available). Plus, the “edtech” sector is of particular interest when linked to life-long learning, professional development and self-directed study.

Eat Up – (RMIT)

Finally, Eat Up is a social enterprise trying to address the number of school children who turn up at school without anything for lunch – estimated to be as many as 1 in 8 schoolchildren. Personally, I find this an indictment on our society – why should anyone in Australia need to go without basic food? – but the causes/reasons are far too complex to address here.

Essentially a partnership for sourcing, assembly and distribution, Eat Up has created a service model which they hope to roll out in more and more schools. They tap into the established Food Bank network for supplies, engage TAFEs to prepare the lunches, and use OzHarvest and SecondBite for logistics. There has also been support from Virgin Australia, ygap, Karma Canteen and Education Changemakers.

Eat Up aims to avoid passing on the costs to kids, parents or schools, and in part takes inspiration from another social enterprise, Thank You Water.

During a panel Q&A, the founders were asked about the apparent lack of technical skills or resources on their teams. In response, it was noted that there are many open source apps, available templates and market places for code and plugins. One founder commented that despite studying computer science, he used very little of what he learned to develop his app.

Revealing another apparent weakness in their pitches, the founders were quizzed on their respective sales models, costs of acquisition and pathway to revenue. The responses suggested that the startups risk being limited by their own inexperience, and that they each need to do more market analysis, assessment of customer willingness/ability to pay, and identify the best ways to scale their businesses.

There was also a lack of clarity around near-term goals and milestone planning.

In the end, the winner was Assignment Hero, no doubt reflecting the needs of the audience, plus the fact that the business has gained traction with some universities.

Next week: ASIC’s new regulatory sandbox for #FinTech #startups

A new co-operative model for equity #crowdfunding

**Updated with some clarifications** Last week, I attended the launch of a new equity crowdfunding scheme, called The Innovation Co-op (THINC). It’s the latest model I have seen that is trying alternative approaches to startup and SME funding – given that equity crowdfunding still isn’t possible in Australia.* There’s been the venture bank model, straightforward sweat equity, slicing the pie, and of course, the small-scale offering approach. What they are all trying to do is connect three core assets: capital, ideas and expertise.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 7.01.28 PM

THINC works on the basis that the Co-operatives National Law allows members to come together for a common benefit. This includes the financial benefit of generating economies of scale via the collective purchase of goods and services, the use of capital for the group’s common interest, and the distribution of profits to members from investment and trading activities. Co-operatives fall outside the Corporations Law (so, are not regulated by ASIC), but are subject to the State-based Consumer Affairs and/or Fair Trading authorities.

Participation in THINC involves three types of membership:

  1. Custodians – the founders of THINC, who form the initial Board of Management and represent the “expertise“, will provide commercial services to the companies that THINC invests in (see #2). As founders, they also control 50% of the equity in THINC itself. Based on a notional valuation of the cash and in-kind contributions they have made in setting up THINC, they calculate that they have provided around $1m in contributed equity.
  2. Pioneers – entrepreneurs, founders and SME owners (the “ideas“) in whose businesses THINC will take an equity stake (initially 10%, but may rise to 50%), in return for which the Pioneers receive help in the form of commercialisation strategies and other support to grow their companies. Pioneers are subject to a number of selection criteria, and are expected to use the shared managed services offered by the Custodians (at discounted rates).
  3. Champions – general members of THINC, who also provide the “capital” as investing members by buying Capital Contribution Units (CCU). Collectively, they hold the other 50% of THINC’s equity (albeit as a different class of share to the Custodians) and will also split any distributions or dividends with the Custodians (the latter can only attract a maximum 12% of any dividends, leaving the rest for distribution to Champions, for operating capital, and for maintaining cash on hand).

I should say upfront, that I have applied for membership of THINC as a Champion, but I haven’t yet decided whether or not to invest via the purchase of the CCU scheme. I am seeking clarification on the legal and financial structure, as it is quite complex, and not as straightforward as buying shares or bonds in a company, purchasing units in a managed fund, or becoming a member of a “traditional” mutual such as a credit union, building society or member-owned community bank, for example. Also, I am not qualified to say if this is a good investment, and anyone interested should seek their own professional advice.

Some advantages of this co-operative model are that, unlike other small-scale offerings limited to “sophisticated” investors (legally defined), anyone can invest, and there is no cap on the number of investors. Each CCU costs $500, and Champions may invest up to $5,000 (any more may breach the maximum individual shareholdings of a co-operative). On the other hand, regardless of how many CCUs a member owns, they only have one vote (whereas with normal equity, voting weight is in proportion to the number of shares). And while the CCUs are tradeable, they can only be sold or transferred to other members.

THINC expects to exit each investment it makes after 5 years. I understand that THINC itself may be dissolved or divested, and the final proceeds distributed to the relevant members in proportion to their CCU holdings.

Whatever else, the organisers behind THINC must be applauded for their ingenuity – innovation comes from pushing the envelope. (There is even a patent pending on the model – generating an additional revenue stream from licensing opportunities?) However, I am somewhat wary of schemes that are largely designed to get around either tax issues or legal impediments. Generally, I would say it is preferable to start with a clear set of goals and objectives, and choose the most appropriate funding vehicle or legal structure to achieve that outcome, rather than identifying a structure and fitting the business model to fit.

* Footnote: Although there’s some draft legislation going through Parliament, it hasn’t been passed by the Senate, and some commentators say that the Bill does not achieve the stated goals of what most people would regard as an equity crowdfunding model.

Next week: Design thinking is not just for hipsters….

Latest #FinTech Round-Up

The first quarter of 2016 has seen some significant FinTech developments in Australia. It feels the sector has finally “come of age”, at least in terms of government policy, as well as some significant deals. For anyone who may have missed the action, here is a very brief round-up:

FinTech_AustraliaThe formation of FinTech Australia as an umbrella group in late 2015 was seen as an important step in reducing inter-state rivalry. Following its first AGM in March, hopefully it will help the industry to attract further visibility, gain critical mass and co-ordinate the debate around legislation, funding, compliance and regulatory licensing, as well as fostering innovation and collaboration.

At the same time, the Federal Government has established the FinTech Advisory Group composed of some heavy hitters and key influencers. One of the first outcomes has been the Treasury’s response to a number of regulatory changes that the industry is prioritizing.

Having spoken to several members of both the Advisory Group and the FinTech Australia Committee, there is a clear sense that the industry has finally “broken through” to get on the ideas and innovation agenda.

FinTech Melbourne hosted a very interesting Meetup on Women in Fintech, set against the backdrop of the continuing gender diversity debate (in particular, across tech startups). An all-women panel comprising Charlotte Petris from Timelio and Jemma Enright from MoneyBrilliant, and facilitated by Anita Kimber from EY, explored some of the opportunities and challenges (and the struggles along the way) of being a startup co-founder, their experiences of launching new businesses and products, and how they go about hiring the right talent and building great teams.

Meanwhile, in London, The FINTECH Book was being launched, which includes a contribution written by DragonBIll‘s Melbourne-based CEO, Luke Hally.

Over at the MBTC , the Melbourne Bitcoin Meetup group hosted Brave New Coin‘s CEO, Fran Strajnar. Fran gave a detailed presentation on the market news, financial data and analytical infrastructure that Brave New Coin is building to support crypto-currencies and block chain technology, including the new Bitcoin Weighted Average Price (aka B-WAP). This new analytic will likely prove to be a key component for real-time and historical pricing data on specific bilateral transactions (e.g., calculating end of day evaluations or annual tax reconciliations), as well as providing underlying reference data (e.g., for index-linked instruments and associated derivatives, swaps, options and forwards). Exciting stuff indeed!

Finally, ASIC, as part of its work in building a more supportive regulatory environment (under its Innovation Hub) has announced a bilateral agreement with the UK’s FCA on greater co-operation between the respective market regulators, that may lead to mutual recognition for FinTech companies. Another similar deal is being explored with Singapore.

Next week: 4 more #startup hopefuls pitch at Startup Victoria