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

Startup Vic’s EdTech Pitch Night

EdTech or EduTech? Even Startup Vic can’t seem to decide. Whatever, this education-themed pitch night was the latest event in their highly popular monthly events, held in conjunction with Education Changemakers, and EduGrowth.

Apart from the naming convention, there is also some clarification needed around the scope and definition of “education(al) technology”. First, because it’s a very broad spectrum (does it include e-learning, e-books, MOOCS, LMS?). Second, is it more about the “delivery” than “outcomes”? Third, is it only about formal pedagogy, or does it also include discretionary, self-directed and non-curriculum learning?

And so to the pitches, in the order they presented:

Become

With the aim of “teaching kids to explore, design and navigate their future“, Become is essentially a platform for early-stage career coaching. While their app is still in development (although there is a bot in use already?), Become has been running in-person workshops and other programs to test and validate the concept. The solution uses AI and machine learning technology, but it wasn’t very clear how this will actually work – maybe there are some core profiling and preference tools, some career mapping based on proprietary algorithms, and recommendation engines drawing on the data analysis?

Using a freemium model, the full service will cost $40 per student per annum. The core audience are years 5 to 8, and part of the schools adoption strategy will focus on getting high school career advisers on-board, with additional parent advocacy.

I’ve no doubt that career advice is an important part of the syllabus, but just as important are life-long learning, resilience, adaptability, and developing self-awareness and a sense of purpose. But if nothing else, in the words of the founder, Become puts the “why” back into learning.

MoxieReader

This digital reading log is all about “inspired independent reading“. Supplementing the paper-based records widely in use, the app enables children to record their reading activity, and helps teachers to assess pupils’ reading progress, based on the titles and numbers of books read, and their associated word counts and vocabulary. (In future, the app may deliver content and instructional aids.)

Using a machine learning algorithm (“like a fitness tracker”), the app can set reading challenges, and measure reading growth. Tests may be another add-on, but from what I can see, the app does not test for comprehension or context-based reading and interpretation skills. (After all “reasoning” is the 4th “R” of education – along with reading, writing and arithmetic.)

Currently launching with an ambitious social media and outreach campaign, MoxieReader already has paid sign ups from teachers, many of whom are paying with their personal credit card, and is enjoying a 30% conversion rate, and 30% referral business.

Priced at $7 for teachers per class per month, plus $100 per school/building per month (individual teachers who already subscribed will get a rebate), there is also an opt-in donation model for parents to recycle used books.

Cogniss

This is a development platform and market place for education apps. Built on game based learning and rewards packages, it also makes use of analytics and data insights to help teachers and designers build their own products.

Having seen a demand among health and well-being users, the platform is also suited for apps designed to support behavioral change, workplace learning and social learning.

Access to the platform involves a $500 set up fee, plus $50 per month per app (plus scale rates by number of users and advanced add-ons).

The platform also supports micro-transactions, for downloaded content and apps. At present, there is no formal process for teachers to embed pedagogy into the game structure. Content vetting is also a manual process, combined with experience sharing and peer ratings – but a content certification process is in the pipeline.

Revision Village

Helping students to prepare for external exams (specifically, the IB maths) this product replaces traditional in person and in class programs, with an online resource.
Also, although revision practice largely relies on past test papers, the founders have identified a chasm between the concepts taught, and the questions asked.

Developed in response to teacher demand, this subscription-based learning resource has
translated into higher results and fewer fails.

The platform is looking to extend the curriculum beyond maths, but this will largely depend on being able to license content from the relevant examination boards and syllabus providers, such as the IB.

Access is not dependent upon being logged into a school network or intranet, as it is only a web app (with individual and site licenses).

The Revision Village website claims the product is used by “More than 32,000 IB Students and 710 IB Schools”. However, it would seem that not all of these are paid-for subscriptions, as the pitch mentioned a critical mass would be 100 schools (out of a total of 2,500 IB schools) paying $2,000 each (although this is separate to the parent market).

 

Overall, I liked the tone and format of the pitches –  the products all seemed worthy endeavours, and the founders are no doubt passionate about education and learning. But I was left feeling underwhelmed, by both the content and the tech being deployed. (I guess I needed more than just passing references to “AI, machine learning and algorithms”.) All of these products rely on significant adoption rates among schools – which are some of the hardest institutional customers to sell to – and to be successful in international markets presents a further challenge, given differences of language, content and educational systems.

In the end, even the judges found it hard to pick a winner, as there was a tie for 1st place, between Become and MoxieReader. I would probably concur, as they had the edge in terms of both individual learning outcomes, and broader educational benefits.

Next week: Copyright – Use It Or Lose It?

More on Purpose

Regular readers may be familiar with the name Carolyn Tate from my previous blogs on purpose, and the Slow School of Business. Last week, Carolyn launched her latest book, The Purpose Project, a distillation of the past seven years of her work, and quite possibly a road map for anyone wanting to take control of their own destiny at work.

I would describe The Purpose Project as a cross between a first aid kit for a disillusioned workforce and a survival guide for the modern workplace. But as with defining your own “purpose”, the value is in the mind of the reader, rather than in any prescriptive solution or outcome.

Having spent the past few years working with Carolyn at Slow School, I know that her views on this topic have subtly changed. Slow School itself initially appealed to, and was designed for, independent consultants (“solopreneurs”) and aspiring consultants (“corporate escapees”). But as the concept of finding purpose in our work has started to take hold, Carolyn now encourages her readers to find their own purpose where they are, rather than rushing headlong into a new job, a new company, a new career or even into entrepreneurship (which as we know, isn’t for everyone).

I first connected with Carolyn at the Slow School, when I was exploring my own purpose as an independent consultant (and sometime corporate escapee….). Slow School provides a community of like-minded souls with a “safe” space to test new ideas, a playground to kick around new concepts, and an environment to challenge our own assumptions. Unsurprisingly, a key part of The Purpose Project is a list of 50 questions designed to help readers dig deeper into their own purpose, modeled on the Japanese concept of ikigai”. There are also some tools and practices to bring purpose to life in our current work.

In my own case, I still think my purpose is a work in progress, and is never settled – much of my career has been driven by a need for new ideas and experiences, work that is intellectually stimulating, and a willingness to engage in continuous learning (while feeding an enduring curiosity and maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism). These factors, even more than formal qualifications or faddish management theories, have helped me to build resilience and navigate a rapidly changing work environment.

One point where I may disagree with Carolyn is this notion about finding purpose through staying in your current role or workplace – that it’s not necessary to leave. While I agree that it may be possible to reshape your current job to suit your personal needs and preferences, staying in an unrewarding job or remaining with an organisation that does not value you is like persevering with an unhealthy relationship.

In short, I’m quite pessimistic about the ability for large corporations and large institutions (as they are currently framed and constituted) to help us connect with our individual purpose, or even to provide the space to do so. And of course, rapid changes in the very nature of work, the way we work, the economic structures and business models that have traditionally underpinned employment and the value exchange of labour require us to take more control over where, how and with whom we choose to spend our working time.

Next week: Agtech Pitch Night at SproutX

 

 

Long live experts….

Along with “liberal, metropolitan elite”, the word “expert” appears to have become a pejorative term. Well, I say, “long live experts”. Without experts, we’d still believe that the world was flat, that the sun orbited around the Earth, and that the universe is only 6,000 years old…. Without experts we’d also have no knowledge of ancient civilisations, no comprehension of languages, no awareness of scientific phenomena, no understanding of how to prevent and cure disease, no patience to engage with the human condition, and no appreciation of nature, technology, art or culture.

Just a couple of “experts”: Marie Curie and Albert Einstein

I read recently that, “Marie Curie and Albert Einstein went hiking together in the Alps”. At first, I thought this was some fantastic fiction, because I wasn’t aware they knew each other, let alone went walking. But the line didn’t come from a David Mitchell novel – I came across it in Alex Soojung-Kim Pang‘s recent book, “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less”. It reveals something of the way knowledge seeks out knowledge – how great minds (experts) often get together to collaborate, or just hang out and shoot the breeze. The expert mind is also an inquiring and creative mind, open to new ideas and influences, unlike the hermetically sealed personalities of many of our current leaders.

(According to Pang, regular physical activity, creative pursuits, technical mastery and planned rest are among the key traits for many experts – so much for the 35-hour working week, 9-5 routines, and a couple of weeks’ annual vacation….)

Maybe one reason for this increased disregard for experts is the fact that many experts tend to make us feel uncomfortable (about our own ignorance?), they challenge our assumptions (and highlight our personal prejudices?), and they tell us things we’d rather not think about (even if it’s probably for our own good?).

And while I accept some experts can be patronising, aloof and even smug, there is a breed of experts, like Demis Hassabis, who are brilliant communicators. They can explain complex ideas in straightforward terms, and through their enthusiasm and natural curiosity, they show how they continue to wonder about what they don’t yet know. They also manage to bring us on their journey into difficult topics and uncharted areas, such as artificial intelligence.

Finally, and in the interest of balance, the only thing worse than a recognised expert is a self-appointed one…. (a theme Laurie Anderson explored in her satirical work, “Only an Expert”.)

Next week: SportsTech and Wearables Pitch Night at Startup Victoria