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

Fear of the Robot Economy….

A couple of articles I came across recently made for quite depressing reading about the future of the economy. The first was an opinion piece by Greg Jericho for The Guardian on an IMF Report about the economic impact of robots. The second was the AFR’s annual Rich List. Read together, they don’t inspire me with confidence that we are really embracing the economic opportunity that innovation brings.

In the first article, the conclusion seemed to be predicated on the idea that robots will destroy more “jobs” (that archaic unit of economic output/activity against which we continue to measure all human, social and political achievement) than they will enable us to create in terms of our advancement. Ergo robots bad, jobs good.

While the second report painted a depressing picture of where most economic wealth continues to be created. Of the 200 Wealthiest People in Australia, around 25% made/make their money in property, with another 10% coming from retail. Add in resources and “investment” (a somewhat opaque category), and these sectors probably account for about two-thirds of the total. Agriculture, manufacturing, entertainment and financial services also feature. However, only the founders of Atlassian, and a few other entrepreneurs come from the technology sector. Which should make us wonder where the innovation is coming from that will propel our economy post-mining boom.

As I have commented before, the public debate on innovation (let alone public engagement) is not happening in any meaningful way. As one senior executive at a large financial services company told a while back, “any internal discussion around technology, automation and digital solutions gets shut down for fear of provoking the spectre of job losses”. All the while, large organisations like banks are hiring hundreds of consultants and change managers to help them innovate and restructure (i.e., de-layer their staff), rather than trying to innovate from within.

With my home State of Victoria heading for the polls later this year, and the growing sense that we are already in Federal election campaign mode for 2019 (or earlier…), we will see an even greater emphasis on public funding for traditional infrastructure rather than investing in new technologies or innovation.

Finally, at the risk of stirring up the ongoing corporate tax debate even further, I took part in a discussion last week with various members of the FinTech and Venture Capital community, to discuss Treasury policy on Blockchain, cryptocurrency and ICOs. There was an acknowledgement that while Australia could be a leader in this new technology sector, a lack of regulatory certainty and non-conducive tax treatment towards this new funding model means that there will be a brain drain as talent relocates overseas to more amenable jurisdictions.

Next week: The new productivity tools

Startup Exchange, Chicago

As part of its annual FinTech Exchange event in Chicago last month, Barchart* ran the Startup Exchange pitch competition, where 16 hopefuls competed in front of a stellar panel of judges.

The presentations in order of appearance were:

Mercaris – A market data and trading platform for niche agri-products e.g., organic, non-GMO, certified and other niche food products and commodities where identity preservation (IP) is critical.

KTS Operations – A configurable software development solution for data handling and trading. It aims to automate redundant data tasks, such as putting CPU processing on a Blockchain.

HALO – Is a platform for trading structured notes. Currently working with 10 banks and 5,000 financial advisors.

UCX – Offers a consolidated market place and platform for buying Cloud services.

Demand Derivatives Corp – Allows clients to design new derivative instruments for listing on futures exchanges, as compared to standard futures and options contracts. As well as supporting unique instrument design, the service focuses on IP protection, exchange listing and liquidity.

UpTick Technology – Identifying the in-house talent gap at many firms, this spreadsheet-based analytical tool integrates with any data set, multiplies internal development capacity and supports data distribution within the client organization.

MaterialsXchange – Is a raw commodities exchange offering a B2B e-marketplace to digitize and automate trading data. It features a live, two-sided (bid/offer) venue with full execution and delivery, plus connectivity to ancillary services. First product is a lumber market place.

Coinifide – Has launched a P2P crypto trading and auction market place, combining elements of a social trading platform with an emphasis on providing investor education, It features key influencers and subject-matter experts and a simulator to replicate trading strategies.

Upper Room Technology – Is a new analytics solution for professional bond traders, with algo-based modelling and trade execution services.

Tipigo – A decision-support and information tool aimed at self-directed investors and day traders. It combines machine learning and fundamental research (450+ data sources tracking 8,300 US companies) to screen and funnel investment strategies, with trade execute via 8 traditional brokers.

TrendyTrade – Designed to encourage millennials to invest, it aggregates 400+ data sources, as well as Twitter, StockTwits and traditional media. An AI-based algo model makes recommendations, and explains why a specific stock might be moving. Currently has 30,000 users (under a freemium model) and boasts 79% accuracy.

Peak Soil Indexes – Aiming to “democratize farmland”, this is all about so-called “precision agriculture” – financializing farmland, creating a new asset class and offering a passive investment product, tracked by their own farmland index. It recognizes the demand for farmland, while offsetting some of the inherent risks of highly volatile crop prices.

SixJupiter – This is text-based robo advice platform. Focuses on liquidity, diversification and aggressive growth. Data suggests that 36% of the US population don’t get financial advice.

FreightWaves – A trucking futures marketplace, developed in response to a lack of market transparency and the corporate headwind of freight costs. Combines insights from market trends, regulatory factors and the impact of new technology. Primarily a content site, the service has achieved 1 million paid views per month.

PanXchange – An OTC marketplace for physical commodities – agri, energy, food and metals. Provides Instant access to realtime and historic data, for price discovery and for
trading futures and derivatives. Live data includes bid/offer spreads and trades (as opposed to traditional price reporting agencies. Its first key product has been a weekly benchmark price for Frac Sand.

Matrix Execution Technologies – Trading solution for active traders in equities, futures and options. Includes order management and executions services, especially for trading spot markets against listed contracts (such as CME and CBOE Bitcoin futures). Aimed as family offices and HNWIs.

Based on the judges’ verdict, the winners were:

1. PanXchange
2. Coinified
3. FreightWaves

* Declaration of interest: Barchart syndicates Brave New Coin news and technical analysis content

Next week: FinTech Exchange, Chicago

What should we expect from our banks?

As I have written elsewhere, bank bashing is a favourite Australian pastime. In recent months, this has struck a new crescendo. There have been various allegations, legal cases and regulatory investigations surrounding such misconduct as mis-selling of products, rate fixing, over-charging and money laundering, all culminating in a hastily announced Financial Services Royal Commission.

Cartoon by David Rowe, sourced from the AFR, published November 30, 2017

The banks had tried to get on the front foot, by abolishing ATM fees, reigning in some of their lending practices, and appointing a former Labor politician to help them navigate the growing calls for a Royal Commission (largely coming from her former colleagues in the Labor party). But the (Coalition) government clearly decided enough was a enough, and sprung their own inquiry into the industry.

For the benefit of overseas readers, Australia has a highly concentrated banking sector, which is also highly regulated, highly profitable, and in some ways, a highly protected market oligopoly. There are only four major banks (also know as the four pillars, as they cannot acquire one another, nor can they be acquired by foreign banks), and a few regional banks. There is a smattering of non-bank financial institutions, but by their very nature, they don’t offer the full range of banking products and services. As an example of this market concentration, the big four banks traditionally account for something like 80% or more of all home loans.

Aside from the Royal Commission, there are a number of policy developments in play which will inevitably change the banking landscape, and the dynamic between market participants. In addition to the growth of FinTech startups aiming to disrupt through digital innovation, there are four key areas of policy that will impact traditional banking:

  1. Open Banking – giving customers greater access to and control over their own banking data
  2. Comprehensive Credit Reportingmandating the hitherto voluntary regime among the big four banks
  3. The New Payments Platform – designed to allow real-time payment and settlement between customers, even without using bank account details
  4. Restricted ADI Regime – to encourage more competition in the banking sector

The major banks have tried to laugh off, rebuff or diminish the threat of FinTech disruption. They believe they have deeper pockets than startups and just as good, if not better, technology processes. Moreover, customers are traditionally so sticky that there is an inherent inertia to switch providers.

But with banks having to set aside more risk-weighted capital to cover their loans, they may be vulnerable to startups focusing on very specific products, rather than trying to be a full service provider. Banks no longer have the technology edge, partly because of the legacy core banking systems they have to maintain, partly because they lack the know-how or incentive to innovate. And changing demographics will influence the way new customers interact with their banks: “mobile first”, “end-to-end digital”, and “banking for the gig economy” are just some of the challenges/opportunities facing the sector.

So what should we expect from our banks? I would say that at a minimum, a bank should provide: trust (but with Blockchain, DLT and trustless, zero-knowledge proof solutions, banks are no longer the sole arbiter of trust); security (linked to trust, but again, with biometrics, digital ID solutions and layered encryption, banks do not have a monopoly on these solutions); capital protection (although no bank can fully guarantee your deposits); reasonable fees (still a way to go on account keeping fees and some point of sale transaction fees – while disruptive technology will continue to challenge legacy costs); and an expectation that it will not bet against the direct interests of their customers (like, shorting the housing market, for example). The latter is particularly tricky, when banks are mainly designed to deliver shareholder value – although of course, most Australian bank customers also own shares in the banks, either directly, or indirectly through their superannuation.

In recent months, and based on personal experience, I think a bank should also know its customers. Not just KYC (for regulatory purposes), but really understand a customer as more than just a collection of separate products, which is how most banking CRM systems seem to work. Given how much banks spend on consumer research and behavioral data, and how much they talk about using big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning to anticipate customer needs, it’s a constant frustration that my bank does not really know me – whenever I contact them, for any reason, I always feel like it’s a process of “product first, customer second”.

Moreover, I can’t think of a single new product that my bank has launched in the past 15 years of being a customer. Sure, they have rolled out mobile apps and online banking, and they may have even launched some new accounts and credit cards – but these are simply the same products (accounts, loans, cards) with different prices and a few new features. Even the so-called “special offers” I get for being a “loyal” customer bear no relation to my interests, or even my spending patterns (despite all the data they claim to have about me). And because banks are product or transaction-driven, rather than relationship-driven, their internal processes fuel silo behaviors, to the extent that the left hand very often does not know what the right hand is doing.

Finally, with more and more of the working population becoming self-directed (self-employed, freelance, portfolio career, contracting, gig-economy, etc.) banks will have to innovate to meet the financial services needs of this new workforce. Bring on the disruption, I say.

Next week: Box Set Culture