Pitch X’s Winter Solstice

The latest Pitch X event, organised by Academy Xi and hosted by YBF Ventures, was held a few days before the (Southern hemisphere) mid-winter – there may not have been any mulled wine, but there was still a warm atmosphere on a cold and wet Melbourne evening. The judging panel was drawn from YBF, Melbourne Angels, Linfox and Clearpoint Ventures.

The usual format applied: 11 startups were each given 90 seconds to pitch, followed by a 90 second Q&A with the judges. The top three were then brought back for a 5-minute pitch, and 4 minutes of Q&A.

The pitches, in order of presentation were (links in the names where available):

Startup 101

A self-styled online startup school, targeting university students and recent graduates. The core premise is that entrepreneurship is not being taught to undergraduates. The judges asked about the MVP, which was not clear, nor was there a breakeven forecast based on the number of students. The founder is offering a freemium model, based on memberships and services. Looking $500k for software development and marketing in China (a key demographic for this business).

Studio Ninja

This is a cloud and mobile PaaS solution for professional photographers. I first covered Studio Ninja in late 2016, when they pitched at a StartupVic event – and it’s great to see that they have managed to bootstrap themselves this far.

Professional photography is competitive, but margins are low. Studio Ninja offers an end-to-end platform for scheduling, contracts, payments etc. They have now integrated with Xero, QuickBoooks, Google, PayPal and Stripe, and have built a community via their chat app, Facebook group and Instagram account. At a basic $29.95 per month, they now have 4,000 paying subscribers, mainly in Australia, UK and US. but need to reinvest in product development, scaling and building further efficiencies. Users are offered a 30-day free trial, with an average 25% conversion rate, thanks to the hook of discounts for early sign-ups, plus a referral program.

RoamingDuck

Calling itself the “Uber of travel”, RoamingDuck offers travelers access to curated itineraries, based on their personal preferences. Using freelance resources (along the lines of Upwork and Airtaskr), the service uses a travel planning dashboard on which the customer and the curator can collaborate. With a quick turnaround, RoamingDuck can help customers build and review an itinerary within 12 hours. With the ability to consolidate and share, the content is easily accessible to users, who can plan anything – even supporting “self-plan” users with a search function.

Freelance curators come from the ranks of existing travel bloggers and services like Travelo, and are subject to a vetting process. There is also an escrow system, so freelances only get paid when the customer is satisfied. Normal travel agents are quite restricted on what they can access or offer, and services like Skyscanner are great for searching individual fares – RoamingDuck is solving the planning issue, and building the itinerary. Asked whether RoamingDuck can support actual bookings, the founder will likely implement this via APIs.

Wastr

According to the founder, households waste about 20% of the food they buy. Wastr is an AI-powered app that is designed to help consumers use what they purchase, rather than letting to go to waste. The solution allows subscribers to scan their grocery receipts, and in return they will receive recipes, notifications on expiry dates, plus other reminders. The app is offered under a freemium model, with a paid service starting at $2 per month.

VRWalker

Described as “VR for your foot” (or the “mouse” for VR), this is a motorised shoe device that allows wearers to experience”walking” within VR applications, without actually moving.
It’s an idea that has been around for a while, but the founder claims to have filed key patents. The shoes work on the concept of intuitive locomotion (linked to the dantian, or our centre of gravity), and are intended to be much cheaper and much more convenient than existing treadmill-based solutions. The founder hopes to have a working prototype by the end of this year. Likely customers will come from areas like construction, engineering and gaming. The judges asked about how insurance would be handled, and the device could be bundled with existing VR headset devices.

The Nurture Project

The Nurture Project is designed to teach life skills to deal with anxiety issues, which according to the founder, affect 30% of the population. Unlike other solutions, this treats the causes as well as the symptoms, using a well-being model built on 5 core pillars, and delivered via a 12-week online program. It is currently aimed at women in their 30s and 40s.

Natural MedTech

Designed to boost the immune, hormone and nervous system naturally, this has come out of a CSIRO project, with a scientific basis that has been peer-reviewed.

Magicast

This is a decentralised online podcast recording and editing service. Existing podcast software is either too complex, or too expensive. Instead, Magicast uses web-based programme development, publication and distribution, offering a two-sided marketplace for content, sound effects, music etc. The judges asked about international competitors, given that podcasting is very much a cottage industry, with relatively few barriers to entry.

Turtle

Something akin to an Uber courier service, Turtle enables customers to obtain goods from overseas that are not available where they live. Targeting expat and diaspora populations, the platform has an escrow function to provide a level of trust. It was not clear who would be responsible for tax, customs and quarantine issues.

Young Shaman Foundation

Having run a number of leadership development retreats on country for women in indigenous communities, the founder is now seeking funding to develop and extend the program she currently offers.

SecureStack

Helping companies to secure the cloud, with a focus on cyber security, the founder pointed out that key problems are caused by “cloud sprawl” – the uncontrolled proliferation of content, services and applications hosted and running on cloud-based servers. Using a proprietary cloud infrastructure security design, the startup has already secured two clients and $100k in revenues. Now looking to raise $2m, for an 18-month runway, in order to gain 100 clients. The solution is agnostic as to which cloud service clients use. Traditional cloud management and compliance is saturated, whereas SecureStack’s value proposition is in the security layers.

After much deliberation, the winners were:

1. StudioNinja
2. RoamingDuck
3. VR Walker

Next week: The Metaphorical Glass Jaw

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

 

Blipverts vs the Attention Economy

There’s a scene in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film, “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, where David Bowie’s character sits watching a bank of TV screens, each tuned to a different station. At the same time he is channel surfing – either because his alien powers allow him to absorb multiple, simultaneous inputs, or because his experience of ennui on Earth leads him to seek more and more stimulus. Obviously a metaphor for the attention economy, long before such a term existed.

Watching the alien watching us… Image sourced from Flicker

At the time in the UK, we only had three TV channels to choose from, so the notion of 12 or more seemed exotic, even other worldly. And of those three channels, only one carried advertising. Much the same situation existed in British radio, with only one or two commercial networks, alongside the dominant BBC. So we had relatively little exposure to adverts, brand sponsorship or paid content in our broadcast media. (Mind you, this was still the era when tobacco companies could plaster their logos all over sporting events…)

For all its limitations, there were several virtues to this model. First, advertising airtime was at a premium (thanks to the broadcast content ratios), and ad spend was concentrated – so adverts really had to grab your attention. (Is it any wonder that so many successful film directors cut their teeth on commercials?) Second, this built-in monopoly often meant bigger TV production budgets, more variety of content and better quality programming on free-to-air networks than we typically see today with the over-reliance on so-called reality TV. Third, with less viewing choice, there was a greater shared experience among audiences – and more communal connection because we could talk about similar things.

Then along came cable and satellite networks, bringing more choice (and more advertising), but not necessarily better quality content. In fact, with TV advertising budgets spread more thinly, it’s not surprising that programming suffered. Networks had to compete for our attention, and they funded this by bombarding us with more ads and more paid content. (And this is before we even get to the internet age and time-shift, streaming and multicast platforms…)

Despite the increased viewing choices, broadcasting became narrow-casting – smaller and more fractured viewership, with programming appealing to niche audiences. Meanwhile, in the mid-80s (and soon after the launch of MTV), “Max Headroom” is credited with coining the term “blipvert”, meaning a very, very short (almost subliminal) television commercial. Although designed as a narrative device in the Max Headroom story, the blipvert can be seen as either a test of creativity (how to get your message across in minimal time); or a subversive propaganda technique (nefarious elements trying to sabotage your thinking through subtle suggestion and infiltration).

Which is essentially where we are in the attention economy. Audiences are increasingly disparate, and the battle for eyeballs (and minds) is being fought out across multiple devices, multiple screens, and multiple formats. In our search for more stimulation, and unless we are willing to pay for premium services and/or an ad-free experience, we are having to endure more ads that pop-up during our YouTube viewing, Spotify streaming or internet browsing. As a result, brands are trying to grab our attention, at increasing frequency, and for shorter, yet more rapid and intensive periods. (Even Words With Friends is offering in-game tokens in return for watching sponsored content.)

Some consumers are responding with ad-blockers, or by dropping their use of social media altogether; or they want payment for their valuable time. I think we are generally over the notion of giving away our personal data in return for some “free” services – the price in terms of intrusions upon our privacy is no longer worth paying. So, brands are having to try harder to capture our attention, and they need to personalize their message to make it seem relevant and worthy of our time – provided we are willing to let them know enough about our preferences, location, demographics, etc. so that they can serve up relevant and engaging content to each and every “audience of one”. And brands also want proof that the ads they have paid for have been seen by the people they intended to reach.

This delicate trade-off (between privacy, personalisation and payment) is one reason why the attention economy is seen as a prime use case for Blockchain and cryptocurrency: consumers can retain anonymity, while still sharing selected personal information (which they own and control) with whom they wish, when they wish, for as long as they wish, and they can even get paid to access relevant content; brands can receive confirmation that the personalised content they have paid for has been consumed by the people they intended to see it; and distributed ledgers can maintain a record of account and send/receive payments via smart contracts and digital wallets when and where the relevant transactions have taken place.

Next week: Jump-cut videos vs Slow TV

 

 

 

 

Intersekt Festival 2018

This year’s Intersekt Festival, held in Melbourne last month, was put together in quite challenging circumstances, given some of the recent events within key industry body FinTech Australia, the primary event host. It was a credit to all involved.

Not surprisingly, given some of the regulatory and industry changes underway in Australia, the key themes included: Open Banking and access to data: Trust in the banking and financial services sector (thanks to the Royal Commission, and the APRA report on the CBA); Data Privacy; Payments and the NPP; Comprehensive Credit Reporting and predatory lending practices; and Equity Crowdfunding. And of course, a little bit about Blockchain, Cryptocurrencies and Security Tokens.

There was a lot of discussion on “Trust”, especially in the age of Uber and Airbnb – how have these marketplaces managed to earn so much public and consumer trust in such a relatively short time? Yet as consumers, we obsess about Open Banking vs Data Privacy,  while banks themselves appear to be more infatuated with their Net Promoter Score…. whereas “Trust” is clearly a huge issue. In the case of the banks and the fall out from the Royal Commission, there was a discussion about whether our key financial institutions have come close to losing their social license to operate.

Meanwhile, with the prospect of self-sovereign digital identity becoming a practical reality (fuelled by blockchain, decentralisation and trust-less protocols and standards), there is a demand for cross-functional  (and cross-border) solutions for KYC/AML processing and identity management. But a lack of mutual regulatory recognition or harmonization (as opposed to “mere” industry standards) plus a diversity of business models confounds regulatory harmony, often within a single jurisdiction, let alone across multiple markets.

When it comes to payments and the NPP, it’s clear that regulation lags technology. For example, despite the existence of a (complex and somewhat uncertain) licensing regime for purchased payment facilities, APRA has only licensed one such PPF – PayPal. As former ASIC Chairman, Greg Medcraft once observed, by the time the NPP is fully operational, Blockchain will have gotten there long beforehand. And given the preponderance of stored value cards, digital wallets, peer-to-peer crypto exchanges, and multiple overseas and cross-border mobile payment apps, the respective regulatory roles of RBA, APRA, AUSTRAC, ATO and ASIC need to be clearly defined and set out.

On the topic of data protection and “big data”, there was a lot of discussion about getting the balance right between privacy and innovation. One the one hand, industry incumbents should not be allowed to use their market dominance to resist open banking and stifle the emergence of neo-banks; but on the other, there is a need to shelter the forthcoming consumer data right (CDR) from potential abuse like predatory lending (e.g., not simply define the CDR standards by reference to existing banking products and services) – mainly because the CDR is designed to empower consumers (not embolden the industry), and it is designed to be sector neutral (i.e., equally applicable to utilities, ISPs, telcos, insurance firms).

Other topics included SME lending, where new, tech-driven providers are not only originating new loans, but also refinancing existing businesses as the big 4 banks are seen to withdraw from this market; home loans (where technology is driving new loan origination, funding and distribution models); social impact (“FinTech for good”); equity crowdfunding (and the role of STOs); insurance (creating a decentralised market place) and Superannuation (which prompted perhaps the most contentious panel discussion – more on that to come!).

If there were any criticisms of the conference, based on local and overseas delegates I spoke to, they related to the length (was there enough content to sustain nearly 3 days?); the need for clearer roles and participation by the major and regional banks; the absence of investors (despite a speed-dating matching event….); and a desire to see a broader range of speakers and panelists (too many of the “usual suspects”?).

Next week: The Future of Super