FF18 pitch night – Melbourne semi-final

As part of the Intersekt FinTech festival, Next Money ran the Melbourne semi-final of their 2018 Future FinTech pitch competition.

Ten startups presented, in the following order, in front of a panel of judges representing different parts of the Melbourne startup ecosystem:

BASIQ

Describing itself as “the future of finance”, and quoting the trendy mantra of “Data is the new oil”, BASIQ is an API marketplace for financial data. Designed to counter-balance “the Faustian pact” of big data, social media and search, and to compensate for the information asymmetry of bank-owned data, BASIQ espouses open banking, even though it is backed by two bank-related VC funds (NAB Ventures & Reinventure – see last week’s blog). With a focus on the needs of app developers, the commercial model is based on a licensing fee per user per transaction. Leveraging the AWS security layer (presumably to maintain privacy and data integrity), the pitch also mentioned “screen scraping” – so it wasn’t clear to me whether the data is only coming from publicly available sources? Currently, the platform only connects to financial institutions in Australia and New Zealand.

Breezedocs

A participant in the FF17 Semi-Final earlier this year, Breezedocs is a robotic document processing solution. In short, it can read/scan, sort and extract relevant data from standard documents that need to be presented by customers in support of a loan application. Operating via an API, it can work with multiple document types and multiple formats: data can be structured, semi-structured, or even unstructured. The benefits for lenders and brokers are reduced loan approval times and increased conversion, with much
better CX for the loan applicant as well. The goal is to help the standard loan origination process to go paperless, and could be extended to life insurance, income protection insurance, and immigration and visa applications.

Doshii

Doshii ensures that apps and POS solutions can connect to one another, via a common POS API platform. Apparently, there are 130 different POS providers in Australia, and many merchants use multiple services. Now backed by Reinventure, Doshii has a focus on the hospitality sector. The biggest challenge is physically connecting a POS to the API, so Doshii has developed a SDK. However, so far, only five of the 130 providers have signed up.

egenda

I hope I got this right, but egenda appears to be the new product name for the WordFlow solution for board agendas and meetings. Offering an “affordable web-based solution for every meeting”, the product is currently being trialed by a number of universities. The platform can convert PDF/word files into HTML, transforming and enriching them into a single secure website.
The panel asked how egenda compares to say, Google productivity suite or IntelligenceBank. A key aspect seems to be that egenda is platform agnostic – so it doesn’t matter the source of the document (or where it needs to be published to?). A key challenge in managing board papers is that it’s like herding cats – so a single but highly functional repository would sound attractive?

HipPocket

This US-based app is looking to launch in Australia. A phone-based financial decision app linked to a user’s bank account, it is designed to help with personalised goal-setting, budgeting and financial engagement. Asked whether it can support long-term goals, the pitch referred to data that suggests an increasing number of people are effectively living from pay-day to pay-day, and have no capacity to meet even the smallest of unexpected  bills. Having attracted a grant from the Queensland government, they are currently experimenting with different customer acquisition models, but they hope to prove that with daily engagement, it is possible to build a long-term relationship.

ID Exchange

With a tag line of “privacy protection power”, ID Exchange addresses a key issue of the “consent economy” – how to control who has access to your personal data, and how much, and for what purpose. With the whole notion of “trust” being challenged by decentralised and trustless solutions such as Blockchain applications; the plethora of data connections with the growth of IoT; and the regulatory framework around KYC, AML, CTF, data protection and privacy, there is a need for harmonised solutions. Under an “OptOut/OptIn” solution (from the website, it looks like this is a partnership with digi.me?), the idea is that users take more responsibility for managing their own data. ID Exchange offers a $20 subscription service – but unfortunately, based on the pitch, it was not clear what does this actually meant or included.

Look Who’s Charging

This is a platform for analysing credit and charge card transactions, to identify anomalies and reduce disputed charges. Currently with about 7.5% market penetration (based on merchant volumes?), it can help with fraud checks and spend analysis, by combining AI, crowd-sourcing and data science. But from the pitch, it wasn’t clear where the data is coming from. Also, a key part of the problem might be the data mismatch between card acquirers (merchant services) and card issuers (banks and financial institutions). Given that the growth in credit card fraud is coming from online shopping and CNP (card not present) purchases, it would seem that a better solution is to tighten procedures around these transactions?

Plenty

Plenty describes itself as a “financial GPS”, and is designed to address the issue of poor financial awareness. Only 20% of people see a financial planner, but now with robo-advice tools, even personalised advice can be scalable. Essentially a self-directed financial planning tool, it is free for customers to create a basic financial plan and when searching for a mortgages. For a subscription fee, customers can begin to access other products and advisors, which generates commission-based fees to Plenty.

Proviso

Another of these FinTechs to have featured in this blog before, as well as competing at FF17, Proviso makes “financial data frictionless”, in particular the loan application process. With 250,000 users per month, and 150 financial institutions signed up, their success can be ascribed to the way they standardise the data and the UX. Plus, they can access more data, from more sources, quicker. And then there are the analytics they can offer their institutional clients. In the future, there will be open banking APIs, plus insights, such as the categorisation of transaction types, affordability analysis, and decision-metrics.

Trade Ledger

This is a new platform that supports SME lending based on receivables, that also reduces the effort for SMEs seeking this form of financing. Given that cashflow issues are inextricably linked to insolvency risk, Trade Ledger has developed a unique credit assessment method, and is product-type agnostic. It also aims to offer automated solutions, with an emphasis on the digital UX of products, and use machine learning to generate a predictive probability of default (PPD). Currently the biggest challenge is in the multiple variations of bank credit and lending processes and models that need to be integrated or streamlined.

Of the ten pitches on view, I have to say that none really had a “wow” factor (although if Trade Ledger can scale their PPD model, and if ID Exchange spent a bit more time on defining their key message, both could be huge products). They were mostly worthy ideas, but still defined by current banking and finance procedures. Maybe these platforms need to do more with the transactional and customer data they generate or process, to uncover more opportunities. Or think about what they could do to disrupt adjacent markets? Anyway, on the night, Proviso proved the favourite with the judges.

Next week: Conclusions from the Intersekt Festival

 

Digital Richmond

How significant is one suburb’s contribution to the startup ecosystem in Melbourne, if not Victoria or even Australia? Well, if the recent panel on Digital Richmond (plus the Victorian Minister for Small Business, Innovation & Trade) are to be believed, VIC 3121 is the epicentre of all things startup.

According to the event description, Richmond (and the adjoining area of Cremorne) is “the stomping ground of choice for Melbourne’s established tech companies and aspiring start-ups alike”.

Hosted in the offices of 99Designs (celebrating bringing their HQ back to Richmond), a panel representing some of the biggest names among Australia’s tech companies (and all local heroes) explored what makes “Digital Richmond” tick – but also identified some of the challenges of growing and sustaining scale-up ventures beyond the confines of a few co-working spaces in converted warehouses and textile factories….

Facilitated by Rachel Neumann former MD of Eventbrite Australia (whose Australian HQ is in Melbourne), and briefly head of 500 Melbourne, the panel comprised some key Richmond/Cremorne tenants: Patrick Llewellyn, CEO at 99designs; Jodie Auster, General Manager for UberEATS in Melbourne; Cameron McIntyre, CEO of Carsales; Nigel Dalton, Chief Inventor at REA Group; and Eloise Watson, Investment Manager at VC fund Rampersand.

To set the scene, mention was made of other established Australian tech-based companies also HQ’d in Melbourne (MYOB and SEEK, the latter of which is also relocating its offices to Richmond), recent local successes such as Rome2Rio and CultureAmp (both born in Richmond), and the steady stream of global tech brands that have come to call 3121 their regional/national home, such as Stripe, Slack, Square and Etsy.

It was evident that each of the panel have previous business connections with one or more of their fellow panelists – so maybe there is simply value in being in close proximity to each other. Success begets success, especially when people are more willing to share connections and introduce new contacts into their networks. (Although, what might this say about diversity? And does it reinforce the notion that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”?)

Despite the number of co-working spaces and tech companies based locally, there are very few substantial, modern office buildings in the area, and only one business park of note. Local startups that need more space will likely have to relocate elsewhere.

Property aside, the panel considered other local infrastructure is generally conducive to success – access to public transport (although Richmond and East Richmond stations are both in serious need of an upgrade), a solid talent base, great coffee shops and proximity to the CBD.

On the downside, there was criticism at the lack of NBN access in such a concentrated pocket of tech companies and startups (with the associated numbers of contractors, freelancers and other members of the gig economy who live in the area and work from home). Car parking was also an issue, although with Richmond being a major public transport hub, I was surprised that this came up. A lack of child care facilities was also mentioned.

Being an inner city suburb, with strict planning laws and designated “heritage overlay” regulations, there are limits to the amount of development that can take place, especially as Richmond and Cremorne are also established residential areas, with medium to high population density. Getting the balance right between economic growth, urban renewal, modernisation and local community preservation is tricky – pity that the organisers had not thought to invite anyone from the local council.

The panel also bemoaned the absence of any tertiary education facilities in the area (by implication, does that mean the Kangan Institute campus in Cremorne doesn’t meet local requirements?). But maybe there are other ways to connect with academia?

The panel discussion then moved on to topics that are beyond the control of the local council or even the State government, yet each has an impact on the startup economy: corporate tax rates; employment visas; the schooling system; vocational education and training; and the need for inter-disciplinary and inter-generational hiring. (They may as well have added industrial relations laws, the productivity debate and smart cities – oh, and the National Innovation and Science Agenda.)

I was also surprised at one of the reasons given for 99Designs bringing their global HQ back to Australia – the appeal of an ASX listing. I know that Australia has one of the largest pools of pension funds in the world, and nearly every person in Australia has direct or indirect investments in Australian equities within their superannuation portfolio. But despite being ranked 15th by market capitalisation, the ASX represents less than 2% of the global market, and even after 25 years without a recession, Australia’s capital markets risk being left behind. If we are to grow the local tech sector, there needs to be much more alignment between where (and what type of) capital is needed, and where the pension funds and other institutional investors like to put their money.

Finally, I always get worried when the likes of Carsales, REA Group, MYOB and SEEK are held up as poster children for the local tech and startup sectors – great businesses, sure, but all about to be totally disrupted by the next wave of startups, and not quite the high-tech sectors that the Victorian government wants to champion (FinTech, MedTech, BioTech, NanoTech, AgriTech, Cyber Security, Smart Manufacturing, EduTech….).

Next week: The NAB SME Hackathon

 

Bitcoin – to fork or not to fork?

Anyone following the crypto-currency markets this past two weeks will be fully aware that this has been a turbulent time for Bitcoin and other blockchain assets. First, the SEC published its Report on the DAO.  Second, there was a significant arrest in connection with the Mt Gox failure. And third, Bitcoin underwent a fork which has resulted in a new version, known as Bitcoin Cash. Meanwhile, at the time of writing, the price of Bitcoin itself is testing renewed highs, and continues to enjoy a 3-month long rally.

What implications do each of these developments have for the digital asset industry?

Photo by Andre Chinn – Image sourced from Flickr under Creative Commons

The Mt Gox-related arrest came as Japanese authorities began separate criminal proceedings against the former head of the failed exchange. These developments underscore two things: 1) as with any complex financial fraud investigation, bringing the culprits to justice takes time. 2) exploiting the financial system for ill-gotten gain is not exclusive to crypto-currencies – just ask investors in Australia’s CBA bank how they feel about losing nearly 4 per cent of the value of their shares in one day on the back of a money laundering scandal.

It also means that as regulators play catch-up, exchanges, brokers and other participants in the crypto-currency markets will need to ensure that they are updating their security and privacy systems (to prevent future hacks) while ensuring they comply with AML/KYC/CTF provisions. No bad thing, to instil confidence and trust in this emerging asset class, which is entering a new phase of maturity.

The SEC Report on the DAO, meanwhile, has put ICO’s (Initial Coin Offering) and TGE’s (Token Generation Event) on notice that in some cases, these products will be treated as securities, and will be subject to the same regulation as public offers of shares etc. As a result, token issuance programs will need to structure their sale processes to be either fully compliant with, or exempt from, the regulations; at the very least, they must remove any suggestion that these tokens are capable of creating security interests in financial or dividend-bearing assets, unless that is the express intention. (In some cases, these tokens are sold as membership services, software and IP licenses, or as network access permits. Any “return” to the buyer comes from the network value effects, service discounts or user rewards, similar to frequent flyer schemes and customer loyalty programs.)

Again, this suggests a coming of age for digital assets, and a growing maturity in the way token sales can be used as an alternative to VC funding and other traditional sources of raising operating capital and project financing.

The Bitcoin fork was hugely anticipated, with a mix of fear and excitement – fear because of the unknown consequences, excitement at the prospect of Bitcoin holders getting “free money” in the form of “Bitcoin cash“, via a 1:1 issue. Without getting into the technical details, the fork was prompted by the need to increase Bitcoin’s blockchain processing speed and transaction capacity; and while nearly everyone connected to Bitcoin’s infrastructure agreed on the need to accelerate block performance, there was a schism as to how this should be achieved. Some exchanges said they would not recognise the new currency, and only some Bitcoin miners said they would engage with it (especially as the cost of mining the new asset was more expensive than Bitcoin core). In addition, most exchanges were advising their customers not to attempt performing any Bitcoin transactions for several days, before and after the fork, until the system settles down again.

In the aftermath of the fork, at least one more exchanges has said it will probably offer some support Bitcoin cash; while due to the nature of the fork, Bitcoin cash’s own block processing time was something like 6 hours – meaning transactions could not be confirmed, and holders of the new asset could not easily transfer or sell it, even if they wanted to. It feels like a combination of a liquidity squeeze, a trading halt, and a stock split resulting from a very complex corporate action.

So far, the value of Bitcoin has held up, while the value of Bitcoin cash has steadily declined (despite an early spike), almost flat-lining to less than one-tenth of the value of Bitcoin:

Relative value of Bitcoin cash (BCH) to Bitcoin (BTC) – Market Data Chart sourced from Brave New Coin

I’m not a “Bitcoin absolutist“, as I think different currency designs and technical solutions will continue to emerge based on specific use cases. These products will continue to co-exist as markets come to understand and appreciate the different attributes and functionality of these digital assets.

As a consequence of recent events, some new token projects are refining the design of their issuance programs, more legal opinions are being commissioned, and raise targets are being adjusted in light of the current climate. But the number of new projects coming to market shows no sign of abating, and the better projects will have successful and sustainable sales. The total market cap of all digital assets is now well over $100bn (although the data reveals something of an 80:20 scenario – the top few assets account for the bulk of that value); and more institutional investors and asset managers are taking a greater interest in this new asset class.

NOTE: The comments above are made in a purely personal capacity, and do not purport to represent the views of Brave New Coin or any other organisations I work with. These comments are intended as opinion only and should not construed be as financial advice.

Next week: Bringing Back Banter   

 

 

#Blockchain heralds a new railway age?

Last week, I suggested that digital currencies might be the new portals. Reflecting further on my work with Brave New Coin*, it also occurs to me that the growth of Blockchain resembles the railway mania of 19th century Britain. Hopefully it won’t end in the same over-investment and asset bubble – but there are some interesting similarities.

“Railway Mania” – Image sourced from Business Pundit

First, the railways displaced the canal system, just as canals overtook roads as the key means of transportation. For these purposes, if we compare roads to the Internet, and canals to the World Wide Web, then Blockchain is the next generation of the “information superhighway”. Blockchain and distributed ledger technology, along with crypto-currencies, digital assets and smart contracts are powering the “new” internet – the Internet of Things, the Internet of Money, the Internet of Value Exchange.

Second, and in a similar vein, the Internet was designed primarily as a means of communication. Then, the web enabled e-commerce, content distribution and on-line interaction. Now, Blockchain technology is supporting a range of new activities – such as tokenizing tangible and intangible assets; securing personal data and financial accounts; decentralizing networks, exchanges and registries; and validating immutable transaction data.

Third, the proliferation of public, private and permissioned Blockchains is prompting the development of technical standards for the design, architecture, security and taxonomy associated with this technology – as railway systems have implemented common safety and operating standards. There is also the need for interoperability between Blockchains, just as railway networks have had to address different track gauges among competing operators.

Of course, on the downside, railway mania led to heightened speculation, failed or over-optimistic prospectuses, and duplication of competing networks as developers sought to secure the most lucrative routes.

And let’s not overlook the issue of forking, which Blockchains are having to address in order to meet the demand for increased processing capacity and/or to iron out potential design weaknesses. In some ways this resembles the creation of railway branch lines – in some cases, these subsidiary routes would become more important than their parent main lines; and may even have outlived them, following the Beeching restructures in the 1960s.

Finally, for all the benefits that Blockchain undoubtedly holds, challenges remain with “on-ramp / off-ramp” access – a bit like disconnected transport interchanges or uncoordinated train timetables.

*Note: the opinions expressed here are my own, and do not represent the views of Brave New Coin or their clients.

Next week: Long live experts….