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 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

The NAB SME Hackathon

The recent week-long Intersekt fintech festival kicked off with a 48-hour hackathon, sponsored by NAB, hosted by Stone & Chalk and York Butter Factory, and designed to meet the needs of NAB’s SME customers.

Using NAB’s own transaction data APIs, participants were asked to come up with a solution to one of the following challenges:

1. How to make the lives of SME owners easier
2. How to help SMEs generate more business

12 teams competed over the weekend, and each presented their ideas to a panel of industry experts. Clearly, these were not the usual startup pitches (and none have a public website), but it was interesting to see the results. Projects are listed here in the order they presented:

NABTax – “tax audit insurance”
Designed to encourage better/best practice tax governance among SMEs, it uses a combination of a tax risk rating linked to a reduced cost of premiums for tax audit insurance.
The solution would help SMEs to be better prepared for an ATO request for information, aid understanding of the ATO’s current small business benchmarks, and provide insights on the ATO’s data matching protocols.
Essentially it would generate a risk rating based on quantitative and qualitative analysis of supporting documents supplied by the SME.

EasyPay – “reconciling invoices and receipts”
Deploying an e-invoicing model, the platform would generate a unique reference number, linked to an ABN, and generate a QR code to be scanned by the payer.
At its heart, it would better match invoices and payments. The service would be sold under a freemium model, and would be compliant with the New Payment Platform (NPP).
The main challenge would be in reaching and gaining traction with consumers (the bill payers).

ORDR – “managing cash-flow, inventory ordering and sales”
Drawing on a dashboard showing SKUs of items in stock, it would use machine learning
to predict stock ordering requirements. Although this concept was based on actual SME experience, the panel felt that there would be integration issues with existing POS and supply chain systems. Also, how would it link to CRM data, and how would it be able to both accommodate new season stock, and accurately forecast demand?
Finally, what level of SKU data is actually available from NAB transaction data?

Just-In-Time MBA – “a financial/business coaching app for SME owners”
According to data presented by the team, 60% of SMEs fail within their first three years. And given there are something like two million micro-businesses in Australia, and 250,000 new ones established each year, if nothing else, there is a huge opportunity to reduce this failure rate.
Using the available APIs (plus data from the SMEs’ accounting systems), the platform would analyze payments data and issue alerts designed to prompt remedial action.
Based on the presentation, it seemed that the proposed analysis is only capturing cash-flow – clearly, the real value and insights would come from holistic health checks.

NAB SME Connect – “connecting small business to customers”
Using a number of data inputs, this service would push deals in real-time to your smart phone. The customer app shows only relevant offers – based on preferences, proximity, etc. The client SMEs can see the level of interest and demand, to generate “Smart Deals” based on transaction data. The panel wondered about the opt-in model, and also felt there were already similar competitor products, or that any competitive advantage would be difficult to defend.

Wait< – “wait less for elective surgery”
Aimed at time-poor SME owners, the team wanted us to think of this as an “eBay plus Afterpay for elective surgery”. Taking the approach of a two-sided marketplace, it would
support transactional loans to cover the cost of surgery, and match customers (patients) to suppliers (health care providers). Drawing on NAB’s current healthcare payment services, the solution would combine NAB’s transaction banking and health APIs, plus Medicare APIs (for patient and practitioner verification), to generate a pre-populated lending form. No doubt designed to appeal to NAB Health, this was a very niche project.

Tap & Go – “turning customer loyalty into rewards more easily and more cheaply”
This idea would enable SMEs to use transaction data to decide who gets a discount, and how much. Built on a merchant administration platform, it would capture transaction data from POS systems. It would be offered as a subscription service for merchants. The panel wondered how this solution compared to the competition, such as Rewardle.

TAP – “smarter marketing solutions”
Commenting that only 16% of SMEs are maximizing their online presence, this service is designed to increase merchants’ digital presence. It would use NAB APIs to manage and track campaigns – by comparing the data to past sales periods and previous campaigns. Campaigns would also be linked to social media accounts. The panel questioned how the solution would fare against competitors such as Hootsuite.

StopOne – “integrated hub for making data driven decisions and connect with a NAB banker”
Conceptually, this was a very ambitious project, designed to let SMEs use dashboards and forecasting from NAB transaction data (and other sources), to drill down into visualized data records. It would also integrate with social media insights, incorporate a messaging platform to allow SMEs to communicate with their bankers, and enable SMEs to share their dashboard with a business banker. The panel queried the cost of the data analytics for the SME, which presumably comes on top of their existing accounting software.
They also suggested the team take a look at what 9 Spokes is already doing in this space.

Spike – “accounts payable solution”
Currently, paying invoices can involve a 10 step process. The average SME has 90 suppliers. Accessed via a NAB accounts payable login, the solution incorporates the Google vision API to capture an image of the invoice and extract key data points. The SME then chooses the date and account for payment, the invoice is stored in the cloud, from where is posted to the Xero ledger, and the NAB payments portal. In addition, the client can share purchase order data with their supplier to pre-populate the invoice. It could
also optimize expenses, by recommending offers or product switches. When asked about the commercial model, the team suggested it could be offered free by NAB, who get access to extra data.

nablets – “focus on things that matter”
According to this team, 90% of SMEs are not taking full advantage of digital tools. Using NAB APIs and event-based triggers, clients would use their NAB Business Connect account login to create “if this then that” rules and tasks. It would also leverage open banking data APIs. The panel asked about the logic and the parameters to be embedded in the rules-based activities, as well as the proposed categories and range of functions to be automated. They also wondered how it would actually help SMEs to adopt digital tools – some of which are already integrated into the current banking portal.

NAB Hub – “Small Business Hub”
Designed to present banking data the way customer wants to see it (P&L, balance sheet, net asset position etc.), it would also help in generating leads for pre-approved loan products, and help with investments via optimized rates, and for insurance cover it would
assist with policy reviews, claims and risk analysis. The panel asked if this was intended to be a NAB add-on or a standalone product. They also suggested the team look at what Tyro is doing around lending analysis – but recognized that there was possibly a place for this type of tailored advice.

Based on the judging, the winners and runners-up were:

1. Just-in-time MBA
2. Spike
3. NABTax

Meanwhile, the crowd favourite was Just-in-time MBA, and the best innovative idea was TAP.

If I had to summarise the presentations, it would be as follows:

1. Most of the presentations were still talking about yesterday’s/today’s banking products, rather than products of the future
2. There was very little evidence of projects designed to help SMEs grow their business
3. Any effort to gain traction for these projects will revolve around changing customer (and bank) behaviours….

Next week: VCs battle it out in the reverse 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?