Sola.io – changing the way renewable energy is financed

Late last year, I had the privilege to be one of the judges for the PitchX competition for start-ups. The overall winner was Sola, a new investment platform to fund solar power using a virtual power plant structure to bring together investors and producers, who might not otherwise have access to the financial and production benefits of this renewable energy resource.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Alan Hunter, Founding Team member of Sola while he was in Melbourne earlier this month. He was busy in the middle of a series of investor meetings and finalising arrangements for their energy retailing licensing.

Prior to Sola, Alan had established a fleet company that leased cars to Uber drivers. Recognising that some immigrants lacked relevant qualifications for advertised jobs, but lacked the finance to buy a car, the business joined the dots and enabled many people with a driver’s license to secure employment. It told him a lot about about helping those less fortunate by building a business designed to remove inequalities and lower barriers to entry.

With that experience, an interest in renewable energy, and a desire to help consumers reduce their power bills Sola was launched. Starting out as CEC-approved Solar Retailer, Sola offers consumers a subscription service to electricity (at a cheaper rate than users pay today).

Sola is now planning to offer the same subscription service with a solar system, for a cheaper monthly payment. It is able to achieve this though the development of an innovative investment and infrastructure platform, that will serve three main types of clients:

1. Home-owners who want to install solar energy, reduce their own power bills, and even generate additional benefits as rebates or credits from feed-in tariffs

2. Retail investors, who may not have access to solar energy (renters, apartment residents, or those in dwellings ill-placed for panels)

3. Wholesale investors and self-managed superannuation funds looking for an alternative fixed income asset

In short, Sola underwrites the cost of panel installation on consumers’ homes. In return, Sola acquires 100% of the energy generated, and the customer subscribes to Sola for their monthly usage. Consumers become subscription members of Sola’s network, via the latter’s retailer license.

For retail investors, Sola will present them with an opportunity to access fractional ownership of a virtual power plant, for as little as $100. These investors then receive a dividend from the energy sales generated by the network.

For wholesale investors, and for a larger stake, they will be part of a closed end capped fund, which will generate a dividend from the energy sales. Sola has an energy off-take entitlement over the panels, and over time, panels which are replaced may still be sold into secondary markets, such as in developing countries, if they have a remaining useful life.

Some of the benefits of this structure include a more equitable arrangement for access to, ownership, and distribution of solar energy assets. It also removes the need for unsecured lending to finance panels and systems which may soon become obsolete. Plus, it enables people who might not have direct access to solar panels to benefit from this asset.

The complex issue of Federal and State rebates came up in our discussion. According to Alan, the former are useful in supporting the roll-out of Sola’s virtual power plant model, and in accessing the carbon credit marketplace via the Small-scale Technology Certificates (STC). Whereas, State rebates are better for end-users, who can engage Sola direct to install their panels, and then join the Sola retail network.

Then there is the issue of inverters, and batteries. It’s generally the former that are rendered obsolete before the panels, but the costs mean that customers tend to end up replacing the whole system. And the latter will not become economic until purchase costs reduce, and feed-in tariffs are phased out.

Finally, Alan wanted to make sure he got this point across – Sola will shortly be launching campaigns in seven locations, to sign-up 180-230 homes, in areas impacted by bush fires. The aim is to give participants a 35-40% saving on their energy bills, as well as establishing the first phase of the virtual power plant network.

Next week: Australia’s Blockchain Roadmap

 

 

 

 

 

Pitch X – Launch Into A New Decade

Last week I was invited to be one of the judges at the final Pitch X event of 2019 (and of this decade), organised by Academy Xi and Melbourne Silicon Beach Group, and hosted by YBF Ventures. My fellow judges were Abena Ofori of MAP and Michelle Bourke of Foresight Digital.

As usual with Pitch X, each pitch was given 90 seconds to present, and the top 3 were then invited back for a 5 minute pitch. After each pitch, the panel of judges were given time for Q&A. The pitches in order of presentations in the first round were:

MotionAI

Remote monitoring system for people who require care, in case they fall or need assistance in their home. Designed around a combination of machine learning, AI and motion sensors (that don’t track facial recognition). Only decision-based information is sent to the monitoring network.

Sola.io

Investment platform to fund solar power under a virtual power plant structure, bringing together investors and producers, who might not otherwise have access to the financial and production benefits of this renewable energy resource.

Oyumz

Bringing home-cooked meals to the food delivery market. Currently in beta launch, looking to bring on new cooks and suppliers. Limited number of providers at this stage, and having to manage regulatory (food hygiene and licensing) and logistical (delivery, inventory, geography) challenges.

CPAP Buddy

Developing CPAP (Continuous positive airway pressure) oxygen masks, designed for premature babies, and intended to prevent brain damage or other injury that can arise from incorrectly fitted or poorly designed devices. Combines real-time monitoring with continuous visual feedback and detection of interfacial contact pressure.

Travels by TM

Helping people to gain the confidence and resilience to go travelling alone. Part curated travel planner, part counselling course, part self-help guide. As judges, we felt it was difficult to see how this business would scale, given the very personal nature of the service.

Mentor Community

Positioned as a match-making mentoring platform, it is designed to overcome some of the challenges people can experience in trying to find a suitable or appropriate mentor. Very difficult to know what technology is being deployed (to match mentors and mentees), in what is an uneven “market place” – more people seeking mentors than there are people willing or able to mentor them. And no opportunity to examine the financial model.

Fulfilled

Bringing “zero waste” cleaning products to the market. Distributes concentrates, that simply need diluting in water, and avoids the use of single-use packaging. Using Australian-produced botanical ingredients. There was some confusion on the business model – the pitch mentioned a home delivery subscription service, and supplying to professional cleaning companies.

VibeDate

Describing itself as a curated service offering unique and personalised dating experiences. No doubt there is a market for outsourcing your date decisions (or just to get some fresh ideas), but this was another pitch that would be difficult to scale, and again, it wasn’t clear how technology is being deployed in the solution.

PetMate

A total marketplace for pet products, services and solutions that also uses ML, AI and data analytics to track, recommend and predict your pets’ needs.

Cari

Another customised CPAP solution for premature babies, but also targeting neo-natal infants with sleep apnea conditions. Already at prototype stage (and scoping manufacturing options for medical grade silicon), but with at least 2-3 years of clinical trials before achieving medical device approval, the team have already identified multiple channels to market including hospital purchasing committees.

The three winning finalists were 1st: Sola.io; 2nd: MotionAI; and 3rd: Cari

As part of their prize, the winners will be featured in this blog in the near future. Stay tuned for more updates…

Next week: Signing off for Saturnalia

Startup Vic’s Pitch Night for Migrant and First Generation Founders

For their October pitch night event, Startup Victoria teamed up with the City of Melbourne and Victoria University to showcase migrant and first generation founders. With sponsorship and support from Stone & Chalk, Weploy, and Marketing Entourage, the panel of judges was drawn from Hatch Quarter, City of Melbourne, Victoria University and WellAware.

Pitches in the order they presented (websites embedded in the names) were:

HealTab

Describing itself as “Your Health Companion”, the founders proclaim (somewhat paradoxically) “we believe in meaningful human relationships via technology”. The idea behind this startup draws on the founder’s own personal experience of trying to find emotional, social and psychological support while undergoing a medical procedure. The team believe they have identified a marketplace solution that allows users to find comfort, support and companionship when they need help prior, during and after medical diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation.

The founders point to the economic effect when patients are “no shows” for their appointments, and have designed a platform to help patients select health companions.
Users pay per transaction, of which Healtab take a 30% commission (based on their research of other marketplaces). It was not clear exactly how the payment, commission and disbursement of fees works, especially as companions get to set their hourly rates, which can range between $25 and $300.  Nor was it clear whether it is the patient who is paying, nor to whom. For example, I would like to have heard how this service fits in within the existing HICAPS payment system and health insurance (both Medicare and private health cover.

The founders say they are talking to health insurance providers, but given the fact that private health insurance is based on community rates, the ability to have such a wide range of user pricing within a policy may be severely limited. Moreover, since insurance policies are having to be regraded to reduce the complexity and confusion when trying to compare coverage, Healtab will have to figure out where their service will fit in terms of extras etc.

Asked by the judges as to how the platform establishes user trust and performs accurate patient/companion matching, the founders claim they are using psychometric testing, although no evidence was provided.

PT Mate

This personal training client management system includes a client app (to allow interaction with their trainer) plus a secure billing and payment system. Offering a freemium pricing model, including a 45-day free trial, the founders state that the costs are tax deductible for business users.

It’s not clear if the team have actually built an app – I have tried registering for a free trial on their website, but I cannot create an account. Overall, this pitch felt a little underdone.

One other point to note – the slide they team presented on competitor analysis was a little disingenuous, as it appeared as if none of the competitors offer any of the services PT Mate is providing. This underlines the need to present pitch information clearly, and think about screen resolution, images, diagrams, fonts and colours especially when projecting onto a large screen.

Undivide

Undivide offers an enterprise and SME solution for staff onboarding, training and compliance. Replacing existing manual and paper-based compliance systems, it claims to manage people, processes and tasks in one place.

Currently gaining traction within the transport & logistics industry, the business model is based on scale rate (per user per month) subscription plans.

The founders claim the platform is configurable, and therefore clients don’t need their own developers. It is also filling in the gaps that many ERM systems don’t provide. The client data is hosted in local data centres or on virtual servers.

It would have been interesting to know if the founders have thought about an end user application. For example an app that enabling freelances, contractors and consultants to keep their credentials up to date so that they can easily share this information from a single source prior to each hiring, contract or engagement. Equally, it would be great to know which other industry verticals Undivide might be targeting.

Passporr

According to the founders, students who want to study English abroad face high upfront costs, and an expensive and complicated procedure, with high interest rates and fees. Passporr aims to change this by offering interest free loans to study English and vocational courses abroad.

Using credit risk and fraud analysis, Passporr is able to charge a $300 flat fee per student, to process loans of between $1000 and $3000 (the average loan size). It was suggested that Passporr takes part of the commission that student agencies receive from universities and colleges for signing up students to their courses. With students expected to repay the loan in 6 fortnightly repayments, the founders claim they generate a 10%-20% return in 3 months – but it wasn’t clear what actual interest rates they are using, or the cost and source of their funding.

Passporr stated that it is currently working with three student agencies (which act as a distribution channel? or as a lead source? Again this was not very clear), and is initially focusing on servicing students who are already on-shore in Australia.

After Australia, Passporr will expand to Canada, and the UK, for on/off-shore students.

On the night, the People’s choice was Undivide (which got my personal vote), while HealTab took out the judges’ prize.

Next week: Fitting your own oxygen mask first

Startup Vic’s Secret Pitch Night

For its August meetup event, Startup Vic presented The Secret Pitch. Designed to highlight inequality in investment decisions, it combined voice-modulation software, and was a bit like The Voice meets Blind Date. Hosted at the Victorian Innovation Hub with support from Rampersand, LaunchVic, Stone & Chalk and Weploy, the Judges were selected from Rampersand, Light Warrior Ventures, AWS, Impact Investment Group and Venture Capital Exchange. By sitting with their backs to the presenters, and having to rely on only the slides and the disguised voices, the Judges had a limited idea of the identity of the presenters.

The pitches in order they presented (websites embedded on the titles):

FRDM

Described as “your closet in the cloud”, and dedicated to “making fast fashion sustainable”, FRDM is subscription-based service for “shared” clothing – customers borrow and return each item after use. Apparently, we are  buying more clothing but using it less.  The circular model is set up to break down and recycle garments over a three year lifecycle. it’s an emerging, but competitive space – competitors include Glam Corner, Le Tote, and Unlimited. Asked about their approach to circulation and cleaning, the founders assume three “wears”  with a 30% margin per customer but admit that they are still lacking some logistics experience. The goal of having items delivered on time, in the right place and in an acceptable condition is still being developed. Firmly aimed at women aged  22-28 years old, I suggest FRDM think about a their name, as my search revealed at least two similar URLs – https://frdm.co and http://frdm.io.

Assignment Hero

I have covered this startup before. It’s positioned as a collaboration platform for tertiary students. When it comes to team project work, there appears to be a disconnect between prescribed apps (Dropbox, Facebook Groups, Evernote, Google Docs, etc.) and the activity notifications and alerts they generate – in short, too much “noise” which overwhelms the students, which gets in the way of them completing their tasks.

Offering a dashboard, the platform is natively integrated with Google Docs. Users can track individual contributions to each document (based on time spent, and using track changes). To me that system is very easy to game – what’s to stop users simply editing for the sake of boosting their rating? How does it deal with plagiarism and copyright abuse? How does the app evaluate the quality, depth or rigour of contributions? Who owns the content that is uploaded to the platform?

Claiming to be signing up 42 new users every day, with repeat users, the founders offer a B2C model – providing access to suggested solutions via on-demand student services and products, and charging a 30% commission on each sale. Student sign-up is free, but the platform can recommends products to users. There is also an SaaS offering for universities, established via paid trials. But the B2B model is a long sales cycle, with the goal being annual licensing fees. Asked how about the viability of the Google relationship, the founders explained they tried using their own document editor, but customer  preference is for Google (and Microsoft) products.

Asked about how Assignment Hero compares to other collaboration tools such as Atlassian’s JIRA, Trello, Confluence, Slack, etc. the founders suggested that these are aimed more at enterprises, and that their own UX/UI is sexier than existing education tools such as Blackboard. As with all such platforms, the key is to enable users to manage the project, not manage the project management software….

Book An Artist

This two-sided market place is designed to help clients to find or connect with an artist. According to the founders, finding the right one is hard. Instagram’s search function is not location based, and the platform is dominated by big names.

With 80 artists on board, Book An Artist charges a 10% commission, and has completed around 40 transactions with an average ticket size of $2,200. Traction has been achieved via referrals, influence programs, SEO and Google Ads. Initially focused on commissions for murals and graffiti works, the founders plan to expand into sign writing, textiles, illustrations, mosaics, installations and calligraphy. With a presence in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, the founders are seeking $500k in funding. Currently using external agencies and contractors to handle administration, the funding will largely be allocated to marketing to drive engagement.

Although the commissions appear to be at a higher price point compared to other creative market places, what prevents platforms such as  Fivr,  99Designs or Canva moving into this space? Also, how does Find An Artist handle things like copyright, IP licensing, attribution or planning permission for external works?

Aggie Global

This is a food sourcing platform, connecting small farmers to large markets. Because of current market structures and procurement processes, businesses often can’t “see” what produce is available to them locally. Based on the founders’ experience in Fiji, where the local economy ends up having to import food to feed tourists, they have run an actual in-market pilot program, but are still building the e-commerce platform.

The results of the pilot achieved a 6x increase in both farmers’ income and hotel cost savings. Tourism is the 1st or 2nd largest industry in 20/48 developing countries. Importing food to satisfy tourist demand is therefore an issue.

For farmers, the service offers a freemium model, while businesses pay a 5% transaction fee and an annual subscription. Currently researching other markets, managing the supply chAIn for quality control, provenance, organic certification etc. is critical. The MVP aims to get farmers keeping proper records via face to face training, and gaining recognition for existing farming practices.

Asked about the cost of data connectivity and access for farmers in remote locations, the founders explained that data is stored offline and uploaded periodically. They are also investigating the use of AI/ML for predictive supply and demand. They also need to manage timely delivery as well as tracking environmental and climate data.

Part of the solution lies in making sure there is appropriate produce for the market, while matching local cuisine to tourist expectations. Too often, local chefs try to emulate western menus, so they need to help develop alternatives and foster innovation.

Maybe the Startup Vic organisers were saving the best til last, as Aggie Global took out the People’s Choice and was declared the Overall Winner by the judges.

Next week: Recent Notes from Europe