From R&D to P&L

Last week, the leader of the Federal Opposition announced a $15bn reconstruction fund aimed at job creation if Labor wins government, saying Australia must be a country “that makes things”. With a specific focus on cars, trains and ships, this policy pledge sounded like a clarion call to the metal-bashing industries of old (and recalls either an 80s movie or a 60s pop song…). This followed the launch by the Victorian government of the $2bn “Breakthrough Fund”, aimed at enhancing the State’s R&D capabilities.

While this type of government largesse and targeted economic stimulus sounds welcome, I can’t help feeling the money could be better spent on covering some basic building blocks in the search for innovation and economic development – upgrading the primary, secondary and tertiary education for the 21st century (e.g, an integrated STEAM curriculum); funding budding entrepreneurs (e.g., job maker for the newly self-employed, especially those under 25); enhancing the SME loan market (e.g., making it easier to access working capital without first having to own real estate); and overhauling the procurement and “panel” regimes in the public and private sectors (e.g., giving more equitable access to start-ups and scale-ups).

The “reconstruction fund” talks about making equity stakes, and co-investing with the private sector and superannuation funds. This sounds great, but is it the role of government to pick winners? Surely it should be in the business of enabling innovation and facilitating the growth of SMEs (which is where much new employment is created, rather than in legacy industries and/or declining sectors). Also, because of the way their mandates are written (as well as their ROC models and fiduciary duties), traditionally, superannuation funds and other institutional investors find it very difficult to write cheques for less than, say, $200m. Such a figure is generally far beyond what most start-ups or scale-ups are seeking – so these institutional funds are often placed with external managers who can slice them up into smaller allocations, which adds to the overall investment costs.

The role model for the $15bn fund is the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which returned a cumulative 4.75% as at June 30, 2020. Certainly a higher return than the cash rate, but hardly competitive with other asset classes or investment returns, if that is a key measure of success. The CEFC performance is currently running below its own benchmark, and while the efforts of the CEFC have no doubt led to more jobs in the renewables and sustainability sectors, hard data is not easy to come by. In its favour, the CEFC has made a large number of small scale investments, which may well provide a template for Labor’s manufacturing fund (although it’s not evident what form those investments have taken).

In speaking to a range of people over the past few weeks (civil servants, start-up founders, VCs, CEOs of listed companies, etc.), the following mixed messages emerged:

  1. Well-meaning government officials tell you that they are “here to help” founders, start-ups, entrepreneurs, SMEs etc. Problem is, these bureaucrats can’t effect necessary systemic change in the way innovation is funded – they can only operate at a transactional level. Also, many entrepreneurs would politely suggest that the government could do more by getting out of the way…
  2. One VC took issue with my suggestion that Australia needs a better manufacturing supply chain that produces more local components that are interoperable/interchangeable, and which also encourages more user-serviceable (and therefore more sustainable) devices and appliances – he was advocating in favour of sealed units and thus a continued dependance on the manufacturer/distributor service model; whereas I think self-sufficiency in manufacturing also means more consumer choice in post-sales support.
  3. An innovative Australian fintech chose to list overseas because the local capital markets did not “get” its business model, while another locally-listed fintech faced similar obstacles with its own listing.
  4. A start-up founder looking for a modest amount of money for an R&D project (in the sustainability sector) had already secured an equal amount of funding “in kind” from a government agency – but was finding it somewhat difficult to match it with the equivalent private capital.
  5. Neighbours building a passive house have had to import energy-efficient triple-glazed window units – because they are not easily available locally, and the only supplier they could find would have cost at least 50% more.

Finally, the new Labor policy (especially if it aims to support the EV sector) will need to demonstrate it has learned the lessons of Australia’s subsidised car industry, and that the proposed fund is part and parcel of an integrated approach to public transport infrastructure, encompassing high-speed inter-city trains, smart cities with self-drive vehicles, better orbital routes connecting suburbs, and regional hubs that aren’t reliant on cars.

Next week: Synchronicity

Victorian Tech Startup Week – Pitch Night

As part of the recent Victorian Tech Startup Week, Silicon Beach Melbourne and YBF Melbourne hosted the city’s first in-person pitch night for over a year (thanks to the 3 lock-downs we have had in that time). Compered by Karen Finch of Legally Yours, and supported by OVHcloud, the esteemed judges for the evening were Farley Blackman (YBF), Yian Ling Tan (OVHcloud) and David Hauser (Silicon Beach).

The usual Silicon Beach rules applied – Round One featured 90-second pitches from each founder (and no slide decks), from which the judges shortlisted 3 startups for Round Two. The Round One presentations in order of appearance were (as usual, website links are embedded in the names):

TwistedXeros.com

Using “emotional phase shifting to accelerate personal growth and transformation through Insight, Manifestation and Neuroscience”, the impetus for this startup came about from the founder’s own experience. Designed to help overcome certain mental health issues associated with anxiety, the founder claims his technique can help practitioners overcome events such as panic attacks within 6 seconds (as opposed to 600 seconds with traditional CBT methods). Had been accepted into the Founders’ Institute, then COVID came along.

The Leaf Protein Co.

There is a growing demand for plant-based foods, both as a source of sustainable protein, and in response to the increased prevalence of food-based allergies (e.g., gluten and soy). Add concerns about GMOs, unsustainable agriculture and climate change, the founder is looking to develop a scalable process for extracting specific types of leaf protein, including arid-climate plants and Australian natives such as saltbush to counter soil salination. Currently seeking funding to pay for a CSIRO pilot to scale the protein extraction.

E-Toy Library

Essentially a toy-lending app, that provides an end-to-end process (source, distribute, cleanse, circulate) via a subscription model. In trials, already secured 50 customers and over 100 subscribers. Estimates there is a $2.4bn toy market in Australia – but it wasn’t clear how much of this market the founders aim to capture.

Kido Paint

This app aims to bring childrens’ drawings to life, using AI/ML to scan a photo of the drawing, and convert it into an animated 3-D digital file that can be rendered within the app using augmented reality.

Thorium Data

Using the oft-heard tag line “data is the new oil”, this B2B solution is designed to help companies organise, manage and extract more value from their data. It does this by resolving issues of data inconsistency, privacy, risk and governance. It also derives and assigns numerical factors to to individual datasets to assess the “value” of this data, and uses indices to benchmark that value.

QuestionID

This product feels like a cross between a wiki for academic research papers, and an open text search tool to find answers within the wiki database. I know from experience that repositories of published research reports (especially refereed and peer reviewed papers) are highly structured and tagged, with the emphasis being on classification, authorship and citation. Often, you sort of need to know in advance the rough answer to the question you want to pose. Significant resources are already allocated to maintaining and commercialising these existing databases, so I’m not sure how QuestionID will deal with IP and other rights associated with these reference resources.

HiveKeepers

HiveKeepers is designed to support beekeepers by helping them to establish and maintain healthier hives, and enhance their own livelihoods at a time when the industry is facing numerous challenges. At its core is a smart phone app that monitors IoT sensors (temperature, weather, weight, motion, sound, etc.) attached to the hive itself. Over time, the data will enable predictive analytics. With the launch of its MVP, HiveKeepers has already attarcted 700 customers globally.

Round Two

The three finalists selected from Round One were KidoPaint, LeafProtein and HiveKeepers. Each founder made a longer pitch, and then answered questions from the judges:

Kido Paint – The Q&A discussion centred on the commercial model (B2B/C, gift cards, in-app vouchers), the file conversion process (turnaround time can be 24- 48 hours), options for scaling, and getting the right price pint for user prices. So it’s not an instant result (which may disappoint some impatient younger users), and the 3-D rendering and animation is somewhat limited to the imagination of the AI/ML algorithms used in the conversion process.

LeafProtein – There was a further discussion on the approach to producing sustainable and allergen free plant proteins. For example, the attraction of pereskia is two-fold – a higher protein ratio, and an arid climate plant. Also, the aim is to counter mono-culture and GMO crops. A D2C brand has been launched (using small-scale production processes), while the CSIRO project is to designed to scale protein extraction, as well as develop an emulsifier for use in the food industry.

HiveKeepers – The founder talked more about the need to address climatic and environmental impact on hives. Having benefited from support from the La Trobe University and SVG Thrive AgriFood accelerator programs, this startup is seeking funding for product development – current price point is $105 USD per smart hive per annum. While the industry is seeing a 2% growth in new hives, it is also suffering significant hive losses due to parasites and diseases.

The overall winner on the night was LeafProtein.

Next week: From R&D to P&L

Victorian Tech Startup Week

Last week, I mentioned that Australia’s headline employment numbers appeared to be making a strong post-lockdown recovery – however, the latest ABS data shows that while the unemployment rate has declined, the overall participation rate has remained the same, and the underemployment rate has actually increased. “Underemployed” is defined by the ABS as the number of “employed people who would prefer, and are available for, more hours of work than they currently have”. For many people, the traditional solution to bridging the gap between the amount of work they have, and the amount they want, is to juggle multiple part-time jobs, while others may choose to seek freelance work. Another approach is to create your own role, by becoming a startup founder, or joining a startup.

Of course, as I have written elsewhere, startups might not be for everyone. But until you try (or at least explore the idea), how will you know? This was one theme to have emerged from the recent Victorian Tech Startup Week, hosted by YBF Melbourne, with support from OVHcloud, AirTree Ventures, Silicon Beach Melbourne, the Victorian Government and YBF’s network of mentors, programme partners and community of members.

In part an effort to rekindle the local community of startups, in part a celebration of YBF’s Startup Immersion Programme, the week also showcased the benefits of co-working, and included sessions on startup funding, R&D grants, engaging with corporate clients, and a pitch night (more on that next week).

Of course, as a YBF member, and having worked with startups and founders for more than 10 years, I’m naturally biased. I have been working from their Melbourne co-working facility for the past two years (lock-down permitting), and I have been attending events and workshops there for many years (including participating in my very first hackathon….). I have also worked with some of their earliest startup founders.

Even though I am used to working from home and working remotely, the value of being on-site with other startup teams and founders within a supportive environment cannot be overestimated. And it’s not just about access to great facilities, and the many benefits that YBF offers. For one thing, as a member I get invited to meetings and events not open to the wider public. For another, I can host clients and other visitors without having to maintain my own office. But most of all, it’s the opportunity for chance encounters with potential clients, partners and suppliers, often triggered by casual conversations by the coffee machine or during other networking sessions.

A few years ago, it was reported that there were over 300 co-working spaces in Australia, and more then 80 of them in the Melbourne area alone. I’m not sure what those numbers are now, post-pandemic, especially as offices in Melbourne are still not back to full operating capacity. Nevertheless, co-working spaces are in demand again as (ex-)employees consider their future career options in light of the COVID recession, and as startups and their founders are expected to support the anticipated economic growth in areas like new technology, sustainability, smart manufacturing, healthcare and financial services. Of course, before making a decision on where to locate your new business or where to start co-working, it pays to do your due diligence.

Next week: Victorian Tech Startup Week – Pitch Night

FinTech Australia Road Show

This week I had hoped to blog about the latest FinTech Australia Road Show in Melbourne – unfortunately, COVID-19 intervened, and the event has been postponed.

So instead, here is my personal quick take on recent developments in the local FinTech scene:

A tale of 2 neobanks

Maybe Australia isn’t ready for challenger banks, despite the early interest and apparent market demand. Xinja* has decided to give back its banking license, having spent a ton of money on obtaining it in the first place. It couldn’t sustain savings and deposit accounts (even in a low-interest rate environment) without sufficient regulatory capital, the funding for which has failed to materialise; and without deposits, Xinja couldn’t offer loans. There is talk of launching a US share-trading app instead (à la Robinhood) but given the recent shenanigans with Wall Street Bets, Reddit, hedge funds and GameStop day traders I don’t suppose the regulatory path to market will be that easy. Xinja looks like it’s done.

Meanwhile, NAB has just announced that it is acquiring the shares in 86 400 that it does not already own, in order to merge it with NAB’s digital brand, Ubank. Which further suggests neobanks can’t survive on their own in the Australian market, with the dominant and regulatory protected cartel of the Big 4. (My good friend Alan Tsen has described this latest transaction as a turducken….)

Other challenger brands in Australia are having to take different approaches: Up is piggybacking off Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s ADI license; Volt describes itself as a BaaS provider (“banking as a service”); Judo is focused on business banking; and the UK’s Revolut is bringing a mix of credit cards, payment solutions and forex services (including crypto), rather than transaction banking. Meanwhile, another BaaS from the UK, Railsbank is currently recruiting locally for a GM to leads its Australian roll-out.

Finally, despite some concerns about the BNPL sector (“buy now, pay later”), Afterpay is partnering with Westpac‘s BaaS platform to offer banking services to its customers.

Whither the Big 4?

Speaking of which, what are the Big 4 doing in the broader sphere of FinTech?

Despite (or because of?) buying a neobank, NAB has apparently closed down the Labs part of NAB Ventures, the often-mentioned, but largely silent startup incubator. CBA has created X15, a similar FinTech ventures platform with the ambitious goal of launching 25 businesses in 5 years (I seem to recall NAB Ventures once had a similar mandate?). Westpac‘s own FinTech fund, Reinventure is expected to do well out of the forthcoming Coinbase IPO; so much so that Reinventure is planning to decouple from Westpac, and launch a new fund focused on DeFi opportunities. ANZ has been putting out some commentary on its ANZi platform for FinTech innovation and partnerships – but its remit is limited to trade finance, home ownership and open data, and it is being very coy as to what specific bets they are making. Ho hum.

Did somebody mention crypto?

In case you hadn’t realised, we are experiencing something of a bull market in crypto.

Coinspot just announced they have 1,000,000 customers. Raiz Invest has launched its retail savings portfolio product with a 5% allocation to Bitcoin. Other funds like Every Capital are planning similar retail offerings. Luno is advertising on Melbourne’s tram shelters. And the Australian division of eToro is talking up DeFi. Game on!

Next week: Transition – post-pandemic career moves

* Declaration of interest – the author participated in the Xinja equity crowd-sale a few years ago