Gaming/VR/AR pitch night at Startup Victoria

Building on the successful format that has been the mainstay of Startup Vic‘s regular meetups for the past few years, February’s pitch night kicked off a scheduled programme of thematic events for 2017. First up was Gaming, VR and AR.

Photo by Daniel C, sourced from the Startup Victoria Meetup page

Hosted as usual by inspire9, the event drew a packed crowd, no doubt helped by the impressive panel of judges assembled by the organisers:

Dr Anna Newberry, responsible for driver-assistance technologies at Ford Australia; Stefani Adams, Innovation Partner at the Australia Post Accelerator; Tim Ruse, CEO of Zero Latency; Rupert Deans, Founder and CEO of Plattar; Samantha Hurley, Co-Founder and Director of Marketing Entourage; Gerry Sakkas, CEO of PlaySide Studios; and Joe Barber, a Commercialisation Advisor to the Department of Industry and Science, a Mentor at the Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP), and angel investor.

Maintaining the tradition of this blog, I will comment on each startup pitch in the order in which they presented.

Metavents

This niche business offers an event planning app for festivals. At its heart is a tool that allows users to build a 3-D simulation of proposed events, combined with an AI capability to simulate risk management, logistics and team communications, plus a digital time capsule where event attendees can upload photos and other content.

Once licensed to event planners and organisers, the platform charges clients $1 per ticket sale, plus a 2.5% fee on donations and fees for other content and services such as the digital time capsule. In addition, Metavents is building strategic partnerships, and announced a relationship with the Vihara Foundation and its Rock Against Poverty programme from 2018.

All good so far. Then, things got a bit confusing. For example, in addition to festival and event logistics, Metavents claims to offer humanitarian support services in response to natural disasters, and emergency management capabilities for smart cities. There was also talk of a global network (linked to the UN?), and an impact investment fund.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking that the pitch was a bit disjointed and suffered from a lack of focus. But the pitch did reveal something of the founders’ core passion, and incorporated some impressive graphics – it just felt like a case of form over substance.

Second Sight

Second Sight is a game analytics service that “unlocks the secrets in player data”, by enriching existing big data sources with social media interactions. It does this by profiling players based on their behaviours, and providing this feedback and insights to game developers and product managers. Focusing on the mobile game market, Second Sight is initially targeting independent developers, and will then move on to corporate game businesses.

Second Sight’s own development path is to build automation tools first, then create a library of tasks and insights. With an estimated 1 million users (based on game statistics), 3 paying clients and another 27 beta clients, this startup is showing some promising market traction. However, there are a number of established competitors, including Omniata (which is more of a general user analytics engine, like Mixpanel or Flurry), GameAnalytics, deltaDNA and Xsolla, some of which offer free user services.

In response to the “ask”, ($500k in seed funding in return for 20% equity), the judges suggested that Second Sight might want to address the needs of a specific game sector.

Dark Shadow Studio

This presentation featured an application called Drone Legion, that merges drone experience with VR. Part simulation game, part training software, it was nice to see a demo of the app running in the background, without detracting from the pitch itself.

A key point made by the presentation is that the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), which is responsible for regulating drones in Australia, is in danger of falling behind other countries. For example, Drone Legion could be adapted to provide user training, testing and licensing before a customer buys a physical drone.

Although there are drone simulators available via Steam, they are not aimed at the general public. Drone Legion is also compatible with a range of gaming consoles.

The judges suggested that this pitch was more an individual game, rather than a business, so it was suggested that the founders should try to get funding from HTC or Oculus to build their first game. And given that one of the judges works for Australia Post (ostensibly a logistics company with a growing interest in drone technology….), there was the offer of a personal introduction.

Phoria

Phoria describes itself as an “immersive media business”, offering rapid 3-D visualisation (especially for the property development sector and the built environment),  and other services such as digital preservation.

But tonight, the pitch was about a plan to use “VR for social good”. Under the moniker “Dreamed”, Phoria is developing a niche health care solution, designing “patient experiences” to help them get out of their current care or treatment environment.

Predicated on an immersive therapy platform, Dreamed will offer a distribution service for cloud-based content, designed to be used alongside other, related assisted therapies that feature Animals, Nature and Music as stimulants for patient engagement and therapeutic outcomes. While not exactly a MedTech solution, Phoria’s “IP special sauce” is the use of VR as a constant dynamic feedback loop, which presumably learns from and adapts to user interaction and monitoring of appropriate patient diagnostics.

So, who pays for the service? Hopefully, hospitals will, especially if they can demonstrate reduced therapy costs and patient treatment times. (Maybe there will also be a consumer market alongside existing meditation apps?) But with some early-stage and potentially high-profile research underway via the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Phoria and Dreamed look to be making steady progress, notwithstanding the normally slow pace of medical research. Key to the research outcomes will be user acceptance and ease of service and content delivery, although a large number of unknowns remain in the context of the medical benefits. Meanwhile, Phoria continues to serve its core property market.

Finally, something which I found somewhat surprising, according to the presentation, there is no VR content licensing model currently available. Sounds like a job for a decentralized digital asset management and licensing registry (such as MyBit?).

On the night, and based on the judges’ votes, Phoria took out first place honours.

Next week: The Future of Work = Creativity + Autonomy

 

Gigster is coming to town….

Melbourne’s Work Club recently hosted Gigster Senior Project Engineer, Catherine Waggoner, in conversation with Venture-Store’s George Tomeski. Part of Startup Victoria‘s Fireside Chats, it likely herald’s Gigster opening an office in Melbourne, to service local clients and to tap into the local developer community.

gigsterFor the uninitiated, Gigster describes itself as the “world’s engineering firm”, that helps clients scope, design and build software, apps and digital products. Using an established product development methodology, and drawing on the resources of a 1,000 strong network of freelance designers, developers and product managers, Gigster is taking much of the pain out of the costing and requirements process for new projects, as well as building a growing client base of enterprise customers.

Not mincing her words, Ms Waggoner opened her remarks by commenting, “The software development industry model is f*#$ed”, because:

  • Requirements are poorly defined
  • Scoping is laborious
  • Development costs blow out, and
  • The whole process is not very transparent and not very accessible.

As a case in point, she mentioned the significant cost disparity between what some digital design agencies or app studios might quote for building an iOS product compared to what Gigster would estimate. By: breaking projects down into the distinct stages of scoping, design and pre- and post-MVP; only engaging the “best of the best talent”; using proprietary tools both to estimate fixed rate costs (rather than billable hours) and to define and source solutions; and re-using content from a library of “Community Software” resources, Gigster is able to deliver quality projects in shorter time, and on more modest budgets. For example, based on the large number of projects that they have fulfilled, their “Gigulator” estimating tool incorporates 5,000 possible features.

From an investor perspective, Mr Tomeski mentioned that the “VC inflexion point is getting much earlier” in tech startups. Meaning, with lower development costs (and potentially, reduced valuation multiples), investors are looking to get in sooner, with lower exposure, but still generate reasonable returns on exit, thanks to cheaper establishment costs.

Of course, Gigster sits at the heart of the gig economy, a huge issue when it comes to discussing the Future of Work. Interestingly, many of Gigster’s contractors are themselves startup founders, who freelance while building their own businesses. But such is the strength of the network, something like 35%40% of their contractors work full-time for Gigster – they like the flexibility combined with the continuity. Many of the contractors are referrals from existing team members, and a number of teams (known at Gigster as “houses” – presumably a frat thing?) have bonded to such an extent that they get allocated specific projects to work on together, even though they themselves may be working in different locations, based on previous projects.

Working for Gigster is probably a career choice for some contractors, because there is a variety of projects to work on, and the opportunity to be involved from start to finish. Which may be the opposite if working in a more corporate or enterprise environment, where work may be routine, repetitive and reasonably narrow in scope.

If Gigster does decide to set up shop in Melbourne (with encouragement from
InvestVictoria) they will be joining the likes of Slack, Stripe and Square, tempted by financial and other incentives. Such a move may challenge a number of local digital agencies, who will face even more competition for talent and customers.

According to Ms Waggoner, enterprise clients represent 40% of the business, and should comprise 60%-80% very soon. Not only that, but the average deal was initially $15k, now it’s more like $100k. However, enterprise clients have a much longer sales cycle. Plus, many innovation teams within enterprises are more like loosely formed groups of niche experts, so they need training on how to think like a startup. When you consider the greater dependency on legacy software by corporate clients (where it may make financial sense to retire some assets and build afresh, but the emotional disruption can be huge…), combined with the greater emphasis placed on after-sales service, Gigster has had to adapt its business model accordingly.

But Gigster must be doing something right. They’ve stopped outbound marketing and prospecting, relying on in-bound leads, repeat business and client referrals. There has been a shift from a sales focus to a customer focus, complete with a dedicated customer success team.

A number of audience questions related to getting VCs interested in your idea: What do they look for? How do they assess opportunities? How far should you go in building a product before you can attract funding? What’s the best way to validate an idea? etc. Much of this is about product/market fit, building the right team, getting customer traction, and executing on your strategy (aka Product Development 101.) As part of her closing comments, Ms Waggoner noted that unlike some of the high-profile VC funds (e.g, Y-Combinator, Techstars and 500 Startups) many VCs are becoming more sector specific, because they prefer to invest in what they know and understand.

Next week: Building a Global/Local Platform with Etsy

The Maker Culture

London’s newly re-opened Design Museum welcomes visitors with a bold defining statement of intent. According to the curators, there are only designers, makers and users. To me, this speaks volumes about how the “makers” are now at the forefront of economic activity, and how they are challenging key post-industrial notions of mass-production, mass-consumption and even mass-employment. Above all, as users, we are becoming far more engaged with why, how and where something is designed, made and distributed. And as consumers we are being encouraged to think about and take some responsibility for our choices in terms of environmental impact and sustainability.

Design Museum, London (Photo: Rory Manchee)

Design Museum, London (Photo: Rory Manchee)

There are several social, economic, technological and environmental movements that have helped to define “maker culture”, so there isn’t really a single, neat theory sitting behind it all. Here is a (highly selective) list of the key elements that have directly or indirectly contributed to this trend:

Hacking – this is not about cracking network security systems, but about learning how to make fixes when things that don’t work the way that we want them to, or for creating new solutions to existing problems – see also “life hacks”, hackathons or something like BBC’s Big Life Fix. Sort of “necessity is the mother of invention”.

Open source – providing easier access to coding tools, software programs, computing components and data sources has helped to reduce setup costs for new businesses and tech startups, and deconstructed/demystified traditional development processes. Encompasses everything from Linux to Arduino; from Github to public APIs; from AI bots to widget libraries; from Touch Board to F.A.T. Lab; from SaaS to small-scale 3-D printers.

Getting Sh*t Done – from the Fitzroy Academy, to Andrea de Chirico’s SUPERLOCAL projects, maker culture can be characterised by those who want: to make things happen; to make a difference; to create (social) impact; to get their hands dirty; to connect with the materials, people, communities and cultures they work with; to disrupt the status quo; to embrace DIY solutions; to learn by doing.

The Etsy Effect – just part of the response to a widespread consumer demand for personalised, customised, hand-made, individual, artisan, crafted, unique and bespoke products. In turn, platforms like the Etsy and Craftsy market places have sparked a whole raft of self-help video guides and online tutorials, where people can not only learn new skills to make things, they can also learn how to patch, repair, re-use, recycle and re-purpose. Also loosely linked to the recent publishing phenomena for new magazines that combine lifestyle, new age culture, philosophy, sustainability, mindfulness, and entrepreneurism with a social conscience.

Startups, Meetups and Co-working Spaces – if the data is to be believed, more and more people want to start their own ventures rather than find employment with an existing organisation. (Under the gig economy, around 40% of the workforce will be self-employed, freelance or contractors within 5 years, so naturally people are having to consider their employment options more carefully.) While starting your own business is not for everyone, the expanding ecosystem of meetups and co-working spaces is enabling would-be entrepreneurs to experiment and explore what’s possible, and to network with like-minded people.

Maker Spaces – also known as fabrication labs (“FabLabs”), they offer direct access to tools and equipment, mostly for things like 3-D printing, laser-cutting and circuit-board assembly, but some commercial facilities have the capacity to support new product prototyping, test manufacturing processes or short-run production lines. (I see this  interface between “cottage industry” digital studios and full-blown production plants as being critical to the development of high-end, niche and specialist engineering and manufacturing services to replace the declining, traditional manufacturing sectors.) Some of the activity is formed around local communities of independent makers, some offer shared workshop spaces and resources. Elsewhere, they are also run as innovation hubs and learning labs.

Analogue Warmth – I’ve written before about my appreciation for all things analogue, and the increased sales of vinyl records and even music cassettes demonstrate that among audiophiles, digital is not always better, that there is something to be said for the tangible format. This preference for analogue, combined with a love of tactile objects and a spirit of DIY has probably reached its apotheosis (in photography at least) through Kelli Anderson’s “This Book Is A Camera”.

Finally, a positive knock-on effect of maker culture is the growing number of educational resources for learning coding, computing, maths and robotics: Raspberry PI, Kano and Tech Will Save Us; KidsLogic, Creative Coding HK and Machinam; Robogals, Techcamp and robokids. We can all understand the importance of learning these skills as part of a well-rounded education, because as Mark Pascall, founder of 3months.com, recently commented:

“I’m not going to advise my kids to embark on careers that have long expensive training programs (e.g. doctors/lawyer etc). AI is already starting to give better results.”

Better to learn how things work, how to design and make them, how to repair them etc., so that we have core skills that can adapt as technology changes.

Next week: Life Lessons from the Techstars founders

 

What might we expect in 2017?

On a number of measures, 2016 was a watershed year. Unexpected election results, fractious geopolitics, numerous celebrity deaths, too many lacklustre blockbuster films, spectacular sporting upsets (and regular doping scandals), and sales of vinyl records are outpacing revenue from digital downloads and streaming services. What might we expect from 2017?

Detail from "The Passing Winter" by Yayoi Kusama (Photo by Rory Manchee)

Detail from “The Passing Winter” by Yayoi Kusama [Photo by Rory Manchee]

Rather than using a crystal ball to make specific predictions or forecasts, here are some of the key themes that I think will feature in 2017:

First, the nature of public discourse will come under increased scrutiny. In the era of “post-truth”, fake news and searing/scathing social commentary, the need for an objective, fact-based and balanced media will be paramount. In addition, the role of op-ed pieces to reflect our enlightened liberal traditions and the need for public forums to represent our pluralist society will be critical to maintaining a sense of fairness, openness, and just plain decency in public dialogue.

Second, a recurring topic of public conversation among economists, politicians, sociologists, HR managers, career advisors, bureaucrats, union leaders, technologists, educators and social commentators will be the future of work. From the impact of automation on jobs, to the notion of a universal basic income; from the growth of the gig economy, to finding purpose through the work we do. How we find, engage with and navigate lifelong employment is now as important as, say, choosing high school electives, making specific career choices or updating professional qualifications.

Third, the ongoing focus on digital technology will revolve around the following:

  • The Internet of Things – based on a current exhibit at London’s Design Museum, the main use cases for IoT will continue to be wearable devices (especially for personal health monitoring), agriculture, transport and household connectivity
  • Fintech – if a primary role of the internet has been for content dissemination, search and discovery, then the deployment of Blockchain solutions, the growth in crypto-currencies, the use of P2P platforms and the evolution of robo-advice are giving rise to the Internet of Money
  • Artificial Intelligence – we are seeing a broader range of AI applications, particularly around robotics, predictive analytics and sensory/environmental monitoring. The next phase of AI will learn to anticipate (and in some cases moderate) human behaviour, and provide more efficacious decision-making and support mechanisms for resource planning and management.
  • Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality – despite being increasingly visible in industries like gaming, industrial design, architecture and even tourism, it can feel like VR/AR is still looking for some dedicated use cases. One sector that is expected to benefit from these emerging technologies is education, so I would expect to see some interesting solutions for interactive learning, curriculum delivery and student assessment.

Fourth, and somewhat at odds with the above, the current enthusiasm for the maker culture is also leading to a growing interest in products that represent craft, artisan and hand-made fabrication techniques and traditions. Custom-made, bespoke, personalized and unique goods are in vogue – perhaps as a reaction to the “perfection” of digital replication and mass-production?

Fifth, with the importance of startups in driving innovation and providing sources of new economic growth, equity crowdfunding will certainly need to come of age. Thus far, this method of fund-raising has been more suited (and in many cases, is legally restricted) to physical products, entertainment assets, and creative projects. The delicate balance between retail investor protection and entrepreneurial access to funding means that this method of startup funding is constrained (by volume, amounts and investor participation), and contrary to stated intentions, can involve disproportionate set up costs and administration. But its time will come.

Finally, as shareholder activism and triple bottom line reporting become more prevalent (combined with greater regulatory and compliance obligations), I can see that corporate governance principles are increasingly placing company directors in the role of quasi-custodians of a company’s assets and quasi-trustees of stakeholder interests. It feels like boards are now expected to be the conscience of the company – something that will require directors to have greater regard to the impact of their decisions, not just whether those decisions are permitted, correct or good.

One thing I can predict for 2017, is that Content in Context will continue to comment on these topics, and explore their implications, especially as I encounter them through the projects I work on and the clients I consult to.

Next week: The FF17 Semi Finals in Melbourne