StartupVic’s Machine Learning / AI pitch night

Machine Learning and AI are such hot topics, that I was really intrigued by the prospect of this particular StartupVic pitch night. First, this was a chance to visit inspire9‘s recently established Dream Factory – a tech co-working facility, maker space, and VR lab in Melbourne’s western suburb of Footscray. Second, the Dream Factory, housed in a landmark building owned by Impact Investment Group, was a major beneficiary of LaunchVic funding, and this event could be seen as a showcase for Melbourne’s tech startup sector. Third, with so many buzzwords circling AI, it offered a great opportunity to help demystify some of the jargon and provide some practical insights.

Image sourced from StartupVic

Instead, the pitches felt underdone – probably not helped by the building’s acoustics, the poor PA system, and the inability of many of the audience to be able to read the presenters’ slides. I wasn’t expecting the founders to reveal the “secret sauce” of their algorithms, or to explain in detail how they program or train their “smart” applications. But I had hoped to hear some concrete evidence of how these emerging platforms actually work and how the resulting data is specifically analyzed and applied to client solutions.

With a tag line of “powering the future of mental health” the team at are hoping to have a positive impact in helping to reduce suicide rates. Unfortunately, judging by the way some key statistics are presented on their home page, the data (and the methodology) are not as clear as the core message.

Using technology to help scale the provision of mental health and well-being services, combined with mixed delivery methods, the solution aims to offer continuity of care. Picking up on user dialogue and providing some semi-automated and curated intervention, the presentation was big on phrases like “triage packages”, “customer journey”, “technical architecture”, “chatbots” and of course, “AI” itself, but I would have like a bit more explanation on how it worked.

I understand that the platform is designed to integrate with third-party providers, but how does this happen in practice?

Only when asked by the judges about their competitive advantage (as there are similar tools out there – see Limbr from a previous pitch night) did the presenters refer to their proprietary language models, developed with and based on user trials. This provides  a structured taxonomy, which is currently English-only, but it can be translated.

There were also questions about data privacy (not fully explained?) and sales channels – which may include workplace EAPs and health insurers.


According to the founder, “dashboards and KPIs only diagnose pain, Businest fixes it“. In short, this is intelligence business analysis for SMEs.

With a focus on tracking working capital and cashflow, as far as I can tell, Businest applies some AI on top of existing third-party accounting software. It identifies key metrics for a specific business, then provides coaching and videos to change business behaviour and improve financial performance. There is a patent pending in the US for the underlying algorithm, which prioritizes the KPIs.

Again, I was not totally clear how the desired results are achieved. For example, are SMEs benchmarked against their peers (e.g., by size/industry/geography/maturity/risk profile)? Do clients know what incremental benefits they should be able to generate over a given time period? How does the financial spreadsheet analysis assist with improving structural or operational efficiencies that are outside the realm of financial accounting?

Available under a freemium SaaS model, Businest is sold direct and via accountants and bookkeepers. A key to success will be how fast the product can scale – via partnering and its integration with Xero, MYOB and QuickBooks.


I must admit, I was initially curious, and then totally bemused, by this pitch. It started by asking some major philosophical and existentialist questions:

Q: How do we define “intelligence”?
Q: Are we alone? Or not alone?

No, this is not IBM’s Watson trained on the works of John-Paul Sartre (cf. Dark Star and the struggle with Cartesian Logic). Instead, it is an analytical and predictive app for Amazon sellers. It claims to know what products will sell, where and when. And with trading volumes worth $2.5m of goods per month, it must be doing something right. Serving Amazon sellers in the US and India (and Australia, once Amazon goes live here), AiHello charges fees based on fixed licences and transaction values. The apparent benefits to retailers are speed and savings.

Asked where the trading data is coming from, the presenter referred to existing trading platform APIs, and “big data and deep learning”. It also uses Amazon product IDs to make specific predictions – currently delivering 60% accuracy, but aiming for 90%. According to the founder, “Amazon focuses on buyers, we focus on sellers”. (Compare this, perhaps, to the approach by Etsy.)


A new service from the team at Pax Republic, this latest iteration is designed to avoid some of the policy and reputation issues involved with managing, supporting and protecting whistleblowers. Understanding that whistleblowers can pose an internal threat to brand value, and present a significant human risk, C-SIGHT provides a psychologically safe environment for the Board, C-suite and workforce alike, and can act as an early warning system before problems get out of hand.

Sold under a SaaS model, C-SIGHT analyses text-based and anonymous dialogue, with “real-time data sent to different AI apps”. I understood that C-SIGHT combines human and robot facilitation, while preserving anonymity, and also deploys natural language processing – but I didn’t fully understand how.

In one client use case, with the College of Surgeons, there were 1,000 “contributions” – again, it was not clear to me how this input was generated, captured, processed or analysed. Client pricing is based on the number of invitations sent and the number of these “contributions” – what the presenter referred to as an “instance” model (presumably he meant instance-based learning?).

Asked about privacy, C-SIGHT de-identifies contributions (to what degree was not clear), and operates outside the firewall. There was also a question from the judges about the use and analysis of idiom and the vernacular – I don’t believe this addressed in much detail, although the presenter did suggest that the platform could be used as a way to drive “citizen engagement”.

Overall, I was rather underwhelmed by these presentations, although each of them revealed a kernel of a good idea – while in the case of AiHello (which was the winner on the night), sales traction is very promising; and in the case of Businest, industry recognition, especially in the US, has opened up some key opportunities.

Next week: Bitcoin – to fork or not to fork?

Update on the New #Conglomerates

My blog on the New Conglomerates has proven to be one of the most popular I have written. I’d been contemplating an update for a while, even before I heard this week’s announcement that Verizon is buying the bulk of Yahoo!. Talk about being prescient…. So, just over two years later, it feels very timely to return to the topic.

Image sourced from

Image sourced from

Of the so-called FANG tech stocks, when I was writing back in May 2014, Facebook had recently acquired WhatsApp and Oculus VR. However, apart from merging Beats Music into its own music service, Apple has not made any big name deals, but has made a number of strategic tech acquisitions. Meanwhile, Amazon has attempted to consolidate its investment in delivery company, Colis Privé, but got knocked back by the French competition regulators. Netflix finally launched in Australia in March 2015, and within 9 months had 2.7 million customers, a growth rate of 30% per month. Finally, Google has since renamed itself Alphabet, and purchased AI business Deep Mind.

Over the same period, Microsoft appears to have reinvigorated its strategy: back in May 2014, Microsoft had just completed its acquisition of Nokia. Since then, Microsoft has announced it is buying LinkedIn (following the latter’s purchase of in 2015), but has also shut down Yammer, which it had only bought in 2012. The acquisition of LinkedIn has been framed as a way to embed corporate, business and professional customers for its desktop and cloud-based productivity tools (and maybe give a boost to its hybrid tablet/laptop PCs). On the other hand, Microsoft has a terrible track record with content-based products and services, as evidenced by the Encarta fiasco, and the fact that Bing is an also-ran search engine. I think the jury is still out on what this transaction will really mean for LinkedIn’s paying customers.

So, what are the big tech themes, and where are the New Conglomerates competing with each other?

First, despite being the “next big thing”, VR/AR is still some way off being fully mainstream (although Pokémon GO may change that….). Apple and Google will continue to go head-to-head in this space.

Second, content streaming is not yet the new “rivers of gold” for publishing (and the sale of Yahoo! might confirm that there’s still gold in those advertising hills….). But music streaming (Apple, Spotify, Amazon and Google – plus niche services such as Bandcamp and Mixcloud) is gaining traction, and Amazon is building more content for SVOD (to compete with Netflix, Apple and Google). But quality public broadcasters such as BBC, ABC and NPR are making great strides into audio streaming (via native apps and platforms like TuneIn) and podcasting. One issue that remains is the fact that digital downloads and streaming still suffer from geo-blocking, and erratic pricing models.

Third, Amazon continues to build out its on-line retail empire, even launching private label groceries. Amazon will also put more of a squeeze on eBay, which does not offer fulfillment, distribution or logistics and is a less attractive platform for local used-goods sellers compared to say, Gumtree.

Fourth, Amazon is making a play for the Internet of Things (which, for this discussion, includes drones), but both Apple and Google, via their hardware devices, OS capabilities and cloud services, will doubtless give Amazon a run for its money. Also, watch for how Blockchain will impact this sector.

Finally, payments, AI, robotics, analytics and location-based services all continue to bubble along – driven by, for example, crypto-currencies, medtech, fintech, big data and sentiment-based predictive tools.

Next week: Another #pitch night in Melbourne…





Taxing the Intangibles – coming soon to a screen near you!

No sooner had Netflix launched in Australia than Treasurer Joe Hockey announced the imposition of GST on “intangibles” purchased from overseas vendors. The Treasurer has also indicated that the GST-free threshold for on-line imports will be lowered from the current $1,000. Dubbed the “Netflix tax”, Australian consumers should now expect to pay more for their digital content such as video, music, software and e-books, even though on most evidence, we are already charged more for comparable products than in other markets.

Geo-blocking is already an obstacle for Australian consumers…


We all know why the Treasurer has proposed this scheme: the Government has to make up for declining tax receipts, and appease the States who are squabbling over the allocation of GST revenue between them. Plus the current Senate inquiry into corporate tax avoidance by companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft (who divert locally sourced income to offshore entities to reduce their income tax liability in Australia) is driving the public and political agenda on global tax minimization schemes (which are nothing new, of course).*

But it’s not as simple as slapping an extra 10% on the price of a movie download, even though GST is a relatively easy and cost-effective way of generating tax revenue. For one thing, there is little consistency in how vendors currently sell their digital products in Australia. Secondly, geo-blocking is already an obstacle for Australian consumers, leading to the sort of content piracy infringement that will now make local ISP’s and their subscribers more vulnerable to legal action, following the recent “Dallas Buyers Club” court ruling. Thirdly, local retailers who have long campaigned to have the GST-free threshold removed or lowered fail to acknowledge why customers prefer to shop from overseas vendors.

Goods & Services Tax

GST (similar to VAT in Europe) is a simple consumption tax. It applies to the sale or supply of most items (except things like fresh food and health services) at a flat rate of 10%.

Even better, the Government and the tax authorities rely on businesses to collect, report and remit GST receipts, making it relatively cheap to administer (when compared to other taxes) via the Business Activity Statement process managed by the Australian Taxation Office.

The GST is a key topic of the current review of the tax system – likely to result in a higher rate (or different rates), and/or broader application to items not currently included.

Vendor Inconsistency

In principle, I don’t have a problem in paying GST on digital items I buy from overseas vendors – but there is so much inconsistency that there is a risk of consumers having to pay two lots of sales tax.

For example, every iTunes receipt issued by Apple Pty Ltd (an Australian entity) states that the sale amount already includes GST – in which case, Apple should be remitting that component to the ATO, and no need for a price increase.

However, Adobe chooses to invoice me from Ireland, and as such no GST (or VAT) is applied, but I am charged forex fees, even though the invoice amount is expressed in Australian dollars, because my bank treats this as a foreign transaction.

Meanwhile, although some UK vendors I buy from direct do not apply GST/VAT on my orders (Amazon UK included), others do – meaning I risk having to pay both the GST and VAT. As a further sign of vendor inconsistency, Amazon’s US store does not appear to deduct US sales tax for foreign customers; neither the UK or US Amazon stores sell music downloads to Australian customers; and Amazon’s Australian store only sells e-books and apps.


The decision in the “Dallas Buyers Club” IP infringement case brought by Voltage Films, has again drawn attention to Australia’s poor reputation for copyright piracy as evidenced by the number and frequency of illegal downloads.

Some journalists have commented that distributors often delay the local release of imported content (for various reasons) although this was not seen as a justification for piracy (and quite rightly so).

While foreign films are frequently released later in Australia, it’s interesting that TV (even free to air channels) has woken up to this, and now broadcasters rush to fast-track imported shows to keep audiences happy.

It’s also interesting to note that the Productivity Commission, as part of its competition policy review of IP laws, has suggested that if local rights holders and distributors choose not to exercise their commercial rights, under a “use it or lose it” model, third-party distributors would be able to step in. This also has the potential to undermine the archaic industry practice of geo-blocking, whereby sales of music, film and TV content (physical and digital) are restricted by territory.

Local retailers and distributors need to lift their game

Does the absence of GST really encourage consumers to buy from offshore retailers? I would beg to differ.

Local rights holders often do not bother to make content and products available in Australia. And local retailers won’t usually stock products if they are not readily available from wholesalers or distributors.

I recently had to contact an overseas artist, the UK record label and its Australian distributor several times to make their music available online in Australia. The local distributor had not bothered to release the content, even though they had the rights, but geo-blocking prevented me from accessing it legally from overseas suppliers.

It’s the combination of inadequate local distribution, non-availability, higher prices and lacklustre service that encourages Australian consumers to buy from overseas, even if that means circumventing geo-blocking. In many cases, I doubt the addition of GST will be a serious deterrent to online overseas shopping.

In my own case, I once found that the local branches of a global retail brand chose not to stock the item I wanted, and their US parent geo-blocked me from ordering on-line. So I resorted to buying in the “grey” or parallel imports market, from an offshore vendor willing to ship direct to Australia. It was still cheaper, even after shipping costs, and even if GST had been added (I probably paid US sales tax on the transaction anyway), than if I had bought from a local retailer (assuming they bothered to stock the item).

Hopefully, this debate on GST and the Productivity Commission’s review of competition policy will finally give local retailers an incentive to do a better job of serving their customers.

* The debate on corporate tax minimization might want to look at where “value” is created, and where the revenue is booked, that gives rise to a tax on the resulting profits. For me, the retail value of intangibles such as digital products is created when someone pays to download them, at the point of sale – i.e., in the consumer’s geographic location.  Although the vendor may argue that the IP is owned by an offshore entity to whom they must pay royalties, the individual download itself does not have any standalone value, until it is accessed by the consumer. Even a high rate of royalty repatriation could not be more than the retail price, so logic might suggest that local profits should be taxed accordingly.

Next week: What can we learn from the music industry?

Pricing for the Digital Age – A Postscript

Last week I wrote about pricing for digital content. In the past, I’ve also written about geo-blocking.

So, I decided to conduct a (very) small experiment in price comparison by market territory.

I chose a specific book title, and compared prices of the digital and print editions, between several retail sites, in 3 markets (Australia, UK and USA).

Before I conducted the exercise, my expectation was that Australia would be the most expensive (based on current exchange rates*), and USA the cheapest, but not much cheaper than the UK. But I was surprised by the results….

First, digital version:

Apple’s iTunes store: Australia A$37.99; USA A$37.76; UK A$41.83

Amazon: Australia A$20.60; USA A$20.61; UK A$33.18 Australia A$40.95; USA A$37.72; UK A$48.03

Booktopia: A$39.95

I was surprised that the iTunes price between Australia and the USA was so close – when it comes to music, iTunes Australia is usually far more expensive than either the USA or UK. Amazon appeared to have the title on sale, but I can’t work out why the UK prices are so much higher. Thanks to geo-blocking, of course, I cannot access the slightly cheaper price in the US store. But I was able to buy it from (and at the same, cheaper price as

Second, print edition (based on shipping costs to/within Australia):

Amazon: Australia not available; USA A$40.89 (inc. P&P to Australia); UK A$50.37 (inc. P&P to Australia)

Book Depository: A$32.31 (inc. P&P from UK)

Angus & Robertson: A$39.99 (inc. P&P within Australia)

Readings: A$40.95 (inc. P&P within Australia)

Booktopia: A$48.45 (inc. P&P within Australia)

Clearly, Book Depository is the best option by far (and is frequently so) and seems willing to undercut its parent company, Amazon – or maybe there’s a deliberate strategy as does not yet sell physical products. However, the much higher price charged by Australia’s Booktopia might speak volumes about the state of local retail….



Prices were converted from the published local price on each website, then converted to A$ using