Australia’s Blockchain Roadmap

The Australian Government recently published its National Blockchain Roadmap – less than 12 months after announcing this initiative. While it’s an admirable development (and generally, to be encouraged), it feels largely aspirational and tends towards the more theoretical rather than the practical or concrete.

First, it references the US Department of Homeland Security, to define the use case for Blockchain. According to these criteria, if a project or application displays three of the four following requirements, then Blockchain technology may offer a suitable solution:

  • data redundancy
  • information transparency
  • data immutability
  • a consensus mechanism

In a recent podcast for The Crypto Conversation, Bram Cohen, the inventor of the BitTorrent peer-to-peer file sharing protocol, defined the primary use case for Blockchain as a “secure decentralized/distributed database”. On the one hand, he describes this as a “total oxymoron; on the other, he acknowledges that Blockchain provides a solution to the twin problems of having to have trusted third parties to verify transactions, and preventing double-spend on the network. This solution lies in having to have consensus on the state of the database.

Second, the Roadmap speaks of adopting a “principles based but technology-neutral” approach when it comes to policy, regulation and standards. Experience tells us that striking a balance between encouraging innovation and regulating a new technology is never easy. Take the example of VOIP: at the time, this new technology (itself built on the newish technology of the internet) was threatened by incumbent telephone companies and existing communications legislation. If the monopolistic telcos had managed to get their way, maybe the Post Office would then have wanted to start charging us for sending e-mails?

With social media (another internet-enabled technology), we continue to see considerable tension as to how such platforms should be regulated in relation to news, broadcasting, publishing, political advertising, copyright, financial services and privacy. In the music and film industries, content owners have attempted to own and control the means of production, manufacture and distribution, not just the content – hence the format wars of the past in videotape, compact discs and digital file protocols. (A recurring theme within  Blockchain commentary is the need for cross-chain interoperability.)

Third, the Roadmap mentions the Government support for Standards Australia in leading the ISO’s Technical Committee 307 on Blockchain and DLT Standards. While such support is to be welcomed, the technology is outpacing both regulation and standards. TC 307 only published its First Technical Report on Smart Contracts in September 2019 – three years after its creation. In other areas, regulation is still trying to catch up with the technology that enables Initial Coin Offerings, Security Token Offerings and Decentralized Autonomous Organizations.

If the ICO phenomenon of 2016-18 demonstrated anything, it revealed that within traditional corporate and market structures, companies no longer have a monopoly on financial capital (issuance was largely subscribed via crowdfunding and informal syndication); human capital (ICO teams were largely self-forming, self-sufficient and self-directed); or networks and markets (decentralized, peer-to-peer and trustless became catch words of the ICO movement). Extend this to DAOs, and the very existence of, and need for traditional boards and shareholders gets called into question.

Fourth, the Roadmap makes reference to some existing government-related projects and initiatives in the area of Blockchain and cryptocurrencies. One is the Digital Transformation Agency’s “Trusted Digital Identity Framework”; another is AUSTRAC’s “Digital Currency Exchange” regulation and registration framework. With the former, a more universal commercial and government solution lies in self-sovereign identity – for example, if I have achieved a 100 point identity check with Bank A, then surely I should be able to “passport” that same ID verification to Bank B, without having to go through a whole new 100 point process? And with the latter, as far as I have been able to ascertain, AUSTRAC does not publish a list of those digital currency exchanges that have registered, and exchanges are not required to publish their registration number on their websites.

Fifth, the need for relevant training is evident from the Roadmap. However, as we know from computer coding and software engineering courses, students often end up learning “yesterday’s language”, rather than acquiring flexible and adaptable coding skills and core building blocks in software development. It’s equally evident that many of today’s developers are increasingly self-taught, especially in Blockchain and related technologies – largely because it is a new and rapidly-evolving landscape.

Finally, the Roadmap has identified three “showcase” examples of where Blockchain can deliver significant outcomes. One is in agricultural supply chains (to track the provenance of wine exports), one is in education and training (to enable trusted credentialing), and one is in financial services (to streamline KYC checks). I think that while each of these is of interest, they are probably just scratching the surface of what is possible.

Next week: Brexit Blues (Part II)

 

School Reunion

Last weekend, I attended the first official reunion lunch in Melbourne for former pupils of my old high school. On first glance, that might not seem a very remarkable event. Except that my school was in London, I left in 1979, and my fellow lunch guests left as long ago as 1959. I had never met any of them before. Yet in different circumstances, and at different times, each of us has ended up living in Australia.

Normally I’m not one to play the “old school tie” card – I don’t particularly care, and I am not really interested in, which school someone attended. In fact, having spent my high school years overseas means that here in Australia, no one can really play that card against me without seeming elitist, snobbish, or just plain foolish. Because, despite its claims to being an egalitarian country, some sections of Australian society place a great deal of importance on their private school connections. (Remember OneTel and the Cranbrook alumni?)

One of our lunchtime topics of discussion (which also touched on current geo-political affairs, the state of the entertainment industry, the economy, and the future of the planet….) was the extent to which our secondary education had formed our world outlook. The main conclusion was that although the school placed a considerable emphasis on academic standards and achievements, it was not merely a sausage factory (at least, not during our days there). The goal was to produce well-rounded, confident and curious individuals, who were encouraged to make the most of their abilities. (If the list of alumni is anything to go by, the school has certainly turned out some highly individual characters.)

I’m still in contact with a number of my contemporaries, and I try to meet up with a few of them each time I’m in London. After all these years, it’s hard to know whether our alma mater is the primary factor that still connects us, as our friendships have both endured and changed over that time. Certainly, most of us wouldn’t otherwise have met – but even before we left school, we had established common interests (especially in music) that continue to this day.

In conclusion, I would say I’m very grateful for the high school education I received, for the opportunities it gave me, and the friends I have made. And on the basis of the first reunion event that has ever been held outside the UK (as far as we are aware), it looks like my school will continue connecting me to new and interesting people.

Next week: Climate Change and Personal Choices

 

 

 

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

Startup Vic’s EdTech Pitch Night

As part of its ongoing series of pitch events jointly organised with LaunchVic, Startup Victoria last week hosted the latest edition of its EdTech Pitch Night. Facilitated by General Assembly, Weploy, Marketing Entourage and VUInnovations, a quick audience survey at the start of the evening revealed that for 50% of attendees, this was their first Startup Vic event.

The panel of expert judges was drawn from Impact Generation Partners, Xplor, MAP and Education Changemakers.

The pitches in order of appearance were (websites links embedded in the names):

Studychatr

Tag line: “Improving student experience and graduate recruitment”

Many students report that they feel isolated, confused, and lack both a sense of community and a clear career direction. On the latter point, traditional recruitment firms and employers want to target emerging graduate talent, which can be expensive. Studychatr wants to make the hiring process easier for both employers and students.
Users gain access to a knowledge hub, through which students can earn Kudos points and StudyCoins for helping other students, and acquire micro-credentialing credits for their course work.

The service is free to students, whereas recruiters and employers need to pay via job ads, advertising, talent search, and student consultancy (essentially a Sideracket/Upwork/Freelancer/Airtasker-type service that enables companies to commission students to undertake research and other tasks).

With students wary of using existing college-provides LMS and campus portals, and placing less trust and reliance on “free” social media services, Studychatr has managed to strike partnerships with student societies as the key to on-boarding users, with 1,000 user sign-ups in the past 6 months.

Part of the employer/recruiter strategy is help them overcome the challenge of filtering candidates.

The judges were keen to know more about what the app measures – e.g., number of user posts, level of engagement, quality of study materials, depth of the collaboration – and how the AI model works in this context, and to what degree the platform moderates content, collaboration and communication. They also commented that the founding team and their advisors could probably benefit from some further diversity

InquiBox

Tag line: “Experiential learning through play”

How do parents access STEM tools? For InquiBox, the answer is a subscription service to curated educational activity boxes, plus a web platform. Costing A$29.95 per month, and launched in December 2018, the business is experiencing MoM active subscriber growth of 47%.

The judges wondered whether the content comprised unique materials or a compilation of preexisting components, what was in the online content, and what % of the items were Australian made? They also asked if there were any teachers on advisory board, and whether the STEM themes are integrated, given that the core subjects are taught as separate disciplines.

Based on subscriber feedback and the churn rate, some parents felt that the product was too early in their child’s education, or the boxes were too frequent, so there is an option to skip a month and to only select the topics of specific relevance. In future, there may be on option to track a child’s progress via the web application.

Sales have largely come from word of mouth referrals, but the team are planning to forge partnerships with schools, and link content to the curriculum, and develop engagement with the parent community.

RocketShoes

Tag line: “A next-generation education platform”

The founder pitched this as “an education platform where students own their own content”. Using a combination of Blockchain technologies (primarily IPFS for file storage, and NEM for assignment submission and time stamping) students can upload and manage their own content, and retain ownership of their data (unlike other open-source tools, some proprietary LMS and most social media platforms).

The judges asked who is responsible for moderating the content. While it can vary by jurisdiction, the obligation can largely lies with parents and education institutions, although in some cases it may be the students themselves.

The judges were also keen to understand the revenue model – in essence the schools pay, but if content proves to be more popular as measured by IPFS usage, the fees can be reduced. While something of a personal mission for the founder (hence the lack of detail on the commercials), a sensible decision has been made to adopt an API approach, whereby RocketShoes can plug into an existing LMS, and bridge different applications and platforms.

TALi

Tag line: “Happier kids start here”

This is a game-based cognitive training tool for children with learning difficulties, such as ADHD, ASD etc. It is designed to enable early detection and prevention. The tool has been patented, and uses touch-screen access and gamification to leverage the principles of brain plasticity muscle memory.

Key areas of focus are core cognitive functions of Selection, Inhibition, Focus and Control. The process is designed to be both repetitive and intensive. The game adapts to the child’s individual level. Claiming to be clinically proven via medical trials (of which TALi owns the research data), the TALi Train application has been classified as a Grade 2 medical device in the USA. Next up are TALi Detect (pre-school) and TALi Maintain (to extend the child’s development levels).

Distribution is via parents, healthcare and other service providers, and schools; it also has NDIS status in Australia. The tool is designed to be used 25 minutes per day for 5 weeks and can be implemented direct in schools, or in the home (under parents supervision). The key age group is 3-8 years old, before children with relevant learning difficulties are typically prescribed medication such as Methylphenidate (Ritalin).

After the votes were in, and once the judges had deliberated, the people’s choice was TALi, while the overall winner was InquiBox.

P.S. Startup Vic and Victoria University Innovations departments have joined forces on “Found”, a survey-based research project designed to “uncover hidden truths of the founder experience”, the results of which should influence the overall eco-system. Interested founders can apply to participate here: www.found-ed.com.

Next week: Pre-election Musings