Startup Vic’s Impact Pitch Night

Due to my personal travel commitments in recent months, it’s been a while since I attended one of Startup Vic‘s regular pitch nights – so I was pleasantly surprised to see that these monthly events continue to draw a solid crowd. As with last year’s impact investing pitch night,  this event was co-sponsored by Giant Leap VC (part of the Impact Investing Group), with support from LaunchVic, who played hosts at the Victorian Innovation Hub.

As usual, the startups pitching appear in the order they presented:

Vollie

This is an on-line platform or market place for helping charities to find skilled volunteers for project-based assignments, mostly involving digital, marketing, technical, professional and advisory services that can be delivered remotely (rather than on-site or in-field).

The founders described the benefits to corporate clients in meeting their CSR goals. These companies either “sponsor” their employees’ time and/or donate money – to be honest, it was not entirely clear how this part worked. And of course, being a two-sided market place, Vollie also charges charities on a per project basis.

According to the presenters, there are 56,000 charities in Australia, and so far the platform has generated $360,000 in “value”.

However, Vollie only assists the charities with project on-boarding, whereas the NFPs themselves are responsible for actual project delivery.

While acknowledging the appeal to Gen Y/Z volunteers, the judges were interested to know how much personalisation the platform offers, and how QA/QC issues were handled. Having served on the board of a NFP myself, I appreciate how much more complicated it is to manage volunteers – from police checks to insurance, from training to risk management.

Cyber Clinic

Claiming to provide easier access (and a better user experience) to therapeutic clinic services, Cyber Clinic enables people to find a professional therapeutic counsellor or psychologist that matches their needs. Essentially an on-line directory for mental health care (part of the growing number of telehealth providers), the service matches clients and counsellors, connects them for sessions that can be delivered remotely and at times that suit the recipient, and measures the results.

Partly developed in response to the high incidents of mental health issues presenting to GPs, delivery of counselling services is via secure video conferencing and consultation, backed up by a dedicated app. The service is designed to run on even low-bandwidth connectivity, making it accessible to regional and country users.

The guiding principles are cost, access and trust (service providers are vetted before being admitted to the platform).

The judges were interested to understand the founder’s patient acquisition strategy, which involves connecting with government agencies, healthcare providers and corporates (e.g., as part of their EAP services) – so it’s clearly designed as a B2B model, plus a direct to market, public-facing website. The judges also wondered about customer retention when measured against outcomes.

STEMSparX

With the declining levels of STEM participation in high schools, STEMSparX is designed to engage younger students by bringing STEM education direct to their doorstep.

The service combines an AI-assisted on-line learning interface with practical DIY kits. Designed around the Arduino Open Source Ecosystem, the business model is based on a B2C subscription service. The founder is a participant in Melbourne University’s MAP programme, and has been running pilot project workshops and developing an engineering curriculum.

The judges wondered how STEMSparX would compete with the likes of Code Academy, and how effective a direct-to-consumer model is, unless it was combined with a channel strategy involving communication with parents, schools and public libraries? Plus, how does a service like this compete with other distractions such as online games, video streaming and social media?

Amber Electric

This alternative electricity seller is offering retail customers access to real-time wholesale prices. By only charging customers a $10 monthly service fee, Amber claims it can pass on the true wholesale price, based on 30-minute price resets (reflecting actual market supply and demand), rather than the fixed rates and price bands that traditional electricity retailers charge.

A key aspect of Amber’s business is the availability of renewable inputs (Australia has the largest % of renewables in the national grid – excluding WA which is not part of the grid…). For example, the increase of solar-generated energy from domestic sources (household rooftop panels) that can be fed into the grid can have an impact on the average unit cost of electricity from non-solar sources, and some resulting market distortion.

The judges were keen to know if Amber applies price loading to take account of passive consumption, and whether their revenue model allows for feedback funding into additional renewables? Another question was whether Amber customers will experience considerable price spikes during the summer spikes?

Currently, Amber is only available to people living in the Sydney metropolitan area, and who do NOT have solar panels (due to the issues of feed-in tariffs?). So, very limited access at present – but clearly a disruptive model that threatens to undermine the highly regulated retail market.

It’s fair to say that Amber ticked the box for most people in the audience, as it won both the Judges’ prize, and the people’s choice.

Next week: Startup Vic’s FinTech Pitch Night

Final StartupVic Pitch Night of 2016

There was something of a festive mood in the room for StartupVic‘s final pitch night of 2016, hosted at inspire9. It certainly had an end of term feel, as a number of the long-term Startup Vic team members said their farewells before moving on to new ventures. So it will be interesting to see how these monthly events continue to evolve in 2017.

screen-shot-2016-12-10-at-4-01-47-pmContinuing the theme of recent pitch nights, diversity was the key – this month’s startup hopefuls came from the energy, AI, environmental and consumer sectors. As usual, I will comment on each pitch in the order that they presented:

BioFuel Innovations

With the simple aim of turning waste into fuel, BioFuel Innovations uses an enzyme, as opposed to a more caustic chemical catalyst, to convert used cooking oil from restaurant kitchens into biodiesel. Given this greener and more sustainable process, the company can use lower quality feedstock, consume less energy and reduce the amount of waste water.

Having built a pilot plant in Dandenong, the founders are currently developing a containerised “turnkey solution” comprising a pilot micro-refinery, which can be financed by 3rd party lenders (a bit like some solar energy schemes). However, they are seeking funding to gain access to a startup accelerator program.

With a number of existing service providers that collect used cooking oil from restaurants and food processing plants, BioFuel Innovations only plan to produce their own fuel on a small scale. Rather, their business model is to sell micro-refineries for biodiesel production.

Asked by the judges why they are focusing on biodiesel rather than other higher-yield fuels, the team pointed out that some of those products require high temperature processing, and therefore consume more energy. Also, in concentrating on this type of biodiesel production, the founders believe they are helping to solve the problem of disposing of waste oils. However, longer term, they may explore even more sustainable energy derivatives and regeneratives. And in Asia Pacific, for example, there is a need to re-process palm oil residues.

Finally, a key to their success will be streamlined manufacturing processes and logistics, such as building supply chain partnerships for the shipping containers that hold the micro-refineries.

Breathable

This is an environmental design concept that aims to use plants to replace air ventilation systems in offices and homes. Based on research from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, Breathable uses an algorithm based design solution. Taking into account the building dimensions, natural light, air flow, number of people, amount of mechanical and electrical equipment, etc., the team can design the right combination and layout of plants for each given location.

Established as a bootstrapped social enterprise, whose profits go to helping asthma sufferers and patients with respiratory complaints, Breathable is hoping to make a large and sustainable impact.

The first question from the judges was, why set up in Australia? The team explained that given certain plants are not allowed here, the underlying algorithm has to be reconfigured for native plants, by a local team.

This was a very timely comment, given the recent episode of “thunderstorm asthma” in Melbourne. However, the judges were a little concerned that while there was a clear connection between purpose and passion, they wondered whether it is more of a lifestyle business for the founders, especially as thus far, no IP has been registered or protected. (On this specific point, the team simply said, “we challenge people to do it better”.)

There is an expansion plan, to develop fully self-sustaining eco-systems – such as using plants to power lights that help generate photosynthesis. But big goals need big marketing budgets, and with an active waiting list of 20 corporate clients, the challenge for the business is in how to scale.

MagicPi

I should say upfront that based on what I had read in advance on their website, this pitch was not what I had expected. Instead of a presentation on artificial intelligence, we got a pitch about Australia’s Chinese tourism “problem”. Namely that, based on a 2016 report from Bloomberg, by 2020 Australia will host 5 million Chinese visitors a year, representing a $13bn market. (And as I know from having worked with the founders at China Digital, many tourist destinations in Australia are far from China ready.)

Using natural language AI (cognitive, cloud, machine learning – “Siri with a human touch”) MagicPi is targeting Destination Marketing Organisations (conventions, conferences, local tourism boards). They plan to create content and solutions for client websites, and then take a commission on bookings. With a presence on both WeChat (including a voice recognition bot) and AliPay, MagicPi has a long-term vision of being the “intelligent interface for everything”.

However, the judges questioned whether the solution works or even exists. They felt that there was currently no visibility for investors or consumers. Claiming to have built a demo app, the team stated that there is a lack of quality information for Chinese tourists, and people are willing to pay for premium content – and to distinguish mere “recommendations” from the visitor “reality”.

Despite adopting a deliberate enterprise solution, the judges felt that the pitch needed to stress the “why”, rather than focusing on the problem.

The Cider Link

I should mention that I first met the team from The Cider Link about a year ago, and was intrigued by their mission to build an online craft cider market that connects makers with customers. (So much so, that I connected them to local wine producer, Richard Stockman, who invited them to appear as guests on his weekly food and drink radio program.)

The Cider Link is challenging both the market duopoly for cider retailing, and the ubiquity of “commercial” cider, much of which is produced from bulk juice mixed with alcohol – rather than being fomented from freshly pressed fruit, as is the case with craft ciders.

Cider is currently enjoying 10% annual growth by volume (based on bottle shop sales alone). So, online, cider and craft are all “on trend”. The founders have built a commission-based market place, and with connections to producers who are members of industry body Cider Australia, The Cider Link is also appearing at festivals and related events.

In the Q&A with judges, the team explained that success for them would be sales of 1000 cases a month, making it a $1m business. They also plan to take the model to the UK, which has the largest cider market in the world.

In addition to attracting more customers, the founders are seeking investment to improve sales conversions and support some advertising.

Given the mix of pitches, and the range of business models and sectors, based on judging criteria and audience votes, the winner was Breathable.

Next week: End of Year Reflection