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

Demo Day #2 – Startmate

The same day as the recent Startupbootcamp event, the latest cohort of 8 founders to complete Startmate’s programme in Sydney held their own Demo Day in Melbourne.

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

Muso

A live music marketplace, connecting venues and artists. Venue booking managers are too busy to research available talent, and artists face an inordinate number of individual processes to manage bookings and post-event admin. So Muso joins the dots, curates the artists, and takes a share of the listing and booking fees. In a world where more and more independent artists are self-releasing their recordings via platforms like Bandcamp and SoundCloud, it makes sense to extend this to managing their own tour bookings. Muso already claims to have booked 400 gigs at an average fee of $300, and also plans to expand into the US, UK and NZ markets. Currently seeking $1.2m seed funding.

VAPAR

Fault detection in infrastructure is highly manual, subjective and very expensive. VAPAR is using machine learning and cloud hosting to automate the analysis of video footage for underground pipes and sewers. A task that can currently take 2 weeks to complete can now be done in 2 minutes. Clients upload their footage and fixed asset data via a web platform, and VAPAR generate a report based on the image scanning. The business model offers a free trial access, a paid pilot project engagement, and a price per metre of pipe. Currently seeking $500k in seed funding.

VEXEV

According to the founders, vascular disease is the single largest cause of death, so there is increased focus on detection and prevention. Measuring and tracking blood flow patterns can be expensive and invasive. VEXEV uses 3D imaging captured from safer and lower cost ultra-scan technology, to measure disease progression, and to monitor and predict patient outcomes. Already secured seed funding from Blackbird Ventures.

Glamazon

This is a marketplace for at-home beauty services, “bringing a salon experience to your own living room”. According to the founders, a beautician could earn $80 per treatment compared to $23 if they work in a salon. Glamazon also offers its own business management platform via a SaaS model.

Cogniant.co

An app to “predict and manage mental health disorders before they happen“. Offers a dashboard interface for clinicians to manage their client case load, using data collected on patients’ activity and behaviour via their smart phone devices and sensors. Looking to raise $1m in seed funding. My personal observation is that a key contributing factor towards certain mental health disorders appears to be increased screen time (social media, apps that track our every move, binge watching, constant content streaming and always being “on”), leading to increased isolation, among other symptoms. While I can see the value of the data capture and analysis, hopefully the process does not reinforce the negative connotations.

Pixelated Induction

Introducing ClickCharge, a scalable wireless charging system that enables any surface to become a conductive medium. Some may remember that Apple tried its own solution, AirPower, that quietly ran out of steam. ClickCharge claims to have 3 times the charging area of AirPower, and can even charge laptops, via its inter-connecting tile design. Having filed an international patent, the founders are seeking $1.7m in seed capital to fund the build of 40,000 units for which they are currently taking pre-orders.

Bioscout

A remote system for crop monitoring and disease detection, using airborne particle tracking and analysis. Having run some field trials with banana and avocado crops, the team has identified considerable cost savings for farmers, both in terms of produce protected, and reduced use of preventive chemicals. (With the industry currently spending $2.5bn on crop monitoring and disease prevention, yet still losing $2.4bn in damaged fruit, any savings must be welcome.) Remote devices provide real-time monitoring and alerts combined with an analytics dashboard. Cost is expected to be $30k per device, plus $2k per month. The latter is presumably to pay for satellite connectivity, as the founders discovered that a key challenge for farmers is the lack of mobile phone reception in remote and rural areas.

Live Graphic Systems

This startup is aiming to reduce the cost of creating branded graphics for live sports streaming, from $5k per game to $100 per game. Current solutions involve manual processes, custom software, expensive hardware and dedicated people to operate them. Live Graphic Systems offers a scalable solution that connects brands to live streaming events, at near-zero marginal cost.

Next week: Startup Vic’s EdTech Pitch Night

 

 

 

Demo Day #1 – Startupbootcamp

Energy and climate change are proving to be hot topics in Australia’s federal election campaign. Not surprising, given that proposed changes to current policy settings brought down the last Prime Minister. With that in mind, it was impressive and refreshing to hear what founders participating in the latest Startupbootcamp Energy Australia accelerator program had managed to come up with over the course of 12 weeks. The 10 projects presenting at this month’s Demo Day offered a range of solutions that our political leaders and their advisors might want to acquaint themselves with.

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

Builtspace

The challenge for many commercial building owners is that their facilities managers lack full visibility into the physical design and fabric of the infrastructure they are responsible for. And much of the in-house knowledge literally walks out the door when staff leave. Builtspace has developed a SaaS platform that creates a “digital twin” of each building, managing everything from the asset condition to real-time maintenance transactions, all connected in the cloud. Claiming to reduce ticket backlogs to deliver a 75% productivity gain, and a 5x ROI, including increased energy efficiency, the founders are currently looking for re-sellers in Australia, and are in the process of raising Series A funding.

Ecologic

A home energy audit app that offers tailored advice at scale, Ecologic uses cloud-based simulations to deliver proposed energy efficiency solutions and enables users to connect to appropriate suppliers. The team has identified that the combination of a lack of independent information, unknown costs (and limited finance) and inadequate service co-ordination creates a barrier to adoption for many consumers. In addition, consumers need simple and actionable insights. Currently generating referral fees and sales commissions, the founders are investigating a subscription model for Uber-style consultations, and a white label B2B solution. During the boot camp, Ecologic has obtained 1,500 customer profiles, identified a channel partnership model with a number of local councils, and secured a pilot integrated utility service with Energy Australia. To address the issue of consumers’ access to finance, the founders are exploring a project finance facility, to offer customers zero upfront installation costs, and using the energy savings to pay down the debt.

Elemize

Using a distributed energy model, Elemize claims to have found a solution to Australia’s comparatively high energy bills. Via its LiberPower application, the team are working with property developers and builders to help them install custom renewable energy solutions to deliver “free energy” to their residents and tenants. Part of the solution involves the system taking control of the batteries in each home, to obtain maximum efficiency.

Fohat

One of the problems with domestic-scale solar energy systems is that we can end up with too many solar units – which in turn can, with things like feed-in supply arrangements, cause network and transmission constraints. Fohat aims to solve this problem with a software solution to manage microgrids. With the owner’s permission, the operating system can have visibility over the whole network by taking control of each battery, by directing network capacity to where it is needed, and/or diverting excess supply into designated batteries. The platform also supports energy trading (but not at the level of individual consumers), and has recently secured a pilot with the City of Melbourne to install a microgrid and battery system at the Queen Victoria Market. The startup profile also mentions the use of blockchain technology, but this important aspect was not described during the pitch.

ivcbox

It was a little difficult to understand what this browser-based video chat service was doing at an energy accelerator. But the fact that it only takes a 1.5% sales commission compared to the 22.5% cost of a face-to-face sale, means it should appeal to energy retailers who have encountered greater customer churn due to price comparison sites and increased regulatory transparency on fees and charges. The service uses facial recognition and identity verification, which means the API platform can also be extended to banks and insurers.

Nostromo

Nostromo has developed a “world first” modular Ice Thermal Energy Storage system, using a glycerol heat conversion process. Typically, 60% of the peak energy usage by a commercial building is for cooling purposes, yet the peak demand amounts to only 400 hours a year. Designed to support demand side management and storage, Nostromo has secured $5.5m in seed funding, including $1.5m in grants to develop demo solutions.

Powerdiverter

Around 2 million homes and businesses in Australia are already using solar energy. Storing and managing that energy remains a challenge. Powerdiverter is a hardware device that uses electric hot water tanks as energy storage units. It doesn’t require any plumbing or additional electrical work. It plugs into the existing solar system to divert all the surplus energy into the tank. A typical lithium battery solution has a 12-year payback, versus 1.5 years with Powerdiverter. The business model includes device sales (7,000 have already been installed, mainly in the UK), a subscription service and licensing agreements with energy providers.

RedGrid

One of the problems with our current electricity network is that it is built on “imposed” grids, not coordinated intelligent devices. This means an overloaded grid, and high energy costs. RedGrid aims to solve this, with a Platform-as-a-Service model, where every smart device will have machine-to-machine communications, delivering energy on demand capability. This so-called “Internet of Energy” is constructed on a decentralised demand management solution that is private, scalable and secure. The team is currently focused on universities and facilities management, as well as consumer markets, and are planning a crowd funding equity raise.

Senno

In an era of growing concern about how social media platforms and other service providers harvest, trade (and compromise) our personal data, an increasing number of Blockchain-enabled solutions are using things like self-sovereign digital identity and attention economics to put consumers in control of their own data, and empower them to monetize these assets. Senno is using digital wallets to help owners secure their personal data and to determine who has access to it, in return for specified rewards. Where does this fit into the energy market? Well, Senno proposes to share (non-personal) data and consumer behaviour on energy usage with retailers, in return for a share of the revenue derived from the metadata, under a SaaS model.

UCapture

According to the founders, consumers want to reduce their carbon footprint, but they don’t want to pay to do so, they are reluctant to change their behaviours, so they need incentives to do so. Using a browser extension (Chrome and Firefox), UCapture enables consumers to shop online at participating retailers and “earn” carbon credits in return. Consumers can also receive coupon codes. UCapture receives a sales commission on each transaction, and allocates 2/3 of the commission to carbon offset projects. (While unexplained during the pitch, it seems that each purchase is calibrated to an equivalent amount of carbon offsets – whether that is based on the ticket price, or the actual carbon footprint of each item is not immediately clear.)  UCapture is enabling corporate clients to batch install the extension on their networks, allowing their employees to participate. On the positive side, UCapture is giving consumers indirect access to carbon credit schemes which are often only available to wholesale participants. On the negative side, it does seem incongruous to be encouraging consumers to spend more and to buy more stuff, in order to save the planet.

Next week: Demo Day #2 – Startmate

 

Startup Vic’s Professional Services Pitch Night

For the first of Startup Vic’s monthly pitch nights for 2018, professional services were put under the spotlight. There is a public dialogue on the types and numbers of roles that will disappear due to automation (the professions are no different) and here were four startups seeking to engage in that conversation. Assuming that every industry and every occupation is vulnerable to disruption (and should be alert to the potential opportunities that presents), why should accountants and lawyers feel left out?

Image sourced from Startup Vic Meetup page

Myaccountant

With the promise of enabling users to lodge their BAS return from a smart phone, this app is aimed at micro businesses that struggle with bookkeeping and accounting tasks. Since accounting software packages do not support direct BAS lodgement (although expect this to change…), the app charges $39 per BAS, with no bookkeeping or accounting fees, and shares the fee with the accountants who do the lodgement.

The app is able to extract data from vendor APIs such as Expert360, Airtasker, Uber, etc., and connect to users’ bank accounts. Since launching in January, the app has generated 200 sign ups, with very little direct marketing or paid acquisition so far. The app is also aiming to achieve ISO 27000 (information security).

The panel of judges would have liked to have heard more about the acquisition strategy, and how the app deals with income and expense categorisation, different tax rates, zero rated items, and export sales etc. They also wondered about the competition, and overseas markets

Contractprobe

Developed by Neural Contract, this product uses machine learning to review contracts in 60 seconds. Using a scoring model, it rates documents according to established best practice and bench-marking, suggest sample text for missing clauses, and identifies problems found.

The service is available for ad hoc use, under a monthly subscription, or as custom packages.

According to the founders, the service can save 40% of the time usually spent on contract reviews. It offers a high level of privacy – the uploaded contract, report and transaction ID is deleted upon completion (although it wasn’t clear what records are retained for the purposes of clause analysis, data and analytics – including client profiling and user context.)

To reassure any lawyers in the audience, the product stills relies on human input to apply judgment to the choice of clauses, for example. However, a clear value of the review process is ensuring that phrases and key words are properly defined in the contract.

The judges wondered where this product fits in with open source documentation and pre-drafted documents, whether there are specific verticals more suited to this service, and what trust and liability issues might arise. Is it more of a “clause-spotter” rather than an expert system? How does it address statutory clauses, and the question of whether clauses are actually enforceable?

The service has about 40 clients, including law firms, and is now moving into corporate clients.

Businest

This product is designed to help with cashflow management, which the founders describe as an “iceberg” issue. They point to data that suggests 87% of SMEs have issues with cashflow.

Claiming to use AI to coach SMEs and accountants, the goal is to allow business owners to focus on what they do best, and move accountants from “compliance to advisory”. Applying its own algorithm to cashflow analysis, the service also provides training content to advisors.

Offering both SME and advisor pricing models, the founders have launched a pilot with MYOB. They also point to market research and commentary (CEDR, AFR, CPA, CA…) that indicates the market wants it.

The judges felt that the banks won’t rush to endorse the service (although under the open banking data protocol, they won’t be able to prevent customers linking their accounts) because they are used to the interest they charge on overdraft facilities and credit cards.

Brandollo

This is a marketing tech start-up, aimed at SMEs that struggle to access tailored advice. Targeting B2B clients, in the professional services sector,  with less than 80 staff.

Briefly referring to the use of AI and ML, the service claims to reduce marketing costs by 80%. It offers a brand gap analysis and makes recommendations, that can be implemented without external help. The process looks at execution issues, content requirements, and actual solutions.

Aiming for 200,000 clients in 5 years (currently standing at 200+), the main competitor is Benchmarketing. Brandello offers a freemium model, with a 3-tier paid-for service. They can connect clients to experts, provide a quote to execute and then take a commission on the resulting solution.

 

Based on the judges’ verdict, the winner was Myaccountant. While the people’s choice was a tie between Myaccountant and Contractprobe.

Next week: The General Taxonomy for Cryptographic Assets