Sola.io – changing the way renewable energy is financed

Late last year, I had the privilege to be one of the judges for the PitchX competition for start-ups. The overall winner was Sola, a new investment platform to fund solar power using a virtual power plant structure to bring together investors and producers, who might not otherwise have access to the financial and production benefits of this renewable energy resource.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Alan Hunter, Founding Team member of Sola while he was in Melbourne earlier this month. He was busy in the middle of a series of investor meetings and finalising arrangements for their energy retailing licensing.

Prior to Sola, Alan had established a fleet company that leased cars to Uber drivers. Recognising that some immigrants lacked relevant qualifications for advertised jobs, but lacked the finance to buy a car, the business joined the dots and enabled many people with a driver’s license to secure employment. It told him a lot about about helping those less fortunate by building a business designed to remove inequalities and lower barriers to entry.

With that experience, an interest in renewable energy, and a desire to help consumers reduce their power bills Sola was launched. Starting out as CEC-approved Solar Retailer, Sola offers consumers a subscription service to electricity (at a cheaper rate than users pay today).

Sola is now planning to offer the same subscription service with a solar system, for a cheaper monthly payment. It is able to achieve this though the development of an innovative investment and infrastructure platform, that will serve three main types of clients:

1. Home-owners who want to install solar energy, reduce their own power bills, and even generate additional benefits as rebates or credits from feed-in tariffs

2. Retail investors, who may not have access to solar energy (renters, apartment residents, or those in dwellings ill-placed for panels)

3. Wholesale investors and self-managed superannuation funds looking for an alternative fixed income asset

In short, Sola underwrites the cost of panel installation on consumers’ homes. In return, Sola acquires 100% of the energy generated, and the customer subscribes to Sola for their monthly usage. Consumers become subscription members of Sola’s network, via the latter’s retailer license.

For retail investors, Sola will present them with an opportunity to access fractional ownership of a virtual power plant, for as little as $100. These investors then receive a dividend from the energy sales generated by the network.

For wholesale investors, and for a larger stake, they will be part of a closed end capped fund, which will generate a dividend from the energy sales. Sola has an energy off-take entitlement over the panels, and over time, panels which are replaced may still be sold into secondary markets, such as in developing countries, if they have a remaining useful life.

Some of the benefits of this structure include a more equitable arrangement for access to, ownership, and distribution of solar energy assets. It also removes the need for unsecured lending to finance panels and systems which may soon become obsolete. Plus, it enables people who might not have direct access to solar panels to benefit from this asset.

The complex issue of Federal and State rebates came up in our discussion. According to Alan, the former are useful in supporting the roll-out of Sola’s virtual power plant model, and in accessing the carbon credit marketplace via the Small-scale Technology Certificates (STC). Whereas, State rebates are better for end-users, who can engage Sola direct to install their panels, and then join the Sola retail network.

Then there is the issue of inverters, and batteries. It’s generally the former that are rendered obsolete before the panels, but the costs mean that customers tend to end up replacing the whole system. And the latter will not become economic until purchase costs reduce, and feed-in tariffs are phased out.

Finally, Alan wanted to make sure he got this point across – Sola will shortly be launching campaigns in seven locations, to sign-up 180-230 homes, in areas impacted by bush fires. The aim is to give participants a 35-40% saving on their energy bills, as well as establishing the first phase of the virtual power plant network.

Next week: Australia’s Blockchain Roadmap

 

 

 

 

 

FinTech Fund Raising

In the wake of the Banking Royal Commission, will FinTech startups capture market share from the brands that are on the nose with customers? And will these upstarts manage to attract the necessary funding to challenge the deep pockets and huge balance sheets of the incumbents? This was the underlying theme of a recent panel discussion hosted by Next Money Melbourne.

The panel comprised:

Nick Baker from NAB Ventures, typically investing $1m-$5m in Seed to Series C rounds, self-styled strategic investor with a particular focus on RegTech, Data and Data Security, and AI/Deep Learning

Ben Hensman from Square Peg Capital, writing cheques of $1.5m-$15m into Series A onwards, more of a financial investor, mainly in businesses starting to scale. Sees that the industry is ripe for disruption because of the mismatch between profit pools and capital pools, compared to the size of the economy.

Alan Tsen an Angel investor, making personal investments of $10k-$25k, mostly into teams/founders that he knows personally and has had an opportunity to see the business evolve fairly close up.

Key topics included:

Open banking – Will this be the game-changer that many people think it will? Are the banks being dragged kicking and screaming to open up their customer databases? What will be the main opportunities for FinTech startups? While customers often express an intention to switch banks, the reality is that few actually do. In part because current processes make it relatively difficult (hence the current Open banking initiative, which will later be extended to utilities); in part because there is little to no differentiation between the major banks (in products, costs and service). Also, it seems that banks are quietly getting on with the task in hand, given that resistance is futile. My personal view is that banks may have a significant role to play as custodians or guardians of our financial and personal data (“data fiduciaries”) rather than directly managing our financial assets. For example, when it comes to managing the personal private keys to our digital wallets, who would we most trust to hold a “back up of last resort” – probably our banks, because even though we may love to hate them, we still place an enormous amount of trust in them.

Full stack financial solutions – Within FinTech, the panel identified different options between full stack startups, compared to those that focus on either the funding layer (sourcing and origination), tech layer, and the CX layer.

Neo-banks – Welcome source of potential competition, but face huge challenges in customer acquisition, brand awareness and maintaining regulatory capital requirements.

Unbundling the banks – Seen as a likely outcome from the Royal Commission, given that we have already seen the major banks largely exit the wealth management and advice business. But the challenge for FinTech startups will be in developing specific products that match and exceed current offerings, without adding transactional friction etc.

Identifying Strong FinTech Teams – There needs to be evidence of deep domain expertise, plus experience of business scaling. Sometimes it’s a fine balance between naivety and experience, and outsiders versus insiders – bringing transferable external experience (especially with a view to disrupting and challenging the status quo) can easily trump incumbent complacency.

Funding Models – While most VC funding is in the form of equity, some VCs offer “venture debt” (based on achieving milestones) which can be converted to equity, but while it can lead to founder’s equity dilution, it may represent a lower cost of initial capital for startups. The panel mentioned the so-called “Dutch model” (because it has been used by Dutch pension funds) that local mortgage company Athena has brought to the market. Rather than seeking wholesale funding or warehouse financing to back their home loan business, Athena allows institutional investors such as superannuation funds, to lend direct to homeowners. This means that the funds receive more of the mortgage interest margin than if they were investing in RMBS issued by the banks and mortgage originators. Athena is mainly geared towards refinancing existing mortgages, rather than new loans, but also offers a new approach to mortgage servicing and administration.

Generally, VCs prefer simpler structures rather than, say, funding milestones, because of the risk of misaligned goals, and the impact this may have on subsequent price rounds. There are some models that create a level of optionality for founders, and others which are royalty-based, or which use a form of securitisation against future cash flows.

Meanwhile, the panel were generally not in favour of IPOs, mainly due to the additional regulatory, compliance and reporting obligations of being a public company. So it would seem their favoured exit strategy is either a trade sale or a merger, or acquisition by a private equity fund or institutional investor.

Next week: Crypto House Auction

Equity crowdfunding comes to town

Earlier this month, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) announced it had approved the first seven crowdsourced funding platforms (CSFs). It seems that after much debate, equity crowdfunding is finally open for business.

Image: Aaron Pruzaniec, sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Although not named in the ASIC media release, the seven successful applicants are:

There are significant limitations to the CSF legislation – namely:

  • the type of eligible companies (only smaller, public unlisted companies);
  • the amounts individual investors can invest (up to $10,000 per company per 12 month period); and
  • how much companies can raise (no more than $5m in any 12 month period)

Also, there is no indication as to whether other CSF license applications are still pending, or which applications may have been rejected. It may also be difficult to assess the relative merits of each platform, since there only appears to be one class of license.

Meanwhile, legislation is already in the pipeline to extend the CSF regime to proprietary companies – which would significantly expand the potential number of issuers.

Compared to some of the largest initial coin offerings (ICOs) over the past 18 months, a $5m capital raise looks like small change. If anything, ICOs took the decade-old crowdfunding experience and supercharged it with Blockchain, cryptocurrency and decentralized issuance platforms. But then, regulators tend to lag markets and technology; plus, their primary focus is protecting the interests of less sophisticated retail investors (as well as market stability).

It’s also worth remembering that a limited crowdsourced funding model has been available in Australia for several years, almost as long as crowdfunding itself: Enable Funding (formerly ASSOB) was established in 2007, but with a much more restricted license than the latest CSF legislation. (And in other countries, early-stage companies have been able to more easily raise equity capital via market listings on secondary boards of the main exchanges – e.g., Mothers in Japan, GEM in Hong Kong, and AIM in London.)

The new CSF regime (and whatever else comes in its wake) does raise a few interesting points:

1. Although expressly confined to equity issuance in the form of common shares, by giving it a more generic name, does this mean CSF will be used for other types of securities (bonds, structured finance)?

2. What expectations has ASIC placed on the number of raises, and the total amounts to be raised, over the next 3-5 years – how will it measure or define the success of CSF?

3. More importantly, where is investor money expected to come from – will investors switch from property or other assets?

4. How will the increasing practice of issuing digital tokens as traditional securities (and potentially vice versa) add to the demand for CSF platforms and services?

It’s very early days, of course, and very small scale, but judging by the response so far to one of the first companies to take advantage of the CSF legislation, investors like what they are seeing.

Next week: Australia Post and navigating the last mile

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talking Innovation with Dr Kate Cornick, CEO of LaunchVic

As a nice segue to last week’s blog on Techstars, I was fortunate to hear Dr Kate Cornick speak, just before the latest LaunchVic grants were announced. Organised by Innovation Bay, hosted by Deloitte, and facilitated by Ian Gardiner, the fireside chat plus Q&A was a useful insight on a key part of the Victorian Government’s innovation strategy.

launchviclogo innovationbay-feat-800x500At the outset, Dr Cornick stressed that LaunchVic is not an investment vehicle, and it doesn’t fund individual startups. Rather it seeks to support initiatives that help grow the local startup eco-system. (See also my blog on the consultation process that informed LaunchVic’s formation.)

Commenting on why Victoria (and Australia) has the potential to become a world-class centre for innovation, Dr Cornick pointed to a number of factors:

  • A collaborative culture
  • Positive economic conditions (comparatively speaking)
  • Governments (mostly) open to innovation
  • Strong research base

However, a few of the obstacles in our way include:

  • The notorious tall poppy syndrome, whereby Australians are suspicious, sceptical and even scathing of local success – except when it comes to sport and entertainment!
  • An inability to scale or capitalise on academic research
  • Insufficient entrepreneurial skills and experience to “get scrappy”
  • Lack of exposure for highly successful startups (c.$20m market cap) that can help attract more investment

From a startup perspective, Australia also has the wrong type of risk capital: institutional investors are more attuned to placing large bets on speculative mining assets, typically funded through public listings, and with very different financial profiles. (Or they prefer to invest in things they can see and touch – property, utilities, infrastructure, banks.)

So there is still a huge gap in investor education on startups and their requirements for early-stage funding. Part of LaunchVic’s remit is to market the local startup community, promote the success stories, and foster the right conditions to connect capital with ideas and innovation. After all, Australia does have one of the largest pool of pension fund assets in the world, and that money has to be put to work in creating economic growth opportunities.

As I have blogged before, we still see the “expensive boomerang”: Australian asset managers investing in Silicon Valley VCs, who then invest in Australian startups. Although when I raised a question about the investment preferences of our fund managers, Ian Gardiner did point out that a few enlightened institutions have invested in Australian VC funds such as SquarePeg Capital, H2 Ventures and Reinventure.

Dr Cornick also provided a reality check on startups, and added a note of caution to would-be founders:

First, it tends to be an over-glamourised sector. For one thing, founders under-estimate the relentless grind in making their business a success. And while eating pizza and pot noodles might sound like a lifestyle choice, it’s more of an economic necessity. Thus, it’s not for everyone (and not everyone should or needs to build a startup…), so aspiring entrepreneurs would be well-advised to do their homework.

Second, the success of any startup community will be reflected by industry demand. “Build it and they will come” is not a viable strategy. And I know from talking to those within the Victorian Government that unlike their inter-state counterparts, they are not willing (or able) to fund or invest in specific startups, nor in specific ventures such as a FinTech hub. Their position is that industry needs to put its money where its mouth is, and as and when that happens, the Government will look to see what support it can provide to foster and nurture such initiatives – particularly when it comes to facilitating between parties or filling in any gaps.

Third, don’t expect too many more unicorns, and don’t bank on coming up with simple but unique ideas that will conquer the world – meaning, new businesses like Facebook, Uber and Pinterest will be few and far between. Instead, drawing on her earlier comments about research, Dr Cornick predicts that it will be “back to the 90’s”, where innovation will come from “research-based, deep-tech solutions”.

If that’s the case, then the LaunchVic agenda (for the remaining 3 years of its current 4 year lifespan) will include:

  • Getting Victoria on the map, and positioning it as a global innovation hub
  • Raising the bar by educating startups and investors
  • Bringing more diversity to the startup sector, by providing greater access, striking better gender balance, and building a stronger entrepreneurial culture
  • Introducing a more transparent and interactive consultation process
  • Continuing to support the best accelerator programs that focus on startups
  • Making more frequent and smaller funding rounds, each with a specific focus

Asked what areas of innovation Victoria will be famous for, Dr Cornick’s number one pick was Healthcare, pointing to the strong research base coming out of both the Monash and Melbourne University medical precincts. Also in the running were Agriculture, and possibly Cyber-security. (Separately, there is a list of priority industries where the Government sees growth, employment and investment opportunities.)

If one of the biggest hurdles is commercializing research, Dr Cornick suggested that Universities have to re-think current IP practices, including ownership and licensing models, developing better career options in research, and doing more to re-calibrate the effort/reward equation in building research assets compared to building companies and commercial assets.

Finally, Dr Cornick offered an interesting metaphor to describe the current state of Victoria’s innovation potential:

“We have everything we need for baking a cake, but the missing ingredient is the baking powder to make it rise.”

Next week: Gigster is coming to town….