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

 

Startup Vic’s SportsTech Pitch Night

Last month’s Startup Vic’s Pitch Night featured SportsTech, one of the semi-regular topics in Startup Vic’s themed pitch nights. Hosted by LaunchVic at the Victorian Innovation Hub, supported by the Sports Geek podcast and Track, Victoria University’s sports partnership institute.

In a new partnership between Startup Vic and LaunchVic, upcoming pitch nights will feature EdTech, Diversity and HealthTech. Meanwhile, back to the sport. The competing pitches were (links in the names):

Benchvote

Describing itself as a Sports Fan Engagement Platform, Benchvote has a tag line of “the Canva of creating high performing digital campaigns for sport”. Covering marketing, sponsorship and commercial, the platform claims to achieve 50%+ conversion rates on campaigns, partly achieved through a gamification aspect to appeal to fans.

The platform offers campaign templates, drives social media traffic to users’ own websites,
thereby converting that traffic into firm leads. It also has the potential to support other related verticals – including entertainment, media and betting. The proprietary nature of the solution is the combination of a SaaS model plus insights algorithms.

Asked by the judges about customisation versus scaling, we were told that it is a totally white label solution. Although the platform can support agencies as well as product providers with creative content and digital assets, the preference is to let clients do their own (given the business origins as an agency turned software company).

In terms of the competitor landscape, it’s between agency solutions and software services on one hand, and integrated platforms and single solutions on the other.

Potentially integrating ticketing data, the team are also looking at international expansion, and are in the middle of a raise.

MarineVerse

This is a VR sailing platform, that claims to be “Democratising sailing by enable people to sail in VR”. A big call.

Already running a VR Regatta competition, the team is building a community of clubs, members, and daily races. There’s also a VR sailing classroom, with the MarineVerse Cup – a two-week event – to come. Competition exists in the form of Virtual Regatta, which is actually a non-VR, e-sports platform.

Offering a $10 per month subscription model, MarineVerse is banking on the new
Oculus Crest device to boost adoption. The business has been bootstrapped for three years, and is experiencing 8% monthly growth.

Targeting a demographic of 30-55 year olds who are cashed-up and time rich, the team are also developing multiplayer races. The judges asked if there was potential to support high-performance training and use player data for predictive performance or behaviour.

Unite

A platform for sports club and team administration, Unite developed by Eastwood sports tech offers apps such as training calendars, fixtures management, media engagements, sponsor obligations and travel planning. Designed to help manage “Commitments to the team and individual level”, Unite offers a B2B subscription module (individual team players are the actual users) for professional, semi-professional, e-sport and collegiate teams.

Although TeamWorks is a major competitor, in fact there is much more competition at the grass-roots level, because peak bodies and administrators want to own the data. Currently at the working prototype stage, with an MVP. The service is designed to manage and approve player activities and such as media commitments, sponsorship and endorsements. It is built as a hosted SaaS using AWS security features, sitting behind the  club’s own fire wall.

Wedge Pro

As the name suggests, this device is all about “The Art of Wedge Play”, designed to reduce player handicap, and help with short game training, especially lifted wedge shots. According to the pitch, many amateur players suffer from poor technique, poor distance control, and lack confidence.

Apparently, there is a $2 billion global market for golf accessories, such as this physical attachment which launches a monitor linked to an app.

A 2017 winner at the La Trobe Accelerator Program, the team is looking for an app developer for data capture. While offering post-sales service and device re-calibration (for adjustments according to player height, the cord length matrix and player handicap), judges wondered if there was also the opportunity for VR applications as well as the kinaesthetic experience. Asked about distribution, the team mentioned getting the product into golf shops and pro shops (without providing any specifics), while building a brand for a suite of golf tech products.

After all the cotes were counted, the People’s Choice was Unite while MarineVerse was the Judge’s favourite.

Next week: FinTech Fund Raising

Startup Governance

The recent debacle involving LaunchVic and 500 Startups comes at a time when startups and entrepreneurs are facing increased public scrutiny over their ethical behaviour. Having a great idea, building an innovative or disruptive business, and attracting investors is not carte blanche to disregard corporate governance and social responsibility obligations. So how do we instil a better “moral compass” among startups and their founders?

The TV sitcom, “Silicon Valley”, is drawn from experience of the software industry, but it also reveals much that ails the startup economy. As funny as it is, the series also highlights some painful truths. Scenes where founders “trade” equity in their non-existent companies are just one aspect of how startups can develop an over-inflated sense of their own worth. These interactions also reveal how startups can reward inappropriate behaviour – if sweat equity is the only way founders can “pay” their team, it can lead to distorted thinking and impaired judgement, because the incentive to go along with poor decision-making is greater than the threat of any immediate sanction.

A key challenge for any startup is knowing when to seek external advice – not just legal, tax or accounting services, but an independent viewpoint. Many startups don’t bother (or need) to establish a board of directors – and if they do, they normally consist of only the founders and key shareholders. The role of independent, non-executive directors is probably under-valued by startups. But even an advisory board (including mentors who may already be guiding the business) would allow for some more formal and impartial debate.

Another challenge for startups is that in needing to attract funding, they can find themselves swimming with the sharks, so doing due diligence on potential investors is a critical task in building a sustainable cap table that will benefit the longer term aims of the business.

Equally, if startup founders are motivated to “do their own thing”, because they are driven by purpose or a higher cause, or they simply want to make a difference, they can risk having to compromise their values in order to engage with bigger, more-established companies. So they may end up emulating the very behaviours they sought to change or challenge. Neither startups nor big corporations have a monopoly on unethical behaviour, but if founders stray from their original founding principles, they will soon alienate their stakeholders.

Finally, nurturing the “conscience” of a startup is not something that should be left to the founder(s) alone. The vision has to be shared with, and owned by everyone involved, especially as the business scales. Everything should be measured or tested against this criteria – “does it stay true to or enhance our reason for being here?” Without a clear sense of what is important to a startup, it will also struggle to convey its core value proposition.

Next week: Digital Richmond

 

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….