CSIRO – what price #innovation?

Last week Startup Victoria invited scientists and researchers from CSIRO to come and talk about some of the projects they are currently working on. Around 400 people turned up to listen to fascinating presentations on flexible solar panels, 3-D titanium printing, flexible OLED lighting, robotics, wearable kinetic dynamos powering textile-based battery storage systems, high-speed instrumentation using FPGA, and micro-manufacturing processes.

logoFrom the outset, the emphasis of each presentation was on the practical application of these inventions. The goal of the evening was to encourage entrepreneurs and founders from the startup community to connect and engage with CSIRO’s project teams. There was an open invitation to co-operate with CSIRO, via R&D, prototyping, IP licensing and commercialisation initiatives.

The evening was generously sponsored by Cogent, PwC, Elance-oDesk and BlueChilli, hosted by inspire9, and ably compered by Leni Mayo; and in place of the usual Startup Alley was a team of experts offering free advice to startups, organised by Two Square Pegs.

As well as showcasing its latest developments in nano-technology, materials, fabrication, energy generation and workplace automation, CSIRO wanted to remind the audience that they have development and test facilities, which are available for commercial use at very economic rates to the right sort of project. It’s all part of a broader charm offensive, in part designed to raise awareness of the great innovation that has come out of CSIRO (e.g., WiFi…), in part to counter the challenges of reduced government funding ($111m in cuts over 4 years).

To me, CSIRO would appear to be pretty good value for money based on the $700m+ government contribution (which probably accounts for about 70% of current budget). CSIRO generates income from industry for research and other services, and earns royalties from patents and other IP it licenses. But its challenge is to demonstrate its true economic value, either as a contribution to GDP, or as a return on investment to the government (and to the wider community).

On the one hand, CSIRO is not an investment vehicle – yet on one level it operates as an early-stage VC fund, identifying which projects to “invest” in, and securing commercial returns via patents and other licensing streams. Nor is CSIRO a listed company, but without the benefit of its research and inventions, many companies traded on the ASX might not be as financially successful.

Ironically, CSIRO has been involved in research on the future of Australia’s $1.4tn superannuation assets – part of the effort to work out how to put these assets to better use, both to generate more sustainable income for Australian retirees, and to ensure the nation is investing in the right sort of infrastructure, innovation and international growth opportunities.

Traditionally, superannuation funds and other institutional investors have shied away from early-stage projects, especially home-grown startups, either because they are deemed too risky, or because the technology is not well understood. Yet some investors are willing to allocate part of their funds to Silicon Valley VC’s, only to see some of that money flow back into innovative Australian startups (a phenomenon I have previously described as an “expensive boomerang”.)

I’m no economist, but if there was some analysis done on the value of the “CSIRO Dividend”, it would both be able to secure current government funding, and attract long-term funding via the Future Fund or similar investment vehicle.

Post Script: Soon after this post was published, the Federal Government announced its Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda, which among other things is seeking to generate a better return on investment on for innovation.

Next week: The Three Pillars Driving the Online Economy


Show me the money! (or: Startup Anxiety…)

Last week’s Lean Startup Melbourne event was entitled Doubts to Dollars – dealing with early stage uncertainty in startups and drew a crowd of close to 400 people, making this regular forum as THE networking venue for the local startup scene.

Of course, the evening’s festivities would not have been possible without the generous support of our hosts, inspire9, and sponsors BlueChilli, Startup Victoria, the Startup Foundation and the Kussowski Brothers. To kick-off proceedings, Daniel Mumby from the Startup Foundation pitched at older would-be entrepreneurs (“those with responsibilities like families, jobs, mortgages…”) in support of his organisation’s new accelerator program, which kicks off this month, under the banner of “Think and Break Free”. Next, a team of successful entrepreneurs was assembled, to discuss key startup topics, including:

  • Idea
  • Team
  • Finance
  • Product/Market Fit

On the panel were:

  • Sydney Low, co-founder of former Australian ISP, Freeonline back at the dawn of the century. (Check out his YouTube channel for some marketing archeology from the early days of web surfing, when internet access was dial-up, iPhones were a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye, and “social media” meant the gossip column in your tabloid newspaper.)
  • Samantha Cobb, who is founding CEO at biotech AdAlta, and who has a background in IP commercialisation.
  • Justin Dry, co-founder at wine startup Vinomofo, and one of the people behind Qwoff, an online community for wine enthusiasts.

The initial discussion covered some of the basics to consider before launching your own startup venture, such as product testing, market analysis, listening to customers, getting honest with yourself, and protecting your IP. There was also a surfing analogy – about timing/positioning yourself to catch and ride the wave, rather than trying to paddle out to the breaker….There were also some very personal observations (including painful lessons) such as how to deal with failure (“keep pivoting, fail fast”), maintaining staff motivation when deals don’t complete, the importance of building prototypes (“even if it’s just a PowerPoint slide”), and the value of having confidants (on the board, and among key investors). However, the evening’s recurring theme, dear to many past, present and future startup founders and entrepreneurs, was all about the money – not just where it comes from in the early days of any startup (angel investors, venture capital and private equity); but how easily it can disappear.

The panel of speakers emphasised the importance of cashflow (i.e., “making payroll”), and knowing how fast or how far your money may need to go in early stage growth and the initial product development stages:

First, assuming you are not fully self-funding, you need to convince an investor of your idea. Both the team and the investors need to believe in the founders.

Second, really challenge your market/product fit – be open to telling people what you are doing so you can get validation. (Note to local startups: the Australian culture, whether it’s the tall-poppy syndrome, or a lack of trust, means people tend to hide new ideas…)

Third, work out what your cash burn rate might need to be. Stick to the capex budget as much as possible, manage the milestones (“next step of value”), and be prepared to double the costs/double the development time. Maybe spend more on marketing than on the product development – better to have an MVP that is bringing in revenue, than waiting for the perfect product that never ships….

Finally, a member of the audience wondered about the best route to establishing a startup: “should I learn to code, work for another startup, or get a job at a big firm?”. The succinct advice from the panel: “just do it.” While it may be tempting to do side projects to keep the money coming in, they may prevent you from making progress (or they become the startup). As one participant put it when describing his own new startup venture: “there is no Plan B; it’s Plan A or bust!”

POSTCRIPT TO JANUARY’S LEAN STARTUP MELBOURNE: In an earlier blog on Lean Startup Melbourne, I discussed some of the obstacles facing local startups in getting funding, and the challenge of engaging institutional investors in the startup community. Two recent developments suggest that debate on this topic is starting to gain some traction:

1) Catherine Livingston, incoming President of the Business Council of Australia, spoke on ABC Radio National about the need to connect institutional funds with domestic assets and investment opportunities that tend to get overlooked by local investors (at about 6′ 15″ into the interview).

2) Westpac bank has called for industry and regulator collaboration to provide better access to financial data on startups, and SMEs in general, in support of developing risk-based funding options for new businesses.

Demo Day for MAP’s Class of 2013 Startups

The Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP) supported by University of Melbourne’s School of Engineering and Faculty of Business and Economics is only in its second year, but already shows signs of becoming a leading incubator of new and emerging entrepreneurial talent in the burgeoning Melbourne startup community.

Last week was Demo Day (a.k.a. pitch night) for the 6 successful teams who were selected from over 50 applications submitted for the 2013 program. Presenting to an audience of fellow entrepreneurs, potential investors, program mentors and “interlopers” (a term used by Dr Charlie Day in his introduction), each team was invited to present the fruits of their labours from the 3-month accelerator program.

To kick things off, there was a quick update on the Class of 2012, including the team behind the new Omny audio app, which offers curated audio content.

From the Class of 2013, first up was 2Mar Robotics, who are developing a remote-controlled robotic arm, aimed at helping people with quadriplegia or with restricted arm movement and control. An earlier, voice-operated prototype proved unstable due to interference from background noise, but the team, led by Young Australian of the Year 2012, Marita Cheng (and founder of Robogals) have already secured a number of pre-orders for the latest version, which they hope to ship in early 2014. While it is understandable that the team would want to keep key commercial aspects of their project confidential, the less-than-open responses to audience questions about product costs and market pricing created the impression that the team are still developing their business case.

The next project, also healthcare-related, was from Cortera Neurotechnologies, who specialise in remote monitoring sensors for epilepsy patients. The team’s goal, using highly developed neural interface technology, is to significantly reduce the risk of infection caused by major invasive surgery for the 30% of epilepsy sufferers who are unable to take medication. Despite some theoretical discourse and good-natured banter with the audience about cyborgs and mind control interfaces, the team (which is divided between Melbourne Uni and UC Berkeley) is well on its way to securing prototype funding.

Client Catalyst offers digital marketing services for SMEs, via mobile websites and integrated search solutions. Given that nearly half of all mobile searches are for local services, the solution has targeted the trade vertical (plumbers, builders, electricians, etc.) which accounts for about 25% of the SME market. Claiming much lower customer acquisition costs for their clients (compared to traditional classified directories), and a very high client conversion rate, the team has established a solid subscription business that more than covers their primary input cost of paid search terms.

By using highly intuitive data visualisation and enhanced search, the team behind The Price Geek claim to have established a major competitive edge over other price comparison sites, in their bid to help you “find out the market price for anything” (although currently, it really only covers tech devices, sneakers, and Tiger Woods memorabilia…). They have built affiliate programs with multiple merchants, giving them more market sources, more contributed content, and more data analytics. The site has already picked up some strong media coverage, and in future, The Price Geek plans to offer price comparison for cars.

Before commenting on Ebla, a self-publishing platform for lawyers, I should declare an interest: I previously worked for the legal information division of Thomson Reuters, including the Westlaw online service. So, IMHO, anyone who is attempting to bring a new technology solution to informed legal commentary and analysis deserves a lot of credit, especially if, as intended, the service empowers individual lawyers to showcase their expertise in a collaborative and adductive environment. Contrary to some popular misconception, the legal profession (along with financial services) was one of the first industries to embrace the digital age*. Yet consider this: the sheer volume of legislation, case-law and commentary; the complexity of the material and its many idiosyncrasies (e.g., case citation systems); the proprietary nature of much document drafting; and the “knowledge is power” approach to researching obscure precedents before facing your opponent in court – all these factors tend to work against the notion of knowledge sharing and collaboration among lawyers. (I have heard of some law firms that embed deliberate mistakes in their commercial drafting templates, to deter plagiarism by their competitors if the originals were to fall into the wrong hands.) Access to the site, which is still in Beta, is by invitation only, and will offer a freemium subscription model.

The last team to present was SwatchMate, with a Bluetooth-enabled reader that helps users to “capture the color of any surface” (or “Shazam for color”). I have to say that when I first saw this team present at a Lean Startup Melbourne event earlier this year, I was somewhat sceptical about the product, as they seemed to be focussing on the paint market (both trade and DIY customers), yet didn’t appear to realise that most people only paint their home once every 5-7 years. However, I am pleased to report that SwatchMate have since lifted their game, by identifying strong opportunities among designers and creatives, brand managers, the cosmetics industry, and even TV and monitor calibration. With linkages to major design software, as well as to leading colour and paint catalogues, SwatchMate will offer an integrated solution once they go into production. Meanwhile, they are planning to launch on Kickstarter, and are a finalist at next week’s Melbourne Design Awards (plus shortlisted for the Sydney and Brisbane Design Awards)**.

Applications for MAP 2014 close on April 24, and there are also opportunities to participate as a mentor (full details not yet available).

* Lawyers love their technology: The Wang word processing system was eagerly adopted by law firms in the 1970s and 1980s, for its ability to support complex document formatting. Online legal research tools like Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis were launched in the 1970s. Some of the first CD-ROM and web-based law publications in the 1990s deployed specialised html coding and Boolean logic designed for legal search and retrieval purposes. Many law firms use sophisticated knowledge management systems to capture the in-house expertise of their lawyers. Court reporting and litigation support tools have been using advanced voice recognition, extensive text parsing and real-time data capture and processing for many years.

** Declaration of interest: I am currently involved with the Design Awards, although I have no say in the selection of shortlisted entries or finalists.