Agtech Pitch Night at SproutX

Judging by some of the news coverage, last week’s pitch night showcasing successful applicants to the SproutX agtech accelerator suggests that this will be a program worth watching. (Look out for the demo day later in the year…) With an initial cohort of 11 participants, this recent addition to Melbourne’s startup scene is showing there is an audience and a market for smart farming solutions. Founded by Findex and the National Farmers Federation, SproutX also enjoys support from Ruralco and Artesian, as well as the Victorian Government.

Given the number of pitches, my comments on each startup presentation are necessarily short:

AgriLedger

This project is driving social impact by focusing on farmers in the developing world. It offers a smart phone app that helps deliver products and services direct to farmers, such as solar power facilities and micro loans, and enables them to plan better and to share equipment with other local farmers. Currently active in Papua New Guinea, Kenya and Myanmar, AgriLedger has been supported by some high-profile NGOs and attracted some impressive backers and advocates.

However, the judges felt that the pitch didn’t contain enough of the story, or explain how it actually works.

Applant

With a tag line of “aTree in your home”, Applant has come up with a novel design for a vertical gardening system that uses aeroponics. The idea is to help people “grow more with less”, and to grow food where we live, work, eat and even play. With an underlying concept for modular food systems, Applant is about to launch a Kickstarter campaign.

The judges had hoped to learn more about the customer demand and the proposed
customer subscription model.

Bloomboxco

Delivering locally sourced and farm-fresh cut flowers direct to customers, my immediate thought was “flower miles”. Launching just recently with a monthly subscription model, Bloomboxco has already attracted around 35k followers on social media (mostly Pinterest). By its own admission, the service appeals mainly to women who enjoy contemporary design and lifestyle trends.

But the judges wanted to know what makes this business different: given that the current supply model for cut flowers is built on margin, how does Bloomboxco aim to compete?

Farmgate MSU

With their mobile slaughter unit (MSU), the team from Farmgate want to “open the gate to on-farm abattoirs”. Many farms do not have access to an abattoir thanks to industry consolidation and contraction. The MSU is designed to cut production costs, minimize animal stress, and reduce waste. While still relying on central butchery services, the MSU has the potential to add value, especially for premium products, as it can operate at smaller scale. Farmgate also benefits from having a team drawn from across the meat supply chain.

For the judges, the pitch could have done more to demonstrate the capability, and to explain what happens to waste and by-products.

Farmapp

Farmapp has developed a digitized and integrated pest management solution for greenhouse crops. Using data collected from various sensors and stored in the cloud, Farmapp uses visual analysis, helping farmers to reduce their use of pesticides and increase productivity. It is currently installed in 1200 greenhouses (mainly Columbia and Kenya).

The judges wondered about the competition, as they were aware of a number of other similar solutions.

iotag

This “fitbit for cattle” uses long-range GPS monitoring to track and manage livestock health. In addition to the setup costs for network base sensors, there is a monthly subscription fee to manage data.

There were no comments from the judges, apart from the representative from the farming community, who claimed to hate subscription services.

Smart-Bait

Smart-Bait uses sensors, cognitive APIs and programmed alerts to track feral animals. Current solutions (baiting, fencing, shooting) are either unreliable, inefficient, or non-selective. Instead, Smart-Bait is leveraging IoT and AI, and can be used offline giving further flexibility. Currently conducting farm trials, the founders say that there is government interest in the data.

For their part, the judges wanted to know if there were other applications for this technology – but more importantly, they wanted to know how it actually works.

Snaptrap

This product enables remote pest monitoring and control, especially fruit fly. It retrofits to existing systems, and has established a successful proof of concept. Snaptrap is targeting research, government and industry users, appealing to both growers and the bio-security market. Another subscription-based product, the founders claim there are many use cases, and the solution is scalable.

The judges asked about the data (what happens to it), and our farm rep again queried the use of a subscription model.

Thingc

With the goal of producing “intelligent orchestrated things”, Thingc aims to reduce the number of manual tasks and alleviate animal stress in livestock management. Using the notion of precision management, it takes data from monitoring sources and applies it yield forecasting.

The judges wanted to know “where’s the tech?”, who is the competition?, and what exactly is the end game?

TieUp Farming

TieUp uses an algo-based solution to compensate for the lack of data available for yield forecasting in horticulture. The data is being made available to farmers, industry and banks, using an aggregation of different technologies. The founders claim it to be both practical and customizable, while they see significant opportunities in South East Asia.

The judges wanted to know how it actually works, and to what degree it can support traceability of produce?

Water Save

As the name suggest, Water Save is designed to reduce water and power consumption on farms. With increased concerns about water efficiency and environmental impact of run-off on the Great Barrier Reef, Water Save uses existing irrigation monitoring systems (micro weather stations, sensors) and connects them into an integrated and networked solution. The system involves set up costs, hardware costs, and subscription fees, but a key goal is to reduce the use of fertilizers – creating both economic and environmental savings.

The judges wanted to know more about the solution for linking individual sensors, and whether it has the capability to monitor nitrates.

 

For most of these 3-minute pitches, the challenge was to tell enough of the “story” while still explaining how it works – and there was a sense that the audience understood the context as well as the problem, and probably didn’t need too much background explanation. Instead, they would have appreciated learning more about the technology and the potential to succeed – i.e, “why you?”.

Farmgate MSU was declared the winner by the judges, and voted the people’s choice by the audience.

Next week: ASIC updates – Sandbox and Crowdfunding

SportsTech and Wearables Pitch Night at Startup Victoria

Appropriately hosted within Melbourne’s Olympic Park, last week’s Startup Victoria pitch night featured four companies working in SportsTech. It was further evidence of the breadth and variety within the local startup sector even if, on this showing at least, there was a little less innovation than we have seen at other monthly pitch nights.

First, there were a couple of presentations from Catapult and Genius Tech Group, to help provide some context to the topic, especially helpful for people who may not be familiar with this sector. However, I’m not convinced that referencing Australia’s Olympic medal tally as a key rationale for building a sports technology industry necessarily set the right tone. For a start, despite some gold medal success in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 summer games, Australia has seen a rapid decline in medal performance at the past two Olympiads. Then there are the cultural and governance issues at the AOC itself.

Then came the pitches, in order of appearance (website links in the titles):

TidyHQ

With the slogan “tribes are everywhere”, this business is all about getting the off-field performance right. TidyHQ is supporting smarter sporting clubs and organisations by helping them with things like governance and succession planning, and by having all their back office operations in one place. Essentially a white label portal solution that offers branded websites (“SaaS doesn’t work in this market”), the service is designed to support grassroots clubs and associations, across all sports.

Using a freemium subscription model, the main sales channels are local and regional AFL leagues. Sales are helped by a viral effect – given that in small towns and regional areas, there is quite an overlap of club officers.

TidyHQ also takes a clip from sales of multi-stream products and services sold through their customer sites, which includes a diverse range of clients such as yoga studios, play groups, plus a number of US sororities, fraternities and law schools.

Competition comes from different quarters: vendors like TeamSnap and SportsTG; incumbent club officials and their spreadsheets; even social media. One challenge, however is managing and harnessing the “volunteer mindset” associated with community sports clubs, especially when it comes to budgets and adapting to change.

RefLIVE

This company has built an app for soccer referees that works on smart watches. Referees typically use stopwatches to record match time and stoppages which, with constant match use have an average life of 2-3 years. Yet referees also have to keep track of player substitutions, match scores as well as the yellow and red cards they hand out.

At a price point of $60 per annum for referees, and annual fees of between $5k and $50k for soccer leagues and associations, an ideal entry point for RefLIVE would seem to be local, short-form knock-out tournaments, where the full range of features can be deployed in one place.

Currently scaling to take advantage of international market opportunities, RefLIVE is currently receiving enquiries from youth soccer leagues in Japan, as well as Germany and China.

Considered to be (literally) a game changing app for the Apple smart watch, RefLIVE is
also seeing interest from AFL, Rugby Union, Rugby League and field hockey.

At the moment, the platform does not support a live back-end, and there are no real plans to distribute or commercialize the data. While live data could be pushed to a server via WiFi, a bigger obstacle is getting the refs themselves on board – even though it has the potential to enhance their on-field performance and help them with off-field administration.

Spalk

Spalk (“crowd-sourced sports commentary”) enables custom audio streaming for TV sports, via some proprietary technology to synchronise secondary content with traditional broadcasts. Due to the high costs and copyright issues associated with TV broadcast rights for professional sports (only made more complex by “over the top” platforms), Spalk is mainly licensed by broadcasters for coverage of amateur competitions.

The international basketball body, FIBA, sees an opportunity for Spalk to help drive international engagement, through the use of localised and translated commentary. However, in many cases, Spalk will need sports that retain their own D2C content rights. (Anyone familiar with the challenges of listening to overseas test matches will be aware of Guerilla Cricket, and its predecessor, Test Match Sofa.)

Part of Spalk’s “special sauce” is in integrating and synchronizing multiple audio tracks, which can provide better UX compared to social media streams and viewer posts, commentary and Tweets. Another key to success is the ability to integrate with existing broadcasting commentary technology and vendors.

SPT

Finally, SPT (sports performance tracking) is a GPS monitoring system aimed at amateur and grass-roots clubs and leagues. Offering analytics for all teams, SPT is cloud-based, multilingual and claims to be “efficient, simple, affordable”. So simple, that unlike the aforementioned Catapult, clubs don’t even need to hire sports scientists….

Currently supporting 800 clubs, and 65% of revenue coming from overseas (despite claiming to have spent only $300 on marketing), the main appeal is probably the $299 price point per device, and the core user base is amateur leagues.

SPT has so far relied on viral effects and referrals, plus an element of FOMO. While SPT may not be as sophisticated or as detailed as similar platforms used in professional sports, it has managed to demonstrate the data validation when compared to some camera-based apps. In any event, according to the founders, a 2-3% margin for error is OK for this audience. And if users can compare their own performances against those of professionals, that is an added bonus.

However, one issue facing the collection, use and sharing of sports analytics has recently surfaced in a spat between the England team manager, Gareth Southgate, and Manchester United boss, Jose Mourinho. Which may make some clubs reluctant to upload their data.

Following a tally of the judges’ votes, Spalk was declared the winner, but only by a margin of 0.25 points….

POSTCRIPT: While I think the decision to present thematic pitch nights was a good call, there are a few logistical aspects to the current series of events that the organisers need to address:

  1. Choice of venues: the room used for the sports tech pitch night had an unfortunate layout – there was a pillar right in front of the stage, which must have been off-putting for the presenters. (Also, there was only a very small screen to display the pitch deck slides, so most people in the audience wouldn’t have been able to see them.)
  2. AV tech: I’ve said this before, but organisers need to arrange for a second monitor in front of the presenters, so they don’t need to keep looking over their shoulders at their slides. And please, please check that clickers are working (or that presenters know how to use them!)
  3. Audience participation: At previous pitch nights, the MC would field questions from the audience. Now, no more. And the audience voting system (people’s choice) has gone awry. Makes it feel less engaging.

Next week: The network(ing) effect

Gaming/VR/AR pitch night at Startup Victoria

Building on the successful format that has been the mainstay of Startup Vic‘s regular meetups for the past few years, February’s pitch night kicked off a scheduled programme of thematic events for 2017. First up was Gaming, VR and AR.

Photo by Daniel C, sourced from the Startup Victoria Meetup page

Hosted as usual by inspire9, the event drew a packed crowd, no doubt helped by the impressive panel of judges assembled by the organisers:

Dr Anna Newberry, responsible for driver-assistance technologies at Ford Australia; Stefani Adams, Innovation Partner at the Australia Post Accelerator; Tim Ruse, CEO of Zero Latency; Rupert Deans, Founder and CEO of Plattar; Samantha Hurley, Co-Founder and Director of Marketing Entourage; Gerry Sakkas, CEO of PlaySide Studios; and Joe Barber, a Commercialisation Advisor to the Department of Industry and Science, a Mentor at the Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP), and angel investor.

Maintaining the tradition of this blog, I will comment on each startup pitch in the order in which they presented.

Metavents

This niche business offers an event planning app for festivals. At its heart is a tool that allows users to build a 3-D simulation of proposed events, combined with an AI capability to simulate risk management, logistics and team communications, plus a digital time capsule where event attendees can upload photos and other content.

Once licensed to event planners and organisers, the platform charges clients $1 per ticket sale, plus a 2.5% fee on donations and fees for other content and services such as the digital time capsule. In addition, Metavents is building strategic partnerships, and announced a relationship with the Vihara Foundation and its Rock Against Poverty programme from 2018.

All good so far. Then, things got a bit confusing. For example, in addition to festival and event logistics, Metavents claims to offer humanitarian support services in response to natural disasters, and emergency management capabilities for smart cities. There was also talk of a global network (linked to the UN?), and an impact investment fund.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking that the pitch was a bit disjointed and suffered from a lack of focus. But the pitch did reveal something of the founders’ core passion, and incorporated some impressive graphics – it just felt like a case of form over substance.

Second Sight

Second Sight is a game analytics service that “unlocks the secrets in player data”, by enriching existing big data sources with social media interactions. It does this by profiling players based on their behaviours, and providing this feedback and insights to game developers and product managers. Focusing on the mobile game market, Second Sight is initially targeting independent developers, and will then move on to corporate game businesses.

Second Sight’s own development path is to build automation tools first, then create a library of tasks and insights. With an estimated 1 million users (based on game statistics), 3 paying clients and another 27 beta clients, this startup is showing some promising market traction. However, there are a number of established competitors, including Omniata (which is more of a general user analytics engine, like Mixpanel or Flurry), GameAnalytics, deltaDNA and Xsolla, some of which offer free user services.

In response to the “ask”, ($500k in seed funding in return for 20% equity), the judges suggested that Second Sight might want to address the needs of a specific game sector.

Dark Shadow Studio

This presentation featured an application called Drone Legion, that merges drone experience with VR. Part simulation game, part training software, it was nice to see a demo of the app running in the background, without detracting from the pitch itself.

A key point made by the presentation is that the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), which is responsible for regulating drones in Australia, is in danger of falling behind other countries. For example, Drone Legion could be adapted to provide user training, testing and licensing before a customer buys a physical drone.

Although there are drone simulators available via Steam, they are not aimed at the general public. Drone Legion is also compatible with a range of gaming consoles.

The judges suggested that this pitch was more an individual game, rather than a business, so it was suggested that the founders should try to get funding from HTC or Oculus to build their first game. And given that one of the judges works for Australia Post (ostensibly a logistics company with a growing interest in drone technology….), there was the offer of a personal introduction.

Phoria

Phoria describes itself as an “immersive media business”, offering rapid 3-D visualisation (especially for the property development sector and the built environment),  and other services such as digital preservation.

But tonight, the pitch was about a plan to use “VR for social good”. Under the moniker “Dreamed”, Phoria is developing a niche health care solution, designing “patient experiences” to help them get out of their current care or treatment environment.

Predicated on an immersive therapy platform, Dreamed will offer a distribution service for cloud-based content, designed to be used alongside other, related assisted therapies that feature Animals, Nature and Music as stimulants for patient engagement and therapeutic outcomes. While not exactly a MedTech solution, Phoria’s “IP special sauce” is the use of VR as a constant dynamic feedback loop, which presumably learns from and adapts to user interaction and monitoring of appropriate patient diagnostics.

So, who pays for the service? Hopefully, hospitals will, especially if they can demonstrate reduced therapy costs and patient treatment times. (Maybe there will also be a consumer market alongside existing meditation apps?) But with some early-stage and potentially high-profile research underway via the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Phoria and Dreamed look to be making steady progress, notwithstanding the normally slow pace of medical research. Key to the research outcomes will be user acceptance and ease of service and content delivery, although a large number of unknowns remain in the context of the medical benefits. Meanwhile, Phoria continues to serve its core property market.

Finally, something which I found somewhat surprising, according to the presentation, there is no VR content licensing model currently available. Sounds like a job for a decentralized digital asset management and licensing registry (such as MyBit?).

On the night, and based on the judges’ votes, Phoria took out first place honours.

Next week: The Future of Work = Creativity + Autonomy

 

A few rules on pitching

As regular readers will be aware, I have watched a lot of startup pitches over the past 4 years: the good, the bad, and the plain ugly. Having experienced rather too many of the latter in recent weeks (the names have been withheld to protect the guilty…) I started jotting down a few practical rules on managing the technical logistics of your pitch.

Source: Scientific American, via Wikimedia

The art of pitching (Source: Scientific American, via Wikimedia)

Rule #1 Check Your Tech

That’s everything from the computer drive/USB to the projector and screen, from the mic to the PA, and all cables and connections in between. As in most things, the last mile in the delivery chain can seriously let you down. Plus, simply knowing how to hold and use a mic would be a bonus!

Rule #2 No Videos

Yes, I know videos can be “cool”, but in a pitch setting they end up being a distraction, and I feel that the use of videos can be a cop-out – like you couldn’t be bothered to prepare a proper deck. (Remember those lazy teachers at school who would prefer to show some ancient “educational film” rather than actually teach their subject?)

Plus, embedded web links and the myriad of different formats and hardware compatibility mean videos are notoriously prone to fail. Leave them out.

(As regards the use of live demos or live website connections, this really depends on the nature of the pitch event, and how reliable the technology is. While I have seen some great examples of live app demos, equally, I’ve seen otherwise good pitches derailed by slow internet connections…..)

Rule #3 Check Fonts, Colours, Slide Transition & Automation

As with video compatibility, different slide formats will likely render differently from device to device, from projector to projector. My suggestion is to create your deck with one of the most commonly-used software formats (i.e., not necessarily the latest open source graphics package that no-one else has heard of…), use universal fonts and colours wherever possible, and keep slide transition and animation simple.

Rule #4 Block audio interference over the PA

One recent pitch event I attended was beset with tech problems, including noise from another source that cut into the PA. This was not the fault of the teams pitching, but their presentations suffered as a result. Some simple planning, like making sure the PA is a closed loop or that wireless equipment isn’t on an open channel.

Rule #5 Clickers

Anything that keeps the tech “invisible” is a bonus, and a remote clicker can really make a difference for presenters who don’t have to stand behind/near a laptop or steer via a mouse. But, like all the other bits of tech, not all clickers are equal, and so a bit of familiarization is in order. And used poorly, they can become a distraction, or worse, a prop that becomes like a crutch. Again, it’s about the last mile of delivery, and making sure the tech has been tested in advance.

Rule #6 Know Your Audience

This might seem obvious, but as well as understanding the event format (and any competition rules if applicable), find out who you will be pitching to: is it an audience of fellow startup founders, or investors, or potential customers? What might be the general level of awareness for your industry, product or business model? Who are the judges? Who do you need to impress most? What would be the most important contact you could make as a result of your pitch?

Rule #7 Make The Organisers Accountable for the Tech

In all of this, there is a huge responsibility placed on hosts, venues and tech support at startup events to make sure the technology is there to help, not hinder, the pitch presentations. While organisers can’t necessarily determine the quality of the content, or the presenters’ performance, they can make sure each pitch is competing on a equal tech basis.

Ideally, presenters should all be using the same PC or device, to reduce changeover time and equipment errors. Even better if the decks can be loaded in advance, and each presenter is given time for an AV check beforehand. I also recommend event hosts and venues consider using monitor screens placed in front of the presenters, so they don’t have to keep looking over their shoulders at the big screen – this is especially helpful in large audience settings.

Finally, if the format requires more than one person at a time to be speaking, please make sure they each have a separate microphone……

Next week: The Maker Culture