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

Victorian Tech Startup Week

Last week, I mentioned that Australia’s headline employment numbers appeared to be making a strong post-lockdown recovery – however, the latest ABS data shows that while the unemployment rate has declined, the overall participation rate has remained the same, and the underemployment rate has actually increased. “Underemployed” is defined by the ABS as the number of “employed people who would prefer, and are available for, more hours of work than they currently have”. For many people, the traditional solution to bridging the gap between the amount of work they have, and the amount they want, is to juggle multiple part-time jobs, while others may choose to seek freelance work. Another approach is to create your own role, by becoming a startup founder, or joining a startup.

Of course, as I have written elsewhere, startups might not be for everyone. But until you try (or at least explore the idea), how will you know? This was one theme to have emerged from the recent Victorian Tech Startup Week, hosted by YBF Melbourne, with support from OVHcloud, AirTree Ventures, Silicon Beach Melbourne, the Victorian Government and YBF’s network of mentors, programme partners and community of members.

In part an effort to rekindle the local community of startups, in part a celebration of YBF’s Startup Immersion Programme, the week also showcased the benefits of co-working, and included sessions on startup funding, R&D grants, engaging with corporate clients, and a pitch night (more on that next week).

Of course, as a YBF member, and having worked with startups and founders for more than 10 years, I’m naturally biased. I have been working from their Melbourne co-working facility for the past two years (lock-down permitting), and I have been attending events and workshops there for many years (including participating in my very first hackathon….). I have also worked with some of their earliest startup founders.

Even though I am used to working from home and working remotely, the value of being on-site with other startup teams and founders within a supportive environment cannot be overestimated. And it’s not just about access to great facilities, and the many benefits that YBF offers. For one thing, as a member I get invited to meetings and events not open to the wider public. For another, I can host clients and other visitors without having to maintain my own office. But most of all, it’s the opportunity for chance encounters with potential clients, partners and suppliers, often triggered by casual conversations by the coffee machine or during other networking sessions.

A few years ago, it was reported that there were over 300 co-working spaces in Australia, and more then 80 of them in the Melbourne area alone. I’m not sure what those numbers are now, post-pandemic, especially as offices in Melbourne are still not back to full operating capacity. Nevertheless, co-working spaces are in demand again as (ex-)employees consider their future career options in light of the COVID recession, and as startups and their founders are expected to support the anticipated economic growth in areas like new technology, sustainability, smart manufacturing, healthcare and financial services. Of course, before making a decision on where to locate your new business or where to start co-working, it pays to do your due diligence.

Next week: Victorian Tech Startup Week – Pitch Night

Startupbootcamp – Melbourne FinTech Demo Day

Taking its cue from some of the economic effects of the current pandemic, the latest Startupbootcamp Melbourne FinTech virtual demo day adopted the theme of  financial health and well-being. When reduced working hours and layoffs revealed that many that people did not have enough savings to last 6 weeks, let alone 6 months, lock-down and furlough have not only put a strain on public finances, they have also revealed the need for better education on personal finance and wealth management. Meanwhile, increased regulation and compliance obligations (especially in the areas of data privacy, cyber security and KYC) are adding huge operational costs for companies and financial institutions. And despite the restrictions and disruptions of lock-down, the latest cohort of startups in the Melbourne FinTech bootcamp managed to deliver some engaging presentations.

Links to each startup are in the names:

Datacy

Datacy allows people to collect, manage and sell their online data easily and transparently, and gives businesses instant access to high quality and bespoke consumer datasets. They stress that the data used in their application is legally and ethically sourced. Their process is also designed to eliminate gaps and risks inherent in many current solutions, which are often manual, fragmented and unethical. At its heart is a Chrome or Firefox browser extension. Individual consumers can generate passive income from data sales, based on user-defined permissions. Businesses can create target data sets using various parameters. Datacy charges companies to access the end-user data, and also takes a 15% commission on every transaction via the plugin – some of which is distributed to end-users, but it wasn’t clear how that works. For example, is it distributed in equal proportions to everyone, or is it weighted by the “value” (however defined or calculated) of an individual’s data?

Harpocrates Solutions

Harpocrates Solutions provides a simplified data privacy via a “compliance compliance as a service” model. Seeing itself as part of the “Trust Economy”, Harpocrates is making privacy implementations easier. It achieves this by monitoring and observing daily regulatory updates, and capturing the relevant changes. It then uses AI to manage a central repository, and to create and maintain tailored rules sets.

Mark Labs

Mark Labs helps asset managers and institutional investors integrate environmental and social considerations into their portfolios. With increased investor interest in sustainability, portfolio managers are adopting ESG criteria in to their decision-making, and Mark Labs helps them in “optimising the impact” of their investments. There are currently an estimated $40 trillion of sustainable assets under management, but ESG portfolio management is data intensive, complex and still emerging both as an analytical skill and as a practical portfolio methodology. Mark Labs helps investors to curate, analyze and communicate data on their portfolio companies, drawing on multiple database sources, and aligning to UN Sustainable Development Goals. The founders estimate that there are $114 trillion of assets under management “at risk” if generational transfer and investor mandates shift towards more ESG criteria.

MassUp

MassUp is a digital white label solution for the property and casualty insurance industry (P&C), designed to sell small item insurance at the consumer point-of-sale (POS).
Describing their platform as a “plug and sell” solution, the founders noted that 70% of portable items are not covered by insurance policies, and many homes and/or contents are either uninsured or under-insured. MassUp is intended to simplify the process (“easy, accessible, online”), and will be launching in Australia under the Sorgenfrey brand in Q2 2021. For example, a product known as “The Flat Insurance” will cover items in and out of your home for a single monthly premium. As MassUp appears to be a tech solution, rather than a policy issuer, underwriter or re-insurer, I couldn’t see how they can achieve competitive policy rates both at scale and with simplicity (especially the claims process). Also, as we know, vendors love to “upsell” insurance on tech appliances, but many such policies have been seen to be redundant when considering existing statutory consumer rights and product warranties. On the other hand, short-term insurance policies (e.g., when I’m traveling, or on holiday, or renting out my home on AirBnB) are increasingly of interest to some consumers.

OnTrack Retirement

Ontrack provides B2B white label digital retirement planning solutions for financial institutions to help their customers in a more personalised way. There is a general consumer reluctance to pay for financial advice, but retirement planning is deemed too complicated. Taking an “holistic” approach, the founders claim to have developed a “best in class simulation engine” – founded on expected retirement spending priorities (rather than trying to predict the cost of living in 20 years’ time). Drawing on their industry experience, the founders stated that a key challenge for many financial planning providers is getting members comfortable with your service. I would also add that reducing complexity with cost-effective products is also key – and financial education forms a big part of the solution.

In Australia, the past 10 years has seen a major exit from the financial planning and wealth management industry – both at the individual adviser level (higher professional qualification requirements, increased compliance costs, and the end of trailing sales commissions in favour of “fee for advice”); and at the institutional level (3 of the big 4 banks have essentially withdrawn from offering financial planning and wealth management services). At the same time, there have been a number of new players – including many non-bank or non-financial institution providers – offering so-called robo-advice and “advice at scale”, mainly designed to reduce costs. In addition, the statutory superannuation regime keeps being tweaked so it is increasingly difficult to plan for the future, with the constant tax and other changes. Superannuation (a key success story of the Keating government) is just one of the “pillars” of personal finance in retirement: the others are the Commonwealth government aged pension (means-tested), personal wealth management (e.g., investments outside of superannuation); and retirement housing (with the expectation of more people opting to remain in their own homes). I would also include earnings from part-time employment while in “retirement”, as people work longer into older age (either from choice or necessity) – how that aligns with the aged pension and/or self-funded retirement is another part of the constantly-shifting tax and social security regime.

Plastiq.it

This product describes itself as a customer data platform that powers stored value, and was described as a “Safe harbour” solution (I’m not quite sure that’s what the founders meant in this context?). According to the pitch, consumers gain a fair and equitable outcome (consumer discounts), while retailers get targeted audiences. The team have created a vertically integrated gift card platform (working with MasterCard, Apple Pay and GooglePay), and launched JamJar, a cashback solution.

RegRadar

Similar to Harpocrates (above), RegRadar is a regulatory screening platform that helps companies “to set routes and avoid crashes”. The tool monitors regulatory changes (initially in the financial, food and healthcare sectors) and uses a pro-active process to developing a regulatory screening strategy, backed by analysis and a decision-support tool.

Having worked in legal, regulatory and compliance publishing for many years myself, I appreciate the challenge companies face when trying to keep up with the latest regulations, especially where they may be subject to multiple regulatory bodies within and across multiple jurisdictions. However, improved technology such as smart decision-support tools for building and maintaining rules-based business systems has helped enormously. In addition, most legislation is now online, so it can be searched more easily and monitored via automated alerts. Plus services such as Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis can also help companies track what is currently “good” or “bad” law by tracking court decisions, law reports and legislative updates. 

Next week: Goodbye 2020

Antler Virtual Demo Day

As with other virtual demo days I have attended this year, it was remarkable to hear how far the teams in Antler’s Sydney Cohort #3 had progressed in light of the current pandemic and associated lock-down restrictions.

Each participating team was categorised into an industry sector:

Consumer Tech

Remote Social is designed to connect remote and hybrid teams. The ethos is that with the shift in working patterns (heightened by the current pandemic) corporate culture and organisational engagement are “at risk”. The solution aims to foster socialisation and build culture through curated games and activities. Claiming to have generated over 200 organic signups, including team members at big tech brands, the founders are adopting a “bottom, land and expand” customer acquisition strategy. In addition to a seat-based subscription model, the platform will also offer a revenue share for marketplace providers.

Coder One claims to be “the home for AI sports”. The team describe their project as an API platform for AI games, with unique combination of AI and e-sports. The goal is to make AI and programming more accessible via an AI Sports League, where bots compete, programmed by developers. With more than 250 registrations for an upcoming competition, the team are also looking to secure sponsorship deals. The commercial model has three components: free access to programs for developers, individual subscription fees to access games/tournaments, and corporate fees to access talent for potential recruitment.

Feather is an online platform which enables instructors and creators to deliver and monetise their digital services. According to the founders, existing tools are not fit for purpose, complex or clunky. Initially targeting yoga teachers, the solution will sell tiered subscriptions, plus take a small revenue share. The team also see themselves as part of the “creator economy”, but I was confused by the name – is it a deliberate attempt to suggest a link to Dumbo Feather magazine? Plus, there was some feedback that the platform may be vulnerable once tools like Zoom start putting up more pay walls.

Tactiq is a tool to “capture valuable insights from remote meetings”. The founders claim it can be used with any conferencing software, and is platform agnostic (although currently limited to a Google Meet via a Chrome Extension). The product, essentially “speech to text plus”, also generates AI assisted summaries, and the team has attracted over 100,000 users from around 4,500 organisations. Pricing is $9 per user per month, plus $20 per month to access team functionality. While the team appears to know and understand their target users, they were questioned about privacy and security issues. Although the transcription content is not stored on the platform, my experience of other similar tools is that once they are integrated, they have a tendency to “take over” and insert themselves, unprompted, into e-mail and calendar applications – “you seem to have a meeting now – would you like me to record it?”

SaaS

Upflowy wants to help B2B companies improve their customer conversion rates. Intended to be a “no-code” sign-up engine, the team explained that from their experience, in-house developers tend to focus on product features, rather than improving the sign-up experience. Typically, in-house sign-up optimisation is slow, expensive or totally non-existent – the key issues being scaleability and reliability. Essentially a form builder, the solution enables A/B testing, and claims to deliver a 40% improvement in conversion rates (compared to 17% improvement achieved with other optimization tools).

Flow of Work Co is positioning itself as the “Future of Work SaaS”. With a mission to help companies to retain the best people, it is HR tech using AI in the form of a smart matching engine to identify in-house talent, based on proprietary ontology. It also helps employees to find development resources, as well as to match projects with in-house talent. According to the founders, talented staff leave because they are bored or lack career development. With an initial focus on software companies, the team then plans to tackle the financial services sector. The team was asked about integration with existing HR tech stacks, and how they ensure objective assessment of competing project candidates – but it wasn’t so clear how they achieve either.

Portant is an end-to-end project reporting tool, designed to be a “consolidated single source of truth”. Asked why existing project management tools don’t work, the founders identified a number of factors: teams are using different tools, the process is often repetitive and/or highly manual, or project tracking typically relies on data from different sources. The team have launched an MVP on Google Workspace Marketplace, and will soon launch on Microsoft AppSource (and appears to use AWS Comprehend as the analytical tool?). There is an SaaS pricing model, and content privacy is ensured via end-to-end encryption plus the use of private keys.

StackGo helps clients achieve stronger B2B sales via SaaS marketplaces, rather than relying on direct sales. However, the initial setup costs and effort required to connect to existing SaaS marketplaces can be daunting. With an approach based on “build once, deploy many”, StackGo enables users to connect to multiple SaaS marketplaces via a single solution. However, the team, did not explain what the setup costs are for StackGo nor were they very specific about the price range or typical sales value their clients achieve – “free to hundreds of dollars per month”.

EdTech

GradVantage wants to reduce the cost of getting graduates job ready, and reckons it can save employers $30k per new hire. Offering a personalised learning experience for each user, the founders have adopted a “Slack” model – team first, then enterprise sale. Acknowledging that the EdTech sector is crowded, the team think their point of differentiation is the fact that they are a career-entry solution, and not in the K-12 market. The focus is on tech talent and SaaS vendors. Employers pay per learner, and the platform saves time and reduces on-boarding costs. Typically, 30% of program content is about tech applications, and 70% on how to use the tech. A more fundamental issue is the huge gap between university courses and actual job requirements.

HealthTech

eQALY is an integrated tech platform that enables the elderly to achieve a higher quality of life in their own home, by predicting their individual needs in advance, and identifying the right Home Care Package funding (which can be worth up to $26k). Using 360 degree data inputs, a risk model, and a proactive care plan, the product takes into account client needs as well as family concerns, plus financial considerations. Although the aged care industry is regarded as being slow to adopt new technology, the founders plan to focus on aged care organisations, who will then distribute predictive data and analytics to care providers and managers. The platform is tech agnostic but IoT devices, AI tools and virtual assistants can be integrated, plus new voice analysis technology is emerging that can monitor client well-being, and
all of the activity monitoring tech is passive. meaning the end user does not have to worry about learning new applications.

Retail and E-Commerce

The One Two is a very specific, and very targeted, D2C solution offering a hyperpersonalised service for fitting and buying bras. According to the founders, current customer experience suffers from ill-fitting products, poor product design, bad materials, and inadequate size configurations. As a result, customers feel overwhelmed and give up. The basic product IP has been tested, along with an on-line measuring and fitting tool, combining to provide better customer diagnosis and product tips. The team have already secured a startup partnership with a global lingerie manufacturer and distributor.

m8buy did not make much sense to me. Maybe I’m the wring demographic, but why would anyone want to “shop online with [their] friends”? Describing itself as “a social layer on any e-commerce store”, it feels like this is aimed at the “buy now, pay later” audience.
According to the founders, merchants will only pay a commission (“low single digit %”?) on successful sales. But it’s not clear whether this is a group buying service, a discount marketplace, or a loyalty programme, nor how it will be differentiated within the Shopify marketplace.

PropTech

Sync Technologies is a digital solution for construction industry – with the tag line of “turning data into insights”. The problem being addressed can be summarised as follows: 1) Building
sites are fragmented and complex 2) Progress reporting and bottleneck identification is poorly done 3) 12% of a typical job has to be reworked 4) 80% of projects are late and/or run over budget. Using a digital twin concept, the solution aims to provide a “single source of truth”, and the team are already working with some key firms, and have 2021 forecast revenue of $2m.
Key obstacles to overcome are entrenched on-site behaviours, and slow the tech adoption across so many stakeholders in the construction industry. The founders claim to have identified the solution via their Construction Assistance System which offers better project and status visualisation via the digital twin.

Next week: Version / Aversion