Startup Vic FinTech Pitch Night

The Australian tech sector, especially at the startup end of the industry, is having to grapple with what is fast becoming a major structural and operational challenge: how to hire, remunerate and retain staff. With closed international borders cutting off the supply of overseas students and graduates, and a lack of sufficient home-grown skills, it’s a problem that established businesses and startup ventures alike are having to address. Just last week, the AFR reported that some wages in the tech sector have gone up 30% in the past 12 months. Perhaps this issue was on the minds of the four founders who presented at the recent Startup Victoria FinTech Pitch Night.

The judges for this on-line event, sponsored by LaunchVic, were: Nicole Small, Investment Director at Rampersand; Kim Hansen, Co-founder and CEO of Cake Equity; Caitlin Zotti, Operations Manager at Pin Payments; and “the people’s judge,” Eike Zeller, Community Lead at Stone & Chalk Melbourne. Compered by Josh Sharma, Head of Labs & Startups at LUNA, the evening also featured a virtual fireside chat between Rebecca Schot-Guppy, CEO of FinTech Australia, Dom Pym, Co-Founder of Up, and Julia Bearzatto, Head of Technology for Financial Services at MYOB.

The four startups in order of presentation were (links in the names):

Elbaite

Claiming to be the “first non-custodial cryptocurrency exchange“, part of Elbaite’s mission is to prevent theft or misappropriation of crypto assets held in exchange wallets. What makes Elbaite different from other decentralized exchanges (DEXs) and peer-to-peer platforms is that they escrow the fiat involved in any transaction. While they may not be charging the fees of centralized exchanges (CEXs), they are charging a 1% on crypto purchases (although there is 0% commission on sales). Elbaite is hoping to target institutional clients who may not be as comfortable trading on “traditional” crypto exchanges – although in my experience, many institutional clients actually need third-party custody services as part of their governance and compliance obligations. The judges felt that this is a crowded space (there are more than 250 crypto exchanges globally, plus numerous fiat on/off ramps, brokers, OTC desks and P2P platforms).

Sequrr

Speaking of custody and escrow, who would have guessed that stolen house purchase deposits are such a major issue, unless the team at Sequrr had told us? Despite the use of Real Estate Trust Accounts within the industry, apparently there is not much to stop the account holders from walking off with the deposits. Which rather begs the question why the industry does not already use something like multi-signature digital wallets, which mean that the funds can only be moved once all parties to the transaction agree. Even though this is a tech solution using a 3-way verification model (innovation patent pending), the different real estate laws in each State means that it’s not that simple to roll out nationally. However, the team also see opportunities for other professional and commercial sectors: solicitors, builders, aged care. (Note to the founders: I know that invented brand names were once flavour of the month for tech startups, but I question the wisdom of adopting a word that reads like a spelling error, and sounds like someone coughing up phlegm – especially if you want to be taken seriously by banks and solicitors. Just a thought.)

Nextround

Another issue of trust exists between employers and employees when it comes to reward and recognition schemes. There’s always a risk that whatever structure and incentives companies use, someone will try to game the system (or collude with colleagues) especially if the stakes are high; or, if the rewards are simply handed out for turning up and doing your job, their currency becomes debased. Then there’s the (ill-advised) link between rewards and recognition on the one hand, and performance reviews (plus bonuses and salary adjustments) on the other. It’s a balancing act which Nextround are addressing by making it easier (and less expensive) to reward and recognise all of your staff, not just the usual top 5-15%. They do this by offering managers and team leaders access to rewards of a smaller (yet still meaningful) value, which can be easily redeemed by the recipients, for hospitality rewards, events and experiences. The commercial model relies on an annual corporate subscription fee, and taking a cut of the reward vouchers. Nextround consults with employers on their preferred merchants and suppliers, who don’t necessarily see the vouchers as eroding their margins – rather, it’s another sales channel. This is not a hospitality app (e.g., loyalty program), more of a procurement app. And although there are numerous competitors for reward and recognition schemes, the “smarts” are in the way managers and HR teams can budget and allocate accordingly, without the need for onerous expense form claims because the transactions can all be tracked from the point of redemption back to the point of issuance. The resulting data will also generate a further revenue stream from the valuable analytics, although would I want my employer to know how I used my vouchers (assuming they are not tied to a specific reward)? My other reservation is that if the rewards really are as small as a cup of coffee, or even a round of drinks at the pub, isn’t it a bit like tipping?

SpendAble

Letting people make their own financial decisions is also a form of trust. Most of us would feel we can be trusted to spend our own money how we like. But this assumption may be challenged when it comes to people with a disability. SpendAble is developing payment, saving and investment solutions for people who face physical, societal and intellectual barriers to managing the financial affairs. Starting with a budget-based spending app, SpendAble helps users to allocate, identify and track their purchases more easily, and with much of the payment friction removed. The team will also develop specific applications such as voice-controlled functions for the visually impaired. Largely reliant upon the NDIS for funding and end users to cover transaction costs, SpendAble will plug into existing banking platforms – which might be a better way to underwrite the app? However, some of the online chat on the night suggested that SpendAble could provide well-needed general financial education to school kids as part of its offering, as well as helping to address financial inclusion.

Such was the enthusiasm for SpendAble that they took out the Peoples’ Choice as well as the Judges’ Award.

Next week: Accounting for Crypto

Intersekt FinTech Pitch Night

The opening event of the Intersekt 2021 Australian FinTech Conference was a startup pitch night, organised by FinTech Australia, hosted by YBF Ventures, and sponsored by Seed Money. The esteemed judging panel was drawn from a range of VC funds: Todd Forest (NAB Ventures), Nicole Small (Rampersand), Rohen Sood (Reinventure), Lynda Coker (SpeedSpace) and Lucinda Hankin (Grok Ventures).

The pitches in order of presentation (links are in the names):

Boulevard

A cloud-based share registry management platform for startups, founders and their employees. Designed to to be an exchange for unlisted securities, the platform also offers Investor Relations support and automated compliance solutions. Using Distributed Ledger Technology (which underpins Blockchain), the team are working with ASX DLT Solutions (responsible for the CHESS replacement) and deploying DAML, the programming language for modelling digital assets. They have also developed ASICLink, to automate company filings with the corporate regulator, plan to support corporate actions (including the verification of company financials), and are working with equity crowdfunding platforms. Boulevard has already on-boarded 30 companies, comprising 4,000 shareholders.

COGSflow

Describing itself as “Performance based finance”, this is essentially a merchant service offering cash-flow funding solutions for physical goods. This involves purchasing client inventory, and getting repaid on the sales performance. Using a funding ratio calculation as the basis of its credit risk model, the COGSflow will track sales data from the likes of eBay and Amazon (although both of these platforms, like PayPal, Alibaba etc. already offer SME financing of various forms). COGSflow will also analyze variable marketing and customer acquisition costs as inputs to its lending model, and plans to become a member of the Personal Property Securities Register (PPSR), as well as seeking B Corp certification.

Archa

Archa is solving the challenges many SMEs face when trying to access corporate credit cards – banks generally demand personal guarantees from owners or directors before they issue cards, and when they do the “product is awful”. As the pitch described it, many bank-issued corporate cards are really designed as “a line of credit to acquire air miles”. With a mobile app already in the market, Archa incorporates an administration and expense management solution. A major bug bear for many companies is managing corporate subscriptions – all those SaaS apps that are tied to individual employee cards; consolidating, renewing and cancelling those services can be time-consuming and painful. The account administrator can also manage each card’s credit limit. Archa itself has principal issuer membership with MasterCard. In addition to an equity raise, the team is seeking debt funding to offer lines of credit. Channels to market will include SME lenders, accountants and lawyers.

Sherlok

According to the founders, most people paying too much on their mortgages – based on their home loan rate. Because mortgage brokers have 60% of the market, and rely on trailing commissions, there is little incentive for brokers to help their clients find a better rate or provider. However, 15% of brokers’ clients are leaving each year. Sherlok is an SaaS platform that uses AI to help brokers reprice and refinance their existing mortgage book. Using a broker subscription model, Sherlok is aiming to offer “single click refinancing”, although there was some equivocation about becoming a virtual brokerage itself. The founders feel that mortgage broking is still a relationship based business, and requires a human touch.

Axichain

Axichain is building a blockchain-based agricultural supply chain – a digital trading solution for cross-border commodities trading, with an initial focus on red meat. The founders are addressing three main supply chain pain points – market access, paperwork and payment.
Axichain combines smart contracts, an escrow solution and traceability linked to legal processes. Overall, the platform envisages multiple products and revenue streams. The team are seeking both equity and debt funding, the latter to provide lines of credit lines.

Parpera

The meaning of “Parpera” is “fair wallet”. By that, the founders mean they want to offer a range of banking and related services aimed at SME owners, sole traders and freelances. This could include business registration and set-up, better financial insights, and access to smarter banking products etc. It will include card services, payments and invoicing. The plan is to target customers who are about to set up a business, and to promote the service at the start/end of the financial year, hence the intention to use accountants as a channel to market.

Next week: Monash University Virtual Demo Day

Blockchain Start-up Showcase

As part of the recent Australian Blockchain Week, YBF Ventures hosted a showcase of Blockchain start-ups – not a standard pitch event, but more an opportunity to hear how some teams are deploying Blockchain technology in their projects.

Here are the projects in order of presentation (links in the project names):

ProvenDB – developing immutable and tamper-proof document management, built on Hedera Hashgraph

BuildSort – a construction contract management solution to improve the industry supply chain and project management

Laava ID – product authentication via “smart fingerprints”

Verida – decentralized identity (with a focus on health records) – a user-centric solution focused on building user trust – resulting in hyper-personalisation

Cryptocate – crypto tax management service – with the growth in DeFi, there is a lack of data standardization or formal tax guidance on taxable events – e.g., how to handle crypto options?

Elbaite – a non-custody exchange using a “TraderTrust” verification system to support P2P transactions – platform confirms the exchange transaction on-chain, then the platform uses the transaction hash to release clients’ fiat funds from escrow – platform charges fees and commission

Sempo – a remittance service, with a particular focus on supporting migrant workers, the unbanked and refugees

Future CX – decentralized middle-ware development – e.g., data containers, NFTs, smart contracts – using a “proof of distribution” model

Luca+ – e-invoicing solution that integrates with major third-party accounting software

BC Gateways – using Blockchain to facilitate secure data transfer within the superannuation industry – recently acquired by IRESS – scaling from 10k transactions per day to 5m per annum

DayByDay – an asset management solution for the insurance industry

Get Paid in Bitcoin – a Bitcoin payroll and savings account

DLTX – a smart contract development vendor

Next week: Decay Music

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