StartupVic’s Machine Learning / AI pitch night

Machine Learning and AI are such hot topics, that I was really intrigued by the prospect of this particular StartupVic pitch night. First, this was a chance to visit inspire9‘s recently established Dream Factory – a tech co-working facility, maker space, and VR lab in Melbourne’s western suburb of Footscray. Second, the Dream Factory, housed in a landmark building owned by Impact Investment Group, was a major beneficiary of LaunchVic funding, and this event could be seen as a showcase for Melbourne’s tech startup sector. Third, with so many buzzwords circling AI, it offered a great opportunity to help demystify some of the jargon and provide some practical insights.

Image sourced from StartupVic

Instead, the pitches felt underdone – probably not helped by the building’s acoustics, the poor PA system, and the inability of many of the audience to be able to read the presenters’ slides. I wasn’t expecting the founders to reveal the “secret sauce” of their algorithms, or to explain in detail how they program or train their “smart” applications. But I had hoped to hear some concrete evidence of how these emerging platforms actually work and how the resulting data is specifically analyzed and applied to client solutions.

Amelie.ai

With a tag line of “powering the future of mental health” the team at Amelie.ai are hoping to have a positive impact in helping to reduce suicide rates. Unfortunately, judging by the way some key statistics are presented on their home page, the data (and the methodology) are not as clear as the core message.

Using technology to help scale the provision of mental health and well-being services, combined with mixed delivery methods, the solution aims to offer continuity of care. Picking up on user dialogue and providing some semi-automated and curated intervention, the presentation was big on phrases like “triage packages”, “customer journey”, “technical architecture”, “chatbots” and of course, “AI” itself, but I would have like a bit more explanation on how it worked.

I understand that the platform is designed to integrate with third-party providers, but how does this happen in practice?

Only when asked by the judges about their competitive advantage (as there are similar tools out there – see Limbr from a previous pitch night) did the presenters refer to their proprietary language models, developed with and based on user trials. This provides  a structured taxonomy, which is currently English-only, but it can be translated.

There were also questions about data privacy (not fully explained?) and sales channels – which may include workplace EAPs and health insurers.

Businest

According to the founder, “dashboards and KPIs only diagnose pain, Businest fixes it“. In short, this is intelligence business analysis for SMEs.

With a focus on tracking working capital and cashflow, as far as I can tell, Businest applies some AI on top of existing third-party accounting software. It identifies key metrics for a specific business, then provides coaching and videos to change business behaviour and improve financial performance. There is a patent pending in the US for the underlying algorithm, which prioritizes the KPIs.

Again, I was not totally clear how the desired results are achieved. For example, are SMEs benchmarked against their peers (e.g., by size/industry/geography/maturity/risk profile)? Do clients know what incremental benefits they should be able to generate over a given time period? How does the financial spreadsheet analysis assist with improving structural or operational efficiencies that are outside the realm of financial accounting?

Available under a freemium SaaS model, Businest is sold direct and via accountants and bookkeepers. A key to success will be how fast the product can scale – via partnering and its integration with Xero, MYOB and QuickBooks.

AiHello

I must admit, I was initially curious, and then totally bemused, by this pitch. It started by asking some major philosophical and existentialist questions:

Q: How do we define “intelligence”?
Q: Are we alone? Or not alone?

No, this is not IBM’s Watson trained on the works of John-Paul Sartre (cf. Dark Star and the struggle with Cartesian Logic). Instead, it is an analytical and predictive app for Amazon sellers. It claims to know what products will sell, where and when. And with trading volumes worth $2.5m of goods per month, it must be doing something right. Serving Amazon sellers in the US and India (and Australia, once Amazon goes live here), AiHello charges fees based on fixed licences and transaction values. The apparent benefits to retailers are speed and savings.

Asked where the trading data is coming from, the presenter referred to existing trading platform APIs, and “big data and deep learning”. It also uses Amazon product IDs to make specific predictions – currently delivering 60% accuracy, but aiming for 90%. According to the founder, “Amazon focuses on buyers, we focus on sellers”. (Compare this, perhaps, to the approach by Etsy.)

C-SIGHT

A new service from the team at Pax Republic, this latest iteration is designed to avoid some of the policy and reputation issues involved with managing, supporting and protecting whistleblowers. Understanding that whistleblowers can pose an internal threat to brand value, and present a significant human risk, C-SIGHT provides a psychologically safe environment for the Board, C-suite and workforce alike, and can act as an early warning system before problems get out of hand.

Sold under a SaaS model, C-SIGHT analyses text-based and anonymous dialogue, with “real-time data sent to different AI apps”. I understood that C-SIGHT combines human and robot facilitation, while preserving anonymity, and also deploys natural language processing – but I didn’t fully understand how.

In one client use case, with the College of Surgeons, there were 1,000 “contributions” – again, it was not clear to me how this input was generated, captured, processed or analysed. Client pricing is based on the number of invitations sent and the number of these “contributions” – what the presenter referred to as an “instance” model (presumably he meant instance-based learning?).

Asked about privacy, C-SIGHT de-identifies contributions (to what degree was not clear), and operates outside the firewall. There was also a question from the judges about the use and analysis of idiom and the vernacular – I don’t believe this addressed in much detail, although the presenter did suggest that the platform could be used as a way to drive “citizen engagement”.

Overall, I was rather underwhelmed by these presentations, although each of them revealed a kernel of a good idea – while in the case of AiHello (which was the winner on the night), sales traction is very promising; and in the case of Businest, industry recognition, especially in the US, has opened up some key opportunities.

Next week: Bitcoin – to fork or not to fork?

Making an Impact at Startup Victoria’s Pitch Night

A relatively new term that was coined around the time of the GFC, “impact investing” can be seen in the same light as CSR, TBL, ethical investing and conscious capitalism, whereby businesses combine purpose with profit, underpinned by strong and open corporate governance, with the specific goal of delivering social and environmental outcomes. Not to be confused, of course, with NFPs or social enterprises.

The latest pitch night hosted by Startup Victoria, with support from impact VC investor Giant Leap Fund, presented four startups that all aspire to bring about some form of social impact, in areas such as: transport for women; gender diversity in the workplace; mental health; and training for disability support workers. (Surprisingly, there were no pitches from startups with a direct environmental impact.)

In order of appearance, the startups were (as usual, links are in the titles):

Diverse City Careers

Offering a new approach to recruitment, DCC only work with employers who meet their standards on workplace policies for women. Currently seeking $1m in investment, they claim that 50% of their candidates get shortlisted, and 25% get hired, and already have 80 accredited employers on their books.

Using an endorsement model for accredited employers, as well as standard recruitment services, DCC is able to generate both annuity and transaction revenue. By ranking employers and holding them accountable for their own policies, is able to promote best practice and establish industry benchmarks. DCC is now moving into industry and media partnerships, and plans to build a dashboard for analytics.

The panel of judges were keen to understand how DCC will maintain its point of differentiation, as well as build on its definition of diversity (e.g., transgender, transsexual and intersex). And given that there are federal initiatives already in this space, does an accreditation from DCC have as much value or impact?

Enabler

According to data provided by the presenters, around 1.9m disabled people in Australia need support workers. With the introduction of the NDIS, the number of trained helpers needs to grow from 300k to 600k, and there are currently 3,500 disability service providers to help train, recruit and employ these support workers. A key challenge is the quality of available education, with providers only spending $1,265 per worker per annum on training and development.

Enabler is seeking a $250k seed investment to launch a new product, comprising core content and training modules distributed online and delivered via mobile devices. With a focus on personalised content, Enabler is already in talks with 11 service providers and engaging with existing paying customers (who represent as few as 70 to around 1400 end users).

The key challenge I found with this pitch was the lack of explanation on why current training content and materials are proving to be so inadequate (even allowing for differences in individual learning styles). For example, what makes Enabler’s service so much better, and how will it achieve sustainable personalization in a product that needs to be both scalable and economically viable?

Shebah

This is a ride share service for women drivers and passengers (and their kids and pets), that grew out of economic and social necessity. It started life as a project on Go Fund Me, has since pivoted to Shebah, launched a mobile app, and is now available in Melbourne, Geelong, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sydney and Sunshine Coast (with Perth, Darwin and Adelaide to follow).

Adoption among the disability community has been a notable side effect (e.g., enabling customers to get to medical appointments), and each driver gets a free consultation with a CPA about setting up an ABN etc.

Experiencing 40% growth in volume (and 100 new accredited drivers per week), the founder is asking for $500k funding to hire an in-house engineer/developer to build additional app functionality (such as pre-booking), scaling the business and growing to a minimum 1,000 rides per day. The app can already take multiple currencies, and there has been interest from Mexico, South Africa and Brazil.

With the various issues facing Uber and the gig-economy itself, the judges were naturally keen to understand how Shebah regards its own drivers (i.e., employees or freelances). For registration, tax and accounting purposes, Shebah drivers are treated as independent contract workers (sole traders), with no required minimum hours. (The founder mentioned potential plans to offer drivers share options in the business, which could prove an interesting business model.)

Despite some reasonably high-profile media coverage, Shebah has not undertaken any advertising campaigns, relying instead on general publicity and friendly ambassadors.

Asked about customer experience measures, the founder mentioned average waiting time, and driver retention as key indicators (apparently, the only 4% of Uber drivers last more than 12 months). Shebah also acknowledged that their fares are cheaper than taxis (but more expensive than Uber) with an average fare of $25, representing a margin of less than 10%

Limbr

With a tag line of “a place to be real”, Limbr is an app-based platform that is designed to take some of the stigma out of mental illness, and provide easier access to mental health services.

Despite the staggering mental health statistics, two-thirds of sufferers never seek treatment. To break down some of the barriers and overcome access issues, Limbr offers a three-tier service: a free “social network”, a personal dashboard tool, and online support from qualified mental health professionals (“listeners, coaches, therapists”). The revenue model is a combination of subscription fees and commission from provider sales, plus evidence-based public funding.

The founders recognize it’s a highly fragmented market, so therapists are interested in the referral aspect of this new channel to market. (One challenge is that the current $10 bulk bill rebate to see a therapist is not available for e-health providers.)

The app plans to use popularity to drive traction, and while the message that it’s “OK to share” is designed to be positive and encourage a healthier approach to mental illness, there was some concern that in some ways, the internet has normalised the issue. The presentation mentioned that there are 20m posts about depression on Instagram. So, isn’t social media, along with increased isolation and anti-social online behaviour part of the problem?

Asked by the judges about privacy, authentication and trust, Limbr plans to go to market via therapist advocates, and will focus on moderation and data analytics.

Based on the night’s presentation, the judges awarded Shebah first prize, and it certainly was the most engaging and rounded pitch of the four.

Next week: More on Purpose

 

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

StartupVic’s E-commerce #Pitch Night

A new venue, and a new theme – last week’s Pitch Night organised by Startup Victoria was hosted at Kensington Collective, and featured four contestants each working in different areas of e-commerce.

With some high-profile judges (including Ahmed Fahour, outgoing CEO of Australia Post, and Kate Cornick, CEO of LaunchVic), and an audience warmed by hot soup and mulled wine on a very cold and wet Melbourne night, it was not surprising that the event was packed out, despite the weather.

In addition to hearing the competing pitches, attendees were also able to meet with a number of other e-commerce startups exhibiting in “silicon alley”, including: VolStreet (a new market place for consumer goods), Liven (a loyalty program for restaurants), Buying Intelligence (data on retail trends from the fashion industry) and Straight From Farmers (a D2C platform for agricultural produce).

As per the usual practice of this blog, the startups appear in the order in which they pitched (and click on the startup names for their website links):

 Passel

Passel’s business model is built on a crowdsourced solution for same day deliveries, so that shoppers can get their purchases quicker from omnichannel retailers. According to the founders, a high percentage of online cart abandonment is due to freight costs, and delivery times.

Using something akin to the Uber model, retailers will book a delivery that could be fulfilled by one of their own staff on the way home, or by another shopper if they are in the vicinity. Same day delivery is apparently more secure, and with a registration process for delivery “agents” and no charge to the retailer until proof of delivery, Passel is also designed to de-risk the delivery service. But, not quite delivery drones across suburbia!

Currently running a limited trial at Bayside Mall in Frankston, Passel is putting most of its efforts in to training staff at the stores they work with, to make sure the process is bedded down.

The judges had a range of questions and observations about the business proposition and assumptions behind the pitch, such as: Retailing can be quite a separate function to distribution and fulfillment, and for larger retailers stock management may cover several stores, or be handled by core distribution centres – so how will shops retailers be able to match orders and deliveries on a same day basis? Within large outlets, the time taken for delivery staff to actually locate an item may become burdensome, so has Passel considered geo-coding within stores? What is the opportunity outside Australia?

My own observations about this pitch included: what are the issues with insurance, what is the fit with click’n’collect services, and is there a bigger opportunity in solving current problems with the use of contract couriers on demand?

Vesta Central

Describing itself as “a marketplace for destination partners“, Vesta Central is also one of a growing number of Product Data Distribution Platforms (PDDP), between suppliers and retailers. Essentially, it offers an API to allow manufacturers to upload their inventories to support downstream distribution and sales.

Citing technological, time and cost barriers for product suppliers and retailers to upload and distribute product data, Vesta Central’s main proposition is to help move from physical to digital, via a centralised master data platform. From here, retailers can pull product data in real-time.

I’ve seen similar startups and businesses that also provide product manuals, technical specifications and even product training to sales staff, so the judges also felt that the founders need to gain a better knowledge and understanding of the competitor landscape. Another word of advice they had for the pitch was, “Let go of the PowerPoint…”

To Me Love Me

With a tag line of “Fashion Tech – Made To Measure“, this startup is trying to address the issue of incorrectly fitting clothes which is creating retail dissatisfaction.

Using key measurements and six data points, the service develops personal profiling
based on a proprietary algorithm according to body shape and style preferences. In return, it can offer curated, personalised, and even some custom-made suggestions and recommendations – but mostly ready-to-wear brands.

Aiming to help brands bond with their customers, the service also introduces social elements via peer/customer feedback. The service provides a seamless experience and offers a level of control to customers – but essentially, it’s a data play: collecting, aggregating and distributing customer statistics and profiles to the industry.

Although the pitch mentioned a SaaS model (with three tiers of service and pricing), the economic model was not fully outlined. However, the judges were clearly impressed by the founders’ international contacts in the US, UK & Europe, and their global ambitions.

CableGeek

With one simple sales proposition (“selling trusted mobile accessories at low prices“), CableGeek aims to address three common problems in this retail product category: Inconsistent product quality, high retail mark-ups, and difficulties in buying online (especially the shipping costs on lower-price items).

The CableGeek solution includes: free shipping from Australian suppliers, offering global brands, a focus on mobile (ApplePay), and key partnerships (instant pickup via Blueshift’s IBP, and fulfillment via eStore Logistics).

With a Google customer review rating of 4.8, CableGeek must be doing something right. Asked about what sets it apart from the competition, and how it will fend off competition, the founders cited the end-to-end automation plus their own full stack development – so any challenge is more likely to come from large retailers (who don’t necessarily have the focus or the in-house technical capabilities?).

However, given that the business was started by Ryan Zhou, who is also a co-founder of CoinJar, the judges wondered whether he would be over-stretched, or unable to commit 100% to this new business – especially as in this type of retail business, the only way to succeed is by dominating market share, which requires full-time commitment.

The judges were obviously won over by To Me Love Me‘s approach, as it took out first place on the night. There was also a sense that it was the only pitch that clearly had a real eye on international opportunities, and had demonstrated some serious industry credentials.

It was also interesting that a couple of the pitches referred to issues with delivery costs in Australia, especially for smaller, lower value items – something that the incoming CEO at Australia Post might want to address?

Finally, it was disappointing that there was no opportunity for questions or input from the audience – with one of the largest turnouts ever for a regular pitch night, Startup Victoria needs to think about how to incorporate more audience participation – these events should not just be a spectator sport.

Next week: Law & Technology – when AI meets Smart Contracts…