VCs battle it out in the reverse pitch night

As part of the Intersekt FinTech Festival, the organisers, FinTech Australia partnered with Startup VIC and NAB to host a “Reverse Pitch Night”.Turning the tables on the usual pitch night, four VCs were invited to pitch to a panel of startup founders.

Representatives from Rampersand, Reinventure, YBF Ventures and NAB Ventures battled it out on stage to demonstrate why founders should want to work with their firms. Since I have been involved in pitching or presenting to two of these funds, and I know people involved with all four firms, I will aggregate these reverse pitches, highlight the common themes and try and pick out some of the key points of differentiation and/or competitor advantage.

Following a similar startup pitch format (problem, solution, team, achievement and future growth), each VC stressed the importance of getting the “right money”, and identifying the ways in which VCs can help with growth and people as well as capital. So it’s as much about how VCs can add overall value, rather than just the size of the cheques they can write.

Despite the supposed differences, there were a lot of similarities. There was much talk about how the VC model is broken, yet I didn’t see much in the way of novel funding or structuring solutions. Also, with NAB and Westpac directly involved in two of the funds, and ANZ linked to a third, isn’t this compounding the problem – aren’t banks part of the problem?

While having access to a bank’s balance sheet may result in larger cheques, the average size of individual investments looks to fall within a similar range. And of the deals that were referenced, a number were co-invested by the same funds and/or the same international partners. So doesn’t that itself restrict or constrain the variety of deals that can be struck?

On the positive side, most of the VCs allocate a substantial proportion (50%) of their funds for follow-on rounds. Some funds actively help to incubate the companies they invest in, even though they may still only take a minority stake. So the focus is on building a portfolio, and helping to scale the right companies. In one case, the VC has only invested in five out of 1,000 opportunities, so clearly there is a challenge with the screening process, or we just aren’t seeing the right startups.

Or maybe the smart startups realise they don’t need/want VC money in the first place? Only one of the four VCs specifically mentioned working with a startup that has launched an ICO – surely the most disruptive development to hit traditional VC funding in a long while?

Finally, given this was a FinTech-related event, I didn’t see any evidence of how these firms are using better technology to manage VC funding.

Surprisingly, given the reaction from the audience, the panel judged Reinventure to be the winner.

Next week: FF18 pitch night – Melbourne semi-final

Startup Vic’s EdTech Pitch Night

EdTech or EduTech? Even Startup Vic can’t seem to decide. Whatever, this education-themed pitch night was the latest event in their highly popular monthly events, held in conjunction with Education Changemakers, and EduGrowth.

Apart from the naming convention, there is also some clarification needed around the scope and definition of “education(al) technology”. First, because it’s a very broad spectrum (does it include e-learning, e-books, MOOCS, LMS?). Second, is it more about the “delivery” than “outcomes”? Third, is it only about formal pedagogy, or does it also include discretionary, self-directed and non-curriculum learning?

And so to the pitches, in the order they presented:

Become

With the aim of “teaching kids to explore, design and navigate their future“, Become is essentially a platform for early-stage career coaching. While their app is still in development (although there is a bot in use already?), Become has been running in-person workshops and other programs to test and validate the concept. The solution uses AI and machine learning technology, but it wasn’t very clear how this will actually work – maybe there are some core profiling and preference tools, some career mapping based on proprietary algorithms, and recommendation engines drawing on the data analysis?

Using a freemium model, the full service will cost $40 per student per annum. The core audience are years 5 to 8, and part of the schools adoption strategy will focus on getting high school career advisers on-board, with additional parent advocacy.

I’ve no doubt that career advice is an important part of the syllabus, but just as important are life-long learning, resilience, adaptability, and developing self-awareness and a sense of purpose. But if nothing else, in the words of the founder, Become puts the “why” back into learning.

MoxieReader

This digital reading log is all about “inspired independent reading“. Supplementing the paper-based records widely in use, the app enables children to record their reading activity, and helps teachers to assess pupils’ reading progress, based on the titles and numbers of books read, and their associated word counts and vocabulary. (In future, the app may deliver content and instructional aids.)

Using a machine learning algorithm (“like a fitness tracker”), the app can set reading challenges, and measure reading growth. Tests may be another add-on, but from what I can see, the app does not test for comprehension or context-based reading and interpretation skills. (After all “reasoning” is the 4th “R” of education – along with reading, writing and arithmetic.)

Currently launching with an ambitious social media and outreach campaign, MoxieReader already has paid sign ups from teachers, many of whom are paying with their personal credit card, and is enjoying a 30% conversion rate, and 30% referral business.

Priced at $7 for teachers per class per month, plus $100 per school/building per month (individual teachers who already subscribed will get a rebate), there is also an opt-in donation model for parents to recycle used books.

Cogniss

This is a development platform and market place for education apps. Built on game based learning and rewards packages, it also makes use of analytics and data insights to help teachers and designers build their own products.

Having seen a demand among health and well-being users, the platform is also suited for apps designed to support behavioral change, workplace learning and social learning.

Access to the platform involves a $500 set up fee, plus $50 per month per app (plus scale rates by number of users and advanced add-ons).

The platform also supports micro-transactions, for downloaded content and apps. At present, there is no formal process for teachers to embed pedagogy into the game structure. Content vetting is also a manual process, combined with experience sharing and peer ratings – but a content certification process is in the pipeline.

Revision Village

Helping students to prepare for external exams (specifically, the IB maths) this product replaces traditional in person and in class programs, with an online resource.
Also, although revision practice largely relies on past test papers, the founders have identified a chasm between the concepts taught, and the questions asked.

Developed in response to teacher demand, this subscription-based learning resource has
translated into higher results and fewer fails.

The platform is looking to extend the curriculum beyond maths, but this will largely depend on being able to license content from the relevant examination boards and syllabus providers, such as the IB.

Access is not dependent upon being logged into a school network or intranet, as it is only a web app (with individual and site licenses).

The Revision Village website claims the product is used by “More than 32,000 IB Students and 710 IB Schools”. However, it would seem that not all of these are paid-for subscriptions, as the pitch mentioned a critical mass would be 100 schools (out of a total of 2,500 IB schools) paying $2,000 each (although this is separate to the parent market).

 

Overall, I liked the tone and format of the pitches –  the products all seemed worthy endeavours, and the founders are no doubt passionate about education and learning. But I was left feeling underwhelmed, by both the content and the tech being deployed. (I guess I needed more than just passing references to “AI, machine learning and algorithms”.) All of these products rely on significant adoption rates among schools – which are some of the hardest institutional customers to sell to – and to be successful in international markets presents a further challenge, given differences of language, content and educational systems.

In the end, even the judges found it hard to pick a winner, as there was a tie for 1st place, between Become and MoxieReader. I would probably concur, as they had the edge in terms of both individual learning outcomes, and broader educational benefits.

Next week: Copyright – Use It Or Lose It?

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