Demo Day for MAP’s Class of 2013 Startups

The Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP) supported by University of Melbourne’s School of Engineering and Faculty of Business and Economics is only in its second year, but already shows signs of becoming a leading incubator of new and emerging entrepreneurial talent in the burgeoning Melbourne startup community.

Last week was Demo Day (a.k.a. pitch night) for the 6 successful teams who were selected from over 50 applications submitted for the 2013 program. Presenting to an audience of fellow entrepreneurs, potential investors, program mentors and “interlopers” (a term used by Dr Charlie Day in his introduction), each team was invited to present the fruits of their labours from the 3-month accelerator program.

To kick things off, there was a quick update on the Class of 2012, including the team behind the new Omny audio app, which offers curated audio content.

From the Class of 2013, first up was 2Mar Robotics, who are developing a remote-controlled robotic arm, aimed at helping people with quadriplegia or with restricted arm movement and control. An earlier, voice-operated prototype proved unstable due to interference from background noise, but the team, led by Young Australian of the Year 2012, Marita Cheng (and founder of Robogals) have already secured a number of pre-orders for the latest version, which they hope to ship in early 2014. While it is understandable that the team would want to keep key commercial aspects of their project confidential, the less-than-open responses to audience questions about product costs and market pricing created the impression that the team are still developing their business case.

The next project, also healthcare-related, was from Cortera Neurotechnologies, who specialise in remote monitoring sensors for epilepsy patients. The team’s goal, using highly developed neural interface technology, is to significantly reduce the risk of infection caused by major invasive surgery for the 30% of epilepsy sufferers who are unable to take medication. Despite some theoretical discourse and good-natured banter with the audience about cyborgs and mind control interfaces, the team (which is divided between Melbourne Uni and UC Berkeley) is well on its way to securing prototype funding.

Client Catalyst offers digital marketing services for SMEs, via mobile websites and integrated search solutions. Given that nearly half of all mobile searches are for local services, the solution has targeted the trade vertical (plumbers, builders, electricians, etc.) which accounts for about 25% of the SME market. Claiming much lower customer acquisition costs for their clients (compared to traditional classified directories), and a very high client conversion rate, the team has established a solid subscription business that more than covers their primary input cost of paid search terms.

By using highly intuitive data visualisation and enhanced search, the team behind The Price Geek claim to have established a major competitive edge over other price comparison sites, in their bid to help you “find out the market price for anything” (although currently, it really only covers tech devices, sneakers, and Tiger Woods memorabilia…). They have built affiliate programs with multiple merchants, giving them more market sources, more contributed content, and more data analytics. The site has already picked up some strong media coverage, and in future, The Price Geek plans to offer price comparison for cars.

Before commenting on Ebla, a self-publishing platform for lawyers, I should declare an interest: I previously worked for the legal information division of Thomson Reuters, including the Westlaw online service. So, IMHO, anyone who is attempting to bring a new technology solution to informed legal commentary and analysis deserves a lot of credit, especially if, as intended, the service empowers individual lawyers to showcase their expertise in a collaborative and adductive environment. Contrary to some popular misconception, the legal profession (along with financial services) was one of the first industries to embrace the digital age*. Yet consider this: the sheer volume of legislation, case-law and commentary; the complexity of the material and its many idiosyncrasies (e.g., case citation systems); the proprietary nature of much document drafting; and the “knowledge is power” approach to researching obscure precedents before facing your opponent in court – all these factors tend to work against the notion of knowledge sharing and collaboration among lawyers. (I have heard of some law firms that embed deliberate mistakes in their commercial drafting templates, to deter plagiarism by their competitors if the originals were to fall into the wrong hands.) Access to the site, which is still in Beta, is by invitation only, and will offer a freemium subscription model.

The last team to present was SwatchMate, with a Bluetooth-enabled reader that helps users to “capture the color of any surface” (or “Shazam for color”). I have to say that when I first saw this team present at a Lean Startup Melbourne event earlier this year, I was somewhat sceptical about the product, as they seemed to be focussing on the paint market (both trade and DIY customers), yet didn’t appear to realise that most people only paint their home once every 5-7 years. However, I am pleased to report that SwatchMate have since lifted their game, by identifying strong opportunities among designers and creatives, brand managers, the cosmetics industry, and even TV and monitor calibration. With linkages to major design software, as well as to leading colour and paint catalogues, SwatchMate will offer an integrated solution once they go into production. Meanwhile, they are planning to launch on Kickstarter, and are a finalist at next week’s Melbourne Design Awards (plus shortlisted for the Sydney and Brisbane Design Awards)**.

Applications for MAP 2014 close on April 24, and there are also opportunities to participate as a mentor (full details not yet available).

* Lawyers love their technology: The Wang word processing system was eagerly adopted by law firms in the 1970s and 1980s, for its ability to support complex document formatting. Online legal research tools like Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis were launched in the 1970s. Some of the first CD-ROM and web-based law publications in the 1990s deployed specialised html coding and Boolean logic designed for legal search and retrieval purposes. Many law firms use sophisticated knowledge management systems to capture the in-house expertise of their lawyers. Court reporting and litigation support tools have been using advanced voice recognition, extensive text parsing and real-time data capture and processing for many years.

** Declaration of interest: I am currently involved with the Design Awards, although I have no say in the selection of shortlisted entries or finalists.

6 Melbourne Start-Ups to Watch…

LogoRecently, I blogged about Audiobus, and the success of its collaborative approach to app development. So last week, I attended a very entertaining “pitch’n’pizza” evening for start-ups, to see what other interesting things are going on in app and content development. The event was organised by Lean Startup Melbourne and hosted by inspire9. Other support came from BlueChilli, General Assembly, Startup Leadership, PlayFi and Kussowski Brothers.

The idea was a mix of Open Mic Night, and “Dragons’ Den” – 6 start-ups presented their pitch to a panel of VC’s and angel investors, in front of an audience of 300+ friends, colleagues, hangers-on and curious onlookers all fuelled by free beer and pizza.

Melbourne is something of a “Silicon Laneway” – not quite a valley, but more of an alley, given the city’s landscape of back streets and converted warehouses that are fostering a culture of start-ups, digital creatives and social media entrepreneurs.

On the night, the 6 hopefuls that presented were:

  • Tablo – a self-publishing platform for authors – sort of Bandcamp for books, but with even better content distribution
  • PetHomeStay – an on-line booking system for pet owners who want to leave their animals with a trusted pet lover while they are on holiday
  • CareMonkey – an app that shares childrens’ health care needs with relatives, schools and sporting clubs, so that teachers, coaches and carers have relevant support information at their fingertips
  • CoinJar – a platform that enables consumers and merchants to transact with Bitcoin
  • Fairshare – an app designed to take the hassle out of shared living (but not to be confused with FairShare….?)
  • SwatchMate – a combined app and smart phone device for matching colours, primarily for painting and decorating

Each presentation was of a very high quality, although some were more polished and rehearsed than others, and only a couple really shone through in terms of having both a great idea and a great commercial offering.

The questions asked by the panel of experts provided some helpful insights on what makes a successful or engaging pitch:

  1. Why? Having a personal experience resonates, and can avoid the awkward “is this a solution in search of a problem?”
  2. Competitors? What makes you different – smarter? cheaper? quicker? Are you truly disruptive or innovative? Or have you just designed a better mousetrap?
  3. Commercialisation? Show me the money! What’s the business model? Where is the revenue coming from? (“Simple is not always best, but best is always simple”)
  4. Customers vs Users? If the paying customer is actually different to the end-user, then make sure this is clear and you have a strategy to connect the dots and to monetize the key part of the transaction
  5. Real world vs On-line? Are you replicating something which already happens in the real world? Can real world transactions easily dis-intermediate your on-line business model?
  6. App or Website? Is it a dedicated app, or is it a website that works well on mobile devices? Going for a well-designed website may be cheaper, and lead to greater/faster customer adoption.

And in keeping with the spirit of this blog, I would add that the essence of all of these new businesses is having interesting content and a meaningful way for people to engage and transact with it.

At the end of the presentations, the panel selected their favourite pitch (the winner getting the chance of a meeting with the VC of their choice), while the audience voted for the people’s choice. Not surprisingly, the panel went with CoinJar, while the people went for Tablo (which also got my vote).

Disclosure: The author does not have any connection to or commercial relationship with the presenters or sponsors mentioned in this blog. He didn’t even get there in time for a free slice of pizza or bottle of beer.