Flick Electric

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Disrupting the retail energy industry with price transparency and great service.

flickElectricity is the world’s purest commodity – you can’t see it or touch it, and you have no idea where the electrons came from that power your appliances. The equipment that manages electricity distribution is all automated. Why is it then that most of the power industry seems to be operating in the dark ages with respect to customer service, pricing, and information provision?

Flick has a simple business proposition: they put the customer at the centre of everything they do, give you electricity at the wholesale spot price plus a small well-known commission, and give you access to a wealth of easily digestible information that helps you manage your own power consumption.

The small, well-known commission is 40c per day plus 1.5c per kilowatt-hour (KWh) for a standard user. That amounts to the country’s least expensive power. Flick claim that even if you switch to Flick and do nothing to manage your usage patterns, you can save approximately 7% off your bill, because the major power retailers use their customers as a hedge against fluctuations in the wholesale market. The risk to Flick’s customers is that their bill may occasionally be higher during periods where the spot price is high.

But the real savings kick in when, armed with the reports about your usage you can view as a customer, you can change your usage patterns by deferring load into periods when the spot price is lower, for example running your clothes dryer and dishwasher at 4am. Flick claim that you can save about 25% off your energy bill by doing things like this.

Mid-2015, Consumer NZ ran a survey rating customer satisfaction of power retailers, and Flick scored a remarkable 96% satisfaction rating. They claim that everything about the company is so automated and well-engineered that there’s really nothing to complain about. All bills are paid by electronic payment, the customer web interface is excellent, and pricing is transparent. You can always know what your usage and charges are doing on a half-hourly basis, so there’s no possibility of being shocked by a blow-out bill.

Flick was registered as a company in July 2013, took on their first beta customer in December 2013, and did a soft launch in August 2014. In the past 18 months they’ve grown to be the tenth largest energy supplier in New Zealand with nearly 8,000 customers, growing by roughly 15% per month, and despite their small size, they are the supplier with the second largest number of net customers switching to them monthly, and the only one of the top 10 who is not vertically integrated.

There’s plenty of innovation yet to be applied in this space – for example peer-to-peer power. Your neighbour has a solar cell farm (they’re getting cheaper all the time) and could sell her power directly to you, via the Flick platform. Or, you have smart power points or Nest installed, and you want to interface directly with Flick, and only have specific devices – or even temperature settings – active only under certain pricing conditions.

Steve O'Connor
Steve O’Connor

I’ve known Steve O’Connor, Flick’s CEO and cofounder for many years, and recall him talking about setting up a power retailer in the early 2000’s – at the time, I thought he was mad. But he’s assembled a stellar team, including Simon Pohlen, Jessica Venning-Bryan, Jurjen Geerts, and Shannan Hargreaves. They have the broad and deep experience capable of making a major dent in the $9b market in NZ. And so far, they seem to be executing very well.

But the real prize is overseas markets. Flick are hatching plans for overseas expansion which will most likely be centered around licensing deals and joint ventures rather than direct entry.

So far, Flick has received funding from their original founders, an Angel round led by AngelHQ, a growth round, and then took on some institutional investment, which is a considerable achievement in such a short space of time, but reflective of the company’s rapid growth. They’re planning another investment round late this year, which will be aimed at bringing the NZ business to profitability, further improving the platform, launching several new initiatives in the retail space, and start seriously exploring the overseas opportunities.

You don’t need a particularly creative imagination to see a number of exit possibilities, but for the time being, they’re focusing on what great startups do – building and scaling a sustainable business with a fervently loyal customer base, delivering frictionless service, driving down costs to the consumer, and causing pain for the competition.

The Internet enables cloud-based, customer-centric, low-cost, transparent, on-demand businesses, and Flick are leading the way in New Zealand using this power to disrupt comfortable oligopolies. If I were a Flick customer, I’d be delighted, but if I were an incumbent power retailer, I’d be very afraid.

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Publons

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Speeding up science through the power of peer review.

publons2Scientific research is the key thing that moves our society forward, expanding the boundaries of human knowledge, enabling us to rigorously test which things are true, false, or needing further inquiry. It enables everything from cellphone technology to antibiotics.

The main output of scholarly research is published articles in peer-reviewed journals. Peer review is essential because it prevents incomplete or shoddy work from being accepted as scientific fact. The peer reviewers however don’t get any recognition or compensation for the work they do, and there is no standard system for rating the quality of their reviews. Finding the right reviewers for an article can be difficult too, and managing the review process is time consuming.

Publons solves these problems by augmenting the standard peer review process, improving reviewer selection, and giving authoritative credit to reviewers that they can use for career advancement. The net result is that the peer review process is shortened at the same time the quality of scientific output is increased. By turning peer review into a measurable research output, Publons provides a new lens through which the quality and significance of research, researchers, publications, and institutions can be evaluated and reported.

Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston
Dr Andrew Preston
Dr Andrew Preston

Publons was founded by Dr Andrew Preston and Daniel Johnston. After completing a Ph.D and post-doc work in solid-state physics, and publishing and peer reviewing a number of papers, Preston recognised the opportunity and started building the core of the Publons system. After being accepted into Lightning Lab Wellington 2013, Publons started building up its user base and inventory of journal articles.  They now have over 50,000 users, 285,000 reviews, and thousands of journals in the system. Just over 1% of all reviews generated in 2015 globally were recorded by Publons.

Publons’ revenue model is based on fees collected from publishers to integrate into the platform, and charges to academic institutions and research funders who pay for access to tools that help them monitor and evaluate their research interests.

Preston moved to London mid-2015 to be closer to his main market – academic publishers. Much of the future growth of the company will be globally from the UK, while product development and operations remain in Wellington.

Publons recently closed a significant investment round for a small stake in the company by the fifth largest academic publisher in the world, SAGE. The investment will provide enough runway to last eighteen months or so as the company continues to expand its partnerships with publishers, grow its user community, and prove out the revenue model.

Publons is hiring devs, growth hackers, sales people, and a product manager in both Wellington and London.  Do get in touch with them if you’re interested.

Disclosure: I’m Chairman of the Board of Publons, and part of the AngelHQ syndicate that provided their seed investment.

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2015: The year in review

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2015 has been a watershed year for the startup scene in New Zealand.  When I started this Startup of the Week blog in September, a number of people asked me, “are there really enough great startups in New Zealand to feature one every week?”  The answer is a resounding yes!

Had you asked me about New Zealand startups in 2010, I would have told you that there were patches of awesome, and things looked like they were just starting to come together. Five years on, things are really pumping, as evidenced by:

  • Thriving startup hubs in the main centres: Visit GridAKL, BizDojo, CreativeHQ, or The Greenhouse and you’ll be under no illusion that healthy and diverse startup activity abounds.
  • Entrepreneurial buzz in the regions: The BCC (Palmerston North), and Bridge Street Collective (Nelson) have been going from strength to strength for several years, and we’re seeing new players emerge in Whangarei, Tauranga, Taranaki, Hawkes Bay, and Dunedin.
  • Finally, the rise of Ag Tech startups: In prior years, there was a paucity of agricultural startups coming out of New Zealand. Now, with companies like Engender, CropX, BioLumic, eBee, and others, this sector which builds on NZ’s natural strengths looks like it’s getting to critical mass.
  • Meetups are mushrooming: I seem to be getting a couple of announcements for new startup-related meetups every month in Wellington. Startup Garage and Lean Startup Wellington how have over 1,000 members each. People are getting together, which is great.
  • Startup Weekends continue to thrive: There’s no shortage of newbie entrepreneurs starting their entrepreneurial journey through Startup Weekends. We ran 11 events up and down the country this year, with 736 participants – both records. Many of these participants are now fully plugged into the scene, some running their own startups, some working for others, and some busily hatching plans. And some qualifying themselves out, having decided they’re happier in their day jobs. Win.
  • Accelerator ramp-up: Lightning Lab ran three programmes this year – Auckland, Christchurch, and Manufacturing (Wellington). The dust hasn’t settled yet, but this is likely to have resulted in 10+ new startups achieving funding, networks, and a path to global success.  Oh, and another 10+ startups being qualified out after a short sharp experiment – to me that’s also an important success statistic. The Government R9 Accelerator broke new ground, and will be doing round two this year. Vodafone’s Xone will be opening in 2016. And there are others.
  • An explosion in angel investment activity: AngelHQ‘s Dave Allison told me that as at the beginning of December, not including any of the Lightning Lab companies, the club had 12 open investment deals. I can’t remember a time where there were more than 3 or 4 deals open at any given point in time. Given that nearly all angel club deals in NZ are now syndicated between clubs, I’m sure that the menu at ICE Angels, Enterprise Angels, Manawatu Investment Group, Venture Accelerator Nelson, and Otago Angels are growing in a similar fashion. Post-earthquakes, Canterbury Angels is also off to a great start. And there are a host of unofficial syndicates forming around the country too. There’s never been a better time to be an angel investor.

ICE Angels summarised the year’s angel activity with this nice Prezi – thanks guys!

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Victor W Hwang, author of “The Rainforest“, and cofounder of Global Innovation Week (HT: Andreas Stefanidis)

“Despite outward appearances, the Startup Movement is not just about startups. It is actually a deeper cultural shift that cuts to the heart of the human condition. It reflects a dissatisfaction with the way much of the world has gone for the last several decades. It marks a transformation in how we view our societies, how we convene our communities, how we create value together as human beings. It’s a counterpoint to the governing economic paradigm – what economists call neoliberalism – which has prized efficiency and productivity above everything else, even when it has corroded relationships that bond us together in our communities and social networks…

“Innovation is not a solo sport. It thrives in supportive, diverse, connected, pay­it­forward ecosystems. It dies in selfish ones. Building a startup – indeed, bringing any innovation to life – is hard enough already. The last thing you need is distrust, high social barriers, and cynicism from those around you. You need people who are willing to believe in you. Because human beings innovate together in teams.”

Thanks for your support this year, reading and spreading the stories of NZ startups going global.

If you’re involved in the startup scene, good on you for taking risks, sharing your energy, and pursuing your passion – you’re making the world, and New Zealand, a better place for everyone.

If you’re a bystander, a dreamer, or an armchair startup enthusiast, there are plenty of ways for you to get involved in 2016. Just contact any of the organisations mentioned above, and start forming the connections that will enable you to become part of the success story we’re all creating together of New Zealand as a global entrepreneurial powerhouse.

That’s it from me for 2015. Have a great break, and we’ll see you in February.

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Timely

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Appointment booking for service businesses.

timelyHere are the top six pieces of advice I give to startups: Love your problem. Know your market inside-out. Delight your customers. Start by picking one thing, and do it really well. Be global from day one. Don’t settle for less than the best cofounders, employees, investors, and advisors.

Timely never needed this advice – they just went hell for leather from the start.

Timely provides really simple cloud-based appointment booking aimed personal service businesses like hairdressers, massage therapists, and personal trainers. Customers’ clients can book and manage their own appointments online.  It surrounds this basic calendar functionality with great features like pre-appointment reminders, point-of-sale billing, and integration with popular accounting systems like Xero and Quickbooks Online.

They make money by charging users a monthly subscription. At $19/month in NZ, it’s great value. Users claim that it pays for itself on the first day of use. Like previous Startup of the Week Debtor Daddy, the key value for users is in freeing up their time to focus on charging clients for doing the work they love, rather than on tedious administration of their businesses.

Timely now has customers in over 70 countries, but they’re concentrating on three key geographies: Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. They have over 4,000 customers and are growing by roughly 10% month-on-month with a very low churn rate. Their growth strategy is based on inbound marketing, working with trade associations and partner networks. But they’re getting a lot of business coming through the door by reputation, social, and SEO/SEM which is great. There’s a lot of competition in this space, but once a customer is in, they’re hooked. What makes Timely stand out is dead-easy user experience.

What’s the secret to success? Know your market inside-out. Delight your customers. Start by picking one thing, and do it really well. Be global from day one. Don’t settle for less than the best cofounders, employees, investors, and advisors.

Ryan, Will, and Andrew
Ryan, Will, and Andrew

Timely’s CEO Ryan Baker has been round the block a few times with his cofounder Andrew Schofield. Their previous venture, BookIt, provided booking and payment services for the travel industry, and was acquired by TradeMe in 2010. The third cofounder, Will Berger, also worked on BookIt after it was acquired by TradeMe and became TravelBug. Their team is a “who’s who” of the Dunedin entrepreneurial scene, and the stellar lineup is rounded out with directors MOD (the artist formerly known as Michael O’Donnell) and Rowan Simpson, along with legal counsel Sacha Judd. Timely sets the benchmark for team quality.

I asked Ryan what their biggest challenge is as a startup and he told me without hesitation that it is overcoming obscurity. “There’s a big global market out there and we know our customers love us. The challenge is reaching them. If your readers are looking for ways to help NZ startups, get them to recommend us to their friends in NZ and overseas. Next time you’re getting your hair or nails done ask the stylist if they’ve
heard of Timely.”

Although the nucleus of the team is in Dunedin, the rest of the 27-strong team are spread out across New Zealand and around the globe. They don’t have a formal office, but instead all work from home (or anywhere) using a “remote first” philosophy. Great tools like Slack, Hangouts, gdrive, 15Five, Trello, and Help Scout encourage constant communication and team cohesion, but the real trick is creating and maintaining a culture where everyone feels they are playing in a team, and have an impact on the success of their business.

The “remote first” nature of Timely’s business culture resonates with their target market, many of whom are small businesspeople juggling work-life balance.  As more New Zealand startups expand globally, and more people generally adopt portfolio careers, I suspect this fully networked business model will become much more common.

Timely are always looking for good people to join their team, and the good news is that you don’t have to be based in Dunedin to join this great group of people making life easier for small business owners around the world.

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Ooooby

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Hacking the food supply chain, Out Of Our Own Back Yards.

It’s estimated that on average, food items in the US travel 2400km to get from their point of origin to your table1. This results in huge quantities of carbon being belched into the atmosphere through transportation, waste resulting from excess packaging and spoilage, and food that is less fresh and tasty.

oooobyOoooby makes it easy to create local fresh food marketplaces that source food from local growers, and deliver to local consumers. From humble beginnings on Waiheke Island, Ooooby now powers food networks in Auckland, Waikato, Matakana, Sydney, and Fresno California, and they’re just in process of setting up shop in the UK.  Across the globe, Ooooby is pumping over $3m in annualised recurring revenue (ARR).

Ooooby is a mission-driven business, whose purpose is to make local food convenient, affordable, and fair. They want to rebuild local food economies, because they believe that many of the world’s most pressing social and economic problems are caused or exacerbated by the way we produce and consume food. They also believe that in order to be impactful and help create a sustainable food system, they must first create a sustainable business.

petePete Russell does not fit your stereotype of a social entrepreneur. Prior to Ooooby, he cofounded and built up Australian specialist food importer and distributor Source Food, built it up to A$10m, and then had an epiphany – the world would be much better served by local foods, purchased in an “online farmers market”. Local food that’s as convenient to purchase as industrial food would be better for local farmers, local consumers, and the environment. Pete is joined on the Ooooby board by CTO Davy van de Vusse who has architected their core systems.

Their revenue model is to clip the ticket by 8% on all food purchase transactions that go through the platform, to cover software development, administration, and national marketing. They’ve been invited to set up shop in all of the cities where they’re active, so platform marketing costs have been minimal. And they have a steady stream of inquiries internationally from groups of local farmers wanting to transform their own local food economies.

The platform can scale quickly, and can support a virtually unlimited number of local food hubs.

Ooooby raised $285k in a PledgeMe campaign earlier this year, but they are looking for another $500k or so in the next year, so that they can rebuild the food economies in over 20 cities worldwide by the end of 2017.

If you’d like to get Ooooby going in your town, or are interested in supporting local food, do get in touch with Pete and join the movement.

Disclosure: One of the trusts of which I’m a trustee made a small investment in Ooooby in their crowdfunding campaign.

Special note: I’ve just posted an item on my main blog which may be of interest: Convince me to invest in your startup, in which I cover how angel investors like me evaluate investment opportunities.

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Syngency

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Cloud-based management software for talent agencies, as beautiful as the models themselves.

syngencySyngency is a cloud-based system for talent, modelling, and acting agencies. It makes it easy to manage their talent pools and market themselves to the industry. It’s a one-stop solution that covers everything from onboarding wannabes to invoicing customers. And it just looks beautiful.

When I’m evaluating investment opportunities for businesses at any stage, the single most important factor is always the same: does the CEO have what it takes to make the business a success? ryan-brighterI haven’t met many people who are as effective as Syngency’s CEO Ryan Marshall. He is the very model of a modern startup entrepreneur. First and foremost, he’s always hustling. He loves his industry and his product, and seems to be out there either selling or thinking about how to sell 24 hours a day, working networks, racking up air miles, Skyping at 3am, he just doesn’t seem to know how to stop. He’s intimately familiar with his market, having talked to most of the major players and continually popping up at industry events. He knows his product inside-out because he’s coded most of it himself. He seems to have a sixth sense for opportunity, and isn’t shy to act quickly and seize it.

I first met Ryan at BNZ Startup Alley at Webstock early this year, where Syngency was a finalist. You could say that Startup Alley is the premier startup competition in New Zealand. Syngency didn’t win (that prize was taken out by Startup Weekend alumnus Banqer – more on them in the future) but Syngency still knocked the socks off of the judges. As a result, they won a trip to the Kiwi Landing Pad in San Francisco.

NOTE: BNZ Startup Alley applications for 2016 are open now. It’s a great place to showcase your startup, practice pitching to a big crowd, and kickstart your action plan for the year.

Syngency entered the iiiNNO accelerator in Taiwan a few months later. They were one of two non-Taiwanese companies in the accelerator, and according to iiiNNO’s manager David Kuo, were by far the highest performing company there, and earned the privilege of launching at TechCrunch Asia. While at iiiNNO, Syngency attracted a significant number of clients all over Asia, including the unfortunately named but otherwise awesome ISIS Modelling Agency. They also achieved a key milestone by scoring a local mobile development team. Syngency did a great job of raising the profile of NZ startups in Asia.

From Taiwan, Syngency continued their world tour, and set up a base at Kiwi Landing Pad (KLP) in San Francisco. Ryan now spends a lot of time dashing between New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco where their key US markets are.  KLP has been a great fit for them – see the video below for a synopsis.

Syngency’s target market is big, over $100m in the US and Europe alone. They now have customers in 30 countries, managing the talent profiles of over 40,000 models and actors and they’ll finish up 2015 with over 40x growth since the beginning of the year. Their solution is also easy to take into adjacent markets such as film production and sports.

Currently they’re executing a direct sales strategy and collecting most of their business through referrals from happy customers.

Syngency will be raising investment in early 2016, likely in a trans-pacific mix between New Zealand and California.

Meantime, they’re expanding their dev team in Auckland – they’re looking for a CTO and LAMP devs familiar with the full AWS suite. They’re excited about running a global Kiwi company from New Zealand, and they’d like you to join them!

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Parrot Analytics

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One metric to rule them all for the TV industry.

parrot2How’s this for a business model: attract the top talent in a tough industry, and solve their most pressing problem. That’s exactly what Parrot Analytics is doing, and although it’s early days, so far they’re onto a winner.

The problem they’re solving is measuring the demand for TV content across the current highly fragmented landscape. Their solution enables producers and distributors to measure the performance of their content across geographical markets, and also to compare specific programmes against their competitors within a market – across all channels, traditional, streaming, even offline. Content buyers can use this information to ensure that they’re getting the best bang for the buck. Their mission is to help TV executives make better content decisions, and to better connect content creatives to consumers.

This problem is a hard one. In the olden days before the Internet, Nielsen had set-top boxes which recorded all of a viewer’s activity, but it isn’t so simple any more. You might watch a programme on live TV, then switch over to Netflix or Lightbox, Google Play, Amazon Video, Hulu, and even God forbid torrent an episode that you’re geoblocked out of. Parrot’s solution very cleverly doesn’t care how you’re consuming the content – it’s more concerned with how much buzz it’s generating in various online platforms, which turns out to be a much better and accurate measure of the demand for content.

Their system uses artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and machine learning techniques to evaluate public reaction to each piece of content, and all of this complexity is reduced to a single number to rate the value of the content: the Demand Rating™ – one metric to rule them all.

wared
Wared Seger
riddell
Chris Riddell

Co-founded by Wared Seger and Chris Riddell, the Parrot Analytics team is a mashup of the creme-de-la-creme of NZ’s top business, data, and science people, and funded by investors across New Zealand, Australia, and the US.
The Exec Team also includes CTO Jason Hunter, VP Product Arturas Vedrickas, and Ops Manager Dil Khosa.

One of their big customers is the BBC, for whom they were able to help uncover untapped opportunities for Dr Who in South Korea [see The Economist’s case study]. Nobody had predicted that, and the good doctor has turned out to be a big hit south of the DMZ.

Parrot Analytics has plans to apply the same technology across the entertainment vertical, as it works equally well for movies, music, ebooks, and games – but the biggest pain market pain and opportunity right now is in TV.

Parrot Analytics established an office in Los Angeles last year. There’s a small but growing cohort of Kiwi tech companies there, including 8i, The Appreciation Engine, Vista Entertainment, and recently high-profile Rocket Lab.

They’ve grown from six to 15 FTE over the last year, and raised both a seed round and a “pre-series-A” round, both among the largest that have ever been raised in NZ. They’re likely to raise another larger round in 2016.

Parrot Analytics are hiring right now, so if you know anyone interested in being a Software Engineer Intern or Chief Data Scientist, do let them know.

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Uncharted

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Patient charts in the cloud.

What did you do over the weekend? Jack Newberry took a serious problem that’s been irritating him for a long time, found a team, banged up a prototype, and built a business around the solution in 54 hours.  Out of Startup Weekend, Uncharted was born.

jackJack is a Surgical Registrar at Capital Coast District Health Board (Wellington Hospital), and deals with critically ill patients in their many manifestations on a daily basis. His frustration? Those clipboards that hang at the end of every hospital bed, with bits of dead trees scrawled with illegible notes clipped together in a way makes them difficult to quickly analyse.

Patient charts have not changed much in the last 50 years. The problems are institutional inertia, overworked IT departments who struggle to maintain the status quo, and vendors providing walled gardens which are difficult to integrate with.

Uncharted is a solution that allows doctors and nurses to quickly record key patient data electronically into a cloud-based database via tablets, and then perform instant analysis on these data to determine if the patient needs immediate attention. A key benefit is that no integration with existing hospital IT systems is required – hospitals can implement Uncharted quickly, and start seeing immediate benefits.

breccancharlieJack pitched his idea to the participants at Wellington Startup Weekend HEALTH, and attracted a great team, including Rabid Tech’s Breccan McLeod-Lundy, Snapper’s Charlie Gavey, surgeon Saxon Connor, Nick Comer, and devs Jon Waghorn, Eugene Rakhimov, and Jack Ewing.

Startup Weekends start on a Friday evening with entrepreneurs like Jack pitching to each other, then organically forming teams, validating customers and markets, designing and building the solution. The event finishes on Sunday evening with pitching to a panel of judges. Mentors and coaches support the teams right the way through. At the event Jack and his team participated in, four of the 11 teams had paying customers on board by the end of the event.

Uncharted has already received interest from a number of hospitals. Jack’s main gripe with medical software is that it’s so difficult to use. He says it seems that usability is often the bottom priority, and it felt great to put an app together over a weekend that solved an important problem, looked smart, and was easy to use.

Uncharted’s priorities now are to build their team, get customers on board here in New Zealand, and immediately start considering the opportunities in much larger overseas markets. Most New Zealand doctors have spent time overseas, and the charting problem is a worldwide issue. Jack’s overseas market entry plan is to use the network of doctors in New Zealand to get into overseas hospitals with this great solution that does one thing really well. We all know there will be more to it than that, but it’s a good start.

There is competition, notably in a product called PatienTrack, but there is plenty of room for more players. Uncharted’s differentiation is simplicity and usability.

The bottom line is a bit scary: 1% of surgical procedures end in preventable death, known as “failure to rescue”. Uncharted aims to reduce that by providing centralised early detection for patients that are showing signs of trouble. And after all, life is priceless.

If you’d like to find out more about Uncharted, contact Jack directly.

swStartup Weekends are held all over the country, from Whangarei to Invercargill, and staffed by volunteers like me. If you’d like to get involved in an event, head over to startupweekend.co.nz and check it out.

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iQualify

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Disrupting tertiary education from the inside.

iqIn a leafy corner of Lower Hutt along the quiet Waiwhetū stream, something remarkable is happening. This is the home of the Open Polytechnic, one of New Zealand’s largest tertiary educational institutions as measured by the number of students enrolled at any given time.  Open Polytechnic specialise in Open, Distance, and Flexible Learning, and have been doing so since they were established after the Second World War to provide distance vocational education to returned servicepeople.

Open Polytechnic have just launched their iQualify platform, which enables courseware designers to author compelling online interactive educational content with author-centric tools designed with usability in mind, and deliver personalised learning experiences that are tailored to specific user needs. They’re using iQualify to replace a large inventory of ageing Moodle content with modern, interactive, personalised courses.

Open Polytechnic needed a much better courseware authoring and delivery system for themselves, but they’re pitching iQualify as a cloud-based solution for the whole indstry, in New Zealand and around the world. The problem of uncompelling, difficult to maintain content is acute at a time when many traditional tertiary educational institutions are looking to take their courses online. Open Polytechnic wants to build iQualify into a platform that any organisation can use to develop and deliver their own courseware, or tailor courseware developed by others for their own purposes.

shanan
Shanan Holm

iQualify was the brainchild of CTO Shanan Holm, who did the initial coding after hours as a skunkworks project, after reviewing the market for courseware platforms and coming up with nothing that met their needs. The system is firmly built on Javascript – most of the heavy lifting is done in the browser, with a Node.js backend in the Azure cloud. Responsive design is used throughout, as students in particular tend to access just about everything through mobiles and tablets. The end result is a user experience that looks a lot more like Xero than your average LMS.

One big difference between iQualify and other solutions is their basic educational philosophy. Open Polytechnic are strong believers in the “blended model”, where students do all of their learning through a screen, but have real-time help and interaction with live people who coach them and support their learning journeys. This is an efficient and effective happy medium between face-to-face learning and MOOCs. Face-to-face learning doesn’t scale well, and doesn’t suit many learners’ life situations. MOOCs on the other hand suffer from very low completion rates due to learner disengagement and  lack of personal touch – they’re great for very self-motivated learners and information snackers, but don’t suit the vast majority of distance learners. One of iQualify’s key features is a Facilitator Dashboard which makes it easy for a course instructor to keep tabs on their individual students, and intervene where it will increase the learner’s chances of success.

Tony Grantham
Tony Grantham

Tony Grantham is Open Polytechnic’s Executive Director – Commercial, and is charged with selling the platform worldwide. And less than six months since launch, they’re already achieving good traction in New Zealand with early customers signing up, and several large educational institutions in Australia currently evaluating the platform.  It’s early days, but with inquiries are being fielded from Asia as well. iQualify is attracting significant interest, and revenues are on track to reach seven figures in calendar 2016.

Caroline Seelig
Caroline Seelig

Open Polytechnic’s CEO Dr Caroline Seelig is effectively running a platform pivot on a large chunk of her organisation. That’s a bold move, but the reward will be improving Open Polytechnic’s competitiveness locally in New Zealand against the tide of global education providers, and will also provide a boost to the NZ tertiary sector, enabling other NZ tertiaries to avoid investing huge amounts of capital in multiple solutions that provide similar functionality, and focus on their core business where they provide the most value – quality personalised educational experiences backed by excellent content.

If you doubted the public sector’s ability to innovate, or a large (by NZ standards) organisation’s appetite to overcome the innovator’s dilemma and act like a startup, think again. The Open Polytechnic is raising the bar for how public organisations can become part of the networked economy, leveraging their existing core skill base with new technology, and enable the delivery of far more public good by becoming platforms.

Disclaimer: I am a member of the Open Polytechnic Council, but the views in this post are entirely my own.

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Ebee

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Clean, green beehive hardware. 

ebeeThere’s a dirty secret in the beekeeping industry. Standard wood-and-wax hive frames don’t work for mānuka honey because they aren’t strong enough to handle the honey’s thixotropic nature, so commercial apiarists use plastic frames instead. Plastic frames come in one piece, whereas wooden hardware requires assembly, which is time consuming, especially for large operations. One small problem though – if your hives are affected by American Foulbrood (AFB) – that’s about 1,800 hives every year in New Zealand – you have no choice but to dig a hole and burn your hives along with all the infected bees. Oh dear, burning plastic is not only dirty, noxious, and carbon-rich, it’s carcinogenic – that’s not very consistent with NZ’s clean, green brand.

Ebee makes frames out of ecologically sustainable compressed plant fibre using a trade secret material mix. It’s food grade, toxin free, moulded in a single piece, biodegrades just like wood, and burns cleanly. And it’s available for about the same price as its evil plastic counterpart. Ebee frames also have the advantage over plastic of better thermal stability – they don’t get as hot in the summer or cold in the winter, and retain their shape better.

Ebee’s market isn’t limited to mānuka though, as other honeys display similar thixotropic properties, such as other members of the Leptospermum family and heather. Worldwide, there is a significant requirement for these strong frames, and at the right price point, general apiarists would prefer these frames over wood or plastic for general use.

roboollyjessThis company began life at Massey University Wellington’s Spring programme, which supports entrepreneurial design students to commercialise their ideas. Founder and designer Jess Rolinson-Purchase, a passionate beekeeper, was concerned about the inherent contradiction of producing a green product using dirty means. She was joined by business development specialist Rob Smith and Spring Programme Manager Olly Townend as cofounders.

The trio were selected for entry into the Lightning Lab Manufacturing accelerator, currently running in Lower Hutt, and have been using the time in the lab to perfect their prototype and start to close commercial deals with customers. They have significant interest from some of NZ’s largest commercial beekeepers, and are raising money on Demo Day close their first deals domestically and begin international market exploration.

Lightning Lab Manufacturing Demo Day is on 19 November. If you don’t have a ticket, it’s easy to register, and you can come and see Ebee and six other nascent startups who make actual things for the real economy strut their stuff.

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