REALITY TV show The Shark Tank has proved a hit as it gives Aussie viewers an insight into the high risks and rewards of the adrenaline-fuelled startup industry.
But while it has made Steve Baxter and his Brisbane-based River City Labs household names, they’re far from the only startup incubator in an increasingly crowded market.
Another Brisbane startup lab is doing cool stuff too, being the only creative-tech-focused incubator in Australia.
QUT Creative Enterprise Australia (CEA) is wholly owned by, and located at, Queensland University of Technology, though it operates independently.
To qualify to join, companies must use tech in the creative industries, or creatively use tech.
Along with providing shared workspaces and support for startups, CEA is in its second year of the Collider accelerator program, which as program lead and entrepreneur-in-residence
Alan Jones says, “selects high-performing companies and asks them to perform at an even higher level”.
The Collider program climaxed with a demo day at The Triffid in Brisbane, where the entrepreneurs delivered their final pitches to a “shark tank” consisting of MAI Capital’s Tom Ellis, Microsoft Australia managing director of startups Emily Rich, and Virgin StartUp’s Ian Mason (who has recently joined CEA as global expert-in-residence).
And in what he hopes will become an annual event, recently installed CEA chief executive officer Mark Gustowski took the Collider cohort to Bangkok for an “Asia immersion week”, culminating in South-East Asia’s largest tech startup conference, Techsauce Global Summit.
Normally associated with tourism, and with agriculture still the dominant industry, Thailand is positioning itself as a tech hub for the ASEAN region, with already-impressive broadband infrastructure and the Government investing in more under its “Thailand 4.0” program.
Additionally, the country is a fertile climate for startups, with billions available from cashed-up investors. And it has an emerging middle class and young population with deep mobile-app penetration, as well as being a gateway to the wider region, including the massive Chinese market.
“The whole purpose of the trip was to open the eyes of the Australian startups to the Asian ecosystem, and to the opportunities and the volume that exists there, and the pace and the velocity at which you have to move,” Mr Gustowski said.
“Just getting used to the pace (in Bangkok) is something they’ll benefit from. If they can get used to the velocity and the pace you have to move at in Asia — certainly South-East Asia — and take that with them back home, and continue to move at that level, they’ll be able to differentiate themselves very easily.
“Australia can be a little comfortable at times — it’s too easy sometimes — and you’re not forced to move at this speed. And to see the speed at which companies are moving at in Thailand is a real eye-opener.”
Between the Thai trip and demo day, the Collider startups have drummed up much investor and partner interest.
As well as running programs taking Australian startups into Asia, CEA holds an annual Creative3 conference celebrating the role creative industries play in the Australian economy.
Scott Millar, Brisbane
The youngest entrepreneur in this year’s Collider program also boasts probably the most interesting product. Brisbane’s Scott Millar, 18, sells holographic advertising for retail and events, with projection units ranging from tablet-size to 2m life-size.
Unlike the popular conception of holograms as free-floating in-the-air projections, BOP’s holograms are contained within display screens of varying configurations.
“These units have been specifically for the events and advertising space, to help brands cut through the noise and create captivating experiences for their audiences,” he says of the hardware.
Despite his tender years, Mr Millar is no “newbie” in the startup space.
“I started my business journey at age 14, where a team and I started creating hashtag keyrings as part of a school business project,” he recalls.
“We did really well in this project, and that summer holidays I decided to head back to the markets and continue selling the keyrings as my part-time job.
“This business scaled rapidly, and before I knew it we were delivering orders of 1000-plus units and had our own laser cutter.”
For his next project he learned how to make holograms via YouTube tutorials, and has been working in the space since 2015.
“Since discovering the technology we have been balancing our business commitments with our high school commitments, and this is our first year running the business full-time,” Millar says.
“(We are now) selling to countries around the world, and we had a number of event and marketing companies reaching out to see if they could use our holograms to project their speakers, products, etc.“
BOP Industries differentiates its product by customising to the customer.
“We offer our clients end-to-end service, in-house, to have one point of contact for the design and manufacturing of the units, the ideation and creation of the content, and the delivery of the unit,” Millar says.
Despite his obvious talent, Millar recognises he’s still just starting out: “Being 18, I am really eager to learn as much as I can and Collider was a great place to learn.
“Once we’ve established ourselves as the market leaders here in Australia, we will be scaling our operations and impact globally.”
Facial recognition for retail and hospitality
Michael Huisinkveld and Ishan Dubey, Brisbane
Another retail-focused startup, and almost as cool as BOP and its holograms, is birdee, which provides facial recognition technology to the retail and hospitality industries.
It builds relationships between businesses and their customers by calling up a customer’s profile the moment they step into a store and are recognised by the camera.
“This enables retailers to provide a truly unique shopping experience which is tailored to each customer’s specific needs,” says CEO Michael Huisinkveld, 28.
“Through our app, sales staff can connect to our system and keep track of the clients they serve, allowing them to simply greet customers personally.”
The technology is being trialled at NomNom in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, enabling service staff to instantly recognise a customer and, for instance, anticipate their coffee order. And Huisinkveld says the company has several more customers lined up.
Facial recognition is obviously a booming space, attracting the attention of tech giants such as Apple, Google and Facebook. Birdee aims to carve out its own niche by targeting the offline retail and hospitality space.
“Also, other players that use facial recognition technologies focus on the security sector, which we want to spare,” Huisinkveld says.
“We want to use the technology to create a better experience for the ‘good’ people rather than detecting the ‘bad’ guys.
“In the loyalty space, regular loyalty cards are scanned at the end of the shopping process. But that’s when it is too late for the customer. He or she has made the decision already, and most likely hasn’t received the service they deserve.”
While a customer’s choice of latte is hardly sensitive information, Birdee still takes privacy seriously, especially in the current climate. Customers must opt in to the service, and there is robust data security.
Huisinkveld got his first taste of startups in his native Germany, as an employee of Tesla Motors.
“I joined as a salesperson and gained a lot of startup experiences with them,” he recalls.
“Back in the day I was one of a very few employees in Germany and had the pleasure to work in a rapidly growing team and market.”
After Huisinkveld came to Australia to study entrepreneurship, birdee was born as part of his course.
QUT CEA and the Collider accelerator have taken it to the next level.
Barry and Hayley Devlin, Brisbane
“See your wedding before your wedding” is the compelling catchphrase for Brisbane company Neon.
While virtual modelling of wedding outfits, makeup and hair is nothing new, the husband-and- wife team behind Neon have taken it to the next level, letting couples see how their actual wedding and reception venues will appear on the day – even letting them drill down to individual pieces of cutlery in the table settings.
Neon uses creative visual tech, such as virtual and augmented reality, to put couples inside their day in the most realistic way possible. Through an app, brides and grooms-to-be can mix and match a plethora of venues, table settings and other accoutrements.
The idea first surfaced in 2013, but it wasn’t until last year that consumer technology caught up with the vision. Neon is now in the process of 3D-photographing the interiors of wedding venues from Noosa to Byron Bay, their trial area.
CEO Barry Devlin, who founded Neon with creative director wife Hayley, is confident it’s a unique concept, at least in this region.
“We’re fairly sure that somewhere else in the world – be it Berlin, Boston or Beijing – another creative tech startup shares our view that visualisation is at the centre of how the next generation of couples will plan their wedding,” he says.
“We’re yet to encounter anyone in Australia, South-East Asia or the UK even close to thinking the way we do, let alone bringing it to life.
“However most brides we’ve spoken to wish it was available right now, with over 1000 on our wait list.
“A small but rapidly growing number of wedding suppliers, mainly venues, have jumped at the chance of being early adopters of some pretty cool innovation never seen in this space before.”
In true startup tradition, this is the Devlins’ third bite at the wedding market, matching couples with suppliers via innovative technology, and trial and error have seen them home in on visualisation as an emerging new cool tool.
And Collider’s Asia immersion week proved advantageous, with Thailand a booming wedding market.
“Having made our first international sale whilst in Bangkok recently, plans to expand into international markets are well under way, long before textbook logic would suggest we’re ready for it!” Devlin says.
Neon has since expanded into Bali, and is pursuing seed capital for further expansion into South-East Asia, as well as major Australian cities.
Music app for insomnia
Thomas Dickson, Sunshine Coast, and Arthur Roolfs, US
leep aids are one of those rare products best appreciated when you’re unconscious.
And entering a crowded market of musical sleep apps, Can’t Sleep aims to set itself apart from the competition by offering user customisation and personalisation.
With over 10 per cent of Australians getting less than the minimum five-and-a-half hours’ sleep per night, there’s a large addressable market for sleeps apps.
And while many musical sleep aids play the same sounds on a perpetual loop, Can’t Sleep uses artificial intelligence to compose new music on the fly, meaning you won’t be left with that repetitious feeling.
“Can’t Sleep is a mobile app that plays unlimited relaxing music scientifically designed to make individuals fall asleep faster and wake up feeling refreshed,” company founder Thomas Dickson says.
“Music is a safe, easy to administer and effective intervention for improving sleep quality for insomniacs.”
Dickson says Can’t Sleep is built on three pillars: science, computer-generated music and user personalisation.
Dickson is undertaking a PhD in the psychology of music for sleep at the University of NSW, and the app is based on more than 100 journal articles in the field.
Can’t Sleep generates music on the fly using an algorithm.
“This means that the music is different every time and for every user,” Dickson says.
“The continuous generation of music using computer algorithms means it never gets boring.
“And you can choose your own musical instruments and ambient nature sounds, which the algorithm then composes with.”
Can’t Sleep garnered nearly 500 downloads in its first two weeks on the iOS App Store, and a free version is available on the Google Play store.
The duo are now looking for investors to take their app to the next level.
“With greater investment we can expand the app into other dimensions of music psychology including music for focus, relaxation and exercise,” Dickson says.
Artist and venue matching
Taran Croxton, Sunshine Coast
Technology might have revolutionised the entertainment industry, but on the music touring circuit they’re still stuck in the ‘80s.
Sunshine Coast musician Taran Croxton, 29, was struck by the antiquated and inefficient paper-based systems venues were still using to book artists, and the laborious process of connecting the two.
Croxton’s solution was to put everything in the cloud for instant access to all parties. He says the fact it caters for both venues and artists gives Prysim an edge over competitors.
“For venues our platform is a management system to receive gig applications, review and assess applications, manage gigs and ultimately pay artists,” he says.
“For the artists it provides a list of all the available gigs, and allows an easy and direct application to the venue or booking agent.
“An artist profile doubles as an electronic press kit, providing all the information a venue or agent requires to assess and book the artist.”
A relative newcomer, Prysim was born in the Collider accelerator and has been in full operation for a couple of months, but already has about 100 artists on the system and 14 venues or festivals on the books. It also has more than 130 gigs available.
“We offer a two-sided marketplace that makes the connection much simpler and faster for both venues and artists,” Croxton says.
“Our venue registration process allows for venues to set their gig availability calendars up for 12-plus months within minutes.
“Our back end is designed to enable venues that do frequent live music to manage better and faster. Many of our competitors are focused on single events rather than the lifetime of a venue.”
Prysim is involved with Nambour’s NamJam busking festival next month
The other innovative participants in this year’s Collider program were:
* Lana (Brisbane): Maternity fashion sales and rental
* Exaptec (Melbourne): Customised robots for service and companionship
* Tribefire (Sydney): Online communities and merchandising for e-sport brands
* Tixel (Melbourne): Secure ticket reselling with scamming and scalping protection
* Brandollo (Melbourne): Automated marketing for small business
The writer visited Techsauce Global Summit as a guest of the Royal Thai Embassy, Canberra