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10 Aussie start-ups gunning for Silicon Valley

Thursday, 31 May 2012 | By Oliver Milman

feature-silicon-valley-map-thumbFor Australian start-ups dreaming of making it big in the US, the transition time from launching to jumping on a pan-Pacific flight seems to be getting quicker and quicker.


This week, Flightfox, a Sydney business that proactively searches for the best flight deals on behalf of customers, was accepted into famed US accelerator Y Combinator, after raising a handy $800,000.


The move comes just a few short months after the business was chosen by Startmate, the Australian accelerator, to be part of its 2012 program.


The headlong rush to America isn’t without its downsides, as Startmate founder Niki Scevak eloquently put it in his StartupSmart blog this week, pointing out that Silicon Valley isn’t a “magical kingdom of start-ups.”


But that hasn’t stopped a growing number of Aussie ventures from aiming big and setting their sights firmly in the direction of California, and beyond.


So which businesses are leading the charge to Silicon Valley?


Here are 10 start-ups near the front of the queue:



1. ThereitIs


If you think that a world-class business can’t be built from Adelaide, you need to take a closer look at tech start-up Thereitis.


The business’ technology displays long lists of information in a refreshingly new way. Rather than show a long linear list of, for example, clothes for sale on a web page, Thereitis’ technology presents the products in a virtual 3D "cloud", which allows users to easily move through the products and pick them out visually.


Earlier this year, the business scored $2 million from local investors ahead of a rapid global expansion.


Guy Sewell, founder of the business, is set to relocate to the US and the technology, developed within Flinders University, appears ripe for a host of big-name clients or for acquisition.



2. Swarm.fm


Peter Watts is the archetype of the kind of entrepreneur that the US churns out on a regular basis but is still something of a novelty in Australia.


Aged just 23, Watts, who is from Sydney, is embarking upon a six-month tour of the US to promote his business, Swarm.fm, and hopefully snare some funding.


His trip’s funding source also screams of modernity – rather than plunder the family jewels or go cap in hand to a bank, Watts is using $20,000 won in “hackathon” competitions, half of that from a recent event organised by Spotify.


Following a successful showcase at SXSW, Watts hopes that Swarm.fm – which develops apps to help people find music more easily – is showing up on the radar of Silicon Valley’s major players.



3. Klick Communications


Silicon Valley is packed to the gunnels with ambitious young tech start-ups, many of them crammed into rented garages in the hope of replicating the success of Google or Microsoft.


But what about the whole infrastructure surrounding these ventures? Like any other business, they require staff, an accountant, insurance, sales support and so on.


Sydney start-up Klick Communications thinks it has spotted a gap in the market for a tech-focused PR agency, last week revealing that it has set up an office in Los Angeles.


Founder Kim McKay told StartupSmart: “There’s a big opportunity in LA around the tech and start-up community. Not many agencies there are homing in on that space, going by our research, so we think we can get runs on the board there.”


“Another sweet spot for us is travel. We are looking for travel destinations, with Honolulu in Hawaii being a possibility.”



4. Switchcam


Everything seemed to work with Veokami’s business model. The Sydney start-up helps users locate and share videos from events such as concerts, political events and conferences.


US incubator 500 Startups liked it so much that it picked it out for seed funding. Other US investors followed suit, despite the business only launching in August last year.


The only problem? The name. Veokami became Switchcam and the business, now headquartered in San Francisco, is planning on making it big in the US tech scene.


“I miss Veokami sometimes, but my co-founder and I were two of about four people who could actually pronounce the name,” said co-founder Brett Welch in a blog post


“Incidentally, (buying the domain) Switchcam.com was only a little more than $1,000, which was definitely worth it.”



5. 99dresses


When 99dresses shut down in January, many were quick to write the business off as a failure.


Founder Nikki Durkin has been proving ever since that those judgements are a little premature. A few tweaks to the platform were needed for a subsequent relaunch, rather than a complete scrapping of the idea, which allows women to buy and sell unwanted clothes.


Those in the know are convinced that Durkin, who started her first business five years ago aged just 15, can make it. 99dresses was recently named as the best company to come out of Y Combinator, suggesting that Durkin will be one of the few women, as well as Australians, to crack Silicon Valley.


We recently featured a video interview with Durkin, where she explains her start-up journey so far.



6. Collusion


Some start-ups relocate to the US for the size of the market, connections to mentors or just for the chance to be part of an entrepreneurial scene that appears to be on the up, despite the country’s continued economic woes.



Others, like Collusion, say that they would prefer to stay in Australia, if only the circumstances allowed.


The business, which provides a new way of writing, drawing and collaborating on the iPad via an app and stylus, aims to raise around $10 million via Kickstarter and other investors.


The problem? No-one in Australia is prepared to take a punt, meaning that founders Rob Yearsley, Sumeet Patel and Navdeep Saini are heading Stateside.


“It seems that Aussie tech VCs can’t even be bothered to look at what’s going on in their own backyard,” he told StartupSmart.


“I could go round chasing them all and try and get them out of a meeting, but the US investors are just in a different league.”



7. Wooboard


Travelling to the US to convince an investor or potential client to pick you ahead of the plethora of rivals isn’t an easy task, so it helps when you have a heavy hitter to back you up.


Wooboard has benefitted from its genesis within Sydney tech hub Pollenizer, which has proactively promoted it to the US market.


The pitch? Wooboard is a collaborative online human resource tool designed to boost workplace morale and improve productivity. Pollenizer developed the idea in-house in early 2011.


The business, which received angel funding from Elevation Capital last year, has grand plans, with a target of 10,000 business sign-ups by the end of June this year.



8. Wyngle


What’s in a name? For a new business, it’s often very little, unless you’ve made a mis-step, as Veokami did.


Wyngle’s problem was a little more serious than a mere pronunciation issue. Its research suggested that US consumers had a negative reaction to a moniker that sounded a little too much like “wangle.”


Wisely, founders Damien Cantelo and Sebastian Langton acted quickly, changing the name to Wynbox.com.


The Sydney duo plan to prise open a new niche in the US – a category of online retail dubbed “ratio buying”.


Instead of offering discounts, Wyngle offers shoppers the chance to pay $1 for a product instead of paying full price.



9. WeTeachMe


Hunting for Silicon Valley funding shortly after launch is one thing, but doing so after also only knowing your co-founders for a matter of months is a challenge few businesses would tackle.


WeTeachMe hopes its ambition will pay off after touring California in October last year in search of $3 million.


The visit came just six months after the five founders were introduced to each other at Launch48, a start-up event in Sydney.


The business, which helps teach users various skills by displaying tutorial videos made by experts, has garnered plenty of attention, if not yet the funding, impressing investors at an Innovation Bay dinner back in Australia this year.



10. StageBitz


Canberra entrepreneur Catherine Prosser launched her software company Production Genie in 2007, but it wasn’t until the business was up and running that she came up with the proposition that would have international appeal.


StageBitz is a web-based system designed to simplify prop management for theatre production professionals, allowing them to manage the lifecycle of prop sourcing, maintenance and tracking.


At last year’s Tech23 event, StageBitz was awarded an all-expenses trip to the US in order to meet the high rollers that will turn the technology into a leading business.


Prosser says the technology has already attracted interest in the United Kingdom, as well as the United States. She hopes to have four million props running through the system by the end of 2014.