Last Friday I headed over to the Open Data Institute for their first #ODIpitch event. If you’re not familiar with the ODI’s efforts you should be, they’re hard at work helping support any and everyone trying to open up the data we need to thrive digitally. Part of that is incubating start-ups like those that pitched. I went along to see if there might be any start-ups relevant for Lokku to invest in (I talked a bit about our investment focus in this post on the Lokku blog. I’m also aware I promised to go into much more detail on our focus and our offer to entrepreneurs but have so far failed to do so. It’s coming once we close the next few investments which is hopefully very shortly).

There was a wide diversity in start-ups in terms of age, some had been going for some time and are generating meaningful revenues, others formed very recently and are still at the exploratory stage. Overall the event was well organised and attended, and as someone with two small children I appreciate that it was held during the working day (not least as my son’s nursery is literally right next door). Each pitch was just five minutes which is perfect. Any more and the event drags out, and if you can’t convey the proposition in five minutes, you can’t convey it. 

All of the start ups in some way of course played on the topic of data and openness, but there were three high-level themes: Finance & efficiency, Smart cities, Tools & making. Some of the energy measurement or efficiency start-ups (Open Utility, Snips, especially seemed to be doing well (I’m hoping to get Snips to speak at a future #geomob, what I saw looked very cool), but as with anything that requires interaction with the physical world, especially installation of physical devices, I think they are in for a long journey. Not to say they won’t be valuable businesses, just that investors will need a lot of patience. In many cases it will involve selling to large government or quasi-governmental organisations, which by it’s nature is very slow. 

One start-up that got me thinking was Pesky People, which builds platforms to better allow disabled people (for example the hearing impaired) to interact with emergency services. First of all it seemed shameful that the government themselves aren’t financing this work, though I guess that’s a realisation that government isn’t particularly skilful at this type of thing. Secondly it struck me as an ideal target for crowd funding and open-sourcing. I see it as a critically important service. I’m not sure it’s an investable start-up though. Nevertheless, of course all good luck to them. 

I also found Open Bank Project to be an interesting idea, especially in the current context of London’s fintech boom. Great to see things emerging that could help accelerate the pace of innovation in a glacially slow industry. I talked with the founder about possibly speaking at an event I’m toying with organising that would focus on API based businesses, similarly to how #geomob focusses on geo based innovation. More on that in a later post though. 

For me the “winner” of the day though was I Can Make. They have a compelling team, an easy to understand product that is in the right place at the right time, and I especially liked their metaphor of using past engineering achievements to teach kids the skills and technologies of the future. My own son is about to turn four, and is slowly entering the age where we can actually “do” or “make” things together, so perhaps I’m giving them my vote just because I’m in the target demographic, but it was a good pitch. 

Overall a good event, and I look forward to more in the future. Good luck to all the companies. The lingering doubt that remains for me about open data though is whether, in a world where the data is free, companies create sustainable and high margin differentiation? Or do we face a situation where the only business model is essentially giving away data services and tools as an upsell for consulting and bespoke work? Those can be solid businesses, but they don’t offer the scalability and rapid growth of digital. I guess one way is by creating a tangible physical product (the path it seems I Can Make, and our own portfolio company SplashMaps have taken), but again then you are also at last partially constrained by the dynamics of a physical business (production, inventory, etc). The question remains to be answered.