“A true startup experience”: Meet the Startmate founders who went remote mid-accelerator

Startmate COVID-19

Chatterize co-founder Lane Litz. Source: supplied.

If going through a startup accelerator wasn’t enough of an intense experience, the 11 businesses that make up the latest Startmate cohort have found themselves launching amid a global pandemic, and making an abrupt switch to remote working.

Now, as they come to the end of the 12-week program, the founders are gearing up to pitch their ventures remotely, at Startmate’s first ever online demo day.

At just 22 years old, Steph Weiss is the founder of Arula, a startup that 3D prints personalised breast prosthesis for women who have undergone mastectomies due to breast cancer.

As a first-time founder, a sole founder, and also a student still in her fourth year of biomedical engineering, working at home on her own was initially “pretty tough”, she tells SmartCompany.

However, meetings have moved online, and many of Startmate’s mentors have been offering advice as to how to handle the situation, while making a point to talk about businesses that have grown out of economic crises.

Now, Weiss is starting to look at the positives of the situation. For example, where she used a 3D printer at the University of Technology Sydney, she now has one in her bedroom.

“It’s actually made everything a bit more accessible for me,” she says.

“I can print whenever I want, which is great.”

A return to normal

Lane Litz, founder of Chatterize, is based in New Zealand. Although she and her team did briefly move to Sydney to take part in Startmate, they found themselves having to head home a little sooner than scheduled.

But Chatterize was born internationally. The business provides chat bots to help Chinese kids learn to speak English fluently, offering them someone (or something) to converse with.

Litz and her co-founder Beleza Chan both previously worked in China, as early employees of online tutoring business VIPKid.

The business was founded when Litz relocated to New Zealand and wanted her own daughter to continue speaking Mandarin.

Before it joined Startmate, the startup had one co-founder in China and one in New Zealand, and staff in China and the US.

When the team joined the accelerator “we did it Silicon Valley style”, Litz says.

“Everybody living in a house together — it was a true startup-style experience.”

So, moving to remote working was actually a return to BAU for Litz.

Nevertheless, building a business like this in the midst of a pandemic has been an interesting experience. The startup launched in China in mid-February, when the country was in the throes of COVID-19.

Already, the product is being used by 16,000 students in the country.

“Everybody is stuck at home,” Litz notes.

“We’re fortunate to be able to offer this kind of education to kids at this time.”

Relationships de-railed

For some startups, working from home doesn’t come quite so simply, and the disruption of COVID-19 has caused them to refocus their energies and put some of their plans on ice.

Khushal Polepalle is a co-founder of SwitcH2, a business working on converting waste water from breweries into hydrogen energy.

Over the past 12 weeks, along with co-founders Constantine Tsounis and Bijil Subhash, Polepalle has been working on building relationships with breweries all over the country.

Now, the team has had to move away from face-to-face meetings and development in the lab to working on their business models, taking COVID-19 into account.

One of the hardest things for Polepalle has been hearing the stories of his new “brewery friends”, he says.

“For them to tell us their stories about how they have to lay off staff, or they have to resort to going to banks and asking for their loans to be extended … it was a really difficult time for us to understand how things were going from the breweries’ perspective,” he explains.

Polepalle stresses the team’s concerns were “human first, business second”, but he does admit that when your customers are struggling financially, it’s hard not to consider what that means for your own commercial viability.

However, he says the crisis has actually proven the strength of those new relationships. Some of the biggest independent breweries in the country are asking how they can help the fledgling startup, despite their own hardship, he says.

Many of the breweries have signed a letter of intent, and some have offered to help them with grant funding applications.

It’s a vote of confidence, Polepalle says.

“This technology might not be implemented now, but it will be implemented at some point,” he says.

“We knew that we’ve built a strong relationship with these breweries, and that they actually believe in our tech.”

At the same time, it’s early days for SwitcH2, Polepalle says. At this stage, people aren’t investing in the tech.

“They’re investing in us and our ambition and how we want to help them,” he explains.

“We really wanted to make sure that was the foundation of the business.”

Demo Day reimagined

As these fresh-faced startup founders get ready for the iconic Startmate Demo Day, they’re also gearing up for the accelerator’s first online-only showcase.

The formant has shifted slightly, and will involve a 90-minute video from each startup, followed by a Q&A with the founders.

Weiss says the Startmate team has done a good job of making the founders feel comfortable with the new format, and making it seem like normal proceedings. They’ve also shown the startup teams just how quickly a pivot can, and should, be done, she says.

“It’s the new normal, I guess,” she says.

“It’s such an opportunity for everyone to grow, and how everything is changing and how everything can be moved online.”

Polepalle says he and the team are “really excited”.

If he has any concerns, it’s that the event might be lacking the atmosphere a room full of people can bring.

“The energy that you get from that might be a little bit different to the energy you get from doing it in front of your screen,” he says.

At the same time, it also makes it a little less nerve-racking.

“We’re in the comfort of our homes, and at the end of the day you’re just facing a screen.”

As for Litz, she’s feeling boundlessly positive about the evening. There’s not a nerve in sight.

Talking about Chatterize is “my favourite topic, for sure”, she says.

“I’m very happy to introduce Chatterize and what we’ve done to the world, and I’m hoping people see what we’re trying to do, and share some of the passion that we have.”

The latest Startmate cohort are:

Arula: 3D printing seamless breast prosthesis for women who’ve had mastectomies.

Beyond Ag: using insects to turn food waste into insect protein and organic fertiliser.

Bygen: making activated carbon for cleaning the world’s polluted soil and water.

Chatterize: conversational chat bots that accelerate fluency and build confidence in spoken English.

Clipboard: improves lives by enabling fulfilling extracurricular experiences.

Expense Mate: helps companies drive profit by motivating employees to treat company expenses more like their own.

Giraffe: Canva for urban designers. What was cumbersome becomes fast and intuitive without losing power.

Manufacturing Mate: automating the manufacturing supply chain from idea to reality.

Mint: Helping aged care providers meet their quality feedback obligations, a requirement by the Australian Government.

SwitcH2: converts brewery wastewater into hydrogen, a clean burning fuel.

5B: Rapid, lowest cost, solar power plant deployment.

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