From AI sewer tech to lab-grown meat: SmartCompany’s 10 startups to watch in 2021


VAPAR co-founders Amanda Siqueira and Michelle Aguilar. Source: supplied.

In 2020, amid a whole swathe of completely unforeseen challenges, and in a fast-changing political, social and health environment, we have seen some of Australia’s startups come into their own and start to thrive.

These are the startups just hitting their stride; those on the cusp of an explosion of growth. These are the founders we think we will be hearing a lot more from in the new year.

We’re ready for you, 2021. Let’s see what you’ve got.


VAPAR founders Amanda Siqueira and Michelle Aguilar are using artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to find faults in sewerage and stormwater pipes.

They bagged $700,000 in seed funding in July, as they started gearing up to take the tech international. Weeks later, they secured another $500,000 in federal grant funding to focus on a UK expansion.

Sewer management is often “out of sight, out of mind”, Siqueira told SmartCompany earlier this year.

“But it’s everywhere. It’s a global, logistical issue … not only in the Australian market but other markets too.”


If 2020 was all about plant-based protein, we think next year is going to be the time of lab-grown meat. And Sydney-based Vow is well placed to be at the front of the pack.

In September, Vow partnered with celebrity chef Neil Perry to serve up a menu of lab-grown kangaroo dumplings, alpaca chili tarama and goat cheeseburger sliders.

This is the beginning of a “new era of thinking about the creativity of food”, Vow founder Tim Noakesmith told SmartCompany at the time.

And, with the first lab-grown meat approved for sale in Singapore just weeks ago, it may not be too long before Vow’s fancy snacks are on menus permanently.


Neil Perry [left] with Vow co-founders Tim Noakesmith and George Peppou. Source: supplied.


Medtech startup HealthMatch was founded in 2017, but founder Manuri Gunawardena says the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the importance of what the startup does into sudden stark clarity.

HealthMatch matches upcoming clinical trials with patients who want to take part, and the startup has $18 million in new funding in the bank to continue on its growth trajectory.

Since the start of 2020, HealthMatch has grown from a team of five people to 20, and is doubling its user base each month, from about 8,000 in February to 80,000 in December.

What’s more, it’s now placing some 2,000 people into clinical trials each month, for treatments tackling everything from cancer to eczema to endometriosis.


HealthMatch founder and chief Manuri Gunawardena. Source: supplied.


Headed up by founder and chief Alice Williams, femtech startup Ovira is using electrotherapy tech to tackle period pain.

Having completed the Startmate accelerator program in 2019, Williams raised $1.5 million in funding in March. At that time, she was already getting started on a hiring push, and looking at expanding into the US.

Since then, Ovira has been featured in everything from women’s magazines to Broadsheet, and Williams has presented at the Vogue Codes Summit 2020.

Last week, Ovira was named as one of 51 women-led startups to secure funding through the Boosting Female Founders grant program, bagging another $400,000.


Ovira founder and chief Alice Williams. Source: supplied.

Heaps Normal

Heaps Normal is another Startmate alumni, this time capitalising on the alcohol-free booze trend.

The startup is founded by beer experts and beer lovers, and is built around ‘non-judgmental’ branding that offers a viable alternative to booze, rather than advocating for sobriety.

It’s been profitable since its second month in business, and in November, it raised $1.3 million from a group of angel investors, including the likes of Adore Beauty’s Kate Morris, Culture Amp co-founder Rod Hamilton and several members of AirTree’s investment team.

That funding was pegged for ramping up production, bringing more staff on board and growing distribution.

Heaps Normal

Heaps Normal co-founders Andy Miller, Ben Holdstock and Peter Brennan. Source: supplied.


Holly Cardew is the Aussie founder of e-commerce imagery startup Pixc, but this year she’s been plugging away at a new venture, Vop.

With some 70% of e-commerce on mobile and social media more important to brands than ever, Vop allows businesses to create a shoppable TikTok feed.

Her new venture has secured funding and launched on Shopify’s app store. But, if you think Cardew is distracted from Pixc, you would be wrong. In fact, she noted in a tweet earlier this month that both are growing.

She wrote: “Elon and Jack have multiple companies, can’t I?”

Planet Protector Packaging

Planet Protector Packaging took out the first prize in the inaugural Ocean Impact Pitch Fest this year, with its insulating packaging made from wool that would typically be wasted.

The product is intended as a replacement for polystyrene, which all too often ends up in the ocean and never breaks down. It’s also a better insulator, according to founder and chief Joanne Howarth.

Founded in 2016, the business has already removed some 6.5 million polystyrene boxes from the system, and expanded to New Zealand.

Now, Howorth is working on sub-zero insulation packaging for transporting COVID-19 vaccines, and is predicting revenues of $50 million within the next five years, she tells SmartCompany.

Able Foods

Paralympian gold medallist and tennis champion Dylan Alcott has launched Able Foods, a fresh meal-delivery startup to ensure people with disabilities are able to eat with dignity.

Within the first week, the startup sent boxes of food to about 100 customers, Alcott told SmartCompany, hinting at big plans for the new year and beyond.

Alcott’s open secret is in his staffing strategy. Every employee at Able Foods has a disability or lived experience of a disability.

“It’s not because we’re trying to get a warm, fuzzy feeling in our stomachs,” he said.

“They’re bloody good employees.”

Able Foods Dylan Alcott

Founder Dylan Alcott (second from left) and the Able Foods team. Source: supplied.

Outland Denim

COVID-19 also saw a flurry of activity in equity crowdfunding, and Outland Denim was one of many startups to close a successful campaign, securing $1.32 million.

The business sells sustainable denim products, while also offering training and employment opportunities to women who have experienced exploitation.

The business now has more than 1,000 investors on board, with 85% saying they were aligned with the company’s purpose of poverty alleviation and social justice, co-founder Erica Bartle told SmartCompany.

The founders have an army of champions backing them, and that can only bode well.

“These are people who are really invested in the brand … and who wanted to buy in on that deeper level,” Bartle said.


A graduate of the Hatch Quarter accelerator program, DivTal has been on our radar for some time.

But it was in June this year — in the middle of a pandemic and an economic crisis, with unemployment rates rising — that co-founders Lorna Deng and Bedi Othow launched their diversity-focused recruitment startup, saying the need has never been greater.

After postponing their original April launch date due to COVID-19, Deng and Othow saw an influx of candidates reaching out, asking for support.

Deng was looking ahead to a time when restrictions would be lifted, she told SmartCompany at the time.

“It’s making sure that when that happens, we’ve got a talent pool ready for [employers] to start to tap into.”

Divtal employment founders Lorna Deng and Bedi Othow

Divtal co-founders Lorna Deng and Bedi Othow. Source: supplied.

Take a look at our startups to watch lists for 2019 and 2020, and see how we did.

Who else we should be keeping our eyes on? Let us know.


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