PhD student and startup founder Jess Blomfield says if it wasn’t for the support she is receiving from a new ‘smart cities’ focused accelerator, she would still be sitting in a lab “wondering about my idea”.
Blomfield is the founder of Coworkally, a startup looking at the future of work and how employees can thrive both professionally, and personally.
The startup is one of seven to be selected for the first cohort of BlueChilli’s CityConnect smart cities accelerator. The seven ventures are all tackling different urban challenges and working on building stronger startups over the six-month program.
The accelerator was launched in 2017, and the company received over 200 applications for the program in August last year, managing to whittle those down to just seven. These startups received $25,000 from BlueChilli in return for 5% equity, plus the skills and tools provided by the program.
Those seven startups, now approximately halfway through the program, range from interactive mapping and data analysis companies to property records and science discovery for kids.
“When I started off at CityConnect, I was pitching a company that was to do with virtual co-working and helping people create virtual co-working communities,” Blomfield tells StartupSmart.
But after digging deeper through her idea during the accelerator, Blomfield — who is currently undertaking a PhD in organisational behaviour and emotion in the workplace — realised there was a different problem that needed solving, one of individual engagement at work.
“I went looking for how to solve the problem of isolation and disengagement at work through a more conversational style. Only 25% of Australian workers actually feel excited and engaged about going to work each day, which has a massive knock-on economic effect of around $60 billion a year,” she says.
But beyond the economic problems, Blomfield also saw the issue as one of personal development and wellbeing; she wanted to help workers find purpose in their work.
This led her to launch Coworkally’s first product: an artificial intelligence-fuelled chatbot called Hey Jess. The service allows workers to set daily goals and the chatbot then sends encouragement, coaching, and updates on those goals, with users receiving rewards for completing them.
Hey Jess is live and being used in the market, and while it’s a departure from Blomfield’s original vision, it’s an achievement for the first time founder and self-admitted “complete newb”.
“It’s been a lot of learning, and sometimes learning is painful so there have definitely been some growing pains along the way,” she laughs.
“But personally for me, it’s been so rewarding working with the team. You feel like they’re behind you all the way, and you’re not just bumbling around trying to Google stuff. If this hadn’t been available I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, I’d be sitting in my PhD lab and wondering about my idea.
“Now I’ve actually done something with it.”
More products on the cards
With the first phase of the accelerator focused on developing and refining the startups’ products, which were demonstrated in a demo day in Brisbane this week, the next stage is all about growth, says Blomfield.
The growth phase includes things like development sprints and coaching around concepts like value proposition. This then leads into the investor readiness coaching, where Blomfield says the founders learn how to show investors their startups are built and are ready to “put a rocket under”.
“It’s enabled us to explore lots of different technical solutions to the problem. We started testing with a platform and have now moved to a chatbot, natural language processing and AI, which has opened up lots of new opportunities to connect with and add value to users,” she says.
But despite Blomfield’s experience in the accelerator, the founder says she didn’t set out to start Coworkally for it to be a ‘smart cities’ startup. Instead, she was looking into the “mystical future of work” and only changed tack after she heard of the accelerator.
Having not given up on her original idea of a virtual co-working space, Blomfield has some other ideas cooking for more products under Coworkally, but for now, just wants to build an audience from Hey Jess before introducing other aspects.
“This whole process of pursuing an idea into reality has also given me a new found confidence to be brave and put what you are doing out there. I’ve been amazed how willing people are to help and how generous the startup ecosystem is,” she says.
The seven CityConnect smart cities startups are:
- Ambient – a startup looking at environmental mapping of our major cities and regions;
- Coworkally – creating virtual co-working communities (and the Hey Jess chatbot);
- inndox – a digital logbook for properties;
- Recrew – technology for organisations to secure replacement staff at short notice;
- Switchboard – communication and data sharing platform to provide families and individuals with insight into what is happening in their community;
- Smart LINC – an online portal to plan, calculate, fund and track infrastructure contributions; and
- SciGround – transforms public spaces into augmented reality science playgrounds.