Melbourne startup Can-i-park has won the Melbourne Knowledge Week Open Innovation Challenge 2019, scoring $20,000 to develop its app using image recognition technology to make sense of parking signs.
Founder Sam Pinner moved to Melbourne from the UK in December 2017, and “got a parking ticket pretty much straight away”, he tells StartupSmart.
From talking to people and conducting his own research, he found the majority of parking tickets were issued because drivers misunderstood the signs.
He contacted the Melbourne City Council and the on-street compliance service department, and “we were really lucky in that they’re just super open to hearing about new innovation”.
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The idea picked up steam from there. Through the app, users take a picture of the parking sign, and the technology works out whether or not they can park there, and for how long.
Pinner himself has no experience in technology development, parking compliance or traffic management.
But, “it’s made it all a bit more exciting”, he says.
“I feel like I’ve been able to look at it all with fresh eyes.”
The startup is working with an experienced image recognition specialist in the UK, Pinner explains.
“From a technical point of view, we needed to have that skill”, he says.
However, when it came to the traffic management and parking compliance piece, “it’s probably more helpful that I haven’t known anything about it, so I can come in and present something a bit disruptive”.
His own lack of experience was never really a concern.
“We felt the potential of the idea was so strong … that it didn’t matter,” he explains.
“It sounded like the field of parking compliance needed it.”
Ticking all the boxes
The competition sought innovative solutions for improving safety in the city, and while the convenience benefits of Can-i-park are clear, it’s perhaps not quite as obvious how the app improves safety on the roads.
However, when Pinner himself got the parking ticket that sparked the whole thing, it was for parking on a clearway, he says.
“I was genuinely quite shocked at the effect on the traffic.”
Cars were trying to merge dangerously into one lane, and cyclists were also having to swerve into the traffic, he says.
“I felt guilty at how much it screwed up the traffic,” he adds.
The app was originally designed to help people feel more confident as they’re parking, but there’s a safety aspect to it “that we’ve been able to explore much more deeply”.
Now, the startup is in a place where, to move forward, it needs money, mentoring and contacts in more councils and states.
“Winning that competition ticks all three boxes for us,” he says.
As well as the top cash prize of $20,000, Can-i-park won placements at the Melbourne Accelerator Program’s early-stage incubator Velocity, and at CQ University’s three-day residential Social Innovation Workshop in Gladstone, Queensland.
And for Pinner, the contacts made through the competition are pretty valuable too.
“At least half of the value comes from the fact we’ve now been presented as an idea to the right people,” he says.
With those elements together, he hopes “we can get to market without that huge step of seeking investment”.
Pinner is hoping to launch the app in the next four months or so, he says, although this is a tentative timeline, and Pinner hasn’t completely dismissed the possibility of a raise.
“If there’s a requirement to raise investment it might take a bit longer,” he says.
The plan is to work with councils across Victoria and the country, and to engage with mentors and marketing specialists “who can help us make sure uptake is quick”.
He also has plans to launch in Brisbane and Sydney, where he says signage is even worse.
When it comes to pitching, either in a pitching competition or to investors, he advises other startups to “work backwards”.
“Write a list of what you want the people listening to the pitch to walk away thinking, or what they will be judging you on,” he says.
Pinner recalls a piece of advice from a VC investor, who said all they wanted to know from a pitch was whether the idea is big, whether it’s disruptive, and whether it’s protectable.
“If you want someone to walk away thinking it’s big, it’s disruptive and it’s protectable, write those three things down first, and build your presentation up from the ground from there,” Pinner says.
The Open Innovation competition had five main judging criteria. The startups were judged on innovation, potential impact, feasibility and scalability, as well as on whether they were technologically and conceptually sound.
“The entire presentation came backwards from that conclusion,” Pinner says.
Have the end result in mind “with every slide and every work and every stupid shaped box you paste into Powerpoint”, he advises.