How this AI flash flood-prevention startup bagged Melbourne Water as an early client

Piccard founder Tim Kallady. Source: Supplied.

AI solutions startup has secured a partnership with Melbourne Water, to develop a flash flood warning system for the city.

Through the 12-month pilot project, Piccard will develop and build software to better predict flash floods. Currently, according to founder Tim Kallady, flood prediction is based on rising river waters, which occurs a few days after heavy rain.

However, the majority of Melbourne’s flood damage occurs in flash flooding, immediately after a storm.

The AI solution learns from past rainfall and flood data, to recognise the weather patterns that lead to flash flooding. The system can then automatically send SMS messages to warn people likely to be affected.

It also gives local councils a heads up, allowing them to close roads in advance.

A former civil engineer, Kallady founded Piccard just over a year ago. And, while the flash flooding technology has attracted interest, it’s far from the only thing the startup does.

It’s focused on finding uses for AI tech in various different industries, helping companies use their own data to solve their own problems.

“AI is changing so rapidly, and there’s so much potential for innovation and whole new ways of doing things and solving problems, compared to an industry like civil engineering,” Kallady tells StartupSmart.

“That’s where I saw the opportunity for really disruptive, new solutions and products.”

With Piccard in its second year of business, Kallady is predicting annual revenue of about $100,000. And he says it will be onwards and upwards from there.

“We’ve got a few projects coming through.”

Getting a foot in the door

While getting Melbourne Water on board as a client is a big win for Piccard, it was arguably a natural partnership.

Having previously worked in flood management, Kallady was intimately familiar with the problem of flash flooding.

Through discussions with Melbourne Water, he established this was a high-priority problem for the organisation, and that AI was well-suited to solve it.

“You’ve got to find the right person in that organisation,” he explains.

It can be tricky to rock up and offer a large organisation a new product, Kallady explains.

But, if you meet someone at a trade show or conference and forge a connection first, it can be a different story.

The smart way to go

For Kallady, having a large state-run entity signed up serves to validate the product. He also has contracts in the pipeline with some other big names, which can’t hurt either.

“To be honest, I don’t think it practically means much,” Kallady says.

“But, to a person who maybe is seeing the company for the first time … to have a couple of those big names on there is really beneficial.”

Ultimately, the flash flooding solution is one he can see going global. While he’s focusing on Melbourne and Australia for now, flash flooding is “a problem that affects cities around the world”, he says.

“There’s no reason we can’t take that AI solution we’ve built for Melbourne Water and use it in any other city.”

The long-term plan, Kallady explains, is to partner with a more established data analytics provider to act as a distributor.

A provider like this would already have some of the all-important relationships that can get the product in front of the right people.

“Particularly with government clients, it can be a very long, slow sales cycle,” he says.

“If you can partner with somebody who already has a lot of the same clients … that’s the smart way to go.”

Nothing comes for free

When asked what advice he would offer to early-stage startup founders, Kallady recalls some advice that was offered to him: “Don’t do anything for free.”

It’s something that “goes against your nature as a startup”, he admits.

Founders want to show potential clients what they can do, in order to push that conversation along, and it can be hard to resist that urge.

However, Kallady himself has found this advice “super valuable”, he says.

Partly, it helps founders prioritise what is worth their time and what is not. But, equally, it forces early customers to appreciate your work.

“It stops time-wasters, and forces people to decide whether it’s actually a high-priority project for them,” he explains.

“People just don’t value stuff that is done for free.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s the best project ever. If it’s offered to them for free, then they don’t value it, and they don’t invest their time in trying to make the solution work.”

A startup can put significant effort into creating a solution, but if the customer isn’t willing to put in the effort required to implement it — teaching staff how to use it and changing their processes — then there will be no value to it.

“It’s a two-way thing,” Kallady says.

“You want to make sure they’re in it for the long run.”

*This article was edited at 12.20pm on 29 August 2019.

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