Epilepsy diagnostics startup Seer has topped all other Victorian startups to win Startup Victoria’s Best of Startup State pitch night in Melbourne.
The pitch night saw Seer fight off competition from Code Like a Girl, Liven and immersive tech startup Phoria, to win both the ‘people’s choice’ award and a package of prizes, including participation in an Austrade Landing Pads program of choice.
The prize also included $5,000 in Amazon Web Services credit, an exhibition space at this year’s Startup Grind APAC conference, and various other consultation and advice credits.
Seer was founded by Dean Freestone, who has a background in neural engineering, computational neuroscience and machine learning, along with Mark Cook, head of neurology at St Vincent’s Hospital, and George Kenley, who has extensive experience in managing large health infrastructure projects.
The startup combined these three areas of expertise to develop technology allowing for faster and easier diagnosis for people suffering from seizures.
A portable harness device allows patients to have diagnostics tests at home, rather than having to spend long stints in hospital, Freestone tells StartupSmart.
It then uses machine learning to interpret the data received.
“We need to be able to turn the data from those devices into medical insight in a very rapid way,” Freestone explains.
Previously, patients have often had to undergo years of testing to land on an accurate epilepsy diagnosis, he says. Now, it could potentially take just a few weeks.
“It’s completely changed the way epilepsy is managed in Australia.”
Seer has been up and running for about two years, but it’s already helped more than 1,500 patients, Freestone says.
The team has clinics in Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland and Adelaide, and also runs satellite clinics from those bases.
“We make everything really portable, so we can go out into the more country areas and help a lot of people,” Freestone says.
Epilepsy is notoriously difficult to diagnose, he explains.
People suffering seizures may have them very infrequently — doctors aren’t there to see them, and sufferers often don’t remember the events themselves.
This can lead to patients being fitted with pacemakers when they actually have epilepsy, while others are diagnosed and treated for epilepsy when they don’t actually have it, he says.
Seer recently worked with a six-year-old who had been having seizures, but wasn’t responding to epilepsy medication. The Seer tool identified “a pretty bad problem with her heart”, Freestone says.
The child was immediately referred to a cardiologist and fitted with a pacemaker, instead.
“She was at really high risk of fatality,” he adds.
Seer has “taken a lot of the guesswork out of some of these things with neurology”.
“These guys are going to make it”
Speaking to StartupSmart, Startup Victoria chief executive Judy Anderson suggested Seer had the strongest business proposition of the startups pitching.
“They had the right team, they had the right business model, and they already had quite significant traction in an industry that is really, really hard,” Anderson explains.
“It’s really hard to get hospitals to buy anything.”
It was also telling that Seer took home both the judge’s prize and the people’s choice award — that’s “pretty rare”, she adds.
As a spectator, Anderson says Seer’s was the kind of pitch that had her feeling confident about the startup’s future, regardless of whether they won or not.
“These guys are going to make it,” she says.
“It was just really exciting, more than anything, to watch them.”
Freestone himself describes the experience as being “a little nerve-racking”.
“There were so many impressive people in the room,” he says.
“You put your heart and soul into something, and then you put yourself out to be judged.”
Seer is currently coming toward the end of a funding round, and while Freestone has pitched to investors “a lot of times now”, pitching in a competition setting was a new experience.
The potential partners Freestone has been speaking to “haven’t been interested in a pitch like this”, he says.
“We haven’t had to pull out a slide deck. Not once.”
The win, however, serves as a welcome validation of Seer’s product, and it wasn’t necessarily something Freestone expected.
“It was really surprising because the other presenters were great,” he says.
“It always feels like what you’re working on is vanilla, because you’re in amongst it, and everything else looks so exciting … It was really nice to see the public and others look at what we’re doing as exciting and really get behind it,” he adds.
Anderson confirms “every single pitch was fantastic”.
Code Like a Girl is building on its existing community to build its product, and has a strong business and team, she says.
“They’re definitely a women-led startup to watch.”
Phoria is “leading the way” in AR, VR and ‘mixed’ reality, and is working with tech giants such as Twitter, Facebook and Netflix.
“They are almost at the cusp where the tech is not quite ready for mass market … they just need three to five years and then they’ll be in the lead. They’re kind of ahead of the curve,” Anderson says.
Finally, Anderson says Grace Wong, co-founder and chief of Liven, brought “so much energy” to the evening.
“She is definitely a thought leader in blockchain technology and cryptocurrency,” she says.
“And they seem to have exponential growth.”
Part of the reason Seer stood out, however, was because they bought a combination of all these things.
“They had a really strong value proposition, they had good traction, they were forward-thinking,” she says.
“They had a little bit extra of what everyone had.”
“Degrees of separation”
Having taken home the best-of-state title and embarked on a funding round, Freestone has some advice for other founders as to how to get yourself noticed by the right people.
“Use your networks,” he says.
“Everybody is only a couple of degrees of separation away from someone who can help them.”
Founders should put themselves out there, whether it’s at a networking event or a family barbeque.
“There’s always somebody who knows somebody … it’s the odd connections that make things work.”
He also notes people make decisions based on personalities, and advises founders to make sure they make “proper partnerships” with people they know they will be able to work with.
“They’re not just investors, they’re your business partners,” he says.
“That is a deal you can’t undo. Some people say it’s like a marriage, but that’s not true. It’s even more serious than that,” he adds.
“Go forward carefully, and really be aware of what you’re getting into.”