Pitch perfect

Winners of Unilever Foundry Startup Battle wow judges with the sectors they are disrupting

AMBITION can look very different from one person to the next - particularly among startup founders. But when on a stage competing for the "Top Startup" award and prize money, founders can be equally - and frighteningly - passionate, only some more eloquent than the rest.

I had the chance to see that upfront on Wednesday, when I was one of the judges at the 2018 Unilever Foundry Startup Battle. Held at innovfest unbound (an annual tech conference in Singapore), it was a startup pitch competition that showcased data and artificial intelligence (AI) startups with solutions for the marketing, advertising, e-commerce and retail vertical.

Nerves and humour showed on stage, as eight startups pitched to five judges in front of an audience of founders, investors, technologists and corporate executives. Each startup had only 3 minutes to plug their business - while standing next to a huge, unforgiving countdown timer - after which the judges would ask them questions.

We evaluated the startups on four criteria: innovation (how unique is their solution?), desirability (how useful is their solution?), feasibility (do they have the resources to deliver their product?) and sustainability (is their business model sustainable?).

The plan had been to pick one winner. But it was clear that two startups stood out. Pencil, a creative AI that enables brands to craft massive personalised ad campaigns, uses AI to do creative work, something few would think could be accomplished by algorithms. Meanwhile, Vase.AI is disrupting market research.

We decided to announce both Pencil and Vase.AI as winners. Each startup would get US$5,000 in cash and the chance to work with Unilever Foundry, the consumer goods company's global platform for partnering with the world's best startups to accelerate business innovation. The other four judges were the head of Unilever Foundry, a top advertising executive, a well-known Venture capitalist, and a fellow reporter.

I spoke to Pencil and Vase.AI to learn more about their business.


What inspired Pencil?

All great startups are inspired by a great frustration. Digital advertising - despite funding much of the Internet economy - frustrates everyone. People find it boring, interruptive and invasive; brands find it complex and expensive; and agencies find it creatively restrictive.

Almost all of the technology supporting digital advertising is designed to collect people's data and show them ads on a massive scale. Very little technology exists to make sure those ads are any good. And the scale of it all means human creatives can't do it alone. We started Pencil to help them.

What is Pencil disrupting?

We've called ourselves Pencil because we believe AI will be as fundamental to creativity over the next 100 years as the pencil was in the last 100. The idea of disrupting human creativity is incredibly depressing - but the idea of liberating it is incredibly exciting. The advertising industry has already been disrupted by the search and social technology giants - we are putting power back into the hands of creative people by giving them equally powerful technology.

How is an algorithm more creative than humans?

Categorically, algorithms are not more creative than humans. But a human equipped with the right algorithm can be more creative than 10 others. Our algorithms work, at a very high level, by finding connections between disparate concepts - much like how creative humans work. Our algorithms just happen to have access to much larger amounts of data, more current data and different kinds of data than their human operators. We are incredibly excited to see what humans and algorithms will create together in the near future.

What are your products?

Our core product is a suite of AI algorithms. They take two disconnected concepts, like any given product and any given audience, and find a way to express the relationships between them in the form of beautiful copy and visuals that are predicted to be effective. If used deeply, this can allow creatives to rapidly explore ideas in a whole new way. If used broadly, this can generate high volumes of original ads for targeted channels like email, social or search. Brands and agencies will be able to license our technology under a SaaS (software as a service) model to generate ads at massive scale and manageable cost. We will also provide free access to a personal tool for generating ideas.


What inspired Vase.AI?

Vase.ai was created to solve a common founder problem: How do we know whether consumers want the product that we're about to build? The name Vase came from "Validation as a service (VaaS)". We started out wanting to empower entrepreneurs to be able to validate their ideas affordably and quickly. Currently, the market research industry discriminates against SMEs that lack the funds for research. We enter the market to fulfil the demand of not only large enterprises, but SMEs, budding entrepreneurs and even students. Our mission is to democratise the research industry, delivering consultant-level quality insights with machine-level speed to everyone who has the desire to learn about their consumers.

What is Vase.AI disrupting?

We're disrupting a century-old space: market research. While the world has changed a lot in the past 100 years, the methods that market research companies use today are not that different from what they used before. Researchers continue to ask consumers to fill out questionnaires, volunteer their personal information, and offer sweepstakes-style rewards. As the world moves increasingly online, we believe these traditional methods are no longer able to capture what consumers are really thinking and feeling. For example, behavioural economics has warned us that a person will alter their behavior in the presence of another person. Clearly, a new approach is needed to understand and incentivise the fully-mobile, always-online consumer of today. And that's what we're building.

What are your products?

We have two AI-powered products, which are currently available on the market. Vase Online Surveys is our flagship quantitative research product that helps our clients collect tens of thousands of survey responses in days to quantify consumer behaviours and make decisions. Vase Online Focus Group is our flagship qualitative research product that helps clients collect qualitative feedback from their consumers quickly across different geographic areas. Clients are able to conduct focus groups much faster than other solutions and in the comfort of their own offices. For both these products, we charge our clients on a per valid response basis.