Pencil and Vase win Unilever Foundry Startup Battle 2018

  • Faced with a tough choice, judges choose two winners instead of one
  • Pencil works in a similar way to humans to create ads and Vase offers 5x faster insight


Pencil founder Will Hanschell (2nd left) with Vase CEO Julie Ng receiving their prize


INNOVFEST Unbound 2018 in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore on June 5 and 6 closed on a high note announcing winners of the Unilever Foundry Startup Battle 2018.

The competition rounded up data and AI-driven startups with solutions in marketing, advertising, e-commerce and retail verticals with eight teams making it to the final pitching session.

The winners were Vase, a Malaysian-based startup delivering market research to clients five times faster than traditional approaches, and Pencil, a creative AI platform for the creation of personalised advertising campaigns. Alongside the winners, the other finalists which also presented compelling solutions and products were Ad You Like, Adzymic, BotBot, First Hive, Snapbizz and Affable.

The startups were challenged to pitch their solution to the judges in a time span of three minutes each. The judging panel comprised of the global marketing director and head of Unilever Foundry, Jonathan Hammond, CNBC reporter Karen Gilchrist, managing director of Team Unilever WPP, Sudipto Roy, startups correspondent at The Business Times, Jacquelyn Cheok and managing partner of Rakuten Ventures, Saemin Ahn.

Unilever kicked off the battle planning to select only one champion but ended up announcing two winners in the face of stiff competition. Hammond told participants, “We got to a point where we couldn’t pick between two of you, so we decided to double the prize and give it to two startups.”

Both Vase and Pencil walked away with SG$5,000 (US$3,754) each in prize money and an opportunity to rise to the global pedestal by pioneering tech solutions for Unilever’s top brands.

Pencil was founded by Will Hanschell, who has almost 10 years of experience as a management consultant for creative agencies, and Sumukh Avadhani, an experienced machine learning specialist.

In a nutshell, Pencil is looking to solve a pain point in the creative industry where the rapidly changing landscape of marketing makes it tiresome for brands to create high quality personalised advertisements.

The company, which only started developing their solution in February 2018, has since achieved a 63% contact-to-first meeting conversion rate as well as raising a combination of funding plus earning revenues to fund a year’s runway.

[Para updated for accuracy]

Hanschell says, “Humbly, we have made some incredible progress in that short time, thanks to the structure and connections provided to us by the Entrepreneur First incubator programme and the support of several brands and agencies in Singapore.”

Interestingly, the founders named their company Pencil despite it being reminiscent of a simpler, less digital world. As a matter of fact, Pencil was named as a tribute to the tool’s traditional role. “We believe AI will be as fundamental to creativity in the next 100 years as the pencil was in the last 100,” Hanschell shares.

Responding to whether Pencil’s solution claims to be more creative than humans, Hanschell answers, “Nothing is more creative than an inspired and motivated person. However, one person equipped with the right algorithm, in the right situation, might just be more creative than ten other people.”

Pencil’s algorithm works in a similar way that a human would in designing an advertisement. Hanschell says that while a person would rely on their own body of knowledge to make connections between areas, Pencil is able to do something similar using much more data.

“For example, Pencil is able to read thousands of blog posts on fitness or product descriptions about cosmetics to generate creative lines,” Hanschell shares.

As for Vase, it was founded by three individuals namely CEO Julie Ng, CTO Asyrique and head of respondents Zhen Ng.

With the name Vase, one may be tempted to search for the startup’s similarity to its namesake flower-bearing vessel, but co-founder Zhen Ng clarifies, “The name Vase comes from Validation as a Service (VaaS).” He explains that the company is working hard to empower entrepreneurs by allowing them to validate their ideas affordably and quickly.

Vase offers two AI-powered products Vase Online Surveys for quantitative research and Vase Online Focus Groups for qualitative research.  Additionally, the startup is also in the midst of developing Vase Metrics which will alert clients on brand performance and market sentiment.

Without revealing too many details, Zhen shares “This will allow clients to become more proactive instead of just reacting to market conditions.”

Acknowledging the tough choice the judges faced in selecting winners, Zhen says “It’s a testament to the Startup Battle selection process and the incredibly high level of energy and talent everyone brought to the stage.”

On Vase’s future plans with Unilever, they share “We are looking forward to work closely with Unilever and that will give us insight into how MNC's utilise research information. Our vision is to take the kind of research only accessible to big MNCs like Unilever due to cost, speed and expertise, automate it, and make it available to everyone.”

As for Pencil, Hanschell shares that working with Unilever means challenging but exciting times ahead for them, “We need to use AI to find genuinely creative ways to connect brands with people and Unilever is a key partner in ensuring our technology evolves in an exciting direction.”


Related stories:

First Unilever Foundry 30 Southeast Asia and Australasia announced

Malaysian startup makes Klean sweep at Pitch@Palace Asean

AdAsia launches its CastingAsia ‘influencer’ marketing platform


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