This Wednesday saw the grand finale of the John Keells X Open Innovation Challenge ‒ an initiative to draw out the best teams with the most disruptive business models and ideas, and set them on the road to creating a successful startup. The competition called for applications to be submitted online by the 1st of July, resulting in 148 teams applying. From the applications were shortlisted ten teams who were given a development window of 60 days to work on their ideas. Each of the ten teams had their own mentors guiding them through the process of creation and idea validation. The teams had access to some of the best minds in the John Keells Group, as well as industry specialists in everything from the tourism industry to retail. There were also weekly meetups where the competitors got to touch base with the entire organising team and get feedback on their progress.

Yesterday (November 2) was the culmination of four months of effort for both the finalists and the organisers, and the results of the work put in were marked. The teams looked polished, confident, and very composed. They had solid business plans, working product demos, a few fancy features to wow the judges, and plenty of statistics at hand with which to respond to questions. There was a lot of effort put in by the teams and it was very evident.

The judging panel was a slightly intimidating and very experienced group, made up of Dr. Hans Wijesuriya, Group CEO – Dialog Axiata PLC, and Jonathan Alles, Managing Director and CEO of Hatton National Bank PLC, alongside Ajit Gunewardene, Deputy Chairman, Ronnie Peiris, Group Finance Director, Krishan Balendra, President (Leisure Sector), Gihan Cooray, President (Corporate Finance & Retail Sector), and Ramesh Shanmuganathan, Group CIO/Executive Vice President, from John Keells Holdings PLC.

The Demos

The demos started by 3:00 p.m. with each team getting 15 minutes for their pitches and product demos. They then had five minutes worth of questions and answers with the judges.

1) Team Jendo

Team Jendo started off the proceedings with their product. Jendo was working on a platform to predict cardiovascular health through noninvasive means. They demoed a pulse oximetric probe (basically a clip that attaches to your finger) through which they collected signals from the pulse (pulse plethysmography), sent it to their platform and used it to make inferences on the subject’s health. The team stated that people largely preferred cheap and noninvasive methods to do health checkups. These devices would be sold to clinics and cheaper version to individuals. Patients could get their checkups done at any clinic because their profiles and data were available in the cloud.

2) Inzurely

Inzurely was developing an online insurance agent agregator. They said that there were over 4.5 million insurance covers in the country and that customers were often unsure if they were getting the best deals. Insurance agents would submit quotes to the platform and customers can use the platform to compare different insurance quotes to select the best one. The platform then connects the customer to the agent directly, where the deal can be completed.

3) NicNac

NicNac showed off their product which was an on-demand e-butler. Their service allowed users to request anything they want from the app and have it delivered to them through a network of bike delivery people. What NicNac was doing was completely automating the order process using an ‘AI’ that made the service faster and much more scalable. The interface would make it quicker and easier to make orders as well.

4) Acrux

Acrux was building a service called Travel Sphere which is a desktop and mobile app that would allow travellers to experience a location in virtual reality before they decide to visit it. They were planning to crowdsource the content, having contributors send in panoramic pictures of the location. Advertisers will pay to have their own content on the platform which users access for free.

5) Kart

Kart is a mobile app that helps its users navigate supermarkets more efficiently. The user enters a list of shopping items and the app plots the fastest route through the store. The app navigates through the floors using Bluetooth devices attached to the aisles. At checkout, the app displays loyalty card options during payment. The data collected through the app enables stores to plot their layout more efficiently and see which unplanned products are bought most by customers.

6) Onsbay

Team Onsbay was dealing with the challenge of finding skilled service professionals for home repair. They developed a platform where service agents list themselves and where homeowners can search for and book someone who would then perform the service. There was also an option for a subscription service for businesses to book a service.

7) Markify

Markify is a speech-driven, SaaS analytics and data searching service. A manager, for example, can use natural language voice commands to draw up a series of graphs and analytics using the parameters stated in the command. As part of the demo, the platform was used to trawl through product data on Amazon to find out gaps in inventory (a missing colour or size) that would increase sales.

8) Synergen

Synergen had developed a smart ring that uses gestures to control computers and smartphones through bluetooth. Perhaps the most interesting part of the demonstration was realizing that the presenter was controlling the powerpoint presentation using simple gestures of her hands. The team also showed how they responded to an incoming phone call by text message simply with one gesture of their hand.

9) BotFactory

BotFactory was using their AI bots to automatically reply to routine emails without the user ever having to intervene. The bot uses deep learning to study the incoming emails, label them and then reply with relevant information that exists within the inbox already. If the bot does not have enough data then it won’t reply and instead saves the message as a draft.

10) Grubz

Team Grubz was working on the pressing issue of finding a place to eat. Their app uses a smartphone’s GPS to find restaurants around the user that are offering special deals. When the user visits the restaurant, they can show the app to redeem the deal. Restaurant owners can use the platform to create limited time real-time offers that can help them fill tables on slow days.

And The Winner Is….

Team Jendo.

From left: Janith Priyankara (Jendo), Dulara De Zoysa (Jendo), Udula Selakara (Jendo), Gihan Cooray (President of Corporate Finance & Retail Sector, JKH), Susantha Ratnayake (Chairman, JKH), Ronnie Peiris (Group Finance Director, JKH), Vinod Samarawickrama (Jendo’s 1st Angel Investor), Keerthi Kodithuwakku (Jendo), Dr Hans Wijesuriya (Group CEO – Dialog Axiata), Ajit Gunewardene (Deputy Chairman, JKH) and Krishan Balendra (President of Leisure Sector, JKH)

Co-founded by Keerthi Kodithuwakku, Isuru Rajakaruna and Charith Vithanage, Team Jendo emerged as the lucky winners of the challenge with their concept of using technology to monitor cardiovascular systems with research conducted under the supervision of senior medical professors. They received a Rs. 2 million cash prize.

From left: Malaka Rathuvithana (Markify), Gihan Cooray (President of Corporate Finance & Retail Sector, JKH), Susantha Ratnayake (Chairman, JKH), Ronnie Peiris (Group Finance Director), Sohan Dharmaraja (Markify), Ajit Gunewardene (Deputy Chairman, JKH), Dr Hans Wijesuriya (Group CEO – Dialog Axiata PLC), Krishan Balendra (President of Leisure Sector, JKH) and Vinoth Kanna (Markify)

Team Markify came in as the runner-up, winning Rs. 1 million for their voice controlled SaaS analytics platform.

Choosing the winners must not have been easy for the judges since each team performed admirably well.   

Finalists with the Executive Board members of John Keells Holdings PLC.

The JKX Challenge is the first iteration of an initiative by John Keells Holdings to create a conducive ecosystem for young entrepreneurs to create and build bold new ideas. The concept headed by Chairman Susantha Ratnayake is aimed at both helping grow entrepreneurship, but also to encourage businesses at JKH itself to innovate. As a dual-pronged approach, it’s effective. The JKX Challenge partnered with SLASSCOM, ICTA, Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and Roar.lk as their digital media partner.

Mr. Susantha Ratnayake commenting on the Open Innovation Challenge said, “I would like to congratulate the winners and finalists of the inaugural John Keells X Open Innovation Challenge, and I thank all 148 teams that applied from Sri Lanka and overseas, for their enthusiastic participation in the programme.” Mr. Ratnayake further commented,  “The JKH leadership is also encouraged by the pool of young entrepreneurial talent we witnessed during the four-month engagement with John Keells X, and we look forward to continuing to support the Sri Lankan startup ecosystem, by incentivising and investing in the talented young entrepreneurs in the country.”

All images courtesy John Keells X