How two UNSW startups found 10x growth, from Y Combinator to million-dollar funding

UNSW Founders 10x Accelerator Alumni have secured funding and Y Combinator access.

UNSW Founders 10x Accelerator Alumni, HEO Robotics and Forage, have struck gold - and growth - securing multimillion dollar funding and Y Combinator access. Each serves vastly different markets - from space junk to online learning. Both credit their 10x Accelerator experience with preparing them to expand, secure funding, and after several applications, crack into the highly competitive Y Combinator. 

HEO Robotics tracks what’s in space - so it doesn’t get lost in space

High Earth Orbit (HEO) Robotics, led by William Crowe, UNSW Faculty of Engineering and Hiranya Jayakody (PhD in Mechatronics UNSW) specialises in tracking spacecraft, space objects and satellites. With the number of orbiting satellites projected to grow between 5x and 50x over the next 10 years, earth’s high orbit is starting to get a little crowded.  

In fact, more than 500,000 pieces of debris currently encircle the earth, caught in our orbit and travelling at speeds of up to 17,500 mph. This is fast enough for even a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or spacecraft. 

HEO Robotics helps meet a burgeoning need to assist with satellite identification, satellite commissioning and troubleshooting in-orbit. How they do so is what sets them apart.

Rather than trying to track satellites and space debris from earth-based sensors, HEO Robotics leverages other satellites in orbit to perform inspections. 

“HEO Robotics has been funded by Y Combinator as part of the S21 batch, which culminated this week with the YC Demo Day,” said CEO William Crowe. “This allowed HEO Robotics to take part in Y Combinator’s core program, famously known as being more difficult to get into than Harvard University. We were one of two Australian companies accepted into this batch.”

William credits fellow UNSW 10x alumni Pasha Rayan with helping HEO Robotics source the Y Combinator opportunity. Since completing the 10x program in 2018, HEO Robotics have served as Founders-In-Residence, working on-campus alongside the UNSW Founders team.

Forging the brave new world of online learning with Forage

Forage was founded in 2017 to provide free open access training courses with Fortune 500 employers, to help level the recruitment playing field for job candidates. It creates online learning programs in a way that reflects real work with those employers, in fields such as data analytics, software engineering, financial services and law, for students looking to become employees. 

COVID-19 saw a new world dawn for Forage, which enrolled almost 2 million students since the start of the pandemic, with 90 major corporates, including Citi, KPMG, Goldman Sachs, and King & Wood Mallesons joining the platform.

“Companies have downsized, universities have gone online, we’ve got students who are in their second year of university and haven’t stood on campus,” Forage co-founder Tom Brunskill told SMH. “In that sense, Forage has been a refuge of sorts for students.”

“We thought pre-COVID that this new world was going to exist, but COVID has certainly accelerated it,” Mr Brunskill said.

Forage co-founders, Pasha Rayan and  Tom Brunskill, completed the highly competitive Y combinator program shortly after going through UNSW Founders 10x Accelerator. Since then, they have gone from strength to strength, including recently securing an additional $34 million Series B round.

More competitive than Harvard: Cracking into Y Combinator

Forage and HEO Robotics didn’t crack Y Combinator on their first go. In fact, both applied three to four times. 

Revenue was the major metric that shifted between applications. 

However, both credit their success with the fact that they grew better at telling their startup’s story, recognising how their startups could win in their respective markets, and how to better explain what sets them apart.

By their final attempt, both Forage and HEO Robotics ranked among the most advanced companies in their cohort. Many others had yet to launch to market. This meant both had progressed beyond proof of concept, and could show concrete revenue, results, and potential for sharp upward growth.

For startups keen to crack Y Combinator, Forage and HEO Robotics provided four tips for Australian startup founders:

  1. Build a better business in one area than anyone else. Understand what makes your business and hypothesis unique, and able to get to $100 million in revenue.
  2. Unleash your inner nerd. Demonstrate your superior knowledge about your product, market and its potential.
  3. Australians, relative to americans, tend to be somewhat modest, and this can come across as a lack of confidence. When looking to pitch, talk about how the world could be if your insights and hypotheses could be true (and then test them!).
  4. See the path to a billion dollar company - and tell a compelling story of how you’ll realise this.

The benefits of Y Combinator speak for themselves. Startups in the program gain access to the US market, and the opportunity to become a global company through the YC investor network and reputation. The YC alumni network is also powerful and connected; in fact, one YC alumni member is now a customer of HEO Robotics. 

“YC provides a badge of legitimacy,” said William.

Both credit their 10x experience with imbuing them with the confidence they needed to successfully apply for the Y Combinator program. 

“These successes are great evidence of the power of the UNSW Founders Program and our community,” said David Burt, UNSW Director of Entrepreneurship. “They reflect our ability to help new founders build their startup’s momentum.”

“The support and programs offered by UNSW Founders are a free service to all UNSW students, staff and alumni. We encourage any budding founder or entrepreneur out there to contact us for support.”

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